Thursday, 5 February 2015
Social Welfare Code
If I had a disappointment that the Tánaiste or the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection was not here to take this motion, it has dissipated because I have never had the opportunity to have an exchange with the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.
I am asking the Minister to outline her view on whether the three-day rule to calculate availability for work under the rules for jobseeker's allowance is too restrictive and blunt an instrument for its purpose, and whether there are any plans to review this rule and the timeframe for same. As the Minister of State, no doubt, is aware, under the current rules a person who works for three full days a week is entitled to payment for two days of jobseeker's allowance whereas a person who works for one or two hours a day for five days a week is not entitled to any jobseeker's payment. Is it not reasonable and fair that a person who works eight hours a week should be considered to have worked the equivalent of a full day and is entitled to four days of jobseeker's payment?
A mother who is a leader in my community in Tallaght west contacted me on this issue. I know her personally, she is an extraordinary leader and volunteered at board level with An Cosán, the organisation in west Tallaght with which I am associated. She has been working part-time for 12 years, for nine hours a week. She was allowed to supplement her one-parent family payment with her earnings from her part-time work, but since her child is now over 18 years, she no longer qualifies for the one-parent family payment. She needed to register for the jobseeker's allowance and was initially disqualified, as many other women are, because she was working five days a week although she only worked nine hours. Her nine hours of part-time work were spread over five days. As a consequence she has had to give up her part-time work to receive jobseeker's payment. Even for one woman, that is a tragedy, not to mention the significant number of women this is impacting on now and will impact on in the future. Is this rule beneficial:? Will it help to get her into full-time employment or halt her progress towards full-time employment? I am afraid that in Ireland the three-day rule regarding part-time work simply does not correspond to the reality of people's - women's - opportunities to participate in the labour market and the characteristics of part-time work. This is largely a women's issue, though I understand it impacts on men as well.
The labour market is changing and especially women's access to employment has become more fragmented with lower pay, fewer hours and less job security, a key point made by Professor Jill Rubery at the recent ESRI Geary lecture. Many women who were previously in receipt of the one-parent family payment do not qualify now as their children are over 14 years of age and do not qualify for the payment of the jobseeker's transitional payment. There are major barriers to re-entering full-time employment after a significant period spent outside of it. There should be supports available for these women to re-access the labour market rather than restrictions to accept work. I imagine that the Tánaiste, in particular, is very keen on these issues.
I believe that part-time work provides a positive attachment to the labour market and hence should not be discouraged among long-term jobseekers who are genuinely seeking full-time employment. This is impacting on thousands of women and some men throughout the country. I would appreciate the Minister's consideration for the issue and an update if any review has taken place.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. The jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance schemes provide income support for people who have lost work and are unable to find alternative full-time employment. The 2015 Estimates for the Department of Social Protection provide for expenditure this year on the jobseekers' schemes of €3.01 billion. It is a fundamental qualifying condition of both schemes that a person must be fully unemployed for four in any period of seven consecutive days, so a person working more than three days a week will not qualify. It is recognised that a changing labour market has resulted in a move away from the more traditional work patterns, resulting in an increase in the number of persons employed for less than a full week. This is an important policy issue for the Department of Social Protection but any changes to the current criteria could have significant cost implications for the jobseeker's schemes.
In 2011, the advisory group on tax and social welfare was established to harness expert opinion and experience to address a number of specific issues around the interaction of the tax and social protection systems. The group was also tasked with examining how the social welfare system can best achieve its goals of supporting persons through periods of involuntary unemployment, while incentivising work and disincentivising welfare dependency. Subsequently the Tánaiste asked the group to broaden its remit to include issues relating to atypical working patterns. In the course of its work the group looked at the current system which, in allowing people to work on three days a week and still get welfare support, is a very significant support to the functioning of the labour market and those who work part-time.
In this area it is often argued that the schemes should move to a system where hours, half-day, income levels, or a combination thereof, are used for measuring the level of employment engaged in by scheme recipients. It is suggested that such alternative approaches have the potential to offer greater support to the small numbers of workers whom the current system cannot accommodate.
On the other hand it may be argued that if such changes increased the flexibility of the system and allowed greater levels of access to income support, counterbalancing measures would have to be introduced to protect the integrity and fiscal sustainability of the jobseeker's schemes. Such measures could have the effect of removing support from a much larger cohort of workers. For example, if the current system of allowing three days of work in any seven days were replaced by an hours-based system, then the threshold for access to the schemes could not be 24 hours as this could significantly increase claim numbers and cost. However, any move to an hours-based system with a threshold of less than 24 hours could disenfranchise claimants currently working for three days.
Another issue of note would be the effect of any change on labour market practice. The jobseeker's schemes play a very important role in supporting persons to gain a foothold in the labour market and we must ensure that any development of the system continues to support people to sustainable, full-time jobs rather than facilitating any erosion of job quality.
What a disappointment. I hear what the Minister of State has said on behalf of the Tánaiste. There are no plans to alter the schemes. I think I put my case well. Others have also put the case well. The issue is that it will cost to make a change. Yes, it probably will cost, but on the other hand, it is currently costing the State, particularly for women who are moving from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's allowance in light of other changes the Tánaiste has made.
It is important to incentivise work and there is no question about that. We do not have enough time to argue the logic of the case put forward by the Minister of State, who argued that to calculate the time at work in hours rather than days will disincentivise people to work. It really means that it might cost more because more people will access it. That is the bottom line.
I am disappointed. Having said that, is it correct that the advisory group on tax and social welfare is considering the issue and might come up with some better arguments as to why it should be calculated on the basis of hours rather than days? Perhaps it could come up with suggestions or even a special scheme to incentivise and activate women who have moved from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's allowance, so that in the case of this particular woman, there might be something for her and those in similar circumstances. At present there is nothing for them.
I certainly understand the Senator's frustration. Before I was a Member of the Dáil, we would have always argued about the inflexibility of the social welfare system. The social welfare system seems to deliver for the maximum number on its books. To be helpful to Senator Zappone, I encourage her to continue in her effort to have the staff in social welfare look at the small cohort of people who find themselves in these circumstances.
They might monitor them over their interaction with the social welfare system. In that way they could see if minor changes could be made to help such people. We may not necessarily need to make major changes to manage the small group referred to by the Senator. I would encourage the Senator to follow her conviction in this matter. She will perhaps find herself with a deal of support, so I encourage her to continue.