Social Welfare Payments: Ministerial Presentation.

I welcome the Minister who has been invited before the committee to discuss the issue of social welfare payments for members of Irish Actors Equity. This arises from a presentation to the committee by that branch of SIPTU. We subsequently corresponded with that branch on the matter and a number of points were brought to the attention of the Minister on an all-party basis in response to that presentation. We are aware that the Minister has a busy schedule and we appreciate her presence today with her officials to deal with this issue. I hope the Minister has had an opportunity to study the matter and that she has news as to how we might deal with some of the issues that were raised. We appreciate that it might be difficult to deal with all of the issues. I invite the Minister to make her opening remarks.

On a point of order, there is a group of people outside interested in the matter. Can these people be invited in?

I am grateful to the committee for the opportunity to outline the position regarding the entitlement of members of the acting and other artistic professions to social welfare payments. It is important that the members of the committee have a realistic understanding of my Department's position on this matter.

Social welfare legislation provides that all unemployed persons, including performing artists, must satisfy certain qualifying conditions in order to be entitled to an unemployment payment. This includes satisfying certain contribution conditions for entitlement to unemployment benefit and, in the case of both unemployment benefit and assistance, the legislation also provides that all unemployed persons must satisfy the conditions of being available for and genuinely seeking work.

Any person who fails to satisfy the conditions of being available for employment and genuinely seeking work on an ongoing basis is not entitled to an unemployment payment. The legislation does not impose any restriction or limitation on the right of a person to the opportunity to engage in the employment of his or her choice. Where a person is seeking work in his or her usual employment and there is a reasonable prospect of securing work of that nature, he or she would normally satisfy the conditions for receipt of payment.

Deciding officers would have regard to the conditions, which apply in the employment or line of work involved. It is accepted that periods of unemployment are a normal feature of the acting and artistic professions and people in these professions can qualify for payment when they are out of work.

It is also accepted that people engaged in acting and other artistic professions and seeking employment in those professions would be required to attend auditions on an ongoing basis for that purpose. However, where it is clear that there is no employment available in a specialised field within a reasonable period of time, the unemployed person would be expected to broaden his or her search to include other types of employment. The application of these conditions is the same for performing artists as for other claimants for unemployment payments.

After a period of unemployment, a person must be prepared to accept any employment for which he or she is qualified. It is a cardinal principle of the availability for work condition that a person's unemployment must be involuntary and it is not possible for an unemployed person to hold himself or herself available exclusively for any type of irregular or unpredictable employment in his or her chosen field.

The unemployment schemes are designed to provide income support during periods of involuntary unemployment and it would be inconsistent with the policy objectives of these schemes to provide income support to performing artists, or to any other group, during periods of unemployment which are not involuntary. In addition, the introduction of special arrangements exempting performing artists from the requirements to fulfil any of the statutory conditions for entitlement to unemployment payments would raise issues concerning consistency of treatmentvis-à-vis all other claimants to unemployment payments. I have no current plans to make any such change to the legislation.

I welcome the Minister. I am disappointed that the Government has not seen fit to make the necessary changes. I suggest the Minister return to the Department and instigate a review to see what can be done.

The equity group made a strong submission to the committee. Actors are not like other unemployed people. I deal with similar categories of people in my constituency, those involved in fishing, part-time agricultural workers and so on. Acting is a profession in which people can be employed for six weeks or six months at a time. They are well paid for the times in which they work and when work is unavailable they apply for social welfare payments. At the same time they are actively seeking work. Actors even pay agents in an effort to secure work.

Unemployed people have access to FÁS. The system discriminates against actors, however, who do not qualify for FÁS schemes or the back-to-work allowance, although they have brought a great deal of revenue into the country by virtue of their talent. The profession in which they operate is in a different category to others who are unemployed. In France and Denmark special concessions are made to actors. The State looks after them. The Minister should examine what can be done for actors here.

To be fair to them, it is a difficult business. Some 1,400 or 1,500 people are involved in the profession here, many of whom are not making a living on a full-time basis. They do not fulfil the requirements of the social welfare system in regard to rent allowances and medical cards because of the way they operate. A six-month period of employment could be followed by 16 months out of work and, consequently, they should be treated differently. An ordinary person who is unemployed can take up any kind of work but acting is the only job that an actor knows and that is what they want to do.

