I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty back to the House. We are resuming on the question that section 7 stand part of the Bill. Does any Senator wish to contribute on section 7?
Social Welfare Bill 2019: Committee Stage (Resumed)
May I clarify that we will resume on amendment No. 30?
We will reach that in due course.
Amendments Nos. 27 to 29, inclusive, have been ruled out of order as they involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
I move amendment No. 30:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within one month of the enactment of this Act, consult with the Joint Committee for Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the intention of attending a meeting of that committee and providing a briefing in relation to the Public Services Card and any actions his or her department is undertaking in response to the Data Protection Commission’s investigation report into the Public Services Card.”.
While amendments Nos. 27 to 29, inclusive, were ruled out of order, it is my intention to revisit the phrasing of those amendments and to return to those issues on Report Stage. Those amendments also relate to the public services card, which is the core of amendment No. 30.
We have debated the concerns on the public services card on a number of occasions since 2017. I have been told during previous debates that there are no such concerns and I know the Minister still holds the view that the concerns and the recommendations of the Data Protection Commissioner do not necessarily need to be acted upon. My view is that we must take the recommendations of an independent body that is not only the independent regulator of our actions in this State but that plays a very significant role in the standards of data protection in Europe and in our international reputation as one of the key regulators and key actors in this area across Europe.
Most people have taken the concerns very seriously and I know that concern has been expressed by all parties on it. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be aware the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection began an examination of the public services card a number of months ago. That examination was suspended pending the publication of the Data Protection Commissioner's report. Now that the report has been published, the findings of the Data Protection Commissioner, which have a real and serious legal status, have intensified the concern of the committee. I am tabling this amendment to require the Minister to engage with the committee and provide a briefing to it on the public services card and such actions as the Department is undertaking in respect of the Data Protection Commissioner's investigative report into the public services card. It is a very serious concern.
I am not going to rehash the discussions we have had on a number of occasions in this House over the past three years, but it is unfortunate to note that the Government is continuing to accelerate and dig down on this by attaching a requirement to the public services card in regard to the provision of childcare services. In making that a requirement rather than having a precautionary measure of another form of identification which might be acceptable, it seems we are taking our contract with the provider of the public services card seriously to the detriment of our regard for international law.
This contract was signed one month in advance of the publication of the Data Protection Commission's report. Despite the concerns around it and the investigation that was under way, the Department signed another contract. There has been an acceleration of the roll-out of the public services card and there are reports of transition year students having been issued with them. In many cases, which feature in the Data Protection Commission's report, persons were issued with public services card by post, thereby rendering redundant any argument around the supposed SAFE 2 process, which the Department itself invented as a different standard.
These are all issues that perhaps might better be teased out in the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I understand that the Chairman of the committee has been in touch with the Department and has proposed a date for its engagement with the committee in regard to these issues. It would, of course, be my preference if they were able to engage in that sense by agreement with the Chairman and members of the committee, and that would allow me to withdraw the amendment. Perhaps the Minister will agree or indicate where her discussion is at in terms of attendance at the committee.
I support this amendment. When this issue kicked off over the summer recess, we wrote to the committee requesting that the Minister be asked to appear before it to discuss the matter, which call we reiterate today. This is a serious issue. The finding of the independently appointed Data Protection Commission is that the public services card is unlawful. Yet, the response of Government and the Department of Social Protection is to plough ahead regardless, which is incomprehensible. There are grave concerns about the public services card, not least the manner in which the contract was awarded. There are many questions to be answered. The Minister and her officials need to elaborate on what they have in their armour that they believe is sufficiently strong to counteract the independent Data Protection Commissioner's reported finding that the public services card is unlawful.
As I was aware that we would be resuming our consideration of Committee Stage of the Bill on this amendment, I approached the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and asked him if was aware of it. He was not. I asked him if he had a problem extending an invitation to me, which I would be very happy to accept, and he said he had no problem doing so. The invitation arrived by post during the week and I have accepted it.
I thank the Minister for accepting the invitation and I look forward to us being able to tease out these issues in greater depth in committee. I will withdraw the amendment, but as a date for the meeting has not yet been confirmed, I reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage.
I move amendment No 31:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
"10. The Minister shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the total contributions approach to the contributory state pension, which shall include—
(a) an estimation of the potential cost of the scheme on the basis of 1,560 contributions rather than 2,080 contributions as the threshold for qualification for the maximum rate, and
(b) a comparison of the likely difference between a 1,560 contributory requirement and a 2,080 contributory requirement in terms of weekly income levels for those affected.".
This amendment relates to the total contributions approach, in respect of which I understand the Minister has indicated a timeline around when we can expect it to be introduced and, specifically, the number of contributions that might be required, which is of huge concern to many people. There is a sizeable difference between moving to a 30-year requirement and a 40-year requirement. As the Minister will be aware, many people can currently access the contributory State pension with 20 years' contributions. The move towards a 30-year contributions requirement has been well signalled and has taken place over a number of years. However, there was rhetoric from officials within the Department to the effect that the case for a 40-year threshold of contributions is being examined. Very few people who would be likely to come of age within the current total contributions approach roll-out will be able to fulfil the 40-year contributions requirement. This is a matter of very serious concern. We know of the severe impact on women, predominantly, who are on reduced rate pensions, this being the cohort affected in 2012. I do not want to see a situation where a much larger cohort of the population find themselves on reduced rate State contributory pensions because they do not have 40 years of contributions.
The second issue is what form of contributions are to be accepted within that 30-year threshold. The introduction of care credits is a matter on which I have praised the Minister in the past, as I had on many occasions advocated for their introduction. It is important that following on from the introduction of care credits, we do not allow people to use them and then push the goalposts out such that they effectively become meaningless in terms of the level of pensions they are paid or the security they have. The amendment seeks an update on this matter by way of report, but the Minister might, perhaps, be able to indicate the timeline that she or the Department is considering in terms of bringing proposals to the table in regard to the total contributions approach, which may obviate the necessity for a separate process.
The amendment seeks that the Minister would produce a report within three months of the passing of this Act, which the House will be aware it is hoped to commence on 1 November as a policy. I am hopeful that the Act will be passed in the next couple of weeks. The amendment provides that the Minister, on the passing of the Act, would produce a report within three months on a policy that has not as yet been determined. This policy has not yet gone to Cabinet or received approval. On that basis, I am unable to accept the amendment.
The original proposal was for the total contributions approach to be rolled out in December.
That is not true.
It was due to be rolled out in 2020.
That is a year away. The plan is-----
It is almost 2020.
Senator Higgins, please allow the Minister to respond.
The Senator asked a question regarding the timeline, which I did not answer. As per the pensions roadmap issued in March 2018, the plan is to establish the new total contributions approach, TCA, model by quarter 4 of 2020. That plan is on target. There is plenty of time for us to conclude our deliberations, which I hope to have done by the end of this year. I cannot commit to a review of a policy that has not yet been determined.
To clarify, I am not seeking a review-----
The Senator is asking that a report be produced within three months of the passing of this Act.
The timeline for introduction is 2020. As indicated by the Taoiseach we are potentially facing an election in May 2020. One of the key tasks and areas of work this term for the Government has been the review of the total contributions approach in line with the pensions roadmap. The Minister has indicated that she hopes to conclude deliberations on this matter by the end of this year. I do not want us to move into an election season without having had clarity or a report on the matter. If the plan is to implement this policy in December 2020, we need to have a proper debate now. Thus far, the Department has been consistent in saying that no decisions have been made, no preferred model has been put forward, and no policy has been set. I do not want us to continue in limbo into spring and then find ourselves facing into an election without clarity on this issue and with a new policy effectively in place within a six-month window. We have been awaiting clarity around the Government's thinking on this issue. The Minister mentioned the end of the year. Perhaps she would elaborate.
