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)

The Minister is aware from the debate in the Dáil of the serious concerns people have about this section and specifically the provision which has been inserted as part of the new section 68L(1)(g). The subsection requires that someone be genuinely seeking but "unable to obtain employment suitable for him or her, having regard to his or her age, physique, education, normal occupation, place of residence and family circumstance". A number of problems and questions arise from that provision. Serious concerns are being widely expressed by persons who believed they had been on furlough. This Bill would effectively switch their payment to a jobseeker's payment, which it was not. It was previously an income support payment as part of a solidarity effort. They are very different things and this is a switch in purpose and requirements. It was unhelpful that the former Minister for Social Protection, the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, inaccurately stated at the weekend that people were required to be seeking work when they were not. That was not the law and that was not what the payment was for. That led to a huge amount of inaccuracy and it was unfortunate that the gov.iewebsite echoed that inaccurate information. This is a real concern and people are worried. Many people who are on this payment, some whom are on such a payment for the first time in their lives, are very concerned that the rules might just change at any time, whenever a Minister says anything.This section would place that requirement into law, and there are a number of problems with that. What does it mean for those who are furloughed from a specific employer within a sector that has been asked to suspend activities? This does not apply only to pubs but to coaches and much of the arts and entertainment industry. Many aspects of the economy and society are either still in suspension or are not functioning at full capacity.

When I spoke to my amendment earlier, I asked what this section will mean for the relationship between an existing employer and a former employee who is on the pandemic unemployment payment, and that question has not been answered. The workplace subsidy scheme has been used for businesses that have been proceeding in their work and the State has subsidised them. Many people on the pandemic unemployment payment have a very direct relationship with their employer. Some of them are the employer, because many people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment are self-employed persons who run a business and who have a number of people depending on them. We have had messages about people running nightclubs and so on. Will they now be categorised as seeking work and unable to obtain it? What does that mean for their employees, who might also be on the same payment? There is so much ambiguity about this.

Some people already have plans to walk back into their pubs on 10 August. It is not just young people and teenagers who work in pubs. Many people in rural Ireland work in a pub for 20 years or 30 years, and some of them are linchpins of society. People work in pubs in the long term. If this Bill goes through today and continues its journey into law, there will be a five-day period during which the State records such people as not having an active link with that employment, but as genuinely seeking and unable to obtain employment. They will not be considered to be in employment and will not have a link with that employer. Ambiguity has been created around this issue. While a delayed commencement to 10 August would not solve all these issues and there would still be huge problems with the Bill, it would mean a certain proportion of the relevant businesses and employers would be allowed to open, because many of them currently cannot. Many of them would like to start work tomorrow and tell their staff they do not have to go on this new Covid pandemic unemployment payment and can start work from 2 August, but they cannot. They are not allowed because their sector or business is not allowed to open until 10 August. A very messy situation has been created which will be difficult and distressing for thousands of individuals. The Minister could simply address this by delaying the commencement of this section until 10 August, which would delay some of the potential negative impact.

The other thing that happens on 10 August is that redundancy rules come back into play. Redundancy has been suspended during the pandemic, as part of the philosophy put forward by the Government and supported by everybody. We talk about solidarity and working, and we in the Opposition have worked constructively with the Government. Those of us who were outgoing Senators were recalled and we came back and helped the Government pass necessary legislation. Everybody worked constructively in the national interest in that period. One of our key principles was keeping the connections between employers and employees and as part of that, redundancy was suspended. Under that principle, we did not want employers prematurely making people redundant, as we do not want to prematurely break the link between employers and employees. I simply ask that this Bill be in tune with such principles.The redundancy issues raises some questions. I hope the Minister will be able to give some clarity on this. If somebody is moved on to this payment, is registered as not having employment officially and is seeking employment, what will that mean for that person's continuity of employment in respect of workplace entitlements? If somebody was doing a job before March, went on this payment and goes back into that job on 10 August, what does this payment mean for that person's continuity of service? What does it mean for his or her entitlements to redundancy? I accept that after 10 August such persons will have a right in respect of redundancy, but I need clarity. In the other House, the Minister noted that it would not affect an individual's rights in respect of redundancy. I want to know that it will not affect the level of payment, the level of entitlement and the level of redundancy persons would expect.

There are requirements, including, for example, that people need to file within a month. The 2003 Act provides for certain breaks in employment, but we do not have in this legislation or through statutory instrument clarity as to whether five days or one week would be registered as a break in employment when it comes to lump sum redundancy payments or other redundancy entitlements. I would be delighted if the Minister could assure me that this will not have any impact, but I know that people have real concerns because some people will go back to work on 10 August, 20 August or some time in September. Some of them will be told on 10 August that their employer is halving the number of staff because of the reduced amount of work. Others will go return to work and it might take three, four or five weeks to be told that half of the staff in their company are to be let go. Will these people be treated as new hires? Does it reflect the full continuity of service? Is this formally recognised as a break?

The Minister can see the potential messiness. I hope she can assure me on those issues in general and perhaps also give an indication about a later commencement date. I have a principled concern about section 68L(1)(g) and how it is done in any event. I hope we can at least do some damage limitation here.

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