Response to Covid-19 (Social Protection): Statements

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, personally and on behalf of colleagues, on the great joy in her family on her becoming a grandmother for the first time. I also congratulate Sean and Eva on the birth of their baby boy on 25 January, Arthur Humphreys Egan. It is a very special time in her family. As her colleague, I am delighted to congratulate her on that. I invite the Minister to make her contribution on the matter before the House.

Thank you for your good wishes, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on Covid-19 matters and look forward to hearing the views of Members.

Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas and as Minister for Social Protection I am always open to hearing and considering how we can do things better. Since the onset of this crisis, the Government has taken a range of measures to protect public health and limit the spread of the virus and has also put in place a range of income supports that mitigate the financial impact on households and businesses.

Through the various payments to individuals and employers, the Government has distributed more than €10 billion to our citizens since March 2020, demonstrating the level of Government commitment to supporting those impacted. From the outset, I want to assure everyone that as we move forward, the Government will not be found wanting in terms of supporting people affected by the pandemic.

In the time available, I will outline the range of measures my Department has put in place in recent months. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the enhanced illness benefit are my Department's main income supports which were developed and quickly mobilised in response to the pandemic. I have also introduced a range of other measures that have acted as supports for families, lone parents, the elderly and people living alone, which I will touch on in this statement. I believe it is important to again acknowledge the staff of my Department who work tirelessly to process payments and ensure our people across all ages get help in a quick and timely manner.

I will now outline the position around the PUP. Since last March when the PUP was introduced, my Department has made more than 14 million payments to more than 820,000 people at a total cost to date of more than €5.5 billion. This week, my Department issued the PUP to almost 480,000 people at a total cost of just over €144 million. Clearly, the PUP continues to act as a vital support for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families. A priority from the beginning of this pandemic has been to ensure that income still flows into the households that need it most. For this reason, a decision was taken early on to allow for the payment of the PUP concurrently with key supports for low-income and lone-parent families. These include the working family payment, one-parent family payment, jobseeker's transitional payment and the back to work family payment dividend.

Another group I have endeavoured to support during this crisis is the self-employed, who are central to reviving the economy post Covid. With the support of my Oireachtas colleagues, I introduced changes so that self-employed people can now earn up to €960 over an eight-week period, while still retaining their full PUP entitlement. This measure has been welcomed by a number of sectors, including those in the arts and entertainment sector, and the taxi industry. This, for example, provides scope for a musician to take up occasional gigs without the prospect of losing his or her PUP.

I was also pleased to secure the extension into 2021 of the Covid-19 enterprise support grant. This grant assists sole traders and small businesses, providing up to €1,000 to cover restart costs where a person transitions from the PUP back into self-employment. To date, almost 8,600 businesses have been supported under this grant at a cost of just under €8 million.

Research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, examined the impact of Covid-19-related job losses on family incomes and found that 400,000 families have seen their disposable income fall by more than 20% in the absence of policy measures such as the PUP and the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. The ESRI also found that these measures were particularly effective in cushioning families at the lower end of the income scale from losses and, in fact, noted that some low-income families were financially better off than while in work. In its analysis of the budget changes, the ESRI also concluded that income inequality and poverty rates would have increased significantly in the absence of Covid-related policy supports such as the PUP and the TWSS.

Earlier this month, I secured Government approval for the PUP to remain in place at the current rates of payment until 31 March of this year. Obviously, given the extension of current restrictions until 5 March, we will now need to examine the future of the PUP beyond the end of March. That is a discussion I will be having with my Government colleagues over the next few weeks, taking account of where we are in terms of the trajectory of the virus and the roll-out of the vaccine programme.

I will now turn to the supports for people who contract Covid-19 or are exposed to the virus. Enhanced illness benefit, introduced early in March 2020, is paid to those who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or who are a probable source of infection. This support is paid at the weekly rate of €350, in line with the maximum PUP rate. Since last March, more than 126,000 people have been medically certified for receipt of the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit.

The enhanced benefit encourages people to avoid going to work and to self-isolate. That is essential for a number of reasons, namely, to limit and slow down the spread of the virus, keep the number of people affected to a minimum and reduce the pressure on our health system. The support is payable for two weeks where a person is isolating as a probable source of infection of Covid-19 and up to ten weeks where a person has been diagnosed with Covid-19.

  As I indicated, in addition to those core income supports, a range of other targeted measures have been put in place as part of budget 2021 to address issues that have arisen during the pandemic.  There have been increases in the qualified child payments, which benefit 419,000 children who are most in need of support.  The living alone allowance has increased by €5. This means that the value of the allowance has more than doubled over a two-year period. My Department has put in place flexibility to support lone parents where maintenance payments have been disrupted during the pandemic. In response to concerns about increased domestic violence, my Department has introduced flexibility to the rent supplement scheme in order that victims of domestic violence can get the payment for three months without a means test. The school meals programme has remained in operation throughout the pandemic, including during the summer and Christmas breaks. Funding continues to be provided by my Department to run the programme during school closures.

The fuel season was extended in 2020 by four weeks, at an additional cost of almost €37 million. Since 4 January, the weekly fuel allowance payment has increased by €3.50 per week to €28 for a period of 28 weeks. We have put arrangements in place to enable births and deaths to be registered online without the need for people to attend offices in person. As announced in budget 2021, parent's leave and parent's benefit will be extended from two weeks for each parent to five weeks. This will support parents of new babies impacted by the pandemic. My colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is working on the necessary legislation to ensure parents can avail of this additional leave as soon as possible. 

A key role of my Department is supporting people back into employment as we move beyond the Covid-19 period. The July jobs stimulus package, designed in response to the Covid-19 crisis, comprises an investment of €200 million in skills development, work placements, training and education, recruitment subsidies, and job search and assistance measures. Measures will include the expansion of the local employment service, LES, into new areas that currently do not have such a service.  We have also secured funding for an additional 3,000 places on community employment and Tús schemes. An additional 100 job coaches will be assigned to Intreo offices across the country to help people get back to work. We have waived the waiting period for persons on the PUP who want to avail of the back to education allowance and back to work allowance schemes.  We will also be working closely with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in signposting people towards the 35,000 extra higher education places, apprenticeship schemes and other supports that are available. These and other supports will be a key focus of the new Pathways to Work strategy that is currently being developed.

Before I conclude, I take this opportunity to highlight that support is available to all who need it under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. That can include assistance towards heating or electricity costs, which is particularly relevant at this time.  I look forward to hearing Senators' contributions.

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire as a bheith ina seanmháthair. I congratulate the Minister on becoming a grandmother. It is a wonderful day for her and her family and I join the Leas-Chathaoirleach in congratulating them on the birth of Arthur Humphreys Egan. The name sounds wonderful and I hope that he may be a Member of this House in future years.

Two years ago, our unemployment rate stood at 4.8%. That was the monthly unemployment rate for December 2019, with 119,000 citizens unemployed.

Today, because of Covid-19, that is a different perspective in the world but it underlines the importance of the then Government and the way in which it rebuilt our country. The political centre must hold now in rebuilding the lives of our people in a post-Covid world.

