Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Estimates for Public Services 2020 (Resumed)

 

Debate resumed on the following Revised Estimate which was moved by the Minister for Finance on Thursday, 28 May 2020: Vote 37.

4:50 pm

Paul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with three colleagues, with each of us taking four minutes. I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty. After four hours of questions on the Revised Estimates, I do not want to be one of those politicians who asks the same questions that were asked earlier just to be seen to be asking them myself. However, I will refer back to the questions and answers concerning the continuation of the Covid payment. I appreciate the reassurances we received this morning that the payment will continue beyond June. It is right that it should continue beyond June and, in fact, it should continue in line with the phased reopening of society that will allow people to go back to work. I really appreciate the reassurance in this regard and there should be an early decision and announcement on it.

Some of the Deputies who heard that reassurance this morning continued to read their prepared scripts, which could end up frightening people that the payment may end. These are some of the same Deputies who, when they found their parachute into opposition, grabbed it like it was some sort of electoral lotto win. I do not know what the shape of the next Government will be, but I can tell my constituents and anybody else that if Fianna Fáil is involved in government, it will be to protect the very people who are on the Covid payment. That is why I am not running away from government. That is what I am about, and it includes having the opportunity to fight for those who want to retire at the age of 65.

I have two questions on the Revised Estimates. The first concerns the back to work enterprise allowance scheme, which is run by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There are many people struggling to come off social welfare to start their own business but they are not able to avail of many of the supports provided by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys. Will the Minister, Ms Doherty, consider allowing people in those circumstances to stay on the back to work enterprise allowance scheme for, perhaps, six or 12 months longer, and allowing them a small grant to reboot their businesses?

Second, I know the Minister is very familiar with the Finglas centre which supports people who are unemployed in that area and that she has met the people who run it previously. However, the crisis they were in before has now got much worse and they have had to close the charity shop, which helps to fund their service. Regardless of when the centre can reopen, there will be real funding issues for it. Will the Minister work with the Department of Rural and Community Development to support the centre to spread its funding across more than just its community employment scheme and allow it to help some of the really vulnerable people in my area?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the confirmation we gave this morning that the Covid payment will extend well beyond its original end date, which was 9 June. There is real merit in making adaptations to the back to work enterprise allowance scheme but that would require legislation.

The Deputy will probably be part of the next Government and I encourage whoever is privileged to be in my position to look at that.

The Finglas centre and other wonderful organisations around the country are going to require extra access to the Dormant Accounts Fund and some of the Pobal supports for those that need them. That should be a concerted effort when we reopen. Certain people will fall between the cracks in the enterprise supports that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has introduced and we must ensure we have a secondary set of funds to look after those people and ensure they do what we need them to do, which is to activate the people who will not have work in September or October into the new roles that will be created by the new economy.

4:55 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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Unlike my colleague, Deputy McAuliffe, I have no problem repeating myself or repeating what has been said earlier in the House. First, I acknowledge that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, agreed earlier that something will be done to allay the concerns of women returning to work after maternity leave cover. I welcome that response. Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on what is to come to allow those women to return to work and receive what is just. At present, it can only be described as a discriminatory situation and I ask the Minister for clarity on it.

On another matter, I wish to raise the plight of those who are still waiting for Covid-19 payment arrears. These need to be paid. Many people who have contacted my office are waiting five and often six weeks to get the payment to which they are entitled. I acknowledge that priority must be given to new applicants for the payment. Getting people on the system should be a priority for any Department, but could the Minister give an indication to the people who are waiting weeks for those arrears when it is likely they will be dealt with?

Can the Minister also give some clarity on jobseeker's allowance? Many people who have lost a job are in receipt of a Covid-related payment. If or when that payment ceases in the future and should they fail to regain employment, can she clarify if any consideration will be given to these people if they need to apply for jobseeker's allowance? How they will be treated in terms of that payment? As a result of this crisis many people who might have significant outgoings in terms of mortgages, investments and so forth could be deemed ineligible for jobseeker's allowance if they have significant savings, investments, cash or property. Can the Minister clarify if there are any plans to cater for this group who have been affected by Covid-19?

My last question relates to those over 66 years of age. Deputy O'Dea mentioned this matter earlier today. It is similar to the issue of the payment for people returning from maternity cover. Again, it is one of the anomalies we need to work on. Could the Minister clarify the position on that?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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First, the Deputy raised the anomaly that exists for people returning from maternity leave to the wage subsidy scheme. From what I can gather, and I only heard it at the same time as the Deputy when the Minister for Finance said it in the last session, the Minister is bringing a memorandum to the Cabinet tomorrow. The issue has been resolved and the announcement of how it is to be resolved will be made after agreement has been reached in the Cabinet.

With regard to the arrears, as I said this morning it involves individual access to individual applications. The Deputy will be aware that there are 589,000 people on the Covid payment at present. To carry out individual analyses of what people are owed we would need hundreds of staff and weeks to get through them. We are trying to draft an IT script that can go through our IT system with an algorithm to identify the people who are owed payments and the various payments they are owed, and then to make a payment. It will be as fast as we can get that script to work. That might be weeks or it might be longer, but to do it in the normal way we would have to take all our staff from what they are doing currently and get them to go through batches of paper applications. That is not productive. However, I assure everybody that if people are owed any money, they will receive it. I cannot give a definitive date but it will be as soon as we possibly can do it.

Anybody can apply for jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. There are some people today who might be financially better off in the social welfare system than they are by receiving the €350 pandemic payment. As it was only a temporary income, and we obviously hope that the vast majority of people will go back to work, we have not been processing the applications that people have made on the first day or first week they came in. Anybody can apply for jobseeker's benefit, which is accrued as a result of the contributions the person has made. If people do not have enough contributions they can apply for jobseeker's allowance.

I refer to the myriad supports that go along with that base rate such as qualified adults and qualified child allowances, rent supplement, medical cards, fuel allowance and back to school allowance. The Department gives myriad supports to people who are temporarily out of work and they are able to access them at any time.

With regard to those over the age of 66, the current legislation of the land, which is the legislation that I have no choice but to work under, denotes that our working age payments exist between the ages of 18 and 66. Those are the contributors to the social insurance system. Those are the people who have access to employment activation sources and recruitment services that we use through our Intreo offices. That working age category is between 18 and 66 and can only be changed by legislation, which is the reason we were adamant to include those over the age of 66 in our temporary wage subsidy scheme. Regarding those such as self-employed people aged over 66 who could not re-employ themselves, for argument's sake, we gave them access to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which some of them have applied for, and we are looking favourably on them because we have lowered the means test threshold with regard to that scheme for them. If the Deputy knows people who need extra money because their outgoings or their business expenses are more than their income with regard to their pension entitlements, I ask him to, please, make sure that they contact their local Intreo office and we will deal with them and help them in any was we can do so.

5:05 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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We are supportive of the Revised Estimate. We are complimentary of the urgency and the speed of delivery with regard to the two schemes. I welcome the fact that clarification was provided earlier on the extension of the schemes and also to the fixing of the anomalies such as the maternity benefit but I want to raise wider issues with the Minister in respect of the Government response to this crisis. If we do not deal with these other issues with the same sense of urgency and speed, I believe we will be back here again with further Revised Estimates because we will not be getting our people back to work.

The issue I want to raise is liquidity for our SMEs. They are being starved of liquidity and the schemes that have been announced by the Department are not fit for purpose. Our small businesses are not getting the supports they need and I ask the Minister to say, when the Cabinet meets tomorrow, that we will review the businesses that are being starved of the liquidity they need to get up and running again.

