Dáil Éireann - Volume 619 - 11 May, 2006

Other Questions. - Social Welfare Code.

Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps he is taking to increase the take-up rate of the family income supplement; the estimated numbers who are eligible for but not availing of the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17301/06]

Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the response received to date to his Department’s national awareness campaign on family income supplement; his plans for greater co-ordination of information with the Revenue Commissioners to ensure the maximum possible take-up; if his attention has been drawn [666] to a number of drawbacks identified by the St. Vincent de Paul as an obstacle to people claiming family income supplement; his plans to address these obstacles; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17382/06]

Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of applications his Department has received for the family income supplement for each of the past six months; the number of applications approved and granted for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17682/06]

Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if there has been an increased level of take-up in the family income supplement payment since his Department’s launch of an awareness campaign on the scheme. [17543/06]

Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on the success of his Department in publicising the family income supplement; if the take-up rate by eligible families has improved in recent months as a result; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17683/06]

Ms C. Murphy asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the impact the recent media campaign had on the take-up rate of family income supplement; if this campaign has concluded; the cost of the campaign; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17662/06]

Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his proposals to improve the qualification guidelines and level of payments for the family income supplement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17832/06]

Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the extent to which he and his Department have evaluated the family income supplement payment and the need for an update in line with requirements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17833/06]

  Mr. Brennan: I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 16, 25, 31, 66, 68, 127 and 128 together.

The family income supplement is designed to provide support for people with families on low earnings to preserve the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where families might only be marginally better off than if they were claiming other social welfare payments. Family income supplement is a central element of a programme of reforms targeted specifically at addressing child poverty. Currently, just over 18,000 families and more than 35,000 children benefit directly from these weekly top-up payments. Families can get top-up supports of between €20 and €400 per week depending on [667] income and family size. The average weekly payment is €105.

Improvements to the family income supplement scheme, including the new increased income limits announced in the 2006 budget, have made it easier for families to qualify under the scheme. To ensure that families are made aware of these improvements, my Department undertook a nationwide awareness campaign last March to promote and encourage take-up of the family income supplement scheme. This extensive week-long campaign included advertising on television, national and local radio and in the national and regional press. A nationwide poster campaign was also undertaken. During the media campaign, my Department provided a LoCall helpline to answer public inquiries regarding eligibility under the improved scheme. The helpline responded to more than 2,800 calls and the total cost of the advertising campaign was €272,000.

In addition, the scheme was promoted through my Department’s network of local offices, citizen’s information centres and citizen’s information phone services and by Comhairle, the national information support agency. Information was also made available through my Department’s website.

I am pleased with the response to the campaign so far. For example, in March and April this year my Department received 3,013 new FIS claims. This compares with 1,337 received in the same two months in 2005. My Department has received 4,880 new claims so far this year compared with 2,590 for the corresponding period in 2005. The general trend for both new claims and renewals is for numbers to continue to rise. The advertising campaign has resulted in a higher than normal number of claims awaiting decision on their entitlement, that is in excess of 2,000, and I would expect a high percentage of these to translate into awards. The full impact of the campaign will not be known until all of these claims have been decided.

My Department has been working closely with the Revenue Commissioners to ensure that families on low incomes are made aware of the availability of FIS. My Department will continue to work with Revenue on other initiatives to ensure that people are made aware of their entitlements in a timely manner. The increase in the numbers of persons receiving FIS is a positive development, reflecting the success of a range of measures which have improved net incomes for the low paid. Efforts are continuing to be made to ensure that families eligible for FIS are encouraged to apply for the scheme and every opportunity is taken by my Department to promote the benefits of the scheme.

The Government is determined to eradicate child poverty and I am confident that improve[668] ments to the FIS scheme will contribute to targeting resources at low-income households. It is not possible to estimate from administrative sources the number of families who would be eligible but do not apply for their FIS entitlements. However, research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in 1997, which was based on the results of the Living in Ireland Survey 1994, suggested that fewer than one in three of potentially eligible claimants were actually in receipt of the payment. Since those with a higher entitlement are more likely to avail of the scheme, the take-up in expenditure terms was estimated to be somewhat higher, between 35% and 38% of potential expenditure.

I am aware of the issues raised by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul regarding obstacles facing people resuming work. I recently met representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and discussed a wide range of issues of concern to them including FIS. On taking into account the trend towards more forms of atypical work, FIS is currently designed to assist families mainly dependent on full-time low-income employment. In this context, full-time employment is defined as work of as little as 19 hours per week or 38 hours per fortnight, both parents’ employment combined, if necessary, and which is expected to last for three months. An integral feature of the scheme is that once the level of the FIS payment is determined, it continues to be payable at that level for a period of 52 weeks provided the claimant remains in employment. However, the rate of payment can be amended where an additional child is born in the course of the 52 weeks. A key advantage of this approach, which is unique to the FIS scheme, is that customers can be certain that they will receive a guaranteed level of income support throughout the year. This certainty is important to the success of the scheme in providing a real incentive to workers with families to avail of employment opportunities.

