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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 14 Dec 2010

Vol. 725 No. 1

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010: Instruction to Committee

I move:

That pursuant to Standing Order 172, Standing Order 127 is modified to permit an instruction to the Committee to which the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments, that it has power to make provision in the Bill in relation to:

amending the Pensions Act 1990 to allow pension scheme trustees purchase annuities approved by the Pensions Board and to provide the courts with the power to relieve a trustee in whole or in part from liability for breach of trust where the court is satisfied that the trustee acted honestly and reasonably in relation to the purchase of annuities approved by the Pensions Board;

amending the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to provide that a pension scheme which purchases a policy or contract of assurance approved by the Pensions Board shall continue to be an approved scheme for the purpose of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997;

changing the title of the Bill to take account of these changes;

the legal structure of the work placement programme or the programme described as the skills development and internship programme.

Pension schemes have been significantly impacted by the downturn in the financial markets. Defined benefits pensions schemes are subject to the funding standard requirements as set out——

On a point of order, we need a copy of the Minister's speech since we only got these amendments in the past few hours. Before he continues, I want a copy of his speech.

I am sure copies are on their way.

I do not want the debate to go ahead without a copy of his speech because this is the first chance we have had to discuss these amendments.

Normally copies are circulated. However, in reality there is nothing to say they must be produced.

In reality, a Cheann Comhairle, if the Minister had any respect for the House, he would circulate his speech. We have been bounced into this without any information or briefing. It is simply no way to do business. I agree with Deputy Ring that we need the speech circulated before the Minister proceeds.

I do not have a speech to circulate, just notes.

If we had even the notes, we could study them.

The notes will be articulated during the speech.

This is essentially a Second Stage speech, so we are entitled to a copy of the Minister's speech.

If the Deputy so wishes, I can get a copy made of my notes.

This motion to instruct committee is a rarely used procedure and is essentially a Second Stage speech. Will the Ceann Comhairle verify if this is the case?

It is a motion to instruct a committee, so it is not essentially a conventional Second Stage speech.

Yes, but there are four proposals that the Minister has not spoken on before.

Standing Orders do not oblige the Minister to circulate his speech.

I have no problem circulating the notes I have here.

I would have thought that when the Minister articulates his points, they will be quite clear to Members.

While I might not be the best on procedure in the House, this Bill has already passed Second and Committee Stages. Today, we were to take Report and Final Stages. Several hours ago, however, we were informed new amendments were to made but not on Report Stage but as a motion to instruct committee.

Opposition Members are not gods. We do not have the resources of the Department behind us. Since we were handed these amendments only a few hours ago, we need an explanatory note on them to assist us in our responses.

In the meantime, I think the Minister should proceed because there is a time limit on this debate.

I know, a Cheann Comhairle, but this is not really in order or acceptable.

A Cheann Comhairle, it is unfair to claim there is a time limit. You allowed this tight time limit which does not allow Members to read the amendments before they are taken or allow for the circulation of explanatory notes on them.

We must proceed. The time limit is the order of the House. All I do is put the order to the House for its agreement.

Procedurally it is extremely inept to say the least as well as disrespectful.

I am sure whatever is to be circulated will be brought to the Chamber shortly.

Pension schemes have been significantly impacted by the downturn in the financial markets. Defined benefits pensions schemes are subject to the funding standard requirements as set out in the Pensions Act 1990, as amended. In response to the crisis, this funding requirement was eased to allow schemes assess the impact of the crisis and determine an appropriate response. In addition, the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2009 provided a range of legislative measures to further help the trustees-employers of pension schemes respond to the funding difficulties in pension schemes.

Further measures have been announced in the national pensions framework which are being progressed by the national pensions framework implementation group. In particular, I announced in October the development of the new model for defined benefits pension schemes proposed in the national pensions framework would be expedited by the framework implementation group.

