We are joined by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and by the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Joe O'Brien. The Minister and Minister of State are very welcome.
Covid-19 (Social Protection): Statements
I welcome the opportunity to address the House today. We are all aware of the sudden and sustained impact that Covid-19 has had on our everyday lives. The priority for the Government throughout this crisis has been twofold: first to protect public health and limit the spread of the virus and second to put in place income supports that mitigate the financial impact on households.
Following the onset of the crisis, my Department mobilised quickly not only to introduce new payments but to build new IT systems and to reorganise and redeploy staff to ensure that it could deliver these payments and support our citizens. Supports such as the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the enhanced Covid-19 illness benefit payment have been absolutely vital over the past ten months.
Since last March my Department has made more than 14 million payments under the pandemic unemployment payment scheme to more than 820,000 people at a total cost to date of more than €5.5 billion. The size of those figures reflect the scale of the challenge. I am acutely aware of the difficulties being faced by individuals and families across the State. My Department has taken hundreds of thousands of calls on our income support helpline, hearing from people directly about the issues they face.
In the time available to me, I will outline a range of supports available from my Department to help those affected by the pandemic, beginning with the PUP. The pandemic unemployment payment was introduced on 15 March 2020 and remains an important income support for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families. The PUP is a simple, quick payment that ensures flexible and timely support to those who lose their employment because of the pandemic. This week, my Department issued payments to more than 475,000 people on the PUP at a cost of almost €143 million.
Since 24 December, the number of people in receipt of PUP has increased by almost 200,000. This outlines in stark terms the impact that level 5 restrictions have had on the labour market. It is important today to acknowledge the staff of the Department who worked tirelessly over the Christmas and new year period to process payments and ensure that the people who needed our help got it in a quick and timely manner. As I said earlier, the total spend on PUP to date has been more than €5.5 billion, which will rise significantly further in the weeks and months ahead.
It is worth bearing in mind that what was originally intended to be a six-week payment when it was introduced last March will now be in place for over a year and beyond.
The scale of the Government's intervention through the PUP is unprecedented in scale but it was the right thing to do for our citizens. Research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, examined the impact on family incomes of Covid-19-related job losses and found that 400,000 families would have seen their disposable income fall by more than 20% in the absence of policy measures such as the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme. The ESRI also found that the PUP and temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, measures were particularly effective in cushioning families at the lower end of the income distribution from losses. In fact, the ESRI noted that some low-income families were financially better off than while in work. In its analysis of the budget changes, the ESRI also concluded that income inequality and poverty rates would have increased significantly in the absence of Covid-related policy supports such as the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme.
Throughout the pandemic, we have supported people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or who were required to self-isolate through the enhanced Covid-19 illness benefit of €350. Since last March, almost 121,000 people have been medically certified for receipt of the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit and there are currently over 9,700 people in payment. The enhanced illness benefit encourages people to not go to work when they should be isolating. This is essential to limit and slow down the spread of the virus, to keep the number of people affected to a minimum and to reduce a peak of cases which would cause further pressures on the health system. The support is payable for two weeks where a person is isolating as a probable source of infection of Covid-19 and up to ten weeks where a person has been diagnosed with Covid-19.
In addition to these core income supports, a range of other targeted measures have been put in place as part of budget 2021 to address issues that have arisen during the pandemic. Increases to the qualified child payments are benefiting 419,000 children who are most in need. The value of the living alone allowance increased by €5. This means that the value of the allowance has more than doubled over a two-year period. My Department has put in place flexibility to support lone parents where maintenance payments have been disrupted during the pandemic. In response to concerns about increased domestic violence, my Department has introduced flexibility to the rent supplement scheme in order that victims of domestic violence can get the payment for three months without a means test. The school meals programme has remained in operation throughout the pandemic, including during the summer and Christmas breaks. Funding continues to be provided by my Department to run the programme during school closures.
The fuel season was extended in 2020 by four weeks, at an additional cost of almost €37 million. Since 4 January, the weekly fuel allowance payment has also been increased by €3.50 per week to €28 for a period of 28 weeks. We have put arrangements in place so that births and deaths can now be registered online without the need for people to attend offices in person. As announced in budget 2021, parent's leave and benefit will be extended from two weeks for each parent to five weeks. This addresses concerns raised about the impact of the pandemic on parents of new babies. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is working on the necessary legislation in order that parents can avail of this additional leave as soon as possible.
Covid-19 has had a significant impact on social protection expenditure. The 2020 Revised Estimates published in December 2019, prior to the onset of Covid-19, projected expenditure for the Department to be in the region of €21.2 billion. By November 2020, when I appeared before the select committee with further Revised Estimates, expenditure up to the end of 2020 was expected to be €31.57 billion, nearly €10.4 billion higher than pre-Covid estimates. The vast majority of this additional spending is directly related to the measures the Government has taken to support workers and their employers. Deputies will also recall that the Christmas bonus was paid to PUP recipients and those receiving similar payments, provided they had been on the payment for at least four months. This is in addition to payment of the bonus to recipients of long-term social welfare payments. The Christmas bonus in 2020 cost a total of €389 million, its highest level ever.
While there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with the roll-out of vaccines, the impact of Covid-19 on people's incomes and economic activity continues to be uncertain. Earlier this month, I secured Government approval for the PUP to remain in place at the current rates of payment until 31 March this year. Obviously, given the extension of current restrictions until 5 March, we will now need to examine the future of the PUP beyond the end of March. That is a discussion I will be having with my Government colleagues over the next few weeks, taking account of where we are in terms of the trajectory of the virus and the roll-out of the vaccine programme. I assure the House that the Department of Social Protection will continue to support people for so long as restrictions apply as we have done at all times over the past year. Equally important, my Department is committed to assisting and supporting people to return to employment as we move beyond Covid-19.
As a former Minister with responsibility for business and enterprise, I am keenly aware of the impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of the self-employed. Throughout the course of the past ten months, I have engaged regularly with businesses and groups representing the self-employed. I was pleased, with the support of my Oireachtas colleagues, to make changes in order that self-employed people can now earn up to €960 over an eight-week period, while retaining their full PUP entitlement. This is something that has been particularly welcomed by workers in our arts and entertainment sector and, indeed, our taxi drivers. I was also pleased to secure the extension into 2021 of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant. This was introduced in August 2020 to assist microbusinesses and provides up to €1,000 to cover restart costs where a person transitions from the PUP back into self-employment. This once-off grant is available to small businesses and is payable to those employing fewer than ten people with an annual turnover of less than €1 million. To date, almost 8,600 businesses have been supported under this grant at a cost of just under €8 million.
The July jobs stimulus package, designed in response to the Covid-19 crisis, comprises an investment of €200 million in skills development, work placement, training and education, recruitment subsidies and job search and assistance measures. My Department will be ramping up its employment supports across the board. Measures will include the expansion of the local employment service, LES, into new areas that currently do not have a LES service. We have also secured funding for an additional 3,000 places on community employment, CE, and Tús schemes. An additional 100 job coaches will be assigned to Intreo offices across the country to help people get back to work. We have waived the waiting period for persons on the PUP who want to avail of the back to education allowance and back to work allowance schemes. Of course, we will also be working closely with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in signposting people towards the 35,000 extra higher education places, apprenticeship schemes and other supports that are available. These and other supports will be a key focus of the new pathways to work strategy, which is currently being developed.
Before I conclude, I pay tribute to the dedication and hard work of the staff in my Department. Throughout a very difficult year they have shown great flexibility and commitment to meet the extraordinary demands placed upon them. They have processed the equivalent of eight years' worth of claims through the PUP scheme alone, and they have managed to do all that while still keeping on top of the day-to-day work of processing pensions, disability, carer's and other payments. The Department staff provide a great service in every county and I know Members will join me today in acknowledging their efforts and Trojan work over the past year.
I will now hand over to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and I look forward to hearing Deputies' contributions.
There has been some public discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on the most marginalised and socially excluded in society.
This has relevance to my remit in overseeing the Government's roadmap for social inclusion. However, this is a global pandemic so one has to acknowledge the global inequalities that the pandemic has brought to light.
In some respects the virus does not discriminate. The rate of virus fatalities is actually highest in some of the richest countries in the world, such as Italy, the USA, Belgium and our near neighbours, the UK. It is when we look at global vaccine access that the issue of inequality comes more to the fore. Let there be no mistake about it; Ireland is certainly on the list of "haves" rather than "have nots" when it comes to global vaccine access. The odds are that when the vaccine has been rolled out in Ireland, there will still be people in developing countries who will not have access to it. I commend and support Ireland’s involvement in and support of the COVAX initiative to offset this likely pattern, as well as our other contributions to global efforts.
As regards Ireland’s vaccine strategy, it is important to acknowledge that it is based on the principle of equity and is clinically driven. This is not the case in every country. In Ireland, access to the vaccine does not depend on one's income, background or where one is from. When looking at the impact of Covid on the most socially excluded in Ireland, there are three realms or areas to look at, namely, vaccine access, infection rates and fatalities and the secondary impact of the public health measures. For vaccine access, the principle of equity is central, along with being clinically driven.
Infection rates are more complex and need further examination. Health workers, among whom there is a high number of ethnic minorities, suffer by far the highest infection rates of any profession. I thank them profoundly for their service and their ongoing daily struggle. In terms of fatalities our oldest citizens are hardest hit, almost regardless of background, but so are those with underlying health conditions. It is in this group that the issue of inequality emerges. While some health conditions are due to the genetic luck of the draw, many stem from health inequality. As regards the national roadmap for social inclusion and Department of Health commitments within it, there are some key commitments relating to Sláintecare, GP access and a health inclusion policy that need to be implemented. On the topic of health inequality, I acknowledge the speech of Senator Eileen Flynn in the Seanad earlier this week when she spoke about the extreme health inequalities faced by Travellers.
The third area to look at when assessing the impact of Covid-19 on the most marginalised is the secondary impact of public health measures. It is in this realm that there is work to do and where more needs will emerge over time. These include access to education for poorer students, students with additional needs and migrant students with English language support needs, as well as people who need disability services and other groups. There have also been some positive outcomes in the area of inclusion from the secondary impacts of public health restrictions. Conditions in Irish prisons have improved and homelessness has gone down by 25%, although this progress is precarious. It is also important to reiterate how the Government has acted to help prevent poverty and social exclusion with the huge intervention of the pandemic unemployment payment.
I chair the interdepartmental social inclusion roadmap steering group, which monitors implementation of its commitments across Departments. While this roadmap was developed and adopted in advance of the imposition of public health restrictions arising from the pandemic, these commitments remain even more valid as we deal with the challenge of the impact of Covid on our society. Ahead of the second meeting of the steering group in March, I will be asking all Departments to consider this added dimension of pandemic impacts when reporting on progress in implementing the roadmap.
