Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I am pleased to be in the Seanad to discuss this important legislation. The Government is absolutely committed to supporting people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19, which is why we have extended the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to next April. As the payment will now be continued for a much longer period than the 12-week period that had originally been envisaged, it is important that it be put on a statutory footing, which is what the Bill will do.
I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the concerns that have been raised in recent days. The pandemic unemployment payment was introduced to support people who had lost their jobs overnight as a result of Covid-19. It was a solidarity payment to protect people's incomes at a time of national crisis. I strongly believe that anyone who breached that solidarity by claiming a payment he or she was not entitled to because he or she was no longer living in this country should have that payment stopped. Of the 2,500 PUP claims that have been stopped since March, the vast majority - well over 90% - relate to people who were permanently leaving the country. I have listened to the concerns expressed in recent days about people whose payments were stopped because they were travelling abroad on holiday. There are a small number of cases where people may have travelled abroad and were genuinely not aware of the travel guidance or the criteria that applied to the PUP. I accept that my Department could have communicated more effectively on this issue and, therefore, I have directed my Department to review all cases to date where people went on holiday and had their payments stopped.
Since the regulations relating to jobseekers were signed on 10 July, the Government's travel advice has changed, with the publication of the green list last week. On that basis and in line with the Government's travel advice, I have asked my officials to amend the regulations so that jobseekers who wish to travel to any of the countries on the green list can do so and continue to receive their payment. Once the legislation before us is enacted, I also intend to make similar regulations in respect of those receiving the PUP. For countries that are not on the green list, persons can travel for essential reasons only.So, for example, if someone is going to a non-green list country, it must be for essential reasons such as a bereavement or health issues. If the person's Intreo office is informed in advance, the payment will not be impacted and approval will be given.
The pandemic unemployment payment was established on an emergency, ad hocbasis and is currently paid out as an exceptional needs payment under the same provisions that apply to the supplementary welfare allowance. As matters stand, under section 249 of the Social Welfare Act, people cannot be absent from the State and receive a supplementary welfare allowance payment. As I have just explained, however, the legislation before the House will, if passed, enable me, as Minister, to introduce regulations to allow people on the PUP to travel to green list countries. This will mean persons on the PUP can travel to green list countries and their payment will not be impacted. As is the case with jobseekers, persons travelling to countries outside the green list can do so only for essential reasons. The Government is committed to supporting people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19, which is why we have extended the pandemic unemployment payment to next April. We will continue to keep all regulations relating to the payment under review in line with the Government's travel and public health advice.
The Bill is, in many ways, fairly straightforward legislation that has two interrelated key purposes. As I have said, it will place the pandemic unemployment payment on a solid, statutory basis within the framework of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and provide that employees who have been directly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic will have their social insurance records protected.
The House will recall that when the economy had to be largely shut in mid-March, my Department responded to this unprecedented emergency by introducing the pandemic unemployment payment. To enable this payment to be made quickly and regularly to a huge number of people and households, my Department relied on section 202 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act as the legal basis for this emergency payment. Essentially, the pandemic unemployment payment was made as an urgent payment under the legislation governing the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. While this was appropriate at the time because it was an urgent response, the extension of the period for which the pandemic unemployment payment will be made means it is now appropriate to place it on a discrete statutory footing. Doing so will mean we can make arrangements to attribute full social insurance contributions to recipients of the payment.
I want to take this opportunity to express my thanks to the staff of the Department for the extraordinary efforts they put in, most especially in those earliest weeks, to ensure that 1.2 million weekly income support payments were processed. In total, about 800,000 individuals have received at least one payment under the pandemic unemployment scheme, with the total number in payment at any one time peaking at just over 600,000. While a great deal of work continues to be done, it is right that we acknowledge the outstanding public service delivered at that particularly difficult time.
The House will know that, with the announcement of the July stimulus package last Thursday, we will be introducing some further changes to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment with effect from 17 September. These changes will be introduced by way of regulation under the Bill and I will refer to them when I am going through its various sections. A primary purpose of the Bill is to ensure we have the necessary legislative backing for a measure that offers support to those employees who would, were it not for Covid- 19, in the ordinary course, have expected to continue in employment and to sustain and enhance their social insurance contribution records. The Bill will allow my Department to attribute these employees with paid PRSI contributions. This will ensure they will maintain their entitlements to short-term payments, as well as enhancing their PRSI records for long-term entitlements such as at the contributory State pension. I would like to take the House through the various provisions of the Bill now. Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, provide for the standard provisions as to the Short Title and construction of the Bill, and the commencement provisions and definitions used in the Bill. While the establishment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, will take effect on enactment, section 2 provides that PRSI contributions may be attributed back to 13 March when the economy was paused.
Section 4 provides for the insertion of new definitions into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 arising from this Bill.
Section 5 is another standard provision which extends the list of regulatory powers which require the formal consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Any regulations made under this Bill will require the consent and signature of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 6 amends section 7 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, which identifies that expenditure should be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. This section simply provides that my Department will work with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to determine how much of the PUP expenditure incurred to date should now be properly charged to the Social Insurance Fund, given that many people in receipt of PUP had an underlying entitlement to jobseeker's benefit.
Any expenditure on the Covid-19 PUP benefit will, following enactment of this legislation, automatically be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. This is an accounting mechanism and does not have any impact on the entitlements of claimants.
Section 7 is another technical amendment which is required to confirm that a self-employed contributor is entitled to claim the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment.
Section 8 inserts a new Chapter 6A into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act specifically to address a key objective of the Bill - the attribution of paid social insurance contributions. This new chapter defines the cohorts to whom contributions may be attributed. These will be predominantly those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance as well as those on the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, who have lost their employment since 13 March 2020 as a result of the public health crisis arising from Covid-19.
The new chapter also formally provides that employers and employees who have availed of the TWSS are exempted from the requirement to make the social insurance contributions which apply generally to all employed contributors and their employers. It also formalises the arrangements whereby employers availing of the TWSS are required to pay a notional 0.5% rate of PRSI in respect of any top-up payments to the employee. The amount of the subsidy paid to the employee is exempted from PRSI. The new chapter also clarifies that the contribution will be attributed at the same rate as that previously paid. Put simply, if the employee was paying Class A social insurance contributions before losing that employment as a result of Covid-19, then the attributed contribution will also be a Class A contribution. For the avoidance of doubt, a provision is included to confirm that information may be exchanged between this Department and the Revenue Commissioners to ensure that employees benefiting from the TWSS can be identified and have paid contributions attributed to them.
Section 9 is a technical amendment which formally identifies the new Covid-19 PUP as a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code.
Section 10 is a technical amendment to reflect the fact that section 2 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 will now include a definition of "Covid-19" and it avoids repetition of that definition elsewhere in the Act.
Section 11 inserts a new chapter 12B into the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to provide for the establishment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment scheme in its own right. Within this new chapter, the new section 68L confirms the existing general conditions of eligibility for Covid-19 PUP while the new section 68M confirms the PRSI contribution conditions. The new section 68N provides for the duration of the payment to be set by regulation. Following the launch of the stimulus package last week, I will be introducing regulations in September to specify that new applications for the payment will be accepted until 17 September.
The new section 680 provides that the weekly rates of Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment are set out in Part 6 of Schedule 2 to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.Again, in line with the stimulus package, I will be providing for revised rates by way of regulations in September.
The new section 68P sets out the arrangements which apply when regulations are being introduced in respect of the Covid-19 PUP.
Section 12 is a technical amendment to allow for regulations on late claims to be introduced.
Section 13 amends Schedule 2 to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 by introducing a new Part 6 to that Schedule, specifying the rates of Covid-19 PUP. These are the rates which apply currently, and as I said, I will be introducing regulations to provide the revised rates in September.
In summary, and against a background where so much of our legislation has necessarily been concerned with the more negative aspects of the pandemic, the Bill before us today is here for positive reasons. We are putting the pandemic unemployment payment on a statutory footing which will allow for the Minister or an Accounting Officer to be properly accountable to the Oireachtas and its committees in respect of the scheme. We are protecting the position of employees who have lost their employment because of the Covid-19 measures in terms of their entitlement to social insurance benefits. I would also like to put on the record that this legislation does not interfere with an employee's right to seek redundancy.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I congratulate her on her new portfolio and wish her the best of luck in the coming years. I have no doubt that she will do a magnificent job. She did that in the past in another portfolio and this one will be no problem to her.
