Thursday, 28 May 2020
Estimates for Public Services 2020 - Vote 37 - Employment Affairs and Social Protection (Revised Estimate)
That a sum not exceeding €16,298,646,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, for certain services administered by that Office, for payments to the Social Insurance Fund and for certain grants and that a sum not exceeding €1,187,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.
I call on the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, to address the House on this matter. I welcome the Minister. It is good to have her before us. We look forward to an interesting and stimulating debate on this substantial Estimate.
I am seeking the House's approval for this Revised Estimate in order that we can continue to provide much-needed social welfare payments to our people. I am referring not just to payments related to the pandemic but also to all of our ordinary payments, namely, child benefit, pensions, carer's payments, payments to lone parents, payments to people with disabilities, as well as much more besides including community employment, other employment services and the carer's respite grant which is due next week. Without the House's approval today, we cannot proceed to make the necessary arrangements next week to process due payments and all of our payments would cease.
The Revised Estimates for Public Services 2020 was published in December last year. The projected expenditure for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the original Estimate was €21.2 billion. Just over €11 billion of this was voted expenditure, paid through the Exchequer, to provide in the main for social assistance payments to pensioners, people with disabilities, jobseekers, child benefit and so on. The remaining €10 billion was to provide for social insurance benefits, paid for through the Social Insurance Fund.
As the House is aware, much has happened since then. The Revised Estimates before the House are unusual in two respects. First, it has become urgent to seek the House's approval for a higher level of expenditure this year. This is driven by the necessary measures we have taken to protect our people, insofar as we can, from the threat posed by Covid-19 and then, as a consequence of the essential measures taken to protect the health of our people, from the economic fallout as businesses have had to close and people have had to remain at home.
Second, given the scale of the exceptional measures we have taken, we will, within the next week or so, reach the ceiling under the four-fifths rule for expenditure. This is much earlier in the year than we could have considered possible a few months ago.
Accordingly, we now require the House's approval for this new Estimate to ensure we have the legal basis to continue to provide all our welfare payments.
The Revised Estimate provides for expenditure of more than €28 billion in 2020, or an increase to date of €6.8 billion over and above the Estimate published in December. That Estimate was based on the continued provision of supports to all sectors of society in need of or entitled to income supports, assuming the economy and labour market would continue on the positive trend they were following at the time. That seems a long time ago and, as we now know, that is no longer going to be sufficient to cover the expenditure of the Department. At this time, the Government has not yet made a decision on the future of the pandemic unemployment payment or the temporary wage subsidy scheme. In that respect, this Estimate has been constructed on a no policy change basis. It is based on the decision made by the Government and approved by this House in March to introduce the pandemic unemployment payment and temporary wage subsidy scheme for a 12-week period until the middle of June. That time limit was set at a time there was significant uncertainty as to the nature and trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic. We now have much more information on the pandemic and the Government has published its Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, which will result in the economy being reopened on a phased basis over the period to August 2020. Given the timeframe within the roadmap, it is not appropriate to withdraw the emergency income supports after 12 weeks as originally envisaged. I am happy to confirm again today that the payments will extend beyond the original June end date. As we gradually move through the phases of reopening our society, we need to review the nature of the pandemic unemployment payment and how it fits into cross-Government plans to keep Ireland healthy but also to get the country working again. We are currently considering this and intend to bring forward proposals for some changes within the next week or so. Any future decisions will be based on our commitment that everyone who needs help will get the most appropriate assistance and will also be based on the evidence we receive from the reopening of the economy. In the meantime, to ensure that all social welfare recipients can continue to receive their payments, it is necessary to present this Estimate at this time and we do so on the basis of decisions that have been made.
Thirteen different categories of expenditure related to Covid-19 give rise to the requirement for the additional €6.8 billion in the Estimate to date. The payment of the pandemic unemployment payment up to 9 June is estimated to cost €2.23 billion. The provision of the temporary wage subsidy scheme up to 12 June accounts for a further €2.07 billion. This €4.3 billion expenditure is the main reason for the significant spending on the social protection Vote to date. The remainder of the Covid-19 related expenditure relates to increased spending on existing social welfare schemes. Projections on the levels of unemployment for the remainder of 2020 are based on those published in the stability programme update. Jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's assistance and jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed is projected to increase by a total of €2.2 billion. This will bring total spending in 2020 on jobseekers' payments to nearly €4.2 billion. More families are expected to qualify for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance this year, which will cost an additional €98.9 million. The enhanced illness benefit payments to those diagnosed with Covid or self-isolating as a probable source of infection are estimated to cost €74 million. Additional expenditure on rent supplement is projected at €70 million, and our anticipated increased spending on redundancy and insolvency payments will be €44.5 million and €8.9 million respectively. Additionally, we added four weeks of fuel allowance in March and April which cost €34 million. A provision of €5.5 million for 1,000 additional places on each of our community employment and Tús schemes are included in these Estimates.
While much of the additional expenditure is being provided to meet the challenges of Covid, we cannot lose sight of the core business of providing income supports to some 1.4 million recipients whose income support is not related to the pandemic. Approximately 30% of our expenditure will be on pensions, which will amount to €8.4 billion, while working age income supports are estimated to cost €7.8 billion, or almost 28% of total spending, in 2020. When account is taken of the €4.23 billion in respect of both the pandemic unemployment payment and the increased jobseekers' payments, more than €3.5 billion will be paid in other supports. These include the one-parent family payment, maternity and paternity benefits and treatment benefits. Illness, disability and carers' payments represent 17% of our budget, or €4.8 billion as projected. Spending on working age employment supports is estimated to cost €2.75 billion, which is nearly 10% of the total Estimate. Some €2.07 billion of this spending relates to the temporary wage subsidy scheme.
The scheme is administered on our behalf by the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. Expenditure on children is €2.8 billion, representing another 10% of our overall spend, and supplementary payments, including the household benefits package and free fuel schemes, are estimated to cost approximately €970 million, or just over 3%.
I feel that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has responded quickly and efficiently to the emergency that was brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, its Vote has been used to shield our people not just from the financial effects of the crisis but also from the potential health and life consequences. In its response, the expenditure from my Department played a pivotal role in ensuring that people had food on their tables and, in turn, that social harmony has ensured a high level of public compliance with the health restrictions which were introduced to help us tackle the virus. That is important to say.
With the approval of this House, I hope these Estimates will enable us to provide social welfare payments during the months ahead. Failure to approve the Estimates will mean that my Department will not have a legal basis to continue with the payments and that would be devastating in its consequences for the people who we are meant to serve. I hope and trust that we will have a constructive discussion today and that we get the positive outcome of continuing to serve the people we are here to serve.
I welcome the Minister to the House. We are all familiar with the expression, "I cannot believe what I am hearing." Today, I cannot believe what I am not hearing. We are in a situation where the House is being asked to vote for an additional €6,840 million of taxpayers' money for increased social welfare payments, which I welcome, but without any information whatsoever as to the future of this payment. I have been inundated with questions from people asking when the payment is going to end, for how long is it going to continue, is it going to be tapered or modulated, etc. I simply cannot answer those people. The answer I gave was that the Dáil will debate this expenditure on Thursday and, surely to goodness, we will have an announcement then. We are still without an announcement and it seems to me that the caretaker Government was very happy to take the plaudits for increasing the level of social welfare from €203 to €350 for a single individual affected by the pandemic but it wants to shirk the responsibility of taking any decision about how long the payment will continue, and if it is to be terminated, how that will happen, etc. People are looking for certainty.
I note that the Minister said in her opening statement, which we did not get a copy of, that she will be announcing some other changes within the next week. Can she clarify if those changes are going to represent a Government decision about how long the payment is going to continue and whether, if and when it is decided to bring the payment to a conclusion, that will be done in a modulated and tapered way, rather than presenting people with a cliff-edge situation where they go from €350 a week to €203 a week in the case of a single individual? Whether this Government or the next one makes the decision about this payment, I urge it to be extremely cautious and to consider carefully today's report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, which warns about the dangers of a quick return to austerity. The gist of the ESRI report is that a different approach to getting the economy back on an even keel must be taken from that which was previously adopted in the wake of the 2011 crash. This has to be an inclusive recovery based on reflating the economy. The ESRI has warned, in the most alarmist terms possible, that any early reduction in these payments would have a catastrophic effect. The Minister will know that in her constituency, my constituency and throughout the country, there are thousands of small businesses that have been decimated as a result of this pandemic.
They desperately need people in their regions who have spending power in order that they can purchase the goods and services they are providing. To quickly terminate this payment which is putting money into the local economy would, in my view, have the exact opposite of whatever effect was desired. Obviously, the desired effect is to start the economy growing again as quickly as possible.
As for all this propaganda about these alleged 200,000 people who are supposedly gaming the system and gaining, not wanting to go back to work, lying on couches all day watching flat-screen televisions etc., the statistics behind this figure of 200,000 were raised by various Members. In the documentation accompanying the Estimates, the Minister stated that these figures were based on statistics produced by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which indicated that in the region of 40% of the total number in receipt of pandemic unemployment payment had previously been earning €300 a week per week or less. That is the most peculiar piece of reasoning I have ever seen since the late Lord Denning, in his judgment in the Birmingham Six case, stated that it had to have happened this way because the West Midland police said this is what happened. The vast majority of those 200,000 people are working part-time and are in receipt of partial social welfare. The people who are talking about these alleged 200,000 people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the Government has clearly signalled - I can tell the Minister when and where - that for those who fall into that category, if their pandemic payment exceeds the wage they were earning when they were working, in other words, if their wage was less than €350 per week, there will be a clawback. Their social welfare will be reassessed based on the fact that instead of having the €200 a week on which their social welfare was based, they were now getting €350 a week. That will be treated as income from employment for the purposes of recalibrating their social welfare, which will result, of course, in a situation where all those people will be in arrears. Again, I ask the Minister what is the Department's proposal in respect of collecting those arrears. Is it determined to go ahead with it and if so, how is it going to do it? One must remember many of those people, when the pandemic ends, will be back onto ordinary social welfare levels. Those of them who are unfortunate enough not to have a job to go back to will probably receive a slightly increased level of social welfare but in any situation their circumstances will be markedly worse.
We are all aware of the anecdotal evidence about students and others working a few hours a week in a bar and then getting €350 per week etc., but there are a few points to bear in mind here. First, all the indications are anyway that it is a payment for a limited period. It will not be indefinite. Second, the money is being spent, as I stated previously, in the local economy helping to keep small businesses alive. Many such businesses have gone to the wall and will not reopen, but those of them that are clinging on by their fingertips are being kept alive by the sort of money that is being poured into the economy through schemes such as this. Let me remind the Minister that under the wage subsidy scheme, the employers are topping up the payment, while 85% or whatever percentage is coming from the Government. Therefore, these people are getting paid their full wages - the wages they were earning at work or they would be earning if they went back to work - simply by staying at home if the enterprise is closed down. Nobody is suggesting that it is handier to get money at home than going out to work for the same amount of money. Nobody is suggesting that those people are gaming the system or do not want to go back to work etc.
I would further point out - I have done some checking on this - that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is quite entitled, if it comes to its attention that a person has been offered a job and does not want to accept it, to review his or her Covid payment on that basis.
Regardless of the announcement the Minister is going to make during the week, I do not see any basis for constructing a huge bureaucratic system with more rules, regulations and means testing to get at the minority, 200,000 people, who are allegedly better off under what is after all a temporary payment system.
I resent the overtones concerning fraud in some of the statements made on all sides of the political divide. There is no fraud here. People declared honesty what they were earning and their circumstances, and the Government introduced legislation in the House to give them the payment. Therefore, there is no fraud. Looking at the instances of those who have been apprehended for defrauding the system since the Covid payment system was introduced, one sees the figures are minuscule. They mirror the general figures for social welfare fraud.
There are some other questions to which I want answers. Has the Government yet sorted out the anomaly whereby a person who was on maternity leave on 29 February cannot be taken back under the wage subsidy scheme? This is an absurdity. I tabled a question on this last week and the Minister's reply indicated people had to be on the payroll on 29 February or there would be all sorts of possibilities of fraud, abuse and loopholes. I understand that the wage subsidy scheme will apply to people who were on the payroll on 29 February but surely the rule should not apply to somebody who was in the employ of an organisation but who was simply not working at the time in question because she happened to be on maternity leave. A job applicant cannot be refused a job on the basis of being pregnant, nor can a woman be sacked simply because she is pregnant. What is happening is blatant discrimination. It is contrary to the both the equality legislation and the maternity legislation in 1994.
I notice there is a campaign for a three-month extension of the maternity benefit. Many people got a reply from the Minister for Justice and Equality - it is his area - that was, to say the least of it, patronising and condescending and that outlined to people all they were getting already. I presume one has to draw the conclusion - the Minister does not draw it himself - that there is no need for this three-month extension. The Minister seems blissfully unaware of the fact that if someone is on maternity leave during the Covid period she has to stay on the maternity benefit which, as matters stand, is €100 per week less than the Covid payment, but that when her maternity leave finishes she is entitled to get the Covid payment. I would imagine the cost of this would be minimal and relieve a great deal of anxiety and distress.
The over-66s are still in limbo. I got the Minister's answers and thank her for replying to me after last week's debate. The reality remains, however. I have a Bill, as does Sinn Féin, to outlaw the practice of putting a clause in a contract to force people to retire at 65. The Government has indicated it has no objection to any of our Bills. It is the policy all over that people should be allowed to continue to work and contribute to the economy after the age of 65. The message sent out is completely contrary to that. What we are saying to people is that if they continue to work over the age of 66 and certain circumstances arise, they will be treated less favourably than younger people. The Minister indicated in a reply to me that there are all sorts of concessions, such as the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance. That is fair enough but there is still a gap between what a single person over 66 has by way of pension and the Covid payment of €350. There cannot be too many people who would benefit if the Government were to allow a top-up. Perhaps that is irrelevant in the context of the Government's intentions regarding the Covid payment but I do not know because we are in the dark. We have no information as to what is going to happen.
I ask the Minister for assurance that the local employment services will be front and centre in labour activation in this country from here on in. Will she assure me that the Government's decision to stop referrals to Seetec and Turas Nua by December next will be implemented? The Minister has already said publicly that it will be but, if that is the case, what is the explanation for the survey sent out to social welfare recipients earlier this year, several copies of which I have seen, seeking opinions as to how Turas Nua and Seetec could provide a better service? If these referrals are to come to an end in December, why are we doing a survey as to what these companies could do to provide a better service? These private companies, Turas Nua and Seetec, have taken €140 million or €150 million from the Irish taxpayer for a very poor return. I seek assurance from the Minister that Seetec and Turas Nua will not be back again usurping the good work of the local employment services at the end of the year as a result of the increased rates of unemployment we will have to tackle. If half of that money were to be invested in local employment services, I can assure the Minister the return would be much better.