The amendment to the Pensions Act which I am now bringing forward arises from proposals from the Irish Association of Pension Funds and the Society of Actuaries under which a new type of annuity policy, which will make reference to euro-nominated bonds, will be available for purchase by Irish pension schemes and investors. In purchasing this new type of annuity and-or associated bonds, pension schemes will benefit from higher yields than are currently available from French and German markets thereby reducing the cost to pension schemes in meeting their pension liabilities and the requirement of the funding standard.

In an Irish context, the National Treasury Management Agency will issue long-term bonds with a period appropriate to match the funding needs of a typical pension scheme. These bonds will be available for purchase by the insurance industry who will issue annuities based on Irish yields or sovereign annuities. These annuities can be bought by pension schemes to match their pensioner liabilities. It is proposed to make these bonds available from 1 January 2011. These bonds can of course be purchased in the normal course by pension schemes.

This amendment is part of a package of measures which are being introduced to assist defined benefit pension schemes and make them more secure in the future. Once these annuities and associated bonds are available, the funding standard amended to reflect engagement with this new annuity policy, the new defined benefit model and the deadline for funding proposals introduced early next year, it is not intended to revisit defined benefits pension schemes. Pension schemes must address their liabilities, their risk and investment strategies in order to ensure that they are properly funded. In other words, we want to introduce a new type of bond that can be bought from the NTMA. There is a double win here because the money that is used to buy these bonds or annuities will go towards funding the State. On the other hand, they give a much better yield than German bonds.

The skills development and internship programme is a new enterprise-led labour market activation initiative aimed at those who are at least three months unemployed. Under this programme, participants will be offered a 12-month placement with host organisations in the private or community and voluntary sectors. In addition to the actual placement, participants will undertake a significant education and training component, which will be certified and will aim to improve their skills and competencies.

FÁS will have responsibility for managing the programme. This will mean that participants will receive a FÁS training allowance equivalent to their social welfare entitlement and will also receive an upskilling bonus of €100 per week during the actual placement phase of the programme.

By providing 12-month placements coupled with a substantial education and training offering, it is intended that the programme will provide a structured pathway to employment for those who are unemployed. The success of the programme will be entirely dependent on enterprises embracing the programme and offering quality placements to the unemployed. The Government has made provision for up to 5,000 places to be supported under this programme. However, this is subject to the level of interest and uptake by enterprises. The Government, through FÁS, will facilitate these placements and provide the education and training provision to participants. Details of the programme are currently being prepared and it is expected to be operational towards the end of the first quarter of 2011.

This is no way to do business or to treat Opposition spokespeople. We do not have the resources of the Government, nor the same backup facilities. It is wrong that such amendments are introduced without our having had a prior briefing on them. It is not the way to deal with legislation. I am upset because one never knows what minefields may arise in legislation.

I am disappointed by the way in which this Bill is being handled. We have been talking about it since last since last summer, so there was no excuse for introducing it in the same week as the Social Welfare Bill which deals with budgetary changes. It is wrong to deal with the legislation in this manner — two days before the House rises for the Christmas recess and then probably into a general election — because we will not have a further chance to discuss these amendments. As we have seen before, legislation that is guillotined ends up in the High Court six months later where it is overturned. We then have to come back to the House to deal with emergency legislation.

The Minister is proposing 5,000 work experience placements but I hope these will be independently monitored. We should put these people through their paces to retrain them. At the end of it, we want to see some of them being placed in jobs. Something should be done for them in this respect. Some form of independent monitoring evaluation is required and it would be wrong if that does not happen. Last week, we saw what was going on in FÁS concerning qualifications.

I am glad the Minister said that, along with the jobseeker's benefit, these people will also get €100 per week.

It will be €150 per week from the host organisation.

Will the Minister explain that?

In order to participate in a programme, host organisations will have to pay €150 per week per participant for a 12-month period into a fund managed by FÁS. This contribution will be used to fund an upskilling bonus of €100 per week per participant over and above their normal FÁS training allowance. The sum of €50 per week will be the host organisation's contribution to the upskilling costs of the participant.

