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Small increases to Unemployment Benefits

Modest progress in the Budget isn’t enough for the least well-off

‘Building a just society’ was the title for the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU) Pre-Budget Submission. This title reflected our concern that without a strong commitment to addressing social exclusion and economic inequalities, many people will be left to observe, rather than participate in, Ireland’s economic recovery. The recent Budget provided a key chance for Government to give some practical expression to this commitment.

We particularly wanted Budget 2017 to start the process of restoring working-age social-welfare rates to 2009 levels, and to end the age segregation introduced into the Jobseekers Allowance payment during the economic crisis. It is welcome that, for most social protection payments, the claimant’s rate will be increased by €5 per week. However, this increase should start from January next year, as would have been the experience when such changes were announced in the past. This is the first increase to working-age payments since Budget 2009. However, the new rate of €193 will still be €11.30 below the maximum working-age payment made in 2009 of €204.30.

The supplementary Budget of 2009 was the budget that introduced a reduced Jobseekers Allowance rate for young people of €100. This was initially for those aged 18 and 19 years. It was extended out in subsequent budgets until it applied to people aged 18-24, while people aged 25 could only receive a maximum payment of €144.

Jobseekers Allowance (JA) is a means-tested payment, and the €100 is the maximum payment available for people aged between 18 and 24 years of age. For someone to receive the full amount they must be a young person who personally, and whose family, has few other means. It is disappointing that nothing was done in this Budget to address this inequality. As a consequence, young Jobseekers are only to receive a proportion of the €5 increase on other payments. This amounts to€2.70for young people aged 18-24 and €3.80 for people aged 25.

On a positive note, young people will receive the full JA rate if they participate in an education and training programme. In acknowledgement of their restricted income, young people who are in receipt of Rent Supplement payment will make a smaller contribution to their rent.

The big challenge on housing, for anyone in receipt of Rent Supplement, continues to be finding and maintaining accommodation that is within the agreed limits. The INOU was not alone in calling for the significant scaling-up of social housing provision to address the level of demand and need. A range of measures was announced in Budget 2017, but they are still a long way off what is required to address the current dire situation.

The full restoration of the Christmas Bonus and a change in eligibility criteria was another INOU demand. An 85% restoration was announced and this is a move in the right direction. However, 100% restoration would have been particularly welcome at a time of year where inequalities are most manifest. It was disappointing that the eligibility criteria for this were not changed. Currently, unemployed persons must be in receipt of a Jobseekers payment for 15 months before they can receive this additional payment. As unemployed people are deemed to be long-term unemployed at 12 months, these should have been the new qualifying criteria.

Among the earliest austerity measures was a cut in the duration an unemployed person could be on the social insurance unemployment payment, ‘Jobseekers Benefit’. As a consequence of this cut, people who did not make the transition from this payment to the means-tested payment, ‘Jobseekers Allowance’ have found themselves without access to supports and services. Many people have not made the transition because of their family circumstances. Their partner, for example, may be working, not necessarily in a well paid job, and so the family find themselves down one key income.

One of the motions to the INOU’s Annual Delegate Conference earlier this year called on the Government to “restore the duration of Jobseekers Benefit to 12 months and 9 months from the current levels of 9 and 6 months for people who have, respectively, at least or less than 260 paid contributions since starting insurable employment”. This change is needed to alleviate the difficulties facing these unemployed people and their families, and to facilitate their participation in education, training and employment programmes.

The INOU will continue to work on these issues, as part of our commitment to an acceptable standard of living for unemployed people and their dependents. The next step in this work is addressing the forthcoming Social Welfare Bill.

Brid O’Brien is Head of Policy and Media with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed