Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Fuel Poverty

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to support families who are struggling to meet energy costs during winter 2021 and who are locked out of the fuel allowance given many households are not eligible for the payment and are reporting challenges with the rising cost of living; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [58204/21]

I want to ask the Minister about supports for families given the rising cost of living, particularly the rising cost of energy specifically for those not in receipt of the fuel allowance.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government is committed to supporting households to control and meet energy costs through a combination of monetary supports, as well as investment to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock.

My Department provides a range of supports to assist people with their fuel costs. Fuel allowance is currently paid to over 369,000 at an estimated annual cost of €323 million in 2021. As part of the overall welfare budget package of €600 million in increases which I secured for 2022, I was pleased to be able to increase the fuel allowance payment by €5 per week effective from budget night. In addition, as part of the budget, I increased the weekly income threshold for fuel allowance by €20. This change to the means test was due to take effect from January 2022. However, cognisant of rising fuel costs, I asked my officials to prioritise the work required to IT systems to allow this to be implemented as soon as possible. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that this work will be completed at the end of this week, with the effective date for the implementation of the revised means test backdated to budget day. These two measures, which increase the value of the fuel allowance payment by €59 million, or 20%, on a full year basis, mean that the weekly payment has increased from €22.50 to €33 per since 2016. That is an increase of just under 50% over the period.

In addition to the fuel allowance, other important supports are also available. For example, the electricity and gas allowances are currently paid to over 460,000 recipients at an estimated annual cost in 2021 of €195 million. Other payments, such as increases for the qualified children and living alone allowances and the working family payment, are also shown to be effective in supporting those households that will be most challenged by increases in energy costs. Again, I was pleased to be able to bring forward increases in these payments as part of budget 2022, valued at €98 million in a full year.

I understand and acknowledge that the fuel allowance is there and that it helps many families but I am asking about families in low-income work in particular but also middle-income households given the crisis in regard to rising fuel costs. In the last year, there have been 35 price hikes by providers. On average, households will be paying between €500 and €600 more this winter. I acknowledge the changes that were made in the budget to the fuel allowance and to the eligibility. However, according to a recent reply to a parliamentary question, they will benefit only 7,800 households, which is not a lot in the grand scheme of things and the 369,000 recipients given the crisis we face when it comes to energy costs.

My question is in regard to those outside of the fuel allowance. I genuinely welcome that the Minister has made that move such that a particular cohort of people will not have to wait until January but I would welcome an update in respect of those outside of the fuel allowance.

For those outside of social welfare supports, the Government launched a comprehensive strategy in 2016 to combat energy poverty following extensive public consultation. This strategy was spearheaded by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has responsibility in that area. The strategy sets out the Government's commitment to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through a combination of supports, investment in schemes to improve energy efficiency and energy efficiency awareness initiatives. A review of the implementation of the strategy to combat energy poverty will be completed this year. This will inform the next steps which the Government will take.

One of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty in the long term is to improve the energy efficiency of the dwelling through proper building and household insulation. The warmer homes scheme administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is designed to do that.

Once again, nothing the Minister stated will help the families who face huge increases in their energy bills this winter. The Minister mentioned energy efficiency. That is all well and good. The Minister also mentioned the SEAI and the warmer homes scheme, which is probably the most popular scheme, but to be eligible for that you have to be in receipt of the fuel allowance. That is fine, but that is not going to help families this winter. The Minister has not been able to point to any particular support that is there. She regularly mentions the exceptional needs payment. I would ask her to look at that because I was contacted last week by two constituents, from both ends of my constituency, who sought a payment for fuel from the local community welfare officer, CWO, under the exceptional needs payment and they were given €200. The local oil provider would not come out for any less than €300. There are discrepancies there. We do not know the figures in regard to the number of people seeking help from the CWO and the numbers being refused. I ask the Minister to look at all of that.

