Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 May 2024

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2024: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be read a Second Time."

2:00 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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For the benefit of other people who may be on the list of speakers I will take approximately ten minutes. I welcome the introduction of pay-related jobseeker's benefit in the Bill.

It is long overdue that workers are not plunged way below the poverty line as soon as they lose their jobs. However, I do have a real problem with how the Government is proposing to pay for it. This Bill which we are being asked to vote on today is going to hit all full-time workers with a PRSI increase every year for the next five years, one increase building upon the other. People Before Profit will vote against this tax increase on ordinary workers. There is absolutely no need to increase employees' PRSI to fund pay related jobseeker's benefit. It could easily be funded by a larger increase in employer's PRSI.

Section 3 of the Bill provides that the rate of PRSI in all full-time workers' pay will go up from 4% to 4.7%. That is a significant increase which every full-time worker in this country and any part-time worker who earns over €424 will feel in their pockets. Unlike other kinds of income tax, where you pay a higher rate as you earn more, all full-time workers pay PRSI at the same rate. It is a flat, regressive form of income tax. In concrete terms, this Bill means that a full-time worker on the minimum wage will have to pay an extra €178.55 in PRSI. A worker on the average wage will have to pay almost an additional €350. Self-employed workers are also being hit with an increase of €150 in their minimum annual self-employment payment. Instead of hitting workers, the Government could increase employer's PRSI by a lot more than the 0.7% it is planning at the moment. It could start by rolling back the employer's PRSI tax break it gave bosses just last week as part of its business support package. ICTU has calculated that by increasing the threshold for the lower employer PRSI rate from €441 to €494, the Government is costing the Social Insurance Fund €60 million a year. Coincidentally, that is the exact same amount that will be raised with the 0.1% increase in all PRSI rates, employee and employer, in October. The Government is acting like a reverse Robin Hood, taking money out of workers' pockets to stuff it in the pockets of the bosses.

Let us not forget that employer's PRSI in this country is among the lowest in Europe. The Government's own tax strategy group found that even the higher employer's PRSI rate of 11.05% is less than half the EU average rate of 22.62%. It is less than a quarter of what employers pay in France, where employer's PRSI is 45%. In People Before Profit's latest alternative budget, we calculated that more than an additional €2.5 billion a year could be raised from a relatively small 2% increase in the 11% rate of employer's PRSI, combined with a new employer PRSI rate of 19.75% on salaries over €90,000. This is many times more than what the Government is planning to raise by increasing PRSI for everyone.

If the Government wants to increase PRSI, that is what it should do. It should increase PRSI for employers by several percent and not increase it for all employees. It is a false idea of equality that we are going to increase it like this for employers and then also in the same way for employees. The Minister might not have noticed, but workers are still in the midst of a terrible cost-of-living crisis and now she is asking them to pay more tax on their income. Barnardos told us yesterday that nearly half of families in this country have had to go without or cut back on essentials like food or heating in the last six months. It beggars belief that in the midst of that kind of deprivation, the Government is going to hammer people with a PRSI increase on top of the increases in excise, carbon tax, petrol and diesel that it is planning in August and October. That is three tax increases in three months from this Government. Of course, it is increasing the most regressive kind of taxes that hit low-paid workers the hardest, not progressive taxes on bosses and genuinely high earners.

As I said, I welcome the introduction of pay-related jobseeker's benefit. It will make a real difference for workers who qualify for it, if they lose their jobs, that they will not be pushed below the poverty line. However, the Government is doing it in the most minimal way possible and has designed the benefit to exclude as many workers as possible. The Minister referenced this in her opening statement by saying that if we tried to do a perfect one, we would not be here. It would take the same time to write legislation that applies to a greater number of workers and gives them a greater level of protection as it took to write what the Government has brought before us. Doing so might create more opposition from the bosses in IBEC. I guess that is what the Minister is getting at.

