Thursday, 16 December 2021
Social Welfare Bill 2021: Second Stage
I am very pleased to bring this Bill to Seanad Éireann which gives legislative effect to the measures announced on budget day. This is the largest set of social welfare measures announced in 14 years and amounts to some €558 million in additional spending in 2022. Most of the additional expenditure, over two thirds of the total, will go towards protecting core rates of payment for social welfare recipients as committed to in the programme for Government. As such, the provisions of the Bill give effect to across-the-board increases in weekly payments for pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents and jobseekers. I consider it appropriate that we take this action now to address the additional financial pressure on social welfare recipients. It is important also that we continue to take targeted actions to provide supports for those who are most in need. That is why the Bill also provides for a series of measures that has a focus on carers, lone parents, low-income families and people with disabilities.
As I have stated previously, a priority for me, since I became Minister for Social Protection, has been supporting our carers. Family Carers Ireland estimate that 45,000 existing carers currently on reduced payment rates will benefit from the changes that we are making to the means test. In addition, thousands more who up to now have not qualified for the carer's allowance payment will now be brought into the scheme. The pandemic has been particularly difficult for carers and I am pleased to be the first Minister for Social Protection since the mid-2000s to make changes to the means test.
Last year I increased the carer's support grant to its highest ever level. This year I have reformed the means test and increased the weekly carer's payment. Next year my priority will be to ensure that carers are provided with a pension. I am very appreciative of the positive reaction from colleagues in Dáil Éireann to the measures announced for carers in the budget and look forward to hearing the views of Senators.
As with previous budget day announcements, not all of the measures are included in the Bill. That is because they do not require amendments to primary legislation. One of these measures is the
As a former Minister with responsibility for business, I know that the retail community is still feeling the impact of Covid-19. The past two years have been so difficult for our small and medium-sized businesses. Therefore, I urge everyone to consider spending the Christmas bonus locally this year. I firmly believe that if we make efforts to keep business in towns then we will keep towns in business.
Other measures that do not require an amendment to primary legislation are to be introduced by regulation or on an administrative basis. These include: a provision to reduce the minimum number of contributions required for people aged between 25 and 28 to access the treatment benefit scheme; an increase of €5 per week as well as the uplift in the income threshold for qualification, in the fuel allowance payment, both of which I ensured took effect from budget week; the extension of the hot school meals programme; the equalisation of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance thresholds for one and two-parent households; the extension of access to support grants for jobseekers with disabilities, for example, towards a sign language interpreter, personal reader or workplace adaptation grant; and increasing the rate of the wage subsidy scheme for employers of people with disabilities by €1 per hour, which is the equivalent to 60% of the national minimum wage.
I shall now discuss the sections of the Bill. Section 1 is the commencement provision. Section 2 provides for definitions in the Act. Section 3 takes account of the increase in the minimum wage from €10.20 to €10.50 per hour. It provides for an increase in the reckonable earnings threshold for employees from €398 to €410 whereby employer PRSI contributions are paid at the lower rate of 8.8%. Employers with employees benefitting from the increase in the national minimum wage will continue to attract the lower rate of employer PRSI. It is intended that this section will come into operation on the same day as the national minimum wage increase on 1 January 2022.
Section 4 provides that for the purposes of the Covid-19 employment wage support scheme, the employer PRSI contribution rate of 0.5% will cease on 28 February 2022. The effect will be a reversion to the standard employer social insurance contribution rates of either 8.8% or 11.05%, depending on the income of the employee. Section 5 provides for a €5 increase in the weekly rate of maternity benefit from €245 to €250 from 3 January 2022. Sections 6 and 7 provide for the equivalent increases for adoptive and paternity benefits, respectively.
Section 8 extends the duration for which parent's benefit is payable from five weeks to seven weeks. That is in line with Ireland's commitments under the EU work-life balance directive. This scheme has proved to be very popular, which is reflected in a significant increase in claims this year. I am pleased to be able to extend it by a further two weeks next year to support families with young children.
My colleague, Deputy O'Gorman, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, will make a corresponding amendment to the associated parent's leave provisions. I understand that this is likely to be done by way of regulation.
Section 9 provides for the rate increase for parent's benefit. Section 10 is to give effect to the increases in the graduated rates of jobseeker's benefit. Jobseeker's benefit rates are graduated according to earnings in the relevant tax year. Section 11 provides that the amount payable for a qualified adult on a graduated jobseeker's benefit claim will increase from €87.20 to €89.30 per week.Section 12 provides for a grant of up to €500 towards the cost of a wig or hairpiece for people suffering from hair loss as a direct result of an illness or treatment for an illness. This is a new measure I am introducing under the treatment benefit scheme and it will be of particular benefit to persons who suffer hair loss as a result of conditions such as alopecia or who are undergoing chemotherapy.
Section 13 will see about 18,000 disability allowance recipients gain up to €5 per week on top of the general increase. That is because this section will provide for an increase in the general weekly means disregard for disability allowance.
Section 14 provides for a €10 increase in the weekly income thresholds of the working family payment for all family sizes. Working families on the scheme will benefit by up to €6 per week. This payment, formerly known as the family income supplement, is a weekly tax-free supplement available to employees with children. It gives additional financial support to people in employment and on low pay.
Section 15 is the first of two provisions that were not announced on budget day. It will provide for periods spent in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to be counted towards the number of days of continuous unemployment required on a relevant payment to qualify for the back-to-work family dividend. This is a weekly payment to help people with children to move from social welfare into work.
Section 16 is a technical amendment to remove an out-of-date reference to section 238F.
Section 17 contains the other provision that was not announced on budget day. The aim of this section is to provide that the Minister may designate one or more officials to act as a deputy chief appeals officer. That person will be designated to deputise for the chief appeals officer if the latter is not available to perform his or her duties. This should ease the administrative burden on the chief appeals officer and will, I hope, help speed up the social welfare appeals process and improve turnaround times, something I know Senators will welcome.
Section 18 gives effect to increases in the qualified child payment and the living alone allowance for claimants in receipt of social insurance benefits. For most social insurance and assistance payments, an increase is paid for dependent children. The €3 increase for qualified child dependants aged 12 and over from €45 to €48 per week recognises the additional expenditure required during the teenage years. The payment in respect of qualified children under 12 will increase by €2, from €38 to €40 per week, continuing the policy of recent years that has been informed by research on the minimum essential standard of living conducted by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.
The living alone increase is an extra payment for people on certain social welfare payments who live alone. The Bill will provide for an increase of €3 per week, from €19 to €22. Taken together with the €5 per week increase in last year's budget, this represents a substantial increase of 57% in the living alone allowance since the Government came into office.
Section 19 will provide for increases in the weekly rates of social insurance payments. Section 20 allows for a significant expansion in the list of agri-environmental schemes attracting the specific means disregard applicable to farm assist, jobseeker's allowance and the non-contributory State pension. These schemes attract a disregard of €2,540, with the remaining balance over that amount assessed at 50%. This provision will support Ireland's climate action agenda by removing a potential barrier for low-income farmers to participating in agri-environmental schemes.
Section 21 will provide for an increase of €30,000 in the exempted capital value when calculating means for the carer's allowance. Assessment of capital is part of the means test along with an assessment of income. Capital includes savings, investments and property, other than the family home or principal private residence. This section will provide for an increase from €20,000 to €50,000 in the exempted capital value when calculating means for the carer's allowance. This increase will allow carers who have accumulated savings to retain their investment without it impacting on their carer's payment. Together with the increase in the weekly earnings disregard, thousands of carers will gain from these significant improvements. These increases will benefit recipients who are currently on reduced payments and will broaden the net and bring in new applicants to the scheme.
