Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage


6:10 pm

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Covid-19 pandemic constitutes an unprecedented economic and social challenge for Europe and the world and is of such a scale that no country can successfully address it alone. The response requires urgent, decisive and comprehensive action at EU, national, regional and local levels.

At a European level as part of the early response to Covid-19 on 23 March 2020 the European Commission triggered the general escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact and has adopted a temporary framework to enable member states to use the full flexibility foreseen under state aid rules. Then, the European Central Bank, ECB, launched a pandemic emergency purchase programme, which is now worth €1.35 trillion. The European Council endorsed a further comprehensive package of measures amounting to €540 billion on 23 April. That package includes three safety nets to minimise the short-term economic consequences of the crisis for workers, businesses and member states: the European Stability Mechanism pandemic crisis support instrument; the new SURE instrument, which is the main subject of today's legislation and will protect jobs, workers and people's livelihoods; and the European Investment Bank, EIB, pan-European guarantee fund to support SMEs.

These initiatives are in keeping with the commitments laid out in the programme for Government for a jobs-led recovery. This will help families and households where jobs have been lost to return to work and ensure businesses that have weathered the Covid-19 storm can now grow and rebuild. The July stimulus package will be unveiled shortly and will place the SME sector, which is the backbone of our economy and is central to our recovery, at its core. There will be a specific focus on offering supports for the sectors of the economy worst affected by the pandemic. The package will help to restore employment to the end of 2020 and will fund and progress our goals of decarbonising the economy, delivering balanced regional development and preparing for a digital future. The legislation we are introducing today can complement the stimulus package in helping the economy and the country to recover.

The EIB and the European Commission have already presented a support action plan amounting to €40 billion to address the economic challenges resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. However, given the gravity of the challenges facing the EU economy it has become apparent that far more is required. To significantly and rapidly extend the EU support for struggling SMEs, mid-cap companies as well as corporate and public entitles the EIB has decided to establish a pan-European guarantee fund.

This €25 billion guarantee fund is designed to support those enterprises by leveraging up to €200 billion of additional financing. The EIB guarantee fund is for workers and business, and is designed to finance high-risk operations that are viable in the long term but vulnerable due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. These will be primarily private sector operations with a focus on SMEs, although mid-caps and large corporates will also be eligible.

Public entities providing essential services, particularly those in the health, research and education sectors, that cannot be financed under existing EIB group products will also be eligible for support under the guarantee fund. Geographic eligibility will extend to those EU member states that have agreed to participate in the fund by way of a contribution guarantee. The fund will be implemented by the EIB in partnership with national promotional banks, in our case the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI. In managing the fund, the EIB group plans to deploy a broad mix of products, including counter-guarantees for national promotional banks, venture debt, venture capital and private equity to fund working capital for the corporate sector.

All 27 EU member states are invited to participate in the guarantee fund. The contribution from each member state will be in the form of a state guarantee of €25 billion in proportion to its shareholding in the EIB. As Ireland's shareholding in the EIB is 0.66%, our liability to the guarantee fund is capped at €164.7 million. Ireland's shareholding in the EIB was recently adjusted from 0.67% to 0.66%, which led to a corresponding reduction in our liability from €167.5 million, based on a shareholding of 0.67%, to €164.7 million. This adjustment occurred as a result of two events that had a material impact on our shareholding in percentage terms: the UK's departure from the EU and the subsequent withdrawal of its shareholding, followed by two member states increasing their shareholding. While our commitment to the guarantee fund is €164.7 million in actual terms, provision in the proposed legislation is for an amount not to exceed €167.5 million. This offers a degree of flexibility should further shareholding variations occur.

The State guarantee is required to cover a degree of losses incurred in the implementation of the commercial operations of the guarantee fund. The fund will be formally established once member states representing at least 60% of EIB capital make appropriate commitments. Following Government approval on 29 May, Ireland gave a commitment in principle that it will, subject to the passage of legislation in the form of this Bill by the Oireachtas, participate in the guarantee fund. Legislative provision is required for payments to be made out of the Central Fund to cover any calls on the guarantee provided by the State. Where losses are incurred by the guarantee fund in the implementation of its operations, a call will be made on all of the member states' guarantees at the same time, given the pooled nature of the fund. Any delay in payment beyond five days would incur interest penalties. However, the EIB will provide a liquidity facility to allow member states time to make the necessary arrangements to cover the call on their guarantees.

Repayments and advances under this liquidity facility will take place on standardised dates once per quarter. The maturity of each advance will be for a maximum of six months. It is envisaged that the guarantee fund will be temporary in nature, with the initial investment period in place until 31 December 2021. A prolongation by six months could take place if the majority of contributing member states do not object. Any further prolongation would be subject to the agreement of all contributors. The legislation to provide for Ireland's participation in the European instrument for a temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, otherwise known as SURE, and the €25 billion EIB pan-European guarantee fund established by the EIB, and to provide for related payments from the Central Fund to cover both guarantees, is set out in sections 2 to 9, inclusive, of the Bill before the House.

On 7 April, the Government approved the drafting of an amendment to remove an ambiguity about the ability of the SBCI to offer guarantees without breaching the insurance Acts or regulations. This was not considered necessary up to this point because the SBCI was only involved in a small number of risk-sharing schemes up to now. It was already clear that risk-sharing schemes were going to become a larger part of the SBCI's offering in the coming years. The current crisis has accelerated this process. Following detailed discussions with the Offices of the Attorney General and Parliamentary Counsel, it was decided that the most appropriate way to deal with this ambiguity was to amend the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland Act 2014. Taking this step will aid the development and deployment of new risk-sharing loan schemes, including schemes that may be backed by the EIB guarantee fund, to which this Bill is facilitating access for Ireland. For this reason, the amendment will be included in section 10 of the Bill.

On a further clarification matter, section 11 of the proposed legislation includes a provision to allow for an award of the arbitral tribunal to be enforceable before the Irish courts in accordance with the Third Protocol to the General Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of the Council of Europe. This provision is for the avoidance of doubt on the matter.

In recent years, legal opinions have been necessary in order for the Housing Finance Agency, HFA, to borrow from the Council of Europe Development Bank. This provision will be important in allowing for and simplifying the potential future borrowing by the HFA and other State parties from the Council of Europe Development Bank.

The SURE instrument is intended primarily to support member states with efforts to protect workers and jobs, and also to support some health-related measures. In the case of Ireland, the introduction of the temporary wage subsidy scheme has been important in supporting families and ensuring businesses can continue to trade. These are the types of essential initiatives that can now be supported on a European level. Under the proposal, SURE will provide financial assistance to member states of up to €100 billion in total. The Commission will borrow on financial markets to finance loans to member states at the same interest rate, allowing them to benefit from the EU's strong credit rating and low borrowing costs. The loans are targeted to assist member states in addressing sudden increases in public expenditure caused by the pandemic in order to preserve employment, such as short-time work schemes and other measures put in place for the self-employed, and certain health expenditure.

SURE comes with safeguards to ensure fair and equitable access to funding for member states, with no more than €60 billion available to any three member states under the proposal. The loans will be underpinned by a system of voluntary guarantees for member states and no more than 10% of all loans would fall due for repayment in any one year. For a lending volume of €100 billion under the SURE instrument, €25 billion in guarantee commitments are required from all member states collectively. This guarantee mechanism ensures member states do not have to pay any money upfront. The instrument will not become available until all member states sign up to their guaranteed amount. These commitments will remain in place for the full term of the loans which they are underwriting. Each member state contributes to the guarantee in proportion to its relative share in the total gross national income of the Union. For Ireland, this will be equivalent to just over €483 million.

SURE was adopted by ECOFIN Finance Ministers and published in the Official Journal on 19 May 2020. While the SURE instrument is a regulation which is directly applicable to Ireland, signing the voluntary guarantee agreement will require enabling legislation. This requirement stems from Article 11 of the Constitution which provides that all the revenues of the State "shall be appropriated for the purposes and in the manner and subject to the charges and liabilities determined and imposed by law".

As no member state can access SURE funding until all member states have signed the voluntary guarantee, the timeline for the introduction of this Bill is urgent. I will now outline the specific sections of the Bill.

Section 1 defines the commonly used terms in the Bill.

Section 2 outlines the circumstances for the application of section 8. The EIB guarantee fund can be formally established when member states representing at least 60% of EIB capital have made public commitments. Section 8 shall not apply unless and until that occasion occurs.

Section 3 allows the State to enter into the SURE guarantee and associated commitments and empowers the Minister for Finance to carry out the obligations associated with that guarantee.

Section 4 of the Bill permits the payment of a sum not exceeding €483,401,250 in aggregate out of the Central Fund under the State's obligations under the SURE guarantee.

Section 5 ensures all moneys received by or on behalf of the State by way of repayment of sums paid in accordance with the SURE fund will be placed in the Central Fund to ensure the Exchequer has access to them.

Section 6 provides for reporting arrangements on the operation of Ireland's part of the SURE guarantee. In the event of a demand being made under the guarantee, a report will be laid before the House within one month of payment of that demand and annually thereafter. The report will consist of any information or any sum paid by the State or repaid to the State under the guarantee. Each subsequent demand will be reported upon within one month in the same manner and is then included in the annual report.

The reporting arrangement ceases when the SURE instrument expires and when all outstanding commitments by or to Ireland are exhausted.

Section 7 confers on the Minister the power to enter into a contribution agreement and fund guarantee agreement with the European Investment Bank, EIB, for the purpose of committing to the pan-European guarantee fund. The guarantee shall be based on Ireland's shareholding in the EIB, the aggregate not exceeding €167.5 million, thereby capping the State's liability. If any amendment is proposed to be made to the contribution agreement or the fund guarantee, a draft of the proposed agreement providing for the amendment and containing the text of the amendment shall be laid by the Minister before Dáil Éireann and the amendment shall not be made unless and until a resolution approving the amendment has been passed by this House.

Section 8 permits payments related to the contribution agreement and fund guarantee to be made out of Central Fund for an amount not exceeding, in aggregate, the sum of €167.5 million.

Section 9 allows for any payments received by or on behalf of the State by way of repayment of sums paid in accordance with the contribution agreement and fund guarantee to be received by the Exchequer and to be returned to the Central Fund.

Section 10 amends the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland Act 2014 to remove an ambiguity with regard to the issuance of guarantees by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI. The amendment confirms that the Insurance Acts 1909 to 2018 and regulations relating to insurance made under the European Communities Act 1972 do not apply to guarantees made by the SBCI in the furtherance of its functions.

