Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Welfare and solidarity payments should not be abused. We are all in agreement on that point. If there is any malpractice or fraud, it must be addressed. The circumstances we now face do not relate to corruption or malpractice but to a decision taken by the Government to openly and blatantly discriminate against workers who are on a Covid payment. Having issued inconsistent and confused travel advice, the Government now says that workers on a Covid payment cannot take a holiday that they may have paid for 12 months ago and that may be to one of the Government's green-list countries, without fear of losing their income. The Government's confused travel advice also means those people are not guaranteed a refund if they cancel that holiday. Its approach is discriminatory. The billionaire classes and tax exiles have been accommodated and there is not a chance of a penalty for them; they have been facilitated. The Government's utter hypocrisy and unfairness is galling. It is my strong view that nobody should take international trips. I also believe the travel advice should clearly and unambiguously set that out, but that is not the case. If the Government is determined to penalise people for travelling abroad, it must have universal penalties, not ones targeted at one section of the population, because the unfairness of that speaks for itself. The Government's lack of understanding and empathy for people who have been through the mill and lost their jobs is remarkable. The Taoiseach said that we are all in this together, but it is clear now that we are not.
Tomorrow, the Government will bring forward further legislation, this time on vulture funds. A vulture fund lost a court case in April and now the Government is introducing legislation to address the concerns and needs of such funds. It is hugely worrying that this measure is being sneaked through in Covid emergency legislation without any pre-legislative scrutiny, but that is this Government all over. It certainly makes it clear in whose interests it acts.
I asked the Taoiseach yesterday to state the legal basis for Government actions such as inspections at our airports and the sourcing of information from people travelling abroad. It seems to me that the Government acted outside the law. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said he favours a review of cases where people have had their money stopped. Who will carry out that review? When will it take place and will people get their money back?
The Deputy loves throwing accusations about the place and assertions in relation to the Government's overall policy. She is basing her claims, and is trying to throw away the political consensus that has served the country well in dealing with Covid-19 over the past five months, on the fact that as few as 100 people have had their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, suspended because of overseas holidays. I understand and appreciate the need for robust political debate, but I also believe there is a need for honesty and a degree of perspective in this debate. Last night, this Government passed legislation to underpin and strengthen the PUP. In the jobs stimulus programme, we agreed to extend the payment to the end of March 2021, at a cost of approximately €2.2 billion. It has already supported more than 600,000 people. That is not a Government that does not have empathy for those who have lost their jobs because of Covid. The Deputy said that she accepts the need for compliance at airports. I take it she does because those checks have been in place since 2012.
As Deputy Kelly said, they were there before that as well. They have been there for a long time. The fact that we are extending this payment until the end of next April shows our commitment to helping and supporting people. Alongside that, we have also put together a very substantial job activation programme under the July stimulus to help people secure alternative employment. All we are getting from Deputy McDonald is play-acting. She is deliberately undermining what has been a genuine effort to reach out to people who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The people on the PUP are not clamouring to travel overseas. That is a wrong impression to give. Nobody is attempting to single anyone out. We all know the overseas travel numbers are at a record low level, and people on the payment are doing their best to make it through this crisis in one piece. We know that 90% of people who were checked at airports lost the PUP because they were permanently resident outside the country. Surely the Deputy is not suggesting that all of those people should get their payment back, or it is wrong somehow that people who are living permanently abroad should get the PUP. We are saying they should not. What is the Deputy's position on that?
The Deputy has some nerve to mention confusion about travel. Just like Sinn Féin's policy in the North, this Government agrees and advises that there should be no unnecessary travel overseas and wants people travelling from various overseas countries to restrict their movements upon their return. Also like Sinn Féin's policy in the North, the Government has published a list of countries for which people returning from essential travel will not need to restrict their movements. The difference between this Government and Sinn Féin's policy is that whereas we have restricted that list to 11 countries, Sinn Féin welcomes unrestricted overseas travel from 58 countries. That is what Sinn Féin signed off on, and yet the Deputy has the nerve to come in here and talk about the Government's confusion on travel. That is the Sinn Féin position, which the Deputy signed off on without equivocation.
These are the facts and the Deputy must know them. She is being completely disingenuous in her attack on the Government on this issue.
As regards her question about reviews, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is there to hear reviews. We are not out to undermine anyone on the PUP or to single them out in any shape or form. I want to make that very clear. On the contrary, the pandemic unemployment payment is working and has worked, along with the wage subsidy scheme, to underpin the economy. The latest retail sales figures for May and June are evidence of how these interventions have worked to underpin the economy.
