Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak on the proposed amendments. The ignorance across the board as to how the North is actually governed is somewhat shocking. I am really shocked that the Minister does not even know the currency we use in the North. We use sterling.
She referred to euro amounts on several occasions. She should also know that, unfortunately, the British Government sets the rates, much to my pain. If we continue the conversation about the need for the long-overdue reunification of this country, that will be sorted in the future. The ignorance in this Chamber is startling. It scares me but it does not surprise me.
It does not surprise me that these frontier workers were forgotten about when the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment came into existence. One could cut the Minister in place at the time some slack because we were trying to move at a fast pace. However, it was noted at a very early stage that these workers were being mistreated under the terms of the supplementary welfare payment. There has been plenty of time and scope for the Government here to consider these workers who have been making contributions.
There are 30,000 cross-Border workers throughout this island. Tens of thousands of them have been paying into this State's Exchequer for many years. There were conversations between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and Conor Murphy, MLA. We were told that all of these things were under active consideration. They have not been considered, or if they have been considered they have been denied again. I will say it again. It was within the gift of this Government to make payments to these workers who have been paying into this State's coffers. They have not been paying into the North.These people are actually being discriminated against twice. There is double taxation because they pay into this State and then have to pay again in the North. They then have to try to claim from the British Exchequer for the British model, particularly self-employed people who have to show their books and their profits based on what they actually achieve in the North when, in fact, most of their payments are made down here. The British Government then looks at those workers, particularly the self-employed and sole traders, who seemingly have a small margin of profit. When they are asked to present into the British Government scheme they look as though they are earning a lot less and, therefore, the British Government gives them less again.
These workers are falling between stools all over the place and this has been well documented. We said this to the Leader of the House beforehand and we asked her to look at this. We were given assurances they were going to be considered. Now we are back to the same rhetoric that Sinn Féin is in government in the North and why do we not sort it out. I put it to the Minister that there is a North-South Ministerial Council meeting tomorrow. Is it on the agenda for discussion? If it is not, can it be put on the agenda for discussion? I make the point again that it is not the Department in the North, unfortunately, but the British Government that collects taxes from the people of the North and it is the British Government that shamefully put forward propositions on what is acceptable or not for residents in the North.
I put this back onto the Irish Government. It has a responsibility. It has been taking taxes off these people every week for decades and there is a responsibility on it to try to look at it. At one stage, I would have accepted a bespoke model or a bespoke arrangement for these workers but there would have been no need for a bespoke arrangement had the Government decided on this occasion to look at these workers in the way they should have been looked at. I am hugely and deeply disappointed that the Government has chosen not to do so.
I regret that the amendments tabled by Senator McCallion were not allowed. It would have been a constructive and important debate, especially when we think of those employers based here who have employees based in Northern Ireland and some of those who are self-employed and have their centre of operations here but are resident in Northern Ireland. They are effectively excluded. These are valid concerns and we need to have a more detailed debate on this issue even if it is not possible on this section.
I want to highlight several other issues regarding section 8 that I hope the Minister in her response might be able to address. There is much to welcome in the Bill and I recognise this but there are concerns that we need to address. One of the aspects I very much welcome is the attribution of contributions. It is very important so we do not have a knock-on effect down the line in terms of pension entitlements and other entitlements. It is a very positive measure. I have a little bit of concern about the new section 38E(3), which suggests the Minister might prescribe the maximum number of contribution weeks in respect of which employment contributions might have been deemed. Will the Minister give clarity or reassurance that the maximum is not anticipated to be set at too low a level? I want to make sure people do not get a contribution record that is much less than the number of weeks deemed. I know this is not the intent, and that is clear, but perhaps the Minister will confirm this for us.
Section 38F, which will be introduced by section 8 of the Bill, is about the exchange of information. Again, it is important that we get this right. It states there will be an exchange of information between the Minister and the Revenue Commissioners.Strictly speaking, there is a third party with which information will be exchanged, as it will be between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. That question of the exchange of information has a wider issue, which is something the Minister has inherited and it was not created by her. There is an ongoing issue with a set of concerns the Data Protection Commissioner has had about the single customer view data set. This is a set of data accessible by a large number of bodies and not simply by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection officials themselves. This is the question I had about information that might get shared with the Department. We will have a chance to debate this further later, but it is an extension beyond appropriateness and any precedent to ask that people inform the Department every time they legitimately leave the State in a way that is compliant with the law. Will the information being sought under this section or other information also go into the single customer view data set or the exchange of information? There is a lack of clarity on this.
I want to add an important reminder to try to avoid the types of unforeseen consequences not simply of this week but that we saw in the previous term. Notwithstanding section 38F, which will allow for the transfer of information, the requirements of necessity and proportionality still apply and it will be important that they will be used with regard to the information, that this will not be a blanket permission and that it will cover only such information as is necessary and proportionate. It would have been good if this had been stated in the section. It would be useful but perhaps the Minister will confirm this.
It will only be information that is necessary and proportionate that we will look for. That is for sure. People will get their paid contributions for the full duration of the time they are on the pandemic unemployment payment. There is no doubt about that. The legislation does allow us to share information with Revenue. We have to do this. What I meant was that we will not share information with anybody else. My officials assure me we do not share information with any other agency, such as the Dublin Airport Authority, or anybody else. I listed them earlier and I want to be clear on this.
