While Senator Zapone has acknowledged Minister Burton as a reforming minister and praised the reforming elements contained in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill she is also opposing a number of aspects of the Bill including the following:
The reduction of young people's social welfare benefits- Senator Zappone opposes this cut because of the insufficent numbers of training places and jobs available in the current climate.
The abolition of the Mortgage Interest Supplement - Senator Zappone opposes this measure because of the less then proactive approach the banks have taken to restructure debt.
The reductions to Maternity and Adoptive Benefits- Senator Zappone opposes this as it hinders equality for women.
For the full text of the debate on the Bill click here. Senator Zappone's contribution to Second Stage of the Bill is below:
I welcome the Minister. This is a great debate and we are glad the Seanad is still here. I agree with several of my colleagues who have acknowledged the Minister's reforming approach, as I often do. In this particular Bill, I think she has got many things right.
There are some things that I still find outstanding in that regard.Our colleagues and others have listed several of those issues.
There are a couple of things on which I still have questions, and I will table amendments and oppose certain sections of the Bill. I have issues with the timing of some of the Minister's decisions and I have some equality concerns.
I support Senator van Turnhout's comments on maternity benefit and adoptive benefit - Fianna Fáil Senators also raised these issues. Last year, maternity benefit was taxed and this year the rates are being cut. Senator van Turnhout referred to the National Women's Council's concerns in this regard. Barnardos has described the cut to maternity benefit as anti-parenting and rightly called attention to the fact that Ireland is behind in comparison with our EU counterparts, in offering only six months' maternity leave and no paid paternity leave or parental leave. This is not a child-friendly measure and we appear to be regressing in this area. I echo Senator Darragh O'Brien's call for the Minister to consider reversing the maternity benefit cut.
I am concerned about the mortgage interest supplement, also mentioned by Fianna Fáil Senators. Many people rely on this payment to stay in their homes. Recent Department of Finance figures for Ireland's six main lenders indicate that three quarters of mortgages that are over three months in arrears have yet to be restructured. As we learned from the appearance of bank representatives before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in September, they are not meeting the Central Bank's target in a satisfactory manner. If lenders adequately engaged with borrowers, this change would not be of such concern. In this regard the issue is with timing. As it is, the change risks people not being able to support their mortgages, with their homes ultimately being repossessed, thereby incurring further costs to the State. The programme for Government specifically identified the mortgage interest supplement as a better and cheaper option than paying rent supplements.
I have concerns about the changes to the young jobseeker's payment in sections 9 and 10. I commend Senator van Turnhout on her extensive research and the questions she put to the Minister in terms of how the figures stack up. The changes being made assume young people can fall back on their parents for either a place to live or additional income. This is often not the case for a range of reasons, including financial circumstances and family breakdown. It also assumes that young people have become reliant on a so-called "welfare culture" and need even greater incentives to train or work. With a youth unemployment rate of up to 30% and thousands leaving the country because of a lack of opportunity, such assumptions are, at best, unfounded.
Senator Norris mentioned that Focus Ireland stated that since the young person's rate was introduced in 2009, homeless services have experienced an increase in the numbers of homeless young people. While I welcome there has been no reduction in the budget for homelessness this year, previous cuts and a continuing rise in numbers of homeless people are putting severe pressure on services.
I have some questions on sections 13 and 14 of the Bill, relating to the recovery of payments on foot of personal injury actions. These matters take up several pages of the Bill and I know many technical issues are involved. I understand colleagues in the Dáil tabled amendments, but there was little time for clarification. It is great that we still have a Seanad in which to raise these issues. As I understand it, sections 13 and 14 provide for the recovery of illness-related social welfare payments from compensation awards made to people as a result of personal injury claims. I understand the change means that instead of the insurance company reducing compensation to the person by the amount paid out by the Department, the Department will now recover the amount directly from the insurance company. Is it correct to say that such a social welfare payment may not now be made unless the person claims from an insurance company?