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 Header Item Written Answers Nos. 1-20
 Header Item Community Employment Schemes
 Header Item Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment
 Header Item Community Employment Schemes
 Header Item Pensions Reform
 Header Item Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment
 Header Item School Meals Programme
 Header Item Social Welfare Benefits

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1002 No. 1
Unrevised

First Page Previous Page Page of 83 Next Page Last Page

Written Answers Nos. 1-20

The following are questions tabled by Members for written response and the ministerial replies as received on the day from the Departments [unrevised].

  Questions 1 to 12, inclusive, answered orally.

Community Employment Schemes

 13. Deputy Joe Flaherty Information on Joe  Flaherty Zoom on Joe  Flaherty asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if she will consider to community employment scheme participants nationwide that have missed out on four to five months on the scheme due to the Covid-19 pandemic (details supplied). [40170/20]

Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection (Deputy Joe O'Brien): Information on Joe O'Brien Zoom on Joe O'Brien The Community Employment (CE) Scheme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed term basis.

  During the first phase of the Covid-19 emergency earlier this year, when the most restrictive measures were in place, the Department continued to provide the necessary funding for CE schemes. Other contingency measures were also introduced, including the extension of those CE participant contracts that were due to come to an end during that initial emergency period.

  Following the Government's introduction of Level-5 restrictions in October, the Department reintroduced the contingency arrangements and continued to provide funding for CE schemes. Department officials have been liaising with CE schemes to arrange for those participants who were due to finish in the period while the Level-5 restrictions are in place, to have their contracts extended until restrictions can start to be lifted, unless a participant is taking up employment or reaches the State Pension age.

  It should be noted that where possible while complying with public health guidelines some CE schemes were able to continue to operate throughout the emergency periods, particularly those providing essential services within their communities such as meals on wheels and home caring services. CE sponsoring authorities. like all employers and service providers are responsible for adhering to the national Covid-19 related guidelines to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees and those to whom they are providing services.

My Department is committed to supporting the CE sponsoring authorities in the valuable services that they deliver across the communities.

The measures introduced to support CE sponsoring authorities and CE participants will be kept under review. However there are no plans to extend CE participant contracts beyond the current emergency period as extensions could have a detrimental effect on other long-term unemployed candidates wishing to avail of the opportunities afforded by CE.

The priority for my Department is to ensure that all employment and activation programmes have the best outcomes for participants. Places on these employment support schemes will continue to be made available to support those who are long term unemployed and furthest removed from the labour market, while maintaining the role of CE as an active labour market programme.   

I am fully committed to the future of CE and will continue to support and improve CE for the benefit of the CE participants and the valuable contribution being made to local communities.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

 14. Deputy Sean Sherlock Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if dependents of pandemic unemployment payment applicants can be added to their claim. [39988/20]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys The Pandemic Unemployment Payment, or PUP as it is known, is payable at four different rates depending on an individual's prior earnings. It is payable at €203 per week which is the same rate as the maximum personal rate of jobseekers, at €250, €300 and €350. The maximum €350 rate is aligned with the two adult household rate payable on jobseekers schemes.

As PUP is now a pay-related benefit there are no plans to introduce allowances for adult and child dependents for PUP. Where a person with dependents may be entitled to a higher rate of payment than that on PUP they are advised to claim for jobseekers benefit, which is based on a person's social insurance record, or the means tested jobseekers allowance.

The weekly rate for an increase for a qualified adult is €134.70 and the current weekly rates for each qualified child is €36 if they are aged under 12 and €40 per week for each child over 12. I announced as part of Budget 2021 an increase to the child dependent rates for those under 12 years and those over to €38 and €45 respectively from January 2021.

Any person who may be entitled to a higher rate of payment under Jobseeker's Benefit or Jobseeker's Allowance should contact their Intreo centre to assess their individual circumstances.

I trust that this clarifies the position for you.

Community Employment Schemes

 15. Deputy Paul McAuliffe Information on Paul  McAuliffe Zoom on Paul  McAuliffe asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys the progress made in providing community employment supervisors access to pensions in line with the 2008 Labour Court recommendation to provide access to an occupational pension scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39903/20]

 20. Deputy Niamh Smyth Information on Niamh Smyth Zoom on Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys the position regarding pension entitlements for community employment scheme supervisors; if further discussions have taken place with unions on this matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter.  [39865/20]

 51. Deputy Verona Murphy Information on Verona Murphy Zoom on Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if provision will be made for an occupational pension for community employment supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter.  [26427/20]

Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection (Deputy Joe O'Brien): Information on Joe O'Brien Zoom on Joe O'Brien I propose to take Questions Nos. 15, 20 and 51 together.

At the outset I wish to acknowledge the valuable service that CE supervisors provide in running CE schemes delivering local based community services while providing training and development opportunities to the long-term unemployed and to those often furthest removed from the labour market.