The figures provided by the Minister illustrate the starkness of life for many people today. This week, 408,000 people received the pandemic unemployment payment at a cost of €144 million. Since last March, the Government has spent €10 billion in response to this crisis. The vast majority of those people never wanted to be on a social welfare payment or where they are today. It is the job of government and all of us to ensure we protect the lives and livelihoods of the people we serve.

I commend the Minister and her officials on the work they have been doing at the coalface of this pandemic. I know from talking to people in Cork, where I come from, that the staff of the Department of Social Protection deserve tribute and thanks for their courtesy and efficiency and the manner in which they interact with and assist people. It is equally important that we pay tribute to our pharmacists, who I accept come within the remit of a different Department. I know from talking to many people who engage with pharmacists and pharmacies that the support, understanding and patience they are receiving is phenomenal. I pay tribute to the pharmacists and the officials of the Department of Social Protection.

The 408,731 people supported on the PUP are not a statistic; they are citizens of our Republic. Each one of them has a story in regard to the reason he or she is in receipt of the payment or in need of help. All of us in this House can recount stories of people who have been seriously affected by this. This debate centres on the role of the Department of Social Protection, the aim of which is to protect lives and livelihoods. In the post-Covid analysis, the role of that Department in providing that scaffolding and support will be seen as having been central to the Government's interventions.

The increasing presence of the virus in our communities is adding to the number of people in need of government help and aid. As members of the Joint Committee on Transport, Senator Dooley and I have had email, telephone and Zoom interactions with people who are working in the travel and aviation sector. In November, the Government provided an €80 million support package to the aviation sector, announced by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, but it is important to recognise that this money is primarily for infrastructural work at our airports and in support of our aviation sector. The Government needs to look at providing support for the men and women who work in our aviation sector. They are a casualty of Covid-19 as well. In light of the Government's decision regarding travel, the people who work in our airports and airlines need to be recognised, acknowledged and supported further. There is a window of opportunity for the Government to ensure they are supported.

I was struck by the announcements of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. I warmly welcome the comments in the House today by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in regard to higher and further education and the need for the Departments of Social Protection and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to work together. It is imperative that government and all of us promote apprenticeships and that we provide new pathways to work.

Similar to what happened in other decades, we should provide this new pathway to people and afford them the opportunity to retrain and reskill and perhaps pursue a different career choice or opportunity.

The issue of working from home, which I know is not necessarily part of the Minister's Department, is one that has been especially highlighted by Senator Currie. Many of us, however, have received queries about this issue. Even though it is not in my constituency, the Little Island Business Association made representations to me about remote working hubs. I hope we will be able to progress further the ability of people to be able to work from home. Having said that, working from home is obviously not a panacea for everybody and we need people back in the workplace and interacting on a human level as well.

Another issue, articulated by the Leader, Senator Doherty, concerns the matter of additional supports needed for business people not covered by the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. As the Minister knows, businesses have made claims for the payment of about €239 million to ensure they survive in this difficult time. I hope we can have that anomaly addressed as well.

The Department the Minister leads has been one which has wrapped itself around people, as it were. People accept that there is now a challenge for all of us to suppress the virus and to ensure we emerge stronger from this pandemic. The Minister referred to the stark figure of €10 billion having been spent on people during this pandemic since last March by the Government. The people we are talking about today are citizens of our Republic who have many stories behind their lives. Our job is to advocate for, represent and support them, and to ensure they have a pathway to work in the post-Covid-19 world to become active again in our society.

I thank Senator Buttimer, who has set a precedent for exemplary timing which I hope will be followed to allow us to allow everyone to speak.

I would also like to be associated with the congratulations offered to the Minister on this happy event in the lives of her family, the arrival of her grandson Arthur. It is hard to think of a politician becoming a grandmother without recalling Margaret Thatcher's famous announcement when she said, "We have become a grandmother", and used the pluralis majestatis. The Minister would never do such a thing, although a greater fluidity in pronouns is allowed, and even encouraged, nowadays, so she would probably get away with it.

Turning to the business at hand, I join others in commending the staff of the Department of Social Protection, Intreo and other agencies. They have had to deal with an incredible administrative burden in the past year, but in the vast majority of cases the PUP and other income supports have been well administered. To a greater or lesser extent, we all see correspondence regarding the Department from and on behalf of our constituents, and we know the person-centred approach that is taken. That is all the more commendable given the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I will raise three issues today, two of which are directly connected with the Minister's brief. I note what she said about the fuel season having been extended in 2020 by four weeks at an extra cost of €37 million. Regarding fuel costs, people are spending much more time at home this winter, particularly older people. Although this winter has not been especially cold so far, that may change. I wonder if something more can be done to assist people with fuel costs.

I understand, for example, that there is a 15-month rule for qualification for the winter fuel allowance. Is it the case that people who lost their jobs in November or December, because of the new restrictions, would be ineligible for the allowance until early 2021 or 2022? That would not be much good to them. This scenario could be made worse for anybody losing their jobs this year, since fuel costs are due to be increased next year by the higher rate of carbon tax that will disproportionately cost the poorest and the elderly more than others.

Could the Minister consider ways to assist people further in respect of fuel costs?

As regards the pandemic unemployment payment and other supports, people should be given significant notice of the end of the schemes, whenever that might occur. I note from the Minister's speech that she has secured Government approval for the PUP to remain in place at the current rates of payment until 31 March next. I understand the very difficult situation in which the Government finds itself, but there appears to have been too much chopping and changing about when schemes will end, in much the same way as there has been so much flux with the Covid restrictions. There should be an attempt to give people significant notice of the end of these schemes. We would all agree that people need certainty so they can plan financially.

One aspect of this situation is the puzzling row about whether pandemic unemployment payments should be taxed. I do not believe that the populist politicians who have called for the payments not to be taxed have made their case adequately. Are we seriously saying, or even thinking, that a low-paid worker or somebody who had his or her hours reduced due to Covid and who earns €350 a week should pay tax on that income while a person who was not working and was in receipt of the payment should pay no tax on the same amount of income? That appears to be totally unfair and, indeed, irrational. We do not want to incentivise people not to work and we should not send a message to people working in retail and restaurants or to low-paid staff in hospitals that the State values their work less than no work at all. Another problem we have is that our tax net is still very narrow, even after the crash. Over 1 million people, almost 30% of the working population, pay no income tax or universal social charge, USC, at all. Of course, many wealthy people pay far too little, as we know. Meanwhile, those earning average and above average salaries, between €35,000 and €60,000 per annum, seem to be hammered for tax on everything they do. The last thing we should do is make this problem worse by exempting another large category of people from income tax. If the pandemic unemployment payment brings people into the overall PAYE tax net of €16,500 for the year, it should be counted as regular income for tax.

