Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Finance Bill 2021: From the Seanad
We support these schemes for the obvious reasons. The pandemic continues to impact particular sectors of the economy. We should remind ourselves that these are the ones that have been hit the hardest and most consistently right from the beginning through to now. Everybody has been affected by the pandemic in one shape or form. To be honest, the past two years have been pretty grim. For some people, the impact suffered has been psychological, social, to do with their children, etc. For other people, however, the experience of the pandemic has brought a repeated financial and economic hit in addition to those broader health, psychological and social impacts. It is absolutely right, therefore, that we should continue the supports, such as the EWSS, to maintain the relationship between employees and their employers and to ensure that these support schemes can cover some of their ongoing costs.
It is not enough to do that, however, given that the Minister is tabling last-ditch amendments, and he is correct to do so, in respect of the businesses that benefit from these schemes. In that context, why is it that the people who have been short-changed throughout this entire pandemic are, yet again, the ones primarily affected in this regard? I have had repeated engagements with the Minister, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, concerning, primarily, the plight of the self-employed and what I think are called ancillary workers in the context of the EWSS. These are people who are considered ancillary but who are impacted by the beneficiaries of the EWSS. They are excluded. Critically, tens of thousands of self-employed people are not getting the support they need, even though they have had to fight the hardest and have benefited the least from the supports that have been available. Why are last-ditch efforts not being made to ensure that they also have supports going into Christmas?
Maybe this perspective has not got through to the Government, or perhaps it is deliberate. I made this appeal to the Minister for Public and Expenditure and Reform last night. I am going to keep doing it until the last day of the Dáil in order to try to get some movement on this issue, or at least some answers and clarity. Thousands of people are experiencing confusion, anxiety and concern regarding whether they are going to have any income, what level of income they may have or whether the income they will be given will be sufficient to support them because their work has collapsed as a result of Covid-19. Those people do not benefit from these schemes. They had previously benefited from the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and some of them also benefited from the music and entertainment business assistance scheme, MEBAS. I do not understand why last-ditch moves or amendments in this regard are not also being rushed through the Dáil this week as well. I just do not understand why that is not happening.
In case the Minister is not aware of this situation, as we speak, hundreds if not thousands of musicians, entertainers, taxi drivers and people involved with the night-time economy are being refused PUP. We were told last week that they would get PUP, but they are being refused it. They are receiving letters stating that if they cannot show that they had four weeks PRSI contributions in the week before 7 December, they will not be eligible for the payment. That is a ridiculous request to make of the self-employed because they do their taxes at the end of the year. By definition, they are not getting any support from these schemes even though their work has collapsed. Other people are still on the PUP. The Minister will remember that there are different cohorts in this regard because people were being phased off the payment, from €350 down to €250 and then down to €205. They were finally forced onto jobseeker’s payments. If people had signed off, and then, on 7 December or after, went back on the PUP, it is possible for them to get to €350 if their applications are not refused on the basis of this PRSI contribution requirement. Theoretically, however, it might be possible for people in that situation to get the PUP.
People who were on the lower rate because they were being phased down the PUP payment rates will not now be able to apply for the higher rate, even though the lower rate was phased down on the basis of the fact that the amount of work it was possible for people to do and the level of income it was possible for them to make was rising when that happened. That was the whole principle behind those changes in the payment. All those people, though, have now seen the additional income they could earn because of the lifting of restriction collapse again overnight. I am getting desperate calls from drivers telling me that all the night-time work is gone and that they are waiting for four and five hours at the airport, but there are no fares. All the office workers are being told to stay at home, so all that kind of work is gone as well. It is possible that further restrictions are will be imposed at the end of this week, which could impact their ability to work even more. There is some shopping activity and some people are going to work around town, so it might be thought that there is loads of work. There is not, however.
The situation is even worse for musicians, because their work is just gone. All the gigs they expected to have in December are not happening, but they are being asked in interviews relating to qualifying for social welfare payments if they can prove that they have lost income. How exactly are they meant to prove that? Do they have to get letters from all the people with whom they had arranged gigs in December and then bring them to the Intreo office if they can get an appointment over the next week? I would say there is a fat chance of that happening. It is ridiculous stuff.
Let us remember what the Government said at the beginning of this crisis. It stated that the PUP would be given to everybody because everybody is impacted and the eligibility criterion for the PUP then was that people’s income and ability to earn had been significantly reduced or had gone. We did not give people loads of hoops to jump through. What we are doing now, though, is refusing people's applications or giving them multiple hoops to jump through, which they cannot possibly do before Christmas. It is grossly unfair. I reiterate that these people who are facing this situation a week before Christmas are the same people who have been repeatedly hit the most often and the hardest right from the beginning of the pandemic. Yet they are now being hit again in the week before Christmas. I appeal on their behalf to the Minister to do something before Christmas for the people in these categories, who, self-evidently, have been impacted by the latest round of health measures and by the arbitrary date concerning when the measures were brought in, namely, 7 December. It is ridiculous. Many people scaled back their social activities and outings last week-----