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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Friday, 17 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 10

Social Welfare Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

We will now consider Committee and Remaining Stages of the Social Welfare Bill 2021. At the outset, it is my pleasure to welcome my colleague and friend, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to the Chamber for this debate. I also welcome colleagues back for the debate.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.
SECTION 3
Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

I believe Senator Buttimer wishes to comment on section 3.

I welcome the Minister back to the House in the context of employment contributions. I wish to raise two issues on this section that are not strictly related to the Social Welfare Bill but have an implication on what we are talking about this morning.

The first issue is regarding the gratuity payable to members of local authorities where there is an issue in terms of their pension and entitlements. Senator Craughwell raised this issue with the Minister previously and she was very correct in her comments around the class K rate. In fairness, one of her predecessors, Deputy Varadkar, changed that during his tenure as Minister for Social Protection. There is, however, an issue with the gratuity being paid to some local authority members, which I know is not directly related to the Minister but it has a part to play in the whole social protection scheme in terms of what we are about.

I rise primarily to speak on the issue around employment contributions and in terms of employers' responsibilities. This morning we woke up to a myriad of news reports regarding proposals by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, that will have a direct impact on the hospitality sector. I want to first of all say that the demonisation of NPHET by some is not correct. It has a role to play in that its job is to advise, analyse and put forward options to the Government. That is its job. It is looking through the prism of a public health perspective only. It is the job of the Government, in a broader sense, to implement Government policy. The conundrum for the Minister and many in society is that the job of the Government is to protect business, which includes the employers we are speaking about today and the contributions they must pay and make, and also the mental health of people along with public health.

The protection of public health is absolutely important. If, however, we are to have a situation where the recommendation of NPHET is to close hospitality at 5 p.m. then I believe that is a wrong move. I do not believe it is the correct decision to be taken now. Recognising the importance of public health and accepting the protection of the most vulnerable is what this Bill is doing. At its core, it protects the most vulnerable and those who are immunocompromised. This decision will have a profound effect on the businesses of our country and on the employers and employees who work in our hospitality sector.

My issue is that the closure of businesses will ensue. As we all know, difficulties are being experienced by many people working in the hospitality sector today. If we are to close at 5 p.m., however, that will have a gargantuan impact on the Government. It will force the Government to continue to support and put in place a further scaffolding of supports around our hospitality and aviation sectors and our night-time economy. What then happens when the public health advice is implemented? The hurlers on the ditch will have their say but they will go quiet. The responsibility will rest with all of us to ensure that we maintain the jobs in our economy and also the public health.

I understand that it is not an easy situation and that it is a dilemma that must be faced in a careful way. I am concerned that in this case, however, NPHET met on Tuesday. On Thursday, it went to the Government and on Friday, the Government met. We had an interregnum of two days. I know the Minister cannot answer me today because it is not under her remit. Can somebody explain to me, however, the difference between closing at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., as opposed to 5 p.m.?

I spoke in the House on Tuesday from the position of having experience as a former schoolteacher. I understand and recognise that many people were upset by what I said when I called for primary schools to close today for the Christmas period. The reason I did so was very simple. The majority of people in our primary school community are unvaccinated, wherein lies the greatest spread of the new and existing Covid variants. I recognise the childcare issues of parents and family members. I appreciate that most sincerely. We are now going to face a situation, however, where the Minister will come back to us and other members of the Government with an increased budget of supports for our hospitality sector and night-time economy.

In the new year, there must be a better way for NPHET to communicate with the Government. It is not acceptable that we have leaks on a Thursday night ahead of a meeting on Friday. It has the profound impact of creating a frenzy and scaring people. My final comment on this section is that I do not believe it is acceptable to close at 5 p.m. It will have a profound implication for our hospitality sector and our jobs. At the core of what we must do is balancing those rights of protecting employment and public health.

A number of Members are offering to speak on section 3. I call Senator Boyhan.

Let us be careful and remind ourselves of why we are here to today. First, however, I welcome the Minister to the House and wish her and her team a good and happy Christmas.

I thank the Minister for her ongoing engagement with me and with every Member of this House, which, I know, we value.

We are discussing the Social Welfare Bill 2021, the purpose of which is to amend and extend the Social Welfare Acts, amend the Credit Guarantee Act 2012 and provide for related matters. That is what we are here to deal with today. I am conscious of time. I will take up the point raised by Senator Buttimer - I thank him for making it - on sitting county councillors and their contributions. This relates to section 3. I am not asking the Minister for a response today, but she might take it away in her bag and consider it in the new year. There are a substantial number of councillors in her party, but the same applies to councillors of all parties. I know the Minister treats everyone the same. She is aware of the controversy between the K class and the S class contributions. I know the other side of it where people from all parties and none lost their seats and when they went to the Department of Social Protection in very hard circumstances, they felt short-changed. I will not go into the detail of it, but we need to support them. They are public servants and they pay the contribution. It is a tricky area. Some say they are not employed and others say they are servants of the local authorities. It is all a bit tricky, but, at the end of the day, they are people and they have families. Many find themselves either single, left on their own or in whatever other circumstances, and they have worked so hard for their local communities and the State and when the turn to the State for some support it is not there. I have experience of that, as people from all parties have spoken to me about it. I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important and valid issue. It is appropriate that he raised it in connection with this section. I urge the Minister to ask her officials to reflect on that and perhaps in the new year we might have an opportunity to discuss it. I could raise the matter with her in a Commencement debate. I know the Minister is supportive, but she must work within the parameters of the legislation. Perhaps we need to do something. I wish the Minister well and thank her staff. She has my support for the Bill.

I wish to make a point on class K contributions, but I will first make a general point. It is unfortunate that we are taking Committee Stage and Report Stage together and on the very last sitting day of the year. There is a lot of emergency legislation and legislation that comes through with short deadlines attached, but the Social Welfare Bill is predictable and something we can plan for. Accordingly, I appeal to the Minister that next year we plan the Social Welfare Bill in a proper way and that Committee State and Report Stage happen while both Houses are still in session in order that there will be a genuine capacity for meaningful engagement and for amendments to be dealt with. Sometimes there are good ideas that should be taken on board in a social welfare legislation. It is not like the Finance Bill where we just make recommendations, there are genuine, important suggestions and it is a disservice to the legislative process to have such a fundamentally important Bill put through together on Committee Stage and Report Stage and effectively at a point where we are up against the natural guillotine of hearing if it does not pass before Christmas then payments will be affected. I have heard that for years, but this is the most rushed I have seen it. As a House, we must put down a marker for next year to the effect that we need to be given proper time.