Another problem relating to the PUP was reported to me after the restaurant, pub and retail sectors reopened fully last summer and again last December. Many staff would not return to work because, in financial terms and due to their circumstances with childminding and so forth, it made more sense for them to remain on the PUP. Nobody would judge a person for making such a decision, as people must do what is best for them and their families. However, again we have to be careful not to provide incentives for people to remain on social welfare or to disincentivise people from leaving social welfare. I would appreciate if the Minister would outline any steps her Department might be taking to prevent any such unforeseen or undesired outcome.

The last issue I wish to raise is not directly within the Minister's remit, but it relates to social protection because it concerns the financial and emotional well-being of individuals and families. I have spoken in the House many times about gambling and how the one local business that thrives through boom or bust, rain, hail or shine, is the local betting shop. For much of last year, when we were at level 4 restrictions and below, we had the absurd situation where pubs were closed but the betting shops next door were open. The shop could have had the same number of people in it as a pub might ordinarily have. Online gambling is now a much greater problem than betting shops, with many operators giving promotional offers such as free €10 bets for new subscribers. If breweries started offering a free six-pack to new drinkers or if tobacco companies offered a pack of 20 cigarettes to new smokers, the political class would be convulsed with outrage and such practices would be banned immediately. In fact, I imagine such practices are already illegal in these cases. However, there is not a peep when it comes to what gambling companies do.

We should never stop asking why. The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland recently called the gambling problem over the past year a "hidden epidemic" and termed it a public health crisis. The college has called for public education, new legislation, advertising controls, treatment services and research into problem gambling. We should be taking action and I would appreciate the Minister's response, although I acknowledge that it is not directly within her remit. That said, how this is connected with the business of social protection is visible from outer space. What is going on is an affront to human dignity and it must be tackled head on.

I join colleagues in congratulating the Minister on the birth of her grandchild. I hope she gets to spend some time with the new arrival on Zoom or in person. I also thank the Minister and her staff for their ongoing commitment to the provision of social protection supports during this pandemic. The Minister and all of her staff have been working unbelievably hard. Her office is very efficient and we are all very grateful for that.

We all know that unprecedented social protection supports have been provided during this pandemic by the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party Government. An extra €10 billion was provided by the State throughout the pandemic in 2020. Before Covid-19, the social protection spending Estimate for 2020 was €21.2 billion, but post-Covid-19, the spend for the year was €31.5 billion, an enormous allocation by the Government to the most vulnerable which must be commended. From the very start of the pandemic, the Government has endeavoured to protect people who lost employment through no fault of their own. Many people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, have never been in receipt of any social protection payment previously and they are very glad of it at this time. The priorities for the Government throughout this crisis have been to protect public health by limiting the spread of the virus and to put in place income supports that mitigate the financial impact on households.

We all accept that the restrictions are very difficult and that people are becoming fatigued. However, we all need to realise how dangerous the virus is. Vaccines seem to be forthcoming and every day we get more news on those that are coming our way. Let us hope we can all knuckle down, try to protect our mental health, stay at home and continue to do what is necessary to fight the virus.

In early January 2021 the Government confirmed that the PUP rates will stay the same until 31 March. The Minister said that she hopes to review the PUP beyond the end of March but I hope the rates will stay the same. Any decrease in the rates will affect people badly, particularly with regard to financial commitments like mortgages. I hope that the PUP will be extended beyond March at the current rates. Spending on PUP to date has reached €5.5 billion, with more than 14 million payments made since March 2020 to more than 820,000 people, making it one of the largest social protection interventions in the history of the State. We are facing record unemployment as a result of this pandemic. Many businesses may not reopen when the pandemic is over and it likely that increasing numbers of people will be looking for social protection supports into the future.

Obviously people are very grateful for the supports provided by the Department of Social Protection. Members have already raised the matter of the fuel allowance during the course of this debate. I ask the Minister to review the threshold for that allowance and to consider extending it to those who have only recently lost their jobs. They will not be entitled to the fuel allowance for between 12 and 15 months. Perhaps the Minister would clarify if that is the case because it seems very unfair.

I got involved in the D12 FoodBank for the first lockdown in March. This food bank in Dublin South-Central has reopened now due to the huge demand for food parcels. The D12 FoodBank does a massive amount of work and is run by volunteers.

It is unfortunate for the State that people are resorting to food banks but it is a fact on the ground. The PUP is very generous but there is still a need on the ground for food packages. Is there something the Minister's Department can do to support these charities that are popping up during the pandemic while the situation is very bad?

Another question that has been asked of me is when the extra parental leave will be introduced. A timeframe for that would be useful.

Also, I am happy to hear about the extension to the community employment, CE, schemes. I am aware that is not a matter for the Minister's Department but there is a major delay in the processing of births, deaths and marriages, which does affect social protection. People are not able to get death certificates on time and it is affecting the progression of estates and whatnot.

I am learning that another unfortunate result of the pandemic is that many immigrants are leaving the country on the basis that they do not have employment and fall outside the criteria for entitlement to the PUP. That is a real shame because they are a major loss to the fabric of our society. It is a pity we cannot do that little bit more for immigrants.

The pandemic has had a real effect on young people, those on low incomes and immigrants. I know the State is doing so much to protect those cohort of workers but if we could do a little bit more, in the long run it would contribute hugely to the fabric of our society.

I welcome the Minister back to the House and, along with colleagues, congratulate her on her very good news. It is great to hear good news like that in these particular times. I also want to record my thanks to the Minister's Department for the considerable amount of work it has completed since the beginning of this pandemic. As I said here previously, it has been a tremendous effort by everybody involved in the Department.

I have never considered myself to be a populist politician but I want to raise again an issue that the Minister raised in the Dáil last week, that is, the taxation of the PUP. I note that the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, have reiterated their concerns about the fairness and legality of section 3 of the Finance Act 2020, which retrospectively creates a tax liability on PUP claims. They stated that in light of the Minister's statement in regard to the matter in the Dáil on Thursday, it remains unclear whether the Attorney General's advice was ever sought in regard to that legislation. They believe the Government should urgently seek fresh legal advice on the matter. I would appreciate the Minister addressing this matter once again. As was stated in the Dáil, there appear to be inconsistencies between the official statements released by the Department and the political statements released by the Minister for Finance regarding the original legal basis of the PUP and its implications for the potential taxation of the payment. In May 2020, the PUP was described as a social welfare payment that is taxable as income. That was in response to a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance. In August 2020, however, the PUP was categorised as a social assistance payment. Such payments are not normally subject to tax. The Minister stated in the Dáil that the taxation of the payment is fair. In light of the continued concern of FLAC, I ask her to address it here again today.

I also ask the Minister if consideration has been given to allowing those under the age of 18 but who are paying tax the opportunity to apply for the PUP should the need arise.