My time is coming to an end but, as a final point, it appears to be policy on all sides of the House that our economic recovery from this pandemic should not be grounded on austerity given the experience we had when the last attempt at recovery was based, across Europe and across the world, on austerity measures. All economic indicators show that is the wrong way to go. I hope that will be reflected in whatever decisions the Minister takes in the next week or which the Government which replaces hers takes in due course.
I am sharing time with Deputy Brady. I will be taking ten minutes and he will be taking five. The Minister is absolutely right in saying that a failure to pass these Estimates today would create a real challenge for people who depend on all of these payments. We will certainly be supporting the Revised Estimates. We want a constructive debate so I will give way to the Minister if she wants to interject at any time during my ten minutes. The Minister will accept that pointing out what we see as problems, failures or concerns is also being constructive and that doing so is part of our job.
The first and most obvious point to make, which was made by the previous speaker, is that the fundamental flaw in the Estimate being presented is that it operates on the basis of making no change to policy when everybody knows that policy will be changed. The Estimate operates on the basis that all of the Covid emergency payments, including the two main ones, the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme, will come to an end at some time in early June and that people will then transfer on to social welfare payments. We received mixed messages from the Taoiseach and other Ministers yesterday. I have no reason to doubt what the Taoiseach said but while he stated there is no reason for people to fear and that the current emergency payments will continue as they are, he also stated that no decision had yet been made. He said that Cabinet had not made a decision and that it might be a decision for a new Government in the future. It cannot be both. I am assuming that the Taoiseach meant the Government foresees these payments being extended in the short term but that a decision will be made in the medium to longer term, perhaps after the formation of a new Government, as to the rates that will apply and for how long they will remain in place.
The difficulty in all of this is that it sows confusion. People depend on these payments and the vast majority of them want to go back to work; let there be no doubt about that. Despite all of the unnecessary rhetoric associated with some of these measures - the previous speaker spoke about percentages of people who may be slightly better off or much better off - the vast majority of these people are working and want to go back to work. That is their first objective. They also, however, have bills to pay. As we sit here today and debate these Estimates, none of these workers has any certainty. The Taoiseach made a commitment on the floor of the Dáil that the payments would continue but we do not know for how long or how much they will be worth. These people have mortgages, rents to pay and food to put on the table. They have to plan for the future.
The payments are due to end in two weeks' time. It would be helpful if the Government were to make a firm decision on them and give those workers the certainty they need. I am sure the Minister will accept that these are people who are worried and concerned. It is not a case of the Opposition or others trying to add to that fear and anxiety. We are all being lobbied and asked questions by people who are on those payments about what is going to happen in two weeks' time. We cannot give clear and firm answers because what the Taoiseach said yesterday, on the one hand, is that no decision has been made yet by the Cabinet, but he also said that the payments will continue. People are confused and it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that.
It is important to point out that the decisions we make economically and fiscally are hugely important. All of the international evidence, as we see today in more reports coming out of think tanks and others, is that what we need is investment and stimulus and to continue with all of the income supports that are in place. If we do not, small to medium-sized businesses are in real trouble. If we start, as we did in the past, taking the axe to social welfare and cutting the incomes of people on low pay, they will not have any discretionary spend. They do not have very much anyway, if any at all, on €350. If we start cutting their payments, they will be in real trouble and we will end up creating more problems for ourselves, as we did in the past, because they will not be able to pay their mortgages and that will create problems for the banks. They will not be able to pay their utility bills, which will create problems for those companies. They will not be able to pay their rents and that will create problems for those tenants. All of these issues are intertwined and inter-tangled. We need to make sure we make the right political choices regarding investment and stimulus.
Our first priority has to be to get people back to work, and we do that by making the right choices. We have to accept, as I am sure the Minister will accept, that there are some sectors of the economy that will take longer to recover. We know what sectors they are, including hospitality and tourism. Unfortunately, they will take longer to recover and we need sectoral recovery packages for them. For the people who work in those sectors, there is going to be an emergency for some time to come. When we introduce emergency payments, we cannot then say that, at some point in the future, we might revise those schemes and cut them back, even though the emergency still exists and people still have bills to pay. We are making a reasonable assertion to Government that for as long as the emergency continues for those workers, the emergency payments should continue. It is very simple.
I come now to the notion that there are anomalies in the scheme. The Government wants to focus solely on those anomalies based on the perception that there are people who are gaming the system, are much better off getting the payments and do not want to go back to work. That is nonsense. The vast majority of people want to return to work. There are several issues with the table that is presented on page 13 of the Revised Estimates document. First of all, the figures are based on returns data for 2018. We had discussions with officials yesterday and they told us the 2019 data will be available shortly. The income bands into which the data are broken down are far too broad. The information presented does not take into account a number of very obvious points, such as that some of the people who are part-time workers, including students, would have been anticipating working full time during the summer months. That is not taken into account.
The second issue with the data is that they do not take into account seasonal workers. However, the main issue that is not taken into account is one on which the Government and all of us should be focused. It is an issue on which I have had numerous debates in the past with the Minister and her Government colleagues. The issue is that we have people working full time but earning less than €350. That is the problem and it is all the more reason that we need to deal with low pay. It is all the more reason that we need to deal with precarious work and that we need a living wage. That is something which is glaringly obvious from all of this.
I want to put an issue on the record even though it is not directly relevant to the Revised Estimates. We need clarity regarding the STOP67 campaign and the people who are concerned about the pension age. There were a lot of promises made in this regard but we heard yesterday that some of those promises may be rowed back on. That would be absolutely unacceptable and I want to make it very clear that we in Sinn Féin will not be resiling from our commitment that workers should have the choice to retire at the age of 65 and there will be an end to mandatory retirement.
I will give the Minister a couple of minutes to respond to the points I have made. To be fair, she has not interjected and I will give her a chance to come in after I make a final point.
We are going to have to examine the issue of household debt. Already, many families have put off paying their mortgages, electricity bills, telecommunications bills and rent even with the incomes they have. We will have to consider a debt resolution process, possibly overseen by the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, or some other organisation, to adjudicate on all this as we emerge from the crisis. We need to do the same for business but we are now discussing social protection and we will have to ensure that we do the same for families.
There is a great deal in what I said and there is approximately one and a half minutes left for my contribution so I am happy to give the Minister that time to respond.
I will try to talk quickly. I appreciate the Deputy's support today. It is not ideal, and I wish we had more weeks in the payment of the four-fifths rule so we could bring in what will probably be the decision next week or early the following week by the Government, but those decisions are being worked on and are imminent. They will be made very shortly. However, I can confirm that the payments will extend beyond the June date as we gradually move through the phases. When we introduced the PUP it was not to get plaudits or thanks. It was done at such breakneck speed to get money into people's pockets, and we did that. It is not perfect, and we all know that, but we cannot take something away from people when we still have not given them the opportunity to return to work. That is the basis of the decisions that will be made and I hope that gives the Deputy some comfort. I apologise that I cannot tell him what I am proposing, but it will be within the next number of days. I hope everybody can understand that.
I wish to dissociate myself from anybody who has wrongly intimated that there are people gaming the system. Yes, there is fraud in the system in the same way as there is fraud in the system in every other country. One can see from the newspapers that the police are catching some of those people, but they are small numbers. There is nobody gaming the system. Nobody will have his or her payment taken away if the person cannot go back to work because of a variety of reasons that might stop him or her, such as childcare, underlying health conditions and so forth. All those matters were enshrined in the payment when it was established and they are not going to be suddenly whipped away because we reach a phase next week in which it is going to be rolled over.
People have been enormously helpful in the country's fight against this virus. The Government must recognise that and pay tribute to them for the last couple of months, but we must also recognise that this was established as an income support. Some people are getting more from it than they would have been earning in income. I agree with the Deputy. From my perspective, all that does is highlight some of the reasons that we had difficulty with part-time workers.
As we discuss the Revised Estimates this afternoon, we might as well be standing here blindfolded in what should be a debate to give clarity to the 1.2 million workers currently in receipt of State payments as a result of Covid-19. There is no clarity whatsoever about the PUP or the wage subsidy scheme. I believe a decision has already been taken by the caretaker Minister and the caretaker Government to cut the €350 payment. We have not heard anything in the Minister's comments to deny that. She said it will be extended but she has not said it will not be cut. Her decision should have been made public before the presentation of these Revised Estimates in order that it could have been debated here today, rather than leaving that uncertainty hanging over the heads of the 1.2 million workers relying on the State supports.
Over the last number of weeks, as has been mentioned already, there have been concerted attempts to demonise recipients of the PUP, as if they have done something wrong. Over last weekend, indeed, a Fianna Fáil Deputy seemed to give credence to the reports that have been carried out by the Department. That Deputy who, like all Deputies, is on a salary of over €96,000 said that the PUP of €350 should be cut sooner rather than later. She went on to say that many people are a hell of a lot better off as a result of being on the payment. There has been an attempt to portray people who are receiving State supports as spongers who are living lavish champagne and caviar lifestyles, which is unbelievable. The fact that the payment was set at €350 clearly shows that the caretaker Government does not believe that it was feasible in the first place to live on a jobseeker's payment of €203. The debate should now be focused on creating and introducing a living wage, not forcing workers into low-paid, precarious employment on which the captains of industry can capitalise, while cocooning in their ivory towers.
The economic think tank, the ESRI, has also called on the Government to maintain the €350 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and warned that moves to taper it prematurely would damage the economy further. The ESRI said that payments should be maintained and extended, even if that meant a much bigger State budget deficit this year.
From the outset, the Minister and her Department have said that the priority was to get people in receipt of money when they made a PUP. There are many people who, for different reasons, are owed serious amounts of arrears from the Department. One person I have been working with - I will call her Mary - has not received payment for the past eight weeks. Finally, on the 19th of this month, she received what she thought would be the arrears but only received €350. She was told that she would receive the payment at some point. I received a response from the Department yesterday stating that it will be a number of months before arrears are dealt with. That is unacceptable. That particular person has massive debt as a result of not receiving money over the past number of weeks. She is due more than €2,800 from the Department and priority should be given at this point. Rather than trying to take people off PUP the Department should deal with the arrears. Resources should be deployed in that area.
The measures introduced by the caretaker Government are fundamentally discriminatory, one of the most discriminatory being the decision to exclude those over the age of 66 from them. Yesterday, reports emerged that Fianna Fáil may renege on election commitments it gave that it would defer any increase in the State pension age to 67. If it forms a Government it may row back on that. That is despicable. We have had discriminatory practices. Our elderly people have been excluded from this and they should not be forced now to work longer to pay for Covid-19. Our elderly citizens will rally against that, and Sinn Féin will absolutely rally behind them if that is even attempted.
We all have that Chinese blessing, or curse in disguise - may we live in interesting times - rattling around in our heads. The times we are in at the moment are far more than interesting. They are challenging in the extreme. They are tragic for many and they do not have precedent in the past 100 years. We find ourselves, however, as a Dáil today in a very difficult position. These Estimates, normally, would have been subject to scrutiny by a Dáil committee. They only landed on our desks yesterday. We have had very limited time to parse and analyse them. We are being asked as a Parliament to approve spending measures of €6.8 billion with only 24 hours to analyse the enormous extra cost the State is about to incur yet we know the effect of not passing these Estimates will be to put families over a cliff edge of funding. That is not something that can be considered in any serious manner within this Parliament.
I acknowledge the briefing we received yesterday, facilitated by the assistant secretary in the Minister's Department. While that afforded us the opportunity to raise questions and seek clarification on numbers, we had a very short lead-in time to that. Most Deputies will agree that it made it very difficult to do any sort of meaningful analysis or deep dive into the numbers. I admit that, by and large, the numbers speak for themselves when one looks at them. There is nothing in them that took anybody in this House by surprise when we looked at them but as decision-makers and representatives for our communities, it is also our job to communicate to the people what is behind those numbers and the reasoning for them. That job is made all the more difficult by the fact that the Minister has more or less admitted that these are fictitious Estimates and that what is behind them is predicated on the basis that the policy direction will remain the same. However, we know that policy will change significantly if we decide to extend out. If we have the pandemic unemployment payment reverting to jobseeker's allowance after 12 weeks, it appears to have been conceded that that will not be the case.
Given the circumstances and the ongoing lack of clarity, I understand why that has to be the case. Reading the ESRI quarterly commentary, which only came out today, three different scenarios were outlined which may give us an idea of what our country may face in the medium term and allow forward planning, depending on which of these scenarios comes to pass. Is something similar being done within the Departments? Is scenario planning being done based on extension of pandemic unemployment payments, return to employment or on tapering these payments? If officials are doing that different form of modelling, those are the figures that we need to look at, which we can make educated commentary on, because we find ourselves in the strange position where we are debating something that we know will change significantly within the coming days and weeks.
The brief circulated to us yesterday highlighted a point that Deputies have previously queried and which was adverted to earlier. The analysis underpinning the statement from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation stated that there are disincentive effects from the pandemic unemployment payment, when people end up better off on the payment than they would be in part-time or precarious work. I accept the point that other Deputies have made that this should point to how we treat precarious and part-time work. It should not be an indictment of the people who were working for those amounts and now find themselves better off. We should see it as an incentive to provide a floor to make work pay, to bring that forward and to begin to learn from it. I would appreciate a further explanation of the analysis that brought us to that understanding. I know the Minister rejected that approach of gaming the system. Do people feel that there are those who have been taken out of employment who are happy to be in that position? I do not accept that in that large swathe, there are people who would not prefer to get themselves back to work. By the same token, there are families who are now earning far less than they would if they were on jobseeker's allowance, such as people on pandemic unemployment payments who might have qualified dependents.
Is the Department sufficiently resourced? If officials know that somebody will be better off on regular jobseeker's allowance, are they managing to do that analysis? Are there sufficient resources in the Department to make sure that these people are processed? If they would have been receiving more, is the Department able to do this in a timely manner and move people across from the pandemic unemployment payment?
I refer to the maternity issue and the extension of maternity leave. There is an underpinning issue of fairness. There are new mothers who want to remain at home for all sorts of reasons. I agree with the previous speakers that we should facilitate that. I am not sure what the level of additional cost would be but these are figures that we would like to see so that we can make an informed decision.
It is Green Party policy to look at the idea of universal basic income. I have said previously that we have come close to that with the pandemic unemployment payment. We have come close to accepting the premise that everyone in our society needs that basic underpinning. The Government is making substantial State money transfers at present. Is the State data harvesting? Is the Department examining the effects of these payments, since there is a substantial outlay of money? Is this having an effect, either good or bad, on people who live in persistent poverty? Will there be a way at the end of this process to see if the pandemic unemployment payment, for example, had an impact on children living in poverty? There has been enormous State expenditure and it was not really a decision, since it had to be done. Will we get information back from this so we can begin to extrapolate that forward and see if there are useful things that we can do?
