Tuesday, 28 July 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report of the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. Arising from it, there are three proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to?
It is not agreed. The PUP recipients losing their income on the basis of travelling is extremely serious. Not only does it appear to have no sound legal basis, it is also blatantly discriminatory. When Mr. Billy Kelleher MEP of Fianna Fáil openly broke the travel guidelines there was no impact on his income. We know that the rules were changed to facilitate tax exiles, maintaining their status during the pandemic. There is also the example of high earners who are recipients of substantial tax benefits under the special assignee relief programme, SARP. They do not lose any of those if they travel and break the guidelines. It is only those on PUP.
As I said earlier to the Taoiseach, it is clear that this is blatant discrimination against one section of the population. It is a policy that would penalise them uniquely, not others, for travelling overseas even though the Government's advice is just advice, and confused and ambiguous advice. It is important that the statutory instrument in question is rescinded. There is a motion on the Order Paper and it is imperative that it, or another motion brought forward by the Government, is taken. This situation cannot continue. It is essential that every citizen is treated equally before the law. At a time when the claim that we are all in this together is repeatedly made, people who are out of their jobs because the Government closed the economy down need to know that they will be treated respectfully and equally. That is currently not the case.
On the same issue, there is a need to have a debate on rescinding this discriminatory order on the Statute Book. It is incumbent on us to treat everybody who leaves the State with respect regardless of who the person is. This is discriminatory and must be rescinded as a matter of urgency.
First, I note that Deputy McDonald was saying last week that it was reckless for people to travel - that was her position - and that the Government was adopting a reckless policy generally. She was dead set against any travel whatsoever, but has obviously changed position within a week. Equally, the line now being trotted out is that the Government closed the economy. The interim Government with the support of Deputy McDonald, my support and the support of every other party in the House agreed that there had to be a lockdown to protect human health and the safety of the people. There is a great deal of shallow propaganda emanating from the Opposition now. Somehow now it is some Government over there that closed everything down. We all know why things were closed down. The response was to put 600,000 people on the pandemic unemployment payment, which I believe was a good and genuine response to try to help people deal with the loss of employment. There was also the wage subsidy scheme. At one stage, there were 1.1 million people on subsidy from the State.
That must be acknowledged. We discussed this on Leaders' Questions. As I said with regard to any individuals who are genuinely wronged, I have no issue with those cases being reviewed. There have been compliance measures at airports and ports since 2012 in respect of social protection.
This must be kept in perspective. There are 287,000 people legitimately on the pandemic unemployment payment. That will continue and we have extended it to the end of next March. We are talking about a handful of cases here. I have no issue with those cases being reviewed and fair play being applied to everybody. However, there is an extraordinary schedule of legislative activity to be completed today and tomorrow so we must proceed with the schedule as agreed by the Business Committee.
Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Marian Harkin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Emer Higgins, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Micheál Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Eoghan Murphy, Verona Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Darragh O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy, Leo Varadkar.
Chris Andrews, Mick Barry, Richard Boyd Barrett, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Holly Cairns, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Mairead Farrell, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Thomas Gould, Johnny Guirke, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Carol Nolan, Cian O'Callaghan, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Eoin Ó Broin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet Wynne.
Is the proposal for Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.
On questions on promised legislation, 34 Deputies have indicated. We have limited time remaining. I call Deputy McDonald.
I wish to record our disappointment at the fact that Government parties have voted to maintain a discriminatory system which penalises people on the Covid payment. That is a disgraceful action, particularly given the public backlash over the €16,000 pay increase for three super junior Ministers. I understand the Taoiseach has been publicly shamed into stepping back from that position and the three super junior Ministers will now receive a pay increase of €10,000 each. Can the Taoiseach confirm that?
Can I also ask about the 10% pay cut that has been announced for Government?