I want to take up a point raised by my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, in the Dáil recently. Deputy Sherlock put forward the idea of a so-called one-stop-shop for families who find themselves dealing with a bereavement. As I am sure is the case for many public representatives, I have taken a number of telephone calls from families at their most urgent hour of need. I want to record again my thanks to the community welfare officers and Department of Social Protection officials I have dealt with on behalf of those families. In all cases they have been fair and considerate and have carried out their work in a timely fashion. That is very important to families who worry about funeral bills and payments as they deal with the loss of a loved one. Also, as there is so much more involved at this difficult time from obtaining a death certificate to informing social welfare departments of the passing, it can be and is a very emotional and distressing time. I ask the Minister to consider this one-stop-shop proposal. Perhaps one form could be used to release assistance and inform all relevant Departments. That would certainly be welcomed by families at what is a very difficult time for them.

I also ask the Minister to address the area of pensions, in particular, those who find themselves finishing unemployment at the age of 65.

In this House previously, as well as in the Dáil, the Minister committed to changing the requirement on those who retire from work at the age of 65 to sign on for the jobseeker's payment in order to receive State income support. She has stated in replies to various public representatives that she will formally remove the current requirements for people of this age to sign on, participate in activation programmes or give an undertaking that they are genuinely seeking work. This, as the Minister said, will formalise an administrative practice that has been in place for some time. She had indicated that she would hope to have this in place by the end of January. Thankfully, she stated there would be a special payment for those aged 65, that there would be no requirement to seek work, and that those concerned would simply complete the application form. It would not involve signing on. The Minister reassured those aged 65 that there would be no issue with them attending their local social protection office to apply for the payment. She stated the payment would be made for 12 months. I would really appreciate it if she had an update for those affected and those who will be 65 shortly. It would really be appreciated by all.

I am aware that there was much discussion of the community employment, CE, schemes the other day in the Dáil. We all welcomed the statement by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, on the extension of the timeframe applying to those in the schemes given the terrific and essential work that is being carried out. Today I would like an update on the issues surrounding CE supervisors' pensions and their request. I would appreciate it if the Minister could update us on this process. We are all aware of the terrific job all the CE supervisors do in carrying out their roles and assisting all in our communities. I am sure we would all support the proposal, and I would appreciate an update today on this important matter.

I cannot let go the opportunity to raise once again the carer's allowance means test. In these unprecedented times, I continue to receive calls from carers who are totally committed, giving 24-7 care to the person they are looking after, but who do not pass the means test, in many cases failing it by a very small amount. I ask the Minister to review the means test urgently.

Is the time it takes to deal with social welfare appeals being affected negatively by the Covid pandemic? I note always the independence from the Department of the appeals process but I ask the Minister whether she is aware of the times involved. I am currently dealing with a number of people who have been awaiting the outcome of an appeal for a considerable time.

It is very auspicious to have a strong, capable woman in the House on St. Brigid's Day. I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for attending.

I commend the Department because nobody foresaw the pandemic. It has been a mad year. The staff of the Department have done amazing work. I am aware from sitting on the Oireachtas committee that staff have put in an unprecedented number of hours to get all the payments processed. Bureaucracy can often cause delays but when the emergency came, staff put their shoulder to the wheel. I thank the Minister and her whole Department. I am aware that she is not long in the Department but, since she took over, she has got the whip out, which is great.

I want to make a couple of points on social welfare payments. I worked in the secondary school sector and I have friends who are guidance counsellors. We want to keep the number of people on the unemployment payments down to a minimum and we always want people to be working and engaged but an issue arises over apprenticeships and trainees. People have to be on social welfare for a minimum of six months before they can apply. This has an impact on leaving certificate and applied leaving certificate students in that when they finish their schooling, they must wait until January before they are allowed to do an apprenticeship or training course. I would like this to be re-examined, for two reasons. Many of the youths' peers start college in September. It would be good for them to be able to do the same. Second, if people are on social welfare for a certain amount of time, it might be hard to come off it. We should examine this. It is definitely an issue that guidance counsellors have asked me to raise. Doing as proposed would keep people off social welfare for the long period in question. There is a shortage of apprentices and trainees. Let us therefore consider the six-month lead-in.

The new CE schemes are great, as are the Tús schemes. An issue specific to rural areas is isolation. There are farmers who may have means but who may not have a social life. They want to join CE schemes but they cannot do so. We should consider this. For mental health, it is really good to create space. CE schemes are often brilliant for people's mental health. I have had telephone calls from people saying they really want to join CE schemes but who cannot do so. Wives of farmers who are worried about their husbands' mental health are asking whether there is any way in which the Department can consider allowing them to join a scheme because it would be an outlet for them.

They have the farm but there is no company on the land. The cows are great but that will only get one so far.

I wanted to get an update on remote hubs. Great work has been done on DigiClare and in other places, with WiFi hubs being set up. There was a new announcement in the budget about €5 million that I had submitted a pre-budget submission about. Will that be given to local authorities or what will happen with that?

My colleague raised the issue of the shortage of home help and of carers, yet on the other hand we have people who have applied to become carers and home helpers but they do not meet the criteria because of the means tests. Old people ring me begging for home help, as do people who have applied to become home helpers or carers, and they cannot do the job because of means tests. There is something wrong with that. If people want to help and if there are people who need the help, we need to look at that. I feel strongly about this issue. I look forward to the Minister's responses.

I congratulate the Minister on becoming a grandmother and on the same arrival of baby Arthur. I hope the mother is thriving.

Like other Senators, I commend the staff of the Department of Social Protection and its associated agencies because the pandemic posed a significant challenge and they certainly rose to it. I thank them for all their hard work in such challenging circumstances. I will address the pandemic unemployment payment and the uncertainty around its continuation or its staying at the same level. This is a major cause of concern for those who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. The Minister has outlined before that the PUP will continue to the end of March and that the Cabinet will decide in the coming weeks whether to extend it. I urge the Minister to make this decision as soon as possible because people on the payment deserve the maximum clarity to help them to plan as much as possible over the coming weeks and months. I also reiterate the request of my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, that the Minister extend the PUP in these incredibly uncertain times to offer reassurance to workers.

I raise the issue of energy poverty, as others have, and mounting household energy bills. Every one of us has been contacted by people at their wits' end about how they will afford to pay those energy bills. The recent cold snap reminds us of how important it is to have a home that is warm. Too many people live in extreme energy poverty and have no option but to go cold because of the cost of heating. Many more will say that the sight of a bill is enough to cause fear. The human impact of energy poverty is significant. Last month, I published a report into a survey which I conducted in December, which asked people to share their experiences of energy poverty. I have a copy to hand if the Minister would like to read it because it details the lived experiences of people in Ireland and what they are going through with regard to heating their homes.

A main theme that emerged is how the pandemic has exacerbated the severity of energy poverty. There are extra costs associated with working from home for many. The Government brought a tax relief for these workers. However, many do not qualify for that support. Carers are one group which is particularly affected. One person who cares for her daughter with a disability shared her story in my survey. She said that in pre-Covid times, the heating would be off during the day while her daughter was at day services but when those services were cut, she was at home all day and now there is no choice but to keep the heating on all the time. Another person simply said that because they have to stay at home, the heating cost is much higher and they dread the cold months of January and February.

