Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. As mentioned in the Dáil, the Labour Party welcomes and will support the Social Welfare Bill 2021. For many, social welfare benefits will be the only source of income. This important legislation will result in an additional €558 million in 2022, as the Minister mentioned. This is very welcome for so many people.

Like other speakers, I want to mention local employment and the contracts. The Minister will be aware that I raised this issue with her and officials from the Department at meetings of the social protection committee. Unfortunately, the Labour Party amendments that would have postponed the new tenders were not allowed in the Lower House yesterday. I ask the Minister to reconsider the Department’s position. I am sure that she, like me, is aware of the decades of service that local employment agencies have given to their communities. She is also aware of the strike action by SIPTU members in local employment services in Laois and Offaly. Employees do not really know what their future holds. Local employment services have been good to our communities. We should continue to recognise their experience and support them by postponing any tender process and allowing them to continue doing the great job they do on behalf of us all.

On 21 October this year, along with colleagues, I introduced the Social Welfare (Surviving Cohabitant’s Pension) Bill 2021 in this House. We are all very aware that the concept of family has changed and that it is time to bring this State into the 21st century. Ireland needs to treat all its families, no matter what their make-up, fairly and in the same way. The 2016 census showed that there are over 75,000 cohabiting couples in Ireland with child dependants, a figure that is likely to be even greater at the time of the next census. If a couple is cohabiting, the Department of Social Protection assesses the means of both members when carrying out a means test for social assistance payments such as the jobseeker’s allowance or the carer’s allowance. It does not provide any guarantee regarding contributory social protection payments, such as the widow’s or widower’s pension that is payable when one member of the couple passes away.

Our Bill sought to address this. My party colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, moved an amendment last night in the Dáil to address this also. Cohabiting has far-reaching impacts on many payments and State supports, not just social welfare payments. In this regard, consider the impact regarding medical cards and mature students going back to college. There are many more examples.

Members of a cohabiting couple cannot claim or transfer unused tax credits between themselves, and there can be an inheritance tax burden when a partner dies. For the assessment of eligibility for social welfare payments, members of a cohabiting couple are treated together for income assessment, in the same way as a married couple is treated, but not if one of them passes away. It is time that the law caught up with modern family life. I acknowledge that the Minister committed to preparing a report on this important matter last night. I believe the changes in our laws will have a positive impact on so many. I and others in the Labour Party look forward to working with the Minister to make those changes and to making the State a place where all families are treated equally.

Later tonight, we will have statements on the live music and entertainment industry. The reintroduction of the PUP is very welcome. In December 2020 the Minister increased the threshold for the self-employed, who can now earn up to €960 over an eight-week period while retaining the full PUP entitlement. This was an increase of €480 over the previous amount. This was widely welcomed by so many at the time. The Department described this as a new measure that allows a self-employed person to take on intermittent jobs or one-off gigs without losing the entitlement to the PUP. The problem for so many in the live music industry, particularly those who find themselves on the lower rates of the PUP, is that there are no one-off gigs or intermittent jobs. They have no additional income and they and their families are suffering. On behalf of so many, I ask the Minister to consider the rate of the PUP for all involved in this regard. It would mean so much to so many, particularly at this important time. Christmas will be hard on the entertainment industry this year. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. Colleagues will be calling for this later tonight, but seeing as we have the Minister in the House now, it is important to address the issue with her.

I want to move on to the subject of carers. The Minister will know that I have raised this with her on so many occasions. I acknowledge the means-test increase introduced in the budget. It is very important to so many people, as the Minister said. I welcome the Minister’s commitment that she will consider providing carers with a pension. That is an important statement by her and her Department. I look forward to working with her on it.

I acknowledge the fantastic work that carers do on a 24–7 basis. Unfortunately, there are still many who do not meet the means-test criteria who are not getting a financial reward from the State. They should. We should be considering this. We need to examine it again. I look forward to working with the Minister on this to the benefit of all those carers who, unfortunately, are not getting the just reward that I and many others believe they should be getting.

The Minister said the measure in section 17 was not announced on budget day. It relates to the designation of a substitute to deputise for the chief appeals officer. Through my office, I am hearing about delays that are affecting several appeals. I welcome the proposal in the Bill. How will it affect the day-to-day running of the social welfare appeals office? What sorts of waiting time reductions will be experienced by those who are waiting on the results of appeals? Like colleagues, I am aware of several appeals that have taken months or, unfortunately, a little longer. I hope the new section 17 in the Bill, which I hope will be accepted, will reduce the waiting times. For so many, the waiting period is too long. I realise the Minister has acknowledged that in contributions and in discussions I have had with her, but she might tell us what she hopes the new section will mean for those waiting on appeals.

I acknowledge the Minister’s staff and all the staff in her Department. Through my office, I am in daily contact with her staff, be they community welfare officers, local staff in the offices in Athy and Newbridge or those who help us with our queries over the Oireachtas lines. At all times they have been very helpful and have quickly and efficiently dealt with my many queries, particularly in these very difficult times. I thank the Minister. If she could pass on my gratitude to her staff, it would be most welcome.


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