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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 14 Dec 2020

Vol. 273 No. 8

Social Welfare Bill 2020: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys. As she is my constituency colleague, it is a great pleasure for me to congratulate her on her appointment to this Ministry and the other one and her reappointment to Cabinet.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind words. As Senators know, the purpose of the Social Welfare Bill is to give legislative effect to the changes announced on budget day. The Estimate for the Department of Social Protection in 2021 is €25.1 billion. This is more than €4 billion larger than the Department's budget day allocation for 2020. Much of that additional spending will be required to meet the ongoing costs of the pandemic unemployment payment and other jobseeker's payments and supports. I am pleased, even in these difficult times, to have also been able to secure almost €300 million for a series of targeted measures to support some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. In addition, the Bill provides for maintaining the State pension at age 66 years, as committed to in the programme for Government. This measure will cost more than €200 million in 2021 and more than €415 million in a full year.

It is important to point out that some of the social protection measures announced on budget day do not require primary legislation and, therefore, are not reflected in this Bill. These measures include the Christmas bonus, which I am pleased to say was paid last week, to a record 1.6 million recipients with payments totalling €390 million. I would like to take this opportunity to again encourage people to spend their Christmas bonus locally this year and support small businesses as they reopen their doors.

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

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

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

Illness benefit is at present paid after an initial waiting period of six days. Section 5 reduces the number of waiting days from six to three days. This will ease the financial strain on employees, especially those who do not have occupational sick pay arrangements as part of their contract of employment.

As Senators will be aware, the Department of Enterprise, Trade end Employment is conducting a public consultation on the introduction of a statutory right to paid sick leave for all employees. I encourage all interested parties to engage with this consultation and make known their views on statutory sick pay.

Section 6 provides that self-employed pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, recipients can engage in limited self-employment and earn up to €960 over a rolling eight-week period and continue to maintain entitlement to PUP. Section 7 is a regulation-making power so that the Minister can prescribe by statutory instrument the income and expenses that can be included to reach the €960 limit. These provisions allow self-employed people to carry out some work and still retain the PUP. I know this measure has been warmly welcomed by taxi drivers, musicians, electricians, plumbers and other self-employed workers across the country.

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

Section 9 provides for an increase to the widowed or surviving civil partner grant by €2,000, from €6,000 to €8,000. This is the first time this grant has been increased since 2008. Where a person finds himself or herself in the tragic position where a loved one has passed away and he or she is looking after dependent children, this increased payment is intended to provide a small extra help. This measure will take effect from 1 January 2021.

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

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

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

Section 13 provides that the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment may continue for a period of six weeks after death in certain circumstances. This will bring the payment in line with other social protection payments for the unemployed, including jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit.

Sections 14 and 16 provide for increases in the qualified child payment. The weekly rate for a qualified child will increase by €2, from €36 to €38, for children under the age of 12. It will increase for children aged 12 and over by €5, from €40 to €45. This means increases in respect of 419,000 children. Sections 14 and 16 also provide for an increase of €5 in the living alone allowance. This will benefit more than 221,700 pensioners and people with disabilities.

Section 15 provides for an increase of €7.30 in the weekly payment of the island allowance, bringing the rate to €20 per week for people living on an offshore island. It is an increase to the weekly value of certain social welfare payments. The intention of this is to compensate for the additional costs of living on the islands when compared with people resident on the mainland.

The intention of this is to compensate for the additional costs of living on these islands when compared with people resident on the mainland. As Minister with responsibility for the islands, I am pleased to have been able to provide this measure, which is the first time the island allowance has been increased since it was introduced over two decades ago.

Section 17 repeals the increase in the State pension age. The programme for Government commits that the planned increase in the State pension age next year will be deferred. It will remain at 66 years pending the report of the Commission on Pensions. The Commission on Pensions has been established and will report by June 2021. In the meantime, the Bill provides that the State pension age will remain at 66 years and not increase to 67 years on 1 January 2021 or 68 years in 2028. This will allow the Commission on Pensions to consider State pensions policy issues fully and make recommendations for the future unfettered. Section 18 provides for the Short Title to the Bill and its construction and collective citation with the Social Welfare Acts.

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

As we speak about the Social Welfare Bill, and the many positive measures contained in it which will take effect from 1 January 2021, it is important to reflect on the year gone by. I wish to take this opportunity in the Seanad to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the staff of the Department of Social Protection during this unprecedented year. As public representatives we all engage with the staff of the Department at local level through our constituency offices. I know the Members will agree with me in acknowledging the extraordinary effort the staff in the Department have put in this year at a time of national crisis to ensure payments were issued to those who needed them. To date, under the pandemic unemployment payment, the Department has issued over 13 million payments to 800,000 people. Let us put that into perspective. It is the equivalent of seven years' worth of jobseeker's applications in eight months. That gives Members some idea of the scale of the task with which the staff were faced. In the past ten days alone, over €500 million issued between the Christmas bonus and the arrears on the pandemic unemployment payment. That included €389 million issued to over 311,000 people as part of the Christmas bonus and a further €130 million in pandemic unemployment payment arrears issued to over 286,000 people. These are enormous numbers in financial terms and in terms of the number of people impacted in that ten-day period alone.

What is sometimes forgotten is that the Department of Social Protection and its staff have managed to do all that work this year on top of everything else that they do as part of their normal day-to-day work. This includes processing pensions, disability and carer's allowances as well as applications for all the other payments. It is sometimes easy to take for granted that everything will run smoothly and that payments will be made every week. However, a great deal of work goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. It really has been an extraordinary effort across the board by staff in every county this year and I wish to acknowledge those efforts in the Seanad today. I imagine all Senators will join me when I say a big "thank you" to the staff of the Department of Social Protection. They too have been front-line workers during this pandemic.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators on the Bill.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It is great to have her here to discuss the Bill. The tone in which she ended her contribution was very important. The work that has been done by social welfare staff throughout the country has to be acknowledged. It has been an unbelievable year in so many ways. We have gone through a health crisis and we have Brexit pending in the back of people's minds as well. The Minister's staff in the Department have done so much good work. They drafted a Bill and got it up and running in less than a week. The pandemic unemployment payment has provided so much security to people. That was an amazing achievement. The volume of work done at a departmental level to make sure that people got over the horrendous first lockdown has to be acknowledged. What society went through in those seven or eight weeks and the way in which the Minister's Department reacted so swiftly is a credit to the people who work in there, and the Minister and her predecessor. That should be acknowledged in the Chamber.

The Bill brings so much to the table. A budget of more than €25 billion is significant for society, and there are many positive provisions in it. It is important we acknowledge that. The pension debate has been ongoing for generations. It is important we are having the debate again and that we are stepping back. We now have a date for the review. That is an important step for society and will give clarity to people.

The Minister has responsibility for the islands. One of the key measures she mentioned on budget day and again today is the significant increase to the allowance for the 600 people who live on the islands. Many of them are from my part of the world. We have several islands off the coast of County Cork that are vibrant with great communities living on them. They got a great bounce not alone from the financial support the Minister's contribution has made but also in knowing they were remembered and acknowledged and had not been forgotten. That was a really important step. For an allowance not to change in more than two decades and then for it to change so significantly was something the people in the island communities really appreciated. I recall budget day well because of the number of phone calls I got from west Cork in particular and from the islands saying "Jesus, we got a mention in the budget". It meant so much to a really small sector of society. It is very important we acknowledge the offshore island allowance, which has gone up quite considerably from €12.70 to €20. This is about symbolism and letting people know that we have not forgotten them and that they are a part of our plans. That is a really important step forward in how we will regenerate those island communities, which have so much to offer. When one visits them, one really understands their viability. They really want to be a very important part of our communities.