The ESRI published a report on increasing levels of energy poverty, the detrimental impact it has on children's respiratory health, and how it is likely to be exacerbated by Covid because more children are at home in damp, cold rooms instead of in classrooms. Years of growing up in these conditions makes children vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as Covid. Consequently, making sure that children do not grow up in the cold is not just the right thing to do but also is a good thing to do for public health. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has estimated that energy poverty affects one in six households in Ireland and is concerned that a significant proportion of households will be in energy debt as we emerge from Covid-19.

People who are already struggling to make ends meet are facing increased heating costs and must stay home. There are no warm places for them to go. Many of these people were on social welfare or out of work when the pandemic hit and, as a result, they did not qualify for the PUP or the working-from-home tax relief. My question is what the Department will do directly to tackle the increased cost of energy for those who need support. Sinn Féin is calling for commonsense solutions to help people afford to stay warm. Currently, the fuel allowance is not available to recipients of the PUP and pandemic unemployment rates have not been adjusted to take into account increased heating costs during winter months. Households currently have to make their weekly payments stretch even further to meet these costs.

Sinn Féin calls on the Government to extend the fuel allowance of €28 per week to PUP recipients. Currently, a person who loses his or her job cannot access the fuel allowance, as others have said, until he or she is in receipt of a jobseeker's payment for more than 390 days, which is more than 15 months. That is simply not acceptable. Sinn Féin calls on the Government to suspend the lengthy 15-month qualification criterion for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic and then review the qualifying period once we are through it.

The pandemic has proven that the Government can take extraordinary measures. Action we were previously told was impossible has been taken by this Government. However, we have also seen extraordinarily mean measures being taken. One of the most obvious was taken last month, when the Government took the extraordinary measure to retrospectively collect tax on a payment for the first time in history. I urge the Minister to spend her time better taking extraordinary actions to help people who now face increased household energy bills rather than pursuing what she said in her own words on radio only a few weeks ago was a very small amount of money from a very small number of people affected by the tax measures.

Like previous speakers, I congratulate the Minister on becoming a grandmother. I can guarantee it is the best feeling in the world. I have two grandchildren and I know the Minister has many happy days and joy ahead. I also commend her on the phenomenal work she and her Department have done in the past year. Who would have thought this time last year what was ahead of us? Nobody knew it. I know the Minister has done phenomenal work.

Nonetheless, there are a number of issues I will raise, primarily in respect of the social protection response to musicians and artists, which I am sure the Minister is well aware of, and all who work in the arts industry, whom I continue to speak on behalf of during this crisis. Before I get into that I wish to address a very important matter that others have raised today, which is the fuel allowance. In the recent very severe wave of Covid-19, a huge number of individuals and families, including children, are currently confined to their homes. Previous stay at home periods were in spring or summer but it is now winter and it will probably be getting colder. Many households are struggling with the cost of staying warm as their heating bills have risen significantly. I heard one story about an older woman who, rather than staying at home in her cold house, got up and went on the Luas to town so she could walk around St. Stephen's Green shopping centre. That was just to keep herself warm and so she would not have to sit in a cold house. It is devastating to think about that. I ask the Minister to consider increasing the fuel allowance and announce it as soon as possible so households do not feel forced into making difficult or perhaps dangerous decisions around the rationing of heat. Right now we all know our homes are the best line of defence for public health and it is vital that they are safe and warm for everyone.

I wish to express the grave concerns of hundreds if not thousands of performers such as musicians, comedians, actors and all who work in the arts from behind the scenes to front of house who I have been in continuous contact with since the budget. Many of them are distressed and struggling to meet financial commitments. As I said, I have raised the crisis in the arts sector on a number of occasions previously and have offered my ongoing support to an organisation called the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, which is working voluntarily in order to help struggling colleagues. Workers in this sector have been in lockdown since March 2020 without income. They really want to get back to work but have no opportunities to do it.

Today, 1 February, marks 327 days since restrictions were first put in place in the music and entertainment industry. With the exception of sporadic and isolated occasions, this industry has effectively been in lockdown since 12 March 2020. People in the industry have relied on the PUP and payment breaks to get by. Many are facing the realisation that their homes may be at risk. For many, their tools of the trade, equipment, instruments and vans are at risk. Many have been forced to sell items essential to their businesses in order to survive. We have to consider the bigger picture here and understand the threat this crisis poses to the music and arts industry in Ireland. It is one of our most cherished industries. We are known across the globe for our creative talents as musicians, artists and story tellers alike. Their ability to work has been taken away by either guidelines or a lack of clarity over Government guidelines. Even in this level 5 lockdown, wedding bands and private music teachers have been left in doubt over their ability to earn an income and honour private contracts.

We must show the necessary support to our nation's creatives. We are already witnessing a fast depletion of musicians and artists from the workforce. The MEAI carried out a survey which found that 20% of the participants had been forced to move into other areas of employment and 56% felt they will have to change occupation and leave the music industry. This is just not acceptable. Music and art are at the very core of who we are as a country. At a minimum, it is essential that the PUP, on which these workers are so heavily reliant, is continued at its current rate until the reopening of the industry. Musicians and artists have reported difficulty in contacting the Department of Social Protection for help and being told that their concern is for the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. This is where it gets confusing because that Department refers them back to the Department of Social Protection. There is a need for clarity for these workers who are already under enough pressure in these far from ordinary times.

I wish to share some important statistics that illustrate the struggle experienced by musicians and artists today, and reflect the enormity of the crisis in this industry. The MEAI survey notes that 24.1% have experienced a 90% to 99% income loss and that 41.6% have experienced a 100% income loss. These musicians and artists are incredibly self-sufficient, with a total of 95% of these workers being self-employed. With the shifting and changing guidelines on lockdown, and the brief glimmer of hope between the level 5 lockdowns, many keen and conscientious musicians had paid bills to update their websites and had insured their commercial vehicles in the hopes of having their chance to work but these prices are hefty, especially when it is coming from the already stretched pandemic unemployment wage.

The survey also recorded that 22.4% have had no choice but to sell equipment essential to their work in order to get by, and a further 35.8% feel they will have to sell equipment essential to their work due to a lack of support. This is an incredibly unfair position to leave these workers, who want to work, perform and create but simply have no option to. The report also shows that 26% of participants are struggling to repay mortgages and are in fear that their homes could be at risk. A total of 31.6 % are struggling to repay loans, 45.8% are struggling to pay bills and 17.6% are in danger of losing a vehicle essential to their business. Perhaps the most sobering of all statistics is that almost 50% of those who participated in this survey are struggling with their mental health. That is one in two musicians. Artists are struggling mentally and emotionally with the strain of the crisis. Fewer than 10% of the musicians and artists said their mental health was okay, and, shockingly, 25% are currently seeking help via mental health services.

These statistics need to be heard by everyone here today. It is simply not good enough that we have not afforded more supports to the creatives of Ireland. As I said, music is at the foundation of our nation's identity and charm. It is the duty of the Government to afford protections to and honour the artists, musicians and all who work in the arts, from behind the scenes to front of house, who contribute so much to Irish culture and society. Now is the time to do this.

