Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2024: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

SECTION 3

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendment No. 1 in the names of Senators Higgins and Ruane is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Section 3 is opposed by Senators Warfield and Gavan, who are not present. Is the section agreed to?

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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It is not agreed. I want to speak to the section.

Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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Section 3 deals with the amendment of provisions of the principal Act relevant to employment contributions. Our group submitted a lengthy submission to the public consultation on a pay-related benefit scheme for jobseekers. Our submission related to the paper that was floated setting out the proposals that are now in the Bill. We highlighted that employer PRSI contributions in Ireland are well below the European average of more than 20%. We proposed that employer PRSI should be the first target for increases in reforms to bring it in line with the EU average. We argued that additional revenue raised from this increase should be directed towards broad increases in the levels of all social protection payments rather than being simply earmarked for a particular purpose.

This is one of the key points. Our system, in essence, is a redistributive system, with people contributing according to their means. The additional revenue raised from the increase in PRSI should be directed to all those parts of the social safety net that make up our social protection system, including payments for disability, payments for those parenting alone, payments that support working families and payments for those who are bereaved. All of those social protection payments should benefit from the revenue increase.It is also not reasonable that low-income workers, as is currently provided for in the Bill, would see their employee PRSI rise. We believe those rates should remain at 4% and, as I said, the focus should instead be on strengthening the contributions of employers’ PRSI in a way that is directed to the whole picture of social protection payments of the State.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue. Unfortunately, I will not be accepting the amendment. The PRSI rate increases for the next years are set out in the Bill and they are evenly spread among employees, employers and the self-employed. I am satisfied that they achieve a fair balance between addressing the long-term sustainability of the Social Insurance Fund without unduly impinging on the incomes of workers and the cost of doing business in Ireland.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I disagree.

Question put and declared carried.

NEW SECTION

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 2:

In page 7, between lines 27 and 28 to insert the following:

Report on PRSI increases

4. The Minister shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before Dáil Éireann a report on a revised and progressive schedule of PRSI increases in the years 2024 to 2029 which maintains the rate of employee PRSI at 4 per cent.”.

The amendment is self-explanatory and is a reasonable request. We simply want to see a report on a revised and progressive schedule of PRSI increases in the years 2024 to 2029 which maintains the rate of employee PRSI at 4% because that is what should be happening.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will not be accepting this amendment. I have made the point on many occasions that it is bad practice to put the preparation of reports in primary legislation. We had a comprehensive actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund and we also had the report from the Pensions Commission. The bottom line is that the Social Insurance Fund is not sustainable in the long term if we do not take action. That is absolutely clear and we do not need any more reports to tell us that. The Government has agreed, and this Bill provides for, small incremental increases to all PRSI rates over the next five years, starting with the 0.1% increase on 1 October 2024. I cannot accept the amendment.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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We will agree to disagree.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Sections 4 to 12, inclusive, agreed to.

SECTION 13

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendments Nos. 3 to 10, inclusive, have been ruled out of order as there is a potential charge on the Revenue.

Amendments Nos. 3 to 10, inclusive, not moved.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 11:

In page 20, line 35, to delete “any” and substitute “a”.

This is a simple amendment that seeks to address the concerns we have in regard to the insertion of section 68KG and section 68KH into the principal Act. Section 68KG allows for recipients of jobseeker’s pay-related benefit to be cut or even for them to be disqualified if they fail to attend meetings organised by the Minister and notified to them. It requires them to submit an assessment of their education, training and development needs. Section 68KH would allow for a person’s benefit to be cut or for them to be disqualified if they refuse to avail of any scheme or programme of employment or work experience that is prescribed for them. This feels overly coercive in regard to cutting someone's benefit because they did not avail of a scheme that somebody else felt was fit for them but they did not feel was fit for them, their skill set, their living conditions or the geography of where they live and access work. It is to cut somebody's benefit because somebody else decides what type of work experience they should avail of.

We have significant concerns that these sections could lead to similar scenarios to those that arose with JobBridge, particularly for young people. These sections could feasibly lead to exploitative internship programmes. The inclusion of the phrase “work experience” is particularly concerning. There is a real risk of displacing fully paid labour with those in receipt of pay-related benefit under these sections. It is important for the Minister to outline what is meant by “work experience”.