As for the Bill, the Minister has gone through the sections in detail, and many Senators will contribute to the debate on them. This is significant legislation. It is important it gets passed before the end of this week because the payments are time-sensitive. It is important that these issues be looked at and, I hope, delivered on between now and next Friday. I will do what I can from this side of the House to make sure we get this very important legislation and these amendments through the Houses so we have this Bill on the Statute Book when the new year comes.

I welcome the Minister to the House and join colleagues in congratulating her, her predecessor and her officials. Without doubt they have taken on a mammoth task and performed above and beyond the call of duty. It was amazing to hear the Minister outline the figures. Figures tend to baffle people, and we tend to switch off when we hear them, but today she delivered them well, and they give us some idea of the mammoth task she has undertaken. I wish her well for the most part as she goes forward.

I have one slight issue with the Bill, namely class K PRSI. I hope to table an amendment on this, which I hope the Minister will consider. The social insurance system operates through the Social Insurance Fund, and contributions are paid into the fund to finance a range of contributory social insurance benefits, pensions and other payments.

There is also provision for the Exchequer to subvent the fund if expenditure exceeds income. Since 1979, the term "pay-related social insurance" has been used to describe the social insurance within the Minister's Department. Five social insurance schemes fall into three categories, namely, contributory social insurance schemes, non-contributory or mean-tested schemes and childcare benefits. Social assistance arrangements are on a means-tested basis and do not form part of the Social Insurance Fund. Similarly, the child benefit payment does not form part of the Social Insurance Fund. I wish to focus solely on contributory social insurance schemes, particularly class K.

The only people subject to class K PRSI are Oireachtas Members and holders of public office. We have already had to go to the courts regarding class K PRSI for city and county councillors. Thankfully, it did not result in a court case. Rather, the Government moved to change county councillors onto class S PRSI. For most people in this House, class K PRSI means nothing one way or the other. We have a good job with a good salary and are well looked after while we are here. However, not all Members will be here for the full 20 years' service needed in order to acquire a pension. Not all Members will be here after serving their first term. It is the ones who are not here, those who lost their seats in the election, about whom I am most concerned.

We are in the middle of a pandemic; that is for sure. Some former Members of the Oireachtas lost their Dáil or Seanad seats last February or last April. Having lost their seats, they found that they had no social insurance to fall back on. They had no welfare entitlements other than those under the means-tested allowance system. It is pretty horrendous to think that, after four years' service to the State, one has nothing to show for it and nothing to gain from it. It is not just the individual Members of this House who lose out; it is also their families. It is about the long-term impact that class K PRSI has inflicted on those of us who serve the State through the Oireachtas, the Judiciary or various other forms of public office. At the end of one's period in office, such as if one serves only one term in the Oireachtas, for example, not only has one damaged one's social protection record in terms of entitlement to payments, one has also damaged one's entitlement to long-term payments such as the contributory old age pension, maternity entitlements and entitlements to various optical and dental benefits.

This issue simply was not examined properly back in 2011. Indeed, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, raised the issue in 2011 when he asked what class K gives us? Absolutely nothing. There are no benefits from it. We are paying exactly the same amount of our income as a person on class S or class A. That is simply wrong in every sense of the word. Former Deputy Sandra McLellan asked a similar question of the then Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton. The response of the then Tánaiste was that there is jobseeker's allowance. There may be jobseeker's allowance, but if one moves onto a jobseeker's allowance, it does nothing to the damaged record one leaves behind and it does nothing to the loss of income one's family is suffering as a result. I know the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is very much up to speed on this issue and is concerned about it. One must remember that holders of public office are well paid, but when one loses one's seat, one has nothing. It is really depressing to speak to some former Members of this House and to see how desperately impacted they have been as a result of Covid-19. They are not even able to look for a job now.

I do not wish to impede the passage of the Bill. I wish to support the Minister in every way I can because there are hundreds of thousands of people depending on the Bill and the way it is driven through the House.

She does not need to be harassed or harangued over a very small number of people. We are talking about a tiny number of people in the grand scheme of things. I do not believe that any Member of this House or any public office holder should fail to make a contribution to the Social Insurance Fund. We should and it is quite right that we do. Those who are unfortunate enough to lose their seat after one term should be able to fall back on the benefits to which they are entitled and their social welfare record must not be damaged. That is the most important aspect of this.

There is a discussion to be had in this House with respect to how we manage the pension entitlements, for example, of Members who have served. We cannot have a situation where somebody leaves the Oireachtas on a full Oireachtas pension and also has an entitlement to a contributory old age pension. That would be anathema to those on much lower incomes and those who depend solely on the State pension. There is a discussion to be had on that but we need to do something straight away for those who were unfortunate enough in February and April to lose their seats. It is distressing to think that people who held a position of high esteem in the nation are suddenly unemployed but not entitled to any payment. I believe the Minister cares about this and perhaps we can work on it without requiring an amendment to be brought through the House. I am willing to discuss it with her. I know she has an interest in it and wants to ensure that everybody is treated equally in this country. That is my sole issue of concern.

I compliment her on everything she has provided for in the Bill, especially for the islands. I spent a lot of my youth visiting the islands with my father and compliment the Minister on the provisions in the Bill for them.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill, which gives effect to unprecedented levels of expenditure in budget 2021. Aside from the enormous levels of expenditure, the Bill also provides that the change to the State pension age previously planned for 1 January 2021 will be deferred. The pension age will remain at 66 pending the report of the commission on pensions. The planned increase from 67 to 68, which is scheduled to happen on 1 January 2028, is also being repealed so that the commission on can consider matters relating to the State pension age unconstrained by any prospective changes scheduled in legislation.

Regulations are also being brought forward so that 65 year olds who are required to or choose to retire early can achieve an early retirement allowance or pension at the same rate as jobseeker's benefit without a requirement to sign on. Many Members have been contacted by people who worked all of their lives and when they retired, they had to go through a process, unfamiliar to them, of attending their local social welfare office. This caused huge upset and anger among many who had paid taxes all their lives. There will not be a requirement to sign on, to partake in any activation measures or to be available for and genuinely seeking work.

Other measures in the Bill provide for hugely welcome increases in the carer's support grant, the living alone allowance, the fuel allowance and the working family payment threshold. It also provides for the removal of the one-parent family earnings threshold. These are all very welcome provisions, especially in light of Covid-19 and the year we are having. The pandemic has had a significant impact on social welfare expenditure as we know, with €27.3 billion spent by the end of November. This is almost €8 billion ahead of the Estimates at the start of 2020 or 41% higher than originally planned. No Government has ever spent as much on social protection. This spending is happening in the context of a one in 100 or even 200-year event, a global pandemic that hopefully we will not see the likes of again.

As the Minister said, this budget does not go far enough for everyone and I agree. The basic rate of social welfare was not increased for many people, so nothing has changed for them. They remain on the same social welfare rate but the cost of living has increased massively.

We know the public service obligation levy will be increased by nearly 130%, a huge increase of nearly €90 annually in the cost of people's electricity bills. This is just one item on which we spend our money.

It is really important to consider the cost of living inflation and look to a future where the basic social welfare levels are harmonised with the cost of living inflation. People on a set income - those on social welfare, and especially the long-term unemployed or people on the State pension that will not see an increase - have no capacity to gain extra income. It is really important we do not leave people behind and we must not widen the gap between rich and poor. We must ensure our poverty levels do not go through the roof. Some people have stated the cost of living will go up by 5% or 6%, for example.

