Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

12:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will move on immediately to No.4 on the agenda, which is a statement by the Minister for Finance, followed by questions and answers on Covid-19. Rachaimid díreach go dtí an Aire Airgeadais, agus tá deich nóiméad aige agus an t-urlár aige.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I want to begin by offering my condolences, as always, to the families who have lost loved ones during this pandemic and to again pay tribute to all of those who are on the front line for our country in this time of great challenge.

I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the ongoing economic and budgetary situation. The necessary measures introduced to protect public health and to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus have resulted in a severe contraction in economic activity at home and abroad. Recently, my Department published the stability programme update. We indicated in the debate in the House on that report that we expect the national income of our country to fall by 10.5% this year and, unfortunately, we expect approximately 220,000 jobs to be lost, with unemployment already peaking in the second quarter of this year. On the budgetary front, the general Government balance, as I indicated at that point, stood at €23 billion. That was on the basis of decisions that had been made up to that point and I indicated the possibility of it growing further beyond that, towards €30 billion.

Given the radically uncertain outlook we now face, it is very important that I emphasise the level of uncertainty that attaches to the figures I have just shared. I want to stress that the indications we have regarding the performance of our economy, particularly the budgetary indicators when expressed as a share of the national income, are currently in line with what we see unfolding internationally. All countries are facing very similar challenges. This is, of course, most evident in where we are with the number of people who have lost their jobs during this crisis. Approximately 460,000 citizens are now in receipt of income support from their employers through the temporary wage subsidy scheme and there are just under 590,000 recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment. Along with the 215,000 individuals on the live register, this means that 1.25 million of our citizens are in receipt of income supports from the State. In the longer term, this is neither sustainable nor affordable for an economy in which we have growth that is based upon a private sector that generates employment upon which we can then deliver the public services that we need.

We are seeing the change that is taking place in our national finances as a result of this change in employment beginning to have a sharp effect. Exchequer returns for April showed a deficit of €7.5 billion and, to date, the level of support to the economy from the Government amounts to more than €13 billion.

It is the right and appropriate economic policy for the Government to run a deficit when the private sector has experienced a demand shock of this magnitude. We are doing this so we can limit the loss of income for companies and employers, and to preserve economic activity and living standards in the face of this terrible shock. These decisions now, I believe, lay the foundation for a recovery at a later point. We, however, can only do this because of decisions that were taken in the management of our public finances in recent years, in particular the deliberate policy of gradually over time eliminating a budget deficit and then running to a budgetary surplus. This has given us the credibility and the capacity we need, as a State, to be able to borrow the level of funding we are now borrowing to respond to the shock that is being felt in every home and every parish in Ireland.

Moreover, the economic turmoil is the result of a public health crisis. It is the result of a public health decision, not the result of an economic decision. We are entering into this period from a position of strength. My approach has been to try to improve our public finances gradually in anticipation of a difficulty at a point in the future, but, of course, this kind of difficulty and its magnitude could not have been foreseen then.

We expect public debt to increase significantly this year, and that is appropriate and in line with what is being seen internationally. We can finance this at a very low cost at the moment, but I cannot ignore the reality of constraints that will emerge at a point in the future, whether they be budgetary, whether they be monetary or whether they be decisions that need to be made by a future Government. The Taoiseach and I have both pointed this out recently. We know only too well what can happen if sentiment towards a country changes, and it is very important that our budgetary position in the future does not become an outlier versus the experiences of other countries.

As Deputies will be aware, the gradual unlocking of our economy began on Monday. However, it is already very clear that the new economic normal will be different from that of the old. Activity in some firms, including, of course, in our hospitality sector, is likely to be below capacity for some time to come. This will necessitate the kind of supports that are now in place. Some firms and some business models that were viable pre-Covid-19 may no longer be viable in the future, so the priority for this and the next Government must be to galvanise our resources to support companies and employers to be in a position to succeed in this new environment.

On 2 May, the Government agreed a further package of measures to support businesses negatively affected by Covid-19 to accelerate their readiness for dealing with this new reality. The House is already familiar with what they are: the restart grant, the commercial rates waiver, delivering and developing the pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, getting the legislation ready for a credit guarantee scheme, and the warehousing of tax liabilities for a period of up to one year following the recommencement of trading. These measures complement the previously announced measures that mainly, though not exclusively, focused on households and employees.

We have the ability, because of these measures and because of the agility and entrepreneurship at the heart of the Irish economy, to rebuild from this crisis. Protecting those who have seen their lives and their livelihoods upended is the most responsible course of action the Government could take, and this is what we have done. However, these measures that we have introduced, which we can sustain for a period of time, cannot and will not last forever. They are appropriate at this phase of the pandemic and the budgetary impact of these measures that we have taken during this crisis will, in large part, be addressed by our citizens going back to work. However, it is an inescapable reality that there will be a cost to the State from these measures and these costs will have to be addressed.

Responsible budgetary policies over the medium term will do much of the heavy lifting. Sustainable and steady increases in public services and living standards underpinned by sustainable steady economic growth is the best way of correcting the budgetary challenges we will have.

I need to remind the House that while there has, understandably, been a huge focus on the pandemic in recent weeks and months, it is also the case that this is not the only challenge facing us. Negotiations between the EU and UK on a future relationship are ongoing. The current transition will end on 31 December unless a decision is taken jointly to extend it. Overall, the interplay between the economic impact of the pandemic and the possible end to the transition period without a future trading relationship being in place, or with a limited trading relationship being in place, will have significant implications for our economy and our public finances. Just as the Government, with the support of the House, has to be ready for these scenarios, I also emphasise, unfortunately, to businesses today, that our period of preparation for dealing with reopening our economy and the consequences of Covid-19 must also have an eye to where we all could be in dealing with Brexit towards the end of the year.

While I am aware of how great the risks are, and the level of uncertainty in companies and families and with our citizens today, I have little doubt that we can rebuild our economy and get our citizens back to work and that we can yet again build an economy that is capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of all who depend upon it.

12:10 pm

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will use my time to put a few questions to the Minister and I ask him to respond concisely so we will get through as many as possible. On the issue that has arisen about women returning to work from maternity leave not being able to access the temporary wage subsidy scheme, my question is whether it can be fixed on an administrative basis by Revenue. Does it require a change in primary legislation to fix the issue?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am very much aware of this as an issue and of course the intention of the legislation was to treat all of our citizens and employees equally. It is the case that the description of payroll in the primary legislation and the date have created this issue to which the Deputy has referred. I am examining it with the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners to identify whether there is a way to resolve it. I am not at present in a position to be able to inform the House that there is but we are examining it.

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The stability programme update to which the Minister referred was published on 21 April and the central scenario provided for a projected deficit this year of €23 billion. It set out other scenarios and the severe downside scenario projected that the deficit could be €29 billion. One month on, and taking account of the extra fiscal commitments the Government has made and the up-to-date economic environment, what is the best estimate of what the deficit will be in 2020?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Of the decisions made by the Government on the business support package, the ones that are likely to impact on our deficit position for this year relate to where we are with the restart grant and the rates waiver. While, of course, hundreds of millions of euro is a considerable amount of money those decisions of themselves only move us beyond that €23 billion figure by that amount. However, I believe it is inevitable that further decisions will have to be made in the coming weeks on, for example, income supports and how we support our health services. Because of this, and the external environment we are in, the figure will be ahead of €23 billion. I expect that we are already approaching the upper end of the deficit horizon published in the stability programme update.

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister. He and the Taoiseach met the main five retail banks on 11 May.

A statement issued by the Government following that meeting indicated that business and mortgage customers would have the option of having the term of the loan extended so they do not face a rise in monthly repayments when they resume paying. The banks have not made a similar public statement, at least not that I am aware of. Was a commitment given at the meeting that in respect of the five banks, all personal and business customers who are availing of a payment break can have the term of their loan extended to whatever extent is required so that their repayments remain the same? Is that the commitment that was given?

12:15 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes. In the meeting we had with the banks we put that to them. However, a number of them had already indicated that an extension to the time by which the loan could be repaid might be a better way for some loan owners to deal with the issue of the management of the repayment of debt. I am not aware at the moment of any bank that is not complying with that. If it is the case, and it may well be, prompted by the question the Deputy has put to me, I would certainly be interested in getting the information from him. The point that we made in that meeting and that I made in the House when we had this discussion three weeks ago was that, throughout this period, no bank should have excess profit available to it as a result of the way in which businesses and families are being treated. As the Deputy will have seen from the quarterly trading statements that have been published by our banks, all of them are now moving into a position of considerable losses.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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An chéad cheist atá agam, tá sí mar gheall ar mhorgáistí. People who are on the wage subsidy scheme are currently having a difficulty in drawing down mortgages. I am sure the Minister is well aware of it. Will he make a statement on the matter to clarify it?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am aware of the matter and I have seen the work that has been done on it, in particular by theIrish Examiner, which has been examining this issue. My view is that participation in the wage subsidy scheme should not be a reason for treating an applicant in a different way. What I expect to happen is that if somebody's income has come down as a result of what has happened with Covid-19, the banks will assess whether that person will be in a position to repay the loan in the future. It would be appropriate, if the incomes of families, workers and businesses are coming down, that care be taken to ensure that if loans are taken out, people are in a position to repay it in the future. I am not in a position to get involved in any individual decisions in this regard but the Central Bank has indicated that care needs to be taken and that where loans are granted during this period, those who give the loan and those who receive it are both equally confident that it can be repaid.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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An dara cheist atá agam, tá sí mar gheall ar an wage subsidy scheme arís. We in this Chamber are well aware that the wage subsidy scheme is a taxable source of income. I am not so sure that message is quite out there among the public. It is out there is some circles but I do not think it is as obvious to most people as it is to those of us in here. Does the Minister have any plans to relay to the wider public that the wage subsidy is a taxable source of income and explain how that will be rolled out going forward? It is just to give taxpayers reassurance that they will not be hit with a massive tax bill later in the year and that this will be done in a progressive way.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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This issue gained some prominence a few days after the wage subsidy scheme was launched. I acknowledge the co-operation of this House in allowing the passage of the wage subsidy scheme such that we now have over 400,000 citizens depending on a job because of that wage subsidy scheme and over 50,000 employers. In its absence, our live register and pandemic unemployment payment recipient figures would be even higher. I will use this opportunity to restate what I said at the time, namely, that the payment of the subsidy will be taxed later in the year. The reason is that we have to maintain equivalence between that payment and, for example, many social welfare payments that are taxed. Take, for example, a situation where we might have two firms, one of which has seen its income fall and is on the wage subsidy scheme, while the income of the other has fallen but not by enough for it to be on the wage subsidy scheme.