Section 11 includes a provision to allow for an award of the arbitral tribunal to be enforceable before the Irish courts in accordance with the Third Protocol to the General Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of the Council of Europe. This will allow and simplify potential future borrowing by the Housing Finance Agency and other State bodies from the Council of Europe Development Bank.

Section 12 provides for the Short Title, the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill 2020, and its commencement.

I am confident the measures to be outlined as part of the July stimulus package will help us to kick-start the economy post lockdown and set us on the path to recovery. However, Ireland's response must also take account of the wider European Union and global context for recovery. As a small open economy with a global outlook, Ireland depends on a rule-based international order and robust global trading frameworks. A recovery at global and European levels will in turn support efforts at national level to restore the Irish economy to growth. Our membership of the European Union, guaranteeing access to a Single Market of over 450 million consumers and the EU's network of free trade agreements covering 72 countries, is central to our prosperity and the success of our businesses. Ireland will work with its EU partners to restore the European economy to growth and to ensure the smooth functioning of the Single Market.

As a member of the eurozone, we share a common currency with 18 other member states with whom we will continue to engage closely in the development of economic and monetary union. We also enjoy uniquely close ties with the United Kingdom and with the United States, enabling Ireland to act as a bridge between three major currency areas and to attract foreign direct investment.

The Government will also draw on Ireland's membership of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, World Bank and other international financial institutions to shape the global economic recovery and maximise opportunities and supports for Irish business. Engaging at the heart of the European Union with our fellow member states and strengthening our ties with the United Kingdom, the United States and a range of other global partners will play an important role in the Government's pursuit of national recovery and efforts to return the economy to growth. Participation in SURE and the pan-European pandemic guarantee fund is essential to this recovery effort.

To summarise, this Bill allows us to participate in two important EU Covid-19 pandemic response instruments. It supports access for workers on short-term schemes and in struggling businesses and is a strong signal of our willingness to stand in solidarity with other European Union member states. I commend this Bill to the House.

6:25 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh go Sinn Féin. Glaoim ar an Teachta Doherty.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille atá os ár gcomhair inniu. Labhróidh mé ar an context níos leithne ó thaobh an tacaíocht atá ag teacht ón Eoraip do na fadhbanna ollmhóra atá againn mar gheall ar an eacnamaíocht agus an paindéim lena bhfuilimid ag déileáil ag an bpointe seo. Cuireann sé iontas orm nach bhfuil an tAire, an Teachta Donohoe, anseo. Scríobh mé chuige ar an 23 Márta agus léirigh mé sa litir sin na prionsabail agus na polasaithe a bhí ag Sinn Féin ó thaobh an tsástacht a ba chóir a bheith ag an Stát mar gheall ar chúrsaí eacnamaíochta na tíre seo. Cé go raibh cuid de na polasaithe a chur mé chun tosaigh ag déileáil le rudaí a bhí i lámha polaiteoirí anseo, mhol mé freisin an gá le freagra díreach a fháil, mar is ceart, ón Aontas Eorpach.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill which speaks to the broader European response to the crisis. However, before discussing the provisions of the Bill I wish to first comment on this broader response.

On 23 March I wrote to the Minister for Finance outlining the set of principles and policies that should underpin the Irish response to the economic downturn created by this pandemic. While it centred on specific domestic measures such as an income support scheme and financial assistance to business, I also addressed what I and Sinn Féin believed was the required response at a European level. I said that the European fallout to the health crisis was a European problem requiring a European response. This view was not just driven by the fact that Covid-19 pays no heed to borders, it was also a recognition that our fiscal response was constrained by a common fiscal framework. Additionally, it was a recognition that a monetary response and much else was in the sole hands of the European Central Bank, ECB. I made clear that if the level of debt refinancing necessary to deal with this crisis was to be possible, a radical departure from the past was necessary. As the European Commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Mr. Paolo Gentiloni, has said, we need to face an extraordinary crisis with extraordinary tools. I said in that correspondence that an essential tool in the kit would be in the hands of the ECB through its bond purchasing programme and I am pleased that the ECB, through its pandemic emergency purchase programme, has learned some of the lesson from the past and acted to ensure affordable levels of debt financing for member states such as our own.

It is now crucial that the fiscal response at a European level is adequate to meet the challenge we face. The Minister will play a crucial role in that response in his new role of president of the Eurogroup and if he we here, as I did privately, I would congratulate him on his appointment to that role. I urge him to ensure that the interests of Ireland are represented and delivered upon in his new role.

The Bill before us concerns access to capital to support workers and business that have been impacted by the economic fallout of Covid-19. In particular, it will enable the State to participate in two instruments designed at European level, namely, the SURE scheme and the EIB guarantee scheme. I will deal with each in turn and I note 140 pages of legislation with a very tight time for it to be scrutinised and a tighter time to make amendments.

On 9 April the Eurogroup agreed to a €540 billion fund to tackle the social and economic impacts of Covid-19. This fund and the measure it provided for were endorsed by the European Council on 23 April. Among them was SURE, temporary supports to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency. This instrument will provide up to €100 billion with the fund raised on capital markets by the European Commission. While this will allow member states to benefit from low-cost borrowing due to the strength of Europe's collective credit rating, I wish to put on record that previous schemes financed by the Commission's borrowing from the capital markets came with damaging conditions attached. One of them, of course, was the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, EFSM, and we must ensure we never return to those austerity policies of the past. I ask the Minister of State to clarify in his summing up remarks that there are no conditions or expectations of that nature with regard to signing up to these schemes.

Section 3 of the Bill allows the State to enter the SURE guarantee and with the Minister granted all such powers required to perform the State's obligation under the scheme. Under the agreement provided for in Schedule 1 the State will contribute in excess of €483 million to avail of loans under SURE. These loans are targeted to assist member states in financing sudden increase in spending caused by a pandemic, in particular, spending targeting short-term work schemes such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS.

7 o’clock

I ask the Minister to clarify the total values of loans or contribution we would be entitled to access, the criteria for use of the funds accessed under the loans and what quantum of loans the Minister intends would be permissible to draw down under this scheme.

Under section 4, a contribution in excess of €483 million will be paid out of the Central Fund under the terms of the SURE agreement. On Committee Stage, I will speak to amendments that my party seeks to give the Dáil greater oversight over payments made to the fund but I ask the Minister in due course to address a number of issues in this regard: the expected schedule of payments, their value and when they will be made under the provisions of the agreement, and similarly, the expected schedule of loans that will be drawn down under the scheme.

The other instrument this legislation will provide for is access to the EIB Covid-19 pan-European guarantee fund, which formed part of the fund agreed by the Eurogroup on 9 April. The fund will amount to €25 billion and mobilise up to €200 billion with a guarantee provided by each member state - a condition for access to the fund. As section 7 sets out, our liability to the fund will be capped at €168 million. For us, this fund will be administered by the EIB in partnership with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.

The guarantee fund will provide working capital to SMEs, to mid-caps and corporates that have been impacted by Covid-19. While this is welcome, a number of issues require clarification. Up to 23% of credit through the scheme will be earmarked for companies with over 250 employees and up to 7% to venture and growth capital funds, while at least 65% of the financing is earmarked for SMEs. What clarification can be given that this credit will be accessible for small businesses that have been unable to access credit to date from banks that refuse to lend? Also, I would appreciate if the Minister could provide clarity as to how financing under the scheme and its associated agreements can be incorporated into our own loan schemes and business supports. Measures taken at a European level benefit from our own contributions, but also a lower cost of financing. This will, in turn, benefit those businesses which are able to avail of financing under the EIB Covid-19 guarantee fund. It is, therefore, essential that the benefits of the scheme are open to Irish small and medium-sized businesses, not only big business.

Sinn Féin will not be opposing the provisions of the Bill. We have argued before and since this crisis began for a social Europe that invests in its people and serves the interests of sovereign member states, not only big business or unaccountable elites. We must ensure that the European response to this crisis serves those ends and provides for the issues I have raised in this speech and ensures that they are adequately addressed. If they are, my party will support this Bill.

However, there are a number of clarifications required. There is a number of further details required that we need to tease out on Committee Stage, in particular, in relation to the loan guarantee scheme and how the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, which, as we know, is not a bank but a non-lender, will provide loans to the main lenders here in the State, what type of guarantees will be provided and what type of loans will we see drawn down. There is also reference to the Minister being able to set the type of lending criteria. We need to hear more about how that will work and, crucially, because we will deal with the credit guarantee scheme, how this will all interact with domestic legislation.

As I argued for in March last with the Minister, Europe had to step up. I believe Europe is stepping up. While there is much more that they can do and while we have concerns in relation to some of the expectations as a result of this here, we need to ensure that we get support to businesses as quickly as possible. It is clear from any fair reading that this State is far behind when it comes to supporting its SMEs, which could have devastating consequences for those small and medium-sized enterprises and more devastating consequences for the workers who are hoping to return to full employment in these same businesses at a future date.

6:35 pm

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The provisions of this Bill which are designed to allow Ireland to access the various European funding supports are welcome but questions remain on whether they go far enough, how they will be utilised and to what end. According to the OECD, average employment will remain below pre-crisis levels by the end of 2021, which is the date the initial investment period of the pan-European guarantee fund ends, after which time any extension will need to be approved by the contributors. I have concerns that were this extension to need unanimous approval at a period when the crisis could be at its height, it could become the subject of a political battle among member states at the worst possible time and thus be dead in the water. We should not forget the turmoil of the past decade over whether the eurozone itself would survive. We need to remember that this affects people's lives. Come December 2021, if the OECD's unemployment predictions prove to be correct, and I fear they may be overly optimistic, there will be people standing at the edge of the cliff not knowing what the future holds.

We should be clear that the host of measures contained in this package, while welcome, are at best a workaround. The proposals for eurobonds and the mutualisation of debt still represent the best way out of this quagmire and the European Stability Mechanism remains highly unpopular among member states due to all the conditional structural reforms it entails, which is code for fiscal austerity and a recipe for economic disaster.

The European Investment Bank's pan-European guarantee fund will provide working capital to SMEs, which my party believes need to be supported during the crisis as they are the backbone of our economy. For instance, rural Connemara will suffer considerably due to lack of tourism. We need to ensure that the small and medium-sized businesses can get the funds they need to ride out the storm of the Covid crisis and ensure that they can survive and continue to provide jobs in their locality.