The previous Government deserves great credit in pulling everything together in a very short space of time during which the world was hit with this virus. Thousands of people lost their jobs and it was great work on the part of the Government, with great assistance from Opposition parties. Everybody is to be credited for what has taken place.
The staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection deserve great credit and a special mention. They received an unprecedented number of calls and had to deal with an unprecedented workload in terms of putting all the schemes and payments in place to make sure that people who lost their jobs as a result of the Government closing down the country received those payments. They may have made mistakes, but when we analyse the sudden action that had to be taken, we can see that they deserve great credit because everything was heaped upon them in a very short space of time. I am sure they worked long hours into the night and at weekends to put all those schemes in place and determine how best to give a payment to people to allow them survive, whether they were self-employed, business people or employees of various companies. They are to be congratulated on that. The State owes them a debt of gratitude for the work they have done. The State was supporting a considerable number of people, with 1.1 million on the State support scheme, and they deserve great credit for putting those schemes in place.
I thank the Minister for clarifying the issue regarding the people on PUP who travelled out of the country. She has clarified that if they travel to a country on the green list, they will receive their PUP. That decision by the Government is to be welcomed, and I congratulate the Minister on doing that, but I refer to people who have to travel to another country not on the green list.They must give notice but do they give notice to the Department or how do they communicate to say they must go for essential work or to relay the travel reason? Do they give the reason to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or would they go to a local Garda station? How should they communicate the reason so the pandemic unemployment payment is not cut? Will the Minister clarify what they should do, where they should go and what notice they should give prior to travelling to a country not on the green list, whether it is essential travel such as in the event of a death, as has been mentioned, or whatever else? That would be welcome.
The first few lines in the Bill indicate what it is about. It states:
An Act to amend and extend the Social Welfare Acts; to provide for a new benefit to mitigate the adverse economic effects of the spread of the disease known as Covid-19; to provide for the attribution of paid social insurance contributions in respect of payments arising directly from the economic impacts of that disease; and to provide for related matters
This Bill will cover payments, as decided by the Government, to the end of March 2021. Does the Bill have a sunset clause or what will happen to those payments after 31 March 2021? Will the Minister clarify that?
There is one other matter related to the self-employed. A number of self-employed people have contacted me, including carpenters, electricians, etc., who work as sole traders. If these people go back to work, they must give up the payment. In some cases they do not know if they will get work full time or if they will get work the following week or in subsequent weeks. They may have work for a couple of weeks but after that they might run out of work. Self-employed people and particularly sole traders like carpenters and people in such trades, and perhaps even owners of small pubs and shops, may not know whether they will do any business or be able to stay open. Their turnover would certainly be well down on the comparable period from July to December 2019.
As their turnover could well be down, those people are in a precarious position. If they go back to work they would lose their payment but they may not be able to continue as self-employed persons. Could such people go back on the payment again? That is the real question. If they go back to employment but it does not work out for them, will the Minister clarify if they could go back on the payment?
I welcome the Bill as it is a great and valuable piece of legislation. It is very badly needed. It puts these payment measures on a statutory footing, as has been mentioned, which is to be welcomed. I wish the Minister well with this legislation and her new portfolio. I look forward to working with her over the years.
I welcome the Minister to the Seanad and congratulate her on her new role. I have no doubt she will do an excellent job.
We all know that on 12 March the country started on the path of being locked down and life as we know it has changed significantly since. The Government of the time acted very quickly, and from what I understand, the Covid-19 payment was initially a type of public health measure to encourage people to stay at home and try to curb the spread of the virus. It was an extra encouragement for a person not to leave the house. However, it was not mandatory to stay in one's house and no particular restrictions were placed on the payment with regard to travel. I welcome the Minister's indication today that people in receipt of the payment are allowed to go to countries on the green list. I read in some newspapers today about people who had booked holidays but were not in airports so could not have come within the scope of inspectors operating there. They had payments stopped and are trying to figure out how their information was obtained by the Minister's Department. If the Minister has not heard of this happening, it would be interesting to hear her views on the story. If it is the case that the Department is receiving information from third parties, I am interested to know which parties are supplying the information, when such a process began and if it is ongoing. There are still many questions about the receipt of information in the Department and how exactly it receives information about people going on holidays or not taking such trips.
I welcome the Bill and in particular the regularisation of the pay-related social insurance, PRSI, contributions. It provides clarity to employees and employers on the paying of PRSI, even at a low rate as the Minister stated. It would have to be filed and people's employment records will show a continuous PRSI contribution. It is a welcome provision.
I am unclear on some of the elements of the Bill. When the payment was introduced, it was unclear whether it would be taxed. It has come to light that this will come under income tax provisions but many people have been surviving hand to mouth on this Covid-19 payment, so it will be very difficult for them to pay any income tax. Will the Minister's Department liaise with the Department of Finance or the Revenue Commissioners in order to come to an arrangement with people who are on the Covid-19 payment but who may have trouble paying their income tax in November? They might have to save their Covid-19 payment from now to pay that income tax and some people are concerned about this.
At the end of her contribution the Minister mentioned that redundancies will not be affected. Many people have been put on the Covid-19 payment but some people who spoke to me have said their companies are using the pandemic as a way of getting rid of some employees. I hate saying that. We should have clear guidance that redundancy provisions are not affected and people would still be entitled to redundancy payments if required. I would like some more clarity for individuals in that regard. We support the Bill and I thank the Minister for coming to the House.
I welcome the Minister and wish her well in the task she has ahead of her. I commend her on the work she has done over the past four weeks. I am happy to support this Bill, which puts the pandemic unemployment payment on a formal statutory basis, which is very important. It allows for paid social insurance contributions for employees directly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is correct.
I share the concerns outlined by Senator Ardagh about transfer of information and we must absolutely know how that came about. We also need to have clarity on tax implications so people can be made aware of them.
We cannot help but mention the Debenhams workers around the country who were laid off at the start of the Covid-19 emergency without any redundancy package being agreed. It is very important that everything be done to ensure they are paid what they are owed by Debenhams.
I have some comments on the events and entertainment industry and Senator Frances Black has raised the matter quite a bit in this House. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, 72% of artists earned less than the national minimum wage.The vast majority in the events industry work in annual cycles and the sector has lost at least an entire year's turnover, not just that of a few months. Representatives of the Event Industry Association of Ireland appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. David Mongey spoke about the 45,000 workers the association represents, in an industry that normally generates in excess of €3.5 billion for the economy. Most certainly, that industry has suffered disproportionately in comparison with all other sectors.
Many of the specialist roles that are required in the events industry are highly skilled and industry specific. They were in high demand and short supply coming into this crisis and people will have put significant investment into high-class and high-performing equipment. A large portion of the workforce was not specifically employed in January and February because of the work's seasonal nature and, as such, did not qualify for the temporary wage subsidy scheme. Section 7 may address the following but I am not sure and I would like the Minister to clarify. Post September, the PUP will not cover applicants who are directors of their own companies. Most people involved in the events industry operate through a company. They may be companies working in light or sound or they may be artists or musicians, for example. They should be included.
I also raise the issue of those over the age of 66. In rural Ireland in particular, many of those in the hospitality industry who own small rural pubs, guesthouses or bed and breakfast accommodation are over the age of 66 and they need this money to survive. It is a real shame that they have not been included because they absolutely should be.
Small business owners are finding it hard to get part-time staff back to work because they are better off on the pandemic unemployment payment. I have often heard that from small business owners in Kildare. It is very important to mention that because the owners of many such businesses have to work much longer hours or to close during the working day to do their additional administrative business.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well in her portfolio. I also commend the Leader of the House, Senator Doherty, on her role within the Minister's Department during the early days of the pandemic, when there was not yet a new Government. Her leadership was very welcome at that time.
