Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Covid-19 (Employment Affairs and Social Protection): Statements

 

5:40 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I do not think anybody present could have predicted the unprecedented turmoil we have experienced in the past few short months. We had near full employment and a still-declining live register. We are now in a situation where the funds from the social protection Vote are acting as an income shock absorber to over 1 million people who have lost their jobs. The outbreak of Covid-19 and the essential public health measures to contain the spread of the virus have given rise to the largest monthly increase in the unemployment rate in the history of the State. This once-in-a-century challenge has necessitated responses that are impactful, speedy and innovative and I am pleased to have had the opportunity today to outline the role of Department is playing in this response to the pandemic.

In March, we brought forward legislation to provide for the enhanced illness benefit for people who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or a probable source of infection from the virus. Employees and the self-employed are eligible for this payment and it was designed as a measure that would compensate people at an enhanced rate in light of the unprecedented health crisis but also, significantly, provide an incentive for people to comply with the self-isolation measures where they were a probable source of infection. The scheme has now been extended until 19 June and it remains important in the suite of measures that were designed to slow the spread of the virus.

Very quickly we saw that this unprecedented health crisis would also lead to an immediate economic crisis and make dependent hundreds of thousands of people on the State to cushion the devastating blow of their widespread job losses temporarily. Across Government, initiatives have been introduced to support people and businesses in the current emergency. As part of that first piece of emergency legislation, and I genuinely thank all Members of this House and Seanad Éireann for the constructive role that was played in the passing of that legislation, the waiting rules were relaxed for jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance for the duration of this emergency period. Normally a person must wait for six days before making a jobseeker's claim, and this temporary waiving of the rule meant that people would get their income supports immediately.

We introduced the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, on 16 March and since its introduction my Department has received more than 815,000 applications for the PUP or job seeker's payment. This is the equivalent of a four-year caseload in less than two months. Most of these applications, as Members are aware, were received in the first four weeks.

It would be remiss of me not to put on the record of the House my genuine appreciation and sincere thanks to all the staff in my Department, and all the staff redeployed from other parts of the public service, who have work night and day to ensure the claims we receive are dealt with, to take the thousands of phone calls we receive daily from people about their entitlements, and to ensure our IT system continues to cope with the unprecedented volume of claims. It is an enormous challenge but it is being done and people are receiving the payments they are due when they are due. This is down to the staff and credit is deserved. I want to acknowledge that.

Our priority in all of this work was to assist the now 585,000 people who are currently in receipt of Covid-19 PUP. We all know these people. They are our neighbours, our friends and our relatives. All of them were working at the beginning of March without any expectation of suddenly losing their income. They were looking forward to the summer and were planning ahead for holidays, parties and festivals. They may have been preparing for celebrations such as Holy Communions, confirmations and graduations until they suddenly suffered a severe economic and personal shock with the loss of their employment. The income supports we introduced and enhanced are intended to alleviate the financial hardship they all faced, and in this way to minimise any financial worries or stress during what is already a time of great concern for all our families' health. It is also hoped that some of this income will be spent in the local economy and keep businesses afloat. This will help Ireland to recuperate from the economic turbulence caused during this period.

I remind the Houses that employees and the self-employed, part-time and full-time workers who lost their employment as a result of Covid-19 are eligible for the €350 payment. It is money directly into their hand. It is raising-up rather than trickle-down economics. This week payments valued at €205 million were paid to recipients of this scheme.

As the economy was put into sleep mode we also introduced an employer-refunded scheme that has now become the temporary wage-subsidy scheme. Experience has shown that in the middle of an economic shock where there are significant temporary lay-offs it is very important that the link between the employer and the employee is maintained to the greatest extent possible. To date, some 54,000 employers have registered for the scheme and some 464,000 employees have received at least one payment. We have made changes to the scheme to assist lower-income workers and will continue to keep the operation under review. To date the State has provided more than €900 million in support for this scheme.

If the Government did not act fast we may have designed things differently. If the need was not so urgent alternative conditionalities might have been chosen. We were, and are, responding to a crisis. What emerged in our supports may not be perfect but much of it is good. The most important thing is that it is working. A crucial factor is that without the relief provided by these payments it is very unlikely we would have had the really high level of public compliance with all of the health restrictions we introduced to tackle this virus.

There are other measures the Department took to assist people who are staying in their homes to help slow the spread of the virus. We extended the fuel allowance season by four weeks. We moved benefits from a weekly to a fortnightly payment cycle. We extended the period for which payments can be held at post offices to up to 90 days. Arrangements were made with An Post to enable nominated agents to collect payments where necessary. We completely simplified the application process for rent supplement. We introduced procedures to help one-parent families where there were difficulties with maintenance payments. We temporarily suspended part of the Redundancy Payments Act to prevent mass redundancies in businesses that we all hope will recover.

5:55 pm

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Finally, we have temporarily removed the obligation for a person to attend a registration office to register a birth or death.

All of these measures which come within the aegis of my Department were implemented in a short period. The history books will reflect that they have been effective in insulating people from the worst effects of a severe income and employment shock. As the numbers receiving the payments begin to plateau and even decrease, we need to focus on getting people back to work. I am planning for the reopening of our economy, which is why I reconvened the labour market advisory council and why my Department published a working paper on the initial impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ireland's labour market. The paper will, I hope, provide a valuable input into the work of the advisory council and of my officials as we act to help people return to employment as quickly as possible.

My Department will continue to work with other Departments to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances arising from this pandemic. It has been hardworking, responsive, innovative, flexible and forward-looking, and I know it will continue to be so.

We can never plan perfectly for the future and this unprecedented health emergency absolutely proves that. However, we can choose to do what is right and effective to meet the challenges before our eyes, and I believe my Department has done that. As a people we have shown again that this country can rise to significant challenges and that we can not only endure but also demonstrate the best qualities we possess, namely, resilience, innovation and a strong sense of community. These values have helped us to phase 1 of the reopening of our society. I hope they will lay the foundations for a really good recovery.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Devlin, Brendan Smith and Niall Collins. I want to be associated with the remarks the Minister made about the departmental officials. They have worked very hard in difficult circumstances and have performed their duties very efficiently. If the Minister does not have time to answer all of my question now, she might respond in writing.

What is the Government's intention in respect of the €350 per week Covid-19 payment? Is it due to be extended beyond 15 June and, if so, for how long? If and when the Government decides to terminate the payment, will it do so in a tapered manner or will it let people fall off the cliff, immediately back to their pre-existing rates of social protection? Are there proposals to change the eligibility criteria for either the illness-related or the PUP?

Another question that arises relates to arrears. Quite a number of my constituents, as well as others from outside my constituency who have contacted me, have mentioned that they have not been paid from the beginning of the pandemic for one reason or another. In many cases, it is because they made applications IN writing and were told to apply again online. When will those arrears be paid?

As the Minister will know, quite a number of people who receive means-tested payments work part time. They are entitled to receive the full Covid payment - €350 per week - plus their pre-existing level of social protection. The Department has signalled that in cases where a person's income from employment is less than the €350 per week, there will be a clawback. That sum, according to my calculations, could run to €1,000 or more in many cases. This will be presented to people who have suffered a dramatic reduction in income. Take, for example, someone who is moved from €350 to his or her pre-existing social welfare level, having lost his or her job at the same time. Does the Government intend to proceed with this and, if so, in what manner?

The Department has conceded that the increased level of unemployment will require renewed concentration and labour activation services. Are there plans to extend the range of apprenticeships or to introduce some flexibility into the community employment scheme? Despite some recent changes to the scheme, it remains notoriously inflexible, particularly in an era of what we project to be high unemployment. Will the Minister give an assurance that local employment services will be at the front and centre of the labour activation effort that will take place? What is the position regarding Turas Nua and Seetec? Their contracts were supposed to end next December. Will they be gone next December or is there a possibility that they will reappear in competition with the local State-funded labour activation services?

I would like an answer to those questions.

There are a number of other matters I want to raise but the time constraints do not allow me to go into them in detail. For example, I understand that it is the policy on all sides of the House to encourage people to work, whether they are self-employed or employees, beyond the age of 66. I look at those over 66 for whom, through no fault of their own, the businesses they work for have closed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic or their own businesses have closed down, and yet they are not entitled to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment nor are they even entitled to a top-up of their pensions to reach the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. That sends a bad signal to people who we are trying to encourage to work beyond the age of 66.

On pensions generally, the Minister was pursuing a number of initiatives before the election, such as auto-enrolment, which is badly needed. Has the timetable slipped on that? If so, by how much has it slipped? Where are we on it? Where are we with the total contributions approach? It was expected that approach would be introduced by the middle of this year.

Has any thought been given within the Government or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the idea of protecting the poorest in this society against increases in carbon tax? The increases in the fuel allowance are an inadequate way to do that.

Has any thought been given to the question of indexing social welfare, not to the headline rate of inflation but to something such as average wages? The Minister will be aware that if the gap between people on social welfare, the poorest in the country, and people in other parts of the economy is allowed to widen, then poverty and inequality will be widened.

Is the Minister aware of the implications for her Department of the recent actions by Debenhams, which employs 1,000 people in this country? Debenhams Ireland made its staff redundant in the middle of the Covid-19 situation and Debenhams UK then removed all of the assets from the Irish company, leaving the Department, or rather the Irish taxpayer, with a huge bill for statutory redundancy. Are we, as a State, going to stand aside in the face of this blatant daylight robbery? Does the Government have any position on that?

As I am on the matter of redundancy, the Minister will be aware that under the legislation we passed seven to eight weeks ago, people who become redundant during the Covid-19 period are precluded from applying for redundancy within the normal four-week period. They are delayed from doing so until some unspecified time in the future which has yet to be decided. Would it not be only right and fair in view of those circumstances that companies should not be allowed to make people redundant during the Covid-19 pandemic? If they wish to or have to do so afterwards, then so be it.

Those are some of the points I want to raise. As I said, I do not have time to go into this in detail because I want to accommodate my colleagues, but I want to remind the House that this week, 584,000 people received the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, 44,600 people received the illness-related Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, and in addition to that, ordinary social welfare payments such as jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance were paid out to 215,000 people. That is 850,000 people receiving unemployment support, so a lot of the population is affected by the measures taken by the Government and it is time we had detailed scrutiny of the matter, which is why I am delighted we are discussing it in some detail next week. I hope the Minister can answer some of those questions in the interim.