The Senator has made her point. I get the impression the Minister feels she cannot accept the amendment.
The Senator is asking me for the details of a policy that has not yet been decided. With all due respect to the Senator, when I am ready and the policy has been finalised, the first place it will be brought is the Cabinet. The legislation will then be drafted. It must then go through pre-legislative scrutiny and will then be drafted and published. It must then come to both Houses of the Oireachtas for detailed scrutiny, at which stage we will all have an opportunity to decide whether we are happy with it or whether to amend it. What the Senator is asking me to do now off the back of a Bill that has nothing to do with our new pensions roadmap is to give her a pre-emptive view of what we are doing and I am not in a position to do that.
What I am asking is that there would be a report within three months.
How can I give the Senator a report within three months when I do not know when we will be ready to have a Cabinet-----
We then do not expect to have clarity within three months. Let us be clear about what is being asked for. I am asking for estimates of a number of potential costs, including the cost of a 30-year scheme, and the impact on individuals and a comparison of the likely difference between a 30-year contribution scheme and a 40-year contribution scheme in terms of weekly income levels for those affected. These are important facts and I would hope that they would be put into the public realm in advance of legislation. Alternatively, is the Minister telling us that we can expect simply a secret policy on a total contribution approach to magically appear in an item of legislation and then go through that process? Will the Department give any facts and figures regarding the impact of 30 years or 40 years in terms of the Exchequer and the individual and an indication of the Department's perspective on that some time within the next three months?
To be fair to the Minister, she is trying to say that there will be ample scrutiny in the relevant Oireachtas committee, the Dáil and the Seanad-----
My policy concerns policy, not legislation.
She cannot give the Senator a guarantee that there will be a report within three months of the passing of this Bill on something that has not yet been finalised. I am not here to speak for the Minister but we have had the debate and we could go round in circles for a while longer. Does the Senator wish to press her amendment?
I will not press the amendment but I would say that I do not think there is much assurance in what the Minister said.
Is the Senator withdrawing the amendment?
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
"10. The Minister shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on:
(a) policy options around the extension of jobseeker’s transitional payment to include one parent families with a child up to eighteen years of age; and
(b) policy options around the extension of jobseeker’s transitional payment to include a foster parent of a child up to eighteen years of age.".
This amendment relates to an issue discussed previously, namely, jobseeker's transitional payment. At present, when the youngest child in a family reaches the age of seven, persons who were previously in receipt of one-parent family payment move to jobseeker's transitional payment. This affords them access on a voluntary basis to employment, education and training supports and casework and allows them to retain a high level of income disregard. I hope the Minister takes my proposal on board because I recognise that by introducing a qualified child increase for teenage children in the last budget, she recognised that there can be additional costs and challenges facing those parenting teenage children. My concern is when the youngest child reaches the age of 14, a person parenting alone simply moves to a normal jobseeker's payment and is no longer entitled to the jobseeker's transitional payment and there is no longer the implicit recognition that the person is parenting alone and faces particular challenges in terms of balancing care responsibilities and work.
There is a waiver of the requirement for availability for full-time employment, which is a requirement in terms of jobseeker's payments, for those on the jobseeker's transitional payment. Many will still choose to seek and take up full-time employment but that waiver means that there is a recognition that there may be circumstances in which they may not be available for full-time employment, for example, if they have a child with particular needs who needs particular care at particular times of the week.
I am asking the Minister to consider extending the jobseeker's transitional payment until the youngest child is 18, which would ensure that a person parenting alone will still be engaging with the system, have casework and be open to and supported in respect of accessing education, employment or training and will retain a higher level of income disregard and be entitled to a waiver, where that is necessary, regarding availability for full-time employment. It would acknowledge that those parenting alone with children aged 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 are still parents and do not have another parent to support them or share that work.
Again, I am not in a position to accept the amendment. The Senator will appreciate that as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, in the main, I have a difficult job that is even more difficult at the moment regarding prioritising where our very small resources might be directed. I also have the job of prioritising the resources of a relatively small team to do policy work within the Department. A total of 6,500 people work for the Department but they are all facing the citizens of Ireland, who we are here to serve. The two requests from the Senator contained in this amendment have massive budgetary implications. I do not agree with this. The Senator and I have had this conversation before. The Senator and I have differing views. Even if I wanted to, I do not have the millions that both or either of these proposals would cost this year so on that basis, I do not propose to use up very finite resources within my Department doing a report to lay before the Houses regarding something I have neither the intention nor the money of pursuing, for as long as I am Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
Do the millions referred to by the Minister relate to an increased level of income disregard? I am curious where the millions come from. Do the millions relate to working lone parents with 15, 16 and 17 year old children accessing a higher level of income disregard?
When the youngest child of a jobseeker's transitional payment claimant turns 14, the claimant may transition to jobseeker's allowance assuming the claimant is eligible for it. This payment has a much lower maximum income disregard at €60 compared with €150 per week on the jobseeker's transitional payment. The tapered rate of jobseeker's allowance is higher at 60%, compared with 50% on jobseeker's transitional payment. Consequently, allowing jobseeker's transitional payment to continue until the youngest child is 18 would massively increase the overall costs of the jobseeker's transitional payment scheme and have the effect of reversing the reforms introduced by the then Minister in 2012. It probably would discourage our policy of encouraging lone parents into education, which is proving successful.
I disagree with the Minister. I know we simply disagree. I do not believe it is a measure that encourages lone parents into education. Encouraging lone parents into education is something we have supported but is a separate issue. What the Minister is talking about is the income disregard. A lone parent who is managing to work and has a child is entitled to an income disregard of €150 until that child is 14. This effectively involves a difference of €100 when the child turns 15. Even though there has been an increase in the qualified child payment and a recognition in general that the costs of teenagers are higher, some of the most vulnerable families, which tend to be lone parents, effectively face a €100 drop in the income disregard at a time when the costs of looking after their children go up. Another way of looking at it instead of looking at the cost would be to recognise that this would be a way of ensuring a targeted intervention for families that might need it most, given that lone parents have consistently come through in the CSO and every measure in the State as having exceptionally high levels of poverty. That €150 income disregard will not be of relevance to lone parents in a positive economic situation but it will make a significant difference to the poorest lone parent families, who will lose it when their teenagers turn 15.
What does the Senator want to do with the amendment?
I will press it.
Does the Minister want to add any further?
With respect, the amendment proposes the preparing of a report. We are not having a debate as to whether we should be amending the policy to extend the disregard from €150 currently for people who are in work from the €60 jobseeker's transitional payment. I do not have the resources to prepare a report on a policy with which the Government does not agree. I am not trying to be difficult.
It is my hope that if a report was prepared it may be available to a future Government to implement such a policy.
Then perhaps a future Government should prepare a report that does agree with changing the policy.
Lone parents have waited a very long time for substantial action.
I think, in fairness-----
We are not having a chat here. Everybody should address their remarks through the Chair.
Through the Chair, I have made three interventions, namely, in the qualified child increase last year and in disregard for lone parents in my last three budgets, so I do not believe I can be found wanting.
Is Senator Higgins pressing her amendment?