On the Ministers of State at the Cabinet table, the legislative changes will result in no additional cost to the taxpayer. The three Ministers have issued a statement to that effect. They will be taking a 10% cut in addition to not availing of the additional amount that was voted through in the legislation last week. In respect of my own situation, I will be gifting back to the State close to €25,000 over the 12 months. That includes a 2% pay increase for public servants in the autumn, which I will not accept and I will gift that back. It has been the policy of outgoing Ministers to gift back any additional increases that would have accrued to Ministers in the ordinary course of events, in accordance with the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, provisions. That is the position.
In relation to the Government's decisions on ministerial pay, I note what the Taoiseach has just said but we need clarity as regards actual decisions. In relation to the ministerial pay cut, is this a cut or a waiver? The Taoiseach stated he is "gifting back". That means his pension will be the full amount. Correct me if I am wrong. It will not be the reduced amount. Second, when was the Government decision made to give the Minister, Deputy Coveney, two Garda drivers and a Garda car worth €200,000? In 2011, a decision was made that that would only be for the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. When was the Government decision recorded for that change, as well as for an aide-de-camp for the Tánaiste, which is bloody well ridiculous?
When were those decisions made? Is it a waiver or a cut? When was the Government decision for the Garda car and drivers and the aides-de-camp made? The decision in 2011 still stands otherwise.
The same applied to Deputy Kelly when he was a Minister. The point is there is a set rate. In respect of any increases that have come the way of Ministers in the last number of years, they gifted them back. We decided to make it cleaner yesterday by saying 10% across the board, which in my case will result in gifting back close to €25,000 to the State. That is a gift back but it is a de facto cut, as well, in what one would ordinarily receive. The Deputy is correct that the pension entitlement relates to the rate the salary is set at, although I point out that back in 2010, I took a significant cut in pension because I stayed on in politics and I gave back a severance of about €80,000.
I just want to make that point because these things do not get said and I never want to say them. I just did it and got on with it. I am not in here for that side of things. If I was, I would have been out of here a long time ago.
In respect of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the matter did not have to go before Cabinet. My understanding is that there is a security dimension to that, which I am not going to interfere with.
Can the Taoiseach tell us what is the legal basis on which social welfare inspectors and gardaí are operating checkpoints at Dublin Airport for the purpose of identifying social welfare recipients and child benefit recipients in order to cut their payments? Can he tell us the precise legal powers under which they are taking this action? There is a power to stop people if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are engaged in fraud or whatever, but in the absence of knowledge of the people being stopped in these instances - their names and identities - it is hard to know what are the reasonable grounds for doing so. What exactly are the legal powers that are being used for operating these checkpoints?
I sought a report from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection this morning in regard to this issue. As part of its normal control work, the Department carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out those checks as part of the ongoing-----
I am answering the Deputy's question. They have had legal powers to carry out those checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work they are engaged in. The legal basis for the control and compliance checks is section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. I understand that amendment was introduced by the then Minister, Joan Burton.
Since March 2020, 2,000 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, claims have been closed - that is according to the note I have; it could be higher than that - as a result of checks carried out at Dublin Airport. I am told by the Department that the vast majority of the PUP cases stopped as a result of this work relate to individuals leaving the country who are not holidaymakers but are leaving on a permanent basis. If a person returns to Ireland, it is open to him or her to reapply for the PUP. Since 7 July, 104 PUP recipients and 44 jobseekers have been stopped.
Yesterday, the reports were that members of the Government were taking a 10% pay cut, but it later emerged that it is not a pay cut at all and, in fact, the Taoiseach will be more highly paid than his predecessor, Ministers will be more highly paid than their predecessors and junior Ministers will be more highly paid than their predecessors. If the Government was a shop which advertised a 10% off sale but it turned out the prices were actually higher than they were a month ago, it would be in breach of the consumer protection legislation. It is an utter joke. The Taoiseach is falling over himself to try to cover up and escape from the public outrage over what happened last week but he cannot even do that right. The same applies to the €16,000 increase, and the junior Ministers will still be getting over €10,000 each. Does the Taoiseach agree it is time for the sky-high pay for Ministers, the Tánaiste and himself to end?