Section 22 will provide for increases for qualified children and the living alone allowance for recipients on means-tested payments. This is a mirror of the provisions set out in section 18 in respect of payments based on social insurance contributions. The increase in the living alone allowance by €3 to €22 will benefit 230,000 pensioners and people with disabilities, while the uplift in increases for qualified children will be received by 372,000 beneficiaries.
Section 23 will provide for increases in the rates of social assistance payments, including a €5 per week increase in the maximum personal rate. This is equivalent to provisions set out in section 19 in respect of payments based on social insurance contributions and is intended to address commitments in the programme for Government to protecting core social welfare rates of payment.
Section 24 will provide for an amendment to the end date of the Covid credit guarantee scheme. I agreed with the Tánaiste to carry this provision in this Bill. The Government approved the €2 billion Covid credit guarantee scheme in 2020 as one of the main supports for Covid-impacted businesses. The scheme was due to end on 31 December 2021. It is now intended this scheme will be extended until the end of June 2022. However, this legislation allows it to be extended to 31 December 2022, in case the more relaxed state aid rules are extended beyond the end of June.
I am sharing time with Senator Kyne.
I welcome the Minister. This is the largest budget that has been delivered by the Department for years. I think it amounts to €23.5 billion in total, a phenomenal achievement. I acknowledge the Minister, her Department and the officials in the Department. I know she is very proud of the work they have done, especially over the past 18 months. Along with the Department of Health, no other Department has been under as much pressure to get support immediately to people who have needed it. I put on record our appreciation, as Fine Gael Senators, for the work the officials have done. We have only to look back to two weeks ago, when the Minister and her Department acted quickly to reinstate PUP payments for people who had been adversely affected by the decisions made by the Government. People appreciate that and acknowledge the Government has acted in the best interests of citizens throughout this pandemic. The Minister's Department, in particular, has played a significant role in that.
There is so much contained in the Bill that I cannot cover it in my allocated time, so I will point out and acknowledge just a couple of aspects. The first relates to the Christmas bonus. It is welcome that will be delivered to pensioners, carers, lone parents and people with disabilities. The small but important changes the Minister has made in that regard, reducing it from 15 to 12 months, will make a huge difference. That people who might have been receiving PUP and then moved to jobseeker's will be taken into account will have a significant impact on people and will allow people to qualify who might not have done previously.
One aspect that is personal to me relates to the changes the Minister has made, not just this year but in successive years, to the parent's benefit. She mentioned how the provision has increased from five weeks to seven weeks, which is very welcome, but in her time as Minister it has increased from two weeks to seven weeks. There has been an increase of five weeks, therefore, since she has been Minister. In my case, my wife was racing to get the final three weeks she could get when the announcement of the increase to five weeks was made last year. It is worth noting how many men take that time off. They see the benefit in the early stages of a child's life of being at home as a couple and a family. The more of these supports we offer, through the Minister in particular, the more it will benefit that family structure. As a Government, supporting that family network, especially at that time of life, is important.
The Minister spoke about her commitment to the carer's allowance. She will be aware that Senators held a meeting with family carer representatives before the budget and they made an awful lot of requests, one of which related to the income disregard for the carer's allowance. They had asked year after year for it to be increased in order that more people could be included and could come into the threshold. Deputy Humphreys is the first Minister to take such a step for more than ten years, for which they are really grateful. That people who are single and had earned €332 will see their payment increased to €350, while couples who had earned €665 will earn €750, will make a considerable difference to people. Similarly, the increase in the capital savings disregard from €20,000 to €50,000 will have a big impact.
Finally, there is a €3 million budget for hot school meals, a programme that is to come on stream next month. That is very welcome and it will make a big difference to schools in my community in County Tipperary. I am thinking of schools in Tipperary town in particular that have applied for the scheme, and more schools will come on board. Does the Minister foresee an opportunity to expand that even further over the coming years? It is very important for the kids in those areas and I can see the benefits already in Tipperary town and other schools throughout the county.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As I said on numerous occasions, social protection and social welfare are a safety net for people in the State when they need support. If Covid has taught people anything it is that those who thought they would never be reliant on core social welfare payments found themselves requiring support for themselves, their families or their businesses. This has to be recognised. It may put a different perspective in some people's minds on the importance of the social welfare budget. It affects every aspect of life. It is not just child benefit or pensions, which are universal payments, but all of the other payments that impact people across the spectrum. Covid has changed people's perspective on this. It is important the core payments are protected. The majority of additional spending the Minister announced in the budget does this. It is very welcome and I concur with others on the importance of the Christmas bonus and that it is back at 100%. People have received it.
The Minister mentioned carers. I am chair of the Fine Gael Party group on health and disability. We have had a series of meetings with carers. We recognise the importance of carers in every household impacted. We never know when we might need a family carer or when something very sudden might happen, such as a stroke or a fall, and a loved one needs support. It is important the State is there to provide assistance to family members to care for loved ones. The change the Minister has made will make it easier to qualify. As people get older it is something that will become more prominent. Nursing homes have done a tremendous job but caring for people at home must be the first port of call where it is possible. I appreciate that it is not always possible. It is easier for larger families. It is easier where there is a primary carer, such a husband or wife who is fit and healthy and able to assist or a sibling. It has an impact on the lives of family members and siblings who in many cases put their lives on hold to care for family members. Every support the Minister has provided and can provide in future should be done.
I welcome the changes and recognition that we have to keep pace with changes in the agricultural sector with regard to income disregard for environmental schemes. These schemes generally require an amount of investment. Whatever income is received should be disregarded and the Minister has looked at this.
It is important that we continue to keep schemes under review. When we increase the minimum wage or other supports people should not suddenly lose an additional support they badly need. It is important that all of these things are kept under review and there is an assessment based on inflationary pressures. Increases in one scheme should not result in people losing out under another scheme. It is a comprehensive budget and a comprehensive package. It is clear from the Minister's work on the budget and social protection that she understands the minutiae and workings of each of the schemes. She has practical experience in how they operate and she has tried to make them fairer and more accessible for people who need those supports.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. I pay compliment to her and the Department on how quickly they reacted over recent years with the Covid-19 crisis. It cannot have been easy but by God they turned it around very quickly when they were asked to do so. On a personal note, when a member of the Cabinet needed maternity leave the Minister stepped up to the plate and took on two very difficult Departments. She is to be congratulated on this and I hope that in the near future proper legislation will be in place to facilitate maternity leave for members of the Cabinet, Members of both Houses and local authorities.
I could not let the day go without having something to moan about. It is the nature of the beast. I take this opportunity every year to speak about class K PRSI. Class K PRSI for officeholders was introduced in 2011 under the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2010. For the first time, all officeholders, including Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, judges, the Attorney General, the President and those in receipt of non-earned income, were subjected to pay class K PRSI. It is deducted at a rate of 4% from salary but there are no entitlement to social protection benefits. As soon as I was elected to the Seanad in 2014, I raised this issue on a regular basis and began work on a rapporteur's report with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection at the time. The report was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I understand a second rapporteur's report has since been delivered on class K. To date there has been no progress on the matter despite numerous debates and reports.
When a number of local authority members and I challenged this in the courts the then Minister with responsibility for social protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, anticipated the outcome of the legal challenge and introduced an amendment to the Social Welfare Bill 2016 on Committee Stage to remove city and county councillors from the officeholder category. Their PRSI contributions were changed to class S. It is my contention the continued imposition of class K PRSI on all officeholders, including Members of the Oireachtas, is unconstitutional as officeholders are paying for a social welfare fund without a right to benefits from it. Would any of us take out an insurance policy on our home or health if we could not draw down in it?