I raised the question of the fuel allowance before. We very much welcome the increase in the fuel allowance but there has been no increase in income thresholds so that more people can benefit from being in receipt of the fuel allowance. We all know the fuel allowance comes with many ancillary benefits, and one of the main benefits that people in Dublin get is the wrapping of homes in insulation. This fantastic and successful scheme has been done in conjunction with local health boards. Many people were just above the income threshold and did not qualify for the fuel allowance and were unable to get that benefit.

It is important to consider these thresholds for the fuel allowance, especially as we are in an era of just transition from fossil fuel use. We are also looking at carbon taxes and modifying homes to ensure they are of a higher standard. The fuel allowance is currently being used to retrofit homes and it may have a larger role to play in the just transition. I would like to see an increase in income levels so more people could qualify. There is a public service obligation levy on the provision of electricity. It may be worthwhile seeing if those in receipt of the fuel allowance could be made exempt from this as it is a huge amount each year for people but it would not amount to much more for the Department.

I congratulate the staff in the Minister's Department as any time we make queries, they are very efficient. I thank them for helping me. They put seven years of work into a few months, as has been mentioned, and that is just unbelievable. They should be commended as people can be very slow to commend the people working behind computers. On my behalf and that of the Fianna Fáil group, I say that we are very grateful to the Minister and her staff in the Department.

During the pandemic, we saw many food banks open and volunteers working in them. It is a pity that we are again seeing them open around Christmas. I know the pandemic unemployment payment filled a space but there is a huge gap arising because people need basic essentials and food items. I do not know if the Department has looked at food credits or some extra way in which people could purchase food on top of the PUP or a social welfare benefit. It amazes me to see the amount of need and the type of people who attend food banks looking for a food hamper. These are people we might not think need such hampers. We need to be cognisant of the issue. It is not ideal that people have to attend food banks but it is happening so we must see if there is something we can do to help people a little more.

I welcome the Minister to the House I thank her for the considerable work she and the Department have done, particularly in recent months. The Labour Party will be supporting the Bill, as we have done previously.

There is an important inclusion in this Bill, which repeals the section on the pension age, as other Members have said. I thank all those involved in the Stop 67 campaign. They ensured that this important issue for so many of our fellow citizens was centre stage on the political agenda and received the amount of coverage that such an important matter deserved. I want to use this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the National Women's Council of Ireland, Age Action, Active Retirement Ireland and SIPTU for their work and time on this important matter.

In addition to repealing the increase in the pension age, it will become important that we address the need for those who reach the age of 65 to sign on for a jobseeker's payment. In recent months, I have been contacted, as have other Members, by women and men who have worked all their lives and now face the prospect of standing in a queue to sign on. This is something that so many of them have never done before in their lives. They also face the prospect of being called to participate in a job activation scheme. I am aware that the Minister intends to bring in regulations which will formally remove the current requirements for people aged 65 and over to sign on, participate in activation programmes or give an undertaking that they are genuinely seeking work. This will be welcomed by those who I have spoken to in recent months. The Minister might confirm the timeframe involved in bringing forward these important matters.

I welcome the inclusion in this Bill of the extension of the limit on the PUP to €960 for self-employed workers over an eight-week period, particularly for musicians, taxi drivers and all tradespeople. I acknowledge a recent presentation we received as members of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands from Senator Black on this important matter on behalf of those in the music and entertainment industry and I acknowledge the many representations I have received from those in this industry. It is an issue I have highlighted through the committee, along with fellow committee members. Musicians and artists have struggled with previous limits and with holding on to their PUP. I agree that this will give them a chance to maintain this payment. We want to see our musicians and artists back playing and working under some sort of normality. I sincerely hope this change will make a difference to many of them until we see that normality return, hopefully quickly.

I wish to highlight the need to change the PUP to allow those workers under 18 to qualify for the payment, should they need to do so. I have previously raised this in the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and I know it forms part of the recommendation on the PUP sent back to the Minister following the review of this payment by the committee. It is an issue that has been brought up with me locally several times. It must be reviewed so that those of this age who pay their taxes and PRSI and currently do not qualify will qualify.

Another area of this report that I would like to ask the Minister to consider is the issue of those who are self-employed and over 66 who are not eligible for a State pension. We must acknowledge those who wish to work beyond their 66th birthday but we must also assist them. These citizens should be deemed eligible for the PUP but I understand that currently they will not qualify for it.

There was a lost opportunity to increase the income limits for the carer's allowance in the last budget. I have raised this with the Minister previously and I cannot let the opportunity pass without raising it once more. Figures I have received, along with Labour Party colleagues, tell us that 50% of all applications for carer's allowance are being refused. One of the biggest reasons for this over a long period of time has been the income limits. I am dealing with a case in which a family are €5 above the limit. They had been refused twice before they came to see me. I have appealed this case and there is no doubt but that the loved one being cared for would be in State care if her daughter did not carry out the 24-7 care she is providing at this time in looking after her mother. She is like so many of the carers of the country who save the Government so much. This was recently estimated at €20 billion per year. It is time to reassess these limits and beyond time to increase them. The income limits have not been changed since 2012 and over 30,000 carers are being locked out of payment, according to figures recently released by Family Carers Ireland. We must increase these limits. Those caring must be paid for their work.

There is an acknowledgement in section 11 of this Bill of the magnificent work being carried out by those who are in receipt of carer's allowance through a €150 increase in the carer's support grant. I welcome this increase and as I have said previously, those involved in providing care go above and beyond each day. It is right to recognise that through an increased grant payment.

As has been mentioned, there is also a welcome increase of €3.50 in the fuel allowance. As the Minister will be aware, however, carer's allowance is not a qualifying payment for fuel allowance. I ask her to look at this again.

I welcome the increases in the qualified child payment and living alone allowance. However, I learned recently from the Department that the qualified child payment is not available under the pandemic unemployment payment.

I thank the Minister and her staff for the magnificent work they have done in recent months. They have gone above and beyond. I had the opportunity to make the same point recently at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. On behalf of my party, I thank all the staff of the Department. I again welcome the work and commitment of the Stop 67 campaign and thank those involved.

All of us are worried about the longer-term effects this pandemic will have on our workforce, the availability of work in the future and the mental health consequences for those who have had to live apart and alone over many months during the pandemic. I continue to work daily with such families and individuals. Social protection and the Minister's Department may have to play a greater role when we eventually fully understand the consequences of the pandemic. We all hope for a day when some sort of normality returns. We welcome the many updates and changes in this Bill, which we will support.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I, too, wish to start by commending the staff in the Department of Social Protection on their work and dedication. Their commitment ensured those who were worst hit during the pandemic received vital financial supports in time. I know many staff worked above and beyond to ensure the first wave of the pandemic unemployment payment was paid as quickly as possible. They were front-line workers. I know many recipients also received their arrears in the past two weeks and I hope all outstanding claims will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

This Bill is being debated on the last sitting week before the Christmas recess in a year in which more citizens than ever have had to engage with the Department. We are also only several weeks away from January when many 65-year-olds will have to sign on the dole instead of being allowed to retire at that age. Most of these citizens have already put in a lifetime of work. People who have worked non-stop since their early teens will be forced to sign on the dole in January. When we come into this House and talk about the progress we have made as a society, we should not forget that people who were mostly involved in manual labour and services have brought us to where we are. Speaking as a young person, I believe many of my friends would identify with this issue, which is close to their hearts. The Government should recognise this and afford these people the dignity of enjoying a well-earned retirement, if that is their choice. I welcome that the legislation providing for an increase in the retirement age has been suspended pending the outcome of the pension commission's deliberations. I do not believe there is a need for a commission. There should be a commitment that no person will be forced to work past 65 years of age.