I want to raise also the area of childcare. I was struck by an email I received the other night at 12.45 a.m. The correspondent states that she is a healthcare professional working in their local hospital and that her husband is farming. They have two children aged six and two. For two months straight, they have managed with no childcare, 17 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. In the past week, they had help three mornings a week and are counting down the weeks until 29 June when her crèche opens. I will condense the email for time purposes. She goes on to state that she has a strong work ethic and moral compass and understands the importance of providing essential services to society, but no more. She has lost all faith in the phases. She states that there was no childcare in phase 1 as promised and asks if there is going to be no childcare in phase 2. She states that she thinks she is done with this ill-thought-out process. If we are not providing childcare to our front-line workers, how will we provide childcare to the people who have to return to work?

I refer to the inconsistencies in the reopening of our economy. We had a situation where garden centres were closed yet Aldi and Lidl continued to sell their products. Dunnes and Tesco are selling clothes yet home-grown boutiques selling menswear and womenswear cannot open up and sell their products. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan put it well this morning on "Morning Ireland". We need to review the inconsistencies that exist and the timeframe to open up the economy. As somebody asked me in a text this morning, who is running the country? Is it Dr. Holohan or the caretaker Government? People advise. The Government needs to take decisions bearing in mind the current competing demands.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In fairness to the Deputy's two colleagues, I think I will call them and then the Minister can answer.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry that I was delayed. I was not expecting this session to start so early. On the maternity leave, there are two issues.

If a person does not go back to work but is available for work, does he or she get the Covid payment? The second is the possibility of extended maternity leave being introduced. I understand that would take legislation. The Minister might tell me if it would not. The argument in favour of it is that when one has a new baby, there is no childcare available at present and in a lot of cases grandparents cannot look after their children because they are over a certain age and they are meant to be socially isolating, or they are more than 5 km or 50 km apart. Has the Minister considered extending maternity leave as well as making people who are on maternity leave eligible for the Covid payment?

I do not understand the anomaly that the Minister has just outlined where an employer can avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme for an employee who is over 66, but that person cannot get the pandemic unemployment payment.

Has the Minister given consideration to reintroducing the mortgage interest supplement for people who will be unemployed because of Covid? I got a long answer talking about the goodwill of banks. Banks do not show a lot of goodwill to an awful lot of people. The mortgage interest supplement which would have been paid during the period of enforced unemployment would have been a significant safety net for people.

The final matter is very important along the west coast. It relates to those who are never employed in February and early March because they are involved in seasonal tourism. They earn their living normally from either St. Patrick's Day or from Easter until the back end of the year, probably as far as deireadh seachtaine na Samhna. What will be available for them other than jobseeker's allowance? Will they be able to prove that that was their employment pattern? Will they be entitled to this revised Covid payment? If they are not, they are at a significant disadvantage and it will decimate those areas, such as Killarney, Connemara, Donegal, Mayo etc.

5:15 pm

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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The €350 Covid payment had to be introduced for workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. We have to try to get small businesses back to work. It was referred to by a couple of speakers earlier in this slot. Our banks and the way small businesses are treated has to be addressed and changed immediately. Some €6.5 billion was provided to help businesses to reopen. I have been advised by business professionals that there is an extremely low uptake of this money. This is not to be interpreted as a lack of need but rather that the banks are not lending. Even though some of the risk is being underwritten by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, and there is only 92.5 cent to be paid back on the euro, and they are charging 4% to 5% to their customers, it is still not working. The reason being advanced by the banks for not accepting applications is adherence to Central Bank rules, but those rules are related to long-term borrowing, not to the working capital that is needed now. The loans being looked for at present are limited to a one to three year repayment period, so they can definitely be classed as working capital.

A specific case was brought to me during the week where a company had SBCI pre-approval. When it took it to the bank, it had all the boxes ticked, including three year financials, tax clearance, cashflow forecasts etc. Within a matter of hours, it got a blank dismissal from the bank. Banks are lending money to professional firms but no manufacturing or trading business is being considered. Our banks are acting in a manner that is less than helpful in recovering from the Covid-19 crisis. Unfortunately, profit is the only mantra that they adhere to. This has to change rapidly. We are told that another fund of €2 billion is available, which legislation will help to work more efficiently. Unfortunately, we have to wait for the establishment of a new Administration for that to happen. Businesses cannot wait. They are in urgent need of working capital and this has to be addressed immediately.

I also want to make a point about SafePass cards.

Thankfully, the construction industry was allowed to return to work on 18 May. However, anyone wanting to work on a construction site must have a Safe Pass card. There is a restriction on holding Safe Pass courses at the moment due to the pandemic. I was contacted by a firm in Tipperary with more than 200 people employed post-Covid. Some of the firm's current employees cannot return to work because their Safe Pass cards expired before 1 March. It also cannot take on any new employees. A number of people have returned to the country in the past couple of months and again they cannot return to work. This anomaly needs to be addressed and SOLAS needs to hold courses straightaway so that employers can get the workers they need to get the construction industry back working as quickly as possible.

Deputy Troy spoke about the inconsistencies in the roadmap. Thankfully, the numbers of those infected by the virus are dropping by the day. Unfortunately, families are still losing loved ones, but the figures have dropped dramatically in the past week to ten days. We need a review of that roadmap. Some of the inconsistencies we saw last Friday week when the first stage of the reopening was announced must be addressed. While hardware stores are allowed to open, other homeware shops are forced to stay closed. Large multiples like Dunnes Stores are having sales for clothes while the smaller retailers in the centres of towns are still closed. Those inconsistencies must be addressed.

Will workers who have been in receipt of the €350 Covid payment, whose workplace is now reopening but turnover is still seriously affected due to restrictions, be entitled to a payment subsidy?

5:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There is little time left: eight seconds. We will have to ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputies in respect of their questions.

We move to Sinn Féin now, which has-----

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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A Cheann Comhairle-----

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

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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One of the tragedies of what is happening in the Dáil is that accountability in this House has gone to nothing. Dáil weeks are very short as they are and it is an awful pity when an earlier session ended that we could not have had the extra time and split it up.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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While I was not here for the last session, I understand that the last session ended early because of lack of participation. The party groups decide how many people they send in to take up the time allocated. In an ideal scenario, Members would ask questions and get answers. If so many people ask questions that they consume all the time, there is no time left for the Minister to answer, which is unsatisfactory.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We accept that. If one is in a party, for example, with 37 Teachtaí Dála, and there is a party with six that has the same time, it is obvious that the pressure on the bigger party will be greater because there will be more offering.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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That is because you have six talking at the same time. We do not.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I think these issues need to be addressed.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I appreciate that dilemma. The allocation-----

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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There are a lot more-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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For the record, the allocation in this slot is 20 minutes each to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, ten minutes to the Green Party and eight minutes to everyone else.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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If it is taken proportionately, it is a lot less.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I know, and we could do the maths. I understand the Deputy's frustration and I thank him for highlighting it. We need to move on.

We have five Sinn Féin contributors beginning with Deputy Ellis who is sharing with his colleagues.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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We will take four minutes each.

We have been through challenging times before, most recently when the economy crashed and brought in an era of austerity. The austerity measures brought in often targeted the most vulnerable in society. Savage cuts were made to benefits, including the back-to-school allowance, the jobseeker’s allowance, the one-parent family allowance, the carer’s allowance, the means-tested fuel allowance, pensions and much more.

With a caretaker government behaving in an almost cavalier manner and with unelected individuals holding ministerial positions making decisions for us with a minimum of scrutiny and accountability, how can we expect anything but more of the same?

We know that this is not what the public wants, that this is not what they voted for and it is not the change the electorate was crying out for. Serious decisions must be made in this crisis and they require proper oversight. This is effectively not happening now and this is making a joke out of parliamentary norms.

People have to be in place who can be held accountable for those decisions and we as public representatives should be able to hold these people to account. We are facing a potential crisis in employment and we need stability to deal with this situation. Those who have lost their jobs need to be given every opportunity to be able to diversify and retrain in a new career.