2:10 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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No, they are not my bosses.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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It would not take any more time to write the legislation differently. It would take the same time. The measure is designed to exclude as many workers as possible. Many will not qualify for the payment at all or will not get the full rate. A maximum payment of €450 a week is the least a Government with a €65 billion surplus thought it could get away with. ICTU has said it is glad that the principle of pay-related unemployment benefit, the norm across Europe for generations, is being adopted. It is, however, very unhappy with the stingy level of benefit which is nowhere near replacement level. The maximum level is only €450 a week but many workers will not even get that. Only workers who earn €750 a week and above will get the €450. The rest will get 60% of their wages. A full-time worker on the minimum wage of €508 a week will only get €304.80 in this new benefit. It seems the Government thinks that low-paid workers need less income when they lose their job than high-paid workers. Is €304.80 a week enough for workers who lose their jobs to continue to pay rent or a mortgage, groceries, energy bills and transport costs without going into debt? Could the Minister or other Ministers manage all their bills on €304.80 a week, less even than the pandemic unemployment payment that was given before the inflation we have seen in recent years?

The new pay-related jobseeker's benefit is also only to last for three months at the full rate. After that, it is cut to a maximum of €375 a week for the next three months and, after that, to €300 a month for the following three months. Workers who cannot find a job will be pushed deeper and deeper into grinding poverty. On top of all that, the new pay-related benefit is to be taxed, so workers will not even be getting the full amount into their pocket. Big business in this country gets tax break after tax break, writing off billions in profits through various loopholes every year, but workers will have to pay tax on their dole.

This Bill unfortunately also continues Fianna Fáil's and Fine Gael’s policy of systematic discrimination against young workers. Not satisfied with paying young people, those under 25, €90 less jobseeker's allowance a week than older workers, they are also now excluding the vast majority of them from the new pay-related jobseeker's benefit. They will have to pay the extra tax if they are in work but most of them will not qualify. To qualify for the maximum rate of €450, or 60% of your wages, you have to have paid five full years of PRSI. Even to qualify for the reduced rate at a maximum of €300, you have to have paid two full years of PRSI. Two workers working the same job with the same pay who are laid off on the same day and go down to the same social welfare office will come out with differing levels of support. The older worker will get €450 a week and the young worker will get €141.70. Could the Minister give young people a stronger signal to continue to emigrate if she tried?

I am sure the Department has run the numbers on what age workers will, on average, qualify for the full rate of pay-related jobseeker's benefit. I presume that is factored into how much the Minister thinks it is going to cost. I would be interested in hearing those figures today. What is the average age that people will qualify for the full rate of pay-related jobseeker's benefit? I suspect it is a lot older than 25, which is the cut-off point for the disgraceful age-based discrimination for jobseeker's allowance. I also want to know if young people will get any credit for years spent working abroad because they cannot afford to live in this country due to the housing and cost-of-living crises, or will they be starting from scratch when they finally return here after spending their 20s working abroad in countries that they find less hostile to young people?

It seems it is not enough for this Government that young people are stuck living at home with their parents into their 20s and 30s. Now, the discrimination against them in terms of social welfare is going to go on and on as well.

For those reasons, while we again welcome the principle and the introduction of pay-related jobseeker's benefit, we are going to oppose the Bill on this Stage.

2:20 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I am glad we have in the Visitors Gallery the students from sixth class, I think, in St. Mary's National School in Knockcroghery. I was saying to their classmates from fifth class just a few minutes ago that I was coming into the House to talk about the pension contributions that will directly impact each and every one of the students here today. I know it is going to be a long time before they reach 66, but the decisions we are making in Dáil Éireann today will have a direct impact on whether these students are going to be able to get a pension when they reach 66 many years from now. We are trying to put in place a system to ensure there is enough money available to pay for the pensions of each and every one of these students when they have gone to college, worked and then, eventually and a long time from now, retired. It is, therefore, a critically important decision we are making here in this House in terms of the long-term viability of the State pension.

