Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

17. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of persons, including the self-employed, who will face a loss in income as a result of reductions in the pandemic unemployment payment rate as outlined in the July stimulus; if the changes to payment rates were poverty proofed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19300/20]

Will the Minister specify the number of people, including the self-employed, who will face a reduction in their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, due to the changes in rates outlined in the July stimulus, and if those changes in rates were poverty-proofed?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was introduced as an emergency measure to meet the surge in unemployment which resulted from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. From the outset, the payment has been made available to both employees and the self-employed. From a peak of more than 600,000 claimants, there are now fewer than 300,000 people claiming the payment. The latest figure is 287,000.

As part of the Government's July stimulus package announced last week, the pandemic unemployment payment has been extended to 1 April 2021. Changes have also been introduced to the structure of the payment to ensure that the payment not only continues to be a strong income support but that it is also fair and targeted.

From 17 September 2020 until 31 January 2021, the pandemic unemployment payment will be paid at three rates, linked to the previous earnings of claimants. We would expect that the number of people in receipt of the payment will have fallen further by mid-September when these changes will take effect.

For those who earn less than €200 per week, which represents 19% of the current claimants, they will remain on a rate of €203. For people who earn €200 to €300 per week, the rate of payment will be €250 per week. This will affect 23% of claimants based on the current profile of claimants. People in this bracket will still be receiving between 83% and 125% of prior earnings, or 105% of average prior earnings.

For people who earned more than €300, they will receive a weekly pandemic unemployment payment of €300 per week from mid-September. This will affect 58% of claimants, again based on the current profile of claimants. They will go from €350 to €300 per week, representing, on average, 65% of prior earnings.

The ESRI was asked to undertake a social assessment of the impact of the introduction of the proposed new rates from September 2020. The analysis considers the effects of the new PUP rates with reference to changes in household disposable income, family type and the impact upon poverty rates. The analysis indicates that the changes result in a very small reduction in disposable income at 1.4% and that the new PUP rates would increase the at-risk of poverty rates for everyone by 0.6 of a percentage point.

Other research undertaken by the ESRI examined the impact on family incomes of Covid-19 related job losses.

I specifically referred to the self-employed in my question. I would appreciate it if the Minister could give me a figure on the number of self-employed people who will see a reduction when these rates change. I know from a reply to a previous parliamentary question I asked that approximately 15,000 self-employed people had their payment reduced from the €350 to the €203 when the first change was introduced. An issue I raised with the Minister yesterday and I raise again now is that the rate the self-employed are being paid on the pandemic unemployment payment is based on their 2018 tax returns. I again ask her if she will allow the self-employed to make a self-declaration to Revenue on their 2019 income to try to reflect better their actual income and ensure they do not lose out. I was also contacted by somebody the other day who works part-time and is self-employed. That person's payment has been reduced to €203 and the only thing the Department is taking into account is their part-time employment, yet most of their income comes from the self-employed work. Where people are working part-time and are self-employed, can both be taken into account?

I thank the Deputy. Where a person is self-employed, his or her gross average weekly income for 2018 is used to calculate the rate of the pandemic unemployment payment. That is because it is the last tax year for which verifiable data on self-employed income is available. The nature of self-employment is such that it is not possible for Revenue and for PRSI purposes to attribute self-employment income to any particular week, and earnings are assessed on a full-year basis. Any person who feels that the assessment of his or her earnings based on returns already submitted to Revenue is inaccurate can ask for a review of his or her case, with further details available on www.gov.ie. It should be noted that any person on the new rate of payment will be eligible to apply for the standard jobseeker's rate, which, for a two-adult household with one child, is €377 per week. Any person who is experiencing hardship may apply for support under the means-tested supplementary welfare allowance scheme also.

The Minister might come back to me on that constituent who is working part-time, which is the income being taken into account with regard to his PUP rate, but he is also self-employed and that is the bulk of his income. I have contacted the Minister on that and I would appreciate a response.