We are spending over €323 million on the fuel allowance and €195 million on the gas and electricity allowance. That is a considerable amount of money. For those who have problems, as I said, there is an exceptional needs payment available under the supplementary welfare allowance from the community welfare officer for heating costs. The fund is uncapped. As it is demand-led, it can run to €5 million, €10 million or €20 million. We pay where a need is identified. I cannot get into individual cases but that fund is there specifically for that purpose. If people run into difficulties, they can seek assistance from the community welfare officer.

On the number of people that has been assisted, we have changed the means test. We do not know whether 7,000, 10,000 or 20,000 people will benefit because we do not know how many are going to apply. If they qualify, my Department will make sure they get paid. I would encourage people to apply for the fuel allowance. They may be marginal and they may qualify for it.

Social Welfare Payments

Seán Canney

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will consider ending the reduced rate of jobseeker’s benefit in favour of full rate pay for those who qualify for the benefit given that the reduced rate is below the minimum social welfare rate and is penalising persons who were in low-income jobs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57011/21]

Will the Minister consider ending the reduced rate of jobseeker's benefit in favour of a full rate of pay for those who qualify for the benefit given that the reduced rate is below the minimum social welfare rate and it is also penalising people who are in low-income jobs? This is something I have come across within my constituency. People are suffering because, having worked in low-pay jobs, they are now not even getting the minimum social welfare benefit.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The social insurance contribution-based jobseeker's benefit and the means-tested jobseeker's allowance provide income support for people who have lost their jobs and are unable to find full-time employment. The rate of jobseeker's benefit is graduated accorded to an applicant's previous average earnings and graduated rates are applied where the person's average reckonable weekly earnings are less than €300. Recipients with average weekly earnings of less than this amount will be paid a personal weekly rate, ranging from €91.10 to €159. Recipients with average weekly earnings over €300 receive a personal rate of €203 per week, which is aligned with the maximum personal rate of jobseeker's allowance. The vast majority of recipients, almost 80%, are paid the maximum rate.

Further to budget 2022, the maximum rate will increase by €5 per week with effect from next January, with pro rata increases applied to the graduated rates.

It would not be appropriate for a person to receive a weekly social welfare benefit payment that exceeded his or her income from employment. Graduated rates of payment mean that there is no financial disincentive to return to work. This is particularly relevant for those who work on a part-time basis, as many people on graduated rates do. To do otherwise would have a negative impact on the labour market.

It is open for a person on a graduated rate of jobseeker's benefit to apply for the means-tested jobseeker's allowance if that is financially more beneficial. Approximately 630 such recipients are currently being paid a higher rate on the jobseeker's allowance scheme. The programme for Government, the national economic recovery plan and the Pathways to Work Strategy 2021-2025 all include a commitment to consider the development of a pay-related benefit. Similar pay-related social insurance schemes are already in place in other European countries. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, rate is linked to a person's prior earnings and, under the Pathways to Work Strategy 2021-2025, the Government has committed to using the experience from the PUP to inform the design of a pay-related social insurance-based short-term jobseeker payment that may be developed by quarter 3 of 2023.

I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome her mention of a pay-related scheme. Given that people who lose their jobs might have their earnings fall to €203, it is important that there be a graduated reduction to ease the transition into unemployment status. However, it is also important to keep in mind that the maximum rate of benefit is €203. This is the most that some people can get at the moment. In today's world of rising prices and an increased cost of living, that is pretty low. Could this matter be considered?

I welcome the introduction of a pay-related scheme. We should put a floor of €203 on all payments so that people do not fall below that level. If they are part-time workers, that could be taken into account. At the same time, it is important to ensure that work pays and that people can return to work and benefit more from that. When people pay PRSI, it is important that they get a reasonable response when they are made redundant.

Some 80% of people on jobseeker's benefit receive the full rate of €203. This amount will increase to €208 in January following the budget changes.

