Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Questions Nos. 73 to 75, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (72)

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

72. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; and the monthly breakdown of spending on the payment since the start of the pandemic. [26146/21]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Social)

The Minister mentioned figures indicating improvements in income inequality and poverty in recent years. That is all about to change. Hundreds of thousands of people are being pushed into unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of workers and business people have been pushed into poverty in recent months. Many of the Covid restrictions have wreaked unbelievable damage economically and socially throughout Ireland. What will the cost be to those people and to the State in the coming months?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was introduced on 13 March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Since its introduction, in excess of 23 million payments have been made, with 14.7 million payments made in 2020 and 8.4 million payments in the first four months of 2021. Last week, my Department issued payments to more than 376,000 people on the pandemic unemployment payment. This represents a decrease of 8,500 on the previous week.

The first payments on PUP were made in March 2020, with more than 58,700 payments in the first week. The number of payments peaked at in excess of 600,000 in early May 2020. Following the gradual reopening of the economy over last summer, number dropped to a low of over 200,000 by early October 2020.

Level 3 restrictions were imposed in Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan from late September 2020 which saw recipient numbers gradually increase. This was followed by a move to level 5 restrictions from late October and recipient numbers increased again to a peak of more than 350,000 by late November. Easing of restrictions in early December saw the number of recipients fall to just over 280,000 by 25 December.

Level 5 restrictions, including restrictions on construction, were again reimposed from late December 2020 with recipients peaking at almost 481,000 in the week ending 5 February 2021. Since then, the numbers of recipients have fallen gradually each week and have reflected the gradual reopening of the economy during April and early May, to stand at just 376,000 by 14 May.

Expenditure on the pandemic unemployment payment since its introduction is more than €7.5 billion, of which €5 billion was in 2020 and €2.5 billion in 2021. The expenditure for each month since the introduction of PUP is as follows:

March 2020

€111.0 million

April 2020

€778.8 million

May 2020

€824.5 million

June 2020

€859.1 million

July 2020

€420.4 million

August 2020

€310.5 million

September 2020

€326.6 million

October 2020

€267.6 million

November 2020

€403.1 million

December 2020

€676.8 million

January 2021

€510.8 million

February 2021

€588.5 million

March 2021

€686.3 million

April 2021

€550.9 million

The damage that was caused to the country over the past year is eye watering. The damage is happening in hundreds of thousands of families. At hundreds of thousands of dinner tables, the stress and the strain of living with Covid is being experienced.

It must also be said that this Government relied on lockdown far more than any other Government in Europe. No other government comes near Ireland as regards the level of lockdown, which was because of Government inaction in a range of other areas in the health service etc.

In my last few seconds on this point, I will focus on those who still will be in receipt of a PUP over the next number of months. The Minister is a Cavan woman and such women are very practical people. On 2 June, hotels will open for indoor dining and for the serving of pints to be drunk, while it will be a further week before pubs and restaurants can open outside. They have not been given any date for indoor dining.

I thought the Minister was a Monaghan person.

Yes, a Cheann Comhairle, I definitely live in Monaghan but I know a fair bit of Cavan as well. I have many family members from County Cavan.

As I believe the Deputy will accept, we have been able to support people with the PUP and the scale of support provided under this payment is unprecedented in the history of the State. I acknowledge the wonderful work of the staff of my Department. While we are here working late this evening, they worked late on many evenings to ensure those payments were made to people and that was on top of the work they were already doing. It is fair to say that a great deal has been done and the PUP remains open until the end of June. For those who find they will not have a job to go back to, which may be a fact of life, there will be activation services. We want and will be able to help people to re-skill or upskill and to find new employment.

Monaghan people are also fairly commonsensical. I will broaden the question slightly while I have the Minister's ear here. In my own county, St. Mary's Special School was given a community employment, CE, scheme for the past number of years that enabled the school to give their students a hot meal every day. Some of those students were coming on buses at 7 a.m. in the morning and probably were not getting home until 5 p.m. in the evening. The fact that they were able to have a hot meal through the CE scheme provided by the Department-----

It takes some imagination to get from the PUP to hot meals.