It is unsatisfactory to provide this kind of information in this way. It is unfair to me, Deputy Shortall and other speakers who must pick it up off the cuff. It is unfair that we did not have this information before now. It is unsatisfactory and I am unhappy with the way the legislation has been handled. In dealing with every other Bill that has come before the House, we got briefings from officials. In addition, we were able to do research and could thus put time and effort into responding to the Government's proposals.

This is not satisfactory. I am disappointed because I do not like what is being put before us. I hope this will never happen again and that no Government will use its mandate to push through legislation at the eleventh hour of a Dáil session and the end of a Government's term in office. It is wrong to do so. We should be able to sit down with the Minister, as we did on Committee Stage, and discuss amendments. We may or may not reach agreement on them, but at least we were able to discuss them.

The Minister is talking about sovereign annuities and associated bonds, but I know nothing about them. This legislation is being forced upon us and we are only now being told what is happening. I will not pretend that I understand it, because I do not; even my researchers did not have time to work on it. It is both unsatisfactory and unfair, and it is not good legislation. It is not good for the House or the Oireachtas generally.

A new section has been introduced concerning public office holders. I am glad to see that where some people, such as judges, are not making voluntary contributions, they will be caught in relation to this. Deputies and Ministers will also be making their contributions in this regard, and rightly so. Last week, we saw major cuts for the blind, carers, the disabled and others on social welfare payments. It is only right, therefore, that judges and every Member of the Oireachtas, including Ministers and Deputies, should also take their fair share of cuts.

The civil partnership legislation, which covers a complex subject, has gone through the House. We should have had more time to research the subject, however, to see what is being proposed in the legislation before us in that regard. What effect will it have on cohabiting couples and same-sex relationships?

It is wrong to bring this Bill before us at the eleventh hour. It is not a good way to do business and neither does it make for good legislation. I am disappointed to be back on Committee Stage and unable to discuss the Bill. We have already discussed the earlier Stages of this Bill. We went on to discuss the measure that will oblige landlords whose tenants are in receipt of rent allowance to register from 1 January next. That is a good measure.

I am not supportive of people who come into the country and can be certified by telephone. I cannot and will not support that. We discussed the public service card at length in the select committee. The Minister undertook to return to this matter on Report Stage and explain exactly what was being proposed by the Department. We need this kind of security.

I waited for the Minister's explanation of the €20 million finger-printing machine that is lying idle. Has the Minister or the Minister for Finance had discussions with staff to see when that very expensive piece of equipment will be up and running to stop fraudsters coming in and out of the country? We should finger-print them when they come in and when they go out, so that we know if they are drawing social welfare benefits in every other European country. Has the Minister discussed this matter with the Ministers for Finance or Justice and Law Reform or with the unions to resolve this serious problem? It is a terrible thing to have an expensive piece of equipment and nothing being done with it.

I am disappointed that I did not know more about these amendments. It is difficult to discuss amendments one was handed an hour ago. This is not the way for legislators to do their business.

I join Deputy Ring in registering my objection to the manner in which the Minister has decided to handle this legislation. Last week, we saw rushed legislation following from the budget. We expected to have an opportunity to debate this Bill, which has been considered in committee, and to take our time in dealing with it and give it adequate consideration. It is not acceptable to circulate amendments at 10.40 p.m., which is when they were e-mailed to Members last night. Most people did not see the amendments until this morning. It was late morning before I had an opportunity to see them. We were given almost 30 pages of amendments. This is disrespectful of Members on this side of the House and of the House's role in legislation. We cannot give consideration to amendments when they are tabled at such a late hour.

Besides, the Minister made a serious error in respect of the procedures to be followed. Amendments seem to have been plucked out of the sky and no notice given to Members. As they are substantial and deal with new matters we are obliged to go through this convoluted procedure in the House, which amounts to a recommittal. An hour is being devoted to that, which must be taken from the short time allowed for Report and Remaining Stages of the Bill. This is a bad way to deal with legislation.

