Seanad debates

Tuesday, 2 July 2024

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2024: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to be back in the Seanad again today. As colleagues will be aware, in recent weeks we discussed the long-awaited auto-enrolment Bill. It is an historic piece of work that will benefit 800,000 workers who currently have no occupational pension and I very much look forward to that Bill's enactment in the coming weeks. Today, I bring forward another landmark reform of our social welfare system in the form of pay-related benefit. At the moment, under the current jobseeker's system, if a person who has worked hard for 20 or 30 years suddenly loses their job, they will receive the same rate of unemployment payment as a person who has never worked a day in their life. That is simply not fair. We must reward the people who have worked hard, paid their PRSI and contributed to our economy. That is what pay-related benefit is about. None of us ever know what is around the corner. This is about supporting workers who lose their jobs by ensuring they do not suffer a sudden cliff-edge drop in income. The reality is that people enter into financial commitments that are commensurate with their income. I saw that at first hand when I worked in the credit union. I saw people who had good jobs, who worked hard all their lives and when they lost their job unexpectedly, their income plummeted and they were not able to meet essential commitments like their mortgage repayments. Such a situation puts families under huge stress. Pay-related benefit is about giving those people an extra safety net. If you have worked hard and paid your dues, when you hit a stumbling block there will be an extra cushion there for you in recognition of the contributions you have made.

This legislation has been drafted following an extensive consultation process, the responses to which were strongly supportive of the principle of linking benefit payments to previous earnings. It is important to say pay-related benefit is the norm across EU member states. Under this scheme, the weekly rate of payment for people who have at least five years of paid PRSI contributions will be set at 60% of previous gross earnings, subject to a maximum of €450 for the first three months. After that, the rate will reduce to 55% of earnings, subject to a maximum of €375 for the following three months. A further three months will be paid at the rate of 50%, up to a maximum payment of €300. For persons who have between two and five years of paid contributions, the rate will be set at 50% of previous gross earnings, subject to a maximum of €300 per week, for up to six months. This means that workers on average incomes will receive €450 for the first three months of unemployment, which represents half of their prior earnings. These figures compare with the current jobseeker's benefit personal rate of €232. Most people when they lose their job get back to work within less than six months. By tapering the payments down gradually over time, it ensures there is no disincentive for getting back to work.

The Bill sets out the legislative framework for the new scheme. It also contains regulation-making powers that will allow the full details of aspects of the scheme to be developed in regulations. It is intended that pay-related benefit will be for employees who become fully unemployed from the date the scheme is introduced. Those working on an atypical basis, for example part-time or casual workers, will continue to be eligible for the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme or appropriate schemes such as the working family payment. Self-employed people will also continue to be catered for under the current jobseeker's benefit self-employed scheme. My intention with this legislation is to get the train on the tracks by getting a pay-related benefit system up and running. That will be a seismic shift and reform of our social welfare system in Ireland. Over time, I believe future governments will be able to build on this. Pay-related benefit will evolve. I have no doubt about that. For example, we should have pay-related maternity benefit, which I think is the logical next step.

As Minister, my priority was to get the principle of a pay-related benefit agreed by the Government and to get this legislation before the Oireachtas. I did not want to let perfection get in the way of the good. If I had tried to introduce a Rolls-Royce, all-singing, all-dancing pay-related benefit system that covers every base, that legislation would not be seen for years and it certainly would not be before the Seanad today or delivered within the lifetime of this Government. What this legislation does is establish the principle of pay-related benefit in Ireland. Full-time workers who lose their job will be the first to benefit but, over time, we can build on and expand this. I believe we are opening the door today for that progress in the future.

I will now move on to the pay related social insurance, PRSI, provisions in the Bill. The PRSI system plays a fundamental and supportive role in our society. The Bill provides for the implementation of a programme of gradual and incremental increases in PRSI from 2024 to 2028. These increases, agreed by the Government in the context of the analysis of the actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund and the Commission on Pensions, will support the retention of the State pension age at 66, help to address the long-term sustainability challenges facing the Social Insurance Fund and provide for the new jobseeker's pay-related benefit. All classes of PRSI - employee, employer and self-employed - will increase by 0.1% from October 2024; by a further 0.1% in October 2025; by 0.15% in October 2026 and again in October 2027; and by 0.2% in October 2028. To put this in context, a 0.1% increase works out at around 90 cent per week for a worker on average earnings and around the same for the employer.

