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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Dec 2020

Vol. 273 No. 10

Social Welfare Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages


I welcome the Minister. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and form a composite proposal. They may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:

“ “Act of 2010” means the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2010;”.

The Minister is welcome back to the House. I acknowledge her as a decent and hard-working Minister who has done a great deal for this country since the pandemic hit and before it in her previous ministerial roles.

What I will say here is about the issue and not the individual Minister in charge. I need to put this on the record because I realise she must have worked 23 hours a day over the past several months to keep the people of this country in the welfare entitlements they have.

What I am speaking about today is class K PRSI. We are here today to pass the Social Welfare Bill 2020. When the first Irish social insurance scheme was set up in 1911, it was seen as a contract between the citizen and the State and not a commercial relationship. I ask the Minister at the outset whether this relationship has changed. Is it no longer a contract between the citizen and the State? It was based on very simple rules of entitlement based on contributions. It has remained so ever since, with the exception of one Bill, which provided for the introduction of class K PRSI for public office holders. That legislation was introduced at the height of an economic mess the country found itself in. It is my belief it was poorly thought out and it was, in some way, the Oireachtas tipping its hat to the hard-pressed citizens of the State who were forced to bail out the State from an economic mess, which was overseen by this House at the time, through reckless carry-on and by reckless banks.

I am not going to go into the historical side of what happened between 2007 and 2011, when the legislation was introduced, but a lot of legislation was introduced at the time, including FEMPI legislation, that was reactionary. It hit the hardest pressed in society and people suffered badly. We might say those involved in the Oireachtas at the time, and I was not, did not really suffer that much as a result of class K PRSI being imposed on us. At 4% of salary, the least we might do was make the same contributions as every citizen of the State to the social welfare system. However, bringing us into the PRSI net using class K PRSI was, for me, a significant and almost seismic shift in the policy of the Government at the time.

In 2018, councillors were removed from the net and put into class S PRSI, which is for the self-employed. This is a bit of a nonsense because they are not self-employed. It was done because I took action to ensure councillors would be treated properly by the State. They became beneficiaries of the class S PRSI. It is deeply regrettable it was not retrospectively applied to them because many of them have suffered problems with their old age pensions and with entitlements to various benefits but we will move on.

As it stands, class K PRSI is arbitrary. It became a class of PRSI specifically for Oireachtas Members, judges, and the President, apart from unearned income of people with stocks and shares. It created an anomaly on top of an existing anomaly. Thankfully for the sake of councillors, the movement to class S changed things for them. We never thought about Members of the Oireachtas. The State is the employer of Members of the Oireachtas and has a duty of care to them. Not every Member is fortunate to have a double job. Indeed, in my case when I came into the Oireachtas, I was forced under statutory instrument to take a career break from my job as a teacher. The only professions forced into a career break on taking a seat in the Oireachtas are teachers and lecturers in institutes of technology. At that time, I took a hit in salary from the top of the teacher salary rate down to €65,000 a year. It was a pay cut of approximately €8,500 but I was damned delighted to take it because I am extremely proud to have been elected to the House on three occasions and I regard it as a tremendous privilege to be here.

Following the 2020 general election, something happened that brought focus to the impact of class K PRSI. A number of our former colleagues, some of them extremely hard-working high-profile people, lost their seats having only been in this establishment for one term. Let us couple this with the unforeseen prospect of a pandemic that hit the State. By the way, all of us in the House might as well be honest and admit from the outset that when people lose their seats, there is a severance payment. It is a small amount for somebody who has only served one term, and the entitlement to a pension as an Oireachtas Member, contrary to public opinion, is not until people reach the age of 55. Young Deputies and Senators in their early 30s who lost their seats suddenly found themselves in a situation where they had to go to the Intreo office to sign on. When they went there, they found they had no entitlement to unemployment benefit, despite having paid 4% of their salary to the insurance fund every month while they sat in this House. As reckonable employment contributions are now averaged over a lifetime, we have placed these former Members in a second peril, which is we have permanently damaged their entitlement to their contributory old age pension. When the time comes they will find they have a four-year gap and that will impact their entitlement to a pension.