If I end up on pay-related benefit, and let us say I am an engineer on pay that is at the higher end, that allows me to access the higher rate of pay-related benefit, which is €450 or 60% of a person's wage. Then, let us imagine that my family member is a labourer or manual worker and they access a lower rate of pay-related benefit. Those on the lower rates of pay are usually the most vulnerable to employment shocks in terms of having any sort of safety net or disposable income so, first, the scheme in and of itself is creating a hierarchy among workers, which is wrong. However, it also creates a system where we do not value all types of work equally regardless of what the pay is that they receive while they are in that work.

Let us imagine that I am an engineer and my family member is a labourer, manual worker or low-skill worker, and we are both attending the same social welfare department in Tallaght. Perhaps the social welfare office decides that I, as an engineer, should do work experience somewhere. Am I to receive €450 for that experience, even if that experience matches my actual skill set, when I would be paid more should I just be employed and it was not a social welfare scheme? If I am being paid €450 in pay-related benefit, who am I engaging in the work experience for? Is it for free? Is it for an enhanced amount on top of the pay-related benefit? Is it only for the social welfare payment I am receiving? Again, we are creating room for people to be exploited for their work in regard to the experience that they have or may not have. Next, let us imagine I am a cleaner or someone in a lower paid, lower skill job and I am asked to do work experience because I have lost my job. That experience might be 30 or 40 hours a week and I would still be receiving the low rate of pay-related benefit.

What exactly is meant by “work experience”? Does the work experience mean that the employer does not have to pay me and that the social welfare pay-related benefit is supposed to cover the work experience of me working in some particular sector or job for some particular employer where the pay does not match the experience that I have, the skill set or the job that I am doing? Not only are we creating a hierarchy of welfare, but we are also creating a hierarchy in terms of what the experience is that we feel someone should avail of, and how little or how much they should be paid based on the pay-related benefit.

I would like to know if the Minister is suggesting that if I lose my job and the welfare office says I have to do work experience, and I am a highly skilled worker or a lower skilled or manual worker, I am only going to receive my pay-related benefit for the job that I am doing. If I refuse to do that job or engage with that work experience because it is exploitative, or because I am being requested to work 40 hours a week in a highly skilled job that matches my skill set but I am only going to receive the pay-related benefit, will I lose my pay-related benefit? If the aim of this section is to steer recipients towards employment that would be more suitable to them, it would be more appropriate that people are not directed towards any scheme or programme at all, rather than risk losing their pay-related benefit based on being directed towards a scheme that may not suit their needs. Section 68KH provides that the recipient of jobseeker's pay-related benefit must agree "to participate in or avail himself or herself of an opportunity of participating in". The language is quite coercive. It could result in a situation in which a recipient must accept unsatisfactory or potentially exploitive work experience. It is important that the Minister outline, to use a practical example, whether I would lose my pay-related benefit if, in circumstances where a social welfare officer says I have to avail of some particular work experience programme and the only pay I will receive for the work experience programme is my pay-related benefit, I refuse to do so? Can the Minister outline exactly what the legislation says I have to do?

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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Senator Ruane has outlined this issue very clearly. The answers to the questions on work experience are particularly important. This is quite a shift in general policy compared to what we have seen in the past. I was a member of the social protection committee in the previous Oireachtas. On that committee, we saw a lot of the problems with the JobPath-type solutions put forward. We saw people being routed into inappropriate jobs and poor rates of retention in the employment opportunities provided because contractors were under pressure to put people anywhere. The results, which can be seen in the report of that committee, were very poor. The idea was that all of these measures, that is, JobPath and all of the intensified requirements prescribed to people, were going to deal with the problem of long-term unemployment. I do not know if they were the best tool for achieving that.

What we see now with this new payment scheme is that it only applies after 39 weeks, or 26 weeks in some cases. Therefore, in the immediate period after people have been made redundant, people will not have one, two or three months to identify their own best pathway forward. It has usually been the case that the interventionist approach under the social protection system comes through with voluntary supports that people can avail of if they wish to access them and that the stronger engagement only comes after six months or a year. That timeline has actually slipped backwards; it was after one year and then it was after six months. What we are now seeing is that people are being told in the very first number of months, even in the first month after being made unemployed, they have to go and work in a completely different area or job that is unsuitable to them. They will not even be given one, two or three months to identify their own best pathway forward, whether that is through education, retraining or increasing their skills.

