Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I join others in welcoming the Minister to the House. I wish her well in her new role and look forward to working with her.
Notwithstanding the changes that the Minister announced in her U-turn today, the Bill leaves us with more questions than answers. I hope that she will be in a position to reply to them, which I am sure other Senators will also have. It would seem that, with no public notice she introduced SI 242 of 2020 on 12 July. The Minister might confirm whether that was actually the case. It changed the rules for the Covid-19 PUP and other unemployment payments, meaning that recipients could not take holidays abroad. As the Minister is well aware, people were previously allowed two weeks for a holiday in any calendar year without losing their entitlements to jobseeker's benefit. I appreciate that the Minister has changed her mind on this matter and is allowing people on these payments to travel to destinations on the green list, but she might confirm whether those on PUP and jobseeker's benefit will lose their entitlements if they travel to countries not on the green list. I am aware, as I am sure she is, of people travelling on, for example, compassionate grounds to non-green list countries. How will they be treated? Will she confirm the changes and explain the list of essential reasons that she mentioned? Has she a list of such reasons?
It has been confirmed to us that some 2,000 individuals have had their payments stopped in recent months, with 104 individuals having their PUP payments stopped in the past two weeks following checks at airports. I listened to the Minister for Education and Skills on "Morning Ireland" yesterday confirming after questioning that this statutory instrument was not discussed at Cabinet. I am informed that that is not unusual in the main, but will the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, confirm whether the advice of the Attorney General was sought? This is a particularly important question, given that the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, and a number of non-governmental organisations have questioned the legality of the measure. Ms Eilis Barry, the chief executive of FLAC, has asked for clarity concerning how a person who, through no fault of his or her own, must self-isolate will be treated in terms of genuinely seeking employment. The Minister might give us an answer to that.
Like many Members, I have been contacted by citizens who are worried about what is happening in the country. Many booked holidays last year when they were in employment and many have never before been in receipt of a social welfare payment in their lives.Now, through no fault of their own and because of a worldwide pandemic, their payment could, and probably will, be affected by this Bill if the destination country for their much-needed holiday is not on a green list. The Minister will be aware that the Data Protection Commissioner has asked the Department how it is getting the data to block benefit payments.
Notwithstanding what the Minister said in her opening address, some key questions are outstanding. I wish to put some of the questions asked by my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, in the Dáil last night to the Minister again today. As this is a statutory instrument based on advice from another Department, is the travel ban legal? Did the Attorney General sign off on it? Is there a change in the conditions that apply to the pandemic unemployment payment? Must people be actively seeking work since Monday when the website was changed? Was this decided in the Cabinet? Is this a new regulation? Where is the data that is being used to stop people coming from? What are the reasonable grounds that apply and why are the people who are being stopped in airports not being told that it is for social welfare purposes?
This latest mess was compounded by the Tánaiste on "The Week in Politics" programme when he said people on the PUP must be actively seeking work. This appears to have followed a change on the Government website which the Taoiseach has said will be investigated. According to stories we are hearing from around the country, there appears to be a general screening of people leaving the country. The Minister might confirm if this is the case. I refer to the case of a family who had their child benefit stopped, as outlined on the "Liveline" programme yesterday. Surely this is an excessive intervention by the State at a difficult time for everybody in the country.
Can the Minister explain how a bar worker who has worked in the trade for over 30 years since leaving school is now expected to be genuinely seeking work? That person is out of employment through no fault of their own. The PUP was, in fact, a supplementary welfare payment under the 2005 Act. If this Bill is passed by the House, it will have a statutory basis. The Bill requires that a recipient must be genuinely seeking employment. The bar worker I mentioned knows no other trade. That person, like many others, cannot work at this time. Again like many others, this person has never been in receipt of social welfare previously. We are still in the middle of the pandemic. How can the Government introduce a Bill that contains such a heavy demand on workers, who have never known unemployment in their lives, that they should now be genuinely seeking work? It does not make sense that in the middle of a worldwide pandemic the Bill contains such a demand.
I will speak to certain sections of the Bill. Section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP which has been paid as supplementary allowance or an urgent needs payment may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. What is the monetary implication of this measure for the Social Insurance Fund? There has been much talk in the Houses, and rightly so, about reducing the pension age. What are the implications for doing this of the Government using the Social Insurance Fund for this payment? Is this a raid on cash to avoid raising taxes or borrowing? Does it risk destabilising the already weakened fund? Is this a retrospective measure through the supplementary welfare allowance? If so, is this type of retrospective legislation constitutional? I seek clarity from the Minister on this point. There was due to be a hefty surplus in the Social Insurance Fund and that had been identified as a source of funding to allow for the delay in raising the pension entitlement age. Will this window of opportunity be closed now?
Section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP that has been paid as a supplementary welfare allowance or urgent needs payment may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund, but there is no link between social insurance contributions and eligibility for the PUP. For example, students would not have sufficient PRSI contributions recorded. Depleting the Social Insurance Fund surplus, especially when it is likely to come under pressure to pay insolvency and redundancy payments, does not appear to be sound public policy.
Section 9 is a technical amendment which formally identifies the new Covid-19 PUP as a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code. If the PUP becomes a social welfare entitlement based on payment of social insurance, will that change the situation for people travelling abroad? The Minister addressed that in a way today, but will she clarify if people travelling abroad to seek work or to visit family for sound medical reasons within the common travel area can be denied a social insurance related entitlement?As time passes an increased number of people who are on the PUP might go abroad to seek work. Their entitlement to a stable income must be secured.
I will conclude on two further matters. Is an appeal mechanism for the PUP included in the Bill? What mechanisms are available for people who genuinely need to appeal the non-payment of the PUP? I also wish to record my support for the Debenhams workers and their rightful demand.