There is a misconception that Members of the Oireachtas leave here with cushy pensions and that we are well looked after. All of us in the House know how precarious the profession of politics has become. At the last election, a number of one-time Deputies and Senators lost their seats. In doing so at a time of a national pandemic they found they could not get employment. When they were unable to get employment, they were unable to draw on social welfare contributions. They found themselves in dire straits. This is not the comfortable golden handshake job people think it is. Many of our former colleague suffered badly when they left the House after the last election.
There are several problems with class K PRSI of which I am sure the Minister is aware. The insurance benefit that accrues to a person paying class K PRSI are nil. The terms and conditions of employment of elected Senators and Deputies carry no entitlements to illness benefits if a person falls ill after the end of the Dáil period and an election is called. They have nothing to draw down on. They are not entitled to any benefit with respect to unemployment. More important, their social welfare record is broken. This will impact people in years to come. It may not be today or tomorrow but it will impact them in years to come.
The argument has been made that we can make voluntary contributions and that we should do so as Members of the Oireachtas. The voluntary contribution is not as simple as it sounds. The cost of voluntary contributions is exorbitant. For people on class S PRSI when they come in here a voluntary contribution is approximately €500. If people are on a class A when they come in here and wish to keep the class A up and running they pay €5,000. People would be a long time on social welfare before they saw that back.
From the perspective of a Member of the House, the class K PRSI is a tax on public service. This is the only way it can be interpreted. The same applies to members of the Judiciary and the President.One can argue that they are all well paid, but that is not the point. Social protection insurance is not where that money should be deducted. If the Government wants to take 4% off me because I am a well-paid Member of the Oireachtas, it can take that in tax. It can put in a special tax rate for public servants and do it right but, for God's sake, it should take class K contributions out of the Social Welfare Bill. They should not be there.
I have received countless letters and emails from people on the issue of unearned income. I refer to a married couple. One of them is paying class S contributions on rental income and the other is paying class K contributions on that income. This is because of their different employment circumstances. In one case, the rental income they have is unearned income, while, in the other, it is part of their income stream. I agree that people who benefit from share purchases and the like should make a contribution to society, but doing it through the Social Welfare Bill is not the way to go. I understand that it takes time to move these things along but we have been talking about this since 2014.
I am not going to submit amendments at this stage. This is something that can be done by the Minister in collaboration with her staff. She can find a way to rejig that section. It is just wrong. As I stated, I am in no way against someone paying 4% of their income as a result of holding a particular office, but it should be done through the tax system and leave us with our social protection in place. Several former colleagues who left here in 2020 suffered badly as a result of the situation relating to class K contributions. I will leave it at that. I again ask the Minister to pass on to her staff our gratitude for the tremendous work they have done in the past two years.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. It is great to see her here. I think she comes to the Seanad once a year and Senators usually have a list of asks for her. My asks will come at the very end of my contribution.
It is important to recognise why we have a Department of Social Protection. I will rely on statistics compiled by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. There are 630,000 people who live below the poverty line. I know it is the Minister's job and she is passionate about bringing those people above the poverty line. Almost one in four children experiences enforced deprivation. One in four primary school children did not have tools to access learning supports during Covid. That is an issue about which I am particularly passionate. I live and work in a very disadvantaged area in the constituency of Dublin South-Central. When schools closed, many children there were not able to access resources. They were not able to go online to continue their education. That was very harmful to many children. There is also the fact that lone parents are five times more likely to be working below the poverty line. There are more than 240,000 people who are unable to keep their homes warm. The Minister has already touched on that issue. There are significant social justice issues and I know that the Minister is working hard to tackle them. As Senators in partnership with her in government, I and my colleagues wish to support her in that regard.
I hope to be joined by colleagues in commending the work her Department has done across the board. As soon as Covid arrived, the Department hit the ground running and stepped up all its administration. There were no delays. Everyone who sought the PUP got it. There was no waiting six months for payment; it was just done. That has to be commended because it was a significant feat. The Department really stepped up.
In the context of the Bill before the House, as colleagues and the Minister have stated, this is the biggest budget package in the past 14 years. It is a significant Bill containing more than €600 million worth of measures. There is the €5 increase across all social welfare payments that was announced in the budget, as well as targeted measures for those living alone and the vulnerable and an increase in the fuel allowance. Some €23.3 billion will be spent on social welfare in 2022, including an €870 million budget package.
As the Minister stated, she spearheaded the change in means testing for the carer's allowance. I know that I and all my Fianna Fáil colleagues, such as Deputy Calleary and Senator Chambers, have worked with carers to try to promote and seek that amendment. It is very welcome. Many carers around the country will be included in the scheme, which is fantastic. The Minister stated that she will introduce a pension for carers, which will be welcomed. Will it be a stand-alone pension or will it be part of the whole review of the pension system? In the previous Government, we had a significant amount of debate on the new pension scheme. I ask the Minister to provide an update on that issue.
There are a few local issues I wish to raise. There are so many great things in this budget. It is a significant package. However, we only get to see the Minister once or twice a year and, as such, I have to bring up the issue of local employment services. Obviously, she is well aware of the tendering crisis. It has affected employment services for those with a disability, among others. EmployAbility in Bluebell, for instance, will not be putting its services out to tender again. This issue is affecting so many service users who have come to me. They are really disappointed. There are issues there. I have raised the matter previously in the House. I know there is a significant amount of engagement going on with service providers but, ultimately, it is the service users who are affected. I hope the impasse can be overcome. Obviously, there is the idea that the service should not be privatised. It might be necessary to consider a hybrid model where the State steps in, especially in the context of vulnerable people who have disabilities. Their access to employment should not be hampered in any way.
Under section 4, the employers' contribution rate will be cut on 28 February, from 0.5% back to the previous rate. Could that be reviewed in light of the fact that we are seeing more restrictions coming down the line and Covid has not left? Another section provides for the credit guarantee scheme to be kept open until the end of June. Perhaps the employers' contribution rate could be addressed in line with that provision. There may be something else the Minister can do in the context of extending the 0.5% PRSI contribution rate for employers because they are still very badly hit by Covid, particularly with the new restrictions. Many of those in the hospitality sector are very much still feeling the pinch.
Every year, I ask for an increase in the threshold for fuel allowance because, as many Senators are aware, if one qualifies for fuel allowance, one also qualifies for ancillary benefits such as having one's home wrapped. I know from many people to whom I have spoken that the grants available to retrofit one's house are just not there yet. I know new schemes will be made available in the new year by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I recently spoke to a person with a small house who asked a plumber whether to get a heat pump or do something else. The plumber advised that it would be far cheaper to get another gas or oil boiler. People are not there yet in terms of retrofitting their homes because, even with all the grants, it is still really expensive to do. I know there is a bigger picture of the just transition and we have to get a handle on that. If people for the fuel allowance, they get access to ancillary State supports, such as those relating to house-wrapping insulation, through local health board. In Dublin 12 in particular, a significant number of homes have been wrapped and many of the owners benefited from the supports provided.
I again thank the Minister and her Department. I admire all the work she does and the fact that she stepped in for the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. She did a great job in that term.