To go back to the payment and cross-Border workers, I am very familiar with the cross-Border workers because I know many of them who have contacted my office. I did look at this to see whether there was anything we could do to give them a payment because they were working in Monaghan and living in Armagh. I spoke to them. There is no way under the rules we have, which are set there for frontier workers, that they are eligible to get the payment. However, they are eligible to get the wage subsidy scheme. For example, the employer of people working in a factory in Monaghan and living in Armagh was able to claim the wage subsidy scheme for them and make sure they stayed on the books of that particular business during the lockdown. People who work in Northern Ireland and live south of the Border in Monaghan are entitled to the full pandemic unemployment payment. What is gained on one side is lost on the other and vice versa. This has always been the case when people live on the Border. Those are the rules as they are. Anybody living in Monaghan, Cavan or Donegal and working in the North gets the full unemployment payment.
Will the Minister check this information? The information we obtained from the European Commission two weeks ago states very clearly it is within the gift of the member state to make the payment. I ask the officials to look at this again. Certainly as far as Europe is concerned, if there were a willingness from the Government to make a payment, it would have no issue with it. What seems to be obvious to me at this stage, unless the Minister is getting the wrong advice, is that the Government is choosing not to make the payment.
If there is anyone who could make it happen I would be happy to do so. I will have my officials look at it again. I have been told that it could not happen and I have been up and down the road with this. Believe you me I would like to see some people I know who are working in Monaghan and living in Northern Ireland getting the payment too. The fact is that it could not be done, which is the information that I have, but I will certainly look at it again.
In order that the matter is not closed off, if it is the case that what I am saying is correct, can we then look at some sort of regulation that can be brought in after the legislation is passed to ensure that these people actually get a payment?
I move amendment No. 5.
In page 9, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:“(6) The Minister shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare a report to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas considering steps which might be taken to—(a) ensure persons in receipt of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment on or before April 2021 have voluntary access to a range
of education, training and employment opportunities, and
(b) ensure that, for no period in the 24 months following initial receipt of that payment, are the educational, training and employment opportunities available to an
individual limited to those provided by Jobpath.”.
I also want to raise some issues on this section. We have heard much discussion on unforeseen consequences and having to roll back and change things. There is the potential to avoid a number of unforeseen consequences, and consequences that are being foreseen because people are raising concerns about them now and raised them in the Dáil yesterday, if section 11 of the Bill was not commenced until 10 August. This is something that is at the Minister’s discretion as she can choose the commencement date in respect of different sections of the Bill. If she were to choose to wait until after 10 August in respect of the commencement of section 11 she could avoid a number of unnecessary ambiguities and anxieties for many people in many sectors.
To clarify, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, can we have a separate opportunity to speak to this section after having discussed the amendments?
I will deal with this point somewhat further when speak to the to this section.
On amendment No. 5, I regret the fact that amendment No. 4 which related to persons on maternity leave was ruled out of order and I call for further action on this. I hope that we can discuss and engage with that in the other social welfare Bill that is coming in September or October. This will be a chance to increase the amount of paid and unpaid parental leave that is available to people. We know that many people whose maternity leave has expired had to proceed immediately to use up what would normally be a few years supply of parental leave, something that might have been spread over many years and is something that is happening now all at once. We are going to have a situation where many families have used up both maternity and parental leave by September or October. I am hoping that we may be able to discuss that in the next social welfare Bill even though it was not deemed acceptable to be debated in this Bill.
Amendment No.5 engages with the questions of what supports are offered to persons on the pandemic unemployment payment. We know there is an issue that many of those on this payment effectively consider themselves as having a relevant employment and employer. They regard themselves as having been furloughed from the work that they already do, for example, in respect of pubs but also the arts sector, coaches, and many areas and sectors where activity has ceased as part of our collective Covid-19 solidarity. Many people do not regard themselves as searching but are in a sector, in a relevant area and have work that they want to do in that area; they have a very specific employer that they intend to return to. That is why if we delay commencement until 10 August, when many more of these sectors open up, we can keep that continuity of relationship in a clearer way for somebody who, for example, was either the owner of the pub - as some self-employed persons are affected and impacted by this and employing others - or indeed employees of a business that has gone into suspension.If we delay commencement until 10 August, there will be clear continuity and no sense of an ambiguous week in which is a person is seeking but unable to obtain employment, as stated in subsection (1)(g), which refers to a person who is "genuinely seeking, but is unable to obtain, employment". That is the crucial link and it must be borne in mind that the entire logic behind the wage subsidy scheme and this scheme was the idea that we want to keep these threads that hold the fabric of society together and maintain a clear relationship, where one exists, between an employment and an employee. We want to have that sustained. A delayed commencement would allow those who started receiving this payment in March to walk into the pub they may have worked in for ten or 20 years when it reopens on 10 August. They would not have this strange five or six days on their record where the State has recorded them as being genuinely seeking but unable to obtain work. This is a very simple fix for the Minister. She does not even have to accept my amendments today but she can address this issue.
The reason this is relevant is that for some people, despite the best intentions, the job they previously left may be gone. These people may be looking for work in the same sector and that is what this amendment deals with. I recognise that not everybody will return to the same job. In such circumstances, it is very important that everybody is given the full range of educational, training and employment supports and that these are relevant to them. If they are working in the arts, they need training, education and supports that are relevant to their work in the arts sector. It needs to be the proper kind of casework and it needs to be tailored to give that individual the best opportunities. That means having all of those options available.
Looking a few months ahead, I am little concern about the danger that persons who have been unemployed since March will, come next March, find themselves technically long-term unemployed when, in fact, the sector they were in has only been operating again for a few months. I am concerned that these people could be routed into JobPath and, as a result, other options could be closed off to them. That is an issue that arose again and again on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection of which I was a member in previous term. We hear about people who knew of a training programme, back-to-education scheme or college course that was relevant to their skill set and would carry them forward, but they were unable to take it up because of an accident of timing. People who may have had their eye on a scheme or college course starting in September 2021 may have been placed on JobPath in June 2021 and told they would have to take a job, almost any job. That is a concern.