The chilling effect of class K PRSI is not only monetary. It also has broader implications for democracy, equality and diversity in political representation. The lessons learned by those who have lost their seats is that if ordinary-type employees paying their PRSI are fortunate enough to get elected to this House and have no other income, they had better think twice before they take their seats. If they lose their seats they will not just lose their income but also their entitlement to benefits. From this point of view, it directly impacts democracy and the way democracy works. Are we turning the Houses of the Oireachtas into a place for the privileged in society who are well-heeled and able to afford to come in here as a second job? Are we turning the Oireachtas into a place where somebody who is already extremely wealthy can come in and contribute to legislation? I hope not. I hope this House represents all of the citizens of the State, with all of the diversity that exists in the State and all of the poverty that exists in the State. I expect this is the way the House should operate.

We have gender quotas to encourage the election of women at national level. While they are sitting Members, they pay PRSI but it gives them no entitlement to benefits while they are here or after they leave. This is particularly important when we speak about women. Class K represents a serious barrier to the participation in politics of women and the unemployed and low paid of both sexes. If this persists there is a grave danger that participation in politics will become the preserve of the wealthy, those with jobs on the side and other external sources of income. This is not what we want as a nation. It is not what we want from our national Parliament. We are trying to move away from this. I compliment the Minister's party on the introduction of quotas to ensure we tried to create a level playing pitch. We still have a long way to go but we have tried to do this. It is tremendous to see the Minister as a female in the role. It is wonderful and it is a testament not only to her own skills and expertise but to the fact we have moved forward a small piece as a society.

The issue of the lack of maternity leave is in the news at present following the good news of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. I am delighted for her and I am sorry she is not here to congratulate her. It is great news. It is the first pregnancy in a House. I know from a woman's point of view it is full of trepidation and excitement. From my point of view, I remember when our first child was born I was totally and utterly wondering what the hell was going on.

When the child was born, God bless her, I just could not understand that I had to change nappies as I did not do that sort of thing. I learned these skills.

The truth of the matter is that if one of the Deputies or Senators who lost their seats was fortunate enough to get a job and would now be a year into their job, their social welfare record would be broken. Their entitlement to maternity leave is gone.

While I am talking about maternity leave, I must express my absolute disgust at the political system in this country that does not have in place a system whereby a woman who has delivered a child is entitled to the same career opportunities as any other occupation in society. They should be able to take their maternity leave and we should have in place a system - which we put in place very quickly for the pandemic - that one can have virtual and remote meetings. There is no reason a Deputy, Senator or Minister who has just had a child should not be able to observe the operation of the House, whichever Chamber we are talking about, from home and cast her vote from there. God Almighty, it is not a great deal to ask for.

Thankfully, we only had two children, as I do not think I would have been able for any more. However, I saw my wife struggle between career and children and no matter how helpful I was, my wife always felt that she had to carry a bigger load than any other member of the family. Most women here would probably agree with me that they carry a bigger load. Certainly, we men can feed children and can learn to change nappies and things like that, but at the end of the day it is not the same as having to recover after a nine-month period and after the trauma of delivering a child. I have seen first time mothers lying beside a cradle in order to ensure that if the child woke up they would be able to meet the needs of the child. I know this as I have eight sisters and thankfully all of them have been able to produce children. It is totally and utterly unacceptable to expect a woman to be in here in Leinster House, in the Dáil, the Seanad or a council chamber within a day of delivering a child.

To return to class K PRSI, it is not popular and I will win no accolades in this country for defending Members of the Oireachtas and their entitlement to welfare payments. Nobody will thank me for that. Quite frankly, I do not give a continental damn. What I do care about is that we have an equal system across the working population of this country, irrespective of who or what one is. If there is an entitlement there, one should have it. We have an obligation to look after anyone paying class K PRSI in this House who has no other employment when they come to retire, if they do not qualify for a full Oireachtas pension. I will not qualify for one because we brought in the Single Pension Act, which again militates against people who move from one career into another. It is a simple thing to repeal this. I agree wholeheartedly that we should pay PRSI. I will work with anybody to ensure that Members of this House pay it but we need to be aware of the fact that not everybody is privileged enough to have a second job or to stay in this House long enough to earn a full pension from the House. I am the first person to say that anyone who has a full pension from the Oireachtas should walk out of here and be damn thankful to have that because there are so many people out there who do not have that.