The Minister is very welcome. The Bill is about putting into place what was already described in budget 2022. There are a few important points to note. The first is that the Bill has been deemed by independent analysis to be progressive. Second, I and my Green Party colleagues very much want to ensure that the carbon tax is used in a way that will promote this progressive agenda and go towards helping those who are most at risk and in need. That is exactly what the Bill does and what the budget did overall. Third, our priority is to ensure children and families are top of the list when it comes to increases. We recognise that children and young families have in many ways borne the brunt of the pandemic because Covid had a major disruptive effect on social lives, employment prospects in the short term and children's schooling.Putting the next generation first will help to mitigate some of the worst aspects of Covid-19 and put children and young people in a better position to take advantage of a world we hope we will soon be entering. We can see from all the increases outlined that the Minister has emphasised the needs of children and families in this Bill. I believe the same can be seen across Departments.
Regarding this being a progressive budget, Dr. Barra Roantree of the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, stated: "Budget 2022 announced some well-targeted reforms with clear policy objectives, such as the above-inflation increases in welfare supplements for those with dependants and those living alone, which will slightly reduce poverty." That is what we can hope to do over the course of this Government's budgets. This is the largest amount of money ever allocated to social welfare and it has happened under the watch of this Minister. It has also happened, however, under the watch of three parties working together to ensure that we have a fair society. That is what we have done. We have stepped up to the plate to do that. Of course, some people will ask why we did not get more money, but the money must come from somewhere. That is the beginning and end of it.
Some of that money, albeit only a small amount, comes from carbon taxes. We must ensure we incentivise people to do the right things and disincentivise doing the wrong things. In the context of the Minister’s Department, the carbon taxes have paid for an increase to the qualified child payment of €2 per week for children aged under 12 and of €3 per week for children aged over 12, an increase in the living alone allowance of €3 per week, an increase to the fuel allowance of €5 per week and an increase in the income threshold for the working family payment of €10 per week.
Broadly, carbon taxes pay for three things. We ensured when we negotiated the programme for Government, as three parties working together, that the revenue derived from carbon taxes would all be used for energy efficiency measures, assisting farmers to address climate change challenges, particularly small farmers and especially those across the west who face challenges, and tackling fuel poverty and ensuring a just transition, which is where the Department comes into play. All those measures announced in this regard are being funded from moneys coming from carbon taxes.
We can all shy away from the conversation around carbon tax, but it is important. Tax is a nasty word, but in this instance the revenue generated is being ring-fenced for good and to help those people suffering the most in our society. Overall, these proposals are positive and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to outline them. I look forward to her closing statement and to hearing from my colleagues.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I am disappointed with the way we are debating this legislation. The deadline for tabling amendments to the Bill was 11 hours ahead of when the debate in the Dáil concluded. That is no way for the House to conduct its business. That said, I welcome that the Minister took on board many of the concerns addressed in the amendments tabled by my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, in the Dáil last night. The Minister will notice that the same concerns are now being raised in the amendments we have tabled for tomorrow’s debate. This is because the deadline to submit amendments came before the Committee Stage debate had concluded in the Dáil. That is not the way to deal with legislation. If we want people to put work into preparing amendments, we should at least afford them the respect of being able to do that when Committee Stage has finished in the Dáil. That would give us at least the illusion that the amendments might even be given consideration.
I will focus on carers in the budget. I hope they will not have to wait another 14 years to see a change in the income disregard. I acknowledge that change was a welcome move. The State pension for family carers is most important. I ask the Minister to engage with organisations such as Family Carers Ireland to ensure family carers get a full State pension when they reach pension age. It is the very least family carers the length and breadth of this State deserve. Many of them are providing 24-7 care in their homes for loved ones. As the climate justice spokesperson for Sinn Féin, I add that caring is a low-carbon industry. We have not respected that role. We should support and extend the care economy as part of the just transition.
Nobody needs to be told that the costs of energy continue to rise. The 71% increase in the cost of heating oil means families will more than likely spend between €500 and €600 more this winter. Given that many low and middle income families have no access to the fuel allowance, we need something additional. We welcome the scheme announced by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to pay €100 to energy companies, but it will not go far enough. It will certainly not be enough for many people, especially those who are outside the income threshold for the fuel allowance. My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, spoke about the need for a discretionary fund to help working families with their bills.
We cannot just treat the symptoms of energy poverty. We need a strategy to address the problem at source. A third year has now passed where the Government has had no strategy for tackling energy poverty. It lapsed in 2019, and there does not seem to be any urgency in addressing that deficiency. Where is the new energy poverty strategy? I encourage the Minister to raise this as a matter of urgency with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform released a report in 2020 which found there was no way of assessing whether our retrofitting programmes are reducing energy poverty. If private homeowners can afford to retrofit, they can afford to pay their bills. We need to not only address retrofitting from the perspective of reducing our emissions, but also to view retrofitting as a means of lifting people out of energy poverty. I would like to hear when the Central Statistics Office will present the indicators we require to ensure these grants are targeted and will lift people out of energy poverty.
My other focus is on the Government's decision to continue to privatise local employment services, LES. The amendment we tabled in the Dáil was ruled out of order, so I will address some of the issues here. It is outrageous that people are now losing their jobs. I will read from correspondence a woman working in the Galway City Partnership sent to me and all the other Senators. It goes to the heart of the problem. She stated:
I do not want to be made redundant by the actions of ... the Department of Social Protection... . I have been working with the Galway City Partnership for 7 years and I am really worried about being made redundant in 2022 by the same Department that I have effectively been working for all these years, as it seems that those at the top of the Department ... have now deemed that we in the ... Jobs Clubs are simply surplus to their requirements.
We tabled a motion in the Dáil some weeks ago on protecting employment services from Government moves to shift to a for-profit model which threatens the existing not-for-profit and community-based employment services. These existing services are person-focused, offer wrap-around and self-referral services and have successfully been in place for up to 25 years in some cases. When I worked in Ballymun, I saw at first hand the impact these services were having on employment by working with people and getting them into jobs. What is frustrating is that the Government supported that motion, despite stating that it intends to go ahead with the tender process.
The amendments tabled in respect of this Bill were drafted in conjunction with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, which represents many of those working in local employment services. We have also engaged extensively with those working in job clubs. Members of the Fianna Fáil Party are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. In the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and in their local areas, Fianna Fáil representatives have been lamenting the dismantling of local employment services and job clubs. They are all talk because they are not doing anything about it and the tender process is going ahead.
I hope the amendments will not be ruled in order and we can debate the issue more fully tomorrow. We have tabled a range of amendments. I will not labour the points made in them because the Minister gave commitments last night during Committee Stage in the Dáil, and I look forward to holding her to them.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As mentioned in the Dáil, the Labour Party welcomes and will support the Social Welfare Bill 2021. For many, social welfare benefits will be the only source of income. This important legislation will result in an additional €558 million in 2022, as the Minister mentioned. This is very welcome for so many people.
Like other speakers, I want to mention local employment and the contracts. The Minister will be aware that I raised this issue with her and officials from the Department at meetings of the social protection committee. Unfortunately, the Labour Party amendments that would have postponed the new tenders were not allowed in the Lower House yesterday. I ask the Minister to reconsider the Department’s position. I am sure that she, like me, is aware of the decades of service that local employment agencies have given to their communities. She is also aware of the strike action by SIPTU members in local employment services in Laois and Offaly. Employees do not really know what their future holds. Local employment services have been good to our communities. We should continue to recognise their experience and support them by postponing any tender process and allowing them to continue doing the great job they do on behalf of us all.
On 21 October this year, along with colleagues, I introduced the Social Welfare (Surviving Cohabitant’s Pension) Bill 2021 in this House. We are all very aware that the concept of family has changed and that it is time to bring this State into the 21st century. Ireland needs to treat all its families, no matter what their make-up, fairly and in the same way. The 2016 census showed that there are over 75,000 cohabiting couples in Ireland with child dependants, a figure that is likely to be even greater at the time of the next census. If a couple is cohabiting, the Department of Social Protection assesses the means of both members when carrying out a means test for social assistance payments such as the jobseeker’s allowance or the carer’s allowance. It does not provide any guarantee regarding contributory social protection payments, such as the widow’s or widower’s pension that is payable when one member of the couple passes away.
