Thursday, 19 March 2020
An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I want to say a few words on sections 3 to 7, inclusive, the sections relating to social protection. First, I want to congratulate the staff in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the tremendous work they have been doing for the past fortnight under immense pressure. While I welcome the move by the Government to make special provision for people who are in receipt of illness benefit as a result of contracting the disease or isolating on medical advice, nevertheless I am not entirely happy with the approach taken by the Government in this legislation. The legislation does not change anything. It does not effectively change the rules on social welfare. What it does is give the Government power to bring in regulations at some unforeseeable time in the future to change those rules in a way that is not entirely clear. Quite frankly, it is a bit surreal to be having this debate in the absence of those regulations. There is a great deal of confusion out there, as the Minister will appreciate. The approach adopted by the Government does not do much to allay that confusion. I will give a few examples. In section 5(10) the Government gives itself the power to apply minimum contribution conditions for illness benefit. The Minister tells us today that this will effectively mean one paid contribution. It would have been just as easy to say that on the face of the legislation. In section 5(11) the Government gives itself power to vary the rate. We are told the basic rate is going to be increased by 50% to €305 per week. It would be appropriate and better that this should be stated on the face of the legislation. We are also told that the Government intends to waive the requirement of waiting three days for jobseeker's allowance or jobseeker's benefit in the case of people who are laid off because of the crisis. Again it would be quite possible to state this on the face of the legislation and I cannot understand why it is not being done. The Government said in its announcement that it was going to raise the basic rate for people who are in receipt of illness benefit as a result of contracting this disease from €203 at present to €305 per week. As the Minister will be aware, people in receipt of illness benefit in many cases have dependents and get a proportionate increase for an adult dependent and a fixed amount for child dependents. Is it the Government's intention just to increase the basic rate or will there be proportionate increases for dependents?
I think in the case of people who self-isolate that the intention is that they will be paid the increased benefit for a period of six weeks but that is not clear in the legislation. I would like to query that. A number of other issues have been brought to my attention. For example, for somebody who is laid off as a result of this crisis, and there are 140,000 people in that category as we speak, many employers want to top up their social welfare payment. The Government has decided that they can pay the full payment and claim back €203 per week. Many small employers are not in a position to do that. Is it possible for an employer to top up the amount of social welfare by €50 or €100 a week or whatever they can afford? Would that have future consequences, particularly for people in receipt of jobseeker's benefit?
What is the position of people who are already in receipt of a social welfare payment such as family income supplement, widow's pension, or the working family payment? Is the Minister aware that many healthcare workers, and God knows we need every one of them we can get our hands on, have approached me and said they would have to stay at home to mind their kids while the creches are closed? They have to pay a retention fee to the creche and they cannot afford the cost of bringing in a childminder. Has the Government some proposals on that?
I also want to know the situation as regards people who contract the virus while they are abroad. What arrangements are going to be made to pay them?
With regard to old age pensioners, there is a suggestion that pensioners should be paid possibly three or four times the amount of their pension in a lump sum so they would not have to visit the post office or that they would have a nominated deputy, which many people are unhappy with, visit the post office. In addition, the sum mentioned for the social welfare changes is €2.5 billion. Obviously, that figure came from somewhere so what numbers does the Government anticipate will contract the disease or have to self-isolate to justify that payment? In other words, to how many people is that equivalent?
I have many other questions. On the non-social welfare aspect, I ask the Minister to do something about the management companies of apartment blocks that are making no effort whatsoever to help their tenants keep the shared areas of the apartments clean. I also ask him to consider the position of charitable and community organisations whose fund-raising activities will be wiped out. Something should be done for them also. I will defer to my colleague and raise my many other questions on Committee Stage.