6:00 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I want to compliment the staff in the offices of the Department throughout Cavan and Monaghan and in the regional office in Dundalk on dealing so efficiently with a huge workload in challenging circumstances. From the outset, officials showed their determination to process applications as quickly as possible and they were conscious of the sudden and changed circumstances for so many families. I take this opportunity to compliment them on getting payments out rapidly and efficiently to so many people who needed them at those times. It is important at a time when a substantial cohort of our population is receiving some or all of their income from the State.

Weeks ago, I raised through representation to the Minister and through Covid-19 queries the need to include workers over the age of 66 in any Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment if they met the other conditions. We have listened to different Governments encourage older persons, as Deputy O'Dea said, to stay on in the workforce past reaching the pension age if possible.

I have encountered people on reduced contributory pensions, perhaps working on a part-time basis or running small businesses, who are losing their income. It is utterly wrong that, in the current circumstances, they do not receive a supplement to their existing reduced contributory pension. Some have had small businesses with ongoing costs and no income from those businesses. They find themselves in difficult circumstances. Many are on reduced pensions because of the changes to the assessment of entitlement for a contributory pension introduced in 2012. In many instances, these people were providing services through small shops that would otherwise not be available in many rural communities. People on contributory pensions who lost their employment income should receive a supplementary payment to bring the benefit up to the value of the PUP. In many instances with small businesses, the employees in question are critical to the ongoing running, efficiency and success of the business. The Government quite rightly set out that it wanted to retain the link between employers and employees. It is important at this time - I hope it is not for the long term - that reduced contributory payments be supplemented and brought up to the value of the PUP.

I raised with the Minister previously the unjust administration of the scheme on the basis that cross-Border workers were not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment here. In the two counties I have the privilege of representing, we see a large number of people who travel to the North or come to the South to work. Those people who come to the South to work, and who pay their taxes and PRSI here, feel very aggrieved that they were not entitled to any payments at this time.

6:10 pm

Cormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I will leave some time at the end of our remarks for answers. If the Minister does not have time to respond, she might correspond with me.

As we heard, Covid-19 has fundamentally changed Ireland's economic and social landscape. At the end of 2019, 2.5 million people were at work by contrast with today, when there are over 1.25 million people in receipt of income supports. The State is likely to run a deficit of around €30 billion for 2020, and reigniting our economy will present significant challenges. A business-as-usual, one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Employers, employees and sectors that remain closed owing to the Government's health advice should have certainty that the income supports will be maintained for the period in question. We need to see changes to the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme to allow for more flexibility to support the workers. For example, workers should be allowed to return to companies to work part time where possible. The Government should support working schemes or incentives whereby staff are allowed to work from home.

Long-term unemployment is a genuine prospect, especially for the 120,000 who are under 25. That needs to be tackled, particularly for those in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment. We need an ambitious plan to retrain and reskill those workers who unfortunately lost their jobs during this pandemic. Any measures that are put in place must deliver an inclusive recovery.

I previously raised in this House the discriminatory aspects of the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the PUP. While the Minister referred to some changes in her speech, it is important that we see some changes. The arrangements are deeply unfair on women returning to work from maternity leave in that they cannot access the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The criteria are equally discriminatory against those over the age of 66. Will the Minister commit to rectifying deficiencies in these schemes to ensure an inclusive recovery in which no one is left behind?

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the staff in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in my constituency, Limerick County, particularly those in the Newcastle West and Kilmallock offices and the Dominick Street office in Limerick city. Some 22,000 people in Limerick are in receipt of the PUP. There needs were dealt with very efficiently and the staff were really good. They got back to people and were great at interacting with my office and, I am sure, other offices but there are some anomalies. There are some individuals with outstanding issues and arrears that need to be paid. I ask the Minister to consider drafting in more staff to the relevant offices to deal with the outstanding arrears that are due.

The maternity leave issue is a genuine and major one that has been raised with me by a number of women in my constituency. The exclusion of women from the temporary wage subsidy scheme is really discriminatory and unfair. Women on maternity leave are coping with new additions to their families and they face all the challenges that go with that.

They cannot get out and about because of the lockdown restrictions, enrol their children in crèches or go to parent-and-toddler group meetings. Many of them are dealing with medical issues. As we know, some people give birth by caesarean section and have all the other complications that go with that. We really have to move to amend the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The Minister will know - I think everybody in this House knows - that the scheme discriminates against women who were not receiving payments from their employers during their maternity leave. That has a disproportionate impact on people who were in lower-paid and more vulnerable jobs. I would like to hear a commitment from the Minister that this will be addressed as soon as possible to achieve fairness for these people.

I also wish to raise the issue of the over 66s. It is a huge issue in my constituency, in Limerick. Many people aged 66 and over have been in touch with me. They feel this is ageist, which it is, and discriminatory. The issue has to be addressed because if we are as a society to encourage people to remain in the workplace longer and to contribute to society, this sends out entirely the wrong message. I think this question has been asked of the Minister and her Department. Do we have any handle on the number of people in this cohort who have been locked out of the pandemic unemployment payment? A response would go a long way towards informing the debate and the argument we are having about this.

Finally, the restart grants were announced during the week. I know this is not directly under the Minister's directorate, but it is linked to it because if we have no employers, there will be no jobs for people to go back to. The fact that for a business to avail of the restart grant of up to €10,000, it has to be paying commercial rates immediately excludes sole traders, microbusinesses and start-ups. Any type of business that is not paying commercial rates is locked out of this scheme. If a business is locked out, it may not be able to restart and will not re-engage and re-employ its staff who may have been laid off. There is a real issue here that the Minister and the Government need to look at, and I would like if she would address that.

6:20 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Unfortunately, the time has expired for the Minister to reply. Presumably, written replies will suffice. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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It is good to see the Minister in the Chamber.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry to interrupt. If Deputy Brady wants to give an opportunity to the Minister to answer, I ask him to try to contain his contributions-----

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I will aim towards five minutes. This is an important question to lead with. I welcome the Minister. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we have introduced emergency legislation and had a number of sitting days dealing with social protection, and this is the first time we have had a senior Minister before the House with responsibility for social protection to answer questions and provide some accountability.

As the Minister outlined in her contribution, more than 585,000 people are currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and many of those will not be able to go back to work since the introduction of the restrictions the Government has brought in, which I fully support, to put the economy to sleep. Many of those people will not get back to work until 10 August, for example, in phase 5 of the road map. There has been a lot of speculation that there will be changes to the PUP on 15 June. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has said the issue is being looked at. What people need is certainty. They do not need to come to a cliff edge. They need to be assured about the €350 payment, which is a lifeline for so many people, a fact the Minister acknowledged, not just for the families but local economies as well, because it is putting critical money into those economies. I will ask the Minister a direct question. Will that payment be extended and, if so, for how long?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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To answer a direct question, the payment will have to be extended. It was introduced to support people's incomes while their normal incomes were not available to them. We are aware that based on the phases of the reopening of society, this will occur at different times for different people, so-----

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Will the payment be tapered?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will tell the Deputy what I can do. I can confirm to him that it will be extended. In which shape and form, however, the decision has not been made yet. The matter is under active consideration and the decision will probably be made in the coming weeks. As soon as it has been arrived at, I will be the first to tell everybody. The most important thing to say is that it was introduced to support people's incomes. I said it last week-----

6:30 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I am sorry. Time is short. I am trying to get clarity on whether it will be tapered and how long it will be extended for. The Minister is not willing to give that information.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Brady is asking me a question. I do not think his comment is fair. It is not that I am not willing; we have not made the decision yet. The decision to support people's incomes still stands and will stand for all of the phases until society is reopened again.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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The second question I want to put relates to women returning from maternity leave. The Minister will be aware that last week the National Women's Council of Ireland referred the exclusion of women returning from maternity leave from accessing the wage subsidy scheme to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The NWCI believes that the Government's exclusion of women from maternity leave is not in compliance with the Maternity Protection Act 1994, which provides that women on maternity leave are entitled to be treated as if they had been at work during their maternity leave. I agree with that view. It appears that Government is acting contrary to legislation. I listened to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, today when he said he was examining it. Government needs to move further than that and needs to implement an end to the discrimination these women are facing. Will the Minister assure us that measures will be taken immediately to ensure the discrimination ends? Perhaps the Minister can answer that towards the end because so many women are being discriminated against.

Discrimination is rife throughout these payments. We have the issue around those over 66 years of age, who have been precluded from the pandemic unemployment payment, as well as frontier workers and cross-border workers. There seems to be some confusion. The Department's website states that frontier workers can access the payment. That is causing confusion. I have raised this consistently, as has my party leader, Deputy McDonald. It is discriminatory. These people have paid their taxes in this State but they are excluded from the payment. This serious issue needs to end and there needs to be clarity on the Department's website, which states that frontier workers can access this payment. That needs to be clarified.

I want to finish up by asking about Debenhams. This is a serious concern. We are dealing with 1,000 workers throughout the State. Since the devastating news that the Irish business has been placed into liquidation, there have been several requests by Mandate Trade Union to have the 30-day consultation period extended to ascertain whether redundancies can be avoided. Unfortunately, KPMG has refused the request to allow the period to be extended. Given the distinct possibility that the State insolvency fund will be utilised in the event of 1,000 workers being made redundant, I believe the Minister must exercise the powers at her discretion and in accordance with section 15 of the Protection of Employment Act. This provision is important and states, "For the purpose of seeking solutions to the problems caused by the proposed redundancies, the employer concerned shall, at the Minister's request, enter into consultations with him or an authorised officer." Has the Minister invoked that section? If not, why not? Will the Minister invoke that legislation? I believe it is important that she does. A great deal of information has been highlighted about assets being stripped from the company etc. Will the Minister act upon that? The workers in Debenhams gave me a letter and asked me to hand it to the Minister. Perhaps after the sitting I will pass it on to her.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Deputies should make their points and then the Minister will reply, but give the Minister space, if at all possible.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to compliment the staff, especially those in the Intreo offices in Bishop Street and Cork Street. I have had extensive engagement with them. I know they have been working hard and effectively in difficult circumstances and I am keen to acknowledge that.

An issue of concern to me arose early on Monday morning when a landlord arrived in with a crew of men and dismantled a small storage area of a coffee shop in Ranelagh. The landlord threw all the products and stock out onto the footpath. It is worth recording that the coffee shop has been really generous in offering those over 65 years and front-line workers free coffee.

The shop in question, Nick's Coffee, is an integral part of the community. We cannot let ourselves become a society where this sort of behaviour becomes acceptable. One must ask how any human can carry out those sorts of actions in a health crisis when everybody is struggling. It seems big landlords are being prioritised over the local economy, which is a real concern for people.