Rushed legislation is usually bad legislation because adequate time is not provided for scrutiny, consultation, taking legal advice, speaking with people who will be affected by the changes or — in this case — discussing the sovereign annuity proposals with the industry. The Minister is not doing his job properly if this is how he deals with legislation. One of his primary responsibilities is to legislate, as it is the primary responsibility of the House. Dealing with legislation in this manner represents a dereliction of the Minister's duty to provide adequate time for due consideration of proposals. For that reason, it is impossible to go along with what the Minister is proposing. Members on this side of the House have not had adequate time to consider the proposals.

Given that the Minister was not in a position to circulate the amendments until late last night, it is clear that he is not sufficiently briefed or au fait with the significant proposals he is making. For that reason, I have serious concerns about the potential for the implications of some of these proposals to be negative and flawed. That is the likelihood, given the rushed manner in which the Minister has dealt with them.

The civil partnership legislation has implications for the social welfare code. Amendments Nos. 3 to 24, inclusive, deal with civil partnership. These 22 amendments deal with legislation that came from another Department entirely. When that legislation went through the Oireachtas, we were promised corresponding and pursuant legislation in the social welfare and tax areas. I do not know why it was left to the last minute to circulate these detailed proposals. I also wonder when we will see the taxation legislation. Will those measures be ready in time for the finance Bill? Why could the full package not have been drawn up at the same time with the other Departments? Why were these amendments not included in the Social Welfare Bill proper last week so that they could be given adequate consideration on Committee Stage? We must take these 22 amendments on trust. I do not think anyone was in a position to look at them in any detail, read them, consider their implications or cross-reference or check them. We are being asked to vote for these amendments blind. We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope the Minister has some clue what he is doing. This is no way to treat Members of the House or for Members to be forced into dealing with legislation.

The proposal on sovereign annuities is potentially very good and something people working in the industry have been seeking. There are two aspects to it. One is the pricing of annuities. Given the current expensive nature of Irish bonds and their high interest rate, the measure provides an opportunity to assist many of the pension funds that are in difficulty at present by switching the pricing mechanism from German bonds to Irish bonds. That makes sense and has been requested for some time. It could have been done sooner and would have conferred a benefit, but I welcome it nonetheless. The other aspect of the proposal is that the NTMA will issue longer-term bonds in respect of retirement annuities. I welcome that. It makes sense.

I must include a caveat. I am not sufficiently au fait with what the Minister is proposing. Due to the rushed nature of the work he has done on the proposal, the Minister has not consulted with people in the industry who have been lobbying for this measure for some time. It makes no sense that the people who made the proposal to him in the first place were not paid the courtesy of being asked to respond to the Minister’s proposal. Neither were they allowed to consider it and make further input. The Minister should have availed of that expertise, given the dearth of pensions expertise that has been displayed in Departments for some time and the Government’s ill-advised approach to pensions generally. I hope we will have an opportunity to come back to this in the new year. However, I fundamentally disagree with what the Minister is proposing to do in the pensions area, particularly in respect of tax relief. What he is proposing will be extraordinarily damaging to the pensions industry and to the whole pensions area. What the Minister is proposing will completely remove any incentive for people to save for their pensions. Under his proposals, people would be much better off putting their money under the mattress rather than investing it in pension schemes. The proposals to which I refer are ill-informed and will do serious damage. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider them.

I am not sure that the Minister's proposal in respect of sovereign annuities is sufficiently tight to prevent any potential abuse. In the short time available to me earlier this afternoon to consult people who are familiar with this area, a number of concerns were expressed regarding the potential for abuse. For example, will any mechanism be put in place to stop people from investing in Greek bonds? There is a view that the proposal in respect of this matter is not sufficiently robust and could potentially be open to abuse. The proposal is substantial but, because it is being rushed through, there is a real danger that the Minister is going to get it wrong.