This amendment is really important. It provides that people will participate in "a scheme or programme of employment or work experience" or "a course of education, training or development", rather than "any scheme" that is prescribed. Our next amendment will address this. Effectively, some caseworker, possibly from a private agency like Seetec, Turas Nua or one of the others, will decide to place 50 or 100 people in a factory or a job because it will take them. The caseworker will route everyone into that factory or job and tell them this is what they have to do.

One of the problems with the way activation supports were done in the past is that they ended working against people building on their skills. For example, for someone who was highly skilled, he or she was not given the period of time to wait until September to start a college course because that person was pretty much forced to agree to undertake a training scheme or a poor employment opportunity three or four months previously that might contraindicate doing a course because the caseworker wanted to deliver on his or her pile of cases.

This amendment is really important because it provides for people to be participating in "a scheme". It is combined with amendment No. 12, which we will speak to. Rather than a person having to basically do anything they are told to do according to what people working in the Department of Social Protection consider appropriate, people would actually be able to say they have a different scheme, programme of employment or course of education, training or development with which they wish to engage. People would be able to assert that, but that is not what is written currently. The Bill, as written now, is deeply prescriptive and narrow. It literally refers to schemes which are prescribed by any person. Let us think about this. This is one, two or three months immediately after someone becomes unemployed. People will not even have an opportunity to find and apply to other jobs off their own back before they find themselves having to work through this system, which, by the way, costs the State considerably.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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While I thank the Senators for their amendments relating to engagement with prescribed schemes, programmes or courses, I do not accept them. These sections replicate those in place for other jobseeker's schemes. They are exactly the same as what is in place already and we are going to apply them to the jobseeker's pay-related benefit. I do not intend to amend the proposed or existing legislation in relation to these vitally important provisions. They are already tried and tested and we should not be deviating from them. People receiving pay-related benefit will be required to look for full-time work and will be supported through the public employment service to get back into employment. JobPath is gone. We no longer have that scheme. We have a new work placement in place.

I also wish to be clear that this is not about coercion.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I welcome Deputy Verona Murphy and her guest to the House. They are very welcome.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Rather, it is about helping people. My Department is here to help people. It takes a common-sense approach. We are trying to help people to get back into the workforce. There are a lot of schemes. There is a requirement under jobseeker's benefit as it stands to be genuinely seeking work. That requirement is just being repeated for the jobseeker's pay-related benefit.

We have 50,000 people on the live register who are signed up to personal progression plans. We are working with them and trying to help them to get back to work, whether that is through the work placement scheme, the back to education allowance scheme or community employment schemes. There are a number of different schemes through which we work with people. My staff in the Department take a very humane approach to dealing with people who find themselves in the unfortunate position of losing their jobs. This is about helping people. It is about engaging with them and giving them that bit of assistance when they need it.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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When we seek to scrutinise policy, none of us is ever speaking about staff. When there is criticism of a policy, it is not about a lack of appreciation for staff. For the Minister then to say she knows her staff and how humane they are personalises the points someone else is making. It is as if they are being personal about employees when that is obviously not the case. It is not an attack on anyone's endeavour or how they do their jobs. It is more about the policy intent.

As for the policy intent, as someone who relied on social welfare services, I can tell the Minister, with the best intent, that people often think any job activation is better than waiting for the right job activation. In some cases, of course, that is being looked at in monetary and safety terms. I get that. However, the assessment should be about a self-assessment. It should not be about someone else's assessment of what he or she thinks might be good for the transition the person is going to take.

This is not tried and tested because we have not had pay-related benefit in this way. Tried and tested measures relate to long-term unemployment benefit and people who have been on the register as long-term unemployed. The jobseeker's pay-related benefit is a shorter scheme for people who have lost their jobs. They are already activated into work. Maybe their company has gone bust or something else has happened.They have already been in the workforce and are seeing what they hope will be a temporary interruption to their work. Therefore, the groups are different even though the same register might end up being the same. When we examine this, we need to be very clear – this goes back to my original question – on what is meant by work experience in this legislation or the existing legislation. Are we saying that if the Department of Social Protection wants to send somebody for work experience, some place of employment will state it is willing to take on people for work experience but that everybody else in the place will be paid €700 per week? Will the person on the pay-related benefit scheme receive the pay-related benefit only if doing the same job as others in the place he or she is sent for work experience? Why do people need work experience if they have work experience? They are not coming from a place where they do not have work experience.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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If people are going on work experience or are on a work placement programme, it is because they want to reskill and go into a different area. The rules around the jobseeker’s benefit are being transposed into the jobseeker’s pay-related benefit legislation. The conditions are the same. The aim is to help people to get back to work. If they cannot get another job in the area in which they once worked, the aim is to reskill and get back to work as quickly as possible. That is the point. It is about helping people and doing what is right for them. It is also about doing what they want and about their personal plan and buy-in; it is not about what somebody else decides they should try. It is about working out a particular personal plan.