I join others in congratulating the Minister on her venture into grandmotherhood. I am sure she will do as good a job there as she has in every other role she has held. I welcome baby Arthur and wish her family well at such an important time. Sadly for the Minister, she will not get to spend the same kind of time as she might under normal circumstances because of the work she is doing.

I join others in thanking the Minister for the leadership she has given her Department and all the departmental staff who have worked so hard. They are front-line workers engaging with, in many cases, people in difficult circumstances. They are behind-the-scenes workers who have done an enormous job. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

We must be careful, however, that in our desire to recognise the people doing the work, we do not start clapping ourselves on the back for paying out social welfare to people who are in dire need. The Minister is certainly not doing so. I certainly hope no one in the Seanad would try to take credit for doing what is right. The people who the State is supporting are being supported with their efforts and the taxes they have paid. It is the least they should expect from the State. We have to be careful that in the euphoria of the billions of euro we are spending that we do not somehow become misguided, believing we are providing some sort of charity. We are not. It is how one would one want to respond as a society.

Like others, I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, the Minister will be able set out clearly where the whole pandemic unemployment payment is going and what extensions will be in place. Prior to Christmas we would have hoped that we would be in a better position in March. That is not coming to pass with the new variants and the less than clear pathway for a vaccine roll-out. We will, sadly, see people out of work who otherwise would have been in work. We are going to have to ensure that the State continues to stand behind them and their families.

I, like others, have met many people who are under enormous pressure. Many sad things have come out of this pandemic. There are people who have lost loved ones. There are people who, sadly, are no longer with us. There are people who have lost their livelihoods and their jobs. I hope they will be able to regain them. There are people who have lost their businesses.

There are winners, however, as there are in every conflict and every difficult situation. We see the pile of savings in the banks go from €1 billion at this time of the year to somewhere close to €12 billion. Some people, by virtue of being unable to spend, have significant savings. That masks the reality, however, that there are others who find it difficult to survive on the pandemic unemployment payment because, quite frankly, they lived normal lives prior to this pandemic. Through no fault of their own, they are now just barely getting by. All the normal payments are pushed out and they are hanging on by a thread.

I agree with others that the cost of heating homes is an enormous burden for people who are just barely getting by. That has been the case for many who got thrifty and careful. The reality now, however, is they find themselves in a situation where they are penny-pinching. With themselves and the kids at home, it is becoming particularly difficult with the cost of electricity and fuel generally. Will the Minister look at a system which could give some support to people who are in that difficult situation of trying to keep everything together?

While they go through a difficult period, there are others who have managed to save vast amounts of money over the past 12 months and, the minute lockdown finishes, will be out spending. At the same time, there will be another cohort still trying to pay off significant debts they accrued in that period. We will have a divided society for a long time as a result of this pandemic.

I spoke about the case of Sean Kilkenny in the House before. He has a horse carriage business in Dromoland Castle which was doing really well. Overnight, with no American tourists, his business was gone. He is on the pandemic unemployment payment but it does not feed between 20 and 40 horses.

The schemes that have come out, with their various different caveats and aspects, do not fit his business. He does not own the property from which the business is operating - he is leasing and renting. He does not pay rates because he does not own the property but he has very significant costs. He is disseminated. He has lost the will to go on. He has family and friends around him who are trying to support him through it. We have to look wider and broader in trying to provide small, unique and bespoke businesses with a level of support that would get them through this prolonged period of the pandemic and somehow give them a baseline from which to start again. I thank the Minister for her continued efforts.

I will continue the trend here today and congratulate the Minister on becoming a grandmother. I wish Deputy Humphreys well and congratulate her and baby Arthur. Like others, I hope Arthur's mother is recovering well and doing well.

The Minister must be quite a popular grandmother with the introduction of the increase in parental leave from two weeks to five weeks. I know from my own experience. I had a conversation with my wife only this morning and she was discussing the year ahead and when could she possibly take the three weeks extra that she now has. She has never had as many holidays as she will have in 2021 and we were discussing this morning when would it be possible to take the extra three weeks. My wife was asking me when the country will reopen - a question no one can possibly answer.

From personal experience, that parental leave extension from two weeks to five weeks is really significant to people who have had children in the past year. Senator Ardagh would understand this as well. It has been quite difficult during Covid not to be able to bring one's children out and for them not to be able to interact with other children. One has those natural worries that most parents would have that one has a child who, in my case, is one year old, who has not interacted with too many children of his own age and almost thinks that the only people who exist in the world are his two parents. The extension of those three weeks is quite important. It is a recognition that the maternity leave that they have had has not been the same as that under normal circumstances.

I commend the Minister on all the work she has done since she has taken over the role in the Department of Social Protection and, in particular, commend her staff and all the staff of the Intreo offices all around the country. Senator Dooley stated that we need to be careful in terms of how we commend the work and this is money that is being given to people who are going through a very difficult time. I agree entirely with the Senator but when people speak, and they are commending the Minister and commending the Department, it is in terms of the efficiency of the Department. Almost overnight this country was put into a situation where we had to support so many people right across the country and not all the officials in every Department have been able to transition to where the Department is now. It has taken other Departments quite a long time to be able to bring through supports or make changes within themselves whereas the Department of Social Protection has been on the ball from the very start. In particular, I am aware of this in my own county. There are 12,803 people in Tipperary claiming the pandemic unemployment payment. That cost €147 million up to the start of January. I would ask the Minister that when she extends the pandemic unemployment payment, which obviously has to be done, the rates remain the same as the certainty of having that payment is really important going forward. The people receiving the payment would not normally be used to being on supports many of whom have been working all their lives.

It is important to remember that before Covid we had 4.8% unemployed and the rate had come down from 15.% in 2011. We have proven before as a Government party that we are able to create jobs and get people back to work. That is what we have to do again and Deputy Humphreys, in her position, will be able to do that.

A question I am getting from a lot of businesses concerns the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme payment and supports for businesses that have been shut down, not necessarily by Government intervention, but on the back of other businesses being shut down.

I know that the Tánaiste, the Minister and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will do everything they can to support those businesses.

I will delve into Deputy Humphreys's brief as Minister for Rural and Community Development. The work she has done in that Department is phenomenal. My own county, Tipperary, has been given €36 million since the Department got up and running. We are often asked whether we do enough for rural areas and the Minister knows as well as I do that we need to support rural areas outside Dublin. The Minister has given €36 million to Tipperary. Only two weeks ago, she gave €200,000 to Marlfield under the town and village renewal scheme. Kilsheelan received €90,000. Those towns have never before received such funding and I know that more announcements will come through on the back of that. I was at the turning of the sod of Fethard town park. The Department of Rural and Community Development gave €2.6 million to transform that small town and make a community and sports centre. It is important to recognise the immense work that the Minister is putting in as a part of that Department and I thank her for it.

Like everybody else, I congratulate the Minister. She should set aside some time to bring herself up to speed on "Thomas the Tank Engine", "Paw Patrol" and various other things like that. There is a lot of learning there because the language has changed. The fat controller is no longer working for Thomas the tank engine's company. It is very serious stuff.