Equality and everything that the social contributions system stands for must be respected by this House, and not just for the people outside this House but for all people. I am asking the Minister to accept my amendment. I am sorry for speaking on and on about it but it is vitally important. For those former Members who lost seats, some of whom are probably watching this today, I am deeply sorry that they find themselves in a situation that they have had to go to social welfare for assistance or for supplementary welfare because they do not have enough to live on. Remember, the lump sum that they received when they left here lasted a very short time and we are now over a year into a pandemic. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his time.

I thank Senator Craughwell and call Senator Ardagh to speak now, please.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I also thank Senator Craughwell for bringing these amendments forward.

On the face of it, it seems to be manifestly unfair that those who pay PRSI contributions have no benefits stemming from it. In the past number of years where we have had a particular influence in this House the public have become aware of the fact that one needs one's social welfare credits to continuously accrue if one is to be entitled to one's contributory pension down the road. I see my colleague, Senator Higgins, present in the House who has led the charge on pensions for women with a focus on their contributions and their disregards. I am aware that the Minister has so much going on today and her Department has done a great amount of work both in publishing this Bill and in the months gone by, but perhaps she might consider this amendment for her next social welfare Bill. The situation is very unfair.

We also want to ensure that we have a very good calibre of politicians in this House. As my colleague has stated, it should not be just for people who can afford it. We want to attract the best, people who think about their future and where things are going, are of good quality and should be in this House. Perhaps they may also be considering whether they will be getting social welfare credits. This is a basic thing when we consider our future and whether we are going to receive a pension or not. Senator Craughwell made me smile as I thought of his progression towards changing nappies and his sympathies for mothers but it is true. Many young mothers do carry much of the burden staying up at night and perhaps doing a little bit extra. It is probably not said but we women do a little bit more. The men are great these days. They are all changing nappies. It is not just the women. It is important for the Minister to have a look at this issue and I hope that she will do this in the future because at the moment it is just unfair. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I thank Senator Craughwell for putting forward these amendments which are very important. As Senator Ardagh has said, these relate to many issues and we have had significant discussions on pensions in this House. We talked about the fact that care was not recognised properly in our pension system. We had some improvement whereby care credits were being recognised as to someone's pension entitlements. The problem was that while there were credits finally being given for care, the overall amount of credits or contributions that were being required does look like it is going to go up. That is a concern as we are moving from a situation where one might have been able to access a reasonable pension with 20 years contributions, whereas now it might be 30 years total contributions, or indeed 40 years. I will certainly fight this tooth and nail if it is attempted.

Very few people have a full contributory record. What I know from having worked with the Older and Bolder alliance was that the vast majority of those people on reduced pensions were women. The care issue is one that we have discussed at length in this House and I recognise that it is not part of this Bill, although I notice some positive care-related measures in the social welfare Bill. The real concern is, however, in regard to another gap that might emerge where if one chooses to enter public life, a person will create another gap for himself or herself. It will be much harder for that person to have that 30 years of contributions that one might need. It is very hard to see how one would do it. It is of particular concern.

It is different for those who might have owned their own businesses or have been in self-employment. If one has been an employee and has been paying PRSI in that way, however, then one is creating a new gap in one's total contributions. If that person is a woman and already has a gap that is only partially being recognised through care credits, it is just another way in which people will find themselves falling short of the requirement that they need to meet for a proper pension. People may say, "Yes", but will that person not get a brilliant pension from being a public servant, and so on? For councillors it is not the same, but for Oireachtas Members, there is, of course, a pension. There are also, however, the many years of life in between potentially losing one's seat, if one does opt for public life. People are also aware that perhaps these systems and measures were designed on an assumption that people go into politics and stay there their whole life and leave at 65.