Many people actually go back to work very quickly. The way the pay-related benefit will work is that the recipient will start off with a maximum of 60% or €450 for the first three months. Then the rate is reduced for the following three months, and it is reduced again for the three months thereafter. For the full nine months a person is on the pay-related benefit, he or she will always be on a higher rate than that of the existing jobseeker’s benefit. I am trying to ensure that people who suddenly lose their jobs, as we have seen and know about, are cushioned from the income drop. Many people have commitments or outgoings commensurate with their income. I have seen this myself. When I worked in a credit union, I used to see people sitting in front of me who had no jobs and who, when the crash came, suddenly realised what they would have to live on per week. The whole idea of the pay-related benefit is to cushion from a sudden drop in income where someone is unfortunate enough to lose his or her job. It is about helping people, and that is what we are trying to do to make the system better.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I fully understand and accept the intention but the experience is prescribed. It states that if you do not attend or participate in the scheme, you will potentially lose the benefit. Therefore, it is not of your own free will or off your own bat. The legislation actually implies that if you do not engage, you could lose your payment. That is a really big issue because it forces people into doing a job they do not want to do out of fear of losing the cushioning the Minister referred to. It is fine where people are reskilling because they want to change sector or upskill, or because they need to re-educate because their old job did not give them transferrable skills, but I am talking specifically about work experience. I do not believe people can upskill just through work experience because that would not involve an educational programme. Are we saying that somebody might contact my office and ask whether I can give work experience to, say, a person who has lost their job and who has a background in policy but not enough experience, and that I will be told the Department is going to continue to pay them at a given rate? Educational programmes and reskilling are very different from work experience. I am seeking to know what is meant by work experience.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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This Bill replicates the existing requirements concerning our jobseeker’s payments. It does nothing more or less. The activation is a positive intervention in place to prevent jobseekers from drifting farther away from the labour market. It is widely used across the EU and OECD countries. It is essential that recipients of the pay-related benefit be supported through the activation process in the exact same way that recipients of the jobseeker’s benefit and jobseeker’s allowance have been. That is why I cannot accept the amendment.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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It is important that we be really clear that there is a shift in how things are done. The phrase “genuinely seeking work” was used. Recipients used to have to show they were genuinely seeking work and had to bring three or four letters showing they had actually applied for work. That is a reasonable bar and most people would be very happy to comply with it. I imagine that many people who would benefit from the scheme would be, but that is not the bar that is being put in place. It is not about offering support because, as is really clear, the language is deeply prescriptive. There are problems. We mentioned that JobPath is gone. It is gone because you could not call it JobPath anymore because it was so poor and unsuccessful. The exact same thinking applied. One of the most infamous aspects of JobPath, personal progression plans, remains in this Bill, and the same structures are in it. Again, it is not simply that you have to have engaged, which would represent a reasonable bar, but that you must agree with a prescribed course, job, work or work experience. Effectively, if an official sitting opposite you states you need to work down the road, it does not count if you say you actually have a different plan, perhaps a long-term thing to speak at a certain conference where you hope to meet people and get a job from it, or whatever else you might do. You could lose your payment if you do not agree to anything “which is prescribed” for you, not agreed with you.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Prescribed courses can vary. They can entail community employment and training through SOLAS. We are missing the point here. The point is that Intreo offices provide information on employment opportunities. It is when the long-term unemployed do not engage with or ignore the services of the Intreo offices – “engage” is the most important word here – that they get their payments reduced. Once there is engagement, a discussion and an individual personal progression plan, and once an effort is made to get back to work, the payment is not cut. That is the way it works in reality.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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Minister, this-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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May I just make a point, please? We are concluding-----