The annual Social Inclusion Forum is also scheduled for March and my Department is arranging to hold it remotely this year. The community and voluntary sectors were consulted when selecting the topics for discussion at this year’s forum. It is notable that there was an eagerness to keep focus on pre-Covid issues of exclusion, which are of course ongoing. The forum and the processes leading up to it, including regional workshops to prepare for it, give people who are directly affected by poverty and social exclusion and those who work for them a voice in the development of the policies that directly affect them, as well as in the ways policies are implemented.
Community employment is a key area of my brief, although I will have to cut my remarks on it short because time is pushing on. I acknowledge the work done by community employment schemes across the country. We are all aware of the value of these projects, both to individual participants and to the community. Some of these projects continued to provide essential services, where possible, in compliance with public health restrictions over the past months. However, in common with most other organisations and businesses, some have had to restrict or suspend activities. Nevertheless, the Department has continued to fund these schemes and will keep doing so by extending the assignment period for participants as necessary. Given the impact of the pandemic and the necessary public health restrictions, some community employment sponsors have also faced challenges in maintaining the normal level of participation on community employment projects during the pandemic. This has resulted in vacancies on a number of schemes which, although not an issue for most schemes given the relatively low level of activity generally, is posing challenges for some.
Accordingly, in order to support community employment and Tús projects to restore and maintain continuity of service provision to local communities, all community employment participants whose contracts would have come to an end since the imposition of level 5 restrictions last October have been given an extension, at least until the end of March 2021. There are 5,000 such contract extensions and if necessary, these extensions will continue past 31 March. There will be no sudden cliff edge or date on which all contracts will come to an end. Whenever we get to the stage of returning to normal, the phasing out of community employment contracts can be done on a staggered basis at a local level to ensure key services can continue. In doing this I am mindful that a key purpose of community employment and Tús schemes is to support long-term unemployed people by providing them with an opportunity to gain work experience and develop skills while delivering services to their local communities. Accordingly, in order to ensure a fair distribution of community employment and Tús opportunities, we will be prioritising a return to normal jobseeker referral processes once restrictions are lifted. We will also be introducing 3,000 additional places, as provided for under the July jobs stimulus and are actively engaging with sponsors towards this end. When providing community employment training places, we need to prioritise those who can be furthest from the labour market, such as members of the Traveller and Roma communities, those in receipt of a disability-related payment and people recovering from addiction. We need to focus in particular on those jobseekers who have been on the live register since before the original Covid emergency in March last year.
I acknowledge the staff of the Department across the country who are also front-line workers and who have been taking risks for the good of others and for our battle against Covid. I acknowledge and appreciate them.
I will allow time for the Minister and Minister of State to respond. I join with them in paying tribute to the Department of Social Protection staff, who have clearly been working under extreme pressure since Covid first hit and are due great credit for the work they have done. I always find them to be extremely helpful and I thank them for all their service in this last year.
My first questions relate to the PUP. I acknowledge what the Minister has said about a possible extension. As we all know, the PUP is due to end at the end of March and the plan was for people to be moved onto jobseekers' payments at that point. The Minister has said that this matter will be looked at in the next few weeks. I ask that that be done as a matter of urgency and that an announcement be made on it sooner rather than later, in order to make sure people have certainty regarding the next few months. I would like the Minister to extend the PUP. There are different requirements for jobseekers' payments and people get higher rates under the PUP. I ask the Minister to keep the PUP open to those who will need it in the months ahead.
Will the Minister advertise and publicise the fact that parents who cannot return to work due to childcare facilities or schools being closed can now access the PUP? That is a welcome move but I ask the Minister to publicise it because parents are simply not aware of it.
I note what the Minister said about reports that showed people on the PUP are better off. There is a range of people on the PUP and people who earned over €400 a week previously are on €350 a week. Many people on the PUP are actually on less now so I assume when the Minister said that, she was looking at those who are getting €203 a week, who had previously earned €200 or less. We have to remember that nobody in this State is better off on €203 a week. That is usually the maximum payment for social protection and it is set below the poverty line. Nobody in this state is better off on €203, particularly when one looks at the cost of living, which has increased year on year in the last few years.
As regards community employment, the issue is not the number of places. Today, there are over 1,700 vacancies on community employment schemes. The issue, which has been raised very well down in Kerry, is the three-year rule.
People providing essential community services such as meals-on-wheels have to leave the scheme when the three years expires and in some cases that service cannot be continued. I am again asking the Minister to review the three-year rule because it is hampering important and essential services in our community, particularly services for the elderly. Places are not the issue in an awful lot of cases.
I regret that nothing has been announced in regard to the fuel allowance and fuel costs. We know people are spending more time at home and that energy costs have increased in the last year. We know also that a report from the Minister's Department shows that carbon tax increases, including those introduced in the last budget, will impact disproportionately on low income households. There was a slight increase in the fuel allowance, which I welcome, but we need a specific measure for those affected by Covid. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is clear that we will face a major issue with utility debt. I am sure the Minister is aware of the ten asks of the National One Parent Family Alliance, NOPFA, one of which relates to a discretionary fund. I note a number of other countries have introduced such a fund. NOPFA is seeking an initial discretionary fund of €5 million to help those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and, perhaps, those in receipt of the working family payment and other social welfare payments, to meet their bills. It is a major issue at this time of year in particular. I ask the Minister to confirm if she has seen the asks from the National Lone Parent Family Alliance and if she will consider the establishment of a discretionary fund.
In regard to the fuel allowance, I again ask the Minister to look at suspending the 15-month rule, even on a temporary basis. A person who loses his or her job in October is not entitled to any assistance with fuel costs for that winter or the following winter. The allowance will not be payable until the following February 12 months, which is too long. This is leaving people who are losing their jobs with no assistance in regard to fuel costs. I again ask the Minister to consider suspending the 15-month rule, even on a temporary basis for the duration of Covid.
On parental leave and benefit, the Minister said that the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is preparing the relevant legislation and it will be introduced as soon as possible. I would like to know the reason for the delay in regard to this legislation given it will only change the reference from two weeks to five weeks. It is probably only a change in the figure from 2 to 5. Parents are desperately in need of this leave. They are currently taking unpaid leave that they cannot afford. This is leaving parents and families in precarious situations. I ask the Minister to raise with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, the need for this leave to be introduced as quickly as possible.
I want to raise another issue that is, perhaps, a minor issue in comparison with everything that has been said, including in the Minister's contribution. The issue is the continued use of the electronic pen in post offices, particularly for older people. A number of my older constituents have been in touch with me on this issue. The practice was suspended when we were in a far less grave situation in terms of Covid than we are today. Currently, elderly people are required by post offices to use the electronic pen to sign to collect their pension. They feel very uneasy about this. I appreciate sanitisers are available and that social distancing guidelines are in place but they are nervous. I do not understand why when this practice was suspended when the incidence of Covid was not half as bad as it is now, it is in place now.
I again urge the Minister to look at the rules in regard to the fuel allowance. Many people, children and lone parent families were in poverty long before Covid came along. The situation now is one hundred times worse for those families, particularly those families in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, including those in the entertainment sector who have not worked for almost one year at this stage. They need help with their bills. The largest of these bills is their utility bills but there is no assistance available to them in that regard.
Could I clarify how much time Deputy Carthy will need?
Okay. There will be a little over three minutes for a response from the Ministers.
I thank Deputy Kerrane for raising these issues. I will try to respond to as many as I can within the time available to me. In regard to the future of the PUP, the Deputy will be aware that earlier this month I secured Government approval for the retention of the current rates of payment until 31 March next. With the extension of the current restrictions until 5 March, it is clear to everybody that we now need to look beyond the end of March in this regard. I will consult with my Government colleagues over the coming weeks on where we are in terms of the trajectory of the virus, the roll-out of the vaccine and where we are at in terms of reopening the economy. I want to assure the Deputy that the Government will not be found wanting and has not been found wanting in terms of supporting people who have found themselves in this very difficult situation.
With regard to the community employment, CE, schemes, I will defer that question to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. On the fuel allowance, it is payable up to 9 April. We continue to keep the situation under review and will look at it again at the end of March in the context of the circumstances prevailing at that time. The Deputy will be aware that the fuel allowance was increased as recently as the beginning of January 2021. An increase of under €1 was recommended by the Vincentians. We did better than that and increased it by €3.50. The current rate is now €28 per week. As I said, I keep these matters under review. Any person or family that is having genuine difficulty heating their home can apply to a community welfare officer for the exceptional needs payment in respect of heating costs.
With regard to the 15-month rule mentioned by the Deputy, this has been the norm for some time now but I will discuss it with my officials. The Deputy's proposal would have a budgetary consequence. With regard to parental leave, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is preparing that legislation, which I expect is a little more complex than just changing a figure in the existing legislation. Government and the Minister want to get it through as quickly as possible. We are readying our IT systems such that payments can be made as soon as possible after enactment of the legislation. I will defer to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, to respond to the question on the CE scheme.
I note the Deputy's point in regard to the three-year rule. The Minister and I met 25 CE sponsors during the week and it is an issue that was raised. In essence, the three-year rule is currently suspended because we are extending contracts. Currently, and up until end of March at least, the rule should not be causing a problem. It is important to say that initially the CE schemes are for one year.
On the fuel allowance, the increase in the carbon tax has not come into effect and will not come into effect until May but the increase in the fuel allowance came into effect in January. We have asked the ESRI to ensure that the increase in the carbon tax would be offset by the social welfare increases.
I have a number of short questions. I would appreciate it if I could engage in a question and answer session with the Minister and Minister of State. The Minister will be aware that the decision to tax the pandemic unemployment payment came as a shock to people who were already feeling very vulnerable. On several occasions, I have heard people refer to it as a "kick in the teeth". The Minister will be aware that the PUP was introduced as an urgent needs payment. Under section 126 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 such payments were exempt from taxation for the 20 weeks up to 5 August when they were put on a statutory footing. The job of the Minister for Social Protection in many respects is to protect those people in receipt of these payments. When did the Department of Finance first bring to the attention of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, its intention to tax these payments and did she raise any objection to that proposal? In light of the statement by the Free Legal Aid Centre that the taxation of these payments for that period could be unconstitutional, did the Minister seek any legal advice in that regard?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. All legislation enjoys the assumption of constitutionality. The Minister for Finance determines taxation policy. The legislation has gone through both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance are of the view that it is constitutional. The Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners are clear on this issue.
The position is that the PUP is taxable. It is important to remember that payments from the Department of Social Protection are, in general, taxable sources of income. For example, jobseeker's benefit payments are taxable. The PUP follows this general taxation rule for social welfare payments.
The data show that in the case of people who are on PUP only, more of them are due a refund than are due to pay extra tax. In the case of lower-income households or those whose income solely comprises social welfare payments, a liability to tax typically does not arise because the value of social welfare payments received in a tax year is usually not liable for tax. Revenue will be adopting a fair and flexible approach to collecting tax due on payments made under the PUP scheme. Revenue has also given assurances that if any income tax and USC liability still arises following the allocation of the unused tax credits, it will work with PUP recipients to collect the outstanding liabilities.
