Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
I wish to speak to the section, which refers to the Title of the Bill. Lets us remind ourselves of the Title. It is the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020. In other words, this is a Bill that is supposed to be a response to a public health pandemic. I put it to the Minister that she should change the Bill or its Title because it is clear when one reads the text and hears Government policy on the matters we have debated on Second Stage that the Government is not trying to address Covid-19 or assist in the battle against it in this legislation. What it is doing is actually a threat in our battle against Covid-19 in a number of ways.
First, it has been put to the Minister on multiple occasions, and I put it to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, again today, that the Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth on the question of non-essential foreign travel. I believe there should be no non-essential foreign travel and that it endangers public health. I say that not because I am an expert but because the actual experts, namely, NPHET and the expert advisory group, say that. They say there should be no non-essential travel outside the State. However, the Government says, unless the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is somehow no longer part of the Government, and I think it still is, that non-essential travel to 13 countries is okay.
The website states that the general advisory against non-essential travel does "not apply to those 13 countries." The Minister is, therefore, penalising a specific group of people in receipt of the PUP who heed that advice, and conclude from it what anybody who understands English would conclude, that is, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Government say it is okay to travel to those 13 countries. I do not think it is okay. The Minister claims, she says, it is not okay but the Ministry responsible for it, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says it is okay.
The Minister then punished people who followed that advice by cutting off their payments but not rich people who do not have to depend on the PUP or workers lucky enough that their sectors have recovered and they are back at work. They can go to the 13 countries. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, even embellished it further earlier today by saying it is safer to go to those countries. He actually said that today in the Dáil. There is less likelihood of getting an infection in the 13 countries than here, which begs the question, why are we not all going? Seriously, why are we not all going? We are less likely to get infected if we believe the Minister. Luckily, he is not a virologist, epidemiologist, or a public health doctor, although he appears to behave as if he is because he is issuing advice on public health matters that directly conflicts with what NPHET and the expert advisory group said.
Deputy Coveney and the Government are breaking from the public health advice, sowing confusion and threatening the second wave which the Minister just said she was concerned about. She said if there is another wave, people will blame her. They will blame her because the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is telling people it is okay when NPHET is saying it is not okay. They would be right to blame the Minister. If she wants to do something about, there is a simple way. It is not about selectively cutting off the payments of one cohort of people. It is simply about changing the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to say it is not okay to go to those 13 countries and o further say that anybody who breaches the advice of the public health authorities will receive the same sanction, whatever that sanction is. We are all in it together in solidarity; an injury to one is an injury to all. She can put it whatever way she likes. There should be one law for everybody when it comes to protecting public health. The Minister has two laws and she is speaking out of both sides of her mouth on the issue of public health. It is fundamentally dishonest and fundamentally damaging to the fight against Covid-19. Frankly, the Minister should be ashamed of herself for it.
The second issue whereby her actions are threatening the public effort is in selectively looking for the means to cut certain people off the Covid-19 payment which, as she rightly said, was introduced to underpin solidarity in the fight against Covid-19 in a financial way. The point of it was to ease the hardship caused as a result of people losing their jobs and income because of Covid-19. From the beginning, however, certain people were excluded and discriminated against, namely, the over-66s. I thought I misheard when Deputy MacSharry - because I presume, he is now going to vote against this Bill - said he wished the Government would do something about the discrimination against the over-66s. It is in repeated in the Bill. A person does not get the PUP if he or she is over 66 or under 18 even if he or she is working. What did that do? That meant taxi drivers who were working during the height of the pandemic, and most of the taxi drivers who are still working, are over 66. Precisely the people who should have been cocooning were working. The Government's discrimination was, and is, threatening the health of the most vulnerable group of taxi drivers and that remains the case. The inequity of it is threatening the fight against Covid-19.
Of course, one then begins to think about what is the real agenda behind the Bill. It has got nothing to do with the fight against Covid-19; it is about driving people off the pandemic payment. The Government was forced under pressure to raise the pandemic payment from her original proposal of €203 up to €350 because people rightly said it was not enough, and now it is desperately trying to unravel that. That is what is going on. This Bill gives the Minister the legislative armoury to do it and copper-fastens the distinction she has imposed that largely affects the self-employed.
Three major victims of this are artists, taxi drivers and people who work in the bar industry. All of them are being picked on and having their incomes cut even though they cannot return to work because of the Minister's public health advice. This is incentivising them to bang down the door of their employment and say, "Open the bars" because that is only way they can recover their income when, of course, the public health advice is to keep the bars closed at the moment. That is the truth. The Minister can cry crocodile tears about the plight of the arts workers, musicians and all the rest of it, and then do absolutely nothing about it, or, in fact, do worse than nothing by slashing their income. That has happened and she is copper-fastening it in this Bill. That is undermining the public health effort. It breaks the solidarity that has underpinned that public effort and because she is breaking that solidarity she will be to blame if things go wrong.