In that case I have a duty to make sure that the employees for both schemes are treated the same way.

12:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will come back to the Minister. Deputy MacSharry is next.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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The Revenue Commissioners have indicated that this tax liability will be dealt with very carefully and over a number of years.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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To be of assistance to the House, and if it is okay with the Ceann Comhairle, I will bank my questions with the Minister and accept those answers in writing from his officials later today.

The economic and health impact of the Covid-19 crisis is without comparison in the modern world, as we all know. For this reason I believe that we must disregard the conventional approach to the cyclical economic downturn and develop new world solutions that serve the people and not the fiscal templates of pre-crisis and pre-Covid-19 textbooks.

I welcome the suggested financial package of €1 trillion that was mooted in the EU in recent days but I am afraid that much more will be required. The Federal Reserve in the United States has committed $3 trillion between April and June as a start. Europe needs to think much bigger. The EU population is 445 million and the US population is 328 million, but granted our economy is a little smaller. I feel that we have an awful lot to do. What they do for us will be contingent on what we can do for our people. We cannot countenance another period of austerity in this country.

I will bank the following questions and perhaps the Minister's officials will respond to me later by email. This is to allow other Members in to make their points. What have been Ireland's asks with regard to EU grant aid? I am conscious that we cannot strangle businesses with debt and think that we have dealt with the issue. Given the negative vibes from the Governments of the Netherlands and Austria and other northern EU member states over the last 24 hours, has the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, had bilateral contacts with his counterparts in those Governments? If the Minister has not, why not? Will the Minister have those contacts to state Ireland's position and to indicate what our asks and needs will be? Does the Minister accept that the €1 trillion that has been announced, half being for grant aid and half for loans, is insufficient in what it can mean for Ireland?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy's time is up.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I have just two more points. Ireland is just 1.1% of the population of the EU whereas Italy, for example, is nearly 14% and they are in a very bad way themselves. While I appreciate that many of our supports will be contingent on what the EU gives to Ireland, the SME sector is made up of some 250,000 companies, which is 1 million employees, this is substantially less than the figure for foreign direct investment and Enterprise Ireland with 500,000 between them, the average rates grant of up to €10,000 to be payable will be some €2,000 to €5,000. This is not going to do anything for those businesses. Is the Minister prepared to consider up to €30,000, as suggested by me a fortnight ago and echoed by my colleague Deputy Troy in recent days?

Does the Government intend to extend the current moratorium on redundancies or will the Government reintroduce what existed previously whereby firms that are faced with a situation of an employee who was unemployed for six weeks are entitled to apply for redundancy? Will the Government give up to 60% or more by way of a refund to those employers?

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Yesterday we were told that the cost of construction in the housing sector would increase by €10,000 to €15,000 per unit, that the price of an apartment might rise by €20,000, and that the general cost of public projects currently under construction could rise by 40%. There are issues regarding the Covid-19 insurance and emerging issues out of claims under that insurance because of insurance companies not wanting to cover them. There is also the legal mess that may emerge because of the collapse of US and international funds. Will the Minister put together in his Department an immediate analysis of these issues, which were raised at the committee yesterday? Will the Minister provide the House with the information on how the State sees it? Will the Minister then put in place a mechanism to avoid the legal mess that can be created by claims and disputes with these State projects and contracts?

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Minister inform the House what conversations he has had with the insurance industry, especially those companies which sold cover and failed to follow through on that cover with particular clients?

12:35 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Does the Ceann Comhairle want me to respond to Deputies McGuinness and Lahart?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Yes, please.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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To respond to Deputy Lahart first, I met Insurance Ireland a fortnight ago. I met the CEOs of all the insurance companies earlier in the year but that was pre-Covid. I have met the Alliance for Insurance Reform and I plan to meet both the alliance and Insurance Ireland again in the coming weeks. My message to the insurance sector is that there was no difference between advice the Government gave for companies to consider trading on public health grounds and a mandate for them to close. We were very clear that the guidance was the same. I made very clear my requirement that all companies be treated fairly throughout this period. The insurance sector will need to have clients at the other end of this that they are in a position to reinsure. The issues relating to insurance, as the Deputy well knows, are complex but I am also aware that not making progress on this issue and not trying to alleviate some of this difficulty are big constraints on companies reopening at the moment.

I will revert to Deputy McGuinness and either the House or a committee in the coming weeks with our perspective on the issues raised yesterday. Important issues were raised and we agree on some of them, including on the risks there will be. I will make two points to the Deputy. First, many have been critical at times about how long it has taken to complete tendering processes for important projects. We tried to put in place contracts that would give safeguards to the taxpayer. We will now evaluate contracts that are in place for important projects to see how they respond to the issues the Deputy raised yesterday.

My second point relates to the issues I have debated with the Deputy in recent years regarding the difficulty in getting companies to deliver public projects, the competition for the workers needed to deliver homes and other projects these companies could do that may be easier and more commercially attractive. That economy has changed also and there will be a value in public contracts that this Government or the next will stand over for those who have them.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing my time with Deputies Conway-Walsh and Patricia Ryan. I ask that the Ceann Comhairle be ruthless and let me know when my time is up. I will ask the Minister a number of questions and use my time to go back and forth between us.

In his response to Deputy Michael McGrath in respect of women returning from maternity leave being excluded from the wage subsidy scheme, the Minister said the matter was being examined. I think the question the Deputy was putting related to whether primary legislation was necessary. The Minister said he was getting advice on the matter. On 15 April, the Minister announced that the subsidy would increase from 70% to 85% for a group of employees, despite the clear provisions of the legislation. My colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, wrote to the Minister on 20 April and sought legal advice as to how that change was made in the absence of legislation. The Minister replied that he had asked Revenue to operate the scheme as if the legislation provided for 85% and not 70%, promising that the necessary change would be made to the legislation further down the line. If that mechanism can be used to change the percentage from 70% to 85%, surely the Minister can use the same mechanism to instruct Revenue to deal with the issue of women on maternity benefit.

I think there is cross-party consensus in the Chamber, including in the Minister's party, that the current position is unacceptable and discriminatory and needs to be sorted. Let us sort it collectively. I ask the Minister to answer my direct question. Given that he has already used the mechanism to increase the percentage from 70% to 85%, can he not do exactly the same for the group of women I outlined to get this issue sorted quickly?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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It was because of the legislation that I was able to make the change I did to the level of subsidy that would be available for participants in the wage subsidy scheme at different levels of income. The decision I made then, by offering guidance to the Revenue Commissioners, did not change the eligibility criteria for the scheme or the number of people who were able to access the scheme and the reasons for so doing.

It influenced the rates for groups and citizens already on the scheme. If I could have given a clear answer to the Deputy on whether we can deal with this matter by administrative means, I would have given that answer to Deputy Michael McGrath because he asked the same question. Maybe Deputy Cullinane could tell me whether, if it turns out that legislation is needed, he would support the formation of a new Government that he would not be part of in order to allow us to deal with this issue.

12:40 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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With respect, smart alec answers about Government formation do not cut it when we are dealing with women on maternity leave. The Minister's party refuses to talk to mine so let us stop the nonsense. I asked a straight question. Deputy Donohue is the Minister for Finance and he has officials at his disposal. I do not. The Minister has been given advice. Deputy Doherty made a phone call to the Revenue Commissioners and was informed that they are examining this matter and would work with the Minister's Department on it. I am asking a fair question. Can this be resolved for the women on maternity leave? The Minister should not make a political point of this and come back with glib responses. I asked him a fair question and I sought a fair response. It is unacceptable that the Minister politicised his response in the manner he did.

I want to move on to the matter of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. This matter is also important for significant numbers of people because there is some speculation that the payment could be cut back at some point. I know the Minister has written to the Business Committee requesting that the Estimate for Vote 37 be taken next week. He indicated in that letter that he would take the additional spending in the 12-week period and the additional money required until the end of the year into account. He also stated that he would take projections on the employment situation into account. I have a number of straight questions for the Minister on this matter. How many people on the PUP does the Minister expect to return to work over the next while? How many will be left on the PUP? Given that people need certainty, as they have had all the same bills and stresses in recent weeks, it would be wise if the payment remained at €350 until the end of the year. We want to get as many of those people back to work as possible. That will depend on the policy choices made on stimulus and investment, as was said earlier, rather than the path of austerity and cuts that was chosen previously. People want that reassurance that their incomes will not be cut or pared back. Can the Minister give that commitment?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Before I answer the question, I will respond to the Deputy's assertion on the answer I gave a moment ago. It sometimes seems that Sinn Féin thinks it is the only party that can make political points about anything. What I was saying to the Deputy was reaffirming what Sinn Féin heard from the Revenue Commissioners. It is my intention that all people will be treated equally under this legislation. I explained why this issue has developed and I made clear my desire to see if there is a way to deal with it. My approach appears to have been confirmed by the conversation the Revenue Commissioners had with Deputy Doherty. I will not allow any allegation to be created in the development of this issue to the effect that it is my intention to not treat people in a way that is not fair or respectful. It is my intention to treat all in a fair and respectful manner. That is why I am examining this issue to see if there is a way of dealing with it. It is perfectly appropriate for me to ask that if it turns out that I am not be able to deal with this issue in the way I want, I will ask for co-operation in dealing with it. I accept the concerns that have been raised by Deputies on this matter and I am simply examining it to see if there is a way in which it can be dealt with.