We are looking at a scenario of the pandemic unemployment payment moving to jobseeker's payments within a 12-week timeframe. Even if this is pushed out, we need to see a plan of how these Covid payments will taper into regular jobseeker's allowance payments. Essentially what we have at present is a two-tier welfare system. What I want to drive at in this is the provision that a person must be actively seeking work to be eligible for the jobseeker's allowance.
Were we to transfer people from the Covid payment, the PUP, into a regular jobseeker's payment, we know these people have just exited the workforce and did not want to. Their jobs ceased, in that they were working away but in a minute they found themselves unemployed because of the pandemic. Are we really going to ask such people whether they are actively seeking work? We know they are and that they have just left the workforce. For the sake of fairness, perhaps that is something we can put a hiatus on so that we are not unduly pressurising or impugning the dignity of people who we know want to get out and join the workforce.
I will advert to one specific figure, which is the 26% increase in the winter fuel allowance. I know from whence it arises because we have extended the winter fuel allowance. I want to make a point about the winter fuel allowance in general. There is a big difference in that fuel allowance between somebody in a well-insulated home and somebody who is in a 1950s G-rated property whose bucket of coal is just going up the chimney.
We can put policies in place that are part of a just transition or a green reboot to our economy. I am talking specifically about retrofitting social and affordable housing. There are things we can put in place now that would not just re-stimulate our economy but also would have a positive benefit in tackling things like fuel poverty. Are these things we are building in and considering at this time? I refer to this morning's ESRI report which talks about significant infrastructural projects. Are these things being considered?
I want to give the Minister a chance to revert to me with some answers.
The first thing I have to say to the Deputy, and I hope I do not sound disrespectful when I say this, is that the Estimates are not fictitious. They are based on our guesstimate as to what the outturn of all of the topics within the Vote will be. While there is the elephant in the room of the one payment, it is unfair to call them fictitious. This is what we do every year. We do not get the Estimates exactly right, but I think we get them nearly right every year and we try to do our best again this year. However, I take on board that there is a big missing gap. I hope to be able to fill that gap in the next week or ten days and not just for the Members of this House but for the 589,000 people still getting the PUP each week.
To answer the Deputy's question, I said this already, I do not believe anybody is gaming the system. I accept there is fraud in the system for which we have our control measures and we work on that week-in, week-out with the Garda. However, these are workers. These are all people who on 13 March had a good job as far as they were concerned, but maybe could have been paid better. They were going to work and would be in work today if the country were not as closed down as it absolutely is.
I also reject the narrative that seems to be growing. People will not have their payment taken away from them in the coming weeks if they find they cannot go back to work. Just because on 29 June we happen to open up my local tiddlywinks shop, it does not mean that the people who can work there have childcare. It does not mean that the people who work there do not live with somebody who is compromised. Different people go back for different reasons. As always, the people in our Department will be as compassionate and as empathetic as they always are in dealing with the people.
People may be curious as to why all of the information is not out today. I will put it in context. If we assume at the end of all the phases having been opened that we still have hundreds of thousands of people not being able to go back to work, it would take the Department probably some 12 weeks with 800 staff that we currently do not have - because all our staff are currently busy doing other stuff - just to process a jobseeker's benefit application form for 200,000 people. That is the process that needs to be taken into consideration when we are scenario planning. That is against the backdrop of all the other scenario planning that we are doing; how we are actually going to get people back to work but maybe in the new jobs as the Deputy has aptly pointed out that will be created because of the retrofitting programme that hopefully the next Government will bring about, but also all the other new opportunities that will arise which hopefully will compensate for the ones that might be slower to come back.
I welcome the Minister into the Chamber again today to debate these Estimates. We truly are in exceptional and crazy times. I have said time and again over recent weeks that I find it a little unacceptable that we are being asked to provide an additional enormous resource to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at this point in time without having the full knowledge of how the Department intends to deploy the massive wedge of taxpayers' money that will be spent in the coming weeks and months.
We are not dealing here with fictitious Estimates - I am glad the Minister clarified that and I think the Deputy misspoke, and it was not intentional - but they are historic Estimates in many respects. Around €5 billion of the €7 billion-plus the Minster is asking us to allocate to her Department has already been spent. It has been spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and other measures, which are absolutely necessary to support people during this incredibly difficult time for families, businesses and our economy. Looking closely at the Estimate, and the Minister made this point, the current trajectory sees the funds run out on 8 June for the PUP payment and on 18 June for the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. The Taoiseach reminded us yesterday that no significant change will be made until a new Government is in place when the new Government will dictate policy, but I do not accept that the Minster could not have introduced new innovations and perspectives to us today. The people are watching this debate intently because they are concerned about their own conditions and their future. We are doing their work today, or at least trying to do that. Looking at the Estimate, it is clear the intention in coming months is to make a great attempt to move people, one way or another, from the PUP onto jobseekers' payments. This Estimate allocates about an additional €2.5 billion to spend on jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance and to some of the supplementary payments that individuals are entitled to.
We should remember that 20% of PUP are going to those under 25 years and a very significant cohort of PUP recipients are women. The Minister will know well from her work in the Department and as Deputy that there is a preponderance of young people and women who are on low pay, and many are concentrated in the food and accommodation sectors. A horrible narrative has emerged in the last two weeks which says those who now have incomes of €350 thanks to the pandemic unemployment payment, and who are earning more than they did in January and February, are somehow cheats, scroungers and spongers. Just a little while ago, I spent about 20 minutes on radio with Pat McDonagh of Supermac's. I say we were on radio but he refused to debate with me because he thinks he is somehow special and exceptional. He had made statements, as have other well-heeled commentators, about how some people in this country are on more money than they were while they were working. That is an utter disgrace. It is revelatory of how some employers treat their staff. Remember, and he said this on radio today, this is a guy who takes €1.60 each day from his staff to allow them to eat the chips they produce.
I appreciate that and I take the Ceann Comhairle's advice. It is revealing of the attitude of some in our society and is very troubling indeed. Given the preponderance of low pay in this country, with 23% of all workers on low pay, it goes to shows we have a big issue and we need to be careful how we treat the pandemic unemployment payment and the language that we use over the next period. It troubles me. It is divisive, unfair and it is not on. We need to be careful about that.
The Social Insurance Fund is under extreme pressure and will be in deficit this year. In the context of Government formation talks, it calls into question commitments made during the election by Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and others around stopping any increase to the pension age.
Commitments were made and I expect them to be delivered on. We are going too far, too fast and too soon. I believe there is no requirement on us to bring the pension age up to 67 and I think it is a matter of intergenerational solidarity that we keep the pension age as it is at the moment. Many people have made enormous contributions over 40 plus years and have essentially signed a contract with the State to allow them to be able to retire at the point where they thought they would. Many will choose to work a little longer and they should be supported in doing so, but we should deliver on their expectation and the entitlement of those who have made those contributions.
I will now move to the question of redundancy payments. The Minister has allocated an additional €50 million to the statutory redundancy fund for insolvencies, an increase of approximately €30 million on the original Estimate. As we all do, the Minister has anticipated that there will be more insolvencies and liquidations as businesses battle through the current challenges we face. Will the Minister accept the changes suggested in a letter she will have received from ICTU this week and make changes to the redundancy scenarios where we have essentially precluded staff who have been laid off by companies from claiming redundancy from them? The quid pro quoshould be that redundancy should be essentially stopped. I supported a Sinn Féin amendment to that end in a debate here in the Dáil on the emergency legislation a few weeks ago and I believe it should be done. Will the Minister also go after the related assets of companies that move assets around and move them out of the reach of creditors? I refer to companies that decide to swan off into the sunset and leave the Department and other creditors hanging in the wind. I do not see much hope of that in the Estimates that were presented to us today.
I have two more points to make. The first is not directly related to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Safe Pass programme has essentially been suspended. I have been receiving calls from trade unions and construction workers who have returned home in the context of the pandemic who need to renew their safe pass to allow them to get back to work but the system has been suspended. This is a quick way of getting younger people in particular back to work and it is something we should explore with SOLAS and the Department of Education and Skills. It is also the season in which contractors hire apprentices and we cannot let it go by without giving apprentices the opportunities they need.
The Minister is responsible for employment as well as social protection but I do not see anything in the Estimates about any great interventions concerning training, upskilling and activation. The Minister appears to be telling us that some programmes will be proposed by her in the coming weeks but people need to hear how, for example, the Government will use some of the €100 billion that is available from the European Commission through the SURE programme to provide income supports and training and upskilling opportunities. What we need is a new deal for a new generation. As was the case with the previous recession, the reality is that younger people will unfortunately be more adversely affected. However, we can change that, as it does not have to be the case if we invest in their training now.
I acknowledge that the Estimates are historic, if that is the way the Deputy wants to put it, but I hope he understands that I cannot bring forward Estimates on the basis of decisions that have not yet been made. I must put on the record of the House that the presentation of the Estimates today in no way ties the hands of the next Government or restricts its ability to make any changes in how we spend. I expect that we will have a need for another Estimate, probably at some point in the early autumn. This is not a conversation that is going to go away in terms of the future direction not only of the income supports that we have, which we will be extending next week, but also as Deputy Nash points out in terms of training, activation and getting people back to work in whatever shape or form we can in whatever economy is available to work in. That will be funded not only by the SURE programme but also the higher educational levy, which as the Deputy is well aware is currently in abundance.
I think we can all appreciate that these are exceptional times, but there was a moment within them when it seemed like we were all in this together. A crisis hit us and while we were rocked to our core, our instincts appeared to be to protect the collective. Across the political divide we found common ground in our understanding that this pandemic does not discriminate between rich and poor and the policies that we enacted quickly were ones that I would argue were founded in solid socially democratic principles.
A single-tier health service based on need, not ability to pay, appeared overnight. We applauded our healthcare professionals, knowing full well that we owed them a debt of gratitude which will require more than that gesture. We found a renewed sense of appreciation for our retail workers, food processors and cleaners, who absolutely lived up to their designation as essential workers. They are essential now, but many would argue that they always have been essential. The State started to pay childcare workers. Most radically of all, the State enacted a welfare safety net that provided dignity to those in need and ensured they could meet the cost of living without experiencing the difficulties faced by the 680,000 people in this country who lived below the poverty line before the pandemic struck. The pandemic unemployment payment was always understood to be temporary. Its symbolic power was much more significant. It meant recognition on the part of the State that welfare rates were too low. There always seemed to be a cohort whom the State would allow to live in poverty, but that no longer seemed acceptable when the more professional classes were at risk of experiencing the same reality.
In the last couple of weeks, the powers that be have rightly started to stress the need to hold firm. Despite the optimism caused by falling death and infection rates and the loosening of restrictions, we must continue to be vigilant because the danger has not yet passed. Neither, alas, has the spectre of austerity, or the habit of punching down and blaming low-paid workers and vulnerable groups for the enormity of the economic challenge we are about to face. The rhetoric has changed now. It no longer seems that we are all in this together. I welcome the fact that the Minister has disassociated herself from certain comments, but she is in an anomalous position. She must confront the statements made during the last week by the Taoiseach and spokespersons of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They have started to see unfairness in the system. They have taken aim at those who were on a low wage and now, shockingly, have the opportunity to avail of a payment of €350 per week.
Perhaps those who cry foul would do well to think of who these workers are. It is important to develop a fuller picture. These workers previously worked in what we have come to call the "gig economy". They are likely to be on the minimum wage or just above it. They serve us our meals in restaurants and pubs and very rarely get to spend weekends or evenings with their families. When Ministers spoke of full employment in recent years, this cohort put the lie to their statements. They were spoken of under the breath because of their precarious employment, difficult hours and low pay. These are the people to whom the rent freeze really mattered, who pay extortionate rents to live in overcrowded conditions. It is this group which will be most impacted when we cut the pandemic unemployment payment because they are consistently exploited in our labour market.
I challenge those who say we should reduce a person's wage, whether they are the business groups who have been speaking out in recent days, Members of this Chamber or certain columnists. We should introduce legislation that protects this cohort of workers and ensures they are paid a living wage, are safe in their employment and no longer face precarious working hours. Instead, we seem to be talking about making inequality the deliberate outcome of our social welfare system. In a decent society, the State would trust that money accrued by vulnerable groups in this way would return to the State coffers naturally, through the VAT levied when a single mother spends it on food or a pair of football boots, or when a person previously on a low income buys a coffee or has a pint with friends. That money will come back naturally. We have heard some incredible figures in these Estimates. These payments will stimulate every town, city and high street shop. They will provide essential stimulus for our economy as it starts to open up again.
I would like to ask the Minister a question at this point. I might come back if there is time. I refer to a report in the Irish Examineron Friday which made reference to some of these payments. The most worrying aspect was the so-called "clawback".
It was in inverted commas so I presume it came from some departmental official. It stated recipients of emergency payments such as lone parents who are in receipt of other welfare payments are likely to face a clawback of money of more than €1,000 by way of a retrospective means test. The word "clawback" is dehumanising and should not be part of our vocabulary in this instance. Is it the Minister's understanding that people who are receiving the pandemic unemployment payment and who are in vulnerable cohorts such as one-parent families may have their wages reduced in the weeks and months to come?
On the Covid-19 money, I totally agree with the Deputy. I know that the narrative is growing and I wish to God it was not, but every single euro will be spent in our economy, whether it is by an 18 year old, a 28 year old or a 38 year old, exactly in the manner he described. It is very welcome and very needed.
I do not know who is leaking to any of our newspapers but it is certainly not me. Whoever is leaking is wrong because, although I will not be the Minister for much longer, I would challenge any Minister after me to do what was suggested in that document. It would be shameful and it will not happen. I can guarantee that for as long as I am here, it will not happen.
That is a welcome statement. While some of the figures in the Revised Estimate are eye-watering, and certainly eye-catching in historic terms, they represent just how a republic should respond. We have experienced a catastrophe and this is how a republic should respond to protect the people who are most vulnerable. What will define us in this period is the lessons we have learned. There should be no more austerity on the table. So many people experienced austerity in the past decade and have not yet recovered. They have nothing left to offer. Whether in the short or long term, there should be no more conversations about austerity. We need to fiscally stimulate our economy by investing in our people, providing legislation that protects our workers and demonstrating the lessons we have learned. This pandemic has illuminated inequalities that existed. If we are to learn and emerge from this better, as we have often said we will, let us apply those lessons.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. The Minister has sought to assure people that there is no plan to cut the pandemic unemployment payment, and we heard similar assurances from the Taoiseach yesterday. I will outline why people have reason to be distrustful of those assurances. First, it is worth remembering that the original proposal from the Government for support for people who lost their jobs and income was for €203. It was only because of an outcry about how unacceptable that was that the Government was forced to backtrack and increase it to €350.