On the new condition now introduced that people in receipt of PUP have to seek work, again, do self-employed people on the PUP now need to seek work? During the debate last night, the Minister said that the Department would take a common-sense approach, which I welcome, but how will that work? Is the Minister expecting the PUP recipients to contact her Department depending on whether their workplace has yet to reopen, and how that will work? Finally, I asked the Minister this question last night but I ask again if job activation schemes such as JobPath will be knocking on these people's doors, so to speak, looking for them to engage if they are in receipt of the PUP?

I thank the Deputy. As I said last night, we have to take a common-sense approach to this because some sectors have not fully opened up yet. We will do that, and I have asked my officials to ensure that that sensible approach is taken for those who cannot return to work and who are waiting for their job to come back. If they work in a pub, and we hope pubs will reopen by 10 August, they will get that opportunity. However, we have to be realistic because some jobs will not come back and there is no point in waiting for the never ever. It is best that we help people to reskill, retrain and look at other jobs they can take up.

In terms of the self-employed, they are self-employed, and if their work is there to go back to, there is other assistance we can give them.

There is a grant they can get to help them get back to work and to pay for expenses they may incur in trying to get their businesses back up and running. We have to take a sensible approach.

Community Employment Schemes

Seán Sherlock

Ceist:

18. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to extend the duration of community employment schemes due to Covid-19. [18550/20]

Can the Minister give me her perspective on community employment schemes? We know that 3,000 extra places were announced on State employment schemes in the July stimulus package. We are all receiving representations from individuals and from administrators of schemes who are seeking extensions to individuals’ tenure on those schemes, which are adding exceptional value. Can the Minister give me her perspective on how the schemes will operate going forward?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The community employment scheme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed term basis.

In general, the period of participation on community employment is for one year. However, community employment participants who are working towards a major award or industry qualification can seek to extend participation by up to a further two years. During the current Covid-19 emergency, my Department continued to provide the necessary funding for community employment schemes while also introducing a number of contingency measures. These measures included the extension of all existing community employment participant contracts for the duration of the emergency.

Now that the country has begun the process of returning to normal operations and in keeping with the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, the contingency measures have concluded and the recruitment of new community employment participants has recommenced.

Those participants who had their contracts extended during the emergency period are now finishing up on their schemes on a phased basis over the coming period and further extensions will not be granted.

The priority for my Department is to ensure that all employment and activation programmes have the best outcomes for participants. Places on these work programmes will continue to be available to support those who are long-term unemployed and furthest removed from the labour market while sustaining the role of community employment as an active labour market programme. While I appreciate that there are some participants who would like to stay on the scheme, the Deputy will appreciate that any extension would have a knock-on effect on others who wish to join the scheme.

I appreciate the Minister’s point and understand that one must allow for other people to come on to individual schemes. Will the Minister allow for individual cases to be made, where there is a solid case and where there is not a demand at a local level for an additional person or a replacement to come on to the scheme? Will she allow for some discretion if that business case for retention of an individual beyond the extension period is based on mitigating circumstances? There are schemes around the country which would benefit from the retention of individuals.

I thank the Deputy. People wanting to stay on longer on community employment schemes has been the most frequent request I have received since becoming Minister. As the Deputy is aware I am new to this Department and will be looking at these issues. I want to get the balance right between getting people back to full-time employment while also recognising that for some people, it is going to be more difficult. I am aware of cases across the country and in my own constituency where there are particular circumstances. I will certainly look at this but it is about getting that balance right.

I appreciate the Minister’s response and understand that one has to allow for throughput in these schemes, which we all accept. Deputies and Senators will have all received representations from administrators of schemes. If the business case is made and it stacks up to scrutiny, if there is no demand for another person to come onto a scheme and if the work being carried out has an exceptional impact locally, I ask the Minister to allow for some discretion and common sense, to use her own expression, and allow pragmatism to be built into the process. I accept the Minister’s response on having some discretion. We have always operated in this country on the basis of making allowances for grey areas and human circumstances. Not being too prescriptive about matters would be very useful.

There is a call for common sense there for the Minister.