The Minister has spoken very well about the class K contribution issue in the past. We had a debate on it, and I remember that she understood what is involved. It would be good if we addressed it. If we have not addressed it this year, let us sort it out by next year. It is a big issue. Regretting it will count for nothing come the next local elections when we have brilliant people from all sides and all parties who decide either not to stand or not to stand again. We do not just have a problem getting people into local public service, but in getting them to stay. We must address the issue. If we had a longer debate, perhaps we could have come up with proposals and the Minister could have made proposals. If it does not happen this year, then please let us make sure it happens next year. There is no reason it should not. I know the Minister understands it because she spoke very well about it.

I wish to highlight an issue regarding employment contributions. I am indicating that it is something on which we need to engage further. I am very concerned about today's Supreme Court ruling in respect of PRSI contributions. An undocumented person who has paid PAYE contributions and where the employer has paid PRSI is not entitled to maternity benefit. That is the Supreme Court's decision. I do not second-guess the courts, but, as legislators, we must look to our policy. This is a person who was properly documented, who had a period as an undocumented person and who continued to make contributions and to work. The person's status has been resolved, but a gap has appeared.

Much as the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has shown leadership in trying to regularise the status of a number of persons who have been undocumented in this State, sometimes through no fault of their own, I urge the Minister to similarly engage with them to ensure that people who are working and are already paying PAYE and seeking to fully contribute are allowed to do so. It does not serve us when people fall out of the State, including the social protection and social contribution systems. I urge the Minister to engage with the Minister for Justice to see what complementary measures might be put in place for PRSI and PAYE to allow those who have been undocumented to regularise their status. When somebody is denied maternity benefit, it is the child who loses out. The family loses out and is affected and that does not serve anyone. When we finally get to the amendments, we will see that the rights of the child is an important piece as well. I encourage the Minister to engage with her colleague on this, as she has shown incredible leadership in this area. The Department of Social Protection has the opportunity to now put in place complementary measures to ensure the kinds of situations that were highlighted in the courts today do not leave people who are here and contributing at a distance from the state.

To follow up on what Senator Higgins said, we want good people to get into politics. There are lots of reasons at the moment why people would not, such as social media and work-life balance. There are a million reasons. There are changes we can make to encourage people into politics, especially women. Senator Higgins spoke about maternity leave, which is an obvious one. Paternity leave is also an issue. The Minister has done an awful lot in that regard in her time with the Department of Social Protection and that makes a big difference, but it needs to be done for councillors in particular. Class A contributions must be addressed at some point in the lifetime of the Government and I would encourage the Minister to do that. Most people who start in politics do so at local authority level. That is now I started. It is about giving people an opportunity to see that it is a good career and that they can make a good contribution to their area and community, but they need support.

When it comes to support, decisions will need to be taken today that the Department must step up and support. The Minister has done this throughout the pandemic and I ask that she would do it straight away if the decisions we hear about in the media are going to be introduced. The situation is very distressing. I have been in contact today with restaurant owners, hoteliers and owners of pubs in Tipperary. They are worried that they will have to let their staff go two weeks before Christmas, and they will need support from the Department. The employers do not want to do it. There must be a happy medium between what NPHET advises and that the Cabinet decides and support must be provided to the sectors affected. There is talk of closing at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. The Minister for Finance must put together a package to support them straight away. We cannot just make these announcements and not provide support. There must be an understanding that if what we read this morning is going to happen, we must make sure the sector is supported. The past 18 months have been an absolute disaster. The feeling on the ground for the past two weeks is that things were going to be okay and that people must hold their nerve. It is devastating for people in Tipperary. I understand that, but we must make sure we support them during Christmas.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I join other Members in what has been said about maternity leave for politicians. I am a politician who took maternity leave during my Seanad term, but, in fact, it was not maternity leave because I had to hand in a sick note to the one-stop shop. That is wrong. I was not sick; I had two children. We are all ad idem in terms of regularising the situation. The Minister stepped up to the plate, as we discussed yesterday.

We must also regularise the situation regarding class K employees generally, not just those seeking maternity benefit, but also illness benefit, jobseeker’s benefit and other such benefits that we discussed yesterday. The Minister mentioned yesterday that she thinks it should be done on a cross-party basis and we all agree with that. Perhaps she might be able to schedule something in the new year through the Leader's office in order that we can have a debate in this House with the Minister or by means of something more solid such as a Cabinet recommendation, but it must be sorted.

I also join with others in respect of the 5 p.m. cut off. A friend of mine, who is a young, energetic and amazing businesswoman, recently opened a restaurant. She is cut off at the knees now. Hopefully, her business, which is a beautiful restaurant, thrives but this will really hit business people. We have a great culture and attract so many tourists because we have a great night-time culture but if all these pubs and restaurants are hammered so much, they will not open up again and we will have nothing left. There is significant responsibility on all of us as individuals, and I have always been a huge supporter of antigen testing, to be responsible and use an antigen test before we go out. We must trust people to be responsible because the majority of us are responsible. I do not agree with the 5 p.m. cut off or with closing schools. Whatever we do, we should keep schools open. It is the most important thing to do because it affects children. Could the Minister look at the 5 p.m. cut off and provide a significant support package for the hospitality sector? We want it to be there when this pandemic is over. We want to have a beautiful and thriving city and without support, it will be decimated.

We spoke yesterday about some of the issues I am going to raise. I support the K class. I spoke about it when we discussed maternity and paternity leave for councillors and politicians. When I was first elected as a councillor, I was self-employed so I was paying PRSI through my work. I remember my accountant saying to me "sure you're paying PRSI, why are you not entitled to anything for it?" He could not work it out. While it has been sorted out to an extent, it needs to be sorted out fully once and for all. Maternity and paternity leave needs to be resolved as well.

Regarding the tough decision the Minister and other members of the Cabinet will face this evening about whether or not to impose a closing time of 5 p.m., I represent rural and urban areas. Most pubs in rural Ireland do not open until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. Many of them will never open again if we bring in this 5 p.m. curfew. Restaurants do their main business between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m or 9 p.m. If they were to close at 5 p.m., they may as well not open. There are so many jobs dependent on this. If this 5 p.m. curfew comes into force, a lot of those businesses will never open again. While I appreciate the supports that have been put in place by the Government, it is a very serious issue. My phone has been going since 11 p.m. last night when this announcement first appeared and all day today. We need to look at this. If the 5 p.m. cut off-point comes in, we will drive people to off-licences and into house parties whereas a pub or restaurant is a regulated and safer environment.

