Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Pensions Reform

Claire Kerrane

Question:

23. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of plans to legislate for the State pension age increase to be deferred and remain at 66 years of age; the timeframe for the legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25248/20]

I want to ask the Minister the status of plans to legislate for the deferral of the State pension increase to 67 years of age.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future states that the planned increase in the State pension age next year will be deferred. This will require an amendment to primary legislation and the Government will bring the necessary legislation before the Oireachtas later this year. I hope there will be cross-party support for this legislation.

The public policy and social issues in regard to funding a sustainable and adequate State pension system are complex. There are very diverse views on how the pensions system should develop. In the interests of older people and future generations of older people, we are taking a fresh look at the issues involved. That is why the programme for Government also commits to establishing a commission on pensions to examine a range of issues including contributions, calculation methods, sustainability, eligibility and intergenerational fairness. The terms of reference for the commission are currently being developed and options for its membership are being considered. I will bring proposals to the Government in that regard as soon as possible.

To be absolutely clear on this, the State pension age will not increase to 67 years in January 2021. People who are approaching the age of 66 should apply for the contributory or non-contributory State pension in the normal way. I will conclude by restating my view that the State pension is the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland. It is extremely effective in ensuring that our pensioners do not experience poverty. The Government is committed to ensuring that this remains the case. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Even at this stage I have received correspondence from people approaching 66 years of age next year. We know that in normal circumstances, people approaching pension age have to apply for the payment three months before turning 66 years of age. I recently spoke to a gentleman who is turning 66 next April and who has been told he cannot apply for the State pension because the legislation has not been sorted out yet. There seem to be difficulties for a number of people and they are unsure of what is actually happening.

I appreciate that the legislation will come before the Dáil before the end of the year. Can the Minister give further clarity on when that will happen? Will it happen after the budget? The Minister referenced the membership of the commission on pensions. Can she give more detail about that membership and with whom she is consulting on that issue?

I am working on the legislation and it is my intention to bring it to the House before the end of the year. I am aware of those who will become 66 years of age on 1 January and I want to make sure that they get their full entitlements when they reach that age in order that they will get their pensions. As I said, we are working on that at present.

In respect of the commission on pensions, I have been working with my officials and must bring a memo to Government on that particular matter. It will examine a number of issues. I have to agree that with my Government and Cabinet colleagues before I can give any further information.

Following on from that, as the membership has not yet been agreed and the Minister has to bring a memo to Cabinet, which I appreciate, given the timeframe in the programme for Government is she confident that the commission will be able to report by June next year? When does she envisage the first meeting of the commission's membership will take place? It is very important that she has a representative for employees on the commission, be it a trade union or similar representative. It is important that the voices of workers are heard.

I refer to the commitment in the programme for Government to change the name of jobseeker's allowance or benefit to an early retirement allowance or pension. We have to acknowledge that while that might look good, it is the same as the jobseeker's payment and is paid at the same rate. The Minister must acknowledge that for people who have worked since perhaps 15 years of age and have paid PRSI for 30, 40 or 50 years, it is an insult to give them €203 per week. The Minister must also acknowledge that is a hard pill to swallow for workers who have given and contributed so much in their working lives.

As I said, the commission on pensions will examine the issue in the round and will consider a wide range of issues including contributions, calculation methods, sustainability and intergenerational fairness. In terms of its membership, it is important that we have a broad mix of individuals with expertise in pensions, economics, labour market dynamics and industrial relations, as well as stakeholder representatives.

I will bring the proposal to Government to establish the commission as soon as possible and it will report back to Government with recommendations by, it is to be hoped, the end of June next year. That is the intention. There is quite a body of work and I am asking a lot of the commission. The report is expected by June, but we want to give the commission the flexibility to allow it to do the necessary work.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Seán Sherlock

Question:

24. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection if the pandemic unemployment payment will be restored to the full rate for those workers in the entertainment industry. [25247/20]

I would like to ask the Minister if she has given consideration to the restoration of the Covid payment for those people who are part of the live entertainment and events sector.

I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this matter. As he is aware, the Government has decided that from 17 September, the pandemic unemployment payment will be paid at three rates linked to a person's pre-Covid employment earnings. Individuals whose prior earnings were €300 or more per week will receive a payment of €300 per week. A rate of €250 will apply to those who previously earned between €200 and €300 per week and the rate of €203 remains unchanged for those who had prior earnings of less than €200 per week.

