Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her election to the esteemed position of Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I wish her well in her role, and particularly so as the first woman to hold that position. All very best wishes to her.
I am pleased to be here to introduce this important legislation. The Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020 is in many ways a straightforward piece of legislation which has two interrelated key purposes. The first is to place the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, on a solid statutory basis within the framework of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, while the second is to provide that employees who have been directly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic will have their social insurance records protected.
The House will recall that when the economy had to be largely shut down in mid-March, my Department responded to this unprecedented emergency by introducing the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. To enable this payment to be made quickly and regularly to a large number of people and households, my Department relied on section 202 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act as the legal basis for this emergency payment. Essentially, the pandemic payment was paid as an urgent payment under the legislation governing the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. While this was appropriate at the time because it was an urgent response, the extension of the period for which the PUP is being made means that it is now appropriate to place it on a discrete statutory footing. Doing so will also mean that we can make arrangements to attribute full social insurance contributions to recipients of the payment.
I want to take this opportunity to express my thanks to the staff of the Department for the extraordinary efforts they put in, most especially in those early weeks, to ensure that 1.2 million weekly income support payments were processed. In total, approximately 800,000 individuals have received at least one payment under the pandemic unemployment scheme, with the total number receiving payment at any one time peaking at just over 600,000. While a great deal of work continues to be done, it is right that we acknowledge the outstanding public service delivered at that particularly difficult time.
The House will know that on foot of the announcement of the July stimulus package last Thursday, the Government will introduced some further changes to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment with effect from 17 September. These changes will be introduced by way of regulation under the Bill before us today. I will refer to them when I am going through the various sections of the Bill. A primary purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we have the necessary legislative backing for a measure which offers support to those employees who would, in the ordinary course and were it not for Covid-19, have expected to continue in employment and to sustain and enhance their social insurance contribution records. This Bill will allow my Department to attribute these employees with paid PRSI contributions. This will ensure that they will maintain their entitlements to short-term payments, as well as enhancing their PRSI records for long-term entitlements such as the State pension.
I will now take Members through the various provisions of the Bill. Sections 1, 2 and 3 provide for the standard provisions as to the Short Title and construction of the Bill and the commencement provisions and definitions used in the Bill. While the establishment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment will take effect on enactment, section 2 provides that PRSI contributions may be attributed back to 13 March when the economy paused.
Section 4 of the Bill provides for the insertion of new definitions into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 arising from the Bill.
Section 5 is another standard provision which extends the list of regulatory powers which require the formal consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Any regulations made under this Bill will require the consent and signature of that Minister.
Section 6 of this Bill amends section 7 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, which identifies what expenditure should be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. This section simply provides that my Department will work with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to determine how much of the PUP expenditure incurred to date should now be properly charged to the Social Insurance Fund. Given that many people in receipt of PUP had an underlying entitlement to jobseekers' benefit, any expenditure on the Covid-19 PUP benefit will, following enactment of this legislation, automatically be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. This is an accounting mechanism that does not have any impact on the entitlements of claimants.
Section 7 is another technical amendment which is required to confirm that a self-employed contributor is entitled to claim the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment.
Section 8 inserts a new chapter 6A into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act specifically to address a key objective of the Bill, namely, the attribution of paid social insurance contributions. This new chapter defines the cohorts to whom contributions may be attributed. These will be predominantly those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance, as well as those on the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, who have lost their employment since 13 March 2020 as a result of the public health crisis arising from Covid-19. The new chapter also formally provides that employers and employees who have availed of the TWSS are exempted from the requirement to make the social insurance contributions which apply generally to all employed contributors and their employees. It also formalises the arrangements whereby employers availing of the TWSS are required to pay a notional 0.5% rate of PRSI in respect of any top-up payments to the employee. The amount of the subsidy paid to the employee is exempted from PRSI.
The new chapter also clarifies that the contribution will be attributed at the same rate as that previously paid. Put simply, if the employee was paying class A social insurance contributions before losing that employment as a result of Covid-19, then the attributed contribution will also be a class A contribution. For the avoidance of doubt, a provision is included to confirm that information may be exchanged between this Department and the Revenue Commissioners to ensure that employees benefiting from the TWSS can be identified and have paid contributions attributed to them.
Section 9 is a technical amendment which formally identifies the new Covid-19 PUP as a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code.
Section 10 is a technical amendment to reflect the fact that section 2 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 will now include a definition of Covid-19 and it avoids repetition of that definition elsewhere in the Act.
Section 11 inserts a new chapter 12B into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to provide for the establishment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment scheme in its own right. Within this new chapter, the new section 68L confirms the existing general conditions of eligibility for Covid-19 PUP, while the new section 68M confirms the PRSI contribution conditions. The new section 68N provides for the duration of the payment to be set by regulation. Following the launch of the stimulus package last week, I will be introduce regulations in September to specify that new applications for the payment will be accepted until 17 September. The new section 68O provides that the weekly rates of Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment are set out in Part 6 of Schedule 2 to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Again, in line with the stimulus package, I will provide for revised rates by way of regulation in September. The new section 68P sets out the arrangements which apply when regulations are being introduced in relation to the Covid-19 PUP.
Section 12 is a technical amendment to allow for regulations on late claims to be introduced.
Section 13 of the Bill amends Schedule 2 to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 by introducing a new Part 6 to that schedule, specifying the rates of Covid-19 PUP. These are the rates which apply currently and, as I said, I will be introducing regulations to provide the revised rates, as announced, in September.
In summary, and against a background where much of our legislation has necessarily been concerned with the more negative aspects of the pandemic, the Bill before us today is here for positive reasons. We are putting the pandemic unemployment payment on a statutory footing, which will allow for the Minister or an Accounting Officer to be properly accountable to the Oireachtas and its committees in respect of the scheme. We are also protecting the position of employees who have lost their employment because of the Covid-19 measures in terms of their entitlement to social insurance benefits. I commend the Bill to the House.
We will share time, with five minutes each.
As this is our first debate in the House I wish the Minister well in her portfolio. Social protection is important given the times we are in. It is the bedrock of any society and its primary purpose at all times is to protect those who need it most. Everyone will need it at some time in their lives, yet, despite this fact, on more than one occasion we have seen an ugly side to the Government when it comes to those who rely on social welfare supports. We all remember the infamous welfare cheats cheat us all campaign, brought to us by An Tánaiste.
There are positive aspects to the Bill, such as ensuring that employees who are relying on the PUP and TWSS will have their social insurance contributions taken into account during this period. However, they have been overshadowed by the Government's targeting of those in receipt of the PUP. Not only have there been threats to stop people's payments, but they have been stopped in the case of 104 people that we know of. It is regrettable that the Government did not address this issue over the past few days, in particular over the weekend.
There is a need for clarity on what exactly is going on. The Tánaiste was very clear when he spoke on television over the weekend that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is getting information from airports. Questions about this need to be answered by the Minister. On what legal grounds are staff from her Department obtaining information from passengers in airports? Since what date have those staff been in airports? What exactly is their role? What information are they collecting? What role do the Garda play in this departmental mission?
Yesterday, we heard a gentleman tell his story on "Liveline". He was approached in the airport by two gardaí and told there was an immigration check. When he returned to Ireland, his PUP had been stopped. The Department had details of the flight he was on, including the time, date and destination. We know this is happening.
We also know that the Department's website was updated to state that no jobseeker would continue to be paid his or her payment if he or she went abroad. Does that include people who go abroad to countries listed on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's green list? Legally, can that change be made through a publication on a Department's website rather than by legislation? There has been utter confusion from start to finish about travel and Covid-19, but one thing the Government has been crystal clear on is that only those in receipt of the PUP will be punished if they go abroad.
I am concerned about the condition under section 11 that to receive the payment, people must be seeking work. Those in receipt of the payment are not automatically jobseekers. Some are simply waiting for their workplaces to reopen. For example, some substitute teachers are in receipt of the PUP. Should they seek alternative employment? If so, where,? Should bar workers who are waiting for their pubs to reopen seek alternative employment?
Those in receipt of the PUP lost their jobs through no fault of their own and the Government should not add conditions so that those who are relying on this payment can keep it. I have tabled an amendment to remove this condition and I ask the Minister to consider it.
I also want to make reference to the limit to pensionable age in the same section. We all know that those aged 66 and over were given no support when they lost work. Some were self-employed and received nothing when their businesses failed or they had to stop working because of Covid-19. They were left stranded.
I also want to make reference to the rates payable for the self-employed. More than 15,000 self-employed people have seen their payments reduce from €350 to €203 and their base rate has been determined by tax returns from 2018. I ask the Minister to consider allowing the self-employed to make a self-declaration on their 2019 income to ensure they do not suffer unfairly because of a rate based on 2018 rather than 2019. That is causing considerable difficulties for the self-employed and their families.
Impím ar an Aire tacú i gceart le healaíontóirí agus ceoltóirí na hÉireann go háirithe, agus déanamh cinnte nach mbeadh aon ghearradh siar ar an PUP dóibh siúd atá gafa leis an gcruachás san earnáil seo. Is í an chéad chuid den tsochaí a stop go hiomlán agus is í an ceann deireanach a thiocfaidh ar ais.
I appeal to the Minister to remember the nation's creative minds, including the artists, musicians, film-makers, etc., who eased our journey throughout the Covid-19 crisis with their online contributions. For many thousands of those working in creative fields, the introduction of the PUP in March was very welcome.
Many of those who are self-employed or work as freelancers or others whose diaries were full at the time saw their work all but disappear overnight. Many have been ably represented by the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland, the Event Production Industry Covid-19 working group, EPIC and other groups or represent themselves. Riggers, stagehands, dancers, security, ticket office staff, lighting, sound and many others make up the artistic and creative community in Ireland. Many of them have had their pandemic unemployment payment cut or substantially reduced, and others are dreading further cuts in August. One person said in a letter to me:
I am not unemployed. I am forced not to be employed as a direct result of Government guidelines.
I read in a newspaper that the Minister said she believed that people should be actively seeking work. If she believes that, will she tell the employers of all of these people that they need to issue P45s and redundancy payments? That would be an absolute scandal and would go against anything that was intended.
I support what Deputy Kerrane said. We should allow the self-employed to make a declaration of their income for 2019 in order that they can be properly assessed on their most recent income for the PUP into the future. We should also remember that many of the self-employed only started their journey on self-employment last year and, therefore, only had declared income from employment and do not have declared income for 2018 unless they were directly employed.
The current rules also mean that a person who takes on a day's work loses the payment. The nature of the creative industry is such that much of the sector will restart one day at a time and will not return to full employment for many months. I ask the Minister to consider changing that provision so that people can take on some type of work. Many have written to me to point out that they will lose opportunities to work for pay or will lose all social welfare payments because they have not filed their tax returns for this year and are not likely to do so in the next couple of months.