I am disappointed to see JobPath has been extended into 2021. JobPath is a bad system and a bad scheme. It was set up with little consideration for workers trying to find employment and it has been a cash cow for two major companies in particular. If a good news story were to come from this Bill, it would be that of ending the JobPath scheme. These companies make €311 for each of the more than 280,000 people who have been referred. That is €311 for being referred, not for securing lasting employment. Some 33,000 people have been referred more than once and the companies get a referral fee for the same person twice. The scheme has cost the taxpayer €250 million and has a 7% success rate in securing permanent employment. The Government is asking us to renew a scheme that is costing millions and has a success rate of 7%. In the coming months, I hope many workers will return to the workforce. JobPath is not the solution. It is part of a legacy of austerity and should be scrapped.

I thank the Deputies in the Dáil, including Deputies Kerrane and Joan Collins, and also the Minister, for their engagement with the live music industry.

Amendments were successfully passed that will ensure musicians will not have to face losing the pandemic unemployment payment due to accepting casual gigs. I thank the Minister for accepting those amendments on Committee Stage. The engagement with the industry was crucial to understanding and communicating the exceptional nature of their work. For instance, March is a busy month for musicians with St. Patrick's Day and over that weekend. They have to make hay as the sun shines and they would do multiple gigs a day on a weekend whereas April is relatively quiet. Prior to the amendment, musicians would have had to limit their earnings in March to €480 whereas now they will be able to earn up to €960 in that month whereas April is quiet.

I ask the Minister to move to provide some certainty around the future of the PUP before January for artists and musicians to be able to plan into next year. They need to know this very basic support will still be available. As she will know from her engagement with them and her time in the Department with responsibility for culture, the ability to plan gigs and performances for several months ahead is vital and without this certainty many of them will be facing very difficulty decisions over the next few months. We cannot lose the talent that continues to create the culture in our communities and on this island. There is much more to be done for artists and musicians who are still facing a period of uncertainty.

I welcome the Minister to the House and wish her well with the passage of this important Bill. I congratulate her on the tremendous work she has done over a difficult period in recent months.

I support Senator Craughwell in what he said regarding Oireachtas Members. I would add that while we pay PRSI at the K class, which is the same rate as an S class, there are no benefits to us from it. It does not even qualify a person to sign for credits. A person who lost his or her seat in the Seanad or the Dáil at the last election or previous elections cannot even sign for credits. That is an outrage. It leaves some of them in a very poor state because, as we have seen with the pandemic, there are no jobs available and there are no places for them to get a job. The Minister needs to closely examine this area.

I want to raise another issue with the Minister regarding the two weeks pay per year of service in redundancy that must be paid. I refer in particular to self-employed people and sole traders. When a business closes down there is no protection for the sole trader or the self-employed person. There are protections for a person who is involved in a company or who owns a company. The company can go into liquidation or voluntary liquidation but there is no such protection for the sole trader. In 2003, an Act provided that two weeks pay per year of service had to be paid for each member of staff if they were been laid off either through redundancy or the closing of the business. However, at that time there was clawback of 60% or 70%. However, around 2014 the then Minister, Michael Noonan, got rid of the clawback which means self-employed people, whether they close their business or downsize it, have to pay two weeks salary per year of service for each person they had employed. Since I raised this issue, I have received considerable correspondence from many people who were self-employed and from those in employment. When the downturn came they had to downsize or, in many cases, close their businesses. As a result of the pandemic, many businesses will not open their doors again. The consequences for those people is that if they cannot pay their employees' redundancy of two weeks per year of service, the State will pay it for them, but the State will come looking for its pound of flesh at the end of the day. What can the poor unfortunate person do in those circumstances? The only asset they have left is the family home, which will be taken from them after they die or whenever.

I will introduce a Private Members’ Bill providing that the family home should be excluded in those circumstances. The best way to proceed would be to bring back the clawback provision because the current position has serious consequences. A man contacted me who could not keep his business going, he got rid of some of his staff and had to cash in his private pension to cover their redundancy payments. He still was not able to make a go of the business and had to make a further allocation, which the Government paid because he had pleaded inability to pay, but now the State is looking for it out of his estate. I raised the matter with the Minister’s predecessor and was told when the man dies or when his wife dies, that money will be taken out of his estate. This issue has many of consequences in that there may be other family members in the home or children with disabilities and if the family home is sold that will have consequences. It could have other consequences where the fair deal scheme could come into play for elderly people. I ask the Minister to examine this area or she might support the Bill I intend to bring forward. How does an employer make provision for something like this? Any person who is self-employed or a sole trader can run into difficulties. They can have many staff employed. How do they plan for providing for staff ten or 20 years down the road when a huge sum of money may have to paid out? There can be many consequences. The Minister's Department has said that it will consider the Bill I will bring forward when it is published. I thank the Minister and wish her well with this Bill.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the House. I join others in thanking her and the Department for the manner in which they deal with their correspondence. All Members have ongoing public representations to make. I have always found the officials in the Department to be professional, timely and responsive and I ask the Minister to relay that to her senior officials. It is important to acknowledge that. We cannot say that about every Department but I can certainly say it about the Department of Social Protection. When one makes a representation, one gets a receipt in a few days and there is a follow-up a few days later. It is impressive and important, particularly in the area of social welfare and social protection where people are vulnerable. They are hanging on for word of whether they are entitled to a benefit. It is a tough business and I am conscious the Minister is not there to stand in anyone’s way or stop people from getting what they are entitled to. She would love to be in a position to be doubling up all of this. I know where she is coming from and the budgetary constraints on her and on the Government. Sometimes we forget the Minister is setting out what has been provided in the budget and that is as far as she can go. I thank her for her enthusiasm and positivity within her Department, which needs to be acknowledged.

I want to deal with sections 9, 11, 15 and 17. I welcome the increase provided in section 9 for the widowed or surviving civil partner grant from €6,000 to €8,000, which is a substantial increase of €2,000. That is an important mark. For the purposes of the widowed or surviving civil partner grant, will the Minister confirm whether a qualified child, that is, a child up to the age of 18, who is normally resident in the State and is still living with their parents will qualify for that money? There was a suggestion that a child aged between 18 and 22 who is normally resident in the State continues to be a qualified child provided they are in full-time education in a recognised school or college. The Minister might confirm that. That is my understanding but I just wanted to check it with her. She might also confirm when these measures will come into effect. Will they come into effect on 1 January 2021?

Section 11 provides for an increase of €150 in the carer’s support grant, raising the payment to €1,850, the highest level at which it has ever been. That must be acknowledged. That is a positive. The carer’s support grant is an annual payment for carers who look after people in need of full-time care and attention.

We would all like to give more. It is a contribution and a recognition of what is needed. Of course, we would like much more because there is no better place for people to be than in their communities and homes receiving carer support. The increase is significant, however. I know it is not enough but it is going in the right direction; it is not remaining static. That is important.

I am concerned that carers cannot take up education or training opportunities of more than approximately 18.5 hours. I believe it was a bit less last year or the year before. This means that there are restrictions in the context of carers taking up such opportunities. I am also conscious of the conflict regarding how carers can be pursuing education or training. Many people must do both. The Minister should address that.

The Minister has responsibility for the islands. I am aware of her commitment to them. The allowance of €7.30 has increased now to €20 per week. The reality is, however, that people on the islands are experiencing difficulties and are at a slight disadvantage. I ask the Minister to keep this matter under review going forward into next year.

Finally, the repeal in respect of the increase in the State pension age under section 17 is positive. I heard a previous speaker stating that they had an issue with the Commission on Pensions. I welcome its establishment. I note, from a press statement she sent out, that the Minister was at one of its gatherings in the past few days. This is a positive development. There was a massive campaign about this issue in the run-up to the general election and now something is being done. I acknowledge the work the Minister did in order to set up the commission. She might address the timeline relating to it. I believe it is supposed to report in June next year. We need to keep the focus in this regard. The commission is a response to an outcry from many people who wanted the matter in question examined. The Minister might touch on how its work is going. I know it has just begun its deliberations. Is she confident that the commission can deliver its report by next June?

