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 will deal with this point somewhat further when speak to the to this section.

On amendment No. 5, I regret the fact that amendment No. 4 which related to persons on maternity leave was ruled out of order and I call for further action on this. I hope that we can discuss and engage with that in the other social welfare Bill that is coming in September or October. This will be a chance to increase the amount of paid and unpaid parental leave that is available to people. We know that many people whose maternity leave has expired had to proceed immediately to use up what would normally be a few years supply of parental leave, something that might have been spread over many years and is something that is happening now all at once. We are going to have a situation where many families have used up both maternity and parental leave by September or October. I am hoping that we may be able to discuss that in the next social welfare Bill even though it was not deemed acceptable to be debated in this Bill.

Amendment No.5 engages with the questions of what supports are offered to persons on the pandemic unemployment payment. We know there is an issue that many of those on this payment effectively consider themselves as having a relevant employment and employer. They regard themselves as having been furloughed from the work that they already do, for example, in respect of pubs but also the arts sector, coaches, and many areas and sectors where activity has ceased as part of our collective Covid-19 solidarity. Many people do not regard themselves as searching but are in a sector, in a relevant area and have work that they want to do in that area; they have a very specific employer that they intend to return to. That is why if we delay commencement until 10 August, when many more of these sectors open up, we can keep that continuity of relationship in a clearer way for somebody who, for example, was either the owner of the pub - as some self-employed persons are affected and impacted by this and employing others - or indeed employees of a business that has gone into suspension.If we delay commencement until 10 August, there will be clear continuity and no sense of an ambiguous week in which is a person is seeking but unable to obtain employment, as stated in subsection (1)(g), which refers to a person who is "genuinely seeking, but is unable to obtain, employment". That is the crucial link and it must be borne in mind that the entire logic behind the wage subsidy scheme and this scheme was the idea that we want to keep these threads that hold the fabric of society together and maintain a clear relationship, where one exists, between an employment and an employee. We want to have that sustained. A delayed commencement would allow those who started receiving this payment in March to walk into the pub they may have worked in for ten or 20 years when it reopens on 10 August. They would not have this strange five or six days on their record where the State has recorded them as being genuinely seeking but unable to obtain work. This is a very simple fix for the Minister. She does not even have to accept my amendments today but she can address this issue.

The reason this is relevant is that for some people, despite the best intentions, the job they previously left may be gone. These people may be looking for work in the same sector and that is what this amendment deals with. I recognise that not everybody will return to the same job. In such circumstances, it is very important that everybody is given the full range of educational, training and employment supports and that these are relevant to them. If they are working in the arts, they need training, education and supports that are relevant to their work in the arts sector. It needs to be the proper kind of casework and it needs to be tailored to give that individual the best opportunities. That means having all of those options available.

Looking a few months ahead, I am little concern about the danger that persons who have been unemployed since March will, come next March, find themselves technically long-term unemployed when, in fact, the sector they were in has only been operating again for a few months. I am concerned that these people could be routed into JobPath and, as a result, other options could be closed off to them. That is an issue that arose again and again on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection of which I was a member in previous term. We hear about people who knew of a training programme, back-to-education scheme or college course that was relevant to their skill set and would carry them forward, but they were unable to take it up because of an accident of timing. People who may have had their eye on a scheme or college course starting in September 2021 may have been placed on JobPath in June 2021 and told they would have to take a job, almost any job. That is a concern.

I am trying to ensure that we give that 24 months of the full range of options to everybody affected by this payment and we just do not route or relocate them to other sectors. It is better, where possible, that people are routed to employment, retraining or new educational opportunities in the sector that is relevant to them. That has to be the first call and first stop. I am hoping the Minister can give us a sense of that. Perhaps she might be able to address this amendment in the social welfare Bill in the autumn, even if she cannot accept it today.


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