As the Deputy will be aware, although the State is not the employer in this instance, Community Employment (CE) supervisors have been seeking for several years, through their union representatives, the allocation of Exchequer funding to enable CE sponsors, who are their employers, contribute to the funding pension arrangements.

This issue was examined by a Community Sector High Level Forum, chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. A number of Departments, including my own Department, were represented on this group, as were the unions and Pobal.

As part of this process a detailed scoping exercise was carried out on the potential costs of providing Exchequer support for the establishment of such a pension scheme for employees across the Community and Voluntary sector in Ireland. This exercise estimated a potential cost to the State of between €188 million and €347 million per annum depending on the numbers involved. This excluded any provision for an immediate ex-gratia lump sum payment of pension as sought by CE supervisors, which could entail a further Exchequer cost of up to €318 million.

Nevertheless I, and my colleague the Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform are keen to find an approach that will resolve this issue.

Accordingly, officials from my Department have held a series of meetings with CE supervisor representatives to consider options, mindful of the wider context and of the costs that may be involved.

The current position is that officials from my Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the unions representing the CE Supervisors continue to engage in discussions and I am hopeful that, with goodwill and flexibility on all sides, a resolution can be found in the near future.

Pensions Reform

 16. Deputy James O'Connor Information on James O'Connor Zoom on James O'Connor asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if she will consider requests to include representatives from organisations (details supplied) on the Pensions Commission. [40144/20]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys The Deputy will be aware of how critically important it is to ensure that the State Pension system provides adequate support to pensioners and that it continues to do that over the long term.

The Pensions Commission was established to examine sustainability and eligibility issues with the State Pension and the Social Insurance Fund, in fulfillment of our Programme for Government commitment. These issues will be considered from a perspective of fiscal and social sustainability, and intergenerational fairness. I was delighted to meet the members at its virtual inaugural meeting last week.

Membership in the Commission includes representation of workers, employers, civil society, academics and those with technical and policy expertise.

It should be noted that the membership also includes those with involvement in organisations supporting older people. It is imperative that the Commission has the required expertise to progress its work and is independent in its deliberations.

I was keen to ensure that the Commission had strong female representation in its membership, and I am pleased that the majority of members – 6 out of 11 – are women. The secretariat to the Commission comprised of 3 staff from my Department are all female.

I am satisfied that the Commission, with its gender-balanced membership and extensive experience of social and public policy, is well equipped to grasp the potential impacts of any pensions reform options on affected groups, such as women, workers, and older people. It is of particular importance to consider the impact of any potential changes to the State Pension system on those who rely on it for all or most of their income.

As part of its work, the Commission has been asked to seek the views of recognised experts and representative groups by inviting submissions and presentations including from the organisations referenced in the Deputies questions. The findings from this process will form a key component of the Commission’s deliberations. The exact mechanisms for this consultation will be shaped by the Commission in due course.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

 17. Deputy Thomas Gould Information on Thomas Gould Zoom on Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if she will consider provision for payment of the pandemic unemployment payment to high-risk childcare workers who have been advised to remain home from work. [39727/20]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys In the first instance I would say that there is an onus on employers, including childcare providers, to make arrangements to accommodate workers who may have underlying conditions that place them at a high risk of infection.

The Return to Work Safely Protocol, agreed with ICTU and IBEC, provides that if an at-risk or vulnerable worker cannot work from home and must be in the workplace, employers must make sure that they are preferentially supported to maintain a physical distance of 2 metres. However, employers should enable vulnerable workers to work from home where possible. In addition guidance within the childcare sector provides that employers should enable such workers to work on administrative or support work from home if possible. I appreciate that, by its very nature, setting-based childcare may not lend itself to remote working arrangements.

People who cannot work due to an underlying condition can, subject to certification by their GP, claim standard illness benefit. The Pandemic Unemployment Payment would not be the appropriate payment as it is designed to cater for a person who has lost their employment - which is not the case in these circumstances.

Standard Illness Benefit may be payable subject to normal certification and eligibility criteria, where a medical practitioner provides a certificate attesting to his/her opinion that a person should not attend work due to their medical condition. This benefit is paid at a maximum weekly personal rate of €203. Increases may also be paid for qualifying adults and children. This may be paid for an extended period, depending on the person’s continued eligibility.

In general, if people have additional expenses related to their illness or they are struggling financially, they can apply for Supplementary Welfare Allowance which is a means-tested payment.

I trust this clarifies the position.

School Meals Programme

 18. Deputy Emer Higgins Information on Emer Higgins Zoom on Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys the status of the school meals programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39722/20]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,557 schools and organisations benefitting 227,000 children. The objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement.

The programme is operated through the Urban School Meals Scheme and the School Meals Local Projects Scheme. The Urban School Meals Scheme is a statutory scheme that is operated in conjunction with Local Authorities and is available to primary school children. My department jointly funds the food costs on 50/50 basis with the Local Authorities who are responsible for the administration and operation of the scheme.