The PUP was a necessary blunt instrument at the beginning of this crisis. We hoped that a number of the problems with it would have been rectified but this has not happened. Some of my colleagues have spoken about the weaknesses in the payment such as those relating to those of pension age.
There are difficulties now that the rate has been cut. There are problems for particular sole traders. Travel has been a farce, given that one cohort of people in receipt of the payment were being dealt with adversely in terms of payments because they had travelled while others were not.
I will have to check the detail on this but I also got news of somebody on the carer's allowance who, while travelling to a funeral, may have been stopped at an airport and questioned. On that basis, their allowance was cut. I believe it has been reinstated since but again we are in a quagmire with no clarity.
A big issue in my constituency was the fact the PUP was not made available to people who work in towns such as my own of Dundalk and who came from the North, paid their PRSI and all their necessary taxes, including the USC, and who played a vital role in economy. We were told that it was basically done and it was inferred it related to the EU. However, the European Commission has given us information that the Government made the determination itself 100%. That is an absolute travesty, particularly given the promises that had made by the previous Taoiseach and Government on never leaving Northern nationalists behind again.
We have a difficulty now that people who were living in the Twenty-six Counties but working in the North were covered by the PUP but they have now been cut to the lowest rate no matter what wage they were being paid. Somebody came to me in the past couple of days regarding this and she was automatically cut. She will be at work within a short period but this is absolutely ridiculous and, once again, it is an anomaly that needs to be dealt with.
The latest statistics from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection show that 27,800 people are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment in Cork. Last week, that figure was 30,600 and, on 5 May, it was 61,900. These figures show there has been a serious reduction in the number of people claiming the PUP and that people who have jobs are going back to work. That is what this payment was there for. These are not people who are unemployed; they have jobs and are waiting to go back to work. Suggesting these people should look for jobs goes against the whole concept of this payment. Unlike the recent Government advice, it is straightforward. When their jobs are available, these people will go back to work.
On 4 June, the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said that anyone who was working full time before the pandemic will not have their unemployment payment cut. I spoke to a lady recently who was travelling to Scotland to visit a terminally ill relative. She is now terrified about her return because she is in fear that her PUP will be cut. How can it be justified that a person should be in this kind of fear when he or she is going to do something as important as this? It goes to show the confusion around the Government's change of attitude towards people.
My colleagues and I have repeatedly raised the issue of those aged over 66 not qualifying for the PUP. I was contacted by numerous people, including bus drivers and the self-employed. In one case, a lady contacted me about her husband who is over 66 and who is a taxi driver. He was told to cocoon and they did everything the health experts told them to. She said that they have received virtually no support from the Government. The hardship grant they applied for was not supported by the Government. Those people, along with 21,000 others, did not receive the hardship grant because there was no support from this Government. They also looked for a rebate on their motor tax because, as this man was cocooning, he was not driving his taxi. The Government did not supply that either. It was the one payment the Government could have given him if it could not give him the €350. If it was able to, at least, top up his payment to €350, it would have gone some way to support this family.
The Government has refused to support those over 66 during this pandemic. ALONE was overwhelmed by the phone calls it was getting from elderly people who are suffering during the pandemic. The Government did not step in support them. Samaritans Ireland lent a hand to support ALONE in trying to deal with the thousands of calls it was getting from people who were worried and upset.
Regarding those who are travelling, instead of Covid-testing passengers who are coming into airports, this Government is means-testing them. I remember when the Covid-19 crisis---
I will finish with this. When the Covid-19 crisis started, myself and others went out with Penny Dinners and more to deliver hampers and we were told we were all in this together. This Bill goes to show we are not all in this together as far as this Government is concerned.
I was here. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Aire.
In the beginning the words were "comfort" and "health protection". Comfort came first for the millionaires and billionaires. With Covid-19 they were assured there would be no penalties for the tax exiles outstaying their revenue welcome because we were all in this together. We were all in this together for only as long as the Government needed the feel-good headlines. In what passes for national conversation during the lockdown, the breathless "Oohs" and "Aahs" over the visitor visa for the Easter bunny drowned out the last gasps of our elderly in their nursing homes in north Kildare. On social media, they muted the panic of the staff who we know now were fighting without PPE to protect and save their elderly patients and, indeed, to save themselves.
Now the headlines and the "Oohs" and "Aahs" have served their purpose. The political babbling over. Now we are down to business as usual. While the millionaires and billionaires are still comforted and cosseted, those unlucky enough to lose their jobs are condemned. In the political punch down, those who lost their jobs due to Covid must now look for work to get the Covid payment while keeping that link with their employer. It is just absurd, but only marginally more absurd than the Government hiking their pay one day and cutting it the next, although it was agreed in principle few weeks ago, apparently. Thank God we are all green here and we were all born yesterday.
Not only were these unlucky workers condemned, they are now watched and reported on from the airports. It is the kind of thing one would see in the authoritarian regime in North Korea. I have written to the Minister about the collection and sharing of passenger information and the Data Protection Commission has done likewise. There are serious questions to be answered by a Department still in data flux in respect of the legality of the public services card. I have questions about the published criteria changing, about one group being treated exceptionally and about the EU ethics in this regard. All this chaos could have been avoided if the Government had made clear statements about travelling. People could have gotten their refunds and would not have felt they had to go on holidays because they would have lost out. As I arrived into the Dáil earlier before Leader's Questions, I heard about somebody who had lost their child benefit.
They were aware of their rights and when, despite not being in receipt of the Covid payment, they were questioned at the airport on their return from holiday they found out that their child benefit was being lost.
I also want to talk about the North-South aspect of this payment. People who live in the North and work in the South have been abandoned by the Government. That is not surprising when the Tánaiste regards Belfast as overseas. I would go so far as to say that the Government displays a disdain and spite for the working and claiming poor throughout the country. It is a virus in this Government and electorally Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are not immune. When the picnic in the park slips, it slips entirely. The working and claiming poor get cold-hearted public campaigns about cheating us all and now they are getting the tap on the shoulder. The Tánaiste’s outing on "The Week in Politics" over the weekend signals that the mean girls’ giggling is over, but the mean Government is here to stay. It is no longer "more to do" from Fianna Fáil. I think Fianna Fáil is already done in - done in by Fine Gael. As for the Green Party, in the chaos of this Government I am sure it can smell the wolves already.
Let us be 100% clear. Joan Burton had nothing to do with the changes to the PUP brought by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection on 12 July through the statutory instrument, SI 242/2020. With no public notice, the Minister changed the rules for the Covid-19 PUP and for other unemployment payments meaning that recipients could not take holidays abroad. Previously, they were allowed two weeks in any calendar year for a holiday without losing entitlement to jobseeker’s benefit. The Taoiseach has now said there should be a review of cases where people who travelled were not aware they were at risk of losing their income.
Some 104 individuals had the PUP stopped in the last two weeks following checks at airports and a further 44 had benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance cut off. Today on "Morning Ireland", the Minister for Education and Skills said the statutory instrument was not discussed at Cabinet, which is not unusual. However, was the advice of the Attorney General sought? That is a key question in all of this. There are questions about the legal standing of the regulations, as the travel advisory on which it is based has no legal standing. As the people were not informed of the changes, there is a legitimate expectation they could travel under the normal rules that previously applied.
Since 2007, social welfare regulations have provided that recipients of jobseeker's benefit can leave the State for two weeks of holidays. The Minister's regulations changed that. The Tánaiste said on Sunday that people are now required to be genuinely seeking work if on the pandemic unemployment payment. However, does that apply to those working in a pub or the entertainment industry? The gov.iewebsite was changed on Monday to reflect this comment. The Government has still not clarified this. It is not clear if there has been a regulation stipulating that those on the pandemic unemployment payment must be actively seeking work now. The Taoiseach has now ordered an investigation into how the Government website was changed. The Data Protection Commissioner has asked the Department how it is getting data to block benefit payments.
There are key questions. As it is a statutory instrument based on advice from another Department, is the travel ban legal? Did the Attorney General sign off on this? Is there a change in the conditions that apply to the pandemic unemployment payment? Must people be actively seeking work since Monday when the website was changed? Was this decided at Cabinet? Is there a new regulation? From where are the data being used to stop people coming? What are the reasonable grounds that apply and why are people being stopped in the airport not being told it is for social welfare purposes?
I go back to Joan Burton. The Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012 provided powers for An Garda Síochána to assist with tackling fraud, but it is the Minister who changed the rules without notice earlier this month. The legal basis for these checks is section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. The issue here is how the regulations are changed, not social welfare inspectors at the airport.
Since March of this year, more than 2,000 pandemic unemployment payment claims have been closed as a result of checks carried out at Dublin Airport. We do not know how the Department is accessing and processing all this information. From anecdotal reports, it appears people are not being told when stopped that this is for social welfare control. Under the law, a social welfare inspector accompanied by a garda or a garda acting for the Department must have reasonable grounds for believing that there has been a contravention of the Act. The anecdotal evidence we have heard on various radio shows today from people who have been stopped does not seem to reflect the grounds laid out in the law.
The Minister and her Department have not clarified why she did not publicise the change in the regulations over two weeks ago when she introduced the statutory instrument. The Department changed the guidance online on gov.ie/welfareon Monday following the Tánaiste's comments on "The Week in Politics". It was the Fine Gael Minister who changed the rules for people on the pandemic unemployment payment without clearing it through the Cabinet or telling the public. It is not clear if welfare recipients are allowed to travel to a green list country. The statutory instrument refers to the general travel advisory from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Government has not provided a definition of what essential travel is, nor has it banned people from leaving the country.
From where are the data for checking people leaving the country coming? Is it on the basis of Garda checks at the airport? What are the reasonable grounds being used? Gardaí are asking people for their names, addresses and PPS numbers, but not telling them it is for the purpose of social welfare checks. What are the reasonable grounds for believing there has been a contravention? The people are demanding that these questions be answered.
I refer the Minister to a COVID-19 law and human rights observatory document which was published by Dr. Mel Cousins of Trinity College Dublin. It is a very interesting document entitled, Pandemic Unemployment Payment: Holidays in the Sun? I will cite some extracts from it. It states:
Unlike most social welfare payments, PUP is based on an (unpublished) administrative scheme.Thus the normal rules in relation to claims, payments, decisions, appeals, etc. set out in the Social Welfare Acts do not apply. However, this does not mean that the scheme can be operated on an arbitrary basis and the normal rules of administrative (and human rights) law apply. So the question arises as to what is the legal basis for the decision not to make payments to people on holidays and on their return?
That is a very legitimate question that demands clarification from the Minister and her Department.