This is an important question. The Department of Social Protection has just withdrawn that because it is outside the remit of that Department. Can the scheme be extended until the Department of Education takes over the responsibility? Sometimes Departments operate in silos sand they drop the ball for people who really need it. These are people with severe disabilities, many of whom are learning how to feed themselves with knives and forks, to deal with food and to clean up after they have eaten their meals. I ask the Minister, if she could, to inquire whether that scheme might be prolonged.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because it has been brought to my attention by his colleagues, the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Byrne. I have asked my officials to look at this case and they have been in direct contact with the school today. We are trying to find a solution. I understand the circumstances and we are looking at it.

Questions Nos. 73 to 75, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Question No. 77 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions Nos. 78 and 79 replied to with Question No. 76.

Questions (76, 78, 79, 83, 86, 87, 102, 113, 116, 118, 127, 142, 558)

Cathal Crowe

Question:

76. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Clare currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Galway currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county who have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26258/21]

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Joe Flaherty

Question:

78. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Longford currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Westmeath currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county who have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26276/21]

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Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

79. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Carlow currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Wexford currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county who have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26270/21]

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John McGuinness

Question:

83. Deputy John McGuinness asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Kilkenny currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Waterford currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county who have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26269/21]

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Willie O'Dea

Question:

86. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Limerick currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in County Limerick who have received the payment since its introduction; the total expenditure on such payments in County Limerick over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26260/21]

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Seán Haughey

Question:

87. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Dublin currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in County Dublin who have received the payment since its introduction; the total expenditure on such payments in County Dublin over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26266/21]

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James Lawless

Question:

102. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Kildare currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Wicklow currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26275/21]

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Dara Calleary

Question:

113. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Mayo currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Roscommon currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26256/21]

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Barry Cowen

Question:

116. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Offaly currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Laois currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26272/21]

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Marc MacSharry

Question:

118. Deputy Marc MacSharry asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Sligo currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Leitrim currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26281/21]

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Jackie Cahill

Question:

127. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Tipperary currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in County Tipperary who have received the payment since its introduction; the total expenditure on such payments in County Tipperary over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26265/21]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

142. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Cork currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Kerry currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26262/21]

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Niamh Smyth

Question:

558. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Cavan currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment; the number of persons in County Monaghan currently in receipt of the payment; the number in each county who were in receipt of the payment on the same date in April 2021; the number of persons in each county that have received the payment since the introduction of the payment; the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26278/21]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Social)

As I am conscious that a number of colleagues asked similar questions, I will paraphrase the question for the Minister. It is to ask the number of people, by county, in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment at present and the corresponding figures for those same counties last month. The question also seeks the number of people in each of those counties who have received the payment since its introduction and the total expenditure on such payments in each county over that time and if the Minister will make a statement on this matter. I will share the two minutes allotted with my revered colleague, Deputy Murnane O'Connor, in order that we can give the Minister a proper grilling.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 76, 78, 79, 83, 86, 87, 102, 113, 116, 118, 127, 142, and 558 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. As the Deputies are aware, the pandemic unemployment payment is an income support provided for employees and the self-employed who were in employment on or after 13 March 2020 and who lost employment as a direct consequence of the public health restrictions to address the adverse health outcomes from the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme is scheduled to remain open until 30 June 2021. Since the payment began, more than 865,000 workers have received a payment under the PUP. To date, more than €7.5 billion has been spent on the PUP since it was first introduced. Total expenditure for the scheme between 13 April 2021 and 11 May 2021 was €520 million.

Many Deputies have requested in their questions information on the number of PUP recipients and expenditure amounts at county level. These statistics form part of the reply, and are provided in a table for the record of the House.

The total number of PUP recipients on 11 May was 377,000. This is the tenth consecutive week in which the PUP numbers have fallen and since 9 February, there are 105,000 fewer workers in receipt of this scheme. I remind the House that last year, when the public health restrictions were eased, the total number receiving income support from PUP reduced from more than 600,000 to over 200,000 over a period of 20 weeks. As restrictions continue to ease in the coming months, further large reductions in the number of PUP recipients are anticipated. The very latest PUP figures are being published today and show that the total number of PUP recipients has fallen further in the past week by 13,498 to 363,167. As I noted, I envisage that the wider re-opening of the economy this week will be reflected in further reductions in the numbers claiming the payment in the coming weeks.