Our Bill sought to address this. My party colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, moved an amendment last night in the Dáil to address this also. Cohabiting has far-reaching impacts on many payments and State supports, not just social welfare payments. In this regard, consider the impact regarding medical cards and mature students going back to college. There are many more examples.
Members of a cohabiting couple cannot claim or transfer unused tax credits between themselves, and there can be an inheritance tax burden when a partner dies. For the assessment of eligibility for social welfare payments, members of a cohabiting couple are treated together for income assessment, in the same way as a married couple is treated, but not if one of them passes away. It is time that the law caught up with modern family life. I acknowledge that the Minister committed to preparing a report on this important matter last night. I believe the changes in our laws will have a positive impact on so many. I and others in the Labour Party look forward to working with the Minister to make those changes and to making the State a place where all families are treated equally.
Later tonight, we will have statements on the live music and entertainment industry. The reintroduction of the PUP is very welcome. In December 2020 the Minister increased the threshold for the self-employed, who can now earn up to €960 over an eight-week period while retaining the full PUP entitlement. This was an increase of €480 over the previous amount. This was widely welcomed by so many at the time. The Department described this as a new measure that allows a self-employed person to take on intermittent jobs or one-off gigs without losing the entitlement to the PUP. The problem for so many in the live music industry, particularly those who find themselves on the lower rates of the PUP, is that there are no one-off gigs or intermittent jobs. They have no additional income and they and their families are suffering. On behalf of so many, I ask the Minister to consider the rate of the PUP for all involved in this regard. It would mean so much to so many, particularly at this important time. Christmas will be hard on the entertainment industry this year. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. Colleagues will be calling for this later tonight, but seeing as we have the Minister in the House now, it is important to address the issue with her.
I want to move on to the subject of carers. The Minister will know that I have raised this with her on so many occasions. I acknowledge the means-test increase introduced in the budget. It is very important to so many people, as the Minister said. I welcome the Minister’s commitment that she will consider providing carers with a pension. That is an important statement by her and her Department. I look forward to working with her on it.
I acknowledge the fantastic work that carers do on a 24–7 basis. Unfortunately, there are still many who do not meet the means-test criteria who are not getting a financial reward from the State. They should. We should be considering this. We need to examine it again. I look forward to working with the Minister on this to the benefit of all those carers who, unfortunately, are not getting the just reward that I and many others believe they should be getting.
The Minister said the measure in section 17 was not announced on budget day. It relates to the designation of a substitute to deputise for the chief appeals officer. Through my office, I am hearing about delays that are affecting several appeals. I welcome the proposal in the Bill. How will it affect the day-to-day running of the social welfare appeals office? What sorts of waiting time reductions will be experienced by those who are waiting on the results of appeals? Like colleagues, I am aware of several appeals that have taken months or, unfortunately, a little longer. I hope the new section 17 in the Bill, which I hope will be accepted, will reduce the waiting times. For so many, the waiting period is too long. I realise the Minister has acknowledged that in contributions and in discussions I have had with her, but she might tell us what she hopes the new section will mean for those waiting on appeals.
I acknowledge the Minister’s staff and all the staff in her Department. Through my office, I am in daily contact with her staff, be they community welfare officers, local staff in the offices in Athy and Newbridge or those who help us with our queries over the Oireachtas lines. At all times they have been very helpful and have quickly and efficiently dealt with my many queries, particularly in these very difficult times. I thank the Minister. If she could pass on my gratitude to her staff, it would be most welcome.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. I wish her and her family, including the new grandchild she had only this year, a really happy Christmas. The first Christmas is always a very special one.
I must highlight a few issues, however. Now, more than ever, is the time to invest proactively and strategically in our public services. While the nominal increase in welfare payments will no doubt be welcomed by recipients, we could see better value for money. People living in Ireland would see a greater return on public money if we prioritised large-scale investment in public services and social expenditure. The Covid-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity in this regard considering the suspension of EU fiscal rules that have long acted as barriers to large-scale public investment and social expenditure. Throughout the pandemic the need for high-quality public services has been demonstrated, but we will not see the improvements we require in our public services with short-term, budget-to-budget thinking and planning. Therefore, I ask the Government to make a genuine investment in our public services in a strategic and ambitious way.
With respect to the nominal increases in social welfare and protection payments provided for in this Bill, we need to acknowledge their true value. A €5 increase in a welfare payment is not really worth €5 in the pocket of the person who receives it. Arbitrary increases to welfare payments like this do not take full account of the impact of inflation, for example. The Parliamentary Budget Office has reported that the increase of €5 to the contributory State pension will represent a decrease of 0.5% in real terms from next year, based on an inflation forecast of 2.5%.
We ought to link social welfare payment increases to inflation, as in many OECD countries, to ensure greater equality and parity in Irish life. Additionally, while the increase in the minimum wage is to be welcomed, it is simply not enough if the living wage in Ireland is assessed as being €12.90. A living wage is a wage that makes a minimum acceptable standard of living possible. We ought to reframe how we think about the minimum wage to take account of this reality. We also need to take into account the reality that in the majority of cases, those in receipt of welfare payments and those on the minimum wage are more likely to live in rented accommodation, for example. We are aware that renters spend a far greater proportion of their income on accommodation than owner occupiers. Nominal increases to welfare and social protection payments fail to acknowledge this.The cost of rent, as we all know, is extremely high at present, which inhibits renters' ability to save, to invest and to accumulate wealth. Ultimately, all this ensures is that the disparity between the rate of return on capital and the rate of growth in the economy as a whole will continue to increase. That will see inequality become more and more pronounced in Irish society, which is a huge worry.
I did not think I had so much time. That is great, as I can talk about the PUP now. I thank the Minister and her staff for the way they have handled this situation, particularly in respect of the music and entertainment industry. I have been working very closely with the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, which is very grateful, as am I, for the respect and dignity the Minister has shown to those in the industry. She has spoken to and met them and her staff have been really helpful too. I acknowledge that. It is genuinely very much appreciated. However, I have to bring up the PUP and the anxiety that many musicians, entertainers and people working behind the scenes feel at present. The PUP has been a true lifeline, as we all know, for those who have found themselves out of work due to Covid-19. I advocated recently for the PUP to be reinstated in full for workers in the music and entertainment industry who are unable to work on account of the latest public health guidelines and guidance. It is right that those restrictions are there but the reality is so depressing. It is practically impossible for people employed in the music and entertainment industry to work in the context of the latest public health advice. I cannot stress this enough. They are not jobseekers. They have jobs, they are highly qualified for those jobs, they love their jobs and they have spent years and years working at them, more so than any person going to college. Some of these people are world-renowned, brilliant musicians. They have the jobs but they are simply unable to do them due to public health restrictions and the public health messaging.