I am proud that this Government made the decision to retain the State pension age at 66. However, we cannot bury our heads in the sand - keeping the pension age at 66 needs to be paid for and this will be done by small, incremental increases in PRSI over time. This Bill sets out that roadmap. On average, a pensioner receives €380,000 from the State pension. That is a significant amount. For an extra 90 cent a week, a worker today will know that they have the safety net of pay-related benefit if that is needed, and they will also know they will have a State pension pot of approximately €380,000 when they turn 66. Most people would agree that is very good value.

I am conscious of the pressure some small businesses face. In recognition of those challenges, the Bill provides for an increase in the employer PRSI threshold from €441 to €496 per week from 1 October 2024.This will ensure that employers with employees earning the weekly equivalent of the national minimum wage will pay the lower rate of employer PRSI rate of 8.8%.

I firmly believe that the introduction of a pay-related benefit system in Ireland will be a lasting legacy for this Oireachtas to leave behind. We all know friends and family who lost their jobs out of the blue after many years of hard work. This is about recognising the contribution those people have made and giving them an extra helping hand when they need it most. As already stated, I recognise that there is more to do, but today we are opening the door for more progress in the future. If we can get this legislation passed, I have no doubt but that pay-related benefit in Ireland will evolve and grow over time.

I commend the Bill to the House. I look forward to hearing Senators’ contributions.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House. I also welcome this very important legislation. As the Minister indicated, it will be important going forward because it is a foundation stone in the context of pay-related benefit. She said it all when she said that it will establish the principle of pay-related benefit in this country. As she also stated, this can lead developments in areas such as maternity benefit and many more. There could probably be paternity benefits as well as other benefits that are not being paid at the moment in cases where a great deal of pressure is being placed on employees and employers because staff have to leave or go out sick for some other reason. As was the case last week when another very important Bill was brought before the House and passed, I welcome the Minister and this Bill.

In passing this Bill, the House will lay a foundation stone, which will be important for the future. We have seen over the years, especially during the financial crash, how businesspeople and employees and got nothing when they lost their jobs. They were not entitled to anything. I know several small businesspeople who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, but the banks put pressure on them. Builders folded and loans were called in. They had no place to turn. They got nothing from the Department of Social Protection. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul played a very important role during those years. This legislation will put all of that to bed. It puts in place a mechanism for employees and, I hope, small businesses will be covered as well. The Minister indicated that self-employed people are not covered under the Bill, but I am sure we could bring that in for them, because they are also very vulnerable, particularly at the moment.

The Minister spoke of the extra pressures and costs that are being put on small businesses. When she goes to the Cabinet before the budget, I ask her seek a reduction to 9% in the VAT rate for food. Accommodation and food should be separated. Recently, I met a guy who is in the restaurant business and who employs 20 people. Ten of the 20 people have taken five of their six sick days already. That is a month's wages. That is an extra cost this year for that employer. It was not there last year, so many extra costs have been put on people over the past couple of years. Many extra costs have been put on businesses. They will feel the pressure of this, but it is all for the good. It is all for the protection of the employee, which is only right and proper. As the Minister stated, it is a small increase in PRSI that will pay for other things in the years ahead.

As stated, this important Bill lays the foundation stone for pay-related benefit going forward. As the Minister stated, this will lead to other benefits being paid. It would be great for employees to know that if they get sick, if they are on maternity leave, or whatever, that, going forward, there will be a benefit they can get. They will not have to go to the credit union to get a loan because of sickness, maternity leave, etc., or because there is a shortage in the household as a result of the fact that they are out of work for a period. This is very welcome.