We have a very well educated and qualified workforce which wants to go back to work. We should explore every opportunity for people to retrain or return to education as soon as possible to allow them to develop a new career path. This is crucial for those whose employment opportunities or skill sets have been adversely affected by the consequences of the lockdown.

We must recognise that the lockdown and the loss of jobs could give rise to higher levels of poverty. Poverty can arise from being on low pay or being reliant on state payments such as pensions, disability allowances or because people are carers for a loved one. This pandemic is creating a new potential for poverty. People are making enormous sacrifices in their lives and their employment by adhering to the guidelines to stay at home. The Government has a responsibility to those who have followed the guidelines and stayed home and must continue to support them. Undoubtedly, if the Covid payment is stopped more people will be driven into poverty. Workers who have been told to stay at home still have mortgages, bills or rent to pay. Many, for example taxi drivers, are self-employed and still have to pay for overheads. People must not find themselves unduly burdened by additional debt which can propel them into poverty. This in the long term will be a significant cost to the State through lost revenue from taxes, additional welfare payments and the real prospect of a significant rise in homelessness as people default on mortgages or are evicted because they are not able to pay their rent. The majority want to return to work and will do so at the earliest possible opportunity and will also return to paying taxes, universal social charges and PRSI. The pandemic payment legislation is a blunt instrument that excludes workers under 18 years and over 66 years from the scheme. This should be reviewed and the Minister has said she is doing so.

5:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Paul Donnelly is next. I must check the Minister can hear me.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I could not.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are five speakers in this slot. We will hear them; whether there is time for the Minister to respond is a matter for those putting the questions.

Paul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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Undoubtedly, we are in a difficult time but there are also opportunities to reboot our social welfare system to ensure that it helps all those who are most in need both during the crisis and afterwards. The €350 Covid payment is a clear recognition by Fine Gael and others that this is the least amount needed to keep a person's head above water when they lose their job. However, kite flying by certain members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being terrified of what is coming down the line. Today's debate will have given them no certainty for the longer term. The Government is discussing cutting the PUP. It should be reminded that the vast majority are only out of work because of the pandemic and because Government restrictions have made it illegal for some to work and unfeasible for others. It is not for any other reason.

Today, I raise the self-employed taxi drivers, driving instructors and other PSV drivers. Yesterday, I dealt with a taxi driver aged 74 years who had previously been in hospital. He has lost his accommodation and has been living in his taxi in recent weeks. He is a very proud man who does not want handouts, he just wants a hand up. His only income is his pension and he was denied a Covid-19 payment, like many others.

Many others are in vulnerable situations with poor health and they are in high-risk groups who cannot access supports unless they completely close their business.

Thousands of healthy taxi drivers have seen their business collapse due to the restrictions imposed by the Government during this pandemic. They are asking why they are not getting supported in the same way as other workers and businesses. They have families, mortgages and bills to pay and, in some cases, they must undertake extra measures in order to keep their taxis going. Some will have to replace their vehicles due to the ten-year rule and with no business and no supports this will drive many off the road. Insurance has increased massively for taxi drivers and a pittance has been paid back. Again, the lack of business supports will drive many taxi drivers off the road. Are there plans to treat taxi drivers in the same way as other businesses and workers? What supports can they look forward to in the coming months? We know that much of the business on which they rely will most likely not open up this year, or if it does open up the capacity will be reduced to 30% or 35%, leaving them with virtually no work.

5:35 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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In the coming weeks and months we will have an opportunity to create a much fairer society. There are many opportunities as we move out of the pandemic, but in order to achieve that we must make choices because it is about choices. For instance, we must choose a one-tier health system, which will allow equal access for everybody so that access is not determined by the size of one's wallet but by one's medical need.

We must also choose a housing policy that will tackle homelessness and the lack of social and affordable housing. In my constituency of Dublin Bay South the need for housing is at a crisis point. We really need to make the choice to tackle such issues.

We must deliver a childcare system that works for ordinary families and that is affordable for people. We also need to deliver the change the electorate called for and voted for in the recent election. Sinn Féin will advocate for change and for a fairer and more equal society. We will advocate that no one is left behind.

The pension age has been mentioned quite a bit recently and many mixed messages are coming from the Government on it. There are discussions on whether the pension age will be increased to 67. We do not know what will happen in that regard. Between nursing homes and those aged over 66 not being eligible for the Covid payment, older people are being particularly impacted by the pandemic. We have been told the pension age could be increased to 67 but Fianna Fáil does not appear to be sure what its view is on it. It is waiting to see what way the wind is blowing. Could the Minister state clearly that the age will not be increased to 67?

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Would it be possible for me, a Cheann Comhairle, to take my questions now? I do not wish to be difficult but it would make things a bit easier.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There is no guarantee then that Deputy Gould will get in.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will be very fast. Deputy Gould trusts me implicitly.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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All right. That is okay. The Deputy can proceed.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Partition is the gift that does not stop giving, or should I say, taking. It has been put on the record that many Northern workers have not been able to avail of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. We are obviously talking about people who have paid USC and PRSI in the South. Some of them have only worked in the South, which creates a difficulty with seeking benefits in the North. Luckily, due to the wage subsidy scheme and many good employers, a lot of people have been sorted, but a number of people fall into anomalous situations. Given what the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, said earlier about the wage subsidy scheme I am hopeful that a possible solution can be found for women coming back from maternity leave. I would like to think that it would resolve the issues for some of the clients who have come to us, including some who are Northern workers, who are losing all round, who cannot avail of the PUP payment.

I would like some information on the directives affecting payments. I called the Covid-19 PUP line first and I was told about different directives. They were not sent to me, but rather read out to me. One directive required Northern workers to be paid in this situation. Later that evening or the next day I was told something had changed within the Department. I would like to know what led to that.

I know of a Northern worker who had her own business in the South. She could not avail of the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme to pay herself and could not avail of benefits in the North. Article 65a of EU Regulation No. 883/2004 provides that people who fall into this particular anomaly should be able to avail of benefits in the state in which they last worked and made contributions. We have already made representations to the Minister's office. I would like to follow up on them.

I would also like to know whether she has been in communication with the European Commission on the decision not to pay out to Northern workers. Is it possible to get the legal advice her Department received in making that determination? The Department will make an argument about practice throughout Europe, but this is an issue specific to Ireland. The Taoiseach is now on record as saying that people from the North would never be left behind again and accepting that this State has a history of doing so. I would like to think we could rectify some of these problems.

5:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Perhaps the Minister could take Deputy Ó Murchú's questions before we conclude with Deputy Gould.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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That is no problem. I was asked why we established the pandemic payment in the way we did. The pandemic legislation is based on unemployment legislation that is currently the law of the land. The EU regulations are the regulations of the European Union. These determined the age categories between the ages of 18 and 66 to which we could pay the Covid-19 PUP.

The EU regulations govern our treatment of frontier workers. Under the current EU rules, the member state of residence is the member state responsible for the payment of unemployment benefit. All we did was follow the rules that currently exist in the Republic of Ireland with regard to employment legislation and the EU regulations governing member states' responsibilities with regard to unemployment assistance. Anything else would require new legislation at either the Irish or European level. As the Deputy will be aware, the current constitution of the Seanad prevents us from passing any further legislation or amending the original legislation passed in March.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Was a directive changed or was that a mistake on the part of the person who spoke to me? Perhaps the Minister could answer in writing. I would also like an answer to the specific question about someone who falls under the aegis of EU Regulation No. 883/2004. By my reckoning, the worker I have mentioned should be able to avail of this payment on the basis that she cannot get a benefit in the North and cannot avail of the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme in the South despite having her own firm there. She is self-employed.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can the Minister correspond with the Deputy on that matter?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Absolutely.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Hopefully, I will be able to give the Minister some time to answer my questions. I will be as brief as possible. Disabled people are one of the groups most negatively affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Will the Government provide financial support for disabled people who are self-employed? We are looking for the Government to give more support to self-employed people to get them back to work and get their businesses open again. Disabled people who are self-employed are at a distinct disadvantage because there is no additional support for them.