This is more a point of order. This is like an Order of Business session. Some of us have put down amendments and would like to get to them but people are not speaking to the Bill. They are coming in and speaking on behalf of their industry. This debate is rushed enough as it is and some of us have amendments but we are getting lengthy speeches.

I sat here through five hours of debate on the Finance Bill that involved very little about that Bill. We are talking about understanding my own sector and the impact of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, on seasonal hotels. I am not too sure if that was mentioned. We are also discussing what was announced yesterday regarding the potential closing time of 5 p.m. for the hospitality sector. I want it make it quite clear. Closure at 5 p.m. is closure of the hospitality sector by stealth. Asking the hospitality sector to survive after closure at 5 p.m. is unrealistic.

The closure of the EWSS to seasonal hotels, which will be unable to re-apply in January, February and March, is unfair. Should there not be equality of treatment within the hospitality industry? A seasonal hotel that shuts down in October, November or December must come off the EWSS. If it tries to re-open in February, March or April, it cannot qualify for the EWSS because it is not open to new applicants. Perhaps it is an anomaly in the system and perhaps something can be done for seasonal hotels, which I believe make up 18% of the hotel sector and 11,000 jobs. Those 11,000 jobs are viable to all of us. I apologise for my interruption but I did sit through five hours of debate on the Finance Bill-----

The point is well made. We allowed a certain amount of latitude not just on seasonal considerations but because I understand the gravity of this and it does relate to the Minister's Department in that the Senator is asking her for a response. We must end it at that.

I know there are some concerns that there might not be enough time to discuss a number of issues relating to the Bill today. I am sure Senators will appreciate the pressure my Department has been under in terms of the pandemic and getting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, up and running again. I want to make it very clear to Senators that the PUP is open to anybody who loses his or her job as a result of whatever restrictions may be introduced. It is there and is fully available to people who lose their jobs. The important thing is that we get this Bill passed in order that people can benefit from the positive measures from 1 January.

I know there has been discussion about class K and the fact that public representatives do not really get any benefits from their PRSI contributions. I have asked that this be referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. That is the place to discuss this matter and get the all-party support we need. I think people deserve this. I know of a former Member of the Oireachtas who does not qualify for any support, which is wrong. We need to address this and I would like to see all-party support on it. It should be discussed by the joint committee and I am happy to take it forward from there. I am happy to engage with the Seanad on it because none of us know where we will find ourselves and what difficulties life will present for people. People coming into politics at a young age find they have no PRSI contributions when they reach middle age and leave politics. I think that is wrong so we should address it.

Senators Buttimer, Ahearn, Ardagh and Maria Byrne raised the possible closing time of 5 p.m. for the hospitality industry. I have not seen the advice from NPHET. It is not good practice for such letters to come into the public domain. People are concerned. Like the Senators' phones, my phone has been going all morning because people are worried. I hear all of the Senators' points and will bring them to the Cabinet meeting this afternoon. There is no doubt that we have difficult decisions to make but we will make them in the best interests of the people we represent.

It is very reasonable that the Minister could not go beyond that. Every colleague has a right to speak on this Bill.

Does the Minister have any comment on that engagement on the question of PRSI and PAYE for the undocumented? Is that something she can engage with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on?

I apologise for being late. I was dealing with another issue with the Transport Infrastructure Ireland announcement I saw this morning. I welcome the Minister and concur with the comments made on paternity. It is something I did not get when any of my kids were born but I welcome that for local representatives. It is going before the joint Oireachtas committee. That is the right place for it to go and I hope we get cross-party agreement on it.

I concur with Senator Casey on the EWSS. It is an issue we did not get to discuss on the Finance Bill, despite there being amendments. We have to bring all sectors of society and business with us so we need to find a way to address that anomaly.

On the NPHET letter, which I have not seen, I am disappointed that, even after what went on in the last week, NPHET would leak that advise. It has put businesses under extreme pressure today as to whether they are going to buy in goods for the Christmas period. I have spoken to people in cash and carry businesses. It is not acceptable. I do not agree with the 5 p.m. suggestion. We need to make a compromise and to enforce the rules that are already there about the Covid certificate. That is not happening 100% across our society. We have to reinforce that, look at a 9 p.m. compromise, keep businesses open and enforce the rules.

I call the Minister to respond to the point raised by Senator Higgins. She has responded in advance to Senator Carrigy's issue.

I am familiar with the Bill to regularise some of the undocumented. It is welcome. I can look at the issues around it. I am not familiar with the court case and the rulings arising from it so cannot comment until I see what it is. I will certainly look at it.

I might engage with the Minister further on it.

We have had a very thorough discussion, which Senators might bear in mind as we move forward.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 4 to 7, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTION

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 9 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:

“Report on Parent’s Benefit for one-parent families

8. The Minister shall, within nine months of the passing of this Act, prepare and lay a report before both Houses of

the Oireachtas on the potential extension of entitlement for the full duration of Parent’s Benefit for one-parent families, to include a consideration of the public duty on equality and human rights and the rights of the child.”.

The Minister gave some signal that she is ready to engage on this area in the debate in the Dáil. I add myself to those who hope for such engagement. The Minister has indicated that she intends to engage with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. This is around the situation we have concerning full parental benefit for one-parent families.

With regard to that engagement the Minister has committed to, I will highlight two matters of importance. There is the decision on the rights of the child which by referendum the people chose to put into the Constitution quite recently. It is important and should be imperative in ensuring every child is entitled to the same sort and period of care during early development, regardless of whether it is by one or two parents. There is also the obligation on the Minister's Department and all Departments in terms of the public duty on equality and human rights. One of the grounds on equality is family status. Will the Minister ensure family status is one of the grounds in terms of our equality legislation as well as being that public duty to actively promote equality and human rights? I want to signal those as matters to be incorporated in the discussion and engagement around the issue of parent's benefit.