The pandemic unemployment payment is given to people who have lost their sources of income due to the economic shutdown caused by the public health measures put in place by the previous Government due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through no fault of their own, thousands of people have had to rely on quickly instituted PUP payments, which were administered at a flat rate. I welcome the attempt to put the PUP on a statutory footing. Any effort to reduce the constant state of uncertainty caused by the pandemic through clarifying matters for recipients of the payment is to be lauded.
That said, I have a number of significant concerns about the Bill. On the face of it, it appears the Government has reverted to the same old inequality by targeting those most in need. Significantly, section 11 of the Bill will provide that recipients of the payment must be seeking employment. This is nothing more than window dressing. These people had jobs that were put in hold during the Government-instituted lockdown. How can the Government ask them to go out and find other jobs? Their jobs and their normal sources of income are on hold as the country grapples with the daily reality of living through a public health crisis. Unless the Government knows something I do not, this crisis has not ended. We may not still be in total lockdown, but that does not mean we are back to business as usual. Surely, then, it cannot be reasonable to insist that PUP recipients be seeking employment.
Another troubling aspect of the wording was that it could be and was used to deny the pandemic unemployment payment to those in receipt of it if they travelled abroad. The Government has rectified that today but over the weekend, news broke of more than 100 people having lost their PUP as a result of travelling abroad over the past two weeks.While I was greatly relieved to hear the Minister confirm in the Dáil yesterday that these actions had been taken on foot of information gathered by employees of the Department, who were operating with the appropriate legal standing, in spite of reports of data potentially having been breached, I found this aspect of the Bill deeply perturbing. I question the constitutionality of any restrictions on the right to personal liberty and freedom to travel, even to outside those green-listed countries. If vital payments were to be withheld from those who wished to travel despite the Government's recommendations, let us be reminded that is what they are - recommendations. The Government was effectively banning more than 300,000 people from leaving this country on pain of loss of income. Previously, those on the jobseeker's allowance were allowed to leave the country for up to two weeks each year. That those on the PUP were not extended a similar allowance was morally dubious at best, or a violation of rights at worst. The Minister has done the right thing today. Fear is not the stick with which to beat the most vulnerable.
I admire the Minister's tenacity in dealing with fraud within the system, but it might fit the Department and An Garda Síochána better to focus on real crime such as drug criminals and their lavish lifestyle at airports, and not focus on our working class who currently cannot work due to Government regulations and businesses remain closed. Perhaps inspectors would be better off sitting outside welfare offices to see these drug-dealing mules rock up in their latest BMWs, or spending some time at the Canada Goose department of Brown Thomas where, it is evident, one will not see too many people on the PUP.
Section 7 will confirm that a self-employed contributor is entitled to claim the PUP. This is a heartening aspect of the Bill and is a vital provision for those who work in creative sectors especially, which are normally characterised by self-employment or freelancing. This, however, raises another issue. Currently, if someone takes on work, he or she will be automatically disqualified from receiving further payments. This means those who are self-employed, and who might get a day or two of work occasionally, will find themselves blocked from the PUP. Of course, a day or two of work is not likely to be sufficient to meet the person's needs. The Department seems to be wilfully ignoring the fact that our economy is restarting after a massive upheaval and there will not be a full return to employment for some time. This means a large number of people on the PUP will have a choice either to lose opportunities to work for pay, or to lose out on the PUP. Surely the Minister can find some way to work in a provision to mitigate such cases.
I agree with Senator O'Loughlin on the issue of those over the age of 66. There is a failure in the Bill to address their needs. They are completely absent. If the payment could be made even to those people, it would be greatly appreciated.
The circumstances in which we find ourselves require flexibility and understanding. I am pleased that attempts have been made to move forward and to establish a level of cohesion and certainty that were lacking worldwide in recent months. We can, however, do better than the Bill in its current form. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the amendments put forward so that the best possible outcome can be achieved for the citizens who rely on it.
I extend my welcome to the Minister to the Chamber and wish her well in her job in the time ahead. The Bill is designed to legally regularise assistance for the many people who have lost their jobs or whose jobs have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Of course, we want the payment to be put on a strong, statutory footing, and with that in mind, we will support the Bill.The Government is presenting this as an opportunity outside of the hothouse environment of a few months ago when the virus was out of control and many people were dying or in hospital to respond calmly to the people's needs arising from the impact of the virus on their working lives. The Bill is supposed to reflect a calm and considered response to an obvious life-threatening emergency that also has serious economic consequences.
There are many positive aspects to the Bill, such as ensuring that many of those employees who are relying on the pandemic unemployment payment - whoever named that should note that it has caused many a tongue twister - will continue receiving it. However, a Bill aiming to protect workers fails at the first hurdle, that is, where someone works in this State but lives in the North. It does not assist such workers even though they have paid their contributions to this State and make a valuable contribution to this economy. Many of them have been working and paying their dues in this State for decades. The Bill discriminates against them once again, given that the Government overlooked them when the pandemic unemployment payment was introduced in March. Instead of admitting that it had forgotten about them, though, it blamed its decision on EU regulations. We now have information that shows that that was nothing more than a pathetic excuse from a Government that had yet again exposed its partitionist nature. My party colleague, Mr. Chris MacManus, MEP, raised this issue with Europe and has received clarification from the European Commission informing him that the Government can make these payments legally. There is no barrier to this payment being made other than this Government's lack of political will. I urge the Government to include these workers as a matter of urgency. It is within its gift to make the payment if it wishes. So far, it has chosen not to do so. The Government must act to include this group of workers, who number in their thousands. Once again, the partition of this island has negatively impacted on the lives of people who live in Border constituencies. Unfortunately, the Government has left them behind.
There are further issues. Government announcements, which are changing on an hourly basis, are seeking to punish those who, for many reasons, might find themselves in an airport lounge. Even with the latest U-turn, it looks like the Government is labelling, pointing at or bordering on discriminating against people who have lost their jobs and been unable to return to work through no fault of their own and who may have already paid thousands of euro for holidays on which they now cannot get a refund all thanks to the Government's chaotic advice on travel.
My main concern has to do with how data is being used at airports to discriminate against those who have travelled before. This question needs to be answered today. Other than the Tánaiste, who clearly stated on national television last weekend that there was information being gathered at airports, I have not heard any member of the Cabinet tell us how that was done and whether it was legal. Regardless of whether it is legal, it is certainly immoral. It is immoral that a Government could allow this to happen at any time, but it is disgraceful that the Government is using such data at a time like this. In yesterday's The Irish Times, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, raised concerns about the legal basis of the Government's actions.
The Government seems to be chaotic and making up the rules as it goes along. The farce at the airports is only one example of many. It turns out that, while the Minister's Department was last week planning to cut PUP for many, the Government was oiling its gravy chain, awarding large increases in salaries for Ministers of State. In the face of anger and major opposition, the Government this week seemingly performed a U-turn on that. The Government is the only organisation that I am aware of that claims to give itself a pay cut that in fact results in a pay rise. What is going on within the Cabinet of chaos? There have been more flip-flops in its position over the past few weeks than there have been flip-flops sold in Penneys this summer. Due to the fact that we must ensure that some workers continue to receive much-needed support at this time, we will lend our support to the Bill. However, it is deeply disappointing that the Government's antics have excluded many thousands of workers and, let us not forget, pensioners in this scheme. It has caused problems for women on maternity leave and for people who have chosen to travel.
The one aspect that has been clear over the past few weeks is that the Government has been forced, not only by the strong and effective opposition by Sinn Féin and others on the left, but by people across the island to turn on outrageous decisions. As to the so-called clarity that we got from the Minister in the Chamber today, and with all due respect, the only clarity is that if someone has a private jet and is fortunate enough to travel to Monaco, he or she is fine to travel. Otherwise, anyone's guess is as good as mine.
I will make a final point if I may. I am a new Senator, but I have found it very frustrating and confusing watching many parties that almost claim to be in opposition challenging one another. The three parties in the coalition need to accept responsibility for being the Government. They wear the jersey, so they need to own it. It has been infuriating watching people challenging the Government when they are the Government. People need to accept the reality that it is a three-party coalition and they must accept responsibility when Ministers make decisions on their behalf.
