Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
As always, the Minister is welcome to the Chamber. She is heading up a Department known as "Social Protection", with the idea being that we protect our people at a time in their lives when they need us. Thousands of people never thought they would have to engage actively with the Department during their healthy working lives until 18 months ago when they were let go from work because of the pandemic. They engaged with the Department and were supported. That happened because we as a nation believe in looking after people when they need support. That was never more evident when the pandemic hit and continues to be the case.
Support would not have been possible if we did not have a healthy and vibrant economy with prudent management of the budget over many years. In 2010 and 2011, our country was on its knees. Had the Government not been prudent in its economic management or had it been reckless in how it handled revenues, we would not have been in a position to step in and support people at the beginning of the pandemic. I spoke to someone who was in business on one of the Canary Islands but who got precious little support when the pandemic hit. We need to reflect on what our values as a society are. Those values are demonstrated through the Minister's Department.
I remember having a number of discussions with the Tánaiste, our party leader, when he was in the Department - those discussions have continued with the current Minister - about the welfare trap that people with disabilities fall into whereby if they are offered short-term contracts or part-time employment, they are reluctant to take it up because they would not only lose their social welfare payments, but also their ancillary benefits, for example, medical cards. This issue has been addressed and we are in a better position now than we were five years ago.
What I like about the Minister's management style in the Department is that it is a down to earth, commonsensical, practical approach. It manifested itself in the case of a person with a disability on Achill Island who had an opportunity to do a PhD but who would lose benefits upon taking up the course. The Minister took a practical approach to resolving the situation. Thankfully, that person and many more like that person will have the opportunity to go on to third level, become qualified and eventually step away from the Department and contribute to it instead of benefiting from it.
Regarding people with disabilities, the main challenge facing the country is the number of people who still rely on benefits from the Department. Unfortunately, 83% of blind or visually impaired people are reliant on welfare. This means that only 17% are gainfully employed and contributing to that support. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland produced an interesting report on employment opportunities, and the lack thereof, for blind or visually impaired people. The Tánaiste launched that report approximately three weeks ago. It makes some practical and commonsensical suggestions. For example, an adaptation grant is available from the Department to assist people who wish to take up employment but need a screen reader or some other piece of technology. Unfortunately, it is the employer that applies for the grant, so if the person decides to move on to another job, that piece of equipment does not follow him or her. A simple change could be made whereby the person would apply for the grant and get the piece of equipment so that, if he or she moved from one company to another, the equipment would follow. Many commonsensical decisions that would make a significant difference could be taken. The report is worth reading. Some of the Minister's officials have had sight of it and the Tánaiste has read it in detail. Perhaps a small working group involving the Departments of the Minister and the Tánaiste could iron out some of the issues, make the situation simpler and more straightforward, and result in more people becoming contributors to the Department of Social Protection as opposed to beneficiaries of it.