Actors are not looking for social welfare in perpetuity but they are seeking to have it guaranteed, perhaps on a three-year basis. It may take up to three or four years for people to decide if they can make it in the profession and during that period they are seeking an exemption from the current rules to permit them to be paid unemployment assistance when they are out of work. It is a difficult profession and one that has brought great honour to this country, a fact of which the Minister is well aware.

I accept that making exceptions can create problems for the Department but I make a special plea for the people in the acting profession. They are in a different category to other unemployed people and it is difficult for most of them to make a full-time living from acting. Not everybody will make it. People think that because an actor has a part in "Fair City" or some other television programme that they are millionaires but that is not the case. Many actors are struggling. I spoke recently to a Mayo person who has a part in "Fair City" about the difficulty of getting full-time work. Following on from the increase in the television licence fee we were told that there would be more work for actors here but that has not happened. Actors want to perform; that is their job.

I urge the Minister to take another look at the problems experienced by this profession and introduce measures similar to those in France and Denmark to give these people the short-term support they require.

A number of issues are involved here. I am aware that my predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, met the group in question a number of years ago. At that time it was explained to them how the system works and that the Department or the Minister could not introduce a specific scheme that would have huge repercussions for others.

I accept that the committee members will put their hands on their hearts and say that if I make this change they will not expect me to do it for anybody else, but I am long enough around to know that is not the way it will happen. We have had complications with other categories of people, such as firemen, who have different types of occupation and who feel that they cannot participate within the scheme as it stands. The basic rule of thumb is that after some three months of unemployment, people are expected to look for work. After a certain period of time if they are not in a position to obtain work for which they are qualified they are then expected to find other work.

I appreciate that actors, artists and other people in the artistic world add tremendously to our culture. I also appreciate that it is not easy to be a movie star. Not everybody will make it. It is a difficult profession. Sometimes they get an audition and it may or may not work out. That is why I wanted to clarify this issue. In their presentation to the committee, the witnesses said that auditions were not taken into consideration. They are taken into consideration in the same manner as an interview for a job, which is exactly what it is. In one way it is, perhaps, easier for me to say so.

Deputy Ring asked me to examine the system in France which changed completely this week. Under the old system, any entertainer who worked 507 hours - about three months - was guaranteed unemployment benefit for the entire year. Nowhere in the world did artists enjoy such comparative security. However, these conditions attracted more and more people to the performing arts. The number given intermittent status quadrupled in the last decade to 100,000 people and the system ran up a €828 million deficit last year. There is now a new agreement with the unions because they were unable to cope with the changes that took place. The system attracted more and more people to become actors and as a consequence the scheme went totally out of control. There is not a single section in my Department which would spend €828 million. Therefore, this not a realistic way of looking at this issue.

The problem is that there will not necessarily be enough jobs for all the actors here and we appreciate that. When students left university or college ten or 15 years ago, one of their greatest concerns was whether they could get a job, their parents having spent a great deal of money putting them through college to get a degree. Such people were concerned about doing jobs that were beneath them but they did them and moved on. In the US, there is a perception that many people make it big in the movies. That is not the case nor does everyone make it to Broadway. However, all the people who do make it had to do other jobs in order to sustain themselves. I would love to be able to support people but I do not have that flexibility. For example, if one changed to the former French scheme, people would be expected to work for just three months and I would pay them for the rest of the year. I am sure the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Purcell, would have something to say about that when auditing the books of my Department.

I am not in a position to change that. Other issues were raised which we have taken into consideration. One was the concern expressed about auditions not being accepted. That has been clarified for actors. Perhaps, if we were in a better economic position, we could support many other people in that way. However, the rules as they stand would mean that the consequences would be huge. To introduce a new scheme is something I am not in a position to do at present. Other issues were raised such as rent supplements and medical cards and they are matters for the Department of Health and Children. I appreciate that because some people cannot say upfront that they have a full time job, they do not get the rental accommodation they need. However, the health boards, through the CWO system and the rent supplement scheme, provide support for people who find it difficult to rent. They are often used as a support mechanism.

I am notau fait with the position in regard to medical cards apart from my personal view that it is a means-tested scheme. If one is within the means, one is entitled to the medical card and if one is not one is outside the scheme. On the specific issue the Chairman brought to my attention, paying unemployment benefit and UA all the time if the actor does not have an acting job, there is no scheme in my Department to do so. I do not know of one run by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism or the Arts Council. Perhaps such a scheme could be considered, an income support scheme. Our scheme is based on involuntary employment. There are flexibilities for certain people but, at the same time, my concern is that if we change the scheme for one group there could be serious knock-on consequences.