I join others in welcoming the Minister to the House. I wish her well in her new role and look forward to working with her.
Notwithstanding the changes that the Minister announced in her U-turn today, the Bill leaves us with more questions than answers. I hope that she will be in a position to reply to them, which I am sure other Senators will also have. It would seem that, with no public notice she introduced SI 242 of 2020 on 12 July. The Minister might confirm whether that was actually the case. It changed the rules for the Covid-19 PUP and other unemployment payments, meaning that recipients could not take holidays abroad. As the Minister is well aware, people were previously allowed two weeks for a holiday in any calendar year without losing their entitlements to jobseeker's benefit. I appreciate that the Minister has changed her mind on this matter and is allowing people on these payments to travel to destinations on the green list, but she might confirm whether those on PUP and jobseeker's benefit will lose their entitlements if they travel to countries not on the green list. I am aware, as I am sure she is, of people travelling on, for example, compassionate grounds to non-green list countries. How will they be treated? Will she confirm the changes and explain the list of essential reasons that she mentioned? Has she a list of such reasons?
It has been confirmed to us that some 2,000 individuals have had their payments stopped in recent months, with 104 individuals having their PUP payments stopped in the past two weeks following checks at airports. I listened to the Minister for Education and Skills on "Morning Ireland" yesterday confirming after questioning that this statutory instrument was not discussed at Cabinet. I am informed that that is not unusual in the main, but will the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, confirm whether the advice of the Attorney General was sought? This is a particularly important question, given that the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, and a number of non-governmental organisations have questioned the legality of the measure. Ms Eilis Barry, the chief executive of FLAC, has asked for clarity concerning how a person who, through no fault of his or her own, must self-isolate will be treated in terms of genuinely seeking employment. The Minister might give us an answer to that.
Like many Members, I have been contacted by citizens who are worried about what is happening in the country. Many booked holidays last year when they were in employment and many have never before been in receipt of a social welfare payment in their lives.Now, through no fault of their own and because of a worldwide pandemic, their payment could, and probably will, be affected by this Bill if the destination country for their much-needed holiday is not on a green list. The Minister will be aware that the Data Protection Commissioner has asked the Department how it is getting the data to block benefit payments.
Notwithstanding what the Minister said in her opening address, some key questions are outstanding. I wish to put some of the questions asked by my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, in the Dáil last night to the Minister again today. As this is a statutory instrument based on advice from another Department, is the travel ban legal? Did the Attorney General sign off on it? Is there a change in the conditions that apply to the pandemic unemployment payment? Must people be actively seeking work since Monday when the website was changed? Was this decided in the Cabinet? Is this a new regulation? Where is the data that is being used to stop people coming from? What are the reasonable grounds that apply and why are the people who are being stopped in airports not being told that it is for social welfare purposes?
This latest mess was compounded by the Tánaiste on "The Week in Politics" programme when he said people on the PUP must be actively seeking work. This appears to have followed a change on the Government website which the Taoiseach has said will be investigated. According to stories we are hearing from around the country, there appears to be a general screening of people leaving the country. The Minister might confirm if this is the case. I refer to the case of a family who had their child benefit stopped, as outlined on the "Liveline" programme yesterday. Surely this is an excessive intervention by the State at a difficult time for everybody in the country.
Can the Minister explain how a bar worker who has worked in the trade for over 30 years since leaving school is now expected to be genuinely seeking work? That person is out of employment through no fault of their own. The PUP was, in fact, a supplementary welfare payment under the 2005 Act. If this Bill is passed by the House, it will have a statutory basis. The Bill requires that a recipient must be genuinely seeking employment. The bar worker I mentioned knows no other trade. That person, like many others, cannot work at this time. Again like many others, this person has never been in receipt of social welfare previously. We are still in the middle of the pandemic. How can the Government introduce a Bill that contains such a heavy demand on workers, who have never known unemployment in their lives, that they should now be genuinely seeking work? It does not make sense that in the middle of a worldwide pandemic the Bill contains such a demand.
I will speak to certain sections of the Bill. Section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP which has been paid as supplementary allowance or an urgent needs payment may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund. What is the monetary implication of this measure for the Social Insurance Fund? There has been much talk in the Houses, and rightly so, about reducing the pension age. What are the implications for doing this of the Government using the Social Insurance Fund for this payment? Is this a raid on cash to avoid raising taxes or borrowing? Does it risk destabilising the already weakened fund? Is this a retrospective measure through the supplementary welfare allowance? If so, is this type of retrospective legislation constitutional? I seek clarity from the Minister on this point. There was due to be a hefty surplus in the Social Insurance Fund and that had been identified as a source of funding to allow for the delay in raising the pension entitlement age. Will this window of opportunity be closed now?
Section 6 provides that some of the expenditure incurred to date on the PUP that has been paid as a supplementary welfare allowance or urgent needs payment may be charged to the Social Insurance Fund, but there is no link between social insurance contributions and eligibility for the PUP. For example, students would not have sufficient PRSI contributions recorded. Depleting the Social Insurance Fund surplus, especially when it is likely to come under pressure to pay insolvency and redundancy payments, does not appear to be sound public policy.
Section 9 is a technical amendment which formally identifies the new Covid-19 PUP as a social insurance benefit within the social welfare code. If the PUP becomes a social welfare entitlement based on payment of social insurance, will that change the situation for people travelling abroad? The Minister addressed that in a way today, but will she clarify if people travelling abroad to seek work or to visit family for sound medical reasons within the common travel area can be denied a social insurance related entitlement?As time passes an increased number of people who are on the PUP might go abroad to seek work. Their entitlement to a stable income must be secured.
I will conclude on two further matters. Is an appeal mechanism for the PUP included in the Bill? What mechanisms are available for people who genuinely need to appeal the non-payment of the PUP? I also wish to record my support for the Debenhams workers and their rightful demand.
I am sharing time with Senator Ruane.
I welcome the Minister. When the pandemic unemployment payment was introduced, it was, as the Minister said, a solidarity payment to protect people's incomes. It was a very positive measure by the outgoing Minister who is now the Leader of the House, Senator Doherty, and was praised internationally. It was recognised as the State seeing how important it was to keep an economy functioning normally. It was a gesture of social solidarity, but not necessarily simply with those accessing the payment. It was also a recognition of the solidarity shown by all the sectors that ceased their trading and the self-employed who stopped working, all of whom contributed to the need to stop activity in many sectors of society in order to contain the virus. There was social solidarity all around in that regard and the payment was related to that.
Unfortunately, over the last week or two there has been a litany of inaccuracies, contradictions and misinformation that have caused great distress to people and their families. We should remember that a person on one of these payments is not simply a person but a person in a family, and whatever affects the person affects the person's family - the person's children, partner and so forth. There are still a couple of inaccuracies even in the Minister's speech today. She spoke about members of the public being genuinely unaware of the criteria that apply to the PUP. The criteria which we have been told apply to the PUP, for example, the criterion of genuinely seeking work, did not exist. That criterion was only put on the record by the former Minister with responsibility for social welfare in his comments on the television at the weekend and then it magically appeared on the gov.iewebsite the next day. It was not a criterion that was attached to the PUP. It may become a criterion after this legislation is passed but it did not exist then. Again, that is inaccurate. Incidentally, it is very worrying if gov.ie is giving inaccurate information to citizens.
The gov.iewebsite also gave inaccurate information in respect of jobseeker's payments. It said, confusingly: "At present, holiday periods permitted for Jobseeker's payments have been suspended". They had not. Regarding holiday periods, is that holidays abroad or at home? It is unclear. It also said: "Jobseeker's payments will not be made to anyone who travels abroad". It did not specify if that is essential or non-essential travel. These are serious inaccuracies in the information the Government is giving to people. Today, it is being framed as a U-turn but what the Minister is talking about today is just getting back in line with the laws that already exist. She said: "I have asked my officials to amend the regulations so that jobseekers who wish to travel to any of the countries on the green list can do so and continue to receive their payment". First, it would be very useful if the Minister provided a copy of the regulations she is amending to both Houses of the Oireachtas. I have not seen those regulations.
