Since the recession the social protection system has been put under more pressure due to an increase in recipients and the requirement under the Troika agreement to reduce state expenditure.1 Cuts to rates since the beginning of the recession have had a cumulative impact meaning that from 2008 to 2014, households reliant on social welfare have experienced a fall in income of between five and eight per cent.2 In addition, the current rate of social welfare payments is not sufficient to ‘meet the cost of a Minimum Essential Standard of Living’ for the majority of households living in urban areas.3 The current weekly rate of Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA) or the ‘basic minimum income’ standard set by the State is €186 per week.4 However, this amount falls significantly short of the minimum weekly disposable income required to avoid poverty calculated to be €202.21.5
However, apart from the general overview, there are particular groups who suffer from less than adequate social security payments. For example, since January 2014, the rate of Jobseekers Allowance (JA) and Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA) for a primary claimant aged between 18 and 24 years (with no dependent children) is €100 while the payment for claimants aged 25 years is €144. This means that unemployed young people under the age of 26 years are expected to live on an income much less than that considered by the Government to be the minimum acceptable ‘basic weekly allowance’.
In May 2014, there were 55,137 applications from under 25s on the Live Register for Jobseekers Allowance.6 These reductions in rates for younger claimants assume that they live with their parents or family and because they do not live independently they do not require an equal rate of payment to older recipients. However, there is evidence to suggest that the number of young people living with their parents has actually decreased since before the recession.7 There are concerns that age-related social welfare cuts increase the vulnerability of those under the age of 26 to homelessness, particularly for those who are already disadvantaged and without family supports.8 The Government has not provided any clear or cogent grounds for applying this distinction and discriminating against under-25s.
Recovery of Social Security Overpayments
There is concern also that individuals and families can be pushed below the poverty line because of the system for recovering social security overpayments. In 2012, the Government amended the primary social welfare legislation to allow for increased powers of recovering overpayments.9 The Department defines an overpayment as money paid to a recipient which he or she was not entitled to receive. In 2012, overpayments arose due to an error on the part of the client (37 per cent), on the part of the Department (8 per cent), in cases where the person is deceased (13 per cent) or caused by fraud or suspected fraud (42 per cent).10 Where fraud is involved the Department can also instigate criminal proceedings.
Prior to the change in law, the Department could not recover an amount which would result in a person receiving less than the basic social welfare rate of Supplementary Welfare Allowance which was deemed appropriate to his or her circumstances. The change in law allows the Department of Social Protection to recover an amount up to 15 per cent of a person’s weekly payment without his or her written consent. In cases where the person gives written consent they can recover a greater amount. The Department can also contact a person’s employer if he or she is in work and arrange for money to be deducted directly from his or her wages. Regardless of the cause of the overpayment, this approach to recovering a debt may push some social welfare recipients below the level which the Government itself considers to be a basic minimum income.11 There are also plans to set up a central debt collection agency which would incorporate the collection of social welfare debts.12
Older people, in particular older women and those living alone, are reliant on social security to ensure an adequate standard of living. In 2013, 12 per cent of the population was aged 65 or over and this figure is due to double by 2050.13 In 2014, a third of the total Department of Social Protection budget will be spent on pensions including old-age pensions and those for surviving spouses or civil partners.14 A thematic report on older people based on EU SILC data found that in 2011, income redistribution and poverty alleviation measures (social transfers) accounted for 63 per cent of total income for people aged 65 years or older.15 Older people living in rural areas were more likely to be dependent on social transfers (70 per cent) compared to those living in urban areas (58 per cent) while 72 per cent of women were more reliant on social transfers in contrast to 52 per cent of men.16
In 2013, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a Review on the Irish Pension System and recommended that either a means-tested payment or a universal basic pension should replace the current system of contributory or non-contributory pensions.17 Since 2012, to obtain a full State Pension (Contributory), a person must have made 520 full-rate social insurance contributions (equivalent to ten years), double the number of contributions required up until 2012. Those with fewer contributions receive a proportionately smaller pension. Contributory State Pension is a social insurance payment which is paid, regardless of whether a person has an occupational pension or not. The increased contribution requirement particularly impacts women as the statistics show that fewer women have an occupational pension and women are more likely to have an interrupted work pattern and not have the requisite number of contributions to obtain the full contributory State Pension. In 2011, only 27 per cent of those receiving the maximum contributory state pension were women.18 While the State has introduced a limited homemakers disregard in relation to calculation of pension entitlement,19 it has not yet fulfilled its promise to transition to a more positively framed ‘Homemaker’s Credit’ due to the expected cost of the measure.20 These credits could potentially serve as a useful ‘re-entry‘ credit allowing women to access employment support in their own right following a period of care in the home.
