32. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the safeguards in place to ensure lone parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment are not required to seek maintenance from those who have abused them; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Question 50710/17 asked on 29 Nov 2017)

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I raise this question because, as the Minister will be aware, one of the criteria for receiving a lone parent allowance is that the lone parent can receive maintenance from his or her former partner. My understanding is that it is the policy of the Department that people will not be required to pursue an ex-partner who has been violent or abusive. Unfortunately, while this may be the general policy, the Department does not appear to have protocols or procedures in place to ensure this occurs. I have dealt with cases of people being told in fairly blunt terms to seek maintenance against a violent or abusive former partner or else lose the lone parent allowance. What is the up-to-date position in this regard?

Deputy Regina Doherty: I hope the Deputies do not mind discussing the three questions together.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Members have no choice in the matter. It is the Minister’s prerogative to make decisions on grouping questions. Every Deputy will receive the full allocated time.

Deputy Regina Doherty: I propose to take Questions Nos. 32 to 34, inclusive, together.

I welcome some of the people present in the Visitors Gallery. It is nice to see them again.

I will provide a little background before informing the House of developments in the past week. The Family Law Acts, which are under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, place a legal obligation on parents to maintain and mind their children. This is a civil law matter. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply to the mother and father. Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either through family mediation, the Legal Aid Board or the courts, all of which are under the aegis of the Department of Justice and Equality.

It is a condition of the one-parent family payment and jobseeker’s transitional payment schemes that lone parents must make efforts to seek maintenance from the other parent, for example, evidence of a private maintenance arrangement or court proceedings, a court summons or a mediation process. The condition to make efforts to seek maintenance is regarded as having been satisfied once appropriate efforts are made, even if they do not result in a maintenance payment being made.

My Department takes the issue of domestic violence very seriously. We are in the middle of Women’s Aid’s “16 Days” campaign which I fully support every year. I also recognise that the maintenance recovery unit does a worthwhile job in assisting people where its assistance is required. The guidelines in place in my Department with regard to seeking maintenance are clear in respect of circumstances involving domestic abuse or violence. Claims should be processed without delay to the individual who presents and without the lone parent who has the child ever having to contact the former partner.

Historically, for reasons of data protection, when a person presented to a local social welfare office indicating that he or she was in a difficult or vulnerable position, a flag was not placed on his or her electronic record because the Department did not want him or her to be known for that particular flag. In the past week, a case was brought to my attention by a very brave young woman. Last Friday, I met the young woman in question and her beautiful little boy and we had a long conversation about what had happened to her in order that I could learn about what broke down in the delivery of the Department’s services. We have learned a couple of things, the first of which is that there is a disconnect between local offices and the maintenance recovery section caused by the lack of a flag on the electronic record. My information technology staff and I have a window at the beginning of December to change the position. Once this has been done, it will be possible to tick a box indicating that a letter should not be sent out. No reason or explanation will be given for flagging the person’s record. However, when the maintenance recovery section receives the file the ticked box will indicate that a letter will not be required.

I also had the privilege of meeting representatives of Women’s Aid in the Department yesterday. I rang the organisation last week requesting a meeting and we had the launch of the “16 Days” campaign on Friday. We gave Women’s Aid copies of all the letters and correspondence the Department sends to lone parents, with a view to having these documents adapted and changed through the lens of someone who is in a vulnerable position and to ensure that no one, even through human error, will receive a letter that causes pain or distress, such as occurred last week. Women’s Aid agreed to come back to me within a week with suggestions on the wording of the correspondence. We also agreed that Women’s Aid will develop an accredited training course for the Department to be delivered to all front-line staff who may deal with a person who is in a vulnerable or precarious position. The training course will be delivered by Women’s Aid in conjunction with the Department’s staff development and training unit. We agreed at our meeting yesterday to set this process in train and it will be completed in the coming weeks.