I am trying to ensure that we give that 24 months of the full range of options to everybody affected by this payment and we just do not route or relocate them to other sectors. It is better, where possible, that people are routed to employment, retraining or new educational opportunities in the sector that is relevant to them. That has to be the first call and first stop. I am hoping the Minister can give us a sense of that. Perhaps she might be able to address this amendment in the social welfare Bill in the autumn, even if she cannot accept it today.
I will not add a great deal because Senator Higgins has touched on many of the points I had intended raising, notably the back-to-education issue. It is very welcome that the Department has indicated the pandemic unemployment payment can be part of a social welfare payment that can lead back to education. However, the fear is that we are moving into a space where many of the deadlines have already passed for people who may have decided to review their lives.These people may be rethinking how they work, as they may no longer wish to work in a pub or hairdressers or anywhere they feel their skills cannot be transferred. Due to the pandemic they may be looking to upskill, retrain and move into different sectors or get a primary or master's degree. Unfortunately, for many such people, some deadlines have passed and they will have to put off returning to education until next year.
Is there a category for those people who have been in long-term employment but who ended up on the PUP in order that they are not framed as long-term unemployed, and therefore, pointed to the likes of JobPath, which may prevent them from accessing back-to-education supports next year? Is there a new way we can categorise people who are now unemployed because of the pandemic but who are not naturally in the cohort of long-term unemployed? I wonder how we can capture them so that when the CAO process begins next February, they can be seen as a different category of people.
I support this section as well but I highlight the matter of people under 18 in apprenticeships. They could not access any payment during the pandemic. I do not know if this is something the Minister can examine. Some of these kids leave school at 16, perhaps with a junior certificate, and they get an apprenticeship. I know a number of young people in my area who were successful in getting apprenticeships with my help. They are in their second year of that but they could not get anything because they are under 18. Perhaps the Minister could examine that.
I am sorry but I forgot to answer one of Senator Ruane's previous questions. The working family payment continues to be paid in conjunction with the Covid-19 provisions. A date and time had to be picked if a person was in employment on or after 13 March, whether employed or self-employed, and the Covid-19 payment was then made.
I note the Senator's comments on getting people back to education. I do not know how that can be sorted. I will speak to my officials about it and I take the point she makes. People do not want to be categorised as the long-term unemployed. The Minister with responsibility for higher education, research, innovation and science, Deputy Simon Harris, and I announced a €200 million package as part of the Government's July stimulus package, and that is all about getting people back to work. I take the Senator's point that this is not about having any old job but rather having a job that somebody wants to do. Many people want to stay in the arts sector, for example, and they might not want to move to other areas. It is understandable.
We will expand the use of local employment services, including job clubs and JobPath. We will increase the number of employment service staff within the Department and expand the youth employment support scheme to increase the number of places and widen the eligibility criteria so more people can avail of work placement. We will expand JobsPlus so there will be a subsidy for employers of either €7,500 or €10,000 to take somebody from the live register. We will increase the age from 25 to 30, as per the EU definition of youth age, which is now 29.
We are also providing training grant schemes, back-to-enterprise allowances and a back-to-education allowance. We will increase the number of places on community employment schemes. I know the Leas-Chathaoirleach mentioned those earlier. They play a very important role. We will increase the number of places for Tús and we discussed the employment support grant earlier. On top of that, there will be 80,000 places for the likes of apprenticeships and courses in institutes of further education split between my Department and the Department with responsibility for higher education, research, innovation and science. There will be 45,000 places offered by one Department, with 35,000 places offered by the other Department.
I know the amendment seeks a report but the measure of our success will be how many people we get back to work.It is about getting them the right skills and jobs. It is also about getting them jobs they want and enjoy as well. I take on board the Senators' points.
What about the people under 18 who are apprentices? They could not access any money. They were not seeking the full pandemic unemployment payment but is there anything to encourage these young people to keep working and engaged with working society?
I have a query about the community employment schemes, which the Minister mentioned. I know my local scheme is struggling to get people to fill positions when others leave. Only recently, two people who turned 60 on a scheme received a letter and have seen their participation discontinued. I thought there was to be an extension so somebody over a certain age could serve up to five years on the scheme. These people were sent a letter indicating they cannot stay on the scheme. There are three positions now on the scheme that we cannot fill. Will the Minister look at the issue?
I have a couple of matters to raise. The problem is not so much whether people are long-term unemployed but rather how we have been treating the long-term unemployed with the JobPath scheme. I am sure as the Minister enters her brief she will look back and see the litany of testimony from the social protection committee around the concerns arising from a narrowing of options associated with JobPath. The concern is not so much the categorisation but rather the limitation of options associated with the operation of JobPath to date.
With respect, I suggest a measure of success will not simply be how many people are back in employment but rather how many people are back in employment, in education and in training. We know a simple "work first" approach often leads people to a cycle where they come back to the system again and again, whereas sometimes an educational intervention is what can give a person a long-term route. I really encourage the Minister to have this as an ambition for the Department. In fairness, the former Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, moved some of the thinking in the Department towards the idea that sometimes, "education first" is right. It is important to maintain it.
Before becoming a Senator I worked with young unemployed people in rural Ireland. Something we pushed for many years at the time was the idea of a rural youth guarantee, so we should examine how the youth guarantee scheme works for young unemployed people in rural Ireland. There is an extra set of issues in this regard. The Minister mentioned some of the measures associated with the Youth Guarantee and it would be very good to have some of those measures addressing the rural context as well.
