Thursday, 26 March 2020
An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19), 2020: An Dara Céim (Atógáil) - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Acting Chair for her assistance and apologise to Deputies if there is a lack of clarity on my part. My contribution will relate to Parts 4 and 5, which will amend the Health Acts that make reference to health and social care professions, as well as the Mental Health Act 2001.
In this emergency, additional healthcare staff will be required to cope with staff illness and an increase in the numbers of patients. The national action plan published by the Government on 16 March identified the need to facilitate the recruitment of retired health sector workers, some of whom are members of professions subject to regulation under the auspices of statutory independent regulatory authorities, namely, the Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Board, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, the Health and Social Care Professionals Council, CORU, and the Dental Council. Some professionals have indicated a willingness to rejoin the health sector during this emergency. In an effort to maximise the number of people being restored to the register, consideration must be given to what barriers exist to their speedy and easy restoration, and how they might be removed or mitigated against. In a review of the legal impediments to prompt restoration, barriers to quick restoration were identified. For example, in the case of CORU, the restoration process can be lengthy, depending on whether the person had paid a fee to leave the register or had allowed his or her registration to lapse. Restoring a nurse, for instance, can take a long time if documentation is incomplete or if it is awaited from another country where he or she has engaged in practice. In light of this, it was decided to amend the five regulatory Acts to create a specific Covid-19 temporary restoration that will sit apart from the normal restoration process and will provide such practitioners with a simpler registration process, with a clear-cut route for removal from the register if appropriate and necessary.
The Covid-19 application provisions for restoration under the five Acts have the following common features. They apply to previous registrants, applicants must be persons of good standing in their practice here, and they will be subject to temporary registration that will cease on 31 July or on a different date by order of the Minister for Health. The Bill makes clear that registration under this provision will not attract the payment of any fee. Applicants will be subject to the normal processes of complaint in respect of fitness to practise. In the unlikely but nevertheless possible event that some returnees may decide to return to work on a more permanent basis, persons under this provision can apply in parallel for full registration. In this regard, the temporary registration will end under the various Acts by 31 July this year or by order of the Minister for Health to be laid before the Houses in the normal way. Finally, there is temporary modification of section 105 of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007. Under this provision, a person who is not a registered medical practitioner who is suspected of practising medicine may be investigated by the Medical Council and the findings given to An Garda Síochána.
As it is important to provide the HSE with as much flexibility as possible, it may be necessary to redeploy staff and to assign tasks outside their usual roles. In this regard, a further provision relevant to all regulators, including the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council, PHECC, amends temporarily section 105 of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007 to provide clarity to registrants that, where they are practising medicine and where they do so under the direction and control of, or in accordance with a direction in writing from, a registered medical practitioner, they are not practising medicine for the purposes of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007. In this regard, such persons will, of course, be mindful of their skills and mindful to act at all times in the best interests of patients. It is worth noting that regulators have already put in place additional resources and designed IT systems that would enable streamlined fast-track restoration of practitioners. Much good work has already been done in terms of restoring persons to the register. It is hoped these provisions will further assist regulators in effecting these restorations speedily.
I can see that amendments have been put down which seek to facilitate Covid-19-specific registration processes for people who have not worked in Ireland before. In this regard, there is already a provision within the various Acts for dealing with applications for first-time registrants. It is simply too high a risk to circumvent the important checks that are and must be applied to people who have never worked in Ireland before.
I want to acknowledge the huge efforts that every individual and every family in every community are making. The daily growth rate is coming down and yesterday was 18%. However, at even 15% we will still be tracking the number of confirmed cases in Italy, so more will have to be done. Today's legislation will help but all of us - every family and every individual - will have to work together to bring this daily growth rate down, and do so very quickly.
I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work and dedication of our healthcare professionals - our doctors, nurses and the wide range of other professionals in our system. They are putting themselves at risk, they are working night and day and they are not seeing their families. They are getting us ready for a surge that will come and trying to run an entire healthcare system at the same time.
I want to bring up the issue of personal protective equipment, PPE. One in four confirmed cases are now healthcare workers, as we know. Hospitals are now missing hundreds of doctors and nurses. I spoke to one clinical director this morning and in his hospital, he is missing several hundred clinicians. They are very worried. I have reports from around the country that the required care for non-Covid-19 and Covid-19 patients is not happening as it should. An example from yesterday involved three Covid-19 patients in a ward, where the nurses had sufficient masks to pick just one of them to go in and help. Obviously, that is not a situation we can stand over. We all hope this aeroplane lands with PPE this Sunday. However, clinicians are being told they will not have those supplies until Tuesday. Every effort needs to be made to make sure that gear is unloaded, packaged and sent in vans and trucks immediately so our clinicians, starting with hospitals and intensive care units, have that PPE within hours of it landing. That has to happen.
The provisions for healthcare in this Bill are welcome but they do not go far enough. The Minister referenced that we must have sufficient checks and balances in place for healthcare workers qualified abroad. I would argue that any nurse who has spent ten years working in the NHS and who wants to help us now should be allowed back in, and burying them in red tape is not something we should be doing right now. We want to see more happen. Critically, we need detail on the student nurse payments, which need to happen, but we have no detail. Similarly, we need detail on consultants. We are essentially treating the entire hospital system as a public health system, and that is the right thing to do. However, the consultants need a contract in place whereby everybody is treated the same, so they can get on and do the job we need them to do.
We are in the Dáil today to discuss the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020. The challenges we are facing as a nation are truly extraordinary. We in Fianna Fáil will support the Bill but not without questioning or without seeking to amend, although we will do so in a constructive and positive way. How we respond to this crisis will determine the outcome. We need to act intelligently, systematically and based on science and the advice of our public health experts. Only by working together can we confront this threat with an unrelenting and unyielding effort.
We will face significant economic adversity. In turn, this will have serious effects on our mental health. There will be a greater demand than ever on our mental health services during and after this crisis. Mental health funding is often the first to feel the cuts and one of the last to benefit from any recovery. This cannot happen in this case. Our nation's mental health is at risk. Whether through job losses, general anxiety, physical illness, the isolation and loneliness many of our vulnerable and older people, in particular, are now facing or those with psychiatric illnesses, mental health is having a massive impact on this country and it will get worse.
I extend my condolences to the families and friends of those who passed away in the past weeks and to those who will pass away in the near future. They will not be able to attend the funerals and say their goodbyes. I extend my thanks to the majority of people acting on the advice of public health professionals by exercising precautions such as social distancing. They are saving lives and we are seeing the results in the extent of contact tracing being reduced regarding the number of people interacted with by those with Covid-19.
I also thank our front-line staff and our healthcare workers. I especially mention our student nurses and their pay now needs to be reviewed. I also thank the Garda, the Defence Forces, our council staff, retail and postal workers, our truck drivers and our port workers, and all who are putting their own lives at risk to keep the country moving and to reassure the population. I have seen these real efforts in my county of Wexford, but this is happening across Ireland. I thank our local radio stations and newspapers. They need more support while they are combating fake news and keeping our community informed. They are, however, under serious threat and risk.
I extend my deepest sympathies to those families bereaved by Covid-19. I wish all those ill with the virus, in hospital or at home, a full and speedy recovery. This Bill is another extraordinary piece of legislation. We were here last week, and we live in unprecedented and strange times. Part 4 concerns changes to allow former registered health workers rejoin their professions and work at the front line, while Part 5 concerns a number of substantive amendments to the Mental Health Act. I welcome the provision and changes being made in Part 4 and I hope this allows for the speeding up of the process for reregistering those health service staff who are retired but who want to come back and do their bit. It will also help those who practised here and moved abroad to reregister quickly on their return.
I offer thanks to the relevant boards, the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, NMBI, the Medical Council, CORU, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, all of which will be processing the huge numbers, we hope, of new applications. I know these regulators and their staff are doing great amounts of work at all hours of the day and night to get these applications processed in a timely manner. Similarly, I thank the human resources department of the HSE. The staff there are also working day and night to process the applications and to get as many health workers as possible to the front line. In the midst of all this, I thank them for their hard, and often unseen, work. I thank the staff in the health service, our retirees and our emigrant healthcare workers coming home for all the work they are doing. It is regrettable,however, that we will not be able to register people, particularly where there is mutual recognition of qualifications. We need everybody, and if those people are willing, then I think the Minister should look at that again.
From speaking to many front-line healthcare workers, I note the kindness and generosity shown to them by the public is a powerful motivator. I also note from speaking to these health workers that they are concerned about the lack of personal protection equipment, PPE. Politicians will know health workers do not reach out to us unless they really believe there is an issue which requires being raised publicly. Doctors, nurses, home helps and ambulance personnel have all reached out to me in the past 24 hours to raise concerns about the lack of PPE items as they go about working at the front line of the fight against Covid-19. They are aware there is a global shortage of PPE. They reached out, however, because they were angry and upset at claims being made by health officials and health service management that we have an adequate stock, when the reality on the ground is that we do not.
I want to read a message sent to me by a worker on the front line. This person asked to remain anonymous and I am respecting that request, but we need to hear what that person had to say. That person said that "healthcare workers are putting ourselves on the line for the nation. The minimum soldiers expect is armour. For us, that is PPE." Quite frankly, it is an insult that legitimate concerns about low PPE stocks on the ground were disparaged by a senior HSE official in The Sunday Business Post. That official was quoted as saying the healthcare workers were panicking.
That was humiliating and it was an insult. We were doing nothing of the sort. We were telling the truth. We know there is a global shortage and we know the HSE is trying but let us be honest. We should not be this low this quickly. No one should die at work because of not being protected. When the stocks are short, the HSE must be honest and tell us and prioritise those who are most at risk. The situation is becoming more difficult as we wait for supplies of PPE to arrive, with 24% of those affected by this virus being healthcare workers. I know we are being told we have orders of PPE arriving, and that is most welcome. However, in the here and now, front-line healthcare workers are telling us there is a real shortage of PPE. This is reflected in the campaigns many hospitals are running, asking for immediate donations of PPE from companies or individuals who might have some, and I urge anyone who has any such equipment to come forward and to donate it.
We are all in this together but our healthcare workers are on the front line of this emergency. I urge the Government to secure a reliable domestic production line of various items of PPE in order that we can be assured we have a stable, steady and reliable supply of this vital equipment. Yesterday, I asked the chief clinical officer, CCO, Dr. Colm Henry, to brief Deputies with the specific advice from the World Health Organization that prompted the change in advice on testing. The WHO says "test, test, test". It is very clear on that matter. The Minister needs to understand there is a real fear in our communities and this fear is added to when people who were told last weekend that they needed a test are now told they do not need a test but that they should stay at home and behave as if they have this virus. This change is causing a huge amount of worry and these people are coming to us. They are nervous and upset and they are worried to be told one day to have a test and then to be told the next day that they do not need that test.
I thank the Bills Office and the various Departments that worked long and hard to draft this legislation. I also thank the ushers, the catering staff and all of the workers who keep this House running. The implementation of this legislation will go a long way to getting healthcare workers to the front line as quickly as possible, as we work to tackle this crisis.
The Taoiseach made a frightening prediction last week that 15,000 people would contract this disease by the end of the month. Then on Thursday, the Tánaiste added to that by raising the possibility that tens of thousands of people could die. Since then, the country has pulled together and people have followed the advice. The data show that although the disease is still spreading, the speed of that spread has slowed down somewhat. The changes in public behaviour have just bought us some time. Doctors are saying clearly that people have to save one another by avoiding the disease because there is no health system that could cope with mass infection. It is up to us.
The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that this week's and last week's emergency laws will cost a total of €6.7 billion. Political parties need to work together but we still need some scrutiny of such a massive project in the coming weeks. During the coming weeks, we will not have the time to reshuffle the Cabinet but we will have time to agree a way to provide democratic input from all parties into the decision-making of this Government. The Green Party is supporting this Bill but is also seeking to improve it. The Bill makes it easier to add retired medical practitioners back onto the medical register but can we also consider faster and wider recognition of overseas qualifications? We should consider broadening the power to prescribe. Optometrists could prescribe antibiotic eye drops, for example, without having to distract GPs. We need to find every way possible to broaden the power of prescription in order to reduce the burden on GPs. We also need to protect our dentists. They are in close contact with patients and they fear for their safety. Dentists generate a large volume of aerosols during normal practice, which heighten the risk of contracting of this virus. They are at a high risk and I suggest that dentists be advised to stop all elective work, while emergency work could continue with the appropriate personal protective equipment, to protect dentists and patients alike.
I spoke this morning about our concerns, which are held throughout the House, about personal protective equipment. Following on from Deputy Ossian Smyth's contribution, I want to focus on the dental profession for a moment.
There is great concern among those in the profession. They believe they are still getting conflicting advice that is putting them in danger. The view coming from several dentists is that much of the work they do is elective and can be put off. They are willing to do emergency work that needs to be done, but they need personal protective equipment to do it. They do not have the equipment and they believe they and their families are at risk. There is also risk of further spread throughout the community. These concerns have been around for several weeks now. The Government and the HSE need to get ahead of the matter and bring some clarity to the situation.
I am keen to focus on one section of the health service, namely, the disability services. Many of the largest providers of disability services are section 38 organisations but a considerable amount of vital work is done by section 39 groups, such as Rehab, the Irish Wheelchair Association, Enable Ireland and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. We are all aware of them and they are well known. They provide incredible front-line services. Like many front-line providers in the State, they are certainly not immune to the effects of Covid-19. In January, just as the election was called, service providers were informed that the HSE planned to make a 1% efficiency saving throughout the disability budget. This amounted to a €200 million cut from a budget of €2 billion. If implemented, it would mean services would be cut and planned services would not go ahead. In the current climate, organisations like the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association have had to close down their shops. These shops have been a vital fundraising arm for them, especially since they have been cut to the bone and face more cuts this year. With that funding arm closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions, they are under immense pressure at the moment. There is extraordinary pressure throughout the entire health service but we need to ensure the organisations providing these services are able to sustain them at current levels, at a minimum, in order that we can survive Covid-19. We can then take a fresh look at it when things settle down and we return to some form of normality.
We welcome many of the measures in the Bill relating to health. The re-registering of staff was raised previously. We have no wish to see people being bogged down in red tape. Many former medical professionals are willing and ready to work. Several in my constituency have contacted me - I imagine they have contacted my constituency colleagues too. They are chomping at the bit to get onto the front line to save lives. It would be fantastic if we can get them through as quickly as possible.
The provision of ventilators is a concern. Going into this crisis, the figures for Ireland and our intensive care unit capacity were not great. We were at the bottom of the class compared to our European colleagues. We would like to see more clarity on the provision of ventilators and the time lags we are looking at before they will be delivered. I hope we will not have to use what we purchase or get and I hope we stay ahead of this crisis as best we can. However, we need to plan for the worst. People are really concerned about this.
The Social Democrats support the health measures set out in this legislation. The measures are largely technical and facilitate good practice in the response that is required. Several issues should be included but have not been covered by the legislation. A point made by several Members to date is the whole question of trainee nurses' pay and the need to ensure that is addressed quickly. People have been extraordinary in the way they have come forward to support the national effort but it is really important that everything be done to maintain morale among people. That is an obvious point that needs to be addressed.
There are also issues relating to differentials between healthcare staff in the public and private sectors. Now that we have a single-tier service, for the time being anyway, issues arise about differentials affecting those who have come from the private sector, who would generally be on a lower rate of pay than those in the public sector. There needs to be some equalising.
Another issue that has been brought to our attention by several groups, including the Irish Family Planning Association, is the position of the current rules around abortions. The current rules are effectively unworkable in the present circumstances with regard to the three-day wait periods and the need for repeat visits. This should be dispensed with for the duration of the emergency. I hope this will receive early attention because it is a real and present issue.
Another issue of concern is what is happening on construction sites.