We have seen the inaccuracy of the information on the website. The statutory instrument that has been in place since 10 July already allows jobseekers who wish to travel to any of the countries on the green list to do so and receive their payment. It is hard to see what new thing the Minister is doing in the regulations because the statutory instrument did not state that one could not have a holiday. It changed the definition of holiday to state that it is a holiday in accordance with the Covid-19 general travel advisory in operation by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is very important that it refers to the general travel advisory.It does not allow for special new travel advisories just for people on unemployment payments. The general travel advisory says that one should not undertake non-essential travel except in respect of green list countries. Non-essential travel to green list countries was allowed. That has been the case since 10 July. Any actions taken by the Minister since then or in this period of the week are not accurate. All that was required was compliance with that general advisory. What the Minister seems to be suggesting she is going to bring in by regulation today is, in fact, the law as it stands.
I am also deeply concerned about some of the things the Minister says she might introduce in those regulations. On the idea that people would have to notify the Department of travel for essential purposes, there is a requirement in terms of data protection for such things to be necessary and proportionate. The requirement in terms of payments, including the supplementary welfare allowance which the Minister acknowledged is the basis on which this payment was brought in, is that one must be living in the State. Nobody is challenging the idea that those who are not living in the State should not be receiving the payment. That is absolutely fine. It is a red herring to an extent. However, it is not required that one be in the State at all times. It certainly does not require that one report to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection if one goes to a funeral or travels for healthcare. This is a huge new overreach if the Department is to require such information. I would also be concerned if such information was being shared with the Department. We know the Commissioner for Data Protection is already most concerned about how information was accessed from airports. How would this new information that everyone is to provide to the Department be shared?
I have many other concerns about the Bill. I will address them as it progresses. I am worried about the obligation to seek work and the implication for those in the pub and arts industries who are on furlough. I am concerned about the potential implications in respect of redundancy. I will address those concerns later. My colleague will speak to two of our amendments which have been ruled out of order.
I welcome the Minister. I have three more questions that I hope will be answered. On people who need to undertake essential travel to countries that are not on the green list, such as the UK, I have had a number of representations in the past couple of days from very concerned women who need to travel to countries that are not on the green list for a termination of pregnancy that is not allowed in this country. They are worried about how they have to report this, how they can protect their privacy and what they need to do to prove that they are leaving the country for essential travel. Have women like this been taken into account in respect of the fact that they will have to travel to the UK or the Netherlands? I am not sure if the Netherlands is on the green list but the UK certainly is not. I want clarification on how we can address this sensitively for women who are looking to travel and are quite concerned about how it will happen and if their payments are going to be affected.
One of the amendments that was ruled out of order relates, again, to women. It concerns the working family payment. Currently women are returning to work whether that be in restaurants, pubs or other low-pay employment with low hours. I received a representation from a woman working in a pub where the pub is picking names out of a hat as to who will get shifts. One woman could have five hours in one week, 20 in the next and none in the next. It is being done very unfairly. She is living in fear that her working family payment is going to be massively impacted because she is not going to be able to reach the 39 hours. How are we going to address those women who are returning to work but are not receiving the hours they would have before Covid? Will any sort of allowance be made for a special Covid approach to the working family payment?
On artists, many actors and actresses have not been able to access any sort of payment during the lockdown and Covid. I have three letters of refusal in my office because the people were not working at the time the Covid payment became available. However, the only reason they were not working at the time was that they could receive between five and nine P45s in one year due to changing their contracts and working for different production companies at different times. It means all their work for the year has been cancelled but because they might not have been on set at a particular time, they have been completely refused payment and have been living without any sort of social welfare supports for the past three to four months. Maybe I can deal with the Minister directly in respect of sending on some of that information.
I welcome the Minister and wish her well. I commend her on the work she did in her last Ministry. If we are to be fair here, with what has happened in this country, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is a baptism of fire for the Minister as well. It is not simple or easy. I am constantly reminded that while we need to be fair and make sure people are treated as equal, we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic that any of us have ever seen and we do not know where it is going. We have to allow for that to some extent in terms of how the Government reacts and acts on things.
The Government has approved a new Bill to ensure PRSI contributions are attributed to people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment or whose salaries are being supported by the temporary wage subsidy scheme. When enacted, this primary legislation will ensure that people who lost their jobs or were temporarily laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic will be credited with full paid PRSI contributions on their insurance record equivalent to those that they would have made if they remained in work. This means that people who lost their jobs on foot of the public health crisis will not lose out in accessing social insurance benefits. It is also welcome that the social insurance record of workers who lost their jobs arising from the health crisis is maintained. Due to the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic the legislation will provide for the award of paid contributions for employees at the same PRSI contribution class as was the case for them immediately before being laid off. This will be important in order to protect the person's entitlement to future payment including long-term payments such as pensions but particularly shorter term payments such as illness, maternity and paternity benefit. That needs to be clearly stated here. It has been sort of pushed away but it is very much part of the Bill. When people are at work and paying social insurance contributions, they are recorded as having made paid social insurance contributions. All social insurance benefits require a minimum number of paid social insurance contributions. In some cases, for example jobseeker's, illness, maternity and paternity benefit, the contribution must be paid within a specific period prior to accessing the benefit.
On the controversy over the pandemic unemployment payment, having talked to the public, there is a concern that some people were treated unfairly. I welcome the fact that the Minister has now said all will be reviewed. I want to put it on the record of the House that a number of small employers have told me they are having difficulty getting part-time workers back. If 90% of these people were not coming back into this country, we also have a difficulty. We must discuss all of the issues. Senator McCallion is shaking her head. She is the one person who said she would like to see Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party supporting one another and supporting the Government. We have freedom of speech here. We are not herded into one corner. I am telling the Senator straight out that we are proud to get up and be able to tell whatever Minister from whatever party what we think. We will not do it in secret or privately. I hope the Ministers will understand this. Clearly I am saying that there is one side of this argument being told. Nobody in this House wants to see anybody unfairly treated. Is it right or wrong that 90% of 2,400 people seemed to be drawing down those payments and were leaving the country? Let us get it answered. I am glad the Minister is doing a review of the situation. From that review, we will get the facts and figures. Whatever way they come out, I hope they will be accepted as an honest assessment of the situation.
I welcome the number of people who can now go onto the Tús and rural social schemes and so on.There is a problem in that, under the current rules, many people on JobPath cannot access Tús and other schemes. I ask the Minister to examine that issue and the potential to fill the positions that are becoming available. I will give her more details later.
I listened to some of the contributions outside the Chamber and it has been a good debate.
I warmly welcome the Minister to the House and wish her well in her Ministry. These are difficult times for anyone in government. Issues have to be addressed head-on, hard decisions have to be taken and the ramifications of those decisions have to be taken on board. Minister are expected to come to the Dáil. I am always reminding people that it is not the Seanad that holds the Government to account but the Dáil.
I thank the Minister for establishing a review, which will be important. Anyone who has been listening to the radio and reading the newspapers in the past few days and hours will have noted the genuine concern about this issue. I heard a piece on the radio the other day about tax dodgers, people with offshore accounts, and all sorts of carry-on by people who can move money around the world and get away with it, yet somehow people in receipt of welfare payments are suddenly being seen as a target. Nobody chooses not to have a job or an income to put bread on the table. That is the perspective we must take. We must respect that people are legitimately entitled to claim welfare payments. We should not target any particular group unfairly. Many people do not have a job because of Covid-19. I thank the Minister for at least accepting the need to review this matter and committing herself to such a review. That is important.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and congratulate her on her appointment. I am more than confident that she will serve her new Department with distinction, as she did her previous Department.
I also compliment the Government on the swift action it took in March in getting payments out to hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs. I concur with the Minister with regard to the huge work done by staff members who worked through weekends to ensure those payments were made. I also compliment the Leader and former Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Senator Regina Doherty.
I support the Bill. As the Minister stated, it is important to protect the position of employees in terms of their entitlements for social insurance benefits. However, I have a couple of issues. The decision to reduce the payment of some self-employed people from €350 to €200 based on the fact that they were using their 2018 accounts as their 2019 accounts were not ready seems to be an issue. Is there a proper appeals mechanism available for such persons to have the higher payment restored?