The position is clear, in that, if someone has been working a sufficient number of hours and has the required number of PRSI contributions, he or she will get the full payment rate. If anyone is on a reduced rate, it is because he or she was working a limited amount beforehand, meaning that he or she had not built up the requisite PRSI record. For example, he or she could have been a part-time worker who only worked one night per week.

We do not want to distort the labour market. If we paid people more through jobseeker's benefit than they got while they were working, there would be no incentive to go to work. We must balance the two. Work has to pay. Anyone who is on a reduced rate of jobseeker's benefit can apply for the means-tested jobseeker's allowance, the floor of which is €208. It might be more favourable for some people.

I welcome the Minister's positive response. I believe the Minister said that she would have the pay-related scheme in place by March for people who had been put out of work for one reason or another. This would be important. People who exit employment status come to a cliff edge and their incomes fall abruptly. I would accept a scheme wherein the benefit rate they received was graduated over time and related to their pay. The problem is that, when people in community employment schemes and the like finish their time on those schemes and go back on the benefit, they get reduced payments.

In the overall context, I agree wholeheartedly that we must ensure that work pays, that we create an incentive for people to return to work and that the income gap between working and not working is substantial.

To clarify, I will look at a pay-related support for people who are made unemployed. This is something to which we must give consideration. Such a scheme is the right thing to do, but it will take some time to design that system. We will take the lessons from the PUP. I am committed to developing a pay-related benefit whereby someone gets a percentage of his or her earnings upon losing a job. This would help to avoid the income cliff edge. When I worked in the credit union, I saw how people's incomes dropped suddenly when they lost their jobs. It was very difficult for them. This is a question of how to help people overcome that initial shock. There is a role for a pay-related benefit and it is something that I am committed to considering in order to find a solution.

Social Welfare Benefits

Claire Kerrane

Question:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will reintroduce the pandemic unemployment payment for those workers who are affected by recent updates to public health guidelines; the supports that are available to those who now cannot work as a result of these guidelines; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [58205/21]

Will the Minister consider reintroducing the PUP and making it available to workers who may need it? What discussions has she had on this matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Almost €9 billion has been spent on the PUP since its introduction, demonstrating the Government's commitment to workers. The number of PUP recipients has fallen dramatically from a peak of more than 605,000 last year to approximately 57,000 this week. This represents a drop of over 90%, highlighting that the majority of people have returned to work.

The introduction of an earlier closing time in the night-time industry and the other measures announced by the Government last week do not represent an economic shutdown to the same extent as those measures previously introduced. The Department has not seen an increase in applications for jobseeker's payments over the past week. In fact, the opposite has happened, with numbers on the live register falling to approximately 165,000 this week. This does not point to significant lay-offs as a result of the midnight closing time.

As the Deputy will be aware, many employers in the sector have adapted their trading hours to meet the new closing time requirement and can avail of the employment wage subsidy scheme to retain workers on their payrolls. It is also the case that, while employment opportunities were limited under the wider restrictions of previous lockdowns, many businesses are actively trying to recruit staff now. The Deputy will be aware of reports of some businesses having to limit their opening hours due to non-availability of staff.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, the Government does not propose to reopen the PUP as a consequence of the measures announced last week. The normal range of income supports available from my Department for people who lose their employment continues to be available and claims can be processed quickly. Support is available under the jobseeker's benefit scheme or the jobseeker's allowance scheme. Payments under these schemes, which range from €203 for a single person to €420.70 for a couple with two children, may be much more beneficial to some households than the PUP.

I assure the Deputy that the situation remains under close review by the Government as we continue to monitor the impacts of the Covid-19 virus.

It "remains under close review", but what level of discussions have been had on the PUP and has consideration been given to the fact that what was announced last week will limit people who are working in the night-time and live entertainment industries? I am thinking of musicians in particular. I spoke to the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, last week. The Minister has engaged with it herself a number of times. Musicians have seen their December bookings wiped out. The issue is not just the midnight rule announced by the Government.