This is something we in the Oireachtas joint committee have been looking at for a considerable time. In fairness to the Minister and her officials, we could nearly give them frequent flyer points for coming in before our committee. We accept that we must ensure our pension system is sustainable and viable into the future. As the Minister knows, our committee made a recommendation to increase PRSI rates for employers and the self-employed. People will be critical of politicians not making decisions, but our committee made a clear decision in this regard. We believe it is possible to retain the pension age at 66, while altering the rates and the participation rates in our workforce. I will return to that issue shortly. It is, however, fundamentally important that we are all conscious of ensuring our pensions are sustainable well into the future.

As the Minister knows, the Parliamentary Budget Office produced its spring commentary earlier this week. While a number of issues were raised in the headlines concerning that analysis, what jumps out from this for me is that the report highlights that while the participation of women in the workforce went up during Covid-19, it has flatlined since then. As the Minister knows, the committee looked specifically at this issue and made strong recommendations. If we are going to have sustainable pensions in future, if the students from St. Mary's National School in Knockcroghery and every other primary school in this country are to have a viable pension, one that will meet their day-to-day needs when they reach pension age at 66, it is imperative that we encourage and facilitate as many women as possible to re-enter the workforce or to participate in it. Sadly, and disappointingly, while we saw there was a lot of flexibility during the Covid-19 pandemic that facilitated more women engaging with the workforce, this flexibility has not continued to be evident since. This is why we have seen a flatlining in the number of women in our workforce.

This is really disappointing considering we now have a net deficit in terms of employees. We are actively encouraging people from outside Ireland and the European Union to come here to fill job vacancies, yet we cannot seem to increase the participation rates of women in our workforce. One of the issues the committee has consistently raised in its recommendations is the gender anomalies in some of the proposals being brought forward. As the Minister knows, we made three recommendations on this legislation. One was to carry out a gender analysis of the impact of these proposals. This recommendation was made on foot of evidence we received from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. ICTU pointed out that it was concerned that the proposal in relation to top-up payments for dependent family members, combined with the proposed loss of up to €77 weekly for low-wage, part-time workers, would disproportionately impact people in low-paid employment and women. We need to encourage and facilitate women to participate in the workforce rather than create barriers to them doing so.

Sadly, this is not the first time I have come into the House and raised this gender anomaly with the Minister. As she knows, during the passage of the Automatic Enrolment Retirement Savings System Bill 2024, I highlighted these specific issues. Again, the joint committee at that time put a very strong focus on the gender issues in that Bill. We made the point that it discriminated against women who were leaving the workforce for caring roles during maternity leave and other caring responsibilities and did not provide a correct balance for women. In her response, the Minister stated the matter could be looked at again. The reality, however, is that only once in a decade do we get an opportunity to bring in this type of reform in relation to pension legislation and PRSI contributions. Disappointingly, we are ignoring women again in another Bill. The recommendations on gender made with respect to the Automatic Enrolment Retirement Savings System Bill 2024 were not addressed in that legislation. The recommendations the committee made on gender in relation to this Bill have also been ignored. The assessment we asked for in the context of our pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill has not been provided for as part of this process. That is disappointing and is putting women at a significant disadvantage in the longer term in respect of their pension contributions and their overall pension rate.

If the Minister listened to the news reports this morning, she will know that another study has come out that says women will have to work eight years longer to obtain a pension equivalent to their male counterparts. This is because of anomalies we are building into the type of legislation being put forward here. While what I just mentioned was in relation to private pensions, we have done this for low-paid employment in the auto-enrolment Bill and we are doing it again here. The joint committee specifically asked for a gender assessment of the implications of this legislation, but that has not been forthcoming.

The reason the committee has been so strong on this issue is that when we looked at the pension age and made recommendations to the Minister in this regard, one of the significant reasons we came to the conclusions we did was the need to increase the participation rates of women and people with a disability in the workforce.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw the participation rate increase to 65%. This was a significant jump on the rate prior to that point, which had stood at about 62%.

Bringing flexibility into the workforce facilitated many women to participate in the workforce at that stage but it is also about addressing childcare issues that have not been adequately addressed, although they have been promised by Government after Government. Not facilitating women to contribute to the workforce where they wish to do so is impeding the long-term viability of the State pension.