County

Total Recipients since introduction

Estimated expenditure (€m) since introduction

Recipients W/E 13th April 2021

Recipients

11th May 2021

Estimated expenditure (€m) w/e 11th May

Carlow

10,082

€79.5

4,151

3,680

€1.1

Cavan

14,091

€112

6,070

5,307

€1.6

Clare

21,034

€186.2

10,306

9,218

€2.8

Cork

89,483

€753.5

42,396

37,118

€11.3

Donegal

29,814

€259.6

14,421

12,983

€3.9

Dublin

255,888

€2,413.8

134,433

122,775

€37.7

Galway

46,509

€412

22,779

20,567

€6.3

Kerry

30,676

€283.3

16,499

14,894

€4.6

Kildare

39,368

€336.2

18,659

16,486

€5.1

Kilkenny

16,428

€138.3

7,686

6,889

€2.1

Laois

13,943

€114.9

6,351

5,544

€1.7

Leitrim

5,402

€47.1

2,560

2,372

€0.7

Limerick

31,945

€268.3

14,665

13,223

€4.0

Longford

6,497

€51.4

2,781

2,452

€0.7

Louth

24,606

€209.3

11,589

10,436

€3.2

Mayo

22,889

€197.8

11,382

10,151

€3.1

Meath

37,758

€324.6

18,041

15,769

€4.9

Monaghan

12,892

€98.4

5,388

4,795

€1.5

Offaly

13,402

€105.9

5,800

5,023

€1.6

Roscommon

10,549

€87.7

4,815

4,265

€1.3

Sligo

10,742

€94.4

5,192

4,674

€1.4

Tipperary

25,759

€208.3

11,80

9,803

€3.0

Waterford

19,645

€24.2

9,221

8,206

€2.5

Westmeath

16,065

€165.1

7,224

6,477

€2.0

Wexford

29,229

€131.7

13,218

11,238

€3.5

Wicklow

25,512

€235

12,728

11,035

€3.4

Unknown

4,318

€226.7

1,844

1,348

€0.4

Total

864,526

€7,565.2

421,379

376,665

€115.4

Dealing directly with Deputy Flaherty's question on County Longford, the total number of recipients since the introduction of PUP in Longford was 6,497, which represented an expenditure of €51.4 million into the county. The number of recipients at the week ending 13 April was 2,781 and as of 11 May, it is down to 2,452.

On the figures for County Carlow for Deputy Murnane O'Connor, the total was 10,082 with an expenditure into the county of €79.5 million. The number of recipients at the end of April were 4,151 and as of 11 May, there were 3,680 people in receipt of PUP. There are further fresh figures out this evening and I will provide those figures to the Deputy later. The estimated expenditure for the week ending 11 May into Carlow was €1.1 million. We will send out this report, which gives a list-by-list account of all the counties, the total number of people in receipt of the PUP and the estimated expenditure to which this amounted.

It has all the details and I am sure it will be helpful.

Obviously, I and my fellow Deputies are very pleased to see the reduction in the number of people in receipt of the PUP as the economy starts to reopen. I commend the Department on the speed and efficiency with which this was rolled out and I commend the staff who, as the Minister rightly stated, have answered more than 10 million phone calls regarding the PUP.

I know it is not necessarily related to the question I tabled - and the Minister alluded to it in response to an earlier question tabled by Deputy Kerrane - but I am interested in the review of the PUP. It is slated to take place in June and a consultation process is under way with the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, regarding industry and employer stakeholders. In that context, consideration should be given to possibly extending the review beyond June so that the extent of the impact of the pandemic can be fully gauged, as well as the scale and nature of supports that will be needed for businesses. It would also be important to engage with the stakeholders to whom the Minister referred.

I thank the Minister for the figures she provided in respect of Carlow. I, too, welcome the fall in the number on the PUP because it is so important that we reopen the country as best we can. We are definitely on the way to doing so. I am concerned that support be maintained for the people who need it, such as those in the accommodation and hospitality sector who have not fully returned to work. I welcome that the scheme remains open to new entrants until 30 June but one of my big concerns relates to people who have been left behind.

I am particularly concerned about those who turned 66 during pandemic. What supports are in place for them? This issue has come up several times at my clinics and it is important that we do whatever we can in terms of providing supports in this area. I ask the Minister to come back to me with an answer on that issue.

I thank the Deputies for raising these very important issues. The Government has not been found wanting in terms of supporting people during the pandemic. A sum of €7.6 billion has been spent on the PUP to date, with 23 million individual payments made and more than 850,000 people having received support.