As people are being told to reduce their movements, bookings for Christmas parties are gone now and people who had booked tickets for gigs are not going now. That is an issue. The situation is very serious, particularly for musicians. We cannot tell musicians, and I know the Minister is not suggesting this, to get a job somewhere else. Musicians are one of several vulnerable groups.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments, especially about the live entertainment sector. It is important to say that we are in a much better position now than previously. Music is now allowed at weddings. Indeed, I was at a wedding last Sunday and was delighted to see three different sets of musicians playing. In total, there were nine people employed at that one wedding for the day. I was heartened to see that, to be honest. Music is still allowed in pubs and concerts can take place. However, it is going to take time to build this sector back up. Some people may be nervous about going out and this could impact on ticket sales, particularly for concerts and similar events. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has worked to bring in a number of sector-specific supports for the entertainment sector and is in constant contact with its representatives. Over €60 million has been provided this year to support the live performance sector. A €25 million live performance support scheme is in place and only yesterday the Minister announced a further €2 million under that scheme to support the live sector.

I will take the Minister at her word that the possible reopening of the PUP will remain under close review. Hopefully not many workers will actually need it because we will not see a total shutdown but the PUP should be there as a support for people. In terms of those who have moved onto jobseeker payments, many will be getting jobseeker's benefit but a number of people will be moving on to jobseeker's allowance which has serious implications, given the household means test. We have spoken a lot about €203 but for those aged 18 to 24, the payment is €112 per week but if they are living at home, which an awful lot of young people, including musicians, are then the payment could be an awful lot less. This is a serious issue and we need to keep a very close eye on it.

Will those who have been transitioned onto jobseeker's payments be referred for job activation schemes? What happens to that cohort of people?

We have the pathways to work strategy to help people to get back to work and to help those who want to upskill or reskill. Supports are there for people and a lot of investment has gone into pathways to work through the further education system and through my Department. We want to work with people and we want to help them because it is not an easy time for them. In terms of the PUP, it was very much needed in March 2020. The Department had to process thousands upon thousands of applications as quickly as possible to get money into people's pockets when they needed it. We are not in that position now or anywhere near it. As I said earlier, the number of applications for jobseeker's payments is actually falling. However, if the situation changes in terms of the public health advice, we will keep everything under review. That is what we have done throughout the pandemic. At the end of the day, we are all here to serve the people and to help them when they need it. That is what the Department of Social Protection wants to do.

Question No. 4 replied to with Written Answers.

Employment Support Services

Catherine Connolly

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Social Protection the analysis her Department has carried out into the lessons learned from the first phase of procurement for the new regional employment service model; her plans to publish this analysis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57995/21]

What analysis has been carried out by the Department of Social Protection and what has been learned from the roll-out of the first phase of the procurement for the new regional employment service and equally important, will that analysis be published?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is now at an advanced stage in its first phase of a two-phase procurement of new employment services. This procurement process follows extensive engagement by my Department with existing service partners over the last number of years. The new regional employment service model will extend high quality employment services across the State, deliver enhanced governance arrangements, ensure contracts are on a sound legal footing and provide successful tenderers with greater flexibility to innovate and deliver services for their clients.

The Department is currently reflecting on feedback from phase 1 and amending the request for tender for phase 2, as appropriate. Specifically, based on feedback received, officials are examining the minimum referral numbers but also are looking at how payment scheduling can assist cash flow for potential tenderers. In addition, on 9 November my Department hosted a webinar for more than 150 people with an interest in tendering for the procurement of employment services where questions were taken and written feedback sought in advance of the phase 2 procurement. That feedback is also proving valuable in finalising the phase 2 request for tenders. The analysis resulting in identified lessons will be reflected in the phase 2 request for tenders, which will be published before the end of the year.