Amendment No. 33 is in the name of Senator Higgins. What does the Senator want to do in this respect?
I had moved on. The Senator did not call for a vote on the previous amendment.
In fairness, we had not moved on.
We had moved on.
The Senator said she was pressing the amendment.
I said I was pressing the amendment.
I know and I said those in favour say "Tá" and those against say "Níl" and that the question was defeated, and then I moved on to amendment No. 33 and nobody had said "Vótáil".
We have not actually moved on to amendment No. 33.
We had. I had said: "amendment No. 33 is in the name of Senator Higgins" so we had moved on.
I would say to the Chair that I had indicated my intention to press the amendment.
People regularly indicate they want to press an amendment, they press it, look for a voice vote, lose it and move on. They do not always call for a full 20-minute vote.
The Senator wanted to vote on it.
There is a difference between pressing an amendment and calling for a vote. There will be ample opportunity to call for a vote. There are another 11 amendments.
I am not seeking to press amendments for the sake of it. There are certain amendments that I believe are of real significance. This is the first vótáil I have sought to call on any of the amendments. We are on amendment No. 33 and I have had 22 amendments which I have either withdrawn or subjected to a voice vote. This is the first one on which I have called a vote. I put it to the Chair that I am entitled to determine if I think an amendment is worth pressing. The Chair may have presumed that I was not going to press the amendment.
On the basis of the previous 31 amendments, I think it was a reasonable assumption to make.
It may have been a presumption and, therefore, the speed of moving on may have been perhaps faster than it should have been.
I did wait. I was expecting a vótáil but nobody said "vótáil", so I said "amendment No. 33". We are on amendment No. 33 and the Senator has acknowledged that. The rules of the House are the rules. I am not here to change them for my benefit, the Senator's benefit or anyone's benefit. I think we have moved on. The Senator is more than welcome to introduce amendment No. 33 and to then call a vote on it.
I am not interested in pressing an amendment solely for the sake of doing so. There are very few on which I would do so. I am just noting it.
We are on Committee Stage and the Senator can seek to come back on it at another Stage.
It would have to be in a different examination but the Minister has indicated her thinking on the issue of income disregards so I may put forward an amendment regarding income disregards, in particular, on Report Stage.
That is the Senator's right. We have moved on to amendment No. 33 in the Senator's name. Would she like to speak to it?
I move amendment No. 33:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas examining potential improvements to voluntary access to Intreo and Local Employment Service (LES) employment, training and educational opportunities and supports for those not on the Live Register.”.
This amendment deals with voluntary access to Intreo and local employment service training and educational opportunities and supports for those not on the live register and those who are not necessarily on a jobseeker's payment or on the live register. For example, I refer to those who may or may not fall under the qualified adult category; they may be persons who are thinking about re-entering the workplace after a long period of providing care. They may not qualify for the live register in certain circumstances because they have not fulfilled a habitual residency condition as yet but they wish to access casework and support in terms of employment training and educational opportunities. The amendment seeks to ensure the very large cohort who are not employed or who are underemployed and are interested in seeing what the options may be would have greater voluntary access. I have been told at times that anybody can walk into an Intreo office and the services are available there. I have also been told there have been periods of prioritisation an so forth in which persons who are not required, as a condition of their payment, to seek employment supports have not effectively been able to access supports because the emphasis has been on those who have a requirement placed on them. This amendment deals with voluntary access and seeks to ensure that as many people as possible access opportunities.
Again, I am not proposing to accept this amendment on the basis that what the Senator is asking us to do already exists. The focus of our employment services provided through Intreo is supporting and assisting people back into the workforce where it is appropriate for them. The Intreo services are already open to anybody who is looking for a job regardless of what their status is. Whether the person is a returning housewife who was a qualified adult, a returning housewife who was not supported by the State, a person with a disability or a former carer, it does not make any difference to us whatsoever. We would be delighted if anybody walked in the front door of an Intreo office and we would give him or her exactly the level of access to services, supports, training, employment opportunities as we give all our jobseekers.
Does Senator Higgins want to reply to the Minister?
No. I believe that is the Minister's policy and position. It has different levels of application in reality. I do not need to press the amendment but I suggest a greater promotion of that option could be made through some of the usual channels because people still regard it as somewhere they need to go almost by invitation or requirement. Unfortunately, occasionally it happens that individuals come through who are told they are not the desired cohort. It is uneven. There have been positive and less positive instances. Perhaps a messaging response might be more appropriate even than this amendment.
I will let the Deputy know what we did last year. We actively targeted everybody who was in a jobless household and, in particular, the women in those households because in the main it would be men who were on the social welfare register in some way, shape or form, but women were voiceless and identity-less. They are the women we specifically targeted last year and this year to invite them to come in. We do programmes specifically focused on the people who are not identified as a recipient of a payment in their own right within the Department. Nothing is perfect and no two offices are the same, but I take on board what the Senator has asked us to do.
If the Minister is able to provide me with some information on that initiative, I would be happy to withdraw the amendment.
Yes. It is the Action Plan for Jobless Households. I can get a copy of it for the Senator.
How stands the amendment? Is the Senator withdrawing it?
I will withdraw it.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 34:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas reviewing and making recommendations regarding a potential re-entry credit to support those who have been engaged in care work for a period of time and to access on a voluntary basis employment information and supports.”.
This amendment relates to an issue I have highlighted in parallel with the issue of care credits, on which some progress has been made. It seeks to ensure that since we put in place a mechanism for care credits that we should seek to have some additional value from that mechanism and that we would create an further pathway back into employment or education. It seeks to ensure that for those engaging in the provision of care, which would qualify for care credits under the system being set out with respect to the contributory pension, those credits covering a period of time spent providing care - I am not referring to the carer's allowance but to care work in the wider sense of the care credit system - could serve as a re-entry credit. For example, currently persons who take a period of time to deliver care effectively disappear from the system. If one has two years without any contributions being made visible, one's record becomes effectively invisible. If one has a contributory record and wants to access services, this is an issue around being visible to the system.
They do not-----
Yes, in terms of one's pension. If we consider a person who has been fulfilling the requirement of having enough contributions within a set and defined period of time, many people will fall out of the set and defined period in terms of having enough contributions recently enough in terms of accessing certain schemes.
For example, being registered as unemployed for a certain period is a requirement to be able to access particular projects and educational initiatives. If the care credits a person had accumulated during a period of care were to be counted, that would be helpful. The current system only provides an option for people to register as unemployed and then have a long period during which they need to be unemployed before certain options become available to them. There are inconsistencies.
I did not know whether I was accepting or rejecting this proposal because I was not sure what it meant. I did not know what a re-entry credit meant when all of the credits somebody accumulates when in receipt of carer's benefit or allowance are on his or her record. They do not become invisible.
I am not referring to carer's' benefit or allowance. I am talking about care credits, as counted within the pension system. People currently receive carer's benefit if they are a carer for an adult. Those who are not registered carers and who may not qualify for carer's benefit or allowance, but are caring in the home-----
That is why we introduced the home caring credit for the interim aggregated contributions method of total contribution approach, TCA12, last year, which introduced 15 years of home caring credits which, I assume, will follow through.
I welcome the introduction of the home caring credit and the total contribution approach. Those credits, as well as having a value when it comes to retirement age, may also function in terms of having a value such as engagement with employment or training supports.
I do not understand what the Senator means by a "value".