I have been told that just outside my constituency in north Dublin there is a site which has 1,000 workers on it. There are significant issues on construction sites, including a lack of proper health and safety measures and social distancing and the sharing of tools and small confined spaces. This is a recipe for disaster. Similar issues are arising in some factories and large companies. Someone got in touch with me to say that apprentice solicitors in a large legal firm are being required to work from the premises and not respect social distancing. All of these issues need to be tackled.
Who is responsible for policing or overseeing the guidelines and strong advice in respect of social distancing? We are receiving complaints about these types of issues and it is hard to know who to contact that will be in a position to intercede and address the matter. It would be very helpful if we have responses on this and there was a targeted approach to the various workplaces where large numbers of people are congregating.
Part 5 of the Bill refers to mental health. If this provision is to be reviewed or extended, it should be done with the approval of the House and not just laid before the House. That is important because the extension of emergency powers is a very serious issue and should come before the House.
The changes in case definition which occurred in the past couple of days is a major change in policy, and is something which is confusing and causing concern for many people. We need to redouble our efforts in terms of communicating very clearly why the change in policy has occurred. Up to now we have been told that we must test, test, test and trace. That policy cannot be pursued in the context of large numbers of people not having access to tests. I appreciate that the low positive rate of the tests that were being done, at just over 6%, meant there was a need for a change in strategy, but the other side is that we are in a situation whereby one in four healthcare workers have tested positive. That is an intolerable situation for them and the health service generally in terms of its ability to respond to this crisis.
At the root of this is, I believe, the shortage of personal protective equipment, PPE. That is the single most urgent issue that needs to be addressed. We have been told that various shipments are coming into the country. There is no room for delay and we must redouble efforts to acquire as much of this equipment as possible. Ideally, some of it could be manufactured here. That is the single most important thing to protect our healthcare workers and enable us to get back to a situation whereby we are doing adequate amounts of testing and tracing.
While acknowledging in this section of the Bill the tremendous and courageous efforts of our health workers, we should also acknowledge all front line and essential workers, including shop, transport and council workers and all of those who are doing everything they can to help get us out of this crisis.
I agree with the Minister, Deputy Harris, when he said that there is no place in the crisis for a two-tier health system. Overnight nationalisation of the health service has been impressive. The Minister has said that healthcare should be based on medical need and not the size of one's wallet. Should it take a pandemic that threatens the deaths of thousands of people to convince our political class that we need a one-tier health system or that it was unacceptable to force our nurses out on strike in pursuit of decent pay and conditions in an effort to stem the haemorrhaging of health workers from our system? When this crisis is over we will never return to a dysfunctional two-tier health system or the routine disregard for workers like nurses and other staff. There must be no going back. We need to emerge from this crisis a with a truly national health service.
The measures in the Bill do not address many of the key issues facing the country. It is beyond belief that, in the middle of this crisis, we are still allowing non-essential businesses to function. The call has gone out several times today, but it is a policy that will only rapidly increase the spread of the virus. We need to shut down all non-essential work. I repeat this call in the case of the construction industry, in particular.
Yesterday, in Moy Park in Northern Ireland and in ABP meats, workers walked out to protect their own health and safety. That scene should be repeated collectively by workers around this country if the Government does not make the right call. It is right to do it sooner rather than later.
I will highlight a couple of gaps in the Bill. I do so because we are acutely aware of the most vulnerable in society, particularly those in direct provision, in Traveller sites, people living in overcrowded homes because of the housing crisis, the homeless people living in emergency accommodation and those who are forced to wander and cluster on the streets because they have nowhere to go during the day. Along with that, another cohort is women who are vulnerable in the case of crisis pregnancies. We have put down an amendment to the Bill to allow for telemedicine rather than GP visits for early intervention in crisis pregnancy. I appeal to the Minister and to the Government to allow that amendment.
Something we need to tease out is the tolerance of not taking necessary measures. We need to take into public control facilities, factories and industries that can produce personal protective equipment, PPE. We need to instruct them to stop producing other equipment but to produce the PPE that is urgently equipment. There are hundreds of factories producing medical equipment in this country and we need to bring those sectors into the control of the State rather than leave it to the chance of the market or to decisions of some shareholders or CEOs.
Today we have more than 40,000 anxious citizens who were promised a test and who now are not getting it. They are at home wondering if they have the virus if the symptoms are showing and they are told to not worry, to self-isolate and that will be good enough. With the HIV virus in the past, knowing one's state of health encourages one to understand the ramification of one's actions and that others understand that the ramifications around one's actions also matter. The question of changing the testing regime has as much to do with the lack of capacity as it has to do with the statistics. The Taoiseach frequently refers favourably to the South Korean model where they tested, tested and tested and where they ferociously contact-traced. South Korea test five times as much as we are doing and in the course of that, they are ferociously contact-tracing. If one self-isolates alone there is no contact-tracing follow-up.
I make the following suggestion. There is a factory in Northern Ireland called Randox and it is working, along with other companies, to produce a testing kit that will give us results in two and a half hours. In this all-island crisis I encourage the Government to approach the Northern Ireland Executive to open up discussions with it that the plant be taken into public control for the health of the island. The testing equipment should be produced 24-7 as soon as possible and rolled out in the interests of public health. Polymerase chain reaction, PCR, machines that check tests all over this island currently lie idle in universities and in pharmaceutical plants. They need to be audited, requisitioned and taken into public control. We have no time to waste. The sooner we do these things the better. It may seem like an ideological challenge to the Minister but I am sure so did nationalising the public health service. It can be done and it needs to be done urgently.
I pay tribute, first and foremost, to the men and women in the healthcare services who are working day and night at the coalface of this crisis. This relates to the issue of personal protective equipment. It goes without saying that it is no easy task to procure personal protective equipment internationally at present. However, it is really important that we take care of our healthcare professionals. They are extremely exposed. Right across the world, healthcare professionals are far more likely to catch this illness than probably any other section of society. We have an enormous duty of care if we are to send those people into the front line that they have the necessary equipment to deal with that front line.
A week ago the HSE stated that it had an adequate level of personal protective equipment, PPE, and yet I and many Members in this Chamber have been inundated by contact from healthcare workers, for instance, by social media, by phone and by WhatsApp, to say that they are scrambling about the place trying to get PPE. Can the Minister state what exactly is the situation? Can he guarantee that healthcare workers have what they need?
Regarding the primary issue of the crisis, I wish to draw the focus back. There has been precious little debate thus far about the State's strategy. Countries like China, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong have adopted the strategy of trying to stop this virus. They have looked to suppress the transmission of this virus and have done everything they can to do that. There is a second strategy, which is called mitigation. Mitigation is about slowing down but not stopping the spread of the virus until at least the very long term. In other words, it involves seeking to reduce the peak healthcare demand while protecting those most at risk from this severe disease from infection. The European Union, the US and Britain have all opted for a strategy of mitigation - obviously, at different levels of severity. Until this Thursday, Ministers of the Government stated that the measures this State will take will not stop the spread of the virus. My understanding is that it seeks to mitigate, not suppress, the situation. Today for the first time, the Taoiseach said that the Government is seeking to suppress the transmission of the virus. Could the Minister tell me whether it is the case that the current strategy and all the other strategies of the Government at the moment will stop the spread of the virus? Aontú believes that mitigation was wrong. The EU is now the epicentre and soon Britain and the US will be in that position. I believe Ireland should follow the lead of those countries that have successfully suppressed the virus. The house is on fire; we need to do all we can to put it out now and to play for time.
Last week, the Minister for Health stated that there would be 15,000 tests done on a daily basis for coronavirus in this State. It followed the logic of the WHO, which said that we need to test, test, test. The countries that have brought an end to the spread of the virus have done so in large part because of testing. South Korea, which was mentioned earlier, is testing at a rate 3.5 times the rate of this State and five times the rate of North of Ireland. In Vó, Italy, where the first cases of the virus in that country were diagnosed, they have managed to stop the spread of the virus through aggressive testing. They have gone a step further. They are testing asymptomatic people in order to get ahead of the virus. In other words, there is a ripple in the pool and they are looking to go to the farthest ripple to stop the virus at that stage but this Government is not doing that at the moment.
We have seen two high-profile media personalities recently tested for Covid-19. I believe they have done the State some service in discussing their own symptoms here. However, given their statements, they would not have met the current criteria for testing in this State and it is likely that they would have gone undiagnosed. If there is a mismatch between capacity for testing and the demand for testing, it should be addressed by increasing the level of testing in the country.
I also want to mention an amendment that seeks to reduce further the human right to life. Given that so many people at this really difficult stage are doing their best to save human life, it would be shocking for us to weaken the human right to life in the State any further.
I thank the Minister for filling in for the Minister for Health with regard to this section. At the outset, I want to gabháil comhghairdeas le gach éinne who are working so hard in front-line services along with our medics. We see Dr. Tony Holohan every night along with the Minister for Health, the Taoiseach and everybody, including all the group leaders. As leaders, we get support from our individual Members. A lot of stuff has happened and changed and a lot of legislation is changing here without proper scrutiny and input and without Members being allowed to come in to speak on it, which is the usual process. I thank all my colleagues in my group for putting their trust in Deputy O'Donoghue and me to deal with it on their behalf because people in rural Ireland are worried, as are people in urban Ireland. I again salute the tens of thousands of people who have offered to answer Ireland's call and offered their services to the HSE and front-line services. I commend them and all the doctors, nurses, paramedics, civil authorities, civil defence, the Irish Red Cross and Mountain Rescue Ireland. They are going above and beyond the call of duty and want to do so for the good of the people. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
However, I have worries.
Misleading is the wrong word, but I refer to the different stories that come out about the availability of PPE, where it is and where it is coming from. There are different reports on different programmes. We need the basic tools of the trade. I hope we never again get caught napping, as we have here, given the necessity to have that kind of equipment. It should be stockpiled. I accept it might go out of date but we should have access to it. I do not agree with Deputy Bríd Smith's insistence that we should nationalise some of the producers. We have some great pharma companies in this country and many of them are stepping up to the plate. I believe we should enter into greater dialogue with them to offer their services. We saw what the small firm I mentioned earlier could do in Northern Ireland in terms of making changes and producing protective gowns. Encouragement is important. We need a carrot and stick approach. Thankfully, people have not been found wanting yet in any part of society. I do not believe we should be in a mad rush to nationalise this, that or the other.
I have a question on Part 5 which relates to mental health. This is a very difficult area. In parts of Tipperary we do not have a long-stay bed for people who suffer from mental health issues in general. I believe we must come back to the House to debate the legislation again before it is extended. We need to look out for the mental health and well-being of our people. Various counselling services are in place and helplines have been set up. The Garda Síochána are doing a great job. Postmen, fir an phoist agus mná an phoist, everybody is helping out, including the alert groups, Neighbourhood Watch, GAA clubs, soccer clubs and everybody else. It is very important that we do look out for each other, especially for people who may be a bit down in themselves.
I also have a question about private health insurance. People are contacting me on the issue. We have seen much bad faith on the part of insurance companies. Given that private hospitals are now operating in a public capacity, could a stay of perhaps three or six months be put on people’s premium payments for those who have private health insurance? We are all in favour of the hospitals becoming public. Will people get an extension without paying extra money? People have been asking me those questions, rightly so, and we should try to get answers from the Minister if he can respond.
I mentioned personal protective equipment. Like Deputy Tóibín, I also have issues about the threat to human life in the womb before babies are born. In this time of crisis it is appalling to think that people would try to extend the measure and have a more cavalier attitude to the taking of human life. I believe the lifeline is from conception through to natural birth and death. I hope the Government will reject the amendments that have been tabled. This is no place for them. Some people will not stop at anything to pursue their narrow cause. Thankfully, in these times many people are turning back to wise ways, to faith and their belief in prayer as well. I make no apology for that. People are damn glad to have places to go and pray. They are worried in case churches are totally closed, which they may well be. At present, churches are closed for masses but people of all denominations are encouraged to go in and pray. People must leave when a mass is being said as there cannot be a group there but there can be small numbers and safe distancing. People are glad to have that refuge at the moment.
I support what has been said about sections 4 and 5. I believe much of section 4 is technical. I have the most serious concerns about section 5. I already expressed those this morning. I see that there is a sunset clause, which I welcome, and that the legislation will come back before the Dáil for discussion. That is a learning from last week where we did not have such a provision in the other draconian legislation. It would be remiss of me, given my previous life as a psychologist quite some time ago, to allow this to pass without comment, given the extraordinary length of time it took to bring human rights into the mental health area and with the stroke of a pen we have now taken it away for a period of eight months, from 30 March to November. One has to comment on that. It should have been put in perspective in the Preamble to emergency legislation such as this, as should have been the case last week, in terms of proportionality and necessity. We must use language properly in a time of emergency such as this when the Minister wants us behind him, which indeed we have.
Since this emergency, I have not done a single press release or made any comment in a negative way. I am using the Dáil now to raise legitimate questions because there are serious questions which have to be raised. I hope the Dáil continues to sit. I will not be supporting any effort where the Dáil will not sit and we rely instead on briefings.
I realise the Government is under pressure and that we are in a time of emergency. However, the type of Draconian legislation which we brought in last week, which I supported most reluctantly, and this week has to be matched by openness and candour regarding facts. I, as are many other Deputies, receive constant representations on the failure to protect health workers. At this stage, we should have clear answers on protective equipment, ventilators and the precise number of beds. There should be no more waffle, patronising statements or reassurances. Empowering Deputies will empower people on the ground to believe in the system. The change in criteria is by health guidelines. It does not make sense to me, however, as a Member or an ordinary person that we do not prioritise the most vulnerable from the beginning. Why that was not done is beyond my comprehension.
The Minister for Justice and Equality is here today instead of the Minister for Health. That is helpful in a sense regarding direct provision. I have played by the rules and made numerous representations to the Health Service Executive on this issue. Finally, I was referred to the Department of Justice and Equality on direct provision. As a human being, a woman and a Deputy, I have the most serious concerns about the conditions which exist in direct provision centres, two of which are in Galway. I am in receipt of a letter which I cannot read out but suffice to say that it is extremely worrying. People feel they are being punished if they stand up for social distancing and proper procedures by being moved.
What happened regarding student nurses simply should not have happened. Provision should have been made immediately to pay adequate compensation to student nurses who are doing their best. I am really worried that the social distancing measures are not been adhered to in factories and employees are in fear. We are all in receipt of the most extraordinary letter signed by over 350 dentists telling us that the advice from the Department of Health was dangerous. That is an extraordinary statement of which I am sure the Minister is aware. It begs a question.
On the delay in testing, I have received representations concerning waiting times of ten days and longer. It should not be my role to make representations. It should be open and accountable when one gets a test as to how long it will take. That gives reassurance to people. Nobody wants to be prioritised over vulnerable people. In fact, my representations related to vulnerable people. I have no idea how they will be able to do tracing weeks afterwards.
The impact of these measures on people experiencing domestic violence and child abuse has been repeatedly highlighted. I am not sure what measures are being taken about this. Another issue is young doctors working 24 hour shifts. These are practical issues. The Government must give us actual information that this is not happening on the ground and practical information on protective equipment. I am sick listening to sound bites and press releases telling us that they will come in at the end of the week. It reminds me of the legislation for the Irish language. I was told it would be introduced this summer, before Christmas and so forth. I forgot to ask which year. Which week will they have sufficient protection equipment in hospitals?
I want to address Part 8 which concerns changes to the Redundancy Payments Act 1967. The provisions set out in section 12 of that Act provide that an employee who has been temporarily laid off or kept on short term for four consecutive weeks has an entitlement to claim redundancy from his or her employer. It is clear to all sides of the House that these provisions were not designed to deal with the situation we are now facing.