Not everybody is going to be a career politician. Sometimes people who are passionate about issues enter politics for five or ten years. I can think of excellent people who were in this House and, indeed, in the other House last year who contributed brilliantly over a five-year period but are not here now. They are now trying to find their way in the world again but many are quite a long way away from reaching 65 or 66 years. I am glad that there seems to be a movement against raising the age one can qualify for a pension to 67 years. These people have a big gap ahead of them in terms of what they do and they cannot avail of the Intreo schemes and back-to-education option. Leaving aside the financial amount one receives as a jobseeker's payment, it is also the suite of supports to help one make the next step in one's career that people do not have an entitlement to if their contributory record has disappeared.

In the very first Social Welfare Bill that I debated back in 2016 I secured a small but important concession because the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, agreed to my proposal. Previously one could only make voluntary contributions for a period of 12 months but now that has been increased to five years. That fact is very relevant if one knows people who lived abroad for a couple of years and have come back or tried a new career or life abroad but things did not work out. I urge people to be aware of the increased period and make voluntary contributions before the five-year gap, although that is not necessarily now an option for many people.

We have discussed the gender issue in terms of councillors. In the past few years, councillors have quit mid-term because political life was so hard and they, as councillors, were paid so little. If there are no contributions made in the previous two years, then a person is pretty invisible when it comes to a lot of what is offered by the social protection system. One can imagine that when one approaches two years in the job when political life is hard and is not paying as much as hoped for, then one might well decide to leave. One asks oneself why stay in the job because if one does not jump now then one's social protection record will not provide entitlements. Therefore, we need to make sure this issue is addressed. While a gap in contributions has not been mentioned in this Social Welfare Bill, I encourage the Minister to consider it and talk to people from all across the House as to how it might be addressed into the future. A total contributions approach is not part of this year's social welfare budget but I would love us to have an opportunity to discuss how we can make the system equitable and fair.

Where public representatives fit into our debate on class K is important. In many ways, we need to broaden the debate because we must attract people to participate in public life. In my part of the world in Cork, the five youngest members in local government from 2014 to 2019, across all parties, refused to run for re-election. So the young people who were elected when they were in their early 20s and early 30s decided to step out of politics after just five years. I am friendly with all of them and am aware there were disillusionment and pay factors. Encouraging people to enter politics is a huge issue and stamp K is definitely one aspect but there is another massive issue. If we do not attract a wide range of people then only a certain sector of society will enter politics, which is not good for democracy, politics or anything else.

I hope that in the lifetime of the current Dáil, we will have a genuine debate on what we want for our public representatives and politicians and how best to serve society. The current system is attractive to people in a certain age bracket who are mainly from a certain demographic and approaching retirement. Unfortunately, for a person aged between 25 and 30 five years in public life is an awful burden because it is a burden on one's family and on one's existence if one wants to get married or have kids. There is no support throughout the entire system of local authorities to help and support councillors through that period of life.

We need to have an in-depth debate about class K, where councillors fit into the system, what we expect from them and where both of these Houses fit into the equation. The Senator is correct because traditionally, a politician in this House could remain here for between ten and 15 years. However, 40% of politicians serve just one term and so must move on. It is because of that there is a gap. We must also ensure that what happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s does not happen now. As we need to change our policies and approach, we need to have a real debate across the entire Oireachtas. It is set in law that we must have local elections in 2024. Therefore, we need to solve this issue by 2024 or a vast number of young male and female politicians will leave politics because public life is not worth it. Society will be affected by that as the proportion of young people per head of population has totally changed over the past 20 years. Stamp K is definitely a part of this whole debate that we must have on governance.

I thank Senator Craughwell for tabling his amendment. As other Senators have stated, it is important that we discuss this issue. I note that the Senator has continuously raised this issue in this Chamber. I have read a report he made in February 2016 to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which is not the current committee.

Today, I would like to concentrate on a potential barrier that prevents people from entering public life. Every political party and group encourages young people to get involved. One does not think about pensions when one is young, going to college or a young adult. It is only much later that one thinks one will need a pension in 20, 30 or 40 years but sometimes that is too late, which is why we need a discussion. Senator Lombard is right that we need a cross-party discussion.