The other thing about having a grandchild is that it is so easy to love them because when they become a little bit stroppy, one can hand them back. That is one of the great things. I dropped something up to the house of my three-year-old granddaughter recently. She came to the window, put up her hand and said, "Go away, granddad, we don't want the virus". Kids are very much on top of it.

Senator Buttimer made a plea for the airline pilots. There is going to be a serious situation in aviation once the economy opens up again. The number of pilots that are now in dire circumstances is something at which we have to look. They are not just in dire circumstances because of income but also because of flying hours. To keep these guys in the air, they must have up-to-date flying hours. I ask the Minister to bring that point back to the Cabinet because perhaps it is not 100% her issue.

The Minister mentioned higher and further education. I had a call yesterday telling me that the vocational training opportunity scheme, VTOS, is now missing from the website. Can the Minister give some clarity on that matter? Is VTOS about to be suspended or ended?

Senator Mullen mentioned gambling. I brought amendments to the Betting (Amendment) Bill 2015 in the hope that we might change the way gambling is run in this country. A considerable amount of money goes through gambling organisations from prostitution and various other illegal activities and we have to get on top of that.

I particularly want to talk to the Minister today about community employment, CE, supervisors. Many people have mentioned CE schemes and their benefits to the community. The Labour Court recommended that CE supervisors were to be looked after with respect to pensions. There are two tiers in that regard because CE supervisors who were working for local authorities have pension schemes whereas those who were not working do not. Quite a number of the CE supervisors are now in their 60s and coming towards retirement. They have been told that €30 million has been set aside by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to look after their pension schemes. As I say, there are Labour Court and Workplace Relations Commission judgments which state that the Department of Social Protection is the employer. I know that the Minister has not been in the Department for long but we really have to sort this out for these people. It is unfair. Some of them have 30 years' service, have been employed on a year-by-year basis and are now coming to the end of their working lives and they have nothing to look forward to. That is unfair. I am not asking the Minister to make a statement on that matter today but she might come back to me when she has had time to look into it herself. It is not fair to bounce something like that at her as soon as she comes in the door.

In this Covid era, these community employment supervisors have suddenly found themselves being landed with a phenomenal amount of work which I would have some difficulty thinking they would be qualified to do. For example, I would cite the drafting of individual learning plans. It is something I would have been involved in as a teacher and it is not something that is undertaking willy-nilly. Why has this suddenly happened to them and why are they being expected to do it? The chief development officers have sent each employee or member of the scheme a ten-page form to be completed. It is unfair to ask these people to do this work as many of them have no qualifications in the area of deciding what an individual learning plan should contain or what academic or training qualifications an individual would need. These are specialist areas for career advice people.

I am not bouncing this issue on the Minister today, as that would be unfair, but I ask her to go back to the Department to get a handle on what is going on with respect to chief development officers moving individual learning plans onto the backs of the local community employment supervisors. She might email me in a few days and let me know the position. I will finish on that note.

I appreciate the Senator doing that. I want to try to fit in the last two speakers.

It is fair to say the levels of State support from the Minister's Department for our citizens have been unprecedented during this time. It is right and proper that a First World country, one that values protecting its most vulnerable, would provide that level of a social safety net when people need it. We have done a good job, evidenced by the €10 billion or so we spent last year, in addition to normal spending, to protect and navigate our country through the worst elements of this pandemic. However, we are still on the front line. We are not there yet. We have a long way to go and the public is very aware of that. While it is welcome that we have certainty up until the end of March for probably the key support and payment, the pandemic unemployment, people are looking at the schedule for the vaccination programme and are talking about holidaying next year, so we are thinking quite long term with respect to coming out of this pandemic. We know we have another six months at least to go until things really turn. People need certainty about those supports upon which they rely so heavily, in particular the pandemic unemployment payment. The Minister's Department pays out approximately €140 million weekly on that payment alone. That is astronomical. It is keeping the wolves from the door for many people who rely on that payment. We know from the data we have collected that particularly those in retail, hospitality and the entertainment business have been the worst hit. Things do not look as though they will be turning around too quickly for those sectors, especially in the next six months.

My plea to the Minister is that she, along with her partners in government and colleagues at Cabinet, would provide as best as they can a schedule, timeline and some certainty, even if she was to divulge to citizens what metrics she would use to assess how that payment will be maintained, when it will be maintained until and at what rates. For example, if she was to say that if we were to be under level 5 restrictions again, the PUP would always kick in. If people had some level of certainty and knew the parameters, they would at least know what to expect when things move. It is very difficult for the Minister or any other member of Cabinet to predict what might happen come July, August and so on. We do not know. The Government uses a certain rationale to make those decisions. If we knew the decision-making process, it would give people an element of certainty insofar as the Minister could provide it.

I also want to raise the issue of single parent households who are finding things very difficult during these times. They would have fewer supports than many other households. Something needs to be considered for them in terms of a wrap-around support. Many of the community supports that were in place are no longer there. There is so much sadness, grief and challenge in the country that often people in those situations feel as though their voices cannot be heard because there is just not enough space to do so. That is a cohort of the population we need to look after because they are extremely vulnerable.

I also want to raise the issue of pilots in the aviation sector. Senator Craughwell also raised this issue. There is an issue in that sector to which we do not yet have a solution. More information is to be gathered. It presents a problem, particularly when right and proper decisions are being taken to restrict that industry and sector.

We then have to try our best to look after those most impacted, as we would with any other sector.

The supports for business have been excellent, but many people with part-time or short-term contracts, in particular in the tourism and hospitality sectors, are looking for particular supports. They are the most important sectors for employment in many parts of rural Ireland. In my county, Mayo, quite a number of people are employed in retail and hospitality. Tourism, after agriculture, is our biggest sector. A lot of people are worried about talk of the sector not being fully open until the latter part of this year. Some sort of roadmap, plan or clarity, as best we can, would assist those sectors. I wish the Minister well. It is a difficult task to mind everybody. It is what we must do and we are here to do our best in that regard.

I welcome the Minister, or Arthur's grandmother, to the House. Families are in the midst of peak stress and anxiety because of level 5 restrictions and schools being shut. The stress today is palpable when people are going back to work. The enthusiasm for homeschooling, for instance, is waning. Speaking for myself, we have not made it out for our 100 days of walking over the past two weeks. A lot of families are in the same boat. We are in a better position than most in terms of the support we have. A lot of people are fearful that rather than 100 days of walking there will be 100 days of persevering. In general, people need as much clarity as possible about where we are going.

Parents are working long hours as they try to be as productive as possible, even though they are double jobbing with children at home. Children are struggling with homeschooling, social isolation, health and well-being, the difficulty of being confined to one household and the occasions and milestones they have missed. We have a lot to be hopeful for right now, in terms of St. Brigid's Day, vaccines and assurances from the Government about schools. I believe we have had some good news today.