Our economy will be a long time recovering if landlords are going to behave in this way. It is in everybody's interest that we work together and the Government must intervene to stop landlords acting like this. Something must be done to ensure landlords cannot do this. In the George's Street Arcade, the landlord has a number of tenants but has given comfort to them. Landlords can work with commercial tenants and be sensible about it. It is a credit to landlords in the George's Street Arcade that this is being done.

Does the Minister condemn the actions of the landlord in question, as it is important to state clearly that the Government will not accept this sort of behaviour? Assuming the Minister will condemn the action, will she consider bringing forward measures to give protection to commercial tenants like that? I ask her to bring forward legislation that will afford commercial tenants the same protection that residential tenants have. Is that something she is considering?

6:35 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister knows, I represent County Donegal. There are large numbers of workers resident in Derry, west Tyrone and Fermanagh who work and pay taxes and social insurance in Donegal, making a major contribution to the county's economy. They have been left blowing in the wind by the Minister and her Department, which is absolutely disgraceful. They were told to go across the Border into the North, and unfortunately, as a result of partition and the actions of the British Government, they receive a third of the amount received by workers by their side who pay the same taxes and social insurance. It is an absolute disgrace and repugnant to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

We can speak about the pandemic unemployment payment. It is a flexible scheme, which is very welcome, and it is for self-employed, full-time and part-time workers. The website is used as a source of advice by people working on both sides of the Border. It indicates that where a person has been laid off temporarily - as the people I speak of have - that person is paid unemployment benefit in the State where his or her taxes or social insurance were paid. That has been the practice. I argue that the practice that the Minister and her Department have stood over for months now is in defiance of European Union guidance. It is certainly repugnant to the Good Friday Agreement. I ask the Minister to respond now on why she is standing over this disgraceful practice.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Shall I go back to the start of the questions?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister should get through as many as she can.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Okay. That is no problem.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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To be clear, I am asking the Minister about cross-Border workers. Please respond to that question.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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There were questions asked before the Deputy's contribution.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I ask the Minister to respond to my question in my time.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy made his point very well. We need to give the Minister time to reply to you and other Deputies who asked questions.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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We would like the Minister to answer that specific question.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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That is fine by me.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I would have more time then.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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There is no problem. The Covid-19 unemployment payment is payable to people resident in Ireland who lose their employment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. European Union citizens have the right to live and work in any European Union country and cross-border workers, termed as frontier workers, arise where people work on one side of a border but live on the other and return home at least once per week. The position regarding frontier workers is that the pandemic unemployment payment is consistent with the rules of jobseeker's benefit regarding the competent state. Under the current European Union rules, the member state of the resident is competent for the payment of unemployment benefits in the case of wholly unemployed frontier workers. This means the competent state for a person living in Northern Ireland and working in the Republic of Ireland who becomes wholly unemployed is Northern Ireland and that person is not eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment.

However, it is important to note that, recognising it was probably not going to be easy to bear for those people, we ensured that the wage subsidy scheme was introduced a week or ten days after the PUP, not only to maintain the links between employers and employees, but to take account of other people. Deputies have referred to those who have been excluded because of the law relating to the payment. The wage subsidy scheme was set up to try to compensate people and alleviate any concern caused by that situation.

6:45 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister acknowledged that the Government allowed workers to avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. As she well knows, a large number of employers in the hospitality sector and a range of other sectors had poor cash flows. They laid off their workers, being aware that they could avail of the PUP. One business person in Donegal told me a story. A chef working for that business had paid taxes and social insurance for decades but was left with no support from this State, yet the young person who had been washing dishes for just weeks got €350 per week. How is that fair or defensible? As the Minister is aware, many workers are benefiting from the PUP rather than the wage subsidy scheme. There is a much higher uptake. As such, it is not in any way reasonable to use it as a defence. How can the Minister argue that she is in line with European rules by not paying workers who are resident in the North the PUP and instead paying them through the wage subsidy scheme? How can it be done for one scheme but not the other? She cannot stand over this.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The wage subsidy scheme was introduced in that way because many companies had poor cash flows. In the first two weeks after the wage subsidy scheme was introduced and when there was some confusion as to the criteria, many people let their staff go, went onto the Covid payment and took their staff back knowing full well that the Revenue Commissioners were refunding the wages in real time. If someone was paid on the Monday, he or she was getting a refund from the Revenue Commissioners on the Tuesday.

I do not mean to be argumentative with the Deputy. I am not standing over or justifying anything. It is the current legislation and it is up to this House to change it if it wants to. The EU regulations governing employment rights are not just here for the PUP.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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That is not true.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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They have been here for many years. I did not make the rules. We just have to abide by them.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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Might I get a response to my question?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Unfortunately-----

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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It was on the introduction of legislation around the protection of commercial tenants.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Deputy. He is very welcome. I agree with him. I do not know the ins and outs of that, but whatever way the owner of the coffee shop was treated, what happened is a shame. It is not within my gift or that of my Department to introduce such legislation, but I will have a conversation with the Minister who is in charge and ask him to revert to the Deputy directly.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We will now proceed to the Green Party.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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Is it not Fine Gael's time?

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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Home town referee.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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My apologies. It is Fine Gael. I was momentarily distracted.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The Acting Chairman thought the Green Party was in government.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Three Fine Gael Deputies are sharing time. I am trying to facilitate everyone. Making the questions and answers clear is beneficial to both sides. Otherwise, someone will get crowded out.

Emer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Government acted quickly to support businesses and provide workers laid off as a result of the crisis with a safety net. I thank the Minister and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's staff across the country, particularly those in the Intreo office in Clondalkin, for everything they have done to make that happen.

The temporary Covid wage subsidy scheme has kept 460,000 people in employment. The PUP of €350 has eased the anxiety of more than 500,000 who did not know from where their next month's rent or mortgage payment would come. In the few short weeks since the payment was announced, we have learned much about the virus - unfortunately, that it will haunt us for longer. Workers who have been laid off have no option but to rely on this payment for the immediate future. The lack of clarity on its future is adding to their anxiety and stress and affecting their mental health. We can provide them with some small level of relief by giving them clarity on the payment's future. Will the Minister outline her plans to extend the payment until the country is back on its feet?

I also ask that, as she considers the future of the wage subsidy scheme, she be mindful of businesses with traditionally high staff turnover rates.

Small retailers in Clondalkin and Lucan, for example, may employ 20 people as standard, but the usual churn of staff could mean that not all of their workforce may qualify for the wage subsidy scheme currently. This is the case where new employees are hired to replace employees who have left. Would the Minister consider allowing companies in this situation to apply for the wage subsidy scheme based on the number of employees rather than the names of the employees who were on their books in February?

6:55 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I will take questions from all three Deputies before coming to the Minister for a response.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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During our previous session I welcomed the Minister, Katherine Zappone, to the Chamber and I thanked her for the work she did. I now also thank the Minister, Regina Doherty, for the work she has done. It is ironic that the two Ministers before us today were not successful in retaining their seats. I thank the Minister, Regina Doherty, and all of her departmental staff for their work on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people. It shows that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is one of the better Departments, although all Departments are good. The staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are to be complimented on their outstanding work in regard to this issue. I also thank the staff of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

There is one issue about which I am concerned, namely, the number of pensioners who feel hard done by. They wish that the age limit would be waived. Most of them are very angry and they feel let down, which was mentioned earlier by other speakers. Is there a reason this issue cannot be resolved? There are only a small percentage of people involved. Is there a reason for this of which we are not aware? Many people have contacted Deputies on this issue over recent weeks.

On the pandemic unemployment payment, for how long will it remain in place such that people can plan for the future and what is the estimated cost of this scheme going forward? I again pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, in particular in its offices in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal. People often complain about the public sector. On this occasion, they have no reason to complain as staff have gone beyond the call of duty. I again thank them for their service.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I support the points made on all sides of the House in regard to the people over 66 who are working. There was controversy over pensions and when they come into effect, but there is no controversy around people who were in business prior to Covid-19 and were paying their taxes but can no longer work because they are sole traders and their business cannot function. These people are not getting the payment while people living on the same street as them and working in the same shopping centre are getting it because they are under 66 years of age. This is age discrimination, which is wrong. If a person can prove he or she was working before the virus hit, he or she should be entitled to the difference between the current rate of pension and the €350 payment.

I, too, welcome the presence of the Minister, Regina Doherty, in the House. I also welcome her determination and the gutsy way in which she has run the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and answered questions fairly and openly. It is working against the Government that she is not allowed adequate and proper time to reply to some of the points raised, particularly those made in a rude and aggressive manner.

I have been contacted by many people in regard to services for women and children who, because of the situation in their household are homeless or have domestic violence visited upon them in an appalling way. These people are seeking immediate relocation. Safe Ireland has been in contact with me and other Deputies. It believes there is need for emergency rent supplement access such that these people can be provided with safe housing. This assistance, if provided to them, will give them independence of choice and options that no longer exist because hotels and other areas of accommodation, such as bed and breakfasts, are not as available as heretofore. There are serious problems for women and children that are not being addressed in that they cannot access rent supplement.

Supporters and community organisations are very anxious that the Minister should step into the breach and do what she can to help them.

7:00 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank colleagues for their comments regarding the hard work of staff, which I will pass on to them. The PUP scheme, as I said earlier, was introduced at speed and is due to finish its first round on 9 June. I put it categorically on the record that the scheme will, of course, be extended. It was introduced to support the income that was lost temporarily by people as we closed down the economy. We obviously will have to support people until the economy reawakens, and that is going to happen in different phases. The actual dimensions of that support are being considered by my Department and the Department of Finance. As soon as the decisions have been made as to the guise it will continue in, we will make the relevant announcements. We will continue to support people as we have done.

The wage subsidy scheme is under the remit of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I will pass on the request in regard to the names as opposed to the number of people to see if that can be tweaked.

Several Members raised the matter of Safe Ireland's request and others may do so in due course. A model was originally established a number of weeks ago when we knew this issue was going to come to light as we closed down the economy and difficulties in certain families would be accentuated. The model that was established probably is not working 100% and Safe Ireland came to me just over two weeks ago, as did the National Women's Council of Ireland, to ask us to look at it again. What we have been doing, in the absence of having a formal setting, is that anybody who has come to us has immediately been put in emergency accommodation, such as a bed and breakfast establishment, for two weeks. After that, we have been looking after rent supplement, which they are absolutely entitled to make an application for in their own right.