Second, we had an unmistakable narrative from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael over the past week, which they seem to be pulling back from now, suggesting there was some problem with the fact that people who might have been earning less than €350 when they were working before Covid were now, shockingly, getting €350. It should have been a cause for celebration because what it highlighted was the scandal of the working poor, which is particularly acute in this country, where we have one of the highest levels of people who are poor but working in the OECD.
To add to this distrust, cohorts of people who should have received the income support were denied it, despite appeals from this side of the House and from those groups. I refer to people under 18 who were working before, in many cases where that income would have been very important for those family households, being denied the payment unjustifiably, and to people over 66 who were denied the payment even though they had been working. The majority of taxi drivers, although some of them are staying at home, are among the over 66s and they are not getting the €350 payment. They are the most vulnerable cohort of taxi drivers from a health point of view but they are working because they were denied the €350 payment.
People in the gig economy who simply were not working on the specified day on which one had to be working to get the Covid payment, but who might have had a gig, a festival, a theatre performance or whatever the next week, were denied it unjustifiably. The Taoiseach stated yesterday there should not be two classes of benefits, but that is an example. The Government should do something about it. We asked it to do something about it but it did not nothing about it, so why do we not trust the Government?
I turn to the Estimates. The briefing we received yesterday states: "It should be noted that additional expenditure has been provided to fund jobseekers' payments, also reflecting exits from the PUP in June."
It is there. The plan is to exit people from the pandemic payment in June. It says it in the briefing we got yesterday. It is on page 12 and I refer anybody to it. I asked the Taoiseach about Lisa from Debenhams. Prior to Covid-19 and prior to getting sacked by Debenhams which dumped her on the scrapheap, Lisa worked every single day of her life since the age of 16 and has never been on a social welfare payment. Lisa was earning marginally less than €350 but her overtime would bring her slightly over that amount sometimes, yet she could have the payment cut. This is even though she has applied for jobs every day since being sacked by Debenhams. The Taoiseach said that it was not planned to do it immediately. It appears that all of this is qualified by being not yet, and so I do not trust the Government's assurances. If the Minister's assurances are for real and if she really cares about the people who have been impacted, in many cases for the foreseeable future, people like taxi drivers, those who work in the gig economy, people in episodic work or retail, hospitality and tourism and whose cases I have highlighted on many occasions, then will she say that the Government will not touch the pandemic unemployment payment until those sectors and their representatives come into this House for a special committee to deal with these groups, beyond the Covid-19 committee? I have asked for this before. Let them come in here to state their case before there are any changes to the pandemic unemployment payment, be it cuts or tapering, which are clearly planned for, as the Revised Estimates set out.
I will respond to the Taoiseach's taunting yesterday when he said that we want everybody to earn the same. I will tell the Minister what we want; we want nobody to live in poverty. We also want to end the situation where some people earn ten and 15 times what other people earn and we want a little bit more equality because we are all in it together. If we are all in it together then let us make that meaningful and not just for an emergency when the Government needs people to protect public health. Let us make it a reality in future society.
In her introductory remarks the Minister said that the Revised Estimates are proposed on a no-policy change basis. The Minister also said that she intends to bring forward proposals for some changes within the next week or so. I believe it is fairly clear as to what those policy changes might include. It has been pretty well flagged by Government Ministers and Fianna Fáil Front Bench spokespersons over the last week. Government Ministers have said that the €350 pandemic unemployment payment is unsustainable. Supermac's boss, Pat McDonagh, has said that he cannot recruit staff because the €350 payment is discouraging people from taking up part-time work. Fianna Fáil's Deputy Anne Rabbitte has claimed that some people are a hell of a lot better off with the pandemic payment. In other words, the changes being lined up seem likely to include plans to cut the payment for low-paid, part-time workers. These changes will be introduced by the Government without a vote in the House. That is not to say those changes could not be stopped by the parties in the Chamber today. Negotiations are taking place for the formation of Government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have made it pretty clear where they stand on these issues, but where does the Green Party stand? We have heard a lot from the Green Party recently about the need for social justice. During the programme for Government negotiations will the Green Party demand the payment not be cut for low-paid workers? The Green Party should tell us.
When one considers the people who are targeting the payment one can see real double standards at play here. One of the highest paid prime ministers on the planet is warning of the need to cut the incomes of people who are on €350 per week, and a businessman worth some €100 million, with three separate chains of pubs and fast-food outlets on two continents, is agitating for cutting incomes of people on €350 per week.
Pay decent wages and the payment will be no barrier to people taking up employment. The national minimum wage should be €15 an hour. If Mr. McDonagh wants to start paying his workers €15 an hour, all he will need to do is give a worker just three eight-hour shifts in a week and they will be earning more than the payment.
Are there part-time workers receiving more with the payment than they did on wages? There is quite a bit of twisting of facts going on about this one. Take the example of a worker who worked part-time half the week and then signed on for the other half. Yes, their wages may have been less than €350 per week. However, their income was over €350. This worker has had their income cut but because their wage was less than €350, they now have to listen to Ministers banging on about them being better off on the pandemic unemployment payment. This is simply not true.
Concern has been expressed about the ability of the State to sustain these payments into the medium term. If the State provided jobs with decent pay, the numbers claiming the payment would wither on the vine. The wealthy should be taxed to sustain the payments. Ten individuals own €53 billion in Irish society. It is time for wealth taxes. While the Government is at it, it should go after the €14.3 billion of our money which is sitting in a bank account.
I am not sure that there were any direct questions. I disagree with Deputy Barry when he says that an outcry regarding the original pandemic payment led to the changes we made the following week. I do not think that is true, given that I was at the table. I will bring the Deputy back to 13 March when we introduced the illness Covid payment of €350 per week and allocated some €3.5 billion to it in the expectation that people were going to have to leave work because they would either be ill or potentially be a source of the infection. This was long before we realised that the decision was going to be made to actually shut down the economy. To be fair to both the officials who helped and the politicians who were there, in less than a week we came up with the IT system which managed to support 1.2 million people at €350 a week which was only arrived at because it was the equal payment of a base rate plus a qualified adult. In the case of all the industries that we knew were going to be particularly badly hit, we provided an 85% replacement for their income. It was very much considered. It certainly was not because of an outcry. It was because we had a responsibility to the people who were going to be stopped from earning their income.
May I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for all the work she has done over the years? I will be sorry to see her go and wish her all the best in the future.
With all the talk of Estimates, once again it is a 96-page document which we received quite late yesterday. Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are not going to be able to debate it, the Regional Independent Group and myself will support it.
There are some anomalies which I want to address, however, with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There are two significant issues that arise because of our duty as legislators. I do not like this reference to the working age. It has significantly marginalised those over 66 years of age. On the one hand, if they had an employer who signed up to the temporary wage scheme and decided to pay them, they were all of a sudden deemed to be of the working age and entitled to be paid. However, if they were depending on the Covid payment or the pandemic unemployment payment, they were no longer entitled to it because of their age.
I have had significant contact with people not just in my own constituency about this matter. It is a national issue. From the Estimates we received last night, it can be noted that less than 1% of social welfare recipients over the age of 66 receive a Christmas bonus. The number of those who should be recompensed in some way because they were working in order to supplement the pension that they received is actually lower than that previous figure.
Let us face it; not too many people are able to survive at 66 on €248 a week. That is assuming they are in receipt of it, because a large cohort of people are self-employed and for whatever reason did not have a pension or were not eligible for the State pension and they now have no income. Many are in dire straits and are moving into the poverty trap. We, as legislators, have a duty to them to keep them out of that poverty trap. I know a particular gentleman who is 68 years old and has continued to work because his marriage broke up when he was 62 and he had to borrow money to recompense his wife for the separation. He has no means with which to pay that back. This is not a mortgage; it is a loan. He has tried to set aside the payments for a period but that has not worked for him and he is now out of a job and is living on €248 a week with no means of saving to pay his loans. We have a duty of care to that gentleman. I ask the Minister to make a lump sum payment available through the supplementary welfare provision or otherwise. I ask her to undertake to do this for those over 66 who have been in employment and were excluded from the pandemic unemployment payment.
She mentioned that she expects an increase in the uptake of the back to school allowance. Due to the anomaly that has been created, while there may be an increase in those applying, there may not be an increase in the number getting it. I will tell the Minister why that is. A family with a mother and father who are both in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 a week is above the threshold for a family with three children, which is €674. If they got the allowance, they would receive €825, but because they are €26 over the threshold, they will receive nothing. On the other hand, a couple with four children receiving €700 from the pandemic unemployment payment would be eligible for €1,000, because they would be €11 under the threshold. The differential between the two families' thresholds is only €37 but one would get nothing and the other would get €1,000. I want that anomaly addressed before people start to apply because the applications generally open on 1 June. It is paramount that nobody is beset in September with the fear of not being able to afford to send their children back to school. This is meaningless when it comes to income, especially for those who think there is going to be a clawback, as Deputy Gannon noted. I would hate to think that this Government is going to give with one hand and take with the other from the most vulnerable in our society. It may well be the case that the parents of those children will not be able to get back to work if we do not get our childcare system in order. I would appreciate if that were addressed in the short time we have, particularly as applications open. Many parents, not just in Wexford but also nationally, will be very upset by being beset with this worry. I ask for that to be clarified as soon as possible.
Clarity on arrears is also essential. Many people have been onto us who applied for the Covid payment but who for whatever reason, whether they applied through the post or on the Internet, did not receive their payment in some instances until six or seven weeks into the payment's existence. Now is the time we need clarity on that. I appreciate that it cannot be addressed quickly but these people did not get recompense from the social welfare office. Not everybody has received their payment yet and are now seven weeks without money, which has put them in a significantly dire position.
We also do not have any clarity on whether the cap on redundancies will end on 31 May or if it will be continued further down the line. It is a very significant issue for both employers and employees. Where they stand, whether they can claim the redundancy and whether the employer has to pay it needs to be clarified.
I suggest that, in the unprecedented time we are in, to safeguard the jobs of those who will not be made redundant within certain sectors containing businesses that will have to make some people redundant, is significant. The Government should consider that if redundancy is an issue, it should be paid out of the insolvency fund. Otherwise, all we are going to serve to do is to put pressure on the employer unless the business in question has considerable amounts of money which I assure the Minister, in the small and medium enterprise sector, there are not many. I ask her to consider that the insolvency fund be the basis from which redundancies are paid.
That is not the case. There are 585,000 pensioners in the country and we pay weekly payments to approximately 1.2 million. Either way, I will come back to the Deputy with a written answer on that, if that is okay.
The next three things that the Deputy asked about, with the exception of the question of arrears, might be nice asks but the reason I have to say "No" is because they all require changes in legislation and unfortunately, not only do I not have the ability to draft legislation at present, I do not believe the two Houses have the ability to pass it. On that basis, I must say to the Deputy that the governing rules for the back-to-education allowance that currently exist will be the ones under which adjudications will take place on 1 June when applications open until the end of September. Unless we change the legislation between now and September, I do not think the rules can be any different.
On the question about thresholds, unfortunately there are always cliff edges. Thresholds are set and determined by the House in establishing the legislation. They always penalise people who might be just a few quid over or under the threshold. It is something I encourage the Deputy to have a look at, with a view to bringing forward some legislation in the future.
The Deputy also asked about redundancy issues. I have a memorandum going to Cabinet tomorrow and I will make an announcement thereafter, if I get Government approval for it.
The Deputy also mentioned arrears, as I believe did other Deputies, including Deputy Brady. The arrears, and the calculation thereof, is a process that involves sitting down, while observing social distance, with a couple or a person who is on the pandemic unemployment payment as would be the case when doing a jobseeker's benefit application. The establishment of arrears is a time-consuming and staff-consuming process. We do not have the staff at the moment and, when we do have enough staff, we want to redeploy them to do other stuff on activation. We are writing an IT script to address the issue and that is taking a little bit longer than we anticipated. We hope to have that IT script ready in the next number of weeks. It will be able to go through the algorithms of our wonderful system and pull out the data on exactly how many people are owed how much and then be able to issue payment to them.
Deputy Brady mentioned a lady to whom a particularly large amount of money is owed. Would the Deputy mind giving me her details later? We can certainly talk to the relevant community welfare officer and give that woman money in the interim. Anybody who is owed anything will be given it once we get that IT script working.
I am going to return to a couple of issues about which I have spoken previously in the Chamber, although I appreciate I have not had the opportunity to address my comments to the Minister personally, and I thank her for coming into the Chamber to answer questions. I wish to ask about the extent of the payments and who is covered and who is not. We are discussing opening up the economy and society and considering what is safe, whether a distance of 2 m or 1 m between people is required. Until we have answers to those questions, and I do not expect the Minister to comment on this, it is clear that the hospitality and tourism sectors cannot reopen.
We are bringing in detriments to people coming into the country. That may be advisable and, if it is, it is coming in late. It would appear that we are not going to have a tourism sector in Ireland this summer. Like many other Deputies, I come from a constituency that is heavily reliant on tourism, particularly west Clare. Seasonal workers in the sector are not covered by the Covid-19 payment. That was fine at the start and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, explained that the Government had to act in an emergency and one does not get everything right in those circumstances. I accept that and will not find fault with what happened then. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the opening of the tourism season will be pushed ever further out. What happens to the people who worked in the sector? There are students who were in the lucky situation to be working one shift a week and are now getting the €350 a week payment, whereas others, perhaps even the parents of those students, rely on working in the tourism sector, year in and year out, to sustain themselves and their families. They are only getting the unemployment assistance payment.
It is a huge detriment. Of course, the enterprises for which they worked cannot avail of the payments either because they were not in employment at the time that it was brought in. One had to be in employment up to the end of February or, at the latest, on 6 March. They were not in employment then and the enterprise cannot draw down funding to take them on now. Of course, they cannot take them on because they do not know when we will be open for business. There is a dangerous, vicious sort of cycle going on. It was fine of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to state that the Government did not get everything right at the time, but that is a long time ago now. It is even further away, it appears, when the sector is going to open up and we need to do something about it. I appreciate that involves funding but we need to be fair.
The other sector I wish to draw to the Minister's attention - I may not be the first to do so as I did not have the benefit of sitting throughout this - is people over 66 who are self-employed or run a business because they still incur the cost of trying to maintain that business. If they are getting a State pension, that is great for them. That will maintain them but not their business. I can give the Minister one example. It is not somebody who is over 66 but it is somebody who works in the tourism sector. I refer to a man who works in what would be considered, I suppose, a heritage hotel in Clare and has a number of horses. Typically, the guests in the hotel would use his services going out with the horses. He would bring them around the place. Now there are no guests in the hotel. He has no income whatsoever, but what is he to do? The horses are there and they have to be fed every day. They have to be shod. They have to be maintained. He is ringing me on a weekly basis, asking what he is going to do, which horses will starve, or should he shoot them. I say I have no answers. He is a relatively young man. He was a classmate of mine in school. However, there are a number of people who run their own businesses who are in their 60s. He is getting the €350 a week but says that will not pay for his business, but there are a number of people who, because they are over 66, do not even get that and they still have the cost of maintaining a business.