There is potential for us to constructively engage on the amendment, although I will not press it. I will press an amendment later. I hope we will have an opportunity to engage around the full range of opportunities. Perhaps it is something we can look at in advance of the social welfare Bill in the autumn. I will speak to the section after the Minister's reply.
The greatest number of requests I have had since becoming Minister relate to community employment schemes. There are always cases where people want to stay on community employment schemes and I understand the reasons. If everybody stayed on them, however, there would be no space for new people. The scheme is meant to allow people to get back to the workforce and into full employment. Having said that, I know some people are doing absolutely wonderful and valuable work through the scheme in communities right across the country. We changed the scheme so there are now certain exceptions applying to people over 55 and 62. It is possible the people referred to by the Senator are not in the right category.I will look at the matter and we will be looking at the community employment schemes. I take the Senator's point that it is hard to get people to go on community employment schemes but unfortunately, as we come out of Covid, that may no longer be the case. It is about getting the balance right on the schemes. I will continue to work on this matter.
People have also been in contact with me regarding community employment schemes. It is hard to believe that only a few months ago we were talking about full employment and labour activation schemes for women who may have chosen to rear their children and for whom it is difficult to get back into the workplace. The former Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, was working on returnships. Community employment schemes are for people on the live register. They are not for women who may have chosen to be at home for a period of time and are not on jobseeker's allowance. However, such women, who would have reared their children in the area, are perfect for a community centre. The community centres I deal with have stated that they would love to have mothers work for them, but they could not get them and could not get people when we were at full employment. I ask the Minister to look at that specifically and allow women returners to work not just in corporate returnships but in their communities where they might be comfortable for a year.
I welcome the Minister's acknowledgment of the great work community employment schemes do, but the rural social scheme plays an important part in rural Ireland as well. Does the Government have plans to extend that scheme? I had a meeting the other day with the County Kildare Leader Partnership, which had been asked about this matter. I think the Minister also said she was hoping to expand the Tús scheme and create additional places. I ask her to confirm that for us.
The Minister is aware from the debate in the Dáil of the serious concerns people have about this section and specifically the provision which has been inserted as part of the new section 68L(1)(g). The subsection requires that someone be genuinely seeking but "unable to obtain employment suitable for him or her, having regard to his or her age, physique, education, normal occupation, place of residence and family circumstance". A number of problems and questions arise from that provision. Serious concerns are being widely expressed by persons who believed they had been on furlough. This Bill would effectively switch their payment to a jobseeker's payment, which it was not. It was previously an income support payment as part of a solidarity effort. They are very different things and this is a switch in purpose and requirements. It was unhelpful that the former Minister for Social Protection, the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, inaccurately stated at the weekend that people were required to be seeking work when they were not. That was not the law and that was not what the payment was for. That led to a huge amount of inaccuracy and it was unfortunate that the gov.iewebsite echoed that inaccurate information. This is a real concern and people are worried. Many people who are on this payment, some whom are on such a payment for the first time in their lives, are very concerned that the rules might just change at any time, whenever a Minister says anything.This section would place that requirement into law, and there are a number of problems with that. What does it mean for those who are furloughed from a specific employer within a sector that has been asked to suspend activities? This does not apply only to pubs but to coaches and much of the arts and entertainment industry. Many aspects of the economy and society are either still in suspension or are not functioning at full capacity.
When I spoke to my amendment earlier, I asked what this section will mean for the relationship between an existing employer and a former employee who is on the pandemic unemployment payment, and that question has not been answered. The workplace subsidy scheme has been used for businesses that have been proceeding in their work and the State has subsidised them. Many people on the pandemic unemployment payment have a very direct relationship with their employer. Some of them are the employer, because many people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment are self-employed persons who run a business and who have a number of people depending on them. We have had messages about people running nightclubs and so on. Will they now be categorised as seeking work and unable to obtain it? What does that mean for their employees, who might also be on the same payment? There is so much ambiguity about this.
Some people already have plans to walk back into their pubs on 10 August. It is not just young people and teenagers who work in pubs. Many people in rural Ireland work in a pub for 20 years or 30 years, and some of them are linchpins of society. People work in pubs in the long term. If this Bill goes through today and continues its journey into law, there will be a five-day period during which the State records such people as not having an active link with that employment, but as genuinely seeking and unable to obtain employment. They will not be considered to be in employment and will not have a link with that employer. Ambiguity has been created around this issue. While a delayed commencement to 10 August would not solve all these issues and there would still be huge problems with the Bill, it would mean a certain proportion of the relevant businesses and employers would be allowed to open, because many of them currently cannot. Many of them would like to start work tomorrow and tell their staff they do not have to go on this new Covid pandemic unemployment payment and can start work from 2 August, but they cannot. They are not allowed because their sector or business is not allowed to open until 10 August. A very messy situation has been created which will be difficult and distressing for thousands of individuals. The Minister could simply address this by delaying the commencement of this section until 10 August, which would delay some of the potential negative impact.
The other thing that happens on 10 August is that redundancy rules come back into play. Redundancy has been suspended during the pandemic, as part of the philosophy put forward by the Government and supported by everybody. We talk about solidarity and working, and we in the Opposition have worked constructively with the Government. Those of us who were outgoing Senators were recalled and we came back and helped the Government pass necessary legislation. Everybody worked constructively in the national interest in that period. One of our key principles was keeping the connections between employers and employees and as part of that, redundancy was suspended. Under that principle, we did not want employers prematurely making people redundant, as we do not want to prematurely break the link between employers and employees. I simply ask that this Bill be in tune with such principles.The redundancy issues raises some questions. I hope the Minister will be able to give some clarity on this. If somebody is moved on to this payment, is registered as not having employment officially and is seeking employment, what will that mean for that person's continuity of employment in respect of workplace entitlements? If somebody was doing a job before March, went on this payment and goes back into that job on 10 August, what does this payment mean for that person's continuity of service? What does it mean for his or her entitlements to redundancy? I accept that after 10 August such persons will have a right in respect of redundancy, but I need clarity. In the other House, the Minister noted that it would not affect an individual's rights in respect of redundancy. I want to know that it will not affect the level of payment, the level of entitlement and the level of redundancy persons would expect.