I welcome the Minister. As she mentioned, it is wonderful to hear how the officials and staff from the Department with responsibility for employment affairs and social protection, who work in each and every county, stepped up in such heroic fashion to support people who literally found themselves, from one week to the next, with no income when we entered into lockdown. The lockdown impacted mostly on young people and those in sectors such as retail, hospitality and tourism. The Minister mentioned that more than €13 billion is going to 800,000 people. In terms of the processes, project management and commitment needed in this regard, the efforts of the Department of Social Protection have been Herculean. We owe the Department a huge debt of gratitude. When one thinks about it,182,000 people were on the live register in February. That is one of the lowest numbers ever. Huge numbers were in almost full employment in February and then the Department, which was previously under the stewardship of the Leader, Senator Doherty, somehow turned the position around in the context of dealing with the lowest number of recipients ever to dealing with three times that number. At present, the Department is providing payments to 535,000 people on the live register and the PUP. I am honestly in awe of how that was done in such a fast turnaround time to provide support to people.

The role of public representatives is, in particular, to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. The role of Government is to provide leadership and a lifeline to those in need in a crisis. With the support and the budget secured by the Minister, the Department has given a lifeline to people and families in need. The leadership and immediate response of the previous Government resulted in impressive achievements in the area of social welfare. Fine Gael wants a just Ireland in which those who are most vulnerable will be protected. We need to support people in need in this crisis. The reason we can do so is that we are in a position to borrow at low rates. The latter has meant that we can provide the PUP and fund the TWSS.

I was proud to hear the Minister state that more than €300 million has been allocated in targeted measures to vulnerable groups.

Of the measures mentioned by the Minister, one of the most crucial is payment of sick leave on the fourth day. This is an immediate response to Covid-19. We, as a Government, are asking people to stay home from work if they show any symptoms. They will now, however, have support because sick pay is urgent. The Minister mentioned that there is a consultation process with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We need all stakeholders to take part in that because sick pay should be a statutory right. It is provided for in other countries in Europe. That reduction in waiting time from six to three days, however, means a person will get some form of income if he or she cannot turn up to work. In asking that person to stay home, stay safe and help protect others, we are now doing something to help and support them and their families.

Being able to earn up to €960 over eight weeks on the PUP scheme means our artists, creatives, craftspeople, musicians, tradespeople and self-employed have an option to retain their PUP payment and also work.

The carer's support grant is close to my heart. During the election campaign, I saw a presentation from the Family Carers Ireland group and the amount it does in saving the Exchequer money by the service it provides in homes really hit home. This €150 increase in the carer's support grant is welcome and raises the payment to €1,850. The Minister also mentioned that more than 130,000 carers can benefit from this increase next year. Increasing our support towards carers, however, is something I will examine and work on in the years ahead.

I very much welcome the living alone allowance. I was heartened to see funding last week under the Covid-19 stability funds from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, as well as the age and opportunity funds that went out to active age retirement groups. There is huge loneliness and isolation for older people living at home. We are asking them to stay away and stay at home, and yet, in this time, it is tough. I, therefore, very much welcome the increase of €5 for people living alone.

I thank the Minister, her teams, the Department and the officials. It is a party I am proud to be a part of.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Many of us wish we were back on this day last year because, as Senator Dolan alluded to, we had full employment. To listen to some of the naysayers, one would think the previous Government did nothing. I remind the House of Mr. Seamus Coffey, the eminent University College Cork, UCC, academic who has written on the issue of income and inequality. The reality is that income growth and inequality is falling in our country at this time and as Mr. Pat Leahy wrote recently in The Irish Times, people are getting richer and we are becoming more equal. If, however, one was to listen to the chorus and crescendo of naysayers, one would think we were living in a Trumpian world where government did nothing and our people were getting poorer.

I wish to put on record my sincere appreciation to the staff on the ground in the offices of the Minister's Department who have been an absolute colossus to people during this pandemic, but also in normal times. The Minister has become part of the Department of Social Protection, which is an important arm of Government. Let us make clear what the Minister has done. Qualified child payments, the living alone allowance, the offshore island allowance, as Senator Lombard mentioned, and the widowed or surviving civil partner grant have increased. There has been a reduction in waiting times for illness benefit, an increase in the carer's support grant and the working family payment threshold and a removal of the one-parent family earnings limit. This was all done by a Government and party that is supposed to be against the working man and woman.

Many of us who are members of Fine Gael are proud to be members of trade unions and are proud to be ordinary working people on behalf of an gnáthdhuine, the ordinary person.

Can we ever get a bit of honesty from the political commentariat in our country and from some - who are not in this Chamber now - on the extreme left who have no idea what they are taking about? We have challenges and we have to face up to responsibilities in housing. Let me put on the record of this House that the previous Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was a good Minister. We are now seeing the fruits of his work being delivered. It is time we had honesty about the issues in our country such as work, reactivation measures, income poverty and the discrepancy between those who have and those who have not so much. I would love to have that debate over a period of time, rather than the short five minutes we have for it here. This increase of €4 billion is larger than the Department's budgetary allocation for 2020 in the Department of Social Protection.

The changes made by the Government are welcome. The point made by Senator Craughwell on the class K contributions for former Members of the House is one on which we should all support him in the context of seeing the difficulties that have arisen, as was rightly said. To conclude, there is a need for a real and honest debate on what we are debating today. I hope that the pandemic unemployment payment can be extended, if necessary, to people who are badly affected in the new year with the onset of the vaccination. I refer in particular to our aviation workers, those in the hospitality and tourism sectors and, as Senator Dolan rightly mentioned, those in the arts and music industries. I thank the Minister for being here and I look forward to a further debate on the issue of social protection in our country.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome the total budget of some €25.1 billion for social protection for the year ahead, which in itself is an increase of some €4 billion compared with what was announced on budget day. This increase is mainly for the pandemic unemployment payment and jobseeker's supports. This is a clear example of the Government reacting to changing circumstances, and most importantly, being able to react. We are able to react because of the work that previous Governments have done since 2011 to restore the economy and good name of this country and to enable us to borrow at low rates. That is hugely important.

The social welfare budget is indicative of the cost and importance of supporting people and businesses through the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. Many people and businesses have been protected by the provision of a basic income during recent months. That is what social welfare is about. It is a safety net that is available when it is needed so that there are guarantees in times of unemployment and illness. I agree with my colleague, Senator Craughwell, however, and I urge the Minister to look at the issue of the class K contributions for former Members. The class K contributions effectively mean there will be no social insurance payments for people insured under class K.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an ardú sa liúntas oileánda do dhaoine ag fáil íocaíochtaí leasa sóisialta atá ag cónaí ar oileán sainithe amach ón gcósta ó €12.70 in aghaidh na seachtaine go dtí €20 in aghaidh na seachtaine. Tá costas breise ag baint le saol ar oileán amach ón gcósta agus cabhróidh an t-ardú seo leis na costais sin. Tá mé an-bhuíoch don Aire as ucht na tacaíochta sin, an chéad ardú sa liúntas seo ó 2000. The increase of the living on a specified island allowance by €7.30 to €20 per week from this January is hugely welcome. This is the first increase in this allowance since 2000.

I welcome this initiative. The Minister's unique position of being the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Rural and Community Development gave her a greater ability to enact this change and I welcome it. It has been warmly received by our offshore island communities.