For mid-caps and corporates that are deemed viable in the long term but are struggling due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the guarantee fund will also make funds available. For these companies receiving funds, the way for the State to optimise its return should be through loans that are convertible to equity for the successful firms, while making provisions which allow these firms to buy these shares back at a later date. All talk of fiscal prudence which does not seek to maximise the return to the State is just that; talk.

It is also worth highlighting that the pan-European guarantee fund allows for 7% of its funds to be allocated to venture capitalists and private equity. Given private equity's often poor track record of saddling companies with debt, stripping their assets, raiding their pension funds and then laying off their employees, what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that this does not happen? From my perspective, we need to ensure that this funding goes to small and medium-sized enterprises.

The SURE scheme temporary support to mitigate unemployment risk is to be welcomed as it seeks to save jobs, and as we know from the previous crisis, a failure to protect jobs is a failure to protect people's livelihood and a sure-fire way to exacerbate economic inequality. Nevertheless, it mandates that every member state contributes to the guarantee in proportion to its relative share in the total gross national income of the Union. As a result, it is estimated that we will be putting €483 million into this scheme. As has now been well documented, GNI is a poor measure of the health of the Irish economy - something that has even been acknowledged by the Central Statistics Office which has constructed its own modified GNI measure which attempts to remove distortion from profit-shifting. Unfortunately, for Ireland, the latter measure is not used internationally, meaning the standard over-inflated GNI measure will be utilised and Ireland is likely to contribute more and potentially receive less funding due to the inaccurate picture of the economy. I hope the Minister will raise that with his European counterparts.

In closing, I wish to raise two general concerns. First, there is a likely reluctance on the part of the Government to draw down as much funds as possible due to its conservative ideological bias, which runs the risk of not providing enough investment to counteract the downturn. In other words, the risk is that we do too little rather than too much. Second, the more market-friendly approach that this Government will take means that these de facto State subsidies could be used to support the private sector's interest at the expense of public enterprise. We should not forget the crises in housing, education and the healthcare sector. These are the front-line staff who we were quick to clap but slow to reward. We should be clear that what these funds constitute is massive State subsidies to Europe's private sector. Following the previous crisis, as the public sector was forced to bail out the financial sector, that same sector then turned around and told us that the large public debts and deficits were evidence that we were living beyond our means. This has accurately been described as the biggest bait-and-switch in history. Today, European states will not be bailing out the financial sector, but in many cases the wider corporate sector. I would certainly hope that many of these corporates will remember that in a few years' time when the austerians come calling.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I start by putting on the record a concern I have about the scale of this legislation and the tight timeframe allowed to us in opposition to submit amendments.

This is a 142-page Bill and it is broad and complicated. As it was only published last week, we only had two working days to submit amendments. I know it is necessary legislation but I request that the Minister and the Department consider the difficulties this has created for Deputies and for their staff behind the scenes.

I will focus my remarks on the European Investment Bank, EIB, guarantee fund. The new pan-European guarantee fund to tackle the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is a welcome development. The fund was endorsed by the European Council on 23 April as part of the overall EU Covid-19 response package. It is timely to see it embedded in our own legislation so we can gain access to those funds under the new guarantee fund. When will the contributors' committee decide on the use of the guarantee? For what purposes will it allow the EIB guarantee fund to be used?

The economic damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic becomes more visible every day. Our microbusinesses, SMEs and family businesses are fighting for survival. They need an immediate injection of liquidity. Most of these businesses have spent a decade working through the debts and loans they accumulated during the previous recession. As a result of this, for them it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. These businesses are very reluctant to take on significant debt. They remember all too well the implications of the last recession and what it was like. The trauma has stayed with many of them. They need a liquidity injection through grants or other mechanisms. These are businesses that were viable. They were closed for public health reasons rather than because they could not trade successfully. They want to get back to work. Liquidity injections need to be the focus of a lot of the short-term measures and must form part of the July stimulus.

Across Europe, we see countries unveiling significant economic stimulus packages. In Britain, we have seen a package of approximately £30 billion announced to invest in the economy in order to save sectors and return them to something like their pre-Covid-19 state. Countries such as Germany and Denmark have gone even further and are investing massive sums of money in targeted and imaginative ways to stimulate their economies. The Germans have launched a €130 billion stimulus package while Denmark aims to ensure its stimulus package will deliver a severely reduced economic contraction that will be lower than the European average.

While the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste should look at the positive aspects of the British stimulus package, it is our European Union counterparts' economic stimulus packages we should focus on. This will require the State to borrow; however the cost of not investing in affected sectors will be far greater and will cost the State more in both the short and long terms.

Will the Minister of State convey to the Minister for Finance the need to follow our European counterparts and deliver an economic stimulus package, specifically targeting microbusinesses and SMEs in affected sectors, that is both expansive and imaginative and which will also allow businesses to recover, reinvest and re-employ?

In addition to the EIB guarantee fund, we need to see more support from the European Union. The Minister for Finance was recently elected president of the Eurogroup. This role brings a new range of responsibilities and, we hope, opportunities. Will the Minister of State confirm that, through his new role, the Minister for Finance will push for additional supports from the EU? Will those appeals request a support mechanism such as eurobonds?

States are borrowing money and are going to have significant deficits of at least 10% of their GDP without the power to issue the currency in which their public debt is denominated. The European Central Bank enjoys the power of monetising public debts, a privilege which eurozone members do not enjoy. Eurobonds have been suggested as a way to tackle the financial difficulties created by the Covid-19 crisis. They would allow states to borrow new funds at better conditions, supported by the overall rating of states across the eurozone. Will the Minister of State ask the senior Minister to use his position as both Minister for Finance and president of the Eurogroup to challenge the opposition to eurobonds?

Sinn Féin will not oppose this Bill. I hope the supports from the EU are only the first in a range of measures that will ensure social and economic progress and the recovery of member states.

6:45 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State on his recent appointment and wish him well in his work and in his term of office at a very important time for our country. I confirm that the Labour Party will not oppose this legislation. We support its merits and what it is designed to do.

I noted with interest the book review by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in TheIrish Timesthis weekend of The Economics of Belonging by Martin Sandbu. He cited a particular relevant passage, which I will read out. It states “Those turning against the western order are those who feel left behind in it, but not just that: they feel left behind by their own – betrayed by the elites who constructed the system and were entrusted with making it deliver.” The Minister noted that, according to this analysis, the causes of this challenge are primarily economic. The Minister wrote "The promise of economic advancement, through a secure job, rising income or an affordable home, has diminished for too many." These phenomena referenced by the Minister in his book review last weekend should come as no surprise to anyone who served in the last Government, a government supported by the Minister of State's own party, albeit from the outside.

The challenges outlined by Mr. Sandbu in that publication are very real. Covid-19 risks further exacerbating the feelings of those left behind economically, particularly our young people, who have been disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout from this public health crisis. As the Tánaiste outlined and admitted in recent weeks, the pandemic has the potential to cause further divisive inequality, which may ultimately fuel the rise of the kinds of far-right populism and far-left populism we are seeing develop across western societies at present.

The forthcoming July stimulus therefore has to be the start of a new social contract that restores the promise of economic advancement through a secure job, rising incomes and affordable home ownership in a new, sustainable economic model. Short-term working and training schemes will be pivotal in providing such secure employment opportunities in the months and years ahead. The EU Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency, SURE, scheme, which was first proposed by our collective of sister parties across Europe, the Party of European Socialists, will be a key funding mechanism to make such systems a reality.

I therefore welcome the legislation before us this evening, although it is coming two months after the scheme was initially announced at EU level. For months now, others in the Labour Party and I have been calling, on the record of this House and in the local and national media, for a reformed short-term work and training scheme similar to the German model which proved so successful in supporting businesses and workers throughout the last economic crisis. International evidence from the OECD suggest that the key element of its success was concurrent access to vocational training, which the current temporary wage subsidy scheme lacks. Last month's confirmation of the incorporation of apprentices into the wage subsidy scheme is a welcome step in the right direction but it does not go nearly far enough. Under the equivalent Dutch scheme, for example, employers are obliged to support retraining or reskilling opportunities for all employees. Similarly, France has introduced a special training subsidy as part of its scheme to help companies undergoing structural changes that need to reskill or upskill their workforces.

The Government must prioritise this area in the upcoming July stimulus package. Specifically, we need to both oblige and support companies to invest in the skills of new and existing employees, for example via the uptake of accessible online training programmes. All of the evidence shows that this will lead to greater productivity, higher wages, and greater job security as employers seek to retain the skilled workers in whom they have invested over many years.

Ireland has one of the lowest rates of in-work training and upskilling in the EU. It is estimated at only 5.5% compared with 17% in the UK, 20% in France, and as high as 33% in Denmark. To take digital skills for example, despite our current status as a hub for multinational technology firms and the fact that nine out of ten jobs in the future will require a degree of digital expertise, more than half of our population lack basic digital skills and only 79% are able to use the Internet, which is one of the lowest levels in the EU.

Digital literacy issues do not just have an economic consequence but a social and cultural impact as well. Likewise, more than a third of workers in sectors such as financial services have not been provided with any training and development on technology according to the Financial Services Union working conditions survey of 2019. In addition, Ireland currently spends well below its EU peers when it comes to investing in human capital and the innovative capacity of young people. This is the real threat to our future competitiveness when it comes to attracting, sustaining and maintaining the high levels of foreign direct investment we all want to promote and maintain. As part of the July stimulus, the Government should target schemes to immediately address the current digital skills shortage caused by years of chronic underinvestment and a lack of in-work training.

We must also seek to develop new technological universities such as Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, in my constituency, in collaboration with the multinational corporations that locate here so that the new technological universities evolving throughout the country are delivering and instilling in young people the kind of skill sets our economic model and national industrial strategy will require.

Another essential element of a reformed short-term working scheme that I hope can be funded through this enabling legislation must be the introduction of limitations on economic dismissals, in essence, redundancies, during the crisis. A ban on lay-offs was introduced as early as March in Italy and Spain and later in France, the Netherlands and other EU states. Such measures are needed to reassure workers in a period of strong anxiety while also limiting the opportunistic behaviour of some employers who have used or may use the crisis as an excuse to dismiss difficult workers. We have already witnessed large-scale dismissals in the context of Debenhams and National Pen in my constituency, organisations which in my view have ruthlessly used the Covid-19 crisis as cover to cull workers without any meaningful consultation whatsoever. Any reformed short-term working scheme must ensure that both workers and the public purse are protected. For example, under the Dutch scheme to which I referred earlier, if an employer dismisses a worker on economic grounds, the employer must pay back 100% of the compensation that it received. In addition, agreement with trade unions and worker representatives must be reached before any large-scale lay-offs of 20 or more employees.