It may appear that I am disagreeing with the Minister which is not my intention. The Minister knows that I have strong views.

The Deputy is from Tallaght.

I was not going to mention Tallaght, unless the Minister wants me to.

I live in Tallaght and I represented Tallaght's interests when this issue arose because a number of actors live in Tallaght, some of them are quite famous. One takes part in "Fair City" while another was "killed off", which upset us greatly. I am not being facetious but I sometimes think acting is a bit like politics in that not everyone can be a star. There are people working away solidly. When I spoke to the Minister about this previously, I had a specific case in mind. A young actor, who lives in Tallaght west approached me with a problem. He had been in two movies but has not had work since. I am highlighting this issue because the case I have referred to is a good example of the problem actors face. When we are discussing these issues it is appropriate we refer to cases such as those of the young people who find themselves challenged when out of work. When those people apply for normal jobs, they are recognised as actors, which can be a difficulty.

I hold sincere views on this issue which I communicated to the Minister on a number of occasions. We all received correspondence from constituents who are members of the union pointing out a number of issues, including that to which the Minister referred. They come within the remit of the Departments of Social and Family Affairs; Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Health and Children. Housing issues which concern local authorities were also raised. Like other colleagues I will continue to highlight these issues. As a Government Deputy, I take the view that the economy will improve and the good times will be back sooner rather than later. I hope the valid case that has been made for those involved in this profession will be considered.

The Minister gave the standard reply conveying information that we all knew. We were trying to move this on and it is unfortunate that, referring to the French system, the Minister gave out figures and asked how could she justify the scheme on the basis of such costs. The French and Irish issues are very different in regard to numbers and so on. It is acknowledged, even with the changes that took place recently in the French system, it is still better than what their counterparts have here. I would like the Minister to outline what the situation is in France. We are obviously not talking about an open ended situation. These responsible people, and the trade union that represents them, know the pitfalls in regard to opening a door and creating a flood. In that context, the Minister said that after three months they would be required to show that they made efforts to get alternative work.

No. They would have three months to make an effort to find work like anyone else.

That is not dealing with the situation. Within the existing scheme, we should look at a joint approach between officials in my Department and the union to see if we can improve the situation by acknowledging the circumstances that prevail. Over a two-year period, for example, if it could be shown that sufficient efforts were being made to obtain employment, some progress could be made.

The Minister has told us that she cannot move from the established position. In the current circumstances, changes can be made. Other countries have done it and we should look at their experiences. We do not have to wait for the economy to blossom. To ask people to wait for the economy to change is to imply that they have no case. They do have a case and it should be considered. The least they deserve is some amendment to the current legislation. This will not be used as a precedent.

Regardless of what is said if a change is made a precedent will be set. Firefighters, meat workers and those who work in health boards, such as cleaners and nurses, have similar problems to actors and those in the performing professions. It is the same for anybody who is not in full-time employment.

The French system is based on a private insurance fund and the amount of payment has been decreased in order to encourage people into work. Are the Deputies suggesting that we should have an arrangement whereby over two to three years, if an actor obtains at least three months' work, for the rest of the time they should be paid unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance?

To be fair to the actors, they are saying that but they are also saying that in that three-year period they should be assessed for tax. If they do well over that three-year period, whatever they receive in social welfare would be paid back in tax. They are seeking an arrangement based only on a three-year period. The Minister says there might be 20,000 or 30,000 of these people, but there are only 1,400. They must have an Equity card and those that do not will not be considered. For that number of people the scheme would not cost a fortune, and out of the 1,400 perhaps 500 or 600 would be paying the money back. What these people want is security. It is like the back-to-work scheme. We will not go into that now, but it would give security to actors over a three-year period while they continue to pay their taxes. The Minister should consider this. To be fair, actors are not asking just to be paid social welfare. They will be assessed for tax and if they have to pay tax they will.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m. and resumed at 1.50 p.m.