Yes, I am a great believer in common sense. The only problem is that sometimes it is not as common as one might like. The issue is about getting the balance right. Extending duration could impact on opportunities for other people getting onto the scheme. I understand that some really good work is being done by CE schemes throughout the country in some many different areas, and we do not want to take away from this. Participants are doing a job they like and they want to continue doing that job and may not want to take that next step. The next step is to go on to another programme which will lead them into full employment. There are exceptions for people aged over 62 and 55 years of age, where some changes have been built in. I appreciate where the Deputy is coming from and I will certainly look at this. I will be meeting the community employment schemes representative body in due course on this matter.

JobPath Programme

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

19. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the tendering process as part of the review of contracted public employment services; if there has been engagement between her Department and the JobPath providers to date in 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19301/20]

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Can the Minister provide an update on the tendering process as part of the review of contracted public employment services? Can the Minister state if she or her Department has had any engagement with the JobPath providers to date in 2020?

I thank the Deputy for raising this further matter. My Department engaged with external consultants in December 2019 to review all current contracted public employment services, PES, including local employment services. The consultants' report, currently being finalised, will help inform the Government's approach on the future structure of all contracted PES. It is essential that we ensure all our public employment services are fit-for-purpose and provide value-for-money. This must be balanced against the pressing need to ensure that these key services are fully in place when needed by those who have lost their jobs as a result of the ongoing public health crisis.

Any provision of contracted public employment services in 2021 is in the context of managing and responding to the labour market impacts of Covid-19. What is clear is the need to ensure we have sufficient capacity within the public employment service to provide a high quality service to help individuals back into employment.

Last week, as part of the July stimulus package, the Government announced that it would be investing an additional €43 million into the public employment service to enhance our capacity.

While I have not yet had the opportunity to meet any of the contractors, officials in my Department engage on a regular basis with all contracted public employment service providers, including the JobPath contractors, to discuss all aspects of contract monitoring and delivery.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. First, can the Minister give any indication as to when the consultants’ report will be completed and published in order that we and the Minister can examine it?

I am glad she mentioned value for money. I ask that she look at JobPath and the costs associated with the scheme, if it is to be extended as part of what has been mentioned in the July stimulus, and focus on contracted services as part of getting people back to work. This time last year, 226,851 people had been referred to JobPath. Some of them had been referred three, four or five times. Some 51,548 of these people commenced employment, but only just over 14,000 had the employment sustained for one year. This time last year, JobPath had cost over €182 million and 6% of referrals had obtained employment that lasted for a year. I ask that JobPath be considered in the context of whether it offers value for money.

The Deputy is correct. Some 287,000 people are still on the PUP. We hope that as the economy continues to reopen, more people will return to work. The unfortunate reality is, however, that not all of them will be able to return to the jobs they had before the onset of Covid-19. There are also 220,000 people on the live register, so my focus will be on supporting those individuals in getting back into employment. That is why, as part of the July stimulus package, the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, and I announced a €200 million package that will be used to help people reskill and retrain. It will provide for up to 80,000 new training and education places, including an additional 35,500 places in the higher and further education sectors, with 45,500 new employment support places being created.

Will the Minister outline clearly the engagement between departmental officials and JobPath providers? I appreciate that it is consistent. Have there been discussions about extending referrals to JobPath? I would appreciate an answer in that regard.

I raise this matter because I met representatives of the Irish Local Development Network recently, which has clearly demonstrated its capacity to take 150,000 client referrals through job clubs and local employment services. I really want to us to take a not-for-profit and community-based approach to job activation schemes. The real plus I see with the local employment service in particular but also with job clubs is that it is not just about getting a person into any job. It is about well-being and there are extra supports for people, especially as we come out of this Covid-19 emergency. We really need to protect these community-based and not-for-profit services. Will the Minister look at those? Has there been engagement between her officials and JobPath providers on extending referrals?

As the Deputy knows, the Department engages external consultants. The report currently being finalised will inform the Government's decision on a future structure. Once the report is ready, decisions will be taken on the best approach to ensuring we have the necessary capacity to ensure the public employment service can provide a quality operation. As I stated, my officials will come to me with a full report on that. When I have it, I will make a decision.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

20. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps she is taking to address the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on disadvantaged communities; if her attention has been drawn to calls from an organisation (details supplied) to establish a special Oireachtas committee on poverty and inequality; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19337/20]

This question pertains to the prevalence of poverty in this country, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Has the Minister heard the calls from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has acknowledged that the experience of the 700,000 people living in poverty has been compounded by the pandemic? It has asked for a special task force to be set up to examine poverty and inequality. Is the Minister willing to accept those points?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. My Department regularly engages with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and I hope to meet some of its representatives very soon.