I welcome the Bill and wish the Minister well with it. Maybe we can query some of the payments with her. Details on the payments are well set out, but maybe we can explore them more on Committee Stage.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. This is an important Bill that is designed to give legislative effect to a new jobseeker's pay-related benefit for newly unemployed jobseekers. It is about many other things too, but I will not dwell on those. I just want to acknowledge this because it is really important. Sometimes when we look at legislation, we tend to look at things about which we might have a concern and we do not dwell on some of the positives. While I cannot speak about everything in the Bill in the short time that we have, I do want to acknowledge the Minister’s reforming zeal, which is without doubt.

When I looked at PRSI and what it stands for, I was struck by the fact that there will have to be an increase. You get nothing for nothing, as the old adage goes. I am also thinking of the commentary that has taken place about USC in the past week. I am not asking the Minister to speak about USC, but I remind her and all her colleagues in government of the billboards all over this country that promised with great fanfare that the Government was going to abolish USC. We all know of the cost of USC, which was bought in during a time of need. Times have changed, however. I am not going to ask the Minister about it, which would not be right because it is not what we are discussing here today. However, I say to those of all parties and none who are hatching plans for the forthcoming general election that when they make a commitment to the people about something like abolishing USC, they need to focus on that. This is certainly a matter on which I will focus in the coming months in the run-up to the general election. This was a really important promise and commitment. We need to look at USC again. More importantly, we need to look at the individuals who ran that campaign and made commitments to the people about it. We need to ask if there is a possibility of a merger of the two. That would move some people away form the idea of abolition. Anyway, enough of that. That was just a little rant I wanted to engage in because I have a view on the matter.

I have read the explanatory memorandum to the Bill. I know exactly what the Minister is trying to achieve. I am generally supportive of it. I want to touch on something in the explanatory memorandum, which states:


Amendment to Principal Act relevant to Jobseeker’s Pay-Related Benefit

Amendment of section 62 of Principal Act

Section 9 inserts a new subsection (12) into section 62 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act to provide for amendments to the entitlement rules for Jobseeker’s Benefit required subsequent to the introduction of Jobseeker’s Pay-Related Benefit.

Under this section, the Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, make regulations to provide for the closure of the Jobseeker’s Benefit scheme and the cessation of payments made under that scheme to persons who become eligible for Jobseeker’s Pay-Related Benefit support as it becomes available. In making regulations under this section, the Minister(s) will take into consideration factors including the person’s age, type, nature, duration and pattern of employment, the nature of the employer, typical employment patterns in the sector the person is normally employed, the extent to which a person has lost earnings/income, their level of employment, prior benefit and the reason for the unemployment.

I read that exactly word for word from the explanatory memorandum. It is also clearly set out in the Bill. I have a few questions that the Minister might be able to deal with.Am I to take it that this is a flat-rate payment? I do not think it is a flat-rate payment. On that basis, therefore, how is that worked out? I understand from reading the legislation that this will be taxable at some rate. The Minister might confirm that. I presume it depends on the level of the amount a person is getting based on his or her own particular set of tax circumstances. The Minister might touch on that. How is the clawback or repayment of that worked out? Is that deducted at source? I simply do not know that. I could not quite decipher that. Is it proposed from this payment, because a person is liable for tax, the tax is taken at source or is it like the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, where something might have to be paid back? I do not quite understand that. The Minister might enlighten us in that regard. We know it is tax deductible. We confirmed it is taxable. I think the Minister indicated that by the nod of her head. I thank her for that. How then is it taxed? Is it taxed at source or is it a lump sum payment back? I will close on that. I am generally supportive.

Clearly, if people are on jobseeker's allowance, it is important that they are retrained, supported and encouraged to get back into the workplace. We have far too many able people, particularly young people, who are on long-term benefits and who are not in employment. It is not good for people not to be doing something and, therefore, we should encourage courses that are meaningful and employment that is meaningful albeit part-time. Work is good for us. Work is good for people and good for society and they must be supported. However, there will always be people who, for whatever reason, and the Minister knows this more than anyone, there is black and white and there is grey. There are certain people who for an array of reasons cannot fully get employment. Again, we should be channelling them where possible and where practical with some supports. As I said, I believe in the importance of work and the dignity of work. That is really important to support. At the same time, we have to be seen to be vigilant for those who are working and are lucky enough to have employment and who are paying their taxes and for the contributions people pay for through PRSI for the social benefits for the greater good, which is also an important part of our citizenship and our engagement. It is important that systems are fair and robust to scrutiny and respect the people in the process. However, we can no longer be carrying people who do not wish to engage and do not wish to contribute to society. If the truth of it be known, we all know some of them somewhere. It is not a witch hunt; it is about support, recognition of the dignity of work and the fairness of our resources and tax systems. I genuinely wish the Minister well. She might touch on the taxation aspect of the legislation and the rates as envisaged.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. We in Fianna Fáil fully support this Bill, which is very progressive legislation. The Minister is fortunate to be the Minister for Social Protection at a time when our economy is very strong, we are doing very well, and we have the resources to see increases pretty much yearly in our social protection spend.

