Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012: Committee Stage



Senator Zappone

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following subsection:

“(5) Section 4 shall not come into force until a date to be set by the Minister for Social Protection, that date not being sooner than 3 years from the enactment of this Act.”.

I welcome the Minister back to the House and thank her for her attendance. On Second Stage, I acknowledged and affirmed her vision of reform of the social welfare and child care systems. Several times, the Minister has stated in the House and elsewhere that much of the rationale for the inclusion in section 4, which we are seeking to amend, was that investment in the one-parent family payment to date has not been effective in terms of the reduction in the number of people in poverty or at risk of adult or child poverty. I am with the Minister in that regard and I am with my colleagues as regards introducing reforms.

The Minister also indicated earlier that the reforms in this Bill are coupled with reforms, including the earnings disregard in relation to the one family parent payment, in the Social Welfare 2011 Bill 2011 enacted prior to Christmas last.

My colleagues and I tabled an amendment to section 11 of the Social Welfare Act 2011 but were informed that the amendment was ruled out of order as it involves a charge on the Exchequer. As such, we will not be able to move that amendment. The Seanad debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011 was guillotined and, as such, we did not reach section 11, which is one of the reasons we tabled our amendment. Also, our arguments in regard to the change being introduced in terms of section 4, coupled with what has been done in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011, is what drives the Minister’s effort in terms of reforming the one parent family payment against her own vision. It is why we are especially keen to move the amendment to section 11. The changes in terms of the reduction in the earning disregard provided us with legislation in advance. However, I am not sure that was an appropriate use of forward dated legislation. The Minister incorporated transitional provisions in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2011 in the form of forward dated legislation. This type of legislation is usually used to protect people. However, in this case it does not appear to be a protection. We are arguing it was not a protection as the legislation provided for a reduction of the earnings disregard for the one parent family payment, bringing it more in line with the rules associated with the jobseeker’s allowance.

I conducted a simple exercise comparing a couple on the jobseeker’s allowance with a person on a one parent family payment, where both households take up part time work for €160 per week. In my example both families have a three year old child. In 2016 the one parent household will have only €18 more in income than will the two parent household, which €18 is all that will be available for child care even if the person has two children. As regards the change already introduced, it does not appear that there exists an equality between a one parent and two parent household with regard to social welfare support. One family has two parents available to seek work and care for the children, which can be shared, while the other does not have that support in terms of child care. With the higher earnings disregard for one parent families that equality or equity existed. We believe there was a reversal of that equity in the Bill enacted prior to Christmas.

As I indicated in my earlier remarks, the one parent family payment, with a higher earnings disregard than the jobseeker’s payment, provided a recognition of the greater practical financial burden - in the main the cost of child care - faced by one parent families trying to access employment and raise children. The social welfare code reasonably presumes that in a two parent household where one person is working part time the caring of the child can be shared, thereby avoiding the additional costs of child care. As acknowledged by the Minister, it is an imperfect system because it fails to address the need for a proper system of child care for all families.

The social welfare system was up until that point effectively compensating for policy failure or, as the NESC report on the developmental welfare state called it, the “services deficit”. Equally, it might be argued that this system traps one parent families in part time work. I accept that is what the Minister is trying to change. However, such claims miss the obvious point, namely, that the trap is a reality of basic household finances. A single parent cannot work full time if he-she cannot pay for child care. The same applies in respect of two parent households where both parents are seeking full time work. It cannot be done unless child care is affordable and of good quality. Until we have proper child care services, the earnings disregard related to the one parent family payment should not be reduced any further than the €130 payable in 2012. However, our amendment on this matter has been ruled out of order.

The Department of Social Protection provided us with a statement of the savings related to the earlier reform of reducing the earnings disregard. In 2012, €14.2 million will be saved, in 2013 it will be €32 million, in 2014 it will be €50 million and in 2015 it will be €63 million, which amounts to a saving of €159 million over the next couple of years as a result of that change in the legislation. Is this amount part of the investment to which the Minister referred in her speeches, which is not being used in an effective manner to move people beyond the risk of poverty, and that needs to be leveraged differently? I might be inclined to agree that perhaps we need to leverage that investment differently. Are these savings to be used to develop the system of child care of which the Minister speaks? If not, then the change in terms of the earnings disregard, coupled with - I am coming now to the reason we tabled the amendment to section 4 - the changes in regard to section 4 in terms of the lowering of the relevant age, will, we believe, increase the risk of poverty for lone parents and their children.

The Minister will note that we have not tabled an amendment that suggests section 4 be deleted or that we oppose that section. We decided instead to recommend the insertion of a clause that would provide the Minister with a three year period to put in place, through a staged process, a system of affordable, high quality, out of school child care for all children in Ireland. This is our way of trying to acknowledge the strategic vision which the Minister has outlined and which we affirm. The type of child care service promised by the Minister in her Second Stage Dáil speech is what was confirmed by the Tánaiste in his response to queries from the Opposition during Leaders’ Questions the following day. The Tánaiste, in response to a query from Deputy Martin, stated that the Deputy knew well that it is normal practise that when legislation is brought before the House and enacted there are provisions for the commencement of various sections of that legislation. Why then does the Minister continue to resist inserting into this Bill a provision for the commencement of section 4 on the basis of her commitment to a significantly better system of child care that currently exists? The Tánaiste continued stating that the measures related to the lowering of the age of the youngest child will go “hand-in-hand” - that is the metaphor - with changes in the delivery and provision of child care and that it will be possible to implement these changes over time.

The Tánaiste also stated that the legislation then before the Dáil and before us today is being enacted in the context of reforming the manner in which child care is being delivered. Why can we not have this cemented in law? We suggest a three year time period. It is up to the Minister if she wishes to change that timescale to two or four years. We believe three years would be an adequate time to begin in a significant manner a State subsidised child care and after school care system and that this should be cemented in law. Also, there should be consistent regulation across all providers throughout the country and a significant investment in the development of after school care in Ireland which has not to date been available. I know the Minister is aware of that and that is her vision. This is the big change which the Minister is pushing and we are with her on it. However, we believe it should be provided for in law. The Minister is speaking about a comprehensive system that is first and foremost based around the developmental needs of children. Investing in out-of-school child care is also critical to enabling lone parents to combine employment with care of their school going children.

The Minister has just returned to the Seanad from the opening of a new multidenominational school campus. The development of after-school services should include schools. That is the reason we are moving this amendment.

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