Public life and democracy are essential for us all. There should be no barrier to prevent men or women from entering public life. I have spoken to a number of people who lost their seats over the last number of years. Many of them have raised the problems that they have experienced with social welfare and their future pension problems. Today's debate is timely because in the next couple of years, many people will put their names forward for the local elections in 2024. Many of them will be people who will experience public life for the first time and they need to know there is a back-up plan. For many of our colleagues who, unfortunately, lost their seats, for a long time there was no back-up plan. When they went to their local Intreo offices they were told that there was nothing available as they had made no payments during the previous two years, which is a huge problem that must be resolved.

Senator Craughwell has been on this journey for a while. It is, however, time for me and others in the House to start to discuss this issue and to ensure there are no barriers. I hope that the Minster will consider his amendment.

I thank Senator Craughwell for raising this issue and for his email. I received his email and in panic rang a friend who is an accountant to verify whether the issue raised by Senator Craughwell was true because it was not something that I had considered before. While I hope that at no stage will I need to claim social welfare, it is good to be mindful of the current situation.

The cynics out there would listen to us and say that when a Government Senator and an Opposition Senator agree, it must be about entitlements for Members of the Oireachtas. I am wary of that so I imagine that the Minister would also be wary of that in considering amendments. In the context of such a fantastic Social Welfare Bill, which provides for an exceptional spend and investment in our State, to slip this in, which is what we would be accused of in the media, would be unwise. It certainly suggests that we need a much wider debate about attracting people into politics, retaining them and how we support them after they leave politics. I had the experience where a former Member of the House needed to be shown how to do up a curriculum vitae because the Member had been in politics since they were only so high. Probably their nappy was being changed while they were out on the road canvassing.

The point is incredibly well made that there is a disproportionate impact on women in politics. Attracting women into politics and retaining them, as the Minister so articulately said, is really the challenge. I am very fortunate that my husband never refers to baby-sitting our daughter. He has been the primary carer from the moment she was born and he is exceptional. I am fortunate that I am able to be here because I have someone at home who is doing that and parents who can visit me, so to speak, on Oireachtas TV. We need a debate. It would be wise for the House to ask the Leader to provide time for a discussion on the pathway to politics as a very noble career. All too often, politicians are pilloried, criticised and accused. We see lots of feeds on social media about corruption and brown envelopes when the history of politics in this country shows that an exceptionally small number of people have chosen a path of ill repute, while an exceptionally large number of people make great personal sacrifices. While we may differ on policy and ideology, there is no doubt regarding our sincerity in wanting to have a better country for all our citizens and that all of us come here basking in that privilege. We need a debate on this.

In Senator Craughwell's email to us asking for our support for this amendment, I learned a piece. I also learned something from Senator Higgins's contribution today with regard to voluntary contributions. This suggests that we probably need a wider campaign around understanding our entitlements. Fine Gael members distribute leaflets to constituents and areas entitled Know Where You Stand. The practice originated with Deputy Bruton. I have learned loads from that over the years but we probably need it at national level because when we have so many entitlements and there are so many things to access, we probably need it to be put down in a way that is reasonably accessible. I thank the Senator for commencing this debate, which needs to continue. I will be raising the matter again on the Order of Business and I think we all should. I will ask the Leader to facilitate a debate.

I concur with many of the comments we heard from across the House. It is not every day that one finds cross-party agreement on an issue that needs to be discussed more extensively. There is definitely an issue with regard to younger people entering politics who may be disadvantaged by taking up a role in public life. That should never be the case. We must look at the impacts of that and how we can improve our legislation in this regard. I thank the Senator for introducing the amendment. Discussing it is very worthwhile and it will prompt further debate. I note what Senator Wall said about the next local elections and how we have time to try to address these issues. It is good that we are starting early. I support the amendment in principle.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I support what Senator Craughwell is proposing but I do not think a debate on the Social Welfare Bill is the right time for his proposal. Everyone said the last day that this was a fantastic Bill for the people, particularly during Covid.

The Senator's proposal has sparked a real debate on the pay and conditions of councillors. A large number of us are former members of local authorities. Senator Lombard gave the numbers in Cork. By 2019, 10% of councillors elected in 2014 had resigned their positions. They did not even run in the local elections in 2019 but resigned during that term. That figure is stark.

