Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 April 2004

2:00 am

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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It is good to see the Minister for social welfare with us again. God help us and protect us if the poor in our society must depend on a Progressive Democrats Minister of State with responsibility for social welfare.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I do not need such backhanded compliments.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I am delighted the Minister of State accepted that as a compliment.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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We now have the wherewithal to pay social welfare, if the Senator wants to raise that issue. I can make comparisons with the social welfare rates when Fine Gael was in Government.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I am not sure whether the Minister of State is entitled to intervene at this stage, as he is not a Member of the House.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I do not like being insulted in that fashion.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I would have expected, given the importance of this issue, to see the relevant Minister, who has an intricate knowledge of this matter, as opposed to someone who comes in to read a script. We have raised this matter in the past and will continue to do so, despite the rather flippant and arrogant comments I have received to date from those on the other side.

We heard about the Government's U-turn on widows' social welfare benefits yesterday. I now ask it to do a U-turn on the treatment of school wardens. The problem that affects school wardens, who do a terrific job at our schools ensuring that children cross the road safely, is that they are effectively seasonal or temporary workers. Matters have been made more difficult as a result of a circular issued by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs at the start of the year. School wardens did not receive any social welfare payment, as they had previously, at the last mid-term break. When they queried this with the Department of Social and Family Affairs, they were told that eight and a half accrued holiday days must be used up before they were entitled to this benefit. This had never happened before. It is the result of a bureaucratic mindset in the Department and directly affects those, mostly women, who are doing very important work in this low-paid job.

Previously, the recipients were entitled to have all their holiday days approved and to receive them in July when the school term was over. Most school wardens received some form of unemployment benefit in the fourth week of the summer break. The arrangements that were put in place by local authorities for school wardens varied from one area to another. I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs paragraph 20 of section 3 of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, which states categorically that favourable arrangements with school wardens and local authorities could be put in place in respect of annual leave. Paragraph 19 of the same section gives an undertaking to employees that they have a right to an unbroken period of two weeks' annual leave.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has stated that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, and her Department have misinterpreted the Act, in that this group of workers has no comparable status with other groups of workers within the economy. School wardens are unique; they are not employed by the school system but directly by local authorities. Consequently, when they cannot work because of breaks in the school year, they cannot receive the social welfare benefits to which they were previously entitled. These workers are frustrated. They feel they have been very badly treated and, thus, they are asking the Government to re-examine the matter.

The new circular, which was introduced in January this year, has had a detrimental effect on school wardens. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, and her Department, should respond to the representations they have received to date. This matter has already been raised in the Lower House by way of parliamentary questions. The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 allows for flexibility between local authorities and school wardens. I would appreciate a positive reply in respect of this matter.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I have been requested by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, to deal with this matter on the Adjournment. I am glad of the opportunity to clarify the issue. The position is that school wardens employed by local authorities can — and do — obtain employment payments from the Department of Social and Family Affairs when they are out of work. Unemployment payments are made in these cases on exactly the same basis that applies to all other seasonal workers.

Social welfare legislation provides for the payment of unemployment benefit in respect of days of unemployment. Any day on which a person either receives or has an entitlement to holiday pay is not regarded as a day of unemployment and a person has no entitlement to unemployment benefit in respect of that day.

With the exception of people in school-related employment, people in seasonal, term or limited contract employment who claimed unemployment benefit, have always had to supply details of all holiday pay entitlements due during each temporary lay-off period. Unemployment benefit is not paid in respect of any day for which there is an entitlement to holiday pay.

These long-standing arrangements were extended to people in school-related employment in 2003, following the application of theProtection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 in their case. The new procedures are designed to ensure that all persons on temporary lay-off from their employment are treated in a similar manner.

Full details of holiday pay entitlements must be provided in respect of each school vacation period, so that the level of entitlement, if any, can be determined. A person can only have an entitlement to unemployment benefit for any day of unemployment which forms part of a period of interruption of employment — that is, where he or she is fully unemployed for a period of at least three days in any period of six consecutive days. In addition, payment of unemployment benefit is not made for the first three days of unemployment, which are known as waiting days. However, where a person had a recent claim in respect of certain schemes, payment may be made from the first day of the claim.

The position is, therefore, that unemployment benefit is payable to people who are laid off from school-related employment, on the same basis that applies to people in all other seasonal, term or limited contract employment. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has requested the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to advise all local authorities of this change in procedure, which brings the treatment of school wardens into line with that of all other people in seasonal employment.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs has specifically asked that local authorities be advised of the implications for those school wardens who, by arrangement with some local authorities, receive their holiday pay entitlements by way of a lump sum payment at the end of the school year.