In section 27 we are providing that these arrangements will not apply during this emergency period. As we are only too well aware, one of the impacts of Covid-19, and the measures we have had to take to address this pandemic, is that there has been an immediate and significant volume of temporary lay-offs in our country. There is a very real possibility that these lay-offs and short-term working arrangements may have to be extended for a protracted period. We are seeking to deal with that reality through the wage subsidy scheme which I addressed earlier and through a range of enhanced income supports being provided through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. If we leave section 12 of the Redundancy Act 1967 as it stands we could potentially face mass redundancies in a short time. Then the financial impact of mass redundancies would have a disastrous effect on the potential for business to recover when we emerge from the crisis we are now in. All that this would lead to is insolvent and bankrupt enterprises and more job losses. Section 27 of this Bill suspends the relevant provisions of the 1967 Act for the period 13 March-31 May. If it proves to be necessary, and I hope that it will not, the period could be extended. I want to stress, however, in the clearest terms that an employee's right to claim redundancy after a temporary period of lay-off or short-term work is not being removed. It is simply being curtailed for a temporary period in this emergency situation. This has to be seen in light of the income subsidy scheme that the earlier part of this Bill introduces.
Part 9 of the Bill concerns the civil registration process. The aim of these amendments is quite straightforward. It is to ensure that the civil registration service can continue to operate effectively throughout the duration of the emergency. The amendments proposed here will ensure that births and deaths can continue to be registered during this crisis. The House will know that it is important that this service is available to ensure continued access, in particular for child benefit payments. Medical cards for children are also dependent on registration of a birth. Equally, the continued ability to register a death will allow a joint account holder to have access to accounts that are held jointly with the deceased in a situation where the authorisation of both account holders is ordinarily required. Currently a person registering a life event is required to attend in person before a registrar and to sign the register in the presence of the registrar. This would be very difficult to do in situations where citizens are being asked to self-isolate and maintain physical distancing. To address this measures are being introduced in sections 30 and 31 of the Bill to remove temporarily the obligation to attend the registration office in person to register a birth or a death and to sign the register. From an operational point of view the intention is that the particulars required for a registration can be submitted by email or by post and that the signature can be captured subsequently when the current emergency situation has come to an end. This, therefore, is only a temporary measure in order to ensure that where local registry services become unavailable the Registrar General will have the power to appoint members of his own staff to perform these functions on a temporary basis pending recovery of the local registration service. These are a few measures that have been taken to ensure that we can discharge our fundamental public services to citizens but in a different way and at a different time, and the measures in respect of the rights of workers have to be seen in the light of the income subsidy scheme brought in under the early part of this Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill on what is primarily a public health issue. We can never acknowledge or thank enough the people serving on the front line in our health service, shops and transport for the efforts they are making on behalf of the nation.
I want to use the opportunity to call for any manufacturers who can help with the provision of protective gear for our public health workers to come forward and make this gear available, because it is needed. In Mullingar hospital last night, a senior clinician used Facebook to ask people if they have any garments in hairdressers or such to make this gear available. I think it is very important that anybody who can help would do so. I want to focus my attention, in the limited time, on the parts of the Bill dealing with employers and small and medium enterprises, SMEs. One sure thing is that this virus will pass, and we want to ensure that sustainable, viable businesses are protected for the duration of the crisis, to ensure that employees have jobs to return to in a number of weeks or months. I acknowledge that there has been a very swift response.
I welcome the change of the Covid-19 payment to €350 per week. Only last week, when we were debating here, the Government seemed reluctant to even allow employers themselves to increase that payment. The change is very welcome. There are unintended consequences in that change. Some people, due to the hours they were working, are perhaps now financially better off when in receipt of the Covid-19 payment. We have to think of the unintended consequences, in that certain areas and essential services may have difficulty in recruiting or retaining staff in those areas. I want to raise a number of issues about the temporary wage subsidy and hope the Minister can bring clarity to them. I am told that the wage subsidy is only paid to businesses that have no tax liabilities. Any SMEs that may have struggled or have had some marginal arrears are disqualified from applying. If that is the case, one may see certain small companies laying people off and just going for the €350. I do not think that is the Minister's intention and that needs to be looked at. Revenue's website states:
Income tax, USC, LPT, if applicable, and PRSI are not deducted from the Temporary Wage Subsidy. However, the Subsidy will be liable to Income Tax and USC on review at the end of the year.
Is the subsidy liable for tax or not? If it is, people need to be made aware of it, and if not, it needs to be clarified.
Another matter is that if one declares a 25% reduction in turnover, one is effectively saying that the business is insolvent. Are employers who were prudent and put by some money to be precluded from availing of this provision? Will employees on a lower wage receive more than some employees on a higher wage? The net effect of that will be that certain companies, instead of retaining the employer-employee relationship, which I think is the Minister's intention, will just temporarily lay people off, and that needs to be looked at. We will table amendments on Committee Stage about commercial rates and commercial leases, as well as examinerships, which I will speak to.
I welcome the intervention by the Minister and the Central Bank about insurance cover. Keep on top of that. SMEs took out legitimate cover and are entitled to compensation now. Everything must be done to ensure that this happens in a timely fashion. We cannot have protracted arguments over months and years. Liquidity is not the Minister's responsibility, but the responsibility of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Asking businesses to take out loans that they will have to repay at interest rates of up to 7%, as they look at the edge of a cliff, is not the answer.
We need to examine how to get much-needed liquidity into viable sustainable businesses now, before it is too late.
I will start by thanking all the front-line workers who are doing extraordinary work in very difficult circumstances. I extend those thanks to all staff working in the Intreo offices across the State, who have seen an unprecedented level of new applications come before them over recent weeks. More than 100,000 have been dealt with at this stage. I commend and thank those staff members for all their work under extremely difficult circumstances.
I welcome this Bill. Many of the social protection measures were dealt with in last week's legislation. There are a couple of bits to be dealt with in this legislation with regard to redundancy and civil registration. Over recent weeks, we have seen many employers behaving responsibly but we have also seen some acting very irresponsibly and taking advantage of very difficult circumstances. We need to ensure that workers' rights and entitlements are protected in all legislation we pass. That is why Sinn Féin has tabled an amendment to Part 8, which deals with redundancy payments, to ensure that workers' rights with regard to redundancy payments are not affected at a later stage by a temporary loss of employment. We have tabled an amendment to deal with that issue which I hope will accepted by the Government because we need to ensure the protection of workers' rights.
A minority of employers are also taking advantage in a number of other areas. Some are forcing workers to take annual leave against their will and without notice. Resources need to be greatly enhanced for the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which is under extreme pressure, to allow it to deal with the level of inquiries and complaints it is receiving at present and will continue to receive into the future.
I will raise a number of issues. One issue which has come to the fore in recent days is that of frontier workers, that is to say people from the North who work in the Twenty-Six Counties, who have been made unemployed. Many thousands have been made unemployed in Border counties from Donegal right the way over to Louth. They pay their taxes and contributions here. Many have applied for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and been turned down. Clarity is needed in that regard because conflicting messages are coming from the Department. I attended a briefing by Department officials yesterday. They said it was their understanding that such workers are entitled to the payment but applications are being turned down. We need clarity on that. They should be entitled to this payment. We need a guarantee that will be the case.
I also need clarity with regard to people who were on the X's and O's or casual dockets. Many such people have been made unemployed and there is no clarity as to whether they can access the PUP. Can I get such clarity on? I raised the issue with the departmental officials last night but they had no information on it. I need that information as soon as possible. I ask the Minister for some clarity in that regard.
I, and I am sure many others, have had contact from members of the public who are engaged with JobPath through Turas Nua and Seetec. These companies are still insisting that people referred to them attend meetings, go out to seek employment and ring businesses. They say that if people do not do so their payments will be curtailed. We need referrals to JobPath to stop with immediate effect. We also need the JobPath programme to be suspended for the duration of this crisis. I want to see it gone completely but it should at least be suspended while this crisis continues.
There is another issue with regard to workers and thousands of workers are to be seen on unsafe construction sites across the State. I have had contact from employees who work in food processing plants in which there have been confirmed cases of Covid-19. They have genuine concerns because of vulnerable loved ones who may have underlying health issues.
If they take a decision to self-isolate to ensure their loved ones are protected, there is no payment for them. The only option for them is to go to a community welfare officer. That must be examined. While the business might still be operational and the jobs are still available, if people take that decision to protect their loved ones there must be a payment available and they must be entitled to get that payment.
There are many other issues that I and other Deputies have been putting to the Department. Information is very slow to come back. There are explanations for many of these issues, but clarity is needed. There must be a proper line of communication so answers are forthcoming to ensure that people who need these payments can get the appropriate information.
Like other Deputies, I begin by offering my sympathies to the families of those who have lost loved ones due to Covid-19 infection. We can only begin to imagine what a difficult time it is for them. I also join Deputies in thanking the front-line workers who continue to make such huge efforts to contain the spread of this disease across the country. It is also important to acknowledge the efforts everybody is making in their lives to limit their interactions with others, practise social distancing and practise cocooning where necessary. When we look at the rate of increase each night we acknowledge that it is not the worst case scenario at this stage even though the figures are scary. Much of that is due to the efforts being made by the general population and we should always remind people that their efforts are bearing fruit.
I thank the Minister for the opportunity to deal with some of the social protection elements in this legislation. An issue that has been raised to a significant extent with my and my colleagues is rent supplement. The Minister, former Deputy Regina Doherty, has said that she intends to bring forward proposals on this in the next week or so. Families where the wage earner or even both wage earners are self-employed only qualify for the pandemic payment, not the higher wage subsidy scheme. Those families, particularly those where there may be only one wage earner, are very nervous that they will be left with significant rent debts once the rent moratorium period has passed, which we are voting on today, and be at risk of eviction. There are various options we can take. There was talk about continuing to grant welfare officers discretion as regards going past the rates of rent supplement, but my view is that we must increase those rates. In areas such as my constituency of Dublin West rents are already very high. As regards putting it in a discretionary model for the social welfare officers, unless a direction is given to raise everybody there will be an avalanche of claims and the discretionary model will not work in a practical sense.
A number of other issues have been raised with me and my colleagues in respect of social protection by our constituents over the last few weeks. There are people on short-term contracts who would often work above the contracted number of hours. They will only receive 70% of the contracted hours under the temporary wage subsidy scheme. We propose that there should be a baseline payment of €350 to protect workers in that situation. Another issue is where somebody is of pensionable age and only receives a partial pension because the person is still in work at present. Those people are concerned that this payment is a working age payment only. Perhaps the Minister can provide some clarity in that regard.
Employers need clarity on whether inability to pay is required to qualify for the temporary wage subsidy scheme. Different advice is being received by employers I have spoken to. Again, the Minister might take the opportunity to clarify that issue.
An issue that has been raised with me is the need to protect workers against the potential opportunistic misuse of the payments to rationalise workers, perhaps by taking the opportunity to lay off longer-term employees who might be on higher rates of pay in favour of younger employees who might receive a lower rate. We should do anything we can to prevent that. Like Deputy Brady, we have had representations in respect of the cross-Border issue, particularly in the case of people who might work in Northern Ireland but live in Letterkenny or elsewhere in the Republic, and their ability to receive the payments.
We covered the Department of Finance measures earlier but I apologise to the Minister that I was not in the Chamber to hear his reply. He will recall that in my previous contribution, I raised the issue of employers that seek to engage on the temporary wage subsidy scheme and issues that may arise with creditors and insolvency. I referred to the potential for them to trade recklessly or fraudulently and all that arises from that, and to the exposure of employers that may wish to get involved in that scheme. The Minister may have already addressed that point in his earlier response, but if he considers it inappropriate to comment further on it at this juncture, given that we are discussing social protection issues, we might develop the point a little more on Committee Stage with his permission and that of the House.
I pay tribute to the work being done by thousands of members of staff at Intreo offices and at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection over the past two weeks in particular. An extraordinary amount of work has been done to support those who are in unprecedentedly difficult circumstances. Nobody predicted we would ever be at this point but the response from the system has been extraordinary. I wish to put on record my support for staff at the Department and the work they are doing. I hope the Minister is satisfied that the Department has sufficient staff to process the number of claims coming through the Department at this time and the anticipated number of claims that are, unfortunately, expected over the next few weeks. Is it the intention of the Department to engage additional staff on a temporary basis or is it the case that the Department envisages engaging staff from the wider Civil Service to assist in the work that staff are doing at present to process the volume of applications for support? I ask that at all times, notwithstanding the legislation that will govern the new payments, a wide degree of discretion and flexibility be shown by the Department to ensure that those who need the support most will receive it at this unprecedented time.
Our amendment relating to the Redundancy Payments Act is important. There has been mixed advice, and I am sure the Minister will later share the advice that the Department received, in respect of the requirement to make the amendment we have proposed. A similar amendment has been tabled in the name of Deputy Ó Broin of Sinn Féin. We want to ensure that in the event that workers laid off over the next period are subject to selection for redundancy at some point in the future, the period of layoff will be considered to be continuity of service for the purposes of calculating their redundancy entitlements. We do not want to expose people to such problems somewhere down the line, inadvertently or otherwise.
I fully support the measures that are to be introduced in respect of civil registration, which are obviously required.
The issue of short-time work was mentioned in Deputy Brady's contribution. Many people have been placed on short-time work in recent weeks. There appears to be a question mark over their ability to qualify for the pandemic unemployment payment. We do not want those on short-time work to be treated worse or to be at a less advantageous position to those in receipt of the payment.
That is unfair and inequitable. It is an anomaly that has arisen. I understand and appreciate that the Department has been rushing to try to ensure we have some form of payment available to as wide a number of people as possible to get us through these circumstances. It is an anomaly that has arisen and I would appreciate it if the Minister will explore that in his response.
Of course, all of these payments are being targeted at people of working age and there are some anomalies around those who are under 18 and who are working full-time but are out of education and who do not qualify for the payments. Similarly, there are those who over the age of 66, as referenced by Deputy O'Gorman in his contribution.
I want to raise a brief point in regard to building workers. If in doubt, we should simply ensure that building sites are closed. There is no way in this world that we can, at every single juncture, ensure that all building workers are protected and adhere at all times to social distancing. I will leave it at that.
I want to raise several points. As Deputy Shortall said, we effectively have the introduction of a two-tier social welfare system. While these measures are very welcome, we need to look long-term at what we can do to ensure sufficient income protection, not just at this time of crisis, but recognising that every time people lose their work is a time of crisis for them. Given the social and economic advantages of having proper income protection in place at that point, there are strong arguments for this.
I bring Members' attention to some points that have been raised with me. Fuel allowance is an issue now that people are staying at home more, in particular for families. We need to look at extending the fuel allowance in order that we can support families in that circumstance. There is a particular issue with children of lone parents in regard to who will look after the children if the parent becomes sick, and we need to examine what supports can be put in place. There is also an issue for people in situations of domestic violence where they are trying to leave home but cannot get into a shelter. We need to take what measures we can to support people who are not able to access traditional shelters or refuge but who need somewhere safe to go. I ask for those areas to be looked at.
I appreciate the Minister for Finance is not the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and we will support the measures that he has introduced in the Bill. Deputy Connolly highlighted the need for more Dáil sittings to discuss these issues. This is an area of particular importance to many people. As somebody suggested, we have got rid of a two-tier health system and created a two-tier social welfare system. It begs the question of whether, if €205 is not enough for people to live on and it has been raised to €350, it is enough for pensioners, jobseekers, those with disabilities and many more. We would argue there should be a straightforward social payment of €350 for everybody.
A number of questions need to be teased out with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. One that has come up quite a bit concerns workers who feel vulnerable because they have an underlying health issue or somebody they live with at home has an underlying health issue. If they believe they need to self-isolate but do not have the two symptoms plus a fever that the doctors now require to tell them to isolate themselves, and they do not have access to a test, are they to continue to work in conditions of extreme worry and stress about the potential threats or risks to their families or would they be entitled to the payment of €350? I asked this at the briefing the other day and it is very unclear. It is a question that constantly comes up and it particularly arises, and was mentioned this morning, in regard to building workers. In the interests of all of society, those who believe they need to self-isolate should be entitled to that basic payment in order to live.
