Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
6. To ask the Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment if he is satisfied that the budget of 2021 sufficiently addresses the unemployment issues arising from Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30551/20]
I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this question and always having his finger on the pulse of where events might lead us. Naturally, we are trying to manage the economy, job creation and sustainability around business and jobs through all levels of this plan. The Tánaiste has been very clear that it is about getting the balance right. That is why, at this time, most of the country is operating under level 3. We will be able to judge in the weeks ahead how that is impacting.
My Government colleagues and I are focused on preventing any risk of long-term unemployment. Together we are committed to leveraging the July stimulus and budget 2021 to get people back to work and keep them at work as long as possible and to give companies and businesses a chance to grow. With many of the business supports announced in the budget this week, we are looking to growth. It is not just about sustaining what we have, but building on that and making plans for the future as we try to make sure this is a jobs-led recovery over the next two years.
As the House is aware, unemployment reached an all-time peak of 30.4% in May. Ireland came through the initial shock with unparalleled levels of State intervention aimed at stabilising the economy and supporting business and incomes. Taxpayers' money was used wisely to subvent and support the efforts to deal with Covid. As of September 2020, more than €24.5 billion has been made available in support measures, including the July stimulus package, which in total comes to nearly €7 billion. The total budget 2021 package of more than €17.75 billion is unprecedented in size and scale in the history of the State, further demonstrating the Government's commitment to leading the country through the Covid crisis and preparing for Brexit. The extension of the wage subsidy until well into 2021 marks a historic intervention by Government to protect employment and business affected by this pandemic and to keep people as close as possible to work.
That is essential as we work through this, certainly when it comes to youth unemployment. It ensures that the link between the employer and the employee is maintained and assists business to continue to trade in the spirit of reduced demand. We are also promoting the take-up of available employment by allowing self-employed recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to take up intermittent or occasional work opportunities without losing their PUP entitlement. That would apply to a taxi driver who can get some work but not enough to provide for his or her family. We recognise that a blended approach will work in the months ahead.
I submitted the question prior to the recent budgetary announcements in anticipation of some of the measures contained therein, given the number of informative leaks we had.
To what extent has attention been focused on possible gaps in the system whereby people qualify for assistance to a certain point, or do not qualify because of intermittent employment or because insufficient evidence is provided to be able to identify the true value of their previous employment? Such people may find themselves having a very low payment or no payment at all.
The Deputy's question is targeting an area that is important for us all, probably because of his time as Minister of State with responsibility for social welfare. It is important that, in providing supports through the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and Business, Enterprise and Innovation, we ensure that nobody falls between the cracks. The Deputy will have seen in the July stimulus plan that some of the conditions around access to those supports were relaxed so people could avail of supports much quicker to eliminate some of those gaps to which the Deputy referred. In addition, the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, Deputy Harris, will this week announce an extra 10,000 place on various courses, including skills conversion courses through Springboard and apprenticeships. All the criteria to get onto those types of courses have been slightly tweaked and changed.
It is important that our public sector system responds when Deputies bring forward clear examples of failures or gaps. We must respond and address them quickly. We have seen some reaction to that. For example, the criteria for eligibility for the Christmas bonus this year have been changed to include people who have been receiving social welfare payments for four months, down from 15 months. That recognises that we are in a changing environment. The system can respond and it is important that we address issues when they are highlighted. I would ask the Deputy to bring forward examples if he comes across them and the Tánaiste, our colleagues and I will be happy to address them as well as we can.
I suggest a greater use of exceptional needs payments in cases where emergencies arise, which is what that particular payment was meant to address. The payment is for circumstances in which it is deemed necessary to support the family or individual in question, and I would ask if that might be borne in mind in these particular circumstances.
The Deputy is touching on something close to my heart. As a young fellow, I spent many days in the car with my father who was a community welfare officer back in the days when such officers could call to a house, get an understanding of what was happening and spend time with a family. Over the years, the volume of activity increased in an effort to reach people with supports through social protection or essential needs payments and it has become harder to have a connection with families. That is particularly true during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I would stress and ask that the system respond. The system did not respond in an important way to people who had emergency needs during the financial crisis of ten years ago. The essential needs payment is one of the best ways to close that gap in the short term as someone works through the red tape and forms that are required. I agree with the Deputy. Our staff at the front line in Intreo and social welfare offices absolutely try to make those judgment calls. Sometimes the system prevents those people from making the right call and we need to work with them on that. The essential needs payment is ideal to cover the cracks in the short term while people address their issues. We will work with the Deputy on that.