Social Welfare Bill 2020: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As Deputies will be aware, the purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day. The Estimates for the Department of Social Protection in 2021 is €25.1 billion. This is more than €4 billion larger than the Department's budget day allocation for 2020. Much of that additional spending will be required to meet the ongoing costs of the PUP and other jobseeker payments and supports. I am pleased, even in these difficult times, to have also been able to secure almost €300 million for a series of targeted measures to support some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. In addition, the Bill provides for maintaining the State pension age at 66, as committed in the programme for Government. This measure will cost more tha €220 million in 2021 and in excess of €450 million in a full year.

It is important to point out that some of the social protection measures announced on budget day do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in this Bill.

These measures include the Christmas bonus, which I am pleased to say is being paid this week to a record 1.6 million recipients, with payments totalling €390 million. I take this opportunity to encourage people again to spend their Christmas bonus locally this year and support small businesses as they reopen their doors.

There are other budget day measures that are not included in the Bill. One of these is the increase of €20 in the earnings disregard for disability allowance, taking it from €120 to €140. This will, like the Christmas bonus, be done by regulation. In addition, as a non-statutory scheme, the increase of €3.50 per week in the fuel allowance payment does not require amending legislation, nor does the extension of the hot school meals programme.

I will now go through the sections of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the definitions used in the Bill. Moving to section 2, employer PRSI is currently charged at a rate of 8.8% on employees' weekly earnings between €38 and €395. Section 2 increases the reckonable earnings threshold for employees by €3 to €398, whereby employer PRSI contributions can continue to be paid at the lower rate of 8.8%. This provision is designed to take account of the increase in the minimum wage from €10.10 to €10.20 per hour from 1 January 2021. Employers with employees benefiting from the increase in the minimum wage will continue to attract the lower rate of employer PRSI. It is intended that this section will come into operation on 1 January 2020.

Section 3 provides that for the purpose of the Covid-19 employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Social Protection may share information relevant to the effective operation of the scheme. A similar provision was included in legislation establishing its predecessor, the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. The employer PRSI contribution for the TWSS was 0.5%. Section 4 provides that an identical employer contribution will be made for the EWSS.

Illness benefit is, at present, paid after an initial waiting period of six days. Section 5 reduces the number of waiting days from six to three. This will ease the financial strain on employees, especially those who do not have occupational sick pay arrangements as part of their contract of employment. As Deputies will be aware, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is currently conducting a public consultation on the introduction of a statutory right to paid sick leave for all employees. I encourage all interested parties to engage with this consultation and make their views known on the matter.

Section 6 provides that self-employed pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, recipients can engage in limited self-employment and earn up to €480 over a rolling four-week period and continue to maintain entitlement to PUP. Section 7 provides for a regulation-making power to allow the Minister to prescribe, by statutory instrument, the income and expenses that can be included to reach the €480 limit. These are important provisions that allow self-employed people to carry out some work and still retain the PUP. The measure, which took effect from budget day, has been warmly welcomed by taxi drivers, musicians, electricians, plumbers and other self-employed workers throughout the country. There is no application process, it being done instead by self-declaration. A self-employed person simply needs to inform my Department if he or she earns more than €480 over a four-week period.

I am aware that an amendment has been tabled on Committee Stage to change the limit to €960 over an eight-week period. I am happy to accept the amendment. Having spoken to musicians and members of the entertainment industry directly, they have explained that this would make life easier for them when it comes to one-off gigs. Whether it is €480 over four weeks or €960 over eight weeks, the point is that we do not want people turning down work for fear that it might impact their PUP. I am happy to make that change. I acknowledge the constructive engagement on the issue by Jackie Conboy and the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland. We all hope that with the vaccine coming on stream we will get back to some level of normality in 2021. We want to see our musicians and artists back performing as much as possible. In the meantime, this provision will provide them with greater flexibility to take up occasional gigs while knowing that the safety net of the PUP is still there for them. That is important because musicians may have a gig one week and nothing for the next four weeks. I hope the limit of €960 will help them in that respect.

Injury benefit is a payment made to employee contributors who are unable to work due to an injury or occupational disease sustained in the course of their employment and who satisfy certain PRSI contribution conditions. Section 8 reduces the waiting period for this payment from six to three days. As with illness benefit, the reduction in waiting days is intended to take effect in March 2021.

Section 9 provides for an increase in the widowed or surviving civil partner grant by €2,000, from €6,000 to €8,000. This is the first time the grant has been increased since 2008. Where people find themselves in the tragic situation that a loved one has passed away and they are looking after dependent children, this increased payment is intended to provide a small bit of extra help. The measure will take effect from 1 January. 

Section 10 removes the earnings limit on the one-parent family payment. Currently, when a lone parent's earnings exceed €425 per week, he or she loses entitlement to the payment. The intention behind this provision is to tackle in-work poverty and remove a potential poverty trap by allowing single parents who are in employment to earn over the current earnings limit and retain the one-parent family payment. This section will come into operation on 8 April 2021.

Section 11 provides for an increase of €150 in the carer's support grant, raising the payment to €1,850, the highest level at which it has ever been set. The carer's support grant is an annual payment for carers who look after people in need of full-time care and attention. The grant is paid annually in a single lump sum, usually on the first Thursday in June. The grant is not means tested and is not taxable. This increase goes some way towards acknowledging the role family carers play in our society.

The working family payment, formerly known as family income supplement, is a weekly tax-free supplement available to employees with children. It gives extra financial support to people on low pay. Section 12 provides for a €10 increase in the weekly income threshold for the working family payment for families with up to three children. This allows parents to earn more and still retain the payment. This section will come into operation on 7 January 2021.

Section 13 amends section 248 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to provide that the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment may continue for a period of six weeks after death in certain circumstances. This will bring the PUP in line with other social protection payments for the unemployed, including jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit.

Sections 14 and 16 provide for increases in the qualified child payment. The weekly rate for a qualified child will increase for children under 12 by €2, from €36 to €38. It will increase for children aged 12 and over by €5, from €40 to €45.

This will result in increases to the qualifying child payment in respect of 419,000 children. Sections 14 and 16 also provide for an increase of €5 in the living alone allowance, which will benefit over 221,700 pensioners and people with disabilities.

Section 15 provides for an increase in the weekly payment of the island allowance by €7.30, bringing the rate to €20 per week. For people living on an offshore island, it is an increase to the weekly value of certain social welfare payments. The intention of this is to compensate for the additional costs of living on these islands when compared to people resident on the mainland. As Minister with responsibility for the islands, I am pleased to have been able to provide for this measure which is the first time the island allowance has been increased since it was introduced over two decades ago.

Section 17 repeals the increase in the State pension age. The programme for Government commits that the planned increase in the State pension age next year will be deferred and it will remain at 66, pending the report of the Commission on Pensions. The commission has been established and will report by June 2021. In the meantime, the Bill provides that the State pension age will remain at 66 years and not increase to 67 years on 1 January 2021 or 68 in 2028. This will also allow the Commission on Pensions to consider State pensions policy issues fully and make recommendations for the future, unfettered.

Section 18 provides for the Short Title, its construction and collective citation with the Social Welfare Acts.

In the context of a budget which had to be constrained due to dealing with the public health crisis caused by Covid-19, as well as the potential consequences of Brexit, we have focused on the vulnerable in society who are at most risk. Given the environment we are in and the significant economic challenges we are facing, it was simply not possible to do everything we wanted in budget 2021. We have, instead, sought to target resources to support our most vulnerable, namely, those who live alone, our carers, people with disabilities and low-income families.

I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing contributions of Deputies.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill 2020. Typically, the Social Welfare Bill comes before the House in October and November each year. It is a shame that this Bill has come so late this year, particularly in view of the importance of the section which will repeal the pension age increases to 67 in January 2021 and to 68 in 2028, a move I welcome. This will provide the certainty needed to those approaching retirement.

I was just outside the convention centre with the Stop 67 campaign group. It comprises several organisations that came together in order to put this campaign to the fore back in February, during the general election campaign. The campaign will continue while the Commission on Pensions does its work looking at what the future pension age increase will be. I also met a number of workers outside who will turn 66 in January. Up until recently, they did not know whether they would get their pensions in January. This measure is a welcome certainty for them.

The issue not addressed in this Bill is the ongoing practice of 65-year-olds having to sign on the dole at retirement, in many cases after a lifetime of work. I received an email last week from a colleague's office in Dublin about a 65-year-old man who has retired after many years at work. The man in question was refused jobseeker's allowance because he has not committed to seek work. In fairness, I had not come across that before. I understood that the Department was allowing leniency where a 65-year-old person on retirement would be put on jobseeker's allowance but that there would not be an onus on that individual to actually seek work. That is regrettable, and we must ensure that we end the practice. It must stop.

We all acknowledge that it has been an extremely difficult year for workers. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs while thousands more are on reduced incomes. The cuts planned for the pandemic unemployment payment - I appreciate they remain under review - cannot even be contemplated in January. A commitment in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment should be made that those cuts will not happen in the new year. Workers and families need certainty in this regard. When we look at the higher rate of the pandemic unemployment payment, namely, the €350 paid to those who were earning €400 before the onset of the pandemic, we have to acknowledge that it is only covering, on average, 65% of prior net earnings. This means many workers are on a substantially reduced income. They are typically people with mortgages. While rent supplement is available to renters in some circumstances, that same support is not there for people who have mortgages. It is really regrettable that the mortgage interest supplement was abolished in 2014. Perhaps there is room to look at it going forward. Those are the people who are really struggling. This is compounded by the decision of the banks not to reintroduce the mortgage break. That is a regrettable decision by the banks when people needed that little bit of help at this time in the midst of a global pandemic.

I welcome that the Minister has agreed to accept an amendment from myself and Deputy Joan Collins. I also welcome that she engaged with the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland and with musicians on the ground. These are the people we have to listen to when we look at new schemes like the pandemic unemployment payment and how it works.

With regard to the household debt on the backs of all the thousands of people who have lost their jobs this year, we need to look at mechanisms in dealing with it and how we support families. Thousands of people have lost their jobs or are on reduced income, yet the same payment obligations and bills remain. I did a survey on household debt and the real-life experiences of the over 300 people who took it are heart breaking. As we approach Christmas, we must acknowledge that household debt is an issue. We need to put supports in place to help families. There is an onus on the Government to do that.

I launched proposals this week on what we can do to deal with household debt. Will the Minister take those proposals on board, one of which is to cap the extortionate interest rates, sometimes up to 288%, being charged by moneylenders? I raised this with the Taoiseach during the week but he told me that there are options available to people other than going to moneylenders. However, approximately 300,000 people use moneylenders. It is not good enough to say there are other options. We need to ensure the regulation concerning interest is put in place and that we protect families in some small way when it comes to moneylenders.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, his party was quite happy to pass and support the Sinn Féin Bill on this issue in 2018. When that Bill progresses to Committee Stage in January, Fianna Fáil and the rest need to get behind it because families are struggling. They are extremely vulnerable. Moneylenders are taking advantage in some cases, particularly with interest rates of up 288%. We need to take action on this. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, along with lone parent organisations Single Parents Acting for Rights of Kids and One Family Ireland have all been calling for supports to deal with household debt. They are at the coalface dealing with families in these situations. We need to see measures from the Government on this.

I welcome the €3.50 increase in the fuel allowance. Any increase in the fuel allowance is to be welcomed. We have to remember, however, it still is not back to the 32 weeks that it once was, remaining at 28 weeks. That cut has not been restored. The €3.50 increase is good and well but it has to be matched with a carbon tax increase of €7.50. I welcome the publication of the Department's report on the impact that current and projected increases in the carbon tax will have on low-income families. That report concluded:

It shows, from various researches conducted, that carbon tax increases will impact (disproportionately) on low income households. Consequently, in order to protect low income families from the impact of such tax increases, mitigating measures, in the form of various welfare and/or taxation supports, are needed.

Of course we all knew this but it is telling that the Department now has a report that tells the Minister and the Government that these increases need to be matched with supports. I acknowledge these supports cannot always mean an increase in the fuel allowance over and over again. We need further measures and I accept this. At present, given the energy increases and the fact people are facing increased energy bills, we need to look at tackling energy poverty. It is a serious issue.

I note an amendment I tabled that came from Family Carers Ireland on paying the carer's support grant in two parts next year has been ruled out of order and I expected such. It is an amendment the Minister could at least consider in recognition of the really difficult year that carers have had. Family Carers Ireland has asked that the carer's support grant be split in two so that in January there would be a payment of €925 and in June, when the annual payment is paid, another payment of €925 would be made. This would be really beneficial to carers and it is something the Minister should look at.

When we speak about things that are worthwhile and worth the cost, I always turn to JobPath and the continuous line from the Government that it is value for money. We know that to date, JobPath has cost the taxpayer almost €250 million. It was due to finish taking referrals in 2019. It was given a 12-month extension into 2020 and the Minister has announced it will be given another 12-month extension into 2021. There are several issues with this. There is the issue of the amount of money being paid to these private companies, which is €311 for each of the more than 280,000 people who have been referred, just for being referred. Last week, I asked about the more than 33,000 people who have been referred more than once as to whether the companies get the same referral fee for the same person twice. I do not think this is value for money. There has been a 7% job success rate to date. I have also asked, given that the contract is being allowed to continue for another 12 months, whether there is a clause whereby some of the fees can be reduced. I have also asked the Minister to look at the impact that JobPath is having on existing schemes, such as the community employment scheme, which cannot fill their places. We need to look at the impact JobPath is having on these schemes.

I want to make reference to the child maintenance review group which has been established. It is very welcome. I do not think we needed a review group to tell us it is wrong to put lone parents in front of judges in courts to get child maintenance. It is regrettable the Department pursues the other parent for recouping costs for the one-parent family payment but not when it comes to maintenance. I hope the group will report back very quickly.