With respect, I could have read that statement. I asked the Minister a specific question regarding when she was informed about this issue and whether she raised any objections.
The Deputy did not have the text of the statement and could not have read it.
I am taking it that she did not raise any objections. The truth of the matter is that these payments were not taxable until the Government changed the law in November of last year. Since then, in the early weeks of this year, people who were not expecting them have been receiving tax bills of up to €1,400. This is a retrospective measure. People who received the PUP as an urgent need payment in the early part of this pandemic had every right to expect that it would not be taxed. I find it ironic that in the week following the revelation that Irish billionaires have increased their wealth by €3.3 billion, the Government has not found a way retrospectively to tax high and mega-wealthy earners within our society. There has been no proposal to tax vulture funds, cuckoo funds or banks, which are, in essence, exempt from paying tax for the next 20 years. The Minister will have to agree that there are double standards at play. I take this opportunity to appeal to her to use her offices to ditch the taxation on the payments that were made under the PUP scheme up to 5 August last year.
I will use the short time available to have a quick back-and-forth exchange with the Minister. In respect of the taxation of the PUP, the paper on this issue by the Free Legal Advice Centres and the arguments made in it are very compelling. It is important for us to pursue the point in regard to taxation that is applied retrospectively. Prior to the enactment of the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2020 last August, claimants could only be expected to have relied on the official information published by the Department of Social Protection in order to ascertain whether the PUP would be subject to tax. However, neither the application form for the PUP nor the relevant web page on gov.ie offered any guidance in this regard.
There appear to be inconsistencies between the official statements released by the Department and the political statements released by the Minister for Finance regarding the original legal basis of the PUP and the implications it had for the potential taxation of the payment. In May 2020, the PUP was described as a social welfare payment that is taxable as income. That was in response to a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance. In August 2020, however, the PUP was categorised as a social assistance payment. Such payments are not normally subject to tax. The original Covid PUP scheme was described as having been paid pursuant to section 202 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act. I foresee that this will, potentially and ultimately, become a matter for the courts. The Minister states that the taxation of the payment is constitutional but the issue of fairness applies in the question of whether anybody who made the application for PUP could reasonably have expected, when he or she applied for it, that it would be taxed. I know the Minister will come back to me on that.
The second point I would like to make relates to persons who have contacted our offices in respect of loved ones who have passed away. There are, within the system, many sections of the Department and the Department of Heath that people have to go through to put in order the affairs of persons who have received payments, in terms of notifications and whatnot. I ask that the Minister sit down with her officials with a view to creating a one-stop shop for bereaved persons in order that when their loved ones pass away, there is as seamless a process as possible. If there is a one-stop shop, it would help a lot of grieving families, particularly at this point in time when many people are losing loved ones. I acknowledge the sympathetic and empathetic manner in which social welfare officials deal with people in that situation. In my experience, the engagement has been extremely positive and I want to acknowledge the officials' role.
My third point is in regard to community employment, CE, schemes. I welcome the statement by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, in respect of the extension of the timeframe. What consideration is being give to CE supervisors' pension request? Where stands that process at the moment? I understood from the Minister's predecessor that there was a legitimate expectation on the part of CE supervisors that there would be a protocol or something put in place that would acknowledge their roles and provide for pension entitlements or some sort of acknowledgment of the work they have done, many of them over decades. I ask the Minister or Minister of State to indicate whether or not there is a realistic expectation on the part of CE supervisors that they will receive a pension or some sort of payment for the exceptional work they have done in our communities. We would all support such a proposal if it were to bear fruit as soon as possible.
I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. To be clear, the PUP is classified in the same way as the jobseeker's payment but it has an extra benefit. It is important to say that. Full social insurance credits are being made to everybody who is on the PUP. We will all accept that this is a very valuable contribution. It is important that those credits continue because they are very important when people are looking for other benefits at a later stage, whether maternity benefits, pension or many of the other benefits that we pay out. The exceptional needs payment is not taxable and was never taxable because it is covering an expense that would occur.
I will move on. The Deputy asked about deceased persons. I spoke recently to the head of the General Register Office and we are looking at doing a consultation on registration of deaths in order to make the process easier for people. This is a very difficult issue for people at this minute in time and I fully understand and take on board what the Deputy said in that regard. I know that our staff are very considerate in times of trouble for people.
On the issue of the CE pensions, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has met with a delegation of supervisors and there is ongoing work between my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in trying to find a resolution to this issue.
I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. I have a number of questions for the Minister but I will begin by responding to the claims by both the Labour Party and Sinn Féin regarding the waiving of the tax liability for people on the PUP and those whose employers received the employment wage subsidy scheme. Both parties are showing blatant hypocrisy because they are not equally calling for the tax liability of workers who worked throughout the pandemic and earned the same amount of money in the same period of time to be amended. They are suggesting that people who worked in supermarkets for that entire period should somehow pay more tax than people who earned the same amount of money. They are saying that healthcare workers who worked throughout the pandemic should pay more tax than people who earned the same.
It is complete hypocrisy and populism from two parties that claim to be on the left and wish to raise taxes and have public services. They are not being consistent with their policies and with the people who have worked through this pandemic. If a person earns the same amount as another, the person should pay the same tax. I do not agree with the hypocrisy from the two previous speakers.
I welcome the call that the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister of State had this week with representatives of CE schemes. I got significant positive feedback from them and I believe they felt heard, especially those on the front line. I am taking my lean from the Finglas Meals on Wheels service in particular. Those involved believe that for the first time the Minister was hearing their concerns directly. This applies especially to the issue of referrals. We have 13 vacancies in the Finglas service. The service has provided meals every day throughout the pandemic when it could, yet it has not received a referral from the Department in more than three years. Clearly, there is a need for vacancies but they are not being sent.
I have made a broader point to the Minister several times. It is about the need to recognise these types of CE schemes as being more than simply a training opportunity. They are providing a front-line service supporting the health of people and supporting people at home. The Department does not solely fund the training scheme. Will the Minister outline the outcomes of that call and what actions she intends to take?
My next question relates to liaising between the Minister for Health and his Department. What additional measures does the Minister believe she can bring to the CE schemes that provide far more than simply a training opportunity?
I recall the CE supervisor scheme that the Deputy is talking about. Many good suggestions were made during that call and we will take them away and consider them. I wish to be clear about one point. We always consider CE schemes as having a dual purpose. It is not only an employment and training opportunity but the schemes exist to provide a local community service as well - I wish to acknowledge that formally.
It is probably fair to say that the activation services of our local offices have been very much reduced in recent months. That has had an impact on the number of referrals to CE schemes. It is probably down to 30% at the moment. As the economy opens up, the service will reopen and more referrals will come from local Intreo offices. CE schemes are entitled to look for posts as well, but I acknowledge that it is like working with one arm tied behind one's back given the reduced Intreo capacity in recent months. Anyway, that will ramp up as time goes on and as the economy reopens.
While I appreciate that the Minister of State recognises the dual role and the fact that many CE schemes provide a community service, I believe some CE schemes are providing State services. A Meals on Wheels service is not equivalent to a CE scheme in a football club, GAA club or community hall. It is, and should be, a direct front-line service provided by the State. In many ways we are exploiting people who are on a training opportunity. I am a former Tús supervisor so I do not use the word "exploit" easily because the opportunity is extraordinarily valuable for everyone on a Tús or CE scheme. However, we should ensure we provide additional supports from the Department of Health so that the role is recognised and supported financially.
I have become aware of an information technology glitch that is delaying PUP arrears payments. I have been contacted by several people. Will the Minister shed some light on that? When will all the PUP arrears be paid? How many are on that list? She can come back to me afterwards.
In recent days we have all come to realise that this lockdown will last longer, yet, for some, it looks longer again. I am talking about those who work in aviation and airports. It is not only pilots who have made representations to the House but everyone in the airport community right down to people who work in shops and so on. Will the Department consider a specific intervention for them? It seems 5 March does not look like any kind of deadline for them and there is such uncertainty. We know that we are in a transition and need to reduce carbon. Airline travel will be reduced over time, hopefully. We need to have a just transition for all airport workers to ensure they are supported.
Since the introduction of the PUP in March approximately 850,000 individuals have applied for the payment. In some cases, they have done so on several occasions as they have moved in and out of employment or where the employer availed of the Revenue temporary wage subsidy scheme. Consequently, there were more than 1.5 million applications to be examined to determine if arrears were due. This is mainly due to the initial time lag in the commencement of payments. These arrears have now been paid. They were paid mainly on 1 December, when 286,000 people received arrears totalling €134 million. A smaller group of people received an arrears payment in the past two weeks due to the extension of the reference period for earnings to September 2020. If the Deputy has a specific issue, I am happy to examine it if he gives me the details.
I will attempt to be brief to allow some time for the Ministers to come back on my questions. There is no doubt that the pandemic has had an extraordinary and adverse impact on our labour market as well as broader society. Our response in terms of social protection measures has had to be equally extraordinary. As the Minister detailed earlier, the cost to the Exchequer for the PUP is in excess of €5.5 billion and climbing all the while. This is necessary.
In a broad sense, it has been effective. The ERSI has found that the PUP and the various iterations of employment income supports have been effective in cushioning families at the lower end, that is to say, those at the bottom 40% of the income distribution, from income losses during the pandemic. I am acutely aware that this broad-stroke analysis glosses over many individual stories of financial hardship that all of us are dealing with in our inboxes and constituency clinics, whether they are conducted online or wherever.
We know that this pandemic has not affected all of society equally. We know it disproportionately affects lower paid jobs, whether in retail, hospitality or the service industry jobs that have disappeared from the economy. We know that in terms of employment, younger people have had to bear the brunt in the effects on seasonal or part-time employment and in terms of their education, college experience and social lives. The impact of this should not be discounted.
I believe the Covid-19 responses have demonstrated an extraordinary act of intergenerational solidarity. A generation far less likely to feel the worst physical effects of the virus is making extraordinary sacrifices to protect our older and more vulnerable communities. I hope that on the far side of this pandemic, whenever we get there, we remember that act of solidarity when we come to addressing the types of issues that weigh most heavily on our young people. The climate crisis and the housing crisis come to mind in particular in that context.
I wish to turn to the question of lone parents and the impact the lockdown is having on this cohort. Lone parents are one of the cohorts in our society often farthest removed from the labour force. Among the key findings of the 2017 report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection on lone parents was the fact that one-parent families endure the highest consistent poverty of any group in society. The figure is a little over 26%. Lone parents suffer the highest rates of deprivation, the rate being a shocking 57.9%. Children in one-parent families are three times as likely to live in consistent poverty than families with two adults.
Measures were introduced in the budget for 2021 aimed at this cohort. The increase for a qualified child, IQC, rate is chief among these. We can reasonably anticipate that the pandemic will have exacerbated this situation, for example, with the lack of childcare, the closure of schools and the evaporation of part-time working opportunities. All these serve to create a perfect storm for lone-parent families.