On several occasions in recent weeks I asked the Minister for Finance if he would consider such a clawback mechanism as part of the wage subsidy scheme, to which he replied that he had no plans to do so. I am interested in the Minister's view on this issue and if the Department of Finance has revised its thinking on this since the Minister for Finance replied to me and if this forms part of the Government's thinking on the July stimulus package. Likewise, I have repeatedly made the case that social and environmental conditionality should be attached to the wage subsidy scheme and other initiatives that may be undertaken by the Government and that there also needs to be a comprehensive audit of companies receiving the scheme to ensure they have met the stated criteria. On the latter point, I am pleased that the Minister has been reasonably vocal in recent weeks on a compliance programme as part of the operation of the wage subsidy scheme. I am interested in an update on this if it is to hand.

Regarding the question of conditionality, governments in other EU countries such as Denmark and France, and Scotland refused to grant public aid such as wage subsidy schemes to businesses registered in tax havens. Programmes under the SURE scheme will attract considerable funding from the State via the Union. The states I referred to are wisely making use of aid conditionality as an incentive for the enforcement of their own fiscal rules and EU fiscal rules, and so should we, in particular in light of tomorrow's Apple tax ruling and the international crackdown on tax avoidance and aggressive tax planning by some multinational corporations. Does the Department have plans to attach any kind of conditionality at all, for example, to a reformed short-time working scheme or any of the other programmes that will be brought forward as a result of the passage of this legislation and the funding of other such programmes that I expect to be announced in the coming days?

That is an important point. Many other countries across Europe have attached that kind of conditionality and it seems that we are entirely uninterested in doing that. It is reasonable that we use the opportunities presented to us now to paint a picture of a better future and to attach conditions to massive State investment in the interests of achieving some positive public policy gains. Many significant opportunities will arise for this country from the passage of the legislation and we need to use them to paint a picture of a better future and reshape our future to make sure that people are paid reasonable wages, that their rights in the workplace are respected and that the social and environmental objectives we have, which I hope we share across this Chamber, are achieved and that the post-pandemic Ireland of the future looks better than the Ireland of the recent past.

6:55 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Social Democrats will not oppose the Bill. We are considering it in the most extraordinary of circumstances, at a time the economic shock from the crisis is being felt not only by Ireland or a small handful of other countries but by every nation around the world. Covid-19 has ushered in an unprecedented time of solidarity and that is a welcome by-product. That solidarity, which is a very welcome development, is unprecedented in European economic history. It is a very much changed environment and changed attitude since 2008 and it has resulted in the issuance of collective debt.

This is a time for new ideas and new ways forward and that is very much welcome. I hope the Government will be part of that new way of thinking and new approaches because we desperately need them to work our way back to recovery. It cannot be a case of going back to the old ways of doing things; we must take a new approach to ensuring that we have a vibrant economy but also a fair and vibrant society.

The Bill provides for the use of two instruments of the Eurogroup financial package, which were agreed on 9 April – the SURE fund of €100 billion and the EIB guarantee fund of €200 billion. The legislation does not provide for the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, the third arm of the Eurogroup package. This fund is worth €240 billion, just under half of the total Eurogroup package. It is a bailout fund, established in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, which is now being deployed as a pandemic credit line to help finance health costs incurred in fighting Covid-19. The ESM is not mentioned in this Bill or in any of the supporting documents shared with Members. The Minister has stated that the Government has no intention at present to borrow under the ESM because we can borrow reliably from the international markets at real rates that are more favourable than the ESM. This is good and shows Ireland's favourable standing and relative economic health. If the circumstances arise whereby Ireland no longer has easy access to low-interest rate funds on the market and needs to avail of the ESM, do further provisions needs to be made in legislation to allow the country to draw down these funds? Could the Minister of State confirm, therefore, that the European Stability Mechanism Acts of 2012 and 2014 make sufficient provision for access to the ESM in this scenario and that access can be guaranteed by issuing a request for assistance from the Government, which does not require further legislation?

I wish to move on to our domestic circumstances. On Friday next, the European Council will meet to discuss the economic response to the pandemic and the €750 billion recovery package, which is in addition to the €540 billion package this legislation is dealing with.

There has been a good deal of discussion on this already and the compromise position contains several important changes to the original proposal. Of particular importance for Ireland is a Brexit reserve fund of €5 billion which will be set aside primarily for the benefit of Belgium and Ireland. This is a success on Ireland's part and very prudent given the damage a no-deal Brexit may cause to our economic recovery. However this benefit also raises an important point about the approach that the recovery plan should take. Just as our domestic circumstances surrounding Brexit have been taken into account, Ireland should by the same measure and in solidarity, push for the domestic circumstances of other member states to be taken into account in their recovery plans.

The last decade showed that a one-size-fits-all form of recovery and resilience does not make sense for a diverse collection of economies like the EU. We should not make that mistake again. The President of the European Council has proposed that the funds will be linked to stronger enforcement of the rule of law. This provision has provoked a strong reaction from some member states, including Ireland, which are considered to be acting outside the European law. I urge the Minister and the Government to support this provision. Given Ireland's commitment to the rule of law and human rights generally, we should be calling for their inclusion in the final package.

In planning for the overall EU fiscal response, there is a prudent discussion to be had about the value of balancing grant aid and debt-based lending. There has been a certain amount of discussion about this at European level and whatever happens in that regard will feed into the domestic situation also. The group SME Recovery spoke recently to the Special Committee on the Covid-19 Response, making several good points on the importance of grant-based lending for small business. The current supports in Ireland are based primarily on debt-based lending whereas other European countries have introduced more grant supports, which in turn encourages take-up.

Many SMEs in Ireland are simply not in a position to take on further debt, meaning an over-reliance on debt-based lending to business will not be appropriate. It is really important to get this balance right, and not just domestically - we need to be arguing for that at European level as well. I support and commend what the previous Government did in its rapid fiscal response to this crisis but many of the support schemes have been adapted from plans originally drawn up for a hard Brexit scenario. At this point, given the crisis we are facing at the moment, those schemes are not fit for purpose. We need to focus on ensuring the schemes are adapted for the current crisis and provide sufficient grant support to SMEs, which are so vital to our domestic economy and for job creation and retention.

It was interesting to note that the former Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Patrick Honohan, last week urged deeper spending to combat the fiscal crisis that is looming. He said that there "should be no loss of nerve in fully deploying the financial resources of the State and its borrowing capacity" and that it "would be a very big mistake to use the previous crisis as a model for how the public finances should be managed,". We ignore that advice at our peril. Professor Honohan made the point that if governments attempt to limit expenditure once the immediate danger has passed, it will simply exacerbate the economic slump. We have the ability now, from EU support as well as borrowing on the private markets, to borrow substantial amounts of money on a long-term basis at rates that are effectively close to zero. This has enormous potential. It has the potential to reposition our economy significantly.

We will only attract investment if we have a strong stimulus and long-term growth plan. I was very concerned when the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, spoke a number of months ago about the need to return to a balanced budget in the medium term. That is not the kind of thinking that is required at the moment. The then Taoiseach spoke about borrowing leading to nervousness on the part of investors, and that has no basis either. Given the current economic circumstances, which are very favourable and benign, it makes no sense whatsoever not to borrow in significant amounts and invest in our economy. Ensuring growth in our economy is the one sure way to attract foreign direct investment or domestic investment. The aim has to be significant growth over the coming years.

Any attempt at retrenchment or any mention of austerity will simply weaken our standing and turn off investors. We should know at this point that austerity measures stunt growth. Ireland raised €1.5 billion in debt last Thursday. That comprised three separate issuances with terms of seven, ten and 30 years.The 30-year debt, which was raised at 0.6%, was oversubscribed by nearly three times. This is a significant demand for Irish debt of long duration at low yields. We should be taking full advantage of this by borrowing extensively and spending the capital now to invest in our long-term growth and prosperity. A few weeks ago, Austria raised €2 billion in a bond auction with a maturity of 100 years and that was priced below 1%. That auction was more than ten times oversubscribed. We should be learning from that and from what a number of our EU counterparts are doing. We should avail of the wonderful opportunities presented to us now to invest significantly in our economy.

The Covid-19 committee heard from the NTMA that the State is in a very strong position to meet its borrowing requirements. It said that most important fundamentals for investors in deciding whether to lend to Ireland and on what terms have not changed and are the country's growth potential and its fiscal policy over the long term. All these factors point to the same conclusion. Given the low interest rates available on Ireland’s debt, the Government should borrow extensively and spend deeply to provide support for the economy at this time. Deputy Nash referred to the book review done by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. I would like to recommend to the Minister, and indeed to the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, another book that would be well worth their while reading. It is quite a short book called Angrynomics and it is by two Irishmen, Mr. Eric Lonergan and Mr. Mark Blyth. It talks about establishing a national wealth fund. This idea has also been promoted by a number of very respected economic commentators, including Dr. Aidan Regan in The Sunday Business Postjust last week.The idea is to establish a national wealth fund supported by the issuance of Government debt.

The goal of the fund would be to make long-term strategic investments, which would provide a return either to the State or to the public directly. The proposal is based on the economic theory that when the rate of interest grows faster than the economic growth rate the rich get richer and wealth inequality grows. This is because people who are lucky enough to receive an inheritance will be able to invest their assets and see them grow in value over time, while those without an inheritance will work for years to save a lump sum, which will most likely be put forward as a deposit on an overpriced house. They will continue to work and wait more than 30 years to pay off the mortgage debt to own that asset.

A fair and functioning market economy should lead to a wider distribution of wealth but the reality we see is that wealth inequality and inherited wealth put the majority of our population lifetimes behind those who are born into economic privilege. Creating a national wealth fund could combat growing wealth inequalities by having the State invest assets on behalf of Irish society and then distributing the capital returns to citizens. There is no better time to create this national wealth fund than right now. The Government has the ability now to issue long-term bonds at what is effectively a rate of 0%. We saw that the debt issued last week was oversubscribed. Even if the compound interest was only 5%, the State could repay debt issued to create the fund in less than 15 years. At that point, the State would own all of the assets it had invested in and all capital returns would go back to Irish society. Every citizen would have a share of the national wealth, meaning everyone would effectively have an inheritance to provide seed capital funding for a business or a house deposit, thereby being set up for future careers and prosperity. Now is the time to take a new approach to create a fairer and more equal society. It is within reach of the Government and would dramatically improve the livelihoods of Irish people and the long-term growth of our economy.