It is the Taoiseach who has broken the consensus and the notion that we are all in this together by sending inspectors to airports seeking out those on Covid payments. That is what has happened. I put it to the Taoiseach that in so doing, the Government acted outside the law. I would like him to state to the Dáil the legal basis upon which individuals were approached to establish their social welfare status. Did the Department have reasonable grounds to do so, or did inspectors simply make an assessment based on the look of someone? Was everybody asked and checked? The Taoiseach concedes that travel is at a record low and that there is no widespread clamour among those on Covid payments to travel overseas; far from it. Why then has the Government targeted them in this way? I too wish that nobody would take a trip abroad. That is my position and I think it is the correct position. However, the Government's advice is confusing to the extent that those who may have paid for their holidays 12 months ago are not in a position to get a refund. Now they face the prospect of losing their Covid payment if they travel, which is their sole source of income.
I put it to the Taoiseach again that if there are penalties for travelling abroad, they should be universal. If the Government chooses, as it has chosen, to target those on Covid-19 payments, that is discriminatory and unfair and should not happen. I want the Taoiseach to state what form this review will take. Is it a special review?
Regarding the compliance issue, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the year. My notes state it has been doing so since 2012. 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. Since March 2020, some 2,000 PUP claims have been closed as a result of checks carried out in Dublin Airport. That is the note I have from the Department. The vast majority, I understand up to 90%, of PUP cases stopped as a result of this work relate to individuals leaving the country not as holidaymakers, but on a permanent basis. Is it Deputy McDonald's position that that should not happen? Is it her position that those who leave the country permanently should continue to receive pandemic unemployment payments? That seems to be what the Deputy is saying.
They have been going out for years and well the Deputy knows it. What she has tried to do in here is to turn an issue which involves 100 or 200 people into some massive political philosophy or ideology that is out to get people when, in fact, that is not what the Government is about. The Government has extended this scheme to the end of April. It currently caters for up to 287,000 people and we have underpinned and strengthened it to give additional protections to deem those people to have made their social contributions. That is what this is about, and we will help people and work with them to help them source alternative employment, given the difficult circumstances people are undoubtedly in.
I raise an issue with the Taoiseach on which I would appreciate his direct intervention. It concerns people with intellectual disabilities. We are dealing with more than a few hundred people in this case. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is present to hear this as well. I am asking the Taoiseach and the Minister of State to go out and meet the people involved. Can the Taoiseach imagine that in the middle of a pandemic we have families and individuals with intellectual disabilities protesting outside? Can he imagine that they are the first group, during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, that has come to protest outside our national Parliament? What is that telling us?
I have raised this issue three weeks in a row now. Granted, the two previous occasions were with the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar, and on the second occasion, he delegated to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. We are not going to leave these people behind; we are currently leaving them behind. It is completely and utterly unacceptable. We live in a republic and we must treat everybody equally. Most of all, we, as legislators in our national Parliament, and the Government need to ensure that our most vulnerable people during this crisis are protected at all costs - and, by god, these are our most vulnerable people. I have spoken with the families. Enough is Enough is the banner under which they are protesting outside. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to go out and meet them. Please surprise me and go and do that. Please do that because I think the Taoiseach needs to hear their stories.
The issue here is that these people have been forgotten about. They have had no day services and they are losing the will to live. They have no stimulation. Routine is everything in their lives. My friend, Philip Kelly, who is no relation and whom I met here in Dublin, asked me to ask the Taoiseach to allow him to go back to work. He calls his day service "work". He makes his contribution. I could talk also about Leah, for whom every day feels like Groundhog Day; or Darragh, who cannot understand or necessarily remember how the services were being provided and now the differential; or Stephen, whose parents believe he is developing habits they are worried about; or Padraig, who says his life has been turned upside down; or Alan, who feels very much that he is being discriminated against and treated very badly. These people and their families are being discriminated against and left behind.
We have had a reopening roadmap set out for our schools. The same timelines must be provided for the people protesting outside. Will the Taoiseach commit to that today? Having raised this issue, which I am passionate about, I do not want to go out to the people outside and say the Minister issued a statement last night, all of a sudden, and that from 4 August, we will know the dates for reopening. I will do so, however. I want to know when the services will fully reopen, in the same way we are treating everybody else in education. I want to know when these people will get appropriate accommodation and staff and when the staff who have been transferred to residential care facilities will be place in day services again.
