Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements

 

12:45 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)

No, not as of yet, but who is to say? I might be resigned to playing golf if it is so desired by the public. Let us hope not.

First, I extend our sympathies to all of those who have been bereaved by this virus. I extend our solidarity and wish for a full recovery to all those who are sick, and our profound thanks once again to workers on the front line. I also thank the Irish people for their forbearance. They have held the line and have been remarkably disciplined thus far. Of course, we are making another request of them to continue in this safe, proportionate and thoughtful way as we advance into our exit strategy.

The first step in ensuring that we have a fair long-term recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is to ensure a safe and fair reopening of our society and economy. We need to get it right now so that we have the sound foundations upon which to progress. Fairness has to be built into every phase of the reopening. This means doing everything possible to protect incomes and to ensure that people receive the supports they need when returning to work or reopening their businesses and enterprises.

Where clear problems or anomalies arise, the Government has to be proactive in producing common-sense solutions. The urgency required from the Government in correcting mistakes and delivering common-sense solutions is glaringly absent in two important areas, the first being the provision of childcare as our reopening moves forward. Tá straitéis chúraim leanaí atá sásúil do thuismitheoirí riachtanach d'oscailt rathúil an gheilleagair. Chun an geilleagar a fheidhmiú caithfidh daoine a bheith in ann dul ar ais ag obair. Chun daoine a bheith in ann dul ar ais ag obair, caithfidh cúram leanaí sásúil a bheith ar fáil dóibh. Second, women returning from maternity leave remain locked out of the wage subsidy scheme.

A childcare strategy that works, is safe for children and workers and meets the real needs of parents is essential for the success of our reopening and ensuring that we can advance safely. For the economy to function, people have to be able to return to work. For many, that of necessity means quality childcare. It is simple and a no-brainer.

The crux of the problem that we face is that the phased plan for the reopening of the economy is not aligned with the plan for the reopening of childcare facilities.

That will not happen for all workers. It is planned until 20 July, which is more than nine weeks away. Many workers who return to work before then will be expected to do so without an answer to their childcare needs. As we speak, essential workers are working without a solution. Many cannot afford an individual bespoke childcare arrangement from their own resources. It is unclear when people will be able to mix with their extended families. This creates a huge headache for more than half of working parents who rely on their wider family for childcare, including grandparents. The reality still remains that the burden of childcare falls disproportionately on women. It would be very wrong if any woman or any parent for that matter was forced out of a job for the lack of childcare.

As the Taoiseach will know, many households depend on two incomes to make ends meet. It would be crippling for those families to lose one pay packet because the Government had not got its act together in terms of childcare. We all appreciate that the emphasis has to be on health and safety. Take that as read. The Government had eight weeks to formulate a solution. While it was planning for the reopening of the economy in a gradual and incremental way, it should have been giving the very necessary thought to childcare because they go hand in hand. It should have ensured that a workable childcare plan was hardwired into the wider reopening strategy. It is incredible that this did not happen. The current problem is symptomatic more generally of a model of childcare that is almost an afterthought in public policy and planning and it is an approach that has badly failed parents and children. It needs to be corrected. Parents need a plan. Parents need a solution and it is needed urgently.

This lack of urgency is also reflected in the manner in which the Government has approached the issue of women returning from maternity leave who, as things stand, cannot access the wage subsidy scheme. This, too, needs a solution. I note that the Minister for Finance said yesterday that he is examining how to deal with the problem. New legislation is not required. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, already adapted the wage subsidy scheme without an immediate change to primary legislation. The Revenue Commissioners can deal with this matter on an administrative basis. I hope and I trust that the Government does not misjudge the level of stress and anger among the women affected by this exclusion. They had not left the workforce, they were caring for their newborn children. It is wrong and unfair that they are currently excluded because of a legislative deficiency. It is extremely disappointing that this issue has not yet been resolved. Mistakes happen - that is life - but when a mistake is identified it is not acceptable that the Government drags its heels and the mistake is not rectified very quickly.

I have two questions. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Finance today to instruct the Revenue Commissioners today to include women returning from maternity leave after 29 February in the wage subsidy scheme? Will he acknowledge that the childcare measures under the reopening road map are not fit for purpose and that we urgently need a plan for childcare provision that meets the real needs of parents to allow them to return to work?

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