There are requirements, including, for example, that people need to file within a month. The 2003 Act provides for certain breaks in employment, but we do not have in this legislation or through statutory instrument clarity as to whether five days or one week would be registered as a break in employment when it comes to lump sum redundancy payments or other redundancy entitlements. I would be delighted if the Minister could assure me that this will not have any impact, but I know that people have real concerns because some people will go back to work on 10 August, 20 August or some time in September. Some of them will be told on 10 August that their employer is halving the number of staff because of the reduced amount of work. Others will go return to work and it might take three, four or five weeks to be told that half of the staff in their company are to be let go. Will these people be treated as new hires? Does it reflect the full continuity of service? Is this formally recognised as a break?
The Minister can see the potential messiness. I hope she can assure me on those issues in general and perhaps also give an indication about a later commencement date. I have a principled concern about section 68L(1)(g) and how it is done in any event. I hope we can at least do some damage limitation here.
Any employee who has been employed by the same employer for two years is entitled to redundancy payment. This legislation will not impact their rights in any way. I want to be clear on that.
Regarding people who hope to go back to jobs, on 10 August, the remaining sectors of the economy will hopefully be able to reopen. Of course, we are always guided by public health advice. I said earlier that the Department will take a very practical approach regarding those people who are expecting to go back to their particular sector. For people in a sector that is waiting to reopen soon, that is okay. The point is that this payment was due to stop on 10 August. We are now extending it until 1 April 2021. Then we wash out and people will be entitled to the standard jobseeker's payment. I apologise to Senator Burke who asked me that question earlier and I forgot to answer it.
From 17 September, the payments change and will be more aligned to what people earned before the start of the pandemic. They will stay in place until 1 February when they are reduced again. They will continue until 1 April when jobseeker's payment kicks in again. That is a long time for someone not to be seeking work and it is only right that people should be looking for work. We must call a spade a spade here because unfortunately in some cases people will not get their jobs back. We are investing all this money to help them to reskill and upskill and go back to education so that we can get them back to work. The quicker we can get them back to work, the better.We have introduced this legislation so that we can do as much as we can to help people.
The Minister might have a chance to come back again. She has made the case very clearly. This is not an extension of a payment. This is a new payment that is being introduced. It is a new payment with a new requirement. It is going from being a supplementary welfare solidarity payment of income support into being a jobseeker's payment which requires the seeking of jobs. It is a new payment that people are being moved onto and not an extension. I am glad there is a payment that is continuing until April, but let us not call it the same payment.
The previous payment, the solidarity income-support payment, ensured that people maintained their incomes, minimised disruption to society and the economy kept going. We need to bear in mind that this income supplement is what keeps people paying their rent and other bills and doing whatever they need to do such as buying things in the supermarket or in the local shops. This income support was rightly a measure to ensure the economy and society kept functioning. That payment was due to continue until 10 August. It was due to track the same date as the opening up of the economy. There is a reason that the pandemic unemployment payment, as was, went until 10 August, that the redundancy law changed on 10 August and that the sectors of society were all going to open up on 10 August because they went together. However, this new different thing that we are bringing into law today is a jobseeker's payment and its coming in prematurely damages that entire picture - the big solidarity picture, the idea that we are all going to be in it together and every layer will kick back into action on 10 August - and it creates messiness.
The Minister talks about officials being practical, etc. It is not simply the opinion of an individual case worker that people are concerned about or whether a social worker or Intreo officer will be helpful or mean to them or will understand their situation, or if the individual will be in trouble. People care about their records and the records the State has about them. If the State will have a record that they were genuinely seeking but unable to obtain employment regardless of whether the Department or an individual social welfare or Intreo officer decides to apply some sanction on them in respect of it, that is where the practicality comes in. Practicality can deal with that sanction but this law deals with the description of the person. This law will describe that person as a person who is genuinely seeking but unable to obtain employment. They will be described as such potentially ad infinitum, but for a period of four to five days that takes them to 10 August when they may have been planning to get back into their job.
The Minister has not addressed that commencement issue. This is how she can take one big step towards bringing this into compatibility and deal with some of the concerns. I ask the Minister to give me an indication on that.
Obviously, I am fairly new in this job and I will be guided by my officials. I take the Senator's point. For people who know that they are going to get their job back in two weeks or three weeks - that the pub is going to open or the hotel is going to scale up or whatever is going to happen - nobody will all of a sudden make them go and find another job in the meantime and they will not be taken off the payment. That is just being reasonable. We will take a practical approach here.Let us face it, this payment was introduced to try to help people. We are not trying to penalise people or catch those who are genuine, who know that they will be back in their job in a pub on 10 August, which is not that long away now. This is to help people; it is not to try to entrap them.
I hope the Minister will arrange a meeting with officials, legal advice, civil society and so forth and consider the points I have made in respect of commencement. The concern is about the practicality. What the Minister outlined addresses the sanction, it does not address the core problem of description. In that context, regrettably, I must oppose the section as it is at the moment, but I hope the Minister will take on board some of the questions and comments I have made on the commencement date and that she will consider them, given that she has a few days in which to decide how she wants to approach that matter. I believe, especially after the distressed calls this week, we should stay clear of any avoidable ambiguity or unnecessary distress. Perhaps that is something that could be considered further.