I do not necessarily mean a payment or financial value. This proposes that home caring credits would, like the period for which a person is required to be unemployed before certain employment training options are open to him or her, count in lieu of being on the live register for a time. One may need to be on the live register for six months before certain options become available. This is about ensuring we can fast-track people's engagement with the fullest set of possible options. People who may have been invisible to the system will now be more visible thanks to the introduction of home caring credits for the pension system, and this also provides us with an opportunity to keep people engaged in the system rather than waiting for them to reach retirement age.
Again, I am not sure what Senator Higgins thinks people are missing out on. The home caring credit was introduced purely for the purposes of pension calculations because we all know and recognise how women were penalised for staying at home and rearing their children. Some men were penalised for staying at home and minding elderly relatives. That system has been rectified. Home caring credits of up to 15 years can be allocated towards TCA12. I cannot tell Senator Higgins what TCA2020 will be until it is decided, but we recognise the value of home caring towards contributions for pensions.
As per the previous amendment, anybody who does not exist in the social welfare system has equal access, through our Intreo offices, to all of the supports, training and employment opportunities which are available to everybody else. Even if somebody was a stay-at-home mother for 20 years, if she walks into an Intreo office we will give her all of the support necessary to return to education or training or avail of any of the grant schemes that are available in the same way that we would assist anybody else who is in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or benefit or disability or invalidity payments.
I am happy to tease out the matter further with the Minister. This is about ensuring that the system works a little bit harder in order that people stay engaged. It is different if a person is told that due to his or her work as a carer for the past two or five years, he or she is entitled to X, Y, or Z in terms of resources, schemes, starting a business initiatives or educational options. It is about looking through the list of options and teasing them out. I am happy to engage with the Minister on that. It is a different thing to suggest that anybody can walk into an Intreo office, as opposed to stating that his or her contributions are being recognised both in later years and in a more recent way, which perhaps might be reflected in opportunities for that person. It is about encouraging people to re-enter the workforce because the fact is that Ireland has an extraordinarily high level of women who drop out of the workplace and do not re-enter it. This was an attempt at creating a constructive mechanism in terms of building channels for re-entry.
I do not think it is not constructive. However, this already exists. The Senator is trying to create something we have already created. The action plan for jobless households will outline exactly what is on offer to a lady in a household who does not currently exist other than as a qualified payment on her husband's social welfare allowance. She does not exist in our social welfare system, yet we have actively reached out to try to encourage such women to get training, avail of employment options or return to full-time education. All of these options are already available.
They may not always be in jobless households.
I am using that as an example. The Senator is trying to tell me they are not available to people who do not exist in the social welfare system.
I am happy to discuss this with the Minister. I know there are-----
Those on somebody's qualified payment are captured but a lone parent who has engaged in casual or low paid work is subject to a six-month waiting period before he or she is able to progress.
That applies to those in full-time education.
There are myriad opportunities in-----
Yes, but people who leave employment want to progress into full-time education, rather than something which is the equivalent of the outcomes of that education.
In that case we are talking about something entirely different. The Senator is suggesting that people should be able to leave a job and get a grant to return to full-time education. While that is possible, it would cost an incredible amount of money. Under my watch, over the past number of years we have tried to be as flexible as possible under the relevant statute. If somebody is five or nine days outside of the requirements, we will find wriggle room even though the legislation states 274 days. That deals with people who are in the social welfare system, whereas the amendment sought to give a re-entry credit to people who are not in the social welfare system.
My point is that they are now in the social welfare system because they are getting credits in respect of their contribution in terms of care. It is a different invitation-----
They are not. They get their credits when they apply for their pensions.
I am simply suggesting that if those credits were also to count as re-entry credits, there would be a mechanism in place. It is different to telling people to sign on and that they will have options in six months' time or telling those who are thinking about re-entering the workforce after a period of care that they can access education. There is no point in going further on this.
What do you want to do with the amendment?
I will withdraw it.
Amendments Nos. 35 and 42 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Are we discussing amendments Nos. 35 to 42, inclusive?
Amendment No. 42 is an additional amendment submitted on 30 September.
Are we discussing amendments Nos. 35 to 42, inclusive, together?
No, we are discussing amendments Nos. 35 and 42.
I move amendment No. 35:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the provision of educational opportunities for people in receipt of social welfare payments, including:
(a) an examination of the range of educational options presented to jobseekers, including those on jobseeker’s transitional payment;
(b) a consideration of anomalies in access to back to education allowance;
(c) a review of literacy supports presented to jobseekers, and
(d) recommendations in relation to paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).”.
This concerns educational opportunities and options. It seeks to ensure that we revisit the kinds of educational options that are offered in the State to those currently on the live register and those who are unemployed. We had a number of debates on this about two years ago when the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection produced a report on activation. The report found that, as was consistently stated by a number of witnesses, the education option was not always given the same value and there were a number of inadvertent but significant obstacles around the education option being presented. Some officials were sceptical about whether the education option should be valued in the same way as an employment offering to individuals going through the system.
The Minister spoke about her feeling that people should be able to find the best pathway forward, be it education, training or employment in some form. I am trying to tease out three of those obstacles because while we have discussed them and they have come up, we have not really progressed in terms of addressing them. I note the research presented to us by NESC and others suggested one of the key problems preventing success of educational options within the activation system is inappropriate education options being put forward. For example, persons can end up in a course that is perhaps not suited to them, sometimes simply as a matter of timing or a matter of which courses are available within a set period of time. Of course, it suits everybody better if people have a better match and a better educational option that allows them to progress, rather than a course which may move them temporarily off the register but which sees them circle around in six months or a year's time.
This is around an examination of the range of educational options presented to jobseekers, including those on jobseeker’s transitional payment, and a consideration of certain anomalies in access to the back to education allowance. There are concerns in regard to the intersection of that allowance and the SUSI grant and rent allowance, which we discussed previously, and a review of the literacy supports presented to jobseekers. This is again addressing the fact that some who are jobseeking will have literacy issues. NALA has been a very strong advocate in regard to these literacy issues. It proposes a review of the literacy supports that are presented to jobseekers and to have recommendations in regard to these issues.
With regard to amendment No. 42, again, I realised that I had put an unrealistic timeframe on this. The Minister will note I have a very short timeframe on many of these amendments. It is an attempt to recognise the fact we are coming to the end of a certain term and there are certain issues which those of us on the social protection committee have championed and which the Minister has championed. I am keen that-----
They technically go to March 2021.
Technically. I am keen that certain areas that have had very lengthy discussion move to become, if not an action, then a clear vector or trajectory towards potential policy change so that we move forward on some of the issues which have been batted back and forth in the last few years. I then decided that I would give it a generous eight-month period in recognition of-----
Eight months being May, of course.
Yes. I recognise it is a very substantial piece of work. This is really around taking and building on the activation work that has already been done by the Department and the committee. There is a lot of evidence out there and it is about gathering it but also placing the educational offering at centre stage and really examining how we can do that better in terms of building the careers, livelihoods and future plans for all of those who are accessing our unemployment or activation services.
While the back to education allowance payment is administered by my Department, we only act as an agent for the Department of Education and Skills. On the basis that the policy is under the remit of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, my Department is not in a position to undertake a review of the educational options available to people who are on the back to education allowance. We solely act as an agent. I agree with the Senator that it would be a worthwhile exercise and I would ask that she writes to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to ask him to do it, and I will certainly support that. However, because it is not under my remit, I cannot stick my nose into it.
I wonder about the other issues indicated because it affects whether I will bring this issue back on Report Stage.