While State pension rates have been maintained, in January 2014, the State Pension age was raised from 65 to 66 years and the State Pension (Transition), payable between age 65 and 66, was abolished. Many employers in Ireland require their workers to retire aged 65. Anyone who reaches the age of 65 and leaves work after 1 January 2014 will have to apply for an unemployment/ Jobseekers payment for income until they can apply for the State Pension when they reach 66.21 The State Pension age will rise to 67 in 2021 and to 68 in 2028. Also in Budget 2014, the €850 Bereavement Grant, a payment made to cover expenses related to the death of a spouse or child could be paid to a person who had sufficient social insurance contributions. This payment was ended in 2014 and there are concerns that this will have a disproportionate impact on older people who are more likely to experience the death of a spouse or partner.22
One of the objectives of the National Positive Ageing Strategy published by the Government in 2013 is to ‘provide income and other supports to enable people as they age to enjoy an acceptable standard of living’.23 However, older people who live alone and are dependent on the State Pension (Non-Contributory) have a much lower income and experience a ‘shortfall of approximately €18 per week’ which is not adequately supplemented by the Living Alone Allowance, as it is worth only €7.70 per week.24
The reduction in the Household Benefits Package has also been widely criticised due to its impact on older people. In 2012, 25 per cent of people at risk of poverty had gone without heating at some point in the previous year and almost one in ten older people fall into that category.25 Since Budget 2012, recipients receive the weekly Winter Fuel Allowance of €20 for 26 instead of 32 weeks.26 In 2011, the value of the electricity and gas allowance was reduced to 2007 rates and in 2013 it was standardised at €35 per month27 despite an increase of nine per cent in household energy prices between 2011 and 2012 alone.28 Older people are more likely to suffer from fuel poverty due to ‘poor housing condition, energy inefficient housing, rising fuel prices and low incomes’ and the electricity/gas allowance coupled with the winter fuel allowance helped to offset the ‘potential health and social harm’ caused by a lack of heating or poor insulation during cold winter conditions.29 Initial research has found that increased hospital admissions for respiratory diseases and the deaths of older people in the winter months may be linked to fuel poverty.30 The Government has taken some steps to address energy and fuel poverty including an Affordable Energy Strategy, the publication of a Green Paper on Energy Policy and the Warmer Homes Scheme but it must take care that in its drive for reduced costs and greater energy efficiency, vulnerable households do not fall through the cracks.
Persons with Disabilities
In 2014, €3.3 million was allocated to disability, illness and carer supports. Income supports for persons with disabilities were cut by an average of 4.1 per cent for recipients in 2011.31 In May 2014, more than 108,000 people were in receipt of Disability Allowance, 53,000 were in receipt of Invalidity Pension while almost 58,500 received Illness Benefit.32 In 2013, almost 73,000 carers of people with disabilities received the Respite Care Grant but this was reduced by 19 per cent in Budget 2013.33 Furthermore, the rate of Disability Allowance – set at the same rate as Jobseekers Allowance – fails to take into account the additional cost of living with a disability in Ireland.34
A 2012 value-for-money report published by the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare highlighted the need for better data on Disability Allowance and Domiciliary Care Allowance to be collated and made available. The group recommended the development of profile data to better understand and identify the needs of claimants of disability related payments.35 Legal challenges in relation to accessing carer-related payments have been successful due to the lack of fair procedures.36 No such provision has been put in place by the end of August 2014.
Asylum seekers’ right to social protection is severely restricted as they only receive a weekly social welfare payment of €19.10 for an adult or €9.60 for a child alongside room and board. It is the only social welfare payment which has not increased at all since its introduction in April 2000. Furthermore, access to other social welfare payments has been severely limited through the prohibition on access to Rent Supplement as well as legislative changes to completely exclude asylum seekers from accessing Child Benefit and mean-tested payments through the application of the Habitual Residence Condition. In April 2014, a High Court challenge was taken against the direct provision system as it was established on an administrative rather than a statutory basis.37 In particular, the creation of the direct provision allowance without any legislation to underpin it would appear to fall outside the scope of existing social welfare legislation.38 The judgment has not yet been delivered.
FLAC urges the Committee to recommend that the State:
Seek information and advice on the impact of budget decisions and austerity measures on those at risk of poverty from the National Human Rights Structures, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and those dealing with the protection of human rights of vulnerable groups.
End the discriminatory practice of providing a lower rate of payment to young people under 25 years.
Collect and collate data on people with a disability in need of social security support in order to tailor payments to the particular needs of this group and make this data public.
Ensure when recovering overpayments that a person’s income is not reduced below a figure which would have a negative impact on their fundamental right to an adequate standard of living and social security.
Monitor carefully cuts to supports for older people to ensure that older people’s health and well-being are not impacted and that they have an adequate standard of living.
Reverse cuts to the Household Benefits Package to reduce the risk of fuel poverty.
Grant access for direct provision residents to necessary social security payments in order to enjoy an adequate standard of living.
1 European Union/International Monetary Fund (2010) Programme of Financial Support for Ireland: Programme Documents, Dublin: Merrion Street, p.17.
2 Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (2014) Minimum Essential Standard of Living Update 2014, Dublin: VSPJ.
3 Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (2014) Minimum Essential Standard of Living Update 2014, Dublin: VSPJ.
