My speech in Dáil Éireann on Lone Parents Cut

Joan Burton

“I am amazed that lone parents are not doing cartwheels of delight, given the golden age which the Minister has announced will be ushered in for them from next Monday on. I am positively flabbergasted at the Government’s mulish, dogged and persistent refusal to face reality here. The reality is that at least 10,000 families, who are already living in or near poverty, will be substantially worse off as a result of those changes.

The Government is well aware of this. It is also aware that if it really intends to get better economic or social benefits for the expenditure on the lone parent’s allowance, the best thing would be to go back to the drawing board. The Government’s defence of its position is becoming risible. When I questioned the Minister on this matter last week – and her sidekick, the Minister of State, mentioned it in his speech – she told me that lone parents are now two and half times less likely to be in consistent poverty than the population as a whole, whereas four or five years ago they were four times more likely to be. They should therefore be over the moon.

Yesterday, I was speaking to a lone parent in my constituency. She has one child and does not qualify for the family income dividend because she started work before the appropriate date. She is working 20 hours per week for €10 per hour, which is just above the minimum wage. She will lose €80.50 per week from next Monday. What does the Minister think she would say to me if I told her she should not worry about it but should be delighted because she is only two and a half times less likely to be living in consistent poverty as opposed to the population as a whole, when it was four and a half times a couple of years ago? It is obviously wrong and voting against this motion tomorrow night must go against the instinct of every single member of the Labour Party who is or was genuinely supportive of the philosophy espoused by the Labour Party.

In order to confuse her backbenchers who might have some stirrings of conscience about this the Minister has created so many illusions that Paul Daniels would be green with envy. The first illusion is that the family income dividend will compensate lone parents for the changes being introduced on Thursday. Wrong. The figures produced by SPARK, which have not been contradicted by the Department and which I have checked out independently, indicate that a lone parent with one child and working 20 hours per week will, even if he or she qualifies for the family income dividend, lose €52 per week this year. Next year that will go up to €67 per week and the following year it will go up to €80.50 per week because the family income dividend is only temporary. While one gets 100% for the first year one only gets 50% for the second year and it does not, in any event, compensate people for their losses. A lone parent with one child and working 20 hours per week, who does not qualify for the family income dividend because they were in work before the appropriate date, will immediately lose €80.50 per week. It is illusory to think the family income dividend will compensate lone parents for the changes now being introduced.

The second myth we are being asked to swallow is that the Minister has a transition period of seven years and people will be on something called “transitional jobseeker’s allowance” meaning all the activation measures will be open to them and lone parents will suddenly be able to avail of all these activation measures. However, this overlooks the simple fact that these activation measures could be extended to lone parents as things stand and somebody on lone parent’s allowance, working or not working, could have these activation measures extended to them now – they do not have to be put on jobseeker’s transition and have their take-home pay reduced.

The greatest canard of all, on which the Minister relied heavily in her speech, is that some lone parents who are working fewer than 19 hours per week can miraculously qualify for FIS by getting more hours and thereby be better off. That presupposes that a lone parent who is working on a part-time basis is in a position to march into their employer and say they will work 12 hours a week. They can just demand that the employer immediately gives them another seven hours so that they will work 19 hours per week and thereby qualify for FIS. This is not employee led and even if there was a combination of circumstances in which the employer had more hours to give and was willing to give them to the person in question and this brought them up to the levels of FIS, they may still not be able to do any extra hours because the Minister promised us that this change would not come in until we had a Scandinavian-style child care system, which is conspicuous by its absence. Because of the lack of affordable and available child care lone parents might not be able to avail of extra hours even if they were made available to them, and there is no guarantee of that.

A family in County Mayo wrote to the Taoiseach and attended his constituency clinic twice, receiving two acknowledgements of their visits. The lady of the family, a lone parent working 20 hours per week at €10 per hour, had the opportunity to increase her number of hours worked by five hours per week. Does the Minister know how much she is coming out with as a result of the combination of FIS and these changes the Minister is introducing? It is €15 per week for five extra hours. That is €3 per hour, one third of the minimum wage.

Another myth we are asked to swallow is that this is all designed to create an incentive to work but this must be the first time in the history of the universe that an incentive to work was created by giving people less for what they do rather than more. We have a system in place, which we introduced, called “family income supplement”. The family income supplement was brought in because in many cases people, particularly those with large families, found that it did not pay them to take up low-pay employment because the gap between what they would be coming home with and what they would get from the social welfare system was too small. Family income supplement was designed to make them better off for working. It was an incentive because it gave them more for the actual work they were doing. The proposal here is to give people less for the actual work they are doing yet we are calling it an “incentive”. We are asked to believe that two policies that are the polar opposite of each other and designed with the same objective in mind will achieve the same result depending on which category of social welfare recipient a person is in. The thing is absolutely bonkers.

We make a ritual appeal on these occasions to Labour Party backbenchers to march into the lobbies with us and bring down the Government. I would love to see the Labour Party Deputies supporting this motion and getting the Minister to change her mind but I do not believe that is going to happen, unfortunately. I urge Labour Party backbenchers, however, to stand back and have a careful look at this. Look at what it is doing to at least 10,000 families now, and probably more in the future. To adapt a slogan, could they not get together and “talk to Joan” to persuade her that this policy is quite plainly wrong? It is yet another attack on the most vulnerable section of society. We know that 8% of the people in this country are living in consistent poverty and the figure rises to 24% amongst lone parents. The rate of child poverty in this country, at one in five, is double the OECD average and 135,000 have fallen into poverty since this Government took office.

This will drive thousands more into poverty so the Minister should not be so strong-headed on this. I can see the headlines if the Minister agrees to withdraw this pernicious proposal. Some people will accuse her of a U-turn but I will not be among them. I will personally be delighted and she should bear in mind what George Bernard Shaw said to the effect that admitting a mistake is often a healthy thing as it only means one is wiser today than yesterday. If members of Deputy Joan Burton’s party want really to deserve to be regarded as members of the Labour Party they should talk to the Minister, rather than coming into the House tomorrow night and shamefully voting to punish further one of the most vulnerable sections of this community.”

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