These are the most vulnerable people. This is not a political issue for me. These are the most vulnerable people in our society and the Taoiseach and I have a duty to protect them. I ask the Taoiseach to give us dates for the reopening of their services and a proper plan to re-establish those services so that we can tell them outside later.
I thank Deputy Kelly for raising this issue. I know he does so in a genuine way and I agree with much of what he has said. I am not happy that there is not a specific timelined roadmap that I have yet seen for the restoration and reopening of disability day services. The Deputy can tell Philip, Leah, Darragh, Stephen, Padraig and Alan that I am working with the Minister for Health, the Minister of State and the Department of Health to get this moving. I do not think it acceptable that the services are not reopen at this stage.
Initially, in March, as the Deputy will appreciate, all services were shut down because of the pandemic. I am told by the Department that the service providers are working to get day services ready to reopen safely and in line with public health guidance. I am told that adult day services will gradually resume during August but I want more specifics than that. We have also made it clear that the earlier HSE efficiency savings aspect has been put to one side. The HSE is apparently engaged with the service providers with a view to identifying and validating business cases from those providers for additional funding to support the reopening of services. I want that accelerated quickly. The Government provided another €2 billion to the Department of Health for service funding to deal with Covid-19 pandemic health funding issues. I believe the wherewithal is there to facilitate the return and resumption of these services.
The HSE has confirmed that no provider has informed it that services will not resume in August. Again, what I want is a timelined specific response as to when all the services plan to reopen and commencement dates in relation to same. An information portal, which will contain the dates on which the 966 disability day service locations will reopen, is being developed. I understand that after 4 August, service users and their families will be able to access this information on and we will send that out. The Deputy's point is well made. I am not arguing with him in any shape or form and I get the necessity of getting these services restored in a meaningful way for those who use them.
I do not doubt the Taoiseach's sincerity on this issue. I will say a few things of which the Taoiseach might take note. I have read the letters from service providers and some of them will not be reopening in August. Many of them will open in August but not to the scale required. I am glad that the Taoiseach has now verified that the €20 million will not be cut and that sneaky cut is gone. I ask him and the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to look into this matter specifically and ensure that service provision that is so desperately needed is fully rolled out in August. There are transport, accommodation and staffing issues. All the same issues apply in this area as apply for the reopening of schools. No effort has been made and there is no plan in place.
I would know if a plan is in place because I have spoken at length to people across the whole country, including people from the Taoiseach's own county. They are not receiving any form of validation from their service providers that they will be up and running next month. We need a plan to be published on 4 August and it must not only state that service provision will come back on some date but that services will be fully restored. People need and deserve those services in the same way that schoolchildren need and deserve the reopening of schools. These are our most vulnerable citizens.
I agree with the Deputy. I met the Minister for Health and his Secretary General yesterday evening in the aftermath of a Cabinet sub-committee meeting about health generally.
I did; that is the point. I asked for a proper response including a timeline for when services will be restored. Some 19,000 people are affected by this issue and they deserve the restoration of services, as the Deputy said, in the same way as children deserve the reopening of schools and so on. I will keep on top of this until I get satisfactory responses. I do not think the necessary clarity exists now but engagement is under way. I think the HSE is working with the service providers, to be fair, but I will keep in touch with Deputy Kelly and other Deputies about this issue. I take the points that the Deputy has made about his understanding of what is happening on the ground in respect of certain services but I am told that after 4 August, information will be available for all involved. I want to see a match between the statements that are made and the reality on the ground.
I will stick to the issue of disability. The Enough is Enough group will be protesting shortly to highlight the urgent need to reopen disability day services. People with disabilities must get back to full services for their own sake but also to relieve the enormous stress on family carers. At the same time, the Taoiseach must accept that the organisations that provide most of those disability services face a complete lack of certainty about their core funding.
The Taoiseach referenced the €20 million cut that was announced last January and said it has been put to one side. I want clarification on that. Several promises have been made over the past six months. That so-called efficiency cut was announced, of course, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to the general election, Fianna Fáil committed to reversing that cut. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, said that the bottom line is that the cut must be withdrawn. I asked the Minister about that proposed €20 million cut last week and he told me that he did not know whether it was going ahead. We know that the then Minister, Deputy Harris, said absolutely that the cut was to be removed. He said he wanted to provide the organisations with peace of mind with a letter confirming that the cut is gone. However, we know from listening to disability organisations that they are hearing on the ground that the HSE intends to proceed with that cut. The cut is not gone.