I raise the question of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, because I think it falls in the area of this Department. In all of this discussion about non-essential work, the exposure of building workers, the lack of oversight on protocols needed to keep us safe and prevent the spread of the virus, what is the role of the HSA? Should its staff not now be checking furiously on the building sites and shutting down those that are not compliant with the protocols concerning Covid-19? It strikes me that many of those staff probably are either working from home or sitting there not doing much. Their role, however, is fundamental to this situation. At the end of the day, if the virus does spread throughout the building industry because it is not being shut down, will the HSA stand over that? Is it not the role of the HSA to stand over the health and safety of workers and the conditions in which they work?
I was also asked to raise another anomaly concerning lone parents. Lone parents applying for a lone parent payment are in a long queue already. Part of the application involves the visit of an inspector to applicants' homes to check out the details. That is not going to happen when we all have to keep socially distanced. I would not argue for inspectors to call to homes, for their safety and that of those in the homes of the lone parents being visited. In this context, I am requesting that the payment be made in faith and that the inspections be carried out later, when we come through this crisis.
There is also the question of rent supplements. There is discussion about their reintroduction, but there is very little clarity concerning the criteria and conditions under which those payments might be made. Again, I think the right thing to do in this crisis is to have a rent freeze. That would cut out all the need for red tape around a supplement but would ensure that nobody, as in the case of mortgage holders, would have to pay rent during this crisis. I know the Minister is not in a position to address all these questions but it does raise the need for some forum where we can talk to the Minister and tease these things out properly.
I welcome the presence of the Minister for Finance in the Chamber. I have a specific issue to bring to his attention and that is the mortgage freeze he agreed with the banking sector. It was a very welcome development. It has been brought to my attention, however, that Ulster Bank is implementing this in a different manner to the other mainstream banks. I have been informed by a constituent, who has a mortgage with Ulster Bank, that rather than putting the three-month freeze to the end of the mortgage, Ulster Bank is adding it on to the existing mortgage term. That means there is an increase in payments, because the principal and the interest have to be paid on top of the existing mortgage. We should not be putting additional financial pressure on families. There is an agreement to put the repayments to the end and extend the lifetime of the mortgage by three months. That should be implemented across the board.
There also needs to be clarity concerning the financial payments available through the Covid-19 illness benefit for those who must self-isolate because they are immunocompromised or because other people in their homes are immunocompromised. I understand there is some flexibility regarding the issuing of a doctor's certificate regarding an individual who is immunocompromised and that the Department will look sympathetically on that. People who are employees, however, and have someone in their home who is immunocompromised are left in a situation where they either take a drop in income or compromise the health of someone within their own home. There needs to be clarity on this issue, because one of the main focuses of this emergency legislation is to ensure people are not put in that specific dilemma. Yet, this is happening in homes where there are people who are immunocompromised and we need to have clarity in this regard.
Regarding measures being taken in social welfare to provide income support, they are all welcome but they do create several anomalies. One of those concerns widows and full-time carers who work part time and are over the age of 66.
They are not entitled to the €350 payment because they are over the age of 66. That age anomaly needs to be removed from the provisions of this Bill.
The other issue that needs to be addressed is the habitual residency condition within social welfare law. As the Minister knows, we have thousands of young people across the world who cannot get income supports in the country they are currently in. They are looking to come back home to Ireland and it is causing a huge problem for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. When they come home, they will not be eligible for a social welfare payment, other than a supplementary welfare payment because they will not be able to comply with the habitual residency condition. Some discretion needs to be brought into that condition.
I want to raise the issue of individuals who are exploiting the crisis. One group that has been highlighted by St. Vincent de Paul is moneylenders. Licensed moneylenders that can charge up to 187% interest rates are exploiting the situation. There is a responsibility on the Government to make people aware of the different supports and services that are available through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and through their local credit unions. There is an opportunity to help to support local media outlets such as local radio stations and provincial newspapers by taking out public awareness advertising of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and other support services that are out there for people. That would give people access to that information, which is timely and appropriate. It would also provide a vital income source to those regional and local media outlets that are struggling to keep their doors open. Those local media outlets, particularly for people who are cocooned in their homes, are a vital source of information. As the Minister knows, the restrictions that are in place may stay in place for a considerable period of time. We need to ensure those local sources of information are available to people.
I am sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath. We have heard here that people have been looking for the building sector to close down but we have to take a holistic view. Workers in the building sector get paid through the banking system and the banking system is holding building contractors and others to ransom because one gets paid in accordance with the work one is doing. That work has to be signed off by engineers and that sign-off goes back into the banking sector again in order for the banks to pay out on the work that has been done. Many of the building contractors who are working at the moment and who are keeping people separated at appropriate distances should be commended for the work they are doing. There are other contractors out there who are exploiting the situation and they should be dealt with by the heavy hand of the law. However, we have an awful lot of small contractors throughout this country who are building farm buildings for the farming community in order to keep food on the table for us.
There are two different sectors within the construction sector. There is a lot of building ongoing in the big cities and there is a lot building ongoing in rural areas. Building sites in rural areas can accommodate bigger separation distances whereas the big construction sites can find it hard to do so. The Government needs to implement measures that will look at the knock-on effects if it closes down the building sector. The suppliers the Government has asked to stay open in order to supply the food chain, the building contractors and the farmers are all depending on the payments they get from different sectors. The banks have to play their part again in making sure the funding comes at the time it is needed and that if one sector is closed, the suppliers the Government wants to stay open are not being pushed to provide all the other supplies such as fodder for our farming communities so that they are not forced to close as well. We have to implement measures so that all sectors can be covered and that when it comes to a point where the building sector can recommence, the suppliers will not take it out on the contractors for delayed payments due to the banking sector and the regulations that are in place.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Are there any supports or payments for those who have no choice but to stay at home because they do not have a childminder and are forced to use their holiday pay to cover themselves?
Can we offer them a payment or family leave on compassionate grounds or whatever? Are there any supports for at-risk people who are still at work but who would prefer to self-isolate and leave their jobs in the interests of their health and safety and the health and safety of their families? Can the Government advise on whether people who have applied for the pandemic unemployment payment and have received or will receive the €350 payment will get it at a weekly flat rate? Will they have to pay back the difference if they have been overpaid? For example, what about a part-time worker who has lost his or her job and was getting an average weekly income of €150 but will now get €350? Will he or she have to return the €200 additional payment? Many people are asking that question. I believe this should be the case. I believe it is unfair that people who continue to work are disincentivised to work as a result of this flat rate of pay. That is happening as a result of the payment. I commend those in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on their Trojan work to date. When things have been sorted out, the Department should try to retain workers on the average weekly income rather than give them an overpayment. In saying that, I am glad the rate has been increased from €203 to €350 because people needed that kind of income.
The issue of pay for student nurses arises. A broad range of other students who have lost part-time work will receive €350. It is vital that we pay the brave student nurses adequately for their amazing work. Many of them are working as normal qualified nurses during a crisis and some do not even have the proper equipment. Will the State consider the possibility of giving all our frontline workers a tax-free income as an incentive during this crisis? As usual, the nurses, doctors, care workers, assistants, attendants and paramedics are working above and beyond. Such a move would be a major gesture and demonstrate our gratitude to them. We all remember when these nurses took to the picket line 14 months ago for a pay increase. They are yet to see an enhanced salary. Now is the time to do that.
I received a call this afternoon from an intensive care unit nurse in one of the biggest hospitals in the country. She informed me that nurses who have to self-isolate after being in contact with cases while at work are given a Covid-19 leave payment. This is a flat pay cheque and they are not paid as they would be during a normal working week. The nurse who contacted me does not want to be named. Anyway, she is down €300 per week as a result. That is a shocking amount of money. This is a kick in the teeth for our most valued workers and it needed to be reviewed. Earlier, I said many of the situations that have arisen were unexpected but we need to tease them out and work through them as fast as we can.
I welcome many of the different measures brought in during recent days. They are helpful to people throughout the country. There are anomalies in certain areas. We have told our elderly to isolate as much as they can. If they have to isolate in the coming months, the fuel allowance should be paid to them. Obviously, they have to keep themselves warm. We should ensure we put that in place.
This morning mixed signals came out. Officials in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection sent letters to people throughout the country. The letters said it would be preferable if people used the banking system for social distancing rather than the post offices. Let us be clear on this: post offices have brought in as good a system as the banking system to ensure proper social distancing. It has now been cleared up but such mixed messages need to stop.
One sector that has been forgotten in all of this is the farming sector. At the moment the marts are closed to farmers. Will the Minister confirm whether farmers are entitled to the €350 payment? They are self-employed. They are struggling to sell cattle at the moment for the obvious reason that the marts are closed. It is well-known that there is a slowdown at the moment in the export of beef. I welcome the green lanes announced today. They have been introduced in Europe to try to get through this. However, we need to consider the sheep sector, which relies on the French market at Easter. Prices are falling flat on their face at the moment. I welcome every measure the Government has taken. All of them are needed and fair play to the Government for taking them.
There are sectors which need help. There are 300,000 people involved in the agricultural sector and 130,000 farmers. We have to make sure that something like the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme is introduced because at the end of the day, the food system has to be kept going. I ask the Minister of State to consider those points.
I support the call for the fuel allowance to be increased beyond the anticipated date of 18 April, even after the immediate stage of the crisis has passed. A lot of elderly people will continue to self-isolate for longer than the rest of the community and they need to be supported.
Like many other constituencies, tourism is an important aspect of the economy in Clare. I received an email which I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister of State. I have received many calls from seasonal employees and their employers and this email is from an employer. It states:
We were due to take on most of our staff for the season this week and next week. We will not be able to do so now before May, if not June, such are the current conditions. Social welfare is refusing to give our seasonal staff the increased payment as they were not employed on February 29th. I was going to take the staff on directly and pay them through the Government scheme for the next two months. This is also being disallowed on the basis that the staff were not in employment on February 29th. Young students who only worked for six hours a week are getting paid the €350 but regular seasonal workers are being refused.
That seems, to this particular employer, to be unfair. It also seems unfair to me and I ask the Government to look at this because seasonal employment is an essential facet of tourism, which is an important sector.
I would also like to focus on agriculture and in particular the BEAM scheme. It was an exceptional measures scheme introduced by the Government in 2019, one of the conditions of which is a reduction in stocking numbers in the time period from 1 July 2020, which is quickly approaching, to 30 June 2021. Given that marts have closed farmers will not be able to sell cattle. I suggest that the time period specified in the scheme for stock reduction be extended to next year because of issues of force majeure. I have looked at the Commission implementing regulation and my proposal does not seem to be precluded by that. I ask the Government to look into that, as well as how the self-employment measures could be utilised by farmers, in particular beef farmers, who are unable to sell produce and raise money but are still working on their farms. This is creating a difficulty.
We are moving onto the provisions dealing with the rental sector, housing, planning and other areas. This is a Second Stage debate but I want to be clear that we are moving on from social protection to the housing element of the Bill. There was some confusion with spokespersons earlier. For clarity, I wish to state that we are moving onto the next section.
Before I move on to discussing the various amendments which have been put forward and what is in the legislation, I offer my condolences to the families who have been affected by coronavirus and have lost loved ones. We all recognise this has already hit home for some families much harder than others. I wish those who are unwell and receiving treatment a speedy recovery.
I also wish to recognise that the offices of all Deputies and Senators are available to assist people as much as we possibly can. I understand most offices are officially closed but all of the services we provide continue behind the scenes. In line with many other community groups, we are available to help as best we possibly can. Likewise, the offices of Ministers and Ministers of State are open to any Deputies who may have issues they want to raise with us. I recognise the co-operation we have had in trying to piece together legislation quickly over the past couple of weeks. Members have made suggestions, amendments and so on. While we cannot accommodate everything, there has been a lot of co-operation from all involved from representatives of all parties and none.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I want to recognise the work that is being done on the front line by all involved with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. A lot of work has been done in recent weeks to put plans in place to deal with all of the scenarios which might arise in the weeks and months ahead.
We received much co-operation from local authority level, from NGOs and from all the various stakeholders, including front-line teams working with the homeless, as well as the stakeholders, both private and public, when it comes to family hubs, hostels etc. Everybody has played their part and got involved with us on the plans as well. I recognise all the hard work that goes on there too. Other Ministers and Deputies have mentioned other Departments. I will keep to the Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government for now, but I recognise there is good work going on there being led by the local authorities.
In relation to Part 2 of the Bill, the Bill provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2019 to prevent both tenancy terminations and rent increases during the Covid-19 emergency period. The aim is to keep people in their homes. We need to restrict the movement of people to protect the health and lives of our citizens and this Bill will help reassure tenants that they will not be forced to leave their home during the unprecedented emergency.
No notice of termination can be served during Covid-19 and, except in exceptional circumstances, those served before the emergency cannot take effect until after the emergency period has passed.
These emergency measures do not mean tenants can ignore their obligations. Tenants wilfully in breach of their obligations can be pursued by landlords, but only with the approval of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, in extreme circumstances. That still must be allowed for. Generally, such determinations would take up to 16 weeks to execute.
Rent increases are prohibited during the Covid-19 emergency period. However, landlords and tenants are free to enter into informal arrangements to allow for rent decreases for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.
The Bill defines the Covid-19 emergency period to be of three months' duration but this period can be extended, if necessary, by Government order.
This legislation seeks to protect both tenants and landlords. Landlords accept that some tenants will face serious financial challenges over the coming weeks and months and landlord sector bodies have confirmed in recent engagements with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that they will work to support tenants to the greatest extent possible. The banks, and in turn landlords, recognise that forbearance is required. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, dealt with that on a number of occasions in recent weeks.
While tenants are legally obliged to continue to pay rent during this emergency, the Government is fully conscious that some tenants have seen a reduction in their working hours, some have lost their job, and others have been forced to self-isolate to protect their communities and in some cases have contracted Covid-19.
The Government has made available a range of income and rental supports to anyone in financial difficulty. I encourage tenants encountering difficulty to engage with their landlords and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the earliest opportunity to seek whatever income and rental support might apply in their case. There are quite a lot of supports but, naturally, these are individual in nature.
Section 3 of the Bill provides for standard definitions, including a definition of the Covid-19 "emergency period" to be of three months' duration. The Government is empowered under section 4 to extend this emergency period by order, if necessary.
Section 5 provides that a landlord cannot serve a notice of termination during the Covid-19 emergency period. Where a notice of termination was served before the emergency period, it cannot take effect during Covid-19, except in certain exceptional cases as outlined earlier. For tenancies of less than six months' duration, a tenant will now have 28 days, as opposed to 14 days, from receipt of a rent arrears warning from a landlord to pay overdue rent. Where the tenant fails to pay, the aforementioned tenant protections will apply so the landlord effectively can only serve the notice of termination at the end of the Covid-19 emergency.
I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Butler.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the provisions of the Bill. I assure him that Fianna Fáil will work constructively to improve this legislation. We welcome many aspects of the rental package contained in the Bill but we believe that it needs to be strengthened further.
We need to protect renters. We need to secure the long-term viability of that sector. We need to prevent any additional homelessness but we also need to make sure that we look after those who are in emergency homeless accommodation.
We need to further strengthen protections for mortgage holders and we have put forward an amendment to do that.
I will briefly cover some of them. Oireachtas oversight is incredibly important and that is why I have an amendment down that any of these measures would come back to the Dáil and Seanad within 90 days to strengthen the Residential Tenancies Board role in this to make sure there is adherence to these measures, particularly with regard to forbearance to renters.