Deputies may be aware that we have really relaxed the criteria for rent supplement and changed what was a 28-page application form down to four pages in the past couple of weeks in recognition of the difficult situation people are in. In recent days, my Department has formulated a new response on this issue in co-operation with the Departments of Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs, and that was communicated to Safe Ireland and, hopefully, to the National Women's Council of Ireland this afternoon. There is and will be no delay in accessing these supports. There are now a number of parties who can make referrals, not least of which is the individual himself or herself, as well as the Garda and Tusla.

We are trying to cover all bases. There might be some difficulty in that certain parties would like another party to be the responsible person for referring. From our perspective, one is either entitled to rent supplement or one is not. We do not really mind who makes the referral. We just need to make sure the referral gets turned around, first of all compassionately and sensitively and, second, in absolutely the fastest manner it can be. I reassure Deputies that anybody who comes to us will immediately be put into emergency accommodation in a bed and breakfast until the application form is turned around and we will look after every family as holistically as we can.

A number of speakers referred to the groups of people they feel, maybe rightly so, have been excluded from supports. That certainly was not our choice. Some speakers referred to front-line workers and others mentioned people aged over 66 and another group which is probably much smaller than the latter, namely, the under 18s. We did not choose to exclude anybody. Colleagues are well aware of how fast the legislation was put in place and, it is probably fair to say, how simple that legislation is, which was passed by this House unanimously, thankfully, to set up the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme. The provisions are based on section 202 of the 2005 legislation and other legislation that currently stands either in this country or in the European Union which governs how we look after working age supports.

More than any other Member, I have probably had more people come directly to me or to my office to tell me how they feel about being excluded. There is not a single case that has not broken my heart because these are people who are working. In fact, I have spent the past number of years trying to encourage people over the age of 66 to work. However, the legislative code that governs employment benefit in this country allows payments to be made only to people aged between 18 and 66. I do not mean to be smart but if we need to change that, then it is the House that needs to change it and we can do so collectively. We are governing and being governed by the legislation that is the law of the land. It was never intentional to exclude anybody, which is why I was adamant that the wage subsidy scheme should cover absolutely everybody we could cover, which included those aged over 66. It is why we made supplementary welfare, which is governed by different legislation, available to any person over the age of 66 who was working and had extra expenses which were not covered by their current pension. A number of people have made applications and been successful on that basis.

Finally, one of the Deputies raised the case of a person who was only on a reduced contributory pension and has now lost their income. That person is absolutely entitled to apply for a full non-contributory pension and they absolutely will get it.

7:10 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Roderic O'Gorman for the Green Party. He is taking the whole ten minutes, except when the Minister replies.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I will hopefully give the Minister plenty of time to respond to my questions. I thank her for the response on the specific question on emergency rent supplement for those experiencing domestic violence. In my maiden speech some weeks ago, when we were beginning our response to the coronavirus pandemic, I flagged the issue of domestic violence as one we cannot forget. I give credit to the Department of Justice and Equality and State agencies, particularly the front-line providers. They introduced the Still Here campaign to remind potential victims and victims that domestic violence services have been operating this whole time.

A key concern of many service providers in this area was that there seemed to be a difficulty with accessing the emergency rent supplement. I presume that was the case because much of the focus has shifted to the housing assistance payment, HAP, in recent years and the use of rent supplement has declined. I am especially pleased to see that the Minister has addressed the other element of referral pathways as well, because the issue is not just the length of the form. It is also the matter of who can flag these applications with officials in her Department and the various offices around the country to ensure they are prioritised. On foot of that, will the Minister continue to engage with Safe Ireland and the other NGOs for the next two or three weeks to see if this process is working and if we are getting these applications processed more quickly? That could give much confidence to people working in this sector as well as benefiting the people impacted.

New parents constitute one of the groups most deeply affected by the coronavirus restrictions. Many are going without basic supports they have been used to, whether it is access to grandparents or to post-natal check-ups and mother-and-baby groups. All those supports are absent and many women are being forced to extend their unpaid maternity leave because returning from that leave would make them ineligible for the temporary wage subsidy scheme. Has the Minister considered how groups such as women returning from maternity leave and employees returning from sick leave are impacted by the current definition of "specified employee" under the temporary wage subsidy scheme?

Specifically in the context of women returning from maternity leave, has the Department given any consideration to potential European Union law implications arising from the exclusion of women returning from maternity leave? Under EU law, women during pregnancy and returning from maternity leave are among the most protected classes of persons. It strikes me as strange, therefore, that we are allowing this discrimination to take place here. If any changes were being made to the temporary wage subsidy scheme, would they have to be made by way of primary or secondary legislation? The Minister might clarify that issue. Has the Minister considered extending the statutory period of maternity leave, and the period of payment of maternity benefit, to provide protection for women who otherwise would be returning to work during the Covid-19 crisis? Would such extensions require primary or secondary legislation?

As the Minister is well aware and as has been mentioned already, more than 1,000 people, including many in my constituency, have been made redundant with the closure of Debenhams. Many of them had worked in the company for years or decades, and some had previously worked for Roches Stores. They are now being left with only the statutory redundancy paid by the Minister's Department. This is despite an agreement being in place that would have provided a redundancy payment of two weeks' pay per each year worked, alongside statutory redundancy. In recent weeks, I have raised this issue with the Minister through parliamentary questions and in a number of letters. My colleague from Waterford, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, has done the same. I appreciate that the Minister has always responded to us very quickly on these points.

We have a situation where all these workers and their families are facing being laid off without their previously agreed redundancy payments, while Debenhams UK, the parent company, is going to exit this soft administration with 120 stores trading, a much reduced cost base and a continuing and considerable income stream. I have a question for the Minister but I first want to recognise the huge efforts the workers have made to highlight this issue. I met them when they were demonstrating outside Leinster House and at their pickets at the Blanchardstown store. Their commitment to fighting for what they are entitled to in these very difficult times is extremely impressive. The Mandate trade union, which represents many of these workers, has expressed its frustration that the coronavirus restrictions are inhibiting consultation between the employer and the unions.

I would like if the Minister could be a little more specific about the advice she has received about her ability to intervene in a liquidation process under section 15 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977. In particular, she responded to Mandate Trade Union recently and she seemed to suggest that this legislation is outdated now in light of our current industrial relations climate. Does she think that legislation needs to be changed to strengthen the power of a Minister to intervene?

In light of the economic situation we have all spoken about, there is the potential that more companies are going to seek liquidation in the next number of weeks. Is there anything we have learned from the situation with Debenhams that will allow the Minister to intervene more quickly, using the current legislation, with a view to protecting the rights of workers and as many of their entitlements as possible?

7:20 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy made a very good point. I have been receiving literally a daily phone call from one of the ladies in Safe Ireland. I have no doubt that that will not change. If there are any tweaks that need to be made, we will definitely make them. I thank the Deputy for writing to me on the matter, as he has done on several occasions.

Several other Members raised the issue of those returning from maternity leave and the wage subsidy scheme. I will address the matter even though it is not the responsibility of my Department and is that of the Department of Finance. I do not think anybody, whether it was those who devised the scheme and the legislation that went through the Houses or whoever, ever intended to discriminate against anybody, least of all a woman coming back to the workforce after having a baby. We all know it is wrong and we all know it has to be changed. It will be fixed this week. The difficulty arises in respect of the Deputy's second question, that is, how to change it. The legislation passed by the Oireachtas, which refers to a specified worker, would have to be amended, and we all know where we are at regarding the two Houses at the moment. We are trying to find a way we can do it that does not require legislation. That is not as easy as it sounds. It sounds like a really easy thing to fix - just fix it and allow them back in - but we will have a resolution to it at some point this week.

The second question the Deputy asked me was on extending maternity leave for those already on it. Again, not wishing to be smart to the Deputy, but it does not fall under my remit. The policy is owned by the Department of Justice and Equality. I am sure it is considering the requests that have been made. I know that a very large petition is being circulated at the moment. My Department just pays the benefit. If I am told to extend the benefit, then obviously we will become part of the conversation. We have not yet had a meeting on the matter, but I am sure the Department of Justice and Equality is considering the requests that have been made to it.

I think the Debenhams workers have acted with such dignity and composure in recent weeks. It has really bothered me, although I have not been able to do anything about it, that they continually find their names being taken at pickets when others are doing other things that seem to be flouting the law. I very much feel for the workers. They have acted in a wholly dignified manner to assert their rights. Some of them have worked for the company for 40 years. How they have been treated by their employer in recent months does not reflect what should be good employer relationships and certainly does not reflect the commitment, work value and ethic that the workers, many of whom are women, have given to the company through the years. That is a real pity and shame.

I have exchanged letters with Mandate in recent days and it has asked me to invoke the powers under the section. My Department gave me a response that it did not think this legislation, which is very old - it is 1970s legislation - gave me the power to do what we were asked to do. I decided yesterday to go to the Attorney General to be absolutely sure that advice is correct. If I can do anything to help, even to get these people treated with the respect they deserve, not least by their employer and now by the liquidator, then I will do it, and have no doubt about that. Unfortunately, the legislation does not allow me to intervene. It allows me to engage with an employer, and unfortunately we are at the stage now where the High Court has appointed a liquidator and I cannot interfere in that legal process, much as I would love to stick my nose in. I can reassure the workers that the State will always be here for them and it certainly will not let them down with regard to their statutory entitlements or the leave they have built up. I absolutely wish there was some statement coming from the liquidators, not least to Mandate Trade Union, the representative body of the workers, but also to the workers themselves. They deserve, at the very least, that respect.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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In light of that fact that the kick-in time is when a liquidator is appointed, are there actions a Minister could take to intervene in future at that point when it is known that a liquidator is about to be appointed?

7:30 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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There absolutely is but the problem is that with this particular case - and one learns from every single scenario - it all happened very fast. We were not really given much notice. We had an idea of what was going on for the past number of years but obviously it was accentuated by the pandemic and decisions were made by the employer very quickly. The liquidator was appointed before we got to see that there had been no engagement for the 30 days. One can learn from every case and whoever takes over after me will, I am sure, find himself or herself in this position in the coming months because this is probably not the last liquidation we are going to see, particularly in the retail sector.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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First, I join colleagues in expressing gratitude to Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection staff across the country, particularly in my own region in Dundalk, who have worked in a Trojan-like fashion since reality of this crisis dawned on us. They represent the very best of our civil and public servants and our civil and public service culture. Unfortunately, when difficult decisions may have to be taken over the next few months, an attempt is being made to divide private and public sector workers. We are all in this together and we need to remember that. We need to respond in solidarity and understanding.

