Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

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

 

1:00 pm

Sharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well in her portfolio. I also commend the Leader of the House, Senator Doherty, on her role within the Minister's Department during the early days of the pandemic, when there was not yet a new Government. Her leadership was very welcome at that time.

The pandemic unemployment payment is given to people who have lost their sources of income due to the economic shutdown caused by the public health measures put in place by the previous Government due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through no fault of their own, thousands of people have had to rely on quickly instituted PUP payments, which were administered at a flat rate. I welcome the attempt to put the PUP on a statutory footing. Any effort to reduce the constant state of uncertainty caused by the pandemic through clarifying matters for recipients of the payment is to be lauded.

That said, I have a number of significant concerns about the Bill. On the face of it, it appears the Government has reverted to the same old inequality by targeting those most in need. Significantly, section 11 of the Bill will provide that recipients of the payment must be seeking employment. This is nothing more than window dressing. These people had jobs that were put in hold during the Government-instituted lockdown. How can the Government ask them to go out and find other jobs? Their jobs and their normal sources of income are on hold as the country grapples with the daily reality of living through a public health crisis. Unless the Government knows something I do not, this crisis has not ended. We may not still be in total lockdown, but that does not mean we are back to business as usual. Surely, then, it cannot be reasonable to insist that PUP recipients be seeking employment.

Another troubling aspect of the wording was that it could be and was used to deny the pandemic unemployment payment to those in receipt of it if they travelled abroad. The Government has rectified that today but over the weekend, news broke of more than 100 people having lost their PUP as a result of travelling abroad over the past two weeks.While I was greatly relieved to hear the Minister confirm in the Dáil yesterday that these actions had been taken on foot of information gathered by employees of the Department, who were operating with the appropriate legal standing, in spite of reports of data potentially having been breached, I found this aspect of the Bill deeply perturbing. I question the constitutionality of any restrictions on the right to personal liberty and freedom to travel, even to outside those green-listed countries. If vital payments were to be withheld from those who wished to travel despite the Government's recommendations, let us be reminded that is what they are - recommendations. The Government was effectively banning more than 300,000 people from leaving this country on pain of loss of income. Previously, those on the jobseeker's allowance were allowed to leave the country for up to two weeks each year. That those on the PUP were not extended a similar allowance was morally dubious at best, or a violation of rights at worst. The Minister has done the right thing today. Fear is not the stick with which to beat the most vulnerable.

I admire the Minister's tenacity in dealing with fraud within the system, but it might fit the Department and An Garda Síochána better to focus on real crime such as drug criminals and their lavish lifestyle at airports, and not focus on our working class who currently cannot work due to Government regulations and businesses remain closed. Perhaps inspectors would be better off sitting outside welfare offices to see these drug-dealing mules rock up in their latest BMWs, or spending some time at the Canada Goose department of Brown Thomas where, it is evident, one will not see too many people on the PUP.

Section 7 will confirm that a self-employed contributor is entitled to claim the PUP. This is a heartening aspect of the Bill and is a vital provision for those who work in creative sectors especially, which are normally characterised by self-employment or freelancing. This, however, raises another issue. Currently, if someone takes on work, he or she will be automatically disqualified from receiving further payments. This means those who are self-employed, and who might get a day or two of work occasionally, will find themselves blocked from the PUP. Of course, a day or two of work is not likely to be sufficient to meet the person's needs. The Department seems to be wilfully ignoring the fact that our economy is restarting after a massive upheaval and there will not be a full return to employment for some time. This means a large number of people on the PUP will have a choice either to lose opportunities to work for pay, or to lose out on the PUP. Surely the Minister can find some way to work in a provision to mitigate such cases.

I agree with Senator O'Loughlin on the issue of those over the age of 66. There is a failure in the Bill to address their needs. They are completely absent. If the payment could be made even to those people, it would be greatly appreciated.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves require flexibility and understanding. I am pleased that attempts have been made to move forward and to establish a level of cohesion and certainty that were lacking worldwide in recent months. We can, however, do better than the Bill in its current form. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the amendments put forward so that the best possible outcome can be achieved for the citizens who rely on it.

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