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I have a final point. We will move to the other amendments then, but just to be clear for the record-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Let me make my point first. We will be concluding at 6.15 p.m., so if the Senator wants to get to her other amendments, we need to keep going.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I thank the Chair. To be clear, this is not a matter of long-term unemployed people but of people in their first 26 weeks or 39 weeks of unemployment, which is less than the first year of unemployment. I am referring to the first two months, three months or five months of unemployment. It would be more appropriate if they were left with access to the voluntary support. If they move off that page and become long-term unemployed, the other system is already in place for them. It is to the immediately and recently unemployed that the measure will apply.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Just because people are getting a higher rate of payment on the jobseeker’s pay-related benefit does not mean they should not continue to look for work. In fact, most people do go back to work between 12 and 14 weeks after losing a job. People naturally want to go back to work. We saw that during the Covid pandemic. What I am saying is that the rules and regulations we are applying here are the exact same as those that apply at the minute to the jobseeker’s benefit. There is nothing different.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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To be very clear, nobody is saying anything about people engaging or looking for work. I do not know whether the Minister is responding purposefully to confuse what we are saying or whether she does not actually understand what we are saying the legislation states. The legislation as it stands is not above scrutiny.The legislation states that it is if you do not engage with the prescribed scheme, not just with the Department. Again, it also refers to work experience. Are people expected to engage in work experience and only receive pay-related benefit? It states it in the legislation.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I heard the Minister state a couple of times that nothing has changed bar the fact it is pay related.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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Everything has changed.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I am saying that is what I heard.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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It does not matter. It existed previously but there are issues with it there too. Nobody should do work experience for whatever minimum or maximum rate of social welfare they are on. Work experience should not factor as an option to receive social welfare. If you are doing work experience in a factory, an office, Google or wherever, you should be doing it for the same rate of pay or living wage as anyone else at your rate of pay. It says here that you can lose your payment if you do not engage in the prescribed work experience mentioned. Will someone work 30 or 40 hours somewhere and only receive the rate of pay set out here, while doing the same job as other people? This legislation-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I will bring in Senator Higgins and then go back-----

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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Legislation states that is the case.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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We need to not talk about people and what they would like. To be clear, it is the case that people usually find employment within 12 or 14 weeks. That is why what we are asking people in those first three or four months is bizarre. At that time, they probably are trying to do their own work to find new employment or are thinking about their next options. Instead, we will create work for the system to require them to come to meetings and come up with plans and to require them to risk their payment if they say "No" to whatever has been brainstormed for them by another. If most people find employment in the first four months, we surely do not need to be inserting these hardline compulsory direct activation measures in the first four months.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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To be clear, there is no shift at all. What we are doing is replicating what we are doing already with regard to jobseeker's benefit and applying that to jobseeker's pay-related benefit. It is as simple as that. I cannot accept the amendment.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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The Minister is not going to answer the question directly so I will move on to the next amendment.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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That is the Senator's interpretation. I think-----

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I asked the Minister a direct question about if people will have to work, not whether there has been a shift or not.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Higgins will resume her seat as Senator Ruane is speaking.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I did not ask whether this has been a shift from other policies. Whether it exists in previous policies or this policy, it is wrong that people are expected to engage in work experience for the prescribed amount of pay-related benefit. If someone decides it is part of their care plan with social welfare, are they expected to potentially engage in work experience for whatever number of hours for a lower rate of pay than other people in employed in that sector? I am not asking if it is a shift or if it is new or old. I am asking if that is the case.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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For purposes of clarification, is the Senator asking whether it applies in the current system and if it will continue to apply in the new system?

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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No, we are asking is it the case.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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Is it the case-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Hold on, let me talk to Senator Ruane about trying to understand it. We are going round in circles a bit. The Senator is asking if it is currently the case that someone might be asked for the same rate of pay in work experience and will that be perpetuated in the future legislation. Is that correct?

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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Are you expected to work for your benefit?