There is a bigger issue that we need to address. The Moorhead report published some months ago needs to considered on a cross-party basis. It states that 20 hours is the average weekly workload of a local authority member, which is way off the mark. Those of us who were local authority members know we put more than 40 hours a week into the job. While I agree with the sentiment behind the amendment, now is not the time to make it. However, it opens up a bigger discussion we need to have on councillors' pay. If we are to have people putting their names forward in 2024, we need to pay them properly. The breeding ground for most public representatives in the Dáil or Seanad is at local authority level. If we want people to continue to put their names forward and challenge for positions, we need proper pay and conditions put in place.

I echo what has been said and compliment Senator Craughwell on his work on this issue. In fairness to the Senator, he has raised it for a number of years. In Galway, we had young councillors, particularly in Galway County Council, who only served from 2014 to 2019 and left it at that because the pressures of their jobs meant it was not feasible or manageable to continue. I spoke to a Member who served in this House for nine years. As we are all aware, politics is a difficult business and there are good days and bad days. Unfortunately, the gentleman in question lost his seat. It was not until that happened that he realised the huge financial implications and that he had nowhere to go. The fear I see in Galway city and county is that we are not encouraging young people to enter politics, which is a major challenge. As Members of the Oireachtas, we must be very conscious of that because this should not be a race to the bottom, which seems to be the way it is going. I am hopeful that the position will improve.

I welcome the Minister to the House. From campaigning last January and previously, I can say that the pension age remaining at 66 is a major and contentious issue. I am fully aware that we have a three-party coalition but I would like to send that message to the Government today. I compliment the Minister on setting up a commission and appointing the relevant people to it. It will be the middle of next year at the earliest before the commission reports. It is important that people with 40 years' service who want to retire be entitled to do so. It is degrading to suggest anything different. Naturally, as we are all aware, there are jobs in which it is possible to carry on working until 70. That is fine but there are other professions and trades where it would not be suitable. If people have the opportunity to retire, it is a must for them to be able to do so at 66 years if they have 40 years' service. To state the obvious, it also creates other opportunities for younger people.

We have to be conscious of that. We will all agree that it was a big issue for the general election in February. We need that commission to come back and inform us and make the right decisions, going forward. I will leave it at that for the moment.

We have now thoroughly discussed both the amendment and the section. We have even discussed some other sections a little prematurely and we will bear that in mind as we move forward.

I thank Senator Craughwell for tabling the amendment but, as I indicated in the House on Monday, I will not be able to accept it. I am happy to consider it and will certainly ask my officials to look at the matter. Senators Ardagh, Higgins, Lombard, Wall, Seery Kearney, Chambers, Carrigy and Crowe have spoken and I understand and appreciate the points that all of them have made. It is important that we have a broader discussion on the issue. We know former Senators and Deputies who have young families, unfortunately, lost their seats at the most recent election, and have been unable to get jobs, particularly due to the fact that we find ourselves in a Covid-19 environment. They have been left with no income and, regardless of what party they belong to, that is a tough situation for anyone to find themselves. It is tough for people who have worked hard and contributed to both Houses and their constituents, whom they represented. The fact is that they cannot even sign on for credits. People who lost their seats are, of course, entitled to a severance payment and that also has to be considered when we look at this issue.

Senator Seery Kearney is correct that we need a wider debate. We need to look at other things here. For that reason, I think that it should be referred to the relevant Oireachtas joint committee. I respectfully suggest that the Senators write to the committee and ask it examine this issue in its entirety. I am happy to co-operate with that committee in any way I can and provide the information that it may require. Whatever recommendations are arrived at, we need cross-party support for this particular issue. That is important.

We need to look at maternity and paternity leave for Members of these Houses. It is only fair for that to be a part of the discussion. Senator Chambers recently had a baby. Senator Ardagh has young twins who are almost a year old. It is not easy juggling all of those demands. My family has grown up but, as a working mother with two young people, it was not easy to juggle everything. It is particularly difficult to do so for rural Deputies who are living in whatever part of the country they are. It is difficult to have a family and be present in the Dáil; there is no question about it. I know that others have looked at the issue but it is always good to look at things again with a fresh set of eyes.