Are we undertaking the monitoring and reporting of lone parents in respect of education and poverty levels as recommended in the 2017 report? Is there data on the impact of our Covid-19 response on this cohort? Is this being monitored in real time? Is a plan being developed for the far side of this pandemic? How can the impacts be addressed once we come out of the Covid-19 crisis, in terms of the income impacts on this cohort and in providing access to opportunities in employment and education to better the lot of lone-parent families?
The Deputy has outlined all the supports we have been giving to lone parents. Significant support has been provided during the pandemic to customers on the one-parent family payment who lost their employment. They have been allowed to keep their primary payment and to claim the PUP concurrently. It is important to say that. That is of help to lone parents. Their representatives have highlighted the importance of the school meals, which have continued during the pandemic, including during the summer and the school holidays. They also continue during the winter holidays, over Christmas. We have funded schools to enable them to give the school meals to children. My Department has also put in place very flexible arrangements to restore payment rates for lone parents where maintenance payments have stopped. We have increased the qualified child allowance in the budget to €38 for children under 12 and to €45 for children over 12, and the one-parent family payment earnings threshold of €425 will be removed from April 2021. In answer to the Deputy's questions, we continually review the situation and we certainly take on board the findings and the reports we do on this issue. The ESRI has compiled a study and we are certainly looking at all the issues raised in it.
I wish to take two minutes and then give the Minister two minutes to respond, after which I will come back in for the final minute.
In these tough times, when Covid is affecting every person and every area of the country and when all areas are dependent on a little help from the Department and the Government, may I tell the Minister about my constituency of Meath West? The Department recently announced funding. I will give her a few examples of how it distributed that funding. The educational disadvantage funding for Louth and Meath, with a population of 340,000, amounted to €386,000; the adjacent constituency, with a population of 137,000, received €520,000. Under outdoor recreational infrastructure funding, Meath West received €29,500; the constituency beside us received €214,000. Under community enhancement funding, Meath West received €44,700; the neighbouring constituency received €112,000. Under CLÁR, Meath West received €80,600 and the neighbouring constituency received €630,000. Worst of all, under town and village funding, out of €15.4 million, all Meath West was entitled to was €100,000. That is 15 times the funding the adjacent constituency received. I spoke to the Minister before this funding was announced and told her of a project in my area, where there is a great deal of antisocial behaviour. It submitted an application for funding. Needless to say, the Minister did not fund it.
I have three questions for the Minister. Is it acceptable or fair that a constituency of a similar size to Meath West receives 15 times more funding? What criteria does her Department use when assessing applications for funding? Does she think that if funding cannot be distributed fairly across the board, there should be another way of doing it, or is it a case of who you know rather than the people who are most deserving?
First, I assure the Deputy that all the applications received by my Department are assessed independently. Second, if people do not send in applications, they cannot be funded. It depends on the number. Some counties are much better at submitting applications than others. If we do not get an application for a project, we cannot fund it. Third, if the application is not up to standard and does not meet the criteria set out under the scheme, it is not deemed eligible on many occasions. I do not even see those applications because the point is that they are assessed, as I said, independently. The most recent scheme was the outdoor recreation scheme. As far as I know, the applications for it first of all went through Pobal, which assessed them, and then, once they scored over a certain bar, they came to my Department and the funding was allocated, I can assure the Deputy, in a very open, transparent, fair and balanced way. The Deputy should get the community groups or the local authority to engage with my Department, see exactly where the application fell down and resubmit it. I will open up all those funding streams during this year and I am glad to say I have got increased funding for many of the streams the Deputy is talking about.
What we ask for the people of Meath West is equal treatment, fairness and respect. The Minister's constituency received 15 times more funding than the people of Meath West. That is not fair. This has gone on and on for years. The people of Meath have been let down by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. We are constantly at the bottom of the pile. It does not matter what the funding is; Meath West and Meath in general are at the bottom of the pile. I ask the Minister to be fair with us and to give us what we are entitled to. That is all we ask for. I do not want any favours from the Minister but she should have a bit of respect for the people of Meath West.
I assure the Deputy that fairness is something we uphold in the Government, and everybody is treated with respect and fairness. I can assure the Deputy that all the applications we received were fairly and independent assessed and were scored on their merits. As I said, some counties do not get as much as others because they do not put in applications. I cannot produce money and give it to them if they do not send in good-quality applications. I therefore ask those unsuccessful applicants to engage with my Department and resubmit improved applications. I have no doubt but that they will be successful. I want to see every community across the country supported in every way we can.
Applications were put in, and the Minister is well aware of that because I myself raised this with her before the funding was announced. I do not care if the Minister does not like Sinn Féin or does not like me, but she should show a bit of respect and fairness for the people of Meath West.
That is outrageous.
I will begin by commending the Department on what has been excellent work over almost a year now. When we engage with them on any sort of issue, they are very fast and prompt in their response, so I commend her and her Department on that.
Has the Minister seen the ten demands outlined by the National One Parent Family Alliance, which recently wrote to her with those ten demands? I would be interested to know if she has seen those demands. The alliance has put them forward as a manner in which to alleviate the deprivation experienced by our most vulnerable group, namely one-parent families, who are consistently at risk of poverty and deprivation, which has been enhanced throughout the pandemic. I will ask the Minister specific questions about those demands but I would be interested to know first if she has read all ten of them.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The alliance welcomed the confirmation that the PUP is available to parents who cannot work due to childcare issues and school closures. It believes, however, that the Government needs to go further and ensure that one-parent families are not pulled deeper into poverty. It is calling on the Government to implement ten urgent actions, seven of which are relevant to this Department. It is calling for special measures to increase payments to families with children and, in particular, lone parents. There is the fuel allowance assistance. Many of the actions proposed are already in train and in place, for example access for people caring for children to the PUP, communications with employers and potential beneficiaries and flexibility with rent supplement. Other actions required, such as payment increases, are best dealt with in a targeted manner via the supplementary welfare allowance. That payment is available to anybody who gets into difficulty. We have the exceptional needs payment, and I encourage people to use that payment.
While the Minister is encouraging people to use the payment, will her Department initiate an advertising campaign letting people know that the payment is available? One of the issues is that when the announcements are made, they often go unannounced in the media and people do not know the payments are available. I see that two of the asks of the National One Parent Family Alliance pertain simply to advertising - for example, "Run a widespread public information campaign and issue a clear communication that parents are entitled to receive the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) if they are unable to work due to lack of childcare." The third action states, "Run a public-facing campaign to make tenants and PUP recipients aware of the entitlement criteria for the more flexible form of Rent Supplement." That is a very reasonable ask. The alliance is commending the fact that these measures exist; all it is asking for is that they be advertised more publicly and that one-parent families are made aware of them.
The fourth action states, "Make a double payment of the fuel allowance (€56) for two weeks at the end of January/beginning of February to help low-income households with additional heating costs associated with being home more."
No. 7 states: "Introduce a temporary top-up payment for Qualified Children (€30 per week for children over 12 and €15 per week for children under 12) to help families with the additional cost of food, electricity, internet and communication services, educational resources and indoor social activities." I double up as the spokesperson on education for my party. One of the things we are hearing about quite a bit at the moment is the digital divide that exists in homes. One of the compounding issues is the existence of poverty. It is not just the digital divide, but also increased poverty associated with electricity and broadband costs. Is it possible to provide an additional payment to parents to assist them with these costs that are increasing deprivation?
The Deputy raised several issues. On the issue of the public-facing campaign to which he referred, we have been providing flexibility with regard to rent supplement. The Deputy and I can probably get the message out to people who contact us that if they are in difficulty, the Department is here to help. That is the one big message we need to send out. If people are having difficulties, whether that is with the cost of fuel or their rent supplement, they should go to their local social welfare office. We are here to try to help people through what is a very difficult time.
The Deputy mentioned a temporary top-up payment for qualified children. That is another issue. I think it is No. 7. I increased the rate for qualified children under 12 and those over 12 in the budget, as the Deputy will be aware. The National One Parent Family Alliance is looking for support in respect of the cost of Internet, communication services and several other matters. That issue is best addressed in a targeted way rather than across the board. That is what the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is for. Indeed, many Deputies will know that the supplementary welfare scheme was established in the 1970s by Frank Cluskey, who was a Minister at the time, exactly for that purpose, that is, so that people who find themselves in difficulty can go to their social welfare office and get help. That is the most important message we can get out to people.
Although the Minister and I can absolutely get that message out there, a sustained campaign run by her Department, whether through Facebook advertisements or whatever other way in which it can reach people, would be most welcome.
No. 9 calls on the Minister to "Prioritise lone parents in the provision of childcare services for essential workers and extend access to childcare facilities to all working lone parents of preschool and school-age children in line with public health advice." Obviously, that is motivated by several factors, but we must remember that many of the parents in one-parent families work in supermarkets or as SNAs. If they are expected to go to work, then we absolutely have to be able to provide them with childcare. Is that something on which the Minister's Department can provide assistance?
The issue of childcare is under the remit of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. I know these are issues he is considering and trying to provide as much assistance as we possibly can as a Government.
Will a double payment of fuel allowance this month be considered?
Making a double payment of fuel allowance means everybody gets it whether they need it or not. The best way we can deal with that issue is through a targeted approach. If a person is in trouble with regard to the cost of fuel - the allowance was increased by €3.50 only at the beginning of the year - he or she should go to the local social welfare office and look for the supplementary payment because it is available specifically to help people who run into difficulties.
We now move to a Government slot. Deputy Cathal Crowe is sharing time with Deputy Durkan.
I listened to Deputy Gannon very respectfully put his points to the Minister. He asked solid questions and got solid answers. It was all very respectful. However, minutes earlier, I could not believe my ears while listening to Deputy Guirke. His final contribution was to state "I do not care if the Minister does not like Sinn Féin or does not like me, but she should show a bit of respect and fairness for the people of Meath West." When did she say that she does not like the Deputy, Sinn Féin or Meath West? I am not here to defend the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but let us be fair to this Parliament. Let us not totally debase our contributions here. Deputy Guirke's comments are absolutely absurd. Comments will circulate on Facebook in Meath West tonight, stating that Minister Humphreys hates the county and she hates Deputy Guirke because his is the Sinn Féin representative for the constituency. That is total tripe. Dáil Éireann is much better than that. In the same vein that Deputy Gannon finished his contribution, I will be respectful in addressing this Chamber and the Minister.
The unemployment rate in my county of Clare is rather alarming. It has been one of the highest in the country through the past 12 months or so. In September 2019, the rate was 8.2% whereas in November 2020 it was 22.6%. It is all very fluid and volatile. The increase in the unemployment rate can largely be pinned on Covid, although there are other factors such as the airport and many things in the mid-west that are unique to the area. I ask the Minister and her Department to keep a close eye on the whole Shannon, Limerick and Ennis axis. She was in the area last year and visited the Molex factory. She knows how dependent the mid-west is on that kind of industry hub base between towns in the mid-west and the airport. I ask her to keep a close eye on that in the months ahead.