It is the same for people with a disability. Yesterday, our committee held hearings with a number of disability groups who spoke about the inbuilt barriers within the social welfare system that is locking them out of the workforce at present. We must address these barriers and anomalies that are stopping people contributing to the economy, getting work in their own right where they want to do so and accessing training and education that would facilitate them in doing that.

I am disappointed that these issues are not being reflected in the consideration of the Bill that is before us today. It is a weakness in the Bill that we are not fully addressing low-paid employment, women in the workforce or people with a disability who want to work but who cannot do so because of the way disability payments and supports are structured at the moment. They effectively act as a barrier to them doing so. We have the opportunity now, as we are reforming the pension regime across the board in this country, to address these issues. We should not miss this opportunity. In the context of the case I made on the auto-enrolment Bill and the case I made here today, I ask the Minister to look again at these very specific and concerning issues in advance of Committee Stage of the Bill.

2:30 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Chair for the opportunity to contribute to this social welfare Bill. I welcome the introduction of a pay-related jobseeker's benefit, which is long overdue. However, the Bill missed the opportunity to also address the extremely low rate of illness benefit. It is my understanding that under the new system, those who lose their job will now be entitled to a maximum rate of €450 or 60% of their income per week. This is a necessary increase and will soften the income shock when a person loses his or her employment. It makes sense that the benefit people receive corresponds with the income they were receiving, to allow them to adjust and continue to make payments until an alternative income is arranged. As has been said by other Members, in order to get the full €450, one has to have been earning €750 a week. Therefore, the measure will not impact on very many workers. People on lower incomes will get much lower rates and it will be very difficult for them to survive as well.

I do not think this is a new concept either, as has been suggested. When I was a child in 1980 my own mother was made redundant and she received pay-related social insurance at that time. The redundancy was related to her previous income. The Government is taking about this as being something new but I do not believe it is. It is a case of stepping back to the future. As far as I am aware, what is proposed now will not even be as good as was available then. Who is to say that when the next inevitable income shock happens, that this will not be the first benefit to be cut? The history of every government in this State is that workers are the first to pay and to lose out when things turn bad. That is true regardless of who has been in government.

The fact that the maximum payment for those seeking illness benefit is €232 a week is outrageous. Over the years, I have encountered many constituents who have had to take time off work due to illness and have struggled to make ends meet, to make mortgage payments and loan repayments, which were calculated on their income and are impossible for many to keep up on less than €250 a week. This does not even include food costs, energy costs and the medical bills that many people face when they become ill. Most people do not expect to fall ill and so when it happens, it is a terrible personal and financial shock. It is often a very stressful period in people's lives and they should be supported not penalised. Unfortunately, this is not an issue that people are aware of until it happens to them and they realise just how desperately low the rate of illness benefit is.

I was contacted by one constituent, a single mother who became unwell, who had never heard of illness benefit until she was unfit to work. She was paying a mortgage of more than €900 a month and she was expected to pay that as well as household and medical bills and the cost of looking after her children while receiving just over €200 a week. She said she had not had to depend on the State for a handout until then, at 49 years of age. She did not even know how little the illness payment was until that point. Having worked her entire life in various jobs as an employee and as a self-employed person, she wonders what was the point of her paying tax.

That woman is just one of many constituents who have come to me with the same problem, including cancer patients and single parents, as well as partners of those too unwell to look after themselves who were seeking carer's benefit. Unfortunately, like illness benefit, carer's benefit is also set at an extremely low rate. Carer's benefit is not a pay-related benefit scheme and those caring for their sick partners are only entitled to a set payment of €249 a week. It is heartbreaking to see people in this situation, struggling to make ends meet during an already extremely stressful and frightening period in their lives. I am disappointed that the Minister has continuously failed to recognise this and to adjust illness benefit and carer's benefit to ensure that people are protected at such vulnerable times in their lives. I acknowledge what the Minister said in her opening statement, which is that it was not possible to modify all these schemes at the one time, but I wonder how long it will be before any more scheme benefits will be added. I imagine it will be quite some time.

