Senator Zappone's speech on the second stage of the Social Welfare Bill 2014 called for more emphasis on gender-proofing and inequality-proofing of public policy. Senator also highlighted the pressures families with children are in Ireland due to the lack of affordable and accessible child care services.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I offer my best wishes to the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach with their important work in the North. The Minister of State outlined in his speech several positive changes that have come about since the Minister has taken charge of the Department of Social Protection to help families, get people back to work as well as welfare increases, especially the supports for employment and activation. I acknowledge these significant measures. They are the result not of piecemeal changes but because of a fundamental reform vision that is at work.
I welcome the modest raise - the Minister of State used the same term - in child benefit and the projected plan to raise this further in 2016. This is a recognition of the rise in cost of living and the cost of raising children in Ireland. While the increases are welcome I know the Minister of State will be aware, as will the Tánaiste, that it does not begin to meet the costs associated with raising a child, especially in light of the remarkably high child care costs in Ireland, which average at approximately €800 to €1,000 per month.
This is a modest increase brought about in the context of no other significant measures, for example, tax relief in child care or investment in early years education and care.
It is important to see the increase in the context of the lack of investment and other aspects of ensuring that all children receive the best possible start. Other Senators have mentioned that the measure should be set in the context of cuts to this payment during the past five years. The cuts since 2009 amount to €400 million. Given inflation, increased property taxes and eventual water charges the measure outlined by the Bill, worth approximately €70 million, could have been more generous. Indeed other child investment measures could have been adopted.
Having said that, the universal child benefit payment is the only payment that recognises the cost and value of care of our children in our society. It is incremental but it is only incremental by beginning to balance the gender income gap that widened during the austerity years. I imagine the Minister of State is familiar with the ESRI report which highlighted that women in couples experience a loss of approximately 14% in income levels as against 9% for men in couples. The cut in child benefit, which is usually received by the mother, was recognised as a key driver of this difference combined with the cuts in public services.
The income disadvantage follows women through their work life and into their pension years and the gender income gap remains between men and women in pension age. It is concerning that many older women in Ireland are living in poverty. For this reason I am disappointed that there has been no progress in regard to the homemaker's scheme in the budget since the changes to the number of contributions needed to receive a full pension rose from 260 to 520 in 2012. This policy has disproportionately affected women. For historical and current reasons, women continue to have fewer contributions than men.
When the changes were made, there were promises that this policy would be balanced by changes to the homemaker's scheme, but they have not been implemented. I refer to the homemaker's disregard and the homemaker's credit advocated by the National Women's Council of Ireland. The council makes a strong recommendation for the introduction of a homemaker's credit and states the scheme for the homemaker's disregard should apply from 1974, rather than 1994, as it stands. This would be of benefit to many women now reaching pension age. I support these recommendations and it is important that we address these issues now to ensure inequality is not embedded in the pensions system. Perhaps it is more accurate to say inequality is embedded in the pensions system and must be rooted out.
These issues emphasise the importance of gender-proofing and inequality-proofing public policy. It is very positive that the Tánaiste is engaged in a social impact assessment of policies, as many civil society groups recognise and acknowledge. We need to encourage this approach across other Departments and I do not doubt that the Tánaiste says this at the Cabinet table. We must ensure stronger gender-proofing and inequality-proofing measures in the budget process, but the partial roll-back on child benefit reductions does not make up for the lack of affordable and accessible child care services.
As the Minister of State knows well, the cost of child care is one of the most prohibitive barriers when it comes to the participation of women in employment, which is the most effective path out of poverty. Talk of early years education and care should relate not only to jobs but also to quality of care. We must speak about the importance of providing all children with the right of equal access to educational opportunities.
Early years education is expensive, although providers try to keep costs as low as possible, especially in the non-profit sector, and, because of this, many children are denied access to such education. This causes disadvantage and can affect children up to secondary level. Many parents feel compelled to enrol children in schools earlier than necessary for financial reasons - an additional year in early years education costs approximately €12,000. The current system is not in the best interests of children and as it does not promote equality, it must be addressed.
Child poverty is a major issue in Ireland and particularly affects children in one parent families who suffered owing to austerity budgets. I am happy that cuts to the lone parent income disregard which were to take effect in January 2015 and 2016 have been frozen, as this is a significant achievement. I compliment the Tánaiste and her Department on this decision and hope the unfair cuts that affect 28,000 of the poorest households and children will be reversed fully.
The back-to-work family dividend expected in another social welfare Bill will be welcomed because these are not piecemeal changes but part of a wider vision. We must examine the situation of families when the benefit period expires, as many women availing of the scheme may still be on very low incomes after the first one and a half years in employment. I draw on the work of the National Women's Council of Ireland in calling for an extension of the qualified child payment which is paid to families in receipt of certain social welfare benefits, low income families that receive family income supplement. This could provide the support and incentive that families need to remain in employment.
I would like to see the habitual residency condition removed from child benefit, as advocated by FLAC and others, because child benefit should be a universal payment to all children living in Ireland. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which was ratified by Ireland provides that state parties must respect and ensure the rights of children, including the right to benefit from social security without discrimination. I strongly believe children living in Ireland should not be treated differently because of their parents' status or lack thereof.