I refer to Tús, the CE scheme and the rural social scheme. Many of the schemes are not being referred with new names by the Department. The schemes are winding down and nearing expiration and they are not being provided with new names. I am thinking specifically of two fabulous schemes in my county, those in Ballynacally and Lissycasey, which have really enhanced the community. They are winding down as they are not getting referrals of new names. I ask specifically that the departmental officials who are present might look at those schemes and get referrals out to them. Continuation would be ideal in that regard.
I wish to briefly address the issue of businesses and individuals that continue to fall between two stools. I know this strictly is not within the remit of the Minister's Department but there are many overlapping functions in this area at the moment. I am thinking specifically of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, because there is still an issue for many sole traders who work from the home. Eamon Andrews, who lives in my community, is a photographer who works from his car boot with a laptop, a tripod and a camera. He does not have a physical premises and none of the supports so far have benefited him. There are still people falling between the stools.
Another issue of significant concern relates to ferry and boat operators. I was contacted last night by Shannon Ferries and Killaloe River Cruises, which runs boats that go up and down the River Shannon. Those companies have fallen outside many of the supports put in place by the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social Protection and Revenue. They are falling between the stools and they really need the CRSS to be extended to encompass entities that are semi-dependent on tourism but also provide vital transport links. The companies in question are kind of falling between Departments. I ask that the Minister champion their cause. I think she gets how difficult their scenario is. Shannon Ferries has been operating for 52 years but it is now really struggling. Although it is not on the brink, it will need Government support as it continues to support the community.
I will raise two final points and I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond in the remainder of my time before I pass over to Deputy Durkan. Responsibility for SUSI grants rests with the Minister's Department to a certain extent as there are elements of paperwork that are furnished by the Department. However, the difficulties that people have had in the past year are not being fully taken into account. The years do not perfectly align with the calendar year from 1 January to 31 December. There has been a shock to the economy as a result of Covid and that needs to be taken into account. A business that was going quite well on 28 January 2020 may have been decimated by now.
The final issue I wish to raise is that of PPS numbers. There is still a real lag in PPS numbers being generated by the Department. Many people are still waiting on PPS numbers and I ask for that to be examined. I ask the Minister to briefly respond to some of those issues.
On the CE side of things, there should be no need for schemes to close contracts with participants since level 5 restrictions were introduced in October last year. We are extending those contracts until March at the earliest. It is important to get that message out.
I recognise that there are issues with regard to referrals. Intreo offices are only operating at 30% at the moment in terms of their referral capacity. That will be ramping up soon. If the Deputy wishes to contact me directly regarding specific projects, we can speak to local community development officers about them.
I understand the Deputy's concerns regarding the photographer to whom he referred, for example. It is worth noting that self-employed people on the PUP can earn €960 over eight weeks and still retain their PUP payment. That may be some help to them. For those who are coming off the PUP, we have an enterprise support grant of €1,000. I know there probably is not much demand for that now, given the current restrictions, but it will continue to be available.
I know that the Tánaiste is looking at supports for people who did not fit into any of the categories we currently have and I will certainly raise the matter with him.
I am familiar with the mid-west region and understand that it has been hit hard by Covid-19, the hospitality sector in particular. We will be doing all we can to support those affected.
I congratulate the Minister and the Minister of State for their response to the Covid threat. Those congratulations apply to the Government in general. I also congratulate the previous Government. This pandemic is an unprecedented attack on our society that still continues.
I echo the words of a number of other people when I say that in the event that some of the support schemes terminate on a specific date, it would be helpful if those availing of the schemes could be given advice well in advance as to the prospect of the schemes' continuation. The requirements of households continue regardless of whether deadlines have come or gone. That is something that could be of great benefit to people who are dependent on the supports.
I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department for how they have dealt with queries. That applies particularly to appeals. Most appeals have been dealt with administratively and satisfactorily. That is a good thing.
The Minister referred to the availability of exceptional needs payments and I agree with her. That is what they are there for. I spent a small time in that Department some years ago and used to advise people on that subject. However, it is important that the response from the individual concerned is not always the same. That needs to be looked at, not in a critical way but in a way that simply addresses issues that might arise.
The last point I want to make relates to something that still puzzles me. It has not happened in recent times but it did happen over the past couple of years. There have been cases where someone won an appeal and the appeal was subsequently overturned by a higher executive officer. I have my doubts about that because two of the things that always prevailed in the Department were due process and natural justice. Overpayments have always happened for one reason or another, including people not reading the regulations properly and so on. It was always possible that where a person received an overpayment and it subsequently transpired that he or she did not qualify for the payment which was the question of the overpayment but did qualify for an alternative payment at the same time, that was taken as being an underlying reason for granting the alternative payment. That has been discontinued over the past couple of years and I have not seen evidence of it in recent times. That was a part of the ethos of natural justice of the Department. The Minister and the Minister of State might look at that when they get a chance, notwithstanding the existence of other challenges.
I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. I know that he has a great knowledge of the social protection scheme and I take on board the issue he has raised about appeals and their overturning. I commit to looking at that issue and will be happy to speak to him about it. If he has a specific case in mind, I am happy to discuss it with him.
The Department of Social Protection is here to help people. Our number one objective is to help people when they need it and provide security for when someone is off sick or retires. We cover every aspect of people's lives. There is not one family in this country that social protection will not touch at some stage in their lives. The staff of the Department work extremely hard and treat people in a humane way. That said, there may be an odd occasion when difficulties arise and that is why the appeals mechanism is there. The message I want to get out, loud and clear, is that we are here to help people and will not be found wanting. It is fair to say that the Government has not been found wanting in the pandemic unemployment supports it has put in place. We have paid €5.5 million since the pandemic unemployment payment started last March. We extended it when it needed to be extended and kept it open for people so they did not have to worry that if they lost their jobs they would not get back onto the PUP. We have kept it open and people have been able to reapply for it. We will continue to support people insofar as we need to during this pandemic. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue.
The pandemic has forced us all to re-examine the way we view social protection. None of us would have imagined a situation where hundreds of thousands of workers were going to be laid off or lose their jobs and be forced to stay out of work for months.
I listened to the Minister's speech. She spoke about the extended lockdown, the need to once again flatten the curve and protect the vaccine roll-out. We cannot strip away supports and benefits that allow workers and their families to observe restrictions and stay at home, where possible. Can we take it as read that the PUP is to be continued as long as the Covid restrictions keep businesses from operating? Does the Ceann Comhairle want to take questions one-by-one or as a group?
That is up to the Deputy.
I presume the answer to that question is a "Yes" or a "No".
I can answer the Deputy's question. We have extended the PUP until the end of March. I will say again that the Government will not be found wanting. I will be consulting my Government colleagues and we will take into account the trajectory of the virus, the roll-out of the vaccine and where we are at in terms of the reopening of the economy.
The question was whether the PUP will continue as long as Covid restrictions keep businesses from operating. People want reassurance that the supports will be there.
When does the Minister expect to extend parents' benefit to five weeks, as was promised in budget 2020? Her speech also touched on the closure of schools and childcare facilities, which is set to continue for the immediate future. The budget promise must be fulfilled urgently. She mentioned that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is working on legislation but the big question is when we will see that legislation.
The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is working on that legislation. I know it is a priority for him and I am sure he will get the co-operation of the House to pass that legislation whenever he brings it into the House. My Department is working on the relevant IT system. We are working hard to have it ready by the beginning of April. As soon as the legislation is passed, if we do not have the systems ready, we will backdate payments. We will make sure that everybody is in payment from the beginning of April. I hope the Deputy will understand that there has been a lot of work done on our IT systems. We have had to change them for a number of different things. Staff are working very hard to have it ready.
The long-term health effect of Covid, so-called long Covid, has yet to be determined. Initial indications are that the lifelong impact of the virus may be severe. Is the Department of Social Protection examining the possibility of a Covid disability payment or long-term enhanced illness payment, should the need arise?
As the Deputy knows, we brought in Covid illness benefit for the purpose of allowing people to take time off work immediately once they got certification from their doctor. Whether they were off sick or had to isolate, a doctor could still electronically certify that the person in question should not be in work and the payment kicked in straight away, without waiting days. That is a payment of €350.
We need to consider that the average period for which people are sick and receive that payment is three weeks, approximately 21 days. That is why the enhanced illness benefit is available for up to ten weeks.
People have asked about those who get Covid and who are sick for longer than ten weeks, but it is fair to say that there are individuals who have other illnesses and who are sick for much longer than ten weeks as well. We must be fair when we are looking at this so that people who have other long-term illnesses are treated equitably and that everybody is treated in a fair way. The reason the payment was brought in was to stop the transmission of the virus and to allow people to take time off work. It is still there for that purpose. If people are not feeling well and they think they have been in contact with a positive case, they should get in touch with a doctor and get the payment straight away. These are the rules. I will consider what the Deputy is saying, but I must look at it in the context of other citizens who have long-term illnesses as well.
I thank the Minister.
I am sorry, but it is an equity issue.
That is fair enough. I thank the Minister. We must move now to Deputy Bríd Smith, who is sharing with Deputy Paul Murphy.
I did not get to the end of my couple of minutes. Is it possible to get a proper answer on how staff are managing? The Minister is talking about extra payments, but how are staff in her Department managing in this regard? It would be useful if the Department issued a paper on the matter.
I thank the Deputy. We will ask the Minister if she can correspond with him.
I have two questions for the Minister. The first is on extended parental leave. In the list of priority legislation for spring, we are told that the heads of the parents' leave and benefits (amendment) Bill have been approved but that a timeframe for pre-legislative scrutiny is still to be determined. The National Women's Council of Ireland and others are waging a campaign to have the legislation introduced. The drafting of a general scheme was a very weak response last year from the Government to a major campaign launched by women to have maternity leave extended during Covid, which was refused by the Government. They were then told that this legislative measure would be forthcoming but it has still not been introduced. Most of those women who fought then have either been forced back to or out of employment because of the difficulties with working and the inaccessibility of childcare. We now have a new cohort of parents coming on board. When is the anticipated legislation due to be published or is this a ball that is being kicked between the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister present? Could we get a date for publication and clarification that the leave in question can be taken before the legislation is enacted?
I acknowledge the increase in the fuel allowance in January to €28 a week for the 360,000 people who are dependent on it. However, these are extraordinary times and the Minister and I know there are many people aged over 60, 70 and 80 who we are advising to stay at home. The weather is very cold and damp and they have to scrimp and scrape on the heating because the fuel allowance is inadequate. While they are at risk and while the situation is still dangerous for them, we ask that the fuel allowance would be doubled from €28 to €56. Also, as a matter of urgency, could the Minister deal with the local authorities who control the heating in many of the older person's complexes and turn it off at 11 p.m. or midnight despite very cold weather where they have to endure cold conditions in their apartments overnight? It does not happen in every block of apartments, but we need a universal reaction across all local authorities to how we deal with older persons in accommodation with centrally controlled heating.
