Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
I thank the Minister for her statement. I am disappointed with the way we are debating this legislation. The deadline for tabling amendments to the Bill was 11 hours ahead of when the debate in the Dáil concluded. That is no way for the House to conduct its business. That said, I welcome that the Minister took on board many of the concerns addressed in the amendments tabled by my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, in the Dáil last night. The Minister will notice that the same concerns are now being raised in the amendments we have tabled for tomorrow’s debate. This is because the deadline to submit amendments came before the Committee Stage debate had concluded in the Dáil. That is not the way to deal with legislation. If we want people to put work into preparing amendments, we should at least afford them the respect of being able to do that when Committee Stage has finished in the Dáil. That would give us at least the illusion that the amendments might even be given consideration.
I will focus on carers in the budget. I hope they will not have to wait another 14 years to see a change in the income disregard. I acknowledge that change was a welcome move. The State pension for family carers is most important. I ask the Minister to engage with organisations such as Family Carers Ireland to ensure family carers get a full State pension when they reach pension age. It is the very least family carers the length and breadth of this State deserve. Many of them are providing 24-7 care in their homes for loved ones. As the climate justice spokesperson for Sinn Féin, I add that caring is a low-carbon industry. We have not respected that role. We should support and extend the care economy as part of the just transition.
Nobody needs to be told that the costs of energy continue to rise. The 71% increase in the cost of heating oil means families will more than likely spend between €500 and €600 more this winter. Given that many low and middle income families have no access to the fuel allowance, we need something additional. We welcome the scheme announced by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to pay €100 to energy companies, but it will not go far enough. It will certainly not be enough for many people, especially those who are outside the income threshold for the fuel allowance. My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, spoke about the need for a discretionary fund to help working families with their bills.
We cannot just treat the symptoms of energy poverty. We need a strategy to address the problem at source. A third year has now passed where the Government has had no strategy for tackling energy poverty. It lapsed in 2019, and there does not seem to be any urgency in addressing that deficiency. Where is the new energy poverty strategy? I encourage the Minister to raise this as a matter of urgency with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform released a report in 2020 which found there was no way of assessing whether our retrofitting programmes are reducing energy poverty. If private homeowners can afford to retrofit, they can afford to pay their bills. We need to not only address retrofitting from the perspective of reducing our emissions, but also to view retrofitting as a means of lifting people out of energy poverty. I would like to hear when the Central Statistics Office will present the indicators we require to ensure these grants are targeted and will lift people out of energy poverty.
My other focus is on the Government's decision to continue to privatise local employment services, LES. The amendment we tabled in the Dáil was ruled out of order, so I will address some of the issues here. It is outrageous that people are now losing their jobs. I will read from correspondence a woman working in the Galway City Partnership sent to me and all the other Senators. It goes to the heart of the problem. She stated:
I do not want to be made redundant by the actions of ... the Department of Social Protection... . I have been working with the Galway City Partnership for 7 years and I am really worried about being made redundant in 2022 by the same Department that I have effectively been working for all these years, as it seems that those at the top of the Department ... have now deemed that we in the ... Jobs Clubs are simply surplus to their requirements.
We tabled a motion in the Dáil some weeks ago on protecting employment services from Government moves to shift to a for-profit model which threatens the existing not-for-profit and community-based employment services. These existing services are person-focused, offer wrap-around and self-referral services and have successfully been in place for up to 25 years in some cases. When I worked in Ballymun, I saw at first hand the impact these services were having on employment by working with people and getting them into jobs. What is frustrating is that the Government supported that motion, despite stating that it intends to go ahead with the tender process.
The amendments tabled in respect of this Bill were drafted in conjunction with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, which represents many of those working in local employment services. We have also engaged extensively with those working in job clubs. Members of the Fianna Fáil Party are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. In the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and in their local areas, Fianna Fáil representatives have been lamenting the dismantling of local employment services and job clubs. They are all talk because they are not doing anything about it and the tender process is going ahead.
I hope the amendments will not be ruled in order and we can debate the issue more fully tomorrow. We have tabled a range of amendments. I will not labour the points made in them because the Minister gave commitments last night during Committee Stage in the Dáil, and I look forward to holding her to them.