As regards the future of the PUP, I am working with my colleagues in government, namely, the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, the Taoiseach and the Cabinet committee, on the issue. We plan to bring forward proposals on the future of the PUP in early June. The one thing I can say is that the Government has been clear that there will be no cliff edge for people. We will have a better sense of how things are going in terms of the vaccine roll-out which, thankfully, is proceeding very well, the number of new cases and the trajectory of the virus. Things are improving. We will have a clearer picture at that stage in terms of the number returning to work. As I stated, the Government has not been found wanting.

In the context of people who reached the age of 66 in the past year or so, at that stage they qualify for the State pension. It is only people aged between 18 and 66 who qualify for unemployment payments.

As the Minister mentioned, it is very important that we commend the staff across the country who have worked in the PUP section throughout the pandemic. Many new staff were brought in and trained up very quickly. I know from personal experience that the level of service and their interaction with Deputies, as public representatives, has been excellent. I also commend the staff at my local office in Longford, who have excelled throughout this period. The staff of the Department of Social Protection were one of the first front-line cohorts to be mobilised in the face of the pandemic. They really answered the call, came to the fore, knuckled down and did an excellent job. I know the Minister is suitably proud of them and it would be remiss not to take this opportunity to commend them.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I thank the people of Carlow in the context of the work that has been done in respect of the PUP through the Departments. This payment has been so welcome and vital for people that it is important we ensure that, as the Minister stated, no one will be left wanting. I refer to the hospitality sector and other sectors that have not fully reopened. It is important that we make sure that businesses that really need it get that payment. I know the Minister said that will be the case and I will be able to go back and say that to my constituents in Carlow. It is important that no one is left wanting, especially now that we are going so well with the vaccine, as the Minister stated. Even in the past week with the reopening of shops and everything there was a different sense that people are starting to get on the right road, it is to be hoped. We need to make sure that the businesses that still have not reopened fully get their proper payments.

As I stated, the Government will not be found wanting. I thank the Deputies for their comments regarding the staff of the Department of Social Protection. I am very proud to head up and be Minister of that Department because what the staff have done has been amazing. It has been a monumental effort across the board by staff in every county. I offer my thanks to them because they are the ones who made sure people got their payment on time and when they needed it. It was not just the PUP; there is a plethora of other payments that we pay out of our Department and all those payments were made. My Department has stood by people. We have been here to help during the pandemic and that will continue to be the case as the economy reopens and we help get people back to work. That is what we want to do. We want to help people who cannot get their old jobs back. We want to work with them, help them to retrain and reskill and support them in moving into a new career. Some people have been out of work for a long time and we want to help to build their confidence, help them to fill up the forms, get their CVs together and consider areas in which they might need to reskill or upskill.

Throughout the pandemic, the Government has supported the industries that have been particularly badly impacted by Covid. We will continue to help them in the weeks and months ahead as they get back on their feet.

Question No. 77 replied to with Written Answers.
Questions Nos. 78 and 79 replied to with Question No. 76.

State Pensions

Question No. 81 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (80)

John Lahart

Question:

80. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the commitment to benchmark pension rates to salaries and inflation, as contained in the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26252/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

The Minister is a breath of fresh air. The two previous speakers stole my thunder because I came in intending to say what they said. On behalf of my constituents, I thank all the officials in the Department for keeping the show on the road. What the staff of the Department of Social Protection have done throughout the country has been very underestimated, particularly when one considers that even now it is impossible to get in touch with line officials in other Departments, as was the case heretofore. I ask the Minister to please convey the thanks of the constituents of Dublin South-West.

In the context of my question, I ask the Minister to outline the status of the commitment to benchmark pension rates to salaries and inflation, as contained in the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, and to make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy. I will pass on those thanks from the constituency of Dublin South-West.

In 2019, my Department undertook a consultation process with a number of interested stakeholders to hear their views on possible approaches to indexation of pensions and social welfare rates more generally. This process included discussion with representatives of the community and voluntary sector at the pre-budget forum in July 2019, as well as at bilateral meetings with stakeholders. The outcome of these discussions was considered and, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, my Department has developed proposals for setting a formal benchmark for State pension contributory payments and the indexation of future changes in pension rates of payment.

The roadmap for social inclusion outlines the potential approach currently under consideration. This approach uses what can be described as a smoothed earnings system which would ensure that, over the long term, the relative value of welfare payments compared with market earnings would be maintained and that, over any short-term period, the real value or purchasing power of these payments would be protected.