I will respond first to the issue concerning local authorities. We will raise the issue with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and perhaps he will take it up with them or we could directly contact the local authority concerned.
As Deputy Bríd Smith said, we did increase the fuel allowance and €3.50 extra has been paid from January. The supplementary welfare allowance is available for people who find themselves in difficulty. If people are in trouble and they cannot pay their fuel bill, they should contact their local Intreo office and assistance will be made available to them. People have to explain their circumstances and the case will be discussed but the support is there for those who genuinely need it.
I thank the Minister.
The Deputy talked about older people. I increased the living alone allowance for the very reason she outlined.
Could I ask another question?
I am sorry to cut across the Deputy but there are only three minutes remaining and Deputy Paul Murphy is next.
I am sorry. I tried to answer.
I beg the Minister's pardon. I know she did.
Parents are at their wits' end trying to juggle work and childcare during the lockdown, with no support from the State. They are expected to double job, to hold down their regular work while also home schooling. Many are simply not able to do that. They have run through their annual leave already. They are being told by the Department to leave their job and go on the PUP. Other countries in Europe have brought in new entitlements to paid childcare leave from work to deal with the situation. Does the Minister not agree that it is about time we did the same? Germany, for example, has just introduced an extra ten days' paid leave per parent to enable them to mind children at home because of Covid measures such as school closures, illness or self-isolation. Austria, Italy, Portugal and Slovenia have also all introduced paid leave for parents with children. In France, parents affected by school closures or a child having to self-isolate are entitled to paid sick leave from work, yet here parents were told by the Department in a tweet this month:
Workers affected by a lack of childcare should engage with their employer with a view to exploring all options available to enable them to return to, or continue with, work where possible
Where there are no options possible they are eligible to apply for the PUP.
Once again, it is women who are hardest hit by this, shouldering the bulk of the childcare work and suffering the greatest job losses. During the first lockdown last year women were disproportionately affected by job losses and right now we have a higher rate of unemployment of women than men for the first time in many years. What is the Minister doing to help parents, especially mothers, remain in the workforce and to assist them with their additional childcare responsibilities during Covid? Will she give parents a break and introduce a special Covid parental or childcare benefit like in Germany and other EU countries?
Parental leave is the responsibility of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department and my Department makes the necessary payments. To be helpful to parents, where they could not go to work due to childcare commitments, the Deputy is correct that in the first instance we encouraged them to engage with their employer. Some employers have been very good, and we must acknowledge that. They have allowed parents to work flexible hours and they have been able to balance looking after families, home schooling and also doing their work. It is not easy, but they have been able to do that. For those people who could not avail of those arrangements with their employer, we said they could self-certify and apply for the pandemic unemployment payment. I would encourage parents who are in that situation to avail of the support that is available currently.
I wish to share time with Deputy Flaherty. I take it he is in the House. I cannot see downstairs.
I cannot actually see him, but I am sure he will come in. Yes, there he is.
That is fair enough. I will make a few general observations and leave it to my colleagues to ask the questions. We will give the Minister a break from questions. I join with her and other speakers in congratulating the staff of the Department of Social Protection on the wonderful work they have been doing during the pandemic. I say a special word of thanks and congratulations to local staff in Limerick who have performed with unfailing courtesy and provided help above and beyond the call of duty. I thank them for the great patience and forbearance they have displayed in spite of all the annoyance we have inflicted on them in recent months.
I was a little disturbed by the Minister's response to the question about the continuation of the PUP from the end of March.
Everybody knows that the lockdown in some shape or form, possibly its present form, is going to continue beyond the end of March and naturally the PUP should be extended to account for that. People are exhausted and under enormous pressure. There is a lot of evidence that people's mental health has been affected by these continuous lockdowns. What people are looking for from me, and indeed from colleagues on all sides of the House, is a bit of certainty. If the country is still locked down and people still cannot go to work after 31 March, will the PUP remain in place or will people have to fall back on the basic rate of social welfare? If the PUP does stay in place, what rates will apply? I took careful note of what the Minister said in this regard. She said that the Government will not be found wanting and I shall communicate that to all of the people who get in touch with my office but those people would prefer a little more certainty. While I acknowledge that the Minister must consult her Cabinet colleagues, I urge her to come to a decision on this soon because it will give those people who are under a lot of pressure one less thing to worry about.
I listened carefully to the questions and answers earlier but I did not hear anyone mentioning the vexed question of the over-66s. When the PUP was introduced, people over the age of 66 were specifically and definitively excluded. We all know people over the age of 66 who were self-employed - wet publicans spring to mind immediately - or employed and who continued to work. It is a growing phenomenon in society. As people live longer, more and more of them are working beyond the age of 66. Some people in that category qualify for the old age pension because they have paid their contributions over the years but others do not. Whether they are getting the pension or not, the reality is that as a result of the Government's necessary action to close down the economy to protect public health, they have been deprived of income they previously enjoyed. If they happened to be a day under the age of 66 when this kicked in, they were fine but if they were a day over the age of 66, they were automatically disqualified. The Minister said she was doing her very best to ensure that everything was being done fairly and equitably in all sectors but there is blatant discrimination against people over the age of 66. I want more people over the age of 66, if they are mentally and physically fit, continuing to work because that will take a lot of pressure off the pension system. In some occupations people can work beyond the age of 66 but in others, they cannot. Building labourers, for example, are literally worn out at 55 or 60 and it would be cruel to expect them to work up to the age of 68, 69 or 70. People aged 66 should be entitled to retire with a full pension if they wish but we want to encourage more of them to stay in work. We also want to remove or outlaw those ridiculous contracts that compel people to retire at 65. If that step was taken, together with progressing the pensions auto-enrolment system, which seems to have fallen into some sort of Bermuda triangle, it would relieve a lot of the financial pressure that keeping the pension age at 66 would impose.
I am sorry to have to disagree with my colleague, Deputy McAuliffe, with regard to the question of taxing the PUP. When the PUP was introduced and was in operation for several months, there was no question whatsoever of it being taxed. Then the Government decided to tax it, presumably on the basis that other social welfare payments are taxable in the sense that one's tax credits are reduced by the amount of the social welfare payment. However, the PUP falls into a completely different category. It is completely different from other social welfare payments in many ways. The Government introduced it initially on the basis that it would be at the same rate as basic social welfare payments but soon realised that some of the people who were losing their jobs were earning, in net terms, two, three or four times what they would have received on social welfare. It, therefore, raised the rate to €350 per week so that the fall in income would not be too steep. The rate is different as are the conditions to qualify for the PUP. Social welfare is something that can continue indefinitely but the PUP is temporary. It is a temporary emergency payment and the idea that the Government would come back, months after it has been introduced, and decide unilaterally to tax it retrospectively makes absolutely no sense.
I just wanted to make those few points and am happy to defer to my colleague, Deputy Flaherty.
I also feel it is very important to send a message to the staff of the Department of Social Protection that underscores how appreciative we are as a nation of their tremendous work and commitment over the past ten months. While they are not directly on the battlefield, as such, they are very essential front-line workers and they responded tremendously to a national emergency, pulling out all of the stops. We are fortunate to have a large social protection office in Longford town, under principal officers, Christine Gilligan and Brian Molloy, and the team there provided an exceptional service across a number of sections. It would be extremely remiss of me not to acknowledge their dedication and commitment in the face of the Covid-19 crisis over the past ten months.
As others have said, the Covid-19 support payments have been a critical lifeline for many and it was important that payments were released as quickly as possible. However, there are a number of ongoing issues, which I hope the Minister can resolve. Some people are still trying to rectify back pay issues. I appreciate that there was a considerable backlog of applications and additional staff were brought in. Tremendous inroads have been made in addressing the backlog but there are still some outstanding cases. I would like the Minister to provide a firm date for the resolution of back pay issues from 2020.
I have issues with the decision to back tax the PUP. As others said, when it was introduced it was not a social welfare payment in the strictest sense as it was very much an emergency payment and a lifeline. The benefit for the Government and the Exchequer of taxing both the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme is questionable. It has been a divisive move that has angered a lot of people. Nobody wished Covid on the country and nobody wanted to stop working because of Covid. We should take a sense-check on this and assess it. Certainly, in terms of what Revenue is saying, the net benefit from this tax is minimal. It was a retrograde step and while I appreciate that it is not fully within the remit of the Department of Social Protection, I urge the Minister to raise it at Cabinet level and review the decision. Workers have made significant sacrifices and we owe it to them to respond to that.
Others have mentioned the over-66s and I wish to refer to one small group within that cohort who have been adversely affected by Covid. I speak of people who turned 66 in 2020 and were due to get their State pension. One of my constituents turned 66 two weeks after registering for the PUP and another lady had a seven-week wait. In both instances they did not qualify for the PUP because they were going to get a pension later in the year but had no income for several weeks. While it may be a small number of people and involve a small amount, there is a principle at stake and I ask the Minister to examine this.
I have previously communicated with her on the issue of the inclusion of all families in receipt of the working family payment in the Christmas bonus scheme. This issue came to a head again last Christmas. The Government correctly decided to include Covid payment recipients in the Christmas bonus scheme. As it stands, some recipients of the working family payment got the Christmas bonus as it was paid concurrently with other social welfare payments such as the one-family payment but a small number were excluded and I would ask the Minister to examine this as well.
A large number of people engaged with the Department for the first time in their lives in the last year. It has been a hugely difficult time for them. The road to recovery is going to be very difficult and I do not see a situation where the tap is turned off on the Covid payments. As we seek to help businesses to reopen and communities to rebuild, these payments will be needed in one form or another.
In conjunction with the Department of Finance and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Minister will have to retain some level of payment to help businesses and workers return to normality, particularly in our most marginalised and rural locations.
At the outset, I too express my gratitude to the front-line workers in the Department of Social Protection. I thank them all, particularly those in Mayo and the west, for all of their help and for doing the massive job they have had to do.
I will ask the Minister a couple of questions. The first is on community employment schemes. Could contracts under such schemes be extended to, for example, 31 December to provide some certainty? The Minister needs to engage directly with organisations on the ground and to show some flexibility with respect to local needs and the make-up of the unemployed population in particular years. I fear that we are fixing things that are not broken and are ignoring things that are. That can be solved very easily with dialogue, discussion and common sense.
On the PUP, there are arrears owing and problems with the IT system. I would appreciate it if the Minister would look at those issues. I know she understands the stress and anxiety these delays are causing. People are waiting and checking their bank accounts every day to see if their money has arrived. That is just not right in the circumstances in which we are. We have talked about those aged over 66 many times. Most such people would not have been working if they did not really need to do so. It is grossly unfair to exclude them. I ask the Minister to look at that matter again. My concern about the PUP is that the Minister is giving it with one hand and taking it back with another through taxation. The PUP was initially described as an urgent needs payment. Exceptional needs payments are not taxable. I cannot see the difference between "urgent" and "exceptional". We really need to look at that because presenting more than 200,000 people with tax bills of up to €1,400 is just absolutely wrong. There is no case for it.