To answer the Deputy's question on how many people we expect to be on the PUP during the latter stages of the reopening plan, I would say that we will probably be in a better position to answer that question with data next week. The reason I say that is that even as recently as this morning I met officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to see if we could get a sense of the number of recipients of the PUP who are leaving it at the moment. Unfortunately, we only have two days' worth of information and I would be wary of drawing any conclusions from it. By the weekend or by Monday, we will know how many people have left the PUP because of the reopening of the economy at that point. I will then be in a position to be able to give the House an informed estimate on what we think is happening with the number of citizens who are on the PUP and what we think is likely to happen as the economy reopens.

On the continuation of the PUP throughout the remainder of 2020, there is a timing difference between the end date of the payment and where matters stand with the reopening of our economy.

The reason for that, as I hope Deputy Cullinane can appreciate, is that we made the decision on the phased reopening of our economy after we put the PUP in place. The Government will have to consider the issue in the coming weeks. As soon as a decision has been made on it, we will, of course, update the House.

I will make a concluding point. If the PUP were continued at the level the Deputy is suggesting, up to the end of this year, we would then face the understandable issue whereby citizens who were unemployed before the Covid-19 pandemic would be asking why their jobseeker's payments were lower than the current PUP. We would all face demands for an increase in the levels of income supports to the level of the PUP. That merits consideration.

12:50 pm

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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Businesses are now making crucial decisions as to whether they will reopen. This is happening every day of the week, yet we still see insurance companies fighting tooth and nail to cripple the same small businesses. These are the businesses that have come through the recession and battled through everything. I spoke yesterday evening to a businesswoman who has been in business for 40 years. She does not know whether she will be able to continue in business. Affected businesses are employing many people, particularly in rural areas and small towns. The insurance companies continue to play with the words but they are also playing with people's livelihoods and those of their communities. They are doing so on two fronts, as the Minister knows. First, they are flatly refusing to honour claims made through the business interruption clauses, even where the policy document is very explicit and states the business is covered in instances where a national or local government instructs temporary closure.

One of the pillars of insurance, which is compulsory after all, is good faith. When business interruption insurance is taken out, it is done in good faith on the grounds that the insurance company will provide cover in the event of a loss. Therefore, there are many business owners who consider the immoral behaviour of the insurance industry as theft.

Some insurance companies are refusing to refund even part of a premium while a business is closed. Has the Minister sought uniformity across the insurance industry in respect of its approach to businesses that have been closed? He spoke about this earlier but it is not happening on the ground. I am speaking to businessowners every day who tell me their insurance companies are showing complete inflexibility towards them.

In Britain, the Financial Conduct Authority is seeking a court judgment on behalf of businesses to clarify the issue. As Deputy Donohoe is the Minister in charge here, is he considering doing the same thing? Are any instruments of sanction available to him to take control of the situation in regard to the insurance industry and to ensure it acts in an ethical manner?

Sinn Féin has written to the Central Bank to ask whether it will take similar actions here. I presume the Minister has had similar conversations with the Central Bank. I remind him that it is precisely for scenarios such as this that Sinn Féin tried in vain to progress the Multi-Party Actions Bill in 2017. That would have been a game-changer, enabling groups of cases that share characteristics sufficiently to be dealt with collectively. Currently, the only real option is for a test case to proceed and related cases to follow subsequently on that basis. Justice delayed is justice denied for many of the small businesses that do not have the financial capacity to take on the might of the insurance industry. Does the Minister agree that blocking the legislation was wrong and that it should be revisited?

On the banks, I thank the Minister for the information. He had a conversation with the banks on the way they are increasing outstanding balances by thousands of euro because under the current payment breaks, interest will still continue to accrue. Has the Minister advised the banks that this is unacceptable?

Patricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I asked the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure the bank branches that have closed temporarily because of Covid-19 will reopen when it is safe to do so. On 24 March, Bank of Ireland closed its branches in Monasterevin and Kilcullen in County Kildare, along with approximately 99 other branches throughout the country.

Most of these branches are in small rural towns. They are an integral part of the community within those towns and the smaller branches are a key part of the local economy in the likes of Monasterevin and Kildare. They are particularly important to people who are older and not equipped to follow the trends that banks are pushing towards online banking. I have written to Gavin Kelly, CEO of Retail Ireland for Bank of Ireland. Despite being asked directly if he can confirm that the branches in Monasterevin and Kilcullen will reopen, he has refused to confirm this. The presence of a bank in a small town is a key reason small businesses choose to locate there. Such banks are also an important consideration when people choose to move to rural areas. We have already seen Covid-19 used as an excuse by Debenhams to close its Irish stores. I would not like to see this crisis used by our very profitable banks to offload branches that may be as profitable or, more importantly, offload workers who may be on a higher rate of pay because of their expertise. I am glad to see that the Debenhams workers have a very active campaign, aptly named The Devil Wears Debenhams. I urge people to stand in solidarity with employees of Debenhams in Ireland and not to purchase items from Debenhams under any circumstances. This is a company that has transferred its assets to England in an apparent attempt to avoid having to make redundancy payments that are due to staff here. Workers in Laura Ashley, Oasis and Warehouse have also become victims of the virus of greed. It is high time we had a government that stands up for ordinary workers and their families and puts the common good ahead of vested interests. We need to ensure that the banks, which will not pay corporation tax for many years to come, make some effort to show contrition for what happened in the decade appropriately referred to as the noughties. The very least we can expect is that local branches in small towns stay open and available to their customers.

As this is my maiden speech, I would like to thank the people of south Kildare and the Portarlington-Laois area who put their trust in me and my party, Sinn Féin. I assure them that I will work to the best of my ability to represent them in this House. I would also like to thank my husband Michael and my two sons, Conor and Mitchell.

12:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I congratulate the Deputy on her maiden speech. Perhaps the Minister would correspond with Deputies Conway-Walsh and Ryan.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes, indeed. I congratulate Deputy Ryan on her speech. I cannot give her information now as to what the future plans are for the status of that branch - it is not a decision I make - but I will certainly correspond with the bank and relay its answer back to her.

Regarding the points Deputy Conway-Walsh made, the Central Bank has now engaged directly with the insurance industry on many of the matters to which she referred. The Central Bank has written to the CEOs of all the major insurers and stressed to them that customer-based solutions to these issues have to be put forward. If the insurance policy is not clear and if there is doubt about the meaning of particular terms, the interpretation that is most favourable to the customer is the one that should prevail. I have said this to the insurance sector, I have said it publicly, and the Central Bank is engaging on the matter.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is Deputy O'Donnell sharing time with colleagues?

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with five colleagues, Deputy Feighan first. I am sharing time with Deputy-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We better get on with it because the time is ticking away.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Should we expect the Project Ireland 2040 investment plan to remain intact despite the financial impact of Covid-19? If not, how will it be decided which large-scale infrastructure projects will remain in the plan? I am conscious of the N4 into the west and north west, especially to Sligo. It is one area on the map that does not have motorway access. I understand that this is not in the Minister's brief but I am conscious that as the Minister for Finance he will have a serious impact on the matter.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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We remain, and I hope the next government will remain, committed to many of the projects in Project Ireland 2040. We will have to look at allocations for capital and for particular projects, not just because of the direct effect of Covid on where we are but also because of some of the issues Deputy McGuinness has raised. I remain committed to projects that are there, but the new Government will have to conduct a review of where we are with the development plan and look at whether the current level of resources set aside for capital projects is appropriate and whether decisions need to be made in that regard.

I am well aware of the importance of the N4 and how important, on road safety reasons alone, that project is.

1:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Maybe we will block the next two or three questions. Who is next?

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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The European recovery fund proposed by Germany and France is effectively a so-called coronabond taken up by the European Commission with grants coming to individual states. Where does the Minister anticipate that will go? Can it be expanded? When does the Minister think it will come into play?

Second, by way of observation, women on maternity leave remain employees of the company. Their holiday entitlements continued to accrue in the months of January and February. I would have thought there was an avenue through that route to ensure they could qualify for the wage subsidy scheme.

Emer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We all, rightly, applaud the heroic efforts of nurses during this crisis. For them, turning up to work every day is brave. Not only do they play a central role in ensuring that 70% of Covid-19 patients recover from this deadly virus, but they comfort terrified patients and spend time with the dying in their final hours.

Too many people have paid too high a price for doing their duty. Almost one in three health workers have now contracted Covid-19. Nurses deserve more than our thanks and applause. They now work long hours on modest pay to provide this most vital service in our time of crisis. Despite the absolute necessity of the work of nurses and the dangers they are exposed to, their overtime is taxed at the higher rate. In financial terms, we thank them for going the extra mile by taxing them. It seems inevitable that we need some sort of stimulus package to kick-start the economy back to life and the Minister has clearly outlined exactly how that will work. Will he consider providing tax relief to nurses as part of such a stimulus?

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I am raising the issue of interest rates in our banking sector. A person who has an average mortgage of €200,000 at 3.25% would have paid approximately €2,500 in interest over the period of the pandemic. People are concerned that our interest rates are distorted compared with the eurozone and that banks are passing this on to customers.

This week I was speaking to an individual who is self-employed. He has 4.75% on his variable rate mortgage. He is self-employed so it is not the case that he can go and switch his mortgage. The banks have strict protocols and procedures now. It is clear that we need to do something on this.

The deputy governor of the Central Bank has been on the record as saying that the banks are charging double the interest rates that are needed to be profitable. The banks should show solidarity. There is no need to be gouging customers with such interest rates through this serious and significant challenge to our country. I welcome the engagement the Government had with the banks last week. We need to continue to take a tough stance on this.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Shannon Airport is a driver of economic activity in the mid-west and west. I have pulled together the group of mid-west Oireachtas Members. We had an inaugural meeting of the group this week to support Shannon Airport.

