Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

I regret that the amendments tabled by Senator McCallion were not allowed. It would have been a constructive and important debate, especially when we think of those employers based here who have employees based in Northern Ireland and some of those who are self-employed and have their centre of operations here but are resident in Northern Ireland. They are effectively excluded. These are valid concerns and we need to have a more detailed debate on this issue even if it is not possible on this section.

I want to highlight several other issues regarding section 8 that I hope the Minister in her response might be able to address. There is much to welcome in the Bill and I recognise this but there are concerns that we need to address. One of the aspects I very much welcome is the attribution of contributions. It is very important so we do not have a knock-on effect down the line in terms of pension entitlements and other entitlements. It is a very positive measure. I have a little bit of concern about the new section 38E(3), which suggests the Minister might prescribe the maximum number of contribution weeks in respect of which employment contributions might have been deemed. Will the Minister give clarity or reassurance that the maximum is not anticipated to be set at too low a level? I want to make sure people do not get a contribution record that is much less than the number of weeks deemed. I know this is not the intent, and that is clear, but perhaps the Minister will confirm this for us.

Section 38F, which will be introduced by section 8 of the Bill, is about the exchange of information. Again, it is important that we get this right. It states there will be an exchange of information between the Minister and the Revenue Commissioners.Strictly speaking, there is a third party with which information will be exchanged, as it will be between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. That question of the exchange of information has a wider issue, which is something the Minister has inherited and it was not created by her. There is an ongoing issue with a set of concerns the Data Protection Commissioner has had about the single customer view data set. This is a set of data accessible by a large number of bodies and not simply by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection officials themselves. This is the question I had about information that might get shared with the Department. We will have a chance to debate this further later, but it is an extension beyond appropriateness and any precedent to ask that people inform the Department every time they legitimately leave the State in a way that is compliant with the law. Will the information being sought under this section or other information also go into the single customer view data set or the exchange of information? There is a lack of clarity on this.

I want to add an important reminder to try to avoid the types of unforeseen consequences not simply of this week but that we saw in the previous term. Notwithstanding section 38F, which will allow for the transfer of information, the requirements of necessity and proportionality still apply and it will be important that they will be used with regard to the information, that this will not be a blanket permission and that it will cover only such information as is necessary and proportionate. It would have been good if this had been stated in the section. It would be useful but perhaps the Minister will confirm this.

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