I welcome the initiatives to increase various supports, such as the increase in the widowed surviving civil partner grant by €2,000 to €8,000. That is the first increase in that allowance since 2008. I welcome the flexibility being provided for those in receipt of the PUP, whereby they can earn the PUP while continuing to carry out some work. This will benefit taxi drivers, musicians, electricians, plumbers and other self-employed workers.

I welcome the measure to reduce the waiting period for those unable to work due to injury or occupational disease sustained in the course of their employment from six days to three days. I welcome the removal of the earnings limit on the one-parent family payment and the increase in the carer's support grant by €150, raising the payment to €1,850, the highest rate ever.

The issue of pensions is fraught and I welcome the decision not to increase the pension age, as well as the establishment of the pensions commission. The commission will have to deal with an issue we have not been able to grapple with for some time. In 2010, the then Government under the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, the then Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, Lord have mercy on him, and the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin, produced the national pensions framework. That report stated:

The inescapable fact is that for every pensioner we have now there are another six people at work to support them; by 2060, that figure will be less than two. The sooner we face this inevitability, the better prepared we will be to meet it.

The pensions commission has serious issues to deal with. The decision not to go ahead with the increase in the pension age from next year is welcome because there are many people who are not able to work past a certain age because they are physically not able to work. I am talking about tradesmen, whether it be plumbers, blocklayers or plasterers, who have jobs that are tough on their joints, knees, backs and necks. It all impacts on their ability to continue working past 66 years of age and some of them who are younger than that unfortunately have to carry on if other supports are not available. These are very difficult issues for some people but it is an issue the pensions commission will have to grapple with in terms of providing a sustainable footing for our pension system to ensure that people pay into it and that they can reap the reward in their old age.

I welcome the €25 billion social welfare budget. It is of a size and scale that is only right for the year it is. The Department of Social Protection responded accordingly from a supports and an efforts point of view and I want to thank the Minister, her predecessor, the former Minister, Senator Doherty, and the Department.

It is the year of Covid-19 and of Brexit and the priority is clearly the most vulnerable. I want to call out: the €2,000 increase for the widows or surviving partners grant; the living alone allowance increase from €14 per week to €19 per week; the reduction in the illness benefit waiting days from six to three; the consultation that is happening on statutory sick pay, which is outside of the Covid-19 illness benefit; the increase of €150 in the carer's supports grant; and the removal of the one-parent family payment earnings limit. These supports all affect people where I live in Dublin West.

I want to focus on one thing that is not included today which is important, that is, the hot school meals programme. The original pilot was done last year and reached 6,600 pupils. I have worked on it with the schools and visited them to see it in operation. It was fantastic. I would have been a supporter of this before the pilot and I am an even stronger supporter now. It has been extended to 35,000 students and funding has been increased by €5.5 million. It has been something that Senator Doherty has really pushed. One cannot underestimate the importance of a nutritious hot meal in a child's daily life in school, in terms of the child's learning and well-being.

I commend the Minister on prioritising the families and children who need such meals most but I really hope the initiative can be rolled out to all children in the future. Would it not be fantastic for their learning and well-being if they were able to have a hot meal at school?

Let me refer to an initiative that I am not sure gets as much recognition as it deserves. Schools that participate in the school meals programme were able to transfer from school meals to food parcels during the pandemic. The parcels were given out weekly and contained food such as milk, fruit, vegetables and non-perishable goods. It made such an incredible difference in the lives of recipients. If taken up on in the way I envisage, it would benefit 250,000 children and 1,580 schools and organisations. The programme was extended for the summer. In the nine-week period of the summer, the families also got the food parcels. These initiatives make such a big difference in people's lives.

Having lived in the North, and having plenty of family members and friends there, I believe it is absurd that an all-island party should say a pension age of 65 is the least people deserve in the South but not in the North. Are the people in the North not as hard-working or deserving to Sinn Féin? Will future generations in the North not deserve the same assurances on getting a pension when they turn a certain age as the people in the South? Before people start crying out about Westminster, they should note Sinn Féin passed legislation in both 2012 and 2014 to raise the Northern Ireland state pension age to 67 by 2028 and to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. The pensions issue is such a serious one. The pensions commission has serious work to do and the security of pensions should be taken seriously. It deserves a bit more honesty.

To return to the issue of the Minister's work, I thank her Department. I very much appreciate everything she has done and look forward to working with her on the rest.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This is my first time addressing her in her new role. I compliment her and her hard-working staff, as colleagues have done. What has been done throughout the pandemic by her Department has been truly extraordinary. The budget of €25 billion is colossal but it is needed in times of Brexit and Covid uncertainty.

I was delighted a number of years ago when the Department's name was changed from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the Department of Social Protection because what has been engaged in throughout the pandemic has been the protection of people's income. The pandemic unemployment payment, which the Department has administered, has been an essential lifeline for so many. I do not know how the Department has got through all the claims and managed to pay arrears in the past few weeks. Great credit is due to the Minister's staff for the work they have done.

I echo the comments of my colleague Senator Currie on the school meals programme. It is probably not a programme that we usually hone in on, but as a former teacher in a DEIS school I believe it is invaluable. We should not underestimate the importance of nutritious meals for students. There are studies that link positive student behaviour with nutritious food, as opposed to junk food. I share my colleagues' desire to get to a position in which many more students are in receipt of school meals.

I wish to single out a couple of matters that have already been mentioned. The increase to the carer's support grant, from €1,700 to €1,850, is very welcome. I hope this trend will continue in future years because the work carers do is absolutely extraordinary. The injury benefit, the reduction in the number of days and the increase of €2,000 for widows and surviving partners are all welcome additions and improvements to the payments of the Department of Social Protection.

I would like to flag the issue of the fuel allowance. Senator Ardagh mentioned this earlier. I recognise the importance of the allowance, particularly considering its link to the warmer homes scheme and its role in reducing fuel poverty, but I wish to refer to a certain case I have encountered in respect of it. According to the Department's webpage on income disregards for the fuel allowance, payments such as the Magdalen commission scheme payments, ex gratia payments for personal injuries suffered in the Stardust fire and compensation for people who have contracted hepatitis C are all disregarded, and rightly so, but there is an anomaly concerning the disablement benefit. This probably relates to the word "benefit". The benefit may be payable where one has suffered a loss of physical or mental faculty as a result of an accident at work or a prescribed disease contracted at work. I believe it is because of the word "benefit" that disablement benefit is classified as income that disallows recipients from accessing the fuel allowance. I am dealing with the case of a lady whose husband passed away recently. She was in receipt of the fuel allowance but now that she is on her own, her payments are being examined. She receives a small disablement benefit payment but the Department has stated that because it is a benefit, she is not entitled to the fuel allowance. I ask the Minister to look into this case because of all the additional benefits the fuel allowance brings.

My contribution will be quite short because many of my points have been made. I am glad there is a general welcome for many of the provisions in the Bill, particularly in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I compliment the Minister, whom I have known for a long time, including through my radio work. She takes on board what people say to her. Any suggestions we have will certainly get a fair hearing. I know this from my experience in the entertainment sector in particular. People in that sector have asked me to thank the Minister for taking on board every point they made. She has made a very welcome taxation change recently about which the sector is very happy.

Most Senators have spoken about the welfare package and various aspects of it. Some referred to the living alone allowance. We are aware that people receiving that allowance, who are mainly pensioners and people with disabilities, will receive their increase. That is very important.

The provision relating to the islands shows that the three parties in government, namely, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, have an all-island approach, encompassing all people in all sectors. The very fact that we have increased the island allowance is important. There are 600 people living on offshore islands. That is a significant number. The allowance will be very well received.