I have asked my officials to continue to engage with their counterparts in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with a view to progressing this work.

That is very welcome news. At present, as the Minister knows, the social welfare rates, including the State pension, are determined as part of the annual budgetary process. There is no explicit link between the State pension rate and earnings or prices. This means the real value of the rate can change from year to year, depending on the general cost of living and the economic context.

As the Minister stated, the roadmap for social inclusion made an explicit and welcome commitment to provide income security for older people, including through benchmarking pension rates to salaries and inflation, and the establishment of a pension rates commission. While it is welcome to see the programme for Government commit to establishing a commission, it remains unclear what working timeline is in place to introduce this pensions benchmark. Can the Minister give a timeline for this, notwithstanding my welcome for her initial response?

In the two most recent budgets, while the primary rate of State pension payment did not change, a number of targeted measures aimed at older people mostly at risk of poverty were introduced. These included a €10 increase in the living alone allowance and increases in the rate of fuel allowance. In addition, legislation was passed to ensure that the State pension age remained at 66 years. That amounts to a cost of €221 million this year and in excess of €450 million in a full year.

Designing a system of benchmarking and indexation for State pension payments is complex, but I understand good progress has been made between officials in my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. While the pandemic has interrupted implementation, I have asked my officials to make further progress on the issue in the coming months in advance of the budgetary process.

As the Minister knows, many people are heavily reliant on State pension payments. Future pensioners yet to come on stream are uncertain as to what rate of pension they will get. I acknowledge what the Minister said about the increases. I support all those increases, but they are legislated for and are not anticipated. They are not something people can count on. I urge the Minister, the next time I raise a question on the status of the commitment to benchmarking State pensions, to provide a clear answer on that. When will we have a clear answer on when it will be delivered?

The Minister spoke about the consultation process. What further detail on that consultation process can she give us? What future planned consultation must take place to ensure the methodology for any benchmarking reflects the needs and views of those in retirement?

As I have said, a possible approach to pensions indexation is under consideration. That uses what can be described as a smoothed earning system whereby the rate of pension would be linked, in the first instance, to a percentage of average earnings. In years when application of the benchmark rate is less than the rate of increases in prices, it would be linked to the rate of inflation.

That system addresses the two key challenges faced in the indexation system. The first is that a benchmark link to just one measure, for example, prices, can result in a widening of the gap between the incomes of people dependent on State pensions and other people in society. On the other hand, systems which use multiple benchmarks, for example, the so-called twin lock systems, can generate a ratchet effect, whereby increases in pensions outstrip both prices and wages, ultimately converging on and potentially overtaking wage levels. There is some work to be done on this. There is no point in saying otherwise, but we will continue with that work.

Question No. 81 replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Question No. 83 answered with Question No. 76.

Questions (82)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

82. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons who have indicated their intention to withdraw from Covid-19 support payments and return to work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26153/21]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Social)

This question relates to the extent to which the Minister has information derived from the contact she has received from employers and employees. What is the extent to which those who have contacted, or have been contacted, have an indication of work available to them when they are ready to go back? I have two questions on the same subject. I am sorry about that.

I will answer the first question and then come back to the Deputy on the second. The Deputy has two questions. The first question is on the number of people who have indicated their intention to withdraw from Covid-19 support payments.

The pandemic unemployment payment has proven to be a vital income support to workers, thousands of whom lost their jobs virtually overnight. Since its introduction, over 23 million PUP payments have been made to in excess of 850,000 people, providing income support of more than €7.5 billion to date. The number of people in receipt of the PUP fluctuates in response to changes in the level of public health restrictions. Numbers peaked at over 600,000 on 5 May 2020 and stood at just over 200,000 in October 2020. Following the introduction of level 5 restrictions at Christmas 2020, the numbers increased again and stood at just over 481,000 on 9 February. Since then, and in line with the resumption of economic activity, numbers have steadily declined, with just under 377,000 people paid on 11 May. That is a reduction of over 104,000 claims. That reduction increased to 120,000 this week.