Poverty is a huge issue in the State. Hundreds of thousands of people live in poverty. I ask the Minister to look at the Social Welfare Commission Bill I have brought forward. We need to bring our social welfare payments above the poverty line. It is the most basic level that any social protection system should aim to achieve and we are not achieving it.

In many respects, the Bill before the House is a vindication for those people who went to the bother of casting their votes in February. Many people were despondent at the refusal of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to recognise the huge mandate for change. One of the dominant issues of that election campaign, as we know now, was the stated, much vaunted and defended intention of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to increase the State pension age to 68. People rightly were angered by such a notion and they spoke with their feet and their votes. Those people who at the age of 65 were forced to retire but were then sent to their local social welfare offices recounted their tales on the national airwaves. Workers of all ages said this was not the future they wanted. They want to be able to retire with dignity, if it is their choice, at the age of 65.

The Bill is a vindication of all those people who let their voices be heard, primarily by voting for Sinn Féin candidates. The Government has accepted that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael got this drastically wrong. Bringing forward legislation that will suspend the proposed age increase to 67 on 1 January and a further increase to 68 is to be welcomed. Let us not play further games. The commission is a fudge. Let us forget about the fudges. People are sick to death of fudges in Irish politics. People want assurance. People who are approaching the pension age do not know, and have no certainty whatsoever, as to what circumstances they will be in when they hit 65, 66, 67 and 68 in the years to come. The Minister and Government should give them this assurance and tell them if they wish to retire at the age of 65, they will be entitled to the State pension. This is the least they deserve. For those people who break their backs working to build our economy, sustain our public services and ensure our communities remain vibrant places for us all to live and work, it is the least they deserve. We need to get back to the principle of fairness that goes to the heart of the State pension regime. I ask Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives to stop being tone deaf. People do not want a commission. They want certainty. I do not think it is too much to ask.

I commend my party colleague, Deputy Kerrane, on the amendments she has tabled. It is clear there are issues with the pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the more recent wage subsidy scheme and Sinn Féin has pointed them out. Some of these have been ironed out.

I welcome the Minister's assertion that the Government will support the Sinn Féin amendment to adjust the income threshold to €960 over an eight-week period rather than the original four-week period for those people who are in particularly vulnerable sectors, such as the music and events industry.

I support Deputy Kerrane's assertions on the JobPath scheme. It is an absolute scandal. We had this before the Committee of Public Accounts recently. We heard that €11,000 per job was the net output for a private company to provide JobPath. This is not good value for money. It is driven by an ideological agenda that is about privatising basic services and privatising roles that should be undertaken within the Department where there is proper accountability and where there should also be transparency.

If we are going to have a commission or a review on anything, let us look at how we have wasted hundreds of millions of euro of the Irish people's money on JobPath. This would warrant a commission, rather than a commission on an issue on which the Irish people have spoken so definitively in respect of the pension age.

Sinn Féin and the Minister's party, including its Government partners, have different views on the type of country we want and this is okay. It is, in fact, healthy for a democracy that voters have a clear choice when they go to the polls. Sinn Féin will always prioritise State investment in public services and providing income supports, housing, education and jobs where needed. We promote a bottom-up and public collective approach. The approach of the Minister and Fine Gael is different. They support a top-down wealth creation model. That is okay too in a democracy. Of course, we know this model excludes people. It does not afford equal opportunity. We in Sinn Féin will never support or promote such an approach.

I will not stand here this evening and criticise the measures the Minister is proposing to legislate for in the Bill. In fact, we welcome them. They represent social progress as they provide more means to those who have least. I welcome the measures and so does my party. I particularly support the pension measure. The increase in the pension age to 67 became a huge issue in the 2020 general election and rightly so. We in Sinn Féin advocated and supported a return to the State retirement age, with the choice of individuals, to the age of 65. We welcome the move to 66, albeit that it was done kicking and screaming, but we hope the Minister will go further with further public pressure and bring it back to 65.

I wish to speak specifically on the social protection measures available to the Irish fishing community.

I believe we need to do something radically different when it comes to social protection and fishers. I encourage the Minister to commission a piece of work on how we treat fishers with regard to income supports. While the Department administers payments universally, and this is generally the right approach, we have to recognise the uniqueness of the work of Irish fishers and their vital importance to the Irish economy and food chain.

Covid has exposed the deficiencies. Overnight, the Irish fishing industry was turned upside down. The export market was wiped out, there was no domestic market to replace it and fishers were left scrambling to find income. While the PUP was eventually opened up to the fishing community, and this was welcomed, it did not recognise the uniqueness of the nature of fishing, which is dependent on weather conditions and the time of year in regard to fish stocks. The lifting of restrictions is a matter for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment but it is also relevant in this regard. Fishers could not access temporary wage subsidy supports because most are on self-employed contracts, they could not access working capital loans as there was existing debt with financial institutions and they were locked out of restart grants from local authorities because they do not pay rates. The tie-up scheme from Europe to cover weather events was totally inadequate, too late and ill-thought-out.

With Brexit, and the ever-increasing threat of a no-deal Brexit, I am appealing to the Minister to do something different. The Irish fishing community is on its knees and needs support. We need new thinking. I appeal to the Minister to engage with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to put together a task force involving fishing representatives, and to look at introducing targeted, specific measures that the fishing community can access when crisis hits. As I said at the outset, the fishing community needs support. If it is going to survive into the future, and as a people we need it to do so, then radical action must be taken. I implore the Minister to do so and I am happy to work with her to develop supporting measures. In particular, I am thinking of the inshore fleet, which is reliant on lobster and crab fishing and the like and is very limited in its access to traditional fisheries like herring. It is very important that the Minister engages with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to look at some novel approach, working with the fishing representative organisations, to give supports to keep our fishermen delivering this resource to coastal communities and, of course, this food resource to the Irish people.

The Labour Party will be supporting the Bill. We welcome the Bill, if only because it repeals the section in regard to the pension age. It is something we discussed in the last week on foot of the Sinn Féin motion and we welcome it wholeheartedly. Again, I wish to pay tribute to the Stop67 campaign, without which this issue would not have reached the level of political importance that it has reached in the past year or so. I want to pay tribute again to the National Women's Council, Age Action, Active Retirement Ireland and SIPTU.

In repealing that section, which was so injurious to all of those people, when does the Minister propose to give effect to that measure? Last week, the Minister stated:

In addition to repealing the increase in the pension age, I will also shortly be introducing regulations which will formally remove the current requirements for people aged 65 and over to sign on, participate in activation programmes or give an undertaking that they are genuinely seeking work. The idea, therefore, that any 65-year-old will have to stand in a dole queue is absolute nonsense. I am formalising an administrative practice which has already been in place for some time. While the payment rate of €203 for 65-year-olds is less than the full contributory pension rate, it is worth bearing in mind that a 65-year-old receiving €203 per week here is still better off than any pensioner in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding the commentary in respect of Northern Ireland, it would be very useful to hear from the Minister when she proposes to introduce the statutory regulations, if she has not already signed them. That will give a lot of comfort to people who are welcoming the repeal of that section in the legislation, but who do not want, to use the Minister's words, to have to stand in a dole queue. That is one issue on which I seek clarification.

Again, I want to pay tribute to the National Women's Council, Age Action, Active Retirement Ireland and SIPTU for their wonderful work in going out and campaigning, developing a strong consciousness around this issue and co-ordinating a strong campaign that has borne fruit. It is great to welcome this because they have been vindicated in their position.

I want to raise the issue of fraud with the Minister, particularly in respect of the PUP. We know there are matters which are before the courts today and yesterday, so I am very conscious of any public commentary in respect of the issue of fraud or alleged fraud with regard to the PUP. I merely wish to ask the Minister if her Department has made any projections in respect of amounts that may have been fraudulently obtained as a result of applications made for PUP. We absolutely welcome the initiatives whereby the Department of Social Protection is working hand in hand with the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau because it could be said, by any objective analysis, that this is bearing fruit. It is important work and I hope it would continue to be resourced because it is vitally necessary that the integrity of our social protection system is maintained, and that everybody has confidence in that system. The more resources that can be applied to that effort, the more confidence people will have in the system. It is important, if the integrity of the system is to be maintained for people who have entitlements, that where fraud exists, it is weeded out and eradicated, people are subject to the law and the law is applied rigorously where incidents occur. I would like to hear from the Minister in respect of anti-fraud measures. That is my second point.

Given the season we are in, I want to refer to seasonal employment. We are hearing on the ground that for many people who would have worked in the hospitality sector on a seasonal basis, particularly leading into the Christmas period but also during the summer period, there is a reluctance on the part of some to give up their PUP and to go back to that seasonal employment because they have a genuine fear that, if they do so, their PUP will be lost and gone forever. I seek an assurance from the Minister that where people do take up employment, albeit on a seasonal basis, there is no fear of them losing their PUP when they finish that employment.

If the Minister could speak to that issue to reiterate assurances she has given previously on that it would also send a very positive signal.

She stated in her contribution that if someone has to reapply in January, he or she will be able to do that up to an including 31 March. We take her at her word on that but it is important for that message to go out because I know from talking to employers that they are finding it difficult to bring people back into the workplace again. That is an issue I hope will be addressed.

There has been much news made of the fact that there will be a commitment to nine weeks paid parental leave. I put it to the Minister that the commitment by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is welcome but that the nine weeks paid parental leave is a minimum requirement of an EU directive which the Government is legally compelled to introduce anyway. The payment is funded from social insurance contributions and not by the State. It is, therefore, funded by people's own contributions. It would be useful to have the perspective of the Minister and the Department of Social Protection on the nine weeks and whether there will be extensions beyond those nine weeks in the foreseeable future so as to make parental leave, as a policy, as family-friendly as possible.

Council Directive 2010/18/EU establishes a minimum of four months of parental leave. At least one out of the four months is non-transferable from a parent to another and there is no minimum compensation during parental leave at EU level. As of 2 August 2022, Council Directive 2019/1158 establishes a minimum of four months of parental leave. At least two out of the four months are non-transferable from a parent to another. At least the two non-transferable months have to be adequately compensated at a level to be decided in each EU country as of 2 August 2024 for the past two weeks and parents have the right to request taking the leave in a flexible - meaning part-time - and piecemeal way. It would be very useful to have the perspective of the Minister in respect of parental leave. While, technically, it is not her line Department, the issue of social insurance contributions very much dovetails with her Department and I am sure she has a perspective on that. What we want in any progressive society is to ensure that we do not operate to the minimum or to the directive but that we seek to find mechanisms to ensure greater flexibility such that working mothers in particular can avail of as much leave as possible, and working fathers as well.

If there is one thing the first lockdown has taught me as a public representative, it is that when there was an absence of childcare, it had a massive impact on working mothers in particular. I believe we have not fully analysed the impact it has had on working mothers in respect of their career prospects and as we are trying to move towards a more equal society and as the research becomes more embedded, and I know the ESRI has done some research on that, we need to ensure that we can create pathways for women, and working mothers in particular, such that no impediments are put in their way and that the parental leave arrangements put in place by the State are done in a progressive way and not just to a minimum EU requirement. I know the Minister will also have a view on that.

We welcome the Bill. We welcome also that the work of the Stop 67 campaign is very much inculcated and embedded within this legislation. I pay tribute to those involved in that. We believe this Bill is worthy of support.

I want to raise a final issue in the time available to me. The Minister has spoken to this issue previously and other Deputies have raised it with her. It is in respect of the requests for PPS numbers. Many employers and perspective employers have applied for PPS numbers for prospective employees. In the time since the Minister last spoke on that publicly and in this House, have further improvements been made such that when people make an application for a PPS number that application is expedited in as timely a manner as possible? I recognise that because of the PUP resources and people had to be allocated into that section. That is fully acknowledged by everybody here but if PPS numbers are being allocated it means that people are at work. If people are at work, they are contributing. I ask the Minister for an update on progress in respect of that.

I call Deputy Paul McAuliffe. Is the Deputy sharing time?

I believe I am sharing with Deputy Carroll MacNeill, although I cannot see her in the Chamber. She may be on the upper deck.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Having been a Member of this House only since February, I am aware that a vast amount of the time in this Chamber is spent on the Opposition misleading many people that this Government does not protect the most vulnerable in our society. From the first days during which the programme for Government was being put together, that has been a core objective of this Government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.

The passage of this Bill gives us an opportunity to reflect on those facts, not the social media spin. There has been a 41% increase in the planned spend on social welfare in 2020. That is not 4% or 14% but 41%. The Bill the Minister has brought before the House is the largest amount in terms of expenditure ever in the history of the State. It contains many measures which I could spend time welcoming but I particularly want to welcome the decision not to increase the pension age. I, too, would like to credit those involved in the Stop 67 campaign but I am also one of the Government Deputies who voted for it as opposed to those in opposition who will vote against this Bill. It is a core commitment of my party to ensure that older people are protected. After a lifetime of hard work it is what they deserve and I have great pleasure in voting for that in this Chamber.

The Bill also includes an increase in the living alone allowance. People who receive the allowance are mainly pensioners and those with a disability. They will receive an increase of €5, bringing the payment up to €19 per week. That is 221,000 vulnerable people who will benefit from an increase. It does not apply to every pensioner because we have had to prioritise and we have prioritised those who are the most vulnerable - those living alone. It is a progressive and practical decision.

I also welcome the increase of €150 in the carer's support grant, raising the payment to €1,850. A total of 130,000 carers will benefit from the increase next year, another progressive and practical decision.

Included in this Bill is a reduction in waiting days from six to three, with the effect that claimants can be paid illness or injury benefit from the fourth day of illness or injury. This measure will be an improvement in the insurance coverage of ordinary workers by reducing the financial burden of being absent from work due to illness experienced by many this year. I believe that we need to go further with this measure and I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to do so.