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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For clarity, we are talking about someone doing work experience for the rate of €450 where someone else in that same company is working the same amount of time but getting the higher rate of pay. If they are doing work experience, they are not doing the same work as a full-time employee. If they are qualified to do that work, they would take on full employment. It is similar to where there are lower rates of pay for 16-years-olds, 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds. Because it is training and work experience, you cannot expect them to be paid the same as someone who is fully qualified in that work. If the person Senator Ruane is suggesting is doing the same work as a full-time qualified person in that company, then they would just take the job. It would not be work experience.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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Not necessarily.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I want to let the Minister back in. I call Senator Higgins, very briefly.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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It is not the case.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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It is not the case. It is clearly different because you may choose to apply for work experience or not. In this legislation, you can be sent for work experience. To say they would simply take the job presumes that a job has been advertised or offered. You may well have companies saying they will take 20 people from your register. We will take 30 people and give them all work experience and the Department of social welfare can then pay them whatever amount it may be. It may well not be €450. We must bear in mind how low it can go. They will just get their social welfare payment. The caseworker can say there is work experience available, and you will be sent for it, or you could lose your payment. That is provided for as possible when you read the legislation. I am not talking about anybody's intent or what they want. We want to be clear in the language. Is it the case that people can be prescribed work experience and sent on work experience? With respect, I would like the Minister to answer this. They will go on work experience and will not receive payment from a company but will only receive the pay-related payment in this case.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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What the Senator is saying just does not make sense. No person who works in the Department of Social Protection will send someone on work experience if they are fully qualified for that role. A chef, for example, might lose his or her job for whatever reason and go into the social welfare office to look for guidance and to engage with social protection on how he or she should go forward and on what he or she should do. No-one in the social protection office will say that a fully qualified chef should be sent on work experience to be a chef. Work experience is there if you want to deviate into another role or go into another profession. If you want to continue being a chef, you apply for chef positions that are available. That is the point of it. Anyone working on this scheme under work experience is not doing the exact same work as someone who is fully qualified.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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It is training, yes.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I am not aware of any instances where a social welfare office sent somebody in on work experience. I do not understand. I am sorry, I genuinely do not understand. There are work placement programmes. There are all sorts of programmes when you engage in job activation, whether the community employment schemes or back to education. There are all sorts of different ways to get back into the workforce and to reskill and upskill. I am not clear on what the Senators are talking about with regard to work experience, but I do not want to take up more time because I know there are other amendments.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 12:

In page 20, line 38, to delete “which is prescribed for the purposes of this section”.

This amendment speaks to the concerns we have outlined with regard to the previous amendment and the proposed new sections 68KG and 68KH. The purpose of this section is to direct recipients of pay-related benefit towards schemes or programmes of employment or work experience as stated in the legislation - even if none of us can decide what work experience is, it is in the legislation - "which is considered appropriate having regard to the education, training and development needs of that person and his or her personal circumstances", as already outlined within the section. There should be no need for the Minister to prescribe additional schemes that may have no regard to the person's education and development needs. This language could potentially result in recipients of the scheme being forced into work experience that is entirely out of step with their experience and needs. It could feasibly lead them to being coercively placed in exploitative employment scenarios and there are no provisions in this Bill that set out that the scheme, programme of employment, or work experience a recipient must participate in are of sufficient quality that it might be of use and benefit to them in the development of their workforce. Senator Ahearn made a good point in the last amendment, where he asked whether a chef would be prescribed to engage in a particular job that he is ordinarily qualified for. You then have to remember that there will be people within this who do not have a qualification as such.We could then end up with, which has been pointed out to me unintentionally, with lower-paid skilled people being sent for work experience rather than the people who are able to articulate themselves at a certain professional level who loses their job. There may be people in a factory who are then told that they have to do a particular work experience and they will be on the lower rate of pay compared to someone who is on a 60% rate of pay. They do not have the same ability then to articulate that they are actually qualified for a particular job so will not take that particular job, because they want to upskill or change direction by way of a transfer to a different sector. We will have people who do not have a professional qualification and they will be even more susceptible to be put into work experience programmes for a lower social welfare payment.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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That absolutely makes no sense. Essentially, what the Senator is saying is that for anyone who is out of work, the Department of Social Protection will look at people who are fully qualified chefs to go into-----

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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No, that is not what I said.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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-----to go on work experience to be chefs. That is just not going to happen. The Senator's statement then means that the Department is denying people the opportunity to transfer into a new career because there are people who are fully qualified who are-----

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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That is not what I said.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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-----unemployed at the moment but are looking to move into another area.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I said people without a profession.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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Every case is looked at individually and is not compared to how everybody else is or are qualified, no matter how many people are out of work. It is looked at very individually. The argument cannot be made that someone who is fully qualified, for example to be a chef, and someone who then comes in on work experience and worked in some other area or other profession, should be paid the same. It does not make sense.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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The fundamental issue is how it is done and how people get treated. I sat on the social protection committee, which did a full review of JobPath and many of these measures. People were treated poorly and had poor quality experiences as a result.