The Minister might address those issues in one minute - if the Minister cannot I am happy to take correspondence - as I am sharing time with Deputy Pringle.
I refer to the difficulty with regard to the people that the Deputy thinks have been excluded. I will deal with them separately, if that is okay. Seasonal workers are not excluded from the social welfare code. They are all actively either on jobseeker's benefit, JB, or jobseeker's allowance, JA, with all of the wealth of support payments surrounding that. They are not being abandoned or left behind.
With regard to the over 66s who are self-employed, we were adamant that they were included in the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. Some people were still excluded from that because they were sole traders. As we have said week in, week out, anybody who needs the supplementary welfare code it is there for them. That includes apprentices who are under 18. People have come and made applications and we will look after them. The particular gentleman who Deputy McNamara is talking about is receiving the Covid payment but what he also is able to receive is the restart grant which will give him the repayment of his three months, but also the reclaiming of the rates that he would have paid to Clare County Council last year and all of the other wealth of business supports that are being made available from my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. However, there are some people who do not. There is a pride in some people who do not want to come to the supplementary welfare officers but we are here. One can see from the Estimates that the numbers are up. We will not refuse any reasonable request and to that end we have reduced the means test for both the rent supplement and the supplementary welfare code.
It is a strange debate around this Estimates procedure. Basically, it is a historical procedure that we have here. None of the payments is current or anything like that. This debate goes on.
However, it does point to a couple of matters and these have been touched on by other Members as well here. It does refer to the changes that will take place in the next couple of weeks to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. Maybe, because of the current climate that the Minister is in a difficult position in that she will not be the Minister, she does not want to budget for spending that would allow it to happen, but I cannot understand this. If the Minister put in an Estimate here that had realistic figures for the second half of the year, if they were not used they could be taken back.
As the Minister says, we are going to have another supplementary budget, probably in July or perhaps September. It will be historic given that it is to deal with all the figures that are going to be announced in the next couple of weeks. Through no fault of the Minister, the figures will probably be announced at a press conference to RTÉ. They will not be announced here in the House and we will not have any input. The media and everybody else will talk about them, however. The debate will have happened before we have the historic debate in here on the figures. The situation today is strange.
It was interesting to hear the debate that has built up over recent weeks on people milking the system and making false claims. Mr. Pat McDonagh, head of Supermac's, was mentioned in it. He is probably one of the main beneficiaries of social welfare in this country because the profits he makes are made on the backs of the very low-paid. The State, by giving people social welfare, justifies his giving of low pay, thus helping him to make more profit. It is interesting that the main beneficiaries of social welfare and other State benefits in this country are employers. The social welfare payment facilitates a worker to work in a low-paid job, which allows the employer to make big profits. We should change the argument around and this would change the whole narrative. We should say that employers are benefiting and are going to benefit. This would change everything. If we changed the narrative, we would not be attacking individuals on the jobseeker's allowance, for example. The employers benefit.
A couple of years ago, we heard a presentation in the audiovisual room from small business owners who came in crying about social welfare payments and so on. I asked them about the family income supplement. I said that the State, by paying the supplement, makes up for the low pay offered by the businesses. They were shocked and stunned and said it has nothing to do with them. They said it does not benefit them. It does benefit them. The State is allowing them to give low pay. This happens right across the board. Despite this, we are supposed to bend over backwards for all the employers and say they are the best people and that only for them, nobody would be employment. Actually, only for the State they would not exist. That is the reality of the situation. Accepting my perspective would change the whole argument in the discussions we are having in here.
It is clear from what the Minister proposes in the Estimates that the pandemic unemployment payment scheme and the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme are going to end or be changed significantly and that the benefits are to be made up through stamps and unemployment benefit. That may be so, or there may be another supplementary budget that we will discuss after the event.
I leave that in your capable hands.
We are all aware we are living in unprecedented times. Covid-19 has taken many lives and has left grieving families in its wake. Loved ones have been left isolated and funerals have been left unattended. The toll this crisis has taken throughout the country and throughout the world is incalculable. As I speak here today, there are still people suffering the consequences of this dreadful virus.
The economic fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak too has been far-reaching. Every sector of the economy has been impacted. As it stands more than 1.3 million people are in receipt of some form of income subsidy from the State. Unemployment stands at around 28%. People and families in otherwise secure jobs have been plunged into uncertainty. Small business owners are frantically trying to come to terms with the new normal, whatever that turns out to be. From a point in January when we were anticipating a surplus and full employment, in less than six months we now have 28% unemployment and could see a deficit, as has been said, of some €30 billion.
Behind all of these figures, however, are people, families, households and businesses. The knock-on impact on mortgages, savings and loans is a huge unknown. We, as a State and a society, need to support people and to support small businesses. I am conscious of what the Taoiseach said, I think it was on the night of St. Patrick's Day, when he addressed the nation. He said he was confident our economy would bounce back, but that the damage would be significant and would be lasting. He said the bill will be enormous, and it may take years to pay for it. When he said that he said it on behalf of us all in this Chamber. We made a commitment to the electorate and to our constituents that we would ensure there was a pathway out of this and that every help and support would be given to them.
The two main interventions have been the pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The pandemic unemployment payment has cost the State €1.7 billion, and has assisted more than half a million people. The temporary wage subsidy scheme has cost well over €1 billion, and has supported nearly half a million further workers. While these figures are eye-watering, there is no doubt that the schemes have proved effective and helped countless people get through this crisis so far.
It is clear these schemes need to extended. Changes of course need to be made, but the schemes have to be extended. Many businesses are still in lockdown. Many more have heavy restrictions in place and workers are still not permitted to return to work. These businesses and individuals need certainty, and they need these supports to be extended.
I would like to raise the crisis facing small businesses. As I already stated, small business owners and entrepreneurs throughout the country are frantically trying to find light at the end of the tunnel. They are trying to ascertain whether their businesses, which they have tirelessly created from scratch are viable in this new environment. Last week the Minister indicated that only viable businesses would be supported.
The exact quote read: "Some firms and some business models that were viable pre-Covid-19 may no longer be viable in the future, so the priority for this and the next Government must be to galvanise our resources to support companies and employers to be in a position to succeed in this new environment." While I agree with some of the sentiments, it is possibly the wrong time to be raising this. Business owners today need belief that they are going to get through this. They need the State to back them. Over time, some of these business will not survive, but informing business owners now that only viable businesses will be supported will take the wind out of many. For a start, we, in this Chamber, much less business owners on the ground, have no way of ascertaining which businesses are or are not viable and which ones can and cannot adapt. This will only emerge over time for we do not know how customers will react in the months and years ahead either.
Before asking some questions, I want to finish on this point. With the crisis being so pervasive and the economic fallout being so hard-hitting, it is clear we need a strong and stable Government. We are here discussing an Estimate brought forward by the current Government in its efforts to address the pandemic and the fallout associated with it over the last number of months. The list of legislative requirements that need to be addressed is increasing. The €2 billion credit guarantee scheme, for example, is sitting on the shelf awaiting legislation that cannot pass until a Government is formed. Every week we do not have a Government in place is a week that we cannot pass legislation and a week when the recovery of our country, society and economy await such legislation.
Yesterday, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council published its report and, contrary to media speculation about what it might contain, it did not call for austerity. As the economy begins to recover and reopen, it argued that stimulus was required to increase employment and stimulate domestic demand. We very much welcome these sentiments. Strong and stable Government is needed to bring forward such a stimulus package at an early opportunity and a national recovery plan must be contained therein.
Can the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, confirm that the temporary wage subsidy scheme falls under the Vote for employment affairs and social protection in the first instance? The Estimate today for about €16 billion from the Central Fund and a further €11 billion from the Social Insurance Fund covers what has been spent to date by the Department and what is anticipated to be spent for the rest of the year. Does the Minister envisage that we will be back in a number of months bringing forward another Revised Estimate for employment affairs and social protection?
What are the assumptions underlying the figures published today with regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the temporary wage subsidy scheme? The original Estimate of the cost of these measures assumed a 12-week period of operation. By that calculation, they are both set to run out in a number of weeks. Does this Estimate assume that these measures will be extended and, if so, for how long and at what levels? If it is such that the assumption in relation to the figures is towards the end of the year, then there must be various assumptions made. Will the Minister elaborate on any such assumptions?
Where are we in terms of other Votes across other Departments? When will the four fifths rule impact on them? When is the health Vote likely to reach the point at which this House must be informed, as is the case in relation to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection today?
Will the Minister outline to the House what legislation exactly is required in regard to the PUP? I am conscious of the talk there has been of anomalies and of part-time and full-time workers. We are conscious that maternity leave is not substituted for by the PUP once the people in that situation return to work. There are many other issues pertaining to the commitment to taper it off and for it to be in line with the return to work as outlined in the timetable published for the various sectors over the coming weeks and months. That is understood and we get the concept behind that. However, it is incumbent on the Minister to inform the House what legislation, having consulted with legal advice, is required. There is a contention that the hook on which these payments were hung initially, in terms of primary legislation, may not be strong enough to adhere to the recommendations the Minister now believes will be forthcoming. I heard the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection say earlier that she will be coming forward with an indication of what changes she will make, having made the decision initially to include all applicants.
We accept and appreciate one had to act in haste initially to ensure people had that cushion necessary to be in a position to take advantage of the economy reopening, if and when it does. I hope that is sooner rather than later.
I will point out a few anomalies. What is needed first and foremost is clarity and certainty going forward. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection in her address earlier alluded to the fact the Covid payment and other payment would continue beyond June. That is not enough certainty or clarity for Deputies who are receiving queries on a daily basis from constituents who do not know what their position will be in a few months' time. We need certainty, clarity, and a detailed plan going forward. Will the payments be tapered? Will it be done on a sector by sector basis, etc.? We need more detail.
The issue of the over 66s has been aired a lot in this Chamber already, and there was a detailed debate yesterday around the State's treatment of the elderly. Some people made statements in terms of them being treated as second class citizens, and here we are excluding them from the Covid payment and wage subsidy scheme. That is turning our backs on the group of people who pulled us, and their children, through the last recession and who deserve much better.
I will give an example. Graham is living in west Cork and has a small business on a high street. He has had to close the business because of restrictions, but he cannot avail of any of the payments because he is over the age of 66. He cannot avail of Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, or the wage subsidy scheme. He has nowhere to go. He has utilities and bills to pay, but he cannot pay them. We need to include the over 66s within these payments.
Another section of society that has been incredibly hard hit, although it is more than just a section of society and makes up more than 50% of the population, is women. It has been well documented that women have been, and will be, hardest hit through this lockdown and pandemic, yet we are turning our backs on them, particularly women who are pregnant and on maternity leave. Many were due to return to work in March and have been excluded from the wage subsidy scheme. That anomaly needs to be fixed straight away. Not only that, some women who were on maternity leave and who can go back to work, but whose business or place of work is still closed, cannot avail of the PUP. There are women returning from maternity leave whose businesses are open and who can or are expected to go back to work but they cannot access childcare because of the battle within that sector. That is not good enough. What we are asking for, and there is an online petition signed by thousands, is an extension to maternity benefit for a three month period. This would at least go some way to addressing that issue.
This should be done on a sector by sector basis. I am talking in particular about the tourism sector, one that is massive in my area of west Cork. Tourism and seasonal workers have no clarity in terms of their future. It has been well documented that the tourism sector will be longest impacted by this; the impact will be felt for a long time to come. We need to approach it on a sector by sector basis, particularly with regard to these Covid payments. It is important because that will keep the money in regional rural areas like west Cork and Kerry. As stated in the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report, austerity is not the way. We need to keep money in circulation, and this needs to be treated on a sector by sector basis.
I would appreciate if the Minister could arrange for officials to respond to any of the questions he does not have time to answer after my remarks.
Covid-19 has fundamentally changed Ireland's economic and social landscape. At the end of 2019, an average of 2.3 million people were at work. Today, almost 1.2 million people are in receipt of income supports. We are being asked to approve the €6.84 billion Estimate to continue income supports. The State is likely to run a €30 billion deficit for 2020. Reigniting our economy will present significant challenges, as we all know, and a business as usual, one size fits all approach will not work. It is estimated that 2.1 million people will eventually return to work, approximately 90% of pre-Covid levels. That 90% will present challenges, and those 10% who do not return to work cannot be left behind.
Our first step should be to reassure people in sectors that remain closed on Government advice that they will continue to be supported.
Talk of winners and losers is not helpful and I urge people to stop using socially divisive language. We are all in this together and the public is very much in tune with that.
We must also do everything to support existing jobs. We need changes to the pandemic unemployment payment and wage subsidy schemes, about which I have spoken in this Chamber previously, to allow for more flexibility and support for new work practices. Where possible, workers should be allowed to return to their companies part time and the Government should support work sharing schemes. Incentives should be put in place to support those working from home. Critical industries such as tourism, hospitality and our bus and coach industry need support. We should encourage employment by these industries by cutting the VAT rate and providing other supports.
The next Government must prepare an inclusive social and economic recovery plan. We must invest in people. Anyone who has lost his or her job as a result of this pandemic must be given support and the opportunity to retrain and reskill. The risk of long-term unemployment is real, especially for the 120,000 young people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. The back to education allowance must be opened to anyone in receipt of pandemic income supports. We need to see an ambitious capital programme that takes advantage of low-cost borrowing to invest in infrastructure. Now is the time to invest in green infrastructure such as the Sutton to Sandycove cycleway in my constituency and greenways right across the country. The single biggest investment, however, must be in public housing. We need an ambitious plan to build thousands of homes.
Any measures put in place must deliver an ambitious recovery in which no one is left behind. Will the Minister commit to ensuring an inclusive recovery in which no one is left behind?
I will raise a number of important issues, the first of which is domestic violence. This is a very dangerous time for anybody who is trapped at home. The advice is to stay at home and that it is the safest place to be but for many women and children it is the most unsafe place they can be. Their abusers are very often at home with them for a longer time. I ask the Minister to assure the House that the financial needs of the local authorities, the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be met to ensure that those women and children - and, in a few cases, men - can avail of the supports they need.
I also wish to raise an issue that has been raised by numerous others, which is maternity leave and the exclusion of women returning from maternity leave from the Covid-19 temporary wage subsidy scheme. This is deeply unfair to those women. It needs to be changed and a mechanism must be found to do so.
I will also raise the issue of those over 66 who have been laid off from work and, again, excluded from the Covid-19 payments. People are increasingly working beyond the age of 66. For some this is because they are able to while for others it is because they have no choice. As a result of the changes in the housing market over the past ten years, more and more people over 66 find themselves paying rent. In the past, people who reached that age would have hoped to have their mortgages paid off or, if they were in local authority social housing, that their rent would have decreased in line with their income decreasing as they moved to the old age pension. Increasingly, older people are at the beck and call of landlords and are increasingly under financial pressure, forcing them to work. They should not have been excluded.
