Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage


1:00 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senators for their good wishes and contributions. I will first clarify a matter. Sometimes, we forget that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and it is important that we follow public health advice. Today, I announced that I would be changing the regulations to allow people on unemployment payments to travel to countries on the green list for two weeks and still retain their benefits. Everything else remains the same. People can travel abroad for essential reasons such as a family bereavement, essential healthcare or other medical reasons. So that their payments are not impacted, though, they must explain to their local Intreo offices that they must travel abroad so that the offices know. Other than that, the public health advice is to stay in this country. That is it; it is very simple. Senators heard NPHET say that - they hear it every evening. Unfortunately, the Covid virus has not gone away. We must be careful, and the safest place to do that is at home. However, people can travel to the countries on the green list because the infection rates there are the same as or lower than in this country. As such, I have included them on the list in the regulations. A number of queries were raised by Senators and I will try to address as many as I can in the short time I have.

Senator Burke spoke about travelling. If someone has to travel, he or she should tell the local Intreo office.

Sole traders are now on the payment. I accept they are worried that, if they get a bit of work and go off the payment, they might not have any income, but many of them will be entitled to an enterprise support grant if they do not have premises that they work from, that is, if they do not pay rates and, consequently, qualify for the restart grant. If they find that they have no work, they are entitled to return to the jobseeker's payment.

I wish to be clear about the sharing of information because there is a great deal of misinformation going around about this matter. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection does not collect or share information with other agencies in the way alluded to in the House. The Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, does not pass travel information to the Department. The Department does not have access to travel data, nor does it have access to travel locator forms from any airport or port. Nor does the Department receive travel information from the Department of Justice and Equality. As part of its normal work, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work in which they are engaged. 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. These checks are carried out because certain social welfare payments are only paid to people residing in the State. These compliance checks involve inspectors speaking directly with passengers and any information gathered is only used for the purpose for which it is gathered. A social welfare inspector has legal powers under the social welfare legislation to ask for PPS numbers.

Social welfare inspectors have to be approved by the DAA to work in the airport and have all the DAA clearances necessary to work there. They all have Dublin Airport identity cards, with a part of the process to get such a card being the need to be Garda vetted and to undergo security awareness training.

It is clear from all of this that inspectors have those powers and have done so for many years. Anyone whose payment is stopped and who believes it should not have been should contact his or her local Intreo office. Senator Ardagh raised that matter. We are not receiving any information from any third party.

The Covid payment is €350, which will reduce on 15 September. As such, there will not be a large tax liability on the payment unless someone earns a significant amount of money. Obviously, someone's income is liable for tax regardless of where it comes from once it goes over a certain limit.

Regarding being available for work, I will go back a little bit. In March and April when the whole of the economy was shut down due to Covid-19, we were obviously not going to ask people to look for a job. We are not in that space any more, though. The economy is reopening, businesses are returning and we hope that, on 10 August, pubs and so on will reopen. The Department will take a practical approach. If someone is in a sector that will reopen soon, that is okay, but we must realise that many people will unfortunately not be returning to their pre-Covid jobs. We want them to start looking for work, and they want to get back working as well. That is why we have invested up to €200 million in employment and labour activation supports, which were announced last week. We have extended the PUP to next April. Is any Senator present suggesting that people should not be looking for work between now and next April? They want to return to work and we want to help them in that.That is the message I want to send. We are here to help people. We want to help them to relocate to other sectors. The Department will take a practical approach to those sectors that have not opened up.

The temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme has been amended so that employers can get a €203 subsidy in respect of new staff they take on. We have done that to encourage and help employers to take on people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19. Everything this Government is doing is about helping people to get back to work. I take on board Senator Buttimer's points about community employment schemes.

There are a few more things I wish to raise. In response to Senator Murphy, I note that since 13 March the Department has stopped payment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment in 2,500 cases, of which 2,000 relate to Dublin Airport and 500 to other ports and airports. Had those claims not been stopped, the Department would have incurred an additional charge of €20.5 million. It would have cost the taxpayer €20.5 million to make payments to people who were not entitled to receive them because they lived outside this country.


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