Social Welfare and Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150


Dáil Éireann 30 May 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

Following the economic crash of recent years thousands of people who never previously availed of Social Welfare payments found themselves forced to seek funds from the state to keep their families afloat and while this expenditure is necessary and must be maintained, it is important that every cent spent on social protection measures is given to those who most need it.

Social welfare fraud is taking money out of the pockets of the most needy in our society and lining the pockets of the undeserving. I know that Minister Burton has made huge efforts to stamp out social welfare fraud and has come up with a number of innovative measures to help combat fraud. These measures have resulted in very significant savings to date and thus I support her in her efforts to further eliminate fraud through the introduction of new measures to authenticate people’s identities.

We have all heard stories, many of them urban myths, about people claiming multiple payments in different names. I know that under the current regulations people applying for a PPSN or Public Services Card have to attend a Department of Social Protection Office to have their photograph and signature recorded electronically and a person who refuses to do so can have their payments suspended.

The provisions of this Bill allow the extension of that scheme to all persons currently in receipt of social welfare and should have the effect of decreasing the opportunity for fraud even further.

I also welcome changes in relation to Jobseeker’s Allowance which will allow former recipients of One Parent Family Payment to be exempt from certain conditions for a specified amount of time. It must be recognised that single parents with children in school, for example, are not available to take up courses which would render them unable to be present to collect or care for their children.

Another very welcome and common sense measure in this Bill relates to fire fighters who are currently in receipt of Jobseeker’s Benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance. This Bill will exempt them from certain conditions and allow them greater access to jobseeker’s schemes. The changes in the Bill are in place on the ground in many cases, but having those changes contained in the legislation will provide further security to the state’s firefighters.

With money in very short supply, every opportunity to consolidate services must be examined and I welcome as another common sense measure, the decision to merge the office of the Pension Ombudsman and the Financial Services Ombudsman. I note that the current Pension Ombudsman has agreed to stay on past planned retirement, to oversee this merger process. I believe that such mergers can provide real savings in terms of office and human resources costs and opportunities for further such mergers should be identified in coming months.

I admit that I was somewhat concerned initially about plans to establish a new Pensions Council, fearing that it would morph into another state quango. However, I am glad to learn that this will simply be a council which will advise the Minister on pension matters on request and will not be a corporate body and will not have the power to spend money. I also welcome the fact that the Chairman and members of the Pensions Council will be unpaid. While undoubtedly new structures have to be put in place to oversee governance of pensions systems, every effort must be made to ensure that we do not add to the already overweening levels of bureaucracy in the state and I commend Minister Burton on her innovation in this regard.

The Pensions Board will have the power to wind up a pension scheme where that scheme is underfunded and I believe that this is a necessary and long-overdue power and one that will be called upon in years to come as our aging population places increased pressure on pension funds.

Further changes are necessary in relation to the disbursement of pension scheme assets, but I know that the Minister has to take cognisance of the recent decision in the European Court of Justice in terms of the Waterford Crystal case and a comprehensive response to the findings in that case has yet to be formulated.

Concluding, I believe that many of the measures contained in this Bill are common sense measures, designed to combat fraud and improve oversight of pension schemes, while remaining ever mindful of the need to preserve the state’s scarce resources.