We must look at the issue of any accumulated debt during this crisis as well and I welcome amendments from others on that. I will be interested to look at it.
On business relief for employers, I want to make sure that there is protection for the business sector from unscrupulous landlords at a commercial level using non-payment of rent to trigger break clauses in leases. I have seen that already, unfortunately, with a couple of the commercial semi-State bodies, which are big employers in this area. That is not acceptable.
I refer to strengthening mortgage holders support.
I want to bring the non-banks into the legislation through legislation brought forward by Deputy Michael McGrath in 2018. I have tabled an amendment on that as well. We need to bring companies like Haven and Pepper under this legislation. As I said, we need to support renters and make sure that HAP top ups are dealt with. Fianna Fáil has amendments in this regard to make sure those who cannot pay those HAP top ups due to being made unemployed because of the Covid-19 crisis are dealt with. We then need to look into the future.
In the remaining 50 seconds of my contribution, like others, I pay particular tribute to all those on the front line who are working at an incredible level of commitment to our country and Republic. They deserve all the support they can get. We have our job to do in the Dáil and I believe that working together, we can strengthen the legislation to make things better for our people during this crisis. I acknowledge the work of our local authority staff across the country and all those on the front line, including our transport staff and those in the aviation sector who, hopefully, will continue to work to get Irish people home during this crisis. I have amendments tabled, for which I will argue on Committee Stage. They are put forward in a constructive way to try to make this legislation better. We support the thrust of this legislation and look forward to working constructively together to make this a good piece of legislation that will have a real and positive effect for our people.
The coronavirus emergency is the most dangerous and life-altering event Ireland has faced in any of our lifetimes. It has completely changed the way we live our lives and how we go about our daily business. We have all seen the horrific numbers from Italy and Spain, our European neighbours, and we now pray that their present is not our future. We cannot call to our parents for a cup of tea and a chat but this is a price worth paying if it keeps them safe and healthy. Up and down the country, people are paying this price. Many thousands of people have lost their jobs and are unsure of when they will be back in employment. Many thousands of employers and small business owners have had to close their doors and wonder whether they will open again. Many thousands worry whether they will be able to keep a roof over their heads, pay their rents or make mortgage repayments. What will the future hold for them?
I welcome the opportunity today to support the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020 and look forward to debating amendments that will strengthen the Bill. However, I believe all is not bleak. One only has to look at the front-line healthcare workers up and down the country to find hope. Homecare workers and carers are delivering care in the community to our most vulnerable. Our people have rallied and will not be found wanting. We hear of doctors and nurses coming out of retirement and returning from across the globe to fight this virus. We have seen innovations such as 3-D printing companies pivoting to make respirator valves. We have seen many Irish companies change their business models to create products such as face masks and hand sanitisers.
South Korea has shown how this virus can be slowed - social distancing, testing and contact tracing. The Irish people must play their part in this. We must all follow the HSE guidelines - washing one's hands, coughing and sneezing etiquette and social distancing. The value of social distancing will become apparent as the weeks go on if people comply with the guidelines. We are already seeing the benefit with contact numbers significantly reduced.
I start by offering my deepest condolences to families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. My thoughts are with all of those people who are sick or unwell, be they self-isolating or in hospital. Like other Deputies, I express my sincerest thanks not only to all of the outstanding health and emergency workers but to all of those other people, be they in the public service or private sector, who are keeping our economy and society moving - people like retail workers, delivery workers, taxi drivers, local authority staff and, of course, the front-line staff in the community and voluntary sectors.
As everybody here knows, tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and many of those jobs are in hospitality, retail and services. They were on low or modest pay. A very significant number of these people are renters. For people who are paying their full rents, rents are due from next week and many people who are on HAP have top ups to the landlords that are due this week in many cases. There is a significant amount of worry and fear among this group of people about what the immediate future will hold. Some landlords are responding very responsibly for which I thank them but I am hearing reports, as I am sure are other Deputies, of landlords not responding in the spirit we would have expected.
While the measures in relation to housing and rents in this Bill are very welcome, my concern is they do not go far enough. One of the single biggest concerns, which Deputy Darragh O'Brien has raised, is what will happen at the other end of this crisis when renters will end up with a very significant rent arrears debt burden and the impact that will have on them, the rental sector and the economy overall. That is why we have been arguing in recent weeks, first, for an emergency rent supplement payment. I understand the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is looking at that, but we have yet to see a formal announcement of the nature of the scheme. Also, we are going to need to see a serious discussion around rent reductions and rent waivers, in particular in cases where landlords of tenants unable to pay their rent have been able to avail of mortgage moratoria for the period of the emergency. Sinn Féin has amendments on those issues. I urge the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department to work with Opposition spokespeople over the coming weeks to deal with some of these issues and deal with us in the same spirit that we are dealing with the Government on the primary legislation.
I welcome the prohibition on eviction notices and rent increases. This will, undoubtedly, take the immediate pressure off the private rental sector and that is a good thing. However, I am concerned that particular groups of people are not covered; people with licences, people in digs, and those in informal lodging arrangements, etc. If we are going to protect renters we need to protect all renters and not just those with formal tenancy agreements.
I am also concerned about some aspects of the community that is in emergency accommodation. I know significant work has been done by the Department, local authorities and the voluntary service providers but more needs to be done and there is a need for greater communication, in particular for those people in communal settings such as dormitory-style accommodation, to try to get them out of that accommodation as quickly as possible and into environments that are much safer. That is not just in emergency accommodation but, crucially, also for those in direct provision, which while I appreciate is not within the remit of the Department of the Minister of State but it still needs to be mentioned.
There is an enormous concern among the Traveller community, in particular where sites are either very overcrowded or do not have adequate facilities or in illegal sites. We need to hear some very clear signals from the Minister and, again, to communicate some of the positive work that has been happening behind to scenes but maybe to go a little bit further. If we are saying that nobody should be evicted over the period of this emergency, that means all sections of society, including the Traveller community. We need to get clarity on that.
I fully understand the need for both the planning regulations and the primary legislation in front of us but I have some concerns about the impact it will have on the ability of the wider public, third parties and advocacy groups to engage fully in the planning process. I will return to that, but also we have yet to hear what will happen with other licensing processes that have statutory timelines, be that licences granted by the Environmental Protection Agency, local authorities or other bodies where the same types of measures are going to be required. If the Minister could enlighten us on any of that I would be greatly appreciative.
This is a national emergency. It is a global emergency. It is a time for all of us to put party politics aside when dealing with these kinds of emergency measures. The Minister of State can rest assured we will work with him and his Department in the way we have on many other issues before in that spirit, but we need greater levels of support for workers, families and small and medium sized enterprises to ensure that while we deal with the immediacy of the crisis they do not end up with a very substantial debt burden on the other side with all of the negative consequences for them, the economy and society.
We are here today in different circumstances. I believe I have entered the Dáil in a time of great change and where unity is required. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge how truly honoured and proud I am to be the first Green Party Deputy to represent the community of Dublin South-West. I sincerely thank the voters for my mandate and the opportunity to effect change. I also applaud and commend all party leaders and their health spokespersons for the decisive actions and the leadership they have shown. In this crisis, we are witnessing, albeit quietly, a unity of purpose. We are in a period of extreme change, one which is bringing huge challenges for this country's people and services. Today, we will pass legislation that will protect renters who live in more than one quarter of our national housing stock and protect anyone who during this crisis might be at the risk of eviction. The Green Party fully endorses and welcomes the moratorium on evictions and welcomes the interim stimulus packages for those in the workforce who have recently lost their jobs. However, we contend that rent supplement reviews must be suspended in line with the other moratoriums being considered here today. We also call for tenants to be afforded supplementary funding to meet their payments where they have been made redundant.
It has taken a health crisis to implement a rent freeze. The Green Party is encouraged by this decision, supported by all parties, illustrating that no Government policy or positions are immutable. It should not be forgotten that the rental market is out of control. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, reported in 2014 on this type of housing crisis. It pointed to the open market not being able to provide the stable environment for the provision of homes that people desperately need. Strategic housing developments, SHDs, are not innocent as they have failed to fulfil their remit to fast-track housing for our communities. Instead, they line the pockets of institutional investors using the system to construct build-to-rent units which prohibit people from buying in their own neighbourhoods. The State should not be complicit in these housing models, which only serve to create transient workforces instead of sustainable communities.
The State is currently making vital housing assistance payments, HAP. However, these payments are now meeting the cost of a mortgage. The State is fuelling the market by competing with the private sector by paying out approximately €700 million last year in rent subsidies. This has to stop. This money should be invested in public housing which the State would own in the long term. Some 35,000 houses could be built with this money over ten years.
Change is the solution. The State has to weigh in to provide cost rental, affordable purchase and social housing units en masse. The market is only interested in profit. The State, however, has a duty to provide and to protect its citizens with an affordable, stable housing environment. The institutional investment housing schemes are purposely keeping units vacant to ensure high rents. A vacant unit levy is required to open the units to the rental market.
The Green Party is also acutely aware of the crisis in our rural towns where the hearts of urban centres are lifeless due to bad zoning and commercial planning decisions. We need a town centre-first policy where we bring back people into our towns and villages and revive these cultural habitats with sustainable communities.
My father used to say that one left one's pride at the gate when entering his house. This is what we should be doing in this House. Party pride has no place in the Oireachtas. When a health crisis of this magnitude is meeting us face on, such pride should be left at the gates of this House. On the first sitting of the Thirty-third Dáil, I was humbled by the discourse of Deputies who spoke of their individual mandates that went beyond party affiliation. We all have personal moral responsibility. As many said that day, we must seek the balance of that responsibility between duty to our constituents and our party policy platforms.
The past is the past. Today the present is a harsh reality. Parties should today now consider the fundamental needs of the people they represent, the need for security in their homes, for bread on their tables and for the safety of their loved ones. People need to work together to shape a future that will be welcoming and not fearful, a future which includes and a future that does not sacrifice local needs for the financial gain of hidden and unknown others. Partisan politics will wait until we get over the other side. Only then can we begin to consider a return to politics as normal.
The Labour Party welcomes the Bill’s elements concerning the moratorium on rent increases and tenancy terminations. It is common sense and will provide some comfort to people in vulnerable housing and tenancy situations in this scary time. It must be said, however, that we cannot have a scenario where landlords who have been given a break on their mortgage payments by the banks do not pass that on to renters and that renters accrue a debt through the next three months or beyond. This will only widen the wealth gap in our society, leaving hard-working people, who have been driven to the rental sector with little potential of getting out of it, in a more financially precarious situation. In an attempt to save sectors of the market economy, we cannot increase the burden on ordinary working people who, for the large part, have been ahead of politicians in their actions and adherence to the measures brought in over the past several weeks.
This crisis has laid bare something we have known for a long time and which the Labour Party and Senator Humphreys have raised, namely, the number of properties taken away from the market by short-term letting organisations such as Airbnb.
DAFT.ieand The Irish Independentreported this week that there has been an increase of 64% in rental accommodation available to the private market. We cannot waste this opportunity to use these dwellings and ensure that we get people in there who are vulnerable, who may be coming out of homeless services and who need secure tenancies. The State needs to act now to secure those dwellings for long-term tenancies. The model of having so much of our city dwellings on short-term lettings is profit-driven, has had a disproportionate effect on our housing crisis and is a cause of shame to our country over recent years.
The Government must take control of these dwellings by appointing voluntary housing bodies and local authorities to do that. I know much of that work is being done but we need to drastically improve that. The Government must move to safely house the most vulnerable in our society. There are people living in direct provision, asylum seekers, members of the Travelling community, who are as much at risk as the rest of us, if not more so, from Covid-19 and we must not forget them during this very worrying time. Housing and family circumstances are not cut and dried and we cannot simply say to people who are living in uncertain and desperate situations that we must care for the majority first. We must care for everyone now and always. Those in direct provision must be given safe and adequate accommodation, not only through this Covid-19 pandemic but afterwards and for the foreseeable future. We cannot continue to stand over that system. It is inhumane and as a country that is now showing its true heart, and community warmth we cannot stand over it in the future. Those who are in homelessness or are stuck in short-term accommodation cycles must be provided with absolute certainty of shelter and freedom from the possibility of being moved out. This cycle cannot continue. People who live on the streets cannot maintain an adequate social distance. They cannot adequately protect themselves from the virus, or from the harsh conditions that prevent them from living on the streets, day in day out, pandemic or other.
More important, the level of homelessness and people in uncertain housing going into this crisis has been disgraceful. We need to come out of this crisis as strong as we are now and tackle the housing and homelessness crisis. Attention has been paid more to how we deal with it than the physical result of people coming out of homelessness. The radical change I call for is, I believe, supported by most in this House and I believe there is an appetite for it in the Government. This Bill and these elements of the Bill are most welcome. We feel they will make a big difference. The Minister of State has our support and we will table some amendments this evening which we feel will improve the Bill.
In éigeandáil mar seo, tá orainn oibriú go han-dian chun daoine leochaileacha a chosaint. We must do everything we can to protect those most vulnerable during this crisis, especially those who have been working in precarious conditions and renting precariously. Many people who have lost their jobs and income now face huge uncertainty in their rented accommodation. These workers often live paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings to cushion a sudden drop in income. This Bill will go some way to addressing their fears but not far enough. We have tabled several measures to strengthen it.
I have several concerns that are not adequately addressed in this legislation. First, the Bill makes no provision for people renting a room in licensed and owner-occupied accommodation. Those renting in a property owner's home are already in an extremely precarious situation and there are reports of evictions from owner-occupied accommodation with little or no notice given. This practice constitutes a significant public health risk, in respect of where these people will go and will also potentially place undue pressure on our homeless services. While the freeze on rent increases and evictions is helpful there is huge concern that potentially thousands of people will be evicted once these emergency measures come to an end, due to their inability to pay. People are asking why, if there can be a break in mortgage payments, can there not be a legal guarantee that this is passed on to tenants. We need stronger action to protect incomes and support renters to prevent a tsunami of evictions in about three months' time.
Significant changes are happening in the rental market, with an additional supply of short-term lets coming on-stream. There will be a decline in rents in the coming months as incomes drop, so it is in the interests of landlords to actively work to keep their tenants in situ. Given this changed context that is emerging in the rental market, it is important that the Department and local authorities do not get into any long-term commitments right now. It certainly would not be the right time to sign long-term, high-price HAP leases and 25-year enhanced leasing arrangements. We should wait for a number of months before signing new leases in that regard and look for prices to come down.
The policy of permitting co-living as a housing option, which has been heavily promoted by the Government and the Minister, must be reviewed in the context of the virus. Our housing policy must not seek to create new and additional cohorts of vulnerable renters at greater risk of infection from use of shared facilities.
I want to talk about people living in direct provision and about homeless people. When I spoke in the Dáil a few weeks ago, I said that we must take particular care to ensure that vulnerable groups such as homeless people and those living in direct provision are protected in this crisis. Some 17,000 people live in high-risk accommodation, sharing kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. Some 6,000 of those are children. There were reports today of threats being made in one location against asylum seekers who are raising their concerns about Covid-19. This is not just about people and families living in direct provision centres. It is a risk to the entire community and the health services, and it needs to be urgently mitigated. Homeless people from one shelter had to write a letter to the papers this week to raise their concerns, and I want to quote from it. It reads:
Many of us believe that by now we must have been exposed to the virus, and it would be surprising if the authorities did not suspect this too.
Yet we circle the city with nothing to do and nowhere to stay, in all likelihood carrying the virus with us, spreading it as we go.
If, in the unlikely event that we haven’t been exposed, we surely will be if we’re forced to remain out of doors, involuntarily, for much longer.
Or, indeed, if we’re forced to return to shelters in which self-isolation is virtually impossible.
It is our understanding from how the virus is transmitted that if one of us becomes unwell, the chances are that all of us – living cheek by jowl – will become unwell too.