It is also very important that in rebuilding our economy, we ensure the regrowth and recovery are jobs rich but also are worker centred. There are measures beyond strict spending and taxation that the Government must take to improve our economy and public finances. We need to focus on a worker-centred recovery in order that as people return to work and the economy reopens, people's living standards and work-life balance are also improved. A right to collective bargaining and greater employee led decision making will not only ensure that workers have better conditions but will also lead to greater productivity and greater competitiveness in the economy. We need to ensure that workers have the right to flexible working conditions, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19 when working from home has become the norm for so many. Initiatives such as flexitime, a four-day working week and options to work from home on a long-term basis could also go a long way to improving working conditions. Equally important is the right to switch off and enshrining this in legislation.

Younger people in Ireland undoubtedly have taken the brunt of this crisis and it is very important to prioritise their needs. People in their late 20s and 30s are experiencing a second deep recession. They paid a significant price at a very important stage at the start of their adulthood and the start of their careers in the last recession. They are now knocked back again. We know from the figures that it is the younger generation who have paid the highest price in this crisis. They must be the priority in our recovery.

The provision of public services must be seen as a major element of any recovery and any stimulus package. Investment in the public sector and good quality public services not only ensures that people's rights to a decent standard of living are upheld but we also must recognise that the State is a major employer and a major purchaser of services, which in turn can create a huge stimulus for the private sector. Ensuring people have access on a universal basis to public services without cost at the point of use means we take a lot of heat out of wage demands and ensure a greater level of competitiveness throughout the economy.

There are many other things we need to do in addition to the stimulus package but we must take the broader view. The recovery must be person centred and I hope the Minister of State will take on board many of the proposals made this evening.

7:15 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am not sure whether my colleagues are coming in to share the time but if they do I will share it. We do not oppose the legislation. I welcome the fact that apparently, some lessons were at least partially learned from the follies of the response of the European Union, its member states and here in Ireland to the crisis in 2008 and the austerity that followed it. We need not return to austerity but instead to inject money into maintaining jobs, investing in services and adopting Keynesian policies rather than fiscal austerity policies. This is to be welcomed.

The two specific mechanisms or schemes we are talking about include the EU's SURE scheme, focused on supporting schemes to keep people in work, which is absolutely right and it is absolutely critical that we do so. I understand there is also some expenditure on occupational health and the pan-European guarantee fund to support and finance small and medium enterprises primarily, although notably it also refers to middle and large scale companies. This may be justified but I will make a few points about how we do have to distinguish in our supports between the small enterprises that really need the help and big enterprises. We should not subsidise highly profitable entities and they should have to pay us back. We need to distinguish between those that are very small and facing an existential threat to their survival, which should not have strings attached to that support and should get all of the support we can give to sustain their existence through this difficult period, and large companies and corporations that can often benefit from these schemes but do not need them and perhaps do not recognise their obligations to everybody else in terms of paying back that support. In this regard, I cannot help but comment on the day that is in it.

Much of this is still about borrowing money. I support borrowing money and injecting it into the economy. Interest rates are low and the various schemes are about giving low interest finance to states and to business, to schemes to keep people in work or, indeed, as the Government is also intending to do, to just borrow on the markets.

However, we should put some provisos on the debt financing of stimulus. I cannot help commenting on the irony of where we are. It is not so long ago that the same EU and the Governments that included the two major parties in this country, who are now promoting this more Keynesian approach, were telling us that we had to stay with a fiscal austerity model, that one could not debt finance one's way out of a crisis, it was dangerous to do it and that it would produce an unsustainable debt burden and put us in a very vulnerable position. Now it appears all that caution and prudence have gone out the window and it is a case of borrow, borrow, borrow. Members should not misunderstand me. I disagreed with the fiscal austerity model when it was proposed and some of us warned that the time was not far away when people would realise the folly of the fiscal treaty and that it would be necessary to borrow and break through the fiscal treaty parameters to deal with an economic crisis such as the one we faced. Here we are, and suddenly all the rules can be broken. It is difficult not to comment on the irony of that.

However, here we are and lessons seem to have been learned. Ironically, I now find myself in the "let us be a little prudent" camp. Debt financing cannot go on forever. One eventually has to pay the piper. Somebody is always making money when one borrows money. It is rich people who are making money. It is the people with inherited wealth and the vast accumulations of profit, and who are looking for somewhere to sustain and increase the value of that, who are lending us the money and want to be repaid. There is an alternative to that, and the €18 billion that the EU will decide on tomorrow brings that into sharp relief. We would not need to borrow the vast amounts of money we are about to borrow, or are in the process of borrowing, if we took the €13 billion plus interest from Apple. We would not incur this debt burden and all the interest.

It is worth saying that because it is those accumulations of wealth and capital that we are borrowing from at interest. It might not be Apple directly but wherever it puts its money, such as some wealth asset management outfit which lends it to governments such as ours or to the European Union and is then paid interest on it. It is constantly accumulating its wealth. We could, and I believe we should, short-circuit that process somewhat by just taking back the tax money it owes us. We would not have to borrow so much, and it would transform our situation. It is important to say that, particularly because the Government, after tomorrow, is very likely to be faced with a decision on whether it will appeal that judgment. One cannot separate the considerations the Government has in that regard and the discussion we are having now because it has a direct bearing in terms of how much we have to borrow. I say we should borrow less and make the big corporations pay their fair share of taxes. We could still fund the stimulus that we absolutely must have.

The other thing I wish to say, and there is some acknowledgement of it in these two schemes, is something we must write large. Much of the talk on stimulus, understandably and correctly, is focused on private business, SMEs and so forth. I agree with that. They are on the floor, they need help and they should get that support, so Members should not misunderstand what I am saying. However, there appears to be a complete failure most of the time to acknowledge that the public sector is part of the plan to get us out of this crisis, or it should be. Investment in that area is critical. Often the two are set against each other. At the most obvious level, we must recognise that this is true. What we learned during Covid-19 is that if our health service is not able to cope or is even threatened with the situation of not being able to cope with the health needs of our society, the entire economy, or most of it, shuts down. That is not an equation that most people would have accepted up to now. There was the attitude that too much money was going into the public sector and that what we needed to do was support the entrepreneur, as if the two were at odds with each other. What we have learned, and I hope we never forget it, is that the private sector effectively shuts down if our health service is not able to cope. We had better learn the lesson going forward - God, I hate that expression - because this could have an immediate impact on everything we are discussing here. All the stimulus in the world of small enterprise will be meaningless if our health service is overrun in the autumn because of a second wave and the economy has to be shut down again. It will all be pointless, and this discussion will be rendered meaningless.

What we know, as we learned from repeated testimony at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, and what I hope we do not forget in the rush and understandable desperation to get the economy back up and running, is that our public health service is running at such critically low levels of capacity that it would not take much for that system to be overrun. You will be aware of the famous graph, a Cheann Comhairle. We have to raise the capacity part of that graph very significantly. It is not just about the level of infection, but the level of infection related to the capacity of the health service to deal with it. Critically in that regard, while some of it is capital capacity, such as building the physical infrastructure and having the ventilators, most of it is staff. We must urgently recruit staff to the health service to increase ICU and bed capacity, to put staff capacity levels into the nursing home sector, recruit general practitioners and so forth to provide the cradle to the grave healthcare that is able to cope with the type of situation we are in at present. If we not do that as a matter of urgency, all this stimulus will be irrelevant if there is a second wave.

In that focus on the role of the public sector in sustaining the wider economy, one could make the same point about education. If we have to shut down the schools and the universities again, all of this will be irrelevant. If childcare has to shut down again, this will be irrelevant because people will be at home minding the children and unable to get out to work. What if we have to shut down public transport? As the Government and, indeed, the EU are considering what they are going to do with these funds, they must understand that a huge part of the stimulus programme must be a massive increase in investment in the capacity of key public services and infrastructure to deal with the crises we are facing now and in the foreseeable future. I sincerely hope that lesson is learned.

8 o’clock

It is critically important we channel these supports towards the people who have fallen through the cracks. This was put very well by the Event Production Industry Covid-19 Working Group, EPIC, the events people who organise gigs, the music industry and so on, when it appeared before the Covid committee and by the representatives of the arts sector. I refer to the individual sole trader, the musician, the small business with a van but no premises and which is not rateable and so on. They are not getting the supports and have in some cases been excluded from them. The supports need to be directed at them because they are in serious trouble. Taxi drivers cannot avail of any of the SME supports because they do not have rateable premises and because of something to do with VAT which, frankly, I do not fully understand. For that reason they do not get the supports, but they need them and they face going under.

We will support the Bill, or at least not oppose it. The Government, however, needs to prevent an unnecessary debt burden by making some of those who can afford to do so pay their taxes. I refer to Apple but also to some in the corporate sector who have not suffered, even in this crisis. Certain sectors have done very well. I believe that corporate tax receipts have held up remarkably and surprisingly well because certain industries have not really been hit. The small guys - the people who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods - have been hit but some of the big corporations are actually doing well out of this crisis. They should make a solidarity contribution to the rest of society. We could finance some of the stimulus we need that way rather than just borrowing huge amounts of money and paying interest, directly or indirectly, probably to those very same people. We need to recognise the role of the public sector, public services and public infrastructure investment in terms of stimulus and not see this just in terms of the private sector. We need to support the people who are falling through the cracks.

Lastly, we need to make sure that all this support is linked to decent wages and conditions for workers and their trade union rights. There should be no question of giving support to entities that do not respect the rights of workers to be paid properly, have proper terms and conditions and be represented by the union or organisation of their choice. That is absolutely critical and should be a condition imposed on these stimulus supports.

7:35 pm

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Seeing as Deputy Boyd Barrett nearly gave us €5 billion extra there, I thought I might be a bit shorter myself.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The interest is building up.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers. He is probably the youngest Minister of State in the Government. I hope he does well. Is he not the youngest? There you go. I will not ask who is, but I congratulate him and hope it works out well for him.