Since the introduction of the PUP, over 643,000 claims have been closed, in the vast majority of cases because people went back to work. Since the start of April, almost 85,000 people have closed their claims to return to work. This is a very positive development and reflects the start of the recovery phase from this pandemic. As the country begins to move out of level 5 restrictions, I remind workers who are returning to work that they must close their claim for the pandemic unemployment payment on the actual date that they start back at work, in order to ensure that their claim is processed correctly and to avoid incurring an overpayment that my Department will subsequently take steps to recover. The easiest way to close a claim for the pandemic unemployment payment is online via mywelfare.ie. Anyone returning to work with an inquiry about closing a claim can contact the Department’s dedicated income support helpline at 1890 800 024 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday to Friday.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Can any indication be gleaned from the information available as to which sectors show the most likely signs of recovering in the earliest stages, be it agrifood, retail or transport? In order to ensure continuity of payment, with the phasing out of one payment and its replacement with employment, at this stage people need to know where they are heading in a fortnight, three weeks’ time or whenever.

Sometimes there is an impression that people are not going back to work. As far as I am concerned, people want to go back to work. The quicker they can go back, the better. The sooner the restrictions are lifted, which is happening now, the better. There are many people who will only be too pleased to take up employment.

The number of people in receipt of payments has come down. The sector with the highest number of people in receipt of PUP is the accommodation and food service activities sector, which has 98,000 claims. This is followed by the wholesale and retail sector, which has 62,000 claims, and the construction sector, which has 34,663 claims. The pandemic unemployment payment is paid a week in arrears. The people in retail who went back to work yesterday will not be reflected in those figures until next week because that is when their payment will stop.

The figures for the different sectors include manufacturing, which has 18,000 claims, construction, which has 34,000 claims, and the wholesale retail trade, which has 62,000 claims. The figure of 98,000 claims for the accommodation and food services sector will obviously stay at that level for a time. I hope that information is useful to the Deputy.

I join other Deputies in complimenting the work done by the Minister and her Department in what were very challenging times.

I have no doubt that in the weeks ahead she will be equally up to the task of dovetailing activities in such a way as to ensure a smooth return to work for the people who have been out of work, be they employers or employees, and that such a return will be backed up with a continued payment where necessary and a good liaison between the Department and those affected.

I hope the Minister's Department does not get hit by any of these viruses going around, or we will all be in trouble. The volume of work done by the officials has been extraordinary. Has the Minister received any reports of skills shortages in various sectors? We have heard anecdotal reports that employers are finding it difficult to get workers now, which is probably a good sign for the economy. I would like to know the Minister's perception of that.

I have heard that a number of people are having difficulty getting people back to work but I believe the majority want to go back to work. There is a support line for employers if they need assistance with difficulties they might face in getting staff. We want to help people retrain, reskill and find the jobs that are out there. Some will not go back to their old jobs so we want to help them. There are job activation measures in place and I will deal with that in the coming weeks as the economy continues to open.

Our ICT systems are fully operational and additional cybersecurity measures were put in place over the weekend as an act of caution following the HSE incident. My Department works hard to make sure we have the right firewalls in place. We have a lot of data and we want to protect it.

Question No. 83 answered with Question No. 76.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Question No. 85 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions Nos. 86 and 87 answered with Question No. 76.

Questions Nos. 88 to 95, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (84)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

84. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection the extent to which her Department anticipates a reduction in Covid-19 support payments to be replaced by employment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26152/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

I thank the Minister for the previous replies and reiterate our appreciation of the work being done. Is it possible to determine the areas most likely to respond quickly in bringing their employees back to work? Have the indicators so far given that information? For instance, the construction, retail and wholesale sectors. Does she see them progressing in the way anticipated?

Retail opened yesterday, so I expect those numbers will reduce considerably over the coming weeks. One of the last sectors to open will be hospitality and accommodation so there will be a lead-in time for those numbers to come down. There are a number of sectors but we are happy to work with them all and we will do that across the board. Many young people have been impacted by Covid in terms of losing their jobs and we want to target those. We want to try and get people with disabilities back to work. We will have a good suite of services in our job activation measures to help people get back to work where they have not been able to go back to the jobs they were in. We will continue to work with them.

I want to say on behalf of the staff in the Department that we are here to help. Our main priority is to help people transition to new employment and get back to work.

Is it possible at this stage to give some indication from available information as to the areas most likely to be affected by jobs being no longer available? Is the potential for recovery still there for those sectors and, as a result, the employment potential for employees?