On the back of yesterday’s meeting, the Department also established a working group to recommence work it was doing on maintenance recovery last year. This work was interrupted by the delivery of the Indecon report on the one-parent family payment because the same group of officials was doing the work in both areas. We are now back where we were seven months ago in terms of reflecting on the collection of maintenance payments, the reasons for current practice in this area and how best to move forward with the process, where necessary. I will seek suggestions on this issue in future. Some Deputies and Senators have already contacted me with a view to making an input in the process. I will be grateful to receive helpful submissions on the issue.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I welcome the Minister’s initiative in this regard and wish it every success. She is correct that there is a disconnect within the Department, centrally and locally. I have come across cases where barring or protection orders had been submitted, yet a local social welfare officer insisted on the person in question pursuing a maintenance claim.

On the liable relative provisions, traditionally it has been possible for a person in receipt of one-parent’s payment, in conjunction with the Department, to get the recovery maintenance unit involved in collecting money from a former partner. This no longer occurs when the youngest child reaches his or her seventh birthday and the lone parent transfers to the jobseeker’s transition payment. Why are the services of the maintenance recovery unit not available to people who have been in receipt of one-parent’s allowance who transition to the jobseeker’s transition payment because the youngest child reaches the age of seven?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I invite the Minister to respond.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: In what way are we doing this?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: In whatever way the Deputies wish. We can take the first question from each Deputy and the Minister can then answer or we can take all of the supplementary questions together.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: I thought all three of us would ask our questions and then allow the Minister to respond.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: Yes; that is fine with me.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: I will introduce my question and then Deputy Catherine Connolly can introduce hers.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: This issue arose and was well publicised because when “Kate” - not her real name - applied for the one-parent family payment, she was told to make reasonable efforts to contact her former partner. When she produced a safety order, the staff member said such orders were quite easy to obtain and intimated that some people got them to avoid having maintenance payments factored in. That is completely and utterly unacceptable. This issue has been highlighted and the Minister has met the person involved, as well as a number of organisations. However, we need a need a clear protocol to be issued in order that a victim simply stating he or she is a victim will be enough. I press the Minister to state this is the instruction that is being issued to all local offices because many victims do not obtain safety orders. It is estimated that 79% of victims do not obtain them. We know that many victims experience financial, emotional and other forms of abuse and having to make any contact with an abusive partner can get them into so much difficulty. We should not be re-victimising them in this way. We should also recognise that when women become pregnant, it can, unfortunately, be a red flag for further abuse. Often fathers seek to control women. A study carried out in the Rotunda Hospital showed that one in eight women attending had experienced some form of abuse during pregnancy. Much of this emanates from the Government’s welfare cheats campaign. I know that the Minister is now taking action to resolve the issue, but a philosophy is spreading within the Department that staff check, question and do everything that it is possible to do.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: I welcome the progress the Minister is making. However, I deplore the fact that it took a courageous mother, a report in The Irish Times, coverage in various media, particularly an interview with the Minister on the Seán O’Rourke radio programme, and questions in the Dáil to bring about change. That is most unfortunate, given the appalling statistics. Have officials in the Department read the report of the Joint Committee on Social Protection that was produced in June? It mentions specific problems experienced by lone parents and other mothers in the context of domestic violence. It also references the need for a national maintenance agency. That is one element of my question, namely, what is the situation with regard to the establishment of such an agency? The second part of my question relates to training. The Minister has confirmed that training will be provided for staff. I hope such training will be ongoing and would like more details on it. I welcome the people in the Visitors Gallery whom I do not want to identify. I praise their courage. We have raised this issue repeatedly in the context of the SAVI report and so on. If we extrapolate from the 2016 figures, we find that 4,831 requests for refuge were refused because there was no space available. That represents approximately 14 unmet requests every single day, yet we have the Department writing letters of this nature. Will the Minister confirm that such letters will never be written and sent ever again? As regards the grey area, is the Minister telling us that only those who produce orders will receive payments? Will she clarify the matter? In summary, I have asked about the establishment of a national maintenance agency, the nature of the ongoing training provided and what must be produced by claimants.

Deputy Regina Doherty: In response to Deputy Willie O’Dea’s question, I do not know why the maintenance recovery division does not operate after a child reaches the age of seven years, but I will find out. The Deputy is aware that under section 12 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, we have the ability, through the maintenance recovery division, to go after somebody for maintenance. To be honest, I question why we even do that. The whole idea in having a Department of Social Protection is to protect people who are vulnerable. There may be a requirement to establish a national maintenance agency, but, to be honest, I do not see where it would fall into the space of my Department. The issue will form part of the exploratory work we will do in the coming weeks.

