Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent) | Oireachtas source

The Minister is very welcome to the House. I wish her and her family, including the new grandchild she had only this year, a really happy Christmas. The first Christmas is always a very special one.

I must highlight a few issues, however. Now, more than ever, is the time to invest proactively and strategically in our public services. While the nominal increase in welfare payments will no doubt be welcomed by recipients, we could see better value for money. People living in Ireland would see a greater return on public money if we prioritised large-scale investment in public services and social expenditure. The Covid-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity in this regard considering the suspension of EU fiscal rules that have long acted as barriers to large-scale public investment and social expenditure. Throughout the pandemic the need for high-quality public services has been demonstrated, but we will not see the improvements we require in our public services with short-term, budget-to-budget thinking and planning. Therefore, I ask the Government to make a genuine investment in our public services in a strategic and ambitious way.

With respect to the nominal increases in social welfare and protection payments provided for in this Bill, we need to acknowledge their true value. A €5 increase in a welfare payment is not really worth €5 in the pocket of the person who receives it. Arbitrary increases to welfare payments like this do not take full account of the impact of inflation, for example. The Parliamentary Budget Office has reported that the increase of €5 to the contributory State pension will represent a decrease of 0.5% in real terms from next year, based on an inflation forecast of 2.5%.

We ought to link social welfare payment increases to inflation, as in many OECD countries, to ensure greater equality and parity in Irish life. Additionally, while the increase in the minimum wage is to be welcomed, it is simply not enough if the living wage in Ireland is assessed as being €12.90. A living wage is a wage that makes a minimum acceptable standard of living possible. We ought to reframe how we think about the minimum wage to take account of this reality. We also need to take into account the reality that in the majority of cases, those in receipt of welfare payments and those on the minimum wage are more likely to live in rented accommodation, for example. We are aware that renters spend a far greater proportion of their income on accommodation than owner occupiers. Nominal increases to welfare and social protection payments fail to acknowledge this.The cost of rent, as we all know, is extremely high at present, which inhibits renters' ability to save, to invest and to accumulate wealth. Ultimately, all this ensures is that the disparity between the rate of return on capital and the rate of growth in the economy as a whole will continue to increase. That will see inequality become more and more pronounced in Irish society, which is a huge worry.

I did not think I had so much time. That is great, as I can talk about the PUP now. I thank the Minister and her staff for the way they have handled this situation, particularly in respect of the music and entertainment industry. I have been working very closely with the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, which is very grateful, as am I, for the respect and dignity the Minister has shown to those in the industry. She has spoken to and met them and her staff have been really helpful too. I acknowledge that. It is genuinely very much appreciated. However, I have to bring up the PUP and the anxiety that many musicians, entertainers and people working behind the scenes feel at present. The PUP has been a true lifeline, as we all know, for those who have found themselves out of work due to Covid-19. I advocated recently for the PUP to be reinstated in full for workers in the music and entertainment industry who are unable to work on account of the latest public health guidelines and guidance. It is right that those restrictions are there but the reality is so depressing. It is practically impossible for people employed in the music and entertainment industry to work in the context of the latest public health advice. I cannot stress this enough. They are not jobseekers. They have jobs, they are highly qualified for those jobs, they love their jobs and they have spent years and years working at them, more so than any person going to college. Some of these people are world-renowned, brilliant musicians. They have the jobs but they are simply unable to do them due to public health restrictions and the public health messaging.

The PUP will therefore continue to be a lifeline for people employed in the music and entertainment industries for the foreseeable future. I implore the Minister to restore the PUP to the full rate of €350 for all the workers who find themselves out of work again, who are mostly musicians and entertainers. There is the 50% capacity restriction. There are an awful lot of musicians, at a lower level, whose gigs have been cancelled and they just do not have work. It is very hard to sit in front of musicians with tears in their eyes, not knowing where they will get the money for their children's Santy presents, their mortgage repayments or their heating bills this Christmas. We should reinstate the €350 rate for all workers. It is a matter for urgency, especially as we approach Christmas. I acknowledge the Minister is keenly aware of the impact this pandemic has had on the unemployed in these industries. I ask for her continued commitment to the workers in this sector. Again, I thank her for the respect and dignity she has shown them. She has no idea what that means because they do not get the respect and dignity they deserve most of the time. That is where I struggle. They are not heard. The Minister's is probably the only Department that has really listened to them, and I thank her again for that. I wish her a very happy Christmas and thank all her staff. They are doing a phenomenal job and they are on the ball. Any time a phone call comes through, they are there and they always have the answers to the questions.


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