It is equally the case with regard to literacy supports because we do not supply them and they come through SOLAS or the ETBs which, again, are under the direction of the Minister for Education and Skills.
As well as reviewing the back to education allowance, the real issue I am trying to highlight here is that of access to the back to education allowance. The Department is a main and prime channel whereby persons come to access it or even access the idea of seeking to access the back to education allowance. It is largely through agents of the Minister - caseworkers and so forth - that individuals will come on a journey that may bring them to a back to education allowance or to seeking it. I accept that the Minister has indicated the position. To clarify, can I indicate to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, specifically that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection would like to engage on that issue? I do not want to go to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and be told that the issue of who can access it relates to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I do not want to fall between two stools.
I would quite happily support this, except I do, probably far too often, find myself sticking my nose into other colleague's Departments, as I did last week with regard to the maintenance agency. What I do not want the Senator to do is to go to the Minister and say, "Regina said we should do this", and for him to get the hump. If the Senator writes to him, I will certainly write to him at the same time and support her. We should not necessarily do an annual review, but maybe a review every three or four years of the courses that are on offer to people to make sure they are timely with regard to the employment supports and jobs that are actually there, as we do not want to be training doctors if what we need are plumbers, and so on. There should be a review every three or four years and I would certainly support the Senator on that.
Timing is a huge issue in regard to persons who become unemployed or are added to the register at a period of time when an appropriate course may be six or eight months away. That is perhaps something that can be examined internally. I am happy to withdraw the amendment in light of the Minister's comments.
Amendment No. 36 is out of order as it is not relevant to the subject matter of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 37:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on widening access to entitlement to make voluntary contributions with consideration given to—
(a) the threshold of previous contributions required, and
(b) access to those who have spent a period of time in self-employment or a period of time in care work or a period of time in the UK.”.
In regard to amendment No. 36-----
It is out of order so the Senator cannot discuss it.
I believe it may be of interest to the Minister, given her interest in the issue of educational access.
Amendment No. 37 very much relates to the substance of the sections in this Bill. I did not find a place within the sections where it should sit but it is around access to entitlement to make voluntary contributions. We saw an increase in the threshold of the previous contributions required before one is allowed to make voluntary contributions. We have an anomaly in terms of the many persons who want to make sure they have made sufficient contributions in order to be able to access whichever supports or training schemes or, in particular, their pensions. Some will find they have not made sufficient previous contributions because the number of previous contributions one had to make before one would be allowed to make voluntary contributions had doubled from 260 to 520.
The Minister's predecessor, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, accepted an amendment which I put forward in 2016 and which extended the period of time in which voluntary contributions could be made to five years since the previous contribution. However, while it was indicated at the time that the threshold issue might be looked at again, it has not really progressed. It may come into particular relevance for those who have been in care work, especially when they are not on carer's allowance or carer's benefit. It is a concern for those who may have been caring, either here or abroad, and are now seeking to try to normalise their situation in a limited period of time. It is also a concern for those who have been in self-employment and who may not have sufficient, or the right kind of, contributions to be allowed to make voluntary contributions.
Again, it is around streamlining the process and allowing for those who are not simply looking for something for free but are looking to contribute. They want to make voluntary contributions and they want to bring up their contributory record to meet what will probably be higher standards in the future. Can we facilitate them?
Making a voluntary contribution is not contributing, so it is not the same thing.
While there is an acceptance to allow people to fill in gaps in their history, it is not the same as making a contribution and having an attachment to the labour force for ten, 20, 30 or 40 years.
Some, if not most, of the issues Senator Higgins raised in the amendment are addressed in the social protection system. First, on the threshold for the minimum number of paid contributions to access the voluntary contribution scheme, the Senator will be aware that it was increased from 260 paid contributions to 520 contributions in 2013 to reflect the minimum level of contributions that are needed to qualify for the State pension contributory, which was similarly increased at the same time to 520. We could not have a situation where somebody could buy credits after having accrued so many credits but not have access to the system until they got to the 520 mark and, therefore, they must be aligned. The increase ensures that the pension qualification is genuinely linked to a realistic maximum level of labour force attachment.
What is probably most important is the PRSI contribution records. If, for a voluntary contribution, the minimum contribution condition was lower than 520 contributions, individuals who currently do not meet the contribution conditions of the State pension could pay voluntary contributions to make up the shortfall without ever having the attachment to the workforce that others would have and there would be a disparity in the system. This would be inherently unfair to other workers who have a much longer attachment to the system, which is what total contributions is trying to achieve. Total contributions are to ensure that those who have made more contributions to the Social Insurance Fund, SIF, get more out of it than those who have not made the contributions to the SIF, but with the underlying acceptance that the value of the work in the home, whether by a man or a woman, whether caring for children or parents, is of significant value to the common good.
On the wider issue of access, voluntary contributions are available to all workers under the age of 66 who are no longer compulsorily employed. Workers can access them, and do. Voluntary contributions are there to protect an individual's social insurance entitlements when the individual has already made an established relationship with the Social Insurance Fund. The option to make a voluntary contribution is already available to the self-employed.
In 2017, as Senator Higgins mentioned, my predecessor made the kind gesture of accepting what was a good amendment on the Senator's behalf to extend the period of time in which voluntary contributions can be made to five years since the previous contributions. I can see from the past couple of years that some people do not even apply for their pension when they reach the age of 66. They are busy and there is stuff going on. We all get older. We do not feel the years going by much faster than they did when we were younger. I welcome the change to five years and I thank Senator Higgins for that. However, I would say there are still people who find themselves outside of the five-year period and we still have to find wriggle room to get them to be able to do what they should have done years ago when there is a general acceptance that they did not mean not to do it.
Under EU legislation a worker is only entitled to a social contribution or a voluntary contribution in any one state at any one time. This is in reference to the people to whom the Senator referred who worked in the UK. They can certainly claim their contributions. The Department gets contributions histories every week for those who have worked in the UK, and we add it to their contributions history here. Alternatively, if someone does not have a contributions history, for instance, if the person went as the wife of a man who was working in London, she can certainly buy the contributions for the time that she was outside of the country.
Much of what the Senator has asked me to do is already in existence. If the Senator wants, I can give her a copy of all of the documents that I have here to prove that to her. What I cannot do is allow people, after 260 contributions, to be able to buy contributions to bring them up to 520 contributions.
I accept the majority of what the Minister is saying. It is unfortunate for persons who find themselves at a point when they know that they are facing into a reduced rate pension and they are seeking this. I note the example the Minister gave of somebody who may have been, for example, the spouse of a person in the UK who has returned. In terms of financial independence, a number of people would prefer to contribute to have an adequate contributory pension in their own right rather than find themselves in a position, for example, of looking for the non-contributory pension, which is an option that comes with somewhat less independence in that it involves means testing of the full household etc. There are people who did not know about the increase in the requirement from 260 contributions to 520 contributions and who found themselves unable to make contributions. I accept it is a small cohort.
Amendment No. 38 in the name of Senator Higgins is out of order because it is not relevant to the subject matter of the Bill.
I wish to indicate that I have had a discussion with the Bills Office and I will be looking to put forward an alternative version of the amendment.