What will the Minister and the Government do to help people, especially disabled people, who are self-employed to get their businesses up and running and to keep them running? I was contacted by a gentleman called Edward who is disabled and self-employed. He made a shocking statement to me when he said the biggest barrier to him being self-employed is a lack of action by the Government and a lack of support, and not his disability. His point was that he wants to work and contribute to society, and all is he asking of the Government is that it support him. The Government should be trying to support more disabled people to get back to work and, in particular, to be self-employed if they wish.

Will the Minister outline what the Government will do to support Debenhams workers since the liquidation of the company, and to tackle Debenhams to recoup the money the State will have to pay in redundancy and other payments to the workers as a result? There are serious questions to be asked about the set-up of Debenhams and how the assets are based in the UK while the liabilities are based in Ireland. My colleague, Deputy Paul Donnelly, and I are dealing with the Debenhams workers daily and how they have been treated by the company. Serious questions have to be answered by the Government in light of the Clerys debacle, the Vita Cortex dispute and other issues. Why was legislation not brought in to protect workers from companies doing this sort of thing?

Finally, I raise the issue of companies and small businesses that will try to get up and running now that the restrictions have been reduced. If they, unfortunately, cannot keep going, due either to restrictions or to a lack of business, will the employees be entitled to the Covid payment again? Will Debenhams employees and any other such workers be entitled to the Covid payment as long as it lasts?

5:45 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will begin by responding to Deputy Ellis, although there was not really a question. When he expresses concern that Ministers are making decisions, he is obviously referring to me, in particular, as an unelected Minister. I do not make decisions. The Cabinet makes decisions and, thankfully, it is a collective responsibility. I hope the decisions we have made in recent months have been in the best interest of the good public health of our citizens, including through the financial supports we have provided. That is to reassure the Deputy.

I think the person Deputy Gould might be referring to is a good pal of mine. If he is a photographer from Cork, I know him well and have done for many years. I have tried my level best but have fallen between two stools with regard to the specific supports he needs. While there is a wealth of supports to support people who have disabilities to work, there does not seem to be a proper number of supports for people who have a disability and are entrepreneurs. I am pursuing personal assistance hours for that gentleman to do the role he would like to employ somebody to do. The Deputy is nonetheless right and has raised a very valid question. There is a hole in the supports and we should look at them.

I will revert in writing to Deputy Ó Murchú with regard to the EU directive. There was no change in any analysis or position from the Department. The regulation has been on the books of the European Union for many years and we have followed it from day one.

To respond to Deputy Andrews, we recognise that one should never let a good crisis go to waste and that we should use opportunities to look at fairer systems. I hope to God that whoever is in government after the current negotiations finish will provide that fair system we are looking for.

Other issues raised by Deputies concern anomalies they pointed out. I reiterate we were confined by the legislation on the Statute Book. On the working-age payments, it is because only people between the ages of 18 and 66 pay into the social insurance system and pay PRSI that only they can draw from the social insurance system. The bedrock of our payment for people over the age of 66 is the pension. We were absolutely sure we were going to include self-employed people in the wage subsidy scheme, which we did.

Anybody else who had instances of expenses over and above their pension is absolutely catered for under supplementary welfare legislation. Deputy Paul Donnelly raised a very concerning account of one particular gentleman who he said is living in his car. Perhaps the Deputy could call my office later to give me the details. That gentleman is entitled to rent supplement and to supplementary welfare assistance from us, and should not be living in his car. I will make sure we look after him and help him today.

5:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Gould has asked if the Minister will make some reference to his question about Debenhams workers.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I beg the Deputy's pardon. I had not seen it in my notes. We have worked very hard in recent months to work with the Debenhams workers to support them in seeing what is available from our offices. The workers can, of course, all avail of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment right now for as long as it exists. As I have already said, that will be well after the original end date of June. They will be entitled to the plethora of supports from the social welfare system, which includes retraining and re-engaging in work experience to try to get them into some new form of work. Fundamentally, the Deputy has asked me if the State will ensure the liquidator follows up to its responsibility with regard to the removal of assets. If there is any evidence that assets have been stripped in a way that puts a responsibility or financial burden on the State to pay statutory redundancy, of course we will do that. We will never leave anybody stuck if such a genuine concern around the assets of a business exists. If any evidence is provided by the liquidator around what the Deputy has suggested, then absolutely the State will follow up. Right now we have not received any evidence that this is the case. We look forward to the response from the liquidators in this particular case so we can take action.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am anxious to be helpful to Deputies, and especially to new Deputies. If ten minutes have been allocated for questions and answers and if Deputies consume all ten minutes asking questions, they cannot expect the Minister to be able to answer because there will be no time to answer. Members on all sides of the House would need to have a bit of regard to the traditional provisions we make here, please.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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A Cheann Comhairle, just to clarify-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am not giving out to the Deputy.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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-----that I left a minute and a half for my specific questions.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You did, and-----

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for putting me right.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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-----I salute you for doing so. The problem is that if we had gone through each Deputy one by one, allowing them to ask and get answers to their questions, Deputy Gould would not have got to ask any question at all. That is the problem. It is just a matter of organising your time. That is not-----

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Ó Cuív said earlier-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is not my job.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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-----that we had time. There was time not used earlier by other Deputies. We are looking for time. We want to discuss the issues.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You got the time, but it is a question of how you use it.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am sorry but there was time not used by other Deputies earlier that I would have loved to use to ask the Minister more questions.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am afraid that is not-----

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I have a list of questions here.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is not how-----

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Maybe it should be amended.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Well, okay. The Deputy's party is strongly and very ably represented on all the committees of the House. If the system is to be changed, I am quite happy to have it changed. I have to operate the system as it is until such time as the change is made. I call Deputy Ged Nash, who has eight minutes should he require it.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The Minister looks like she is about to deliver the votes of the Swedish Eurovision jury. I hope Louth gets douze pointswhen she responds.

Earlier, the Minister raised the anomaly in the temporary wage subsidy scheme as it relates to women who are returning to work having spent time on maternity leave. I and my Labour Party colleagues are very pleased that this anomaly looks like it is about to be addressed. I am, however, very concerned that it is taking a considerable number of weeks to do so. This issue was first raised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the National Women's Council and colleagues including my comrade, Senator Marie Sherlock, who articulated a strong case as to why and how this issue could have been dealt with on an administrative basis. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has today given the Government a bloody nose, essentially stating that this was handled in a discriminatory way towards women on maternity leave who could not access this support. The commission made it very clear that it has always been open to the Revenue Commissioners and to the Government to address this anomaly, and that it did not require a legislative intervention or a change to primary legislation, as we have always said. This whole farrago is embarrassing. While it may be politically embarrassing, it is most important that it is fixed to make sure those women caught in the middle of it do not suffer any more.

I am concerned at the level of foot-dragging that has taken place, given that this issue could have been comprehensively resolved long before now.

While the Minister may not have the figures available to hand, but the Department will, what is the number of women caught up in this scenario? Does the Minister believe there is a case that some back money would be owed? If that is the case, will that be paid as quickly as possible? Revenue, of course, has real-time data in terms of payroll. When this issue gets fixed on an administrative basis, financially these women should be supported as quickly as possible.

Earlier, Deputy McAuliffe referred to the back to work enterprise allowance, BTWEA, scheme. There seems to be a reduction - it is almost halved- in the allocation under that particular subhead. Hopefully, as an enterprising State, we will see many people who are out of work at present seeking to develop their own businesses, come off jobseeker's payments and join the BTWEA system to get the support they need to develop their enterprises. Will the Minister explain why that amount appears to be reduced at a time when it might need to be increased to support potential entrepreneurs to create jobs?