The other matter under discussion relates to the status of persons engaged in work experience pursuant to certain placements. Again, this is another area in respect of which there is major confusion. The principle underlying existing work placement schemes is fine. These schemes have a great deal of potential and they provide opportunities for people who have good skills which they want to put to use or those who do not possess such skills but who want to acquire them. The schemes also ensure, at a time of high unemployment, that people can gain work experience.

As already stated, the position with regard to the existing schemes is fine. However, I am of the opinion that it is not possible to put in place a scheme such as that outlined in the legislation on a hurried basis. The Minister is operating on the hoof and the proposals relating to the new scheme appear to have been cobbled together in order that the Government could state, in the context of the budget, that it is taking action in respect of unemployment.

In the specific amendment relating to this matter, the Minister is seeking to deny those who either are or will be on work placements the normal protections to which employees are entitled. Those protections were hard won and were put in place through the enactment of labour laws. I have serious concerns with regard to what is proposed. Under the new scheme, some individuals will be working up to 40 hours per week for their dole payments. These people will not receive anything extra on top of their weekly payment of €188. In addition, they will not enjoy the same protections as those alongside whom they will be working and who will be earning perhaps twice or three times the amount they will receive by means of their dole payments.

The Minister is also denying the people to whom I refer any kind of common law protections. What will be the position, for example, in cases of unfair dismissal? If a person on a work placement is informed that the job they were doing is no longer available or that their performance is unsatisfactory, will he or she have any rights? Will he or she enjoy any protection at all? What will be the position with regard to data protection? From what is proposed, it appears that those to whom I refer will be denied the basic common law or specific employment rights enjoyed by full-time workers.

The existing work placement scheme has not been reviewed and little or no monitoring takes place in respect of it. Whatever about the graduate placement arrangements — in many instances these work well — there are other arrangements in respect of which obvious abuse is taking place. I browsed the relevant website recently and came across a case where a well-known shoe shop in the city was advertising for six assistants. That is complete abuse. It is inappropriate that those on work placement schemes would be obliged to work in shops of this nature as cheap labour. The owners of the shop in question were seeking six people to work a full week on the understanding that it would cost them nothing because these individuals would be working for their dole. I would have thought the Minister would be of the view that this represents an inappropriate use of a work placement scheme. However, it managed to traverse the very low threshold which appears to apply in respect of what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate.

The case to which I refer appears to involve an obvious abuse. The Minister must review the scheme in order to ensure that employers will not use it as a means to procure cheap labour. He must also ensure that displacement does not occur. I recently became aware of a case involving a State agency which was on the point of recruiting a fully-qualified person to fill a job vacancy on full pay when the new work placement scheme was announced last year. As a result, the agency in question postponed the appointment and later recruited two people from the scheme on work placements in order to fill the vacancy. Again, this cost the agency nothing but the two individuals who were recruited were obliged to work for their dole payments. It appears that they were abused in this instance.

Another point to which I wish to refer is the allowance that is to be paid. The Minister cannot expect people to take up work placements and be obliged to pay bus or train fares, buy lunches and clothes for work and so on and then refuse to recognise the costs involved for these individuals. It is interesting that IBEC recently made this very point and stated that its members wanted to pay participants on the work placement scheme an allowance but, under the terms of the scheme, were precluded from doing so. What is happening makes no sense. The Minister should recognise how much it costs for people to go to work.

The Minister for Finance announced on budget day that there will be some 15,000 places available on the various schemes. The Minister opposite referred to one of the schemes whereas the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010 relates to all of them. The difficulty we face is that the Minister has only informed us about one scheme.

This is the second scheme.

What does the Minister mean?

Tús is the first scheme, that under discussion is the second and the scheme relating to the public service is the third.

There are three different schemes.