Amendment No. 9 relates to income disregard. The income disregard for lone parents was cut many years ago, before the Minister's time. It was a poor decision and made it harder for lone parents to access work. It has been incrementally restored. We hear it has been raised but it has not; it has just been incrementally restored towards where it was initially. We are only looking towards restoring it to where it was, when we should be having a conversation about increasing the income disregard. The income disregard for those on carer's allowance is much higher than that for those parenting alone. The problem is, because it was on a slow climb back to where it was, we have not had the conversation on how the disregard matches on to the research the Minister's Department has used in other areas, such as the qualified child payments. It is rightly used in recognising the kinds of costs the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice has identified in terms of minimum essential standards of living.

I want to signal it because I am hearing it is being increased but it is just being restored. I would like that to be examined with the tools the Minister has in the Department, such as the minimum essential standards of living, looked at with regard to how it pans out compared with other payments and that consideration be given to not just restoring but increasing the income disregard for those parenting alone in the next budget if not this one.

I echo the comments made by Senator Higgins in the first section around the rushed nature of this. I made the point during the Second Stage debate that the fact we are submitting amendments before the Dáil stage is completed is disrespectful, given the work that goes into the amendments. We probably would not have submitted these amendments if we had the benefit of seeing the Dáil stage completed. I know my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, has engaged with the Minister on amendment No. 2. She is satisfied that the Minister has given commitments in that regard. On that basis, we are happy to withdraw the amendment.

I thank Senators Higgins and Boylan. As we all know, it is not good practice to put the carrying out of reports into primary legislation We all give out about clunky legislation. I thank the Senators for withdrawing the amendment because we can carry out reports without putting them in primary legislation where they will sit forever. When I give the Senators my word that I will carry out a report, I will do it and they can hold me to account in this House if I do not.

On the amendment on parent's benefit and lone parents, this has been brought to my attention by representative groups for lone parents, such as One Family. The position is that while my Department makes the payments for parent's benefit, it is the Department of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, which has the policy and legislative responsibility. I will raise this matter with the aforementioned Minister. As I understand it, parent's leave is not transferable between parents under the EU work-life balance directive but I will raise it with the Minister. The idea of it is to encourage men to take their parent's leave and share the childcare responsibilities with the mother.

Senator Higgins mentioned the earnings limit or disregard. Last year, I provided for the earnings limit of €425 per week to be removed from the one-parent family payment. This means recipients of the payment no longer experience a cliff-edge when their employment income exceeds that amount.

Instead, single parents can retain their payment and it is reduced gradually as their earnings increase. In addition, the income limit for the working family payment has been increased in recent budgets. In particular, this Bill provides for an increase of €10 per week in the income limit for families of all sizes. Approximately 50% of those who receive the working family payment are lone parents. As a result of the budget changes provided for in this Bill, there will be a €5 increase in working age weekly payments, including the one-parent family payment, from January 2022. The new personal weekly rate of payment will be €208. The Bill also provides that the qualified child payment will be increased by €3 to €48 per week for children aged 12 and over, and by €2 to €40 for children up to age 12. This measure will also benefit recipients of the one-parent family payment. We fund the Vincentian Partnership to compile and provide us with the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, report. We take it on board when we are forming the budget.

I thank the Minister for the response. I concur and think that is important research. I have a follow-up question to clarify the matter of the jobseeker's transitional payment. While it is not the one-parent family payment, it is the payment that many of those parenting alone are on. Does the income disregard policy that the Minister mentioned apply to the jobseeker's transitional payment too, when people are on the one-parent family payment and move to the transitional payment after the child hits a certain age? That is between seven and 14. I welcome the income disregard measures and ask if they apply to that payment.

On that basis, I can withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 8 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 7, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:

“Report on extending availability of full Parent’s Benefit to lone parents

9. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on extending the availability of the full duration of Parent’s Benefit to lone parents to examine the effect that enabling all children to equally avail of the full duration of this Benefit would have and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 9 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 7, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:

“Report on Parental Bereavement Leave and Benefit

10. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the introduction of Parental Bereavement Leave and Benefit for parents who lose a child under the age of 18 and explore the establishment of a statutory entitlement to two weeks leave and benefit paid at the same rate as Parent’s Benefit and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within six months of the passing of this Act.”.

I know the Minister discussed this in the Dáil. The amendment calls for a report to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, looking at two weeks of paid leave for parents following the loss of a child. As it stands, parents who lose a child are entitled to just three days of statutory leave in a 12-month period, with compassionate leave at the discretion of employers. We propose two weeks of paid leave at the rate of existing maternity, paternity and parents' leave and benefit, which is €245 per week. The benefit will be payable to parents who lose a child under the age of 18 years, including a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy, irrespective of the length of their current employment.

To respond to what the Minister said about amendment No. 2 and why we are calling for a report, we have to try to table an amendments that are in order. If we do not call for a report, it will impose a cost on the State, which is the reason for that. I know the Minister made commitments to Deputy Kerrane on this issue, so I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 10 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 8, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:

“Report on the means-testing for Blind Pension and Disability Allowance

14. The Minister shall prepare and lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the means-testing eligibility requirement for Blind Pension and Disability Allowance and the impact that income threshold limitations have on access to these schemes and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.

I will be like a broken record. I know the Minister gave a commitment on Committee Stage to refer this issue to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group for consideration. The existing means-testing requirements are rigid and limiting for disabled people due to being based on entire household income. On the basis I outlined, we will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 14 and 15 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 9, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:

“Report on rates based on Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL)

16. The Minister shall carry out a review on introducing social welfare rates which are benchmarked to the Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL) to study the effect that adequacy of social welfare rates could have on addressing poverty levels and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection ahead of Budget 2023.”.

Again, the Minister has given a commitment to work with the Vincentian Partnership. The basis for us putting forward this amendment was to reform the social protection system by ensuring all social welfare rates are adequate and protect those who rely on them from poverty. Despite a growing cost of living, current social welfare rates are far behind where they need to be. Working age payments need to be set to the minimum essential standard of living, based on long-standing work by Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. Given the Minister's commitment to work with the Vincentian Partnership, we are happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 16 to 23, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:

“Report on the current criteria for Widow’s, Widower’s or Surviving Civil Partner’s Pension

24. The Minister shall review the current criteria in order to qualify for a Widow’s, Widower's or Surviving Civil Partner’s Pension, including the Non-Contributory and Contributory payments, specifically the marriage requirement and explore removing this clause to acknowledge long term partnerships and dependent children and that the report shall be presented to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection within nine months of the passing of this Act.”.