Covid is still incredibly difficult for all families, in particular those with children with special needs and lone parents. Without the support of the Department, things would be a lot harder. There is still a lot of hardship out there. Making the PUP available to people who are struggling with childcare and work is a great, practical and positive move. I hope enough parents know about it.

Paid patental leave is being extended from two to five weeks from 1 January for each parent and the period during which it can be taken will be extended to the first two years after the birth or adoption placement of a child. Others have asked for clarity on this. Some mentioned April as a date because of IT systems. The Minister might inform us as to when that provision starts.

My question relates to working lone parents who are trying to juggle and cope with everything now and outside of Covid times. We know over 85% of one parent families are headed by women and are more prone to poverty. Is it possible to extend patental leave for lone parents from five to ten weeks? The option is not available to such parents for a second parent to take five weeks' leave. Part of the purpose of patental leave is to encourage more men to take leave and to share care, but when that is not an option for lone parents could the five weeks be transferred? These parents, most of whom are women and some of whom are men, are trying to do it all. We support some of them through the one-parent family payment, the national childcare scheme, the back-to-school allowance and other supports. Allowing the leave to be transferred would be a universal support. It has been said in the past that Ireland was no place for lone parents. Perhaps this would be a small step towards making Ireland a place for all parents and children.

On community employment schemes and Tús, I understand they are not open to women who did not take jobseeker's allowance.

There are plenty of people in my community who would love an opportunity to work on the CE or Tús schemes. I wonder whether that would be an option.

Thank you, Senator Currie. You have that well condensed. The Minister has approximately six minutes. We are ordered to be out for 6.45 p.m.

I thank Members for their kind words of congratulation on the birth of Arthur, my new and first grandchild.

I also thank Members for their kind comments about the staff in the Department of Social Protection. On behalf of the staff, I wish to state it is important that the extraordinary work they have done since last March be acknowledged. They have managed to continue all the other payments along with the additional workload of the pandemic unemployment payment. They certainly have been essential front-line workers. On behalf of the staff, I thank the Senators for the acknowledgement of the great work they have been doing.

This was an engaging discussion on the important and relevant supports for people during this pandemic. It is evident from the discussion that there is recognition of the importance of the much-needed and deserving supports that my Department has provided and will continue to provide to the hundreds and thousands of workers and their families.

The future of the virus remains uncertain, as we know. For this reason the continued impact of Covid-19 on individual incomes and economic activity remains a key priority for this Government. I appreciate the concern around the availability of supports post March but I wish to reassure Members that the Government will not be found wanting in its support for people who will continue to be impacted. My Department's Estimate for 2021 is €25 billion, which is €4 billion or €5 billion more than our normal Estimate and will be increased, if necessary, in the months ahead.

As outlined earlier this month, I secured approval for the PUP to remain in place at the current rates of payment until 31 March this year. Obviously, given the extension of current restrictions until 5 March, we will now need to examine the future of the PUP beyond this point. That is a discussion that I will be having with my Government colleagues over the coming weeks. As part of those discussions, we will be taking into account where we are in terms of the trajectory of the virus, the roll-out of the vaccine programme and our plan to reopen the economy.

I have introduced a range of measures over the past 11 months to support those who are ill with the virus and their families, lone parents and the elderly. I am acutely aware of the effect that fuel costs have on households at this time. This is the reason the fuel season was extended by my predecessor for four weeks last year until Friday, 8 May 2020, which was the latest end date of any season in the past 30 years. In budget 2021, I also increased the fuel allowance by €3.50 per week to €28 per week for a period of 28 weeks from 4 January 2021. I will continue to monitor this support in the coming months.

I wish to emphasise that financial supports remain available to people who need them under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, notably the exceptional needs payment. That support is in place and it can include assistance towards costs that are not budgeted for in advance. I know many Senators raised that issue with me. The supplementary welfare allowance is available and people may make applications to the local social welfare officer. This support could assist towards additional heating or electricity costs at a time when children are out of school. Reference was made to the issue of fuel poverty. The Government is committed absolutely to supporting the retrofitting of the housing stock, which is the ultimate solution to fuel poverty. This year will see the largest budget for retrofitting in the history of the State, with more than €100 million in capital funding to support lower-income households to retrofit their homes through the warmer homes scheme. The figure represents a €47 million increase on the 2020 allocation.

In addition, funding of €65 million is being made available in 2021 through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to support the retrofitting of up to 2,400 social housing homes.

On taxation of the PUP and the comments made around it, this matter was extensively debated during the passage of the Finance Bill in November and December last. As a regular weekly payment, the PUP shares the characteristics of jobseeker's benefit, which is also taxable. More people who received the PUP are due a refund than are being asked to make an additional payment. I assure Members that Revenue will be adopting a fair and flexible approach to collecting tax due on payments made under the PUP. However, it is very important to remember that the PUP was put on a statutory footing so that people could get their full social insurance contributions for the time they spent in receipt of the payment. This is very important as it means people's future entitlements will not be affected. Consequently, their social insurance contributions for the time they spent on PUP will be equivalent to what they would have been had they been working. That is a very important point to make.

Senators Ahearn and Currie raised parent's leave. The additional three weeks of parent's leave for each parent is very welcome. That brings it up to a total of five weeks for children born, I think, after November 2019. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, wants to get this legislation passed as quickly as possible and it is my understanding that the Bill has been with the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration since 8 January awaiting pre-legislative scrutiny. I understand that Deputy Kathleen Funchion is the Chairman of that committee. The Senators may wish to raise with the committee the matter of how we can progress the Bill as quickly as possible.

As we move beyond Covid, my Department will refocus its efforts on supporting people back into employment. We have the financial supports and the necessary skills and expertise to do this. The jobs stimulus package, worth €200 million, contains a variety of initiatives in the areas of skills development, work placements, training and education, recruitment subsidies and job search and assistance. I am confident these measures will provide the necessary support to ensure that people who, unfortunately, do not return to their employment will have new opportunities to retrain and to re-enter employment.

The issue of pensions for supervisors on community employment schemes was raised. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, met the supervisors before Christmas and there is engagement between my Department and his in an effort to resolve the issue.

Senators Craughwell and Chambers raised the plight of airline pilots. I commit to raising that issue at Cabinet because I understand it is a difficult situation.

I thank Senator Garvey for raising the issue of remote working, an area in which Senator Currie also has a strong interest. Over 50% of Department of Social Protection staff are working remotely and are doing so very effectively. We are at an advanced stage of developing a €5 million call for hubs. I have a keen personal interest in this matter and my Department will continue its efforts to grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way we do things.

I thank Senators for their contributions, suggestions and ideas. I will take them into account as we adapt our response to Covid in the months ahead.

Senator Black raised the issue of musicians. I changed the requirements for the PUP to allow people who are self-employed to earn up to €960 over an eight-week period while continuing to receive the payment.

That is some help. However, I do recognise that they are having a very difficult time.

I thank the Minister and all colleagues for their co-operation with this very important debate. The statements are adjourned. When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Monday at 10.30 a.m. in the Dáil Chamber.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 8 February 2021.