Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Questions (69)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

69. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if there are plans to cease the pandemic unemployment payment by the end of June, as set out in the 2021 further Revised Estimate; if so, the plans in place for persons in receipt of the payment who will not, or are unable to, return to employment over the coming months; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26486/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

My question relates to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and its future in the weeks and months ahead. I hope the Minister will be able to provide an update on it.

The PUP is available to employees and self-employed persons who lost employment due to the Covid-19 crisis. To date, expenditure on the scheme is approximately €7.5 billion, which demonstrates the Government's absolute commitment to those affected by the crisis. As restrictions are eased further over the coming weeks and months, I expect people will be in a position to close their PUP claims as their employers reopen and they return to work. The experience to date is that people returned to work when restrictions were eased and it was safe to do so. At its peak in February, almost 482,000 people were availing of the PUP. This number dropped to approximately 376,000 by last week, which is a reduction of more than 105,000 already this year over that three-month period.

For persons who are not yet in a position to return to work, the PUP will continue to be paid at its current rates and the scheme will remain open to new entrants until 30 June. The Government will set out plans for the future of the payment beyond June over the coming weeks, taking account of the trajectory of the virus, progress on the vaccine roll-out, which is going well, progress in terms of people returning to work and the continued impact of the pandemic on the economy over the period ahead.

I am acutely aware that there will be recipients who may be unable in the coming months to return to employment in the sectors most badly impacted by the pandemic. For this reason, my Government colleagues and I have clearly stated that payments will not be withdrawn suddenly but will instead be phased out on a gradual basis. I trust this clarifies the position for the Deputy at this time.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. The PUP has been a vital support for people through the Covid pandemic. I recognise the work of staff in the Department in processing the payment, which involved a huge effort. This vital support will need to be maintained because people will continue to rely on it in the weeks and months ahead. Given that we are now approaching the end of May, it is very important to have clarity for workers and families regarding this vital source of income. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, stated yesterday that a review of the scheme should be carried out in the autumn. The plan initially was that, from April this year, people on the PUP would be moved onto a jobseeker's payment. Will the Minister indicate whether that is still the plan and give her thoughts on that possible move?

I thank the Deputy for her comments regarding the efforts of staff in social protection offices the length and breadth of the country. They have done magnificent work. We sometimes take things for granted when they run smoothly and payments are there every week, but there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes every day to make sure that happens.

The PUP continues to be available at its current rates and the scheme remains open for applications until the end of June. The Government will set out the future of the PUP in the coming weeks. I hope to be in a position to do so at the start of June. We will have a better sense by then of how things are going in terms of the vaccine roll-out, the number of new cases and the trajectory of the virus. We will also have a clearer picture in respect of the numbers returning to work. We have been very clear that there will be no cliff edge in terms of the payments.

I reiterate that if the plan is as it was in April and it comes to pass that when the Minister says there will be no cliff edge it would be a move onto the jobseeker's payment of €203, the Minister must recognise that that is a much lower payment for many people. In addition, we know already that of the more than 19,000 people aged 18 to 24 who are in receipt of jobseeker's allowance, nearly 15,000 are on the reduced rate of €112.70 a week. That has to be taken into account.

I hope the Minister will also be able to address the issue of those who did not qualify or who were moved off the PUP and onto jobseeker's benefit and who are now running out of PRSI contributions in order to keep that jobseeker's benefit where their jobs are still not there to return to. Can there be any concession, leeway or flexibility for those people who do not have a job due to the public health restrictions and whose PRSI contributions are running out in respect of jobseeker's benefit?

Those who are on the PUP continue to be on it and, as I said, it remains open to new entrants until the end of June. Recipients know that if they are on the PUP, they will continue on that payment. The Government has not been found wanting in supporting people during this pandemic. Over €7.6 billion has been spent on the PUP to date, over 23 million individual payments have been issued, more than 850,000 people have received support under the scheme, and staff in my Department have answered over 10 million phone calls in the past year. I am discussing the future of the PUP with my Government colleagues and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement in that regard in early June. The Government has not been and will not be found wanting.