I will refer to one or two more issues before I conclude, the first being the removal of the earning limit in respect of the one-parent family payment. Currently, when a lone parent's earnings exceed €425 per week, the entitlement to the one-parent family payment is lost.

The change in the Bill, which is very good, is very welcome. At times, quite a number of one-parent families struggle and we should remember that. I am not one of these people who goes to criticise them. Many of them have tried very hard to do the best for their children in challenging circumstances. This is the type of measure I like to see dealt with and I welcome it very much.

The increase in the carer's support grant has been spoken about by many people. It is fair to say we always really need to be making improvements for carers. This has been mentioned by many people and I welcome the change the Minister has made and the increase provided for by the Government. It is important that we look after such vulnerable people.

The previous speaker made a very good point about the fuel allowance. I will write to the Minister about other suggestions I have on the fuel allowance, to which we might be able to make changes. This would be important because a complaint I probably get most is from people who feel they should get that particular allowance but do not because of the current regulations. All I ask is that when I write to the Minister she will take a look at it. I know she will.

In general, this has been a very good package in difficult and challenging times and I commend the Minister. The way the staff have dealt with the thousands upon thousands of representations from Oireachtas Members and local authority members has been extraordinary. I want to express my thanks again to the Minister and her staff for doing this. As did previous speakers, I also did so at committee. The staff have been a major help. For many of the people with queries the situation was simplified for them by staff and that is really appreciated. Sometimes in social welfare it is a case of us and them but what has happened in recent months in particular is that staff have more than stepped up to the mark with this level of co-operation. Quite a number of members of the public have mentioned to me how easy it was to deal with the staff. I have found them to be absolutely extraordinarily caring and helpful in doing everything they could to sort out issues for people. I thank the Minister and the Cathaoirleach.

The feelings people have towards the Department and the Minister seem to be a common thread today and I will not be any different. I compliment the Minister in particular on a personal level for the amount of work she does and the way she deals with us as representatives. She gets back to us incredibly quickly. She is the most consistent Minister in answering the phone and getting back to us as quickly as possible. For someone who is a new public representative, it is very much appreciated.

As almost everyone has said, the Department has been put under immense pressure for the past nine months. The Minister's predecessor, Senator Regina Doherty, did phenomenal work at the start of the pandemic and the Minister has taken it on. We were at a stage where we had 1.3 million people receiving either the pandemic unemployment payment or a jobseeker's payment. The Department was able to facilitate this and work through it although it all happened suddenly. It was not like previous recessions in which people gradually lost their jobs, it was overnight. I compliment the work the Department has done. Everyone has said it and everyone feels the exact same way. It has been a phenomenal achievement. Everyone focuses on the Department of Health and the Department of Finance for obvious reasons but one of the biggest strains this pandemic has caused has certainly been to the Department of Social Protection.

I will not go into too much detail because many people have raised many measures they welcome, such as the fuel allowance increase and the living alone allowance increase of €5. Although it is €5, people really welcome it and it does mean a lot of them. It is an acknowledgement that we understand they need support and we are supporting them. The disability allowance increased by €20 from €120 to €140. This is important and it is another statement that we want to support people. The carer's support grant has increased by €150 from €1,700 to €1,850. This is very welcome in the community. Councillor Richie Molloy in Clonmel does an awful lot of work for family carers in Tipperary.

There is always a need for more support but certainly it is a large increase and it is very welcome.

I do not know whether other Senators touched on this but I have an interest in it from my perspective. I want to acknowledge the increase in the parental leave benefit from two weeks to five weeks, an increase of three weeks. There have been issues with getting it implemented and I compliment the work the Minister has done to make it happen. People will now be able to take the extra three weeks' parental leave from the start of 2021 although the payment will not be made until the start of April. Parents who have had children in the past 12 months will now be able to take leave. They thought they might have been able to take only two weeks but now will have a total of five weeks' parental leave. It is a very important statement by the Government that we support families and parents and that we support the structure of giving parents and guardians as much time as possible with their children at the very early stage of their lives. The statement made by increasing the leave from two weeks to five weeks, with financial support from the Government, is hugely welcome.

We could go through many measures to welcome and acknowledge them but I will not do so. It is a very good budget. To think we are putting €25 billion into the Department of Social Protection is phenomenal and the responsibility for the Department is huge. What it has done over the past nine months has been nothing short of incredible. I thank the Minister.

I thank all of those Senators who have contributed, including Senators Lombard, Craughwell, Ardagh, Wall, Warfield, Burke, Boylan, Dolan, Buttimer, Kyne, Currie, Cummins, Murphy and Ahearn. The social protection system is designed, as we know, to help people and ensure there is a safety net and baseline of income support, and that nobody falls under. Like all Members of the House, I meet people regularly through my constituency work who absolutely depend on their weekly social welfare payment. We are coming to the end of what has been an extraordinarily difficult year and the scale of the supports the Government has put in place this year is unprecedented but they were absolutely needed. Between Covid and Brexit we simply have not been able to do everything we wanted to do but in the circumstances we are in we have sought to target the resources where they are needed most. The measures in the Bill will seek to make the social protection system work better for people who are unemployed, pensioners, carers, people with disabilities and lone parents.

I thank all of the Members for the tributes and thanks to the staff and I will certainly pass them on to the staff in the Department and the wider social welfare staff up and down the length and breadth of the country. I appreciate all of the kind comments each Senator has made about the staff. To be honest, we are very proud of them and they have done a great job.

A number of questions have been asked and I will try to answer them as best I can. Senators Lombard, Boylan, Kyne and Murphy all mentioned the islands. I had the pleasure of visiting Arranmore during the summer. The previous year I was at a wedding on Clare Island. Even though I did not have responsibility at that stage I took the opportunity to speak to some of the local people on both occasions. There are certainly challenges when people are living on an island. The one that struck home for me is that when young people living on Arranmore want to go to the cinema, my goodness they really have to make the effort. They have to get a boat then a car and then drive the whole way to Letterkenny. I know this is to help certain categories of people on social welfare payments but I am very conscious that the islands are part of the whole country.

Just because one must get on a boat to reach them does not mean that we should forget about them. I know Senator Kyne had responsibility for the islands prior to this and was very committed to them. He put a lot of effort and work into helping everybody there. I thank him for his comments.

Senators Craughwell, Burke and Kyne raised the issue of K class contributions for public representatives. Senator Craughwell also tabled an amendment that, unfortunately, I cannot accept but I will certainly give it consideration and will ask my officials to look at it. I agree with the Senators that some Senators and Deputies with young families who lost their seats earlier this year have been unable to get a job, possibly due to Covid, so have been left with no income. Regardless of what party they belong to, that is a very tough situation for people who have worked extremely hard and cannot even sign on for credits. People who lose their seats receive a severance payment, which must be considered when looking at the issue. The matter should be referred to an Oireachtas committee for consideration because whatever recommendations, and Senator Craughwell has a Private Members' Bill-----

I called for a rapporteur's report to be prepared by the committee.

We need to consider the matter using an Oireachtas committee with which I am happy to engage and lend my support. However, it is important that the issue has cross-party support.

Senators Ardagh, Warfield and Wall raised the issue of the pensions commission and the pension age. The pensions commission has been set up and is comprised of 11 very capable people from various backgrounds, particularly employer groups, business groups and pension experts. The commission has met three times. It has a huge body of work to do and I hope that it will be able to report to me in June. I have given the commission terms of reference to consider the State pension in its entirety because we must consider the impact that it has, both on those who retire now and especially young people who will retire at some stage in the future. Interestingly, a Deputy asked the chairman of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council last week about the possibility of reducing the pension age to 65 years. The chairman was very clear about the impact such a move would have on the young people of today, which we must bear in mind. It is important that the young people of today enjoy the same benefits as those who retire today so we need to make sure that we consider the intergenerational issue. I am satisfied that the pensions commission will consider the different aspects and make recommendations that take account of everybody's interests both young and old.