I too am disappointed with the Bill and with the whole situation around Covid-19. Party leaders and group leaders had briefings with the Department of Health and NPHET and when we asked questions, we were not getting answers. I raised in the Dáil that we had not a briefing with NPHET in the past two months. NPHET is meeting the Business Committee on Thursday morning, I hope, but there are huge mixed messages and huge discrimination against the over-66s and all the artists and musicians. The Minister said the man in the van is covered but he is not. The man in the van, every musician, musical group and arts group must have a vehicle to bring around their equipment. They are huge and expensive vehicles that must be DOE'd, taxed, paid for and everything else. The Minister is giving them no support whatsoever. She used to be Minister with responsibility for the arts; I do not know why she has such a set against them. I mentioned Big Tom and Paddy Cole earlier---
I will not take it back. It was the Government, not the Minister personally. She has not supported artists here. When will she give them support? Is she going to let them beg, tell them to go look for work elsewhere and that they will get jobs elsewhere? How will they? Are we going to diminish and destroy our arts industry - our musicians, bands, dancing schools, art schools and everything else?
Over-66s are being punished by this Government but I am not surprised. It is scandalous. Whether they are publicans, lorry drivers, or taxi drivers, as Deputy Boyd Barrett said, they have been discriminated against from the start and they are being further discriminated against in this legislation. The Minister is coming in here offering to be a saviour and a support mechanism.
She expects the schools to go back and I am glad that decision has been made. Many of the over-66s drive school buses part time. It suits them grand and it suits the bus companies as well. Any companies that had school buses contracted to Bus Éireann are getting a 50% payment but individual bus owners not contracted to Bus Éireann did not get a shilling. We expect those to be mobilised on 28 August and in September and to have buses and drivers ready and on the road, DOE'd, insured and with all the checks necessary for public service vehicles. Are they going to do it on the wind? They have not got a penny. Many of them are on their last legs. Some of them had savings. Publicans have been crying on the phone to me. Then there is the stupidity of pubs opening if they provide a €9 meal. Worse than that, they were all told ten days ago that they would be open last Monday week. They were not told until literally hours before it that they would not. They had their stocks opened and paid for the reopening. It was a further kick in the teeth. These publicans have nothing to live on . Any of them who are over 66 are not getting a payment because they have a small pension. All they wanted was to make up the difference between the pension and the Covid-19 payment of €350 at the time.
The Minister then changed and gave the €350 to everybody across the board. Parents contacted me because their kids got it. They may have only worked four or five hours a weekend on a Saturday or Sunday night and they got the full €350 payment. Now the Government is in trouble with its finances. It gave that out to them when it should not have because they did not expect it.
All the Government needed to do was look back at their wages for the previous four weeks and give them what they had got, and they would have been reasonably happy with that. The Government threw money out like confetti at a wedding or snuff at a wake and now it is trying to take it back. However, it is penalising those aged over 66 and our actors. Our actors do not ask anyone for anything. They educate and upskill themselves. They play, adapt and buy the equipment and look after themselves. They give valuable entertainment to the people while so doing. All they want is to be allowed do that, but while the pubs, etc., are closed, they cannot do it. If the Government because of Covid tries-----
I remind colleagues that if we do not have our amendments discussed before 10 p.m., they will all fall. I have actual amendments I would like us to vote on before then. If we could get to the amendments that we could vote on, that would be great.
I have some sympathy for some of the arguments that have been made. Deputy Boyd Barrett ignores the part of the social contract that was fulfilled. He probably never thought he would see such a day when the State would fulfil this kind of social contract. The State did its bit in the face of an emergency.
However, he has raised questions on which I am confused. The Minister has said it is overwhelmingly people who are returning home, but it would be helpful if she could furnish the House with statistics. It clearly is not allowed for people to return to a foreign country while continuing to claim the PUP here. That is illegal and it is right to ensure it is policed appropriately under the law. Of the small percentage of those travellers who were Irish, if they were travelling to one of the 13 or 15 countries on the green list, do they lose the payment? A certain degree of confusion arises in that area and clarity is needed.
There is also an assumption, which I think it is incorrect, that only poor people are on the PUP. The employment losses were widespread and there is a stereotype about those in receipt of it. Some of them could be married. The partner of a millionaire could be on the PUP because he or she lost his or her job. They could have booked their holidays last September or October. What if someone on the PUP is holidaying at home? For someone on this allowance, what is the difference between holidaying at home and holidaying in one of the green-list countries? It is a genuine question. I am confused about that.
