Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Questions (26)

Gary Gannon


26. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to calls from the live events sector to reinstate the pandemic unemployment payment at the full rate per week for these workers in view of the fact the sector is closed or dramatically reduced under public health advice; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25023/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

My question also pertains to the live events sector so I ask the Minister to excuse me while I ask it again and elaborate on further issues in the follow-on questions. It is to ask the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to calls from the live events sector to reinstate the pandemic unemployment payment at a full rate per week for those workers in view of the fact that the sector is closed or dramatically reduced under the public health advice.

I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this issue. Of the approximately 206,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, some 5,900 or 2.8% are members of the arts, entertainment and recreation sector. This represents a 58% reduction from 14,200 claimants in that sector at the peak in May. This reduction in the numbers of people in receipt of the PUP is in line with reductions seen in other sectors and indicates that some people working in the sector have been able to return to work as the public health restrictions were relaxed.

Having said that, I am acutely aware that many of workers in the live events sector are still reliant on the PUP and that two factors in particular distinguish the challenges faced by workers in that sector. First, the performing arts sector is still more heavily restricted than most other sectors. Second, working patterns in the performing arts sector, which tend to be gig based, do not lend themselves to a clear delineation between being employed and unemployed. That is why we frequently hear of workers in the sector being between jobs.

In recognition of these issues I met representatives of the sector and clarified a number of points for them, including that taking up occasional or intermittent work does not affect a worker’s entitlement to receipt of the PUP. This clarification has been welcomed by them. A dedicated contact service has also been established to enable workers from the sectors to clarify their individual entitlements.

The Government has decided that from 17 September onwards, the PUP will be paid at three rates linked to prior earnings. These rate changes are necessary to ensure the scheme is sustainable. Originally, the PUP payment was introduced as a flat rate payment of €350 in the expectation that it would last for 12 weeks. However, the impact of Covid-19 has been deeper and longer than anyone anticipated in early March and in extending the payment for a full year until the end of March 2021 we have done so in a way that is both sustainable and fair. Linking the payment rate to pre-Covid earnings is a fair way of doing that.

With respect, with regard to pre-Covid earnings, what people working in the live events sector would be earning now as we approach the end of the summer and the festival season is very different from what they would have been earning in February. I want to give the Minister a snapshot as a case study. Electric Picnic, which would be on around this time if it had been able to go ahead, is worth €6.5 million to Stradbally, €20 million to County Laois as and €36 million to the country as a whole. In the absence of appropriate funding for this sector, is the Minister confident that these events will be able to go ahead next year given that this was a hard-fought live industry? Potentially, events will go ahead next year but if we are forcing people working in the industry to seek other forms of employment and they move out of it, we will have to bring in stage managers and event organisers from overseas and that value will be lost to our economy.

We have been trying to be as fair as possible. The pandemic unemployment payment has been extended until at least next April. It also remains open for applications, which is important. Covid-19 will be with us for some time. The budget is three weeks away. We need to examine the next steps and the future of the PUP as part of the budgetary process. We may need to keep the PUP open for much longer than we expected. That makes it all the more important that the rates of payment are sustainable. This was originally supposed to be a temporary 12-week payment. It will now run for at least a year and we may need to extend it even further. The Deputy should bear in mind that we have gone from a budget surplus in February to a deficit of more than €20 billion. That is unprecedented but it was absolutely necessary to protect people through this pandemic. We may be borrowing at low interest rates but there is no such thing as free money. We still have to pay it back.

I do not doubt for a second that the Minister is endeavouring to be as fair as possible but are we being as fluid or as malleable as possible in terms of protecting particular sectors? The live events sector is more vulnerable than most, which is why the calls for the increase in the pandemic unemployment payment to be particularly targeted at sectors such as this one are very important.

In addition to my question about fairness, parts of the performing arts have access to funding from the Arts Council and other forms of funding. The live events sector does not have access to that funding but these sectors are interdependent. It is not fair that one element of the performing arts can access funding through the Arts Council, yet an industry on which the arts are totally reliant - the live entertainment sector and the stage managers and others who make live entertainment possible - is excluded from that funding. I fully appreciate that the Minister is endeavouring to be fair but we can do a little better in terms of being malleable.

I understand the difficulties the sector is facing.

With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, the Department has always applied a common-sense approach to the condition requiring an applicant to be genuinely seeking work. To be very clear, we do not expect those who are waiting for their jobs to come back to be looking for work. If, however, people have permanently lost their jobs, we are here to help, and that is what we want to do. Some people were wondering whether they could do a gig and whether it would have an impact on their payment. People may do occasional, but not regular, work without it affecting their payment. They can continue to get their pandemic unemployment payment if they do occasional, but not regular, work.

The staff in the Intreo offices will deal with people individually. We are here to be as helpful as we can. We are not here to not help people and not support them when they need support but we want the measure to be as targeted and fair as possible.