Or are we to understand that the appalling selection process in practice in Italy, in which some patients are deprived of medical help in order to save the lives of others, has begun in Ireland already, with at least one group in Irish society effectively left to fend for itself?
The question is not as unfair as it might seem. To evict people during a deadly pandemic in a city of empty hotels is about as morally dubious as exporting food during a famine.
I appreciate that a lot of work has gone in to create space for self-isolation but I think that many of these efforts need to be moved forward as quickly as possible.
To conclude, I want to echo many comments made by previous speakers about the efforts that are needed to make sure that these protections are afforded to everyone in society, including members of the Traveller community. We must do everything that we can at this point to take decisive action to protect renters and those who are vulnerable.
I welcome the Damascan conversion of the Government on issues that, before the Covid-19 crisis, were impossible and unconstitutional, such as a ban on evictions and a rent freeze. It is very welcome that these are being brought in now. I do not think anybody should be left with the impression that the housing system that we were operating in before we came into this desperate crisis was anything normal. There was nothing normal about it. In reality, the housing system that we had before the Covid-19 crisis was a disaster. It was life-threatening for many people who were the victims of it. People have died in our streets because of homelessness and people have suffered badly because of overcrowding and long waits on lists. These measures should be seen as the first steps in trying to utterly change the housing system that we have in the future.
The rent freezes are very welcome, but like other proposals on mortgages, it is not enough. If we simply store up the rents to be paid back in the future, then we are putting people into unsustainable debt. When Covid-19 is gone, they will face a crisis in their own lives, trying to meet that unsustainable debt.
We have tabled amendments to the Bill on these issues. We need an amnesty on rents and mortgages. For the next month or two, we should pretend that, in financial terms, this period never happened. Of course, we have to deal with it very seriously in health terms, but it needs to be treated as a period in history that just did not happen when it comes to paying rents, mortgages or utility bills. In that way, people will be able to deal with things in a much better and more sensible manner and we can return to a society in which people will be able to go back to work unhampered by deferred rents, utility bills, mortgage payments and so on. We cannot continue to enrich the real estate investment trusts, the banks, the vulture funds, and the property developers. We need to state that the days of megaprofits for the vulture funds and bankers are over and that the costs of a future recession after this crisis recedes will not be borne by ordinary people but by those who can afford to pay: the giant corporations, the vulture funds, and the bankers that have enriched themselves on the back of our housing system.
With regard to this specific Bill, we need clarity on the impact of some of the measures, especially with regard to the situation of some of the cohorts of people that have been mentioned. These include those living in digs and students who have been forced to leave accommodation and who are trying to get back their deposits. We are very fearful of what might happen to the Travelling community because, as the Minister of State knows, there are two categories of halting sites: those that are legal and those that are not. We need reassurance that there will not be any evictions of members of the Travelling community. We also need to be able to tell anybody, regardless of their type of lease or rental agreement, that they will not face eviction or be penalised.
I echo the calls made earlier for tougher action with regard to lenders, bankers, vulture funds and so on. It is not enough to have a gentleman's agreement or understanding and sympathy over tea. We do not need to hear that the situation is awful and that the banks are doing their bit, as the head of the banking system has said. The banks' bit is not enough because it turns out that their bit will give them more interest and profit in the long term at the cost of ordinary people. That must not be allowed to happen.
I was reading over the Government's action plan on the Covid-19 virus again and there are many references to direct provision, Travellers, the most vulnerable, the homeless, and people in emergency accommodation but we are still not clear on what actual steps have been taken. As we can see from the contributions made in the House, those in direct provision and those involved in the homeless sector are greatly worried that not enough is being done quickly enough. Tens of thousands of people are being put in real danger because of overcrowding and the inability of homeless people who have been put out of their accommodation and forced to hang around streets all day to isolate themselves. Not enough is being done quickly enough. It is in the interests of public health for this to happen. I suggest that the empty hotels littering the country be used to allow people to self-isolate in their own rooms. There is no point in having shining hotels - which is not intended as a reference to the scary film - littering the country in the middle of this health crisis.
I welcome the provisions in this legislation with regard to protection against eviction and a rent freeze. I will flag an issue which I flagged earlier with the Minister of State's colleague. It relates to those getting a break or freeze on their mortgages. While many of the commercial banks are implementing the agreement they have with the Minister for Finance, which is to extend the mortgage by a further three months at the end of the term and to provide a payment freeze in the short term, I understand that Ulster Bank has taken a different approach. It is not extending the mortgage but is lobbing the repayment of the three months arrears and the compound interest on top of future payments. In three months' time, those families will face an increased mortgage repayment as a result of this approach, which will add to the financial hardship of families that are already under pressure.
There must be a consistent approach across the sector.
In addition, an approach must be taken to provide alternative accommodation for healthcare workers who are living with an older person or a person who has an underlying health condition. We must be able to provide those front-line healthcare workers with alternative accommodation free of charge. It is bad enough that they are risking their lives in providing front-line services, and we commend them on the work they are doing, but they should not be in a position where they are potentially bringing this virus home to someone who is immunocompromised. I ask the Minister to examine the opportunity of using vacant hotels across the country to facilitate that.
One of the main reasons we have such a problem in the private rented sector is that many families cannot purchase their own home. One of the problems in that regard is that investors are buying blocks of apartments and housing estates for the rental sector. The UK has introduced legislation that prohibits an investor from buying any more than a quarter of a particular development, allowing people who wish to purchase homes to buy up to 75% of that development. Similar primary legislation must be introduced here. It is emergency legislation that is required to deal with our overall housing situation.
I wish to raise two other issues. The first relates to businesses. We are giving a break to people who are under financial pressure in renting private residences, but there are many businesses renting from landlords. They have no income coming in at present so a break should be given to them and in some cases to the landlords where the rent is the only income available to them. A similar type of flexibility must be introduced in that regard. There is also a need for flexibility in terms of commercial rates. Some local authorities are taking a proactive approach in that regard, but others are washing their hands of it and saying it is not their problem.
On the final issue I wish to raise, I started with the health sector and I will finish with that sector. There are many front-line staff in this country, such as An Garda Síochána, health service staff, Defence Forces staff and staff in the Department and across the public service. The practice of coughing or spitting into a person's face must be outlawed. There must be a specific provision in this legislation to prohibit anybody from carrying out such an appalling act. We must use the full rigours of the law in respect of anybody who would contemplate doing that, not to mind carry it out, particularly against the front-line staff in offices, hospitals and in the community in this country who are providing a tremendous service.
I commend the last speaker on speaking out about people who would spit or cough into anybody's face. I am in full agreement that the full rigours of the law should be brought to bear on those people. Where people are under age, the responsibility should be on their parents. I have seen at first hand people walking down streets thinking it is funny to cough and spit when they see people coming towards them. Do they not realise it affects all ages and that it will be brought home? I support the Deputy on that.
I wish to declare that I am a small-time building contractor and have been since 1993. I welcome the rent freeze and the provisions regarding evictions in the Bill. However, I am also a member of many school boards and bring my experience with the different schools that are being built around Limerick at present.
Provisions for their construction need to be made between the Department and the schools, and for contractors that are on deadlines to complete schools such as Coláiste Chiarán in Croom, which was due to be finished soon. If such buildings close because of social distancing, the contracts will have to be extended and provision will have to be made in order that the schools and the contractors will not be put in a position whereby the schools cannot open when this crisis subsides. Measures also need to be introduced for people whose houses are being built by contractors waiting to be able to get into the houses. They should not face the same regulation. In the case of people who have rented a house for at least 12 months while they wait for their house to be built, if their lease ends within the 12 months, they should be able to continue to rent the property where they live and their lease should be extended.
I have received many calls in recent weeks from parents who are separated and who share visiting rights. I have heard of a couple of cases of people who are now living with their parents and cannot fulfil their agreement with the courts. Their children cannot visit because their grandparents are elderly, and they are unable to rent a house because the provisions are not in place. We also need to protect such people in order that they will not be deemed by the courts to have broken their agreement. They are protecting the elderly and we need to protect them.
I thank the Minister of State and his staff for their briefings and the support they have given us during this pandemic. I wish them all well in their endeavours and I echo the support for the front-line staff. I reiterate what Deputy Naughten stated earlier about the behaviour of certain people, which I had referred to in my opening contribution. Such behaviour is shocking and should not be tolerated. If the law needs to be expanded, we should do that when we sit again next week, although we should have considered doing it this week because such actions should be nipped in the bud and got rid of. Spitting at somebody is a dirty, rotten habit at the best of times but to do it now is wholly unacceptable and must not be tolerated.
What measures are in place, or might be put in place, for someone in the following circumstances? A landlord has an existing mortgage on the house and is letting it to a tenant. As the landlord, the property owner's job is still in place and, therefore, she is not entitled to the mortgage holiday the banks are offering. Her private tenant, however, who contacted my office, has lost her job. Even with the pandemic unemployment payment, she has experienced a significant loss of income and is unable to pay rent. The landlord, on the other hand, still has her job, which may be a one-off house she inherited or whatever. There are many such cases. As she cannot qualify for the mortgage freeze, she cannot pass on the savings to help the tenant.
I welcome the provisions of the section, namely, that there will be no evictions and that there will be a rent freeze. They are limited, however, and like Deputy Bríd Smith, I could not let the Bill pass without saying we have asked the Government repeatedly to declare a housing emergency. Now it will be done for a limited period. Various Deputies, including from Sinn Féin, my group and others, have repeatedly asked the Government to declare an emergency and to take appropriate steps, but it refused to do so. There is now a Covid-19 emergency on top of the housing emergency. Perhaps the Government will learn a lesson this time and realise that the housing situation was simply unsustainable. Some €1 billion was to be spent on housing assistance payment this year alone, not to mention-----
I am always open to correction in the Government's time but not in my time. The payment increased from more than €200 million, to more than €500 million, to more than €700 million, ultimately approaching €1 billion.
That is not to mention the top-up payments. If anything showed how unsustainable and ridiculous the housing policy was, it was that we were housing the homeless in hotels and housing tourists in our homes.
While I welcome the Bill, there are a number of things that concern me. We have a three-month time period. I understand where the Government is coming from with that yet, at the same time, the mental health provision and the draconian legislation of last week had 9 November as the time limit. Can the Minister explain the inconsistency in terms of having one emergency run up to 9 November but these sections in regard to the freezing not going anywhere near that time?
Deputy Naughten raised a point on mortgages. It would be very worrying if Ulster Bank or any other bank would do that in regard to mortgages and make people pay dearly after three months, rather than putting it at the end of the mortgage term. The position is similar with regard to rent arrears. It is not sustainable that somebody in arrears would have to come up with the money after three months when we are in serious difficulties.
I have already mentioned direct provision, which is certainly a housing matter. I am going from Billy to Jack in regard to health, housing and the Department of Justice and Equality, but there is still no clear action for people in direct provision.
To families who have lost a loved one, I want to send our condolences. We need to commend front-line staff, such as nurses, doctors, catering staff, porters and cleaners. We also have to remember the people who are bringing food and medical necessities around the country, such as lorry drivers and the haulage sector, as well as those who are keeping water, electricity and shops going. The student nurse issue has to be addressed urgently because we are in a crisis and it is a totally different Ireland to six weeks ago.
I welcome much of the legislation. On the planning side, councils need to keep prioritising houses rather than the building of hotels, which are not needed at the moment. Many council staff can work from home and it is welcome that the decisions on building hotels can be left for a while.
The Bill gives emergency powers to the Minister to make decisions. I have put forward an amendment, given Bord na Móna cannot work this year unless the Minister makes a direct intervention. It was agreed that it would work until the end of this year but, unless the Minister makes an intervention in the next couple of days, it will not be able to work and will have to close down. That is the reality.
With regard to rent, it is nearly like going to sleep for six months. We need to make sure that renters are not put under pressure. I believe the banks have to put what is due at the end of the mortgage term for landlords. Bodies like the Residential Tenancies Board and the banks need to be a joined-up circle with the landlords, with everyone together to make sure no one is shafting anybody else.
While the issue of students may not come directly under this Department, it is involved. With regard to rent, there are students who paid in the first week of January for accommodation for the rest of the academic year but they are not now in college. There are landlords who are ringing up students, looking for the last two months' rent. Issues like this have to be sorted out.
I welcome many of the measures in the Bill. Fair play to the police in the North, who have brought in a thug who spat at somebody. It is about time. Such people should be brought before the courts as it is disgusting what they are doing. They need to be dealt with, and dealt with hard in this country.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on section 25 of the Bill. At the outset, I acknowledge the important contribution of the Defence Forces and the entire defence organisation in support of the HSE in its effort to combat this silent enemy.
Most visible is the presence of the ships being used as testing centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway. A military task force has been also established to co-ordinate the support drawn from across all the services and formations of the Defence Forces. Huge efforts are being made behind the scenes by civil and military staff to co-ordinate our actions, administrative and logistical, to sustain the Defence contribution to the whole-of-Government effort. I also acknowledge the support and commitment of the Civil Defence organisation in supporting the principal response agencies across the country. These volunteers and the Civil Defence officers are deserving of our praise and acknowledgement of their unwavering commitment in times of need.
I had announced previously that the re-enlistment of former PDF personnel was one of the range of initiatives to address capability gaps in the Permanent Defence Force. Last December, I brought a draft Bill to Government which provided for the re-enlistment of former enlisted personnel. It was published last January as part of the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020. I previously commenced a scheme for commissioned officers to return to service. In the past year, several former pilots returned to serve in the Air Corps. There is also scope to recommission officers in other specialist streams across the Defence Forces where shortages exist. While officers can be recommissioned under the provisions of the Defence Act, there is no such provision under which enlisted personnel can re-enlist. I am aware that there are former enlisted personnel who wish to return to the organisation and I was determined to facilitate this. The Covid-19 crisis has added urgency, and hence the inclusion of this provision in the Bill.
The intention is that the provision will be used to enlist suitably qualified and experienced former enlisted persons in the PDF to fill key specialised appointments. The provision is identical to section 4 of the published Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020. The scheme is targeted at former enlisted personnel who have completed a full term of their original enlistment, including any required service with the Reserve Defence Force, or who have been discharged by purchase. There also may be former members who wish to re-enlist for a short period to answer the call to support the response to Covid-19. There also will be those who wish to re-enlist for the full three years. The facility, therefore, will be to enlist for a minimum of six months, but up to three years. There may be an option to extend service once the period is completed, subject to vacancies existing and the Chief of Staff recommending it. Those wishing to be considered for re-enlistment will be able to register their interest on . Work is ongoing to put that in place and it is planned to go live early next week. Full terms and conditions will be also available to view at that stage.
Turning to the Reserve Defence Force, the Government appreciates the service of the members of the RDF, which comprises a First Line Reserve, the Army Reserve and the Naval Service Reserve. Regarding calls on the resources of the Defence Forces at this time, the necessity for the general call out of the Reserve has not arisen. Some reservists with skills required in the response to Covid-19, and whose personal circumstances allow them to do so, are already undertaking certain tasks voluntarily, including support to the civil authorities. I welcome their contribution. Members of the Reserve are paid in such circumstances. When I visited the LÉ George Bernard Shawyesterday to see the excellent work and great contribution being made by the Defence Forces, I was delighted to hear that members of the Naval Service Reserve are on board assisting with the response to Covid-19.
I also confirm that, following discussion with the Chief of Staff and the general officers commanding, GOCs, that the GOCs are activating the Reserve to assist with the Defence Forces contribution to our national effort. I encourage qualified ex-members of the Defence Forces to consider re-enlistment, particularly at this difficult time in our lives. I look forward to welcoming them back as part of the Irish Defence Forces' family.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Murnane O'Connor. I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I echo some of his words and acknowledge the work of our front-line staff across the Defence Forces, the healthcare system and the whole public service. They are putting in a phenomenal and Trojan effort in responding to this crisis. The collective effort shows their stellar contribution during what will be a very difficult time over the coming weeks and months.