Some of the other Deputies did not refer to some of the profound changes the Minister is introducing that will allow the Department to attribute paid PRSI contributions to employees who receive these payments. That is a very significant and important provision for people. It will allow them to ensure they retain their entitlement to short-term payments as well as enhancing their PRSI records, something that may not cross their minds but, depending on their age, may cross their minds in 20 or 25 years when they come to draw their pension or see if they are entitled to a pension. These are critical issues that Deputies have not mentioned.
I have considerable sympathy for what the previous Deputy said about those aged 66 and older. However, the PUP was not thrown around like confetti at a wedding. It was a major State intervention that saw the State honour its side of the social contract at a time of perilous need on the part of people. I accept that some people who may not have needed it as much as others got it. It will be spent, I am sure. However, I did feel for those aged 66 and older who did not get it and who had to work because their pension would not have been enough to keep them going. I ask the Minister to address some of those confusing aspects of the PUP.
The green list is not a list of holiday destinations and the public health advice is still for people not to go abroad. UK holidaymakers discovered last week that while they were on a Spanish holiday, Spain was removed from a green list, as were all the Spanish islands, and moved to the red list. These people have now returned home to a 14-day quarantine period they had thought would not be in place. As the Government has stated, the green list in Ireland will constantly evolve. Like everything else related to Covid, everything we do will be kept under review in line with public health advice. Holidaying at home is the safest thing people can do. I want to be clear that everything I do is in line with public health advice.
I will deal with the changes to the payment. In early July, we moved to a two-tier system, which meant that anybody whose earnings before the pandemic were less than €200 received a payment of €203, while anyone earning more than €200 continued to receive the €350 payment. That system remains in place today. There have been no changes or cuts to the payment, as some may have suggested. From 17 September, which is still almost two months away, we will have a three-tier system of PUP, which will be linked to an individual's prior earnings. A person whose prior earnings were less than €200 will see no change and will continue to receive the €203 rate of payment. A person previously earning between €200 and €300 will receive a payment of €250, which means that people on the payment will continue to receive more than 80% of their prior income and many will actually continue to receive a payment which is higher than when they were working.
Anybody previously earning in excess of €300 will receive a payment of €300. As I said, these changes will not take effect until 17 September. It is important to remember that as the economy has reopened and people have returned to work, we have seen the number of people on the PUP fall from 600,000 a couple of months ago to 287,000 people today. In the past couple of weeks alone, well over 100,000 people have closed their PUP claims. Provided we can continue to keep the virus under control and the number of cases remains low, my hope is that we will see many more people return to work by the time these changes come into effect in mid-September.
The people aged over 66 who do not qualify for PUP are already receiving a social welfare payment.
Before calling the next speaker, I mention that we have a deadline of 10 p.m. There are handwritten amendments, I presume, to the section. I do not mind. We can spend the time now or we can spend it whatever way we wish. Two more Deputies are offering.
I am very conscious of Deputy Gannon's earlier intervention. On the point the Minister made, in my earlier contribution I said that there were questions about the regulation, as the travel advisory on which it is based has no legal standing.
People were not informed of the changes so there was potentially a legitimate expectation they could travel under the normal rules that previously applied. I have also asked other questions of the Minister which have not been answered. There are further sections to be discussed on which I have questions which have not been answered.
I previously asked about the status of the Social Insurance Fund. I may have missed the Minister's response. In her speech, she said: "This is an accounting mechanism that does not have any impact on the entitlements of claimants." This is, however, to be paid for from the Social Insurance Fund. What exact figure will be extracted from the fund? It is vital in funding retirement and this measure may have an impact on whether the retirement age in this country is lowered.
I am sorry if I did not answer that part of the question; I thought I had. My Department will work with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to determine how much of the public expenditure incurred to date should be properly charged to the Social Insurance Fund given that many people who have been in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment had an underlying entitlement to jobseeker's benefit. I understand what the Deputy is saying about the fund. As I have said, this measure will relate to that part.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 8, to delete lines 33 to 36.
My amendment, which others have also tabled, relates to the proposed new section 68L(1)(g) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. As I mentioned in my earlier speech, this refers to the new condition that those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment must seek employment. I do not agree with the rationale for this the Minister has given to the House. When was this decided? When was this condition introduced? Does the Minister know how many people currently in receipt of the PUP have jobs in sectors that have not yet reopened and therefore will not have to meet the requirement to seek work? Will those people be expected to engage with job activation schemes such as JobPath? People are under a great deal of pressure. I really do not see the need for this condition. These are workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They will seek alternative work if their workplaces do not reopen. The Minister should know that. I ask for her support in this regard. Where are many of these people to find alternative employment? Perhaps they will find it in Dublin. In many rural areas such as Roscommon and Galway, there is no alternative employment at this time. The Minister should take that into account.