I want the Taoiseach to confirm that he is committed to reversing that €20 million cut. I also want him to commit to providing confirmation of that in writing today to the organisations involved. I further want him to send a clear message to the HSE instructing it not to proceed with the cuts. What the Taoiseach said earlier about that €20 million has not been borne out by what is happening currently on the ground.
The other point the Taoiseach should clarify relates to the substantial additional costs that disability organisations will incur in reopening services, observing social distancing and all the other issues associated with compliance with health advice while reopening services as a matter of urgency. What is the total fund that the Government will provide in order to facilitate the reopening of disability services in the context of Covid and meeting all of those additional costs?
I can confirm that the efficiency saving will not be applied. This is not about the 1% saving that the cut would represent. The funding to health services as a result of the pandemic is now multiples of that provided in the original health Estimate. Additional billions in funding will be going to health services in general. That cut will not be applied.
More importantly, there must be validation of the business cases that service providers are making for the reopening of services. I do not have a specific overall fund governing that. This works both ways and some savings must have been realised because services have been closed for five months. I will not a meal out of that point but it must be acknowledged.
There is engagement between the Health Service Executive and the service providers. The overarching position of the Government is that we want these services to reopen for the 19,000 people affected. We need precision and a concrete set of proposals to allow that to happen, similar to what has transpired in education where proposals have been particularly comprehensive. I have been told that the vast majority of service providers will resume in August and the HSE has not been told by anybody that they will not be resuming services in August. I am not taking what I have been told so far as read and will seek further clarification. I am obviously probing more and want to see definite plans on this matter. Realistic costings will follow the provision of definite plans.
I would like clarification on those two issues. The Taoiseach has given a commitment about the €20 million but we have heard similar commitments a number of times over the past few months that have not been followed through. The Taoiseach has put that commitment on the record and I ask him to put it in writing today to the disability organisations and make it clear to the HSE that is the case. It has not been confirmed with the relevant organisations.
There is no more time to be wasted before action is taken on the additional costs associated with the requirements around Covid-19. It is essential that disability services are opened up at least in line with the schools. What is the process for identifying the costs involved for the different disability organisations? How will it be made clear that money will be available in time for the necessary works to be carried out?
I earlier referenced the meeting we had yesterday evening, which involved a lot of Ministers. This issue was discussed at that meeting and in its aftermath. I am making our position clear to the Deputy. She has asked a question and I am giving her the answer.
I appreciate that. The Deputy has made the fair point that the commitment should be communicated to the organisations in the system and it will be. The overall point is that we are talking about multiples of the original amount of money designated for the HSE and services in general because of Covid-19.
The issue now is what it will take to restore these services. I have not seen the final print of that, if I am honest. I have not seen the final bill. What I really want to see is a structured response stating when the services will be restored. The HSE is working on that.
Deputy Róisín Shortall:Is there a Minister in charge of that?
There is a Minister of State. As the Deputy is aware, it is a new Department. It is located in the Department of Health right now and that whole area governing disability will move to the new Department with responsibility for children, youth affairs and disability.
The discrimination against PUP recipients is a shambles worthy of the Government. Ten minutes before Leaders' Questions began, the Minister responsible was in the House announcing what sounded like a partial U-turn on the policy. It leaves PUP recipients wondering if the discrimination has ended. It leaves those who have been penalised wondering if their money will be reinstated. They need clarity on this. After Deputy McDonald asked about this issue, we got five minutes of speechifying from the Taoiseach about everything other than this issue. Can the Taoiseach please provide clarity for PUP recipients?
I have to hand a copy of a letter sent to a new social welfare applicant last week. It refers to important information about the person's jobseeker's benefit, and in respect of holidays states the person may take up to two weeks' paid holidays in a calendar year and that the person must tell the Department before he or she goes. There is nothing in the letter about a travel advisory, green lists, red lists or anything else. The person may take holidays and has to tell the Department. If the person takes holidays, he or she could lose all of his or her income. Billy Kelleher, MEP, has suffered no loss in income, the tax exiles are facilitated and special assignee relief programme, SARP, recipients suffer nothing at all. It is deeply immoral to have this blatant discrimination. It is not just immoral. The problem in which the Taoiseach finds himself is that this is illegal. There is no legal basis for the discrimination, as has been pointed out by the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC.