For people on the new rate of €250 per week, the payment will equate to between 83% and 125% of prior earnings and, on average, 105% of prior earnings. One of the reasons it is necessary to recalibrate the PUP is so that we can extend its availability while being mindful of the cost to the State. While we can borrow money now, ultimately these borrowings will have to be repaid by young and future generations of workers. The income related rates of payment are a fair and equitable way to make the necessary adjustments and facilitate the extension of the scheme to the end of March next year. My Department is advising those people affected of these rate changes and is setting out for them the basis for the decision in each case.

The PUP has been extended until end of March 2021 and will continue to provide support to workers from sectors facing extended periods of closure, including the entertainment industry. I have also secured approval to keep the scheme open to new applicants until the end of the year. This means that anyone who loses their employment over the coming months, including those who may have returned to work but may be affected by new restrictions, will be able to avail of the support. These new rates will apply to all recipients and it would not be fair to make exceptions for those who had previously worked in the arts or entertainment sector, while applying the changes to more than 97% of recipients who have worked in other sectors.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Finally, my Department has put in place a mailbox dedicated to the sector for individual artists to raise queries directly with the Department at artistspup@welfare.ie. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

The reason we are consistently making the case on behalf of the live entertainment and events sector is there is no timeline for the restoration of those jobs. The loss of income that has accrued to those in that sector through no fault of their own, which the Minister will appreciate fully, has been absolutely devastating. The ability of many of the people working in that sector to survive and their quality of life, even at the tiered rates, have been severely diminished. The net effect of that will be that many of them may now be forced to emigrate. That is the reality as they will not be able to find work in other sectors because these are quite technical and specified jobs. I again make the case for that sector.

As a former Minister for culture, both the Deputy and I value the work that those involved in the arts and entertainment sectors do. The question is whether I restore the €350 rate specifically for those who work in the entertainment industry. Workers in that sector represent approximately 3% of people on the PUP. I understand the position that they are in but it would be unfair to increase the payment for one cohort and not do it for the other 97% who have also lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

I have had good engagement with the sector, particularly Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland, on some of its concerns. The first thing that the sector was asking for was that the PUP would be kept open beyond 17 September. We have done that and I have secured Government approval to keep it open until at least the end of the year.

Can the Minister again give consideration to looking at the issue in the round? If there is no timeline for the reopening of the sector and if we are not going to have cultural and sporting events, whatever type of event one wants to imagine that befits the live entertainment and events sector, there has to be some scope for developing a package. Every day, we support the foreign direct investment sector through the IDA. We support local enterprises through Enterprise Ireland. I am also making the case for the other 97% but they have some chance of reclaiming their employment. The live entertainment sector has no chance at present.

If the Minister is telling us that she is not of a mind to up the payment to €350, I accept that. I want to see, however, some sort of package of supports that directly goes into people’s houses in a way that sustains them.

I thank the Deputy. As he will be aware, the Taoiseach has spoken about sectoral supports. In that respect my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Martin, has announced the establishment of a new task force for the recovery of the arts and culture sector under the chair of Clare Duignan. It will consider the impact of Covid-19 for culture and the arts, the audiovisual industry and the live entertainment industry. The Minister announced a new €10 million culture fund. Additional funding was also provided to the Arts Council, which has been allocated €105 million in total, which is 40% higher than it had received in 2019. There is a further €10 million for the audiovisual sector, which is going to pilot a performance and production support package. Many supports are available from the Departments of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Transport, Tourism, and Sport. We will continue to engage with the sector because I fully understand the difficult situation they are in. These people want to go back to work.

Social Welfare Rates

Claire Kerrane

Question:

25. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will consider moving towards linking social welfare rates with the minimum essential standard of living to ensure that all households relying on social welfare supports receive an amount that is adequate to meet their needs; the steps she will take in Budget 2021 in relation to the matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25249/20]

Will the Minister consider moving towards linking social welfare rates with adequacy? Will she begin that process in the upcoming budget?

The minimum essential standard of living, MESL, is an assessment, developed by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, VPSJ, of the minimum income needed to live and partake in the social and economic norms of everyday life for various household types. My Department has partly funded the excellent, detailed work of the VPSJ for a number of years, and I find it extremely useful.

One of the benefits of the work of the Vincentians is that it provides the different levels of income needed by different household types, including the different costs that arise for households in rural and urban locations. The most recent report from 2019 indicates that the welfare system already provides adequate supports for some household types, for example, families with young children in urban locations and pensioners, but that there is an adequacy gap with respect to other households types, for example, families with older children.