Life in Ireland has changed considerably over the past few months and many people in Ireland are living in very difficult circumstances. This is why my Department quickly rolled out supports like the Covid-19 PUP and, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners, the temporary wage subsidy as emergency payments to support those most in need. Research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, examined the impact on family incomes of Covid-related job losses and found that 400,000 families would see their disposable income fall by more than 20% in the absence of policy measures such as the PUP. It is important to note that the PUP reduced the numbers exposed to such losses and these measures were also effective in cushioning families at the lower end of the income distribution from such losses.

In addition, the four-week extension of the fuel allowance payment provided over 369,000 households with additional help for their fuel costs. Funding for school meals was made available to schools to the end of the academic year and also for the summer period. The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is available to people receiving the pandemic unemployment payment to help them meet the expenses of the new school year.

Tomorrow I will attend my Department's pre-budget forum, at which I will have the chance to speak with groups representing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society and hear their views on the priorities for the coming budget. This is an important part of the budgetary process and I am looking forward to a good discussion.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to the rigorous implementation of the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2015. This roadmap provides for a robust governance structure to ensure the implementation of commitments. Progress will be monitored on an ongoing basis through the social inclusion roadmap steering group, which includes two external members, Sister Bernadette MacMahon from the Vincentian Partnership for Justice and Dr. Patricia Keilthy from the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

The Deputy will appreciate that it is not my role to establish Oireachtas committees, I can assure him that I will continue to engage with the relevant Oireachtas committees on all matters relating to my Department, including issues relating to poverty and inequality.

This is a very specific matter regarding how we will confront the fact that poverty has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Poverty has a corrosive impact on people in every walk of life. We have had roadmaps but they have consistently missed their targets over the past ten years. What is being asked for by groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other social justice groups is for special attention to be placed on matters of poverty and inequality. One group I am thinking of is that comprising one-parent families. As the Minister mentioned, one-parent families have benefited from the PUP but this group is the most statistically at risk of poverty. If we are telling the recipients of the PUP that they must actively seek work, we must realise that one-parent families cannot access childcare. How would a common-sense approach work for those in that cohort if they go to social welfare offices?

The roadmap was approved by the Government on 9 January 2020 and published on 14 January. It really is a whole-of-Government strategy, with a five-year timeframe and a midterm review in 2022. The best way out of poverty is to get people into work, and that is a key focus of the additional funding for job activation measures contained in the €200 million stimulus package I spoke of earlier.

The official poverty data is produced annually by the Central Statistics Office from the survey on income and living conditions. The most recent data, from 2018, indicates a national consistent poverty rate of 5.6%. The 2019 data is likely to show an improvement due to an increase in incomes and the impact of recent budgetary measures. However, it is expected the 2020 data will see an increase in rates across the majority, if not all, of the official poverty measures.

I want to confront the old trope that the best way of getting people out of poverty is to get them into work. The Minister should tell that to the 160,000 people who were working and still experiencing poverty before the pandemic. Despite being in work, they still very much experienced poverty. The best way to get people out of poverty is to provide an appropriate social safety net so that when they struggle, the State will step in and support them.

The Minister indicated several times that some professions will simply not return after Covid-19. It is why there was a cruel amendment to the PUP that people must actively search for work. What professions do the Minister and her officials believe will not return?

The economy is reopening and, as the Deputy knows, we hope the remaining businesses can open on 10 August. We are following public health advice so I cannot give the Deputy a timeline on when anything will open. It is all based on public health advice, which must be followed and which has served us well. We will base our decisions on that advice.

EUROSTAT has recognised that the Irish tax and welfare system is the most effective in the EU at reducing poverty. As Minister for Social Protection and Minister for Rural Development and the Islands, my focus is on ensuring that no person or community is left behind, regardless of where they are from. I will certainly work towards that. I look forward to working with the Deputy in achieving those goals because I am sure he is of the same opinion.