There are a number of sectors which have been impacted more than others. The music sector, for example, has not had an opportunity since last March, which is over a year. It has been particularly impacted. We hope the accommodation services, hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and all those facilities will come back but it is hard to say. I reassure the Deputy we will do everything to support people working in those sectors and help them in any way we can. There will be no cliff-edge reduction in the pandemic unemployment payment. It continues until the end of June. I do not have the specific figures to hand. I can look here and see. For example, the beauty sector numbers are on there and I expect they will considerably reduce over the coming weeks.

Has the Minister carried out any research to indicate how many people have left their former sectors, for instance, construction, and gone into other sectors during the pandemic? Has she any comment to make on reports about the black market during the Covid-19 emergency? Has that grown in any way? Are there figures available to indicate how many people with skills have indicated during the pandemic?

I do not have those figures to hand. I will ask my officials. I do not know if they are available. There were a number of people in different sectors who closed their pandemic unemployment payment for the week of 11 May. We had the highest number of closures in the construction sector, with 3,107 that week. The previous week we had 3,729. There is a gradual reduction in that sector and that is the highest reduction.

All these figures are commensurate with the reopening of the economy and we will have a better and clearer picture when the economy is fully reopened. Then we can really target our resources at people who have lost out and will not go back to the jobs they were previously in.

Question No. 85 replied to with Written Answers.
Questions Nos. 86 and 87 answered with Question No. 76.
Questions Nos. 88 to 95, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Fuel Poverty

Questions Nos. 97 to 101, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 76.

Questions Nos. 103 to 110, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (96)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

96. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she has considered extending the fuel allowance payment period for 2021 particularly in relation to the serious financial difficulties many households are experiencing regarding making utility payments during this winter season and in view of the allowance being extended in 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26155/21]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Social)

Last year, the Minister extended the fuel allowance. That did not happen this year though I understand it was to be considered. Did the Minister consider extending it and, if so, why did she decide not to?

The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week for 28 weeks, a total of €784 each year, from October to April, incorporating the coldest periods of the year. It goes to over 370,000 low-income households at an estimated cost of €300 million in 2021. The purpose of the payment is to provide a contribution towards the energy costs of a household; it is not intended to meet those costs in full. The criteria for fuel allowance are framed to direct the limited resources available to my Department in as targeted a manner as possible so it is focused on long-term payments where an applicant satisfies a means test.

As this House knows, the Government has already allocated approximately €11.5 billion in a broad package of social protection measures to assist people impacted by Covid-19. This demonstrates the Government's absolute commitment to provide effective targeted supports during the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of that, and based on ESRI research, the Government targeted budget increases at the fuel allowance, the qualified child allowance and the living alone allowance to boost the incomes of the poorest in society. This resulted in the fuel allowance being increased from the start of this year by €3.50 per week to €28, thus ensuring recipients benefited during the coldest part of the year. The supports in place are kept under constant review and amended in keeping with changing circumstances. In that context it is worth noting we have a vaccination programme in full swing, restrictions are being eased, many people are returning to work, and people are able to enjoy meeting outside again.

My Department does provide support under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to people who may be having difficulty with their utility bills. Exceptional needs payments may be made to help meet an essential, once-off cost which customers are unable to meet out of their own resources, and this may include exceptional heating costs. Decisions on such payments are made on a case-by-case basis.

I understand all of that. Last year, because of Covid, the duration of the payment period for the fuel allowance was extended. When I questioned the Minister on the issue last year, including in the committee, I understood consideration would again be given to a possible extension this year. Many older people who had been cocooning for the best part of a year got no supports whatsoever, although they were expected to stay at home and the heating was on more. We should acknowledge it was an extremely difficult time for older people, who in many cases were very isolated. Was consideration given this year to extending the fuel allowance due to Covid, as was done last year? If it was determined there would not be an increase, what is the reason for that?

Deputy Kerrane will acknowledge the fuel allowance was increased on 1 January up to €28 per week. That was an important step and it would have helped in some way to assist people in meeting their fuel bills. The living alone allowance for older people was also increased. The Deputy is aware an exception was made last year for the fuel allowance, given that it is for a particular time period. This year, when you couple the fact of the increase in the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance, those are important considerations.

It is also important to point to the level of support we have paid out in the pandemic unemployment payment. I gave the Deputy the figures earlier. There have been a significant number of payments and a significant amount paid over the past year.