The School Meals Local Projects Scheme is an administrative scheme which is operated directly by my department and provides funding to primary and secondary schools, local groups, voluntary organisations and community-based not-for-profit preschools which operate their own school meals projects.

In recent years entry to the school meals programme has been confined to DEIS schools in addition to schools identified by Department of Education and Skills as having levels of concentrated disadvantage that would benefit from access to the programme. Prior to the introduction of DEIS in 2005, all schools and organisations that were part of one of a number of Department of Education and Skills’ initiatives for disadvantaged schools were eligible to participate in the programme, which included Breaking the Cycle, Giving Children an Even Break, the Disadvantaged Area Scheme, Home School Community Liaison and the School Completion Programme. These schools and organisations have continued to remain in the programme.

Participation in the scheme is entirely voluntary with the onus being on the individual eligible schools to make an application. Schools and organisations must reapply for funding in advance of each school year and are required to submit detailed records at the end of the school year. Funding is based on a rate of payment per meal, per child, per day. The maximum rates of payment are:

  - Breakfast/snack club €0.60;

  - Cold Lunch €1.40;

  - Dinner €1.90; and

  - Hot School Meal €2.90.

  Applications are currently being accepted from schools for the 2020/2021 academic year. To date 1,303 applications have been received, of which 1,133 are awarded, 53 are pending and 117 are awaiting further information from schools in order to finalise the application. Generally, the school meals programme does not provide funding to cover school holidays or for days when the school is closed. However, when schools closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic following consultation with the Department of Education and Skills, and with the support of education management bodies, it was agreed that funding under the school meals programme could be used to support participating schools that identify pupils who are unlikely to receive nutritious food when schools were closed. Funding was also extended to cover the summer period to ensure these children would continue to be provided with food. Schools were not permitted to use vouchers and the majority of schools opted to provide a weekly or fortnightly food parcel. The schools could supply food parcels to the value of the funding already allocated per child to the school. For example, a child receiving the breakfast at 60c per day and the cold lunch at €1.40 per day provided the school funding of €10 per week for a food parcel.

As part of Budget 2019, funding was provided for a pilot scheme from September 2019, providing hot school meals in primary schools at a cost of €1m for 2019 and €2.5m in 2020. The pilot involved 37 schools benefitting 6,744 students for the 2019/2020 academic year. Hot meals are paid at the rate of €2.90 per child per day.

Budget 2020 provided an additional €4 million in funding to extend the hot meals for children currently receiving the cold lunch option, which would allow my department to extend the hot meals to an additional 35,000 children. A decision was made to delay the extension of the hot meals to January 2021 because of the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 Pandemic from 13 March 2020. In budget 2021, I have provided an additional €5.5m for this extension from January 2021 to 35,000 primary school children currently receiving the cold lunch option. Officials from my department are currently engaging with schools in relation to this measure.

I hope this clarifies the matter.

Social Welfare Benefits

 19. Deputy Cormac Devlin Information on Cormac Devlin Zoom on Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Social Protection Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys if she will review the means-testing arrangements for the State pension qualified adult payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40086/20]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys A recipient of a State Pension payment can claim an increase in their pension in respect of a Qualified Adult. A Qualified Adult is the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the pensioner who is being wholly or mainly maintained by that pensioner.

For the State Pension (non-contributory), both members of a couple are subject to a means test to determine whether any pension, including an increase for a qualified adult, is payable.

For the State Pension (Contributory), only the spouse or partner of the claimant is subject to a means test. An increase is payable at the maximum rate of payment where the means of the spouse or partner are €100 a week or less, while reduced rates are payable where the means are over €100 and less than €310 per week. No increase is payable where the means of the spouse/partner are in excess of €310 per week.

The means assessed are those of the spouse or partner only, and include:

  - Income from employment and self-employment;

  - Income from non-social welfare pensions; and

  - The capital value of property other than the family home, as well as savings.

  Where property or assets are held jointly, the spouse or partner's means is taken to be half of the total amount.

When calculating the weekly means, an assessment formula is used for capital. The first €20,000 of capital is fully disregarded; the next €10,000 assessed at €1 per thousand, the next €10,000 is assessed at €2 per thousand, with the remainder assessed at €4 per thousand.   

Assuming no other means, a spouse/partner can have capital of up to €57,500 without affecting entitlement to a Qualified Adult increase payable at the maximum weekly rate. Tapered reduced rates of Qualified Adult increase can continue to be payable where the spouse/partner has capital of up to €110,000.   

It should be noted that the value of the family home, regardless of who is the legal owner, is never taken into account in this assessment.

The means assessment reflects the fact that there is an expectation that people with reasonable amounts of income or capital are in a position to use these resources to support themselves so that social welfare expenditure can be directed towards those who need it most.

Any proposals to change the means assessment formula for an Increase for a Qualified Adult on the State Pension (Contributory) would have to be considered in an overall budgetary and policy context.

  Question No. 20 answered with Question No. 15.


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