Jobseeker's Payments

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

21. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to address the ongoing issue of 65 year old persons at retirement signing on for a jobseeker’s payment for one year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19302/20]

I would like to ask the Minister her plans to address the ongoing issue of 65 year olds being forced to sign on for a jobseeker's payment on retirement.

The new Programme for Government - Our Shared Future proposes an early retirement allowance or pension for 65 year olds, paid at the same rate as jobseeker's benefit without a requirement to sign on, partake in any activation measures or be available for and genuinely seeking work.  The new payment will be introduced as early as possible for those who are retired from employment.  

I made this an immediate priority on coming into the Department and my officials are currently considering the design of the scheme and assessing the necessary legislation, ICT system requirements and administrative processes required to support the introduction of this payment.

Regarding the current position, it is hoped that in most cases Irish workers will continue to work up to State pension age.  Where this is not possible, there are specific measures which apply to someone claiming jobseeker's benefit from a date after their 65th birthday.  Social welfare legislation states that jobseeker's payments may be made until a person reaches pensionable age.  If a person aged 65 has paid at least 156 weeks of pay-related social insurance, PRSI, contributions, he or she will continue to receive jobseeker's benefit until he or she reaches State pension age, even when that benefit exhausts.

Ordinarily, those in receipt of a jobseeker's payment must engage with my Department's activation process.  These conditions do not apply to people aged 62 and older.  However, they can still avail voluntarily of an array of supports which are available from my Department if they wish to return to work, training or education.  

Special arrangements are also in place so that people in this age group, that is, those aged 62 and older, only have to register with their Intreo office once a year and so do not need to sign on.  Additionally, their payments will be paid directly into their bank accounts if they wish. I trust this clarifies the matter.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the commitment in the programme for Government and I am glad this will be a focus of her Ministry. That is welcome. However, all the commitment in the programme for Government does is change the name of the payment. I welcome the revocation of the requirement for those who go on jobseeker's payments at 65 to seek work. It was a very silly rule that expected people to go around with CVs at 65 years of age, after working for 40 or 50 years and paying 40 or 45 years of contributions. I am glad that it will be addressed and I hope the Minister will deal with it as urgently as she has said.

As of last month there were 4,499 65 year olds on a jobseeker's payment. As I have said, some of these people started working when they were 15. At 65 they have worked for 50 years. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that providing for them through jobseeker's payments, as is the case today, is really inappropriate.

I thank the Deputy. There is no statutory retirement age in the State. I recognise the need for a payment for 65 year olds who are required to retire early or choose to do so. I have directed officials in my Department to introduce the early retirement allowance or pension as soon as possible. Officials in my Department are assessing the legislative, technological and administrative issues. We must ensure a robust system is in place before that is rolled out. The State pension age will not increase to 67 next year. As the Deputy knows, I will be setting up a commission on pensions which will examine a range of issues, including contributions, calculation methods, sustainability, eligibility and intergenerational fairness issues.

I thank the Minister. It is always said by Ministers, especially when we discuss the abolition of mandatory retirement ages, that there is no statutory retirement age in the State. We know that, but so many employment contracts stipulate retirement at the age of 65. There would not be almost 5,000 65 year olds on jobseeker's payments if the age of 65 was not contained in their employment contracts. That is the issue.

The Minister must also acknowledge the difference in payments. When a person retires they can fall from €400 or €500 a week to €203 a week on jobseeker's benefit. That is a difference of more than €2,300 a year. People are losing out financially from this. I am concerned that the new retirement allowance will be paid at the same rate as jobseeker's benefit and as such this will not be addressed.

Finally, will the Minister look again at abolishing mandatory retirement? My party brought forward a Bill on this and it was passed unanimously by the Dáil. People who want to remain at work beyond 65 should have that option.

I agree with the Deputy that people who want to work for longer should be allowed to. Let us face it; we are living longer, we are healthier and we want to work. It is good for a person's health to continue to work. Many have said that those who work longer live longer. We certainly need to look at that. The commission will examine a range of issues when it is set up. I will await the findings of its report on the entire matter.