Obviously, I am a solicitor. I am a sole trader. I am self-employed as well as being a Senator. I am also elected from the industrial and commercial panel, so it would be remiss of me not to mention the self-employed who make up 14% of our population. As the Minister said, however, this is just the start of it. We are not going to be holding things back. It is very good. I would not say it is not perfect. That is too derogatory of a phrase. It is a fantastic Bill with which so many people will be delighted. Obviously, I would like to see it stretched out to the self-employed. I always think it is funny and very easy that there is always a reason the Government cannot give the self-employed the extra bonuses but there is no reason we do not have to pay as many taxes. We see the PRSI provisions. The self-employed are included in the increases but we are not included in the goodies. It is something to look at. The figure of 14% is a huge number of people in the country who are contributing, and they are also employers. Probably more than 50% of people are employed by self-employed people such as plumbers, solicitors and varies professions. I would like to see, therefore, hopefully in the next budget, that the Minister will be able to roll out something for pay-related benefit for self-employed people.

The Minister mentioned that she would love to see it extended to those on maternity leave, which is fantastic. I am delighted to hear her say that. I put forward a Bill in this House that staggers the Minister's Department and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's Department. It is an idea like the Leave Our Leave Bill. The Minister for Social Protection's Department deals with the maternity payments and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth's Department deals with those who should get it. However, is there something in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2024? There are 60 women in Ireland who have to undergo cancer treatment while they are getting their maternity benefit. My Bill lets them defer that maternity benefit while they are getting their treatment. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, promised to bring legislation to the House, but we have not seen any legislation. It might be something the Minister for Social Protection's Department could look at in terms of bringing it in. There are 60 women in Ireland every year who are affected. There is an urgency about it. It would be great if the Minister could get back to me on those points. We fully support the Bill. It is a great piece of legislation. I am delighted to support it.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House this evening. The Labour Party welcomes the introduction of a pay-related benefit for jobseekers. It is after all a good workers' rights issue. As a party, we have long called for such a measure to be introduced and we anticipate strong support from various stakeholders, not least from those workers themselves.

As my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, did in the Dáil, I want to pay tribute to colleagues in the trade union movement who have really led the charge on getting this on the agenda. I particularly thank Dr. Laura Bambrick of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, for her work on this important matter. We believe in a welfare system that allows workers to move between jobs and be able to return from any short-term unemployment secure in the knowledge that the welfare system will adequately support them. That is why this Bill is so important and why we need to change the current system.

The current system offers very low level support and is essentially designed to get people back to work in the shortest possible time by offering them a minimum amount of support when they are out. It is a system that offers a below the poverty line level of support. It is designed to get people back to work as quickly as possible by giving them no more than the bare minimum. This is why we believe that a pay-related benefit is a more compassionate and much more sensible approach. It prevents workers from facing that cliff edge the Minister mentioned when they are made unemployed, and it provides a cushion for their household income when they might need it most. It also supports the local economy as those facing short-term unemployment can sustain a better standard of living than they may have previously through the lower payments that are currently available. This new approach sustains more stability, not just for the household but for the local economy.

There have been questions by many stakeholders previously and in particular by employment representative groups as to the unwelcome need for those who find themselves newly unemployed taking the first job that is available. People are thinking only of having to pay the mortgage, school or heating bills or that credit union loan, which the Minister mentioned, rather than being allowed to breathe a little bit and look at a job that suits their skill sets and will offer them a future in what will be a more sustainable job for them.