Despite battling a pandemic, as of yesterday, the Department of Social Protection and the Minister are paying €390 million in a December bonus to 1.6 million people who are receiving long-term weekly welfare payments. This is about protecting the vulnerable in our society and I believe it is another progressive and practical decision. I welcome that people who have been in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment for 17 weeks this year will also receive this bonus.

The Bill does not include many of the other supports which we have provided this year, including the employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme, which are progressive and practical decisions which will protect people's jobs. The Government has been committed in the grip of the pandemic to finalise pay restoration for workers. It is not just addressing the FEMPI cuts or providing for judges or politicians only, as some in this Chamber would have one believe, but every public servant in the country, starting with the lowest paid. It is a progressive and practical decision. It has not been said enough that this Government is supporting the most vulnerable, while at the same time establishing itself as an outlier in Europe. It is not an outlier in unfairness, as some would have people believe, but an outlier regarding how we have managed the Covid virus. Ireland now has one of the lowest rates of the virus in the European Union, which this Government can be proud of.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this Bill and to congratulate the Minister for bringing in the largest social welfare budget in the history of the State. It is an extraordinary achievement which is based on how we have been able to borrow money to fund the essential services that my colleague has talked about. It includes wage subsidy schemes, Covid schemes and the pandemic unemployment scheme, all of which have been integral to maintaining not just people's incomes, but the social solidarity that is so important to us. Listening to some of these debates, one would wonder how our society became so unequal and difficult but of course we have these conversations against the backdrop of knowing that our society has one of the lowest income inequality rates across the OECD and not only have we had rising incomes, but we have had rising equality of incomes. That is because of our progressive tax base, our commitment to social transfers for people who need it, and an overwhelming commitment to employment, which is the single most important contributor to income equality and family supports. It is important that we put on the record of the House the work of Seamus Coffey, an economist at UCC and former chair of the Fiscal Advisory Council, on income inequality. At the end of his most recent report, he stated, regarding management of social transfers:

Everyone can have their own opinion on the best way forward, but they cannot have their own facts. Repeatedly stating that inequality is rising does not make it so. The outside world can see that income inequality has fallen in Ireland so isn’t it time we saw it ourselves?

The social welfare budget that the Minister is bringing forward is a significant contribution to maintaining equality at a difficult time for our people and country, and I congratulate the Minister.

I will speak on the Sinn Féin amendment to address fuel poverty. It is a real and growing issue, especially with the financial hardship caused by Covid-19. Fuel poverty is real poverty and it is causing suffering for real people in the run-up to Christmas. Fuel poverty sees them dreading the new year. All of us here will be able to go home tonight and put the heating on. We will not have to go to bed early because it is cold. We will not have to watch our children shivering as they try to do their homework with a duvet around their shoulders. We will not have to keep our coats on until a certain hour of the day because we cannot afford to keep the heating on. We will not have the experience or indignity of not being able to keep our children warm in the 21st century. Lack of heating leads to damp, damp leads to mould and mould leads to illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, acute and chronic respiratory illness and sinus infections. Tonight there will be parents taking out the inhalers and switching on nebulisers for their children because, thanks to fuel poverty, they do not have enough heat in their homes. It is a damning indictment of this Republic in the 21st century. It is Dickens meets Davos.

This year is especially tricky for fuel poverty because Covid is bringing swathes of new people into the cold because of loss of income. Given what I hear from my constituents in Kildare North, who are up early every morning, with some lucky to get to bed at all because they are carers, I am anxious that we should change the rule whereby people must have been on a jobseeker's payment for 15 months to claim fuel allowance. We must and can do better by people. It is a matter of political choice and political priorities. Let people heat their homes for what are modest sums, as Sinn Féin wants to do. It is value for money. Billions in public money are set on fire with State overruns, broadband that we will never own, bad accounting, lazy oversight and poor deals, as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the seasonal political greenery want to do. All the time, they think it is fine not to pay student nurses despite the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, giving staged public assurances that they would be paid a fair wage. It is a steel fist inside a fuzzy glove.

It will be a cold Christmas for too many people. It will not be Good King Wenceslas but the Society of St. Vincent de Paul picking its way through the deep and crisp and even. We need this Sinn Féin amendment. I ask the Minister to please accept it. People need to heat their homes.

Before I speak to the Bill, I want to counter a couple of points that have been made by the Minister and Government representatives about inequality. It has been pointed out that inequality has been falling in Ireland over the past couple of years, which is true, but I want to speak to those trends so that it is not further misconstrued. The at risk of poverty rate, also known as the relative income poverty rate, has been falling gradually since peaking in 2012 at 16.7%. In 2019, it was 12.8%. The deprivation rate peaked in 2013 at 30.5% and fell fairly quickly to 15.1% in 2018. It increased to 17.8% in 2019, so while we can talk about lowering inequality rates, the deprivation rate increased last year according to the most recent figures that we have.

Despite these falling rates, the number of people in Ireland experiencing genuine poverty, as reflected in the indicators, has remained very steady over the past decade, and has not reduced due to a combination of rising population and a lack of genuine interest in addressing it. Some 637,000 people in Ireland were living in poverty and 193,600 were children. Some 98,100 people were living in poverty while in employment and they are the working poor about whom I will speak more shortly. Some 886,000 people were experiencing deprivation of whom 293,200 were children. These numbers are unacceptable in a developed country. Deprivation increased by nearly three percentage points in 2019, and that is despite the strong performance of the economy. When we talk about lowering inequality rates, whether it is a Government Minister or articles in The Irish Times articles published during the week, we should not neglect the deprivation rate and the lived experience of those experiencing poverty, who are not counted in these statistics.

There is much merit in the Bill and with some caveats, the Social Democrats intend to support the Bill as it progresses through its various Stages. It is our ardent belief that the essence of what it is to live in a republic can be found in how a state values its systems of social welfare and the pride that it should take in the knowledge that when it is needed by its citizens, there is a societal safety net which can provide comfort, assurance and, above all else, dignity to its citizens. I believe that decisions taken in March this year to provide a pandemic unemployment payment of €350 to almost 600,000 people at its height were essential to the spirit of societal togetherness that embodied the early stages of the pandemic. It is often said that crises enable us to focus on what is truly important.

Although it is not long ago, it seems like an entirely different world when Ministers of the political centre-right would stand on ceremony and herald an Ireland of almost full employment without in any way acknowledging the precarious nature of the work or the cruelty of a low-pay economy which left so many of that workforce living in poverty and without basic protections or provisions, such as access to a home, childcare, or even healthcare when necessary.

Most importantly, it has shown us what it means to be a society. A society is much greater than that which can be measured in economic growth alone. It has shown us that it is not full employment alone that we should crave but in an ever-changing world, our focus should be on the nature of our work, which must be secure, paid appropriately and which recognises that we are all part of a collective that is vulnerable to the various ebbs and flows of all that is outside of our control. When that work is threatened, the State must be prepared to step in and provide appropriately for our citizens.

Those involved in the making of the figure of €350 per week, from the then Minister, Regina Doherty, to the Department officials and to the various Deputies across the Chamber and the political divide, who found common ground back in March of this year in that figure being a suitable amount of money in which to pay a person in order that they might live a life of dignity, should be commended. That was a pivotal moment for our democracy in that it was the first time that the full apparatus of our State recognised that social welfare rates in this country were simply too low. That realisation came as no surprise to those of us who have read report after report from organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids, SPARK, and from other one-parent family organisations, from Social Justice Ireland, or for anyone who has met the nearly 637,000 people who, according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures of 2019, were living in or at risk of poverty.

It was very telling that during the time of total crisis, when people throughout the country from all backgrounds and demographics were forced, through no fault of their own, to seek social welfare support from the State, it was immediately acknowledged that the basic rate of €203 per week was deemed an unsuitable amount on which a person could live a life of dignity. In light of the Bill we are discussing at present, it is particularly important that we reflect upon that learning, which is that our basic rates of welfare payments are simply too low. If that statement was not true then there would be no distinction in payments, regardless of whether one had lost one’s job through the pandemic or in any of the many other uncontrollable factors which so often leave a person unable to re-enter the workplace and condemned to a life below the poverty line. This is a central failure of this Bill and of the budgetary measures that were announced in October. It seems ludicrous to say this, given that we will spend €25 billion in 2021 through our systems of social welfare spending but there will be little contained within that which will prevent an escalation in poverty or a growth in deprivation. As long as our State continues to view such occurrences as individual failures rather than what they really are, namely, a constant recurrence of structural indifference, if not structural violence, which has failed generation after generation in this country since the foundation of our State.

We all fully appreciate the extent to which the realities of the pandemic have necessitated the State to deal with the short-term demands made on the Exchequer to maintain jobs, businesses and to support individual incomes to the extent that we have. Surely we can be more ambitious for ourselves as a republic and view the eradication of poverty in its cruellest form as a goal worth pursuing. Nothing in this Bill would present that impression.

There are, of course, some worthy aspects to the Bill but there is nothing contained within it that recognises that household income inadequacy - the type that renders too many children to poverty in this country while their parents skip a meal to offset the very worst of it for a child - can only be fully addressed when the minimum needs of the entire household are considered and provided for. In that regard we fully welcome the increases in the targeted supports for children, the fuel and the living alone allowances, and, of course, the maintaining of pension ages at 66. We commend the Stop67 campaign and all of the organisations who campaigned so valiantly to ensure that that was on the political agenda.

This is the second year in a row that there will be no increase in the minimum rate of social welfare payments. Rates are already set below the poverty line and well below what is required to meet even a basic standard of living. In this regard we should not forget the indicators of how such a measurement is quantified. It is a mother who does not have access to a warm coat or a child without a second pair of shoes or a household in 2020 unable to pay their electricity bill in a modern and relatively wealthy country. Surely, that must be viewed as being entirely unacceptable and worthy of a greater collective effort on all of our parts in this Chamber. Alas, once more, that does not seem to be the case.

We do not for a moment underestimate the cost of such an endeavour and once again we acknowledge the fact that the Government has allocated €25 billion to the social protection budget as a reflection of genuinely good intent in this regard. This week alone, the State will distribute €390 million in Christmas bonus payments to some 1.6 million citizens. For that, we commend the Minister and the Department officials, and say what a fantastic boost that that will be, both to the recipients of the payments and for the local economies through every town, village and city in Ireland that will benefit from the State’s investment in our citizens.

Social welfare spending is inherently expensive but so often what is lost in this debate is just how beneficial this investment is to the State and to the economy. None of that €390 million that will be paid out this week in Christmas bonuses and very little of the combined €25 billion budget for next year will sit in anyone’s bank account. It will swirl around the economy and come back to the State coffers in VAT, taxes, and through the jobs of those whose livelihoods will be sustained by it. That level of State investment should be a source of pride and is it is only the question as to whether it is enough and will go far enough that should be a source of any debate. There is of course an old conservative trope that the problem with socialism is that eventually one runs out of other people’s money. To those who would respond to my previous statements in that manner I would reply with two short points. First, what has been proven throughout this crisis is that it is in fact the private sector that cannot survive without the State. Second, as a Social Democrat, we have never shied away from the difficult conversations about how we should fund our public services and provide a stronger system of social protection.

Equally it should be acknowledged that the politics of “same old, same old” has a cost. A low tax base has a cost and the type of perennial auction politics that undermines our tax systems to the public, as practised by our two medium-sized parties and by Fianna Fáil in February’s general election, should be consigned to the past if we are to ever have a mature conversation about how we adequately fund our social infrastructure. Poverty in and of itself has a cost. That is felt not only in the corrosive effect it has on the person experiencing it but a very real and stark economic cost accrues to the State.

Earlier this year a comprehensive report carried out on behalf of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul estimated that the cost to the State in dealing with the consequences of poverty came in at an annual figure of €4.5 billion. While there is always a strong moral argument for confronting poverty, this study placed in very stark economic terms the hidden financial burdens to the State of its continual failure and ignoring of this issue. It is also clear that poverty impacts disproportionately across gender lines and is especially cruel to those with a disability or a caring role for another person.

The Deputies and the Minister will be aware that the Citizens’ Assembly was told by Professor Mary Murphy from Maynooth University that there will be up to 100,000 invisible women in the social welfare system. The assembly was told, and it is incumbent upon us to listen and respond to it in a legislative manner when possible, that the set-up of Ireland's tax and social welfare systems around the concept of a male breadwinner was more likely to leave women in poverty when they become pensioners. The chair of the assembly, Dr. Catherine Day, in reference to our systems of social protection said that some laws and policies still bear the stamp of yesterday’s Ireland when it came to the role of women. In the vast majority of cases, the man was the breadwinner and had a stay-at-home wife who had no independent income and whose years of family care were never valued economically. Women were left in poverty later in life in some cases, where they had left school early, taken multiple career breaks or predominantly worked part-time due to care and responsibility. I argue that it is high time that the State placed a value on care and responsibilities and that it be reflected throughout our social protection systems.

There are other groups who have been missed and could have been accounted for in this Bill and who have not been. In the context of people with a disability, while the rhetoric was that the budget protected the most vulnerable, this is not borne out by any analysis undertaken by the many anti-poverty groups. A number of disability rights groups have expressed a worry to me that the needs of the broader population, mainly around Covid-19 and Brexit, will lead to the supports for the people with disabilities being further de-prioritised. Services and supports have yet to fully recover since the last economic recession and the poverty rates for people out of work due to illness or disability have more than doubled from a rate of 19.8% in 2010 to one of 47. 7% in 2018, which is an incredibly alarming figure. People with disability constantly face the highest poverty rates of any group analysed by the CSO, which is often more than three times the rate of the general population. What is missing both from this Bill and from the 2021 budget is an acknowledgement of the additional costs borne by people with disabilities.