Several cases have come to our attention where surviving partners have difficulty accessing the widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's pension because they were not married. It is an unfair anomaly and we ask that the Minister rectify it. I believe she said in the Dáil that she will feed in the report to the committee that has been set up to examine this issue. In that context, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

I know we discussed this last night. As Senator Boylan said, it was discussed in the Dáil too, where Deputy Duncan Smith had a conversation with the Minister, since we had an amendment about it. I know the Minister is prepared to provide a report on that. I welcome that. We previously had a Bill in the Seanad on this important topic. I welcome that the Minister will prepare a report on this important matter for many people in this country.

I thank the Senators for raising this. It was raised in the Dáil too, by Deputies Kerrane and Smith. While I did not accept it in the Dáil, I gave a commitment that my Department will carry out a report on this issue. We will feed it into the Oireachtas committee. I give that commitment to Senators too. I will ask my officials to carry out a report on the issue. I will refer a report to the Oireachtas committee on gender equality, which I believe is chaired by Deputy Bacik.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 7 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 7 not moved.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:

“PART 3

REPORTS

Report on pension inequality

24. The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas to include:

(a) an analysis of the impacts of previous changes to contributory requirements for the State Contributory Pension in terms of the numbers of persons within each band and the comparative financial impact on each gender;

(b) a gender analysis of the potential impacts of introduction of a Total Contributory Approach, including a consideration of the comparative impacts of—

(i) a 30 year contributory requirement, and

(ii) a 40 year contributory requirement;

(c) an estimate of the proportion of persons of each gender likely to be on a reduced rate rather then a full rate contributory pension under of—

(i) a 30 year contributory requirement, and

(ii) a 40 year contributory requirement;

(d) a comparison of the likely estimated annual public expenditure on a contributory pension based on—

(i) a 30 year contributory requirement, and

(ii) a 40 year contributory requirement;

(e) an estimation of the likely estimated annual cost of a universal pension;

(f) proposals for how an additional €2 billion per annum might most effectively be deployed to address issues of gender inequality within the pension system; and

(g) policy options to address the specific gendered pension inequality experienced by women born before 1946.”.

There is nothing wrong with reports. They are a tool we have because there are constraints in that we cannot make amendments that impose a cost on the State, due to the rules and Standing Orders. The reports are a mechanism. There is no harm to them. In many cases, they sit within this Act. They point to a consideration that must be important.

They rightly try to influence, indicate and raise a concern. If we see an issue that we, in good faith, really believe is important then we want to flag it so as to ensure an issue gets addressed. For the people whom we represent, and if we want to be able to say to the public that this is going to be looked at, then a report is how we guarantee it. Of course, wherever possible it is much better if somebody agrees to do a report or take the engagement. This provision is important if we had a Minister who said that he or she was not going to engage with a matter. This provision would ensure that at least we would have signalled that a matter needed to be considered by the Department. So reports perform important functions and there are occasions when they are successful. For example, I sought a report on open adoption and after a report was produced there was a change of policy in the Department.

I wish to raise a fundamental issue that I am extremely passionate about. Before I entered these Houses I worked for many years with an organisation called Older and Bolder, which is an alliance of all of the organisations dealing with older people in Ireland. I worked with the National Women's Council of Ireland on economic justice for women and economic equality. I have met older women up and down the country who still feel the impacts of the marriage bar, pension injustice and pension inequality. I wish to note that the gender pensions gap is wider than the gender pay gap.

I felt disappointed after I read the report produced by the Commission on Pensions. The approach by the commission was constrained in terms of what was put forward on a total contributory approach. The commission brought some organisations in but specified it was only for the care component and not for the wider issue of gender equality, even though there is huge expertise. I can say that there is huge expertise available as I have worked with the National Women's Council of Ireland. The council has done incredible work and put forward proposals on a universal pension, and how to fix all parts and each pillar of the pensions system to address gender equality, and ensure that more is done for gender equality. In recent years the goalposts have shifted where women have continually paid the price.

In terms of the 2012 changes, we were told that the pension did not get cut during the period of austerity but the requirement for contributions increased. Only a third of the people who get the full contributory pension are women, so women are much more likely to be on reduced rates. I first realised this happened when I met women who live on €100 or less a week as they are on a reduced rate. When contributory requirements increased from ten to 20 years people found themselves on the lower tiers of a reduced rate pension. Rates were cut. The top rate stayed the same but people not on the top rate found themselves two or three rungs down the ladder. That is what happened in 2012 and it is important that people know the context. The situation led to great concern and then we were told that a total contributions approach would be brought in. In fairness to the then Minister for Social Protection and now Senator, Regina Doherty, and I do not know how the Department have translated it, but she personally did have an understanding that this was important.

The goalposts moved when the new bridging piece on the total contributions approach was brought in. I mean we were told that the Department would give people more years in recognition of the contribution to care but the threshold has been increased from 20 years to 30 years worth of contributions. When that was introduced the threshold figure jumped again. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection in the last Oireachtas produced a strong report. I know because I was a member of that committee. The report recommended that the contributory requirement should not go above 30 years. We said that the jump to 20 years had already had such an impact that a jump to 30 years needed to be done gradually and should not go further. What actually happened? The Department moved it to 40 years. The Department said it would recognise more years of care but people are still only at the halfway point. In addition, because of contributions that are made while people receive a welfare payment, and payments that are made in terms of care, people are capped at 20 years in total at the moment. So women who find themselves in a certain position are only at the halfway point. Again, women suffered as a result of the jump from 20 years to 30 years. What was meant to be an issue that would repair and address this matter instead acted as a means to push the goalposts out. So the woman who did not have enough contributions still did not have enough contributions that were going to be recognised.

The report produced by the commission talks about a 40-year requirement. How many Senators know people who will have made 40 years of contributions or even a solid 20 years of employment contributions that they can rely on in that period? We know many people start their working lives late. We are effectively mandating that people will have to work for years longer to get enough contributions and that is why this report is really important.

I ask the Minister to do five things. One, analyse the previous changes. I want an analysis done on the comparative impact, from the perspective of gender equality, if we brought in the total contributory approach at a 30-year contributory requirement and a 40-year contributory requirement. Let us have a breakdown of the figures for men and women in Ireland as such information would be useful to us all and allow for better decision-making.