I welcome the Bill as it stands, and the Regional Group certainly will support it. I get very concerned, though, when I look at Covid from day to day, everything that is happening, whether we go up or down and the increasing numbers. I really worry about the fallout we face as an economy, particularly for our SME sector. For its staff and customers, Covid is a huge concern. There are 250,000 SMEs in the country, providing 1.2 million jobs, and 68% of those jobs are outside of Dublin. We are therefore very much reliant on the SME sector, particularly tourism and hospitality, in the country. The tourism and hospitality sector accounts for 266,000 jobs, 9,300 of which are in Wexford. A large number of the businesses have already closed and others do not know where they are. They all have similar challenges when I speak to them. Many of the SME sectors have three things in common at the moment. One is the lack of cash flow, the second is short-term working capital and the third is liquidity. Those are their major concerns when I discuss any type of financing with them. They all say similar things about Covid finance, whether it be the restart package, the microenterprise Bill or this Bill which, being 142 pages long, I did not exactly get to look at in depth. Their fear, and what they all say in commonality, is that the interest rates for all the finance packages are too high. They cannot afford or are not able to meet the loan requirements and do not have enough business to generate the repayments even if they could get the loans. We must be mindful that the interest rate on the money being provided through microenterprise financing is above 4%. It might sound cheap and we might say interest rates are low, but that is not cheap for a struggling business that is probably at the bare minimum of 30% of its pre-Covid footfall, depending on cash flow. That is not cheap finance. As the Minister of State will have heard me say previously in the House, insolvency experts have said that the restart package should have been ten times what it was. My concern is that while we will have provision within this legislation to look after the 1.2 million workers, we need to look after the SMEs that provide those jobs and to do so in the context of being in the middle of the worst health crisis that this country, in my living memory, has even seen.

We are about to get into what will be a catastrophe of equal scale called Brexit. We are going from one to the other, from Covid to Brexit. I am concerned as to whether this type of financing we are now doing for Covid will impinge on our ability to finance Brexit. I see Covid as a trial run for Brexit. I anticipate it in the logistics sector, having dealt with many of the SMEs involved for the past 30 years in business, drawing all types of goods. I anticipate Brexit to be a bigger calamity, or equally as big as Covid has been. People might find that hard to believe, but on top of Covid the potential crisis is very real.

I think the mixed messages going out every day, as I said, are that interest rates are low but everybody says that is not a practical measure or application of finance interest rates on loan supports for struggling businesses. Often they say they are far too complicated and seem to be more of a benefit to the financial institution than of assistance to them as SMEs. I think this has been alluded to by many colleagues today, that often the benefit from financial loans of this nature does not actually come down to the SME or the businesses for which they are being provided.

While the Bill contains supports to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency - which is what we call scalability, usability, reliability and economy, SURE - these loans are being underpinned by a system of voluntary guarantee by member states. On that basis I would add a word of caution and I have stated previously in the House that our first support must be to the SMEs to keep them in business rather than the short-term work schemes. We need to support the self-employed to stay self-employed and to sustain that position. If we do not ensure affordable and meaningful supports for our SMEs through Covid and Brexit, they will not survive. We are on a fool's errand passing legislation that will not support that position because our loan guarantees will be called in. I am asking for the Minister of State to ensure 0% rates for government loans at a minimum for the future.

I also ask - these are just points to note from my interaction with businesses and their understanding of smaller financial institutions - that the ECB actively support its member states immediately in these unprecedented times. The Central Bank needs to continue to modify its rules on pillar banks immediately to allow them the flexibility that is essential to support businesses, which rely on cash flow. If there is more money coming in than going out in any business, that is a positive situation but it is an unlikely situation for many in the near future. We therefore need extremely low interest rates and need to ensure that the pillar banks are making businesses aware of the SBCI supports because many of them are just not aware of them.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure the pillar banks make the SMEs aware of their eligibility and do everything possible to allow them to apply for these loans to sustain them in the future.

7:45 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, on his appointment and I wish him the best. The Rural Independent Group will not be opposing this Bill tonight.

There are many issues in respect of SMEs at present. I have spent a lot of time talking to people whose businesses are in serious financial difficulty. The Government is talking about giving low interest rates but providing low interest rates is kicking the can down the road for many of these businesses. I appeal to the Government to reconsider and think along the lines of some kind of grant aid to support these businesses because no matter how low interest rates are, they have to be paid back. Businesses are unable to contemplate that at this time. Cafes, restaurants and hairdressers need some kind of package. A stimulus package is to be announced next week. That will hopefully give them some kind of a way forward. A lot of these businesses feel they are running in some ways at a loss at the present time with more staff and fewer customers.

We spoke earlier today about the pub industry. A lot of these businesses are in dire straits. The VAT rate on drinks is at 23%. I sincerely hope that the Minister of State is considering a measure to bring that down to a percentage that might allow the publicans to survive. There are 50,000 jobs on the line. Many pubs had the intention of opening on Monday. They had to buy stock yesterday if they were to open on Monday. They were given the indication that they would be able to do so. They are now hanging on an announcement tomorrow morning and they cannot afford to take other losses. I appeal with the Minister to give some clarity tonight to that sector, which has been suffering and has been shown little or no roadmap towards its survival. In talking to many of those involved, even some who do not have mortgages and rents, they are worried about how they are going to keep the door open.

One can also look at the hotel sector and how they are able to keep the doors when they are open paying high rents or mortgages. A temporary wage subsidy scheme has to be looked for the hotel sector. A meeting including all the hotels in west Cork was held in recent weeks and that was one of the things on which they sought my support. I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to changing and rejigging the temporary wage subsidy scheme. While we are talking about that scheme, I have understanding, respect and sympathy - although sympathy sometimes does not pay the bills - for those who had mortgage approval and banks will not now accept their mortgages because they are on the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I ask the Minister to intercede with the banks on this issue. It is difficult enough for people trying to start out and make a living but as this is a measure the Government put in place due to the crisis, for the banks to use it as a way out is immoral and wrong. It needs to be put right.

Regarding the moratorium on mortgages, a lot of banks are considering adding to the mortgage as soon as people start the repayments. People are struggling at present and cannot afford that punishment. It is a tough word but that is what the banks are considering doing to their customers. It is wrong and it needs to be looked at. It is one thing to add it at the end of the mortgage but going back in a month's time and paying perhaps a quarter more than what they were paying initially is something that many people will not be able to sustain.

An announcement has been made in the UK on bringing the VAT rate in the tourism sector down to 5%. The increase in the rate from 9% to 13.5% was detrimental enough prior to Covid but it is now imperative that the Government move quickly. There is no point in giving the VAT decrease when the tourism season is over. That decrease should have been announced a number of weeks ago when businesses were trying to get up and running again.

Another issue that has caused concern for small businesses is rates. There is a freeze in that regard at the moment. Is there serious consideration to that freeze continuing at least some way into next year to give people a chance? I have been talking to taxi and bus operators. I spoke to a businessman in west Cork who has invested thousand and thousands of euro to open up a bus service to Cork and back. It is an incredible service and pre-Covid was going to be a massive, growing service. He has to take on Bus Éireann, which has the State behind it. Now he is at a massive financial loss and it is difficult for him to find a way forward. He is trying to continue the service but they are the people who need very serious grant aid in these times. This cannot be allowed to drag on with them not knowing the way forward.

We have had a lot of positive things in relation to health in this country but there are questions too. Money was spent on Covid-19 tests, which were sent to Germany. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said in answer to a question from me here that it cost around €200 a test. We knew in west Cork that they could do the test for €49. There was the purchase of a PC-12 aeroplane by the State at a massive cost. We do not hear on the floor of the Dáil who is paying, what it cost and why that money was spent. Why was the money not invested in local laboratories and spent in Ireland?

We have not even touched on the agricultural sector. Through this crisis, they have had little or no funding. There was a €15 million package. A very genuine farmer in west Cork and many others said to me they looked at the Irish Farmers' Journaland they threw it on the ground in anger because they could not get their hands on that type of funding. There is no point announcing a stimulus package next week if hurdles and fences are put in front of people.

A lot of people are not paying rates in business that also are struggling and they need to be looked at too. The fishing industry is furious with what has been given to them to date. I hope next week will address a lot of the issues for that industry.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Ar an gcéad dul síos, déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta Chambers. I congratulate Deputy Chambers on being appointed Minister of State. I do not think he has quite made it to Cabinet yet as the previous Deputy alluded to but I know she meant well. I wish him well and look forward to working with him.

This legislation is a comprehensive Bill. I do not normally advocate a lot of borrowing. However, I do not think we have any option but to borrow, especially from our European friends, as we like to call them. They were not very friendly or helpful to us in our economic crash a few years ago when they bulldozed in the money in the morning and then they fleeced us for it. They charged us 6% when the IMF gave it to us for 2.9%.

The Minister has a big role to follow with his lead Minister, Deputy Varadkar. This Bill is well intentioned, like the road to Damascus. It is well intentioned but lined with landmines. We have a big problem with the Central Bank and the pillar banks. The pillar banks are not working.

They may as well shut up shop because they are not functioning. They have not been functioning for a decade or more and they will not function in the future. The contempt they hold for this House and for the public is palpable. A former Member of the House is their spokesperson, and there are many former political advisers who have likewise become spokespersons for the different banking associations. Deputy Michael Collins and I met them to discuss the terrors they put on people who were trying to pay back loans. We met the representatives of the various banking federations but it was a waste of time.

There are some good aspects of the Bill and some provisions that give serious cause for worry. As we say and hear all the time, SMEs account for a huge number of jobs in this country. Most SME owners - I must declare that I am one myself - have a good relationship with their workers and want to keep that relationship because it is imperative for the future success of their business. We are not all, as Deputy Boyd Barrett would like to think, big operators who are reckless with our workers and mad for profit. In my own county of Tipperary, we have had huge direct investment in job creation and in companies paying corporation tax. I support that, and the contribution of those companies is massive. Their factories probably provide 5,000 jobs in the greater Clonmel area. Merck Sharp & Dohme is there more than 50 years. These are long-stay enterprises, not fly-by-night entities that run away after they get their special deals.

Chasing the Apple money is like a chasing a rainbow. When the sun comes out, one sees plenty of rainbows, but there is no crock of gold from Apple at the end of that particular rainbow. Now there is talk of getting interest on the Apple money as well. Before any of that we have to wait for the courts to decide and for any appeals to be gone through, from third parties or anybody else. It may or may not be a case of "live, horse, and you will get grass" but that seems to be the ideology.