A pay-related benefit of some form is, of course, in practice in many of our neighbouring countries albeit it there are a number of variations. In this State, however, the flat rate of jobseeker's benefit following two years of PRSI contributions remains until now. That is why we welcome this Bill. It will bring us in line with many of our EU counterparts. It is something that is much more progressive and that actually protects and supports workers. There are concerns, however, which we highlighted in the Dáil and we want to mention once again. First, the two-tier system that is proposed in this Bill is unnecessarily restrictive when compared with the systems in place in other high income EU countries. As we previously said, it may have the unintended consequence of creating a discriminatory system that penalises women and young people in particular. For example, for workers in sectors with a higher than average turnover of staff, such as the retail or hospitality sectors, it may be more difficult to meet the five years of contributions qualification to receive the higher rate of benefit. The same applies for those working on temporary contracts. Women and those under the age of 25 are disproportionately represented in the retail and hospitality workforce, while those under the age of 30 make up the majority of workers employed on temporary contracts. That is something that needs to be addressed. This has the potential to be one of the most progressive pieces or workers' rights legislation we have seen in this country for some time. We do not want to see it undermined by discriminating against some of our most vulnerable workers. We all agree that there should be every incentive to return to work in the quickest possible time, which I have stated should only be when the right conditions and pay are available. However, we should not penalise workers either, especially when we see what other EU neighbours are offering. The Minister said she did not want to let perfection get in the way of the good but I do want to mention some issues she raised, which were raised in the Dáil as well. I echo the calls here to extend pay-related benefits, on the whole, to the entire social welfare support system. The Labour Party would like to see the extension of pay-related benefits to other short-term income supports, as the Minister has said, such as maternity and paternity benefits, parent's benefit, carer's allowance, illness benefit and so on. Ireland is one of only two countries in the EU that pay maternity benefit at a flat rate, leaving it to employers to make up the difference. There is a risk that this negatively affects hiring decisions. In fact, there is little doubt in my mind that it does.

We have discussed the means test on the carer's allowance at various committee meetings and it has been debated in this House. The Minister and I are aware of many individuals who need to take a break from their careers or reduce their hours in order to provide care for a loved one. This brings with it financial implications for those wishing to take such a brave but necessary move. They should not be concerned about the financial implications for themselves in doing so. As I have said previously, they are saving the State so much money. We need to look urgently at pay-related options for such carers rather than the flat rate carer's allowance that causes them so many problems at such a time. I agree with the Minister that this Bill is a start and we can look at that issue as we progress into the future.

I conclude by saying once again that the Labour Party welcomes this Bill. It is a very positive move by the Government to address a very serious workers' rights issue. I have highlighted some concerns we have with the Bill and I hope the Minister can address them. We need to allow workers the time to breathe when they get that bad news of the loss of a job. This Bill is an important step on that road. I look forward to debating it further with the Minister as it makes its way through this House.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is very welcome as always. There are two primary elements to this legislation. One relates to the pay-related jobseeker's benefit, which we very much welcome, and the other relates to the PRSI increase, which we are not in favour of. We have long called for social insurance-based payments such as jobseeker's benefit to be pay related. It is welcome that the Government has moved on this. The scheme announced by the Minister was not terribly dissimilar to a scheme submitted by my colleague Deputy Claire Kerrane with regard to the various consultation processes.

One of the flaws of the initial model brought forward by the Minister was the difference between the six months and the nine months. This has been rectified and we very much welcome that. This is a welcome step. The Minister's proposal was in line with the intended reforms that we would envision for the social welfare system to ensure it is fair for all and that people are protected from poverty. We can all think of examples of people who lost jobs very suddenly during the recession but still had a mortgage or rent, and possibly childcare costs, to pay. They had big outgoings. Within the family income and the family budget there are very few who have a lot to spare and very few who can afford that kind of cliff edge or loss of income. There is no question about that.