Garret Ahearn, Catherine Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Victor Boyhan, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Michael D'Arcy, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Mary Fitzpatrick, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Sharon Keogan, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Rónán Mullen, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Ned O'Sullivan, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward, Diarmuid Wilson.
There is an issue which I hope we can address. My colleague spoke about the fact that currently the requirement for the working family payment, which is a vital subsidy for many people, is that they would be working 38 hours in a fortnight, that is, 19 hours in a week. That has long been a problem in respect of one sector, namely, childcare, whereby most people are on 15 hour contracts. The fact that childcare is only for 15 hours means that those who are reliant on that childcare, in many cases, can only work for 15 hours, but it also means that many people who work in the childcare sector only have 15-hour contracts. We have had a long-standing anomaly whereby a lot of people caring for children, who themselves are on very low wages, are effectively banned from the working family supplement that they might very much need.
We know there has been an issue with people leaving the childcare sector, with a loss of people working in the sector. That issue, which I have been raising for many years, is now exacerbated by Covid and the fact, as was eloquently described by my colleague earlier, that a lot of people are coming back and they do not know the hours. The hours will be a little bit unpredictable. People who may have had a very long-established schedule, that totally placed them over the 19 hours, as normal, may have aberrations or weeks and months in which their schedule becomes more unpredictable. The amendment was to ask the Minister to give them an assurance that their working family payment would not be in jeopardy, and perhaps to lower the threshold. However, it has been ruled out of order so the Minister does not need to address it for now, but I hope we can address it in advance of the social welfare Bill. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs could be part of the conversation in terms of trying to ensure the sustainability of the childcare sector in Ireland.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 11, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on Social Welfare (Consolidated Claims, Payments and Control) (Amendment)(No. 9) (Absence from the State) Regulations 2020 (S.I. No. 242 of 2020)
13. In respect of the amendment made to section 249 of the Principal Act by the Social Welfare (Consolidated Claims, Payments and Control) (Amendment) (No. 9) (Absence from the State) Regulations 2020 (S.I. No. 242 of 2020), the Minister shall— (a)within six weeks of the passing of this Act, prepare a report to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas containing the rationale behind S.I. No. 242 of 2020 and information on the manner of its implementation, including detail on any data sharing arrangements and the action of social welfare inspectors in airports, and
(b) ensure that any persons to whom S.I. No. 242 of 2020 might apply are provided with such explanatory and supporting documents from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as may be required when seeking refunds in respect of cancelled foreign travel.”.
This is a new section I am proposing in light of the high levels of confusion in terms of the different messages we have had and the ambiguity that has been created. Today, I see the Minister has referred again to making new regulations. I note that the statutory instrument that was there, SI 242, actually said that people could holiday but they had to be compliant with the general Government travel advisory on Covid. It was not one particular instance of the general travel advisory, as the travel advisory was a moving entity.A new statutory instrument is not needed, therefore, because the existing instrument provides for people taking a holiday in compliance with the travel advisory.
There is a separate equity and justice issue arising here and it is what I am seeking to address in the amendment. There is an inequity in that, for most persons in the State, the travel advisory is merely advisory, but for those who on are on a jobseeker's payment, it seems very much to be a requirement and it has penalty and consequence if they are out of line with it. At the time the gov.iewebsite was telling people they could not travel for a holiday, they were, in fact, entitled to do so under SI 242 of 10 July 2020. The instrument simply said that - I will use the exact words because this is the nub of everything - people could take a holiday "in accordance with the general Covid-19 travel advice" from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The most important point here is that in the application of the statutory instrument, there was an understanding that the Department would make itself constantly apprised of changes but the provision was already in place. When people were told this week that they could not go on holiday, that was not accurate. It is not the case that it will become possible for them to do so today by way of changes in regulations; it was already legally possible for them to do so.
There are questions to be asked about the travel advisory from the Government and whether there should be a green list of countries to which non-essential travel is open. We should perhaps have a much narrower remit regarding who can travel and what non-essential travel is allowed. I am aware that the guidance is, in part, a measure to protect the airlines by allowing flights to continue. However, there are other ways in which the Government could protect and support Aer Lingus and the case has been made very strongly in both Houses for the need for State intervention and support in that regard. If it is keeping non-essential flights moving and non-essential travel in play, which is what the Government decided to do in its advisory, and if the travel advisory is general and applies to everybody, then it was, since 10 July, also the general travel advisory for people on the PUP. It is important that we be really clear on that. I am asking in this amendment for a report in respect of SI 242, which was brought in on 10 July 2020. I want to know a little bit about the rationale behind the instrument. What is the rationale for making it a requirement for certain cohorts of the population, including those who are on jobseeker's payments, to comply with the travel advisory, whereas for everybody else, it is simply just advice? That is a concern and an inconsistency and it creates ambiguity.
Another question I have relates to the manner of implementation of the statutory instrument, and this is where there are significant outstanding concerns. The Data Protection Commissioner has indicated she has concerns and wants answers in respect of how information was accessed. The Minister told us in the House that no information is shared and no information is accessed. I do not doubt her bona fides in believing this to be the case, but we need to know for certain that it is the case and a report would give certainty. We have had reports of people who had booked to travel on a ferry but never went to the port and never boarded that ferry but who nevertheless had their payment stopped. This was done, they were told, because they had left the country. There are questions as to how that information was accessed. There are also multiple reports of people being asked for their PPS number and being told there was an immigration concern. Having been asked by gardaí for their PPS number, they found that this information was then conveyed to their social welfare office in reference to the payment they were receiving. They were told-----
Yes, I am discussing my amendment No. 7 in respect of SI 242, concerning travel, and its implementation. What I am saying is directly relevant to what I set out the amendment. I am speaking specifically to the provision that a report be produced containing details on any data-sharing arrangements arising out of inspection procedures and the actions of social welfare inspectors at ports and airports. I am pointing out to the Minister that there is an inconsistency between what we have heard from her today and from her Department, on the one hand, and what we have heard from individuals who are being asked questions by gardaí at ports and airports.
