I am delighted to present this Bill to the Seanad. It has a single straightforward purpose - to give effect to the announcement made in the Budget Statement 2019 to establish a new scheme of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed from November of this year.
This new scheme will provide a social insurance support to self-employed contributors who lose their businesses and will provide them with the support and breathing space they need to reassess their next steps. The Bill is very much in keeping with this Government's policy of supporting self-employed people and entrepreneurs.
The new benefit we are introducing reflects the Government’s aim of creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurship, including providing an income safety net to employees and self-employed alike. This Government has sought to encourage enterprise and, in particular, has sought to introduce a new deal for the self-employed when it comes to accessing their benefits.
Senators will recall that we extended treatment benefits and invalidity pension to the self-employed in recent years to ensure that they reach some parity with employees in the benefits they can access from the social insurance contributions. The introduction of a new jobseeker’s benefit scheme for the self-employed represents the next step in the Government’s work to extend PRSI benefits and will provide an income safety net to thousands of small and medium businesses throughout the country. For the first time, this gives the self-employed access to the safety net of income supports if they lose their self-employment, without having to go through the rigours of a means test.
Many of the features of the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme, which provides support to employees who have lost their jobs, will apply to this new scheme. For example, the personal rate of payment of €203 per week will be the same for both schemes. The duration of payment, for six months or nine months depending on the claimant’s social insurance record, will also be the same. The scheme has been designed to take into account the fact that PRSI contributions by the self-employed are paid by way of an annual lump sum.
The activation of self-employed workers who have had to close their businesses, and their re-engagement into employment, whether that is again in self-employment or as an employee, will be a priority in my Department. We are currently examining the activation supports available for this cohort, but in any event, claimants of the new payment will have access to the full range of activation supports currently available to all other jobseekers. This includes, for instance, referral to group information sessions, one to one interviews and subsequent caseworker support.
Self-employed people who are operating businesses at low levels of income can continue to access the means tested jobseeker's allowance scheme. There are almost 7,000 self-employed in receipt of this payment as of today.
I would now like to briefly outline the contents of the Bill, which contains nine sections in three Parts. Part 1 comprises section 1, which provides for the standard provisions setting out the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citations, and commencement provisions.
Part 2 deals with amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Section 2 is again a standard provision which defines the principal Act used in this Part.
One of the consequences of introducing the new scheme is that it is necessary also to amend some of the provisions of the Act governing the existing jobseeker’s benefit scheme. These changes are provided for in sections 3 and 4. Section 3 extends the qualifying conditions for the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme by providing that the first condition to determine eligibility for payment can now be met by having 104 employment or optional contributions, for example PRSI class A contributions, as has always been the case, or by having have 156 self-employment contributions PRSI class S, which is being added. This positive change recognises that some people will have engaged in both employment and self-employment in their working lives. By recognising that either form of employment gives rise to entitlements within the social insurance system, this change will help to ensure that an individual will not be at a disadvantage as a result of a move from employment to self-employment.
Section 4 provides that where a claimant who is in receipt of jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, also satisfies the qualifying conditions for jobseeker’s benefit, periods spent in receipt of jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, will be treated as though jobseeker's benefit is being paid. This is a standard provision to ensure that a claimant does not secure a double benefit.
Section 5 is the key element of the Bill and provides for the introduction of a new Chapter 12A to the principal Act, which sets out all of the provisions governing the new jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, scheme.
The new Chapter 12A provides for the general qualifying conditions for receipt of jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, the social insurance contribution conditions, the rate of benefit payable, including reduced rate benefits payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings of the claimant fall below certain thresholds, the increases payable where there is a qualified adult or qualified children, the duration of payment, and the requirement to engage with activation services and disqualifications. These provisions mirror, to a great extent, the existing provisions governing entitlement to jobseeker's benefit. I do not propose to go through the detail of all of these aspects at this time, but we will have an opportunity to examine these in greater depth on Committee Stage.
Section 6 provides for a range of amendments to the general provisions of the Act which cover all social insurance schemes and are required to reflect the introduction of the new jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, scheme. The amendments are set out in the form of a Schedule to the Bill.
Part 3 of the Bill provides for amendments to the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 as a result of the introduction of the new scheme. Section 7 provides for the definition of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 used in this Part.
Sections 8 and 9 amend sections 3 and 126, respectively, of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to provide for and confirm the tax treatment of payments under the new jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, scheme. Jobseeker’s benefit, self-employed, will provide an insurance-based safety net which has not, until now, been available to those setting up or running their own businesses. As Senators will know, the people about whom we are talking are, in very many cases, engaged in small family-run businesses. During the recession everyone took a hit, but I particularly remember how small businesses suffered. Almost overnight, there were fewer vans on the road; many office units shut down and small businesses such as mobile hairdressers literally went out of business overnight. Now that the economy is starting to hum again, it is positive that we are seeing more and more vans on the road, not that we welcome the queues for breakfast rolls, but it is good to see them on the road, fewer empty office units and more shops with entrepreneurs taking a chance. That is a great indicator of our national spirit and culture and the recovery is starting to bed in. We talk a lot about multinational companies locating in Ireland and the welcome jobs they bring to all counties, but the backbone in creating employment is small and medium-sized enterprises which, in the main, are started by Irish entrepreneurs. By providing for greater fairness and support for these job creators, we can continue to build the best possible environment for growth and prosperity for all citizens.
I hope to be in a position to introduce a small but important amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage. It relates to a separate matter from that covered in the Bill. It concerns the procedures governing appeals in relation to social welfare payments against decisions of deciding officers appointed as bureau officers under section 8 of the Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996. In practical terms, the purpose of the amendment will be to provide that such appeals will always have to be submitted to the Circuit Court. The amendment is being drafted by the Office of the Attorney General and we will have an opportunity to deal with it in greater detail on Committee Stage.
I know that I can expect to hear valuable contributions from Senators. I look forward to speedy passage of the Bill in the Seanad and bringing it to the Dáil with the aim of having it enacted and starting the payment of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed in November.