This is the section that arms the Government to harass people into whatever jobs it feels they should be forced to take up. This work will, in most cases, be low-paid and this measure will be directed against the people who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. These include groups some of us in this House identified as really getting hammered by the Government a number of weeks ago including taxi drivers, arts workers and those who work in music and live entertainment. The Minister says she is very concerned about that sector. Those who work in live entertainment have explicitly told the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that their main fear is that people will be driven out of the sector if they are not supported. They will be forced to leave the sector because they will not be able to survive. The Minister is making that more likely. She is hammering a sector that is already on its knees. That is pretty shameful.
She has not responded to the sector's pleas for help. Instead, she is whipping up bogeymen and scapegoats and encouraging the notion that there are many people out there scamming the system and that the State must arm itself against them. It is Fine Gael reverting to type. I am sorry to put it like that but there is deep prejudice at work. The vast majority of these people lost their jobs because of public health guidelines and want to go back to work in the sectors in which they previously worked. The Minister, however, wants to harass them.
It is already happening. Those in the arts were suffering a lot of this before. They were being pushed onto various courses and being hounded by Intreo and so on. We are now ready to step that stuff up again despite the important role these people played in sustaining us through this difficult period. A group of 4,000 musicians is now up in arms. Some have already had their payments cut. The Minister says this has not happened but it has. As a result of the way the Government has decided to calculate the reckonable income of self-employed people, they are deemed to have been earning less than €200 even though they were earning much more and their payments are consequently cut. That is what is happening to self-employed people such as lone traders, artists, musicians, taxi drivers and others. Their payments are being cut even though they were earning more than the threshold. People are being kicked when they are down. It is not fair and it is unjust. That is why we seek to delete this subsection.
All the words that need to be spoken on this issue have been said. It is high time that we put it to a vote and see whether people will turn their rhetoric into action that will make a difference in people's lives. I support the amendment tabled by People Before Profit and Sinn Féin which aims to remove lines 33 to 38 of page 8, which is the proposed section 68L(1)(g). I ask that this be put to a vote.
I support the amendment. The Government has said this stimulus package is worth more than €7 billion. For a sum that would be quite small relative to the cost of the stimulus package, although the figure is indeterminate at present, the livelihoods of those within the sectors for which we have all spoken over the last number of hours could be sustained. The most vulnerable could be supported. They are culturally and economically productive and they are our own people. When all of the analysis is done and all the figures are totted up when we come out of this crisis, we will see that corporate Ireland has done very well but the people that produce culture and music-----
-----will have been relegated to the lower tiers. The Government has an opportunity to recognise the sectors that we celebrate and which export this culture as part of the soft diplomacy of international relations.
We sell this globally as a major comparative advantage economically, and we are doing the culture and entertainment sector a disservice by not supporting it. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider her position in respect of this. I ask her not to make it so onerous on people who have lost their jobs in so many different sectors, who will feel like they are going to the poorhouse looking for alms when this section becomes law. It needs to be revised or rather deleted.
A number of issues have been raised. First, the payment for the self-employed is relative to what they put in their tax returns in 2018. I stated earlier that if they have updated figures for 2019, they should please lodge them with Revenue and we are happy to look at them and, if we can, we will increase their payments.
To be very clear, we are not trying to harass anybody. One can leave in exceptional circumstances but if one remains in this country, one will continue to receive one's payment. That is it. I made that very clear earlier.
In March and April when the entire economy was shut down due to Covid-19, we were not going to ask people to look for a job when everything was closed. That is common sense. We are not in that space any more. The economy is reopening. Businesses are returning and we hope that by 10 August, pubs and other businesses will open again.
The Department will take a common-sense approach, so if one is in a sector that is waiting to reopen soon, that is okay, but we have to realise that, unfortunately, a lot of people will not be returning to the job they were in pre-Covid, so we want them to start looking for work. We want to help them to get back to work. That is why there is a €200 million jobs stimulus as part of the package we announced last week. We have extended the PUP to next April. Is Deputy Mattie McGrath suggesting that people should not be looking for work between now and next April?
Chris Andrews, Mick Barry, Richard Boyd Barrett, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Holly Cairns, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Michael Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Mairead Farrell, Michael Fitzmaurice, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Thomas Gould, Johnny Guirke, Marian Harkin, Michael Healy-Rae, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mattie McGrath, Michael McNamara, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Carol Nolan, Cian O'Callaghan, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Eoin Ó Broin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet Wynne.
Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Norma Foley, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Marc MacSharry, Josepha Madigan, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Helen McEntee, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Eoghan Murphy, Verona Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy.
The time permitted for the debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That each of the sections undisposed of is hereby agreed to and the Title is hereby agreed to, that the Bill is reported without amendment, that Report Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."