In response to Deputy Ruth Coppinger, I have two comments to make, one of which will go some way towards also answering Deputy Catherine Connolly’s question. There are clear protocols in place for any woman - in the main, we are talking about women, although, obviously, there are some exceptions - who comes to our office looking to receive the one-parent family payment and who is in a vulnerable position. My job is to lead a Department that believes women, not one that makes a woman to prove something or get a piece of paper but one that listens to her story and believes her. If there is any woman who is finding it difficult, it may be because front-line staff have not received the correct training, but that issue is being resolved. I assure Deputy Catherine Connolly that it will not be me who will devise the training course but Women’s Aid which has specific knowledge and experience. Its trainers, with their specific knowledge, training and experience, will train our staff.

To answer the Deputy’s question about the letter, because of the way the law stands, parents have a responsibility to their children. The State does not step in to take over that responsibility where parents have the means and ability to be responsible for their children. Therefore, letters will be sent. However, I suggest such letters be sent to the neglectful parent rather than the parent who is raising the children. Again, that issue will form part of the discussions we will have in the coming weeks.

There are clear protocols in place. We do believe women and I will not tolerate a situation where we do not. No woman who expresses the view that she is in a vulnerable position will receive a letter. However, there are other letters that are sent by the maintenance recovery division and we need to have a wider conversation about whether a national agency is required to provide for maintenance recovery and, more importantly, whether my Department should have any hand, act or part in that process. That is the course of the conversation that should have in the coming weeks. On the actions I have taken, the letters will be modified. I hope the language used in them will never cause the distress caused in the last week. The IT systems will change. When a person presents at a local office to relate his or her experience, without a shadow of a doubt, he or she will be believed, and the IT systems will reflect this in order that no person in a vulnerable position will receive one of the Department’s letters. We will also pursue the provision of training for all of our staff who, in the main, provide an empathetic and human response and try to provide people with assistance during periods of their lives in which they cannot afford to mind themselves.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: Do I take it from the Minister’s reply that if people claim that theirs is a violent or abusive relationship, their word will be taken and that they will not have to produce any documentation, Garda reports and so on? May I take it that will be the position?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Absolutely.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: As regards liable relatives in the context of receipt of the jobseeker’s transition payment, it does not apply to lone parents in receipt of the payment because the legislation was never changed when the age of the youngest child to qualify for the lone-parent family payment was reduced to seven years. Does the Minister have plans to amend the legislation to provide for this? It makes no sense that the maintenance recovery division can operate up to a child’s seventh birthday and that once the child reaches the age of seven years, the parent is more or less on his or her own. At the same time, the ex-partner will have received a letter from the Department stating he or she is no longer liable to pay maintenance. By any standard, that is undesirable. I argue having a national maintenance agency is very relevant in the context of the Department of Social Protection. We are talking about a mechanism to compel people to discharge their responsibilities, which responsibilities have resulted in the Department paying out money. We are asking the people in question to make a contribution. If there is an effective national agency recovering money from those people, the Department will have more money to redirect to other areas, such as that relating to disabilities.

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: I would also like to say “Fair play” to the woman who challenged this and brought it to light. Obviously, not everyone would be in a position to do that. I also acknowledge SPARK, which provided assistance. How many other women have received these letters or verbal messages from local Department offices?