The document goes on to state:
The legal change to [jobseeker's benefit] was made as of 10 July. It is not clear when exactly the change was made to the PUP conditions although it has been made as of 27 July. Principles of administrative law would not seem to allow persons to be disqualified for a benefit on the basis of a rule which had not yet been made or of which they were unaware so the rule concerning non-payment of PUP abroad would seem to apply somewhere between 10 and 27 July (whenever it was actually made and notified to claimants).
This is another valid point this eminent legal practitioner has raised. It deserves attention and it deserves to be answered.
Every point I have just raised is pertinent to the legislation. I will briefly speak to certain sections. We acknowledge that section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP, which has been paid as a supplementary welfare allowance or urgent needs payment, may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. What is the monetary implication of this measure for the Social Insurance Fund? Is this a raid on cash to avoid raising taxes or borrowing? Does this risk destabilising the already weakened fund? Is this a retrospective measure? Are we to draw on the fund to cover costs that have been incurred through this supplementary welfare allowance? If so, is this kind of retrospective legislation constitutional? I again seek clarity from the Minister on that point. There was set to be a hefty surplus in the fund, which had been identified as a source of funding to allow for the delay in raising the pension entitlement age. Will this window of opportunity now be closed?
Section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP, which has been paid on a special welfare allowance or urgent needs payment, may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. That is worth repeating. There is no link, however, between social insurance contributions and eligibility for the PUP. Students, for examples, would not have sufficient PRSI contributions recorded. Depleting the Social Insurance Fund surplus, especially when it is likely to come under pressure to pay for insolvency and redundancy payments, does not seem to be sound public policy.
Section 9 is a technical amendment, which formally identifies the new Covid-19 PUP as a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code. If the PUP becomes a social welfare entitlement based on payment of social insurance, will that change the situation for people travelling abroad? I have already spoken to this issue. Jobseeker's benefit, for example, is payable for up to two weeks of holiday abroad if travel advice is followed. It appears, however, that quarantine is not covered. If people travel abroad to seek work or to visit family for sound medical reasons, or if they travel within our common travel area with the UK or within the EU Common Market, can they be denied a social insurance-related entitlement? As time goes by, there may be increased numbers of people on the PUP going abroad to seek work. Their entitlement to a stable income needs to be secured.
If the new definition of PUP ends up excluding people who were entitled to it as a form of supplementary welfare allowance, will the older form of PUP still be available to prevent people losing their incomes or dropping to a much lower level of income? As we all know, supplementary welfare allowance is based on open rules, which allow discretion, and allows for people to be given money in a variety of circumstances. It seems likely that any legislating for PUP will tighten the criteria and exclude people who may be in dire need of a supplementary welfare allowance payment. This is again something I hope the Minister will clarify.
Like other speakers, I would also like to speak on behalf of those involved in the entertainment and culture sector. As Members, we will all have received emails from the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland. I will quote the email that I received from somebody involved in that group:
I am writing to you as a member of the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland (MEAI) to express my anger at the lack of proper support for self-employed workers in the July Stimulus.
The Minister for Arts in her support package for the Arts, has failed utterly to understand how my profession works. As a self-employed musician/entertainer I do not need a ‘Stimulus Package’ - I need a Survival Package.
As a worker in this industry, I am unable to earn a living due to the Government Guidelines on Social Distancing. My industry is sacrificing its right to work and earn a living in order to help protect the health of the nation during this pandemic.
I am not unemployed. I am forced not to be employed as a direct result of Government guidelines.
My colleagues in the industry are facing hardship like never before. MEAI conducted a survey of its 4,100 members recently.
- 68.5% depend solely on the Music & Entertainment sector for their income.
- 31.6% had their PUP cut to the reduced rate and are now struggling to get by.
- 11.6% [have] utility bills [that are] in arrears.
- 9.7% had to sell essential equipment to cover household expenses.
- 7% have lost or are in danger of losing their vehicle.
- 3.4% in danger of losing their home.
- 17.4% are dealing with mental health worries as a result of the financial stress.
The nub of what this group is asking for is an immediate reinstatement of the PUP payment of €350 a week from 7 July 2020 for all its members for the duration of the crisis and until the industry is able to reopen without social distancing. That is not an unreasonable request and I hope the Minister will give some consideration to the thousands of people in this sector who are affected by the cut to this payment.
The Covid-19 working group of the event production industry also wrote to me. I will again quote from an email from one of its members:
I’ve spoken to 3 companies today, all in business 20+ years. One with 6 staff, the other two have 20 plus staff. One is an event safety consultants, one is Event Power and the final one is a sound & lighting company. All three will be out of business by Sept 1st. This package is devastating for SMEs in general but it’s essentially a death sentence for those operating in the Live Entertainment Sector.
This person goes on to say:
The removal of the COVID payment to proprietary directors seems to illustrate a basic understanding of small and medium sized business.
Small business owners :
- Tend to be majority shareholders
- Tend to be employees
- are the first people into work in the morning and the last people paid - most business owners pay their staff first when times are tough
- Have personal equity tied up in the businesses e.g. houses tied to business loans.
These are not wealthy people. This person continues:
The events industry is made up of hundreds of small businesses and sole traders who, although normally profitable, are depending on the COVID payments many having sunk savings and personal assets into their enterprises.
Simply owning your own business now singles you out for further impoverishment on top of the many responsibilities of company ownership and, in one swoop the government is crushing the one group who should be supported having already proven that they have the strength and drive to create a company and jobs.
I will make reference to my own local area where, in 2019, the Indiependence festival in Mitchelstown generated in excess of €500,000 in VAT alone for the Exchequer.
This festival should have been going into its 15th edition this week, with 15,000 people descending on Mitchelstown and spending in excess of €1.5 million locally. There is nothing in the stimulus package to help events such as this to survive the next 12 months so that they can return to generating large sums for the Exchequer when the public health advice allows for same.
I again ask the Minister to please give consideration to the people who are working within this sector, with a view to revising the rules to allow them not to fall below a social floor, whereby they lose those vital protections to sustain themselves throughout this crisis.
I started off my submission in respect of the issues of the past 24 hours. I have asked a litany of questions. I am very hopeful that the Minister will respond to the questions I have asked because at this stage the public demands clarity in respect of the PUP and the stopping of people at airports in this State. That has really upset thousands of genuine people going about their business and acting within the law as they see it, rather thanultra vires.
I acknowledge that there is much merit in this Bill and short of a couple of important points I would like to support it. When I came into this Chamber in February, I wanted to be somebody who would be constructive in my engagement, who would try to find merit and who would try to work collaboratively and not simply oppose a Bill just because it came from somebody who had different beliefs about the world from mine. However, there are significant parts of the Bill that would make it enormously difficult for me to support. I want to tease those out with the Minister and, if possible, try to amend them to make a Bill that is fair and equitable, has a sense of decency and treats people equally.
When the PUP was introduced in March, it was an extraordinarily appropriate measure from the Government. It was done promptly and it gave a sense of safety to people. It acknowledged that the previous welfare rate of €203 was simply not enough to live on. Many of us had been advocating that for a long time. It recognised that to afford decency to people so that they might feed their families and not have to worry about the next bill coming through the door, it was an appropriate measure to give them a payment of €350. I recall talking to the then Minister, now Senator Regina Doherty, about the measure, and being sceptical and wondering if there would be a clawback. We were assured that would not happen and that the €350 would be spent very quickly in the local economy. It would be spent in butchers' shops and on the local high street. It would help rejuvenate an economy that was asked to stop. That is what the PUP was supposed to do. It fostered a sense of cohesion and gave us a sense that we were all in this together and the State had our back.
Then the dark clouds started to emerge and the Government started to fall back into bad old habits. The first group to receive less than the PUP was students who were told that as they were not working full time in March, they would not get the full €350. We did not even take into consideration that the same cohort of people would be working full time now and would be using the money to spend throughout the economy over the next year or so. Then we found the TWSS would not apply to women returning from maternity leave. That created another couple of weeks of furore and that still has not been addressed. Now here we are falling back into that old trope that people on welfare are somehow gaming the system. Sometimes I have to acknowledge the fact that this seems to happen at times a Government is under pressure. We are presented with a distraction that people are in our airports, taking our money and going overseas. That will not be allowed. We need to confront that mentality every step of the way.
When did the Covid-19 pandemic end? One would think that such a victory would have merited more headlines but it seems that I missed them. What other explanation is there for the Government's insistence that people on the PUP should return to work? Entire sectors that shut down must have reopened after the Tánaiste's television appearance at the weekend, or did it happen on 10 July when the Minister signed the statutory instrument to the effect that travel advice issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade effectively had a legal impact on just one small section of society who happened to avail of social welfare supports? Or is there a far more sinister explanation, whereby the new Government, which is not too dissimilar to the previous Government or the one that came before that, is using the bogey person of those on social welfare as a scapegoat? For this Government it is not as simple as telling people to get a job. The pandemic has made it much more difficult now because we all know the reality. Aside from the economic implications for small businesses of encouraging their staff to seek other jobs, ensuring that they incur costs and delays in recruitment when they intend to reopen, it means that staff now have to be issued with their P45s and redundancy payments, except, as I understand it, workers on the PUP cannot seek redundancy. How can they seek employment, therefore, if they are not technically unemployed? This is a huge gap in the Bill that will need to be rectified before we can pass it.
The Bill seeks to change the rules. Seeking work will have a massive implication for employers and employees, in particular around links between employers and employees and also access to redundancy. The Government should not go ahead with these changes at all because they will destroy any sense of social cohesion that we so successfully fostered during the pandemic and because the work is not available. The Bill must not go through with these changes until statutory redundancy rights can be restored. This is not a minor point.
We are more than 120 days into the situation whereby Debenhams' workers are still sitting outside Debenhams stores throughout the country because they were prohibited from accessing redundancy. We need to make sure we change this and we should not let the Bill pass without acknowledging that. Will the Minister provide the urgently required reassurance that employers will not be able to make employees redundant without them being able to seek redundancy? This abuse of workers, ignored in recent weeks by the Government, is not something that should be further sanctioned by changes in public policies just because the Taoiseach went on television over the weekend and had a rant. In recent days, backbench Government Deputies have gone on the airwaves and told the Government and anyone who will listen what a terrible and unfair idea this is.
I have a second question for the Minister. Will she assure us of the legality of the welfare morality checks that are happening at airports? I listened to the radio in recent days and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, which is far more of an authority on this than any Fine Gael Minister or parliamentarian who wishes to advocate this measure, has been very clear. The checks on passengers to establish if they were in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 were discriminatory without any real justification being offered by the Government for their use. My colleague, Deputy Shortall, asked the Taoiseach during question time earlier about the legal grounds underpinning the measure. He could not really answer the question but he mentioned the Social Welfare Act 2012. That has been proven to be incorrect. The issue first came into the public consciousness on Sunday. We have had any number of television and radio appearances from Ministers and Government backbenchers. We have an all-day session in the Dáil today and we still have no clarity on the legal grounds on which people are being discriminated against in our airports. Mr. Liam Herrick of the ICCL raised some serious concerns on the radio this morning. The advice on travel is just for one section of society, namely, those who are not on welfare, yet it has the force of law for all those who are on welfare. Are they welfare checks or are they morality checks?
