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Column Self-employed people are the recession’s real victims

Families are on the breadline simply because the government’s policy is unfair, writes Brendan Dempsey.

Working for the charity St Vincent de Paul, Brendan Dempsey deals with people and families who are asking for help because they cannot afford to eat. Here he writes about how government policy favours some over others – and warns that the housing crisis could be worse than we imagine.

OUR SPENDING IN Cork is up for many reasons. One of the reasons is that some of the self-employed people who are out of work are receiving no payment, no State help. With no income of any kind, families are in a desperate situation.

Why aren’t these formerly self-employed people getting social welfare or supplementary welfare or help? If they are not receiving some form of payment, it’s because they are simply not entitled to under the rules of social welfare. They don’t qualify. Now, Social Welfare may be in possession of some facts that we don’t have. But what we do have is a family without an income. And we do see correspondence to and from community welfare officers, and letters from appeal officers refusing payments.

My crib is not with Social Welfare, and not with its rules. It is with the overall State policy where you might have two men standing side by side, let’s say painting a railing. One is a ‘worker’ and is entitled to social welfare should he lose his job. The other is deemed to be ‘self-employed’ and may be entitled to nothing. Why is this? One of the reasons is because they pay different stamps to the State. The self-employed pay an S class stamp, whereas the employed person pay an A rated PRSI contribution.

The State makes the rules and we live by them. My request to the State is that they change the rules, offering a level playing field to all workers and a safety net to everyone who is cursed by unemployment. The situation is not helped by the fact that the rules are not clear cut. In the Citizens Advice leaflet explaining entitlements, they actually state that it is complicated – and that sometimes a person who thinks they are self-employed may not be self-employed at all.

Another factor in our spending is the number of people in arrears on home payments. Mortgage holders in arrears are getting a lot of attention, and so they should be. We are told by the Financial Regulator that some 35,000 mortgage holders are in arrears by three months or more (figures released in Sept 2010). But for every person who comes to me in trouble with their mortgage I get three or four families coming with rent arrears – some owing private landlords, but many owing councils or corporations.

If I am getting more requests from families with rent arrears, could it be that there are double the number – or more – of families in danger of losing their homes? It would be difficult to put a figure on money owing to private landlords but local government should be able to tell us how many are in arrears to them. The State must be aware of the facts, which leaves two possibilities. Either I am totally wrong, and there is nobody in arrears. Or the State is simple indifferent, ignoring the plight of thousands of families.

Brendan Dempsey is the regional president of St Vincent de Paul in Cork.

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