I concur with previous speakers that some businesses are struggling to get staff back to work because their wages are lower than the pandemic unemployment payment. Will the Revenue Commissioners contact employers to certify that these workers have been offered work and are not returning to work? What will happen to the payment in such cases? I also concur with the points made on payments to people working in the arts. I support action being taken on that.
I understand that for health reasons many of these payments were paid directly into bank accounts. This left us open to a large amount of fraud, with people making multiple applications and going abroad for a number of months while in receipt of the payment. The An Post network has the contract for social welfare payments. The pandemic unemployment payments were not made through An Post. The number of payments made through An Post is decreasing weekly. Some Department staff are contacting customers and urging them to switch their payments from the post office to the banks. An Post was deemed an essential service in March and stepped up to the mark by keeping its entire network open throughout the Covid pandemic, unlike a number of other institutions.At this time, there was agreement to move all payments to being biweekly. However, this is having a detrimental effect on the company and its contractors of whom I am one, with a loss of revenue through bill payments and savings bank transactions. Up to 70% of the retail income is affected within the company. If this continues, we are looking at hundreds of closures throughout the country in the near future.
With the closure of the banks, the post office is the only financial institution in many towns around the country. It is the heart of the community. The loss of the post office will affect numerous other businesses within those towns and villages due to the reduction in footfall. This is something we do not want as we try to restart and rebuild our economy.
The biweekly payment has led to increased numbers accessing the services of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations where people were unable to budget on a biweekly basis.
In short, I ask that the Department would indicate when payments, particularly pensions, - some jobseekers have gone back to a weekly basis - will return to a weekly basis. I totally understand that the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has concerns in that regard but I would like to get confirmation that this will happen in the future.
I ask also that Department officials and staff desist from using this as an opportunity to pressurise pensioners and sending out forms asking them to move their payments into the banks. What will happen in the next six to 12 months is probably the closure of half the entire An Post network. As I say, that will have a detrimental effect in every single town and village in this country.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the Chamber.
For me, like others, one of the most important aspects of the Bill, that has been somewhat lost - although it has been highlighted here in recent contributions - is the provision to award credited PRSI contributions to people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. That is hugely important. Each of us, as public representatives, has tried to help people over the years navigate the myriad of the social welfare system and it can be at times quite complex. Each of us has encountered situations where people are not qualified for a support payment because of inadequate or a lack of contributions. In some cases, it can be only a matter of a handful of contributions. We have seen this, whether it be in people applying for the State pension, for illness benefit, carer's benefit and other supports, and it is important that is rectified. The contribution system works away in the background and everyone at work receives a contribution on foot of his or her paid contributions, and almost everyone who is receiving a support payment receives a credited contribution. A person's PRSI contribution, as Senators will be aware, is of vital importance. It ensures that a person receives correct social welfare support when needed. This is why section 8 of the Bill is so important. By amending the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, this Bill will protect the PRSI contribution record for everyone in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. In addition, this section will help protect jobs by significantly reducing the employer PRSI contribution to a rate of 0.5% for employers who have availed of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This scheme continues to provide vital financial assistance to businesses across the country and helps employers to keep the vital link with their staff.
The pandemic unemployment payment was introduced as an emergency measure to section 202 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005. It was the correct decision, given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 crisis and it continues to support individuals, families and households across the country. Most legislation permits emergency measures to be introduced but it is not ideal in the longer term. That is why it is important that this legislation is before the House today and that the PUP is put on a permanent footing. It is, I think, everybody's hope that the need for the PUP will diminish over the coming months and I hope that new applications will diminish because people will be getting back to work. That is what we all would hope.
The myriad of other supports and benefits which have been introduced will kick in thereafter. The existing supports, such as the temporary wage subsidy, the restart grants and the rate waivers, are all having a positive impact now on getting people back to work. New supports that will be introduced include the employment wage support scheme, the expansion of the restart grant where payments will increase to €25,000 - I welcome that as part of the July stimulus - the expansion of the commercial rates waiver, the launch of the stay and spend incentive for taxpayers spending on accommodation and dining out between October 2020 and April 2021, and the launch of the €10 million restart fund for the tourism sector.All of these are very important in getting people back to work and, therefore, in getting them off the PUP. We cannot, however, lose sight of the cost of all of these supports, including the PUP. The July jobs stimulus represents a €7.4 billion investment in our economy, which is possible because the previous Government managed the economy well and was able to balance our books. We are therefore seen as worthy of support by lenders.
The stimulus and other programmes and supports introduced since March come to a total of more than €14 billion. As borrowed money will have to be repaid, it is only right that supports and programmes, whether direct grants, payments, supports or loans, are administered carefully and with the consideration that the expenditure of public moneys requires. Part of this includes control measures and reviews to ensure that supports get to the right people or businesses at the right time. It would be reckless to not have such control measures and oversight in place.
We should be thankful that the number of persons in need of the pandemic unemployment payment continues to fall. As the other support measures I have outlined come into operation, I expect that number will continue to fall. With a bit of luck and the continued hard work of the people and medical researchers, it is to be hoped we will soon reach a stage at which the pandemic unemployment payment will not be needed at all.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister and congratulate her on her position. It is difficult and she is now managing two Departments. I wish her well over the coming years.
The Minister is very welcome. I wish her well in her role. She has a tough job ahead. I will just add a couple of points to what has already been said. I was watching the debate but, to be honest, I was not intending to speak. I was genuinely hoping that my colleague, Senator McCallion, would not be the only person to speak up for the people in the North of this country. I really hoped that somebody else here would speak about the unfairness of hard-working people who pay their taxes in the South being entitled to nothing under this Covid payment because of the worst kind of partitionism. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned it, not even Senator Murphy of Fianna Fáil. I guess it is only the republican party as far as the Border at Cavan.
It is grossly unfair. This was an opportunity to reach out to people of all persuasions and all traditions and to do the right thing. The Minister's predecessor used Europe as an excuse but we know that it is not an excuse. Europe has told the Government that it can make these payments if it so chooses. It has chosen not to. It has chosen a partitionist route that is grossly unfair to those workers. Perhaps the next time somebody from another party might speak up for the people in the North. It should not always be just Sinn Féin.
Then of course there are the optics. It has been a tough few days for the Minister. Even as she has tried to double down with regard to welfare recipients before having to do this embarrassing U-turn, we have seen her Government try to push through a €16,000 pay rise for certain Ministers of State before also having to do a U-turn. We have seen one of the Minister's Cabinet colleagues determined to keep his €200,000 per year State car, at a cost of €1 million over the potential term of the Government. It is clear that when one is in with the lads at the top, there is no problem with demanding more money. The people at the bottom, however, will have the welfare inspectors sent after them to see if the money can be taken back off them.
It is funny; I was speaking about workers in meat factories the other day. They waited for weeks to get a health inspector to visit because of the huge dangers of Covid-19, the clusters of cases and the appalling behaviour of employers who really did not give a damn about their workers. They could not get a health inspector out and they could not get any support. There is no problem sending inspectors to the airport to tackle people on welfare, however. It is an extension of the appalling welfare cheats line the Minister's predecessor, the former Taoiseach, came out with. It is the worst kind of class prejudice and should not be let go in this Chamber. That is why I raise it.
My colleague, Senator Wall, mentioned the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC. This group has played a blinder in this regard. It was instrumental in forcing the U-turn the Minister had to make earlier today. I will quote Sinead Lucey, speaking on other concerns she has. She spoke on "the introduction of the requirement to be genuinely seeking work for those on the Covid PUP", on which I also spoke on the Order of Business. She stated:
This is inconsistent with the idea that the payment was intended for people who had been temporarily laid off. It may also disproportionately affect those with no child care during the pandemic and small business owners.
It certainly will.Will the Minister comment on that?