Many groups have been calling for a €20 cost-of-disability payment as an interim measure to start to address the many extra costs of disability. Once again, this has not been included. Indecon is due to submit its report on the costs of disability to the end of 2020. I sincerely hope it will make recommendations on how to deal with the costs because the number of people with a disability living in poverty is, quite simply, shocking and an affront to a modern democracy. For the second year in a row, there was no increase to the disability allowance. In a year in which the Government has, in practice, acknowledged that €203 is not an adequate amount on which to live, this is disappointing given that people with disabilities usually face higher living costs than most others.

Provisions on employment are welcome, especially the income disregard, but this is hitting low-hanging fruit and those already in employment with a disability comprise a small percentage of those with a disability overall.

The increase for carers is insufficient. According to most carers who have contacted my office and, I am sure, all our offices to date, a €150 increase to the annual carer's support grant will not be sufficient to cover additional costs as a result of the pandemic. We should remember that many services have been shut for most of the year, leaving carers to deal with extra costs, from the cost of additional heating to the costs of personal protective equipment and sanitation.

Carers have often been totally disregarded when it comes to mitigation against the negative impacts of carbon tax increases. The increase to the living alone allowance is of little use to carers who live with the person they care for. The carer's allowance is not a qualifying payment for the fuel allowance. This leaves me wondering yet again where the Government has heard of the concept of a just transition. Most disproportionate of all, for the 13th year in a row, there has been no increase to the income disregard for the carer's allowance.

I look forward to taking part in the rest of the debate on this Bill.

I am sharing time with Deputy Brendan Smith. I would love to discuss many of the points made by the previous speaker but unfortunately my time is limited to three and a half minutes. Despite all the guff and fake indignation we have heard on the floor of the House about the Government being allocated extra time, the longest I have ever been allowed to speak here since the Government took office is four minutes.

There has been a huge increase in the social welfare budget, necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Naturally, I welcome that. There are a number of innovative measures in this Bill and there is an attempt at targeting, which I welcome and for which I commend the Minister.

Owing to the short time available to me, I must confine myself to speaking on one point. I must confess to being bitterly disappointed that two years have now gone by without any increase in basic social welfare rates. I have emphasised time and again that inflation for those on social welfare, who can purchase only the bare necessities of life, and equally for those on very low incomes, is far in excess of headline inflation. That is because there are items included in the headline inflation figures, such as yachts and top-of-the-range cars, which the poor will never be purchasing. Studies by a number of organisations, including the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, have shown that, in effect, inflation in relation to the basic purchases of those on social welfare has increased by 5% to 6% over the past two years. The programme for Government makes a commitment, in page 85, to protect social welfare rates. Allowing the purchasing power of social welfare payments to fall does not constitute protection of social welfare rates. It appears to make a mockery of the commitment made by the Government on the levels of payments to social welfare recipients. These levels have been outlined and identified by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and others as being barely capable of making ends meet.

Experience has shown that the weakest in society get left behind unless welfare increases keep up with increases elsewhere in the economy. Since 2016, average weekly earnings have increased by 16%, which is exactly double the rate by which social welfare has increased. The inevitable consequence has been that we have failed to make significant progress in reducing levels of poverty, despite the country enjoying growth rates that are among the highest in the world.

The most vulnerable have been allowed to fall further and further behind. In Ireland, almost 700,000 people are living on an income below the poverty line and child poverty rates are among the highest in the OECD. We cannot afford to create a permanent and expanding underclass in this country because if we do, we will have within our society a growing army of people who will remain shackled to poverty indefinitely. The long-term consequences of this for Irish society and politics would be profound and would not be for the good.

A question I had intended to put to the Minister was whether she intends to reform the system whereby increases to the fuel allowance are the only compensation for increases in carbon tax. A huge cohort of social welfare recipients do not receive the fuel allowance at all. A huge cohort on very low incomes, who rely on what used to be the family income supplement for their weekly survival, do not get the fuel allowance at all. Are those people expected just to suck up an increase that is being introduced because some people believe it will change people's behaviour, whatever about the evidence?

I will defer to my colleague Deputy Smith.

I compliment the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on some of the measures introduced in this important Bill. As we all know, it gives effect to the social protection measures announced in budget 2021. As Deputy O'Dea said, it is the largest budget in the history of the Department and the country. Unfortunately, a substantial amount of the expenditure is caused by the pandemic.

I took the opportunity previously in the Chamber to compliment the officials at local level on their great response since mid-March to ensure nobody was left without support when they lost their jobs so unexpectedly because of the pandemic. Great credit is due to officials at local level. I interacted with them not only from Monday to Friday but also over the weekends. They tried to ensure every claim was processed and dealt with as quickly as possible. We should all be conscious of that. The staff were under undue pressure as well as others.

I acknowledge the pandemic unemployment payment is flexible. It is important that flexibility has been built into the scheme because, unfortunately, it may be necessary again to move the country to a higher level of restriction, which will affect business, commerce and places of employment. I hope it will not be.

Importantly, this Bill defers the proposed increase to the pension age next January. I firmly believe that the pension age should not be increased. We should bear in mind when setting the pension age the significant demands often placed on people in employment, be they in trades, on farms or in other kinds of physical work. At times, such work is very demanding on an individual. It is not acceptable that a person in his or her late 60s must still go to work. There is no justification for an increase to the pension age in the future.

I welcome the fact that there was an increase to the living alone allowance. That is important because a person living alone who depends entirely on the State pension, be it contributory or non-contributory, is under pressure all the time to make ends meet. It is important that the living alone allowance be given status. I hope it can be increased over the years to come.

This legislation provides for the bringing forward of regulations so that 65-year-olds who are required or choose to retire early can receive an early retirement allowance or pension at the same rate as the jobseeker's benefit without being required to sign on, partake in any activation measures or be available for and genuinely seeking work. All public representatives know of people who worked all their lives and who had to go to a social welfare office when they had to give up their employment at 65 years. Never before in their lives had they been to a social welfare office. It was absolutely wrong that those people had to sign up for the jobseeker's benefit. They had to leave their place of employment through no choice on their own. I am very glad the regulation is being introduced to put an end to this.

I want to make a couple of comments on what I have heard in the debate so far. I welcome the contribution by Deputy O’Dea. In the short period during which I was a member of a committee with him in the term of the previous Dáil, I learned a lot from him and found him to be very progressive on these issues, but his remarks stand in stark contrast to those of Deputy Carroll MacNeill. What she said was quite startling.

The issue of inequality may look good from the vantage point that she has but the reality is very different for those outside the upper middle class enclaves that she represents. The aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats" was changed in recent years. The new phrase has become commonly used to describe social inequality across the world. It was changed by a black American writer to "a rising tide lifts all yachts". That adjustment is correct in the modern world.

I welcome the fact that the threat over the heads of many workers who were due to retire next year at the age of 66 has been lifted and that, for now at least, they will get the pensions to which they are entitled. I am concerned, to say the least, about the commission that is being set up and its remit. We have seen, over the years, that when Governments and Ministers want to push an unpopular policy, they hire an outside expert or commission to conduct a review, scoping exercise or investigation. That provides the thin veneer that they need to implement the policy that they wanted in the first place. I have no doubt that such a commission will come back with a plethora of excuses and a veneer to cover the Government in some kind of excuse.

We know that raising the retirement age in the case of access to the State's contributory and non-contributory pension is a policy which Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party have supported. They supported it before the most recent election. When it became a hot potato, they changed their policies only because of the campaign by ordinary people and the outrage from the workers affected. That campaign will have to stay active on the streets and the trade union movement will have to continue to push the demand that the pension age is not raised because, when one reads the commentary on this issue, it is clear that the great and the good in economic circles are all agreed that we must raise the pension age. We do not agree with that. The arguments marshalled time and again to ram this policy down our throats are not matters of fact, but matters of politics. People are living longer but workers today are far more productive during their working lives than previous generations. The Social Insurance Fund has only a fixed amount of money in it, but that can be changed, not least by increasing the rate and amount that employers pay in PRSI contributions. We still have one of the lowest rates of employer contribution in Europe and our higher life expectancy is one of the reasons why workers' rights and entitlements to benefits to the social wage are weak relative to other European states. We still have a growing number of over-65s who will live longer in the decades ahead, but the lack of pensions in the private sector and the poor returns to many ordinary private pensioners are not inevitable things like the weather but a function of the general crisis in capitalism and the decline in returns for equities and bonds, investments through financial means and so on. The fact that the rate of those returns on investments made by many large pension funds has declined, and that employers have waged a war on defined contributions, are not natural phenomena that cannot be dealt with other than by cutting pensions or by raising the age to which people have to work. This should not be a problem to modern society. The fact that people are living longer should be something we celebrate and reward. Pensions, after all, are deferred wages.

On a related issue connected to the Social Insurance Fund and the insolvency fund, I want to comment on the extension on 30 November of the provisions in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act relating to workers' ability to access redundancy payments. That extension suspended the rights of workers on short-time or lay-off arrangements to activate statutory severance after four weeks or six weeks in a 13-week period. That was last week extended for the fourth time. It had originally been suspended at the outset of the Covid-19 crisis on 13 March until 31 May. It was later extended to 10 August and 17 September, and was extended again on 30 November. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, Ms Patricia King, has said that since the Redundancy Payments Act provides that laid-off service is not reckonable for redundancy payment, the consequence for workers who are currently laid off due to no fault of their own and may be redundant in the future is that they will forgo this period of time as reckonable service. For those continuously laid off since the start of the pandemic, the period of service is now over eight months and may well end up being a full year or more. ICTU has made it clear to Government that the continued extension to the freeze on the operation of section 12 of the Redundancy Act is unfair to workers. ICTU has requested that this matter be rectified and the Government has failed to respond. I support ICTU's call. We did not object at the time to this measure being introduced as it was temporary, an emergency measure etc. We cannot continue to support a measure that is now, effectively, punishing workers and denying them the right to claim payments while allowing employers to continue to make workers redundant. The argument put forward for extending the measure, that is, that it may save jobs, is now fairly threadbare. It is at least as much about stopping claims falling on the State. The people who are going to lose out are, as always, the workers. We are told that the aim of the measure is to ensure that businesses in financial trouble due to the Covid restrictions are not pushed over the edge financially by laid-off employees activating their severance rights. The suspension of the rights of workers on short-time or lay-off to activate statutory severance after four weeks or six weeks in a 13-week period was extended for the fourth time and this has to be dealt with. Otherwise, it is a complete injustice to workers who have suffered under the pandemic.

I broadly welcome the measures on the employee wage subsidy scheme in the Bill. Although I know they are slightly technical and that the administration of the scheme is in the hands of a different Department, I have submitted an amendment asking for a report in part to highlight the extraordinary fact that Ireland is unique in Europe, as far as I can see, in the way it has operated the wage subsidy scheme and supports for companies hit by the crisis. Of course we wanted workers, their incomes and take home pay supported, but there has been a complete lack of oversight or regulation of the wage subsidy scheme and the current employer wage subsidy scheme. The Minister for Finance has made it clear that the profit levels of any company availing of supports are not an issue. This is a State which engages in the most minute and detailed examination of individual workers and, for example, lone parents who apply for State support. Consider a profitable company such as Boston Scientific which has numerous profitable chains of nursing homes, various aviation companies, airlines and meat plants. It and other global, multinational corporations have remained profitable. Many of them are using tax structures in this country that mean they do not publish their accounts here. Many have continued to award enormous bonuses to their CEOs during the pandemic, while availing of these schemes. Most insulting of all, many of those corporations have not even been topping up their workers' wages by much. They have been doing so to a minimal amount.

I raise the continued discrimination faced by young people living at home, who are unemployed and on jobseeker's allowance. Eighteen to 24-year-olds get just €112 a week unless they live independently. How any young person is expected to live independently in the current housing crisis is a separate issue, but it is important to recall that this was an austerity measure. One of the most obvious and brutal messages during the austerity years sent a clear signal to our youth that they had to leave the country or get used to living in poverty within State supports when they are out of work. When we introduced the JobPath schemes, we sent another message that told people to stay here and we would help them to take up low paid, precarious employment by forcing them, with the threat of sanction on their social welfare entitlements, to take up such work regardless of how suitable it is.

The continued lower rate of jobseeker's payments for the under 24-year-old living at home is a legacy of the policy of an era that should be called out for what it was, namely, a punishment for being unemployed. This becomes important again in light of the recession and the Covid-19 crisis because we know that young people have been disproportionately hit by lay-offs. We were told in June that half of the people under 24 were unemployed. New figures released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, suggest that the country's unemployment rate, including those in receipt of Covid-19 payments, was at 26.1% in May.

Breaking down those results, the monthly unemployment rate for those aged between 15 and 24 was 13.5%, while it was 4.5% for those aged between 25 and 74. The figures may have changed since the summer but I believe that broadly the impact on young workers in this State remains the sharpest. For all our talk in the House recently about mental health issues, the impact of this sort of treatment of young people is punishing on their mental health, self-respect and self-esteem. It needs to be examined. We will call for a report within three months on the impact of this measure on young people.

I refer to fuel poverty. I worked on the climate action council for a year and a half, drafting a report that was based on the Citizens' Assembly recommendations. That report included serious recommendations, which are feeding into how we draft the current work on the climate Bill. There was serious argument about it but we got a serious priority recommendation that the Government of the day and subsequent Governments would conduct a report and study into fuel poverty across Ireland. That was to happen before any consideration was given to raising the existing carbon taxes. Guess what? It never happened.

