Speech to the Dail on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011

I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, is in the Chamber and I thank her for putting the Bill before the House. The mission statement of the Department is to promote active participation in society through the provision of income supports, employment services and other services. The key phrase is “active participation”, which we should promote not only among those in need of social welfare, but also within the Department itself.
At a time when we are spending many millions of euro per week in social welfare payments, it is imperative the Department takes measures as set out in the Bill to protect the most vulnerable in our society, for example, the reversing of the minimum wage, the promotion of individual accountability for all applicants. By allowing the Minister to extend powers to request additional profile information from the claimant, we are able to see positive steps towards accountability and individualisation of the social welfare system. This information is used to access training and other educational developments and it is with this care and attention that we must approach social welfare claimants to ensure they do not get lost in the system.

The “one size fits all” approach is not viable in our society. For example, in my own constituency, I spoke to a single mother recently who instead of taking the route to long-term social welfare put herself back into education. However, she is surviving on food stamps from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It is time for us to think outside the box in terms of standardised packages within the system.

To seek a reduction on the annual €20 billion social welfare budget, we cannot start by punishing those who are relying on these payments. We must tackle the increasing issues of social welfare fraud and this means creating deterrents for those who have misled the system in the past.

I commend in particular the section of the Bill which promotes active participation with employers to ensure there is no growing black market employment which undermines taxpayers and drains resources. It is necessary for Department inspectors to be permitted to work alongside the Garda and customs officers to investigate such instances and I welcome that measure. Employers should not get away with taking advantage of those on jobseeker’s allowance who may be tempted to earn additional moneys fraudulently. This means denying workers a genuine job opportunity that offers a legal contract. The taxpayer foots the bill for this offence, of course, and therefore it must be taken seriously.

Fair employment is promoted in this Bill by reducing employer’s PRSI, as was set out in both the election manifesto of my party and the Government’s jobs initiative. I refer to Mr. Danny McCoy who stated that this programme “will yield a significant reduction in labour costs and will improve Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for inward investment, and will make it easier for employers to take on new staff”. That must be welcomed. Contrary to what Deputy Cowen remarked yesterday – I am glad he is present in the Chamber – after the Minister introduced the Bill, this legislation does what it says on the tin and I am very pleased to support it.

By restoring the minimum wage to €8.65 per hour we can continue to reduce our cost base in a bid to restore our competitiveness without starting with the lowest paid and most vulnerable in our society. To promote active participation we must incentivise people to work. Often the social welfare system draw is too strong and it is the taxpayer who loses out. With regard to the agreement set out by the previous Administration, it is encouraging to see there is a better way of doing things.

With regard to the amendments of other Acts contained within the Bill, I wish to mention section 21 which excludes Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas from the Citizens Advice Board. I am strongly in favour of appointing the best person for the job, regardless of his or her politics, gender or social position. All appointments should be decided by the expertise and merit of a person’s curriculum vitae and ability to deliver.

In order to restore our country’s competitiveness, we must take steps to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected and those seeking employment should be given all the support the State can muster.