It is clear that key sectors in our economy, including aviation and tourism, will need recovery plans and stimuluses. I want to get the Minister's views on that. I also want to get the Minister's views on the extension of the wage subsidy scheme. This is key for aviation, tourism and all our sectors.

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for updating the House on the work on the maternity issue. Of course it is a matter of legitimate expectation for women coming back to work.

On the Minister's comments on international sentiment and our ability to be able to continue to borrow, what is his view on the trajectory on deficit reduction? My question relates not only to Ireland but also the evolving view in Europe.

Deputy O'Donnell mentioned the Merkel-Macron fund. What is the Minister's view on how that might be paid for? Does the Minister believe there may be a risk in respect of tax harmonisation? I would prefer to get answers than speak any further.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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My thanks to the Deputies for the questions they have raised. I will begin with the point that was brought to me by Deputy O'Donnell on how money from the European recovery fund will be allocated. The European Commission will perform an independent assessment regarding how countries have been affected by Covid-19. I would expect that included in the criteria will be the mortality levels within particular countries, the level of income those countries have per head of population and any fall across that period.

The Deputy raised the maternity leave point and again I indicate my understanding of why this is an issue. As I have said, we are looking at a number of avenues with the matter.

Deputy Peter Burke mentioned interest rates but neither I nor the Central Bank is in a position to determine or set interest rates. Interest rates are high in existing contracts for mortgages for many different reasons. One is our historical position with non-performing loans and another is the level of capital that many of our banks must hold currently, which is very different from the European norm. I have emphasised the point in the past, and I have seen progress on it, that new loans offered should be at interest rates that are more competitive. There has been some experience of that happening.

To respond to Deputy Joe Carey's comments, I absolutely understand the role of aviation as a catalyst for economic recovery and as part of that, I understand the role of Shannon Airport. In a previous role as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I had the opportunity to meet its representatives on many occasions with Deputy Carey. I will work with him and his group on the role of different airports. The Deputy is aware, for example, of the announcement recently made by Dublin Airport Authority. This is a sign of the challenge that many airports are facing. We will have to see if there is a way of working with the sector as a whole or with those State airports in their entirety to see how they can be supported as we look at how our country is reopened in the coming weeks, months and beyond.

The Deputy mentioned the high rate of income tax for overtime payments for nurses and I absolutely understand why the point was made. I concur with him in recognising the major contribution being made by nurses in hospitals day and night. I hope he understands, however, that I cannot single out any particular public servants, no matter how much I value them, for additional tax treatment compared with others. We will enter a period, as our economy recovers, when we will need to be very careful about how we manage money to ensure it is used in the most effective way. I understand why the Deputy is making the point and I absolutely share his appreciation for the work done by nurses.

I understand Deputy Carroll MacNeill's point on the maternity leave issue and I have indicated to the House that I am aware of it. There was also the point on the recovery fund and my expectations of what will happen with deficits across Europe in future. As we work our way through this Covid-19 crisis, the deficits for 2020 of every member of the European Union are increasing very quickly. Over time, for reasons related to the financial markets and the gradual normalisation of the budgetary framework of the European Union, I expect those deficits to fall. The pace at which they will fall is currently unclear as we are still unclear about where we stand with Covid-19 and public health in Europe. It is the safest route for Ireland to have a credible pathway for reducing our deficit once we regain our public and economic health. It is in our interests to do that but for 2020 it is already clear, as I mentioned to Deputy Michael McGrath, that we will deliver a very significant deficit for the year.

1:15 pm

Neasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)
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I will not be sharing time with anybody so the Minister will only have to deal with one Green Party Deputy. I thank the Minister for the update. Despite the implementation and further proposals for some of the largest collective stimulus measures in our history, it seems a partial recovery in 2021 is the best we can expect. Now is the time to act but it is also a time to reflect on how we organise our economy in order to find new ways to structure our economic activity.

I am very heartened to hear the Minister flag the need for new business models. Given the distress that many businesses now face and the increase in savings by individuals, the Green Party believes the co-operative business model could and should provide a core part of rebuilding efforts after Covid-19.

This model of community-based economic organisation ensures that our business community is guided by the principles of economic democracy and that such organisations are rooted in the interests of their localities. They offer not just a new source of financing for businesses, but will help us to build a better, more environmentally conscious and more equitable society.

According to the IMF, the world economy will lose a cumulative €8.1 trillion in output due to Covid-19 over the next two years. This impact will be felt faster and harder than that of the 2008 financial crash. Our economy is expected to contract by 6.8% this year. In a survey from Chambers Ireland, half of SMEs expected their revenues to decline by at least 60% over the next three months. Six out of every ten companies have been forced to seek deferrals on their overheads, mostly on payments to landlords, banks or the Revenue Commissioners.

This is an extraordinary disruption of economic activity. We are potentially heading into one of the worst recessions in our State's history. As the Minister pointed out, unlike in previous recessions, we have strategic national economic strengths on which to draw. Although the nature of employment was variable, unemployment was low, economic growth was steady and consumer spending was strong. This economic downturn will be unlike anything before it, though. The collapse in consumer spending and the resultant cash flow problems that this has resulted in for businesses were not the result of instability in our financial system or the collapse of a property bubble, but the result of social distancing restrictions and the consequential closing of retail outlets, the hospitality sector, businesses, offices and the like. Consumers are not spending because they are unable to do so. Instead, they are saving their money and businesses are struggling with cash flow.

We should take advantage of the situation. We must look to the co-operative business model and begin to promote community-based economic organisations that focus on community wealth. This will provide not just a place for Irish savers to invest their money, but also a new source of financing. The co-operative business should be an integral part of rebuilding our economy post Covid-19. Co-operatives are guided by principles of solidarity and economic democracy and are rooted in their local communities. They run according to the interests of their members rather than some unknown and disconnected shareholder. Studies in the UK have shown that co-operatives create higher profits than conventional businesses and are more likely to survive their first five years of operation. The five largest co-operatives in the UK paid 50% more corporate tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined. Employees of co-operatives report higher levels of job satisfaction and economic well-being as well as higher rates of productivity. Compared with conventional businesses, co-operatives have lower levels of staff turnover, lower rates of pay inequality and lower rates of absenteeism. Co-operatives must form the foundation of our efforts as we move forward. They would be better for workers, consumers and communities.

The legal, regulatory, auditing and financial institutions of our economy are predominantly designed for private companies and tailored to their needs. As a result, co-operatives operate under a framework that disadvantages them, burdening them with a layer of rules and regulations that equivalent conventional firms do not face. Will the Minister indicate how he might address this competitive disadvantage faced by co-operatives? Will he speak to introducing right-to-own legislation to support employee buy-outs and the co-operatisation of existing businesses?

I have reports from constituents who are being advised by mortgage brokers to wait until three months after their last temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, payments before applying for mortgages. Some have had approved mortgages pulled by pillar banks as they went to draw down their mortgages. Other constituents have had issues with Rebuilding Ireland's home loans, which are provided to people who have already been refused mortgages. While I appreciate that the banks need to be prudent in their lending, it is disheartening to see those that we bailed out being so quick to abandon mortgage applications. From the banks' perspective, I understand that the uncertainty around the Covid payment and the TWSS might not help their decision-making processes. Will the Minister advise when the Government will be in a position to provide a definitive view on what will happen to the Covid payment and TWSS in the months ahead?

It is highly likely that there will be an increase in the levels of personal insolvency and home repossessions over the coming months. This is on top of the number of unresolved cases from the previous recession. A number of legislative and regulatory updates can and should be made to facilitate the efficient and fair processing of any such insolvency or home repossession. In anticipation of an increased number of cases, the funding allocated to agencies and NGOs dealing with and advocating on behalf of those involved in personal insolvencies and home repossessions should be reviewed.

Does the Minister have plans to review funding and supports allocated to the Legal Aid Board, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC?

1:30 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for all of her questions. I will do my best to work through each of them in turn. The Deputy asked me to identify the areas of agreement between us. The point she made regarding this crisis being very different-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Did the Minister say "agreements between us?"

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am going to get off to a good beginning with Deputy Hourigan, which I hope I will be able to continue with Deputy Howlin.

Deputy Hourigan's description of this crisis is very accurate. It is very different from what has happened before in that it is happening in Ireland and across the world because of a public health decision that governments have taken and citizens are complying with. It is so different from where we have been before. The Deputy also made a point regarding how savings have gone up and by how quickly they have gone up. When we take a step back from the terrible harm with which we are all grappling at the moment and our efforts to repair it, we could say that until this crisis arose, the economy had been performing very well. This, in turn, has allowed the State to take the place of spending from the private sector, which is now translating into really high savings rates. If the next Government and this House were able to give confidence regarding the future public health and economic health of our country - which I believe we will be able to do - that current very high savings rate and the ability to spend it in our shops and invest it could be a very powerful force in what happens in the economy, even later on this year. We have a number of bridges to cross before we get to that point.

On the Deputy's question regarding the personal insolvency legislation, the existing personal insolvency legislation has been successful to date in preventing many of the worst expectations of many regarding repossessions in Ireland from being realised. There are more than 80,000 restructured loans in place and in the case of more than 85% of those loans, terms are being met. I believe that the personal insolvency legislation we have in place is capable of dealing with the difficulties that may lie ahead. However, it does need to be reviewed and we need to consult the Insolvency Service of Ireland to ensure the framework in place will be fair for everybody in the types of challenges that could unfold.