Fuel poverty is currently measured on the receipt of fuel allowance but it does not cut it. It is not just about poor people, who are entitled to fuel allowance, because many working people on low pay suffer from fuel poverty. We all know the stories. Whether it is about trying to heat one’s home, run a car or cover transport costs to and from work, it impacts on many more people than the current system acknowledges. Deputy O'Dea was correct that we need to examine what we mean by fuel poverty, how many people it is impacting and the impact the raised carbon taxes are having on those who live without public transport or in poor quality housing. I have come across, as I am sure many Deputies have, couples who live together and who are not entitled to fuel allowance because they are a few euro above the threshold. That cuts them out not just of fuel allowance but of being able to access grants from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to retrofit homes and claim other supports. In reality, many people are making a choice between how they eat and what they eat and how they heat their homes. This is just not fair.

A €100 subsistence payment was given at the start of the pandemic to those who rely on prepaid energy in their homes. That is being reclaimed from them at the rate of 60% and many reports have come in to many of us of people putting their meter card in for €10 and getting €4 of energy back. That is happening now, as we speak, in this cold climate. I have written to the energy regulator and raised it with the Minister and it continues to happen. People are freezing tonight because of this penalty and it is not being dealt with.

I agree it is a shame that we are not raising the benefits to our pensioners in this budget and have not done so. As was pointed out by an earlier speaker, inflation on ordinary items - not on yachts - has risen substantially over the past few years. We may say this has to be done because of the Covid crisis and the subsidies that were paid out, but we missed an opportunity, Maybe we could still address it by going back to the very wealthy and those who benefit from the crisis, that is, high-tech companies, the pharmaceutical industry and other industries whose profits rose during the crisis, and require them to pay a Covid solidarity tax. That could be how we retrieve the income, rather than hitting the poorest section of society again.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, for tabling five important amendments to this Bill. Sinn Féin's amendments will help carers, those at risk of fuel poverty, jobseekers and workers, such as musicians and I hope the Government supports them.

I will raise a number of issues with the Minister. Workers in the aviation sector have faced a particularly significant challenge this year, with many on substantially reduced wages or having been let go altogether. I and other Sinn Féin representatives have repeatedly raised the case of Aer Lingus workers, who were being obstructed by their employer and the Minister's Department from accessing social welfare entitlements. This issue was eventually resolved for the EWSS but it has not been resolved for the TWSS. We are told by the Department that workers will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis but the truth is, on a case-by-case basis, these workers are crying foul. They are seeing a cut-and-paste response from the Department. For days in April, May and June when they were explicitly told by their employer they were on reduced days, their UP80 form is coming back all Os and no Xs. Unpaid leave is turning into something else. I call on the Minister in the strongest terms to intervene personally in this matter.

I turn to the matter of fuel and energy poverty. I welcome the increase of €3.50 per week in the fuel allowance. However, this is the Government giving with one hand and taking far more back with the other. The 14% increase in the fuel allowance is totally eclipsed by the 30% increase announced in the carbon tax and the 130% hike in the electricity public service obligation, PSO, levy. The punitive carbon tax will increase the price of a bag of coal or tank of oil for people as they try to heat their homes over winter. The enormous increase in the PSO levy will leave households with higher bills over the next 12 months.

Under section 25 of the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act 2019, the Minister was required to commission an impact assessment on the current and projected future increases in carbon tax on low-income families. It found from various researches conducted that carbon tax increases will impact disproportionately on low-income households. That needs to be addressed and I encourage the Minister to do it in this Bill.

Teachtaí Crowe and O'Connor are sharing.

I will address some points made by Deputies Bríd Smith and Gary Gannon. It is like Sesame Street economics. There is not enough money being given out and Deputy Gannon said we should tax more and the same points were made by Deputy Bríd Smith. She specifically targeted the pharmaceutical companies we are so reliant on now, not just for vaccines, but for our entire economic structure as we face down a pandemic and the economic ravages it has brought. It is reckless to come into this Chamber and speak like that and to talk about splurge spending on one hand on top of what has been the greatest ever expenditure in a budget of €18 billion.

I very much welcome the Bill, which gives effect to the social protection measures announced in budget 2021. Most crucial for my party, Fianna Fáil, is that one of the issues we pushed strongly on in the election campaign was the pension age. It was planned to raise this on 1 January 2021 but this has been deferred and it will remain at 66 years. The planned increase from 67 to 68 years, which was scheduled to happen on 1 January 2028, is also being repealed in this legislation. It means the commission on pensions can sit down to properly investigate the situation and come up with proper solutions. I hope the pension age will remain for the considerable future at the age we have set it at now. I am glad regulations have been brought forward so that 65-year-olds who choose to retire early will receive an early retirement allowance or pension. This Bill targets people who are living on their own and who have probably felt the effects of Covid more than anyone.

I acknowledge the huge expenditure in this budget. In particular, while the core rates of social welfare have not changed, the fact remains that the expenditure in the Minister's Department is 41% up this year. That is evidence of the job losses and temporary lay-offs that have been brought on by Covid, but also of the positive reaction by Government to step in and ensure things do not go to the wall.

I wish to use my time to discuss the deferral of the planned increase in the State pension age, which will remain at 66 years pending the report of the commission on pensions. I wholeheartedly welcome this. Fianna Fáil's manifesto during this year's general election promised to establish a commission to examine the State pension age and defer further age increases pending that examination's completion. The increase was controversial and a dominant issue during the general election, and rightly so. It is right that people who have paid for State services throughout their lives enjoy their later years and are not forced to continue working or actively seek social welfare payments.

It was subsequently agreed in the programme for Government with Fine Gael and the Green Party to establish a commission on pensions to examine suitability and eligibility issues with State pensions and the Social Insurance Fund. The commission will outline the options for the Government to address issues such as qualifying age, contribution rates, total contributions and eligibility requirements.

It is critical that there be gender-equal representation and older people on the newly established commission. While the commission's members are eminently qualified across a range of specialties, I welcome the Bill's repeal of the planned increase from 67 years to 68 years that was scheduled to happen on 1 January 2028. This means that the commission can consider matters relating to the State pension age unconstrained by prospective changes. However, we must ensure that a wide range of stakeholders are involved in the consultation process. The failure to acknowledge the role of organisations that advocate for women and older people will skew the conversation and might adversely affect the outcome of the commission's work. I suggest that, as one of our leading females in the Cabinet, this is a matter to which the Minister could give some consideration.

The pandemic has had a major impact on social welfare expenditure in 2020, with €27.3 billion being spent by the end of November. That was almost €8 billion, or 41%, ahead of the 2020 Estimates. Such a large expenditure needs to be accounted for wisely. The deferral of the increase in the State pension age will cost €221 million in 2021. The 2022 full-year extra cost of retaining the State pension age at 66 years is expected to be approximately €453 million. The estimate of the net extra cost takes into consideration PRSI receipts forgone, movements from other social welfare schemes and secondary benefit entitlements, including fuel allowance, household benefit payments and the telephone allowance. Such decisions are not being taken lightly by the Government. From Fianna Fáil's point of view, we want to get this situation resolved and are willing to put the necessary resources in place to do so correctly.

All of this hammers home the message that, as parties in government, we must recognise that this is an important issue for many people across the country who have worked hard their entire lives and want to look forward to happy retirements. We should handle this matter delicately and give it the attention and care it deserves. I am confident that the Minister will do so.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the annual Social Welfare Bill, which gives effect to proposals announced in budget 2021. The Bill allows self-employed people in receipt of the PUP to earn up to €480 over a four-week period while retaining the payment. We in Sinn Féin would like to see an increase in the amount that can be earned to €960 over a rolling eight-week period. This amendment is supported by the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland and would allow greater flexibility for entertainers to earn during busy periods while carrying them through quiet times.

We need to listen to the people who are affected by our decisions. I welcome the Government's U-turn on increasing the pension age to 67 years from January, but 66 is still too high. It is wrong that our older people, who have given so much, are being forced onto the dole when they should be looking forward to a well-earned rest. The Government can dress the payment up however it feels it should, but these people still view it as going to the social welfare office to collect the dole.

I welcome the increase in the carer's support grant to €1,850 and its annual payment in June. We in Sinn Féin would like to see it being paid in two halves in recognition of the difficulties that carers face, with half paid in January and the other half, as usual, paid in June. This amendment is supported by Family Carers Ireland and other care advocacy groups. We need to listen to those who are affected by our decisions.

Many people have contacted my office about the growing cost of heating their homes. For many in rural Ireland, particularly older people, there is no just transition. We have all seen the effects of climate change, especially the once-in-a-century events that seem to have occurred frequently in recent years. There needs to be a report on the effectiveness, adequacy and coverage of, and eligibility for, the fuel allowance in households experiencing energy poverty. We in Sinn Féin called for a similar report previously. This call is supported by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We need to change the rule whereby someone must have been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for 15 months before qualifying for the fuel allowance.

There needs to be a report on the effectiveness of the JobPath scheme. The cost to the taxpayer is €247.9 million. We need to invest more in local job clubs. In the midlands, job clubs are delivering a better and fairer service for a fraction of the cost of JobPath.

Remaining on the issue of investing locally, the issue of CE supervisors' pensions must be sorted. It has been going on for too long.

I compliment the Department of Social Protection on its work since Covid-19 emerged. We have seen unprecedented demand on the Department. It is important that we think about its staff, the Minister and the people running the Department. They have done Trojan work under severe pressure in a short time to ensure that most people affected by Covid-19 have been dealt with.

When the Covid restrictions were introduced by the previous Government, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I discussed some of the anomalies in the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and how they had arisen. We accept that there will be anomalies when an scheme is introduced in an emergency, but I call on the Minister for Social Protection to think of over-66s who are in receipt of pensions and, for example, own pubs that are closed. There are still costs associated with their pubs. Whereas others who were not at pension age got €350 per week, over-66s were still only on their pensions of €234 or €235. The difference between €350 and the standard pension rate would have been of considerable help to them. They are suffering because of that. Will the Minister examine this anomaly? It does not affect too many people and it is important that we examine it.

I wish to cite two further issues. The issue of families looking for carer's allowance is regularly raised at my office in Tuam and when I meet constituents around Galway East. The time it takes to process an application for carer's allowance is in the region of 15 weeks. There is often a refusal, at which point the application must go to a review and then an appeal. Some people have given up work to care for someone at home and could be without an income for up to 30 weeks. While I accept that if they are granted the carer's allowance, it will be backdated, but will the Minister examine the structure of the application process? Will she set in place a reasonable timeframe of, for example, four weeks for decisions to be made? If we are to keep people being cared for at home, it is important that we provide their carers with the support they need.

A long-running issue that I have encountered a great deal in recent years is that of the community employment, CE, scheme supervisors' claim for recognition and pension rights. The Minister is working to find a solution. Every community has benefited from the work of CE schemes. It is important that we take on board the community dividends of the work that has been carried out by these schemes for many years, work that no other government stakeholder can do.

Our towns and villages have benefited enormously from this but what we need to do is, once and for all, provide some sort of recognition for the supervisors who manage all that. It is important because a number of supervisors have worked all their lives on these schemes. They are part of the society in which they live and they are now going to retire. Whatever proposition the Minister comes up with, it is important that all supervisors are included retrospectively.

Lastly, on the whole idea of social welfare and what is being paid out, it is important we make sure the weakest in our society are taken care of. People on CE schemes or rural social schemes who are over 55 and who have little chance of getting work again should be allowed to remain on the CE schemes. We should concentrate our efforts on the younger cohort of people who are involved in JobPath or who are on jobseeker's allowance. It is important that we look at this in a fresh light because many people on these schemes will not find jobs. It is important that we make the Tús workers available to the companies that are managing the Tús operations. They are finding it difficult to get the names from the Department of Social Protection. I ask the Minister to look at this as well.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. At the outset, I wish to ask the Minister and her Department what they have got against the fourth child in working families. I put this point to the Minister's officials when I spoke to them earlier in the week. Is it the case that when the Minister was in the schoolyard years ago, a fourth child pulled her pigtail or something?

It seems there is an agenda at present because every child under the social welfare system where the parent is in receipt of a social welfare payment is getting increased financial support in budget 2021 except for families with four or more children that are in receipt of the working family payment. I find it bizarre that this small number of families across the country are the only ones who are receiving a payment from the Department of Social Protection and are being excluded from an increase in the rate of payment in this year's budget. Therefore, an unemployed family with four children, two of whom are under the age of 12, will receive €728 more next year in the child dependent allowance. A one-, two- or three-child family in receipt of the working family payment will be €936 better off next year. The working poor with four children or more are the only ones being ignored in budget 2021.

Many of the increases in these payments are to offset the increased costs of living due to the hikes in carbon tax but the working poor who happen, unfortunately, to live outside our cities can forget about it. Those people would be better off staying in bed. By the time 2030 comes along and we have a carbon tax of €100 per tonne, half of the households in Dublin will be paying less than €9.11 per week in additional transport costs when the Dublin Bus subsidy is taken into account, and yet, their rural neighbours who are commuting will be paying €39.50 per week more. That is four times more than those who have a bus passing outside their door every five minutes.

The message, therefore, being sent out by this Social Welfare Bill to working families on low incomes with more than four children is to not do it; it is not worth it. They are better off staying at home or living in separate homes claiming the one-parent family allowance. It is all to save the princely sum of €2.6 million out of a €25 billion budget. That is 0.0000000001 of the Minister's budget. That is ten decimal points below 1%. Next year, the Minister's Department will spend €47,500 every minute. I am seeking for the Minister to reallocate €5 of that €47,500 to those working families with four or more children who are on a low income and in receipt of the working family payment.

In fairness, it is not just in this budget. The Minister's predecessor, the then Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Senator Doherty, did the same thing on two occasions. In this budget, however, every other child has received some additional payment because the child dependent allowance has been increased. These small numbers of families and children, however, are the ones being blatantly discriminated against by this legislation. That is wrong and I hope the Minister will review it before the passage and enactment of this legislation.