My final point is a little bit awkward but I must make it. I agree with my colleague, Senator McCallion, that members of Government parties need to be here to explain their position on this Bill. I believe the point Senator McCallion was making was that, at times, some people, particularly in Fianna Fáil, tend to act as though they are not actually in government when talking to the Minister. It certainly frustrates me. Where is the third party in this Government today? Where are its Senators? Have they made a choice not to be in government this afternoon? We all have tough speeches to make.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her. I thank the former Minister, Senator Doherty, and welcome the extension of the pandemic unemployment payment to April. It is a matter of social solidarity. The employment wage subsidy scheme allows for businesses to open or to remain open, but it is also about keeping jobs through the winter. Everything we do should be to protect people and to create, sustain and protect employment. That is what Government is about. The Government and local authorities should look after businesses and workers. I make the point again that we must work with our banks and that our banks must be held to account.
I hear Senator Gavan, for whom I have great respect, making political speeches. His party hawked itself around the country-----
It is important that we work together collaboratively. Your party took a very Punch and Judy approach to going into government. The truth is that you really do not want to be in government at all because you cannot make decisions.
-----speaks in here but does not want to be in government. It prefers to give out on social media and throughout the country. That is its modus operandi. This Government is working to protect people in social solidarity with employers and employees. That is what this Bill is about.
I welcome the measure regarding the cycle to work scheme. We in Government must reimagine how people travel to work. I refer in particular to the e-bike scheme. As a tax incentive, it is about encouraging people.
I have written to the Minister with regard to community employment schemes. I ask her to allow people up to the age of 60 to continue on CLÁR programmes in areas where there are no jobs available and in which it can be difficult to fill vacancies on community employment schemes. I ask her to maintain an open policy with regard to supporting these people and local communities.
As Senator Burke said, the previous Government, in conjunction with other parties, reacted very positively by developing a co-ordinated response to the pandemic to offer people work and security. I welcome the Minister's clarification with regard to travelling abroad and the fact that there is now certainty. I have a question for people. Is it okay to keep paying money to people who are leaving the country without intending to return? I am only posing the question.
I stand in solidarity with the Debenhams workers, as other Members have. They have been treated appallingly by the company. These workers have been sacrificed at the altar of Covid-19. It is wrong, unfair and unjust. The workers in Debenhams deserve to be treated fairly and to have their status recognised by Government. Senator Ruane referred to the arts sector. I will not dwell on that other than to say I support her comments.
I am the Seanad spokesperson on aviation. I have met a number of travel agents, who are asking that Government consider giving assistance to people who in good faith have paid for holidays. Due to Covid-19, there was rightly a restriction on travel to certain areas. If a flight departs, however, the people booked on it will not gain compensation. Flights are departing but airlines are filling the planes with cargo so they can make their money either way. We have created a green list but I ask that Government take a clear stance to give a sense of security to people who have paid for their holidays in good faith and who want to abide by the green list. It is important we encourage people not to travel but that we ensure they receive compensation and that the airlines and the hotels in other countries do not benefit from this misfortune.
I commend the Minister on her work and thank her for what she is doing. I look forward to the remainder of the debate.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House and wish her well in her new role. A number of major challenges face the Department: pensions, the sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund, and how we will get people into work who want to work but cannot for a whole variety of reasons, including childcare, other caring responsibilities or disability. Disability is a very significant challenge facing the country. We faced it before Covid and will face it all the more post Covid.
I have a specific question about the Bill before the House. It relates to Chapter 12B and the definition of "genuinely seeking work". We need clarity from the Minister as to whether genuinely seeking work means that persons need to be actively seeking work and, if so, whether they face the prospect of having their entitlements cut off by a social welfare inspector if they are not making sufficient effort. Does genuinely seeking work mean that people can rely on the social safety net of the State until such time as their sector, their type of work, is fully back up and running? The events of recent days seem to suggest no tolerance other than for those who can prove they are seeking work and ready to take that work up immediately. We know there are sectors, such as hospitality and the arts, that simply cannot reopen at present. It feels like the Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, I think many of us have been led to believe by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that anybody out of work should be seeking work at the moment, yet on the other hand, we know from the Department with responsibility for the arts - the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has spoken about this - about the challenges facing the arts sector and that it will take time for the sector to reopen fully. We therefore need clarity as to what genuinely seeking work means.
What is most egregious about the push to be genuinely seeking work or actively seeking work is that it misses the point that there are people who want to work, especially women, but who cannot because they cannot access childcare places. They have had to leave their employment because they have small babies. They are ready to go back to work, yet few crèches are taking on children under the age of one at the moment. This is for understandable reasons. They are coping with the children they are already caring for. There is, however, no provision put in place for these mothers. It is egregious and misses the point of what the arts sector is about, that these people's life ambition is to work in the arts, whether to perform, to make performance happen, to create or to showcase creation. Many do it not for the money but for the love of it. Yes, they need to make a decent living from it, but they do not expect to make a fortune. The key issue is that they do not want to retrain or to avail of all the training and reskilling opportunities announced by the Government.Those opportunities are to be very much welcomed, but they are not for those in this sector. They need their sector to reopen, and it cannot do so until such time as the pandemic passes. It seems from the various comments that have been made over recent days by the Minister, the Department and others in government that those working in the arts and those who are unable to work or who are dependent on the pandemic payment should go out and get a job, whatever job that may be. As a country, we have to be better than that. The Government has to be better than that and we need assurances that those whose sectors have not reopened will not be forced into taking any job. They already face the truly terrible prospect of seeing their pandemic unemployment payment cut in stages over the coming months. This policy has been introduced by the Department in the full knowledge that some sectors will not reopen in the coming months. These workers are already facing a penalty. I ask the Minister not to add to that penalty by forcing them into any job.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Go n-éirí go geal léi ina dualgas nua. During the interregnum I saw the Minister on a number of occasions. She has had a busy time and I wish her well in her brief.
I will start by quoting a letter I received from a supporter of mine which expresses the confusion and fear caused to people where there are governance and administrative complications such as the one that has arisen in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment and the impact on people of travelling abroad, in respect of which issues and controversies have arisen.
I am writing to you regarding the legislation passed tonight by the Dáil regarding the PUP entitlement. My husband was "temporarily laid off work" last March due to the pandemic. He works for a distribution company depending on restaurants, hotels and bars, which are either closed or partially open due to the Covid restrictions. Hotels are at reduced capacity due to the need for deep cleaning, social distancing rules, no [tourists from abroad] etc (enforced by the government). He wants to go back to his own employment but the company is not at full capacity yet through no fault of their own.
We both are shocked, distressed and worried about the new threat from the government to withhold payments of PUP unless "genuinely seeking work". I am wondering where is this "work" going to miraculously come from in a pandemic?
My husband was forced to leave work due to a lockdown. He has lost months of his full salary and contributions to his private pension have ceased and he will face a tax bill at the end of the year for the PUP. He is "genuinely seeking" to return to his employment as he is 54 years old and not qualified for another job. Besides this, his employer has not let him go permanently. My husband doesn't know where he stands.
I have no doubt but that in response to a concern such as this, the Minister would say these people are not being targeted and that these are the people the Government seeks to protect in this situation. One of the lessons we all have to learn is that when we talk about restrictions on people, welfare payments and so on, there has to be good and clear governance. It has to be clear what the law is and where the powers that are exercised come from. There is a validity, therefore, to the interventions in recent days by the likes of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and so on.
That said, I wonder sometimes about the narrative that takes hold. I have a lot of sympathy for what Senator Buttimer said. People such as the person I have just quoted will need the support of the State. We are only at the beginning of this crisis, and the financial hit that will come from the pandemic will ask hard questions of us all. The discontent in recent days about ministerial salaries and so on is only beginning. All of us as a society, particularly those of us who are fortunate enough to be in permanent, pensionable employment, will, before this is all over, be asked for sacrifices, which we will have to be ready to make. It is important, therefore, that as we seek to cater for people who have lost their jobs and are in situations of uncertainty, we recognise that welfare fraud is not a matter of class prejudice.The Government has a duty to try to investigate and prevent fraud so that it will have the resources to help people like my correspondent and her family. There must be good governance and accountability, but it is a bad idea to politicise these issues because one ends up creating fears for people. A back bench Deputy stated that the actions taken showed that Ireland was just steps away from being a police state. That language is not acceptable. If people like the Deputy use such language, it shows that they have never been in a police state and will not have the language they need to discuss genuine human rights abuses and what is really a police state. There are complex issues that may have to be addressed. In another example from recent days, I believe Mr. Brian Killoran of the Immigrant Council of Ireland described a situation where a gentleman from Pakistan had had his phone records examined to see whether his relationship with his Polish wife was bona fide before he could get back into the country. I had a great deal of sympathy for that man - his document should have been enough - but I have to acknowledge in the same breath that, although some people have documents, there is more going on behind the scenes involving fraud, arrangements being made to cheat the system and so on.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the people who try to run our system, but there must be good governance and a clear legal basis. On the other side, NGOs and politicians must mind their language so as not to overstate the problem when problems and mistakes occur.