On the question on income, I respectfully make the case that I am not sure the issue is the continuation of the wage subsidy scheme or pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in the future that might be causing the difficulties to which the Deputy referred in regard to the handling of loan applications. I know the difficulties are real because I have also experienced these cases. The question is around how quickly income will rebuild. We all need to be in a place - I know this is a very difficult and sensitive matter for many - that where loans are given, the person giving the loan and the person receiving it are both confident that the terms of the loan can be met. The Deputy will recall the difficulties into which many entered when it became clear that could not happen. There is a need for care to be taken now. These issues have to be dealt with sensitively by banks which are dealing with families who are in situations they never thought they would be in.

On the co-operative model to which the Deputy referred, we have a credit union movement in Ireland. I am sure there will be an opportunity for the Deputy and I to discuss this matter later. I reiterate that I welcome those who want to set up a different banking model in Ireland but if they want to do that, with respect, they cannot expect the State to capitalise that model. I have met the leaders of the credit union movement on two separate occasions since the Covid-19 crisis began. They would understandably question why, if we were making money available for a new banking model in Ireland, we were not making that money available to them. If there are organisations or entities that believe they can set up a different banking model in Ireland, I know there are many, including the Central Bank of Ireland and me, would be willing to engage with them on that.

However, in terms of moving this forward, it will have to be on the basis of their ability to fund it themselves, as is the case with the credit union movement. As a next step, in the aftermath of a report that was done by me and the Minister for Rural and Community Development on the community banking model in Ireland, we have a consultant who is doing some work in this area for the Department of Finance and the Department of Rural and Community Development. We can perhaps use that as a process for dealing with the issue to which the Deputy referred.

1:40 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Those of us who were involved in economic management during the last crisis hoped and indeed believed that we had entered now into a different time, a time of unprecedented opportunities to transform Ireland for the better. A few short months ago, nobody could have envisaged the impact Covid-19 would have, not only on Ireland but on the world. This is a different crisis, a unique and unprecedented crisis, but there are lessons we can learn from the last one.

The first lesson I want to address is on the issue of EU solidarity. The initial attitude to the last economic crisis, as the Minister will recall, lacked solidarity and a spirit of cohesion. In the initial stages of that crisis, countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and ourselves were left to our own devices and were required, for example, to take upon our own taxpayers the burden of recapitalising of banks. Victim countries, if I use that phrase, in this particular crisis cannot be blamed. There cannot be that attitude because Covid affects everybody, not, let me be quite clear, that there was any justification for blaming anybody in the past. What is now required is a genuine sense of solidarity.

There is a glimmer of hope in that regard in the Franco-German proposal. It is a modest enough proposal. Looking at the politics of it, from my perspective - I am interested in the Minister's view on it - it is almost what Angela Merkel has discerned would be acceptable to the Germans, namely, funding of €500 billion. On top of the moneys available through the European Central Bank, it is a significant sum. It is not sufficient but it is a start. However, even that is not over the line and I am interested in the comments the Minister has had to date in relation to how it is going to be expended. We still have to get over the next European Council meeting and the so-called frugal four, comprising The Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark. Their opposition may well be sufficient to block it.

Does the Minister agree with me that a eurobond-like fund, whatever we call it, that allows money to be deployed not as loads but in the way cohesion funding was deployed in the past, supporting grant aid to countries affected by this crisis, is absolutely an essential component of our recovery? If he agrees with that, how is such funding to be deployed? Is it to be buckled onto the multi-annual financial framework, which seems to the German-proposed solution? I think it is a good proposal because the moneys would be part of the general financing mechanism and could be deployed front-up. What work has the Minister done to support that proposal to date?

I have a linked question. Has the Minister been briefed, and can he share such a briefing with us, on the consequences of the German constitutional court's findings last week regarding future German participation in funds like this? Obviously, the finding does not yet pertain to this fund. We know the Eurosceptics in Germany, including the Alternative für Deutschland, are likely to take a case against this proposal. What is the Minister's view on that?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I will answer all the questions the Deputy has put to me. I do want to say-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I have a number more.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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That is great. I wish to make one point. I saw Deputy Howlin having to deal with many of these issues in this House from 2011 onwards. The ability of our country to borrow in the way we are able to now is in no small way attributable to the work the Deputy did when he was in my job for a number of years. I want to acknowledge that because I know the consequences he has faced as a result of the decisions he made.

I have looked to build on his work. If he had been told in 2011 that our country would be able to borrow the amount of money we are now borrowing and at the rates on offer, even an optimistic soul like Deputy Howlin would have thought it unlikely. We are doing that now, however. I acknowledge Deputy Howlin's role in this regard.

Taking the Deputy's first question on the adequacy of the proposal, I believe that the proposal of more than €500 billion from the French and German Governments is considerable. I see this issue in the round, however. The European Central Bank has indicated that it is willing to make up to €1 trillion of funding available to debt markets in Europe. The package of measures I hope is going to be agreed fully by European finance Ministers this week - an additional €500 million and the package that France and Germany have indicated they are willing to support - potentially takes the entire framework up to €2 trillion. Some of that consists of loans and some could be grants-----

1:45 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Lots of it consists of grants.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Lots of it does, but we are in a very different place from where we were a decade ago.

Regarding the engagement I and the Government have had on this issue, Deputy Howlin might be aware that some weeks ago the Taoiseach and I signed a letter and an article supporting a recovery fund. I did that because, while nearly all of the time I am very much aligned with my Dutch colleagues, for example, regarding issues such as taxation and the responsibility we have for our own budgetary affairs, I genuinely believe - and Deputy Howlin touched on this - that the issue of Covid-19 is fundamentally different. Moral hazard plays little role if we are dealing with a virus causing thousands of people to die in our countries every day. That is why the Taoiseach and I supported the recovery fund concept. It is not without challenges for us, which we will have to work our way through, but I have supported that concept as recently as yesterday morning during a meeting of the finance Ministers of the European Union.

Turning to how the recovery funds will be allocated, I think I touched on that earlier with another Deputy. What is going to happen is that the European Commission will bring forward its own formal proposal on this issue in the middle of June.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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What is the Minister's preference?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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For how it will be allocated? In fairness, it needs to be allocated primarily on the basis of those countries that have suffered the most from this disease with loss of life and loss of income. That means there is a group of countries that are more likely, therefore, to benefit from it. That is in our interests as well. If we do not do that, we will exit this crisis at some point with countries growing further apart. If that happens, it will pose a major question for the European project and as a small open trading country it is in our interest to avoid that happening.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I agree fundamentally with the Minister regarding a different landscape obtaining now. Sometimes I hear commentary, even in this House and even today, about people choosing austerity, as if anybody picked austerity when there was no other option because there was no other money available to us. We are in a different landscape now and I hope we can have that sense of solidarity that will allow us to make the necessary decisions. I would like to put several questions to the Minister, but I will focus on one final thing.

I refer to a strategy to deal with the commercial semi-State companies. Many of them are suffering incredibly under the Covid-19 restrictions. The Minister will have seen the announcements from the Dublin Airport Authority. He referred to them yesterday. We can go through all of them, from Bord na Móna to the CIÉ Group, but in the minute available to him, can the Minister provide a brief outline of his discussions to date in support of the semi-State companies, where he sees them emerging and what he can do to ensure that all of them continue to thrive in future.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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We have much work ongoing on this issue. Again, I am strongly in favour - as was Deputy Howlin - of good, strong management of our semi-State companies by those who run them. They are dealing, however, with circumstances they played no role in triggering. Regarding the larger issues developing, there is no doubt there is a challenge concerning public transport. I support what the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, said some days ago concerning our desire and need to support public transport.

It is of great intrinsic value. If it was unavailable, that would have a significant effect on the ability of our economy to reopen. Some of the issues in that regard are very significant. How can we support Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus, for example, if they have far fewer passengers than was previously the case? That would be through no fault of the companies but, rather, due to public health reasons.

Significant work needs to be done regarding what will happen in our higher education institutions, including universities, where there is likely to be a large amount of change in areas such as the student mix. We are not yet able to conclude what the needs of any of these sectors will be but as we move into the summer, the work that is now under way will need to conclude such that we can indicate to companies where they stand.

1:55 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I wish to ask three groups of questions. I will try to make my questions as short as possible.

On maternity leave, I note the Minister's comments to other Deputies on the legal aspect being under consideration. Is consideration being given to extending maternity leave as part of that process? Could that be done? It is not an ideal time to have a baby as the support that would normally kick in for the women concerned is lacking. Is that issue under consideration?

Is the Minister considering other changes relating to people who, for example, have underlying health conditions and whose workplace is open but it would be too big a risk for them to go to work? I ask the Minister to respond and I will then ask my other questions.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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The issue raised by the Deputy was put to me in the course of considering how we will deal with this matter. If we cannot find another way of dealing with it, my preference is for it to be dealt with as a tax policy or administration matter. Changes in other areas of policy, such as the length of maternity leave, may cause other issues that would need to be considered. This is an important and pressing matter for many. If there is a way to deal with it through the administration of our tax code, my preference would be to do so.

I am not currently considering any issues relating to underlying health conditions. Did the Deputy raise that issue as a way of dealing with the maternity issue or does she have another issue in mind?

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I raised it as a separate matter. When we were dealing with the legislation, I raised the fact that it appeared to be an anomaly that the issue of persons with very compromised health whose workplace was open was not addressed. The Minister is not giving consideration to such issues.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am not currently considering such issues. Various issues have been raised. Many have been addressed through the wage subsidy scheme and I have dealt with many of them in the House in recent weeks. The issue of workers with underlying health conditions having to return to work has not developed in the way the Deputy may have feared. If she has evidence to the contrary, I ask her to send it to me and I will look at it. Our response to the virus was put together at speed. It is benefiting more than 400,000 citizens. It is never my intention not to respect the equality of citizens.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I will revert directly to the Minister on that issue.

Deputy Howlin raised the issue of a unified Europe-wide approach. That does not necessarily involve countries taking an individual approach but, rather, having the same approach across the European Union. All Members are paying great attention to the matters currently under discussion at European level. There have been several very interesting proposals, including the Spanish proposal which I raised with the Taoiseach last week in the House. It seems to be a very good idea.