I want to highlight something else, which I will hopefully get a chance, unless this Bill is guillotine, to discuss further but the fact is that this is not a scheme to give people €450 a week. Many people will be on much lower incomes on this scheme. Due to it being so individualised and separated out, there is also no recognition within this payment for qualified children, adults or household realities. This matters because those are factors that matter when we think about what is the appropriate employment and opportunity for somebody. It is that they are able to look to factors like that and have them considered. That is an issue in this Bill and is one of the reasons many people find themselves severely less well-off and many households, in particular, will be less well-off by the measures in this Bill.

My colleague has spoken about jobseeker's transitional payment and the experience of people and I will let her speak to that but people were inappropriately routed to inappropriate employments. For example, when I worked at one point with young unemployed people in County Wexford, they found themselves routed to completely inappropriate jobs. There is also an issue with lone parents as they are all getting routed to low-paid work and to childcare, as an assumption, as the only appropriate thing even when it was not a good match for their skills.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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It is very important to say that we have a history, as has been said by Senator Higgins, with the jobseeker's transitional payment, which completely put women and mothers in a vulnerable position. When they were transferred from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker's transitional payment, they were expected to go to work when their child reached a certain age, not the age of 18, regardless of whether they had support at home or access to childcare. They were put on the jobseeker's transitional payment and many women sat in front of caseworkers where those caseworkers encouraged them against going back to education and arts degrees and tried to direct them towards low-skilled jobs. One woman was told not to study philosophy because it would not get her anywhere. These were women who were looking to re-educate themselves. All that caseworker could see was whether this was going to get that person to be some successful economic unit in the world. If it did not and felt too abstract and far away, these people were discouraged. We have a history of not ensuring that people are able to fulfil their own potential in their own way, whether it is through education or community education. We have tried to force people into low-skilled jobs.

If people end up on this scheme with a low-paid job and they do not have a degree or a specific profession, they will be more susceptible to being put into an inappropriate work placement or work experience because that has happened, does happen and continues to happen.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Before I bring the Minister in, I welcome as guests of Senator Fitzpatrick who is in the Gallery: Seán Eithne, Maeve and Josephine Cody, Aidan and Joe Moore, and Mark as well. They are all very welcome to Seanad Éireann and to Leinster House. I hope they enjoy their evening here with all of us and enjoy the rest of their stay.

I call the Minister.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I do not accept this amendment either. For people who may be better off on a payment based on household composition, the means-tested jobseeker's allowance will remain available to them. The nature of pay-related payment is that it is linked to the earnings from employment rather than the household composition. They have the option to go for the jobseeker's allowance instead.

I am listening to different scenarios here but in the Department of Social Protection, in the first instance, we are here to help people. We help people every single day. The staff of the Department are trained and we have personal employment advisers. They work in Intreo offices with jobseekers to develop individualised personal progression plans that will identify the steps they can take to obtain or retain suitable employment. We are applying here what we do in jobseeker's benefit to jobseeker's pay-related benefit. The exact same rules and the exact same situations have been transposed into this legislation. We will continue to work with people and we are at a point here where we have very low unemployment at the moment and many people who are laid off are, thankfully, able to get suitable employment. Where they cannot do that, we want to help them. We want to help them to retrain, reskill and to progress their education if those are the choices they make. Those are the facts and that is what we are trying to do.

If people have serious problems regarding the social welfare protection system and do not think that they are being treated fairly, I ask that this be brought to my attention. Give me the exact examples and I will be happy to raise them and to check them out.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I will make one final point. It is all well and good to say that the Department wants to help people get to work. This is a short scheme and participants do not get much time to actually explore what their next option might be. If they have just lost their job, they are not even given the breathing space to figure out what that might be.

