Tuesday, 17 November 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Jobseeker's Benefit Eligibility
62. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if she will address, the anomalies in relation to the coding of part-time farmers as self-employed in her Department, even if they engage in off-farm seasonal work as employees; that coding them as self-employed excludes them from obtaining a payment under the jobseeker's benefit scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40182/15]
This question arises from a situation that has arisen in local offices in Donegal in recent months, where unemployed people or those who try to claim jobseeker's benefit have been coded or, if that is not the right term, identified within the local office as self-employed farmers rather than people who work in casual work or seasonal work. Therefore, because they have been classified as self-employed farmers, they are being excluded from jobseeker's benefit because, as the Minister knows, one of the conditions is that the person has to be available for work. These people are available for work but, because of this coding, they are being excluded.
The jobseeker's benefit scheme provides income support for people who lose work and who have the required number of social insurance contributions. The 2015 Estimates for the Department provide for expenditure on jobseeker’s benefit of €407 million.
Individuals who are self-employed cannot typically access jobseeker’s benefit as class S contributions do not qualify a person for jobseeker’s benefit. However, a self-employed person who has sufficient social insurance contributions as an employee could qualify for jobseeker’s benefit provided he or she either gives up his or her self-employment or his or her self-employment is considered to be subsidiary employment, which is one of the situations referred to by the Deputy. To be considered as subsidiary employment, the relevant employment should be in addition to the jobseeker’s usual employment. In addition, either the amount of earnings or profit from the occupation cannot exceed €12.70 per day, or the jobseeker must have a minimum of 117 PRSI contributions paid immediately preceding the date of the claim or in respect of the last three contribution years.
I am not completely clear on what the Deputy means by coding. However, it may be possible for a part-time farmer, who has a very low income from farming, less than €12.70 per day, or who has the required number of social insurance contributions as an employee, 117 PRSI contributions, to qualify for jobseeker’s benefit. The individual must satisfy all conditions of the jobseeker’s benefit scheme, including being available for and genuinely seeking full-time employment.
If the jobseeker does not have the relevant number of contributions, he or she may be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance. Alternatively, if his or her earnings from part-time farming are higher than the €12.70 limit for subsidiary employment, he or she may qualify for farm assist. I understand the Deputy has already discussed this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, but I will ask my officials to look at the issue. Any cases the Deputy is aware of would be of help in that examination.
The people in question have met all of the conditions outlined by the Minister in regard to the required number of contributions, including the fact their farming income was below €12.70 per day. The only reason they were refused jobseeker's benefit was because the local office identifies them as self-employed farmers. It is for that reason they were refused access to jobseeker's benefit. I have been in contact with the Minister of State on this issue and I acknowledge the work he has done on it.
Over the summer months, I dealt with 17 appeals. All of these have not been decided but all bar one of those that have been decided have been upheld as having an entitlement. Four appeals remain outstanding. I believe a decision has been taken within the local offices to identify people as self-employed farmers, although in reality they are not. They may be part-time farmers who make an income tax return on their farm income but they are not self-employed farmers and are not paying class S contributions either.
In regard to these specific cases, departmental policy has not changed. However, the Department is currently in the process of issuing revised guidelines which will provide greater clarity to deciding officers when dealing with similar cases that involve subsidiary employment. These revised guidelines will state that in cases where a person has previously been assessed as having had subsidiary employment, for example, part-time employment, provided there is no change to the scale of this part-time employment, it should continue to be regarded as subsidiary. This means that where the individual has the appropriate social insurance contributions, 117, or the earnings from the part-time employment continue to be €12.70 or less per day, the part-time employment will continue to be regarded as subsidiary employment for the purpose of assessing an individual's entitlement to jobseeker's benefit.
I welcome that guidance and I hope it gets out to all the local offices. However, the situation remains that people are being identified within local offices as self-employed farmers, which automatically implies they have no entitlement to the jobseeker's benefit. This situation has caused extreme hardship for many people. If my office has had to deal with 17 cases, there could be many more that have not come to the attention of a Deputy or many others could have accepted the response from the local office and lost out on entitlements. This issue needs to be addressed in the local offices and people should not be classified as self-employed when they are not.
I do not think the problem is an issue of coding, although that may make it more identifiable. I believe that what has happened over the years is that a deciding officer has made a particular decision and then the decision has been appealed and upheld. We are now in the process of looking at that situation to ensure the guidelines are clearer.
I appreciate that it is an important matter for the individuals involved. We will continue to keep it under review.