People receiving illness benefit and carer's benefit have paid their PRSI and this should protect them when they are in need. However, this is, sadly, not the case. The Government must review the PRSI rates in this country. At the moment Irish workers and businesses pay the least into social insurance of any country in the EU, although when USC is counted in for workers, it probably brings our rates up. Employer contributions are the fifth lowest in the EU and employee contributions are the second lowest. The Government must address this and it must also ensure that workers are properly protected when they lose their job, become ill or have to care for a loved one.

Our rates are very often compared here but we never examine the link between poor rates and poor entitlements. Workers are the backbone of our economy and we should protect and support them. Too many businesses believe in the fallacy that they can get on without their workers. What makes a business stand out from the crowd is a good product but also the service people receive when they use the business. Unfortunately, there is not a recognition from many business owners that most of their customers are in the same situation as their employees. If their employees benefit from increases in PRSI rates, so will their customers, which will mean they will have more disposable income to spend as well. While it might be more difficult to see, there is also an onward benefit that will hopefully come back around to benefit small businesses. That must always be kept in mind as well.

When we talk about small businesses, we should really call them micro-enterprises. In Ireland, a small business is classified as one with up to 250 employees. I do not think anyone here would classify a company employing 250 people as a small business. What most of us talk about in the context of small businesses is the local shop, restaurant, or garage that might have up to ten employees, which in government-speak are micro-businesses. When the Government speaks about micro-enterprises it is implied that this is some dynamic new business that is operating in fast-paced circles. We must use the right terminology so that the right policies can be directed in the right places as well. I do not think the needs of a business employing up to ten or 15 people are the same as a business employing up to 250 people. We need to tailor our measures and look at that as well.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill that is before the Dáil today and the opportunity to contribute to it. The Bill is timely. It is important that we bring forward these amendments, which are fair to people who have been working hard and paying their taxes. Therefore, when they fall on hard times there are additional supports available to them.

When we are in a time of full employment it is appropriate that we look at the social welfare system and examine how we can make sure it is fit for purpose. I often felt that bringing forward changes at times of high unemployment was unfair. The Minister is making the changes at the right time. I wish to raise a couple of points with her in the hope that she might take them on board as we proceed with the legislation.

I also have some points to make that I would like the Minister to take on board when she is negotiating for the upcoming budget. They are suggestions that will make for a fairer social welfare system.

One of the issues I have been contacted about recently concerns employers who are finding it incredibly difficult to get people to work. In certain instances, people are handing in their notice and saying they would be better off on unemployment benefits. Welfare was never designed to be a lifestyle choice. It is there as a safety net for when people get into difficulty. I made a suggestion through a parliamentary question to the Minister that when people go in to sign on for the first time, the activation officer should contact their previous employer and double-check that the job has ceased, rather than that they have chosen to leave it. That is one action that should be taken.

A second issue to address is the X's and O's system. It is a bit archaic that people will only get a social welfare payment if they do not work for one particular day. Given the variety of employment out there and the different ways people are working, there are opportunities to work a couple of hours a day, in the morning or evening. People are being disincentivised or discouraged from working at all if they will lose their full rate of social welfare for working only an hour or two. We should look at a proportionate reduction to facilitate people to work a small number of hours.

Deputy Naughten made a point about encouraging people with disabilities back into the workforce. From talking to people with disabilities, one of the big impediments to their working is the risk, if they go back into the workforce, that if it does not work out for them or it becomes too onerous and they are not able for it, the process of reapplying for the disability allowance takes some time. We should look at a system that would support people by making the transition to work easier and, if that transition does not work out, enabling them to go back on their welfare payment a lot more easily. It is the same with partial capacity benefit. It seems particularly difficult for people to transition from disability to partial capacity without risking losing their entitlements. I have an example I can share privately with the Minister.