I will turn to another issue. It is an aspect I am surprised is not included in the Bill. As the Minister will be aware, the Government has taken the decision to provide for medical indemnity for the six Covid-19 vaccines it has signed up to and pre-purchased. I believe the Government has pre-purchased 8.5 million doses of vaccine. There are more to come in terms of vaccine doses and we will probably have four or five more vaccines.

As part of the vaccination programme discussed by the Minister at Cabinet on Tuesday, recipients will have to receive two vaccine doses, which will have to be administered two weeks apart. We are talking about two vaccine doses taken two weeks apart and six different vaccines floating around. That is a recipe for absolute and utter chaos and we are asking the Health Service Executive to manage it. This is the same organisation that lost 600,000 flu vaccines a few weeks ago and did not know where they were because it has not got the data systems to manage a handful of them. How in God's name will it manage 8.5 million vaccine doses and more?

We do not have a unique health identifier, which we legislated for here probably six years ago at this stage. In the short term, while it is not ideal, the only solution is to use the personal public service number, PPSN. It is the best short-term option to be able to monitor and manage the vaccination programme across this country. To do that, however, we need an amendment to the existing legislation covering the operation of the PPSN. It is not in this legislation. Without having some type of tracking mechanism, which in the short term is only the PPSN, then managing indemnity by the State Claims Agency in terms of these vaccines will be next to impossible. We need detailed and accurate records. They are vital to flag up adverse reactions to specific vaccines.

It is imperative that we have as a matter of urgency a full debate in the House on all those related issues.

I welcome the move the Minister is making on the pension age threshold. People should be able to work beyond their 66th birthday if they wish to do so, and to continue to make PRSI contributions into the Social Insurance Fund, but they should not be forced to do that. I have come across what I believe is an anomaly in the calculation of the total contributions pension, the new pension that has come in. A constituent contacted me about the matter and the Minister might clarify in her response how it works. Under the existing social welfare law, the PRSI record is based from the first day that a person pays his or her first stamp in insurable employment until the final full tax year before his or her 66th birthday. That did not cause many difficulties when the number of stamps were averaged out over, say, a 40-year period, but with the total contributions approach, if someone's birthday is in December, he or she will lose out on 11 or 11 and a half months of stamps. That could be the difference between the person getting a significantly higher rate of contribution and over the lifetime of the person's pension, it could have a dramatic impact on the rates he or she is paid. The total contributions system should be calculated until the very last stamp is paid when a person reaches his or her 66th birthday or if he or she wants to continue paying pension contributions.

As the Minister will be aware, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands sent her a submission yesterday evening on our deliberation regarding the pandemic unemployment payment. I again ask her to consider the issue of self-employed people over the age of 66 who are not eligible for a State pension. They should be deemed eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment. We need to send out a message that it is okay to work beyond one's 66th birthday. In this case, however, we are penalising those people who work beyond their 66th birthday and who have been forced to shut because of Covid-19. On the one hand, we want people to work later in life and to contribute to the economy and the Social Insurance Fund. On the other hand, those people who are leading in terms of those measures at the moment are the very ones being penalised by the pandemic unemployment payment.

The Minister will also be aware that in that submission, we made quite a number of recommendations in respect of the music and entertainment industry and included a detailed submission from that industry in our final document. I hope she will examine the submission received from the music industry. It has recommended that the existing earnings cap of €480 be doubled and I hope that can be considered. Furthermore, the committee and I believe that the current structure in the calculation of that cap is too inflexible to meet the needs of the entertainment industry, and that we should also consider averaging that over the term of the pandemic unemployment payment. We should remember that the objective is to get people within the music and entertainment industry back into full-time work. That will not happen overnight - we all accept that - but any opportunity they have to get gainful employment needs to be facilitated in every way possible. I acknowledge that the Minister intends to come forward with a statutory instrument, which she will present to the committee over the coming weeks, concerning how the Department, when calculating these figures, will take into account the costs of gigs borne by entertainers, and I hope a fair approach will be taken to that. Nevertheless, we need flexibility. That €480 threshold really needs to be reconsidered, as does the period over which it is calculated.

We need immediately to review the interaction of the pandemic unemployment payment with the wage subsidy schemes. I fundamentally believe that every person possible should be kept on a wage subsidy scheme rather than being forced down the road of the pandemic unemployment payment. It is imperative to keep that connection between employers and employees. It is better from an employer's point of view in getting people back on an incremental basis to full-time work and it is better for the employee in trying to maintain his or her current level of income, rather than taking a drop to the level of the pandemic unemployment payment and having to sign on for that.

Finally, I compliment the Minister, her predecessor and her team of officials in the Department, and in particular the officials in the regional offices in Roscommon, Longford, Sligo, Letterkenny and other places throughout the country on the tremendous work that was done in processing a phenomenal number of pandemic unemployment payment applications over a short period. I commend them on their efforts in responding, often late at night and sometimes at weekends, to queries we raised with them. I say "Go raibh míle maith agaibh" to them for that.

I am sharing time with Deputy Murnane O'Connor. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. There are a number of issues, one of which relates to the commitment in respect of the pension that is outlined in the programme for Government. It is very important that it be tied down in legislation and that there be no ambiguity about it. We must ensure that the pension is given at the correct age because, as people reach their 60s, they will have been working for more than 40 years in some instances, and changing the goalposts towards the end is completely unacceptable.

Another important issue relates to carers and the carer's allowance and benefit. In the course of the previous Dáil, we raised the issue of the length of time it was taking - 14 to 16 weeks - to get a carer's allowance processed. Thankfully, that is not the case at the moment and the applications are being processed faster, but an awful lot of work, preparation and documentation is required for an application to be successful. One issue that has come to my attention over many years concerns cases where a person has to give up work to care for some family member, whether an elderly relative, a sibling or a child who needs full-time care and assistance. If one of the partners is working, that partner's income is taken into account and it may put the carer over the limit for the allowance.

If we are to talk about a fully inclusive society, and if we want to make things as right as possible for people who care for people with disabilities or who are infirm or ill, the application should be care assessed rather than means tested. The process should examine the level of care that is needed for the person who requires full-time care and assistance. If somebody is coming off work and has worked and contributed to PRSI and taxes over many years, irrespective of the person's age he or she should be considered in terms of a needs assessment. The Minister might take that back to the Department to ensure that a needs assessment be considered rather than a means test. A mechanism in respect of the carer's benefit was brought in almost 20 years ago by the then Minister of State with responsibility for labour, Tom Kitt.

There is room to look at the carer's benefit and, if possible, to expand it, look at the contributions that people have made over a number of years - maybe five, six, ten years or something like that - and consider what they have paid in PRSI. If they have met a certain criteria for PRSI paid, they could be paid carer's benefit for the time that the care need is deemed to be necessary. That would allow people who are providing full-time care and assistance for a family relative of any age the dignity to have their own money while they are doing an immensely important job on behalf of the State. This is vitally important. We should recognise carers in all aspects of our society. During the pandemic, many of them have been providing care and assistance at every level. It is important that we look at it in the context of the challenge that is there now and as we move forward. There is scope in this regard and legislation should be drafted within the Department. Having looked at the existing legislation, for somebody who is coming off of work and has been paying taxes and making PRSI contributions, there should be a mechanism to extend the carer's benefit for longer than two years provided the care need is necessary and that an assessment of need has been carried out. I ask the Minister to look at that.

I welcome the contributions. I could discuss a raft of issues relating to social welfare. I compliment the Minister and all the officials in the Department of Social Protection who work so hard to provide a service as best they can and, in particular, for doing so in recent in most challenging circumstances. There are anomalies with many systems and we try to bring them to the attention of the Dáil as best we can.

I take this opportunity to welcome the news that the Christmas bonus is being issued this week. Preserving the State pension qualifying age at age 66 was so important. All of us had fought for that. I welcome the €5 increase in the weekly living alone allowance. More than 600,000 people are to benefit from the Christmas bonus - the double payment. Together with the fuel allowance increase, these are all good supports.

Where I have a problem, and I will highlight it again, is in terms of the lack of support for carers. Following the budget announcement of a €150 increase to the carer's support grant, I was dismayed to learn that the measures will not take effect until June 2021. I ask the Minister to change that. The increase is so important. Carers play a huge part in society.

I recently asked why persons 66 years of age are not considered for the Covid-19 crisis payment. These people had been working up to the onset of Covid and I was told that they could quality either for the contributory State pension or the non-contributory State pension. These are people are hale and hearty and they deserve to be able to get the Covid payment.

I welcome the decision to return to weekly collection of social welfare payments. As a result of this change, people will be able to go to their local post offices once a week. It was needed because the previous change had a negative impact. We need to keep our post offices open. It is important that we make sure all of us are working together because the post offices play a huge part in this. It is so important that people, even in collecting their benefits, go to the post office.

There is only one issue I want to ask the Minister about and that is the supplementary welfare form. The local authorities used do a lot work on heating repairs, where, for example, a shower was broken or something in general was really needed. They do not do that anymore. We now have the so-called social welfare form. I am asking the Minister to increase the funding relating to that. A number of the people are coming to my clinics seeking to get work done, whether to a shower, a heating system, a roof or whatever. I am asking the Minister if she could put more funding into that because it helps those who are most in need. We need to provide greater funding in this area.

It must be said that this has been an extremely challenging year for workers and businesses, but also for the Department of Social Protection. I refer to the landscape that exists now . I acknowledge the work done by the Minister and her predecessor in this regard. I particularly thank the staff of the Department of Social Protection. During the first period of crisis, it was a time of immense pressure and the response times were good in ever-changing schemes. I acknowledge that and comment those involved.

This legislation before us illustrates to a large extent the role that Sinn Féin has played as an Opposition party. When I look at some of the issues that are being dealt with here, I see some of those that we have prioritised. These are: the pension age and stopping the increase to 67 years; the PUP, which was previously cut, and we campaigned to bring back and increase, and it was - it should never have been cut in the first place; and flexibility for the self-employed in the context of the PUP and for them to this payment.

On the pension age, when I went canvassing during the election campaign, I met people who, at 63 or 64, were coming up the pension age and looking at what lay ahead. Some of them had worked from the age of 16, 15 or even 14. These were people who had given five decades of work and who might have been working all, or the vast majority of, that time. To be saying to them that they need to go on further, they were grievously offended. Their families were grievously offended. It is profoundly wrong. It is crazy that those who are least likely to be able to keep working to 67 are often those who will most likely have to keep working to 67. It is profoundly wrong to say to masons, floor-layers and people who are working in physically extremely demanding jobs that they have to keep going to 67.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has accepted the amendments in respect of the entertainment industry. I am glad she listened to the arguments made by Deputy Kerrane. It is a vitally important point on the flexibility that exists there. I believe that also applies to taxi drivers. We need to look again at the situation they face. Theirs is a very particular category. It is rate based and it is either a feast or a famine for them. The hours that can be worked and the money that one get from driving a taxi do not always necessarily correspond fairly in the context of the PUP or the market that is out there. They could have a few busy weeks but it could get quiet after that. It will not be as busy as it once was because of the situation in which we find ourselves.

The final point I want to make relates to people who get illness benefit and what happens after they get it. They get illness benefit because of their stamps but they are put through the ringer after that. The demands made of them - they might not get any money while they are waiting for approval for a disability payment or the invalidity pension - are arduous. People are left in hardship. We need to look at that. People can go from a certain level of security for the period directly after they leave work if they are not fit to return to being under serious pressure. We need to address that.

I, too, welcome the measures in the budget that were helpful. It has been a very challenging year, as we know, for everyone from the cradle to the grave but especially for older people, those of pension age and, in light of the work they do, family carers. Indeed, research carried out a year ago found that there are hundreds of children - children who should be at school or out playing and enjoying themselves - who are obliged to care for a sick relative, for example, a parent. That is a very unfortunate situation.

I want to start by complimenting the Minister on the Christmas bonus being paid today. Goodness knows, we need a bit of Christmas cheer. I certainly welcome that because it is necessary. Our old people - we are all heading that way - made great sacrifices and worked very hard and they need to be treated fairly and with a bit of respect. The increase, albeit small, in the fuel allowance has us going in the right direction. It is certainly a help. I say that in the context of the Bill.

The Bill provides that a self-employed PUP recipient can engage in limited work and earn up to €480 over a rolling period of four weeks while continuing to receive the PUP.

That is vital because many of those people are loyal to their customers and their customers are loyal to them. There is a great bond and relationship between them. They were afraid to go out to do work in case they would lose their PUP. For a plumber, it might have been a boiler that needed to be serviced or a burst pipe to be fixed. Carpenters, kitchen makers and cabinet makers would be called to do some work in a customer's house. It could be outdoors work, such as on a farm, where a milking machine repair man would have to call out. The loyalty is there and thank God for it. There should be more done for those people but what is there is a start. Tús maith, leath na hoibre. As I said, the bond is there between the self-employed person and the customer. Most self-employed people have a loyal customer base. Electricians, for example, will provide a service even when they are called out on Christmas Day. That can happen.

I want to thank the social welfare officers for the work they do. I am thinking of Leo Coffey and his team in Cahir and the teams in Clonmel and Tipperary. We deal with them all over the country, in Waterford and in the regions. This year especially, they have pulled out all the stops and they have been marvellous. I want to say that because they have a difficult job but they have been very helpful to my office and to me. The interest of the customer is always put first and they do their best for people.