I raise the issue of small businesses that will try to begin work again. They need certainty. They need assurance as to their position in the coming weeks so that they can plan for how much funding they will need to borrow from the banks and decide how many employees they can afford to take back. They need that certainty in respect of the extent of payments.
I also ask the Minister to make inquiries with regard to section 12 of the Redundancy Payments Act 1967. Under this section, employees who have been laid off can trigger redundancy with their employer if they have not had an update on returning to work for four consecutive weeks. This provision exists for a very good reason but, understandably, this period was extended to 12 weeks until the end of May as a result of the pandemic situation. Employers and employees now want certainty. They want to know whether they will be able to trigger redundancy under the Act.
I appreciate the Minister does not have much time left to respond but I ask him to do his best.
I support this Estimate in that, fundamentally, it provides a legal basis for the continuation of all of the expenditures within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I do, however, want to raise, as others have, the specific issue of women who are returning to work from maternity leave and who are currently unable to access the wage subsidy scheme. It is an issue at which the Minister, the Department and Revenue have been looking for some time. We have all put forward proposals to end this discrimination.
Can the Minister give us an update as to whether he is any closer to resolving this issue? Time is passing and there are people who should now be on the wage subsidy scheme but have been denied that opportunity so far. An update would be really appreciated.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. I will respond to the ones that were most common from all the contributions and deal with the other questions via correspondence. Several speakers raised the issue of women who were on maternity leave and are now looking to come back to work and access the wage subsidy scheme. I want to confirm to the House that I aim to bring a proposal to the Cabinet tomorrow to resolve that issue. It was absolutely my intention to ensure all were treated equally in front of the wage subsidy scheme. I want to ensure those mothers who were and are on maternity leave, and who are planning to and want to come back to work, are treated equally to those who are already in work and already on the wage subsidy scheme. There were difficulties presented by how the legislation was drafted. I heard what Deputies said in the House last week on this issue. The Revenue Commissioners and I have been working on it over the past fortnight and I believe we can find a way to ensure that mothers who are on the maternity leave scheme and are coming back to work are treated equally to anybody else who is already on or planning to be on the wage subsidy scheme.
I will deal briefly with some of the questions that relate to the Revised Estimates. I confirm to Deputy Cowen that it will be the case that further Estimates will be needed later on in the year in respect of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and that the costs of the wage subsidy scheme are contained in this Vote. In regard to legislation that is relevant to me, it continues to be the legislation dealing with tax liabilities and with the credit guarantee. In regard to the timings for other Estimates, I believe there will be some Estimates that will need to be dealt with at the end of June and the majority will have to be dealt with by the middle of July.
I will take eight minutes for toing and froing with the Minister and will leave four minutes each for Deputies Mairéad Farrell, O'Reilly and Ó Broin. Today's Revised Estimates are unlike any others that have been presented before this Dáil in modern times. When the income supports were put forward by the caretaker Government, they differed from the ones we suggested to the Minister. Despite the fact that we believe there were certain flaws in the income supports, we supported them because it was the right thing to do at that time. Similarly, let me be very clear that we will oppose any cuts to those income supports at this point in time, because that is the wrong thing to do. We have made it clear that the Minister needs to provide certainty and clarity to the more than 1 million workers who are relying on those income supports. He needs to let them know that the supports will be there for them for the remainder of the year at the current rates.
Despite the huge goodwill and generosity there has been from members of the Opposition to the caretaker Government to allow for emergency legislation and these types of supports to come in, the reality is that the supports under the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment scheme can be ended without any reference to the Dáil and without any legislation. They can be tapered off without having to come before the House ever again. It now rests within the Minister's authority and that of another Minister, who was not elected, to end those payments, continue them or taper them off. For the half a million people who are relying on the pandemic employment payment, it is only ten days before they are supposed to come to an end. There is no certainty as to how long they will be extended for, at what rate they might be extended and all of the rest.
Where we do have a responsibility in this House is in relation to the Estimates, because that is where the House can decide how much money Departments and Ministers may allocate to certain types of schemes. Unfortunately, despite the fact that some of those schemes are coming to an end within ten days, the Government has refused to bring any clarity to the issue as we discuss these Estimates. That is simply not acceptable.
Instead members of the Government, including at the highest level of the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, have decided to involve themselves in an orchestrated campaign to punch down on low-income workers and to set the scene for a tapering off or a discontinuance at some point in time of supports that are badly needed by people to pay their bills or their rent, to ensure they do not fall into mortgage arrears or to ensure they can care for themselves and their families. Indeed, the Government has been supported in that by Members of the Opposition in Fianna Fáil saying that people are much better off. God help us when politicians earning €96,000 per year can talk about people being so well off on €350 per week. Some Deputies in the House need a reality check, as do some of the captains of industry telling us that people who are asked to survive on €350 per week have somehow won the lotto. As the ESRI has made clear, the reality is that these payments play a vital role not only in supporting individuals but also in the recovery of our economy.
Will the Minister give a guarantee, especially to the nearly 250,000 people we see from the Estimates who lost their jobs during this pandemic and who are likely to be still unemployed at Christmas, that the €350 pandemic unemployment payment will continue until the end of the year for those individuals who have seen an income drop? That is the certainty people need. In terms of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, when does the Minister envisage making a decision to extend it? It must be extended.
The Minister referred to the discussion last week in the Dáil about those on maternity leave and said that he and the Revenue Commissioners have been working on it for two weeks. I welcome that and I welcome the Minister's commitment to bring something forward to the Cabinet. However, I remind the Minister and the House that it is more than a month since we brought it to the Minister's attention that he could deal with this anomaly without legislative change. The reason I and Deputy McDonald wrote to the Taoiseach and the Minister at that time was that the Minister was using the excuse that it required legislative change. Indeed, Fianna Fáil was calling for legislation to be introduced. That was not required and it should not have taken this amount of time, but I welcome the fact that a proposal will be brought to the Cabinet. Hopefully, that will deal with the anomaly.
This is an opportunity to both support individuals and to re-imagine the type of supports we need. The pandemic made it blatantly clear that the levels of support simply did not exist. It also raises questions for those who are coming to retirement age. They have a big concern. The number of people who lost their jobs has been acute in the age groups of between 18 and 25 years and those aged from 60 to 66 years. The Minister's party, along with Fianna Fáil, is planning to push the retirement age up to 67 years. Can the Minister give those workers who have lost their jobs a commitment that they will not be forced to rely on social welfare payments until the age of 67 years and that this legislative change will be reversed?
I thank the Deputy for raising those different questions. Regarding the future of the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment, it is precisely because of my recognition of the challenges to which Deputy Doherty refers and the number of citizens who are facing those challenges that I played a role in introducing these schemes. I played a role in increasing the value of the pandemic unemployment payment and we introduced a wage subsidy scheme that is capable of supporting citizens at a time of need. I acknowledge the need that I agree with Deputy Doherty exists and which many citizens face with the threat of this pandemic. It is due to recognising that need that these payments were introduced. They were introduced at a time of emergency.
As regards their duration or how long they will continue, the Taoiseach and I indicated we will make that decision in the coming period because obviously clarity and certainty must be brought to bear for the citizens who currently depend on them. It is precisely because I, the Government and other Members of the House understand the challenge and need that citizens are facing after losing their jobs in a way and at a speed they did not think possible that we introduced the pandemic unemployment payment, increased it and introduced the wage subsidy scheme. We will be able to give clarity regarding how long they will continue when we make the decision on the duration.
When we make that decision, we will look to having schemes in place across the period of this great challenge, while also recognising that I and this Government, and the next Government, need to be able to ensure that they are affordable and that we can meet the needs of the citizens, as well as meeting the many other needs being presented to me at the moment.
I welcome what the Deputy said about acknowledging the need to bring to conclusion where we are in respect of the maternity leave issue that he and others have raised. It has taken some time to resolve it because of some of the complexity involved in it regarding the way the legislation was drafted but I committed to this House - I did so before I came into this House - that if there was a way of dealing with this matter I would work on that and try to find a way of doing that. I believe I will be able to do it but obviously this is a matter on which I will need to first update my colleagues in Cabinet.
In respect of re-imagining the kind of country we have and where we need to go to, amidst this time of great need and such difficulty for so many there is an opportunity to look at the kind of economy we want and how we can build upon some of what we have learned during this period of such crisis. I would say to the Deputy, however, that it is precisely because of the way we managed the economy over recent years, while acknowledging that for many it was still not satisfactory and did not meet their needs, and the decisions that were made to balance our books and because I, regrettably at that time, could not meet every need that was put to me at those points that we are now in a position where we are able to meet such exceptional needs at a time of such great pressure for so many.
Bhí mé chun an t-am a roinnt idir mé féin agus an tAire ach níl a fhios agam an mbeidh an deis sin agam anois mar gheall ar an srian ama. There is a lot of concern in our coastal areas and our island communities about the severe economic impact Covid-19 will have over the summer months and the knock-on effect it will have both on internal and external tourism. As the Minister is aware, these regions rely heavily on tourism at this time of the year as a source of temporary employment as an economic boost to the hospitality industry in particular. In many cases, that is critical in sustaining communities throughout the remainder of the year but this crisis hits Gaeltacht communities twofold. Not only will there be a severe drop in tourist numbers but the coláistí samhraidh na Gaeltachta courses have also been rightly cancelled due to public health. However, we cannot seem to get a clear answer on the financial supports available to mna tí agus fir tí who will be losing a significant part of their annual income as a direct result of this announcement.
Tá réigiúin na Gaeltachta ar na ceantair thuaithe is mó atá buailte ag an dífhostaíocht agus buailfear iad i bhfad níos measa de bharr na cinntí seo, ós rud é gur beag na deiseanna eile fostaíochta a bhíonn ar fáil ann. Tá sé go hiomlán scannalach an chaoi a bhfuiltear ag caitheamh leis na ceantair Ghaeltachta le linn na paindéime seo. What support measures does the Minister plan to introduce for those people who rely on the income they receive over the summer period through temporary seasonal employment?
I was also contacted last week by an NUI Galway student from Clifden who told me that he did not know how he will be able to afford to go back to college next year, as seasonal employment provides him with an opportunity to work and save money at home each summer so that when he goes back to Galway, he can stay in digs and have some money to pay for meals, bus fares and books.
As a full-time student he is not eligible for unemployment assistance and due to the fact that he was not working in March, he cannot get the Covid-19 payment. What can we do to ensure that he can go back to college in September?
The last issue I want to raise is that of those over the age of 66. I will read out a heartbreaking email that I got from a constituent which shows the real-life impact of this on those over the age of 66. It states:
I am 68 and prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I was working as a bus driver, bringing children with disabilities from rural areas to their schools. Now that the pandemic has shut down schools, I have been put out of work.
I was not working just to pass time - I have a mortgage and bills to pay. My wife is 59 and is battling terminal cancer, and therefore unable to work. I am in receipt of the old age pension - however we depend on my wages to survive.
What can I tell this person? Since time has been cut short, I ask the Minister to respond in writing.
I want to be clear that the reason these measures had to be put in place was the systemic underfunding and understaffing in our health service. People had to stop moving to give our health service a chance to recover from the impact of the systematic and systemic underfunding and under-resourcing. We have the lowest number of consultants per head of population. We also have very low levels of nurses and very high levels of bed occupancy, with very long waiting lists. It was important that people stop to allow time for the health service to prepare.
I want to address briefly the issue of those who might be better off on these payments than they would have been in work. I was recently contacted by a young woman who lives in north County Dublin. When she is working, she earns €349.40 each week. She is a lone parent. She wants to be able to go back to work when it is safe to do so. She is worried about those who have been accusing people like her of gaming the system. She simply cannot go to work without appropriate childcare. She is concerned that there is a view that she and people like her are living it up on €350 a week, or that she might go wild with the extra 60 cent a week that she is getting now. She did not ask to be laid off and she will be back in work as soon as she possibly can be. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection addressed this issue previously. Does the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, agree with the statement made by the Taoiseach on 2 April when he said "I have heard stories of people who have asked their employers to lay them off because they would be better off on the €350 payment than maybe working 20 hours a week for €11 [an hour] .... do the maths"? Does the Minister know these people? Has he advised the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection? Does he believe this story? I personally do not. It is not my experience at all.
Dublin Airport is responsible for approximately 97,400 jobs. Those are jobs supported by or facilitated by the airport, according to the Dublin Airport economic impact study. Has the Minister given any thought to a particular sectoral recovery package that will specifically target the airport? It is extremely important, not just to the people who live in north County Dublin but also to the people in the broader Leinster area who are dependent on the jobs at the airport. We do not know what the future will be for aviation but these people absolutely need some form of income continuance. They need to know, as the tourism sector gets back up and running, that they will be part of it. In that regard, I request that the Minister gives some thought to sectoral recovery packages.
As the Minister knows, a disproportionate number of people who have lost their jobs and are on the pandemic unemployment payment are renters, who are often very young and working in sectors of the economy that are unlikely to recover until the end of this year or early next year. I note in the Estimate that there is an increase in the rent supplement allocation to €164.6 million. That is a 24% increase on the total expenditure on rent supplement last year which was, according to a parliamentary question reply from the Minister's colleague, Regina Doherty, at the end of last year, €132.4 million. We have already seen a 20% increase in the number of claims for rent supplement. We do not know that they will last for the remainder of the year. My question is twofold. Can I take it from the increase in the allocation under the Estimate that the rent supplement payment will be extended beyond this Sunday, the date on which it is actually meant to expire? If the total number of people and total amount required is more than that 24% increase from last year, will the Minister commit to ensure no renter who has lost a job or income as a result of Covid-19 will be left without rent supplement for the remainder of this year?
The issue of those who are working in the Gaeltacht and what has happened to them, because students will not be able to spend any time with them this summer, has been raised with me by the Minister of State, Senator Seán Kyne. I have visited the Gaeltacht and seen at first hand how important school programmes are for the Gaeltacht and employment in those communities and how central they are to local employment and community life.
I understand the needs referred to. The Minister of State, Senator Kyne, has raised the matter with me and I will work with him to see if we can respond to the issue the Deputy has raised because I accept their importance.
Deputy Mairéad Farrell and other Sinn Féin Deputies have read correspondence into the Dáil record. I have received such correspondence. I am acutely aware of the level of need that many have at the moment and the level of anxiety that is there, but it is the reason these payments were introduced in the first place. It is the reason we brought in a scheme such as the wage subsidy scheme. While I receive correspondence as has been shared on the floor of the Dáil a moment ago, I am also aware of all of those lives that have been supported by the wage subsidy scheme and the impact the pandemic unemployment payment had in quickly responding to needs that were created for too many by them losing their jobs so quickly. I am aware of those needs as is the Government as we make decisions on their future.
