Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. It is great to see her here. I think she comes to the Seanad once a year and Senators usually have a list of asks for her. My asks will come at the very end of my contribution.
It is important to recognise why we have a Department of Social Protection. I will rely on statistics compiled by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. There are 630,000 people who live below the poverty line. I know it is the Minister's job and she is passionate about bringing those people above the poverty line. Almost one in four children experiences enforced deprivation. One in four primary school children did not have tools to access learning supports during Covid. That is an issue about which I am particularly passionate. I live and work in a very disadvantaged area in the constituency of Dublin South-Central. When schools closed, many children there were not able to access resources. They were not able to go online to continue their education. That was very harmful to many children. There is also the fact that lone parents are five times more likely to be working below the poverty line. There are more than 240,000 people who are unable to keep their homes warm. The Minister has already touched on that issue. There are significant social justice issues and I know that the Minister is working hard to tackle them. As Senators in partnership with her in government, I and my colleagues wish to support her in that regard.
I hope to be joined by colleagues in commending the work her Department has done across the board. As soon as Covid arrived, the Department hit the ground running and stepped up all its administration. There were no delays. Everyone who sought the PUP got it. There was no waiting six months for payment; it was just done. That has to be commended because it was a significant feat. The Department really stepped up.
In the context of the Bill before the House, as colleagues and the Minister have stated, this is the biggest budget package in the past 14 years. It is a significant Bill containing more than €600 million worth of measures. There is the €5 increase across all social welfare payments that was announced in the budget, as well as targeted measures for those living alone and the vulnerable and an increase in the fuel allowance. Some €23.3 billion will be spent on social welfare in 2022, including an €870 million budget package.
As the Minister stated, she spearheaded the change in means testing for the carer's allowance. I know that I and all my Fianna Fáil colleagues, such as Deputy Calleary and Senator Chambers, have worked with carers to try to promote and seek that amendment. It is very welcome. Many carers around the country will be included in the scheme, which is fantastic. The Minister stated that she will introduce a pension for carers, which will be welcomed. Will it be a stand-alone pension or will it be part of the whole review of the pension system? In the previous Government, we had a significant amount of debate on the new pension scheme. I ask the Minister to provide an update on that issue.
There are a few local issues I wish to raise. There are so many great things in this budget. It is a significant package. However, we only get to see the Minister once or twice a year and, as such, I have to bring up the issue of local employment services. Obviously, she is well aware of the tendering crisis. It has affected employment services for those with a disability, among others. EmployAbility in Bluebell, for instance, will not be putting its services out to tender again. This issue is affecting so many service users who have come to me. They are really disappointed. There are issues there. I have raised the matter previously in the House. I know there is a significant amount of engagement going on with service providers but, ultimately, it is the service users who are affected. I hope the impasse can be overcome. Obviously, there is the idea that the service should not be privatised. It might be necessary to consider a hybrid model where the State steps in, especially in the context of vulnerable people who have disabilities. Their access to employment should not be hampered in any way.
Under section 4, the employers' contribution rate will be cut on 28 February, from 0.5% back to the previous rate. Could that be reviewed in light of the fact that we are seeing more restrictions coming down the line and Covid has not left? Another section provides for the credit guarantee scheme to be kept open until the end of June. Perhaps the employers' contribution rate could be addressed in line with that provision. There may be something else the Minister can do in the context of extending the 0.5% PRSI contribution rate for employers because they are still very badly hit by Covid, particularly with the new restrictions. Many of those in the hospitality sector are very much still feeling the pinch.
Every year, I ask for an increase in the threshold for fuel allowance because, as many Senators are aware, if one qualifies for fuel allowance, one also qualifies for ancillary benefits such as having one's home wrapped. I know from many people to whom I have spoken that the grants available to retrofit one's house are just not there yet. I know new schemes will be made available in the new year by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I recently spoke to a person with a small house who asked a plumber whether to get a heat pump or do something else. The plumber advised that it would be far cheaper to get another gas or oil boiler. People are not there yet in terms of retrofitting their homes because, even with all the grants, it is still really expensive to do. I know there is a bigger picture of the just transition and we have to get a handle on that. If people for the fuel allowance, they get access to ancillary State supports, such as those relating to house-wrapping insulation, through local health board. In Dublin 12 in particular, a significant number of homes have been wrapped and many of the owners benefited from the supports provided.
I again thank the Minister and her Department. I admire all the work she does and the fact that she stepped in for the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. She did a great job in that term.