With regard to the impact of the PUP on medical cardholders, has the Minister's Department cross-checked with the Department of Health to see how many people have lost their medical cards as a result of the PUP? That would be a poverty-proofing exercise well worth doing.
The Minister talked about a pathway to employment. I take it that this also applies to farmers. Young farmers face great difficulty in accessing green certificate courses. In Mayo, something like 200 places were available on a further education course in Westport but there were 900 applicants. All of these young farmers are locked out at a time when we want them to take up farming. We need to take down these barriers and to create extra places on such courses.
Finally, it is grossly wrong that social welfare recipients are locked out of the 2016 incremental tenant purchase scheme and are not allowed to purchase their own homes, even if they have the means to do so, purely because they are dependent on social welfare.
On community employment schemes, as the Deputy will know, since level 5 restrictions were introduced in October of last year, contracts have been extended until at least 31 March of this year. We will be monitoring the situation closely. We are open to extending it beyond that. I will also clarify that there is to be no sudden cliff edge when contracts come towards an end. The local community development officers in the Department will stagger the end of contracts to make sure that services are not impacted. It is fair to say that more communication and flexibility on the ground is needed. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I met 25 of the sponsor organisations during the week. There was a lot of good feedback and back and forth. Recently, one of the constraints has been that capacity at a local level among Intreo and community development officers is down to 30% because of staff being pulled in a different direction. I expect that staffing level to increase again and that engagement between sponsors and community development officers will increase over time as the economy opens up.
I am sharing time with Deputy Verona Murphy. I will take four minutes and she will have four and a half. The Minister recently brought a memorandum to Cabinet proposing the extension of the pandemic unemployment payment scheme until the end of March. This is very welcome news and an action I support. In light of the extended lockdown, and the prospect that it could be extended even further, will the Minister confirm that the pandemic unemployment payment will be extended beyond the end of March? As she knows, the number of people receiving the pandemic unemployment payment has now reached 475,000, with more than 15,000 added in the last week alone. These workers would be still in work today but, because of the Covid pandemic and through no fault of their own, they are now effectively unemployed. We must continue to support these workers in these extremely challenging times and confirming that the pandemic unemployment payment will be extended beyond March would at least give these workers some peace of mind.
It should be remembered that these workers still have to pay their rent and their mortgages and that their household bills have not gone away. The pandemic unemployment payment, while very welcome, is still a good deal less than what the vast majority would have earned if still in employment. It would be very helpful to confirm that the pandemic unemployment payment will be extended beyond March should we still be in lockdown which, unfortunately, looks very likely.
Another issue I will raise with the Minister today is that of cross-Border workers and their entitlement to social welfare benefits when they are let go as a result of Covid. As the Minister knows, thousands of workers cross the Border each day to go work. Thousands travel from the North to the South and thousands more travel from the South to the North for work purposes. Will the Minister confirm what entitlements southern workers have to social welfare when work in the North but are temporarily laid off as a result of Covid? They pay their taxes and national insurance contributions in the North. Will the Minister confirm if they are entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment? Are they required to apply for assistance in the North? Will the Minister also confirm what entitlements workers from Northern Ireland who work and pay taxes and PRSI here in the South have when it comes to social welfare benefits? Are they entitled to receive the pandemic unemployment payment? As someone from Dundalk, which is in a Border county, these are the questions I am asked. I would appreciate it if the Minister would answer them.
The PUP scheme is due to run until the end of March. The Government has never been found wanting in supporting workers through this payment. Together with my Government colleagues, I will assess the situation. We are still not out of January. People know that they will get the payment for February and March. We have always supported the workers and we will continue to do so but, obviously, we will have to take account of the situation at that time, which will depend on the trajectory of the virus, the roll-out of the vaccine and where we are with regard to the reopening of the economy.
With regard to frontier workers, I understand the point the Deputy is making. If one is working in Northern Ireland and living in the Republic of Ireland, one is entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment at our rates. If one is living in Northern Ireland and working south of the Border, one must apply for the supports in the country in which one is resident. I want to be clear on that because I know there has been conversations about it and I do understand. People tell me that they are working in the South and paying tax there, so they should be entitled to unemployment support there. That is not the way it works, however. It is agreed right across Europe that people get unemployment benefit in the country in which they are resident. That is the situation. I just wanted to clarify that for the Deputy.
I do not have questions to be answered. I would like to make a broader statement because of the Minister's senior Cabinet position and her broader knowledge based on her previous experience in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. I am sure that, like myself, both Ministers have been inundated with calls and queries from worried retailers at various stages over the last year or so. We must now look at how to support these retailers to remain open in the medium to long term and to keep as many people as possible in employment.
There needs to be an interdepartmental examination of the fallout, which will have significant consequences for the Departments for which the Minister and Minister of State have responsibility, namely, the Departments of Social Protection and Rural and Community Development. Unfortunately, it looks as though we will be closed for a number of months at least before most retail outlets will be permitted to reopen. Now is the time that we need to be preparing our support system. It would be irresponsible if not immoral, were the Government to simply cast such businesses to one side with no support to help them get back on their feet.
County Wexford is one of the counties that has been hardest hit by unemployment in Ireland. Our unemployment rate is now the fifth highest in the country. A large percentage of the jobs in County Wexford are in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors. Businesses have gone to great lengths to satisfy Government requirements over the past year and most were greatly concerned when their businesses were ordered to close. To compensate for their inconvenience, the Government must be there with a support system. This means there needs to be clear engagement with the sector in order that we do not end up with thousands of people being stuck on the PUP because of a lack of support to businesses. The narrow scope of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, is partly responsible for the number of PUP claimants from the sector. Wholesalers, catering businesses and the entertainment sectors are all left out of the CRSS.
Many retailers also face stocking issues. In the boutique sector, for example, it is rolling stock over while trying to pay on finance for the next season. Many of these boutiques will have ordered spring stock for 2021 at the end of the summer of 2020. While it has been bought and paid for, yet they cannot open. They also will be buying stock for next winter shortly and it is just a continuous cycle. Many are now having to pay VAT and even, in some cases, massive delivery increases because their supplies are coming from the UK.
These are the realities facing the retail sector and we need a plan to support the businesses in dealing with the issues I have outlined, such as those enterprises that are outside the scope of the CRSS. There are anomalies in the CRSS and now is the time to examine them and sort them out. The scheme needs to be broadened and the Minister’s Department can surely identify from which sectors people are signing on to the PUP. We need to ensure that the anomalies are addressed and that support is available to see that the jobs remain sustainable. I recognise this might be a short-term cost burden for the Department but if we allow these problems to develop, it will be a far greater cost in the long run, with jobs and businesses collapsing. The problem is very much linked to rural development. It is becoming increasingly difficult to run a town centre business in rural Ireland and Covid-19 has made that an even bigger challenge.
Those facing the gravest challenges are also those on Pobal supports. A variety of community projects that are vital to rural Ireland are now struggling to survive. One such project close to my heart in New Ross is St. Michael’s Theatre. It can access neither the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, nor the CRSS, it is generating no income and its Pobal funding falls far short of what is needed if it is to survive this extended lockdown. There is no system in place to adjudicate cases outside of the CRSS beyond Revenue and had all these people been accommodated, we may have been able to look forward to the future with many more businesses being able to reopen.
In conclusion, I understand that this is a very fast-moving situation and it is not always possible to get everything right. I also understand how hard the Department staff are working and I join with my colleague, Deputy O’Dea, in saying that we have had great support from the social protection staff in our local offices. I ask the Minister and Minister of State to consider these issues at Cabinet level.
I am sharing time equally with my colleague, Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan. In the first instance I thank the Minister and the staff in her Department, as well as all the staff throughout the country for the work they have done at a very difficult period in dealing with and delivering payments to people in a fast and efficient way. While there have been glitches in the system, the staff have responded to and dealt with those glitches also.
There are two areas I wish to touch upon and to which serious consideration should be given. I have come across a number of people who have had to give up work because a member of their family has been diagnosed with a very serious illness requiring full-time care. Rather than having that person in a hospital setting or in a hospice, the family members instead kept them at home and provided full-time care. There is not an immediate response of support for someone who has given up their job in order to provide that care. That is something that should be looked at.
There have also been situations with elderly parents where the home help and support services that such people receive in normal times is not now available because of Covid-19 for various reasons, especially in rural areas, where one has a limited number of people available to provide home care. People are again having to give up jobs to look after their elderly parents and are not able to access payments. This should also be looked at.
The second issue I wish to touch on is in respect of people who are long-term carers who do not have an entitlement to a pension other than a non-contributory old age pension. I am talking about people who may have been outside of the workforce for 25 years for various reasons. They may have someone who has an intellectual disability, or may have elderly parents who they had to look after and then find when they come to the qualifying age for the old age pension, the time that they have put in as carers is not taken into account, even though providing that care has been a full-time job for them. I have seen quite a number of people who are at a serious loss because if they are living with someone who is in receipt of any kind of income, be it old age pension or whatever, the person is means tested. Long-term carers and their entitlement to an old age pension when they themselves retire is something that needs to be looked at. We must remember that there are now more than 500,000 carers dealing with different groups such as elderly people, members of people's own family such as brothers and sisters who require care or people's own children who have disabilities and to whom they are providing full-time care. I ask that the Minister give some consideration to those issues and respond to me in that regard.
I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. In the first instance, if someone has had to give up work due to the need to provide full-time care for somebody at home, I strongly recommend that they apply for the carer's benefit because very generous assistance is available there. If the person has been paying their contributions they can apply for that payment to help them do that work.
The second issue related to long-term full-time carers, that is, those who have been caring for many years, perhaps for somebody with disabilities, and have given their lives to looking after those people. In respect of such carers who have not been able to take up employment or had that opportunity, the points made by the Deputy are correct. I have asked the Pensions Commission to look at that issue because it affects women in particular. Women and mothers who have spent a lifetime looking after their children have been unable to take up employment for that very reason and do not have the credits when it comes to pension age and cannot get a contributory pension. I feel strongly about the need to look at this issue. It concerns in particular those who are providing full-time care because there are many different types of carers. There are carers who provide X number of hours a week and others who provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Pensions Commission will look at that whole issue.
Initially, I wish to echo the calls of previous speakers regarding the PUP. I take some solace from the Minister's words that the Government has not been found wanting and, to be fair, that has been the case regarding the PUP, the wage subsidy scheme and other schemes that have been rolled out.
I take some comfort from that, but I echo Deputy O'Dea Comments that people require certainty. I suppose it is hard to give certainty in the middle of a global pandemic, but where it can be given, it should be. The sooner we can make a decision on this aspect or indicate to the public what we intend to do, the better. It would give people great comfort.
I acknowledge the work of social welfare staff across the country. In Cork city, as Deputy Burke alluded to earlier, those staff have been doing Trojan work and their interaction with my office has been brilliant. I acknowledge that good work. I came here today with one question on a specific issue, but I think it might have broader connotations for other people in similar situations. It concerns people who may be in receipt of carer's allowance or who may be caring for somebody with a physical or mental disability or special needs at home, as mentioned earlier, or somebody looking after an elderly parent. The difficulty we have is that many of those people also work part-time jobs as well as being in receipt of carer's allowance etc.
