36. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on a recent ESRI report (details supplied) and in particular the high rate of deprivation being experienced by lone-parent households and persons with a disability; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Question 8465/18 asked on 20 Feb 2018)

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I raise this question in view of a recent ESRI study of 11 European countries which found a significant gap in the rate of persistent deprivation experienced by lone parents and adults with a disability, as opposed to the rate suffered by other adults. The gap in regard to lone parents is 26% in Ireland, which is the worst of the 11 countries and compares with an average of 5% to 20% elsewhere. The gap in regard to adults with disability is 14% here compared to 5% to 11% elsewhere.

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection (Deputy Regina Doherty): I propose to take Questions Nos. 36 and 39 together.

The research report, Poverty Dynamics of Social Risk Groups in the EU, produced by the ESRI and funded by my Department, analyses the significance of different systems of welfare regimes and their effectiveness in protecting vulnerable groups in 11 EU countries, including Ireland, over the ten-year period from 2004 to 2014. It showed that, across the 11 countries, lone parents and their families and working-age adults with a disability and their families are more at risk of material deprivation and income poverty than other groups.

The most recent data from the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions, SILC, for 2016 show that the consistent poverty rate for lone-parent households is 24.6%, slightly down from 26.2% in 2015. There was also a fall in the basic deprivation rate for lone-parent households to 50.1% in 2016, down from 57.9% in 2015. The figures for working age people with a disability are more mixed. The basic deprivation rate fell to 46.7% in 2016, from 53.2% in 2015. The consistent poverty rate, however, increased from 22.4% in 2015 to 26.3%, which is obviously disappointing. Given the economic recovery has not only continued but, thankfully, accelerated since 2014, with unemployment down from 11.3% in 2014 to 6.2% at present, I expect and hope the SILC data for 2017 will show further reductions in poverty for all sectors of society.

It is undeniable that lone-parent households and those of working people with a disability continue to experience deprivation and consistent poverty rates which are higher than those of the general population and I categorically state that we need to sustain our efforts to support those most in need. My Department, as well as providing income supports to people with disabilities, offers a range of employment support programmes, including the wage subsidy scheme and the EmployAbility service, as well as the partial capacity benefit scheme. The Intreo service is also available to provide employment support services for people with disabilities who wish to engage with the service on a voluntary basis. This year expenditure on these programmes will amount to some €50 million. Last September the Ability programme, supported by the European Social Fund, was launched. This is a new pre-activation programme which recognises the critical importance of engaging with young people with disabilities at a time when their disability threatens to keep them out of the workforce.

It is accepted that the best way to tackle poverty among lone parents is through employment. The recently published Indecon report echoed this view and found that the changes made to the one-parent family payment scheme over the last number of years increased employment and reduced welfare dependency. It also found that the changes increased the probability of employment and higher employment income for lone parents. The report concluded that assisting lone parents to enhance their skills also needs to be seen as a key objective as low paid employment will not on its own ensure a reduction in the risk of poverty. That is why we have a mantra within the Department that when we assist and encourage people through activation, we help them find a job, find a better job and find a career and the support systems do not just stop when they get their first job.

My Department’s social impact assessments of the budgets introduced since 2015 reflect the Government’s continued commitment to introducing improvements for lone parents in particular. These assessments show a cumulative increase of €36.75 in the average weekly household income of employed lone parents and €33.60 for unemployed lone parents. This will be further improved when the budget 2018 measures, that is, increases in the income disregard, the primary rate and the qualified child rate, come into effect next month. The effect of these measures will see a lone parent on the one-parent family payment or jobseeker’s transitional payment who is working 15 hours a week on the national minimum wage being better off by nearly €1,000 per year.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I will come back to the issue of lone parents. The Minister mentioned various measures which are in place for adults with a disability. Those measures have been in place for some time and they were certainly in place in 2015, when consistent poverty among adults with a disability rose from 14% to 22%. As the Minister indicated in her reply, it has increased again in 2015 and 2016 to 26% or 27%. Obviously, the measures in place are not working and the gap is growing. I scrutinised the budget speech and there was no reference at all to disability and the poverty gap. Has the Government specific proposals and, while a number of Departments are involved, is the Minister considering any specific initiatives within her own Department to help stop this gap from widening further?

Deputy Regina Doherty: While I am loath to contradict the Deputy, I have no choice on this occasion. Of the two programmes I am specifically referring to, one was only launched in 2017 and the pilot programme for the second was only completed a number of weeks ago, having run for 12 months during 2017. Neither of those programmes are reflected in the data we have shown. One is the Ability programme, which is leveraging European funding with regard to providing timely supports for people with disabilities, particularly young people, at a time when they are most removed from the labour market. At the moment there is an open competition for regional and local NGOs and agencies to work with us and we have had a very high uptake on that. I look forward to rolling out the Ability programme this year.