I thank the Minister, if it is appropriate, and express my gratitude to her for the way in which she has conducted herself over the past couple of years. I particularly want to express my gratitude to her for the work she did to put the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in place. The work she did on that, on an impartial and cross-party basis, stands to her and is an enormous legacy for her. The improvements that we all made together, in terms of providing more security for people in precarious work and more certainty around their hours and income will be an enormous legacy of which she can be proud. I am sorry that she was not re-elected and I hope if she chooses to stand for election again that she is elected. I know what it is like to lose a seat and then win it back. It is a difficult business, a difficult profession but it is a human business and I want to pay tribute to the Minister on a personal and professional level and thank her for the work she has done. We did not always agree but I think we worked well together to try to achieve a common objective.

Potentially thousands of jobs could be lost over the next few weeks and months as some big companies plan to exploit the pandemic that we are now experiencing in order to restructure their businesses and cut jobs. Assets will be moved out of the reach of creditors. When I say creditors, I include employees and the State. This is not an abstract issue. Debenhams has been referenced. I had the privilege of meeting a lot of Debenhams workers, with whom I have been working over the past few weeks, at the gates of Leinster House earlier. The Minister will recall that almost five years ago the Clerys workers were put out on O'Connell Street on a Friday afternoon, with very few rights and entitlements, as part of a property play. The operational part of the business was liquidated and the property that housed Clerys was essentially flipped and sold. We said at the time that this State would not allow that to happen again but the reality is that these things continue to happen. Indeed, they will continue to happen unless we take action. What has not changed, regrettably, is that the Government in which the Minister has served has not taken the opportunity to improve the legislative protections for workers caught up in liquidations like those at Debenhams and Clerys.

Four years ago, I published the recommendations from the Duffy Cahill report. That document proposed some very important legislative changes that would go towards protecting the interests of workers caught up in a liquidation and the interests of creditors, the small businesses that supply services and goods to large companies that go into liquidation. Will the Minister recommend that the legislation proposed in 2016 is finally delivered in order to protect the interests of workers who are caught up in liquidations? Will she also, in the interests of taxpayers, citizens and her Department, do something that no Minister has done to date, namely, deploy the provisions of section 599 of the Companies Act, which would allow her to go after the related assets of companies to try to retrieve resources that the State will have to make available to the workers who are caught up in this liquidation over the next few weeks, in terms of statutory redundancy payments?

Next week, the Minister will ask us to scrutinise the budget for her Department for the next few months and we know the Department is running through money at a rate of knots in responding to the crisis we are experiencing at the moment. She has put on record her commitment to continuing the €350 pandemic payment for a period, but I want her to go further than that, and it is important that she does. She needs to elaborate precisely what she wishes to do with that payment over the next few months because she is asking this House to free up taxpayers' resources to her Department to enable it to provide the resources that people need over the next few months to be able to make ends meet. It is imperative that the Minister makes it very clear what those resources are required for and how she intends to taper that payment, if that is what she wishes to do, as people start returning to work. I ask if she will take up a suggestion I made a number of weeks ago, which appears to be getting traction, that is, the development of a form of improved and enhanced short-time work scheme, customised for various sectors, to allow people to go back to work, given the hospitality and retail sectors are starting to reopen gradually.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc and economic carnage on those aged under 25. We know, from looking at the figures and from our own experience in families and communities and among the people we represent, that the jobless rate for those under 25 surged to 50% in April, which is a catastrophe. Is the Minister working with the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and the Department of Finance to develop a new deal for a new generation and to give young people hope that the future will be better than the present? An enormous amount of work has to be done to provide hope for the future for the young people of Ireland.

I want to draw the attention of the Minister, as I did through a recent parliamentary question, to the recent National Economic and Social Council, NESC, report that developed an important trajectory that could be adopted by Government in terms of providing upskilling opportunities in the green economy around a just transition for younger workers, and developing a digital economy to make this country carbon neutral and to take the opportunities to move this country on, while enhancing economic opportunities for young people. I would appreciate the Minister's views on that report and her sense of where we are at present with regard to developing that new deal for this generation to make sure this massive cohort of young people who find themselves jobless have hope for the future. The Minister knows only too well they do not have the opportunity to get on a boat or an aeroplane to go to the UK, Australia, Canada or the US, as was the case in the previous recession. We need to provide opportunities here for our younger people in a sustainable fashion.

I thank the Minister for her clarity around the request from Safe Ireland. We have all received correspondence in recent weeks from organisations represented by Safe Ireland, including from the Drogheda Women's and Children's Refuge in my own home town and from Women's Aid in Dundalk. I thank the Minister for the update on that.

I join colleagues in remarking about my own concerns that those aged over 66 and those aged under 18 are essentially being left behind by this system that was introduced, as the Minister has pointed out time and again, literally in the space of a few hours to try to deal with a very serious issue for this country. I understand what the Minister is saying in regard to the working age payments. I have a huge concern about those aged over 66 and a particular concern about those aged under 18. I have received a lot of correspondence and many telephone calls from people in my constituency, such as early school leavers who left school at 15 and 16 and trained to work in the hospitality sector but who find themselves with nothing at all.

There is a further big issue at the moment, and while I do not have the solution, it is important this is raised. We have a significant cohort of people who would have expected to start seasonal work, some in my own area who would normally work in seasonal employment in the Minister's constituency, for example, at Tayto Park, which is a big employer of people from the Louth and Meath area, but who will not be taking up employment and will find themselves in difficulty as a result. We expect to see a spike in jobseeker's payments over the next period because people who might ordinarily go on to seasonal work will now be going onto jobseeker's payments.

7:50 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will answer the question on the Duffy Cahill report and write to the Deputy on the other issues. The Deputy is aware the Duffy Cahill report was sent to the Company Law Review Group in 2016 for its consideration, as that group was advising the Minister with responsibility for business. All of the responsibilities associated with this particular issue were then with that Department. They are in mine now. The Company Law Review Group is a statutory body comprising regulatory, legal, business and employee interests. As part of its deliberations, it considered the related amendments that were proposed by Deputy Nash in the Companies (Accounting) Bill published in April 2017. Its report on the protection of employees and unsecured creditors was presented to the then Minister in 2017 and published on the group's website. Unfortunately, it did not include the implementation of the Duffy Cahill report because the group said it gave rise to a host of complex issues and that any proposal to progress them would require further and careful consideration. We need to have that further and careful consideration starting right now. With respect, I can start that in the Department but I will leave it up to the Deputy to make sure it is continued by whomever takes over from me. It really is pertinent.

The Deputy mentions the very obvious elephant in our room. Many companies will not necessarily reopen or will not reopen in the same way as before 13 March. We need to make sure that we protect the assets and employees of those companies and do right by them. This is definitely a good start. I will write to the Deputy on the other matters.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I will make a brief opening statement and then ask questions and I might get the answers one after another if possible. There was much to admire in the Department's response to the Covid-19 crisis. It was swift and I cannot imagine the amount of work the officials and staff throughout the country engaged in. We really do owe them a debt of gratitude as we do to the Minister. She is the only Minister who has picked up the phone to me and let me know what is happening. I had to chase everyone else. I thank her for that.

The €350 being given to people experiencing unemployment during the crisis has meant they can live with dignity. It has afforded comfort to families. If it was not available, we would certainly be in a much worse situation than we have been to date.

The rapidity with which the measures were introduced has caused some very large omissions in terms of who is being left out of the scheme. We have spoken about them substantially over the past hour. I will raise some of them again and ask for further information. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give me further clarity on some of these questions.

The exclusion of women returning to work from the temporary wage subsidy scheme is not specifically related to the Minister's Department but she did mention the scheme in her opening address. It is a very important issue. I have asked parliamentary questions on this omission from the scheme of women returning to work. One of the sentences included in each response has me a little worried. The explanation of the conditions included in the legislation which have allowed the exclusion is that it was specifically designed with a view to preventing abuse of the scheme. I am concerned that, so obsessed were we with the fear that some would choose to cheat the system, we locked in conditions that ultimately caused terrible discrimination to happen. While this was not done purposely, it is an anomaly and a lacuna in the law. Perhaps this has happened as a consequence of the fact we are fearful, as the Department often seems to be, that some would cheat and so we create conditions that are unfair.

Another issue on which perhaps the Minister will be able to comment is the fact that the Minister for Finance has already acted and changed the scheme on a number of occasions. He added the temporary weekly subsidy and increased it from 70% to 80%. He made this change pending legislative amendment. Why can we not do this now to bring women who were excluded into the scheme?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I hate to do this to the Deputy but I do not have the answer to the question because I am not in that Department. What I do know is that it was not done intentionally. It is wrong, we need to fix it and we are going to fix it. I do not know how we are going to fix it. From the outside, we sometimes think these things are obvious and should be easy to fix but it turns out that they are not. Regardless of how it is to be done, the problem has to be fixed and it will be this week.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I will not ask the Minister to comment on this but we need to consider who is in the room when these decisions are made. If trade union representatives were in the room, these gaps in the provisions, which exclude people, could be identified earlier.

If we are going to be making further amendments, we probably need to widen the process of who is being included in the considerations. There is the issue of the Debenhams workers. When I think about this crisis, one of the images that will stick with me forever, which the Minister has already highlighted, is the Debenhams workers standing outside their employment trying to protest in a safe, socially distant manner, and being moved on.

It was really unfortunate, but what has left a very bad taste in my mouth is the fact that we did make considerations when we altered the scheme. We made consideration of the fact that employees would not be able to access the redundancy processes if they so needed. That was enacted in the scheme in early March. I read that in the scheme, it grabbed my attention but I did not expect that within a short couple of weeks a major employer would enter a liquidation process in 11 stores throughout the country, affecting people who have worked in Debenhams for 40 years. I know some people worked in the store in Henry Street in my own constituency from when it was Roches Stores. I never considered when we were passing that legislation that we were creating a law that protected the employer and the capital but made no consideration of the employee. Is that something we can rectify very quickly in respect of these other large employers that are threatening liquidation? Is it something we can amend to ensure that the next wave of workers who are at risk will not be impacted in much the same way as the callous manner in which Debenhams has behaved? I particularly want to reference the fact that Debenhams has offset its assets over to Debenhams UK, meaning that the State, which is going to be liable for the redundancy payments, is going to be at a significant loss, although we rightly have to pay the workers. Those assets include the leases to some of these premises, which are substantial assets. What can we do in the immediate term?

