Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020: Motion
I thank the Minister for presenting this important motion this afternoon. The Labour Party fully supports the motion and the extension of the EWSS going forward. The TWSS, and its successor the EWSS, have been an extraordinarily important initiative taken by the Government. It has literally been a lifesaver for countless businesses and workers across the country.
The Minister might recall that a couple of short years ago the Labour Party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions separately called for the development of such a scheme to help to counteract the then threat of a potential hard Brexit in the event of no deal being agreed. We have been discussing the principle of wage subsidy schemes in this House and outside for some time and now it is a reality to support businesses and jobs across the country. It has been a considerable success. The Minister admitted that the scheme will, in effect, be extended to the end of the year to deal with the reality of the situation currently for so many businesses and workers.
I believe the wage subsidy scheme, or something of this nature, must become a permanent feature of the labour market, in particular to assist workers with the just transition. So many workers and businesses are at risk as we move towards a zero-carbon situation and schemes like this will be most important. If they are to become embedded in the system, it is important that they evolve and that the State ensures that we get better outcomes for workers and businesses. For that reason, in the context of our pre-budget proposals late last year, the Labour Party proposed a German-style short time working scheme which we called ObairGhear. It would involve attaching conditions around training, upskilling, productivity for access to schemes and also that employers obtaining benefits from such schemes would ensure no lay-offs would occur for the duration of their involvement in such schemes. We also believe any such schemes should be conditional on the recognition of trade unions and collective agreements applying to workers in such employment.
I will briefly turn to the issue of the EWSS and mortgages. Last October, I lifted the lid on the practice of banks, including State-owned banks such as Permanent TSB and AIB, asking mortgage applicants whether their employer was availing of the EWSS. Not only has this practice continued in recent months, but it has escalated. I have been contacted by numerous people, mainly couples who are first-time buyers and who are now being denied drawdown on their mortgage by banks due to their employer being registered on the EWSS. The Minister and his team might be familiar with one such case, that of Adele and her partner, who have written to him directly on this issue. Adele is not a pseudonym. She has consented to her name being identified, such is her frustration at the way she has been treated. She and her partner, like many others across the country, who I have been directly helping, are now in a fight to secure their home with their bank, which has explicitly stated it will not proceed with the mortgage because the "employer is availing of the wage subsidy". The implications of this statement are massive. More than 300,000 workers and some 30,000 employers are availing of the scheme. This is at the height of a national housing crisis that predates the Covid pandemic. There is now a very real danger that the recent publication of the list of employers receiving the EWSS on the Revenue website may serve as a mortgage blacklist, even if the customer himself or herself does not qualify to have his or her pay subsidised through the scheme by virtue of the fact that he or she might be a higher earner.
As Adele stated to the Minister in her email, the bank's behaviour is nothing short of "disgraceful". She said banks are stabbing people in the back. I noted a similar case in the Irish Independentyesterday. The Minister might be familiar with it. Banks are performing U-turns only after pressure from lawyers, Deputies like me or by journalists asking tricky questions. This is not the way business should be done in this country. For every person who is fighting against the banks, there are countless more who do not have the time, energy or resources to do so. I urge the Minister to give a firm commitment to the House to deal with this form of mortgage blacklisting and ensure that no other homeowner, whose means support their application, is put in this position.
I do not reference my constituent, Adele, to in any way ambush the Minister. He may not have seen that particular case himself although his team may have. I am sure he will respond to it in due course. I reference Adele because her case illustrates a wider problem. Hundreds of individuals across the country whom I have dealt with in recent months are in the exact same situation. That is deeply unfair, and it needs to be resolved.