17 May 2017 | 08.32 am
Leo Varadkar: My Welfare Agenda
'I have always been a fan of entrepreneurship'
17 May 2017 | 08.32 am
Welfare is a safety net and a second chance, not a way of life, writes Leo Varadkar (pictured), Minister for Social Protection
As the first Fine Gael minister to head the Department of Social Protection in 30 years, I have sought to bring forth new thinking and new priorities. I want the Department to be more aligned to the needs of business, provide better protection for the self-employed, and incentivise work over welfare to drive unemployment down and reduce poverty. We’re making real progress on all fronts.
I have always been a fan of entrepreneurship and the self-employed. I know about it from my own experience and family background. There are advantages in being self-employed: you are your own boss and can do well financially through hard work and a bit of luck.
It also comes with enormous risks. Taking time off is difficult. You lose income and often have to pay someone to replace you, if you can find them. Regular annual leave, sick days or a half-day to attend a funeral or family occasion isn’t always possible. Then there is the worry about what will happen to you and your family if you get sick and cannot work anymore.
I am a strong believer in the contributory principle: that everyone should pay into the system and that everyone who does should also benefit from it. Self-employed people pay PRSI at class S, and I have set about expanding the benefits available.
These include paternity benefit, which became available last September, and Treatment Benefit (free eye and dental exams and subsidised hearing aids) which became available in March for the very first time. These benefits will be expanded in October to include a scale and polish at your dentist, and subsidised eyeglasses, and will be available to all PRSI contributors including employees.
From December, self-employed people who can no longer work due to a long-term illness or injury will be able to apply for Invalidity Pension for the first time, without a means-test. I have also made it easier for the self-employed to make voluntary contributions so that you can make up for years you missed, and thus enhance your State pension.
Separately, Michael Noonan has begun equalising tax credits. Perhaps the time has also come to remove the extra 3% USC that some self-employed people have to pay.
Welfare is a safety net and a second chance, not a way of life. For this reason, I am placing a big focus on reducing unemployment and encouraging more people into the labour market. With the help of private sector contractors, we have dramatically increased our one-to-one engagement with jobseekers to help them prepare for interviews, develop their CVs and find employment.
Some of these schemes are especially relevant to employers. With the JobPlus scheme, if an employer takes on someone who is long-term unemployed, the Department will help to pay the wages for two years. I’d like more businesses to know about this scheme, which is undersubscribed. There is nothing better that a business can do to improve our society and the community in which it operates than to take a local person off the Live Register.
We also provide subsidies to employ people with disabilities and grants to adapt the workplace to empower them. And it’s now much easier to qualify for the very successful Back to Work Enterprise Allowance which supports unemployed people to set up their own business.
We are also taking a harder line with people who don’t engage with us and refuse the work, training or education opportunities available to them. In 2016, we reduced the payments paid to 10,000 jobseekers who failed to engaged, the highest number since we got the authority to impose penalty rates in 2011.
The Department of Social Protection is about much more than welfare and pensions. New thinking and new priorities is transforming the Department and its services. Whether you’re self-employed or run a business, it’s worth finding out more about how we can help you.