  An Ceann Comhairle: As more than three of these questions are oral questions, not more than 18 minutes are provided for the three questions. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Stanton have questions in their names. We will hear Deputy Catherine Murphy first and Deputy Stanton second.

  Ms C. Murphy: I thank the Minister for his response. I welcome the family income supplement scheme and I encourage people to take it up. I do not know if the Minister is aware of the problem that one cannot get more than one copy of the booklet. I have checked this with the CIC and the Resource Centre for the Unemployed. The Department sends them individually and one cannot get a bundle of 30 or 50. I have a display of information leaflets in my constituency office and I hand them out where appropriate. [669] Will the Minister ask the Department why that approach is taken, given that approximately €272,000 has been well spent on an information campaign? The smaller matters are also useful means of advertising it, and that means having the brochures available to people.

  Mr. Brennan: I was not aware that people are confined to one book. We are keen to give out as many as we can and Deputies should have a supply. I will look into it.

  Mr. Stanton: Does the Minister agree that the increase in numbers can be attributed to the change in thresholds as much as to his campaign? Has he any way to ascertain how effective was his campaign? How many of those 2,800 people who phoned in applied and how many will be awarded a family income supplement as a result? Is he aware of the similar scheme in New Zealand, entitled family assistance, which is administered through the inland revenue and which has a take-up rate of approximately 90%? Does he agree that the take-up rates here are abysmal and that the administration and bureaucracy involved is off-putting and makes it difficult for people to access the scheme?

The problem outlined by Deputy Catherine Murphy is an example. Will the Minister, as a matter of urgency, write to everybody who receives child benefit and inform them in a clear and simple way of the existence of this, and how they might be eligible for and apply for it? I suggest that he includes a simple leaflet outlining this when the Department sends out the early child care supplement in August or September.

  Mr. Brennan: We are considering rerunning the FIS campaign, which we ran for one week. It is clear from the thousands of people who immediately called the helpline and the numbers that escalated in the week or two after the advertising campaign that it had a dramatic effect. I gave the Deputies the percentage take-up and the ESRI statistics, and it is clear that we have a distance to travel. The increased thresholds would have brought a new tranche of people in and would account for some of the increase. I have not examined the New Zealand system but if the Deputy wants me to I will. We can consider writing to those in receipt of child benefit. There is no difficulty circularising our database on such issues.

One area where we can do more work is in paying FIS through the tax system. That was examined by a group set up under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and was chaired by the Department of Finance. It examined this matter in some detail and the number of families eligible for FIS is not directly comparable with the income statistics compiled by the Revenue Commissioners for a number of reasons, including that the Revenue data do not generally [670] take into account the number of hours worked, the number of children in a family and its social welfare income, which might not be taxed but would be taken into account for FIS. That group concluded that FIS should continue to be paid through the social welfare system and not through the tax system. It is some time since that was done and I would like to look at it again because the Revenue is bound to finesse its data to the point where it can be of some assistance to us.

I agree with Deputies who say FIS was a good scheme. Deputy Catherine Murphy pointed this out and all Deputies agree. It is a significant figure. Taking the example of a two-parent family with two children in which one parent works, if the gross earnings of the family amount to €20,000 the FIS would be €4,233. Child benefit would be €3,600, if both children are under six years the early child care supplement would come to €2,000 and the back-to-school allowance would be €240. An individual with two children, on an income of €20,000, will have further welfare top-ups of €10,000, giving a net disposable income of €30,000. There are many such examples and the figures bear no resemblance to those of many years ago. That shows how critical is family income supplement. Of the extra €10,000 a person on an income of €20,000 gets, €4,000 is made up of FIS and €3,600 comes from child benefit if the couple has two children. I hope to expand this area. FIS has great possibilities in the assault on child poverty.

  Mr. Penrose: I thank the Minister for his reply and for taking up the Labour Party suggestion to advertise the scheme. Since the Revenue is virtually in everyone’s house now, would it be simpler if it submitted the detailed information to each taxpayer, since clearly someone must be earning income to qualify for family income supplement?

