I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am genuinely really pleased to have an opportunity to introduce this Bill to the Dáil today. I express my sincere appreciation to everybody, not just those on all sides of this House but in the Seanad too, for agreeing to deal with All Stages of the Bill today, as was the case in the Seanad last week. The purpose of this Bill is to introduce a new social insurance scheme of jobseekers benefit for self-employed people with effect from 1 November. It is a great achievement by of all of us.
The introduction of the new scheme was part of the 2019 budget announced last October and is designed provide self-employed contributors who lose their businesses with the income support and breathing space they need as they assess their next steps. The development of this scheme reflects the Government's aim of creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurship. As the House will know, we have sought to introduce a new deal for the self-employed when it comes to their access to benefits and, having already extended entitlement to treatment benefits and invalidity pension to the self-employed in recent years, the introduction of the new JBSE scheme marks a further important step in this process of equalising social insurance benefits across employees and the self-employed.
The new scheme will provide an income safety net to thousands of small and medium businesses throughout the country. It will mean that the self-employed will have access to the safety net of income supports if they lose their self-employment, without having to go through a means test. In most respects, the key features of the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme, which provides support to employees who have lost their job, will apply to this new scheme. The personal weekly rate of payment will be the same for both schemes. The duration of payment - six months or nine months, depending on the claimant's social insurance record - will be the same. The scheme has been designed to take into account the fact that PRSI contributions by the self-employed are paid by way of an annual lump sum. Claimants of the new payment will also have access to the full range of activation supports currently available to other jobseekers, including, for instance, referral to group information sessions, one-to-one interviews and subsequent caseworker support if the claimant so desires.
It is important to note that self-employed people who are operating businesses at low levels of income can continue to access the means-tested jobseeker's allowance scheme. There are almost 7,000 self-employed in receipt of this payment. I wish to assure Members that scheme will continue to operate.
I will briefly outline the content of the Bill, which has passed through the Seanad and contains 11 sections. Sections 1 and 2 provide for the standard provisions setting out the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and citations, commencement provisions and a definition of the principal Act referred to in Part 2 of the Bill.
In light of the introduction of the new jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed scheme, we are amending some of the legislative provisions governing the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme. The more significant of these changes is in section 3, which extends the qualifying conditions for the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme by providing that the first condition to determine eligibility for payment can now be met by having 104 employment or optional contributions, such as PRSI class A contributions, as has always been the case, or by having have 156 self-employment contributions, denoted by PRSI class S. This is a positive change which recognises that some people will have engaged in both employment and self-employment in the course of their working lives. By recognising that both forms of employment give rise to entitlements within the social insurance system, the change will help to ensure that an individual will not be at a disadvantage as a result of a move from employment to self-employment or vice versa.
Section 4 is a standard provision to ensure that a claimant does not secure a double benefit. Put simply, it states that where a claimant who is in receipt of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed also satisfies the qualifying conditions for jobseeker's benefit for the employed, periods spent in receipt of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed will be treated as though jobseeker's benefit were being paid.
Section 5 is a key part of the Bill and provides for the introduction of a new chapter 12A to the principal Act which sets out all the provisions governing the new jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed scheme. The new chapter 12A provides for the general qualifying conditions for receipt of jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed; the social insurance contribution conditions; the rate of benefit payable, including reduced rate benefits payable where the average reckonable weekly earnings of the claimant fall below certain thresholds; the increases payable where there is a qualified adult or qualified children; the duration of payment; the requirement to engage with activation services; and disqualifications. These provisions mirror, to the greatest extent possible, the existing provisions governing entitlement to jobseeker's benefit.
Section 6 provides for a range of amendments to general provisions of the Act which cover all social insurance schemes and which are required to reflect the introduction of the new jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed scheme. The amendments are set out in the form of a Schedule to the Bill.
Section 7 of the Bill concerns an issue which is separate from the main body of the Bill and the new jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed scheme, namely, the procedures governing appeals in respect of social welfare payments which follow from decisions of deciding officers appointed as bureau officers under the Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996. In practical terms, the section provides that such appeals will always have to be submitted to the Circuit Court.
Sections 8 to 10, inclusive, provide for the necessary amendments to the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 as a result of the introduction of the new scheme. Section 11 is an amendment which added to the Bill on Report Stage in the Seanad last week - regrettably, in my view - and commits to the preparation of a report on policy options to strengthen social protection supports for one-parent families with a youngest child between the ages of 14 and 18.
To return to the main purpose of the Bill, jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed will provide an insurance-based safety net which has not previously been available to people who have set up and run their own businesses. Such enterprises can be particularly vulnerable in times of economic difficulty and it is right that they should enjoy the same levels of support as employees currently do.
I thank Deputies on all sides for agreeing to the swift passage of this important legislation and enabling the early introduction of a key support that will be valued by all our entrepreneurs.