I wish to ask about the metrics or variables that might be used by the European Commission. I accept that the countries that are most impacted should get the lion's share of support. The metrics that are used are important for our economy because we really have two economies here. We have the domestic economy and we have the economy that multinationals would inhabit, to a greater degree. Indeed, the technology and pharmaceutical sectors may do very well during this crisis. Does the Minister know what metrics will be used? Will it be GDP or GNI? What will the European Commission be looking at when considering the impact on our economy, particularly in the context of grants?

2:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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That is a very good question. The European Commission is a number of weeks away from presenting proposals to the European Council or to finance ministers on this topic. Obviously there is a lot of merit for us if the GNI approach is used because in many ways that offers a more accurate picture of how our economy is actually performing. However, because a paper has not been tabled and we are not even at the point of informal consultation with the Commission on how performance will be measured, I cannot answer the Deputy's question. Obviously we will try to ensure that our own economic circumstances are fairly and accurately appreciated and understood in any process that goes on.

I briefly reiterate the point that I made to Deputy Howlin, namely, that many other countries, from an economic point of view, are dealing with difficult situations too. It is worthwhile saying now that we are approaching this whole process as a net contributor to the European Union. That is going to have a very big influence on our approach to this issue.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Is a two-pronged approach being considered? Clearly there is the crisis impact, the crisis period of Covid at the extreme end and then there is the recovery component. Is a relaxation of the rules on the excessive deficit procedure being considered? Living within the fiscal rules would be a bit of a straitjacket in terms of investing or providing a stimulus in the form of capital spending on housing, sustainable transport, human capital and so on. Have there been discussions about that at this early stage?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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There have been discussions about the budgetary rules, and the escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact has now been triggered. My expectation is that almost all, if not all, countries will be in a position whereby their deficits are considerably above what would be expected in normal times under the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact. There has not yet been a discussion regarding the normalisation of those rules again because we are a long way away from that point now. In any discussions that are happening at European level, there is an appreciation that deficits will be going up for this year, as will debt.

I do not think we should be seeing one part of this economic response as dealing with the harm of Covid and then another phase of this as the recovery phase because it all blends into one. The wage subsidy scheme, for example, is a recovery plan for the Irish economy. In the absence of that scheme, tens of thousands companies might not have been around today. They merge in a different way than would have been the case previously.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I wish to move to a different topic now, namely the construction industry and the warnings we heard yesterday about the cost of capital projects. Given that has now been stated publicly, controls such as enhanced oversight of capital projects will be necessary pretty quickly.

Is the Minister enhancing that capacity within the Department or are there plans to enhance that capacity? Is he talking to the State Claims Agency or any other agency in regard to beefing up what is needed to make sure there is not gouging, essentially, and that it is done in a way that takes account of the reality?

2:05 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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In regard to the first part of the Deputy's question, Project Ireland 2040 currently has a budget and an implementation board that is chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. They are considering, insofar as they can, what are the consequences of Covid-19 for current major construction projects. On the one hand, those in the construction sector are saying they are able to get back to work quickly and then, when they get back to work, they are then coming to those in this House, indicating the higher costs they are going to face. Any claim in this area is going to be inquired into and treated very seriously by my Department and the other Departments that are responsible for projects. I have heard many different demands placed upon me to get construction up and running and open again. It is now happening for big projects in the first part of the reopening and, a day or two after it happens, this issue is now being raised. Claims are going to be made, which is understandable, but we are going to challenge them and seek to understand exactly what is driving those kinds of claims.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, who is sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is right and proper that we should direct huge and necessary resources to protect the jobs and incomes of ordinary workers, small businesses and struggling businesses that are impacted by the economic fallout of Covid-19. Does the Minister agree it would be completely unacceptable for companies that are hugely profitable and paying large dividends to shareholders or, for example, that are registered offshore for tax purposes, to gain significant benefits? I am aware of one company, which I will not name, but which has 1,000 employees. Despite getting the wage subsidy scheme payments, it paid €25 million in dividends to its shareholders, and it is also availing of wage subsidies in the UK. In the meantime, it has slashed its contributions to the pension scheme for its own employees. That is not acceptable. Boston Scientific, another well-known company with €1 billion in profits last year, is availing of the wage subsidy scheme although it pays very little tax as it is. Perhaps the Minister can inform us how many offshore companies operating here are availing of the wage subsidy scheme or any other grants or supports from the State. I hope we will get answers on that, if not today, then subsequently, or in writing.

In contrast to that, and while those companies may be undeserving, the Minister talks about tapering off income supports for others who really need them. I urge him not to do that, particularly for sectors where adherence to public health guidelines and the fallout of the public health emergency mean there will be no return to normal or to viability for the foreseeable future. I ask the Minister to engage directly with workers and representatives from those sectors to discuss their future and viability. In particular, I want to ask about the arts, live entertainment, music and so on, which are facing a very bleak future, if any future, in the short term. Taxi drivers are linked to things like the arts, live entertainment, tourism and so on, which means their future is deeply precarious. I ask the Minister to meet those groups, and perhaps others, and to engage with them urgently to discuss how we can secure a future for these workers, who are very important for us, but whose future is very bleak. The English and foreign language education sector might be another we need to consider.

I appeal to the Minister on behalf of people who were on maternity leave and who are returning to work. They should be given the wage subsidy scheme payment. It is complete discrimination against people who were, in effect, working but on maternity leave to be denied that payment.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for those questions. I will deal with the maternity leave issue.

I explained earlier that I am considering options to see whether we can resolve this matter because the legislation as drafted was absolutely seeking to treat everybody equally in a time of great need. In all of the different issues now being raised regarding the operation of the scheme, please let us also recognise that well over 400,000 citizens are now availing of the scheme. If they were not, the companies for which they work might no longer be around. It has been an invaluable intervention in supporting our economy at a time of huge strain.

I will see whether it is possible for the Deputy to get information on the so-called offshore status of companies. It may not be. He will appreciate the challenge that I face is that if those companies are employing people in Ireland, I want those citizens to continue to have jobs. That is what I was seeking to respond to.

In the context of the point the Deputy made about dividend payments, we have a number of criteria in respect of the pandemic stabilisation fund to deal with some of the issues to which he referred. If the State goes all the way towards providing credit at a very low rate to companies or goes so far as to take an equity state in companies, the issues to which the Deputy referred will be very important. We need to ensure that companies act appropriately and are not advantaging themselves or their shareholders at a time at which the Government ends up playing a significant role in their affairs.

On the point made about the future of the various income supports, as the Minister for Finance who, along with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation,Deputy Humphreys, introduced all of the supports, I am absolutely aware of the important role they play. I know that where the Deputy will differ with me is that I am also of the view that we have to find a way in which we can afford these types of measures in the future.

With regard to the various groups to which the Deputy referred, to be honest I cannot give an indication to him that I will be able to meet all of them. Many Ministers are meeting groups at present and, in turn, those Ministers are meeting me.

2:10 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Debenhams workers protested outside the Dáil earlier for the third time. They are some of the almost 2,000 workers who have been opportunistically thrown on the scrapheap by a company that had been seeking to exit the Irish market, a company of which Bank of Ireland is a part owner. Of course, the public is, in turn, part owner of Bank of Ireland. My first question is very simple. Will the State continue to just sit idly by while a jobs massacre begins in retail?

Last week, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, caused a degree of outrage among the workers by suggesting that it is some comfort to them that they are getting the €350 PUP but went on to say that the latter is only temporary. In other words, the Government is preparing, and this was indicated again this morning by the Minister, to reduce the PUP for those Debenhams workers who have been unfortunate enough to have to deal with such a company and for the more than 500,000 other people on the payment. My second very simple question for the Minister is whether he is prepared for the massive opposition that will face any attempt to reduce that payment, which has been implicitly accepted as the minimum level to allow people to live their lives? Instead of this divide and rule between people on just €200 and those on €350 and attempting to level matters downwards, the Minister should accept that we need a basic minimum welfare payment.

Does the Minister remember water charges? Does he remember the level of opposition that defeated those charges? Does he remember the fact the opposition to the water charges was not confined to the Dáil Chamber but was based on people power outside the Dáil which ultimately succeeded? If he goes down the road of the substantial austerity he is talking about in terms of the PUP and public sector pay, that is the type of opposition that will face this Government or the next Government, which, presumably, will also involve Fine Gael.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I will speak about the role of the State in respect of an issue such as this.

I also want to appreciate the huge amount of stress that has been caused to all who worked in Debenhams by the decision that has been made and how understandably angry and upset those workers will be at the very sudden loss of their jobs. It is, however, the case that we cannot intervene directly as politicians in issues like that. We do have the Labour Court and Workplace Relations Commission. We have all of the organisations that are available to help at times of difficulty like this to see if fair outcomes can be reached. Deputy Gannon raised this matter with me a couple of weeks ago and I have written back to him today with more up-to-date information on where this issue stands. I will share that information with Deputy Paul Murphy as well today on conclusion of this question and answer session.

On the future of the payment, what the Deputy would want, and I understand why he would want it, is for me to be in a position to say that the current jobseeker's payments that were available to people before Covid happened and future jobseeker's payments that might be available in the future should be increased to the level of the pandemic unemployment payment. I am not in a position to give that commitment to the Deputy. This is not about dividing and ruling. It is not about trying to treat different parts of our country in different ways. It is simply the challenge that I and the next Government will face of trying to ensure that what we are doing is affordable. The Deputy makes the claim to me about austerity. I expect we will have a deficit this year of at least €23 billion. I indicated to Deputy Michael McGrath that it will be at the higher end of the forecast we published in the stability programme update. We are borrowing to sustain the incomes of citizens precisely at the time we should be doing so. I would hope the Deputy would welcome that and welcome what we are doing.