I want an estimate of the proportion of persons of each gender who will likely find themselves on a reduced rate pension if we opt for a 30-year contributory requirement and a 40-year contributory requirement. I want a comparison done on the likely cost of a contributory pension that is based on a 30-year contributory requirement and a 40-year contributory requirement. Let us see the difference. We know that 40 years of contributions will cost more but that amount might be worth it for the difference if the 30-year option gives us more on gender equality and ensures more people will be on a full pension, in terms of the social benefits.

I want another comparison done on that approach and a universal pension, to see if it proved much less complicated but much more equal, for all of those in Ireland above a certain age. A universal pension is a system that has been used effectively in other countries. The National Women's Council of Ireland and very many civil society organisations have called for the introduction of a universal pension for years. A universal pension would address all of the inequities. It would address legacy issues like the marriage bar and it would address the issue for women who were born before 1946 who never had access to the homemaker's credit scheme. There is a particular bad situation for women who were born before 1946 and they are in their 70s now. They are exactly the women who were affected by the marriage bar when they were in their 20s and 30s. These women have an anomaly at the moment because they are not recognised for lots of forms of care credit. The Minister could address all of the anomalies and get a clear point of equality if we had a universal pension system but first let us see how much this costs because it might just be worthwhile.

I know that I cannot get the Minister to address Revenue in terms of her Department. It is regrettable that the Commission on Pensions spoke about pension sustainability and so forth solely for the State pension but did not allow the witnesses who approached it to address the huge elephant in the room, which is the private pension tax relief.

In terms of the private pension tax relief, it is conducted in a very unequal way at the marginal rate. I have the figures for 2014, and I do not have more recent figures. From the 2014 figures we know that about 70% of the benefit went to the top 10% of earners, and 50% of the benefit went to the top 5% of earners. Plus the majority of the people who benefit from a private pension tax relief at the marginal rate, which literally means that the people who earn more get a larger percentage back from the State, get a lot more from this scheme than those who are on lower incomes. There is also the cost of the system. More men avail of the scheme, which contributes to gender inequality. There are more higher earners in the scheme. It is worth mentioning that this scheme was one of the very few points mentioned in the memorandum of understanding that we had with the troika. Even the troika said that we should standardise the scheme and make it 30% for everybody rather than 20% and 40% plus a source of inequality.

That is something the troika asked the State to do and we did not do it. This costs approximately €2.9 billion every year. We know that figure but I have been cautious in using a figure of €2 billion. What would be the effect if we put €2 billion of that €2.9 billion into our State pension system to make it fully equal for women and men in Ireland? This is a fundamental point.

The Minister will be glad to hear that will be the longest speech I will give today. The point is really important. This is one of the matters that brought me into politics and I care about it immensely. There are great ideas out there and I know Senator Ardagh, for example, spoke about it in the previous committee as well. I am really worried we will get this wrong again and I just feel we need hard and proper gender analysis to ensure the State makes the right decisions as we go forward and following the publication of the Commission on Pensions report.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am not proposing to accept the amendment because it would replicate the work already undertaken by the Commission on Pensions. That commission has completed its work and its report was published on 7 October. I do not know if the Senator has had the chance to read the report but it is hundreds of pages long. To be quite honest, at this stage we have reports coming out of ears that relate to pensions and I want to see action. It is what we need.

The Government is considering the report of the Commission on Pensions and we must consider this in the round. The Government will bring forward proposals at the end of the first quarter of next year. That is the plan. The Oireachtas joint committee is currently hearing submissions on the report of the Commission on Pensions. I compliment the commission on the amount of time and effort it has put into this. There are many hours of consideration and work in it. It did a public consultation included in that work. Many of the matters raised by the Senator have been considered. As I said, this is a very comprehensive report that takes account of an assessment of various analyses of population, labour force, expenditure projections, an examination of international approaches and responses to an extensive consultation process. The commission's technical sub-committee's working papers detail an extensive public consultation process and the submissions made to the commission are available on the website at www.pensionscommission.gov.ie.

All of the proposals in the report were gender, equality and poverty-proofed. I take the Senator's point about women, who have lost out in the past in this country. There was a time when women got married, they had to stop working. There are many women out there who were part of a business and were self-employed who got to retirement with nothing there for them except what their husbands or partners managed to accrue in PRSI contributions. We will be looking at this through the work of the Commission on Pensions.

I appreciate that and I have read the report. That is why I am concerned as there are lacunae in it. As I said, the elephant in the room relates to other areas of expenditure. Much of what the commission did was calculating how we would pay for this. The very large figure of €2.9 billion is not financially justifiable in the other part of our Exchequer's expenditure and was not examined in that regard.

A 40-year contributory requirement will have more of an impact on women, although it will affect everybody. I am really concerned about us moving to that. The leap from ten years to 20 years was quite hard and had major ripple effects across society. We all know people who came to us about that. Going from 20 years to 40 years will be pretty devastating and we will feel the effects. If the Minister is moving forward with this I urge her to consider the 30 years option.

I will press the amendment, although I will not force a vote. It is too important to not press the amendment. I know good work was done in the Commission on Pensions and I have looked at the report. Some of the core equality points and social jeopardy of bad decisions remain. We have seen before how well-meaning pensions reform has had very serious effects on equality. To be frank, I am worried. I know we will look at it and the committee will engage with the report. I recognise that. I will follow up with the Minister with some questions on these matters.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following: “PART 3 REPORTS Report on one-parent family payment 24. The Minister shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas providing an assessment of how the income disregard in respect of the one-parent family payment intersects with the rising cost of living, with due regard to the Vincentian minimum essential standard of living.”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, have been ruled out of order.

Amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, not moved.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 16, after line 31, to insert the following:

"Report on cost of disability

24. Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Minister shall publish a report outlining proposed actions in response to the findings of the Indecon report on the cost of disability and proposed timelines in respect of such actions.".

What are the grounds for ruling out amendment No. 10?

Amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, are outside the subject matter of the Bill. There is a note for the Senator on that.

I will speak to amendment No. 13 before speaking to the wider section. This amendment seeks a report on a report but it is the mechanism we have when we have concerns relating to reports and we want to know what will happen with them. The Indecon report is very long-awaited and I sit on the committee dealing with disability matters. The Minister is aware that we have been pressing strongly for this. It has now been published and given there was such a long period of waiting for the report, we had given a collective statement in June. It was a cross-party statement from the committee urging for the report to be published in time for it to be properly reflected in this Social Protection Bill and, of course, the other areas of legislation it affects, including financial areas.