I have considered the issue concerning payments to 65-year-olds. I will introduce regulations that will formally remove the current requirement for people to sign on. The administrative practice has been in place whereby people do not have to sign on and just fill up one application form.

People do not have to sign on. They do not currently have to stand in dole queues. They do not have to be actively seeking work and they will receive a payment of €203 per week for 12 months. I am now signing off regulations that formalise the arrangement that we currently have in place that was introduced a good number of years ago. For people who had worked all of their lives, it was demeaning for them to have to apply for the jobseeker's allowance so this issue has been dealt with and the current arrangement has been in place for some time.

Many Senators mentioned the fuel allowance. It has been increased but we need to consider it in a broader sense. There are a number of supports available through the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications that will help people to make the necessary changes to make their houses more energy efficient. A lot of grants are available and we are considering the retrofit scheme as well. I am happy to engage with the Senators on the issue and I know that it has been raised here several times. The Government is committed to protecting vulnerable households from energy poverty through the combination of supports that I have mentioned, investment in schemes to improve energy efficiency and the energy efficiency awareness initiatives. Indeed, one of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty in the long term is to improve the energy efficiency of the dwelling house through proper building and household insulation so the warmer homes scheme, which is administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, is designed to do that. I take on board the points that have been made and I will consider the fuel allowance in the context of next year's budget.

The next issue is the pandemic unemployment payment for people over 66 years. Last March, when the previous Government established the PUP, people aged over 66 years were never entitled to it because the PUP is there to provide a basic level of income for people to live on. The €350 rate is the equivalent of the jobseeker's payment plus a qualified adult. A person in receipt of a contributory pension of €248 will get a qualified adult payment of between €165 and €222. Depending on his or her partner's age that could mean a person receives up to €470 per week overall, which is well in excess of the top PUP rate of €350. Of course we would love to be able to give everybody more money but we must target our resources, which I am sure Senators will appreciate. The PUP was created to look after the people who have no income because they have lost their jobs. To date, we have spent almost €4.5 billion on PUP and it has served as a safety net for hundreds of thousands of people during the pandemic. I appreciate that there are people who receive a pension but continue to work and are still in business. The restart grant is available to them if they own their own premises.

The next issue is the means test for the carer's allowance. I wish to point out that the means test for a carer's allowance is one of the most generous in the social protection system in that €332.50 of gross weekly income is disregarded in the calculation of means for a single person. The equivalent for someone who is married, in a civil partnership or co-habitating is €665 of combined gross weekly income. This means that a couple can earn in the region of €37,500 yet qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance.

I am informed that some 92% of the recipients of carer's allowance have no means or means of less than €760 per week.

I will address the broader issue of carers. They have had a particularly difficult year with Covid because they have not been able to avail of some of the day services or the supports that are normally available. As a recognition of that, I wanted to improve the carer's support grant. The role of the Department is to provide a basic income; it is not our job to pay people for the important job they do. In terms of carers, that also involves the Department of Health, which carries out an important role. The Department of Health has a responsibility for the national carers' strategy so there needs to be a joined-up approach. I said in the Dáil that we should consider both sectoral committees coming together to do a study on the role of carers and how we can support them in the fantastic work they do. We know some carers have a greater burden than others and we are well aware of those situations. That is something we need to have a discussion on and I am happy to engage with the committee in looking at that issue. We all realise there are those who are doing it 24-7 and those who have a less demanding role. I am happy to work on that.

We have cleared most of the arrears. There are 6,000 cases remaining and we are working to get them cleared as quickly as we can. We are hoping to have most of them done by the end of the year. The main reason arrears accumulated was all the information was not provided. We wanted to get payments to them immediately and we went back to them when we had an opportunity to get more information. That has all been processed. Last week, there was a lot of money paid out for arrears. The majority of it is done but there are some that we are working on.

JobPath was raised by Senator Warfield. The average cost for JobPath services at the moment is €870 per jobseeker for a 12-month engagement. It is important to acknowledge that JobPath is only one part of the jigsaw. We have local employment services and Intreo offices. There are approximately 200,000 people on the live register. The number on the PUP is well down this week, thank goodness. It is down by more than 42,000 on last week so there are approximately 306,000 people on the PUP. Now is not the time to take away any of those job activation measures because people need the support to reskill, take up other jobs or help them in any way we can to get back into employment. People want to get back to work. JobPath is only one part of the jigsaw and I am expanding the local employment services and job clubs and these contracts are being extended into next year. I have spoken to the local development companies because they play a big role in the local employment services. We are working with those as well.

Senator Burke raised the issue of protection for sole traders in the event of closure of their business. This area of responsibility now falls under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He suggested that family homes should be excluded from the clawback for redundancy payments made by the State. I am happy to take up with him on the individual case he was referring to but the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is responsible for redundancy.

Senator Boyhan commended on the Department and I thank him for his kind words. The Department is here to help people and we are not trying to put obstacles in their way. That is important to say. The Senator raised an issue related to people aged between 18 and 22 who are in full-time education. "Yes, from 1 January", is the answer to his question. He mentioned carers and I have covered that. I have covered the pensions commission as well.

Senator Dolan and Senator Buttimer mentioned carers as well. This time last year we were in full employment and we were in a different world. Having said that, I am confident that 2021 will be the year of the recovery. It is important we give people hope and there is no reason it cannot be. Many supports have been paid out and I hope people will spend them locally and support their local businesses. We know the value of the local shop from when we were in the depths of this lockdown and one was able to go and get what one needed there. We should not forget about them as we move on.

Senators Currie and Cummins raised the hot school meals programme. As the Senators said, it has been expanded. I have expanded the numbers and increased the budget. There is no doubt that hot meals are important to children. As a mother of two who spent years trying to think of innovative ways to get them to eat their cold lunch and comply with the school healthy-eating policy, I assure Senators that I understand that. I even tried sending food flasks but they were too awkward to carry so that did not work either. I thought if they had something warm it would be good for them on a cold day. I understand the value of the hot school meals programme. We are expanding it and will look at it in time, in conjunction with the Department of Education.

Senator Cummins referred to the role of the Department of Social Protection and the changing of that name. It was right to change it because our role is to protect and provide a basic income for people. We will look at the disablement benefit the Senator raised and I will talk to him about that case.

Senator Murphy spoke about the entertainment industry. He is very familiar with that industry and has been supportive of it in many ways. I thank him for his comments and I was glad to be able to accept the amendment in the Dáil whereby those in the industry are allowed to earn €960 every two months before it impacts on their PUP. That has been warmly welcomed.

Senator Ahearn spoke about the increase in parental leave. That is welcome and the legislation is under way. We hope to have it in operation as soon as we can. The reason for the delay in the payment is that we have to write the computer system again. There has been a great deal of pressure on our systems in terms of adapting them quickly to pay the PUP. Then we had the Christmas bonus and then we had the arrears. We are working on that and we will get it done as soon as the legislation is through. People can still take the leave and they will get the payment once the system is up and running.

I think I have covered most things and, once again, I thank Senators for their contributions. I look forward to coming back to the Seanad on Committee Stage. At the end of the day, we are all on the same page here. We all want to alleviate poverty where we can, to support people into sustainable employment and provide a high quality service to people throughout the country and throughout their lives. As I said earlier, the staff of the Department of Social Protection have done that this year. I thank Senators again and will see them on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Wednesday.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 16 December 2020.
The Seanad adjourned at 6.11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 December 2020.