On the other hand, we have the sectoral agreements, in respect of which there is a clamouring every day to revisit the court decision. Those sectoral agreements were made with the big financial people - the Construction Industry Federation, or whatever - but things are different for small employers. I know I am straying a small bit from the legislation but this is a very important point. Small employers cannot pay the wage that large employers can pay. Workers in rural parts of Ireland do not expect to get the €25 an hour that is paid in Dublin. The local authorities employ people and machinery and they would not give €25 an hour for the machine and the man. We must cut our cloth according to our measure and we must be very careful of the damage we could do in this area.

Deputy Michael Collins alluded to the mixed messages and statements that are going out all the time in regard to this legislation and other measures. It is devastating tonight to hear that the pubs may not be reopening on Monday. I read on my iPhone ten minutes ago that NPHET, which seems to be the gospel for everything, has indicated there may be a delay. I wish Dr. Holohan and his wife all the very best but there are serious questions to be asked, even about the sittings of this House. I said in the convention centre that we could not afford such a salubrious place. Like the small businesses, we have to cut our cloth according to our measure. Publicans and other small business owners pay tax, VAT, rates, PRSI and insurance. They must be allowed to reopen. Many of them, who are watching this debate tonight, will have had to order in new stock before next week. I never owned a pub or had anything to do with running one but I was often at a pub counter and I talk to and support a lot of pub owners. It is unreal when we see the house parties that are going on around the country. At the same time, the pubs and the respectable publicans are controlled and if they break the rules, objections will be raised to their licences. It is ridiculous.

Today is Tuesday and the pubs are meant to open next Monday but we are now getting mixed messages and it seems they might not be allowed to open after all. Yet there is a situation going on that I raised at the very start of the crisis. It is why I asked the Taoiseach earlier whether he really believes there is a pandemic. I have concerns, as do many other people, that we never closed the airports and ports. That was never done while so much was asked of small businesses. I mentioned pubs but I am also talking about shops and everything else, including farmers and sporting people. Big Tom is resting in his grave, Lord have mercy on him, but there are many country music artists struggling. I know many of them and many of the ceoltóirí clubs and scoileanna rince. They are all closed and all the independent artists have nowhere to perform. We are all over the place in how we are dealing with this.

We got the roadmap - I do not remember how long ago it is now - and stage 4 was to see the pubs reopening, but doubt is being thrown on that tonight. It is totally unfair to publicans. Their stocks were taken back and they have nothing in stock now. They must borrow to restock. In those circumstances, it just does not add up for me or any ordinary person that people can come into this country from Dallas, Texas. I have seen the list of flights coming into Dublin Airport and it includes lots of Covid hotspots in Spain and other places. At one stage we were getting a briefing from the HSE once a week but nobody has given us such a briefing for a while. Deputy Shortall asked at one of those briefings if we could be enlightened as to how many personnel were stationed at the airports and ports monitoring people coming into the country. No answer was given and there was only head-scratching and looking around. The HSE representatives thought the Garda was dealing with that issue. I said at the time and I will say it again that it is like drawing water from a well with a leaky bucket. One will never fill one's tank that way and if we do not seal our borders, we will never survive. Before we get into borrowing, microfinance and the different schemes, we must deal with the basics first. If we do not have a good foundation - and we do not - we are not serious about dealing with this pandemic. NPHET certainly has a job to do, and that is to advise. It is for the Government to make decisions but all we are seeing is inertia, lethargic efforts and unclear, mixed messages.

The Taoiseach alluded last week to the possibility that the pubs might not reopen. It is shocking to have this uncertainty. Many of them will never reopen anyway ever again because of legislation that was passed here in recent times, but we need to support the ones that can reopen. The hairdressers were able to open, thank God, but there was huge expense involved in it for them. The schemes that were introduced, including the microfinance scheme and the rates break, were brought in with big announcements and a big spin machine by the former Taoiseach. The county councils have not had a penny yet to offset what they lost via the rates measure. I am glad to see the Minister of State writing that down. Members of my council told me ten days ago when they sent out the rates bills for the second moiety starting in July, which they had to do, that the council has not got a shilling from the Government to offset the loss from the rates holiday or the parking moratorium.

We have had all the announcements. Even this Bill has grand platitudes, but it is not enough. If the procedures are too cumbersome and there is too much form-filling, SMEs cannot afford it and they will not do it. They need stimulus grants and the public needs the same. We need to encourage people to spend and stimulate the economy. I took a walk down Grafton Street earlier tonight and it is just not happening. People are worried. The Taoiseach or somebody else said earlier that they are saving their money. We must look at a scheme similar to the one introduced by the former Minister for Finance, Charles McCreevy, to encourage the release of money that is being saved into the economy. We do not want people to spend all their savings but they should be encouraged to spend some of them and should not be penalised for doing so. There should be schemes that encourage people to do home refurbishments or change their car and thereby stimulate different industries. We should leave some savings residue in place but people should not be penalised if they take out some of their savings before a scheme has matured. We need money in the economy now and airgead in the póca for people to spend.

Pious platitudes, grand schemes and great-sounding legislation are not enough. We must secure interest-free loans for SMEs and ordinary families. We must get support from our European colleagues to do so. I see that Austria has raised €1 billion or €2 billion on a scheme that it put out for tender, and it got that money at very reasonable interest. There are ways of doing these things but it is not by having too much legislation, red tape and bureaucracy. The mixed messages must stop.

We must remember that Brexit is looming large. It is looming large for the farming community on which all of rural Ireland depends. It is looming large for the haulage industry, which is in an awful situation. All of that is coming down the line. Deputy Verona Ní Mhurchú said that Brexit could be even worse than this. If that is the case, it will be one huge whammy. We know it will be bad but we have lost sight of it completely. We must deal with it because it will have an enormous impact.

The first thing we must do is let our people live again. We must stop the fear factor and do away with the figures that are being issued in the main RTÉ headlines into people's homes. They have people driven demented with fright, especially the elderly, and the situation is creating mental health issues. We see the billions being wasted on the deal with the private hospitals and in the overcharging for Covid-19 testing. As Deputy Michael Collins said, if the tests can be done for €40 or €50 in west Cork, why are we sending them to Germany at a cost of €195 each? What is wrong with us? There have been no proper tendering procedures and no proper evaluation of the vast amounts of money that have been spent to tackle Covid-19. I do not like repeating myself but I said some months ago that what is going on is a scamdemic. Every day since, I feel it more that I was justified in that description. There are too many scams going on. We are making too much money for the big businesses that own the private hospitals and clinics. People who had private health insurance could not get treatment even though they had been paying into schemes for up to 40 years. Now the private health insurers have the audacity to charge those people €275 for a test that can be done in west Cork for €40.

This is daylight robbery. Like most schemes, it seems there will be latitude for people to make huge money.

I wish the Minister of State well and I will support the Bill but I have huge concerns about it. We must let people live. They are not being let live at the moment because they are being corralled into their homes and are frightened about going anywhere. All the mixed messaging is not good.

8:05 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Bill is part of the overall package, including the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020 from last week, to support businesses during the Covid crisis. This Bill relates to European funding that needs to be drawn down. I am slightly concerned that all EU member states have to pass similar legislation before next week to allow this fund to be established. The Minister of State is only bringing it forward now, which has reduced the time we have to discuss it and consider its implications. That discussion should be allowed and we should not pass Bills up against a European deadline. As I understand it, if we did not pass this Bill, the entire European Covid-19 response would collapse. That is not something any of us would want to happen, but we should have proper time to consider and discuss the implications of a Bill when it comes before us. That is something we need to look at for the future. The excuse will be used that we did not have a Government and that, therefore, it could not be discussed before now. Many discussions took place while we were on hiatus and this Bill could have been discussed then as well. The Minister of State said there is an urgent need to introduce this legislation and in light of that, I do not think anyone will oppose it as it stands.

The legislation establishes a number of different funds throughout the EU, which would levy a potential contribution of €650 million on Ireland should everything be called in. While I understand such guarantees are required to enable these funds to be drawn down, if they fall due or we default, a liability of €650 million could be laid on us. That is not an insubstantial amount. While signing up to these guarantees allows us to draw down approximately €2 billion from the fund, meaning there is a multiplier effect of 3:1 that may make it more attractive to us, we cannot underestimate the risk involved. The Minister of State said that if these funds were called in he would lay a report before the House and we could discuss it after the fact. Discussing something after it has happened seems a bizarre way of doing business. Surely the State would want to discuss it beforehand and decide whether we should do it or needed to do it. It is a bit like the recent Estimates, which were all retrospective and related to money that had been spent. When the then Taoiseach was asked about them, he said there would be Supplementary Estimates later in the year to cover the money that would be spent between these Estimates. Maybe that is just the way we do business and thinking we should discuss these measures before we pay the money rather than after is naïveté on my part. In reality it is retrospective and there is little we can we do about it. When we pass this Bill our liability will be cast in stone so having to pay the money will be a moot point at that stage.

The Bill leverages funding from a few different areas. I welcome the fact that we are not going to use the Commission fund. We have a sad history in that regard because of the bailout and doing so would bring home too many bad memories. Approximately 200 companies around the country would benefit from this fund. It seems a lot of money but in reality that €2 billion would only benefit 200 companies. That is a lot of money for a small number of companies. There are also larger employers and SMEs in Ireland. A medium-sized enterprise is one that has up to 250 employees. Many of us think of small businesses as being much smaller than that but that is the measure used. If the State draws down €2 billion to benefit 200 companies, we should get a guarantee from them rather than just hoping they might stay open. We have to ensure workers are protected within those companies and the funding should be linked to employment and wages, which are vitally important. I brought this up last week during the debate on the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020. The Tánaiste said that it would not be a problem because companies would only reduce wages if they were in bother. The problem is that we do not know whether that will be the case. We are paying companies the Covid payment to keep people in employment and they cut their wages and their own contributions as well. How much are we really contributing to them? There has to be a quid pro quo. Companies have an obligations to the State, as citizens within this country, to say why they are reducing wages. I have no doubt that employees would be reasonable if they were spoken to and what was required was laid out in front of them. They might then accept a wage cut but some employers are cutting their wages by 10% or 15% regardless, while also getting the Covid payment from the State to supplement those wages and reducing the contribution they are paying. That is a bit much and is too much for us to accept. We should put measures in place to ensure employers maintain the wages of employees because no matter who the employees are, it was hard enough for them to survive on the wages they had before this crisis. Having their wages cut despite them being supplemented by the State makes it more than difficult for them to survive. We need to have those protections in place. While protecting and saving companies is well and good, this money should also save employees and the people of the State. That is vitally important. Everything we do should be about making sure that is happening. Unfortunately, I do not think that is the case for this Bill and it was not the case for the Bill last week either. That is a worrying trend because we have to ensure we look after workers and people in the State.