Second, people are not helped by telling them that they must avail of a scheme or work experience. The scheme states that if a person does not participate, that person can lose his or her payment. That is not actually helping but is putting somebody up against a wall where he or she has to then pick something just so as not to lose his or her payment. That is not helping. It can be framed as such if one wants to but it is not because it removes a person's autonomy and agency to be able to engage in the time that a person wants to. After this scheme finishes, he or she will kick into the normal jobseeker's benefit. Let that kick in then but at least allow the scheme be the scheme, without people being forced into any particular prescribed form of what is next in their lives, if they have just lost their jobs.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Amendments Nos. 13 to 16, inclusive, are out of order because of a potential charge on the Revenue.

Amendments Nos. 13 to 16, inclusive, not moved.

Question proposed: “That section 13 stand part of the Bill.”

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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We oppose the section as a whole for some of the reasons outlined by my colleague but also because of some of the other very important problems with this scheme as it is designed.Some aspects of the scheme are sound, but there are fundamentally regressive aspects.

The individualisation of the jobseeker's pay-related benefit payment means that many low income earners will be considerably worse off, compared to receiving jobseeker's benefit. Lower earners will be potentially disadvantaged, in particular. These are the workers who are most susceptible to income shock because they typically have less in savings. We know from the wealth survey in Ireland that it is not those on high incomes with high overheads, who we are often told need this cushion, who will be affected. Rather, it is those who are on low incomes, are less likely to have any assets, savings or anything else they can cash in and tend to be living hand-to-mouth who will be most negatively impacted by this change. In particular, a crucially regressive aspect of this benefit, as opposed to jobseeker's benefit, is that recipients of this benefit, high and low income earners alike, with child and adult dependants will be worse off.

Under jobseeker's benefit, the number of dependants a recipient has relates to their ability to qualify for qualified child or adult payments in respect of an adult dependant. Under this Bill, households with, for example, two or three children where a person is moved to a jobseeker's pay-related benefit will receive no supplementary benefit and no provision has been made for same. Perhaps the Minister can clarify if there is a plan to deal with that, but no provision is made in the Bill for qualified adult or child payments. That is why we desperately need a proper distributional analysis of the Bill, showing how the scheme will add to income inequality and increased poverty rates in households.

We are also concerned about the rates of benefit under section 38KE, in particular the lowest benefit levels. According to analysis from the Vincentian Partnership, in 214 test cases income supports from social welfare were inadequate to meet minimum needs in 70% of cases. A key amendment we had was that the minimum essential standards of living be met - the basic test of a social payment. This is what our social protection system should do. It is meant to be a redistributional social protection system.

Other countries may have an income replacement, but other countries do not have the extraordinarily high level of income disparity that we have in Ireland. In Ireland those on the lowest and highest incomes are miles apart compared to what they are in many other European countries. It is a huge issue. That is why we always ask about the equality and poverty indexes, and say they are terrible. They refer to income after social welfare and tax because we rely heavily on the social protection system to act as a redistributive tool that ensures that the core job is done, namely making sure that everyone's basic needs are met.

The research from the Vincentian Partnership shows that the system does not do that very well. However, this scheme, in particular, will do this worse than any other scheme we have seen for a while because it is only designed to treat people as employed and working units and does absolutely nothing to recognise their responsibilities and the fact they are part of a family and household. The scheme will be an individualised and very neoliberal version of society, rather than the idea of social protection as a safety net, a foundation, as redistributative and one of the ways we ensure collectively the well-being of the population.

The reduced duration for jobseeker's benefit for those with fewer contributions points to the fact that there will be a negative impact. The way the scheme is designed will impact negatively in particular on those who have been in part-time employment. Those in part-time employment will receive not only a lower amount, but the duration of the payments will be shorter. When we talk about who is in part-time employment, it is predominantly women. We have yet another policy that is not properly gender- and equality-proofed. Women tend to be in more part-time employment and are often on lower incomes, and are likely to come up much the poorer. How will the Minister address the distributional issues and issues in respect of families and the family status of people in receipt of these benefits?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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To clarify the position for the Senator, those working part-time can continue receiving jobseeker's benefit. The nature of pay-related-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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As it is now 6.15 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the Order of the Seanad of this day: "That section 13 is hereby agreed to in committee; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of the section is hereby agreed to in committee; the Schedule is hereby agreed to in committee; the Title is hereby agreed to in committee; the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment; the Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby received for final consideration; and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 24; Níl, 9.



Tellers: Tá, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Joe O'Reilly; Níl, Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane.

Question declared carried.