Yesterday, I spoke to a man called Ciarán. He is 25 years old and has paid taxes all his life, and is in receipt of the PUP through no fault of his own. On Thursday, 7 May he took a flight and was stopped at the boarding gate by plain-clothes gardaí who said they were conducting an immigration check and asked for his passport. He handed it over, and they took it and gave it back. He got on the aeroplane. He came back to Ireland and found his PUP had been stopped. He contacted the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which told him he was on a particular flight and, therefore, his PUP was being taken off him. On what legal basis did gardaí ask for his passport and then transfer information to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection? There is no legal basis for that. That is why, when representations were made by his constituency representatives, Deputies Nolan and Stanley, his payment was restored.
If there was no legal basis then for stopping payments, there is still now no legal basis for this discrimination. The statutory instrument introduced on 10 July explicitly related to jobseeker's benefit and does not reference the PUP. What about the case of a woman who is reported in The Irish Timesas having booked a ferry trip that she did not take, but lost her PUP simply for having made a booking? I do not want to hear long rhetoric around the coronavirus crisis, the point of the PUP or anything else. Rather, I want clarity on what is going to happen.
The Deputy does not want to hear the fact that the pandemic unemployment payment has been a very substantial and effective intervention in our economy. He cannot bring himself to say that. He cannot bring himself to say that the wage subsidy scheme was a very effective intervention and that the continuation of both schemes to the end of March represents a substantial policy response to people who are in difficulty arising out of the very negative impact Covid-19 has had on our economy.
I make no apology for continuing to restate that, because that is the antithesis of the Deputy's assertion of shambles and so on. The very fact that the July stimulus programme has, in a very measured way, continued what are very substantial and significant intervention speaks to, in my view, a very sound economic policy that is designed to result in a substantial deficit this year in order to keep as many jobs as we can in the economy and create alternative jobs. That is the big picture of what we are doing.
I am not responsible for operational decisions taken by people on the ground in respect of compliance with social protection rules. I said yesterday that I would want the cases of those who have lost their PUP to be reviewed. The Deputy already referred to one case which was reviewed and the payment was restored. As I have said, this needs to be kept in perspective. The Government has no agenda to single out anybody, and I certainly do not, just because he or she is in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment.
As the Deputy is aware, there always have been compliance checks at the airports. He is equally oblivious to the fact that 90% of the pandemic unemployment payments that were stopped were in respect of people who were residing permanently outside of the State. The checks are in place and will continue.
I have already outlined the Department's legal basis upon which compliance checks are done at the airports, which have been forwarded to me. People working for and on behalf of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection apply the social welfare code and seek compliance with it. I have made it clear that reviews should take place.
The number of people who have been denied the pandemic unemployment payment because of holidays is very low. From what I can gather, about 100 people have been affected. Given that 287,000 people are currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, that gives us a sense of the issue we are dealing with, and it is an issue that can be resolved.
The Taoiseach has been in the House a lot longer than I have but my understanding is that this session is called Leaders' Questions. The implication is that we ask questions and, I presume, we get answers as opposed to policy statements, rhetoric or anything else.
I will restate the basic questions people need to know. This is not a question about whether there will be reviews of individual cases. Rather, it is a question of policy. The Taoiseach is responsible for questions of policy. The question is simply whether PUP recipients who go on holiday to a green list or non-green list country will lose payments. I do not think people should go abroad at all. That is my advice. However, in circumstances where they do so, will they be penalised? It is a very simple question. Will people have their PUP taken away? The question that flows from that is if it is the case that the Department will not penalise them in the future, will they be refunded the money that was taken from them as a result of the current penalisation?
The Deputy has said he thinks people should not travel at all, and I hear what he is saying. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has made the situation clear in respect of people travelling back to Ireland from countries that are on the green list. They do not necessarily have to restrict their movements when they return to Ireland from a green list country, as per Government travel advice.
I again make the point that the numbers are extremely low. The Government has not set out, in any shape or form, to collectively target the recipients of pandemic unemployment payments. As I have said already and as the Minister said earlier today, the cases involved will undergo a review. This issue can be resolved.
The overall view of the Government is that we have strengthened the legislative basis underpinning the pandemic unemployment payment, we have given added protections to those in receipt of pandemic unemployment payments, namely, that they are deemed to have made contributions which will help them later on, and we have extended the payment to the end of March. By any yardstick, that represents a very substantial intervention by the State in terms of supporting people who are going through a very difficult situation as a result of Covid-19.