I have already said to the House that I will be gifting back €25,000 as a result of yesterday's decision. I have no difficulty in doing that. I am happy to gift it back to the State. It is coming from the salary I would have been entitled to receive at the commencement of my term as Taoiseach. I have also said that on an ongoing basis and at different times, I have gifted back parts of salary and gifted back an entire severance to the State. Again, I have no difficulty with doing that.
On the more general question of payment to public representatives, I take a rather different view from that of the Deputy. In terms of the pay of Deputies, for example, I understand it has been tied to the grade of principal officer for quite a number of years. That is the right thing to do. If politicians get into a competition as to who can bid lower, I think that would be detrimental to politics in general and, ultimately, would lead to more wealthy people becoming politicians, or wealthier parties with external sources of funding supporting their members, and fewer Independent Deputies getting elected on their own and fewer members of smaller parties which do not have the resources that some parties in this House have. Some parties in this House are far wealthier than others. In my view, there has to be a proper, proportionate approach to the payment of public representatives which guarantees the independence of this House from external influences and enables people to be elected.
That is scandalous. The Taoiseach has made a serious statement. If true, it would amount to illegality. He is doing so because he cannot defend the situation where, on the one hand, he is cutting payments for PUP recipients who are travelling abroad while, at the same time, standing over and defending the payments to himself and the super junior Ministers.
I am asking the Ceann Comhairle to protect me in this Chamber, as a Member of this House representing the people of Donegal. The Taoiseach has made a serious allegation in regard to the funding of my constituency office, suggesting it is funded through illegal sources---
If the Deputy is saying there was absolutely none, I will accept his clarification. However, that was publicly stated, on the record, and there were people thanking the benefactors who helped them to develop their office and so on.
The Taoiseach is making a scurrilous statement because he cannot stand up and defend the indefensible. He and his colleagues in government just voted to stop payments to people in receipt of the PUP who travel outside the country.
There is no point. I ask the Taoiseach to resume his seat and to please wait a second. If Deputy Doherty is unhappy with what the Taoiseach has said, he should write a letter of complaint and the matter will be dealt with. What is the Taoiseach's point of order?
The vote earlier was on the Order of Business and how the schedule of business will proceed. It was not in relation to any specific proposal or any particular social welfare measure.
When does the Government intend to review the rule regarding the numbers permitted to attend sporting events? The current restriction on numbers is neither logical nor justified. As an example, Semple Stadium in Thurles has a capacity of 48,000 and it is ridiculous that only 200 people, including players and officials, are permitted to attend a game there. This blanket approach is causing multiple problems for parent bodies, clubs and general members. The rules need to be relaxed and I suggest it would be common sense to allow the numbers permitted to be determined by the size of the venue.
On the same issue, I wrote to the Minister last week asking that advice be sought from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, as to whether it is possible to increase the number of people attending matches.
A figure of 200 was given out but that figure is incorrect because 40 people are needed for each team, which is 80, and the venue staff, including stewards, referees, media and first aid providers take up another 40, so there are only 80 tickets left between two clubs, which is only 40 each. Páirc Uí Chaoimh has a capacity of 45,000 seats but there are only 80 people inside it. I want to follow the medical advice and if this is what is advised I will accept it, but it does not make sense to me or others given that we have stadiums like Croke Park, Semple Stadium in Thurles and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which can hold between 40,000 and 80,000 people. Croke Park can hold 80,000 people and can only have 80 spectators in it. I would like the Minister to review the medical advice on this matter.
There has to be recognition of open-air events and the square metre capacity that is available in these areas. They are not confined spaces. People are out in the open, so this limit makes no sense. We had club matches in my county last weekend and the vast majority of people who wanted to go were not able to attend. It must be recognised that these are open-air events and the capacity limits that are in place at the moment do not make sense.
