I welcome the Minister to the House. We are all familiar with the expression, "I cannot believe what I am hearing." Today, I cannot believe what I am not hearing. We are in a situation where the House is being asked to vote for an additional €6,840 million of taxpayers' money for increased social welfare payments, which I welcome, but without any information whatsoever as to the future of this payment. I have been inundated with questions from people asking when the payment is going to end, for how long is it going to continue, is it going to be tapered or modulated, etc. I simply cannot answer those people. The answer I gave was that the Dáil will debate this expenditure on Thursday and, surely to goodness, we will have an announcement then. We are still without an announcement and it seems to me that the caretaker Government was very happy to take the plaudits for increasing the level of social welfare from €203 to €350 for a single individual affected by the pandemic but it wants to shirk the responsibility of taking any decision about how long the payment will continue, and if it is to be terminated, how that will happen, etc. People are looking for certainty.
I note that the Minister said in her opening statement, which we did not get a copy of, that she will be announcing some other changes within the next week. Can she clarify if those changes are going to represent a Government decision about how long the payment is going to continue and whether, if and when it is decided to bring the payment to a conclusion, that will be done in a modulated and tapered way, rather than presenting people with a cliff-edge situation where they go from €350 a week to €203 a week in the case of a single individual? Whether this Government or the next one makes the decision about this payment, I urge it to be extremely cautious and to consider carefully today's report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, which warns about the dangers of a quick return to austerity. The gist of the ESRI report is that a different approach to getting the economy back on an even keel must be taken from that which was previously adopted in the wake of the 2011 crash. This has to be an inclusive recovery based on reflating the economy. The ESRI has warned, in the most alarmist terms possible, that any early reduction in these payments would have a catastrophic effect. The Minister will know that in her constituency, my constituency and throughout the country, there are thousands of small businesses that have been decimated as a result of this pandemic.
They desperately need people in their regions who have spending power in order that they can purchase the goods and services they are providing. To quickly terminate this payment which is putting money into the local economy would, in my view, have the exact opposite of whatever effect was desired. Obviously, the desired effect is to start the economy growing again as quickly as possible.
As for all this propaganda about these alleged 200,000 people who are supposedly gaming the system and gaining, not wanting to go back to work, lying on couches all day watching flat-screen televisions, etc., the statistics behind this figure of 200,000 were raised by various Members. In the documentation accompanying the Estimates, the Minister stated that these figures were based on statistics produced by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which indicated that in the region of 40% of the total number in receipt of pandemic unemployment payment had previously been earning €300 a week or less. That is the most peculiar piece of reasoning I have ever seen since the late Lord Denning, in his judgment in the Birmingham Six case, stated that it had to have happened this way because the West Midland police said this is what happened. The vast majority of those 200,000 people are working part-time and are in receipt of partial social welfare. The people who are talking about these alleged 200,000 people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the Government has clearly signalled - I can tell the Minister when and where - that for those who fall into that category, if their pandemic payment exceeds the wage they were earning when they were working, in other words, if their wage was less than €350 per week, there will be a clawback. Their social welfare will be reassessed based on the fact that instead of having the €200 a week on which their social welfare was based, they were now getting €350 a week. That will be treated as income from employment for the purposes of recalibrating their social welfare, which will result, of course, in a situation where all those people will be in arrears. Again, I ask the Minister what is the Department's proposal in respect of collecting those arrears. Is it determined to go ahead with it and if so, how is it going to do it? One must remember many of those people, when the pandemic ends, will be back onto ordinary social welfare levels. Those of them who are unfortunate enough not to have a job to go back to will probably receive a slightly increased level of social welfare but in any situation their circumstances will be markedly worse.
We are all aware of the anecdotal evidence about students and others working a few hours a week in a bar and then getting €350 per week, etc., but there are a few points to bear in mind here. First, all the indications are anyway that it is a payment for a limited period. It will not be indefinite. Second, the money is being spent, as I stated previously, in the local economy helping to keep small businesses alive. Many such businesses have gone to the wall and will not reopen, but those of them that are clinging on by their fingertips are being kept alive by the sort of money that is being poured into the economy through schemes such as this. Let me remind the Minister that under the wage subsidy scheme, the employers are topping up the payment, while 85% or whatever percentage is coming from the Government. Therefore, these people are getting paid their full wages - the wages they were earning at work or they would be earning if they went back to work - simply by staying at home if the enterprise is closed down. Nobody is suggesting that it is handier to get money at home than going out to work for the same amount of money. Nobody is suggesting that those people are gaming the system or do not want to go back to work etc.
