Power speaks in Seanad on Social Welfare Bill (27/04/2012).

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Senator Averil Power: I welcome the Minister of State. Fianna Fáil is opposing this Bill for several reasons. Senator Leyden touched on some of them and Senator Mooney will deal with others. I will deal specifically with section 4 and its impact on lone parents. The section is particularly ill thought out and unjust. In the absence of both employment opportunities and adequate child care, this measure will force lone parents onto a jobseeker’s payment. Senator Zappone gave a good example of the lower earnings disregards and the fact that eligibility for jobseeker’s benefit depends on the number of days, rather than hours, worked. A cleaner on low income who decides to work two hours over four days will not receive a payment whereas someone working full-time over two days will receive a payment. This policy has not been thought out and, rather than helping, it will make lone parents more dependent on the State and increase poverty among an already vulnerable group. Whatever about the short-term savings the Government claims it will make, there is a risk it will cost more by making people who are currently working, bringing in a private income and moving towards an independent lifestyle more dependent on the State in the long term. I am dubious about the claim about short-term savings because most people will move from one payment to another. From an activation point of view, the one-parent family payment has had considerable success. Most lone parents work outside the home which is good for them and their families. While the system has its merits, however, I accept that it needs reform. For that reason, the last Government undertook a major exercise of examining best practice in other countries and taking suggestions from various groups regarding how the income thresholds, potential disincentives to work and the cohabitation restriction. We must find a sensible way of dealing with the cohabitation issue helping people to set up new families and new relationships. The current system penalises people and we must find a sensible way of addressing it. Rather than treating lone parents the same as everyone else and dumping them onto the dole, we need a more nuanced and sensible approach. There are many good suggestions on what can be done. If the Minister and her colleagues had the decency and common sense to consult groups such as OPEN, Barnados, the National Women’s Council of Ireland or One Family, she would have found them a source of positive and constructive proposals. I understand that not did not happen before the budget and the change was landed on them. At national and local level, the groups are far from being in favour of passive income support. When looking to reform the payments, there was general

agreement that 22 years was too old. A few years ago, someone did not have to work until the child was 22 years of age. There was concern among all groups that the parents could be too distant from the labour market in the long term. There was cognisance of the need to deal with cohabitation restrictions and to find better ways to support people in forming stable family relationships. A recurring concern is the lack of training and education programmes, particularly during school hours, to give people a real opportunity to up-skill and find work. The last Government, having done all of that work and worked with lone parent groups, specifically chose 12 years in recognition of the child care challenges encountered. Reform was in train; the late Séamus Brennan had put reform plans in place, but instead of continuing with these, the Government has decided to completely derail them. The Minister for Social Protection has stressed the Government’s desire to move people from long-term welfare dependency and passive support. The lone parent payment is the least passive of all. There are incentives to work which most parents take up. For those who do not work, it is disingenuous to blame this on passivity when we are all aware that there are obstacles in terms of job flexibility and finding employment that will allow them to work the hours that suit the school day and avail of affordable child care services. Those on a low income might find it would cost more to have a child cared for after school than they could earn. The Minister gave a commitment in the Dáil that the reduction in the age limit to seven years would not proceed unless a child care service was available. I wish I could believe Ireland will go from where we are in respect of child care provision to the Scandinavian model. If the Minister can do this, I will be the first person to congratulate her. I fully support that strategy, but she must understand the reasons people are sceptical about this and how, far from providing them with the certainty they need to know they can move towards an independent lifestyle, making crazy commitments that no one is sure we can meet increases fear and uncertainty for the families that need our support. Overall the policy behind section 4 is based on a negative and inaccurate view of lone parents. It is based on language the Minister has used such as “passivity” and “welfare dependency”, and victimisation of a group, the members of which are already working and doing their best to be active. It is based on an irrational understanding of how the system works because a person is being moved from a payment that incentivises the taking up of work to a payment which offers no

such incentive. It creates a long-term welfare trap that will act against all the positive work that has been done in the last few years in this area. I, therefore, urge the Minister to stop this now, consult and listen to the advocacy groups to come up with workable proposals and come back in a few months time. We can all work together on this issue and if the Minister’s goal is to give people a leg up, she would find the groups involved have sensible proposals to make. We should not ignore the good work done and take a leap into the dark that will result in more children being pushed into poverty.

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