Maev-Ann Wren recently wrote an excellent article in the Irish Independent, of which the Minister should get a copy. Is it true that one would want to be Einstein to fill in the form for the family income supplement and that it contains 12 or 14 pages of dross and nonsense? One should not ask applicants whether they eat wheaten or white bread. That is a load of nonsense. The biggest impediment is the superfluity of the information being sought. The article also notes that many people do not like traipsing to their employers to get them to sign for the four weeks’ work or whatever. It is almost a signal to them to depress their income further. Many people like the privacy of their own information. If they provide their weekly income figure, that should be accepted. Under the Payment and Wages Act, is a payslip given by an employer a legal document and should that be sufficient? One would then not have to go to a nosey [671] employer who knows his or her employee’s business. Let us cut out the nonsense and stop the charade. Let us ensure people get what they are entitled to.

  Mr. Brennan: I read that article and I agree it was excellent. As a result, I sent for the form, instructed the Department to review it and suggested what could be dropped from it. However, when one wants to cut out red tape, everyone approves, and then someone suggests dropping Question No. 42, for example, but is told it is a health and safety matter, and Question No. 39 might be to do with a child’s income and cannot be dropped, and so on. In the end, one often makes little progress towards a return to simplicity.

I acknowledge the form is lengthy and extensive, but 17,000 people are getting FIS. A similar further number might well qualify for it. We continue to examine what is possible through the tax system, although many people in receipt of FIS would not be in the tax system at all because they would often be close to the minimum wage. We will continue to promote the scheme vigorously and might re-run the campaign. I will look closely at Deputy Stanton’s suggestion to have regard to our database in this regard. I am very committed to the scheme because of the numbers of people who benefit. It makes a real difference to many people and I hope to expand it.

  Mr. Boyle: Even if the Minister’s most recent initiative is successful, and the trend seems to be where he and his officials hoped it would end up, we are still talking of between 30% and 40% of the people who might be entitled to family income supplement not receiving it. Because of the success of the initiative, I presume the Minister will have to introduce a Supplementary Estimate to the House, because his way of recording family income supplement in the budget is to rely on last year’s figures and repeat that for the following year. If more people are being paid it, I presume we will have to take account of that in this House.

One particular anomaly I have experienced relates to family income supplement being paid largely to the woman in the family, with the woman being involved in casual employment. This follows through on the point that Deputy Penrose made. The assessment of the working hours is over such a short time period and the nature of casual employment might mean that a person working with a supermarket chain, for example, might be working 16 hours one week and 24 hours the next week, with work on a Sunday sometimes counting as time and a half in terms of income but counted only in hours in the given week because of the use of the employment by the employer. Will the Minister accept that [672] such anomalies make it difficult for people to apply for family income supplement? Moreover, while being assessed after having made an application, such people often find themselves turned down needlessly.

  Mr. Brennan: I do not anticipate a Supplementary Estimate being required. Social welfare schemes are almost all demand-led and as such they are provided for in the system. If demand goes up, the funds are forthcoming. Quite often, savings may well be made in schemes or other aspects of the Department, but if a Supplementary Estimate is required, once the scheme is demand-led, rather than a new policy initiative, there is usually no difficulty in securing that.

I take the Deputy’s point with regard to the number of hours and the need for more flexibility in the scheme, particularly to take account of part-time and casual workers, and an increasing number of women workers doing part-time work. We will continue to try to finesse the scheme so that part-time and casual workers can avail of it. We will continue to bring it to their attention as best we can.

  Mr. Stanton: Has the Minister considered extending FIS to self-employed people on low incomes or to people on community employment schemes? Has the Department had many inquiries from self-employed people on low incomes with regard to FIS payments? Does the Minister agree there probably are people who have struck out on their own, who are self-employed but who are experiencing the financial stresses and strains to which the Minister alluded? Does the Minister agree that the fact that so many low-income families now depend on FIS indicates there are very many people in huge need, dependent on the social welfare system, and that there is a growing gap between the very well-off in our society and people not well-off?

  Mr. Brennan: I have not given much thought to extending the scheme to the self-employed. I would prefer to concentrate on increasing the number of applicants actually in employment. If one were to extend the scheme to the self-employed one would have to certify accounts and so on, and that would become very difficult. There might be a case for it but I do not propose to move on it now. I prefer to put our energy into expanding the current take-up of the scheme. I have no problem in principle in looking at extending the scheme in the future but it is not a priority now.

The same would hold for community employment schemes. They have a particular focus, and people are meant to move on from them. A greater case could be made than for the self-employed, but I have no current proposals to extend the categories of those eligible for FIS and would prefer to increase the take-up.

[673] I suppose the large numbers claiming FIS indicate that many people are on the minimum wage, are working part-time and are on low incomes. The function of FIS, which is now beginning to click in greatly, was to make it worth one’s while to get off welfare and back to low-paid employment. We have been trying to bridge this gap for many years. Some people stated that it was not worthwhile for them to go to work because they were taking home less than on welfare, and that is why FIS was introduced, so that low pay became higher pay, so to speak, and it also meant employers could take on people directly from welfare and give them the opportunity to get back to work.