Technology has changed our lives this year. Senator Craughwell is correct that there are many things that we are doing now that we never thought we would be doing. We need to use technology to its maximum. I am a big advocate for remote working and there is no reason we cannot encompass what we need to do in supporting mothers and fathers. It is not easy for a father who is living in Donegal and travelling all the way to Dublin. He may not see his kids from Monday to Friday. The Leas-Chathaoirleach knows all about that. Living in Cavan, he cannot go home every night. It presents challenges.

We need to look at the matter. I accept the spirit in which this amendment has been brought forward but, unfortunately, I cannot accept it. I am happy to work with the Senator to try to highlight the issue and find solutions.

Before I call on Senator Craughwell to respond, I ask colleagues to bear in mind that we have given this matter considerable discussion and there is a consensus. I ask them to consider not repeating the entire process.

The Minister has brought forward a fine Bill and I am sorry that my two amendments are the only ones. I sincerely hope that they do not overshadow the fantastic work that the Minister and her officials have done in the horrendous times in which we live.

I have no regrets about bringing forward this amendment because the matter has to be debated. I am honoured that all of my colleagues in the House see that the profession of politics needs to be examined. Senator Lombard talked about the young councillors in Cork leaving their roles. Senator Carrigy referred to the fact that 10% of all councillors did not run for election. Senator Seery Kearney mentioned voluntary contributions. What she does not know is that there are two levels. If one comes into these Houses with a class A PRSI, as I did, it means a voluntary contribution is €5,500 per year. That is prohibitive and one could not avail of it. That is why I brought up the issue of class K five years ago. A class S PRSI voluntary contribution, on the other hand, is only €500. It makes it prohibitive for anybody who came in here on class A PRSI. That is something at which we need to look.

I regard class K as a tax on public service. It is wrong in every sense of the word and I am delighted that there seems to be cross-party support for this.

Senator Lombard spoke about the young. During the summer, I commissioned a report on the Seanad from a number of students in UCC. I asked two of them to prepare a report for me and it turned out to be a most exciting couple of weeks as the group grew to around about 25 students of politics in UCC who all contributed to it. The outcome was excellent. Many of us might not think so because it is quite critical of the House, but it was fantastic to see the energy involved.

I am going to have to draw the Senator to a conclusion.

I will finish quickly. Senator Lombard is right that we need to get young people in here. In doing that, we need to ensure that we give those young people a career path that offers them alternatives.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to listen to this debate. I am not going to press the amendment. I believe the point is made and that we, as politicians, will be big enough to step back and examine the entire profession. I thank everybody for their contributions.

I thank the Senator. I think we have discussed the issue very well. I thank him for his constructive conclusion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 1 agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:

Contributions by Public Office Holders

3. Section 14 of the Act of 2010 is repealed.”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 3 has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.

I want to make a point about amendment No. 3. It is important for those who think-----

May I read to the Senator the explanation as to why it has been ruled out of order?

It is out of order because it involves a charge on the Exchequer. I need people to know that what I was trying to do was to bring in a social welfare charge that we would pay.

I was not trying to make Deputies and Senators exempt from paying social welfare contributions.

That is well understood. I thank the Senator for that. Amendment No. 3 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 3 not moved.
Sections 3 to 18, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

When is it proposed to take the next Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Bill received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take the next Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank all Senators for their co-operation and invite the Minister to respond to the debate.

I thank Senators for their courtesy and co-operation in ensuring that the Bill was passed in good time in order that it could go to the President for signature. A good number of the amendments in the Bill will make a difference to people's lives. Social protection is here to help people and to give them that helping hand whenever they need it. It is the support mechanism that we have as a State to provide a basic income in certain circumstances. The amendments will kick in on 1 January after the President has signed the Bill into law.

I again acknowledge the wonderful contribution of the staff of the Department during this very difficult year in terms of Covid. They have processed 13 million claims, which is the equivalent of seven years of claims for jobseeker's allowance in the space of almost nine months since last March. I thank them once again for the work they have done on behalf of the Department. Finally, I thank all Senators and wish them a very happy Christmas as the House will adjourn at the end of the week.

I thank the Minister and return the same felicitous remarks to her on behalf of Senators.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 2.15 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.