Dáil Éireann - Volume 418 - 29 April, 1992
Adjournment Debate. - Unemployment Assistance Eligibility.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: I wish to thank the Chair for permitting me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I will be raising an individual case but the issue probably affects thousands of cohabiting couples in this State.
The case concerns a young woman who had been working for ten years and paying tax and PRSI. When she lost her job she qualified for unemployment benefit in the normal way. Eventually her unemployment benefit ran out and she went on to unemployment assistance about a year ago. As Deputies will know, unemployment assistance is means-tested. First, the woman's entitlement was reduced because one day per week she worked in a local pub, which she declared and for which she paid the J rate of social insurance. She has no dispute with that deduction.
The woman's grievance concerns a further deduction of £52 per week from her remaining £59 per week. That deduction was in respect of — as was stated in a letter from the Department of Social Welfare — “benefit and privilege from common law husband's net weekly earnings after allowing for travelling expenses.” In other words, the young woman is regarded as a dependent by the Department of Social Welfare and is paid £7 per week by that Department for herself and her three and a half year old child  because of the income of her common law husband. That might be understandable if the woman's common law husband could claim income tax relief for her as a dependent, but he cannot.
The couple have been living together for seven years, they have a three and a half year old child and are jointly purchasing their house. They cannot get married because the man was married before and this State does not permit divorce and remarriage. The State's money-collecting arm, however, the Revenue Commissioners, recognise them as single people and under our tax law will not allow the income tax relief normally enjoyed by married couples. When it comes to paying out money, however, the State, through the Department of Social Welfare, considers them as if they were a married couple.
There is clearly an anomaly here. The woman has exhausted the Department of Social Welfare appeals procedure and has asked me to take the matter up in the Dáil. I know there are many couples who are in perfectly stable family relationships, unable to get married because of our perverse attitude to divorce and losing out financially because one arm of the State considers them to be married and the other arm considers them to be single. I appeal for consistency in this matter. Either the Department of Social Welfare should recognise relationships such as this or the Minister for Finance, and the Revenue Commissioners, should regard them in the same way as the Department of Social Welfare, that they are effectively married, and should allow them to claim the normal married tax allowance.
If it is not possible for the Minister for Social Welfare to ensure that this young women is paid the level of unemployment assistance to which she would be entitled if she was considered a single person then it is incumbent on the Government, perhaps in the context of the Finance Bill before the Dáil, to remedy the tax anomaly and permit cohabiting couples such  as this one to benefit from the normal tax allowance available to married couples.
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Smith) Michael Smith
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Smith): First, I should like to apologise for my colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy McCreevy, who is unable to attend to reply to Deputy Gilmore.
The person to whom the Deputy refers first claimed unemployment assistance in May 1991, having exhausted her entitlement to unemployment benefit. Her means, which were assessed at £52.50 per week from 29 May 1991, were derived from the benefit of her partner's earnings. The decision in relation to the person's means was upheld on appeal in February 1992. The person is currently in receipt of unemployment assistance at the weekly rate of £8.50.
Under the Social Welfare Acts, the payment of unemployment assistance is subject, among other things, to a means test. Means are any income a person may have, or property, excluding their home, or assets which could provide them with an income. In the case of a married person or a cohabiting person, the means of his or her spouse or partner are also taken into account when determining entitlement. If the spouse's or partner's income is derived from employment, his or her gross income, less tax and PRSI, is taken into account and a personal allowance of £45, along with an allowance for travel expenses, is deducted. The balance is then divided in two, and the resulting amount is assessed against the claimant as means.
This treatment of cohabiting couples arises from a Supreme Court decision in 1989 to the effect that married couples could not be treated less favourably than cohabiting couples in respect of unemployment assistance payments. As a result, the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1989, extended the rules which applied to married couples to cohabiting couples.
Certain other provisions within the  existing code which were identified as involving less favourable treatment of married than of cohabiting couples were amended in the Social Welfare Act, 1991, so as to provide for a non-discriminatory method of dealing with the payments in question.
The Supreme Court decision which found provisions of the equal treatment legislation to be in conflict with the Constitution raises the whole question of the treatment of different household situations within the social welfare code. In view of the complexity of the issues involved, the Government established an independent review group to examine the social welfare code as it affects households with particular regard to the equal treatment provisions and the requirements in relation to the treatment of married couples arising from the Constitution.
The report of the group has been published and submissions have been invited from interested parties on the contents of that report. The Minister is currently examining the options available for improvements to the system. The current situation is that the Department of Social Welfare now treat all couples, whether married or cohabiting, in exactly the same way with regard to assessment of means. This practice has been shown to be equitable and in accordance with the Constitution.
The different treatment of married and cohabiting couples within the tax system is a matter for the Minister for Finance.
Dáil Éireann 418 Adjournment Debate. Unemployment Assistance Eligibility.