On the employment supports subhead, how much was expended by the Department last year and how much was planned this year in terms of the short-term work scheme as it is currently constituted? There is a strong argument for introducing a new enhanced short-term work scheme to support people as they go back to work, as we hope they will, over the next few months. That is a way of supporting employers to dip their toe in the water and give them the State support they need to bring people back to work on a phase-by-phase basis. We know that there are many employers who will not be able to do that on a full-time basis, given the nature of their business, the restrictions around social distancing and so on that will be in place and the modifications that they will need to do in their premises. There is a massive and persuasive case to reform that scheme. That should be one of the first items the Minister and the Department should consider trying to get people back to work and provide them with the supports they need.

There is every possibility of the V-shaped recovery we all hope for if the right things are done. By the right things I mean more and clearer accessible supports for businesses in terms of liquidity. It means using the firepower that will be made available by the European Union to support economies as we move, we hope, into a growth phase. It will also mean dropping the conservative conventional kind of political economy that we have consistently heard from some who should know better, given the experience of the last recession. Those types of responses are not necessary now. We have the EU firepower available. Multilateral institutions have learned, we hope, from the mistakes made in the late 2000s and early 2010s. That was a time when, heaven knows, this State had few options available to it and when we had to rely on the lender of last resort to help pay our public servants, to keep the State afloat and to help pay for the incomes of those who depend on the State for their small meagre incomes when they are not working or caring for somebody or when they are disabled and not in a position to work or manage a business.

Much learning should be applied from the last recession. We must make sure that we develop a new deal for a new generation. That will mean massive investment in State supports for training, upskilling and activation, particularly for young people who we simply cannot leave behind in these circumstances. Young people in this country no longer have the option, as they traditionally had, of going to the UK, Australia, US, Canada and elsewhere to pick up employment when things went pear-shaped in this country. That is why we need an absolute laser-like focus on our own domestic economy in particular, given the vicissitudes of the global economy and the kind of reforms coming down the tracks over the next few years in respect of corporation tax for which we need to prepare.

We need to make sure we build up our export-oriented companies, for example, and develop high-value jobs in those sectors and build up our indigenous economy. We know, as does the Minister, that up to 70% of all the jobs in this country come from our domestic sector and they need to be supported in every way possible.

6:05 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy heard earlier from the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, he will bring a memorandum to Cabinet tomorrow and that wage subsidy anomaly will be resolved.

As regards maternity benefit, I do not know how many women are involved, but a number of women whose maternity benefit had finished came to us and we in the Department sanctioned them for the Covid payment because they could follow up the declaration that their income had fallen away because of Covid as they were not able to go back to work. If there is any money owed to them, that balance and rebalance will have to be done. Nobody is going to be left without money that is owed to them. Once I have the numbers, I will come back to the Deputy.

I do not mean to repeat myself, but with regard to the other two questions he asked, the Revised Estimate before us has been done on the basis of no change in policy. When we did the Estimates at the end of last year, we were not looking at many of the columns we are looking at today. Last year, the number of applicants for the back to work enterprise allowance dropped from 5,620 applicants to 3,406, which is more than 2,000 fewer people year on year. A few months ago, the economy was booming and we could not find people to work in the jobs being created. We had an entirely different situation than we have today. I envisage that the back to work enterprise allowance and the short-term working scheme will feature very heavily, and if I am here in the next few weeks when it is instigated, they will change and I will come back to the Dáil to make those suggestions and get advice. However, we will need an entirely new plethora of activation supports, including re-education and retraining supports, for all those who may not be able to go back to work in the same shape, form or even in the same company they would have on 13 March.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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This is the third time this week I find myself talking to a very nice set of curtains and a couple of television screens and it does not feel any better the more I do it. I am sure the Minister would rather be in the Chamber than the committee room. I wish to record my appreciation for the work that was done in getting those two payments up and running so quickly. I thank the staff in the Department who have worked on it and the community welfare officers who have been doing a really important job in dealing with some of the issues that have cropped up. Service has been scaled back compared to how it was delivered in the past but it has been scaled up in the context of this crisis. It may need more resources because people are applying for the likes of rent supplement as opposed to the housing assistance payment, HAP, because of the way local authorities are required to work at the moment. There are some delays in processing those applications. What dialogue is the Minister having with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on the HAP scheme as opposed to the rent supplement scheme? It seems to be picking up the lion's share of the applications and that is reflected to some degree in the Revised Estimate. I ask the Minister to address that matter first and I will then ask her some other questions.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I agree that this set-up is weird, but life is a bit weird at the moment. I would be grateful if this were the least of our worries. I am not in negotiations with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government over rent supplement and HAP because we were asked to respond to need. We took a 28-page application form, which requires large volumes of information, and revised it to a four-page form. We also changed the means test and some of the conditionality to reflect the new, hopefully temporary, world we are living in at the moment. Some 7,000 more people have been receiving rent supplement in the last eight weeks than would have beforehand. I expect that will probably continue to increase in the new order of things.

That is why we have a reflection of the increased value today in the rent supplement line which would not have been seen in December.

The reality is that people are going to need help paying their rent. As Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned earlier, the reality is that some families might need the reintroduction of what was the mortgage interest relief scheme. Whilst that was abolished and wound down over the past number of years, we are still giving people who would have availed of that scheme supplementary welfare and that is always an angle we can use.

The Deputy also asked about time processing. We are doing our level best and in the beginning, for the first number of weeks, we obviously had to redeploy people, regardless of what they were doing, onto the front line to look after pandemic unemployment payment applications so that we could get people into payment. People are now gradually going back to their own roles and what they were doing previously. I remind people that we have some 2,000 staff working remotely from home because that is the way the Civil Service has been asked to do things. It is only essential work that is being done in the office and no one should be going to the office if they do not have to. We are impacted by exactly the same things as many other businesses. Many of our workers do not have people to look after their children so they are grappling with that. Those who have underlying conditions are having to self-isolate. We are going through the same difficulties and challenges as every other worker and business that is working today.

6:15 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I appreciate that. I need to ask some further questions.

If rent assistance is the primary focus, more resources are required because it is picking up the slack for the work that would have been done by local authorities through housing assistance payments. Many people who have never experienced unemployment are contacting me and asking questions about their rent. Those people never expected to have to look for a subsidy to help them pay their rent. There is a lack of information out there and it would be useful if that could be beefed up.

I want to ask about maternity payments. I have been trying to follow, to some degree, what has been said over the course of the day although I did not hear all of it. The Minister said earlier that social welfare payments are based on EU regulations and maternity payments will be a part of a Europe-wide initiative. Is that wrong? The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has stated that it would like to express concern and set out its view that there is a strong argument that the exclusion from the scheme of women returning from maternity leave is contrary to EU law. That is based on EU law. Are all of the scenarios being captured in the changes that are proposed? I addressed the Minister for Finance on this topic last week and he thought it would be addressed through the taxation code. Clearly, there has been a change now because the taxation code would favour some people over others, depending on their income. The Minister might let me know if it is intended to capture all of the scenarios for women, including those who were going on maternity leave, those who were on maternity leave, those who have returned to work and those who have lost income as a consequence.

Is there any intention to deal with people who have an underlying health condition of such severity that it would be contrary to good health for them to go back to work? For example, I am thinking of somebody with whom I am dealing who has stage 4 cancer and does not qualify for a Covid-19 payment. There will be exceptions like that. I will leave the remaining time for the Minister to reply.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I was not saying that we are not increasing supports and money for rent supplement because we absolutely are. Today's Revised Estimates see that figure go up to €70 million. However, it is not our job to take over if the local authorities around the country are not providing HAP because they also have a job to do. HAP was going up and rent supplement was coming down and we are only stepping into the breach now because hundreds of thousands of people have found themselves stuck for the past couple of months and we will continue to do that. That does not allow the local authorities to stop doing what they should be doing with regard to private services and HAP.