The PUP will therefore continue to be a lifeline for people employed in the music and entertainment industries for the foreseeable future. I implore the Minister to restore the PUP to the full rate of €350 for all the workers who find themselves out of work again, who are mostly musicians and entertainers. There is the 50% capacity restriction. There are an awful lot of musicians, at a lower level, whose gigs have been cancelled and they just do not have work. It is very hard to sit in front of musicians with tears in their eyes, not knowing where they will get the money for their children's Santy presents, their mortgage repayments or their heating bills this Christmas. We should reinstate the €350 rate for all workers. It is a matter for urgency, especially as we approach Christmas. I acknowledge the Minister is keenly aware of the impact this pandemic has had on the unemployed in these industries. I ask for her continued commitment to the workers in this sector. Again, I thank her for the respect and dignity she has shown them. She has no idea what that means because they do not get the respect and dignity they deserve most of the time. That is where I struggle. They are not heard. The Minister's is probably the only Department that has really listened to them, and I thank her again for that. I wish her a very happy Christmas and thank all her staff. They are doing a phenomenal job and they are on the ball. Any time a phone call comes through, they are there and they always have the answers to the questions.
The Minister is welcome to the Chamber. It is great to be able to stand in this House and welcome such a large social welfare package. We can be very proud of our country and the levels of spending we see here across all areas of social protection. That does not happen everywhere in the OECD and beyond. We see a record budget for next year, 2022, involving an increase of €558 million. We see increases across all social protection payment recipients: pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents - everybody is getting an increase to reflect the increase in the cost of living. The increase in the cost of living is a particular problem in Ireland and we are conscious that it is a particularly difficult time for many families heading into the Christmas period with the increases in the cost of fuel and in general across utilities. To see a substantial and significant social welfare budget of this size, therefore, is something to be very proud of.
Next year the overall social welfare spend will be €23.3 billion, which is a colossal amount of money but money well spent. Ours is a country that prides itself on having a minimum standard of living for all our citizens and a safety net through which no citizen should fall. We protect and look after our most vulnerable. We look after people and give them a crutch, protection and assistance at the most vulnerable times in their lives and when they need it. In Ireland, 29.3% of overall government spending will be on social protection. That is almost a third, something else to be really proud of as a country that ensures that all citizens are protected, that we provide a minimum standard of living and that, again, we look after our most vulnerable. In addition, we spend 8.2% of our GDP on social protection, again a significant amount of money. As I said earlier, we allocate almost 30% of government expenditure to social protection. The OECD average is 20%, so we are way above the average in that regard, again something to be very proud of. Some 633,000 families receive monthly child benefit payments. I am proud that in our country that payment applies to every child and there is no assessment of income, again something to be proud of and something we have held on to.
It has been a very difficult time for the Minister's Department and her officials. There have been a lot of demands on the Department to cater for a variety of needs across the country and to deal with the pandemic and various sectors. Senator Black mentioned the live entertainment sector, which she has spoken about many times in this Chamber. Particular attention is to be paid to that sector in the weeks and months ahead. We know that that sector and the tourism sector and jobs in those sectors are not looking as positively on 2022 as they might have even a month or two ago. It is about being proactive and ensuring we target this huge amount of money going into social protection at the sectors that need it most, the citizens who need it most and those families and citizens who are most vulnerable to the coming year. We are not out of the woods yet. However, this Government has done an incredible job of maintaining social solidarity through the pandemic, in large part due to the Minister's Department and the work of her officials and herself in ensuring we have protected people's incomes, protected businesses and protected people from the worst elements of this pandemic. Again, that has not happened everywhere across the world. We have been able to maintain that social solidarity and to bring people with us not alone through our vaccine campaign and now our booster campaign but also by ensuring that we protected people's incomes and protected businesses and that we have, I think, left most people able to get back up on their feet again as we start to reopen society. The Taoiseach made reference recently - I think it was last week on "The Tonight Show" - to the degree to which we have reopened and got the economy back up and running and many sectors back up on their feet. Part of that is because of these significant payments we have made available through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the PUP and the social protection payments across all sectors. That has allowed our country to survive the past year and a half and will allow us to survive the next year or two as we continue to make our way through this pandemic. While it is a difficult time, I think the overall public perception or feedback we get as public representatives - certainly, the feedback I get - is that people feel the Government has done a good job in providing those protections, income supports and social welfare packages and payments. People feel the State is doing its best by its citizens, and that is something to be very proud of. We are coming through an unprecedented time. You could be forgiven for feeling we have got used to living like this, but we are still living through exceptional and extraordinary times. The budgets we have seen for next year are exceptional to meet the times we are living through.
It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to be on the record as saying this is a significant amount of expenditure for next year. I know it will be targeted to the most vulnerable citizens in our society. I look forward to hearing the feedback from our citizens next year as we move through the year.
As always, the Minister is welcome to the Chamber. She is heading up a Department known as "Social Protection", with the idea being that we protect our people at a time in their lives when they need us. Thousands of people never thought they would have to engage actively with the Department during their healthy working lives until 18 months ago when they were let go from work because of the pandemic. They engaged with the Department and were supported. That happened because we as a nation believe in looking after people when they need support. That was never more evident when the pandemic hit and continues to be the case.
Support would not have been possible if we did not have a healthy and vibrant economy with prudent management of the budget over many years. In 2010 and 2011, our country was on its knees. Had the Government not been prudent in its economic management or had it been reckless in how it handled revenues, we would not have been in a position to step in and support people at the beginning of the pandemic. I spoke to someone who was in business on one of the Canary Islands but who got precious little support when the pandemic hit. We need to reflect on what our values as a society are. Those values are demonstrated through the Minister's Department.
I remember having a number of discussions with the Tánaiste, our party leader, when he was in the Department - those discussions have continued with the current Minister - about the welfare trap that people with disabilities fall into whereby if they are offered short-term contracts or part-time employment, they are reluctant to take it up because they would not only lose their social welfare payments, but also their ancillary benefits, for example, medical cards. This issue has been addressed and we are in a better position now than we were five years ago.
What I like about the Minister's management style in the Department is that it is a down to earth, commonsensical, practical approach. It manifested itself in the case of a person with a disability on Achill Island who had an opportunity to do a PhD but who would lose benefits upon taking up the course. The Minister took a practical approach to resolving the situation. Thankfully, that person and many more like that person will have the opportunity to go on to third level, become qualified and eventually step away from the Department and contribute to it instead of benefiting from it.
Regarding people with disabilities, the main challenge facing the country is the number of people who still rely on benefits from the Department. Unfortunately, 83% of blind or visually impaired people are reliant on welfare. This means that only 17% are gainfully employed and contributing to that support. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland produced an interesting report on employment opportunities, and the lack thereof, for blind or visually impaired people. The Tánaiste launched that report approximately three weeks ago. It makes some practical and commonsensical suggestions. For example, an adaptation grant is available from the Department to assist people who wish to take up employment but need a screen reader or some other piece of technology. Unfortunately, it is the employer that applies for the grant, so if the person decides to move on to another job, that piece of equipment does not follow him or her. A simple change could be made whereby the person would apply for the grant and get the piece of equipment so that, if he or she moved from one company to another, the equipment would follow. Many commonsensical decisions that would make a significant difference could be taken. The report is worth reading. Some of the Minister's officials have had sight of it and the Tánaiste has read it in detail. Perhaps a small working group involving the Departments of the Minister and the Tánaiste could iron out some of the issues, make the situation simpler and more straightforward, and result in more people becoming contributors to the Department of Social Protection as opposed to beneficiaries of it.
I welcome the Minister. This is important legislation, in that it gives effect to an expenditure increase of €558 million, which is an extraordinary amount. I thank the Minister's officials and her departmental staff for their courtesy to us. Two thirds of the budget spend is on protecting core rates of social welfare. In light of what we are trying to achieve as a society and a Government, social welfare is about social cohesion, solidarity and the redistribution of income. If ever we had solidarity from a Government or a Department, it has been during Covid-19. I commend the Minister on the many initiatives she has taken and the support she has given to many sectors of her Department.
We have not done enough for a number of groups. Senator Black has mentioned the live entertainment industry but I wish to refer to travel agents, who have been affected profoundly by the rule changes around Covid-19 and the curtailment of international travel. I believe that, since the summer, passenger numbers on aeroplanes have decreased by 50% with 30% no-shows at airports. This is a significant reduction, even accepting the pressures of Covid. Our travel agents need support now more than ever. They have become somewhat invisible in the latest Covid developments.
I commend the Minister on her involvement with another group, namely, the hospitality sector. My colleague, Senator Maria Byrne, and Senator Casey tabled a recommendation to the Finance Bill but it was not reached because of the time allotted. It addressed an anomaly that could have a significant impact on hotels around the country whereby they might not be able to qualify for the EWSS despite seeing a 30% reduction in their monthly revenues during the period covered by the extended scheme from 1 January to 30 April of next year. The hoteliers to whom I speak in my city and county of Cork tell me that this is a serious anomaly that could affect the livelihoods of thousands of people.
I thank the Senator. I hope that the Government will explore with the Irish Hotels Federation a way of looking after these businesses. It is an important industry that provides thousands of jobs.
I support the work being done by my colleague, Deputy Colm Burke, in the Lower House on the issue of carers, including home carers. As the Minister knows, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, yesterday launched a review of how home care was commissioned and delivered. I have given the report a cursory glance but have not read it all yet. It calls for a root-and-branch review of home care and the introduction of regulation. In a Covid world, it is time that we had a debate on the extraordinary challenges facing caring and what they mean for our society and economy. We are living longer and our needs are becoming more complex but, thankfully, we are also staying at home for longer.In its report, HIQA speaks about the system being unsustainable and not meeting the needs of people. In fairness, that is a very good place to start. What do we want our carers to do and what do we want the person being cared for to receive? I commend carers and thank the Government for the support given to carers. It is nonetheless important as we come to the part where we are to have a statutory regulation, I think, by 2023 to have this debate.
I thank the Minister for her work and her office staff for their courtesy to us. I hope we can support this Bill, which is worth €558 million.
I thank the Minister for bringing this very important Bill before us. I commend her and the staff in her Department on the job they have done to date. It has been a very difficult time because so many people have been in and out of employment and there have been many ups and downs for many people. There have been many structural changes as well. People may have had to apply for payments when they may not have been on payments before. People may have been laid off temporarily or lost their jobs and many people have seen so many changes. The Minister and her Department have stepped in and been able to facilitate and help those people along the way.
I agree with the remarks of my colleague, Senator Buttimer, about the Irish Hotels Federation. There are 11,000 people affected because they cannot benefit from the employment wage subsidy scheme or the Covid restrictions support scheme. For various reasons, they may not have been working in 2019 or the hotels may not have been open. Perhaps the Minister could relay this point to the Minister for Finance because we did not get to debate it properly in the House the other evening. I would certainly like to put it on record that these people need our help. I support the comments about travel agents, many of whom have been contacting me as well.
Another sector I want to highlight is the bus and tour operators. I have been speaking to a tour operator who runs a private business bringing tourists into the country. They stay all over the country, using our hotels, and the bus operator takes people to different parts of the country. For the month of March next year, the operator had 15 different group bookings but it now has none. It is a similar picture for February. Many other businesses have similar stories. With the new variant, people are afraid to travel so these businesses are losing out. They need the support of the Government because although they are doing their best to operate, unfortunately people are still cancelling their trips.
I thank the Department and the Government for the support given to the hospitality industry and the entertainment sector. While I understand many people are very frustrated by these changes, unfortunately, we must live safely. Every day there are changes caused by the variant and we just do not know what we are facing. It is good the Government is coming out with guidance and suggestions on how we should live safely. It is important that the Government is there to give support because in some other countries businesses do not receive that support.
I will highlight another matter. Currently, many people with a disability may have had two or three weeks where they were not very well and able to work. There may be other weeks where they are in good form. If they are out of work, they get the equivalent of the jobseeker's allowance. There was a scheme where they were allowed to work a certain number of hours but if they are now out of work long term and they need to go on the payment, there is an impact. I ask that the Minister review this. There are some people who may be able to work for a couple of weeks and then they might be very ill for a while because of a debilitating illness. A family member may care for them and I know there is a means test involved. I welcome that the threshold has increased. These people feel if they could work for a certain number of hours when they are able to do so, they have much more to give. That is instead of losing out on a payment.
My description may be confusing the matter. When the people in question feel good, they can work, but when they are ill, they are not able to work. They end up going on the payment that is equivalent to the jobseeker's allowance. Perhaps a balance could be struck where they would have an easy way of opting in and out of the payment on the weeks they could work. Many employers are looking to employ people with a disability and willing to accept the fact there are weeks they may not be able to work. It is something that will have to be looked at in any event. I thank the Minister for her time.
It is great to have the Minister in the House in our final days before Christmas. I will follow up a couple of points from Senator Conway. The concept of the social welfare system in any modern society is that it functions as a safety net. It should be for people when they encounter some sort of major unexpected difficulty in life and they should be able to fall back on it. It is a testament to the Irish State when we see how widespread and effective that safety net was for thousands of people throughout the country over the past 18 months. It is another testament to the State to see how effective and reactive the system was in reintroducing supports as quickly as possible, withdrawing them as the country opened again, before reintroducing them as the position got more difficult. That reactive quality is a telltale sign of how successful the Minister's stewardship of the Department has been and how successful the Government has been as well.
We can compare this to other places in the European Union, including our nearest neighbours and other places on the Continent, and the reality is quite stark. The concept of social welfare is to provide a safety net. We were really able to offer a huge safety net to thousands of people who needed it at the very worst time during this pandemic.
As we approach Christmas, I may not have another opportunity to say this but I commend the Minister on the brilliant work she has done in several Departments this year. I compliment the work of her staff in the Department, who have been extremely helpful not just to me but to members of all political parties and none. It is a testament to the Minister's work ethic that she instils the same ethic in her staff. We should take this opportunity to say thanks for that.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions to the Bill today. There was a wide range of matters raised and I will try to go through some of them shortly.
Like all Members of this House, I meet people in my constituency and discuss the matters that affect their lives. I fully recognise the importance of our social protection system. As a former credit union manager, I know all too well the real-life examples of people who, when they fall on hard times, need the support of the Department of Social Protection. Social protection is about helping people when they need it. The decisions I have made as Minister and I will continue to make will be guided by how we can support those most in need of our help.
I have secured the largest social welfare budget package in over 14 years and I have managed to do that in the context of already unprecedented spending to support people during the pandemic.As Senator Pauline O'Reilly said, I cannot do everything in one budget. No Minister could do that. That is the reality of being in government. The purpose of this Bill is to make real improvements within the resources we have available to make the social welfare system work better for people who are unemployed, for our pensioners, carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and those who live alone.
I will try to go through these points as quickly as I can. I hope I have covered most of the issues that have been raised. I thank Senator Ahearn for his kind comments about our staff. I thank all Members who have complimented the staff in the Department of Social Protection. I am very proud to be the Minister for Social Protection. The staff have been absolutely outstanding. The Senator mentioned parent's benefit. I am delighted that we are able to extend it. I worked with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who has policy responsibility for that area. It does make a difference. We want to see more men taking up the offer of parent's leave. It brings more equalisation into the workforce as well. Everybody will be seen the same when they take maternity, paternity or parent's leave. That was not always the case. I remember taking maternity leave myself long years ago. It was sometimes perceived as an impediment to one's career progression. I am glad we are moving away from that. The more we equalise the benefits we give to men and women in terms of childcare, the more equal our society will become.