8:00 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I do not think the two things are the same, even though they sound similar. When this House passed the legislation that suspended the right of an employee to apply for redundancy once they had been furloughed for longer than four weeks, we knew that it was not a real furlough. We knew everybody was going to be off work for longer than four weeks because we had closed down the country for the good of all of our public health. It was not that we were taking away the right; we were just suspending it. If people need to claim it and they cannot do so until August, it will be backdated to when they really should have been made redundant. It was just to try to protect their jobs. It was not to pick one side over the other. However, the Deputy is right. That was done and it might even need to be extended because it runs out in the next couple of weeks and we do not know how quickly we are going to get to phase 5. We do need to start looking at making sure the State as well as employees are protected in any liquidation or insolvency. Forewarned is forearmed and, based on what we have learned in the past couple of weeks, we can certainly make sure that it does not happen to the State or employees again.

I will say again, as the Deputy has said, and this is not to be critical of anybody, it really bothered me that men and women were standing outside their shops in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Dublin and they were not allowed just to quietly protest their disgust at how they had been treated after years of service, just to establish their right to be treated with respect and dignity. I think we did them a disservice by treating them a second time the way they were treated on their protest.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister and certainly echo those sentiments. I am interested in the sort of data we are collecting and collating at the moment and how we are going to apply the data. I have seen some statistics from the Office for National Statistics in the UK and they are really grim. They concern the occupations with the highest death rates linked to Covid-19 and, as one would imagine, the lower income workers in low-skilled, elementary occupations such as care and leisure and other services, and process, plant and machine operatives, are most impacted by the Covid crisis. When we are talking about extending the payments or even removing payments, do we have similar data on the type of employees who are being impacted by the Covid-19 epidemic? Can we use this to target particular employees? Once the Covid payment stops, maybe we can pick particular employment groups or employees to whom we can extend the payment. I am thinking of retail workers. When we are opening up our retail sector, for example, if we have clusters a couple of months from now and somebody loses their employment because they have to withdraw themselves, they should not have to go back onto the €203 which we have already accepted is not enough to live on. Are we collating data and can we better use it to target employees?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The first question the Deputy asked me was with regard to people passing away. I hope to God we are not; I do not know whether we are. From our perspective in my Department, we did a bit of research with the Central Bank a number of weeks ago which I published last Wednesday week. I will send a copy of it to the Deputy this afternoon. It looks at all of the people on the pandemic payment, the industries they have come from and the relative vulnerability of those industries that are due to go back in phases 2 to 5.

We know that in many cases people will not go back to companies that are in the same shape or size. Some people might not go back to work until long after phase 5. I will get all of that data for Deputy Gannon. The reason for having the data is to allow us to plan and prepare for a major programme of activation, training, education, reskilling and redeployment. While many industries are losing jobs, in a number of industries thousands of jobs are available but we do not have the people to fill them. We will try to encourage recruitment and training to move people from jobs that may no longer exist into the new economy, the new green economy and the new caring economy. There will a new way of doing different things. There will, for example, be a whole new economy developing around home working, which we may not have anticipated happening as fast as it has done.

8:10 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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On Thursday last, I raised an issue with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, who referred me to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Some 23,000 artists and freelance technicians who make their work in the arts will not be able to return to work any time soon because their jobs require crowds, which present a danger. They will not be unemployed, however. Is it possible to have a particular pandemic payment for artists or to extend the pandemic payment to our artistic community, upon whom we rely so much? The arts will probably be the last sector to return to work. Has the Minister considered that possibility?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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There are two schemes specifically for artists. Thankfully this House introduced jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed only last November. It did not exist previously and it would have cut out a large cohort of people from the pandemic payment otherwise. There is a jobseeker's payment for artists that allows them to continue to try to ply their trade and make money from it without having to be fully available to be employed in another sector. The Minister, Deputy Madigan, and I are examining whether we can expand that.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I want to return to the issue of the Debenhams workers. I have seen the correspondence between the Minister and Mandate, as I am sure many Members have. I will pick up on Mandate's last letter in which it notes that when the legislation was amended in 2007 no legislator sought to amend the particular aspects of the Act relating to the responsibility of the liquidator. It also refers a European Court of Justice ruling that provided that the obligation to engage still applies even where a company has been wound up by a court. That obligation, in this case, falls to the liquidator.

In this case, the liquidator has even more responsibility and an even greater obligation. The liquidator, KPMG, is in receipt of lucrative Government contracts. It received more that €25 million for advice on the broadband scheme, and look where that left us. It consistently receives millions of euro from all Departments. It is not acceptable for KPMG to walk away from its responsibility. I would like the Minister to comment on that and to do her best, given the level of sympathy and admiration she has for the workers, to pursue this issue with vigour and urgency. There will be more workers like the Debenhams workers coming after them.

My second question is on maternity leave. Rather than banging on about the shocking injustice and discrimination imposed on people who are on maternity leave through the denial of the wage subsidy scheme, I ask the Minister to consider extending the period of maternity leave and benefit for all of those who are currently on maternity leave, in the same way that we extended the time for planning applications and suspended aspects of legislation such as the Redundancy Payments Act. We have made exceptions in lots of areas of legislation and in the application of the State's rules. I ask this on behalf of the tens of thousands of women who have signed the online petition on this issue and are fearful of going back to work or being forced back to work and who do not have access to the wage subsidy scheme. Must they leave their children behind when there is no childcare available? I ask the Minister to extend maternity leave and benefit for the duration of the crisis in the same way the Government is extending the courtesy to other areas of society.

My final question is on direct provision. Will the Minister explain in detail, if she can, why the pandemic unemployment payment was denied to workers living in direct provision who lost their jobs in this crisis, as did many other hundreds of thousands of people, and have not been able to carry out any economic activity? More than 1,200 residents of direct provision centres have work. They include between 400 and 500 people who work in our health services to whom the issue of access to the pandemic unemployment payment obviously does not apply. The Department's website states that the pandemic unemployment payment is available to all employees and self-employed who have lost their employment due to a downturn in economic activity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The website does not state, however, that this does not apply to those in direct provision. Why do we always make an exception for residents in the direct provision service? Doing so shows that the State's history in this regard is one of abuse of those who live in that service.

We saw much of that today with the Minister for Justice and Equality and his apologies, and the lack of same. The statement says their accommodation and basic needs are covered but if somebody has a job, he or she may have invested in a car, sent his or her children to certain schools, taken out loans and so on. Now these people are suffering a reduction of €311 per week. They get the direct provision payment but not the PUP. Will the Minister please explain why?

8:20 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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With the question on Debenhams, is the Deputy asking me to comment on the letters between me and Mandate, or was it something else?

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Minister can respond in writing because otherwise it will take up too much time. There is a legal aspect in the letter that Mandate sent her about a European Court of Justice case and I ask that she expand on that. The onus is still on KPMG.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I replied to Mandate this afternoon. I will get a copy of the letter for the Deputy.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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To be clear, Mandate Trade Union, as well as almost 2,000 Debenhams workers or people who worked at Debenhams, is calling on the Minister, tonight, to appoint an authorised officer to intervene in the Debenhams liquidation. The union cites European law that gives the Minister the power to do so, but even leaving legal powers aside, there is nothing to prevent her bringing to bear political and moral pressure for the extension of the period of consultation. She should do so and not offer mealy-mouthed excuses in the House to those workers. I have to hand a copy of the redundancy notice that issued to the workers today. What a scandalous document. It cites minimum payment, statutory redundancy and payment of two weeks' wages per year of service for workers who have given a lifetime of service. Did the Minister know that in nine of the 11 stores, there are staff who go back to the Roches Stores days - 14 years and more? There is a worker in one of the shops in Cork who is heading towards 50 years' service. Contrast that with the treatment of the former chief executive officer of Debenhams UK, Mr. Sergio Bucher, who last year, when he left the company, was given a golden handshake of £700,000 sterling.

This is an injustice also to the taxpayer because Debenhams UK is asset-stripping the operation. It is asset-stripping the online business, the valuable leases and the stock. It is leaving behind nothing but debt. This is Clerys mark 2. It will cost the taxpayer and the Minister's Department €25 million at a minimum. All the while, there are 1.239 million items of stock in those 11 stores. It is stock that is listed in the Irish accounts, never in the UK accounts, yet the UK parent company is trying to make a grab for it. It is stock that, if it realised €20 per item, a conservative estimate, would raise €25 million, which could and should be used to save jobs in this country or, at the very least, to provide a decent redundancy package for the workers. This is an asset-stripping scandal.

The time has come for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to speak and to act on this issue. Fianna Fáil Deputies spoke on the issue earlier, as in previous weeks they have offered sympathy to the workers. That sympathy has been welcomed by the workers but they know, as does Fianna Fáil know, that the time has passed for words of sympathy. The time has come to act and Fianna Fáil is in a position to act. It is involved in a negotiation for government at the moment. It could bang the table and insist and demand that the State intervene. That could and should be done by Fianna Fáil.

The workers have balloted and 97% have voted for industrial action. They will picket to prevent stock being moved. The Minister's Department should actively support the workers in that stance because that would defend the interest of the taxpayer, with that €25 million at stake.

I return to my original point and ask the Minister to respond. Mandate Trade Union and almost 2,000 workers are asking the Minister to act.

They are citing European law as a justification for it. Even leaving legal powers aside, I ask the Minister to outline anything that prevents her from applying political and moral pressure to state that this period of consultation must be extended to ensure the money that is there with that stock is used to save jobs. If it is not used to save jobs, then it should at the very least be used to provide decent severance packages for these workers, who deserve it. The Minister should get off the fence. What is she prepared to do?

8:25 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will send Deputies Bríd Smith and Barry copies of the letter I sent to Mandate in response this afternoon and I will answer Deputy Bríd Smith's questions on maternity leave and direct provision. I am aware that there is a request and a large Uplift petition but, unfortunately, the matter does not fall within the remit of my Department. It falls within that of the Department of Justice and Equality and so it has been referred to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Will maternity leave be extended?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Maternity leave is a policy issue for the Department of Justice and Equality. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection just pays the benefit that is associated with the people who have the contributions towards. If a decision is made by the former Department, then we will comply with it. I will pass on the request Deputy Bríd Smith has made of me to the Minister for Justice and Equality and I will ask him to get back to her.

On the PUP for people who are here seeking asylum, anybody who does not live in the direct provision system has been able to apply and has received it. People who are living in direct provision and having their accommodation, food and associated needs provided for and paid for by the State while continuing to get the direct provision allowance of €38 per week who are precluded from claiming the PUP. That is not to be inflammatory, I am simply outlining the law. We have a maintain once principle in the State that we only look after people once and we do not look after them twice. Only the people who were not being provided with their overheads such as their accommodation, light, heat, transport, food, medical supplies, etc., are entitled to receive the income supports of €350 per week.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Are there any questions outstanding ?

