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Government to bring pandemic payment changes to Dáil next week

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty has told the Dáil she will bring forward proposals for some changes to the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment within the next week or so.

She said that the Government is reviewing the nature of the payment.

Ms Doherty reiterated that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme will be extended beyond the original June end date.

The Dáil today met to approve a revised estimate for the Department of Social Protection in order to continue to fund welfare payments. It passed the revised estimates this evening without a vote.

The department would have run out of money next week because of the Covid-19 welfare payments, unless the additional funding was approved.

Ms Doherty said without the approval, all welfare payments would stop. She told the Dáil that it had become “urgent” to seek the House’s approval for the higher level of expenditure this year.

Tonight, the Dáil approved a Revised Estimate for Expenditure of over €28 billion  to ensure welfare payments can continue.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said further estimates for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be needed later in the year.

Mr Donohoe said the cost of the Wage Subsidy Scheme is contained in this vote.

He said there will be some estimates that will need to be dealt with at the end of June, and the majority will need to be dealt with by the end of July.

Mr Donohoe also said he intends to bring a proposal to Cabinet on Friday to resolve the issue of women returning from maternity leave being excluded from the scheme.

The minister told the Dáil that there are difficulties with how the legislation was drafted, but said he has been working with the Revenue Commissioners over the past two weeks, and he believes they can find a way for mothers who are returning to work to be treated equally.

Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea said TDs were being asked to vote on billions of euro of extra money without information on how long the Covid-19 payments will continue for.

He said the Government was happy to take the “plaudits” for increasing the level of social welfare for people affected by the pandemic, however, he said they wanted to shift the responsibility of taking decisions on how long it will continue. 

He said: “People are looking for certainty minister.”

Mr O’Dea asked if the changes the Government is planning to make will clarify how long the payment will continue for and if it will be tapered, rather than a cliff edge situation, when the payment ends.

Labour TD Ged Nash said it was “unacceptable” that TDs were being asked to provide additional “enormous resources” to the Department of Social Protection without knowing how the money will be spent.

He said they were “historic estimates” and he said around €5bn of the €7bn had already been spent on measures including the PUP – which he said were necessary.

Mr Nash said the people of Ireland were watching the debate closely because they are concerned about their future.

He said it was clear there would be a “massive attempt” to move people from the Pandemic Unemployment Payment on to Jobseeker’s Benefit.

Ms Doherty acknowledged that they were historic estimates, but she said she could not bring forward estimates on the basis of decisions that have not yet been made.

She said the estimates in no way tie the hands of the next Government or restricts its ability to make any changes in how it is spent.

She said she expects there would be a need for another estimate in the early autumn.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane accused the Government of delivering “mixed messages” around how long the Pandemic Unemployment Payment will last.

Mr Cullinane said the Government has created confusion. He also claimed there is “unnecessary rhetoric” around the payment being made to people who do not need it.

“The Taoiseach has said on the one hand there is no reason for people to fear, that the current emergency payments will continue as they are,” Mr Cullinane said.

“Then he went on to say that no decision has been made yet, the Cabinet hasn’t made a decision and indeed it might be a decision for a future government or a new government. It can’t be both,” Mr Cullinane told the Dáil.

He also called for clarity on whether pre-election promises that the pension age will not be increased to 67 from next year will be honoured. 

RTÉ News has reported that parties involved in programme for government talks believe that raising the pension age from next January could be difficult to achieve given the changed economic circumstances. 

Mr Cullinane said: “A lot of promises were made on this and we are hearing yesterday that some of these promises are being rowed back on.

“I think that would be absolutely unacceptable and I want to make it very clear that we in Sinn Féin will not resile from our commitment that workers will able to retire at the age of 65 and have the choice to do so,” he said.

Ms Doherty told the Dáil that she wanted to disassociate herself from anybody who has “wrongly intimated that there are people gaming the system”, in relation to accessing the pandemic payment.

“Yes, there is fraud in the system, the same way as there is fraud in every other system in every country. We are catching those people, but they are small numbers. There is nobody gaming the system,” she said. 

Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh said TDs had very little time to analyse the new estimates for the Department of Social Protection.

He said the estimates would normally have been subject to a Dáil committee, but only landed on TDs’ desks yesterday. 

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said TDs were being asked to approve spending measures of €6.8bn with only 24 hours to analyse the “enormous” extra costs.

However, he said not passing the measures would put families over a “cliff edge” of funding and was not something that could be considered by the Dáil.

Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon told the House that the message from Government had changed and we are “not all in it together”. 

He said that while the Pandemic Unemployment Payment was always understood to be temporary, it represented an acknowledgment by the State that welfare rates were too low. 

He said many of those who receive the payment work in the gig economy and get the minimum wage.

Ms Doherty also said there will be no “claw back” of pandemic unemployment payments for people such as lone parents, who are getting other allowances. 

The minister was asked about a report in the Irish Examiner which stated that those who are in receipt of the €350 a week emergency unemployment payment, but are also getting welfare payments, will be subject to retrospective means testing. 

The report suggested that they could have to pay up to €1,000 back to the State once they return to work. 

Ms Doherty said: “I don’t know who is leaking, but whoever is leaking is wrong.”  

She said what was suggested in the newspaper report was “shameful and it just won’t happen. I can guarantee you that, for as long as I am here, it just won’t happen”.

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