We want to see the transition of social insurance payments from a flat rate to a percentage of previous earnings to ensure that workers who paid into the system are treated fairly and protected from a sudden push towards poverty. In the context of our social insurance payments, our replacement rates do not compare well against many other countries. The rates contrast poorly with other EU countries, particularly those where social insurance-based welfare benefits are pay related and designed to secure a worker's normal living standards during periods of unemployment as well as during sickness, maternity and family leave. In countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and others there is a cap on the maximum weekly payments and the payments reduce the longer the person is out of work. The replacement rate is the amount of in-work income that is replaced by social insurance and other social welfare benefits when a person becomes unemployed, which is the percentage of previous earnings that is covered by social insurance mechanisms such as jobseeker's benefits or illness benefits.

Social insurance payments are critically important in supporting people who find themselves out of work and in need of financial assistance until they can find a new job or recover from an illness, or while caring for a loved one. These protections are in place as a safety net for times of crisis and should provide sufficient support to those who need it. Rent, mortgage payments, electricity and heating costs, food bills and much more will continue whether someone is in work or not. Our social protection system should provide supports to ensure workers or families do not fall off a financial cliff edge because they lose their job or have to leave their employment through no fault of their own. The current flat rate payment for jobseeker's benefit means that the scheme is not responsive enough and does not support workers as much as it should. We know it is possible to have social insurance schemes that are responsive in times of need. We have seen how many people require urgent financial assistance, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The introduction of the pandemic unemployment payment emphasised the need for income protection benefits that are designed to support those who face a sharp decline in income as a result of losing their job. It was acknowledged by the Government that it was a good scheme but it was also acknowledged by the Government that flat rate benefits do not provide adequate income protection for workers when out of work, or at least at their previous level of income.

Providing people with an income that will allow them to get back on their feet without imposing additional worries or financial stress should be the norm within our social protection system. Commencing with jobseeker's benefit, we proposed linking the rates of PRSI-related social welfare supports to a percentage of previous earnings as is the norm in many other countries. This would ensure that those who are leaving work due to illness, to care for a loved one or through unexpected unemployment do not experience a sudden collapse in income. We would also like to see an approach based on hours rather than days when it comes to calculating jobseeker's benefits for part-time workers. It is also worth looking at schemes of this kind for other areas, including for carers and other categories like that.

The primary reason we do not support the overall Bill is our concern over the PRSI increases. In principle a pay-related jobseeker's benefit system makes absolute sense but we do not agree in the context of the current cost-of-living crisis with increases to employees' PRSI. We have long argued for ensuring the sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund through fair changes to our PRSI system. These calls have been ignored and criticised by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over many years. In 2020 the then leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Varadkar, said that increases in PRSI would cost jobs. Fine Gael performed a U-turn, however, and this legislation has proposed a series of PRSI hikes for the next five years. The Government has decided to increase payroll tax on workers, beginning this year, with no regard for the cost-of-living pressures they are facing. Under these plans a worker earning €40,000 per year will lose €280 per year in disposable income. Sinn Féin would not increase taxes on the wages of low and middle income earners, recognising that it would disproportionately affect those who rely on every cent of their pay to cover basic living costs.

We also know that small businesses are facing substantially increased costs from energy and input costs to labour costs. This is why Sinn Féin would not increase employers' PRSI for these businesses this year or next, to support them as they contend with rising overheads and labour costs. There is a fairer way to ensure the sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund and that is by not increasing PRSI on workers' wages and by introducing a more progressive system of social contributions from employers. As is widely acknowledged, our rate of employer social contributions is among the lowest in the EU, with the average European rate standing at 20%. While the rate of employer PRSI should not increase this year or next in recognition of the increased costs faced by so many small and medium sized businesses, the contribution rate should increase from 2026. However, our PRSI system can and should become more progressive, recognising that some businesses can afford to contribute more towards a Social Insurance Fund and social safety net. This is why Sinn Féin would introduce a higher rate of employer PRSI on the portion of salaries in excess of €100,000. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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As there are no further contributors, I will ask the Minister to respond. As we are ahead of schedule we can be flexible enough with the time, within reason.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions to today's debate and for their support so that this landmark Bill can be enacted before the summer recess. The introduction of pay-related benefit is a major reform of the social welfare system in Ireland. It is about supporting people who have worked hard and contributed to the system by ensuring that they have an enhanced safety net in place if they lose their job. It will brings Ireland in line with our European neighbours where pay-related benefits are already the norm.

