[Due to a lack of time during the debate Section 11 of the Bill was not addressed. The below text would have been Senator Zappone's contribution.]
Senator Katherine Zappone
Welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge her very systematic and diligent approach to reform of the social welfare protection system—grounded in her extensive experience with the people and the varied & complex schemes-- and to acknowledge her protection of a substantial sum of the current safety net that was not cut from budget 2012. This is a serious achievement, in my view.
I do, however, agree with my colleagues who move to oppose this section of the bill. Illness prevented me from speaking at Second Stage on this bill – I would, however, like to make two observations at a more general level first. Then I will outline the reasons for my opposition to this section, and in the context of laying out that rationale, I do have a couple of questions for the Minister. I do not think these questions been covered yet in previous debates in the Dail or Seanad.
1) I note/observe that, of the top 20 budget hits of 2012, with the increase of VAT’s estimated saving of 670 million as number 1, changes made to one parent family payment rules in respect of children over 7 years and in relation to the earnings disregard – is equivalent to the 6th highest hit/savings = 112 million euros.
2) I note/observe that the independent think-tank TASC, on the basis of well-worked out evidence, has judged that this budget will disproportionately affect the poorest income groups in society. The proposed change to reducing the earnings disregard for One Parent Family Payments is, I think, a key example of this.
Questions and reasons for opposition
Firstly: how you determined the earnings disregard figure.
Am I correct, Minister, that your primary rationale for reducing the earnings disregard over time is so that the OPFP is the same as the earnings disregard for the jobseekers allowance? While, in theory, that streamlining of our massively complex system could make sense, in practice is it not the case that with the reduced earnings disregard for single parents, they still have higher barriers to return to work than many jobseekers, who do not have children to be cared for, and/or who have a partner earning? And, that these higher barriers could be reduced by a higher weekly household income which the change to lower the earnings disregard inhibits? I just don’t understand your rationale on this one, and how it can be said to be progressive in any manner.
Secondly: reduction of earnings disregard could put lone parents and their children further below a minimum income standard to meet their basic needs.
Many experts argue that current measures of income adequacy are arbitrary. Poverty is measured in a number of ways including relative income measures and measures of deprivation but none of these methods show the cost of a standard of living which meets an individual’s or a household’s physical, psychological and social needs and the income necessary to ensure the required expenditure. Decisions about income levels need to reflect the cost of living and be based on expenditure figures that are empirically worked out. An increasing number of EU states have accepted minimum income standards as a measure of assessing income needed and as a guide to inform social welfare policy. Minimum income standards developed by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice are based on needs not wants and are an important tool in the prevention of poverty and social exclusion. 18% of all children are in lone parent families. These families are most at risk of poverty. Calculations done by my office and the Vincentian Partnership yesterday show that a one parent family with two children aged 10 and 15 will now have an income which is €114.56 less than the minimum standard of living. The changes proposed to the earnings disregard will mean that lone parents will be losing approximately €40 per week when the disregard is reduced to €60 euro. These changes to our Social Welfare system will bring people further into poverty and further away from a minimum standard of income.
Finally: will Lone Parents benefit from the new Labour Market Activation Fund?
Figures from One Family show that the vast majority of lone parents [83%] have a desire and motivation to access training or employment. This motivation is met with a number of barriers, most significantly, a lack of subsidised child care or after school care. Minister, in some of your responses to the criticism of measures regarding one parent families you have spoken about getting people into the work place and education and training, especially the long term unemployed which the 20million euro Labour Activation Fund targets, and I welcome the measures recently announced. Isn’t it correct, though, that lone parents cannot access the supports available to job seekers on the Live Register, thus will not benefit from this Fund? If we are to achieve, a Culture of Enablement, as you have spoken about, we must provide people with the necessary supports to work or train. I must ask what measures will be brought forth to assist lone parents in this regard?