Seanad debates

Friday, 20 March 2020

An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála eile ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail), 2020: Céim an Choiste agus na Céimeanna a bheidh Fágtha - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

11:00 am

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I had considered proposing amendments to the section but I was aware they would probably be ruled out of order. It is my hope that the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be able to engage with the Minister, Regina Doherty. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get answers on these questions and it is important to do so.

The issue of working family payment was raised last night but we did not really get an answer. This is very important. It was mentioned in regard to its intersection with jobseeker's transitional payment but on a wider basis. The working family payment is an in-work payment while the Covid-19 payment is related to the jobseeker payments and the job space. It is almost a fast-tracking of that process and is giving a payment that will maintain a relationship with an employer but allow for a period of unemployment. The working family payment is a payment which is designed to supplement those who have been in low paid work and who have dependents. A premise of the working family payment is that a person would be working 38 hours a fortnight, or 19 hours a week equivalent. A concern for people who might be laid off but also many others, including cleaners and those who are working in those vital services we have all been praising, is that they could find themselves, for example, working ten hours a week for a period of time, rather than 19 hours a week, or they may find that their employer places staff not on the Covid-19 payment but on the short-term working payment. This is a payment mechanism which allows for some topping up of salary where people's hours have had to be reduced and they go from working two days instead of four days, and so forth. However, the working family payment is not related to wages or tied to that. It is a top-up payment that we give to families so they can survive and keep themselves healthy. What is crucial to know, and many people are concerned about this, is the position if people's hours temporarily dip for a period of time. If they are still employed but their hours have gone down, for whatever reason, and if they are on working family payment now, can they be assured they are not going to, for example, be told in six weeks or eight weeks time their hours were below the threshold? That is something people need clarity on and they need to know going into the summer months that this working family payment will still go through. It is money the State already pays and it is doing very important work. We need that assurance for people so they do not find their employer has put them on short-term working, where they are working ten hours when the working family payment requires 19 hours. These are vulnerable families in a crunch.

The Minister might address the issue of rent allowance, which was mentioned by my colleague. There are particular issues with the jobseeker transitional payment and the income disregard. For example, does the income disregard apply to Covid-19? There are many intersections but rent allowance is a core issue. People are very nervous of losing rent allowance in any shape or form, so this is something to be looked at.

There were a couple of other issues in regard to social welfare which we need to consider. The Minister might be able to give me an overall assurance that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection can make regulations in respect of these issues, which is a core question. We have not put in legislative amendments but we want to know the Minister is planning to make regulations and is willing to engage with each of us, as different parties and groups. I know there is a lot of talk about engaging with party leaders but, as the leader of a group, I have not had any engagement or reach-out yet, I am afraid. If we were able to engage around constructive regulations on some of these issues, that would be the way we can resolve them without amendments to this section. Perhaps the Minister can address those issues.

The habitual residency condition is something that creates a lot of anxiety for people. There is the question of the emergency provisions and also the issue of testing, which falls under the Minister for Health's remit. This concerns not just those who do not have enough habitual residency to meet the condition but also those who are out of status in terms of accessing emergency welfare supports or special needs payments, and also those who have concerns around testing.Can people be confident in seeking those supports and that it will not be the people who are undocumented, who we have already spoken about?

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