As my colleague said, this is a confined issue that will not open the flood gates. Many people, such as Irish actors and actresses with Equity cards, suffer under the present system. It was indicated that officials at local level will take cognisance of the circumstances of those people. That is very important for them because their periods of unemployment can be lengthy. For every actor who makes it into a high profile position there are several aspiring ones, and some who do not make it. The Minister should consider the creation of a system of credits for people who give public performances in schools and so on, and who spend time in training, which his officials seem to ignore. A directive should go down to officials in the Department to recognise that one does not just walk into the acting profession. Some people say that politicians are quasi-actors if nothing else but we would not qualify——

Only some of us.

Deputy O'Connor is a full-time actor. Be that as it may we are good colleagues.

There is no possibilty of Deputy O'Connor losing a job in the next four years.

I will not antagonise my colleagues with a response. Deputy O'Connor has made the point himself. It is an area which requires specific skills and training. Credits could be given for performances in the public arena, such as schools, which many actors do. This could be regarded as part of the qualifying time. Cognisance should be taken of the special position of actors who are a defined group, if things do not go well for them. Their opportunities rise and fall with economic conditions, as the Minister said. A change in the system would not open the floodgates. Many actors feel that officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs who do not understand the cyclical or sporadic nature of their employment opportunities make them jump through hoops. Politicians kicked out by the public tomorrow can return to their profession or place of work.

The Chairman cannot.

I cannot, but politicians can go on to something else. Being an actor is a very specific job and an actor does not go down the road to a building site and get employment there. The nature of the work, and the training and skills attached to it, should be recognised. We should put the record straight. There is general turmoil in France over social welfare changes, not alone for the actors but they have had a significant impact on the general economic activity and people are rebelling against some of them. The changes were not aimed at actors, but are part of the overall changes that are being put into effect. In some countries arrangements have been made to recognise the type of work that actors do.

The Minister is the kind of person who will look at this matter in a sympathetic light. We acknowledge that there is a difficulty in establishing precedents and so on but this is a special case and one that members from all parties brought before the committee. That is why we asked the Minister to attend. We appreciate that gesture and hope that the Minister might have a further review of the system with officials.

The Chairman has covered some of my points I wished to raise such as the credit system. It is very difficult for actors to have a prolonged period of employment that would make them eligible for UB rather than UA. They should be entitled to avail of every opportunity to obtain that. As one who was reared beside the home of Tyrone Guthrie, which is now The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, I can appreciate that actors live a very insecure life. That should be recognised because we want to ensure that every person who wants to get involved in that business has the opportunity to do so. For that reason they have to be treated differently.

One of my old hobbyhorses is that farmers were treated differently and, although I opposed it, they were put on farm assist. The idea was that 15,000 or 20,000 would be put on farm assist within a matter of weeks. That did not happen. The number was closer to 8,000 and the budget was not blown out of all proportion in the way that was suggested at the time. I understand from our interviews with the actors that a specific number are involved and one would not be signing an open cheque. It has to be over a three year period with a condition that if they do not make it in that time they must look for other employment. Has the Minister calculated a figure of what Equity's proposal would cost, even if it had to be given and fall? It is easy for the Minister to say the French changes cost so many billion euro. This is a smaller country. Equity has cited the number in its organisation and it is asking that they be dealt with.

The Minister must recognise the unique nature of this work. If actors have to take up jobs, as they had in the past, there is the problem of perhaps having to give up that work at a day's notice. That is another aspect of the problem. On appeal they are accused of being too picky about their jobs. If, for example, the actors in Fair City or some similar TV show are let go this week and end up in McDonalds, or with another employer, and take two days off to do film work, are they then excluded from claiming social welfare? Does that break the contract?

People who are unemployed and do FÁS courses are recognised for credits. That should be considered in the context of ongoing training for actors and actresses. The Minister told us that there is no precedent. There is a precedent for intermittent employment and these actors and actresses can fit into that category. Does the Minister recall that Drogheda dockers went to the High Court and won recognition of their eligibility for social welfare despite the intermittent nature of their work. That is a precedent. This must be looked at and, rather than saying that the Minister cannot do anything, we should acknowledge the problem and set up a group to include officials from the Minister's Department and the union to try to improve the position of actors.

Deputy Ryan has posed a variation of the question I wanted to ask. If an actor takes a part-time job - on a building site or McDonald's - and then gets a call from Pierce Brosnan to join the Laws of Attraction production for two days, what is the position? Actors tell me there is a difficulty in that regard.