I have come across several cases of people working part-time in care homes and nursing homes in situations where they have been front-line workers during this pandemic. The difficulty they now find themselves in, depending on the week or the month and as the virus has progressed, is that demand for such staff and services has increased and decreased and these people have sometimes found themselves working far beyond the 18.5 hours permissible under the social welfare entitlement they may be in receipt of. Ordinarily, they might not be allowed to exceed those 18.5 hours. In certain circumstances where the virus knocked out members of staff in a setting or if people had gone to work for the HSE, however, those people have now found themselves working beyond those permissible hours.
Some of those people are now receiving letters from Revenue looking for them to be reassessed. Whether I might be regarded as asking for clemency, consideration or exemptions, whatever way we want to describe it, I think their situation needs to be looked on favourably, where possible. As I said, those people put their shoulders to the wheel as the pandemic progressed. In many situations, if they had refused to work beyond their permitted 18.5 hours many nursing homes would have been understaffed or without staff. I ask the Minister to respond to that aspect of this situation and I ask if any consideration is being given to people in those circumstances.
I will leave the Minister with the last two minutes. I will take just 40 more seconds to say that, as the Minister knows, I spent much of my career teaching. At every opportunity, I have raised the free meals scheme in schools and listening to the opening remarks I am glad the scheme is to be extended throughout the length of the pandemic. That is welcome, but will the Minister consider extending that scheme, or reviewing it, for continuation even beyond Covid-19? The scheme now operates in schools, particularly DEIS schools, but deprivation is not specific to DEIS schools. It can be in all schools. In the 15 years I was teaching, I saw many children coming into school who would not have had a breakfast or a lunch but for getting those meals in school. We are in 2021 and there are many different households out there and many different people with different means. We must assess, as they are doing across the water in the UK, the possibility of rolling out the free meals scheme to all schools.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue concerning the carers who had to work more than 18 hours. I can fully understand the situation they have found themselves in, where they stayed an extra few hours to put their shoulder to the wheel to help in the ongoing efforts in respect of the pandemic, which was extremely difficult for them. I will certainly ask my officials to look at that issue and I will revert directly to the Deputy. It would not be right to penalise somebody who was doing something in an emergency situation, so I will certainly get my officials to examine this matter.
Regarding the school meals, I was pleased we kept the funding going. Many schools are availing of the schools meals programme and it is great they were able to continue on with it. I commend the work the schools have done and also the contractors who took on the job of delivering these meals, because sometimes they are delivered to the homes directly and sometimes they are delivered to the schools for collection. It certainly has made a difference to young people and children to get a substantial meal. I am anxious to continue and expand the scheme. More than a thousand schools have been helped through that programme. There is also the hot school meals programme, which I announced in the budget. We cannot start it immediately, but the request for expressions of interest has gone out and the process is underway. We have deferred the announcement because the schools are closed.
We move on to the Rural Independent Group, whose members have six and a half minutes in total. I understand the Deputies want to use that time for questions and answers.
In the brief time I have, I will highlight two categories of people facing challenges, namely, musicians and small business people. I am aware that in December, it was announced that self-employed people, including artists and musicians, in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment looking to restart their businesses can earn up to €960 over eight weeks, without their PUP being affected. The Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, however, which represents many musicians and entertainers, has stated that what is really needed is the reinstatement of the PUP at €350 per week, as well as the EWSS at €410 per week until the industry reopens without social distancing. The MEAI is also seeking legislation guaranteeing payment breaks from mortgages and loans from financial institutions and the creation of a survival package and scaffolding support structures for self-employed individuals and businesses. In her reply, the Minister might also update me on the MEAI call for a hardship fund to be created jointly by the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and the Arts Council.
I also raise the issue of people who run small businesses. I am dealing with one constituent who runs a small business and she gets just €203 per week. As a result, she is falling behind in her payment of bills associated with the business. She has applied for the CRSS, but is still waiting for her application to be processed. In that context, will the rates being paid to people in that situation in respect of small businesses be reviewed? Will there also be a review of the criteria, which are too stringent for people running small businesses?
I am sorry that there is no time for answers.
We will let the Chair decide on that matter. I understood that the division of time was two and half minutes, two minutes and two minutes and that is what I am sticking to. Perhaps the Minister might have a chance to respond at the end.
For the most part, Covid-related payments in the area of social protection have gone very well for most recipients. I acknowledge the provision of information on this subject, which Deputies were then able to pass on to employers and employees. It was very helpful. However, major difficulties remain for employers and employees. Some employers who have essential works cannot get people back to work because those employees might have underlying conditions or they may have to stay at home because their partner, husband or wife is in a front-line position. Those people cannot go back to work because they have no childcare facilities.
What happens to employers who need people to do the work? What can be done in that case? Staff must also be reassured that the PUP payment will not be taken from them if they do go back to work. People must also look at spending their holidays in Ireland and the revamping of the stay-and-spend tax rebates must be looked at again, in a similar format. Only €300,000 has been claimed under this scheme, yet €250 million was set aside for it.
The Minister has just under a minute to reply.
Regarding the PUP, it exists in tiers and it has been aligned to recipients' previous income. Turning to those people who cannot go to work because of caring duties, we have stated that, in the first instance, they should try to work with their employers to try to find a way to work around the difficulties.
In fairness, many employers have done that and have worked with their employees so they could work flexible hours and try to balance everything. This is not easy for anybody. With regard to those who cannot go to work or cannot get other child care arrangements, the PUP is available to people who cannot get to work and who would not get paid by their employer.
Of course, this is a difficult time for everybody. I understand the point about the music industry and that people have been unemployed for a long time. It is not easy for them.
I have a lot of questions on the topic but I have broken them down into two for the Minister. With regard to CE participants, many organisations desperately need such people for Meals on Wheels and other projects. Please God as we move out of this Covid pandemic we will need them further because the projects will not have the funds to take on staff. People who are aged between 55 and 60 are now limited strictly to three years on a CE scheme. During Covid, this should be extended because organisations are in desperate need for these workers to continue. These workers will find it almost impossible to get employment elsewhere. Is the Minister looking into that?
Outdoor businesses pay taxes and have complied with all of the regulations but they still cannot receive CRSS payments. This is totally unacceptable. I am referring to caravan and campsites and companies that provide outdoor activities in west Cork. Surely these businesses are entitled to CRSS payments. Why are they not included? I would appreciate an answer to these two questions.
On the CE schemes and those people who have hit the three-year limit, the current rules are, generally, that after a one year break they can requalify. Since level 5 restrictions kicked in during October 2020, there has been a stall on the closing of all CE contracts for participants. Currently, that extension is going at least until the end of March and beyond. When the country reopens then the agreements will be closed on a staggered basis so that the essential services referred to by the Deputy will not be hit.
I have just a few questions, to which I hope answers can be given within the three and a half minutes I have.
I have asked the Department for its views on areas of social deprivation and how the prevalence of Covid-19 is impacting these areas around the country. A recent study by the Donegal Women’s Network reinforces some of the issues I raised with the Minister about deprivation and the impacts of Covid-19. The North, reportedly, already has this information. What are her views on this? Will she take in this information as part of her work?
I turn to the matter of enhanced illness benefit for people who are extremely medically vulnerable. The Government has said that all employers have been putting the health and safety of employees front and centre during this pandemic, but this is not the case. I have been contacted by one worried wife and mother who told me that her husband's employer has not facilitated him to work from home and has continued to insist that he work in a customer-facing role. At that start of all of this, when cocooning guidelines were first issued by NPHET, he took that advice and stayed at home. His employer did not offer to pay him or arrange for him to work from home even though it would have been possible. Instead, this man was able to claim the €350 rate of PUP. Now it has been cut to €203 per week. For people in these situations is it possible that the PUP could be reinstated to €350 per week?
On the first point, we have taken the Deputy's question on board. There is an issue with comparing data that the HSE and Pobal have. We are looking at other data sources also because before jumping into a big piece of research there is quite a lot of information in different Departments and agencies. We are trying to see what we have got before we go on to that stage. As I said in my opening statement, when we are considering the impacts of Covid on people who are socially excluded, there are three areas we can examine. The first area is vaccine access. I believe we are quite good on that side with equity of access. Then there is the area of infection rates and mortality. There are questions to be asked there and perhaps research to be done at some stage on underlying health conditions and health inequalities that have fed up the line and caused higher mortality rates. Then there is the wider area of the impacts of the health restrictions. One can look at pretty much every sector of society in that regard, including education and disability services. It is quite broad but we are considering what we have got before we make the next step on it.
I first need to acknowledge the work being done by the people in the Department of Social Protection over the past year.
Is there any intention to consider those who have businesses and who are pension age or over? They were not entitled to the PUP even though they had money borrowed. Is there any intention to change that?
One of the vaccines we had hung our hat on is not being recommended in Germany for people over the age of 65. This could prolong our situation in Ireland. Will there be a commitment to continue the PUP as long as possible? It is imperative because if we do not keep the supports there for all the different employers around the country while they are closed, we will pay more in PUP and other social welfare payments in the future. Employers are under ferocious pressure with regard to rates and overhead charges. Will the Government commit to making sure these supports are continued? The simple reason is that there will be no jobs if the employers are gone.
On carers, I note what the Minister of State said earlier in response to Deputy Colm Burke. I have seen instances such as the person who works in Dublin and then goes home as a carer to mind another person belonging to them, and is means tested. We should understand that if a person is working and is means tested sometimes he or she will not pass the means test even though he or she has given up work completely. This carer is saving the State €800 per week because he or she would get €200 but it is €1,000 per week in a nursing home. Will some process be brought in to simplify that?
On the CE schemes, because of the PUP and what we have gone through in the past year with the virus, can all of the people who were on the three-year schemes have their time extended rather than looking at a few schemes and giving the nod for a few months? It is more difficult at the moment for people to be interviewed.
I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. It is important to say that my Department has expended an additional €10.5 billion in supports through the PUP, TWSS and EWSS since the start of the pandemic. To be fair, the Government has not been found wanting in supporting businesses and in supporting people who have unfortunately found themselves out of work.
A number of Deputies have raised the issue of extending the PUP. It has been extended until the end of March. I certainly will review it in consultation with my Government colleagues. We will consider where the virus is at, where the vaccination programme is at and whether we have been able to open up the economy. That decision will be looked at very carefully. It is fair to say, however, that the Government has not been found wanting in supporting people.
The Deputy asked about carers.
I have spoken about this previously. The role of social protection is to give people a basic income. It does not pay people for the work they do. I get many questions about carers, and that is where there must be a more joined-up approach between my Department and the Department of Health. The Deputy is correct to say that carers are providing that service and that the costs may or may not be incurred by the State through the fair deal scheme or whatever supports are available. It is something we have to examine.