My third question relates to how, as the Tánaiste put it, Departments are getting information from airports. Does the Minister accept that raises very serious concerns with regard to where the information came from and whether it has been lawfully obtained and shared? These are dangerous issues that require clarification, in particular regarding freedom of movement and discrimination. We must ask how people are being targeted at our airports and before we can pass this Bill we must understand the ramifications of it for people. Is racial or ethnic profiling ongoing? Are people from minority communities being targeted in our airports?
I would also like questions answered immediately on where the advice to start targeting people at airports came from. Did it come from the Cabinet? Was it brought to the Cabinet? A senior Minister said today on the radio that it was not. Is that correct? Did the Minister seek advice on its legality from the Attorney General? Given her continued insistence that we do not need a travel ban, did she have any evidence of mass fraud or even of hundreds of people leaving the country while in receipt of the payment?
Those are important questions.
I will touch briefly on another sector of society which is being unfairly discriminated against by this measure, namely, the arts community. It is welcome that all the previous speakers have raised this issue. The Minister was previously the Minister with responsibility for culture and the arts and introduced some very worthy measures in that area. Does she accept that the arts community is crying out for assistance at this time? We will need the arts more than ever as the economy reopens. We will need them to help us gather once again with friends and be comfortable in that situation. We will need them to help us laugh and cry, and understand the trauma of the months of this pandemic. While we expect them to meet those needs, the Government is once again asking members of the arts community to live in poverty. That is what is being asked of them with this measure. They will not be able to avail of the payment of €350. We have all been contacted by hundreds of artists in recent days who will be living in poverty if this measure is passed tonight. That is unacceptable. We ask so much of our arts community and have offered it little in return. We have gone from having one of the lowest levels of arts sector funding in the EU to bringing in a measure that afforded artists some sense of dignity during the pandemic. Now we are about to strip that away while at the same time asking artists to keep creating world renowned work as they have done up to this point. That that needs to change. We need to respect our artistic community.
I seek your advice, a Cheann Comhairle. I have an amendment to this Bill. Is now the appropriate time to move it?
I wish I could be light-hearted about this Bill but unfortunately I cannot. This is disturbing evidence of the deceit and dishonesty that is starting to characterise this Government within a very short time of entering office. One of the first deceits is that the note that was provided on this Bill made absolutely no reference to the fact that the Government was changing the goalposts on the pandemic unemployment payment, as far as eligibility was concerned. Let us remind ourselves that this is a payment that was given to people who lost their jobs and incomes through no fault of their own. Public health measures initiated by the Government meant that they lost their jobs. The vast majority of people who continue to receive the payment are not at work because they cannot return to work due to Government health measures. Now the Government wants to punish them. Those necessary measures, which were correctly taken to protect society, led to people losing their jobs and income. They are the reason people cannot return to work. The Government now wants to punish, scapegoat and treat these people with utter contempt, to the point of humiliating them when they go on holiday in line with the advice on non-essential travel provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That is what is happening.
I know the answer to this and have been trying to blow the whistle on it since the weekend. Most people did not even get it because it is the intersection of the Minister's statutory instrument and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel advice. The Minister's statutory instrument says that getting the pandemic unemployment payment is conditional on following the travel advice but what the travel advice says is that non-essential travel to 13 countries is allowed. I would bet however that the Department is taking the payment off people who are travelling to those 13 countries. If they were to appeal, they would probably win and get the payment back because there is no legal basis whatever for taking it from them. Of course, prior to the introduction of the statutory instrument, in April and June, the Department was also doing this. There was not even a statutory instrument in place at that point. I have received emails from people who were stopped at the airport at that time. In one case, a man whose partner was going on holiday had her pandemic unemployment payment and child benefit cut. It is absolutely unbelievable what is going on. The Department had no legal basis for doing that at the time.
What is behind this is naked class prejudice and racial profiling. That is what is going on because it is okay for the rich or those who have been lucky enough to be able to return to employment to go to the green list countries. I want to make clear, by the way, that as far as I am concerned we should all be following the NPHET advice of no non-essential travel. It is the Government that is departing from that advice. It is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that is departing from that advice. Even today, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, said it was actually safer to travel to the 13 countries than it is to stay here. This begs the question of whether we should perhaps all go to Greece, Italy or Cyprus because it would be safer, except it would not be safe for the Greeks, Italians and Cypriots because we would be taking the virus with us.
Apparently that is okay but the Government is going to punish poor people, those who have lost their job through no fault of their own, for following the advice that is on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. That is what is going on. It is shocking, as are the double standards behind it. If the Taoiseach were to decide that he fancied going to Italy, Hungary or Cyprus, would he have his salary, which is public money, docked? He would not. The Government is singling out people on social welfare payments. I got a message today from a carer who was stopped. This was a carer taking a bit of respite. This is sickening stuff. I suppose I should expect it from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but for the Green Party to do this is utterly nauseating. I would bet that if the Minister were to look at the list of 102 people, she would find certain common characteristics, namely, they would have foreign-sounding names or look a bit foreign, even though they are residents and citizens of this country. That is what is really going on.
The other thing that is really going on in this Bill is an attempt to whip people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own as a result of public health advice into low-paid employment in other jobs. That is what the Government is doing. It is giving itself the legal right to put pressure on people who work in the arts, in live entertainment and music to go to work in a McDonald's. It is doing so to improve the employment figures and because deep in the soul of Fine Gael there is a hatred of people who, through no fault of their own in most cases, must depend on social welfare. It is a deep prejudice that is stamped into the DNA of Fine Gael and it is nauseating.
It would seem there was no legal basis for any of this until now and the Government is desperately trying to rectify the situation by retrospectively bringing in this legislation to legitimise the measures. I would love it if the Minister would answer a direct question. Have recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment and other social welfare payments who are complying with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel advice and going to one of the 13 countries had their payments cut? I repeat that I am not suggesting people should go to those countries. I am pointing out that the confusion about travel starts with the Government's advice. It is the Government that is saying it is okay to go to certain countries in a departure from NPHET advice. It is members of the Government who should have their payments docked for breaching health advice because NPHET and the expert advisory group have made it clear there should not be non-essential travel. Ministers should have their pay docked for refusing to comply with that advice and endangering the public health effort.
Crucially, and this is where it really is bad, all of the public health measures and the enthusiastic commitment of people to measures that meant they had to suffer significant hardship were dependent on the principle that we are all in it together. That is why there was such compliance, because the measures applied to everybody. Rich or poor, no matter what a person's station in life, we were supposed to be all in it together and we were all going to suffer the same hardships. People believed this but it seems they were fools to believe it. At the first opportunity, the Government reverted to type and started the discrimination, inequality and bias against the least well-off, the vulnerable and those who were unlucky enough to lose jobs and still not be able to get back to work because of the public health measures the Government imposed. This is the truth of what is going on. Really, I am at a loss for words as to what the Government is saying.
I would love if the Minister got up and said the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is that people on the payments are allowed to go to one of the 15 countries on the list. I reiterate that I do not think anybody should be allowed to go but it should apply to everybody. I bet people on payments are not allowed and they are losing their payments. This was clear when the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade got up today and said the Government is saying nobody should go but the very same Minister states on the Department's website that it is okay to go to 15 countries. However, the Government will only impose penalties on certain categories of people, who tend to be the less well-off, the vulnerable and those who have lost employment.
We will try to amend the legislation. I do have to say I am disappointed our other amendment was not taken, seeing as we facilitated a rushed Bill and guillotines but nonetheless we have tabled an amendment to take out this attempt to change the goalposts behind the pandemic unemployment payment and smash up, which is what the Government is doing, the principle of solidarity that underlay the public health measures. It would be better if the Government accepted this but we will put it to a vote later.
I will not spend a lot of time making the argument this is discriminatory because its discriminatory character is blatant and obvious and the point does not need to be laboured. It does not apply to a business person travelling abroad. It does not apply to a worker travelling abroad. It does apply to unemployed people travelling abroad. It is discriminatory and it is blatant.
I want to make my first real point on the degree of the discrimination and the penalty for ordinary people who are unemployed through no fault of their own and what it will mean for them. The Business Postreported at the weekend that unemployed people on the pandemic unemployment payment who go abroad, even to one of the 15 countries, will have their payments docked not just for the two weeks they are away but for two more weeks when they come back and have to go into quarantine and isolation. The sum of €350 multiplied by two multiplied by two means a cut of €1,400 for the people who are at the bottom of the pile in society at present. People on jobseeker's payments will lose €203 multiplied by four, which is more than €800 for people trying to survive on the bare minimum finance in this society.
Now, we discover it is actually more than this because the Department has issued a statement stating people will lose the two weeks' payments when they go abroad and two weeks' payments when they quarantine and they will have to reapply for the payment. If a person returns to Ireland it is open to them, how nice, to reapply for the pandemic unemployment payment. What will the delay be there? Will everyone who applies get their payment back? Will other people be left without the payment? Will other people be downgraded to jobseeker's payments? This is really vicious stuff against the poor and unemployed. It is typical Fine Gael stuff and Fianna Fáil is joining in the chorus and the Green Party is doing this also. What a disgrace that is.
I want to read an email I received from a constituent today. It is a powerful and strong email that raises interesting points that perhaps have not surfaced so far in this debate. It states:
Hello Mr. Barry,
I'm writing as one of your constituents in Cork City, to ask for your help. It's recently come up that those of us on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment cannot travel abroad, even to a Green list country, without incurring a harsh financial penalty.
I was laid off like so many back in March. Before then, I had bought airplane tickets to see family overseas and I paid with my own money while working a full-time job. Now me, and many like me, are being penalised for something beyond our control. I cannot go abroad to see family without losing several weeks of payments, nor can I get a refund from the airline because the government has not guaranteed refunds or shut down travel.
If it is the safety of the country that is the government's concern, then shut down all travel for everyone who is not an essential worker overseas. It is unfair and frankly immoral to discriminate against people who are only even on social welfare because of a global pandemic. There should be more COVID testing in airports, than social welfare officers.
I'm asking for your help in either challenging this restriction or in applying it fairly across the board. A wealthy person can still go abroad without issue, while the poor are once again shunned in this country. I have paid my taxes for years in Cork, worked long and hard hours on night shifts, only for me to be told by my country that I'm now suddenly less than and utterly undeserving of what the rest may freely have. We need a more fair Ireland, where all citizens are treated equally under the law and none are discriminated against.
I appreciate you reading this and hope you understand my ire.
