Social Welfare Bill 2013- Speech, 24th October

Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Budget 2014 has brought with it a certain amount of scaremongering and embellishment of the facts by those opposed to it simply because it does not stand up to forensic criticism of the type they would like. They are playing on the fears of vulnerable people.
It is important to put on the record of the House the fact that this year’s budget has resulted in the protection of all core social welfare payments, ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are protected. I salute the Minister, Deputy Burton, on that achievement. I welcome that, among other measures, there are no new changes to child benefit, the fuel allowance, free Travel, free TV licence, electricity and gas allowances and the over 80s allowance. I welcome also that the State pension, carer’s allowance and half-rate carer’s allowance are all protected. In the context of the bailout, sorting out our national finances and taking our country from bankruptcy to progress, this is an enormous achievement. Savings are made in the Department by getting people back to work rather than cutting rates of payment.
One of the failures of the previous Administration was that there was never any real control over the social welfare system. There were no genuine reforms and no effort was made to reduce the number of people on the live register. At that time an unemployed person was treated as unemployed rather than a job seeker. Since taking office in 2011, the Minister, Deputy Burton, has radically overhauled the system. Live register figures are at their lowest since May 2009 and every day we see real progress being made in this area, to the extent that 3,000 jobs per month are being created in the private sector. Today, we learned that Dairygold is to provide 100 additional jobs in Cork. Recently, Wellman International, which is in my own constituency, announced a €5 million investment plan at its plant in Mullagh, County Cavan, ensuring a protected future for the 260 local people employed there.
Unemployment can no longer be seen as a long term reality for people in this country. In this context, I welcome the outstanding success of JobBridge from which up to 65% of participants have obtained job placements. I also welcome JobsPlus which offers €300 to an employer who takes on a young person who has been unemployed for six months and €400 month in respect of a young person who has been unemployed for two years. It is a very exciting programme, as are many of the other initiatives in this area. The correct supports need to be in place to assist people to get back to work, whether this is through additional training or further education. We need to make it as easy as possible for individuals to engage in the process. For this reason, I welcome the introduction of the new one-stop shop for employment services, Intreo.
Instead of registering for welfare payments with one agency and then registering at another agency for help with getting employment or further training, everything will now be carried out by the same agency. Some activation measures will include “one-to-one meetings’ and this will provide a complete picture and will enable the person to undertake the right training, which will focus on customized employment supports, client profiling and monitoring of the client’s progress. An increased capital allocation of €15 million was provided in the budget for the roll-out of Intreo centres across the country in 2014. In total, €1.8 billion will be spent in 2014 on supports to help jobseekers become job-ready, which is almost €85 million more than the projected spend this year. That is an extraordinary success in the context of where we are.
Much has been said about the new rate of the jobseeker’s allowance for those aged 25 and under, and this is dealt with in Sections 9 and 10 of the Bill. It is important to clarify that this new rate is applicable to new entrants only and will increase to the standard rate of €188 when the individual turns 26; our prayer will be that they will not remain unemployed at that time. This will be coupled with a back to education rate of €160 for young people in training, and it is important that the incentive to do that is there. Our young people are our future and that is why I join with the Minister when she said that we have to be more ambitious for our young people. We must not consign them to unemployment and to a life of dependency. We need to minimise the risk of young people, who sign on the live register at 18, becoming welfare dependent.
The news that 1,000 places on the Department’s Tús scheme are targeted at young people and the ring-fencing of 2,000 additional training places on Momentum for those under 25 are all welcome assurances. However, it is important to note that for many young people, further education and an academic life are not for them. I firmly believe that the youth guarantee scheme will play a central part in ensuring that those young people are supported and encouraged. The construction industry is not what it used to be and the potential for skill-based apprenticeships is minimal. However, we have a responsibility to every young person in this country and we cannot ignore those who are interested in taking up a skill or trade. As it is not possible to get a master for a craftsperson, we will have to provide simulated apprenticeships in training centres at college. Apprentices could work on extensions to schools and on other public works. A young person who cannot get an apprenticeship as a plasterer, block layer or carpenter due to the collapse of the construction industry, must get the full apprenticeship training in simulated conditions and in conditions as near to reality as possible. That is crucial. Unlike Germany, we departed too much from the traditional vocational model of schooling in this country, and that gap needs to be bridged.
We have the new home renovation scheme and school buildings programme, which I believe should be linked to the apprenticeship scheme as far as is possible in respect of health and safety, insurance issues and so on. I know that the Minister for Education and Skills announced a wide-ranging review of apprenticeships earlier this year in order to examine the future of apprenticeship training in Ireland, focus on work-based learning and ensure a closer alignment of the current needs of the Irish labour market. I echo this by calling for a liaison between local businesses and industries in every county, to establish their current and future personnel needs. If training is to be provided, it is critical that it is relevant to the young person and that the young person has the aptitude and will benefit from it. We should also carry out a survey of our industries in an area on what employment opportunities they currently have, the opportunities they expect to have in the future, and growth areas in which they are involved, and we should try to marry training to that. This is critical and I would commend that liaison to the Minister.
This Bill is extraordinarily friendly to our elderly, in spite of the cynical scare mongering and populist political nonsense coming from the Opposition. It is a very progressive move that people between the age of 62 and 65 who are long-term unemployed will be excused from the training option should they so wish. At that stage of their lives, it is a humane and correct response, although if they wish to train then that is a different issue. They will also their directed to their bank account and then they will go into the pension system. That reform in the Bill is good.
I welcome the Bill and the very attractive part of it is the job activation dimension. Empowering people in personal development, training and giving them the opportunity to get into the labour market is the critical thing. It was a smug elitist middle class response to leave them there, ignore them and patronise them with welfare payments. Thank God we are moving from that. This is the central plank of the Bill and that is why it merits our applause and welcome.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website