Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank the Minister for coming before the House and wish her well in her new role. A number of major challenges face the Department: pensions, the sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund, and how we will get people into work who want to work but cannot for a whole variety of reasons, including childcare, other caring responsibilities or disability. Disability is a very significant challenge facing the country. We faced it before Covid and will face it all the more post Covid.
I have a specific question about the Bill before the House. It relates to Chapter 12B and the definition of "genuinely seeking work". We need clarity from the Minister as to whether genuinely seeking work means that persons need to be actively seeking work and, if so, whether they face the prospect of having their entitlements cut off by a social welfare inspector if they are not making sufficient effort. Does genuinely seeking work mean that people can rely on the social safety net of the State until such time as their sector, their type of work, is fully back up and running? The events of recent days seem to suggest no tolerance other than for those who can prove they are seeking work and ready to take that work up immediately. We know there are sectors, such as hospitality and the arts, that simply cannot reopen at present. It feels like the Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, I think many of us have been led to believe by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that anybody out of work should be seeking work at the moment, yet on the other hand, we know from the Department with responsibility for the arts - the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has spoken about this - about the challenges facing the arts sector and that it will take time for the sector to reopen fully. We therefore need clarity as to what genuinely seeking work means.
What is most egregious about the push to be genuinely seeking work or actively seeking work is that it misses the point that there are people who want to work, especially women, but who cannot because they cannot access childcare places. They have had to leave their employment because they have small babies. They are ready to go back to work, yet few crèches are taking on children under the age of one at the moment. This is for understandable reasons. They are coping with the children they are already caring for. There is, however, no provision put in place for these mothers. It is egregious and misses the point of what the arts sector is about, that these people's life ambition is to work in the arts, whether to perform, to make performance happen, to create or to showcase creation. Many do it not for the money but for the love of it. Yes, they need to make a decent living from it, but they do not expect to make a fortune. The key issue is that they do not want to retrain or to avail of all the training and reskilling opportunities announced by the Government.Those opportunities are to be very much welcomed, but they are not for those in this sector. They need their sector to reopen, and it cannot do so until such time as the pandemic passes. It seems from the various comments that have been made over recent days by the Minister, the Department and others in government that those working in the arts and those who are unable to work or who are dependent on the pandemic payment should go out and get a job, whatever job that may be. As a country, we have to be better than that. The Government has to be better than that and we need assurances that those whose sectors have not reopened will not be forced into taking any job. They already face the truly terrible prospect of seeing their pandemic unemployment payment cut in stages over the coming months. This policy has been introduced by the Department in the full knowledge that some sectors will not reopen in the coming months. These workers are already facing a penalty. I ask the Minister not to add to that penalty by forcing them into any job.