I would further point out - I have done some checking on this - that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is quite entitled, if it comes to its attention that a person has been offered a job and does not want to accept it, to review his or her Covid payment on that basis.
Regardless of the announcement the Minister is going to make during the week, I do not see any basis for constructing a huge bureaucratic system with more rules, regulations and means testing to get at the minority, 200,000 people, who are allegedly better off under what is after all a temporary payment system.
I resent the overtones concerning fraud in some of the statements made on all sides of the political divide. There is no fraud here. People declared honestly what they were earning and their circumstances, and the Government introduced legislation in the House to give them the payment. Therefore, there is no fraud. Looking at the instances of those who have been apprehended for defrauding the system since the Covid payment system was introduced, one sees the figures are minuscule. They mirror the general figures for social welfare fraud.
There are some other questions to which I want answers. Has the Government yet sorted out the anomaly whereby a person who was on maternity leave on 29 February cannot be taken back under the wage subsidy scheme? This is an absurdity. I tabled a question on this last week and the Minister's reply indicated people had to be on the payroll on 29 February or there would be all sorts of possibilities of fraud, abuse and loopholes. I understand that the wage subsidy scheme will apply to people who were on the payroll on 29 February but surely the rule should not apply to somebody who was in the employ of an organisation but who was simply not working at the time in question because she happened to be on maternity leave. A job applicant cannot be refused a job on the basis of being pregnant, nor can a woman be sacked simply because she is pregnant. What is happening is blatant discrimination. It is contrary to both the equality legislation and the maternity legislation in 1994.
I notice there is a campaign for a three-month extension of the maternity benefit. Many people got a reply from the Minister for Justice and Equality - it is his area - that was, to say the least of it, patronising and condescending and that outlined to people all they were getting already. I presume one has to draw the conclusion - the Minister does not draw it himself - that there is no need for this three-month extension. The Minister seems blissfully unaware of the fact that if someone is on maternity leave during the Covid period she has to stay on the maternity benefit which, as matters stand, is €100 per week less than the Covid payment, but that when her maternity leave finishes she is entitled to get the Covid payment. I would imagine the cost of this would be minimal and relieve a great deal of anxiety and distress.
The over-66s are still in limbo. I got the Minister's answers and thank her for replying to me after last week's debate. The reality remains, however. I have a Bill, as does Sinn Féin, to outlaw the practice of putting a clause in a contract to force people to retire at 65. The Government has indicated it has no objection to any of our Bills. It is the policy all over that people should be allowed to continue to work and contribute to the economy after the age of 65. The message sent out is completely contrary to that. What we are saying to people is that if they continue to work over the age of 66 and certain circumstances arise, they will be treated less favourably than younger people. The Minister indicated in a reply to me that there are all sorts of concessions, such as the living alone allowance and the fuel allowance. That is fair enough but there is still a gap between what a single person over 66 has by way of pension and the Covid payment of €350. There cannot be too many people who would benefit if the Government were to allow a top-up. Perhaps that is irrelevant in the context of the Government's intentions regarding the Covid payment but I do not know because we are in the dark. We have no information as to what is going to happen.
I ask the Minister for assurance that the local employment services will be front and centre in labour activation in this country from here on in. Will she assure me that the Government's decision to stop referrals to Seetec and Turas Nua by December next will be implemented? The Minister has already said publicly that it will be but, if that is the case, what is the explanation for the survey sent out to social welfare recipients earlier this year, several copies of which I have seen, seeking opinions as to how Turas Nua and Seetec could provide a better service? If these referrals are to come to an end in December, why are we doing a survey as to what these companies could do to provide a better service? These private companies, Turas Nua and Seetec, have taken €140 million or €150 million from the Irish taxpayer for a very poor return. I seek assurance from the Minister that Seetec and Turas Nua will not be back again usurping the good work of the local employment services at the end of the year as a result of the increased rates of unemployment we will have to tackle. If half of that money were to be invested in local employment services, I can assure the Minister the return would be much better.
My time is coming to an end but, as a final point, it appears to be policy on all sides of the House that our economic recovery from this pandemic should not be grounded on austerity given the experience we had when the last attempt at recovery was based, across Europe and across the world, on austerity measures. All economic indicators show that is the wrong way to go. I hope that will be reflected in whatever decisions the Minister takes in the next week or which the Government which replaces hers takes in due course.