I welcome the re-enlistment proposals from the Minister of State. It is important that it is incorporated into the Bill. I have some questions which will be fundamental as we progress this Bill that perhaps the Minister of State might be able to answer. There has to be equity across the public service.
People who re-enter the health service for a period of weeks and months will get to keep their pension as it was. That same equity, fairness and equality has to apply for anyone who re-enlists as a member of the Defence Forces so that there is abatement equity across the board. We cannot have Defence Forces personnel who re-enter as the poor cousins in the public service. That is important.
We have a campaign from student nurses, who should be paid, and that is also important. Cadets who are putting in 12-hour shifts, recruits and apprentices also deserve full pay and the full military service allowance. That needs to be recognised for them and it is important that the Minister of State signals today that the military service allowance will be paid to the recruits, cadets and apprentices.
On the re-enlistment proposal, while some might return, it is important we signal to members of our Defence Forces that we still want to deal with the retention difficulties that exist and are continuing. While re-enlistment might help in the short-term, we still have to ensure there is a focus in defence policy on retaining the staff who still have morale difficulties. The Covid-19 crisis is a worrying sign for the future because while it is a healthcare virus, we know that in the policy document drawn up about the danger to our communications channels, a virus could hit our State infrastructure, which would require a huge defence effort at the front line and which would require backup from other areas. We face serious threats going forward. Covid-19 is an example of one of them but we will face serious threats in the area of defence that we will have to focus on. This is a sign of how we need to ensure defence policy is a focus of this Dáil and how we need to ensure the capability is there to respond.
We are living in extraordinary times but I am concerned that with the whirlwind pace of legislation, many things are being overlooked and are not being scrutinised. It is important that we applaud our healthcare workers and also our police force, Defence Forces, postal workers, community care workers, business community, teachers, press, workforce and in particular, our parents and children out there who are managing in what is an upside-down world where everyone seems to be afraid.
Overall, I am supportive of this Bill but there are certain measures I wholeheartedly support. I commend the civil servants across the island for their hard work and for the long hours spent away from precious family time to come into work and make sure these Bills go through. While we have seen our soldiers out building mobile test centres in collaboration with our communities and GAA clubs, I am concerned that the language used in the new testing criteria has made people more afraid. Cases might not be found because of the new testing criteria and people are afraid of what will happen and that people will continue to carry this infection. I also want to highlight the people who are on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan who have not yet been contacted about what is being done to help them with their loans. Local authorities have been given no instructions on what the Government is doing for them in this regard. The same thing is happening with people who are on the local authority housing list, in receipt of HAP or with AHBs. I am concerned about the lack of information for and communication with local authorities. It is not right. I have been on to the local authorities and there is no information being given to them.
Our Defence Forces members have had their leave cancelled and many will be recalled to service under this Bill. Let us not forget that a mere few weeks ago, many of them were being denied mortgages. Their incomes are so low and many were so badly paid that many of them qualified for the working family payment. When this is all said and done and we no longer need this sacrifice, we must pay them back with a living wage.
There is also huge confusion around landlords availing of relief from the banks during this emergency period. They are duty bound to pass on this relief to their commercial tenants. This is my opinion but clarity is needed. I have received many phonecalls from my constituents with small businesses who have had to close those businesses indefinitely and their landlords are still asking for full rent. There needs to be rent relief and guidance for people in these scenarios.
We also need to look at our students who are no longer resident in student accommodation, and due to the third level closures, need to have their rent refunded. I know many institutions are already doing this but not all are. Again, we need clarification on this.
The Covid-19 payment of €350, which I am delighted with, is meant to begin tomorrow. There is huge confusion with casual workers. I have been on to different Departments and some Departments tell me they are entitled to the payment and others tell me they are not. We need to sort this.
We need to extend the fuel allowance. I believe all of us working together will come through together. It is about all of us helping one another.
Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas leo siúd ar fad sna Fórsaí Cosanta atá ag déanamh tréaniarrachta cheana féin chun cuidiú leis an éacht atá ar siúl againn mar thír bheag chun troid i gcoinne an ghalair seo atá ar tí an tír a réabadh. I salute the members of the Defence Forces and all other front-line services who are going above and beyond as our small nation tries to prepare for the worst of Covid-19. As always, the Defence Forces are available. They are reliable and we appreciate their extraordinary effort. We have seen some of this effort already with 96 cadets on contact tracing duty. We have seen the work of engineers, infantry and the Air Corps. We have seen the naval crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckettbuilding a test centre along the quays in Dublin. The crew of LÉ Eithnein Galway and Cork as well as the Reserve members on board the vessel have managed to ensure it sails. Many more are on stand-by as all leave has been cancelled - this was mentioned previously. The entire Defence Forces are available to aid the State in our time of need. Leave has been cancelled from 12 April to 16 May. I presume that will change quickly if matters are not righted by 12 April - I do not believe they will be.
It is a pity that neither this Government nor previous Governments ever got to grips with the drain of Defence Forces personnel. It means we have much-reduced Defence Forces capacity to rely on in this time of need but that is a debate and a criticism for another day. Today is about ensuring that the legislative basis for the Defence Forces to be as full an aid to the civil power as possible is in place. It is about ensuring that we can in fact call on those on whom we can call in times of need. It is about ensuring that they will put their full weight, strength and wisdom into helping us during this time.
The amendment to the Defence Act 1954 that the Minister of State is proposing will in fact have limited impact, if any, on the current situation. My party agrees with the re-enlisting of personnel who have expertise or knowledge that is required. Such a move should ensure that the Defence Forces, as they move towards the full establishment figure in the future, can operate as they should. However, many issues have not been sorted out fully with the Defence Forces personnel unions, including RACO and PDFORRA, in respect of what is being proposed. I do not believe this measure, while welcome, will have as much impact as expected. It could be months before we see any effect or before the gaps within the Air Corps, Naval Service, ordnance corps or medical corps are addressed. I welcome the proposal. The Defence Forces are playing as great a role as is possible given their reduced numbers. Each and every member should be valued and appreciated for going over, above and beyond, like many others in our front-line services.
Will the Minister ensure that all Defence Forces personnel receive the military service allowance? This applies especially to the cadets and recruits who are on basic training wages of approximately €330 per week. They are expected to do 24-hour duties, 12-hour shifts and so on to help out. We have seen the related fanfare and photographs. Unlike the trainee gardaí and doctors, they remain cadets, apprentices and recruits. In fact, when this crisis is over they will have to return to their basic training and cadet courses. They can expect to be on meagre training wages for longer. There are other consequences too. I believe it is time to get real and pay each of these soldiers the military service allowance.
Another point needs to be considered. We will come to the relevant amendment later. It relates to the hundreds or thousands of ex-military personnel who are in the Civil Service. They could, and probably should, be reassigned at this point to help the Defence Forces in their tasks. It would be good to harness their goodwill and expertise. It is not about money, fitness or age. It is about their ability to respect structure. It is about the order they often bring, as well as their loyalty and ability to act. I know many former soldiers who would be willing to play a part in such an initiative but who are not in fact part of the first line reserve or the Permanent Reserve.
There are others who are in private employment, and giving compensation to their employers would mean they could be released from those duties to help.
I presume the current detachments on overseas missions such as the Golan Heights and Lebanon will, given that we do not have the capacity to rotate them by flying them in or out on military planes, have to remain in place. As far as I know, some of those rotations were due to happen in April and May. It is to be hoped the Minister of State will tell the families as early as possible when and if those rotations are happening or whether the tours of duty need to be extended.
I am speaking to Part 6 of the Bill and the submission I made yesterday regarding items beyond the scope of the Bill. In considering Part 6, it is important that we acknowledge the significant role the Defence Forces play in times of crisis. Many of us have relatives who serve or have served in the Defence Forces and there is a huge sense of pride felt by the entire nation when we see them playing vital roles in international peacekeeping and rescue operations such as Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean and capacity building in post-war states. In recent times, we have felt that pride and gratitude much closer to home because we are seeing members of the Defence Forces assist in the fight against Covid-19 through the utilisation of barracks, the positioning of testing centres on naval vessels and the transportation of samples. We must bear in mind that there may be a need for a greater involvement for the Defence Forces should this crisis deepen, particularly in the maintenance of essential services.
The Green Party fully supports the elements of the Bill that would allow former members of the Defence Forces to re-enlist during this time of emergency, in particular in areas where there is a skills deficit. However, I feel obliged to make reference to the fact that many rank and file members currently live in poverty and the State must seek to improve the pay and conditions of lower ranking members of the forces. Our Defence Forces are there for us in difficult times, such as the current crisis, and we should be there for them when times are good.
I ask the Minister of State to provide further clarification on why the Bill applies only to the Permanent Defence Force and not to the reserve defence forces. I suggest that the Government re-examine this, in particular for former members who have skills that may be lacking in the reserve defence forces and may be interested in re-enlisting during this emergency.
Following the submissions I made yesterday, I would like to briefly reference the need for additional measures for persons who are forced to live in congregated settings, in particular those in direct provision and in our prisons. There are currently more than 5,500 people living in direct provision centres and others living in emergency accommodation. This cohort of people are particularly at risk from Covid-19.
Central to the Government's entire message has been the importance of social distancing and very little attention has been paid to the near impossibility of social distancing in the context of direct provision centres. In many such centres residents are sharing sinks, showers, bathrooms and cooking facilities. They eat together in canteens and the majority sleep in common dormitories. I understand the Department is limited in what it can do within a tight timeframe, but for those in high-risk categories due to their age, having immunosuppressive conditions or working in the health or care sectors, the solutions based in direct provision centres are simply insufficient. People in these categories need to be moved to living space accommodation. I gather the Dublin Region Homeless Executive is doing this for those living in emergency accommodation. The same should be done for those living in direct provision.
I understand the Department of Justice and Equality is running a pilot project of new accommodation for people in direct provision. It would be useful if Deputies could be briefed on how advanced the scheme is and how long it will remain a pilot scheme, given that we are in the middle of a crisis, and whether only those with or suspected of having Covid-19 or those in the high risk categories I mentioned will move to that accommodation.
Due to the unique nature of the prison environment, the Covid-19 outbreak poses a particular threat to the 3,900 people currently serving sentences, and there is a consequent threat for those working in the Prison Service. It and the Department of Justice and Equality outlined a number of measures recently. Reducing the numbers in prison is the best way to avoid spread within our prisons as long as those reductions are done in a way that does not risk public safety.
The Minister might clarify whether they will attempt to achieve a situation where all prisoners will at least have access to single-cell accommodation and how many prisoners would need to be released in order to achieve that. Has the Prison Service identified prisoners in those vulnerable categories I mentioned earlier and does it have a plan for those? While I understand these measures are outside the scope of the Bill, with the suspension of parliamentary questions this is an opportunity we have to secure answers on these vital issues, particularly for those groups who are not in a position to advocate for themselves.
It is in a time of crisis that society realises just how crucial a role people working on the front line, including in the Defence Forces, play. I take this opportunity to extend the Social Democrats' strong support and solidarity with all those working on the front line, including in the Defence Forces but also the public health officials, GPs, pharmacists, nurses, doctors, shop workers, gardaí, paramedics, firefighters, transport workers, delivery drivers and cleaners, all those working to keep the healthcare system and the food and supply chains open, and indeed, the civil servants who are working in the background as well. Their commitment in these challenging times is something that we are all very proud of.
Indeed, one could see when the Army cadets were drafted in to assist the HSE with contract tracing that, as well as that giving practical support that was needed, it gave the public a lift. It showed a sense of pride and a sense of confidence, not only in the cadets but also in the public services and how they are stepping forward at a time when they are needed most.
A point has been well made by others that those who are in the front line in a time of crisis are human, the same as the rest of us, and they bring their own fears and frailties with them. Often they do not choose to be on the front line at a time of crisis but realise that they have to step forward. They are heroes but they are also parents, husbands and wives going out to work hoping to come home to their families safe and healthy and we need to appreciate that. If we are to truly support the Defence Forces personnel and all those working on the front line in the public services and essential services, we must support them not only at times of crisis but also in the times that will emerge after the crisis.
Other Deputies have mentioned the need for a living wage. They have mentioned the poverty that many of the families of members of the Defence Forces live in and we will need to address those issues after this crisis.
The Social Democrats support these measures in the Bill to facilitate the re-enlistment if former members of the Defence Forces to plug specific skill or expertise gaps.
It is important to do as other Deputies have done, which is to draw attention at a time when we are rightly applauding and pointing to the role that Defence Forces staff can play, to point to the reality that these people have been underpaid and under-appreciated for a long time, and to remember the extreme exploitation of Defence Forces personnel that takes place. As 85% of them are on less than the average industrial wage and more than 120 rely on the working family payment simply to survive, that has to end. It cannot merely be a rhetorical commitment to what a great job these personnel are doing, and similarly the nurses etc. If the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is serious about the importance of these roles, he has to pay these personnel properly and he has to give them the right to be organised in a trade union.
Workers need to be provided with everything that they need to do their jobs safely. That means Defence Forces personnel and all the other workers on the front line being given access to the personal protective equipment that they need, and that is not currently happening. I will read a message I got from a health worker in Tallaght Hospital yesterday. She states:
I work in a hospital. Today we had ambulance men come onto the wards several times to bring patients in or collect them to go to another place. They had no PPE when dealing with Covid-19 patients. They were told the hospitals have to give it to them. We do not even have enough to use because of how quickly the virus is growing. I think this is disgraceful to put the paramedics lives in danger like this.
Also, our PPE is not good enough. [There are] no surgical hats, no visors, just ordinary masks - not the right ones and we are told they cannot get them.
We need to support those who are fighting the virus on the front line. We need to ensure they have the masks, gloves and other protections they need. The same goes for other essential workers in supermarkets and delivery companies. They need to have the screens, hand sanitisers, masks and every other piece of equipment they need. We need to decisively put public health ahead of private profit and private property where it comes to ensuring that happens. Weeks ago in France, they requisitioned PPE to ensure that those who needed it got it first. They also put price controls on hand sanitiser to stop the profiteering. The price gouging and profiteering I highlighted a couple of weeks ago is still ongoing. I got an email this morning telling me that a small bottle of hand sanitiser that was previously on sale for 99 cent in January is now on sale for €8 at the moment. Similarly, there has been a massive increase in the price of face masks. The Government has the power under the Consumer Protection Act 2007 to introduce price controls at the stroke of a pen. It should do so for hand sanitiser and PPE. We need to requisition private supplies of PPE so it can be directed to where it is needed now. We need to redirect production to make testing equipment, PPE and ventilators as quickly as possible. If not, workers will again be left with no choice but to take action like those workers in An Post in Dublin 15 who last Monday refused to go out because they did not have the hand sanitiser they needed and did not want to put themselves and the communities they served at risk. They did the right thing by refusing to go out. Other workers who take similar action will also be doing the right thing. I appeal to An Post management to reverse the decision not to pay them for the work they had to do on Wednesday to make up for the backlog as a result of the correct decision they made on the Monday. These workers should be applauded for protecting themselves and their families and communities, not penalised by An Post.
We need emergency action to protect workers, renters and those with mortgages. Nobody should lose their livelihood or home because they take proper precautions to avoid the coronavirus. Nobody should end up in arrears on their rent because they cannot go to work. Landlords have been given a break on their repayments to the banks. Renters must also be given a break. We need an amnesty for rents and mortgages for all those affected by the crisis. They should be written off. This is not a time for half measures. We must have a complete ban on evictions. The Government proposes a half ban - stopping new evictions but proposing to allow them to go ahead if the RTB says they can. It is not good enough. Nobody should be made homeless during this emergency and nobody should be made homeless after the emergency either due to rent arrears that build up during this crisis. That would be nothing more than a brief stay of execution. I have an amendment to ensure a complete ban on evictions and I urge others to support it to clearly put public health before private profit.