I move amendment No. 39:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
"10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay guidelines before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the principles and parameters which should underpin the development and agreement of “personal progression plans” by any third party contracted by the Department in respect of labour activation. These guidelines are to include:
(a) a requirement that any individual in respect of whom a personal progression plan is being developed is presented with options in terms of education, training and employment;
(b) a requirement that any individual in respect of whom a personal progression plan is being developed be entitled to possession of a hard copy of any proposed personal progression plan prior to signing and be free to seek external advice on that proposed personal progression plan prior to signing;
(c) prohibition on any text requiring an individual to share data in respect of family members or cohabitees;
(d) prohibition of any text requiring an individual to share contact information, or permit contact, in respect of any employer who has offered that individual employment independently of the third party, and
(e) consideration of the data protection rights of any individual in respect of whom a personal progression plan is being developed.".
We need not rehash this fully now. I refer to the concerns about personal progression plans. This is not to say that personal progression plans are terrible, nobody should every have a personal progression plan, and nobody should plan their future. It is around a determination of quality and good practice in how personal progression plans are used. This is revisiting certain issues.
I am probably more likely to bring back and press the amendment that I previously had on this issue, which is that no one should be required to sign a personal progression plan that he or she has not had an opportunity to review, and there should be no fear-----
They are not.
I know. There should be no fear or perception on the part of the person that his or her attendance at a meeting would not be considered if they have not, which is the impression that individuals have had. The key point is that they are entitled to a hard copy of a proposed plan prior to signing and the opportunity to seek external advice on that prior to any signing.
There should not be text, and there was in certain plans, in terms of sharing data in respect of family members or cohabitees. In terms of data privacy, it is important that plans should not include that.
The other key issue, which was a big concern, was the text that might require an individual to share the contact information, or permit contact, in respect of any employer who has offered the individual employment independently of a third party. This was based on cases that were heard whereby persons who independently secured employment found that the company that had been contracted to find them employment insisted on wanting to contact the employer that the individual had themselves sourced. It is undermining if a person has managed to source employment and his or her new employer is or could be contacted by a private company or by the State in respect of paperwork on that.
The amendment simply asks the Minister to put in place guidelines on this. There may be good practice. I appreciate it is not only private companies. It is Intreo. It is local employment. I am aware that personal progression plans are used across many services. Given that personal progression plans are now being used by private companies as well and given the messages we have received with respect to the Department whereby there has sometimes been a relationship in terms of the issuing of payment, it behoves the State to set in place guidelines. Previously, we did not have a situation where for-profit companies would be drawing up personal progression plans and that is why it needs an extra level of guidance and regulation.
I cannot accept an amendment for something that already exists. The Senator is asking me to do something that already exists. I will read out the existing guidelines. They are guidelines for everybody who makes a personal progression plan. The Senator has a particular issue with some of the Department's contracted services but the guidelines are the same for everybody, whether they are Intreo case officers, the contracted services of Seetec and Turas Nua, or the contracted services of the Department's jobs clubs, the local employment service, LES, the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, or partnership organisations. They all must do exactly the same thing.
The plan is a benign administrative document that is personal to the individual jobseeker who is looking for work. All that it includes is the person's contact information, the contact details for the person's personal adviser so that they both can access each other, the detail of the customer's skills, competencies and aptitudes, the fields of work that the person feels is appropriate to the jobseeker, the particular barriers to employment facing the jobseeker, the agreed actions that both of them will take to overcome those barriers, the jobseeker's employment goals as in where he or she would like to be at the end of the process or where he or she would like to be working, an agreed set of skills, training, education or development goals and actions to help him or her to get to being that person or onto a career path, and an agreed set of employment related experience interventions.
If someone wanted to work in retail, he or she would take a specific training course to get relevant work experience. That is the kind of information in a personal progression plan. It is organic. It is a supporting document, which is supposed to be shared between two people - one who is looking for work and the other who is helping that person to fulfil his or her ambition. It is as benign as that. Any matters in a personal progression plan are there only to assist the person to achieve his or her own goals. There is no requirement to supply data in respect of family members or cohabitants. It is none of our business. This does not preclude a contracted person or adviser from exploring potential barriers to employment that may encompass people's personal family circumstances. That information needs to be volunteered. If it is not volunteered, we cannot extract it from people. A personal adviser may often offer advice with regard to childcare, family flexible employment options or whatever it takes to get the person who is sitting in front of us, looking for work and asking for the State's help, to access the best options. That is true whether it is a person in Navan local employment services, in Meath Seetec, or somebody who has come through an Intreo case office or my Navan office. The progression plan is exactly the same regardless of who is delivering and signing it.
Contracted public employment services are fully compliant with data protection law and the new GDPR legislation that was passed by both Houses last year. Anybody who wants a hard copy of his or her personal progression plan is entitled to ask for and receive it. Nobody stands over a person to make him or her sign something that he or she does not subscribe to. If a person does not subscribe to it, he or she should not sign it and instead get it into a state where they will subscribe to it. This is a person's journey for the year that he or she is with the case officer, to ensure that he or she gets back to full-time employment. Those are the guidelines that currently exist. I would not change them in any way by having a report.
Before I call Senator Higgins, I welcome to the Public Gallery our former colleague, Jillian van Turnhout, and her guests. They are very welcome. It is good to see Jillian back on familiar territory and I hope she has an enjoyable evening. Is Senator Higgins pressing her amendment?
If there are existing guidelines, it would be an easy task to include within them clarification about the entitlement to a hard copy and the fact that external advice could be sought. That would go a long way. The Minister has outlined a sample set of inclusions but I do not see anything to contradict the suggestions I have made. The suggestions I have made could naturally be incorporated into the existing guidelines on ensuring that we specify that entitlement to a hard copy and the seeking of external advice if it is wished for. I have seen personal progression plans that state that a person will inform the service of changes in the employment status of those he or she shares a house with, and he or she has signed and agreed to that. We have seen texts that state a person will give the contact details of a new employer. This text is in the documents.
In a wide, sweeping sense, there is nothing to disagree with about development goals and employment goals in any of those elements and I am not asking the Minister to take any of those elements out of the personal progression plans. It relates to the manner of execution and making it clear. When we say it is a benign administrative document, many persons take any contract that they sign very seriously. Whatever that personal progression plan might be if it is not a contract, the Minister's legislation is still based on that plan prescribing particular courses of action for an individual. People are concerned and feel that they have to sign a plan. I am not saying personal progression plans should be abolished. I acknowledge that there may be guidelines. I am trying to identify gaps in the guidelines that would strengthen them. I identified a number two years ago. I am not confident that they have been fully addressed. It would have been useful if we could have more detailed guidelines that do not simply say what goes into a personal progression plan but give guidelines about what good practice is when a plan is agreed. It relates to improving what is there.
Is the Senator pressing the amendment?
No, I will withdraw the amendment but I will probably bring back my other amendment, potentially involving elements of this amendment, about personal progression plans on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 40:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas on fuel poverty, in the context of climate change targets and the “Just Transition” framework, to include a consideration of these issues as they affect:
(a) those in receipt of housing assistance payment or rent supplement;
(b) those in receipt of fuel allowance; and
(c) those whose receipt of fuel allowance is impacted by turbary rights.”.
This is probably one of the most time-bound amendments. The Minister will be aware of the consideration of the just transition that is currently happening. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Joint Committee on Climate Action and we are examining at issues relating to just transition. A number of issues directly relate to her Department. There has been a significant focus on the fuel allowance. It is one of the key issues as the price of carbon is increased to reflect its cost. We have to ensure that the most vulnerable persons are protected from the impact of those increased prices, including with fuel allowance as it relates to our climate change targets and just transition, and also consideration of a particular cohort who I think will be affected, which is those in private rental accommodation.