Deputy O'Reilly asked about Dublin Airport and aviation in general. A number of colleagues in the debate this afternoon may well raise issues relating to their local airports. I am aware of the issues the aviation sector and travel sector are facing. I will be engaging with the task force that has been established by the Minister, Shane Ross, and the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, as to what can affordably be done to support that sector and to support our airports at a time of such great change and challenge.
Of course, Dublin Airport is right beside my constituency and I am aware of the serious impact the number of job losses will have on communities that depend on it. Given the significantly reduced traffic through the airport, the management in the airport in working with the unions is trying to make decisions on how it can respond to the collapse in passenger numbers and revenue that has happened.
In response to Deputy Ó Broin, I will be meeting the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, tomorrow and I will raise in particular the matter the Deputy has just raised with me regarding the timing of the end of the rent supplement payment. Either the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or I will respond to him on the matter. Of course, it will be my intention to try to make funding available to deal with all the social and personal needs that have been raised here. I need to deal with them matter-by-matter and Estimate-by-Estimate, but I will bear in mind what the Deputy has said when I meet the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, tomorrow.
We are here today to examine the large budgetary requirement and the Estimates for the Department to put measures in place to allow that Department to continue making those payments and providing supports so many people are dependent on to get us through this unprecedented health emergency. These ongoing payments are necessary and are the right use of public money. Our responsibility here is to support everyone in this country to get through this time of crisis. I will be supporting this proposal today for that reason.
It is also opportune at this time to acknowledge the major workload across all Departments in administering these payments. All the staff who have been redeployed have had to learn on their feet in addition to answering all the questions that came from us. At a local level, local enterprise offices have done great work in supporting businesses and administering the payments and supports there.
Another very large budgetary figure also requires our attention. I refer to the EU funding, the EU recovery proposal, the green new deal. Today in the House we are dealing with the immediate crisis and the supports to get us through full reopening of businesses and beyond. The bigger challenge that faces us is the roadmap ahead over the coming years for the Government and the country. We need to encourage investment, we need to grow employment and most importantly we need to give confidence back to people to encourage that investment and to show them a path forward that is better than what went before.
The Commission is discussing large figures for European stimulus packages, grants and loans. We do not know what the final figure will be but it will be substantial. Those supports will give us the ability to provide that confidence and investment. We must use that funding in a way that encourages large-scale investment in projects that cut emissions, that decarbonise the economy, offer high returns and create long-term sustainable jobs and which provide confidence for investors. Clean energy infrastructure, for example, can create twice as many jobs and drives down energy costs for everybody. It will drive down the energy costs for every household in the country. Retrofitting our existing housing stock must be a top priority. A public housing building programme will get people back to work and provides hope.
Last night I attended a webinar by the Tipperary Energy Agency on the opportunities that exist in respect of solar panels. Photovoltaic fitting provides a great opportunity, where the sunshine that is outside today could be powering houses across the country. Those would be long-term jobs and that would drive down energy costs and would reduce the spending on imported fuels at a domestic level. This makes sense with smart metering and a potential to feed energy back into the grid. The right supports and encouragement could result in a roll-out of solar technology across every rooftop in the country, with commercial and domestic applications. There is great potential.
We must invest in public transport systems. We cannot go back to the congestion and poor air quality, with people stuck in their cars for hours every day. There is a deficit in public transport infrastructure which we need to address. It is not just about getting from city to city but also how we get around within our towns and villages. We need to invest in safe walking routes to schools in the mornings. Many children are being driven to school because there are no safe walking routes. We need investment in cycling infrastructure to get that life and vitality back into our towns, which does not exist when people are driving around and stuck in congested traffic.
There must be investment in health and education, in building our skills base to take advantage of the opportunities for innovation in the digital economy. That is the way forward. The investment must be regionally balanced and must include rural support spending, particularly sustainable agriculture and ecosystem regeneration, local and community enterprise supports. Such investments are not just Green Party policy; they are supported by academic research. They provide the highest returns, create a sustainable economy, attract investment and are a route to decarbonisation. It is a sustainable future. They are inclusive, fair and ensure long-term job creation. We are at a turning point. We need to take the opportunities that the aforementioned EU fund can provide. We need transformative change. That is the challenge for a future Government.
I have three questions.
Does the Department plan to review the position of seasonal workers? Other Deputies have mentioned the massive job losses across tourism. So many people in those industries, including musicians, artists and people across the board, depend on the income over the three or four months of this time of year. They will not have any work this year. They will not have the income that they would make at this time to get them through the quiet times of winter. Has this been considered? They do not qualify for the pandemic unemployment payment.
The Minister has covered the matter of maternity leave and temporary wage subsidy scheme. I am delighted to see it is gone. I acknowledge other Deputies raised it last month.
Earlier today, my colleague, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, raised the matter of extending State maternity leave for mothers who are concerned about returning to work because of worry about Covid-19 or because of a lack of childcare. How many people would be affected and what costs would arise if this were extended to phase 5 and the full reopening, which will hopefully go ahead?
I have one other question. I refer to Debenhams, which has been raised many times previously. There is real concern among workers and their representatives that the company has taken advantage of the Covid restrictions to lessen its engagement with staff and unions prior to the appointment of the liquidator. Have any lessons been learnt from that and are there any measures we can take to support other workers who may be affected by liquidation in the future?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. First, I will say a word about the proposals brought forward by the European Union yesterday. I think they are really important. They build on the work that was done by finance Ministers of the European Union and also the initiative that was launched by France and Germany last week. In addition to the reasons the Deputy touched upon regarding the Union's ability to fund, either by grant or loan, the kind of things that we need to change in our economy, both because they are a part of how we decarbonise the economy but also because they are job rich, for those reasons alone the funds and initiative that have been brought forward are very welcome. More broadly, the reason it matters so much is that it is a clear indication from the European Union that as Covid has wreaked such harm and loss of life across Europe, measures will be taken to ensure the gap between economies and countries that are inside the European project and inside the eurozone does not grow to an unsustainable level. I hope and believe that by the end of this year we can reach agreement on such an initiative. I believe it could make a real difference to the future of Europe and of this country.
I will deal with each of the questions the Deputy asked. As to whether we are considering a further change in income supports in light of seasonal workers, for example, an issue the Deputy has raised with me in recent weeks, I regret that I am not planning such a change. The reason for that is that it is very difficult to make the case for the workers to whom he refers. The way we have structured the payments is based on people who were at work when the pandemic hit Ireland. Many seasonal workers who are currently not working were not in work across that period and for that reason they are outside of the scope of the very big initiatives we have in place. I will look to address the issue raised by the Deputy. I take his point about the impact of the pandemic on tourism being so significant. I want to work with the task force that has been put in place to see what we can do to give work back to as many people as possible who would have been working in tourism in the summer. It is a big challenge, but it is one on which this Government and the next one will have to make some progress because of how important it is to so many communities.
Maternity leave is not a matter for which I have direct responsibility; it is a matter that is dealt with by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I know she has considered the matter. It has been put to me that the solution outlined by the Deputy is a way of dealing with the maternity leave issue. I want to deal with the fact that those who are on maternity leave were not able to access the wage subsidy scheme in the context of that scheme because it would take a long time if I were to wait for changes in maternity leave to deal with the issue. I want to act on that issue and I hope to do so tomorrow.
I wish to raise a number of issues with the Minister. I will ask a question, receive the answer and then follow up with subsequent questions.
The first issue is the fact that as public representatives people are coming to us who are concerned about the wage subsidy scheme and its impact on them as employees in respect of their pension entitlements down the line.
I would like the Minister's assurance that people's statutory pension entitlements will not be affected by the fact that they are being paid under the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme.
Deputy Sherlock has raised a very important matter. I will come back to him on that issue in writing. The Government acted to ensure the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme would include a bridging recognition of people's social insurance contributions in this period. We wanted to ensure that workers' time on the scheme was not treated differently where their social insurance contributions were concerned. Though I believe I know the answer to the Deputy's question, it is the first time it has been raised with me in the Dáil and I want to ensure I give him exactly the right answer.
I appreciate the Minister's reply. Perhaps he could circulate his response to all our colleagues here, as I think it is a question they have all been asked. There is another similar question on people's minds. Will a tax liability arise from receipt of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment?
As the Deputy will know, jobseeker's payments are subject to tax. However, recipients of jobseeker's payments might not pay tax on them due to their income level. Because the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment is a form of income, it is being treated in the same way as jobseeker's payments. As such it is subject to taxation. As is the case with jobseeker's payments, the amount of tax recipients pay at the end of this year could be smaller what they paid last year for the very simple and unfortunate reason that their income may have decreased considerably in 2020 when compared with 2019. The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes".
I thank the Minister. The next issue I wish to raise concerns correspondence I have received via the Irish Cancer Society. This body wrote to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, with whom I intended to raise the matter directly today. The Irish Cancer Society stated:
It has come to our attention that a number of cancer patients who have been advised to cocoon are not entitled to the COVID-19 Enhanced Illness Benefit payment of €350 per week... the Irish Cancer Society is asking [the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection], in consultation with your colleagues Ministers Harris and Donohoe, to address this anomaly by amending regulations in order to extend the COVID-19 enhanced Illness Benefit payment to those unable to work during the Covid-19 pandemic on the advice of the Government and/or a medical practitioner.
To be fair to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Irish Cancer Society received a quite sympathetic response:
Employees who cocoon without a medical certificate may approach their employer in relation to taking annual or other paid leave - this is at the discretion of the employer. The government has encouraged employers to support workers with leave requests.
The core point here is this. I am not looking for exceptional treatment for any sector in society. However, some people who are undergoing cancer treatment at the moment are not in a position to use up any more leave or to go back to work even though work is available for them. I ask the Minister to have regard to the Irish Cancer Society's correspondence with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and at least bear the matter in mind when considering the possible extension of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme and the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit.
That is the first point. I wish to make another very brief point about the continuation of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme. We have recently heard from the Irish Hotels Federation and the National Campaign for the Arts, as well as an organisation called the Event Production Industry Covid-19 working group, which consists of stakeholders in the entertainment sector, organisers of outdoor concerts and so on.
They have all corresponded with us to request that the wage subsidy scheme and the Covid-19 payments be extended. I again ask the Minister whether he will give consideration to that. They are the sectors that will be the last to come on stream. The EPIC group, particularly in the case of outdoor concerts, includes engineers, riggers and other seasonal workers. They are asking that their concerns be addressed.
It sounds as though the Minister, Regina Doherty, has responded to the Deputy on the issue that was raised by the Irish Cancer Society. It is a policy decision for her to take in respect of the matter but I will follow up on it with her.
On the future of the wage subsidy scheme, the kind of issue the Deputy raised is exactly what I am considering at the moment. I take his point that many parts of our economy, because of the health guidance given by the Government, are still not in a position to reopen or to start any kind of work. The wage subsidy scheme, as currently enacted, will come to an end before such companies have a chance of getting up and running. That is what I am considering and I am particularly aware of those who work in all the different kinds of arts, entertainment and so on. They have the most profound of questions in front of them regarding the future of the sectors they work in. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter with me, and in the decisions the Government and I will make on the wage subsidy scheme, we will certainly reflect on the kind of issue he pointed to.
I do not believe I have yet received the correspondence but I have seen it on social media. I am receiving a gigantic volume of correspondence from every part of our society and economy, making legitimate cases for their support both now and into the future. I am trying to consider all these issues in the round.
Since becoming a public representative, I have been contacted time and again by victims and survivors of domestic abuse, as I am sure the Minister and everyone else in the Chamber have. I am sorry to report I have also been confronted time and again with the inadequacies of the State's response.
As the only female Cork Deputy, I feel obliged to raise this issue again. The cold, hard truth is that the restrictions of the Covid-19 emergency leave women, children and men at increased risk of domestic abuse. It is imperative that the Government should provide proper assistance in these instances. Organisations such as West Cork Women Against Violence and SAFE Ireland do phenomenal work in supporting and advocating on behalf of victims and survivors. The Government should listen to these organisations that respond to victims and survivors every day. They are the experts and we need to listen to them. They have asked for an emergency rent supplement to help victims access secure, safe housing during this crisis, a focused solution. I implore the Minister to reconsider the decision not to facilitate their request and to re-evaluate the decision to deny access to emergency rent supplements for people fleeing domestic violence.
Of course, as the only female Deputy in Cork, I also feel obliged to raise the issue of women returning from maternity leave and not being able to access payments, but in the interest of reducing repetition in the Chamber, I join other Deputies in calling for immediate action on this absolutely outrageous and discriminatory discrepancy.
People with disabilities and their families have been especially impacted by the Covid-19 emergency. Intersectional analysis shows that social and health issues are felt disproportionately by minority groups, including those with disabilities. Support services, day care centres and respite opportunities have been impacted.
Many people have found the disruption to routine and the lack of access to friends very distressing. Health issues accompanying some disabilities make it harder to recognise coronavirus symptoms, which creates extra worry.
People with disabilities can earn up to €120 a week without affecting their allowance. Unfortunately, due to the devastating effects of the Covid-19 emergency on the hospitality sector in particular, many people with disabilities are unable to return to work. I have been contacted by constituents who say that the loss of this income is compounded by the lack of access to a crucial social outlet and the loss of structure to their day. On their behalf, I am seeking a reassurance from the Minister that those on disability allowance who cannot return to work due to Covid-19 will be eligible for a supplementary non-means-tested payment, to a maximum of €120 per week.
I had another question on clawback, but in light of the previous debate in the Chamber today I will just say that I am glad to hear that those in receipt of disability allowance or one-parent family payments who availed of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment will not be subject to any so-called "clawbacks" in the future.
Last week I asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, about workers' rights in meat processing plants. I highlighted the vulnerability of these and other workers during the Covid-19 emergency. Too often, migration, which is a reality of life for millions of people, is described in negative terms. In reality, however, Irish society is richer because of migration and it has become an economic necessity. Migrants fill vital gaps in our labour markets. If we are happy for these people to produce our food, work in our hospitals and care for our elderly, then we are obliged to ensure they are treated justly. We cannot ignore the hypocrisy of successive Irish Governments championing the cause of the undocumented Irish in the United States of America while at the same time seeming to ignore the plight of undocumented workers in Ireland. That said, I commend the Government on introducing a firewall during the Covid-19 emergency that ensured the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection would not share any information with the Department of Justice and Equality. As a result, all people who need it, whether documented or undocumented, could apply for the hardship payment. This practice is common in many jurisdictions to ensure that migrants, a vulnerable population, can safely access healthcare, police and State services without fear of deportation. In that spirit, will the Minister and other relevant Ministers ensure the continuation of the firewall for information sharing with the Department of Justice and Equality on social welfare payments for migrant workers?