In recent years, my Department has recognised these challenges. Budget 2019 introduced a new, higher rate of increase for qualified children aged 12 and over, under all social welfare schemes, and budget 2020 again provided for a higher increase for older children. Changes were also made to enhance the working family and one-parent family payments. I will again use the work of the Vincentians to inform my approach to the forthcoming budget.

With regard to the suggestion of linking welfare rate changes to an index such as the MESL, the previous Government committed to developing an approach to benchmark pension payments to inflation and earnings and, as part of its Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, has also committed to consider extending this approach to other welfare payments. While any change to the current process of setting social welfare rates would require Government approval and would have to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary context, I will bring forward proposals in respect of both of these commitments over the next 12 months.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. The Minister will probably know that this is an issue that we have been raising in the House for many years. In 2018, we published the Social Welfare Commission Bill, which was to establish a commission to consider the work the VPSJ does on the MESL to ensure very vulnerable households that rely on social welfare supports can meet a certain amount of their outgoings. All this is a very basic minimum standard of living to be met by these vulnerable households.

The commission would also take the political football out of setting rates during the annual conversation as the budget approaches of giving a fiver to some and not to everyone. This is a constant conversation every year. While I appreciate that the Minister's Department partly funds the VPSJ and its important work, it does not pay much heed to its overall objective, which is to link all social welfare rates to the MESL, which is so important.

Is that something the Minister will examine for all social welfare payments?

As the Deputy said, the Department has partly funded the excellent and detailed work of the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice for a number of years and it is useful. I met Sr. Bernadette McMahon at my Department's pre-budget forum in July. The work of the Vincentians highlights the importance of services and how they can impact on the minimum income standards needed by households. The minimum essential standard of living, MESL, research has consistently identified older children. We have made progress on that and I want to see us continue to make more progress. Bringing the weekly working age social welfare rates in line would entail increasing the maximum personal rate to €250 and increasing the qualified child rate to €48.20 for children under 12 and €94.70 for children over 12. That would cost an additional €2.51 billion per year.

I certainly would not be asking the Minister to do it in one year but I ask if she could begin the process in the next budget. The Minister also referred to the roadmap on social inclusion. We have been asking about this roadmap for a long time because, as the Minister will know, it was published two years late, having been due in 2017. The Minister will notice from the response of the organisations on the front line, for example, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Social Justice Ireland and the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland, that they all note that the roadmap does not refer to bringing social welfare rates in line and benchmarking them to adequacy. That is very obvious in the roadmap for social inclusion. We know that poverty in the State is an ongoing crisis. Social Justice Ireland goes as far as to say that it does not believe poverty will have changed in any way, shape or form at the end of this inclusion plan.

The Minister mentioned the pre-budget forum. Adequacy is always mentioned as a priority in that forum. The Minister must also consider the CSO report on enforced deprivation, which shows that rates of deprivation have gone up. Has she read the report? More than one in five children are experiencing deprivation and more than 45% of lone parent families are living in deprivation. Those matters need to be dealt with.

Last year, my Department undertook a consultation process with a number of interested stakeholders. The process included discussions with representatives of the community and voluntary sector at the pre-budget forum in July 2019 as well as bilateral meetings with stakeholders. The outcome of those discussions was considered and, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, my Department is considering proposals for setting a formal benchmark for State pension contributory payments and the indexation of future changes in pension rates of payment in line with the commitment in A Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023.

The programme for Government states that the Low Pay Commission is to examine universal basic income informed by a review of previous international pilots and resulting in a universal basic income pilot in the lifetime of the Government. The practical arrangements for giving effect to this commitment are still being considered but it is the intention that this matter will be progressed in accordance with the timeline set out in the programme for Government.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Gary Gannon

Question:

26. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to calls from the live events sector to reinstate the pandemic unemployment payment at the full rate per week for these workers in view of the fact the sector is closed or dramatically reduced under public health advice; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25023/20]

My question also pertains to the live events sector so I ask the Minister to excuse me while I ask it again and elaborate on further issues in the follow-on questions. It is to ask the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to calls from the live events sector to reinstate the pandemic unemployment payment at a full rate per week for those workers in view of the fact that the sector is closed or dramatically reduced under the public health advice.

I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this issue. Of the approximately 206,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, some 5,900 or 2.8% are members of the arts, entertainment and recreation sector. This represents a 58% reduction from 14,200 claimants in that sector at the peak in May. This reduction in the numbers of people in receipt of the PUP is in line with reductions seen in other sectors and indicates that some people working in the sector have been able to return to work as the public health restrictions were relaxed.