There is a great deal in the Bill, including how the drawdowns will work and so on, but that will come in time. I have mentioned the possibility of the €650 million being called in. There has been much criticism at European level that this Bill does not go far enough and is not enough for what is required at European level. What are the Government's views on that? Will this fund be enough to manage the bailout required across the board? There has been much talk about Europe being collegiate, looking after everybody and coming together. However, that was not evident in the development of this fund. Will that be the case in the future? How much are we going to take? Are we just going to go along with everything others say or do we have any input into these decisions and what is happening?

Looking in from the outside, it always seems to be France and Germany that decide everything and we just go along with it and say "nice work boys". It does not seem to be a collegiate response or one in which everyone speaks and is listened to. It just seems to be that France and Germany decide and that is it. Every so often, the Netherlands or one or two other countries - the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria on this fund, for example - might oppose something but it is really and truly the big two countries that decide everything. They even go to the extent of having bilateral meetings themselves before the meetings of the Council of Ministers and then tell us what we are going to accept. Is that acceptable to the Irish Government? Perhaps that question might be addressed at the later Stages.

8:15 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputy Pringle and I call Deputy Michael Moynihan. He is sharing time.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am sharing time with my colleague, Deputy Fleming. I welcome this Bill and its contents. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, on his new role. I wish him every success during the Government's period in office.

Looking at the contents of the legislation, it is to enable us to get money from Europe and get a fund in place to ensure funding available to businesses in post-pandemic Ireland. What we really need to do is look at what happened in recent months. There was what can only be called carnage right throughout the industrial world in small to medium-sized and even large businesses. There is great concern among those operating businesses and those employed in them regarding the future and how soon it will be possible to get back to normal or back to what things were like pre-Covid-19 in January, February and March 2020.

We as a society have to look at the Ireland of the middle of July 2020 and see what has happened in recent months. We must see the real challenges that exist in the tourist industry, the catering industry and all the small-to-medium-sized businesses that were supplying all sectors. We must see the challenges and the voids that are left. We look at this legislation and we have to ensure we can get money quickly to where it really matters. In the past decade, we saw the challenges that were faced after the crash and what has subsequently happened concerning small to medium-sized businesses never getting back off the ground.

Some tremendously successful businesses will need grants rather than loans to get them up and running and to protect employment, not just in urban Ireland but in rural Ireland. Much of the time, society is way ahead of us here in this Chamber and the commentators. Society has moved very fast in recent months. I come from a very rural constituency and I have looked at what has happened, including remote working, smart working and the number of people working from home. I refer to people in public service employment who have been working very efficiently from home. We have to put that down as a marker.

We have also looked at some of the multinational companies, which provide greatly prized employment in cities and large towns. They have had their employees working from home as well. The multinationals have looked at the benefit to themselves as companies but also at the benefit to their employees. The very simple thing is that when the employee is happy, the company is happy. In the context of this legislation to support industry, we must ensure that we take on board what has happened in society and not be trying to direct it towards more urbanisation.

We have a major opportunity now, if we care to take it. I know that some people have little respect for country folk or that way of life. That attitude exists and we have to rid society of it. We have to rid the higher echelons of that attitude and we must look closely at what can be achieved. Regarding Covid-19, the associated measures and whether we are serious, we will see that there is fear in the country now regarding a second wave and what should be done to stop people coming into Ireland etc.. We have seen where restaurants have taken it upon themselves to enforce the regulations and ensured that they are protecting their businesses and the people who will be coming into their premises.

We have to look back to when the pandemic was at its highest, and the fact that the challenges were in the large urban centres and people were looking to get to rural areas. Thanks be to God, from my own perspective, we live in a rural community and those rural communities were spared the worst of the pandemic. That is, however, the secret as we go into the future as a society. We have to look at the pluses. If we are desperately serious about ensuring that we learn the lessons, I refer to the old saying regarding never wasting a crisis to make the right decisions. If we are serious about making the right decisions as society has learned to do, if those lessons can be learned by the Government and those who will be making the decisions in the next decade or so, we will have to ensure that there is more encouragement for multinational companies, small to medium-sized enterprises and State enterprises to relocate their people to rural communities, where they can work very effectively from home. That has been proven on this occasion.

We have had many debates concerning decentralisation over the years but we have seen now that society has decentralised itself recently. It has not waited for the Government or direction but because of a pandemic, people have decentralised themselves and we should ensure that we take that lesson from society, because society is always ahead of the curve. Looking at this legislation which is intended to try to make more money available, it is also important to ensure there is less bureaucracy involved and that we are not tying up small to medium-sized enterprises with employees having to try to wade through red tape. Funding must be provided as quickly as possible to businesses to ensure their survival. It is vitally important that we take that into account.

This is the first time I have spoken on legislation relating to the pandemic. As a society, we need to look at the front-line workers and what they have done for us, not only the healthcare workers but also those working in shops, delivering food etc.. I refer to those who kept the wheels going. We should always remember those people. They are so important to our society as we move into the future. With those few words, I commend the legislation.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Deputy Fleming, who has ten minutes.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, on his appointment and I wish him every success in his future career in Dáil Éireann. I am glad to see him in the Chamber so early in the term of the new Government.

Today is 14 July, Bastille Day, the national holiday in France. On this day in 1789, the Bastille, a French military fortress and prison, was stormed by the people of France and prisoners broken out. It was one of the first actions of the French Revolution. We all know it was a very bloody revolution. Three years after that, however, in 1792, the guillotine was introduced by the authorities.

In parliamentary terms, the word "guillotine" means bringing a debate to an abrupt end, whether or not it has concluded. Here in Dáil Éireann we are back in the land of the parliamentary guillotine for this legislation. We had several years without a parliamentary guillotine, but it is back today as part of ensuring that this Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill 2020 will conclude tomorrow evening, one way or the other.

Now I will say by way of mitigation that during the Covid-19 crisis it is essential for all such legislation to be concluded properly. There may be extraneous or exceptional cases where a guillotine is necessary but I also believe it is important that in a normal functioning democracy a guillotine would be used sparingly when it comes to parliamentary debates.

With this legislation my main concern is about microbusinesses. Everyone talks about small, medium and large businesses. The statisticians and the people who run Departments and big businesses talk about small and medium businesses. Their idea of a small business is one with a couple of hundred people and they imagine a large business is one with over 1,000 people. We have many of these in Ireland and we are fond of them. They are important and they contribute significantly in terms of employment and the tax take. Foreign multinational companies pay on average almost twice the average industrial wage. They pay far more tax per individual aside from the corporation tax they pay.

I estimate that up to 700,000 people in Ireland are working in microbusinesses. They are the backbone of the economy. I have in mind the man with the van or the man with the van and a helper. Perhaps there is a company with two vans. The business, whether a small shop or café, may have between two and five staff.

I hope that during the course of this legislation, if it is not possible for it to be put out as part of the legislation, we would be given the figures of the total employment in companies with between one and five employees or maybe between six and ten employees. This touches on small business activities. These are the people we need to get back to work. The big companies are big and strong. They can borrow and many of them have good credit ratings. However, for the small business a figure of €10,000, €20,000 or €30,000 is a phenomenal amount of money. That is what they need to keep ticking over so that they are viable and still in business on 1 January next year.

I am making a plea for microbusinesses to be supported and singled out especially. There is a case almost for a Department for microbusinesses and small businesses because of the fundamental impact they have on the Irish economy not only in urban areas but in rural areas too.

What is this legislation about? This legislation enables Ireland to contribute up to €648 million to two European funds as part of an EU-wide initiative to mitigate the employment crisis and support businesses getting back on their feet. That is good, great and fantastic. Everyone in the House should be supportive of this legislation. It is good that we have the EU element. This is really an EU initiative. That is why I brought in the issue of Bastille Day in my opening remarks. It is a European national holiday for France, which is one of the largest countries in the EU.

I support all the specifics in the legislation but I have two or three observations to make. The first is written in the legislation several times and I want people to understand it. The €648 million that Ireland will contribute will not be subject to any parliamentary scrutiny in respect of that fund being contributed to or any funds we draw down. It is written in the legislation that the funds will be paid out of the Central Fund and not out of voted funding that comes through this House. I want to explain to people what the Central Fund is. The Central Fund is an account under the control of the Minister for Finance. All taxes that are collected every year are lodged into that fund. Maybe some other sundry income goes in there as well. In a given year approximately €60 billion goes into that fund. It accounts for nearly all the taxation. Approximately €51 billion comes through this House by way of voted expenditure and departmental estimates. There is scrutiny and this spending is considered and debated at length. In addition, some €9 billion, which is a phenomenal amount of money, goes through that fund but does not come through this House for debate, public scrutiny or public accountability. I am keen to see more public accountability in respect of that €9 billion in the Central Fund. The biggest element of that €9 billion is approximately €6 billion that goes on paying the interest on the national debt. That has to be paid, but there should be a debate in the House about the borrowing cost, the amount of borrowing and the nature of the borrowing. The other €3 billion goes straight to the EU. It does not come through the floor of the House at any stage. VAT is collected and paid to the EU with no reference to this House.

Now, we have this new mechanism where a further €650 million will be paid out of the Central Fund once the legislation is established. There is no accountability or traceability back to the Houses. The Minister may choose to amend the legislation and make a statement at some stage in future but in terms of the annual working out of this legislation there is no accountability to the House. That is the one point I would like to see dealt with more effectively in future.

I have mentioned in my comments the issue of payments to the EU. I put it to the Minister of State that this is an issue for the Government at large, of which I am a part. If those responsible are listening I would be happy to provide any thoughts on this issue and assess them in that regard.

I have referred to the payments to the EU amounting to €3 billion that we already make. In addition we will hand over €650 million now in receipts from the EU. Regardless of whether they go directly through the Common Agricultural Policy or through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there is no accountability to the House in terms of the VAT receipts. I would like the Department of Finance to do something it has not done before. I want the Department to set out an annual report of our total financial transactions with the EU, including payments to the EU and receipts from the EU. It is very important that people can see that.

This is another EU initiative. We are supportive of it. We think it is good and I want it to concentrate on microbusinesses in particular to ensure we get over the employment crisis of Covid-19. I will conclude by wishing the new Minister of State well in his job.

Debate adjourned.