I have seen a report suggesting that 114 staff were assigned to examine false claims, including a secondment of 20 gardaí. It is very notable, as another speaker observed, that the HSA has carried out only 67 inspectors during the Covid period. There are 114 people busily working to try to catch out individuals who may have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis but only 67 inspectors inspecting workplaces to ensure they are safe, even though we know that unsafe workplaces are one of the greatest causes of an escalation in infections. That is why I want the Minister to address the work assignations and actions of social welfare inspectors. It might have been a better use of 20 gardaí to second them to the HSA to allow for an escalation of inspections, as Senator Gavan suggested earlier, in meat processing factories, construction sites and other places where we have seen clusters develop and where we know there are not enough health and safety inspectors going in. It is a question of prioritisation.
I am seeking a report on who was carrying out inspections at ports and airports and why they were doing so. Regardless of whether gardaí are seconded to the social welfare service and whether they are seconded as social welfare inspectors, if such gardaí do not make clear the purposes for which they are seeking information from individuals at the time they are seeking it, then that is not a valid action and it is not in line with GDPR requirements. People need to be very clear about the purposes for which information is being sought from them. We know there are multiple reports of individuals being told that the information was sought in respect of immigration control measures or something else. They were not told that the information was being sought in respect of their qualification for social welfare payments.
These issues need to be addressed and resolved. There is also concern, as I said, in respect of the sharing of data from passenger travel manifests. Again, the Data Protection Commissioner herself has expressed concerns in this regard. I hope the Minister will indicate that she intends to co-operate very fully and in a very timely way with the commissioner. There have been frustrations in that regard in the past, not from the Minister personally but in terms of the Department and its engagement with the commissioner. I hope the latter will have full and speedy co-operation in every respect on this matter. I have outlined the concerns regarding data-sharing arrangements. If a person has booked with a transit company to travel and does not travel, and that information is apparently known to their local social welfare office, then that office got it somehow and from somewhere. The question of how that is happening needs to be examined.
Finally, subsection (b) of my amendment would introduce a requirement that all persons to whom SI 242 might apply, including all of those on PUP and who were required by the statutory instrument to travel only in accordance with the general Covid travel advisory, that is, to avoid all non-essential travel except to green-list countries, would be given explanatory and supporting documents from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to allow them to seek refunds in respect of the cancellation of foreign travel.It would be a practical measure and, I suggest, a nice gesture. Regardless of whether the Minister accepts my amendment, she might indicate that she may do this for those who have been given mixed signals, inaccurate information, confusing suggestions and information on Government websites to the effect that they cannot trave. Some may have cancelled their plans to travel this week, even though they were allowed to travel under the statutory instrument. She might also consider doing so for those who, without having been told to do so, saw the travel advisory and were not at airports because, like the person we heard about who had a ferry journey booked but chose not to take it, made a responsible decision not to go to airports or ports and not to continue with their existing travel plans. That was not simply a choice they have made. As it is a requirement on them by the Department, I ask that they be given paperwork from the Department to communicate that to allow them to try to get their money back on holidays booked. In some cases, these will be holidays people booked before they became unemployed. In other cases, they will be holidays people booked even though they are unemployed. It is also important to remember that, in many cases, a person who is unemployed is part of a family. They may have a wife, husband or partner. They may have children. All of those travel plans for that entire family are impacted by the statutory instrument. Families who have a family holiday booked and have chosen to cancel it or discovered they had to cancel it this week should be entitled to seek compensation or some form of refund. I hope the Department will give these families the paperwork they need to do that as expeditiously and easily as possible.
Regarding the case alluded to by Senator Higgins of an individual who booked a ferry trip but did not take it, somebody somewhere had to share that information. I am sure the Minister is as concerned about that as Members are. From that point of view, I fully support what Senator Higgins is trying to do. We need to know how this information was passed back and forth. Stopping people randomly at Dublin Airport, Cork Airport or wherever is one thing but it looks a little planned or orchestrated. On that basis, I will be supporting Senator Higgins's amendment. I am interested in hearing the Minister's answer. I am almost 100% sure she personally had nothing to do with this but I would be interested to hear the Minister's response.
-----and I have no intention of going there.
We need to put this issue into perspective. Social welfare staff paid the pandemic unemployment payment to more than 600,000 people. They did it by way of a one-page online application. The normal checks did not apply. They did not have face-to-face meetings. They did not have those normal checks. The payment was introduced quickly, as the Senator knows. As we all said at the time, speed trumped perfection. The truth is that there was room for some to abuse it. Given the size of the budget of this Department, it has always had a control function. It is the biggest payment organisation in the State and there has to be checks and balances in place because, unfortunately, not everybody is transparent and honest in their dealings with the Department. The staff have to check. That is part of what they do. I gave this figure earlier. Since 13 March, the claims of 2,500 PUP recipients were stopped because the majority of them - well over 90% - were leaving the country permanently.They were not entitled to receive that payment, nor should they be getting it. We cannot pay everybody who comes into this country and then decides to leave. We cannot keep giving them payments while not living here. Those are the rules. Those figures alone would have cost the Irish taxpayer €20.5 million. They are the people who will have to pay that bill at the end of the day. There is a responsibility on the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There have always been people working on the checks and controls, and they do a very good job. Somebody may have been asked a question they should not have been asked but the Senator has to realise the volume of what they are dealing with. I do not believe the staff go out to intentionally target any particular group. In fact, I know they do not, but they have to ask the questions.
