Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 April 2020

3:55 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I congratulate my near neighbour on his maiden speech. The financial projections published by the Minister earlier this week, particularly the bleak outlook on job losses and the financial deficit in which we find ourselves, are very worrying. I know these are uncharted waters and that some of this involves guesstimates, but this is increasingly worrying given the devastating impacts it will have. Covid-19 has obviously had devastating impacts across the global economy and it will affect us in a proportionate way. Our near neighbours in the UK are facing their worst decline in centuries, and other countries are not faring much better. We had a Party of European Socialists, PES, group meeting today at which different proposals regarding help at a European level were discussed. While we know that the short-term outlook is bleak, the decisions the Minister, the Government, the future Government and this House take in the near future will shape our economy and our recovery.

There are essentially three questions that need to be asked. First, when and how do we open the economy and in what proportion? Second, how much will we ultimately spend? Who will pay? While the physical well-being of our citizens is paramount, we need to start giving some hope to people. I referenced this earlier today and last week. We need to start letting people, particularly those who are expecting to get back to work in the short term, know that there is a plan in place and that there is hope. Any plan that is published must give a loose timeline. I accept that it cannot be ultimately defined point by point but we need to give workers some peace of mind, allow our citizens to feel like they will be getting back to some form of normality and give employers a chance to figure out how they will create that normality. In other words, we cannot allow a vacuous space. We need to predict, hopefully, and allow for employers to adapt.

Much of what happens in the next few weeks will be trial and error. We may need to reimpose restrictions at some point if things change again, as they have done in other countries. The past six weeks have been devastating for businesses and employers. What we know for sure is that the rights of workers cannot be undermined at this time. Others have spoken about Debenhams and the manner in which workers have been treated. These workers have had no say in what comes next and are not allowed to fight for better terms in an exit strategy. That is not acceptable. It cannot be allowed to continue. Many Deputies from regional areas know that there have been many job losses at regional newspapers. Many of us here feel very strongly that this is being opportunistic because the companies are quite profitable. This example is similar to the one at Debenhams. It cannot be allowed to happen. We cannot allow circumstances to be used to treat workers in this way.

As we face into continuous restrictions, one area I want the Minister to concentrate on is the hospitality industry. As the Minister knows, I previously worked in Fáilte Ireland and Bord Fáilte. This industry will be affected in a different way compared to everyone else. We all know that many parts of this sector such entertainment, events and other forms of hospitality like pubs and restaurants will probably not be able to function for a significant period of time or in some cases, may be able to function in a short space of time but in a restricted way so we need particular supports and plans relating to that and I hope they are being worked on.

The way we really test the true extent of our solidarity in the State is how we extend our support to those who are most vulnerable. We know that many people are under enormous strain because of temporary lay offs along with people who have lost their jobs altogether. Unfortunately, just because we are in a pandemic does not mean that rent does not have to be paid, electricity bills do not have to be paid and living expenses do not exist. I think I was the first person in this Dáil to say, and I keep repeating it, that we need a plan for the crystallisation of rent debt. People are not able to pay their rent. It is not a case of just pushing it off, having rent caps and saying that people cannot be evicted. I know that if the Government extends it from three months to six months, as worthy as that is, it will extend this issue down the road. The fact is that rent debt will be crystallised. People will have serious debts so what is the plan to deal with it? Otherwise, at some point in time, landlords will evict them. Could the Minister tell us what his solutions are?

It was hard to listen this week to a minority of employers who said that hordes of employees were leaving and signing on for the Covid-19 payment. It reminded me of something from Victorian times and it was disgraceful. What I would like to find out from these employers is why they are paying their employees so little in the first place. Maybe by going through this bad period, we can respect and support the workers in retail, security and other sectors and get them a living wage, which they deserve because, ultimately, we are so dependent on them.

The Minister's projections and stability programme update predicted that unemployment will peak at 22% this year.

Going by those predictions, 200,000 people will be out of work. We need him to put forward comprehensive plans to address this. The Labour Party believes that the exceptional supports must continue and that we must not abandon workers and their families. We need a national conversation on this crisis and major decisions to be taken now on how we will manage its cost. Figures published by the Department of Finance indicate a deficit of €23 billion. We are in a space where it would be more affordable to borrow more and add to the national debt than to impose savage austerity on citizens. That is the belief of the Labour Party. It is clear that it is better to borrow and spend to protect the vulnerable than to cut off public spending too soon. The Minister has major decisions to make.

A solution also exists at EU level. The Union has made funds available. In particular, I wish to put forward the proposal of the Party of European Socialists, which was supported today by Pedro Sánchez, my Spanish colleague. He proposes the creation a €1.5 trillion economic recovery fund. The logic is simple: no member state can recover while other member states are in deep recession. We all need to recover together to enable us to restore our previous levels of trade. Collectively, the EU can borrow money at a cheaper rate than can countries such as Spain and Italy that are carrying higher debt and have been hardest hit by Covid-19. The proposal is for a once-off fund and it will not tie the EU into future collective debt-sharing. The collective borrowing of money will allow for a lower interest rate, which will ease the difficulties being faced by indebted countries. The Spanish proposal is a simple and effective one. It is also a simple and effective test of EU solidarity. The Minister should consider it.

My third question is the most crucial: who will end up paying for all of this? A price is currently being paid by those who have lost their jobs or businesses, particularly small businesses. Let me be clear that my party is, and always has been, opposed to unfairness. We must not have unfairness in this situation. In 2009, the Labour Party stood alone in opposing the bailout of the banks. Today, the banks are profitable and, until recently, bankers were looking for increased salaries while we are still paying for the bailout. In the same vein, the Labour Party will oppose any situation whereby low and middle-income families end up bearing the brunt of the cost of the pandemic while high earners and big corporations do not pay their fair share.

In the minute I have left, I wish to raise two issues. There is a lack of consistency in the approach of the banks in respect of mortgage payments. The Minister knows that as well as I do. It needs to come to a head. The banks should be brought in. Rather than the banks marching in to see the Minister, he needs to call them in to do what they said they would. In addition, we need some form of regulation by the Central Bank of lenders that fall outside this catchment because a number of lenders are behaving in an abhorrent way towards their borrowers who are struggling with mortgage repayments.

My final point is in respect of the insurance industry and the companies that have a business interruption clause in their insurance policy which is not being respected. I know of cases in which Covid-19 is mentioned in the policy but the insurance company is still not honouring the claims. This must also be brought to a head. Those watching these proceedings, the small and other businesses across Ireland that are struggling and have these policies deserve those policies to be honoured. In particular, I ask the Minister to start by addressing businesses which are struggling and badly need the business interruption clause in their policy to be honoured, as well as those whose policy specifically refers to Covid-19.


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