Yes, and there will be 5,000 places on each.

That is fine. However, the legislation relates to the three schemes.

It only relates to one.

According to that with which we have been presented, it relates to all three.

The Minister stated that participants in the skills development and internship programme in the private sector will be disqualified from receiving social welfare payments. They will be paid, in a rather convoluted manner, via moneys channelled through FÁS. The placements relating to this programme will last for between two and 12 months. A person who partakes of this programme will have his or her social welfare payments discontinued when he or she takes up a placement, which might last for three months. As a result of the way in which the Minister's Department is operating at present, when the placement ends the person will be obliged to wait until his or her social welfare payment is reinstated. This does not appear to make any sense.

This matter has not been well thought out and there are no——

It was well thought out.

——guidelines relating to the programme. I searched the website of the Department of Education and Skills earlier today and the guidelines I found are totally confusing and appear only to relate to people who are working in schools. What is proposed bears all the hallmarks of something that has been rushed and that was not thought through. We will pay a price for the latter in the future.

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Teachta Finian McGrath.

As the previous speakers stated, this is not the way in which to conduct Dáil business. What is being done is an absolute disgrace. Some years ago, the Department of the Taoiseach produced a document entitled Regulating Better — A Government White Paper setting out six principles of Better Regulation. Everyone of the principles set out in that document was breached when the relevant amendments were brought forward at a late stage last night. I object to the rushed nature of the debate on the motion before the House and also to the guillotine that will be imposed in respect of the Report Stage debate on the Bill.

The context relating to the introduction of the Bill must be borne in mind. The original legislation was rushed into the House and the debate on Committee Stage, for which, unfortunately, I was not able to be present, was also rushed and involved the introduction of major changes by the Minister. This brings me back to the time in office of the former Minister, Michael McDowell, who used to do exactly the same thing. He would produce a Bill and then, halfway through its passage, would produce a huge raft of amendments on Committee Stage and then would try to do the same on Report Stage. This is not the way in which to do business and if one substantially changes a Bill from its original intention, my recommendation would have been to start all over again. When tabling amendments, Opposition Members are continually told that if one attempts to change the focus of the Bill, one's amendment will be ruled out of order. However, the Minister evidently can do as he pleases because proposals have been included in this Bill that have absolutely nothing to do with the original intentions of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill. I simply make this point.

In so far as possible, like other Members I wish to discuss some of the proposals that have been put before them in a limited fashion. However, this is difficult when one does not have sufficient time to go into major details and when the briefing document from the Department merely comprises a number of paragraphs. Although the consequences of the amendments with which Members will be dealing are the equivalent of another social welfare Bill, the explanatory memorandum is not huge. As everyone is aware, in legislation it sometimes is difficult to reach the normal working language of people. A note arrived yesterday evening to the effect that substantial amendments were forthcoming and which, as I noted, were outside of the original scope of the Bill. Moreover, other Members and hopefully the Minister, will be aware that Oireachtas Members have been receiving thousands of e-mails rightly protesting against the sell-out of Ireland. Buried among them, quite late last night, was an e-mail stating that these amendments had arrived. Although I had received an indication previously that these amendments were due, these are the consequences of rushing it through.

In the limited time available to me I do not have a major problem with the amendments pertaining to civil partnership. I welcome them and as I stated during the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, I would have gone further in that regard. If one considers the time that has elapsed since the Oireachtas passed the aforementioned Act and the preparation and so on, at this late stage I do not discern the reason these amendments have suddenly landed on Members' doorsteps today, as they should have been included in the first Bill. They would have been welcome and Members could have discussed them in a proper fashion, as they did on Second and Report Stages, even with limited time.