We run advertising campaigns every single week.

All of the information of every service to all of the hundreds of thousands of people who never thought they would find themselves unemployed, temporarily or otherwise, is on our website, which is mywelfare.ie. There are big blocks which show people everything they are entitled to and we direct people to it from our Twitter account and all the advertisements that we are producing in newspapers and radio stations every day.

On the maternity payments, to be honest with Deputy Catherine Murphy, we do not need anybody to tell us it was discriminatory. It was not done intentionally and it was discriminatory and needed to be fixed. I hope, after tomorrow, every scenario that the Deputy has pointed out will be fixed. Otherwise, what is the point of half-fixing something? It has to be entirely fixed. We will know, obviously, once I see the memorandum tomorrow. I thank the Deputy.

6:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Now we move to Deputy Bríd Smith.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Is Deputy Ryan not performing?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I am listening.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Okay.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Everybody is being very kind to Deputy Eamon Ryan today. They are fierce anxious to keep the Deputy onside.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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That is because he will probably be a Tánaiste or something. We are all licking up to the Deputy.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is the Deputy trying to get on the right side of him early?

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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No, thanks. I am on the left side of him.

I get ten minutes, do I?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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No. The Deputy gets eight minutes.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Okay. First of all, I want to repeat something that has been said here all day. There have been many Members denying in this House that there was a concerted campaign by the Government - some members of the Government and some Fianna Fáil backbenchers - to create this mythical cohort of workers who are doing much better on the pandemic unemployment payment than they were before when they were working. One particularly notorious low-paying employer talked about workers having won the lottery. Like much of the former Taoiseach's stories, it is a myth but it serves a purpose. One has to ask oneself what purpose it serves. It tries to set one group of workers against the other and if workers are doing that - blaming each other - then they take their eye off who is really milking the system and profiteering from the pandemic. They will not notice who really won the lottery. I refer in this case to the owners of the private hospitals, who are receiving €115 million per month for the allowance of the beds to the system which we absolutely need. People like Larry Goodman and Denis O'Brien are seriously profiteering from a cost four times that of what is being paid in the UK. I make that point because it is important for the Taoiseach or the Minister, Deputy Madigan. The next time they feel compelled to talk about shame of those doing better on €350 a week, they might check their own ESRI statistics, which show that those who may be doing better are marginally better off, by between 1% and 5%. That is not a hill of beans. It is not the amount by which they are trying to convince us that they are better off. Neither I nor my colleagues in Solidarity-People Before Profit will stop campaigning or stop defending this payment and pointing out that there are large gaps in the scheme and there are cohorts who have been left behind. The latter include those who were mentioned here today - arts workers, taxi-drivers, people in the gig economy, seasonal workers who had not started regular work in January and February, people who were on unpaid sick leave or on sick leave at the time - in January and February - and, most glaringly, women on maternity leave.

Like others, I welcome the announcement today that the Minister will adjust the wage subsidy scheme to deal with the illegal discrimination against women who had returned to work during the pandemic and found that their employer could not put them on the scheme, or that they were being paid based on very low incomes during the period they were on maternity leave. However, there is still a huge problem for women and babies out there, and it is essential that the duration of maternity leave should be extended to facilitate them. There are women who are really scared about the prospect of having to return to work. When their jobs are expecting them back and when their maternity leave is ticking away, they are worried about this. Over 22,000 of them have signed an online petition. They cannot return to work in the middle of the pandemic. They cannot access childcare. They cannot put their children at risk. They cannot rely on the old reliable grandparents, who always looked after children. Even if they are working from home, they cannot rely on them during this period of the Covid pandemic. Therefore, they need to have their leave extended to cover the Covid crisis. If we can rightly suspend other forms of legislation, employment law or planning law, to deal with the anomalies in this crisis, we need to extend the maternity leave and allow these women stay at home with their babies. As I mentioned previously, it is not only about the women. It is also about the safety and care of their babies.

The Minister answered yesterday a question I put to her previously. It is an extensive answer.

I welcome that because these women have been writing to the Minister and receiving very glib answers. In her response, she said the decision to extend the period of maternity leave for employees would have to be implemented by the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has policy and legal responsibility for this area. I did not hear the remark but I understand the Minister for Finance said earlier that responsibility lay with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I am getting tired of the pass-the-parcel scenario in this House. For example, responsibility for the nursing homes is being passed from the HSE to the nursing homes themselves, and if not to the nursing homes, to HIQA. Can we stop passing the parcel on this and have a decision from somebody to extend maternity leave for the women? The Minister, Deputy Doherty, said in her response that, given the current level of maternity benefit and the way it is being paid out, it would amount to a weekly cost of €10.3 million, increasing to €134 million for a three-month period, or the duration of the Covid payment. I put it to her that the €134 million pales into insignificance by comparison with the value we would get from it through protecting mothers and babies in this scenario. We paid €84 million to the greyhound and horseracing industry in a grant before Christmas. I do not want to make a comparison between animals and women and their babies but it is obvious that one group is far more valuable to this society than the other. The extra money probably the equal of the amount we are paying the private hospitals per week.

I do not want to labour the point but really want to pursue this with the Minister. Is she responsible or is it the Minister for Justice and Equality? Will we end the passing of the parcel and deal with this urgent situation? The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection knows - I am aware the women have written to her - that women are panicking and need the security of knowing they will not be forced back to work or lose their jobs but instead can stay at home with their babies for the duration of the crisis.

6:35 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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There is absolutely no passing of the parcel. Last week, I told the Deputy the truth, that is, that the legislation is equality legislation. If the Deputy does not take my word for it, which seems to be common practice every time we have an interaction, she only has to Google the legislation to see it is the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality. I will outline where the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection kicks in. Those who have the contributions qualify for the benefit for the duration of their 26 weeks' maternity leave. Unless there is a change in the legislation, there cannot be a change in the payment. Right now, the legislation, which is owned by the Department of Justice and Equality, states 26 weeks. The Deputy will be aware that even if we had the collective will to change the legislation, we could not do so because we do not have a new Seanad. Let me outline what we have done in our Department in recent weeks to reassure the women. If their jobs opened up last Monday in the first phase and they were not able to go back to work even though their maternity leave had finished, they were absolutely entitled to apply for the Covid payment. Many of them did.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I understand that. The Minister gave me an extensive answer, and what she is saying now is written in that answer. I accept the women can avail of compassionate leave, parental leave and all sorts of things and that they can jump through hoops but I am going to argue with her strongly that we have extended, changed and adjusted legislation in this emergency for all sorts of things, including planning and employment law. We can do this. What is happening is passing the parcel because the Minister for Finance said today it is the responsibility of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The latter says in her response to me that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and Equality. Between the three of them, they should please try to get it sorted because women are sitting at home, they are extremely nervous and they need this protection.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy clearly does not believe what I am saying to her so I ask her to Google the legislation. On doing so, she will see it is the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality. There was legislation passed in March by both Houses, but that was when we had a Seanad. Right now, we do not have one. I am not sure how the Deputy suggests we could proceed without one even if there were a collective will to change the legislation. That is the difficulty; I am not making the difficulty.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We shall move now to the Regional Independent Group. I call on Deputy Tóibín.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I encourage the Ceann Comhairle to get one of those Zoom mute buttons for the Dáil in the future to make his life a little bit easier.

It is 110 days since the general election and still the Dáil remains in a democratic twilight zone.