Section 5 reduces the number of waiting days for illness benefit, which I welcome. People used to have to wait six days but it is being halved to three. That is very welcome. It is not often I would praise the Minister but I am praising her in this case. I do sometimes give praise. I praise the bridges I go over, as the Minister knows. It was kind of ironic that during the two-hour Private Members' debate we had a while ago, the speaker before me - I think it was a Deputy from Deputy Naughten's group - thanked the Minister for staying for the whole debate, which does not happen normally. Lo and behold, I got onto my feet agus rith sí amach as an Chamber. Chuaigh sí suas an staighre and she was gone, like snow off a ditch. She told me the day after that she had to take a phone call, but I was fierce disappointed that when I got up, she left. I was complaining that I would report her to my in-laws. I have a lot of them in Cavan-Monaghan, but I did not do so after all. It is very important that the Ministers listen to all groups. We all have something relevant to say, I hope, with the Ceann Comhairle's permission.

There are some good provisions in the Bill. As I said, the arrangements for a number of payments is welcome. However, the provision for carers is very disappointing. Section 11 provides for an increase of €150 in the carer's support grant, raising the payment to €1,850, which is the highest level it has ever been at. I certainly welcome that increase. However, the grant often does not even go towards a holiday, break or anything like it. There might be some work that has to be done in the house or a bill that has to be paid and it will go towards that. I welcome the increase, which is very important in these tough times. The carer's support grant is an annual payment for carers who look after people, giving them full-time care and attention. There are many of them and the grant is paid annually in a single lump sum. That is welcome.

The situation regarding carers in general, however, is that they are the poor relation. I always wear the carer's badge. Chaill mé an ceann a bhí agam. I do not have it at the moment because I need to get a new one. It is very important that we support carers in the work they do. No money would pay for it really. They want to do that work and they are willing, ready and able to do it, but their contribution must be recognised. I congratulate and thank Councillor Richie Molloy, a colleague of mine and manager of a carers group in south Tipperary. He and the staff in his office do tremendous work. Catherine Cox, the regional officer for Family Carers Ireland, also does great work. They ask all the time that a carers charter be introduced and put on a firm foundation in law. That has not been done. We have nice talk and pious platitudes but we do not look after carers as we should. The hospitals would be completely overrun if we did not have carers. There is a danger as well of people becoming ill themselves. They work hard 24-7 and goodness knows they need a break.

There is also a huge problem at the moment in trying to get people to provide home help hours. Even if people get approval for home help hours from the HSE, the personnel are not available. Many of them have been forced into private employment. I salute all the home helps, public and private, who go into people's homes. They bring joy and hope as well as bringing messages. They go above and beyond the caring work they provide. It is unfair at times the limited amount of time they have in people's homes. They would barely be in the door before they have to go again. The home help service is a marvellous connection with the outside world for people who are confined to the house for many different reasons.

Carers need to be supported but they are not. During the Minister's term in office, I hope she will meet and engage with them when she can. I hope she will try to embrace what they do because they do it so well and so willingly. She must try to eradicate the need for child carers, that is, the young people forced to care for sick parents or other relatives. They must be supported. They should be in school, out kicking ball, going to dances or whatever they like best. They should be able to enjoy their life and live it to the full, not be under the burden of being a family carer. It is important that I raise the situation of carers during this debate.

Regarding the PRSI arrangements for self-employed people, I am delighted that there is a slight change in this vital provision. It was badly needed because it was very unfair that they could not get any illness benefit. Efforts have been made there because they are the people we will depend on to recover our economy, set up businesses, pay their taxes and generate employment for others.

Finally, I want to raise the whole situation regarding the PUP and the blackguarding, as I call it, of pensioners. There are many people aged over 66, some of them publicans, who did not get a shilling from the PUP scheme. All they wanted, and all I and many other Deputies and support groups have called for, is to give them the balance or difference between the pension and the Covid payment. I know many pensioners who are pub owners. Their pubs have to be heated and the utility bills and all the different bills that come in the door all the time must be paid. They are entitled to support. Many of them are self-employed bus or truck drivers or musicians. They could not get any supports because they are getting the old age pension. Publicans are in a desperate state. Some of them have told me that only for the small savings they have in the bank - this was months ago - they would have gone under. The restrictions have continued and they are still closed and the customers are still locked out.

Their situation must be examined with a view to giving them some payment. We need to support them and be fair to them. When the €350 payment was introduced, I advised against giving it to people who were only working seven, eight or ten hours a week. I wanted payment to be assessed on the previous month's PRSI returns and people paid for the relevant number of hours. All of the money used for that will have to be paid back. That is in contrast with the over-66s, who did not get anything. They feel very aggrieved and that they have been neglected and abandoned, which should not be the case. They are entitled to a fair crack of the whip and to be respected. As I said, even when the doors are closed, it costs money to keep a pub, with insurance costs and all the other bills. Those costs did not come down. The owners will not have any VAT returns now but they had year-end returns to pay and the heating and lighting. Their utility bills are massive. It is unbelievable. If one has Sky, broadband and all the other things, they all have to be maintained. It is very hard to do that on an old age pension and without any customers, especially when those customers were denied the right to go to the pub. Publicans did not put out their customers. The Government decided to close the doors of the pubs.

I very much welcome this Bill, particularly as we progress towards the end of what has, by all accounts, been an extraordinarily challenging year for people. When budget 2021 was published in October, I specifically addressed the social protection measures therein. They represent very progressive levels of support that have been made available for people who have not only had a very difficult 2020 but may continue to face hardship well into 2021. They will support people living alone, low-income families, one-parent families and carers in receipt of grant support. There is a clear and targeted effort in the Bill to address the everyday inequality affecting people throughout Ireland.

For example, a single parent with two children on an income of €23,500 can expect to take home an extra €4 per week or a total of €314 per annum. A retired single person in receipt of a State pension, considering the total changes in this Bill, will see an increase of €358 per year. A single person earning the minimum wage can expect to take home €116 more in 2021. These sums of money may seem small. As a former primary school teacher, I have seen at first hand the children and families who live on the very brink of poverty. For these families, that little extra at the end of the week can mean an awful lot.

I am acutely aware that there are some criticisms of the social protection measures in budget 2021, including the view that they do not go far enough to address some of the fundamental challenges our country faces. I accept and understand these viewpoints. As much as this budget achieves - we must acknowledge that it is the largest in the history of the State - we would all like to do more. Financial support is just one part of the picture. We need to acknowledge that every effort is needed to address the deeper and more systemic problems across Ireland, including child poverty, for example, homelessness and the steps we are taking in ensuring a living wage for all. This effort should be realised through forward-looking and coherent policies that are collectively designed and owned both by ourselves, as public representatives, but also by the public. In this regard, I very much welcome the setting up of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. I also welcome the implied recognition that taxation and welfare are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have a useful debate about improving our services unless we also consider how we are going to fund them.

Future budgets should be about identifying how financial support can better contribute to people's overall quality of life. Last month, the Green Party launched its position paper on well-being indicators. I understand that there is much work happening at Government level on that matter as well. In doing so, we are formulating a new way of evaluating how our society is performing from a much broader perspective, incorporating key priorities that contribute to a better quality of life. The well-being indicators also seek to align both the design and implementation of budgetary spending with key social and environmental indicators. I very much hope that, within the lifetime of the Government, we will see not just regular budgets but also well-being budgets introduced as we have seen elsewhere in the world. This pandemic has taught us many things. One key learning we will have to take away from it is that quality of life and the well-being of our country goes well beyond just measures that we see within GDP.

One thing that constantly disappoints me in the Dáil is how little time we give to deep debate about the Bills, for example, Finance Bills and Social Welfare Bills, which affect people day to day. Unfortunately, this Bill has come in late. It did not go to committee for debate. It is not that the Bill is controversial but we need to have a debate on social welfare. We can appoint all the commissions and experts we want. I would love, however, if we set up a commission of all the people in receipt of social welfare who, in many cases, probably know the system a lot better than anybody else. They would know its ups and downs, crinkles and pitfalls, anomalies and contradictions.

The Minister knows I have strong views on what many people who do not have to actually deal with the system would consider rational policies. I welcome the fulfilment of the commitment to maintain the pension age at 66. We have two choices going forward and I will say this before the commission even reports. We put up the age or we increase the funding that we all make towards our pensions. We do not, by any means, have the highest social security contributions in Europe. The great thing about social security contributions is that they are actually a leveller. One pays according to one's means and one receives according to one's entitlements. These contributions are an income distributor.

What has been left out of this debate is that if one is in a certain type of job, such as our job, one can keep going, almost indefinitely, as long as one's health is good. One is working mainly indoors and doing office work. We see people in these types of job making the choice to continue after 66 and are quite capable of doing it. On the other hand, in the case of those who do physical and manual work, such as block layers and plasterers, by the time they get to 60, they are technically fit for work by the Department's standards but they are not fit for the work that they are trained and capable of doing. When people get to 60, they should be entitled to keep jobseeker's benefit indefinitely. If a person has a chance to get a job, nobody is going to swap €203 for a sum of between €500 and €800. These are people who find it difficult to get jobs. I would not call it jobseeker's benefit, I would call it pre-retirement allowance, as used to be the case. People could claim such an allowance and would not have to be actively seeking work or signing on.

We need significant reform. Unfortunately, in the three and a half minutes I was allocated, I have not been about to contribute much to reform here tonight.

I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for that contribution. I call Deputy Ó Murchú, who will have even less time, namely, three minutes.

Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo. As many Members have stated, we find ourselves in a different situation this year. A large number of people who would never have thought they would be obliged to do so have had to avail of social protection. Many people look on the supports required from the State in a different way. We have seen what we need, along with the weaknesses in the health service. Whereas before some people may have believed in the broken health service we have, the idea of a proper national health service has been sold to many of them.

It is only right to thank the officials in the Department of Social Protection with whom many Members work. We often go to them with incredibly complicated and tragic situations. I have encountered people in the Department who have done the devil and all to ensure that people got their entitlements or what was required. I would like to put that on the record of the House.

I thank the Minister for accepting Deputy Kerrane's amendment on musicians taking in €960 earnings over eight weeks rather than €480 over four. It is a sensible amendment and will make things easier. We have all come across a large number of people who have fallen between various stools when it comes to social protections. There are still people in need of social protection from other Departments. For example, travel agents got supports under level 5 but they do not necessarily get them under level 3. A huge amount of work still needs to be done.

If the amendment on the carer's support grant is not acceptable, will the Minister look at paying some of that upfront to people who find themselves in difficult situations? Will she look at an increased fuel allowance rate to assist those who find themselves in the difficult situation of fuel poverty?

We have to deal with the anomaly of JobPath, which is not fit for purpose. This is what happens sometimes when the Government outsources operations that it is actually better at performing itself.

Everybody has commented on pensions and the fact that certain jobs simply do not suit people working to 67. We really need to look at a solution across the board. I welcome the fact the pension age will remain at 66 but we need to improve upon this again.

I acknowledge the fact this is probably the biggest social protection expenditure in the history of the State. However, it is the biggest pandemic we have faced in the history of our State. It was the responsibility of the Government to respond to the pandemic. It was not because people lost their jobs or left their jobs, it was because public health guidance forced people to stay at home and not mingle. This was the important thing. It is good there has been cross-party support and recognition that €203 was not a livable income and the €350 payment was introduced initially. This was a recognition that people cannot live on €203. A line has been drawn in the sand for the future with regard to payments for jobseekers and others.

I welcome the reversal of the increase in the pension age to 67 and then to 68 in 2028. When this was first introduced by a Labour Party Minister in the Government of 2011, many people did not realise the impact it would have. The first layer of people who were affected when the pension age was increased to 66 was a small cohort. It was not recognised in society what was going on. It was not out there with regard to how it would impact people. I applaud the Stop67 campaign for insisting it was part of the debate during the election. I also have to applaud the thousands of people who put pressure on the incoming Government to reverse the decision. It was the people who really made the difference. While welcoming it, it is very late to bring in the changes because many people who are retiring next year have been very anxious as they waited to see whether they would face the cut-off point at 67. I welcome it but I feel it could have been introduced earlier to allay the concerns of many people.

We are speaking of a difference of approximately €2,300 a year between the pension and the jobseeker's payment. It is no small amount. Over two years, it would have been approximately €4,500. It is better in the pockets of people who can spend in the economy and that those workers can have an expectation of retiring at a certain age. It always amazes me that when we challenge the massive plush pensions that politicians get, and they can receive three or four pensions if they have been Ministers as well as Deputies, we are told the expectation of these people is that they will keep their pension but for workers who, when they joined the workforce at 17 or 18, expected to get the pension at 65 all of a sudden it went out the door.

It is good that the commission has been set up but, as has been said, such commissions are set up to play a role in covering the Government with regard to the decisions it wants to make. I tabled a parliamentary question on the fact Stop67 was not invited onto the commission and I received a response. We should go by the mantra "nothing about us without us", and the pensioners should be on the commission, as has been said by my colleague in Fianna Fáil. The commission should include people who will be affected by the outcome of the decisions made.

With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment and the Christmas bonus for retail workers, there is a letter to the committee and I have tabled a question on this. The Minister replied that the move to ease restrictions from 1 December, including a phased move to level 3, was agreed and announced by the Government on 27 November and that as the pandemic unemployment payment week runs from Friday to Thursday, any person in receipt of it for one day of the period from 27 November to 3 December would receive the Christmas bonus payment, provided they also met the 17-week requirement. This is welcome. A number of workers probably returned on 26 November. Will they receive the Christmas bonus? The Minister made the point there were 352,000 people in receipt of the payment last week and compared it to this week's numbers for the Christmas bonus. How will it impact on those few on the borderline who were asked return to do work on the Thursday? Perhaps the Minister will reply on this.

