Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the Chamber.
For me, like others, one of the most important aspects of the Bill, that has been somewhat lost - although it has been highlighted here in recent contributions - is the provision to award credited PRSI contributions to people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. That is hugely important. Each of us, as public representatives, has tried to help people over the years navigate the myriad of the social welfare system and it can be at times quite complex. Each of us has encountered situations where people are not qualified for a support payment because of inadequate or a lack of contributions. In some cases, it can be only a matter of a handful of contributions. We have seen this, whether it be in people applying for the State pension, for illness benefit, carer's benefit and other supports, and it is important that is rectified. The contribution system works away in the background and everyone at work receives a contribution on foot of his or her paid contributions, and almost everyone who is receiving a support payment receives a credited contribution. A person's PRSI contribution, as Senators will be aware, is of vital importance. It ensures that a person receives correct social welfare support when needed. This is why section 8 of the Bill is so important. By amending the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, this Bill will protect the PRSI contribution record for everyone in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. In addition, this section will help protect jobs by significantly reducing the employer PRSI contribution to a rate of 0.5% for employers who have availed of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This scheme continues to provide vital financial assistance to businesses across the country and helps employers to keep the vital link with their staff.
The pandemic unemployment payment was introduced as an emergency measure to section 202 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005. It was the correct decision, given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 crisis and it continues to support individuals, families and households across the country. Most legislation permits emergency measures to be introduced but it is not ideal in the longer term. That is why it is important that this legislation is before the House today and that the PUP is put on a permanent footing. It is, I think, everybody's hope that the need for the PUP will diminish over the coming months and I hope that new applications will diminish because people will be getting back to work. That is what we all would hope.
The myriad of other supports and benefits which have been introduced will kick in thereafter. The existing supports, such as the temporary wage subsidy, the restart grants and the rate waivers, are all having a positive impact now on getting people back to work. New supports that will be introduced include the employment wage support scheme, the expansion of the restart grant where payments will increase to €25,000 - I welcome that as part of the July stimulus - the expansion of the commercial rates waiver, the launch of the stay and spend incentive for taxpayers spending on accommodation and dining out between October 2020 and April 2021, and the launch of the €10 million restart fund for the tourism sector.All of these are very important in getting people back to work and, therefore, in getting them off the PUP. We cannot, however, lose sight of the cost of all of these supports, including the PUP. The July jobs stimulus represents a €7.4 billion investment in our economy, which is possible because the previous Government managed the economy well and was able to balance our books. We are therefore seen as worthy of support by lenders.
The stimulus and other programmes and supports introduced since March come to a total of more than €14 billion. As borrowed money will have to be repaid, it is only right that supports and programmes, whether direct grants, payments, supports or loans, are administered carefully and with the consideration that the expenditure of public moneys requires. Part of this includes control measures and reviews to ensure that supports get to the right people or businesses at the right time. It would be reckless to not have such control measures and oversight in place.
We should be thankful that the number of persons in need of the pandemic unemployment payment continues to fall. As the other support measures I have outlined come into operation, I expect that number will continue to fall. With a bit of luck and the continued hard work of the people and medical researchers, it is to be hoped we will soon reach a stage at which the pandemic unemployment payment will not be needed at all.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister and congratulate her on her position. It is difficult and she is now managing two Departments. I wish her well over the coming years.