I tabled a Commencement matter about the retrofitting of private rental and local authority housing and spoke to the Minister, Deputy Murphy, this morning. Those in receipt of HAP or the rent supplement from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are especially vulnerable in that they do not necessarily have control over the energy efficiency of the housing in which they live. The Department has a relationship with a number of landlords through the HAP and rent supplement schemes. I would be interested in the Department examining its relationship with landlords in that regard to expedite a stated goal of scaling up and retrofitting housing stock in Ireland while protecting tenancies and ensuring greater protection for tenancies. I ask the Minister to examine how her Department fits into that work, which is happening across a number of Departments, with fuel allowance and HAP.
I have discussed the peatlands strategy with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne. We are discussing the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill at present. Having regard to the just transition in the strategy is also a key issue. How does the qualification for fuel allowance for those who have it intersect with turbary rights? That applies to a specific cohort of people in rural Ireland whose circumstances have arisen in the discussion of the strategy.
These discussions are happening across government. I am sure the Minister has completely different issues that I have not thought of that relate to the just transition and how she engages in it. I hope that she may incorporate them into an examination of just transition and the Department's engagement on the issue.
We support this. We attempted to have a similar report commissioned in the deliberations for the Social Welfare Bill for last year but the Minister passed it on to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Data on fuel poverty are badly needed. Unlike my colleague, I did not support the increase to the carbon tax because we need to sort out fuel poverty first. The Government must commit to it. We will have significant revolutionary changes in how we access, provide and use energy in the State.
We must identify the most vulnerable and ensure we protect them. We must produce a report as suggested by my colleague.
I can only say what I said previously, which will be no surprise to the Senators. They are asking me to prepare a report on something that does not fall under my remit. It is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. He recently launched a strategy to combat energy poverty which acknowledges, inter alia, that one of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty is to improve the energy efficiency of a person's home. That is going to be addressed in the just transition. My Department administers a number of schemes that provide income supports specifically for paying for fuel, as in the fuel allowance and the household benefits package, which pays for electricity and gas. They are certainly not intended to cover all the costs but are only income support towards paying the costs. I cannot accept the provision to prepare a report on fuel poverty as it cuts across the work of another Department.
Is the Senator pressing the amendment?
This relates to amendment No. 43, which is another aspect of that issue to which I will come in a moment. Engaging with the issues of just transition and climate change is not the remit of just one Department. The climate plan is meant to be a whole-of-government, joined-up approach. We should not be in a situation where Ministers throw the issue to each other. The policies and setting goals for retrofitting may come from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, but the engagement with landlords through the housing assistance payment or rent supplement is an important lever and that sits within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, as does responsibility for the fuel allowance. Fuel allowance and its intersection with turbary rights comes into this. I will also come to another issue in amendment No. 43 that relates directly to the Department. If we intend to be serious about taking the type of transformative action that is required to address our climate targets, each Department will have its carbon budget and will have to account to the Oireachtas for the actions it will have taken. It will not be sufficient for each Department to say that it does not wish to cut across other Departments or take decisions. It is important that each Department engages in the just transition and I believe the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be at the centre at it.
I will not press this amendment because I am focusing on its intersection with amendment No. 43. I intend either to press amendment No. 43 on this Stage and to resubmit amendment No. 41 or to consider some form of combined amendment that I will press on Report Stage. This is an opportunity. It is not an attempt to add to the workload of the Department. Climate action and just transition are front-loaded mandated actions across the Government, but we have yet to see the Minister's Department set out its vision of how it will contribute to the transformation that is required.
Does the Minister wish to wait until Senator Higgins speaks on No. 43?
It might frame whether she presses one or both. The Senator suggested that individual Departments should be responsible individually. They are. The lead Department, however, is the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. There is a Cabinet committee on climate change, climate action and a just transition of any carbon effects and challenges, particularly new charges we may have. The climate action committee is chaired by Deputy Bruton. I sit on it, as do Deputies McHugh and Zappone. I will provide the Senator with a list of the members. We have an action plan and bimonthly meetings to determine the outcomes and the actions arising from each of us.
However, while I might not like this, the purpose of my Department is income support. It is the largest Department that makes payments. Aside from employment and activation, that is what it does. It is an income support Department. It does not determine policy. It does not pay fuel allowance because it determined that people were in fuel poverty but as an income support towards the costs of households that have no other income aside from what comes from the Department. The household benefits package was established to ease the costs of running a household when people reached pensionable age. They are income supports; they do not have a policy drive. The Department is just the agent for the payment of the supports.
The whole-of-government approach will have to come from, and is already being driven by, the climate action Cabinet committee led by Deputy Bruton. His Department will take the lead on how we will address the housing stock and ensure it comes up to A and B ratings of home heating security and how we will address the needs of people to offset any increases in a carbon tax that might increase their household budgets. I have no problem with playing my part but I cannot do a report on something for the Senator and provide her with something comprehensive when it does not have anything to do with my Department, other than it providing its financial supports.
I disagree. As the Department has responsibility for social protection and employment, it has more than an income support remit. The Minister is both underplaying her own interest in policy and the Department's role in policy to suggest somehow that it is a policy-less Department, simply providing income. That is inaccurate, to say the least. This is about the achievement of targets that are set. I am not suggesting new targets. The targets have been set by the Government. I am asking for the vectors by which each Department intends to contribute to the achievement of the targets set by the Government.
I withdraw this amendment, but I reserve the right to re-introduce it.
I move amendment No. 41:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, for a six month period following the enactment of this Act, suspend any mandatory requirements for use of the Public Services Card or associated single customer view dataset as the only accepted means of identification for the purposes of access to social welfare payments or services.”.
I will withdraw this amendment as I will be revisiting the topic of the public services card. I reserve the right to re-introduce it next week.
Amendment No. 42 is a new section-----
We have already discussed it. I am sorry, Acting Chairman, but I am just trying to be helpful.
You are extremely helpful this evening, which is not out of character. Amendment No. 42 is a new section and has already been discussed with amendment No. 35, as my deputy Chairman has indicated from the floor.
I move amendment No. 42:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within eight months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the provision of educational opportunities for people in receipt of social welfare payments, including:
(a) an examination of the range of educational options presented to jobseekers, including those on jobseeker’s transitional payment;
(b) a consideration of anomalies in access to back to education allowance;
(c) a review of literacy supports presented to jobseekers; and
(d) recommendations in relation to paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).”.
I will withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to re-introduce it.
I move amendment No. 43:
In page 14, after line 7, to insert the following:
“10. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report examining appropriate social protection services and casework supports for workers in industries likely to be scaled down by necessary changes in policy due to climate change in line with the ambition of the “Just Transition” framework.”.
This is squarely within the relevance of the Department and its social protection supports. The Minister spoke about the open door that exists for anybody who may wish to visit an Intreo office out of the blue but this is about having dedicated supports for people in respect of employment, training and education and the expertise within the Department and the various agents of the Minister in respect of social protection and casework. I asked the Minister about this previously at a meeting of the social protection committee and she indicated that we must wait for people to become unemployed and they could then access social welfare protections and supports.
It is important that, as part of a just transition, we do not simply wait, especially in sectors where we know there will be a limited timeframe of future employment and that, effectively, people may have from six months to two years of employment. This is not about individuals in work but entire sectors where there will be a scaling down of certain industries as a result of both climate change and the necessary actions in respect of climate change. Some will fall into the categories of self-employment related to elsewhere in the Bill, but some will not. Some will be working for Bord na Móna, for example, and there are industries in other areas.