I welcome the Minister to what is usually the Dáil Chamber. It must feel strange.
I welcome the Bill and how the PUP is being placed on a statutory footing. I also welcome the clarity that the Minister has given people in recent days, especially concerning those sectors that have not yet opened.
I enjoyed Senator McCallion's humorous references to tongue twisters and flip-flops. However, I laughed out loud at her advice on how to work in a coalition and put public health rather than party politics first and her comments about how those who made the rules should be accountable for them. Perhaps she should communicate that to her own party and call for similar levels of support in the North for a PUP like the one we have.
I thank the Senators for their good wishes and contributions. I will first clarify a matter. Sometimes, we forget that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and it is important that we follow public health advice. Today, I announced that I would be changing the regulations to allow people on unemployment payments to travel to countries on the green list for two weeks and still retain their benefits. Everything else remains the same. People can travel abroad for essential reasons such as a family bereavement, essential healthcare or other medical reasons. So that their payments are not impacted, though, they must explain to their local Intreo offices that they must travel abroad so that the offices know. Other than that, the public health advice is to stay in this country. That is it; it is very simple. Senators heard NPHET say that - they hear it every evening. Unfortunately, the Covid virus has not gone away. We must be careful, and the safest place to do that is at home. However, people can travel to the countries on the green list because the infection rates there are the same as or lower than in this country. As such, I have included them on the list in the regulations. A number of queries were raised by Senators and I will try to address as many as I can in the short time I have.
Senator Burke spoke about travelling. If someone has to travel, he or she should tell the local Intreo office.
Sole traders are now on the payment. I accept they are worried that, if they get a bit of work and go off the payment, they might not have any income, but many of them will be entitled to an enterprise support grant if they do not have premises that they work from, that is, if they do not pay rates and, consequently, qualify for the restart grant. If they find that they have no work, they are entitled to return to the jobseeker's payment.
I wish to be clear about the sharing of information because there is a great deal of misinformation going around about this matter. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection does not collect or share information with other agencies in the way alluded to in the House. The Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, does not pass travel information to the Department. The Department does not have access to travel data, nor does it have access to travel locator forms from any airport or port. Nor does the Department receive travel information from the Department of Justice and Equality. As part of its normal work, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work in which they are engaged. The legal basis for the control and compliance checks is section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. These checks are carried out because certain social welfare payments are only paid to people residing in the State. These compliance checks involve inspectors speaking directly with passengers and any information gathered is only used for the purpose for which it is gathered. A social welfare inspector has legal powers under the social welfare legislation to ask for PPS numbers.
Social welfare inspectors have to be approved by the DAA to work in the airport and have all the DAA clearances necessary to work there. They all have Dublin Airport identity cards, with a part of the process to get such a card being the need to be Garda vetted and to undergo security awareness training.
It is clear from all of this that inspectors have those powers and have done so for many years. Anyone whose payment is stopped and who believes it should not have been should contact his or her local Intreo office. Senator Ardagh raised that matter. We are not receiving any information from any third party.
The Covid payment is €350, which will reduce on 15 September. As such, there will not be a large tax liability on the payment unless someone earns a significant amount of money. Obviously, someone's income is liable for tax regardless of where it comes from once it goes over a certain limit.
Regarding being available for work, I will go back a little bit. In March and April when the whole of the economy was shut down due to Covid-19, we were obviously not going to ask people to look for a job. We are not in that space any more, though. The economy is reopening, businesses are returning and we hope that, on 10 August, pubs and so on will reopen. The Department will take a practical approach. If someone is in a sector that will reopen soon, that is okay, but we must realise that many people will unfortunately not be returning to their pre-Covid jobs. We want them to start looking for work, and they want to get back working as well. That is why we have invested up to €200 million in employment and labour activation supports, which were announced last week. We have extended the PUP to next April. Is any Senator present suggesting that people should not be looking for work between now and next April? They want to return to work and we want to help them in that.That is the message I want to send. We are here to help people. We want to help them to relocate to other sectors. The Department will take a practical approach to those sectors that have not opened up.
The temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme has been amended so that employers can get a €203 subsidy in respect of new staff they take on. We have done that to encourage and help employers to take on people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19. Everything this Government is doing is about helping people to get back to work. I take on board Senator Buttimer's points about community employment schemes.
There are a few more things I wish to raise. In response to Senator Murphy, I note that since 13 March the Department has stopped payment of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment in 2,500 cases, of which 2,000 relate to Dublin Airport and 500 to other ports and airports. Had those claims not been stopped, the Department would have incurred an additional charge of €20.5 million. It would have cost the taxpayer €20.5 million to make payments to people who were not entitled to receive them because they lived outside this country.
The vast majority of these people were not going on holidays. They were leaving the country. Once someone lives outside this country, he or she is not entitled to the payments. There are a small number of people who may have travelled abroad while genuinely unaware of the criteria. We will review those cases.
Self-employed people eligible for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, including those in the arts and entertainment sector, have been assessed based on the returns they made to the Revenue Commissioners for their 2018 earnings. If they believe an assessment of their 2019 earnings would produce a better outcome, they can submit the evidence of those earnings to the Department. They should also file their 2019 accounts with Revenue.
People aged 66 years and older are already receiving a social protection income through the State pension framework. People embrace that fact. Such persons receive either the contributory State pension based on pay-related social insurance, PRSI contributions, or the non-contributory means-tested pension. The maximum weekly payment to someone in receipt of the contributory State pension in a two-person household with an adult dependent who is over 66 is €470. The maximum rate of payment to a recipient of the non-contributory pension living in a two-person household is €393.60. People over 66 are also entitled to other benefits such as the free travel pass.
Regarding workers in Northern Ireland, the position for frontier workers is no different with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment than with any other unemployment benefit. Members will know that EU regulations govern our treatment of frontier workers. We have correctly followed the same approach here. Under the current EU rules, the member state of residence is the member state responsible for the payment of unemployment benefit. I have listened to the Sinn Féin Members during this debate and I have to say there is a certain hypocrisy here. Their party is in government in Northern Ireland, where people who lost their job due to Covid-19 receive €100 as opposed to €350 here. A person under 25 who lost his or her job in Northern Ireland receives less than €60 a week. Sinn Féin criticises this Government when it is providing payment that is many times what Sinn Féin provides to people in Northern Ireland.
Senator Carrigy referred to payments made via post offices. We have changed some of the payments. They are now made on a weekly basis. The restored payments are the schemes classified as short term. They include the one-parent family payment, the working family payment, illness benefit, maternity benefit, paternity benefit, jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit.They will all be weekly payments from 17 August. Some recipients will get their payments on 10 August. The only ones that have not been changed yet are pensions, disability allowance, carer's allowance and carer's benefit. Based on public health advice, it was felt that recipients of these payments should not be going out often as they are at more risk. We will review this in light of public health advice.
I think I have covered most of the issues that were raised here. I am happy to answer any further questions as we proceed.
Once the Minister has given her reply, Members are not allowed to speak again. The Senator can make her point on Committee Stage. I thank the Minister for coming before the House and congratulate her on her new portfolio. I was delighted to serve with her on the all-party consultation group on commemorations, which was a huge success under her chairmanship. Commemorations were a very difficult subject. A lot of things could have gone wrong, but thankfully it was a huge success because she was the chair. It was a huge challenge but Deputy Humphreys rose to it, as she is doing in her current portfolio.