I will leave the name of the woman who sent me this email out of the equation as I do not have her permission to read it. The Minister should be ashamed of herself, as should other Ministers and Government Deputies, to listen to the words of this woman. By the way, I read a report today that the change with regard to the holidays did not even come before the Government before it was announced. What a shambles.
I have some points on the proposal to cut the pandemic unemployment payment later this year. At present, the payment is €350 per week and it is being cut to a maximum of €300 from 17 September and for people whose incomes were between €200 and €300 at the time the payment was introduced it is being reduced to €250 on 17 September. The numbers on the pandemic unemployment payment are decreasing week by week but there will still be a lot of people on the payment come 17 September. For them it is what puts food on the table, keeps a roof over their heads and keeps the wolf from the door. Each and every one of them now faces having the payment cut by a minimum of €50 and up to €100 per week. These are workers who through no fault of their own are unemployed in the course of this pandemic. This is just reason and just cause for those people to band together and raise their voices and organise protests against this vicious cutback. It is also something the trade union movement in this country should oppose and strongly speak out against. If protests are organised it should back them and if they are not organised it should organise them.
Yes, I am sharing with Deputies Carol Nolan, Michael Healy-Rae, Michael Collins and Danny Healy-Rae.
The Bill is putting the pandemic unemployment payment on a statutory footing. It also states the recipient must be genuinely seeking employment.
In general circumstances I would agree with that but I have a problem with this requirement when I consider the music and entertainment industry, people over 66 years of age, the people who own private buses and those who have bread vans, delivery trucks or vehicles they operate themselves. They cannot get the payment. They were just shut down by this pandemic. I have major questions about the pandemic, the way it has been handled and how it originated. There is a cohort of entertainment people. I love Gaeilge. Tá meas agam ar an nGaeilge, an ceol, an craic, an chaint agus an rince. Fuair Big Tom bás. He was from the Minister's county. What an entertainer he was. Every entertainer from the small boyeen with the fiddle playing in a fleadh cheoil to the small little groups and all the fleadhanna are the people who give solace and entertainment to people throughout the country gach seachtain and gach lá. It has all stopped. They did not stop it. It was pulled from under their legs by the Government when it announced what had to happen. We all supported that at the time, but it is time to re-examine it and allow these people to live.
Some of the people in the entertainment industry are desperate. Are we suggesting that the Irish artists leave their profession and look for work elsewhere, such as sweeping the streets or looking for a place on a community employment scheme? These people have made large investments. First, they educated and trained themselves in their profession. They have invested a large amount in equipment and in vans to travel the roads. It is modern equipment. It is not only the people who are playing and performing but also the people backstage such as sound professionals and the entire entourage. Think of the entertainment they give, such as "Four Roads to Glenamaddy" and the like. As I said, the Lord have mercy on Big Tom. There are hundreds of entertainers across rural Ireland and they are penniless. They are proud people. All they want to do is get up on a stage such as the one at this venue, if we were not here, and to have it full so they can entertain and bring joy and a little solace to people who have been downtrodden by what has happened.
We must do something special for them and for the people over 66 years of age. The stimulus package is no good to these people. They cannot get loans. The banks are already pulling loans from them. Many have loans for vans and equipment, but nothing had started this year. It is very unfair to judge on the basis of 2020 because their season would not have started until around St. Patrick's Day. Níl mé sásta. Táim ag lorg cabhair do na daoine sin. They must be helped. They are part of our culture, heritage and our very being. They entertain. Whether it is the Brú Ború, which the Ceann Comhairle attended once and which has wonderful Irish actors under the stewardship of Labhrás and Úna Ó Murchú, or the Siamsa Tíre or bands such as those of Trudi Lalor, Louise Morrissey, Fran Curry and Muriel O'Connor - I could name them all night - people love them. In fairness, some of them played drive-by concerts during the pandemic.
Now their backs are to the wall and they are being wiped off the earth. That is not how it should be. They are self-employed and are not looking for anything. They have paid their taxes and their insurance. Above all, they give entertainment and value for money. They reach into people's homes through the local radio stations and their records, and people love them. It is part of our culture, dúchas and heritage. They must be supported. Ní neart go cur le chéile. I appeal to the new Minister. If Donie Cassidy was here he would have her in a corner somewhere to talk to her and fight for the rights of these people. They need to be supported. They want to provide entertainment and their penny ha'penny worth to everybody else to enjoy.
I welcome the publication of this Bill, which puts the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment on a formal statutory footing. That should assist in providing a greater degree of certainty for the recipients of the payment. It also allows the Minister to provide for urgent needs payments by way of supplementary welfare allowance. This is particularly important because under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme the Department may make a single exceptional needs payment to help meet essential, once-off expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her weekly income. In every year since 2014, over 100,000 people have had to avail of these payments. Perhaps the Minister might inform us of what the allocation for this year’s exceptional needs payments will be. Will there be a reduction in the overall allocation to meet the increased demand for the pandemic unemployment payment and, if so, by how much? This is important because it is usually those who are most financially insecure who need these payments for unforeseen circumstances and when a crisis occurs.
In addition, people on invalidity pensions, disability allowance and carer's allowance are finding it very difficult to survive at present. What they get every week is paltry. It must be looked at in line with the cost of living and so forth to allow them to survive. I appeal to the Minister to do something in regard to those payments in the forthcoming budget. I specifically acknowledge the amendment contained in section 7 of the Bill which confirms that the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment is an unemployment benefit based on PRSI and available to self-employed contributors. That is incredibly important because we know that many self-employed people, especially in the arts, music and cultural space, have been greatly and negatively impacted during this crisis. They have found it very difficult to cope and survive. It has been a very stressful time for them. The events in the pandemic were outside of their control so they need to get fair play.
While the letter of this Bill is good, as far as it goes, there is a genuine problem emerging in terms of how the spirit of social protection law is being applied. We have heard in recent days of those who travelled abroad without any idea that in doing so they would face a penalty. I dealt with a musician in Offaly who had his payment cut unfairly. He was attending a funeral that he had to attend. He genuinely did not know about the rules. He told me he would not have gone to the funeral if he had known about the rules. However, I acknowledge the help of the previous Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, in reinstating the payment. It was reinstated after six weeks. Communication and a change of attitude are required. There are genuine people and genuine circumstances so we must be fair and flexible. I also commend the Department's staff on their incredible work.
First, I wish the Minister good luck with this new portfolio. She was a good Minister in the past so I know she will be a good Minister in the future. I, too, wish to speak about people from the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI. I have been inundated with calls from people in the music and entertainment sector regarding the stimulus package. They have told me about their hardships as they struggle to pay for their weekly shopping, with their utility bills in arrears. There is the threat of losing their cars and in some cases their homes.
The package proposed by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht fails to understand how this sector works. The Arts Council does not represent the workers in this sector and the money ploughed into the Arts Council will not trickle down to these working musicians and entertainers. With regard to this Bill, not enough is being done for this sector. The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is like a farmer with 200 cows who have nothing to eat. The farmer gets money that could feed every cow but instead he feeds ten cows and spends the rest of the money putting a cinema screen in the shed so the other 190 cows can watch the videos of the cows eating the grass. The extra €54 million the Department has provided so far, or promised to provide, could cover the cost of the music and entertainment survival subsidy scheme, ensuring each of the estimated 30,000 workers in this industry, although I believe it is probably 35,000, could have their reduced rate of PUP topped up to €350 per week. This sector needs a survival package so it can survive until it is deemed safe to reopen after social distancing measures are gone. The sector is struggling and is being left behind. I ask the Minister and her Department to work in conjunction with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to ensure it is not left behind.
I also wish to highlight something to the Minister with regard to saving jobs. I had to approach previous Ministers in the Department such as the current Tánaiste. I had to approach him one day, and I have looked through my notes to see if I could find the note to show it to the Minister. It relates to the disgraceful action that is taking place in the Minister's Department whereby recipients of social welfare are receiving letters from the Department telling them to get their payment put into the bank. In other words, they are bypassing the post office. I will always give credit where it is due. I handed one such letter to Deputy Varadkar in the Dáil restaurant one day. He said, "That is wrong and should not be happening".
He went away and got it sorted. I am telling the Minister there are offices around the country and people in her Department sending out these letters. I would love to know, on the record of the Dáil, what set have people working in the Department on our post office network. Why do they hate the post offices so much that they want people to go into banks for their payments and want to stop our post offices surviving? I wish to put on the record, in case anyone says I did not, that I am a postmaster of a small post office. Of course I want to see my post office survive, but I want to see every other post office survive. It is a matter of jobs in local communities and a local service. I appeal to the Minister to go back to these people working in her Department on this. I would love to take them out, face them and ask them why they are sending out letters telling people they have to go to the bank and leaving out the post office. We are trying every day to keep post offices open. I leave that job with the Minister.
I am terribly worried about seasonal workers. Before coming in the door here, I heard from a seasonal worker who worked locally in a place in Kenmare and whose seasonal work is gone from them. They tell me they cannot get anything now. For God's sake, will the Government please do something to try to pick up these people, including young students, who cherished every hour they had during the summer months and who have had no work at all this year. The prospects for them are very bad. What can we do to help these people? They are facing into a new academic year in college. They do not want to be a strain on their mothers or fathers. They want to try to ensure they have their own bit of money in their pockets. I ask the Minister to try to help these people in every way she can. I thank her and wish her nothing but good luck for as long as she is in her position.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment to a Ministry I have no doubt she will thrive in. I am astonished, however, that the rural affairs brief has got thrown in under the Department of Social Protection. This move seriously demotes rural affairs and was a very poor sign from Fianna Fáil of its intentions for rural Ireland, once again demoting the Ministry for rural affairs.
The PUP was introduced by the Government on 13 March 2020. I was asked to help with more than 100 applications, which we had to send in paper form. They got no reply, which meant we had to do them all over again. Was there any report on what happened to the paper applications? It was too much of a coincidence that all those we sent in never got responses. I give credit to the staff of the Department for handling tens of thousands of applications in such an efficient manner. I can only imagine the pressure they were under.
One serious problem arose for young people on the Covid-19 payment or the wage subsidy scheme. These young people were on the verge of being approved for mortgages when the banks refused to approve their applications as they were on the Covid-19 payment or the wage subsidy scheme. This has caused heartache for so many young people through no fault of their own. I would appreciate it if the Minister stepped in and forced these unscrupulous banks to honour the mortgage agreements agreed prior to Covid-19.
Then there are the over-66s. I ask the Minister to reconsider doing something for the elderly people of our country who were still working when Covid hit. They were still getting pensions. They were working, and surely some type of payment should have been made available to them. They too have mortgages and many bills to pay, and then Covid hit. The very least the State could have done for these people was to bring their pensions up to the Covid payment of €350. They get up early in the morning. They have worked hard all their lives and have got nothing in return. They continue to be punished after last week's stimulus package, whereby those who can go on holiday this year can get €125 back in some type of tax credit. For those over 66 on a pension, this will not work and they will get nothing once again. What did people over 66 do to deserve this, to be treated so badly by this Government and the previous Government? It is shocking, and they are angry and will not forget for a long time to come what the Government has done to them.