Most of the Deputies in the Chamber are aware of who the vast majority of my supporters are and who I represent in this Chamber so it is very fitting that my maiden speech in the Dáil is about the defence provisions relating to this emergency legislation. The first point to make is that we should be very realistic in our expectations regarding this legislation. A very small number of Defence Forces personnel will choose to rejoin - probably about a dozen - and they will probably join in the next few months. I do not see anybody joining this month or next month. I think it will be May and the peak of the crisis will probably have passed before we would see the first person in uniform doing his or her job in the Defence Forces.
I echo the sentiments expressed and commend all members of the Defence Forces, be they members of the navy, Army or Air Corps, who are deployed on the front line basically fighting this virus. I am also very conscious of the clock so to facilitate the Ceann Comhairle, I have five very brief questions for the Minister and it would be very much appreciated if he would be kind enough to clarify them in his wrap up.
Regarding the terms and conditions of people who choose to go down this re-enlistment route, is there any indication of how long it will take for the terms and conditions to be decided and when they will be published on the website?
We know the health service, quite rightly, has waived the requirement for abatement of pensions for health service staff who are currently in receipt of pensions who choose to return to the health service. Presumably, the exact same provisions will apply to veterans who have already served their country in the past and to members of the Defence Forces. I am thankful for the clarification that the minimum requirement to sign back up will be for six months. I presume there will be no requirement to purchase one's discharge should one choose to leave and depart again prior to taking up or finishing off the six-month commitment.
My fourth question relates to the military service allowance. All career training in the Defence Forces has ceased as a result of the outbreak of coronavirus. Currently, many trainees such as cadets, apprentices or recruits, who are the most precariously employed, are being deployed on the front line to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. As a result, their training will be elongated which means they will be on a trainee wage for longer. Presumably, the military service allowance will be extended to those people. It would be excellent if I could get some clarification on that.
My final question relates to the Reserve Defence Force. Once again, its members are stepping into the breach, as expected. My question relates to employment protection legislation, on which we will move an amendment this evening. I would be very grateful if the Minister could support the amendment. That is all I have to say. I thank the Minister for his time and I look forward to his response.
I too am thankful to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, for the help that has been given to us. I also thank the Taoiseach who has been in charge of the Defence Forces for the briefings he has given us. My first thoughts today are with our officers who are serving abroad in various parts of the world in a noble cause, that is, peacekeeping duties, who are unable to get home. The possibility of getting home will be greatly diminished. Many of them are due to come home to their families and loved ones in the near future. In addition to worrying about themselves, they have the added worry of worrying about their families at home and the families at home are worried about them.
I am critical of the overall scheme. It is a pity it took something like this for the Government to rightly recognise the prowess, honour and prestige of our Army over the decades, serving all over the world but above all at home. It is shameful for this Government and previous Governments to have the Defence Forces in such a depleted state at this point in time. The Defence Forces were treated with disdain. They pleaded with us and begged us but, as we know, they could not protest. They appealed again and again. Some of our Naval Service ships were taken out of service recently because of a lack of personnel. There were also threats to the Air Corps and even threats to the rescue and recovery helicopters due to the exodus of pilots and highly trained personnel. That was shameful.
It is good to see the Naval Service ships now being brought to ports and used as test centres and, hopefully, treatment centres. It is excellent that we have the Civil Defence and all the volunteers. I mention the Civil Defence every time I speak because its members are just unbelievable in terms of what they do on a daily and weekly basis. We know they are called on very often. It is great to see former soldiers being interested in returning in spite of the bad taste in their mouths due to the lack of recognition by the Government of their roles and the low wages. It will be good when the system is up on military.iebut what is the delay in getting it up for people who want to return? We are a couple of weeks into the crisis now. Some 40 minutes ago the Minister of State said it would be up by the weekend. The measure also relates to the Reserve Defence Force. The Forsa Cosanta Áitúil, FCA, as I knew it, had a very proud record and then the name was changed but the conditions were not any better. I salute its members as well. I know many of the officers, many of whom are gone to their eternal reward. The FCA afforded training to young men and women over the decades who wanted to enlist in it. They got fabulous training in service to their country as well as a sense of pride.
There was also physical training, firearms training and aspects of search and rescue training, as well as providing a supporting role to the Garda Síochána. It was a brilliant organisation over the years. I recall some school friends of mine who joined the Defence Forces and stayed there until they were forced to retire. The Army cadets, recruits and apprentices must be remunerated. We cannot expect them to be paid a pittance to do the work. They want to do the work. That is why they joined up. They are willing, ready and able to do it but they must be rewarded financially to some extent. They cannot be on the bottom rung of the ladder and expected to do it without support. That is important.
I believe this crisis will pass. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Gach duine ag cabhrú le daoine eile. We are all in it together. We must ensure that the Army gets it rightful treatment. With no disrespect to the Minister of State, there should be a full Minister, as there used to be in the past, for defence. Our Defence Forces are very important. They must be supplied with the personal protective equipment. They cannot be expected to be short on that because they will be in many different situations. Hopefully, with us working together, we will not see the scenes we have seen in Spain and Italy with army trucks carrying away coffins to be cremated. That would be unthinkable. We have some time here in hand. Why is there a delay in putting up information on military.iefor people who want to go back to the Defence Forces?
Our thoughts and prayers are with our soldiers facing this and our officers abroad serving in the United Nations in different parts of the world.
This is an unusual time. We have seen many measures adopted, such as rent freezes and social welfare increases, which previously and heretofore were unimaginable and we were told were impossible. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to the Chamber. It is appropriate as the Minister who did most to deplete our Defence Forces that he would be here trying to attract former members of the Defence Forces back. As we talk about measures which were deemed impossible and on which there was no movement suddenly being adopted, we need to look at the treatment of Defence Forces both in terms of pay, morale and the lack of movement with regard to the case taken and won by PDFORRA against Ireland at the European Social Rights Committee. It very much measured a similar successful case taken by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors. There has been very little movement with regard to the implementation of either and certainly with regard to giving some degree of collective bargaining rights to members of the Defence Forces which the European Social Rights Committee said they were entitled to under the European Social Charter which Ireland has signed. Has there been any advance on this? While I am not expecting an announcement now, it is time we realised our Defence Forces are essential and that they must operate with a high degree of morale which by all accounts heretofore has not existed for some years. This is a step which could bolster morale. A wide variety of measures need to be brought in to bolster morale. I would like some commitment from the Government that this will be looked at in the aftermath of this, as we ask members of the Defence Forces, along with health professionals and people who work in health services, to put their lives on the line to protect us. Surely, we owe them something in return.
I thank my colleague for sharing time. While some of the issues I want to raise are not directly related to defence, as the day goes by, more and more calls have been coming in from people and businesses seeking clarity on some of the issues. One of them is around the temporary wage subsidy scheme where businesses lose 25% of their revenue.
Many people are looking for clarity about this. Is it during that three-month period or will it be over a 12-month period? There seems to be serious concern that it might be a 12-month period, in which case Revenue would be seeking to claw back moneys from those businesses.
Businesses are concerned about the provisions for inability to pay staff. Will names be published and would that in some way declare insolvency, and could they be followed by other creditors? I notice in the legislation that there can be no redundancies during this period. Many businesses are concerned that there is no guarantee that after the three months, all of those who are employed can come back to their jobs and there could be significant problems around redundancy, which of course workers are absolutely and fully entitled to, but which if it were to come at once would pose a serious problem for business. It is great to see the proposals for those who have recently retired from the Army, and for health professionals to come back but I have received several queries from recently retired gardaí to know if there are any proposals for them to come back to serve the State.
Like many others in this House today, I want to add my voice to the utter condemnation of those who are coughing and spitting in people's faces. It is unthinkable and the full rigours of the law should absolutely be applied to those persons.
I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to the debate today. I ask for their indulgence because many issues have been raised. I will try to respond to as many as I can but for those that I do not address there will be an opportunity for the relevant Ministers to discuss them on Committee Stage. I share the concerns expressed about increased reliance on moneylending during the crisis and would strongly encourage people to consider their local credit unions and to approach the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, if they find themselves in financial difficulty. The Central Bank's code of conduct for licensed moneylenders prohibits unsolicited contact or cold-calling except in certain limited circumstances. To use a familiar phrase, my advice is to keep the wolves from the door and go to the local credit union which people can trust.
Business interruption insurance and a claim in respect of loss of earnings because of closure due to Covid-19 will depend on the specifics of the business's policy. However, as a general rule, I believe that insurers should not attempt to reject claims on the basis of interpreting policies to their own advantage. Where businesses have had to close on the basis of advice or a direction to close by the Government and their insurance policy covers such a scenario, insurers should engage with those businesses honestly, fairly and professionally to honour those elements of the policies covered. Where a policy states that a claim can be made when a business has closed as a result of a Government direction because of a general notifiable infectious disease, I believe that Government advice to close a business amounts to the same thing. Insurers should not try to distinguish between these situations where there is a general infectious disease provision in a policy in order to avoid payment of claims. In this regard, the Government's direction to childcare providers and its advice to pubs and clubs to close is sufficient for those businesses to be able to make a claim on their insurance where the appropriate business interruption cover is in place.
The Central Bank has issued a questionnaire to the main providers of business interruption insurance in Ireland. Firms were required to provide the number of policies, the aggregate sums insured for business interruption, and the potential level of cover for Covid-19-related claims. The bank is currently analysing the returns and will update Department of Finance officials as soon as it can. I also understand that the Central Bank is to write to the insurance industry, setting out how it expects insurance firms to handle the settlement of claims arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The regulator's view is that firms must ensure that all claims are appropriately assessed and where insurance cover is in place, that claims are accepted and paid.
With regard to the social protection measures, some Deputies queried whether the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, which is known as Covid PUP, should be payable to the people returning from Canada, Australia and other countries. The Covid PUP is deliberately targeted at people who have been living and working in Ireland at the time the pandemic struck. It is directed at people who lost all employment and who are living here. People returning to Ireland who cannot find work should apply for jobseeker's allowance and the habitual residency conditionality will continue to apply as appropriate. There were also a number of queries about people who work part-time or casually and who are now employed because of Covid-19. I confirm that those workers will be entitled to the Covid-19 emergency payment. Likewise, one is also entitled to it if self-employed.
Other Deputies raised points regarding eligibility if one is already in receipt of a social welfare payment. To be clear, if one is working and in receipt of a social welfare payment such as carer's allowance, one family payment, the one-parent family payment or the rural social scheme, one can, provided one has lost a job due to Covid-19, also claim the Covid-19 emergency payment in addition to retaining one's existing welfare payment. The Covid-19 unemployment payment will replace one's employment income and will be regarded by the Department as equivalent to employment income. A number of queries were raised about people who have already applied for or who are already in receipt of the €203 rate of payment. If a person applied before 24 March or is already in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, he or she does not need to do anything. The next payment will be paid at the increased rate. This is a solidarity payment. If people are defrauding their fellow citizens by claiming dishonestly, the full force of the law will be applied. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will investigate potential fraud situations as they come to its attention. A number of Deputies have raised the issue of frontier workers. I am very familiar with that from living in County Monaghan, where people work south of the Border and live in Northern Ireland. We are currently looking at that situation. A number of other issues were raised and I will be happy to discuss any other aspects of social protection measures later.
Many Deputies have spoken on the housing measures in the Bill. It is important to say that this is an emergency Bill to cover a period of an extraordinary national emergency. The Bill is not intended as a means to introduce new legislation to address wider issues across the housing sector. Such measures could prove counterproductive and could, after the emergency is over, lead to a decline in the availability of particular forms of accommodation. The Government is acutely conscious of the financial pressures on renters and actions taken to date will ensure that people will remain living in their homes for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency. The Government urges landlords and tenants to work together to ensure the best solutions are found during this emergency. The Government is very conscious of the need to protect vulnerable people and the local authority sector is working with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to secure additional accommodation, including across our homeless services. The Minister of State, Deputy English, will discuss these and other aspects of the housing section of the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage.
It is difficult to believe that just a few short weeks ago Ireland was at full employment with record numbers at work. Practically overnight, the economic and employment landscape was utterly transformed by Covid-19. We are in a crisis which is unprecedented in the history of State. First and foremost, the Government is focused on responding to the public health emergency we face. That is the overriding priority, but we are also acutely aware of the great economic challenges Ireland is now facing. I know this is an extremely worrying and distressing time for the many businesses that have had to close their doors and for the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs.
These are difficult days but Covid-19 will not last forever. It will end and we must be ready when it does. That is why, through the wage subsidy scheme, we want to ensure that businesses are able to keep their employees on the books so that, when we come out the other side of this, Ireland and our citizens can get back to work as quickly as possible. By maintaining that crucial link between the employer and the employee, we will be best placed to kick-start the economy once again. Through this scheme, the Government is essentially entering into an economic partnership with businesses and employers nationwide so that we can support them and their staff through this unprecedented crisis. I encourage those employers who may have let go staff last week to now look at this scheme and, where possible, to consider taking back on those staff and availing of the supports available. At the end of the day, businesses will want to keep their good, dedicated, loyal staff and to have them ready to go once this crisis has passed.
A number of Deputies have raised issues regarding supports for businesses. I will go through these very briefly. The €200 million working capital loan scheme is open for application on the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland website. It provides for loans of up to €500,000. These loans may be unsecured and businesses can opt to repay interest only at the start of the loan. Loans of up to €50,000 are available through Microfinance Ireland, with no interest or repayments for the first six months. These loans can be used as a liquidity instrument to deal with cash flow problems with no interest charged for six months. We will continue to review this as necessary. This provides six months of free credit. Applications can be made through a local enterprise office. The credit guarantee scheme, which provides loans of up to €1 million, also allows for the option of refinancing existing loans.
Local enterprise offices in every single county are offering vouchers worth between €2,500 and €10,000 to support businesses in being prepared. Commercial rates can be deferred for three months and banks have signed up to a number of measures to support businesses, including loan and mortgage forbearance of three months. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has also announced a number of measures to be operated through Revenue which will help SMEs experiencing cash flow problems. We have also extended the deadline for companies to file their annual returns with the Companies Registration Office until the end of June.
All of these measures will come at a huge cost but we hope that by acting now we will have fewer people falling into employment in the long run so that our economy can recover as quickly as possible. As I see it, there are three stages through which businesses will need to be supported during this crisis: the initial shock, stabilisation, and the reboot phase when the public health emergency has passed. When one sees a report such as that from the ESRI this morning which predicts that unemployment could reach 18%, it tells one why our focus must be on stabilisation and on protecting key sectors of the economy at this time. My officials are engaging with the Department of Finance and with the European Commission. I assure the Deputies that further supports will be forthcoming. I want to ensure we have the right supports for businesses at the right time.
With regard to the supply chain, I have been in constant contact with the retail and grocery distribution sector, which continues to assure me that we have a strong pipeline of products for our citizens. Once again, I thank the countless retail staff who are working around the clock to ensure our supermarket shelves remain full during this difficult period.
I thank the many people working behind the scenes to make that possible - the farmers, producers, hauliers, the palleting and logistics companies, the people who work in the ports and the ferry companies as well as the staff in the farm and medtech sectors and many more. These are front-line staff who are putting their shoulders to the wheel and contributing to the national effort.
All these schemes may not be perfect. There will be flaws. However, that is what happens when legislation is drawn up in the space of a few days as opposed to over the course of many months, as would normally happen. However, as Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation said recently, when one is in a crisis "speed trumps perfection". What the Government is doing is a genuine attempt to support our businesses and citizens and to ensure they get the right support. I acknowledge the support and co-operation of all sides of the House at this time. This is a collective national effort and I thank all the Members for that.