The amendment regarding the 4% contribution to the social insurance fund from public office holders also is welcome. I believe it falls far short of what is needed and that the proportion of the burden of recovery placed on Ministers, Deputies, judges etc. should be higher. Sinn Féin's pre-budget submission to the Minister for Finance made a number of suggestions on how to eliminate wasteful spending on exorbitant wages and it would have resulted in a greater degree of pain to those who are quite well-paid public servants and semi-State employees, as well as to those who charge exorbitant professional fees. Those proposals are available. Again, as I noted, I have not had sufficient time to examine the amendments with a fine tooth comb but I welcome the principle of these aspects of the amendments. It is better late than never and constitutes movement in the right direction.

I have a number of concerns in respect of the lack of any principal legislation governing internships and workplaces. I refer in particular to the absence of legislation affording participants basic rights or legislative safeguards against worker displacement. I believe the previous speaker also mentioned this issue. Government amendment No. 25 pertains to the status of persons participating in work placement and internship programmes and provides for their disqualification from receiving benefits. It is written in the usual convoluted fashion in which legislation is put together and I wish Ireland had the same plain English campaign as obtains in Britain because it would make it easier for Members to get to grips with it. However, the gist of the amendment is that a FÁS training allowance will be paid to people. It will be equivalent to their social welfare entitlement and on top of this, they also will receive an up-skilling bonus of €100 per week.

The key component in this regard is whether the enterprises and employers are available to offer work. To date, a huge hunger on the part of the majority of those represented by IBEC to employ many more people has not been evident. Their hunger to date has been simply to reduce the minimum wage and I am concerned that this job placement initiative will be used as cheap labour by some unscrupulous employers or will be used to displace existing workers. This is a major concern that must be considered and whatever is done in this regard, there must be no possibility of existing workers being sidelined or removed from their position to facilitate an internship programme. Moreover, there must be a mechanism in place for those who consider themselves to be aggrieved in this manner to gain access rapidly to the Labour Court or whatever institution before this becomes a practice among some within the business community.

The language of the proposed section 298A of the principal Act contains warning flags that point to the vulnerability of those who take up such positions. This section emphasises that participants, apart from the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, are deemed not to be employees of the person for whom they are working, because they are in an internship. However, it also is at pains to state that the Minister is not deemed to be the employer either. Who is the employer in respect of health and safety law in particular? Is it FÁS or who has the obligations in this regard?

As for the last major portion of the Bill, I welcome that for once, the huge volume of Irish private pension funds amounting to half a trillion euro, might be encouraged to invest in Ireland. They should have been doing so from the outset and perhaps the Oireachtas should consider introducing a levy on those pensions to gain an immediate fund for the State. For example, a levy of 1% would raise €5 billion but one could also consider setting a compulsory percentage of such funds to be invested in Ireland to ensure that huge structural projects that must be carried out are built and delivered.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010. I share my colleagues' concern about the manner in which this debate has been handled thus far, regarding the notice given to Oireachtas Members, as well as the urgent need for an informed debate. This is unacceptable and it is important to put on the record my major concerns about what is happening in respect of this debate.

I wish to touch on three aspects of the Bill's contents. These are the civil partnership and certain rights issue; work experience for certain people; and public office holders.

On the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, one can see in its detail where it will also provide for changes to the social welfare code arising from the provisions of the Act. The changes will relate to the definition of "couple" and will also provide for the entitlement for registered or cohabiting civil partners to various benefits and allowances to mirror those already available to married or cohabiting opposite sex couples. It is an important provision which we must recognise. Many people in such situations have contacted Members of the Oireachtas about this issue.

The changes to the social welfare code will affect all same sex cohabiting couples, not just those who opt to register a civil partnership. This is necessary from an equality perspective as the social welfare code already recognises opposite sex cohabiting couples. It is very important that this is recognised and I welcome the fact that during the debate on the Act we took a major step forward in the country to recognise these couples and new families in Irish society. We can go another step further on the issue of equality. There is broad consensus in the House on supporting these measures and protecting the rights of the people concerned.