Then there are the seasonal workers, who are entitled to nothing. I spoke to a tour guide operator on the phone just before I came here. She cannot claim any Covid-related support. She was told she is entitled to nothing. This is shocking as this woman had a full schedule of work ahead of her starting, like other years, in the middle of March. People like her have worked tirelessly down through the years and would continue to do so only for the Government's shutdown of the country. What can these people do? I asked this same question of the Aer Lingus officials this morning at the Covid-19 committee meeting. Their workers' original fortnightly pay was reduced on 30 March to 50%. As of July, they are entitled to 30% pay. This means that although they are working, they are not getting 30% pay. Aer Lingus employees were misinformed and told that the company would give them the 30% and that the Government would give them a Covid-19 top-up of €700 fortnightly. They, therefore, assumed they would get more than €350 per week. This is not the case. It looks like in their payslips all they will get is a Covid-lite payment. Some crew have filled out UP1 and UP14 social welfare forms to claim reduced work benefits. They were told by the Citizens Information Board and the Department that they were entitled to claim. However, HR in Aer Lingus is refusing to sign the basic Xs and Os of the social protection forms for them. These are Aer Lingus workers. They are not allowed to self-declare and, therefore, the company refuses to sign. They do not get any added benefit from social welfare claims. These are Xs and Os, and it should be no problem for any employer to fill the employer's duty. I hope the Minister is aware of this situation with Aer Lingus and will rectify it for the employees.
I am glad to get an opportunity to speak. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her all the very best for the duration of this Dáil.
I want to ensure that seasonal workers who were not working the week of 6 March will be made eligible for the coronavirus payment now. I welcome the extension of the payment for a category of people which in Kerry includes hotel workers and bus drivers. There are many of them and they have no work. Because they were not working the week of 6 March, they have been left behind. That is very unfair, and I ask the Minister to address it.
Like others, I support the call for the over-66s. Many of them are publicans. They have given good employment over the years, and just because they are over 66 they have been left behind. They have insurance and utility bills and many other outstanding costs. They are trying to keep their premises and make them available like others who are over 66.
The TWSS only applies to people who worked the months of January and February. In the tourism sector, many people do not work during January and February. These people are not eligible for the wage subsidy and will, therefore, be left behind by businesses because when there is no wage subsidy for them, they will not be considered for or asked to work at all. Another point about the wage subsidy, and I wish to make this very clear to the Minister, is that in the case of those who did work in January and February but for fewer hours, perhaps 15 or 20 hours, and who did that work diligently, their employers will be allowed to claim the wage subsidy only for those hours they worked, meaning they will be left behind again because the employees who worked 39 or 40 hours per week are entitled to the full rate of the wage subsidy. Those employees will be considered first, and the ones who have fewer hours will not be considered at all.
Like other speakers, I wish to make a case for entertainers and musicians all around the country who worked hard to ensure people enjoyed their evenings out, whether they were traditional musicians, the ordinary ballad group that played in lounges or pubs or even the Dublin City Ramblers, who played in Kilgarvan year after year. They have been left behind. They have serious costs and they gave great enjoyment and great benefit to all those who listened to them and who look forward to listening to them again. They are not allowed to work now. I appeal to the Minister to end the embargo on those people who played in local pubs and clubs in order that they be allowed to work as soon as possible. They should also get some kind of financial assistance to keep them going in the meantime.
I wish the Minister well in her new role. It is a huge undertaking and I wish her the best. While people have commented on rural affairs being in with the rest of the Department but I have no doubt that a good Monaghan woman will see to it that rural affairs does not take second place.
As far as the legislation is concerned, I am pleased that the PUP will be put on a statutory footing. It will be a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code. However, by putting it on a statutory footing, it will come under the remit of European legislation on the co-ordination of social security. The most recent iteration of this legislation was put in place in 2004 and all exportable benefits are covered by it. It does not change the level of benefits as that is up to member states, but this Bill puts rules in place to govern what happens those payments when people exercise their freedom of movement. That is one of the four freedoms under the EU. We have a right to travel from one member state to another and, in this context, I refer to article 64 of EU Regulation No. 883/2004, which refers to unemployed persons going to another member state. There is quite a bit in it but I will refer to the pertinent elements. They concern an unemployed person who satisfies the conditions of the legislation in the competent member state, that is, Ireland, for entitlement to benefits and who goes to another member state. It states that people going to another member state "shall be entitled to benefits for three months". They have to register the fact that they are looking for work within seven days but there is a seven-day period during which a person travelling from one member state to another who is on an unemployment benefit cannot have that benefit terminated. They cannot lose their benefits. I understand that the Department has to protect its finances but it does not, under EU legislation, have the power to terminate an unemployment payment when a person leaves their own country to travel. At that point in time, no member state has the power to do that.
Those who travel have obligations when they travel but, equally, they have rights and it is up to the member state to make sure those rights are in place. If, for example, somebody from France living and working here became unemployed, claimed the PUP and had to go back to France for a family occasion such as a funeral, wedding or whatever it might be, for three or four days and returned, would their payment be stopped? Something tells me that, under European legislation, that could not happen. That needs to be examined. It is not directly related to the legislation today but it is an important part of the public discourse on this issue right now.
If someone is on a pension, he or she can travel to another member state for a week or a month and still receive his or her pension. That is fine and that is part of the legislation. However, if one is on the PUP, one cannot leave the country at all and retain one's payment. This payment is given to those who, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs because of measures taken by Government to close businesses, yet these people cannot leave the country for any purpose. This is discriminatory and it penalises people who already find themselves in a vulnerable position. I am not talking about a free-for-all, and the State has an obligation to ensure we all abide by the rules and there is no unfairness, but why are we singling people on the PUP out? I know many of those people. They ask me what they have done to deserve this kind of treatment. Very few people on the PUP will go abroad on holidays unless they had booked and paid for those holidays with their after-tax income before the lockdown. If a person goes abroad for a family reason, for example, why are they penalised? I do not suggest we have no rules or guidelines but if somebody leaves the country, that in itself should not be a reason to stop the payment.
Many of my colleagues have spoken about those who work in the arts and creative industries, including the music industry. This sector is suffering hugely. They are not unemployed, as such, but they have no possibility to work. They did not lose their jobs. Their jobs were closed down by the State and we all recognise this had to happen. An issue for many in the music industry is that many are self-employed and, as of now, it seems to me - and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong - that only 2018 accounts are taken into consideration when assessing the rate of PUP. That means some people are arbitrarily excluded or are in receipt of lower payments than they should be. If someone started a business in 2018, their income was considerably lower than what it was in 2019 or the beginning of 2020. The same applies to people who changed businesses, and I have come across at least three people in that position. They were in another business or they were employed and that terminated in 2017. They started out in 2018 and now their PUP has been cut. Can a person produce accounts for 2019 and submit them to Revenue? I see the Minister nodding her head and I am delighted. That is good news for people because it takes the arbitrariness out of that decision-making. I will wait until she confirms that is the case.
Some other anomalies have been raised by my colleagues which she has heard before but she hears them because we hear them. People come to us who find themselves in these situations. Many colleagues have spoken of the over-66s, those who are self-employed, those who run pubs and those who drive coaches and minibuses. Pubs are still closed and people cannot work. Those in the coach and minibus industry rely largely on foreign tourists and while indigenous tourism is picking up and I support the call to holiday at home, very few of us will use those coaches or minibuses. It looks like it will be at least nine or 12 months before that industry begins to pick up. These people, some of whom are over 66, cannot access the PUP, even though they work and pay their taxes. At a time we are looking at increasing the retirement age, it is a very mixed message to say that if one is over 66, one cannot receive the PUP but, at the same time, look to increase the retirement age.
I support the amendment proposed by my colleague, Deputy McNamara, on the issue of seasonal workers. They have to be taken into consideration because, as we know, tourism could not survive without them.
Finally, like previous speakers, I want to express my thanks to the Department officials. Their very efficient work in processing cases needs to be recognised. When a citizen is in trouble and the matter is dealt with quickly, it makes a big difference to that person.
I join colleagues in wishing the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the best of luck in her new role. I have dealt with her in several different Departments and she has a job of work to do in her new portfolio, first of all in the area of social protection. It is not the Minister's fault and no reflection on her, but I am saddened that rural affairs will not have a separate, independent Department. I am sure she will do her best in this regard, as she comes from a good rural area in Monaghan. It is important that we give the time to rural affairs as well as social protection. I know there is an emphasis on the latter at this time. With the situation we are in, the Minister's hands are probably full trying to cater for all the different problems that are arising.
One such problem is the number of business people who have taken out loans and are providing employment to people. Just because they are over 66 years of age, they are not entitled to any payment. These people are risk takers and they are giving employment throughout the country. Their situation is an anomaly in the whole system. Some of them are driving buses serving the tourism industry, for example, and they are left high and dry at this time. I see similar difficulties for people in other sectors. In the case of plasterers, for instance, there are people who want to hand on the torch and train another generation. That type of training opportunity might be scarce but there are people offering it. In the case of lorry drivers, to give another example, it costs probably €4,500 to €5,000 to put a young person forward for the test. Such opportunities are not plentiful and there is no point in saying they are. Unfortunately, the people who want to give those chances are being left behind. A sector that never got going, because it is seasonal, is the hospitality sector. When the payments came in for workers affected by the Covid pandemic, those businesses had not yet opened their doors. People in that industry are not getting the same opportunity other people are getting.
I saw the Minister nodding when Deputy Harkin spoke about the particular difficulties facing small business owners. I spoke during the week to the owner of a small photography business. This person rents a property and has to pay for electricity and other things, Covid or no Covid. That business is at a standstill at the moment because the owner's main work is doing school photographs and things like that. I know there is a rates rebate, but the owner has all the general expenses of running a business to meet. It is a small set-up and, when the whole thing is done, the owner takes something like €220 or €230 out of it every week. Now Revenue, or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, has decided this person will be getting only €203 per week. That is very harsh because the ground rent and all the different facets of running a business will still have to paid for. No landlord will say to a tenant that he or she can forget about the rent for six months. There might be a bit of a reduction given, but businesses will still have to contribute something. We need to think about people in that situation.
I join Deputy Harkin in endorsing Deputy McNamara's amendment. It is well thought out and we should support it.