The report has been published but this has, effectively, been done too late to have a proper impact in respect of the budget, which is regrettable. It is absolutely vital we use the findings of the Indecon report, including the impact of the cost of disability and the actions that might need to be taken to address issues of inequality and deprivation arising from the cost of disability. We must have measures that directly reference and follow through on the Indecon report in the next social protection budget.

As I stated, if the report had been published over the summer, as we requested, it would have been really good to be able to point to five, six, seven or 20 pieces of this budget that were implemented because of the Indecon report. I am sure one or two actions might have been done as the Department looked at the report before it was published more generally. It would have been really good for us to have that conversation about addressing the concerns around the cost of disability through our social protection system. It would not done only through the social protection system but it would be an important plank.

I am sure the committee dealing with disability matters will correspond with the Minister about this. I would like the Minister to assure me that there will be engagement and we can expect measures arising from the Indecon report in the budget for 2023 that we will debate towards the end of 2022. Who knows, it may even happen in a supplementary budget before that.

I thank Senator Higgins for raising this matter.

As she knows, the Indecon report has been published. To be fair, we do not always need reports to do good work. I will tell the House about the relevant matters that are in the current budget. In particular, we targeted carers and people with disabilities. The capital and savings disregard for the carer's allowance will increase from €20,000 to €50,000 from January. Weekly income disregard for carer's allowance will increase to €350 per week for a single carer and €750 for a carer with a spouse or partner. The domiciliary care allowance will continue to be paid for children who go into hospital for up to six months. The current limit is three months. That is a way to support parents at a very difficult time when their children are in hospital.

The wage subsidy paid to employers who employ people with a disability will increase from €5.30 to €6.30 an hour, which will bring it in line with the minimum wage. A change in the means band will benefit people receiving disability allowance at a reduced rate. The EmployAbility service, the employment and recruitment services for people with disabilities, will now provide grants directly to those who qualify. There has been a focus on people with disabilities in the budget. I will continue that focus. We cannot do everything in one budget but we will continue to try to increase the supports that are available to people.

It took a while to compile the report because there was an enormous body of work involved. The survey involved 4,000 people. That is a big survey by any standards. The report stated that people have different levels of disability. I want to ensure that those who are most severely impacted get the most support. I think we would all agree on that.

The report has gone to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group. I have already addressed the steering group, which is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I met the steering group this week, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. The steering group will consider the report. I also committed in the Dáil to examining the blind pension and the disability allowance. The question is whether we need two payments or should we be making one payment because people have different circumstances. The steering group will also look at that issue. The Senator can see that consideration will be given to this report and to some of its findings in the next budget. I was happy we were able to make meaningful changes this year.

Is this the appropriate point at which to speak to section 24?

We must dispose of the amendment first.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
SECTION 24
Question proposed: "That section 24 stand part of the Bill."

I am a little concerned that some of my other amendments were ruled to be outside the subject matter of the Bill. I will follow up on the matter. It is not an issue for the Acting Chairperson. However, we are talking about the Social Welfare Bill and the matters provided for in social welfare legislation. I know that a couple of the areas I have highlighted are directly provided for in the Social Welfare Acts. The subject matter of the Bill is the amendment of the Social Welfare Act. It would be a poor interpretational practice if it is interpreted as only those topics within the Bill that the Government wishes to speak to. The Bill has been opened, it is there and I am speaking to the subject matter of the Bill. It is appropriate to discuss these matters as part of our annual discussion of the social welfare legislation. If we enter a situation where topics that are in the Social Welfare Act cannot be discussed, that will be a regressive move and roll back on previous practice. I note that. I will follow up on that point.

If the Senator wishes to bring the matter up with the Senate office after the debate, she is welcome to do so.

I will do that. It is not a concern for the Minister but it is an important point in terms of the operation of work in this House.

The issue of bogus self-employment is important. The Minister knows it has been looked at and examined. How do we now look backwards at situations where tests cases may have been used? How can those who may have been affected appeal? I know this is an appropriate topic for discussion because in the past, with the Minister's predecessor, I have submitted many amendments. By comparison, today is an easy day. There were up to 40 amendments in previous years in respect of data protection and the Department of Social Protection. In 2016 and 2017, I specifically implored the Department to pause some of its practices relating to the public services card and the single customer view data set because of their incompatibility with the general data protection regulation. That has been vindicated and the Department has withdrawn its appeal against the report from the Data Protection Commission.

We know from the findings of the Data Protection Commission that there are certain legitimate uses of data within the Department. This is a core area that is dealt with in large sections of the Social Welfare Bill. Four or five findings of the Data Protection Commission now need to be acted upon. The report now stands and its findings are now binding and need to be acted upon. Much of the focus has, rightly, been on the second finding in the report, which it makes it clear that it is not appropriate to process personal data in respect of a person engaging with a specified body. That has no legal basis, despite our being assured there was a legal basis. There is a long list of specified bodies in the Social Welfare Act. It is in the legislation we are discussing. The aspect associated with driver's licences got a lot of attention. A large number of specified bodied had been hoping to use the card. It is clear now that there is not a legal basis for that. I commend the former Minister, Shane Ross, who was one of the only Ministers who, when myself and others raised legal concerns, took our legal advice in his response to that matter. He was right to do so.

The decisions relating to specified bodies stand. That is important, and has important implications. However, there are also findings that need to be addressed by the Department. It was found that insufficient information was given to many data subjects as to what was involved and how their personal data would be processed. It was also found that there were contraventions of Acts, including a contravention of section 2D(2)(d) of the relevant Act in light of a failure to provide data subjects with sufficient information concerning the relevant potential consequences for cardholders who fail to update their information.

Crucially, the third finding deals with the blanket, indefinite retention of personal data consisting of documents and information other than an applicant's photograph and signature which were originally collected for the purposes of identity authentication. People provided the Department with documents and were told they needed to do so for the purposes of verifying their identity. The signatures and photographs have been stored, and I will come to them in a moment. The Department has retained original documents and letters that were given to it by people seeking to prove their identity, those documents having performed the only purpose which is legitimate under the legislation. Those documents performed the purpose of verifying those people's identity. It has been verified. The Data Protection Commission, in the third finding in its report, makes it clear that the Department should not be retaining information or documents that were provided by people for the purpose of verifying their identity after that purpose has been conducted, which it has been at the point the people concerned are given their public services cards. The information should be retained after that point. This is important. These are the findings of the Data Protection Commission. There are obligations on the Department under section 2(1)(c)(iv) of the relevant Act.