With regard to the music industry, taxi drivers and the self-employed, I noticed the efficiency of payments being made when people applied for them, particularly when the changes were made to the pandemic unemployment payment in July and September. At least 30 people who contacted me said they had sent in the form and were entitled to the €350 or the €250, whichever it was, but they were still being put on the €203 payment. When I put the exact same information to the pandemic unemployment payment re-rate team, those people were automatically re-rated to the €250 or €350 payment. This happened in almost 99.9% of the cases in which I sent in queries. This is quite a high rate. I know many Deputies have said they applaud the workers in the Department of Social Protection, and so do I. This is a snapshot of people who contacted me and I am sure many Deputies had the same number of queries from people on the payment. It is a strange situation. Were the people in the pandemic unemployment payment section told to put it to €203 and if the people come back and make a representation through a Deputy, they would be re-rated to the proper rate? It is very unusual that 99% of the representations we make are re-rated.

I welcome the fact the Minister has accepted the amendment. Deputy Kerrane and I tabled the amendment whereby income would be €960 over an eight-week period. The Minister had listened to the music industry and had made the decision that it was possible. In saying this, it is welcome that the Minister has accepted it.

Another issue for the music industry and taxi industry concerns access to education while on the pandemic unemployment payment. I would like the Minister to refer to this in her closing speech. Are people able to go back to education from those industries and from self-employment and maintain the pandemic unemployment payment? This will be important. With regard to the taxation of the pandemic unemployment payment, a tax-free amount of up to €203 would be a welcome benefit to the industry and to other self-employed people. Will the Minister refer to this?

The joint committee on social protection has made recommendations. We raised the issue that the Government did not place enough emphasis on letting people know about the rent supplement. Two or three people contacted me about the rent supplement and they had to jump through hurdles to try to get it, even though they had been on it for at least two or three years. People were refused it. I dealt with one case involving rent supplement payments in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

This was despite the fact all of the information was there. It is a very complicated application. I ask the Minister to review how that rent supplement application is assessed. It also makes the point that mortgage interest supplement should be reintroduced on the basis that, in September, when the changes to PUP were being made, the banks had cut back on mortgage assistance. I believe mortgage interest supplement should be looked at.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I pay tribute to the staff, as I always do when I speak on this topic, because the Department of Social Protection has excelled in providing services, and I want to say that publicly.

There were points in the Minister's speech that lie outside the legislation, such as the Christmas bonus, the earnings disregard for disability allowance and the increase in the fuel allowance, and I will come back to some of those shortly. I welcome some of the positive things that have happened and the overall budget, which is €25.1 billion, including approximately €4 billion in regard to pandemic payments.

I want to make some general points and then specific points. Without the Department of Social Protection and without this budget, we would have a far more unequal society. Those Deputies who came into the House today and talked about Sesame Street economics fail to see that the public purse is going some way to reduce the equality gap because the wages paid to workers are simply not sustainable. Into that gap comes the public purse.

The worst thing that ever happened in my short time in the Dáil, and it will be my fifth year here in February, was the campaign led by the current Tánaiste, then Minister for Social Protection, in regard to fraud. It gave a completely wrong image of the Department of Social Protection. In fact, the percentage of fraud, as I understand it from my time on the Committee of Public Accounts, is minimal and the level of error is higher. However, a completely wrong message went out as opposed to a message going out asking people to look at what the State is doing in terms of payments so we can have a more equal society. If the Minister was to do anything, I would ask her to run with a different image and to run with an image that is absolutely positive. We cannot do without these payments.

With regard to the comments about Sesame Street economics and Deputies on the left not knowing what they are talking about, one has to understand that this budget is unprecedented because, as Deputy Joan Collins said, the pandemic is unprecedented. The pandemic came into a country that was ill-prepared on every level, with a housing crisis and with more than €1 billion going into the pockets of the landlords through public money, making the market unsustainable. The pandemic came into a country where the health system simply could not cope and where decisions were made that led to people suffering - certainly people aged over 65 and 70, people in nursing homes, workers in meat factories and so on. This happened because decisions were made on the basis of the inadequacy of our public services.

On top of that, approximately 680,000 people were living below the poverty line, although that figure might be slightly down. Of those, 200,000 are under 18, and that is happening in this Republic. Then, we have at a minimum 100,000 working poor, and the workers who are working part-time who simply cannot get full-time work and are struggling. That is only a little pen picture of the background that I am talking about when I talk about this social welfare budget.

With regard to specific issues, I welcome the U-turn on the pension age, which is very welcome. It is now confirmed this is not going to happen in regard to the increase from 67 to 68 and 66 to 67, and I hope the Minister sees sense and it goes back to 65. I hope we will stop talking about people over 65 as a burden to the economy because they are certainly not a burden to the economy.

They are contributors to the economy. Their skills can be used in so many ways and we greatly need them in so many areas in our country, from teaching to helping out in different spheres. They are not a burden. They are active contributors.

On the one hand, we look on them as a burden and during Covid we told them to stay behind closed doors, yet we utterly ignored those over 66 who were working in a very rude way. The ESRI quarterly economic commentary in the summer estimated 65,000 people above the age of 66 - that is all - reported being in some form of paid work in the final quarter of 2019. Such workers are not entitled to make a claim for PUP or jobseekers’ payments and, in most cases, they have lost employment. For the life of me, I cannot understand how that very restricted number of people have been excluded. At the same time, we are talking about increasing the pension age. It simply does not make sense.

In regard to the cost of disability, while I do not welcome it, I acknowledge there is a report from Indecon that is looking at this issue. The Minister might confirm the cost of that report on the cost of disability payments, something we have all asked for. If we are seriously interested in bringing equality, that is the most basic payment we could have. The Minister might address the cost of the report and when it will be published, and come back to me in regard to her own views.

In regard to carer’s allowance and the once-off payment that is not means tested and not taxed, I very much welcome that. However, the Minister perhaps captured the contradictions in the Government's approach to equality. She stated: “Section 11 provides for an increase of €150 in the carer's support grant, raising the payment to €1,850, the highest level at which it has ever been set.” To celebrate that, one has to put it in context and she is not putting any of it in context in regard to what carers do. They are to be grateful for the €150 extra, which is welcome, but without any context whatsoever. The context is that carers are saving the State a fortune, day in, day out, and I think the Minister believes and accepts that.

Family Carers Ireland figures show that 79% of those on carer’s allowance struggle to make ends meet. More than half of carers, some 52%, who participated in the State of Caring survey live in households with a total income of less than €30,000 per year. Almost one in three, or 29%, live in households with a total income of less than €20,000 a year. They had to put up with reduced home help hours during the pandemic. Prior to that, they had to put up with hours that were given to them through the new computer approach - I forget what it is called - where there is a one-hour to two-hour assessment on a computer, and the computer tells the family how many hours are needed. It has absolutely nothing to do with the level of dependence of the person.

I want to give one example from my area of Galway without identifying the person. This person is minding somebody who has all the symptoms of senile dementia at a young age - their 50s - and there has been no respite care whatsoever since the pandemic started. Of course, prior to the pandemic, respite care was at a premium in any event but, during the pandemic, there has been none. When you are talking about carers and clapping yourselves on the back - I do not mean the Minister personally but it is what she said in her speech - it does not strike a musical chord with me because I just see that person and that family as one example of the thousands who are struggling on a daily basis, up all night, up early in the morning, trying to care for their loved one, with absolutely no respite and limited hours.

There are several other issues I want to highlight in the short time left to me. The core rates of social welfare were left unchanged. There is no movement at all to introduce a universal state pension. As I said, there was no change to the cost of disability payment.

Domiciliary care allowance was not increased and no steps were taken to equalise jobseeker rates for those between the ages of 18 and 24 and living at home. There is no mention of those in direct provision and a possible increase in their allowance, as recommended by Dr. Catherine Day.

We were to learn from Covid-19 and have a transformative change in our lives because we know we cannot go back, either in terms of climate change or inequality. If we do not deal with inequality, we will never be able to face the next wave of whatever pandemic comes our way after this one.

Does the Minister wish to respond or does she wish us to proceed to take Committee Stage?

I am happy to respond. How much time do I have?

How long does the Minister need?

I will try to answer as many questions, and there were many, as best I can and if I have not answered on some issues I may be able to address them on Committee Stage.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions on the Bill. In response to Deputy Mattie McGrath, between last week and this week we will pay out €500 million in payments. Like the Deputy, I have been encouraging people to shop local because it is important that this money is spent in the local economy. It should help businesses the length and breadth of the country that when people go out to spend that money, they go to their local shops to do it.

A number of Deputies mentioned the fact that the Bill was delayed. A good deal of time was spent on the Brexit Bill and a few other issues but I had to wait until I got the space to come into the House.

At the outset, the Bill will give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day and significantly, it provides for maintaining the State pension age at 66 years pending the report of the Pensions Commission. This fulfils a key commitment in the programme for Government.

Many Deputies raised the issue of pensions. In addition to repealing the increase in the pension age, I have also committed to change the requirement for those who retire from work at the age of 65 to sign on for a jobseeker's payment in order to receive a State income support. I will therefore shortly introduce regulations, and Deputies Sherlock and Kerrane raised this point, which will formally remove the current requirements for people of this age to sign on, participate in activation programmes or give an undertaking that they are genuinely seeking work. This will formalise an administrative practice which has been in place for some time. I hope to have that in place by the end of January. It will be a special payment for those aged 65. There will be no requirement to seek work. They will simply complete the application form. It does not involve signing on. It is nonsense to talk about having to stand in dole queues. That will not be happening. This payment will be paid for 12 months.

The pension age was mentioned also. Expenditure on State pensions amounts to approximately 40% of total expenditure by my Department. We spend approximately €8 billion a year on pensions. To put that into context, in 2020, approximately 28% of the Department's budget was spent on pensions so it has increased significantly over the past decade. The pension payment in Ireland compares very favourably with payment rates in other jurisdictions. The full contributory State pension here is €248 but like many other countries, Ireland is not immune to the challenges of an ageing population. The pensions issue does affect both young and old. I have stated clearly that the State pension is the bedrock of the pension system in Ireland but it is in everybody's interest, both young and old, that we make sure it is sustainable for the long term.

The Pensions Commission has been set up. It will come forward with recommendations that will take account of everybody's interests. Its members have a full workload ahead of them. They have already met twice, and possibly three times. They are doing a great deal of work and I thank them for the work they are doing. To be clear, I know the issue of pensions affects many women. Six out of the 11 members of the Pensions Commission are women and the chairperson is a woman. A few Deputies mentioned the Stop67 campaign and a number of others wanted to get on the Pensions Commission but their voices will be heard. They will be given the opportunity to put forward their ideas and suggestions and to consult with the Pensions Commission, whose members will talk to them about their views on it.

I am conscious of the need to maintain the sustainability of the State finances. However, that is not the only factor to be taken into account when considering the State pension age. As I said earlier, it is the bedrock of the system and it is extremely effective at reducing the risk of poverty for our pensioners. The Government is committed to ensuring that that remains the case. I believe I have covered all the questions on the pensions.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of the fishermen and their contribution to coastal communities and to the islands. We have the fish assist scheme, which is similar to farm assist.

Deputy Sherlock raised the issue of fraud. My Department, supported by An Garda Síochána, has reviewed 70,000 claims, with savings of approximately €94 million. The Deputy also mentioned PPS numbers. Two hundred extra staff are now working in that section issuing PPS numbers. I am aware there were some delays but staff had been redeployed to other areas. They are back working on that now and they are getting any backlog cleared as quickly as possible.

On the question of seasonal workers, I want to clarify an issue regarding the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. If one goes back to work and for some unfortunate reason due to Covid one is laid off again, I wanted to make sure that one would be able to go back on the PUP, so we have extended it until the end of March. In case anybody is concerned that if they return to work and unfortunately are laid off, they can sign back on the PUP. It will remain open until the end of March.

The issue of paid parental leave was raised with me. All of us want to make life easier for young parents. I hope that the sharing of the maternity leave and the provision of paid parental leave for both parents will, in time, remove the unconscious bias against women, particularly those who may be pregnant when they look for another job. We know there is an unconscious bias. I honestly believe that equalising the parenting responsibility and the supports we provide to both parents will eventually remove that bias.

The issue of JobPath was raised. We are facing record unemployment levels as a result of the pandemic and it is not a time to be cutting employment support services of any kind. JobPath is just one part of this jigsaw. We are also expanding the capacity of other contracted employment services such as the local employment services, job clubs and the EmployAbility service and these contracts also are being extended into next year. I will be increasing the local employment services capacity by 50% from 20,000 to 30,000. I want to expand the community based contracted services into four new geographical areas. There will be an additional 100 job coaches next year. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is increasing investment in apprenticeship schemes.

There will be 35,000 new education and training places for the unemployed. I have made changes to the back to education and back to work allowance. I will increase the number of places on the community employment and Tús schemes by a further 3,000. These places will come on stream in 2021.

Regarding JobPath, some people refer to the organisations involved as private companies. One is an employee trust. Its employees, including Irish employees, are the owners of the company, so it is 100% owned by the employees. The other company that offers JobPath is owned by a farmers' co-operative. It is not a commercial enterprise but a co-operative. I know Deputy Kerrane raised this issue. The survey of jobseekers showed high levels of satisfaction with the JobPath service. These levels of satisfaction are similar to the level of satisfaction with the service delivered by my own Department, and are in the region of 80% or more.

Deputy O'Dea raised the issue of fuel allowance, as did Deputy Gannon and others. The cost to any household of any increase in carbon tax will vary depending on a number of factors, notably the energy efficiency of homes of fuel allowance recipients and the amount and type of fuel that they use. Last year, the ESRI indicated that the additional cost of the carbon tax would be less than the weekly net value of the fuel allowance increase for at least the three lowest income deciles, the very people at whom the fuel allowance is targeted. This finding is contained in its report, The Economic and Environmental Impacts of Increasing the Irish Carbon Tax. It is important, when talking about increases to the carbon tax and the impact on low income households, to say that the increases for those with child dependants and those living alone will significantly benefit those same people. There are many questions and I am happy to go through them.

Question put and agreed to.