I urge the Minister to consider how she might put measures in place to ensure that we are stepping up in advance and not waiting for people to be unemployed before we offer them support, by giving them the expertise, casework, employment and training support now, in order that people in vulnerable sectors can plan the next step for themselves and their families.
It would be one of the most concrete contributions to a just transition that the Department could make if it could give that expertise by putting caseworkers, either in groups or as individuals, to work with sectors to see what are the options for somebody coming out of an unsustainable sector. What is the timing, for example, as this may make a difference to the options available when people are trying to make an exit from an unsustainable sector? It is about career planning for the future. I know we will see large cohorts of persons becoming unemployed, with great concern expressed and everybody saying we need to do something for these people right away, but would it not be better if we could spare those families the distress by ensuring as many people as possible have a plan in place before they become unemployed?
I support those comments. As a member of the climate action committee for nearly a year, I know it has consistently discussed just transition. Every Department must understand that label of "just transition" and implement novel ideas because we will need them. Bord na Móna is currently in negotiations with the union and it will revert to us towards the end of October or November to let us know what has happened in those negotiations. They are sensitive discussions. Most of the workers are looking at some form of unemployment. Some will have a few more years left to work and would be unsure if they can seek new employment once the closure is implemented. They need to know what social protection can be offered by the State. It is important that the Minister uses a just transition process in the Department in order that it becomes a natural fold in everything it does. It should not be left just to one Department either but the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection should advertise the idea and let people know about it.
The climate action committee made recommendations, although we grumpy Sinn Féin members disagreed with the carbon tax increase. Everything else was signed off in a report. The Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 was published with some of those recommendations and we have sought a gap analysis between what was recommended and what is in the plan. I saw an email about that this evening. Perhaps there is detail there concerning the just transition in order that each Department can become proactive in promoting the process. There will be many job losses and changes in how work is done. We must consider the implications of the great four-day week suggestion. We must be proactive, rather than letting one Department take the responsibility or burden.
I feel like a real killjoy today but I am again not accepting the Senator's amendment. Again, it is because we already do all this stuff. We do not provide employment supports just because a crisis is imminent, as there are crises in businesses today for some other reason. It is slightly different from what Bord na Móna is experiencing or some of the other companies that we know will see difficulties arising from the changes we will make in practices or habits. There will be difficulties in companies because of what will potentially happen with Brexit. How we support companies, regardless of why they are in crisis, will not change.
I have a list of actions we currently take after a company gets into trouble. Before somebody gets to a redundancy stage, we take a number of steps. I do not know if the Senator is aware of our wage support subsidy scheme. When a company tells us it is in trouble, or specifically that in six or 12 months it might not be able to keep on all its employees, we will support those people in the short term and keep up their income supports. That will happen while the company tries to get through its difficulties and come out the other end. If the scenario is we can support the people in the short term but we know they will not be brought back, we will work with those people and retrain them during the transition period for new jobs that we know are being created in some other section of the economy.
When we look at the challenges that might be seen with regard to the live register next year, potentially because of Brexit and the just transition from where we are to where we need to be in the next ten years to reach climate change targets, some companies may lose jobs but tens of thousands of jobs will be created because of the new economy. We have already put in place schemes and strategies to move people from a particular industry skill set to train for new industries that will grow in the next months and years ahead. We already do what the Senator is asking us to do. I have a long list of such actions that I hope will reassure the Senator, and I can read them into the record if she so wishes.
I recognise there are supports for companies but my particular concern is about supports for individuals within sectors. I am very aware of those supports and I know of companies that have used them successfully. I am concerned about sectors that are scaling down. The Minister has indicated that other jobs may be coming in new industries, which I accept, but the point is we should not be waiting for persons to become unemployed.
We are not.
When I previously asked if persons could access supports in a period, the Minister told me that the Department waits for them to become unemployed. That was at a social protection committee meeting. It is one thing to say there are other opportunities but this is about ensuring we work with people while they are in their current employment. We must consider how such people can access particular casework and support so there may be, as far as possible, a seamless transition to another form of employment and that perhaps there may be targeted work with sets of employees. It should not just be limited to companies as not every company will successfully transition but we must take in individuals working in certain sectors. The Minister is responsible for employment and social protection. Those two sectors were brought together.
No, I am the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
It is a different game to what the Senator has suggested.
This is an employment affair.
It is not.
It is; it is about security and transition in employment. The two parts were brought together with a view to having a more joined-up approach in how we look at issues of employment and vulnerable workers, for example, as well as social protection. I am glad the Minister is saying there are other jobs in other sectors but I would like to hear from the Minister that there will be sets of caseworkers allocated specifically to persons not yet unemployed but who are looking to transition from the sector they are in to a more sustainable sector. It is the nub of the matter.
Again, that process already exists. We do not have a bank of caseworkers sitting and waiting for a problem to happen. If a company approaches us because it is in trouble, it is assigned a case officer immediately.
I am talking about individuals.
Individuals are given exactly the same treatment. If an individual walks into a local Intreo office and needs to retrain because his or her job is in jeopardy, that person will get a personal progression plan and be offered options through Springboard, for example. It is frightening to say it but when I spoke to the Senator nearly two years ago, we did not have in-work training or the 70% payment coming from the State to help people who are currently employed to retrain while in employment to train for a new job. Such a service is available today. Anybody who wants the support of a case officer can have it but we have special case officers looking after companies in trouble. They are employment relations personnel. What we do is the same whether it is for one person or 100 people in a company. The supports are still there. We can help people with income support, training and transition to new jobs. Whether it is short-term training or long-term programme training in order to get a whole new skill set, we do it now.
I am glad to hear that supports have improved since our previous discussion. It is positive to hear that. I am speaking specifically to how sectors will be treated in a just transition framework. There are companies on one end and individuals with a personal progression plan on the other. There are cohorts of workers in particular sectors, and these should be treated slightly differently again. It may not be appropriate to specify Bord na Móna because discussions are ongoing.
We can, however, identify sectors that are vulnerable. It may be within the capacity of the Minister to address this. I do not suggest that she has case workers but she should plan for her case workers over the next six to 12 months. If a specific set of skills is associated with a vulnerable sector, it may be a matter of training case workers to be prepared for a large cohort of vulnerable persons and on where the likely transitions may be. More needs to be done.
As Senator Devine said, the just transition framing is missing. I will withdraw my amendment and reintroduce it on Report Stage. I would appreciate it if the Minister provided clear framing and a vision on where the Department sees itself specifically having an input, not just regarding our climate targets but also the goal of just transition. It is a shared goal and it is not owned by me or any other Member. While the Minister has outlined the services that exist, I have not had a sense of where the Department sees itself regarding just transition. I have suggested four areas. She may have two or three ideas of her own on how the Department sees itself fitting in regarding the delivery of just transition. Brexit, on which I have not spoken, presents a related set of challenges to be faced. We face what will be a series of shocks unless we plan for them.
I will withdraw my amendment and reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage, possibly in combination with some of the elements. I will be happy to engage with the Minister in the meantime on any amendment she might find acceptable to address this issue.
The Senator mentioned she gave me options in four areas. I do not see them in the amendment. Will she give me the detail?
One issue was engagement with landlords through HAP and rent supplement. The other suggestion related to the fuel allowance. I also referred to turbary rights and just transition for workers. Those were four points in respect of which I saw just transition impacting on the Department, or the Department impacting on it.
When is it proposed to take the Report Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
Maidin amárach ar 10.30.