With regard to the second programme, which the Deputy might not be aware of, only last week I launched a report on this with the Mental Health Commission. This follows a pilot project between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the HSE, Mental Health Reform and an organisation called Genio, along with the EmployAbility services around Ireland. We introduced recruitment-employment representatives into mental health teams in four different regions. Where there are people who have difficulties, particularly on the mental health spectrum, that are barriers to accessing the marketplace, we engaged locally with the HSE mental health teams as well as the EmployAbility services and the representatives to whom I refer in order to assist such individuals obtain employment. We had an exceptional response and 33% of the applicants were able to get work. I hope that the pilot comprehensive employment strategies we have in respect of people with disabilities will be extended to other regions this year and that the Ability programme will take off.

Deputy John Brady: In 2015, 132,000 people with disabilities across the State were living in consistent poverty. The ESRI report shows clearly that in the context of 11 of our European counterparts, the gap was far greater in Ireland, approximately 10%, than elsewhere. It is clear that not enough is being done. The schemes that have been in place are not working.

The Minister referred to the new Ability programme. It is welcome. The closing date for applications has only just passed and the Minister might give us some further information on how it is working. In reality, only €10 million is being allocated to that scheme over three years. It is anticipated that only 1,000 young people will disabilities will benefit from it. That will not tackle the serious problem we have here where one in three people with disabilities are unemployed and only 17% of people with disabilities are actually employed. There are serious problems. The Ability programme is good but, at €10 million over three years, it is tokenistic and will not cut it. What is the Minister doing to address the serious concerns that arise on foot of the ESRI report?

Deputy Regina Doherty: The Deputy is incorrect. The data in the report refers to the period 2004 to 2014. The Deputy cannot say that my programmes are not working when they bear no relation to the data referred to in the ESRI report. Let us be clear about that.

I thank the Deputy for his tokenistic compliment. The Ability programme is a pilot project. I am not sure how Sinn Féin does things but we do not spend taxpayers’ money rolling out something nationally until we know that it works. That is why the EmployAbility services, with Genio, the HSE and Mental Health Reform, will, budgets permitting, will roll the programme out this year. On foot of the fact that we took a punt in respect of four different areas and ensured that it was resourced and well-funded, the pilot project has been successful. We did that before using taxpayers’ money to roll the programme out nationwide.

Deputy John Brady: There are many good schemes in operation including WALK PEER, which I mentioned to the Minister’s predecessor several times. Year after year, the organisation that runs the scheme has to fight to retain its funding. Thankfully, its funding is in place for this year. WALK PEER is a programme that works. The Minister should replicate it.

I referred to figures from 2015 which show that 132,000 people with disabilities in this State live in consistent poverty. The Minister will excuse me for saying that the scheme of which she spoke is tokenistic but it targets only 1,000 people with disabilities over a three-year period. For the others living with disabilities who are willing, ready and able to get back into the workforce, it is tokenistic. They need assistance from the State, not further means to disable them. That is what this seems to be. I welcome the Ability programme but it needs to be rolled out. There is a need for more funding and to target it better in order to ensure that people with disabilities can get back into the workforce if they wish.

Deputy Regina Doherty: To correct the record, the 132,000 people who are registered as having disabilities this year do not live in consistent poverty. According to the ESRI report, the poverty rate increased from 22.4% to 26.3% but, thankfully, it is far from 100%. In order to assist people with disabilities, the Department manages a range of income supports. The two to which I referred earlier are pilot projects but others are well established, including the wage subsidy scheme, the EmployAbility services, the reasonable accommodation fund, the partial capacity benefit stream and the Intreo services that are available to anybody who has either a physical or an intellectual disability and who wants to work. We are here to assist.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I call Deputy O’Dea for a final supplementary question.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: When I referred to the certain measures in place to try to close the gap, I meant those that are in place. I acknowledge the two new pilot schemes but they are not, in my view, nearly radical enough to change the trend. It rose from 15% up to 22% in 2015. In 2016, there was another increase to 26% or 27% at a time when the economy was growing rapidly.

The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but she was recently quoted as having said that her ambition is to unwind the cuts inflicted on lone parents. Will she elaborate on this? Is she saying that she will reverse the changes made in 2012?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Yes, I would like to do that. My intentions and what I can do depend on the budgets allocated to me for next year. It is something that I think would be worthwhile. It was one of the recommendations made in the Joint Committee on Social Protection’s report on lone parents. It is only fair that we give back the full disregard and I will try to increase the qualified child increases as much as I can. There is a cost associated with a child over 12 years as opposed to a lesser cost for those under 12. That is my ambition. I will fight for money from the Department of Finance this year but it will depend on all the money allocated and the various other considerations we must meet, including all the working family payments and dealing with the pensions anomaly. The latter will cost in excess of €80 million this year and every year hereafter. There are also the other normal budgetary constraints and fuel poverty. Lone parent payments are very much at the top of my list of priorities in light of the fact that the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection was unanimous in its assertion that this should be the case.