Having said that, I am acutely aware that many of workers in the live events sector are still reliant on the PUP and that two factors in particular distinguish the challenges faced by workers in that sector. First, the performing arts sector is still more heavily restricted than most other sectors. Second, working patterns in the performing arts sector, which tend to be gig based, do not lend themselves to a clear delineation between being employed and unemployed. That is why we frequently hear of workers in the sector being between jobs.

In recognition of these issues I met representatives of the sector and clarified a number of points for them, including that taking up occasional or intermittent work does not affect a worker’s entitlement to receipt of the PUP. This clarification has been welcomed by them. A dedicated contact service has also been established to enable workers from the sectors to clarify their individual entitlements.

The Government has decided that from 17 September onwards, the PUP will be paid at three rates linked to prior earnings. These rate changes are necessary to ensure the scheme is sustainable. Originally, the PUP payment was introduced as a flat rate payment of €350 in the expectation that it would last for 12 weeks. However, the impact of Covid-19 has been deeper and longer than anyone anticipated in early March and in extending the payment for a full year until the end of March 2021 we have done so in a way that is both sustainable and fair. Linking the payment rate to pre-Covid earnings is a fair way of doing that.

With respect, with regard to pre-Covid earnings, what people working in the live events sector would be earning now as we approach the end of the summer and the festival season is very different from what they would have been earning in February. I want to give the Minister a snapshot as a case study. Electric Picnic, which would be on around this time if it had been able to go ahead, is worth €6.5 million to Stradbally, €20 million to County Laois as and €36 million to the country as a whole. In the absence of appropriate funding for this sector, is the Minister confident that these events will be able to go ahead next year given that this was a hard-fought live industry? Potentially, events will go ahead next year but if we are forcing people working in the industry to seek other forms of employment and they move out of it, we will have to bring in stage managers and event organisers from overseas and that value will be lost to our economy.

We have been trying to be as fair as possible. The pandemic unemployment payment has been extended until at least next April. It also remains open for applications, which is important. Covid-19 will be with us for some time. The budget is three weeks away. We need to examine the next steps and the future of the PUP as part of the budgetary process. We may need to keep the PUP open for much longer than we expected. That makes it all the more important that the rates of payment are sustainable. This was originally supposed to be a temporary 12-week payment. It will now run for at least a year and we may need to extend it even further. The Deputy should bear in mind that we have gone from a budget surplus in February to a deficit of more than €20 billion. That is unprecedented but it was absolutely necessary to protect people through this pandemic. We may be borrowing at low interest rates but there is no such thing as free money. We still have to pay it back.

I do not doubt for a second that the Minister is endeavouring to be as fair as possible but are we being as fluid or as malleable as possible in terms of protecting particular sectors? The live events sector is more vulnerable than most, which is why the calls for the increase in the pandemic unemployment payment to be particularly targeted at sectors such as this one are very important.

In addition to my question about fairness, parts of the performing arts have access to funding from the Arts Council and other forms of funding. The live events sector does not have access to that funding but these sectors are interdependent. It is not fair that one element of the performing arts can access funding through the Arts Council, yet an industry on which the arts are totally reliant - the live entertainment sector and the stage managers and others who make live entertainment possible - is excluded from that funding. I fully appreciate that the Minister is endeavouring to be fair but we can do a little better in terms of being malleable.

I understand the difficulties the sector is facing.

With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, the Department has always applied a common-sense approach to the condition requiring an applicant to be genuinely seeking work. To be very clear, we do not expect those who are waiting for their jobs to come back to be looking for work. If, however, people have permanently lost their jobs, we are here to help, and that is what we want to do. Some people were wondering whether they could do a gig and whether it would have an impact on their payment. People may do occasional, but not regular, work without it affecting their payment. They can continue to get their pandemic unemployment payment if they do occasional, but not regular, work.

The staff in the Intreo offices will deal with people individually. We are here to be as helpful as we can. We are not here to not help people and not support them when they need support but we want the measure to be as targeted and fair as possible.

Fuel Poverty

Claire Kerrane

Question:

27. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the prevalence of energy poverty here, the increased energy costs faced by families due to more time being spent at home in recent months and rising energy costs; the steps she will take to address the issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25250/20]

I want to ask the Minister about energy poverty and the difficulties faced by vulnerable households owing to increased energy costs. These households have spent longer at home in recent months and will have higher energy bills.

I thank Deputy Kerrane. The Government is committed to protecting vulnerable households from the impact of energy costs through a combination of supports, energy efficiency awareness initiatives and investment in programmes to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock.