When I became Minister for Social Protection pay-related benefit was an absolute priority for me. I remember in 2009 and 2010 when I was working in a credit union I saw people coming in and they were absolutely devastated. They had worked all their lives, had lost their jobs and suddenly realised what they were going to have to live on, and it was not easy. It was really difficult. I always felt that it was unfair because they just faced this sudden cliff edge drop in their income. Through no fault of their own, they lost their jobs. I was very keen that I would do something about it. I am very pleased to be in a position to make these changes and bring this legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

As I said earlier the weekly rate of payment for people who have at least five years' paid PRSI contributions is to be set at 60% of previous gross earnings, subject to a maximum of €450 for the first three months. This is a significant increase and will be payable to workers on average incomes across all sectors. It is almost a doubling of the current personal rate of jobseeker's benefit. For those on minimum wage and working full time this reform will provide for an increased rate of payment of up to €300 per week compared with the current personal jobseeker's rate of €232. The Bill provides a framework for the new pay-related approach.It is a starting point and can be further developed. It is flexible enough to be able to accommodate the inclusion of additional groups of workers in pay-related benefits should the Government decide to do so in the future. As I said, this is a stepping stone. It will open the door for future governments to expand pay-related benefit to other payments. I think maternity benefit should be the next step. That can be followed by illness benefit and there are other benefit payments that we should look at.

The programme of gradual and incremental increases in PRSI, as already agreed by Government, will support the retention of the State pension age at 66. I am committed to that. It will help to address the long-term sustainability challenges facing the Social Insurance Fund and cover the jobseeker's pay-related benefit. We are at full employment. These are very small incremental increases that will make a difference. It is important that we act now to ensure that the Social Insurance Fund is sustainable.

I am a bit disappointed with the Sinn Féin approach to this aspect of the Bill. It is a case of calling for everything but saying somebody else can pay for it. We cannot do that. That is not realistic. I have a quote here from Deputy McDonald. As reported in the Irish Examiner, the Deputy clearly stated, "Our proposal, over the course of a number of budgets, is to bring employers' PRSI up ... [to] four percentage points." Senator Gavan is against a 0.1% increase. That does not make much sense.

There is a number of issues that Senators have raised and I will try to address them quickly. Senators Paddy Burke and Ardagh talked about the self-employed. The self-employed will continue to be catered for under the current jobseeker's benefit self-employed scheme which is in place since 2019. At present, we do not have real-time information on self-employed incomes as the self-employed have until November of the following year to file income returns for any given year. A pay-related benefit is not an option at this time but over time, I do not see why we cannot look at that.

In response to Senator Victor Boyhan on tax, one will have to pay tax on it. It is not deducted at source from the social welfare. To do so, it would need very careful consideration. It could leave a person short if one takes the tax from the social welfare payment. A report in the UK does not recommend this - they have this pay-related benefit in the UK. As I said, it will be taxed, but it will be when one gets back to work, as I understand it, that one pays whatever tax is due on it at that stage. It would all depend on the tax rate or if one is liable for tax or whatever. The change to jobseeker's benefit is that if pay-related is available, one closes the door to the existing scheme. It is as simple as that.

What we are trying to do with this legislation is to reward those who have worked. We do not want to see anybody's payment reduced. We want to see them getting more when they are laid off initially and then we will reduce it accordingly because we do not want it to be a disincentive to returning to work.

In response to Senator Wall, under this scheme everyone is guaranteed a 60% replacement rate. The minimum payment of €125 provides a guaranteed floor payment. That is €20 more than the current minimum for jobseeker's. What we have tried to do is make sure that we have covered everybody. We have arrangements made that those who are working part time can stay on jobseeker's benefit if it is more beneficial to them. Perhaps there are a few different seasonal workers who we did not want to leave worse off than they are and we have managed to keep it for that particular cohort.

That is it, really. I thank the Acting Chairperson, Senator Paul Daly. I thank the Senators for all of their contributions. Gabhaim míle buíochas leo.

Question put and declared carried.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 9 July 2024.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 5.45 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 6.17 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 5.45 p.m. and resumed at 6.17 p.m.