I acknowledge that over the past few years, the Government and previous Governments have gone some way to address the inequity between employees and the self-employed in regard to their welfare entitlements. One of the anomalies that has not been addressed is in respect of illness benefit. People who are self-employed get sick. It may be for a short period. If the illness lasts longer than 12 months, they now qualify for invalidity benefit, which was not always the case. However, I could give many examples of one-man or two-men operations that have had to close their doors for four or five days or even longer. In those situations, self-employed people are not earning and are not in receipt of any illness benefit. That should be reviewed. Self-employed people, if certified by a doctor as being unfit for work, should at least qualify for illness benefit. We should bear in mind what we have done regarding mandatory sick pay and the onus and responsibility we are putting on employers in that regard. At a minimum, we should look at how we can support employers if they get sick for a time.

Members often speak in this House about carers. They are among the few welfare recipients who actually work for their payment. They save the State tens of millions of euro, if not hundreds of millions, every year by keeping people out of long-term institutional care. Until a constituent came to see me the other day who is in this situation, I did not realise that a full-time carer, who is living alone and not with the family member for whom the care is being provided, is not entitled to apply for the fuel allowance or the living alone allowance and, thereby, is excluded from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant to install home energy upgrades. The person who came to see me is being penalised a number of times, despite having been a full-time carer for some time. People who lose their jobs qualify for the fuel allowance after 12 months on unemployment allowance, and rightly so. People who are providing care, working for their payment and saving the State money should, if they are living on their own, be entitled to the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance. I ask the Minister to intervene in that regard. Perhaps she will consider the matter in the context of the upcoming budget.

On welfare fraud, I encourage the Minister to talk to social welfare inspectors who have recently retired. I could give her the name of a man who worked in my neck of the woods for a long period. He could give many examples of how welfare fraud is slipping through the net and how, with some additional powers, it could be reduced or eliminated. He does not feel inspectors are being given the powers they need. In the context of this legislation, I ask the Minister to carry out exit interviews with some of the people retiring from the social welfare service. They will give her the benefit of their long experience and knowledge of how we can stamp out welfare fraud.

2:40 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I did not expect to see the "welfare cheats cheat us all" slogan being taken out for another spin, but here we are. Sinn Féin has long advocated for a proper pay-related social insurance system. The current system carries that name but the available supports, such as jobseeker's benefit, are not pay-related. Payment is given at a flat rate. This is unfair on working people who are unfortunate enough to lose their job. There is a cliff edge for workers, which should not be the case.

Sinn Féin wants a system that supports workers who have worked hard and paid PRSI. The current flat rate is unfair and not fit for purpose for hard-working people. A transition to a payment that is a percentage of previous earnings is important in ensuring workers are treated fairly, protected from a cliff edge and helped to get back on their feet as they seek new work. It is a great shame the Government has used the positive aspects of this Bill as cover for regressive policy change. In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, it has added PRSI increases to the legislation. That is unacceptable and unfair. It is an underhand tactic that must be called out.

As well as a proper PRSI system for hard-working people, we must always ensure that work pays. New economic research from the Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, published in its Spring Commentary 2024, shows that those in employment are seeing only negligible increases in their real incomes. This research reinforces the need for the Government to do more for workers by delivering a living wage and a right to collective bargaining. The research shows that workers' real wages will only increase by 1.8% in 2023-24. This negligible increase comes on the back of years of falling living standards and declining real wages for workers, as evidenced by separate PBO research on real incomes. That data shows that workers' real wages declined in 2022 and 2023 and that, despite any increase in workers' wages in 2024, they will still be worse off this year than they were in 2020.

In the midst of this, the Government has been kite-flying about pausing the move towards a living wage. It has refused to publish an action plan to increase collective bargaining coverage across the workforce to 80%, as mandated under the EU directive on adequate minimum wages. All the while, we have witnessed a race to the bottom in terms and conditions of work, an increase in low-paid work and the marginalisation of trade unions and workplace democracy. We have a situation in which workers are worse off now than when the Government came to power. That cannot and should not be tolerated.