The amendment relating to the public services card has been ruled out of order, even though the exact same topic has been discussed in at least three social protection debates in the past.

Those are actions that need to happen now and need to be followed up. These are findings that need to be addressed. They are no longer challenged. This report is effectively standing now as an imperative. I hope the State, the Minister and her Department will take action on those findings and take action to resolve the issues that have been signalled and addressed in that regard. That is very important.

I want to compliment the very few people who did very good work and were very much framed as being quite outside the margins in having highlighted concerns in regard to these matters, including some very good legal experts and human rights and civil society advocates, and some individuals who were simply concerned about data protection rights and who raised those issues.

There are two or three other reviews under way at the moment by the Data Protection Commissioner. One that is very important relates to the treatment of biometric information, which can include photographs. I encourage the Department, and Deputy Humphreys, as a new Minister in this role, not to take the combative approach that the Department has taken in the past against this report, which dragged on for years. We saw that the cost, or the expenditure, went up by €30 million for these cards. Millions of euro were spent for long after the alarm bells started ringing. The cost of the PSC has ended up being huge. It jumped from €60 million to €90 million, or perhaps it was €30 million to €60 million, but it was a lot. The Department and the Minister should engage constructively on biometrics, particularly the fact that photographs, as biometric data, need to be treated separately as a special category of personal data and need to be stored separately and differently.

One of the other concerns identified in the report, which sends signals, was the concern regarding insufficient security, or perhaps less than ideal security and controls in how that single customer view dataset is accessed and used. We do not want to create a honeypot for hacking, which the Department of Health has experienced. Let us make sure the Department of Social Protection does not end up being a repository of an excessive volume of information, some of which is not rightfully being held, on millions of people. It is very important we get this right.

Ireland is one of the key data regulators for Europe. We are at risk of losing that role if it looks like we, as a State, want to evade those responsibilities. We need to step up and show leadership, and try to push ourselves, as a State, to best practice so we can then be credible in holding the private sector and the many corporations in this area to the highest standards as well.

The public services card predates my time in the Department. I welcome the fact this case has been settled. It is a good outcome for everybody. In fairness, that has been acknowledged by both the Department and the Data Protection Commissioner in recent days. My priority and, ultimately, the priority of the Government is to ensure that people can access services in an efficient way. The settlement means that the Department can still process and issue PSCs for people to use. It means that more than 3.5 million people who have a card can continue to use it for transacting with Departments and public bodies. This has been vital during Covid and the fact people had the card meant they were able to go online and avail of services.

It is important to point out that people can still use their card to avail not only of social welfare services, but also myGov.ie and the many online services available throughout the public service. To give some context, myGov.ie has been used 21 million times this year by people accessing online public services. That is the single most important issue here, namely, ensuring there will be no impact for those customers so they can access those services in the exactly the same way they did last week. For anybody who does not want to use a PSC, there must be an alternative option. That is in place because Government policy is that there should always be an offline option for people who do not want or who are unable to go online. Any actions that are required by my Department or other bodies will be acted upon.

With regard to bogus self-employment, it is important to note that self-employment is a perfectly legitimate and vital feature of the economy, with more than 330,000 people employed in this way. It is also the case there is no compelling evidence that false self-employment is as widespread as some suggest. That said, false self-employment exists and, as such, is a matter that I and the Department take very seriously. I do not want to see a situation where any workers are denied their social insurance entitlements or where much-needed funds are denied to the depleted Social Insurance Fund. The deliberate misclassification of a worker as a self-employed contractor for PRSI purposes is wrong. The Social Welfare Consolidation Act contains a specific offence relating to the return of employment contributions which, on conviction, can result in fines and-or imprisonment.

Ultimately, there is no silver-bullet solution that will completely eradicate false self-employment. The best way is to tackle it through inspection, compliance and deterrence. The Department has significantly increased its employer inspections in recent years through its network of 380 social welfare inspectors nationwide. It also established the employment status inspection unit in mid-2019 comprising six inspectors focused solely on detecting false self-employment. This unit has carried out hundreds of employment and status investigations in a wide range of sectors, including construction, meat processing, language training and the media.

False self-employment does not always involve a deliberate or fraudulent misclassification of an employee. Sometimes, it happens that both the employer and employee are genuinely mistaken in their approach and are happy to correct the position once departmental officials have made a determination. Therefore, it is vital that employers and workers have clear information and guidance when considering employment status. That is why I put great value on the code of practice on determining employment status. We have recently updated the code to reflect the modern world of work and to reflect the legislation and case law that has emerged from various court cases over the years.

If Members are aware of bogus self-employment, they should bring it to the attention of my officials and they will check it out and investigate it. If it is fraud, it is wrong. It should not be happening and it is not right that people are put into a position where they are forced to be self-employed and not employees. If people know of any of those situations, let me know about it.

While people can use the card, as the Minister acknowledged, it is important that they are not required to. It is also important that the alternative should not be unduly onerous or punitive. People should not feel disadvantaged and feel they are being given a particularly difficult route if they choose not to opt for that route. That is also very clear in the ruling from the Data Protection Commissioner. It is an issue that it will be important to follow through on in order to have that understanding among all specified bodies because some of them seem to be saying, “If you are going to be difficult, we will be difficult”. That is not an adequate approach and, in fact, it is in breach of the law. I want to be very clear on that. People need to be given equal, fair and similar alternatives to using such a card. I am glad the Minister will follow up on the other findings in regard to, for example, the retention of information and of documentation, which is one I am sure we will follow up on.

I thank her for her comments on bogus self-employment. In a way, I like to use the word “false”, or perhaps “forced” in some cases, self-employment. However, there might still be a consideration that should be given by the Department to those who were affected in the past, when perhaps the Department was not as well resourced and the decisions were made in a different way. Some persons who used their appeal were unsatisfied that their appeal was really considered on the basis of their case. I would consider reopening the option of an appeal to the determination of status for those who were in sectors in which it was shown that false and forced self-employment was widespread.

That would be useful, both for those persons in terms of their rights, because it might not affect them in terms of the employment payment but it might affect them in terms of the pension, and for those depleted public coffers, as the Minister mentioned. I thank the Minister for her engagement on those matters. Obviously, I cannot press the amendments, but I thank her.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment No. 14 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 14 not moved.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Bill received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take Final Stage?

Question, "That the Bill do now pass", put and agreed to.
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