Deputy Cairns raised the issue of domestic violence. I am absolutely aware of the great importance of the issue and I know that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has treated the matter very seriously during this Covid-19 period. He has done all he can to ensure that those at risk or those who become victims of that awful crime are given as much support as possible.
Deputy Cairns asked about engagement between representative bodies for victims of domestic violence and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I understand that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protectionhas met with a number of organisations that are active in this area. Those meetings were satisfactory and progress was made. The Minister is acutely aware of the issues referred to by Deputy Cairns.
Unfortunately, I am not able to answer the Deputy's question on rent supplement. I was not, nor should I have been, involved in the decision on that matter. I will, however, get an answer for the Deputy on the subject and I will respond to her.
I plan to bring a proposal to Cabinet tomorrow on the maternity leave issue. We moved with great speed in setting up the wage subsidy scheme. After that scheme was set up and operational I became aware of the question of mothers going back to work who had been on maternity leave. My objective is to find a way to bring them onto the wage subsidy scheme and to treat them absolutely fairly, as with others who are on the wage subsidy scheme currently. It has taken some time to identify a way of doing this because of the way the legislation was drafted.
With the support of the Cabinet, I aim to deal with that issue tomorrow. I thank the Deputy for raising that with me in recent debates.
On the issue regarding the firewall, as the Deputy referred to the work between the Department of Justice and Equality and Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I am well familiar with the issue of the undocumented in my constituency. I see the contribution that many who are undocumented make to our economy and to our society. I also see, however, the great difficulty they face because of how they originally came into our country. Many of them have been in Ireland for so long.
I cannot tell the Deputy now because I am not the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is a matter I am glad we were able to handle during the period of Covid. I will ask the respective Ministers what their plans are for dealing with those as we move through this phase of Covid.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.
There has been a clamour in certain sectors of society that the pandemic unemployment payment should be either immediately cut or tapered off. Much dog-whistling comes with this. The narrative is that people on the Covid payment are living it up. That is very selective by the people who say it. It is usually from the very top and is socially poisonous. That narrative was driven home during debates here on social housing many times. There was a narrative that social housing is somehow free, one does not pay any rent and so forth. I really object to that. There is now a narrative that there is free money regrading Covid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people working before this pandemic were paying PRSI and income tax. Ironically they will still pay PRSI and income tax by the end of the year if they get the payment. That type of narrative is socially poisonous.
The facts are that more than one third of those on the Covid payment were earning less than €300 a week before they were laid off. Ireland has the third highest level of low pay in the OECD with 23% of full-time workers in low-paid work while the OECD average is 16%. That sizeable 23% are the working poor. They work very hard for a very bad wage.
One thing that has been shown to us over the past three months is that working people who do not earn a significant income make a significant contribution to society. Workers in supermarkets and shops, those driving people to work, are on the front line of this pandemic. It shows how much of a contribution they make to society. Sometimes, however, they are pilloried in society.
Will the Department continue the Covid payment for those workers who cannot go back to work until this public emergency finishes, either due to health reasons or safety at work issues?
Any decision we make on the continuation or structure of that payment in the future will be anchored in our understanding of the contribution those people are making to our society and the way in which the jobs they were doing stopped being available to them because of the impact of this pandemic on our economy. That happened at great speed and in a way nobody could have foreseen. That is the reason we brought in the pandemic unemployment payment and nobody in this Government is looking to use it in a socially divisive way.
People are not stupid. They know exactly what the Government was doing. People know there has been a campaign of manufacturing consent for attacks on the pandemic unemployment payment and they are increasingly seeing that it is built on the same sort of lies as those on which the Taoiseach built his previous campaign about welfare cheats, which are fundamental untruths about the figures. I will come back to them.
The Government has a problem now because the true face of the motivation behind this attack was revealed in all its ugly glory on RTÉ Radio 1 at about 11 a.m. today when Pat McDonagh made his arguments for cutting it. The essence of the argument is that 200,000 people are better off as a result of the pandemic unemployment payment, or according to a Fianna Fáil Deputy, "a hell of a lot better off", which is entirely untrue. The real scandal exposed by these figures is that of low pay on the one hand and the fact that the State subsidises it on the other. The State makes up for the low pay of employers like Pat McDonagh by paying people working family payments and so on. That is a part of what his multi-millions of euro are built on. That is the real scandal. What came across from a man worth more than €300 million was the contempt he had for his own workers and his attitude, which is completely out of touch with ordinary people. He suggested that people are winning the lotto by getting €350 a week. That €350 a week is below the poverty line for a parent with one child. This is a man who pays minimum wage and insists on taking compulsory deductions for food from his staff, whether they eat it or not, and up until recently was also taking compulsory reductions for uniforms, despite the fact that people might not get a replacement uniform from it. It is utterly disgusting, but it revealed that this is about getting people back to work for poverty wages. That is what this is being driven by.
I have a very simple question for the Minister. I also posed it to the Taoiseach yesterday and did not get an answer. According to this report, 38% of recipients were previously earning less that €300 per week. That figure has been used to suggest that people are much better off. However, it is not an accurate figure. The Minister's own briefing note makes clear that the figure comes from the PAYE returns, so it is purely based on what people were earning from their employer. It excludes part-time jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's benefit-----
I do. I just need ten seconds. It excludes all social protection payments, including the working family payment and so on. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected by those payments, but the figures do not include any of them and, therefore, they are bogus. Could the Minister confirm that the payment is based on people's income from an employer, that it does not include social protection payments and that this figure of 38% is, therefore, not accurate?
I will find out the answer to that question for the Deputy and will confirm it to him. The reason these payments are made available at the level they are in the first place is the support and understanding that I and this Government have for the contribution those citizens are making to our society. That is why they were brought in and, as I have said before, we are simply looking to find a way to continue to meet that need as our economy reopens, while recognising that these payments are costing hundreds of millions of euro per week. Our ability to fund them is mainly driven by the way we managed the economy over recent years - decisions I made which the Deputies on the other side of the House constantly attacked week after week.
I will allow time for him to do that. When this pandemic payment was paid, it was welcomed by many people. I said to the Minister, prior to its launch, that the scheme would have been fairer if people had been paid relative to the wages they were earning at the time. Some people were working part time and earning €100 a week while going to school and finishing their leaving certificate year or going to college and ended up earning €350 a week from the pandemic payment. I suggest that on the application form for the payment, an applicant could have put down how much he or she was earning and signed that, to the best of their knowledge, that was what they were earning. Everybody could then have been paid up to 100% of their wages and probably 85% of earners would have been covered up to their full wages. With the money that measure would have saved, we could have increased the payment which would have meant that people would not have had to stall on mortgage payments and go back to the banking sector looking for solutions to knock-on effects. A person who signed the application form to confirm the truth of its contents to the best of his or her knowledge would have been made liable for giving the correct information. Down the line, we could have gone back to the people who did not give the right information about their wages. In those circumstances, up to 80% of workers would have been paid 100% of their wages and that would have made things easier. I understand that the pandemic hit us hard and that the Minister introduced the measures that he did but what I have outlined would have been fairer and that did not happen.
There are people over the age of 66 who are working and have to work because they are still providing for their family members who are in college. We asked the Government to top up their payments to a total of €350. That was not an additional €350 but a top-up to that amount for people over 66 who are still working. We were told that people can only receive one social welfare payment. We only wanted one social welfare payment for those people. We wanted people who are still working and paying tax in this country to get a top-up on the pension payment to a total of €350. That would have helped such people and their businesses but that did not happen.
Some people left school at 16 and went working for a variety of reasons, for example that they had to support the family household. Those people have been paying tax and PRSI since they were 16 and yet qualified for no payment, even though some of them were in apprenticeships and paying tax and PRSI through those apprenticeships. Because they were not 18, they qualified for nothing, even though they had to cease work and sit at home. That needs to be looked at. Those people were working. We were looking for a top-up on their payments. Other people who were aged 18, working only part-time hours and paying a minimal amount of tax got €350, while others who were working and paying tax got nothing. I will give the Minister a chance to answer.
The Deputy made a point about the pandemic unemployment payment being dependent on the level of earnings that recipients were paid previously and making a percentage of those earnings available to them. It is something that, during normal times, if we had not been dealing with a pandemic payment, there might well have been an opportunity to do. We will need to consider for the future whether there is a way of ensuring the level of income support that one gets if one loses one's job better mirrors what one's average earnings were before one lost one's job.
As the Deputy said, we brought this scheme in over a matter of days. The great fear that the Government, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, and I had at the point at which the scheme was brought in related to what would happen in our Intreo office when hundreds of thousands of citizens would have been approaching to look for that payment. We would have had an issue with how those applications would have been processed and how long that would take. That is one of the reasons the Government decided to go for a flat-rate payment of €350.
As for the issues the Deputy raised regarding those who are below the age of 18 and over the age of 66, the reason for that is the pandemic payment mirrors absolutely the way in which we make jobseeker's payments available. Anybody who is under the age of 18 or over the age of 66 does not receive a jobseeker's payment and we made the pandemic unemployment payment available on the same basis.
As I have stated before in the House in respect of those who are over the age of 66, it is open to them to go to their local social welfare office if they believe the payment they need to get needs to be adjusted in light of the fact that their income has also fallen dramatically. It is open to them to make the case for looking for the change in payment.
I have another question for the Minister. Is it legal for companies to have contacted their workers and told them that they were going to pay them themselves? I have had a couple of phone calls from people who were working part-time. They were earning approximately €100 a week through college to earn extra money for college and their companies would not release them for the Covid payment but indicated they would pay them themselves. Do those companies receive the sum of €350 for such employees because the employees to whom I was talking did not receive the €350 through their company? They received €100. I want to know whether those companies received the sum of €350 and gave their employees €100. Have they used that money to top up the manager's wages or executive wages within that company? If they have done that, can they be made accountable for what they have done? If those companies are closed and they are using the pandemic payment to pay managerial wages at the cost of the employees, they should be brought to task.
If the sum of €350 to which the Deputy is referring is the pandemic unemployment payment, that should not be going to an employer. It should be going directly to a citizen in the form of a direct payment.
However, the Deputy may be referring to the income support scheme. The legislation that was passed by this House gives the Revenue Commissioners a lot of power to - when, as it is hoped, we get to a better place with Covid - look back and review how the income subsidy scheme was used by companies. To be clear with the Deputy, the role of the income subsidy scheme is to keep people in work. If a subsidy is being paid to a company for an employee, that employee should be receiving the full value of that subsidy. If that is not the case, while I could never comment on any individual company, I would be fairly sure it is a matter the Revenue Commissioners will be reviewing. Any company which is doing that should listen carefully to that point.
We are certainly doing our social distancing well today. I have just a few comments.
I have been listening to the debate all afternoon, involving the Minister, Ms Doherty, before the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, himself. There is to some extent a sense that we are flying blind but that is to be expected because it was an unprecedented situation. I accept the Minister does not want to tie the hands of the next Government. In that context, the pandemic unemployment payment, for example, filled a gap at an unprecedented time but there are still some gaps in the system. One of these gaps was referred to several times this morning, namely, those women returning from maternity leave who cannot access the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I heard the Minister's response. The Minister said that if there is a way of dealing with it, he would do it. I am relieved to hear that because many people considered it a discriminatory issue. It was never intended that way but it is happening and if we were not to move, then it would be discrimination. I eagerly await to hear what the Minister has to say when he has discussed this with his colleagues.
I also heard the Minister say that extending maternity leave would take a long time. Perhaps the Minister might clarify that for me.
There would be many wins in this regard. An extension would certainly help to ease the problem associated with childcare provision and give a better work-life balance. Moreover, it would not cost the State any more money. Given the unprecedented times, perhaps the Minister should consider some unprecedented decisions.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, are there new proposals for sole traders over 66 who cannot access the temporary wage subsidy scheme payment or the PUP?
Second, the PUP, like all income, is taxable. I have said many times, and twice to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Ms Doherty, that people need to be alerted to this. I acknowledge that the Revenue Commissioners have said they will be flexible but nobody wants an unexpected bill, least of all one from the taxman. I got a sense from listening to the debate this morning that there is a possibility of a clawback. For example, where somebody who was earning €120 per week lost their job and is now receiving €350 per week through the PUP, is there a possibility that the Revenue might consider a clawback in some way? If so, could the Minister elaborate on it?
Third, the Minister spoke about the European response, namely, the emergency package worth nearly €1 trillion. Does he foresee any significant issues around a quid pro quoon the harmonisation of our tax base in the context of a common consolidated corporate tax base?
Once I have brought the matter to the Cabinet tomorrow, I will be able to update the House on my proposal on maternity leave and the interaction between that and the wage subsidy scheme. In case I did not make it clear enough earlier in the afternoon, I wish to clarify that when I said the consideration of the future of maternity leave could take time, I meant that in the context that, when the extension of maternity leave was raised with me, it was raised in the spirt of its being a way of dealing with the wage subsidy scheme issue. I am responsible for the wage subsidy scheme. I accept that women on maternity leave who are seeking to come back to work were able to make a case that they were not being treated fairly. I said at the time that this is a tax issue and that I would resolve it as a tax and wage subsidy scheme issue because I can address it quicker that way as opposed to bringing in other policy areas. That is what I am going to do.
On the Deputy's three questions, first, there were no new proposals on the over-66s issue. Deputy O'Donoghue raised this with me a moment ago. On the PUP, perhaps in the time available, Deputy Harkin might clarify what she means by a clawback. If a tax liability is generated by the PUP, I would imagine that, in nearly every case, it will be very small because the payment is €350. The Revenue Commissioners would deal with that over a matter of years with taxpayers, or a year if the additional liability merited that. That is a matter that the Revenue Commissioners decide on. They have said they will be flexible in dealing with the issue but there is no case in which the Revenue Commissioners might be influencing the level of the PUP because it is a payment that is made through our social welfare code.
On the Deputy's final question, on so-called quid pro quoarrangements concerning the European recovery fund, she will know the European Commission has stated again it might be possible that taxation in the digital sector or further corporate tax policy changes, for example, could pay for the fund.
My views on those elements of our corporate tax policy, which I will not change, are well known to the Deputy and to the House. What we will do, however, is engage with the European Commission in a constructive and positive way because the recovery fund, as put forward by the Commission, is potentially very positive for the eurozone. As a small, open member state of the eurozone, anything that strengthens long-term confidence in it is very much in our national interest. It is in that spirit that I will be engaging with the Commission in the coming weeks.
Perhaps it was not the Revenue but the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I may have got it wrong but I thought I heard something about the possibility of a clawback if the pandemic unemployment payment was greater than what someone was earning by working part time. Perhaps the Minister might clarify that or I may ask the Minister, Regina Doherty. I may have got the wrong end of the stick. I hope I have because it would be an unexplored mine if I have not.