With regard to income supports, my Department provides a range of schemes to assist with energy costs. These include the fuel allowance, which is a payment of €24.50 per week for 28 weeks from October to April, giving a total of €686 per annum. It cost in the region of €261.35 million in 2020 for payments to an average of some 352,000 low-income households. Payments for the 2020–21 fuel season will start to issue under this scheme next week. Also included are electricity or gas allowances under the household benefits scheme, at an estimated cost of €194 million in 2020; a special heating supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme; and exceptional needs payments, to help meet an essential once-off cost that an applicant is unable to meet out of his or her own resources. Owing to the Covid-19 emergency, the fuel allowance 2019–20 season was extended by four weeks from 10 April to 8 May 2020 to help protect the vulnerable during the lockdown phase of the national response.

As committed to in the programme for Government, the ESRI is carrying out a study on how best to minimise fuel poverty in the context of carbon tax commitments. The programme for Government has committed to hypothecating all additional funds raised by the carbon tax into a climate action fund, which will be utilised, in part, to provide for targeted social welfare initiatives to prevent fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. This was done in the last budget when €21 million was ring-fenced from the approximately €90 million being raised from the carbon tax increase to fund an additional €2 per week in the fuel allowance and to add an additional €13 million to the warmer homes scheme allocation. It is made available to retrofit the homes of people in or at risk of energy poverty.

It is always the case at this time of the year that lights in households are turned on earlier and more heating is required. Uniquely this year, more people have spent more time at home than usual and they face increased energy costs. I appreciate that the fuel allowance season was extended, that procedures were put in place and that disconnections were banned, all of which measures were of help to the families but they now face higher bills, which are mounting.

The Minister will probably know that, last December, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul published a document on the prevalence of energy poverty in Ireland. She may also know that in 2018 alone, the society spent €5 million just to assist families and households to meet their energy costs. That is an extraordinary amount of money. All the supports the Minister listed are clearly not making much sense when the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is spending €5 million in one year just to help people. That should sound alarm bells. I ask the Minister to consider fuel poverty in line with the budget.

I thank the Deputy. She makes a fair point on the impact of Covid-19 on energy costs. Obviously, if people are spending more time in their homes because of Covid-19, it will have a knock-on effect on energy costs, particularly as we enter the winter months. As I stated, the fuel allowance payments will start to be issued from next week. Over 350,000 households were supported by the fuel allowance this year and we extended the payment this season by four weeks.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, does absolutely fantastic work on improving energy efficiency in homes through schemes such as the warmer homes scheme. It has its biggest ever budget this year, at almost €53 million. We need to build on the great work that was carried out as part of the warmer homes scheme through retrofitting the homes of people at risk of energy poverty. We need to examine this in a whole-of-government context in terms of the work being carried out by my colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister responsible for climate action. As the Deputy will be aware, the programme for Government and the climate action plan set very ambitious targets for retrofitting and making homes more energy efficient.

I stand to be corrected but I believe many of the grants available through the SEAI, which are welcome, are part payments. In many cases, households simply cannot afford to put any money aside to try to retrofit their homes or make them warmer. I agree, however, that it cannot just be about spending money on and adding to the fuel allowance every year; it has to be about making the homes warmer in the first instance in order that people do not have such high bills. We must acknowledge that cost is a factor. We have the fourth highest electricity costs in Europe. The same applies to gas. Taking out the taxes and charges, suppliers in Ireland are charging a fortune, way above the EU average, for electricity and gas. We must couple this with the fact that Electric Ireland has announced it is increasing its charges from October. Carbon tax increases were introduced in May, despite our being in the midst of a global pandemic, and we are aware that the PSO levy is due to increase in October. These will increase bills and make it more difficult for people to turn on the heating.

I would like the Minister to mention the report on the impact of carbon tax on low-income households, which I have raised with the Minister previously. When will it be published?

To follow on from what I was saying, retrofitting will play a major in the Government's plan for economic recovery. The July stimulus package commits to an increase in the SEAI budget of €100 million in 2021. That is a considerable increase. Only today, the Minister responsible for climate action, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced €28 million under the community energy grant initiative. That will benefit almost 1,500 homes and community buildings by making them warmer and more energy efficient. The Minister responsible for housing, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will, through his Department, focus strongly on local authority houses required under the retrofit scheme, particularly in the midlands. We want local authorities to engage and to upgrade their houses. All of this will help to bring down the cost of energy.

The Minister has a draft of the report on the impact of the carbon tax and low-income households. When might the report be published?

The ESRI is carrying out a study of carbon tax commitments. Its findings will inform the Government on this issue. I have not received those yet but when I do, I will obviously publish them.