Goodness, the Minister has a lot on her plate. I welcome and thank her for being willing to return to the House to answer Senators' questions. She has identified many ways by which her vision for reform and change is being implemented. I commend her for this. Senators appreciate the opportunity to exchange views with her on the choices she and her Cabinet colleagues will make in the next couple of months about the well-being and protection of citizens and residents and growth in the economy. As she is well aware and as Senators Paschal Mooney and Fidelma Healy Eames noted, we are hearing many heart-rending stories of how people in the middle and low income brackets are finding it impossible to feed their families nutritiously. One middle income woman stated: "There are weeks I can't put food on the table." A man on low income who pleaded guilty to stealing groceries in order that his children could have milk stated: "I couldn't let my children ask for a glass of milk in the morning and not get any."
There has been a considerable comment about a recent research paper on food poverty published by the Department of Social Protection - I commend the Minister for making the report public - showing that 10% of the population was in food poverty in 2010. I was so unsettled and upset by this figure that I read the paper in question to ascertain how the term "food poverty" was being defined. One of the indications of food poverty is "whether during the last fortnight, there is at least one day (i.e. from getting up or going to bed) when a person does not have a substantial meal due to lack of money". While I do not know about anyone else in this Chamber, I certainly could not be productive or energetic or learn or relate well if I did not have a substantial meal. While I know there is a difference in theory between food poverty and income poverty, in practice and in the day-to-day drudgery of not having enough to eat, one would imagine that they feel like the same thing. Are they not in reality the same?
These are the stories and questions that weigh heavily on those who govern. They must motivate all of us, especially the Minister and her colleagues, to reconsider each day the adequacy and correctness of the macroeconomic policies and choices being pursued, as well as the decisions of her own Department. The Minister, in an interview during the summer - she referred to the relevant remarks when she commenced her speech in the presence of Nobel Laureate, Sir James Mirrlees - indicated that social transfers could be viewed as a kind of Keynesian stimulus to the economy, as well as an effective mechanism for reducing poverty and that it was critical to retain demand in the economy. While I agree with these sentiments, if one were to apply a similar logic across the broad span of our macro policies which I hope the Minister will do, the Government would decide to make a substantive investment in a growth programme and pay attention to the extensive economic research which demonstrates that austerity policies in advanced countries between 1978 and 2009 were followed by economic contraction and higher unemployment. How will the circumstances of the people to whom I have referred improve if the economy does not grow?
Allied to an adequate growth programme, we need to meet our current troika commitments and obligations of fiscal discipline and the Government needs to save €3.5 billion in the next budget. As Social Justice Ireland points out in its budget proposals, it is not a troika requirement that we increase taxation revenue by €1.25 billion and reduce public expenditure by €2.25 billion through austerity measures. Instead, we could reverse the ratio of public expenditure reductions to tax increases or at least consider reducing public expenditure by a lesser amount and finding additional measures to increase tax.
While much current commentary notes the progressivity of the taxation system, a recent publication by the TASC entitled, Tax Injustice: Following the Tax Trail, challenges this message that is not nuanced. If the Government is committed to fairness and a progressive approach to taxation, the measures it takes should reflect the principle that the more one earns, the more one should pay. There are still a number of tax breaks or reliefs which reduce the tax bill of high earners. If we are to have a fair and progressive system, these measures should be eliminated. It is calculated, for example, that the Government could increase tax revenue by €700 million if the tax break for all pension contributions was at the standard rate in order that high earners would not benefit more. If the Minister or her Cabinet colleagues were to choose to implement this taxation measure alone, it would follow that she would not have to reduce her Department's budget for the social protection and well-being of the people by the €540 million figure she indicated to the Joint Committee on Social Protection recently.
Is that the figure the Minister proposes to extract from the social protection budget or is she considering revising the Estimate downward in light of the potentially devastating consequences for many households if their protection income is reduced any further?
I have a number of other questions in light of the process of reform the Minister has undertaken in her Department. I commend her on the establishment of Intreo, the new service she promised and has introduced that will be a single point of contact for jobseekers and employers. I know it is part of her vision for reform to move from a passive model of income support to one that engages proactively with people dependent on social welfare but given the economic context and the very high unemployment rate, the Minister is aware that many people are taking up part-time and low paid work. I listened to the Minister talk about some of the changes her Department is undertaking in light of the additional administrative burden but I point out that in respect of those with children taking up part-time and low paid work, the waiting time for family income supplement, FIS, is still approximately four to six months. A call to the family income supplement section on Tuesday confirmed, by way of a recorded message, that the waiting times for new claims for FIS is 18 weeks and for renewals it is 16 weeks. That is the official line. The reality is likely far worse as ongoing queries from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, indicate that it is anywhere between four to six months. As the Minister knows, the delays in the FIS processing times are real crises for many families. As the Minister is committed to helping those trying to work I ask her to consider assigning resources to commit to turning around the FIS claims within a maximum period of four weeks as a matter of urgency.
On the subject of family income supplement, it has also come to my attention that the Department of Social Protection is maintaining an interpretation of the family income supplement rules that is legally incorrect and I have an ethical obligation to raise that matter. The Minister's Department changed its interpretation of the law governing FIS in 2009 under the previous Minister. That changed interpretation prevented a person who is maintaining their children from claiming FIS if they are living apart from the child and the other parent. Two claimants successfully appealed the Department's refusal to pay them FIS. I have been advised that officials from the Minister's Department have met the Social Welfare Appeals Office on this matter and that representations were made to her following the successful outcome of both appeals yet it appears her Department may be continuing to deny the supplement to those who may be legally entitled to a payment. Is the Minister in the process of rectifying that matter?
My last question is on the changes the Minister promised earlier this year regarding the one parent family payment, namely, lowering the age of the youngest child to seven years by 2014 for all lone parents regardless of when they entered the system, after which the one parent family payment ceases. The Minister indicated that changing the age of the youngest child to ten in 2013 and seven in 2014 would not go ahead unless she got a credible and bankable commitment from the Government on the delivery of a Scandinavian type system of child care by the time of this year's budget. Can she give us an update on her progress with regard to that promise?