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I asked a question.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I know. Unfortunately, I was trying to accommodate everybody. It does not always work that way but with a shorter intervention at the beginning, Members get a more comprehensive reply. We have to move on.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Is there a single thing that prevents the Minister, morally or politically, from campaigning on behalf of citizens?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Outstanding questions that were raised will be replied to in writing. We will move on to the Regional Group.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for the work she did in respect of people who had their PRSI records broken and who were in receipt of minimal State pensions. The Acting Chairman will know of my involvement with that issue. He was the Aire Stáit in the Department when I was first elected to the House. I raised this issue, which affects thousands of women throughout the country, with nine different Ministers for social welfare and Regina Doherty was the first who took on and addressed it. The issue mainly affected women but sometimes men were also impacted upon. These people had minimal State pensions and they now have dramatically improved State pensions as a result of the Minister's efforts so I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that.

As the Minister knows, I have now taken up the issue of the denial of the Covid-19 PUP to people over the age of 66 who are either working full-time or part-time. I want to restate that this is totally unacceptable. Anybody who is working and has lost his or her job should, regardless of age, be entitled to this payment. These were the very people who were leading by example in the Government policy of pushing up the retirement age and they are the first people who are sacrificed when it comes to welfare support. Is this fair? If one is over the age of 66 and not in receipt of a State pension, should one be eligible for the Covid-19 PUP? Those in employment over the age of 66 have additional outlays based on their income to date, such as mortgages, loan repayments, etc., in a similar manner to other people under the age of 66 with families. This cost is not being recognised, however. Why is that the case? Families with children where the only income earner is over 66 years of age are losing out as a result of this policy. What specific provisions are being put in place in these instances to prevent children from suffering additional financial hardship?

The only movement on this issue to date has been the assurance I was given that those over the age of 66 who, as a result of Covid-19, were experiencing financial hardship could look for the supplementary welfare allowance. The community welfare officers were cognisant of this group of people. I have referred a number of people with significant financial commitments and others with young families to the scheme and all have come back to say they do not meet the criteria for the supplementary welfare allowance. Will the Minister comment on this group of workers, who have been denied the pandemic unemployment payment? Will she provide me with the number in this category who have received some financial support from their local community welfare officer?

8:35 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I believe I mentioned earlier that, under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, people who are entitled to receive employment or unemployment benefits are stipulated to be between the ages of 18 and 66, the pensionable age. On becoming 66, a person becomes pensionable and receives his or her payment. On the first question the Deputy asked me, if somebody is not in receipt of a pension, he or she should apply for one. There were cases of people in receipt of payments less than the full contributory pension who have lost their income in recent weeks. We have reviewed the cases and given them a full non-contributory pension. There is only a €5 difference between that and a full contributory pension. Absolutely anybody else who has outgoings in excess of the income deemed necessary for him or her to live is being looked after by the supplementary welfare scheme. We changed the means test conditions at the beginning of our issuing of the pandemic unemployment payment to take this matter into account. Normally, it is a question of allowing people to leave alone means in the bank and allowing them, just based on their income, to be helped by the State regarding their outgoings. The Deputy mentioned he has a number of constituents whom he believes have applied but who have not been helped. If he wants to give the names to me, I can certainly examine the cases but our doors are open. Our community welfare officers have all been instructed to help as many people as they can in as many ways as they can. Many of our schemes, including the one-parent family scheme, have changed. We have tried to be accommodating. We have not quite thrown out all the rules but we have been as flexible as possible to ensure we leave nobody behind regarding income supports.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Does the Government realise the HSE's contact tracing system is just not working? While the HSE is trying to bamboozle us with its mean and median figures for positive and negative test results and figures for the performing of tests and contract tracing, giving eight different figures, the reality is that the disclosure of medical results to employers rather than employees was, I believe, to cover up the fact that the contact tracing system is just not working. I made this point in the House to the Minister for Health last Thursday. From my limited data, for about 2% of people tested, there are no test results. It is taking the HSE three weeks to inform people of the fact that their samples have been either damaged or lost, or that it has not been possible to read them. There are many instances in which people in receipt of the Covid-19 illness benefit for the maximum two weeks pending a Covid-19 test result have had to seek an extension of the payment because the results were not back or because they had to be retested. Will the Minister indicate how many have sought that extension?

Second, claimants who are asymptomatic Covid-19 positive, that is, those who are showing no sign of infection, are eligible to receive the Covid-19 illness benefit payment for up to 14 days. How many of these specific claimants are in payment for less than two weeks? The reason they are in payment for less than two weeks is that screening in the nursing homes and meat plants involved a wait of five to seven days, or 13 in one instance, before the communication of a result. The Minister might wonder why I am asking her this specific question. The reason is that, in the case of the person who had to wait 13 days for a positive result and who worked in a large nursing home in the east of the country, they had to self-isolate for one day before returning to work. Amazingly, the HSE still has no plan to retest the residents or employees in the nursing home in question.

How can we eradicate the Covid-19 illness benefit payments when such actions are being taken by the HSE?

8:45 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for the good wishes and the compliments he gave me earlier. I am very glad I have no responsibility for the public health response or the contract tracing. The witnesses who were here yesterday are the people to whom the Deputy probably should have addressed those questions.

Regarding the payments, there does not need to be an extension because the law allows people to self-isolate for two periods of two weeks, which is a total of four weeks. They do not need to apply for extensions; they just need to keep giving us the certs. As for people who are asymptomatic, for as long as they are isolating, as long as their GPs send in the certs with the category "unfit for work due to Covid" marked, we will continue to look after them. There is no limit on the length of time somebody can be sick with Covid because, as we know, different people recover in different ways and the virus affects some people very mildly and some people, unfortunately, not so mildly. There is therefore no cut-off time for keeping people on the payment. What I will do, and what might be interesting, is to get the Deputy the data on the people and the numbers of people who have applied for illness benefit because of self-isolation and those who have applied because they are actually not well.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The reason I flagged this with the Minister is that she has raw data within her Department that could be of use to Government in clarifying the absolute failure of the HSE on the contact tracing system, which is just not working.

My final question to the Minister concerns people who are self-isolating because they have been advised to do so as they are vulnerable to the risks of Covid-19. Covid-19 could have very serious health implications for them if they are infected by it. The advice we were given at briefings in the Department of An Taoiseach a number of weeks ago was that these people would be considered for the Covid-19 illness benefit payment, but on the website and in written communication from her Department I have been told this is not the case. Can I have clarity on that?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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If those people are self-isolating and have certs from their GPs stating they are self-isolating because they are vulnerable, they can apply for the two two-week periods. However, somebody who is vulnerable obviously does not stop being vulnerable after the two weeks, so then such people are entitled to apply for the Covid PUP as long as they make a declaration that their income has fallen away. They can be maintained as employees, but as long as the company is no longer paying them they can apply for the Covid payment and stay on it for as long as it is in place. Again, the Deputy sounds like he has somebody in mind. If he does, I would be happy to take the details from him.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Minister in advance for dealing with these very important issues. I know they have been touched on before, but on behalf of my constituents and people who have contacted me I wish to ask the Minister to strongly support the call for maternity leave to be extended. I raised this earlier with another Minister. Maternity leave should be extended for mothers at this time. It is a matter that has been raised by many representatives. There is a massive signature campaign going on, with more than 20,000 signatures collected so far. The call of people who have had babies during this pandemic to have the length of leave extended is a very fair, reasonable and sensible suggestion to make.

Another issue about which I and others have contacted the Minister is the extension of the Covid payment to seasonal workers. She knows that in the county I come from we have a massive number of people working in the tourism industry. If this crisis had struck a month or six weeks later, an awful lot of people who are debarred from qualifying would have qualified, and it is most unfortunate that they find themselves at home. They do not have work but, because of the nature of their work in restaurants and bars and the hospitality sector, they had not worked on 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 March and they lost out. That is most unfortunate.

The other group I wish to talk about are people who are over 66 and who are on a pension. They might have owned a small country bar or some other type of small business.

These people were getting their pensions and supplementing their livelihoods with the little amount of money they earned from their small businesses. Those businesses are now gone. The people in question are not coming to me saying that they want €350 per week on top of their pensions. However, if they are on a pension of €220 or €240 or €230 per week, they want to know whether the Minister could not look at giving them an increment to take them up to €350 and put them on the same level as everyone else. They would be grateful for that. The number of people who have asked me about that is striking. They have stated that they are not looking for €350 on top of their pensions but they are looking to get to €350 in total. That would compensate them in some small way for losing their businesses. I have one couple in particular in my mind. They have been loyal servants behind the counter of a local bar in County Kerry for many years. That bar is now shut. They were offering a great service to their community. The business is now gone and they are left with only their pensions. They are finding it really difficult to manage.

I have no wish to eat into the Minister's time - I want to allow here to respond - but the matter of the Debenhams workers has rightly been raised already. I stood with those people this week in Tralee. They really are being blackguarded and treated most unfairly. I would like to see the Minister supporting them, as I know she would. I am grateful to her in advance for saying that she supports them.

8:55 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I will start by wishing the Minister every success. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Uasal Doherty as an sárobair a rinne sí. I also want to acknowledge the hardworking staff in the Department who have managed to process thousands of applications in a short period. Their work needs to be acknowledged here as well.

I recently raised the issue of carers who have sought access to the PUP. I am glad to say that a family carer who works fewer than 18.5 hours per week but who loses her job is now entitled to receive the Covid-19 payment and keep the carer's allowance.

I want to raise the issue of employment activation measures. I raised it on several occasions in the lifetime of the previous Dáil. As we know, there has been serious disagreement in the House between the Government and Opposition about the effectiveness and value for money of the existing JobPath programmes and especially the role played by Turas Nua and Seetec. We know from the latest data that 226,851 people have been referred to the JobPath service but that only 14,617 held down jobs for over a year. The latest figures show that in the four years the scheme has been operational, the Government has spent over €182 million on it. The two private companies, Turas Nua and Seetec, have received €75.7 million and €73.3 million, respectively. I recently tabled a parliamentary question on the matter. The reply indicated that the Department is currently reviewing all contracted public employment services. This review is being undertaken with the aim of designing and introducing a comprehensive model that is fit for purpose for the Irish labour market from 2021 onwards. Are we to take it that referrals to Turas Nua will continue for the rest of this year? It is my sincere hope that a different and more client-friendly approach is rolled out in future. The number and character of the complaints around the nature of the service provided by Turas Nua are too consistent in the sense that those who have been made to attend regularly feel belittled or patronised by the service. I have received a large volume of complaints at my offices in the recent past on this issue.