I want to make it very clear also that there is no data sharing. I will repeat that in case anybody thinks that is the case. There is no data sharing with my Department. My officials have assured me that it does not happen. The only people we share the data with is the Revenue Commissioners. That is in the legislation. We are allowed to do that, but there is no data sharing with officials in the Dublin Airport Authority or any place else.
The public health advice remains that people should holiday in Ireland. I do not know why everybody is suddenly obsessed with going abroad because the public health advice is that we should stay here. I am staying here, and I am sure most of the people in this room are staying here. We are all holidaying in Ireland because we have been told clearly to do that. I saw on the news this evening that the pandemic is accelerating across Europe. At the time this was looked at it was felt that we wanted to encourage as many people as possible to stay at home, and we know that. Members should think back to a few months ago. Do they remember the outrage over the Cheltenham festival? There was outrage that people were allowed travel to Cheltenham. They returned and it was felt that they had brought back the virus with them. I very much hope that the virus does not increase in this country but if it did at some future stage, I would be in this House answering questions as to the reason my Department was paying out payments to people who went against public health advice by leaving this country. That is something we have to consider. The way the regulations are worded now means that people can travel to countries on the green list and their payment will not be affected. If someone is travelling to one of those countries he or she will not have to isolate when they come back here. The transmission rate in those countries is either the same or lower than here so they can do that. In terms of all the rest, the public health advice is that people should not travel to those countries. We cannot ignore that advice and must take account of it.
I cannot accept this amendment. SI 242/2020 was laid before both Houses and the Senator did not seek to annul it. The statutory instrument has no relevance to the statutory powers of inspectors. These powers are under section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended.
With due respect to the Minister, the issue of actions in respect of persons who are not living in Ireland - the 90% of cases, as she described it - are not relevant to the report I seek. It is not in respect of the right and function of the control of the Department in terms of ensuring that the persons who are getting payments are living in Ireland. I would underscore that I believe there will be future problems if that construction of living in Ireland becomes "in Ireland at all times". There are question marks around the requirement of people to notify the Department every time they are not in the country; that is a separate issue. My amendment, and the report I seek, does not relate to any of those 2,000 people. They specifically relate to persons who are penalised in respect of having been, or are suspected of having been, on holiday."Holiday" does not mean "not living in the country". My amendment and report relate to the provisions in SI 242, which changed the definition of "holiday". Bear in mind that jobseekers have always been entitled to two weeks' holiday. I am not seeking to annul SI 242. I am simply asking for clarity about how it has been implemented. It makes the definition of "holiday" mean "holiday, in accordance with the Covid-19 General Travel Advisory in operation by the Department of Foreign Affairs". Someone can holiday in accordance with that advisory.
I agree with the Minister that people should not be holidaying abroad and should be holidaying at home. It is regrettable that the Government does not give more robust advice on that matter. It will not be the Minister on her own who will be answering before a committee or the Houses of the Oireachtas in future. This will not be on her, given that it was a Government decision - specifically, it was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - to give a general Covid-19 travel advisory that advised against non-essential travel but explicitly excluded a number of countries known as the green list countries, those being, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Hungary, Greece, etc. I disagree with the Minister, in that I do not believe that the advice to avoid travel was clear. The Government's advice is that people can travel to these countries regardless of whether it is essential. That is not ideal advice, and we know that the virus is already entering its second wave in many countries. We should have much more restrictive general Covid-19 travel advisories. If we did, SI 242 would not even have to change because it simply refers to the ongoing travel advisory. New regulations would not need to be made because this statutory instrument would cover us. This is a key point.
There is an ethical issue if there is a general travel advisory in respect of most persons but others are told it is a requirement. Many people gain money from the State or are supported by it in other ways, yet the State is not using an instrument or a threat of the withdrawal of payments to make them take what is advisory as a requirement. There is an inequality in treatment, which is a concern and something that I hope a report could address.
The Minister might speak on my next point, which relates to those who have cancelled holidays and are on the PUP or other jobseeker's payments. Will the Department provide them with all of the necessary paperwork in a timely way that allows them to seek refunds in respect of those cancelled holidays? Due to the travel advisory, if I cancelled my holiday to Italy - I will not have a holiday in Italy, as I will be in Galway - I would not be entitled to much because it was only advisory. That is the case for most of us. Were I on the PUP, however, and I cancelled that holiday because I was concerned by what I had seen this week or had already decided sensibly and out of good conscience not to go to Italy, would the Department give me useful paperwork because I was required by SI 242 to abide by the advisory? Bear in mind, this might be the last big outlay a family spends on itself for one, two or three years of extremely tight times ahead. It would be a practical and generous gesture if the Minister indicated that she would do everything she could to ensure that those to whom SI 242 applied - everyone on jobseeker's payments - and who obeyed this instrument and cancelled a holiday were supported.
The Minister is right. This would not apply to Italy because I would not need to cancel that holiday. Perhaps Spain or somewhere else would have been a better example.
Victor Boyhan, Lynn Boylan, Gerard Craughwell, Eileen Flynn, Paul Gavan, Alice-Mary Higgins, Annie Hoey, Sharon Keogan, Elisha McCallion, Rebecca Moynihan, Rónán Mullen, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Lynn Ruane, Marie Sherlock, Mark Wall, Fintan Warfield.
Garret Ahearn, Catherine Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Paddy Burke, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Michael D'Arcy, Paul Daly, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Mary Fitzpatrick, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Pippa Hackett, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, Vincent P Martin, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Eugene Murphy, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward, Diarmuid Wilson.