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Column: It's not too late to save the Social Welfare Bill

Tonight’s debate in the Dáil will slash eligibility for the one parent family payment to save a mere €7.6 million – but it’s not too late to stop this, writes Patrick Nulty TD.

Patrick Nulty

AT ABOUT 9pm tonight, the Dáil will discuss the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012.

One particular section of the bill will, if passed, have serious ramifications for some one parent families. Section 4 of the bill will reduce the eligibility for the one-parent family payment to 7 years old for the youngest child in the family. The age is currently 14.

The one-parent family payment is a payment for men and women who are bringing children up without the support of a partner. The overwhelmingly majority of those in receipt of the payment (98 per cent) are women.

As an economic exercise, the proposal simply makes no sense. The new measures on eligibility will commence in 2015. In that year, according to the Departments of Social Protection’s submission to the Comprehensive Review on Public Expenditure, it will save €7.6m when 36,000 working lone parents will lose their reduced one parent family payment.

‘Almost half of lone parents receiving the payment work’

This is a self-defeating proposal. Unemployed lone parents will simply switch to Jobseekers Allowance, with no saving to the state whatsoever.

There is no provision in the plan for the National Employment & Entitlements Service or in the Pathways to Work document for this change. Lone parents need access to decent affordable childcare to fulfil their desire to work. To date there are no plans to improve our childcare infrastructure. In fact, many of our crèches are under threat from cuts to community employment schemes, the backbone of many community crèches.

About half of lone parents on the One Parent Family Payment work. The average length of time spent on the One Parent Family Payment, according to the Department of Social Protection, is 6 years. These facts ought to be put forward in this debate.

But section 4 of the Social Welfare Bill will be a regressive step as regards lone parents and employment. Pushing people off the One Parent Family Payment on to jobseekers allowance with no provision for education or training will lay a poverty trap which will be unavoidable for many.

‘Many in Labour feel the proposed change is deeply unfair’

It was Proinsias De Rossa, our recently retired Labour MEP for Dublin, who introduced the One Parent Family allowance in 1997. I know that many in Labour feel that the proposed change is deeply unfair. This was reflected in a motion passed at the Labour Party conference in Galway, at the weekend, which called on the party to halt cuts to lone parents. A number of Labour TDs this morning attended a press conference organised by the Save Our Seven Year Olds campaign, a coalition including the One Parent Employment Network, Barnardos, and the National Women’s Council.

But, simply defending the status quo is not enough. We need a major social policy shift concerning parenting, childcare and work in Ireland. Childcare costs in Ireland are amongst the highest in Europe. Up to 45% of average income is spent on childcare. It is essential that affordable, out of school care is provided which subsidises all parents to avail of the service.

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This bill will make it harder for lone parents to access the world of work

Investing in decent state and community led childcare will create jobs, drastically reduce costs, and raise standards in the sector. Flexible employment, the provision of training and education, community supports, and the changes in how childcare is provided can make our society more family friendly.

Economically, it makes sense to put in place policies to support people at work. Section 4 of the Social Welfare Bill 2012 will make accessing the world of work significantly more difficult for lone parents.

It is not too late for the Social Welfare Bill 2012 to be altered. Even if it is not, we have time to reverse the move before it actually kicks in in 2015. A huge campaign, with the parents themselves to the forefront, will be required.

Patrick Nulty is a TD for Dublin West. More information about the groups involved in the campaign can be found at OneParent.ie and SparkCampaign.com

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