5 Social Justice Ireland (2014) Social Justice Ireland Policy Briefing: Budget Choices, Dublin: Social Justice Ireland, p.1.
6 The Live Register provides a monthly series of the numbers of people (with some exceptions) registering for Jobseekers Allowance/ Jobseekers Benefit or for various other statutory entitlements at local offices of the Department of Social Protection. It does not measure unemployment as it also includes part-time, casual and seasonal workers. See http://bit.ly/LiveRegisterMay14 [accessed 30 June 2014].
7 Eurofound (2014) Social situation of young people in Europe, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p.8.
8 Saint Vincent de Paul (2013) Analysis of budget 2014, Dublin: SVP, p.4. The Public Interest Law Alliance has set up an under-25’s working group to challenge the social welfare cuts made in January 2014. The aim of the group is to reverse the cuts made through collective action by the group.
9 Section 3 of the Social Welfare Act 2012 amended s.341 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005.
10 Comptroller and Auditor General (2013) Report on the Accounts of the Public Services 2012, Dublin: Comptroller and Auditor General, pp.194-204.
11 For further details see FLAC and NCLC: Submission on Social Welfare Bill 2012 and FLAC Pre-Budget 2014 Submission.
12 Bearing Point (2014) Debt Management Review for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform: Final Report, Dublin: Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
13 Department of Social Protection (2014) Annual Report 2013, Dublin: Government of Ireland, p.27.
14 Department of Social Protection (2014) Annual Report 2013, Dublin: Government of Ireland, p.6.
15 Central Statistics Office (2013) Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC): Thematic Report on the Elderly 2004, 2009, 2010 (revised) and 2011, Cork: CSO, p.3.
16 Central Statistics Office (2013) Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC): Thematic Report on the Elderly 2004, 2009, 2010 (revised) and 2011, Cork: CSO, p.6.
17 There are two types of State Pension, one based on social insurance contributions and the other standard pension which is means-tested. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2014), OECD Reviews of Pensions Systems: Ireland, Paris: OECD Publishing.
18 N. Duvvury et al (2012) Older Women Workers’ Access to Pensions: vulnerabilities, perspectives and strategies, Galway: National University of Ireland Galway.
19 A homemaker, for the purposes of the Homemaker’s Scheme (which was introduced from 6 April 1994), is a man or woman who provides full-time care for a child under age 12 or an ill or disabled person aged 12 or over. See Citizen’s Information at: http://bit.ly/HomemakersDisregard [accessed 30 September 2014].
20 C. Ryan, ‘Women bear brunt of pension changes’, Irish Examiner, 17 March 2014.
21 If the claimant in receipt of Jobseekers Benefit is aged between 65 and 66 years then he or she will continue to receive the payment until the age of 66 even if the period of entitlement would usually end at if he or she meets the PRSI requirements
22 Age Action (2014) Submissions to FLAC Shadow Report on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Dublin: Age Action, p.3.
23 Department of Health (2013) The National Positive Ageing Strategy, Dublin: Department of Health, p.54.
24 Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (2014) Minimum Essential Standard of Living Update 2014, Dublin: Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.
25 Central Statistics Office (2014) Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) 2012, Cork: Central Statistics Office, p.20.
26 Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, Dáil Debates: Priority Questions, [11710/13], 5 March 2013.
27 Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, Parliamentary Questions: Written Answers, [11457/13], 5 March 2013.
28 Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (2014) Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland, Dublin: DCENR, p.16.
29 Professor P. Goodman et al (2011) Fuel poverty, older people and cold weather: An all-island analysis, Dublin: Dublin Institute of Technology, p.11.
30 Dr A. O’Farrell and Dr D. De La Harpe, ‘Excess winter mortality and morbidity in the elderly in Ireland: has a change in the fuel allowance the potential to affect it’ [presentation], Dublin: Health Service Executive.
31 Disability Federation of Ireland (2013) Pre-Budget Submission 2014, Dublin: DFI. These payments include Disability Allowance, Blind Pension, Invalidity Pension and Carer’s Allowance.
32 Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, Parliamentary Questions: Written Answers, [26734/14], 24 June 2014.
33 Department of Social Protection, ‘€110.6 million has been provided to pay Respite Care Grants to full time carers this year’, [press release], 5 June 2013.
34 Disability Federation of Ireland (2014) Pre-Budget Submission 2014, Dublin: DFI.
35 Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare (2012) Second Report: Review of Budget 2012 Proposals Regarding Disability Allowance and Domiciliary Care Allowance, Dublin: DSP, p.36.
36 A.M. v Minister for Social Protection  IEHC 524and B. v Minister for Social Protection  2 I.L.R.M. 290
37 C.A and T.A. (a minor) v Minister for Justice and Equality, Minister for Social Protection, the Attorney General and Ireland (Record No. 2013/751/JR).
38 For a more in-depth discussion on the issue see Liam Thornton, ‘The Rights of Others: Asylum Seekers and Direct Provision in Ireland’ DRAFT, available online at http://bit.ly/ThorntonAsylumSeekersandDP [accessed on 30 June 2014].
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