Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and congratulate her on her appointment. I am more than confident that she will serve her new Department with distinction, as she did her previous Department.
I also compliment the Government on the swift action it took in March in getting payments out to hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs. I concur with the Minister with regard to the huge work done by staff members who worked through weekends to ensure those payments were made. I also compliment the Leader and former Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Senator Regina Doherty.
I support the Bill. As the Minister stated, it is important to protect the position of employees in terms of their entitlements for social insurance benefits. However, I have a couple of issues. The decision to reduce the payment of some self-employed people from €350 to €200 based on the fact that they were using their 2018 accounts as their 2019 accounts were not ready seems to be an issue. Is there a proper appeals mechanism available for such persons to have the higher payment restored?
I concur with previous speakers that some businesses are struggling to get staff back to work because their wages are lower than the pandemic unemployment payment. Will the Revenue Commissioners contact employers to certify that these workers have been offered work and are not returning to work? What will happen to the payment in such cases? I also concur with the points made on payments to people working in the arts. I support action being taken on that.
I understand that for health reasons many of these payments were paid directly into bank accounts. This left us open to a large amount of fraud, with people making multiple applications and going abroad for a number of months while in receipt of the payment. The An Post network has the contract for social welfare payments. The pandemic unemployment payments were not made through An Post. The number of payments made through An Post is decreasing weekly. Some Department staff are contacting customers and urging them to switch their payments from the post office to the banks. An Post was deemed an essential service in March and stepped up to the mark by keeping its entire network open throughout the Covid pandemic, unlike a number of other institutions.At this time, there was agreement to move all payments to being biweekly. However, this is having a detrimental effect on the company and its contractors of whom I am one, with a loss of revenue through bill payments and savings bank transactions. Up to 70% of the retail income is affected within the company. If this continues, we are looking at hundreds of closures throughout the country in the near future.
With the closure of the banks, the post office is the only financial institution in many towns around the country. It is the heart of the community. The loss of the post office will affect numerous other businesses within those towns and villages due to the reduction in footfall. This is something we do not want as we try to restart and rebuild our economy.
The biweekly payment has led to increased numbers accessing the services of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations where people were unable to budget on a biweekly basis.
In short, I ask that the Department would indicate when payments, particularly pensions, - some jobseekers have gone back to a weekly basis - will return to a weekly basis. I totally understand that the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has concerns in that regard but I would like to get confirmation that this will happen in the future.
I ask also that Department officials and staff desist from using this as an opportunity to pressurise pensioners and sending out forms asking them to move their payments into the banks. What will happen in the next six to 12 months is probably the closure of half the entire An Post network. As I say, that will have a detrimental effect in every single town and village in this country.