The number of elderly people in Ireland claiming State pensions has risen by two-thirds in 20 years, according to the Department of Social Protection.
Illness, disability and carers’ payments have also increased significantly, while our relatively-high birthrate compared to other European countries had resulted in a 40 per cent increase in children’s payments.
The department published its annual report this week, with a foreword from former minister for social protection and now Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
The report also contains an introduction from secretary general Niamh O’Donoghue, who is retiring and who will be replaced this week by John McKeon.
In the foreword, Mr Varadkar says a top priority for the Government in the next few years is “to remain prudent in its approach to public spending and ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, providing for modest and sustainable increases in incomes and improving public services and infrastructure”.
Publishing the report, Minister for Employment and Social Protection Regina Doherty acknowledged the role of her predecessor Mr Varadkar, "in providing enhanced supports to jobseekers seeking to get back to work during his tenure".
“Through the wide range of services it provides, the Department of Social Protection impacts on the lives of almost every citizen in the State in the course of their life – from child benefit to the State pension and every possible life stage in between – maternity, paternity, illness, unemployment and redundancy,” Ms Doherty said.
“The scale of the department’s work is considerable. Each week almost 1.4 million social welfare payments are made and, when qualified adults and children are included, around 2.1 million people benefit from these payments. In addition, some 623,000 families receive monthly child benefit payments in respect of almost 1.2 million children.”
The department had a budget of some €19.8 billion last year, operates over 70 separate schemes and has a staff of almost 6,500.
According to the report, the department recovered over €82 million in monies overpaid to claimants last year. It recovered about €10.6 million in debts owed by employers who had made people redundant.
But it said up to 90 per cent of employer debt was unlikely to be recoverable as the vast majority of redundancy and insolvency payments were made because employers had become insolvent.
In 2016, an estimated €12.4 million was written off in employer debt.
Ms Doherty said while recent improvements in the performance of the economy had reduced the numbers in receipt of unemployment related income supports, wider demographic trends in Irish society meant the demands on the department’s services continued to grow.
She said the introduction of paternity leave was among the department’s achievements in 2016. Some 7,000 claims for the benefit were submitted between September 1st and the end of the year, and over 5,500 were awarded.
The department issued over 600,000 public services cards in 2016, bringing to 2.35 million the number issued by the end of 2016. The figure is now over 2.5 million.