2:15 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister is planning to cut it.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am saying that over time, we will not be able to continue the level of borrowing that we have. What the Deputy will therefore want is for taxes to be increased by that amount and I would contend that such a tax increase will have other effects in our economy that I think it is in our interest to avoid.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Those due back to work after maternity leave are being told that they cannot avail of the wage subsidy scheme because they were not on the payroll in January and February of this year. This is even though they are technically still employees as they have not received their P45. By law, women on maternity leave cannot be discriminated against in the workplace, yet this is what is now happening, in effect, through the wage subsidy scheme in the case of women due to return to work since the lockdown was introduced. This anomaly would also affect people who are on illness benefit or unpaid leave, including parental leave for caring for a sick child. In cases like this, the Revenue Commissioners have advised employers either to operate the scheme by ignoring those on maternity leave in January and February 2020 or else to pay the employee the appropriate wages without receiving the subsidy refund under the wage subsidy scheme. In such instances, employers are footing the bill for staff wages where they have been forced to close their doors under Government instruction.

I accept that the Minister is in a difficult position with regard to the anomalies within the wage subsidy scheme because he has no legal mechanism to change it without a new Government and a new Seanad. I welcome his comments earlier that he is currently engaging with the Revenue Commissioners to see how he can address this unintended anomaly. If it is the case that he does not have the legal mechanism to correct this law, would he extend the current maternity leave provision for up to three months to overcome this anomaly, and in light of the fact that childcare facilities are closed and parents do not have childcare options if they need to return to employment where that employment cannot be done from home?

We have a bizarre situation where the semi-State company, Bord na Móna, is availing of the wage subsidy scheme for some of its employees while using the pandemic unemployment payment for other employees. At the same time, some of the staff receiving these Government supports are waiting for the company to approve their voluntary redundancy applications.

This action goes against the spirit and primary intention of the emergency Covid-19 legislation. Will the Minister explain why the taxpayer is paying people who are unemployed just because the relevant company will not decide on its voluntary redundancy application?

2:25 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Naughten for raising those points. The Deputy has acknowledged the work under way on the maternity leave issue that has arisen due to the implementation of the wage subsidy scheme. I am examining if we can resolve that. As I said to Deputy Catherine Murphy, my preference is to address this through the administration of tax law rather than having to look at other policies that need to be changed. In my experience, once one gets into changing other areas of policy, it creates issues that may slow down the resolution of the matter, such as the one referred to by the Deputy.

I cannot comment on the Bord na Móna issue raised by the Deputy because I do not have specific information on every semi-State organisation. I will ask for a briefing on the matter. Once I have followed up on it, I will try to give the Deputy some information or an answer to the question he raises.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his response on the two issues, especially the Bord na Móna issue. I will give him a copy of a letter I gave to the Taoiseach on 28 April specifically on this issue. I have been promised by the Taoiseach on a number of occasions since that I will get a response but I have not received one. This matter is causing huge frustration and there is no justification for public moneys, which are now being borrowed, to be used to subsidise and pay wages of staff who have been waiting for months for a decision on their voluntary redundancy applications.

I now turn to the national economic recovery and the huge opportunity we have to involve Ireland's 241 credit unions, with assets of more than €18 billion, in assisting with cashflow and credit facilities for small and medium sized businesses, the main employers in this country, particularly outside the cities. Fundamental to this is the need for statutory recognition by the Central Bank that credit unions are not-for-profit, community-based and volunteer-led organisations. The Central Bank seems to have forgotten that in many parts of rural Ireland the credit union is the only open and accessible financial service in the community. Credit unions are not the same as banks and they should not be treated the same by the regulator. They are being discriminated against. The Irish League of Credit Unions has sought the type of assistance and flexibility being provided to the mainstream banks by the Central Bank to help the credit unions through the Covid-19 crisis, but to date no flexibility has been shown to them. I put it to the Minister that many of the customers who use credit unions are not wanted by the big banks. If these families cannot get access to loans in times of financial pressure, they are forced into the hands of loan sharks. That is in nobody’s interest. Will the Minister direct the Central Bank to deal equitably with the credit unions? Will he commit to amending the primary legislation in this area to clearly reflect the unique community nature of our credit union movement?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I have had two meetings in recent weeks with representatives and leaders of the different credit union movements. I found these very helpful and I plan to have another meeting in the coming week or two. I heard from them some of the concerns raised by Deputy Naughten. The Deputy will appreciate that some of the issues they refer to are regulatory matters on which I am not the decision maker. They are decisions that are made by the Central Bank of Ireland. I have passed on to the Central Bank some of the issues that were raised.

There has been further communication from the Central Bank with the credit union movement since the last meeting I had. I will meet the credit union movement again, have a discussion about where it stands, and see where these different issues are. I cannot intervene in many of the issues the movement has raised but I appreciate the really valuable role our credit unions are playing. As Deputy Naughten has rightly said, they support many citizens at the moment who otherwise would not be supported by our banks. I value the work they are doing and I will try to recognise that in the period ahead in my engagement with them. If there are things they ask for that I can do, I will look at those requests carefully.

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his positive reply in respect of the role the credit union movement can play but I wish to bring him back to the question I asked about amending the primary legislation in this area. The reason I bring that to the floor of the House is that I believe there is a fundamental problem with the culture within the Central Bank of Ireland. When it comes to any type of draconian measure, clearly the credit union movement is considered the same as big financial institutions in this country. However, when it comes to giving a break to the financial institutions in this country, credit unions are treated very differently, as we are now seeing in practise in terms of Covid-19. There is blatant discrimination on both sides in respect of the credit union movement.

The Central Bank needs to make up its mind. The credit union movement needs to be treated uniquely, and the only way that can happen is if that is clearly reflected in primary legislation so that a different, balanced approach is taken to its regulation.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Respectfully, I am not in a position to give the commitment the Deputy wants to changing primary legislation. I will have to see what he is looking for first and I am sure he will share that with me. I believe that the legislation we have in place regarding how our credit union sector is regulated is very proportionate and fair.

On the comment he made about the culture of the Central Bank, I have to firmly disagree with him. The Central Bank of Ireland recognises the really valuable role our credit union movement plays and looks to treat it in a way that is fair and different from how it treats the established financial services in Ireland. I know there are issues that are always being looked at between those that are regulated and the regulator. In my experience of dealing with the Central Bank, however, it values the contribution that credit unions make to our country.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you-----

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The legislation was tabled last November.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thought it might be something different.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister. We move on to Deputy Nolan, who will share time with Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I begin by supporting Deputy Naughten's call for the Bord na Móna wage subsidy situation and voluntary redundancy to be sorted out. I, too, was contacted by a number of workers and union representatives in Shannonbridge. A number of workers were let go some weeks ago and were given the pandemic unemployment payment, but the whole idea of the payment is for companies to keep their workers on the payroll. There is an issue in that regard. I have received no response even though I sent the email a number of weeks ago. The matter needs to be looked into in addition to clarity being provided for workers who have looked for voluntary redundancy.

I raised the issue of the Minister's engagement with the banking sector a number of weeks ago and emphasised that many mortgage holders in distress felt they had no option but to look for the mortgage break, only to find out they would be paying an additional €2,000 or €3,000 because of having to avail of it. I pointed out to the Minister that mortgage holders felt they were being punished in this regard and I asked for some further engagement with the banks to sort out the matter. Since then, the Minister has engaged further with the Central Bank of Ireland, Banking & Payments Federation Ireland and the Revenue Commissioners to support customers in difficulty due to Covid-19. Will the Minister provide an update on the engagement? I understand that the engagement included discussions on how extensive supports for SME customers will be rolled out, which I welcome.

However, as I am sure the Minister is aware, while many SMEs are availing of the credit guarantee scheme, there is a problem in that microenterprises and SMEs involved in agriculture, horticulture and the fisheries are excluded from the scope of this scheme. It appears that there are restrictions under state aid rules and I would like some clarity on that. The current SME credit guarantee scheme is about encouraging additional lending to SMEs by offering a partial Government guarantee, currently 80%, to banks against losses on qualifying loans. The same sort of guarantees may be of immense importance to the sectors I referred to previously and these sectors need these guarantees now more than ever.

We are in an entirely different space at this point with respect to the rationale for the state aid rules. It is no longer about competition. It is merely about survival. We need to do all we can to support those sectors. I know that farming organisations such as the IFA have called for these measures to be introduced and I want to ask the Minister if he could make a comment on such financing and the state aid rules. Also, have there been any negotiations on easing or relaxing the state aid rules?

2:40 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy raised issues around the banks with me a number of weeks ago and I met the CEOs of the banks again, along with the Taoiseach, a number of days ago. I want to re-emphasise to the Deputy that it is critical that a number of things happen during this period. First, if breaks are being entered into, as they are for over 40,000 loan owners, everybody must be clear on what that break entails, so that those who are receiving the break and those who are administering are completely clear on what their commitments will be in the coming months and years. Second, across that period and this period, nobody should be profiteering from what is happening. The early signs are that will not be the case because of the degree of loss our banks are already experiencing.

Regarding the questions the Deputy put to me on the relaxation of state aid rules and the engagement we have had with the banking sector on how money can flow directly to SMEs, we are engaging with the banking sector on that point. As the Deputy will be aware, the Government made a decision to say we are preparing legislation on a credit guarantee. We are looking at how that credit guarantee has been rolled out in other countries and at how we can ensure that when we make this available in Ireland, we will have the balance right between protecting the taxpayer, which I know the Deputy will want to do, and in getting the decision right so that credit flows to the SMEs on terms that they would want. I apologise to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae but I will be brief on this. State aid rules have been relaxed by the European Commission and I am not aware of how their current status would affect our ability to lend to the agricultural or horticultural sectors, but if the Deputy could give me the detail of what she is referring to I will follow up on it for her.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I hope the Ceann Comhairle can give the Minister time to respond to me. I welcome the opportunity to ask the Minister questions on the record today. Our country faces unprecedented levels of economic difficulty and many sectors are in crisis, facing closure or a sustained period of inactivity. I intend to leave enough time for the Minister to answer my questions but he might reply to me in writing if he does not have enough time.