On persons involved in the work placement programme, one notes that the Bill deals with this and it is described as a skills development and internship programme approved by the Government in November. The Bill provides for the purposes of any enactment or rule of law other than the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Such participants shall be deemed not to be an employee and the Bill also provides that they are disqualified from receiving benefits when participating in certain employment programmes.

This is something which sounds very good in theory. I know from talking to many unemployed people, in particular over the past 12 months, that they are dying to get into some sort of work experience or placement. Many people have come to my clinics who said they would work for nothing in order to get experience. That is very positive and kills the myth that people on welfare will not work. The vast majority of unemployed people on welfare are dying to get into work and become involved in placements. However, I wish to sound a note of caution which has already been raised by a number of Deputies. I am concerned about the protection of workers' rights. We have to be very vigilant in ensuring that some people do not exploit the situation, which is linked to the debate on cheap labour. This is important.

A number of speakers touched on the issue of pensions. I ask everybody, in particular those involved in the investment of pensions, long-term bonds and pension funds, to invest in their own country. I ask people over 60 years of age, many of whom have money on deposit, to go out and spend a few extra euro a week. I understand in the region of €95 billion is on deposit in banks in this country. It is important to raise the issue in a debate on social welfare.

We have heard a debate on regulation and how it failed dismally. It always fascinates me that white collar criminals seem to get away with murder in scamming the system here, whereas people on welfare are hounded for every single euro. It was an absolute disgrace to take money from the blind and the poor while other people got away scot free. Unemployed people and those on welfare want to work.

We should be thinking of creative ideas and not running away from the issue of tax. The two Government parties are fudging the issue, in particular in regard to the budget. They seem to think that if one imposes some forms of tax it will kill employment and development. That is wrong; there is potential for an equitable tax system to develop the economy and bring it up to the same level of taxation as many other European countries.

On a point of order, perhaps the Minister would respond to issue of the status of people on placements. The Minister referred to 5,000 places. Does it not relate to all persons on placement?

Acting Chairman

There is no provision for replies.

It is an important point.

Acting Chairman

I will allow the Minister to make a brief reply.

Many issues were raised. The issue of sovereign bonds was something that was introduced in the budget and we want to proceed with it immediately. That is why it is being discussed today.

On internships, many people, including some Deputies present, approached me and asked why an employer could not pay people who were willing to work for social welfare a few bob. It seemed like a simple idea. When we examined the issue, we found a number of legal issues had to be addressed. It is amazing that everybody wants everything done in a hurry but when one starts doing things in a hurry they ask one to do things slowly.

The internship program will be monitored by FÁS. People will be trained and FÁS will examine the abilities of the people concerned and make sure that the training is appropriate. It is not a question of us offering cheap labour; it will not work like that and there will be a large training element to the programme.

On civil partnerships, the legislation is due to come into force in January and we need the provisions in order that we can commence the social welfare provisions in parallel with that.

On public office holders, there would be an outcry if we did not put the PRSI provisions in place in parallel with all of the other impositions. People would say we were feathering our own nests. That is the reason that measure has to be passed. There is a good reason for each measure.

I would like to make a general point. This is the third Bill this year from my Department. There is an impression that there are limitless resources in Departments. Legislation is very detailed and I can confirm that the officials in my Department have burned the midnight oil to prepare the Bill, as Deputies will know because they received the information late last night. There have been months of work and they also have to prepare statutory instruments. The officials have worked as fast as they can.

We are introducing more Bills and making changes and the House in general has been putting pressure on us to bring in more reform and move forward faster. To a certain extent, we are victims of our own success in that we can introduce many important changes, which are needed, by 1 January.

On a point of order——

Can the Minister confirm that the provisions relate to all work placement participants?

The Deputy will have an opportunity to speak——

I can confirm that they do not.

I am trying to help. The Tús scheme is like the rural social scheme and is being run on administrative basis, therefore it does not form part of this Bill.

The existing work placement scheme is covered by this.

I must put the question on the motion.

Question put and agreed to.