Another issue arises with community employment, CE, schemes. I want to ask about the report on the future of CE schemes. It is my understanding that the report has been published. When will it be made available? Recently, I met a group of CE scheme supervisors. That question was asked. In addition, I am keen to ask about the pension scheme for CE supervisors as per the Labour Court ruling. I imagine the Minister has heard this over and over but I will reiterate it because it is of serious concern to the supervisors and I am keen for some clarity on the matter as well.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Michael Healy-Rae noted that other people have brought up the question of maternity leave extension. I have said it is not within my remit but I will certainly bring people's concerns to the Minister for Justice and Equality.

There was mention of seasonal workers and those who are over the age of 66. With respect, the position with those over 66 arises because the current legislation in which the pandemic unemployment payment is enshrined relates to people within the social insurance system aged 18 to 66. If any changes must be made, this House will make them. Unfortunately, I was only guided by the current law of the land. It is fair to say the Deputy knows how quickly the pandemic unemployment payment was established because of need but there was never an intention to exclude people. This is why we have been adamant that those who are over 66 would be included in the wage subsidy scheme. I feel for the two people mentioned by the Deputy but I have had hundreds of people in similar circumstances coming to me. It was important to include them in the wage subsidy scheme but it was equally important to ensure anybody who was not able to go into that would have available the newly reduced means test criteria of the supplementary welfare scheme. Some of the self-employed people could keep on their workers with the temporary wage subsidy scheme but not themselves, for example.

I genuinely hope these efforts are working. I have heard stories and some people over 66 have relatively young children in school or college and they must pay fees, for example. It is not just as simple as thinking that a person gets to 66 and he or she has no outgoings any more and will be grand with a pension. Anybody on a reduced pension should definitely apply for a non-contributory pension and if such people have no other income, they will get the full amount. It is one of the issues that has pained me most in the past couple of weeks. Much of what we have got right has been really good and it has had an impact. If there was any way I could have included people over 66 in the employment legislation, I would have done so. It was just not possible.

I might give the Deputy a copy of the letters that have gone back and forth between me and the Mandate union with respect to the Debenhams workers. They clearly explain the legal advice that the Attorney General gave me yesterday and which precludes me from interfering at this stage of the process. I put on the record of the House that we have been engaged with workers. We did a Zoom activation meeting with over 200 workers just over a week ago, which was probably the oddest experience for everybody involved. Most of the people found it very helpful and we got some lovely emails afterwards. We will work with those people to ensure they are retrained, re-energised and re-employed by somebody else. We will ensure they get their entitlement and the State will step in if necessary. Carers were always entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment and we ensured that anybody working those 18.5 hours or less was as entitled as anybody else to apply for it.

There was mention of the activation job we will have over the next couple of months. I probably will not be the person making the policy on how we activate people who will not go back to work. I can only give some solace in saying that JobPath only looks after people who are on the live register longer than 12 months. We hope that anybody who has lost a job or will lose a job in the next couple of weeks can be retrained and worked with in a period far shorter than 12 months. Those decisions will be made during the formation of the next Government and included in the programme for Government. That will not include me.

The report referred to by Deputy Nolan has been published and I am surprised people have not got a copy of it. I will make sure the Deputy gets a copy today. It is just over a year since I first met community employment supervisors in an attempt to fix that matter. Unfortunately, I was not successful in doing that but I very much hope that whoever is lucky enough to be in my position in the next Government will be successful in the matter and give them what they deserve.

9:05 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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What about the seasonal workers?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I beg the Deputy's pardon. The scheme was set up for income lost but not forgone income. It would be incredibly difficult to figure out who was or was not going to get a job. That is not to say the social welfare code does not look after those people. They are all entitled to apply for jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Marian Harkin. I wish the Minister the best of luck in whatever path she takes and I also pay tribute to the staff in the Department. They have worked incredibly hard and it is important we place that on record.

The Minister dealt with the maternity leave extension and it is something that also concerns me, along with the position of people over 66. I will not repeat those points and the Minister has clearly set out where the difficulty lies. I will zone in on something with which the Minister may be able to help, the plight of foreign language students. There are approximately 1,000 of these students from a range of countries, with Brazil being the nationality of the highest number of these students. Approximately 66% are from Brazil and a number are from Mexico. They found themselves in a terrible position, as they have paid money for courses that will not go ahead and they have not got back that money. There was also a question as to whether they were entitled to a social welfare allowance.

They did not seem to be as a result of the habitual residence requirement. As to those entitled to the special needs payment, it is a one-off payment and there is no appeal mechanism. While it is good that community welfare officers are entitled to exercise their discretion, there is no consistency. We asked for a task force to be established and I understand that a working group has been set up, with the Minister's Department a part of it. Will the Minister clarify what has been learned, what the extent of the problem is and what numbers are getting what payments?

9:15 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for the good wishes. I will provide the numbers in writing because I do not have them with me. Anyone who did not have a PPS number was not entitled to the PUP. Someone needed to be working in-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I understand all of that.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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We have issued 5,000 plus PPS numbers to people, most of whom are foreign students or others from abroad whom we probably did not know about beforehand. In the absence of a PPS number, we have been giving people the supplementary welfare allowance, a weekly payment equivalent to what they require to meet their needs. The task force is working, but I am not aware of anyone who is not receiving a payment from us in some shape or form. That is, unless people have not presented themselves to us yet. If the Deputy knows of someone who is not getting the money, give me the details and I will look after him or her.

Our aim was to leave no one behind. If someone did not have a PPS number, we would get him or her one. If someone did not want to get a PPS number, we would get him or her the supplementary welfare allowance, which did not require a PPS number.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That is welcome. Perhaps the Minister could give me the figures and the breakdown of same.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The group I am speaking about is a quantifiable number of approximately 1,000 people. I understood that there was no clarity regarding the supplementary welfare allowance. There is clarity regarding the special needs payment, but that is a one-off payment and there is no appeals process. If the Minister is telling me that the language students qualify for the supplementary welfare allowance, it is positive and welcome news. Perhaps she could give me that in writing, as it was not clear when I raised the matter a few weeks ago in the Dáil. As the Minister might imagine, the students are quite desperate and facing language difficulties. They formed a group, though, and have been telling us about the difficulties on the ground. I would appreciate it if I could get what the Minister mentioned in writing.

If there is spare time, I will leave it to my colleague.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will get that to the Deputy, if not today, then tomorrow.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for her presence. I also thank her, her officials and all the relevant staff throughout the country for working unstintingly and showing great commitment to ensuring that people get their payments. Nothing is perfect, but from what I have seen, this has been first class.

I have not been in the Chamber because, in asking questions of a number of Ministers, I have been conscious of time. However, I have been listening to everything and am aware of the Minister's responses. When speaking about victims of domestic violence not being able to access the emergency rent supplement, she went on to state that she had formulated a new response in recent days. Would it be possible to provide any detail on that?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The response that was formulated was driven by the Departments of Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs, which are responsible for providing for the needs in question. Safe Ireland and the National Women's Council approached us in recent weeks to say that the supplement had not been working exactly how they had envisaged. They asked whether we could be the direct referral body and the Garda Síochána could be an authorised referrer. We have considered the matter for the past couple of days and looked at how we were dealing with people. People are entitled to make applications for rent supplement for themselves. They have been doing so. In fact, we have been providing emergency accommodation in bed and breakfasts for people until we get them their rent supplement.

I believe that the principal officer reverted to Safe Ireland today to indicate that the referrer could be the lady or gentlemen herself or himself. The Garda can refer to us, as can Tusla. We do not want to step on anyone's toes. Tusla and the local authorities are the established agencies to provide the people in question long-term resources and security, but we are not going to turn anyone away. Our rent supplement application form has been reduced from 28 pages to four. We are dealing with those people sensitively, compassionately and more quickly than we would with someone else. That is not to say that we are not dealing with everyone else quickly. We are, but the Deputy knows what I mean.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I am not sure, but are the victims being seen as a priority group?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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They have to be. To be honest, the numbers applying for rent supplement in recent months have not been large. That section is looking after people on the same day they come in or the next day.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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It is important that they be seen as a priority group because they are largely invisible.

My next question is one the Minister, Regina Doherty, has already dealt with here today,namely, self-employed people over 66 years of age whose business was shutdown who are not entitled to the PUP but who can access the temporary wage subsidy scheme. However, a sole trader or the self employed can access neither payment. The Minister did say that those people can access the supplementary welfare scheme. My question is if they do that will that bring them up to the same level as the PUP?

The issue of Debenhams has been raised here. I agree with the Minister's remarks regarding the protests etc.. The Minister mentioned that the 1975 legislation is quite old. I refer her to the 1998 European legislation which is, in the main, about consultation etc. but it does state that "nothing in the legislation prevents a member state from ensuring more favourable terms for workers" etc.. I know it cannot be retrospective but in the context that, probably, we will see more of this, I ask that the Department takes a look at that. It appears that Debenhams has blind-sided the Department to some extent. I do not attach any blame in that regard but we must ensure it does not happen again.

In regard to Brexit, many UK firms will not consider themselves bound by EU legislation or, at best, it will be a contested reality. Again, I think we need to keep this in mind when considering updating our legislation.

I have met a number of people who have no concept of the fact that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and all social welfare payments and income is taxable and that come the end of the year many people will be pursued by Revenue for tax that is owed. So many people have no concept of this. A public awareness campaign is needed immediately because we are going to be hearing terrible stories at the end of the year about this. This is not the fault of the Minister, Regina Doherty, but so many people are unaware of this.

9:25 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The supplementary welfare payment does not try to bring everybody up to the €350 payment. Rather, it looks at individual outgoings. For example, the Deputy's household might be different to my household if we were both over 66. We are looking at people as individuals, taking account of their outgoings and whether they are necessary. For example, we might pay for somebody's mortgage or rent but not for a large car. We are looking at people as individuals.

I will provide copies of the letters to and from Mandate, which clearly show the legal advice I got from the Attorney General. The Deputy is correct - I said this earlier on - that we need to convene to examine what we should have learned and can learn from the interactions and the swiftness of Debenham's such that we are prepared if and when it does happen again.

The Deputy is also correct that all income is taxable. This will require people to do a self declaration at the end of the year. The reason I have not done an advertising campaign is that we have done a great deal over the last couple of weeks, not least our efforts to try to keep the radios and newspapers with a little revenue coming into them. I do not know how the Revenue Commissions are going to deal with this. It depends on whether they deal with it on a week one, month one basis. That will determine how we let people their entitlements or obligations. As soon as the Revenue Commissions make up their minds the Department will do an advertising campaign.

Sitting suspended at 7 p.m. and resumed at 7.20 p.m.