The request for tenders for phase 2 will issue before the end of this year and will incorporate the key learnings from phase 1. The Department is continuing to consult with interested providers, including existing service partners. I strongly encourage existing service partners to work together to provide joint bids under the phase 2 procurement process. Contracts under phase 2 for the regional employment service will be awarded primarily on the basis of quality, the provider's community linkages, the ability of tenderers to access a wide range of services to meet their client's needs and importantly, to deliver social value. This approach focuses on delivering quality outcomes and assisting individuals to access tailored support for longer, focusing on achieving their key personal progression milestones.

I thank the Minister and I acknowledge her efforts in terms of changing some aspects of this. However, I cannot escape the conclusion that this is the privatisation of the service even though the Minister has stated, very often, that it is not. I wish to refer to the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, which was published in November. There are nine recommendations in that report, all of which are pretty serious. There are 14 cross-party members on that committee and they say many things. They ask that the legal advice upon which this decision by the Department is based be published. They ask for the local employment service to be maintained in its current form and for the process to be paused for the moment. They also ask for the publication of the Institute for Employment Studies report. There are nine recommendations and serious issues are highlighted in the committee's report. Members are asking for the process to be paused and for certain documents to be published so that we can have a truly open and accountable system in relation to this. Deputy Kerrane has raised this on many occasions as have other Deputies, including me. It really is time to make language mean something here. There are serious issues raised by the committee.

I appreciate the joint committee's strong interest in employment services and its engagement with me and my officials as it considered its findings. However, I note that there are some inaccuracies in the committee's report, in that evidence from witnesses to the committee that is not factually accurate is repeated. One example is the claim that my Department had not engaged with SIPTU prior to 17 September 2021 but my Department first met SIPTU on this issue in 2019 and had other meetings with the union in advance of 17 September.

I look forward to responding to the joint committee's recommendations in detail. It is clear that we are all seeking to provide the best route to employment for those people who face serious and continuing challenges in returning to the labour market. Nonetheless, given the need to expand employment service provision across the State, to strengthen governance in the delivery of employment service provision and to ensure that such provision is placed on a sound legal footing, thereby meeting the State's legal obligations, my Department must continue with its plans to procure employment services in an open and competitive manner.

In a previous reply to Deputy Kerrane, the Minister said that we are all here to serve the people, that we are servants and I totally agree. In that context, 14 people who have been elected as Senators or Deputies, across party, have asked for this process to be stalled. Surely that says something. The Minister has said that there is a need to expand but it seems that the Department is on a roller coaster towards expansion. Surely, on the basis of the precautionary principle, the first part should be looked on as a pilot project at the very least. To push ahead with the second phase before the end of this year is not acceptable in the context of all of the issues raised.

In addition, we must learn from the pandemic. The local employment services and jobs clubs are community based. They are on the ground. The Minister knows more about it than I do. That is what we should be focusing on and strengthening. The model that is coming in is on a cost-bid basis as opposed to a cost-needs basis and it is weighted in favour of the bigger, for-profit companies.

It is. The Minister should look at her first tender to see who won the bid. Who was successful as opposed to who was unsuccessful? We must look at this again. If the Minister has any influence, now is the time to use it in view of the committee report. I thank the Minister. I am over time.

I understand the Deputy's concerns. I reassure her that I have done everything I can to ensure the importance of social value and community linkages are reflected in the procurement process. We have engaged extensively with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, yet we hear that some of its members seem not to have received the information that we have given.

The one issue we must remember is that the jobseeker is at the heart of the process. It is the person who is long-term unemployed. Such people are number one and it is crucial that they get the supports they need.

The intention is to extend the local employment services across the State. Currently, there are 14 counties with no local employment service and a further three counties that only have services in big urban areas, namely, Cork, Galway and Bray, County Wicklow. What we want to do is to improve the outcome for the customer and at the same time to work with local providers. I have done everything I can to ensure the importance of social value. There were lessons from the first round across a number of areas and we have taken them on board. I am doing everything I can to make sure that the user gets the best possible service.