During the Covid crisis, the farming community and the agricultural sector kept the lights on in this country. They should be acknowledged for that, just as all front-line workers should be acknowledged. I ask the Minister, under her social protection remit, that when it comes to the few euro the farmers get, to consider increasing the disregard when the means testing is done. Many farmers have only small farms but they went out every morning, brought the cattle to the factories and kept the food on the table for people throughout the country. I ask the Minister to focus, under the two parts of her portfolio, on kick-starting rural economies and regional development. There are several large employers who are letting people go. If we look back to 2010, it was the agricultural sector that kept a flag flying when a lot of flags were at half mast or were down altogether. I know the Government is borrowing moneys to cover all the things that need to be done. It is the right thing to do because we need to keep the ship sailing. I think all boats will lift throughout Europe, although it may take a year or two to happen. We must keep our boat afloat and ensure we keep people employed as much as possible.
The 2020 CLÁR programme will be opening soon under the Minister's remit. We are hearing that fewer projects will be included under the scheme in each county. I would like clarification on that. These are projects that support a range of initiatives, including community safety measures and other measures such as the provision of walkways and supports for children with disabilities in schools. The programme is important because, first, it improves community safety and, second, it gives work to small operators in different towns and villages. All the different funding streams are very welcome - I want to be very clear about that - but let us not see initiatives like this in rural areas collapsing because money is being pumped into X, Y and Z. If we need to borrow an extra few euro to make sure these people are not forgotten, we should do so.
The Minister is from a rural area and has travelled all over the country. She has seen the amount of work voluntary groups do in communities. The people who run them take a bottom-up approach, filling out the forms late at night and going around every weekend or every night picking up the litter and doing other things to make their community more attractive for the people who live there and the people who visit it on holiday. This year we are seeing Irish people who will not be going to foreign lands taking holidays in different part of our own country. Some of them might do so again next year because of the scenery and the friendliness of the set-up they find there.
I ask the Minister to take those points on board. We need to knuckle down and make sure the people who took risks with their businesses are respected. They do not know where they are because they were never given any money. For the pubs and the sectors that have not opened yet, the year is pushing on. We had three months or so of talks with the banks but there was little benefit for the people in those sectors who have invested a huge amount of money, whether in public houses or other types of businesses that are still not open. A word in the ear of the banks is needed once more because those people's income is going to be totally different from what it was last year or the year before. We must make sure they are given a kick-start. The jump leads must be got ready to get them going the minute things open up again.
The more people we keep employed in this country, the better chance we have of bringing in more taxes and generating an economy. I ask the Minister to take on board the points I have made .
I wish the Minister the best in her tenure in this Department. I would be delighted if she had the Department of Rural and Community Affairs on its own because it is the kind of Department that requires someone with her expertise and commitment. I regret that in the division and reallocation of Departments, we have overloaded some of them with very important issues and the Minister's is one of them. I wish her the best of luck and we will try to help her as best we can.
I welcome this Bill, which puts the pandemic unemployment payment on a statutory basis. That is very important because it is a lifeline for many families and will be for the foreseeable future, until the pandemic is under some sort of control through a vaccine or treatments. We all yearn for that to happen very quickly. However, there are some anomalies with the payment that I would have liked to see addressed from the beginning. Take the issue of people over 66, for example. There is a small family business in Sligo, run by a husband and wife, which employed 13 people. Eleven of them qualified for the payment but as the owners were both over 66 and in receipt of the contributory pension, into which they had paid for more than 40 years, the system adjudged them to have had enough. For those over 66 who are still making such a contribution to society, it would be only reasonable for us to make up the difference between their pension and whatever full rate of payment would have otherwise applied to them. I cannot imagine that it would be a vast amount of money but this is about moral justice, fairness and an acknowledgment of these people who have chosen not to hang up their boots at 66 but to continue with their expertise. These small business owners and others are contributing to society and creating employment and we effectively penalised them for that in what may be the twilight of their working careers. If this Bill does not afford the Minister the opportunity to address this issue, I hope she has at least costed it and can outline to us how much it would cost. If we cannot do it, I ask her to explain why, because it seems only fair.
The issue of seasonal workers is a very real one. An amendment has been proposed on this matter and I ask the Minister to consider it carefully before making a decision on whether the Government will oppose it or not. Other speakers also referred to the performing arts and the many musicians and small bands that would work periodically and would get some level of support through the season. Even in this relatively locked-down period, when they cannot perform in their normal places, they are providing entertainment online and performing online concerts and so on, but that does not give them any income. Some performers have run these events to try to raise funds for some very important charities. I ask the Government to acknowledge that because these people make a huge contribution to our society and to our mental health. They entertain us and ensure we have things to enjoy in our downtime. They now find themselves with no potential to earn any income, despite being big contributors to our society. I would like the Minister to examine this area with her officials and see what, if anything, can be done to support these people.
Like others, I have seen the various broadcasts over the last number of days highlighting how people travelling have been approached by Department staff at the airports, supported by members of the Garda, some of whom were seconded to assist them. I see the necessity for rules and for them to be enforced, particularly if there is any fraud, but there are huge questions over exactly what is going on. I am not a big listener of "Liveline" with Joe Duffy but I happened to hear some of it today. There was a gentleman on the show who is married to a Romanian lady who is also an Irish citizen. They were travelling to Romania in June, with their children, to see to some ill family members of his wife. They were last in the queue to board a Ryanair flight. This man has a legal background and so when he was asked for his PPS number, he asked what the reasonable grounds were for the staff to be asking him that. The staff member replied that him leaving the country was reasonable grounds. He was in a position to inform her that under section 250(16) of the relevant Act, those were not reasonable grounds. Reasonable grounds would be if someone saw me working on a building site when he or she knew I was claiming unemployment benefits, for example. I imagine those are reasonable grounds. He challenged the woman and refused to give his PPS number, as was perfectly within his rights, and she said that was fair enough. Two gardaí then intervened, masquerading as an emigration check, and asked for his passport, which he gave them. They then proceeded to take down details from the passport and he queried this because he had not given permission for his details to be taken. They said they were entitled to do it. Off these people went to Romania to see to their loved ones who were ill, and they returned some weeks later to find their child benefit payment had been stopped. That is a universal payment which people get whether they are multimillionaires or penniless. I have a real problem with that.
This next part may not be true but if it is, I have a huge problem with it. In the interview, the gentleman in question said that the Department, supported by the Garda, is targeting certain flights, such as those to Romania or Poland. That amounts to ethnic or racial profiling, which is totally wrong. If we must have reasonable grounds to ask people for their details, the Department must establish and define what reasonable grounds are. Officials cannot simply decide to check everyone getting on a flight to Romania because they have a prejudiced view of Romanians and think they may be cheating the system. That is fundamentally wrong and is not the sort of ethos captured under our Constitution or, indeed, the Proclamation.
Statements from the Department were also read out on that radio show, which fell a good bit short of the sort of explanations I would have expected. I gather similar revelations were being broadcast in the media all week, but I just happened to hear that particular gentleman's story. When he contacted the Department and asked about the child benefit, he was told he was not allowed to get child benefit because he left the country. My oldest child is 16 years old and we have been getting child benefit all his life. Before Covid, we were blessed enough to be able to go on holidays abroad most years, though not every year. I do not remember anybody ever taking issue with us getting the child benefit payment, and nor should they have. This gentleman has now made an official complaint to the Department. I do not know his name but perhaps someone from the Department could listen back to today's "Liveline" and get all those details. I am glad he was on that flight and had a legal background because it is important that this information gets back to us. At best, this was an overzealous reaction by officers of the State, be they gardaí or social welfare officers. At worst, it was racial or ethnic profiling if they were selecting certain flights because some people have a prejudiced view. I know the Minister does not hold such views, and knowing her personally, I know she would not operate in this way, so we need to get a handle on that very quickly.
Data sharing is also an issue in such cases. Another speaker referred to someone who was out of the country, in Glasgow or somewhere, and was contacted after the fact to be told that their PUP had been stopped. The Department was able to cite the flight number and when and where from it departed. That is a problem. Of course we want to weed out actual fraud, but we cannot have a quasi-presumption of guilt without reasonable grounds. That is the big issue people have with this. People are entitled to go on holidays and they do. They might even be gone for a month or two to visit a loved one abroad or a parent who is dying.
I thought cutting child benefit was ridiculous, wrong and mean-spirited. I cannot imagine how or why it could have been legal. I hope the Minister will look into that issue and report back to the House. This is not an issue for us to blindly defend our team, as it were, or her officials in the Minister's case. There might be something fundamentally wrong, which might require addressing in this House so we can inform the nation that something did occur, it was wrong, it will not happen again, an apology has been made to the person concerned and the system improved so it cannot happen again. The Irish public are entitled to that, having been appalled to hear what went on via various broadcasts in recent days.
Regarding the Minister's staff, while I know there have been issues and the phrase coined some time back, towards the beginning of the crisis, was "speed trumps accuracy", we have now had some time at things. I pay tribute to the staff in the Minister's Department who administered all these schemes and managed to get money to people pretty quickly, in the main. They deserve much credit.
In making that point, however, I want to draw an analogy between the Minister's Department and other Departments and employees of the State for whom, frankly, Covid-19 has been great cover for doing nothing. I had dealings with one State agency lately, where no one will be back in that office until the end of August. They are working from home and it is necessary to talk to an answering machine. Most people have been allowed to return to work, particularly in the private sector. The staff in my office did not stop for an hour since the onset of Covid-19. We respected the lockdown, but worked from our office and dealt with people on phones etc..
Many elements of our State agencies, Departments and local authorities, however, are using this situation as cover to lie on the couch and watch box sets, returning an odd call here and there and doing the maximum of the minimum to tick over during this period. Productivity has fallen and that is unacceptable. Many in the private sector are back again at full tilt. I know the Minister has worked at full tilt throughout this time, I know I have, as have many colleagues, probably all, in the political world. Many people are not, however, and that needs to be addressed. Whether it is opportunism, coming from the labour relations side, laziness and-or poor management, it needs to be addressed because the country needs all its officials working at full tilt to get productivity levels up to the maximum so we get through this crisis in the best possible way. I thank the Minister, I hope she will be able to take on board those points and I look forward to her response.
I thank the Deputies for their good wishes and I look forward to working with them in my new role. I want to clarify that the Department of Rural and Community Development is a separate Department, as is the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They are being maintained on a separate basis and I look forward to working as Minister, separately, for both Departments.
What we have seen throughout the Covid-19 crisis is people showing solidarity at a time of national crisis. People stayed away from their families and friends for months on end to protect each other and to ensure the virus did not spread. We have seen our front-line workers, our nurses and doctors, do more than anyone could have expected to protect us in recent months. All that work and those sacrifices were made to save lives.
The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was introduced as a solidarity payment at a time of unprecedented crisis for this country and to help people to adhere to public health advice. As part of that national solidarity we have seen displayed so strongly in recent months, we are asking people to adhere to the public health advice and to not travel abroad. If it is necessary for people to travel for essential reasons, such as in the case of a bereavement, an unwell family member or health reasons, it is possible to travel and payments will not be impacted. I want to be clear about that. It is necessary for people to just tell staff in their social welfare office that they are going abroad and the payment will not be interrupted.