The most dangerous time for any victim of abuse is when she leaves a relationship, yet society questions why women stay in abusive relationships. Ending a relationship and severing contact are extremely dangerous steps for women who are victims of domestic violence to take. We need an education campaign on this matter across society. It should not only be addressed in the Department. I acknowledge that this is not strictly under the remit of the Minister’s Department but women will come into contact with the Department. Some 80% of people who are abused are abused by partners or ex-partners according to Women’s Aid. At the extreme end, 55% of murders of women are by partners or ex-partners. One in three women will experience psychological abuse in her lifetime. We are seeing an increase in stalking by means of social media. There are many ways in which an abuser may maintain control over a victim of domestic violence. Unless we fund refuges, it will be extremely difficult for women to leave abusive situations. Rape crisis centres have had their funding cut by 30%.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: I take some reassurance from the fact that the Minister has a clear protocol. Unfortunately, there is not a clear practice and that is why we are here. I would be more reassured if the Minister told me there is now a clear practice, that she has given direction in this regard and that letters of the kind in question will never be sent out again. The letter we referred to, brought to our attention and the attention of SPARK by the courageous woman involved, was not an aberration; it was a reflection of the practice in the Minister’s Department in respect of people, mostly women, in receipt of the lone parent’s allowance and also suffering as a result of domestic violence. The extent of domestic violence is absolutely extraordinary. Some 12,500 people per year are affected. The Safe Ireland document is worth reading. Deputy Coppinger and I have mentioned this, as have other female Deputies. Perhaps when the male Deputies come on board, we will have some change in the Dáil.

I did not doubt the training being provided by Women’s Aid or Safe Ireland. I asked the Minister about the types of procedures that are in place for ongoing training. An understanding of domestic violence is extraordinarily complex to get across. It seems simple but it is a matter of bringing it home to staff. On top of that, 79% of those affected simply do not report domestic violence.

Let me return to the question by my colleague from Fianna Fáil. Could the Minister please confirm, given the extraordinary extent of domestic violence, that one does not need a protection order, barring order or safety order in one’s hand to receive the payment? Could the Minister confirm that there is training ongoing?

Deputy Regina Doherty: I will work backwards because I am not sure whether Deputy Connolly heard me the first time. I will be very clear and make my remark again.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: I heard but I might not have understood.

Deputy Regina Doherty: I will be very clear. If a woman - we are talking about women in the main - or a man who is suffering at the hands of an abusive partner presents at a local office and explains his or her story, that is the end of the road. There is no need for a piece of paper or a barring order. I must state very clearly, as I did a few minutes ago, that we believe women. The inference is otherwise, that somebody might make up a story of domestic violence. That is so distasteful it is not funny. Very clearly, we believe women. If a woman or a man arrives at a local office anywhere in the country and tells the staff about a vulnerable situation, that will be the end of his or her story.

I have already explained to the Deputy that I cannot guarantee her that people will not get letters because it is a function of the maintenance recovery department.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: I was referring to the nature of the letters.

Deputy Regina Doherty: It is because of the nature of the letters that I enlisted Women’s Aid. When I read the letter, it actually seemed relatively benign. I have never been in a vulnerable position, thankfully, and that is why I called Ursula Regan from Women’s Aid and asked her to come in with Margaret Martin to go through the letters and look at them from their perspective as people who deal with vulnerable women and men on a daily basis. They will write the letters; I am not going to write them. This will form part of what will be provided as part of a protocol in our office.

As I have told the Deputy, we are going to change the IT system so that, irrespective of the wording of the letters, anybody vulnerable who has ever presented with a case will never get a letter. Right now, however, there is a requirement to receive a one-parent family payment to pursue the parent who is not contributing to the maintenance of his or her child. I actually had to question why we are using the person who is maintaining the child as the conduit to chase the person who is not. I say this for all the reasons Deputy Coppinger raised, not least of which is that the undesirable arrangement referred to puts women back in the position of being under the control and power of men. Although most men are not abusive, why should a woman be under the control or power of a man because she has chosen to leave him and rear her children on her own? I have so many questions on the maintenance recovery section of my Department but, as I said, we will pursue in the coming weeks the best way to go forward with regard to maintenance recovery.

Deputy O’Dea is correct that it is absolutely ludicrous that we should be sending a letter to a man to say that just because Mary is seven and a half now, he has no more responsibility for her. That does not reflect the way I was reared, nor the way most people were reared. If one has a child, one has a responsibility to that child until he or she is 18 and, as most parents will tell one, long after that. That should be true for every single person who has a child, irrespective of whether he or she is living in the house with the child. The obligation we have towards our children stands for many years after the age of seven.

To be honest with the Deputy, I was made aware of the letter only yesterday. The situation is ludicrous and that is why we need to reflect on the role our Department should play, if any, in maintenance recovery in respect of welfare payments to children by the parents who are no longer in their lives on a daily basis.