I appreciate that her role as Minister for Social Protection is critical and difficult. She has already engaged in extensive debate on the Bill with our colleagues in the Dáil and I listened very carefully to her speeches and her responses to the concerns and criticisms of Deputies. What I heard which is positive and imaginative in the words of the Minister is that we should have a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries; that we will have a reformed education and training system that takes a case management approach for each individual as outlined in Pathways to Work; that the Minister cares very deeply about these issues and was involved in designing some of the progressive social welfare schemes in the past; and that what is most critical is to provide access to training, education and employment for all of those out of work but with particular reference to effective solutions for lone parents. In her wrap-up speech in the Dáil the Minister stated we can make the next gain and the next step forward and that with a joined-up, cross-departmental approach with the Ministries of Social Protection, Children and Education and Skills we can open wider, better horizons for people who are parenting in Ireland.
Please tell the Minister I am inspired by these words and I want to support her in implementing the reform necessary to realise this vision. She knows I have worked for many years with people, especially women, parenting on their own in the social context of poverty, and these are precisely the kinds of reforms we need to support people to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, and to turn the tide of unemployment, inequality, poverty and child poverty that hundreds of thousands of Irish people find themselves in today.
It is because of this work and experience that I and other Independent Senators will offer amendments to some of the sections of the Bill, which I hope are passed, and why I decided to chair the press conference “Seven is too Young” to demonstrate my support for the analysis that OPEN, the National Women’s Council and Barnardo’s has offered on the Bill. After all the public and political debate I am convinced the Bill as it stands, coupled with section 11 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2011, will have the effect of erecting barriers against lone parents working. It will not support their movement towards a greater quality of life for themselves and their children through well-paid and meaningful work, which will increase the number of children who are poor. The impact of these two pieces of legislation could be to legalise an increase in poverty.
The relationship between welfare and work is crucial during a time of recession. Our welfare system is complex, but one of its strengths is how it operates to allow people to take up part-time work and to retain a portion of their social welfare payments. In this climate, well-paid jobs are difficult to find, as the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, knows. A system that encourages people to take up any kind of work must be a good one. The social welfare Bill the Minister wishes to pass and the legislation that was enacted prior to Christmas disincentivise lone parents from taking up work because the earnings disregard for their type of payment has been lowered and the stated conditions regarding the availability of child care to implement measures to reduce the youngest age of the child are not part of the Bill before the House. They should form part of the law in some way so they can be honoured. Are we to proceed to pass laws based on trust rather than certainty? The combination of these two legal changes - the lowering of the age of the youngest child to seven years without adequate child care and the lowering of the earnings disregard to €60 - moves us in the opposite direction as envisioned by the Minister.
I will address the proposed change on lowering the age of the youngest child to seven years by 2014 regardless of when lone parents entered the payments system. The one-parent family payment ceases after that age. If the lone parent still requires social welfare assistance, she or he will move on to the jobseeker’s allowance, which requires people to be available for work and to be unemployed for three out of every six days. The earnings disregard in this respect has also been lowered. A jobseeker can only work three days part-time. If he or she happens to get a part-time cleaning job for two hours per day and five days per week, he or she will not be eligible for any support. The law states that one must be unemployed. Technically, a person forgos unemployed status if he or she does any work on any day.
The Minister has indicated that the lowering of the age of the youngest child will only affect a small portion of the 92,000 lone parents in receipt of the payment. I received calculations from her Department stating that reducing the maximum age from 14 years to seven years progressively during the period 2012 to 2014 would impact on 170 lone parents in 2012, 765 in 2013, 2,210 in 2014 and 4,510 in 2015. I was not given the methodology for these calculations. I am still wondering what it is. The changes contained in the Bill will affect all new lone parents. Although we do no know their numbers, the birth rate is increasing. Undoubtedly, the number of people affected by the change will be significant. For such a parent, he or she can only access the payment from 3 May if his or her youngest child is less than 12 years of age and from January 2013 if his or her youngest child is less than ten years of age.
The Minister has also stated that these changes will only go ahead if she gets 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. The Minister and the Minister of State know we do not have such a system. We failed families during the boom years when we had the resources to introduce such a system. We no longer have those resources because we are in the age of austerity. Given this reality, the Minister’s promise to obtain a bankable commitment from the Government - the dictionary defines “bankable” as “acceptable to a bank” - is not adequate.