Since the onset of Covid-19, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's range of income supports has been developed to support the implementation of the public health advice. Restrictions for paying social welfare recipients when they are abroad are contained in primary legislation in section 189 and 249 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Despite these restrictions, the Department has historically applied flexibility for up to two weeks absence from the State. This has been applied via administrative measures for jobseeker's allowance and by regulation for jobseeker's benefit. The PUP was never subject to such flexibility and there is a legislative provision preventing its continued payment outside the State in sections 189 and 249 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
In the midst of a global pandemic and to support the continued adoption of public health advice, the Department has temporarily suspended the flexibility which applied to jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit payments. This required suspending administrative arrangements for the jobseeker's allowance and introducing a new regulation for jobseeker's benefit. Since 2012, the Department's social welfare inspectors have been undertaking controlled checks at airports and ports. These checks have a firm legal basis in section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, and I am advised by my officials that no travel information is shared between an airport or port and the Department. The Department's social welfare inspectors or gardaí seconded to the Department are on the ground in the airport and at the ports and speak to relevant individuals accordingly, and social welfare inspectors are operating within their statutory powers.
Since 13 March, the Department has stopped payments to 2,500 recipients of PUP, of which 2,000 relate to Dublin Airport and 500 to other ports and airports. Had these claims not been stopped, the Department might have incurred additional expenditure of €20.5 million. That would have meant it would have cost taxpayers €20.5 million in payments to people not entitled to receive those payments. The majority of the people concerned are not going on holidays; they are leaving the country, and once recipients live outside of the country, they are not entitled to these payments.
A small number of people may have had to leave the country for various reasons and have since returned. We have heard many stories tonight about people who had to leave to visit a sick relative or for some family emergency. People who feel they were treated wrongly can request a review. As Deputies will be aware, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has an appeals mechanism throughout its processes to which anybody is entitled to apply.
Regarding restrictions on paying social welfare payment abroad, these are contained in primary legislation under sections 189 and 249 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which disqualify people from receiving payments for any time they are absent from the State. The Department, however, has allowed flexibility for those who leave the State for up to two weeks, and this flexibility has been provided by way of a regulation for contributory-based payments such as jobseeker's benefit, and by using administrative measures for other payments, such as jobseeker's allowance.
To be clear, it is set down in legislation that one does not get payments if one is outside the country. However, we have historically applied flexibility to allow for two weeks' foreign travel.
In light of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it was not considered appropriate to retain the normal flexibility arrangements from March onwards given the strong public health advice cautioning against all foreign travel. The Department therefore temporarily suspended this flexibility for jobseeker's schemes. For jobseeker's allowance, this required the suspension of administrative arrangements and, for jobseeker's benefit, it required a new regulation. It is important to note that the pandemic unemployment payment is only payable to people who are living in the State and it was never paid to people who travel abroad. The flexibility which previously applied to other social welfare payments never applied to the pandemic unemployment payment. The prohibition on the payment of the PUP is set out in primary legislation. It should be remembered that the PUP was introduced when the world was in lockdown and we are not out of the woods yet. Deputies should think back to the time when the PUP was introduced and people could only travel 2 km within their own counties. As I said, we are not out of the woods yet and we must take the public health advice. Deputies might remember the public reaction to the crowds who visited the Cheltenham Festival. It was felt that people returning from the festival had brought the virus with them. If the virus starts to spread again in six weeks' time, which I hope it does not, Deputies will be asking me why I was making payments to people who were acting against public health advice.
The Department is satisfied that the regulation is drafted on an appropriate legal basis despite comments by some in the media. The Government is not discriminating against social welfare recipients. Public sector staff, who must quarantine for the 14-day period, must take either annual leave or unpaid leave to cover this absence from work. Many private companies are also applying those rules.
Issues around the green list were raised by some Deputies. We keep everything under review in line with public health advice and if anyone has to travel for urgent reasons, for example, if there is a bereavement or somebody is sick, the Department will take account of these exceptional circumstances. Such persons should notify the information to their local social welfare or Intreo office at the earliest possible date.
As part of its ongoing work, the Department conducts checks in ports and airports. Since June 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control work in which they are engaged. There is nothing new here; it has been happening since 2012. The Minister at the time, former Deputy Joan Burton, introduced that legislation and rightly so. She wanted to stop welfare tourists.
As I said, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is facing a somewhat different situation this year. We are in a very different environment and large numbers of people have been leaving the country since mid-March, arising from the lockdown imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the main, those people were moving permanently from Ireland to their home countries in the same way that some people returned home to Ireland. There were people who came back to Ireland and others who were living here and returned to their own countries. Those people were not entitled to receive the payment when they moved out of this country. The pandemic unemployment payment was never to be paid to people outside the State. Social welfare inspectors increased their checks in airports and ports from mid-March to detect PUP recipients who were leaving the State permanently while still in receipt of the payment.
The pandemic unemployment payment scheme was introduced quickly and, as somebody else said, speed trumped perfection. The payment required an online application form, none of the normal checks were applied and it was easy for some people to abuse it for that simple reason. There was no face-to-face interview as would normally happen. It was a one-page online application. The work of the Department in carrying out the checks and balances that one would expect of it has resulted in potential savings of €20.5 million to the State. The Sunday Business Postcarried a story at the weekend based on information provided by the Department. Since 7 July, 104 PUP recipients and 44 individuals in receipt of other social welfare payments have had their payments stopped as they were leaving the country through Dublin Airport. Of this latter group, 33 of the 44 were in receipt of jobseeker's allowance. To be clear, if somebody goes to his or her social protection office and explains that certain circumstances require essential travel, that person will be accommodated.
A number of issues were raised about inspectors. The DAA does not pass travel information to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Department does not have access to travel data, nor does it have access to passenger locator forms from any airport or port and it does not receive travel information from the Department of Justice and Equality. As part of its normal control work, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work in which they engage. The legal basis for the control and compliance checks is section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. These checks are carried out as certain social welfare payments are only paid to people residing in the State. These compliance checks involve inspectors speaking directly with passengers and any information gathered is used only for the purpose for which it is gathered. Social welfare inspectors have legal powers under social welfare legislation to ask for PPS numbers. Social welfare inspectors have to be approved by the DAA to work in the airport and all have clearance from the authority to work there. They all have Dublin Airport identity cards and Garda vetting is part of the process of obtaining an identity card. Inspectors must also undergo security awareness training.
I note the points raised by Deputy MacSharry about a particular issue and am happy to make sure we check out the full facts of the case.
Deputies have raised a number of points and I will address as many of them as I can. To respond to Deputy Sherlock, the Department has worked closely with the Attorney General's office on this Bill. We would obviously not have received a stamped copy of the Bill if it was unconstitutional. Social insurance contributions are attributed so that people who have been made unemployed during the public health crisis can maintain social insurance records. It is important that they get the full benefit of their social insurance contributions.
While Deputy Harkin has a point, freedom of movement can be restricted in exceptional times. That is my response to the question raised by the Deputy.
In response to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, seasonal workers will benefit from the new employment wage subsidy scheme. The relevant Bill is sponsored by the Minister for Finance.
Points were raised about people who are looking for work. I know there are some sectors of the economy that have not reopened yet and hopefully they will be allowed to reopen on 10 August. In making sure that people are looking for work, the Department will take a common sense approach. It is okay for people to wait for the sector in which they work to reopen.
It is fully understandable that people are waiting for their jobs to come back. Unfortunately, a lot of people will not return to their jobs and that is why we want to help them get new jobs. My Department has an allocation of €112 million under the July stimulus package to help people retrain, reskill and get better jobs. We want to help people. In conjunction with the Department for higher education, there is a total budget of €200 million to support all sorts of training, apprenticeships and schemes that we can provide to help people reskill and find new jobs in other areas.
Those resident in the North were mentioned. The position regarding the pandemic unemployment payment for frontier workers is no different from the position for any other employment benefit. The Deputy who raised the issue will know that EU regulations govern our treatment of frontier workers. We have correctly followed the same approach here. Under the current EU rules, the member state of residence is the member state responsible for the payment of unemployment benefit. I live on the Border and can understand why people living in Northern Ireland and working in Border counties would like to avail of the PUP. In Northern Ireland the jobseeker's benefit payment is €100 compared with €350 south of the Border. Those aged under 25 in Northern Ireland will only get €60. Those who employ people living in Northern Ireland and working in the Republic can avail of the wage subsidy scheme.
The issue of seasonal workers will be addressed under the employment support subsidy, which is the follow-on from the wage subsidy scheme. Seasonal workers will be allowed to join the scheme.
The issue of post offices was raised by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. The matter has been brought to my attention and I have spoken to my officials about it. I understand local offices are sending letters to people asking them to provide their bank account details. I have taken the issue on board.
In respect of the self-employed, it is important to note that the assessment of income is based on returns to the Revenue Commissioners. The majority of self-employed individuals declare their income through self-assessment, under which there is a common date for the payment of tax and filing of tax returns. Individuals must file their tax on or before 31 October in the year after the year to which the return relates, which is the reason we chose 2018. It is the last tax year for which complete data on self-employed income are available. If people file their 2019 returns to the Revenue Commissioners, we will accept those figures. I fully understand that in some cases the 2019 figures will be better than the 2018 figures, which means people will be entitled to higher payments.
Deputy Fitzmaurice referred to a self-employed person who is renting a premises. The restart grant is available to self-employed people who are renting premises and paying rates. It was increased last week from €2,000 to a minimum of €4,000. Anybody who has already received €2,000 can apply for a further €2,000. The maximum available is €25,000.
I understand that the current situation is extremely difficult for those in the arts and entertainment industry. I have spoken to band members. There are no gigs or performances taking place and they are in a very difficult position. The former Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, announced a €25 million package. As part of the July stimulus package, the Minister with responsibility for the arts, Deputy Catherine Martin, announced further supports for the industry. There is no two ways about it; it is difficult for those in the industry and we are all concerned about them.
Concerns were expressed about redundancy. The Bill does not interfere with redundancy legislation in any way. An employee who has been working for the same employer for two years can claim redundancy if his or her role no longer exists from 10 August.
Deputy McGrath raised the case of the man with a van. Such people will get the enterprise support grant. They have to submit information on the extra costs they have incurred as a result of Covid-19. Some support is available for them.
In fairness, the quickest way we can get artists and publicans back to work is by keeping the virus under control. That will only happen if we follow the public health advice. That means people should not travel abroad. That is the advice. We all have to continue to play a part in protecting each other.
I have covered most of the issues that have been raised during this debate. I thank Deputies for their contributions. I am listening and have heard and take on board their concerns.