I do not mean this in a personal way - I do not imagine the Minister is particularly comfortable or satisfied with the situation either - but it is startling that these Estimates are being presented by a Minister without a mandate. Some 110 days after the election, these critical decisions are being made, albeit by Cabinet, with the input of Ministers who do not have a mandate. I would like to reference a letter I received from the Ceann Comhairle. He said that this Administration is currently not accountable in the normal manner and that only emergency legislation can be taken. General legislation cannot be taken even by the Dáil and Deputies cannot hold Ministers to account through oral questions. There is an onus on Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, that are currently in the process, to bring this democratic twilight zone to an end as soon as possible.

I will provide another example. We are dealing with the social welfare Estimates today which, by the Government's own admission, are not accurate. These Estimates are based on Covid payments stopping in a fortnight but the Government has stated that these payments will not be stopped. Will the Minister confirm whether these Estimates are inaccurate?

6:45 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Estimates are estimates of what we are going to spend. These are no different from the Supplementary Estimate presented this time last year or the qualified substantive Estimate at the beginning of that year. This is exactly the same. It is just unfortunate that it was not done in December. Had it been done in December, however, it would not have included the €6.5 billion we have paid out to 1.2 million citizens over recent weeks through the temporary wage subsidy, the Covid payment and the Covid illness-----

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I am sorry. The situation is not the same as for typical, normal Estimates. These are in direct contradiction to the Government's commitment to continue the Covid payments. By definition, these Estimates are hocus pocus. We in the Opposition are being blackmailed. We either stand over these hocus pocus social welfare Estimates or the whole social welfare system grinds to a halt. What other element of society would organise its business in such a deliberately dysfunctional fashion?

The Government is on the record as saying that the Covid payments will continue but, if this is true, in what form will they continue? I have no doubt that they will continue for some people but they are likely to change radically for many others. There will be significant changes. What significant changes will be made to people's Covid payments in the future?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Estimates are not in direct contradiction to the statement I made at the opening of this session five hours ago. The Estimates presented today are based on no change being made to policy. The latest legislation was passed on 19 March. The Estimates are based on everything that had gone on heretofore. The presentation of the Estimates today in no way ties the hands of Government or restricts its ability to make decisions about future payments. As I also said earlier, there will probably be a need for another Estimate at some point in the autumn to take into account the changes that will be made next week. I have no idea why the Deputy believes substantive changes will be made. I have not uttered a word about the changes to be made other than that the payments will be extended for the duration of the phases of reopening society and that I intend on, hope to and anticipate bringing a memorandum to Cabinet within the next week to ten days. As soon as that memorandum and the decisions therein are adopted and accepted by Cabinet, I will make an announcement as soon as I physically can.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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The reason I am convinced that the Government is going to make changes to the Covid payment in the future is that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have stated that it is not logical for the payment to compensate certain workers for more than the income they actually lost. There is no doubt in my mind that we will reach a situation where some workers will receive the Covid payment in the same fashion in which they currently do but where the payment others receive will be altered. We are being asked to back an Estimate which is already in direct contradiction of the Government's stated policy on the Covid payments. The Minister also says we must plan for another Estimate.

In other words, the Estimate before us today will be superseded by another Estimate. The Minister is giving us no detail on her planned changes to the Covid payment for some people. We are in the dark. Our hands are tied and we are being blackmailed. We are being told, "Pass these Estimates even though we will not give you the detail or the whole system will fall apart." Given the democratic twilight zone we are in, it is unfair that we are being asked to do that at the moment.

I want to raise a number of other issues. One of these is the stunning situation whereby mothers on maternity leave have so far been left out of the Covid payment scheme. Will the Minister guarantee that individual workers' pay will be backdated in respect of any income they have lost?

The issue of low pay has been part of the debate in recent weeks. We should not be having this debate divorced from the fact that Ireland is an outlier when it comes to low pay. We are the second worst country in the OECD in this regard, with 23% of our workers existing on low pay. Can the Minister guarantee that any changes made to the Covid payment in future will allow for people to be able to pay for rent, for the roof over their heads and for food, healthcare and education, and that we will not expect people to live on an income that does not allow them to achieve these basic staples in their lives?

6:55 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will go backwards to point out that the social protection code we have had in this country for many years is absolutely effective in protecting people from poverty. The Deputy does not have to take my word for it. The ESRI and Social Justice Ireland will tell him that. It will continue to offer that protection and any changes we have made, and will make in the future, will be put through the standard algorithms to make sure they do not have any negative impact.

Regarding the situation of people on maternity leave, as I said to colleagues earlier, that is a matter for the Minister for Finance. He gave an indication earlier today that he is going to bring a memorandum to Cabinet and I am sure he will make announcements thereafter.

I want to make a point regarding the Estimates and Deputy Tóibín's opinion of them. First, it may not be entirely satisfactory that I happen to be a Minister under the direction of the Constitution of Ireland because I am unelected and that bothers people. I will do the job the Constitution confers on me to the best of my ability for as long as I am needed. I will make sure I do it in the best interests of the people I serve, who are the Irish citizens.

With regard to transparency, I had two full hours of questions and answers in the Dáil last week and I am now entering into my fourth hour of questions today. There have not been many answers today, but I am here and I am willing to answer any questions anybody wants to put to me. The Estimates we have presented today are not dishonest. They were presented to all Deputies yesterday morning at 10 a.m. and they are presented to the House today on a no-policy-change basis. If there is a policy change that requires more money than I have asked the Dáil for today, that will require another Estimate. We come back to the House every year looking for a Supplementary Estimate because, as the Deputy is well aware, the Christmas bonus is never included in annual figures.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I am from a construction and farming background. Some people who want to return to work in the construction industry cannot do so because of issues with the Safe Pass scheme. For anybody who does not know, construction workers must have a Safe Pass card, which requires doing a one-day course where they sit down in front of an instructor who teaches them about different safety measures. At the end of it, they do a small examination which involves answering roughly 20 questions. It is a tick-box exercise for people in construction. I am inundated with people asking about this. The Government has said that construction industry workers are allowed to go back to work, but many of them cannot do so because they are waiting for their Safe Pass cards. For 360 teleporter drivers or any other type of machine driver, their employer must sign a form to say they have worked in the construction industry driving machines for the employer and have X number of years' experience doing it. The worker's ticket is then extended for another number of years.

We see here in this House how we can talk to the Minister on screen. There is no reason that the people running the Safe Pass scheme cannot talk to construction workers on screen from the comfort of their own homes.

We are even saving carbon tax by letting them stay at home to do the examination. We are saving emissions. They can do it through Zoom. They can complete their forms and have a secure website to answer the 20 questions that are required of them afterwards. They do not need to go into a place where they must maintain a social distance. For the period until the lockdown is over and to deal with the backlog, we need people to do the same as we are doing here in the Dáil. Let them do all these tests online. Let them fill out the forms online and let them go back to work. If somebody does not pass, the person can re-apply and do it a second time. It can be done online and we can get people back to work. It will also save some of the €350 Covid weekly payments these people are receiving. They want to go back to work. They are able to return and maintain a social distance in work. We can save this money with a little commonsense. I am asking for the Minister's help. She should introduce this and let people return to work if they wish to do so by using the media we have today to help them do it.

A number of measures have been introduced to help small businesses. I have figures from the 2019 small business recovery plan. The chairperson of the group is John Moran. The Government should acknowledge this group of SMEs. SMEs account for 1.5 million employees and for 65% of all employees. Some 93.6% of the total number of persons employed are in Irish-owned SMEs. The SME contribution to exports is 31%. TaxAssist Accountants for the SMEs say the SMEs are not interested in taking on new debt. They are happy to break even this year if they can hold onto their employees. The French approach to this was to ask SMEs what their turnover was for last year. I will give the example of €100,000. The French gave them three months of the last year's turnover to get the small and medium sized businesses back up and running. In Ireland, the application is through the bank, which will give somebody €5,000 to €50,000 with no interest or repayment for six months and a rate of 4.25% thereafter. This is worse than what the troika wanted from Ireland after the crash. A number of SMEs are disillusioned. They are finding it very hard to motivate themselves to start up again. We must encourage this sector before it is too late.