Will the Minister finally extend the Covid-19 payment to seasonal workers and to those over 66? Many of those work in the hospitality sector and face the prospect of not having a job to return to. They have fallen through the cracks. This is not fair and it needs to be addressed once and for all. The hospitality and tourism sector across Ireland faces its biggest challenge yet but as the Minister knows, we will be victims of our own success in County Kerry, the tourism capital of the world. A sector that employs more than 15,000 people and generates in excess of €600 million in County Kerry has been decimated. The predicted losses are greater than €500 million and there is almost 100% unemployment in the sector.

There are simple steps the Minister can take to help, including grants. Businesses need grants, not loans; they have enough loans. While the restart grant is very welcome, it does not go far enough. Pubs and hairdressers, for example, have changed the very fabric of what they have always known. Adapting their business will cost them money before they can even open their doors, if they will ever be allowed to open them. Further grants are needed.

Local authority rates need to be waived for 12 months from the date of reopening. The three-month waiver that was announced is not sensible and does not go far enough. I am under the impression that when a business is shut, it is not liable for rates anyway. Therefore, the waiver should apply from the reopening date.

The hospitality VAT rate needs to be reduced to 0%. I note with disappointment that the Taoiseach has dismissed this idea but I ask the Minister to reconsider it very seriously. If it is not to be 0%, why not 4%? The Minister should definitely consider that very seriously.

For far too long, insurance companies have had their foot on the throat of businesses in this country. No longer can that be tolerated. I respectfully ask the Minister to intervene directly, bring in the representatives of the industry and demand that they help the very people who keep them in employment.

The restart grant, while welcome, discriminates against sole traders, simply because they do not pay rates to the local authority. This is not good enough. These people need help. They have been affected by this pandemic as much as anyone else. The grant should apply to all affected businesses, not just some. While the Minister is not the Minister directly in charge, the matter falls within his Department's remit.

The OPW recently announced Skellig Michael would not be reopening for visitors in 2020. I totally understand the health concerns of the country and I am not taking from that. Why, however, was it not announced that Skellig Michael would remain closed until 1 July, for instance, or even 1 August, with a review every two weeks? Nobody knows what number of cases we will have or what the situation will be. One of the main reasons for the closure was that there are multiple touch and clutch points when travelling by boat. The locals in south Kerry and I argue that there are just as many and probably more touch points on public transport, including rail and bus. Another reason given for the closure was the narrow paths and people passing each other in close proximity. Will this not also apply to public footpaths and narrow staircases in shopping centres? Kerry County Council is putting together a programme for staycations in Kerry to try to save what it can of a very poor year for tourism in the county. The OPW has now trampled on the hopes of many businesses in the area. I ask for this to be reviewed; it is only common sense.

Will the Minister consider waiving this year's local property tax obligations? People are hard pressed enough without this horrible tax. The family home should not be subject to tax. People have paid enough on their homes already. Could the Minister answer in writing those questions he cannot answer now? I respectfully ask him to answer as many as he can now because he took some of my time at the beginning.

2:45 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I will have to write back to the Deputy on many of the points he raised because we have run out of time. I will, however, comment on the one matter he said might be outside my responsibility, Skellig Michael. I had the opportunity to visit it at the end of last year so I know how amazing the location is. As somebody who just about got to the top, I can see, in fairness, why the OPW made its decision. I know how steep it is at different points but I will pass on the Deputy's concerns to the OPW and ask it to make a statement to him regarding why the decision was made. I travelled out to Skellig Michael with those who depend on it for their livelihood. I am aware of the effect the decision will have on the livelihoods of the constituents the Deputy is representing.

The Deputy raised many other issues but, in fairness to the Deputies who have been waiting for a while to ask me their questions, I will respond to them in writing.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Pringle. Is his area the yet-to-be-fully-discovered capital of the tourism world?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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It is about to be discovered.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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How can we compete with that?

2:55 pm

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Yes we can.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I wish to ask the Minister two questions. I will use some of the five minutes and then Deputy Harkin can take the rest of the time. My first question concerns the insurance business and insurance costs. The Minister outlined in his responses earlier that he was meeting the banks and insurance companies and so on and outlining to them that he wanted them to deal with insurance costs. I was wondering specifically about people who are looking to make a claim. For example, I have one letter from an insurance company to a business in which it asks the business to make a claim in order that it can look at it and make a decision on it. The information the insurance company asks for is: the date on which the notifiable disease on the premises occurred and when it was brought to the business's attention; the date on which restrictions by the competent authority were put in place; and the period of the restrictions. I think the Department of Finance or the Government or somebody could respond to that business person with a letter outlining the relevant dates, which the business person could then put forward to the insurance company for it to make a decision on the matter. It would be interesting to bring it to a head and force the insurance company into making a decision on it. That would be very important for business people in this difficult time. Will the Minister comment on that?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I can understand why the Deputy is raising this issue on behalf of his constituents. As I understand it, he wants me to reply with answers to those questions. Is that right?

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Yes, but the Government should respond to business people with answers to those questions in order that they can then put those responses forward as part of the claim.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I understand. Some of those matters were raised with us by the Alliance for Insurance Reform, and I dealt with those issues with the alliance. Subsequently, I wrote to the insurance sector asking for a response to particular issues that were raised with me, some of which were touched on in the communications the Deputy has just mentioned. If he gives those communications to me, I will see if I can give clear answers to those matters.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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My final question concerns a totally different issue, that is, aviation fuel and the fact that it is exempt from tax. I know that now will be a difficult time for the airlines restarting, and that has to be considered, but in terms of fuel usage the airlines are very large contributors to the overall climate change issue, and that also needs to be taken into account. Now might be an opportune time to introduce an aviation fuel tax to ensure that the airlines, when they start up, start up with a realistic cost.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy will know, decisions on the taxation of aviation fuel are made at an international and a European level; they are not a competence we have here in Ireland. I would, however, be cautious about this. Looking at where we are at the moment, when it is possible on public health grounds to allow aviation - business travel and then tourism travel - to happen, and we will be guided by the public health advice, that will make an immense contribution to where we are economically and a vital contribution to lots of the communities the Deputy represents. I have seen at first hand how successful his county has been in marketing and taking advantage of the Wild Atlantic Way. I have seen how attractive it is to international tourists. I hope that when our public health advice allows it, if it does allow it, we will be in a position where those kinds of tourists are able to visit Ireland and sample all we have to offer. When the public health guidance has considered those matters, I would be reluctant to add to any kind of difficulty by making a decision on our own on the taxation of aviation fuel. However, the matter is now being discussed in the European Union in a way in which it has not been in the past because the impact of the aviation sector on climate change and in emissions is now being examined in a new way, given how urgent the issue is.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I wish to comment briefly on the issue of those returning from maternity leave and their exclusion from the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The Minister has said he will try to find a solution and I welcome that. I have just two comments to make. First, this needs to be done very quickly as many women find themselves in that position right now. Second, the Minister indicated that he might not be in favour of extending maternity leave.

I know it is a complicated issue but will he, in conjunction with his relevant ministerial colleague and employers, look to show some flexibility? Many issues make it difficult, none more so than that relating to childcare. I would appreciate that.

I have two questions. I will give the Minister the first one briefly. I have been contacted by several people who, unfortunately, have had to close their businesses. Given the requirements of social distancing, etc., they know that because their premises are so small, they cannot continue in business and are winding down. Yet, energy and telephone companies want to charge them extortionate rates to cancel their Internet and telephone contracts early. I know of two small business owners of whom over €400 is being asked by an Internet provider simply to cancel contracts early, as well as a charge of €99 per telephone. Are there any protections to stop such extortionate penalty clauses from being imposed on people who have to close their businesses? They were told to do so in the first instance and now they know they cannot reopen.

3:05 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I hear what Deputy Harkin stated regarding the maternity leave and, in particular, the second point she made. The reason I was careful not to commit to a review of maternity leave as a way of dealing with the issue the Deputy raised is because I am aware of the first point she made. This is an urgent issue and I know it is more likely that we will find a resolution of it within the tax code as opposed to having to look at other things. As stated, I am not saying there is one there at the moment that we have established but I am examining it now.

The Deputy made a point regarding utilities and providers. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has put in place an agreement with utility providers regarding how we are asking that companies and citizens be treated across the period. During the past 24 hours, I have heard the issue Deputy Harkin referred to being raised. She is the second person who has raised it with me. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about the matter. Among all the people who are now feeling the strain economically, those who are feeling it most are small business owners who, a little while ago, had viable business models but now find that they do not. My message to them, and to our entire economy, is that we want to work with all of them to recreate and rebuild an economy that, only some weeks ago, had been doing so well and running successfully. If Deputy Harkin gives me a specific example of the issue, I will follow up on it.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I appreciate that and I know my constituent will as well.

My other question relates to another vulnerable group. I know of people whose properties have been sold to vulture funds. The Minister knows this story. Right now, public auctions are being planned to sell distressed properties. For example, one is advertised for this day week and another for early in June. Now, we are only creeping into phase 1 of the lifting of the restrictions that are in place. Are there any protections for these people? Is it possible for public auctions to take place at this point, particularly in view of the phase we are in as far as Covid-19 restrictions are concerned?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Considerable protections are in place and have played a role in over 80,000 mortgages being restructured. They have played a role in over 80% of those who are involved in those restructured mortgages and who are meeting new loan terms. For those whose loans have been sold, the protections they have now are unaffected. That said, if we are at the point where a property is being sold, then clearly the procedures and rules in place have not yielded resolution of the issue in a way that works for the person concerned. This leads on to the question on whether public auctions are allowed. To be frank with the Deputy, I do not know the answer to that question, but I know people who do and I will get the answer for her.

Sitting suspended at 2.10 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.