I acknowledged that support, which was vital for people, but I am really talking about older people who did not have any supports. I appreciate the budget increases and changes that were made last year and came in this year. That is fine, but I take it from the Minister's response that consideration was not given to extending the fuel allowance in the same way as last year. While the PUP is in place, that is not available to older people and that is the cohort to which I refer.

This is coming a bit out of left field, but in the context of financial difficulties a number of representations have been made to me with respect to the extra cost incurred by people having to use smokeless fuels. While this is the right thing to do anyway, due to the increased weight of the ash, an increased cost is incurred when you pay for refuse by weight. The Minister might not have an answer to that now, but could she look into the matter and come back to me with a response at another time?

It is important to say also that a lot of supports are available through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to assist people, in particular older people, to carry out improvements to their houses, which includes insulation, and thereby reduce their heating costs. I take Deputy Stanton's point. The cost is not something that has been raised with me previously but I will certainly look at it.

Questions Nos. 97 to 101, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 76.
Questions Nos. 103 to 110, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Social Welfare Benefits

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Questions (111)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

111. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if consideration will be given to extending maternity benefit eligibility to women who have not built up the required PRSI contributions prior to the birth of their baby and the possibility of providing a partial rate maternity benefit in these cases; the financial support that can be made available to women returning to Ireland who have lived in countries which do not have bilateral agreements on maternity benefits with the State; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26176/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

This question concerns maternity benefit. A number of women have got in touch with me who have returned to Ireland, specifically from Canada and America, who do not have the required number of PRSI contributions. Having returned, they have had or are having a baby and they cannot access maternity benefit. Has any consideration been given to partial maternity benefit payments or any similar support for women when they have a baby but they do not have the required PRSI contributions?

I thank Deputy Kerrane for raising this matter. Maternity benefit is a statutory payment made for 26 weeks to employed and self-employed women who satisfy certain PRSI contribution conditions. The fundamental qualification criteria for maternity benefit are that a woman must be in insurable employment and entitled to statutory maternity leave or be in insurable self-employment. The applicant must also satisfy certain PRSI contribution conditions.

EU social security co-ordination regulations include provisions to cater for maternity benefit in situations where workers have moved between EU member states. Similarly, the convention on social security between Ireland and the UK, put in place in response to the UK leaving the EU, provides for situations where workers have moved between Ireland and the UK. Where an individual has insufficient social insurance contributions to qualify for maternity benefit, she may be eligible for another social welfare payment provided she meets the relevant conditions. For example, the main purpose of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is to provide immediate and flexible assistance for those in need who do not qualify for payment under other welfare schemes. There are no plans to introduce a partial payment of maternity benefit for those who do not satisfy the requisite PRSI contribution conditions.

It is great to see those who have emigrated coming home to start a family and take up work here after being abroad for a number of years. It is especially welcome to see young people, who had left, returning. When they do come home, if they do not have the required number of PRSI contributions if they have been in a country outside the EU, I accept the supplementary welfare allowance is available but there are difficulties in meeting the habitual residence requirements. I am not sure how long the supplementary welfare allowance can be paid, and I wonder if some additional measure could be examined to ensure a woman is supported to take a number of months off after having a child.

I take on board what Deputy Kerrane says. We have been trying to improve the supports available to parents. We have extended parental leave from two weeks to five weeks. That has been welcomed. It is a good support and it is something I would like to see us extending further.

I am aware of the habitual residence clause that is in place. It can sometimes have unintended consequences in that when you start to change the criteria for one particular cohort, it could result in a considerable budgetary demand. However, I take on board what the Deputy says and I will discuss it with my officials.

Under the bilateral arrangements that exist between this country and a number of other countries in respect of social welfare, is it possible to arrange a payment based on their contributions in the country from which they are leaving?

There are arrangements across the EU, as I said, and there is a bilateral arrangement with the UK. Many cases would traditionally have been dealt with in terms of contributions. The convention on social security between Ireland and the UK, which was put in place in response to the UK leaving the EU post-Brexit, provides for situations where workers have moved between Ireland and the UK. We signed that agreement so all of the benefits we had prior to the UK leaving the EU are still in place, which is very important. As I said, the EU social security co-ordination regulations include provisions to cater for maternity benefit in situations where workers have moved between EU member states. Again, in terms of what arrangements can be put in place with other countries, these are the main ones. We are part of the EU and the UK is our closest neighbour. We do not have any arrangements with other countries that I am aware of.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.