7:05 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy but, unfortunately, neither of the issues he raised relates directly to my Department. However, he made very valid points. He is not the first to raise the Safe Pass today, or perhaps he might have raised it with the Minister for Finance earlier when I was listening. I will raise it tomorrow with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and ensure we can find a way to do that. We should be doing anything that can encourage people back to work.

Second, a number of weeks ago the Cabinet signed off on substantial help for businesses. It was €6 billion worth of loans where the applications have nothing to do with banks, as I appreciate that there might be some difficulties for people, as the Deputy said. In addition, there are the €250 million in restart grants to repay people some of the commercial rates they would have paid last year and give them a credit for the commercial rates they should have incurred for the three months they were closed. However, I will raise that with my Cabinet colleagues tomorrow and I might send the Deputy a written note at the beginning of next week.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Many people who are 65 years old have jobs whose job description requires them to retire at that age. The new contracts people sign now refer to 66 years. If one is 65 years of age and has worked all one's life, one has reached retirement age. However, some people do not receive their pension until they are 66 years old. They have to sign for jobseeker's payment at 65 years of age. I do not believe that is right.

Those who have worked the full number of years and who have to retire from their jobs at 65 are being brought in and asked to sign up for jobseeker's benefit. We have to find another system or else allow people who want to work the extra year until they are 66 to do so and then give them an extra benefit for doing that. That should be done rather than asking people to sign up for jobseeker's benefit for one year when they have been lucky enough to have spent their entire lives not having to go on social welfare. It is similar to a person having a full driving licence but getting a point on it just as he or she retires.

7:10 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Again, I would say, and the Deputy is probably well aware, that was the subject of many conversations during the general election campaign. It would be a matter for the programme for Government and I hope those negotiations will come to a successful conclusion and outcome in the next number of days.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Harkin.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle; I am finally getting up to speak. I thank the Minister. I was pleased to hear the responses of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, earlier today when he talked about adjusting the temporary wage subsidy for women who returned from maternity leave in March or April. That is a very important step and I am glad that while we still do not know the detail, the Minister is taking it.

I asked the Minister further about the extension of maternity leave. I know that is not his bailiwick - I think it is that of the Minister for Justice and Equality - but it is a whole-of-Government approach. There are many good reasons to look at that. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, heard them today. I do not need to go back on them but if this is part of her discussions will she, please, try to make the case that this is a good solution on many different levels?

I also asked the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, about sole traders over the age of 66. They cannot access the pandemic unemployment payment or the temporary wage subsidy scheme whereas if one is over 66 and employed, one can access the temporary wage subsidy scheme and if one is under the age of 66, one can access both. We have three different situations which depend on two things, first, one's birthday and, second, whether one is a sole trader or employed. Is there any way this anomaly can be dealt with and that gap filled? I will take an answer to that question first.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The first point the Deputy raised was on maternity leave. One would be daft not to see the merits. Of course I see the merits, and I will certainly make representations, as has been asked of me, so that is not a problem.

I thought we had filled the gap with regard to those sole traders over the age of 66. The reason we could not include them in the Covid-19 payment is that the working age entitlements the legislation governs - employment assistance and benefits - runs from age 18 to 66. Anybody else who falls out of those categories, such as sole traders over the age of 66 or young workers under the age of 18, are being helped by the legislation that governs the supplementary welfare allowance. Anybody who finds they have extra expenses over and above their €243 of a pension can absolutely make application to that supplementary welfare system.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I also want to bring to the Minister's attention the issue of victims of domestic violence about which we have spoken previously in the Chamber. I thank her for her good and ongoing work with Safe Ireland on streamlining the referral process. That is very important. It has been very useful, and I know the Minister's Department is liaising with Safe Ireland on an ongoing basis. That is the first part of it. The second part is the fact that the emergency rent supplement is means tested. We are all well aware that if somebody - man or woman - is in a position to be a victim of domestic violence, that is all about power and control; very often, it is about financial control. While there may be some possibility around supplementary welfare etc., that is not nearly enough for a person to be able to put down a deposit to rent a place for one, two or three months. People are prisoners in their own homes.

The Minister is the expert here. I am just asking the question. Is there any way or mechanism for an individual to be means-tested in his or her own right for this, not looking at family income and such, or some other way that would allow victims of domestic violence to access that scheme in a timely way?

7:20 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy knows that we have had two meetings with Safe Ireland and other representative bodies in recent weeks. Matters are progressing well and I will continue to make sure that we do that. Streamlining the process is the key to making sure we are responsive to people. In the first instance, we are absolutely putting people in emergency accommodation and paying for that emergency accommodation for two weeks so that we can get them a sustainable stream of income. That will be rent supplement for some people. We have relaxed the means and conditionality over the last couple of weeks, and that is absolutely the way to go for some people. It is not the way to go for many people, and the way for them is supplementary welfare. That is not a once-off payment. It is a continuing payment for as long as people need it. We will use that route for some people. The most important thing we have agreed with Safe Ireland over recent weeks is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The circumstances are different for every single woman or woman with her family who presents. We will respond to that family or that lady with regard to the circumstances she presents with. We will always be accommodating, empathetic and supportive, which is the most important thing we can do.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. This is all about flexibility. I am not sure what stage the Minister's negotiations are at, but if she tells me she is willing to show that flexibility and find solutions for people who are in different but awful situations, I am happy to take her at her word.

My last point is more of a comment, since I still have two minutes left, about some issues that were raised by my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, a few moments ago. The Minister responded about the €6 billion in loans that are being given to small businesses. Not all small businesses paid rates last year. For example, a school bus operator may well not have paid rates last year. How does that operator make the necessary adjustments to a bus without any assistance? Is there anything in the pipeline or in existence for companies that did not pay rates but which need to make adjustments to be ready when their phase of exiting the lockdown comes?

The other issue relates to businesses which have lost 25% or more of their turnover and can apply for different loans or grants. A small number of businesses have probably lost only 15%, 20% or 22% of their turnover and while that is good news for them, it nonetheless means that their profitability has gone through the floor. They may be just holding on but may not be making any money. Many of them are holding on to their employees. I know it is hard to taper off that kind of benefit to companies, but could anything be done on a sliding scale? If we are in this together, then we should try to be fair to everybody. I ask the Minister to keep those two things in mind.

7:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I assume the Minister will keep those things in mind.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I wish to reassure the Deputy that when anybody's health and well-being is in danger or their safety is at risk, the departmental officials have discretionary powers to allow them to work outside the normal rules we would have. I know we said we have relaxed rules with regard to rent supplement. I reassure the Deputy that any departmental official dealing with a lady who finds herself in that awful situation, will use whatever is within our gift to ensure we look after them and keep them safe. I say that to reassure the Deputy.

There are some anomalies and in some of the benefits we have introduced for businesses in recent weeks they are quite glaring. An obvious one relates to people who do not pay rates, for example the man or woman in the van who does actually employ other people. The Deputy just outlined a second one. I will relay her concerns to the Minister tomorrow at Cabinet.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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B’shin deireadh anois lenár ndíospóireacht ar na Meastacháin thábhachtacha seo. Is é an cheist anois go n-aontófar na Meastacháin Athbhreithnithe seo i gcomhair na Seirbhísí Poiblí do Vóta 37 don bhliain dar críoch 31 Nollaig 2020, that the Revised Estimate for the Public Service, Vote 37 for the year ending 31 December 2020 be agreed to.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 12 noon on Wednesday, 3 June 2020.