The Government must state publicly that delivery of a living wage will continue uninterrupted and that it will make immediate moves to deliver a right for trade unions to organise and engage in collective bargaining. For far too long, workers and their rights have been an add-on or afterthought. Sinn Féin believes it is time for workers and workers’ rights to be front and centre of the political agenda.

2:50 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputies for their contributions. The introduction of the new pay-related jobseeker's benefit is a major reform of how we support jobseekers in Ireland and will bring us in line with our European neighbours. Pay-related benefit will provide a greater support to people who lose their jobs and find themselves in the position of dealing with that income shock while continuing to meet their financial commitments. We all know that this can be a distressing experience for people and the new benefit will offer a greater cushion while they seek alternative employment.

As I outlined earlier, the weekly rate of payment for people who have at least five years of paid PRSI contributions will be set at 60% of previous gross earnings, subject to a maximum of €450 for the first three months. This rate will be available to workers on average incomes across all sectors, which is almost a doubling of the current personal rate of jobseeker's benefit. These higher rates of payment will help people with their financial commitments and will mean that they can continue to put money into their local economies. The Bill provides a framework for this change and will be able to accommodate the inclusion of additional groups of workers in the pay-related benefit approach should the Government decide to do so in future.

The programme of gradual, incremental increases in PRSI as already agreed by the Government will support the retention of the State pension age at 66, help address the long-term sustainability challenges facing the Social Insurance Fund and also provide for the jobseeker's pay-related benefit. As I mentioned in my opening statement, I intend to table Committee Stage amendments to increase the employer PRSI threshold from €441 to €496 per week from 1 October this year. Ensuring employers with employees working full-time on the minimum wage will only pay the lower rate of employer PRSI is just one of a number of Government measures to reduce costs for small and medium businesses. I look forward to Members' support for this amendment.

Deputies have raised a number of important issues. I would like to respond to some of those. Sinn Féin has been clear that it does not want to increase PRSI as set out in this Bill. How does it plan to pay to keep the pension age at 66? The cost of this PRSI increase for the average industrial worker on around €45,000 per annum is 90 cent per week.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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It was in my speech.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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That works out at about €46.80 per annum, which is an increase of about 0.1%. In September 2021, Sinn Féin's leader, Deputy Mary-Lou McDonald, said the party would increase PRSI by 4%. That is much more than the total of 0.7% I am proposing over five years. I will quote Sinn Féin's leader. She said, "Our proposal is, over the course of a number of budgets, to bring employer PRSI up by about 4pc." Deputy McDonald also said, "That still means that we are well below the European average and in or about the global average." That is what Sinn Féin's party leader said and now we are hearing the opposite. I would have to call that another flip-flop from Sinn Féin.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister would not be right.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I think I would be right on this one.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I do not think you would.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Sinn Féin promises everything, but somebody else will have to pay for it. That is essentially what Sinn Féin is saying.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Read back over my speech. I was very clear.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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There must be no interruptions.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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In response to Deputy Naughten, the vast majority of carers are women. I provided a pension to carers. Female participation in the workforce has never been higher and I absolutely want more women back working. I launched the updated pathways to work just this Tuesday. There is a significant focus on helping to get people back to work.

Regarding the poverty and gender impact analysis, the legislation provides a framework for the scheme and contains regulation-making power to support the policy development as the scheme is rolled out. This will be an evolving process. The Department will continue to assess the impacts of the scheme as the policy advances and when the associated regulations are being devised.

I think I have mentioned this before but I will clarify that people on low incomes will get 60% of their income or may qualify for a means-tested jobseeker's allowance. Balance is needed to manage payments with work incentives. We must consider the impacts on businesses and recruitment. The minimum payment is higher than the jobseeker's benefit by about €20.

The final speaker, Deputy Troy, had a number of suggestions. They are part of the budget considerations. He suggested that I should speak to the former social welfare inspectors. There are many former employees of different organisations, but I particularly speak to those in my Department, who have much experience. That is a good idea because different people bring different perspectives on specific experiences that they have had in the workplace. I thank Deputies for their contributions.

Question put.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 12 June 2024.