During the second stage Seanad debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2015, I said: I welcome the Minister of State. I am sure he is delighted to be here as the bearer of good news. We do not get good news very often but there is a quite a lot of good news in this year's Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. In the lead up to the general election the Government is prioritising legislation which will increase pay rates for civil servants, social welfare recipients and those on the minimum wage...
The first weekly rate increase for pensioners since 2009 is long overdue, as is the extra support for carers. I am glad to see that the Christmas bonus is will be reintroduced and I hope this money will serve as an economic stimulus and go straight back into local towns and cities across the country. It is likely that this money will be spent and not saved. However, as I have stated on many occasions, I am very wary of such broad increases. For example, the rise in the minimum wage has not been properly thought out. The minimum wage should have been linked to some basic economic factors, such as inflation or deflation, instead of being increased by a seemingly arbitrary figure. Similarly, we should be looking at incorporating economic analysis rather than simply implementing rises of a nice, round figure. I would be interested to hear the reasoning behind the €5 per week increase in family income supplement and child benefit payments and the €3 per week increase in the pension. I would like to know how the Department came up with these figures. Is a formula used or did the Department simply opt for round numbers? How much of a part did economic factors play in deciding those numbers?
In a more general sense, I ask the Minister to make more progress in terms of changing the overall ethos of our social welfare system. We can utilise some of the best practice employed by our European neighbours in this regard. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about where we stand in terms of the European model whereby if someone refuses an appropriate job as proposed by a State body, then his or her welfare payments will be cut. Also, in some EU countries, following receipt of social welfare payments for 12 months, a person is required by the Government to take up a job, say, painting a local school or cleaning the floors of a local hospital, in exchange for social welfare payments. The point is that if people do not take a job that is reasonable vis-à-vis their qualifications and experience, then they lose their benefits. Indeed, many people here would prefer this to staying at home doing nothing. The Government has said that it will follow the model of not paying benefits if a person refuses a job or training, as happens in countries like the Netherlands or Germany but will that ever happen? I ask the Minister of State to give an update on any progress that has been made in this area.
Figures were provided a few years ago which showed that a massive one in seven people on the dole have never worked a day in their lives. Does the Minister of State have any update on those figures and can he indicate there has been any improvement in this regard? In the UK, the Government has been trying to tackle this problem by obliging people who are out of work for a long period to work for six months before they can go back to receiving payments. The idea is to get people back into a working mentality and to allow them to give something back to society. Has the Minister looked at this area and would the Government consider a similar scheme here? Long-term unemployment is a big problem and such a concept may form part of the solution. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's views on this idea.
I ask the Minister of State to give some indication of what the Government is doing in the area of child care. It is obvious the cost of child care is a massive barrier to people getting back into the workforce and, thus, reducing their reliance on social welfare payments. Many European countries have recognised this. Interestingly in Denmark, families pay up to 25% of the cost of day care, with those on low incomes or single parents paying between nothing and 25% of the cost and with discounts for brothers and sisters. The Danish Government makes up the difference. Would our Government be better off putting money into subsidising child care rather than into other forms of social welfare payments? At the very least, we should be considering a tax credit for child care which would encourage people back to work, especially women. It may even get highly experienced older women back into work as child minders and have the effect of reducing the number of people on social welfare payments.
In 2014, only one family handed back their social welfare payment, saving the State €1,560. Does the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, have the figures to hand for this year so far? This is occurring in spite of the fact Ireland has eight billionaires and approximately 20,000 millionaires. According to a report in the Sunday Independent, "If a parent does not wish to claim their child benefit payment, they can notify the Department of Social Protection in writing to that effect and their claim will be stopped in accordance with their wishes.” This seems to be old-fashioned and the system is obviously not working. Will the Department set up a website where people can give back their child benefit payments more easily? That would be quite feasible in this era of computerisation and personal public service numbers. A system like this could save the State money if the Government is not willing to means-test the payment. Will the Minister of State comment on this idea? It would be a sensible move, making giving back the money easier. We are talking about electronic payments. Surely, this is an area in which the Internet could be used to good effect. It would not be a controversial development but merely a nudge towards working in that direction.
It has been a tough few years and it is welcome that a number of people will get back the benefits they lost over these past few years. I welcome anything we can do to encourage people back to work rather than just automatically making it easy for them to avoid work.
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