The Senator mentioned hot school meals. I was delighted we were able to extend that programme to almost 300 schools. It is hard to beat a good hot dinner in the middle of the day for any child. I was speaking to a few teachers who said the hot dinner does not get left in the bottom of the schoolbag to go blue with mould. They eat it and they enjoy it, and a lot of them are going back for more. They really do appreciate it in schools across the country. It is something I am completely committed to. It helps a child concentrate. At least they get the one good hot meal. That is so important for their education and development. We are carrying out a review of that pilot scheme. It is definitely something I want to continue to progress further.
Many Senators brought up the issue of carers. I was delighted to make changes in this budget to the carer's means test and to a number of disregards. I want to continue to work with the different organisations. They have very much welcomed the changes I have made to the income disregard. I really wanted to improve that. I am aware of a lot of cases where a partner, usually a mother, might have to give up her job to care for a sick child but because the husband was working or because they had some savings, they did not qualify. We have made those changes. A couple can earn up to €750 a week. The first €50,000 of someone's savings will not be taken into account as part of the means test. We have increased the carer's support grant and the weekly payment. We have reformed the means test. My next priority is to make sure we can provide our carers with a pension. That has been talked about. It is part of the recommendations from the Commission on Pensions. I want to start to progress that as soon as we can.
In response to Senator Craughwell, I have a note here and I am going to give him the update. He tabled an amendment to remove the pensions whereby public officeholders pay a contribution of 4% of their remuneration, where it exceeds €5,200 per annum, to the social fund. As I mentioned last year in the Chamber, such a measure would definitely need cross-party support. We have to get that before we can go any further. It is something that should be discussed with the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Rural and Community Development. Perhaps this House could write to the committee and ask it to take up this issue. There is a former Member of this House who currently has no income. The Class K contributions that were made do not cover them and they do not have a job. I agree with the Senator that we need to look at it, but we need to do so on a cross-party basis. I ask that the Senator ask the joint committee to look at the matter to see how we can bring it forward.
Senators Ardagh and Black raised a number of issues relating to PRSI. We have targeted this budget at the most vulnerable. The ESRI has said all of the four lowest income deciles will benefit from the tax and welfare measures announced in the budget, with the largest gains in the bottom two deciles. The ESRI analysis shows that the increases for qualified children, living alone and fuel allowance will particularly benefit groups at higher risk of poverty. We get the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, report from the Vincentians. We take it into account. It certainly determines what we put in our budget in terms of targeting measures. We will continue to incrementally increase these supports. As I said, we cannot do everything in the one year. I particularly want to target those least well off in this budget.
On the PRSI rate relating to the EWSS, I am doing that. The EWSS is actually the responsibility of the Minister for Finance. I am extending it in line with the changes he has made. On the threshold for the fuel allowance, I increased the disregard for the fuel allowance up to €120 per week. We have been doing work there. We used the MESL research to inform policy. The higher rates of payment for children aged 12 and over were introduced as a direct result of this research. We provide the funding to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice to produce this report every year. We do take it on board and take their views into account.
Senator Ardagh talked about local employment services, as did Senator Boyhan. I absolutely recognise the good work that is being carried out by local employment services across the country. They do great work in helping people with career guidance, CV and interview preparation and upskilling and training supports. However, the clear advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Attorney General and the Comptroller and Auditor General is that the Department of Social Protection is in breach of national and EU procurement rules and that there needs to be a competitive procurement for our employment service contracts. We have no choice but to put this out for tender. That is the position. We have worked very closely with all of these providers. My officials have had numerous meetings with them. We have no choice but to put this out to tender. What I can say is that there will be consideration given to the community links and social service they provide.I do not want to hear people saying this because it is not the truth. We are absolutely not trying to privatise those services. We have to put it out for tender and, as I said, we have been working very hard with providers. I do not know of any reason they cannot win the tenders. If they are providing a good service, they should have confidence in the work they are doing. They will have to collaborate, there is no doubt about it, but when we all work together we get better results. At the end of the day, the most important person in all of this is the end user. I want to see people who need help, support and encouragement getting back into the workplace. I want them to receive that support because they deserve it. I just wanted to put that on the record of the House.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the fuel allowance. The allowance is currently paid to more than 365,000 households, which are at greatest risk of poverty, for 28 weeks. As part of budget 2022, we increased that to €33 per week. There are, of course, other issues around energy costs and we have a number of other supports available, such as the different grants for house insulation. The best way to tackle energy costs in the long term is to improve the energy efficiency of the dwelling house, which is what the retrofit grants are for.
Senator Ward referred to cohabiting couples. I discussed that with his colleague last night. I am committed to submitting a report to the committee that will be set up as a result of the recommendations made by the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality, of which I understand Deputy Bacik will be chair. My Department will produce a report which will feed into that. The chief appeals officer was mentioned earlier. Most delays in this regard are due to a lack of information being provided, much of which is medical information, and that slows down the process for people. I will appoint two more appeals officers to assist with this work. Under the legislation, for some reason there could only be one. I will, therefore, change the legislation which should help improve the time issue.
Senator Black raised the situation of musicians. I understand they have had a really difficult time. They can receive the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, if they have lost their job and they can earn €960 over an eight-week period and still receive the PUP. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, introduced a multimillion euro range of supports and has been engaging with them. Last week, she announced a €50 million sectoral support package. We will continue to engage with musicians.
In response to Senator Conway, the Cost of Disability in Ireland - Research Report was published last week. It has now gone to a strategy steering group that is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Yesterday I addressed a meeting of the group that will look at that report. The cost of disability is a whole-of-government issue. It is not just the remit of one Department. There is much information in the report and I know the group will go through that. It is a good piece of work that we need to look at in order to consider how we can improve the situation for those with disabilities. I was delighted to change the law, which Senator Conway mentioned, so that Catherine Gallagher could do a PhD without it impacting on her disability payment and, indeed, I named it "Catherine's law" after her. I was glad to be able to make those changes. The Senator also said that the adaptation grant follows the user. This is an issue we should look at and I am happy to do so.
Senators Buttimer and Maria Byrne brought up the issue of travel agents, the hotel sector and bus operators, EWSS and CRSS. That is a matter for my colleague, the Minister Deputy Donohoe. I have raised these issues with him and I will certainly take them up on behalf of the Senators again. Senator Maria Byrne also raised the issue of people who can only work part time due to an illness. I increased the amount people on disability allowance can earn before it impacts on their payments. I will look at that issue on behalf of Senator Byrne.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his kind comments. I was delighted to have served as the Minister for Justice for six months. It was a great experience which I enjoyed and I was glad to be able to fill in for my colleague, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, so that she could take maternity leave. This is an issue that we in the Houses of the Oireachtas need to address and about which legislation will have to be passed. This should be done as a matter of urgency. I know the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are committed to doing that.
Once again, I thank Senators. This is my second social protection budget. I have seen first-hand the extraordinary effort the staff of the Department made when they were faced with a crisis. Their first thought is always of the person who needs our support and to provide a high-quality service to him or her. What the staff did, and continue to do, was extraordinary. I am thankful for the recognition they have received in this House. For my part, as the Minister, I will continue to work with all Members of this House, the joint committee and the organisations representing our most vulnerable groups to continue to make improvements to the social welfare system, to alleviate poverty, to support people into sustainable employment and to provide a social safety net to people throughout the country and throughout their lives. I look forward to progressing this Bill in the coming days with the support of both Houses so that people can feel the benefits. I thank Senators for their contributions and I will certainly take them on board.