I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for attending the meeting. We are disappointed by the response, but there are so many anomalies in the Department of Social and Family Affairs that we can understand the Minister's approach. This proposal should be re-examined by the Minister and the Department. Some examples were given of other occupations, but I do not believe one can compare them with actors. If we take the case of actors, there is a cost involved for them travelling to and from venues. I came across one example in Cork of a family who had to raise funds to send a young actor to London to further that person's career. In another case a family requested a transfer from a housing estate due to unsociable behaviour and intimidation by others. Local authority officials informed me that there was no possibility of a transfer. When I asked why, I was informed that it would be the same scenario for the next family to move into the estate. Those are examples of cases where costs have been incurred by a family and an individual. The Minister should look at this issue again.

Deputy Seán Ryan referred to the case of the dockers in Dundalk. Something similar happened in Cork a number of years ago. The dockerswere coming and going and provision had to be made for them and they were treated as special cases.

The Minister has heard a cross-party plea and I hope we have touched her heart strings.

It was important to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with the committee. Some of my officials were present when the group made their presentation to the committee and I have received numerous representations from colleagues on this matter. My predecessor also met the group. I will certainly look at the matter again but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I can deliver a resolution.

The issue about credits for training is that the State is providing the training. I am not sure if FÁS provide training for actors.

They should be encouraged to do so.

We can look at that when considering an overall package. I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, to see if that can be tied in. I am sure FÁS could provide some training facilities. If it is State training, it is recognised for credit, but for private colleges, it is not recognised

At the moment it is not State training.

Therefore it is considered to be private training. I will discuss the matter with both the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. We will certainly look at the comparative analysis. The French ethos is very different. The old scheme was in operation since the early 1960s. There is a different approach to the arts in France. One will notice in education that, despite technology and access to employment, most students opt for studying the humanities. I am not aware of the Danish case, but we will find more information on the procedure. We will look at some comparative work with regard to supporting actors.

The one concern I have is that we will have to look at the way Equity decides on who should get a membership card. Strict criteria will have to be applied because in France everyone automatically became an actor. I know that the 166 members here can be perceived as actors. There is a need for severe checks and balances on this. I must reiterate that we do have other concerns. The committee is aware of them in the education sector, such as part-time teachers, seasonal workers in Bord na Mona, factory and health board workers.

This would represent a draw down on the Exchequer. A scheme should not be fully funded by the social insurance fund but through another fund. Social insurance is not just for unemployment benefit but also for treatment and pension benefits. We will have to look at the equity - pardon the pun - within the system as well as how a union would control eligibility to hold a membership card. We can also look at State training which would deal with some of the issues that have been raised. We can also discuss the matter with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and their funding mechanism. Actors are asking for income support when they are between jobs. At the Chairman's request, I will have another review of the matter.

If the Minister is carrying out this review, I ask that she meet first with Equity. The committee has shown that there is an exception in the social welfare code with the examples of the dockers and the pharmacists. These are different schemes.

They are schemes. I hope officials from the Department of Finance are not listening to this.

The social insurance fund is in credit. A colleague of mine submitted a parliamentary question on it and was told that it was in credit to the tune of €1.4 billion. It is not a case of not having the money. I had a case of a Bord na Mona worker who was seasonally employed for 26 years and the year 2002 was the first year in those 26 that the social welfare officers interpreted the rules differently.

I ask the Minister to meet Equity when carrying out the review. This is a special group in that they are artists. In the art code there is a tax break for them. I understand the Government is planning to take the tax breaks away from the film industry. That would be a shame. Actors are a special case and they are not looking for anything for nothing. They are looking to progress this in what is a difficult profession. It is almost like politics - one can be selected or elected. The Minister knows that they have a case. However, her problem is that she has officials who do not wish to make any changes in the social welfare code because they are always afraid.

Leave my officials alone, Deputy Ring.

I want something done on this issue.

I have some fine officials.

I reiterate that the Minister and a number of officials should meet with Equity.

Can I ask for patience because July is spent on budgetary matters? August is holiday time and so it will be September before we get a start. This is just not a matter for my Department and I would like to bring in the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Arts, Sport and Tourism.

I thank the Minister for her attendance. We have found the Minister and her officials to be helpful to this committee. We have made a robust presentation to her and we are confident that if we keep tugging at her heart strings, we will make progress. This was a good meeting on an important issue. The Minister can see there is cross-party support on the matter.

I hope the Chairman enjoys the summer break.

The joint committee went into private session at 2.10 p.m. and adjourned at 2.20 p.m. until 2.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 July 2003.