I come from a Border area in Dundalk, and last weekend more than 500 people could attend GAA matches just 2 miles or 3 miles across the Border. The Taoiseach is a big sports fan, as am I, and sport does a great deal for mental health issues and everything else. I am also chairman of the Louth county board. Last weekend we had to be strict, with only 30 players and 60 spectators. It is the wrong thing to do at the moment. There are 41 clubs in County Louth, and each of them could take 5,000 or 6,000 people with no problems whatsoever. Yet we are only allowed take 200 people in. There are many voluntary organisations putting stewards and everything else together and they are well organised. Nothing is going to happen. The most important thing is the safety of players and spectators. That is the number one issue. Will the Taoiseach please increase the number of people allowed at these events as soon as possible, to help the people of Ireland?
Following on from other Deputies, I also ask the Taoiseach to look into this matter. This is a huge issue for many GAA clubs which have over 1,000 members but can only give their supporters 40 tickets. I ask the Taoiseach to approach NPHET about this. I acknowledge that we need to have the correct medical advice and people right across the country recognise that as well. However, I ask him to speak to NPHET and the acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, to bring some clarity to this issue. Most club games are currently being played in larger stadiums, parks or county grounds, which can accommodate up to 16,000 supporters.
I am surprised no one from Kilkenny has surfaced yet but this is a fair canvass from across the country. There is ongoing engagement between NPHET and an expert sporting group on this matter. I am very conscious of it and I spoke to the acting CMO about it last week when we deferred phase 4 of reopening. We had to defer it on an absolute basis across the board and it was an important step at the time to try to check the spread of the virus and stabilise the situation. The evidence so far indicates that the situation has, indeed, been stabilised. As knowledge of the virus evolves, it is fair to state that lumping outdoor and indoor events together may not be the optimal approach. It is clear that the virus is very lethal in indoor settings and there has to be a particular focus on indoor activity and behaviour. As Deputies have noted, outdoor behaviour is different. I did not expect players and mentors to be included in that figure of 200, to which Deputy Gould alluded. That has reduced the number allowed at matches to a minimal figure. I will work on this and the Minister for Health and NPHET are also engaged on the issue. The GAA and other sporting bodies have been lobbying effectively and strongly and we will try to respond in a positive but safe way to these queries. It is great to see the club championships back up and running. It is fantastic that players are out training and playing again because that is giving much joy to people across the country and helps achieve milestones in combatting Covid-19.
Today, hundreds of bus and coach owners are in Dublin with their buses, at enormous expense to themselves, because they have been shut down and closed off. I completely support the remarks made by Deputies on the previous topic but people will not have buses or coaches to travel to matches if we do not support this very valuable industry. These buses carry all the tourists here and carry people to concerts. Many bus operators in each county carry people shopping to different towns and they also provide a huge service to the schools. There is also a cohort of them that get no payment at all if they do not have a contract with Bus Éireann. We need specific supports and grant aid for these very important, logistical people movers around our country. When the country opens up again, we need them to bring in our tourists and keep industries, towns and entertainment going. They are a very important cohort of people. They are here today and are hardly able to put diesel in their buses. The drivers are probably voluntary because they are all out of work and they do not foresee the wheels turning any time soon. They have huge expenses with insurance and everything else and they need supports.
I too support the coach operators from all around the country who have had to come to Dublin today, though many of them were not able to come. Many large, medium and smaller coach operators in the county I represent have their backs to the wall. They have been hit by insurance costs and they have yards full of buses. The unusual thing is that the bigger the company is the more affected it is, because those massive buses cost an awful lot of money. Every one of them is out on hire purchase or on loan and the operators are in a bad way. We have excellent people in Kerry, including Kerry Coaches, O'Callaghan Coaches and Deros Coach Tours. We have the finest bus operators in Ireland in County Kerry and I am pleading desperately with the Taoiseach to take those people's concerns on board today.
I lend my voice to the rake of tour bus operators around the country whose overheads have not reduced, but whose income has been radically reduced. Tour guide operators, which are not bus operators themselves, are also suffering massively. They are saying that loans are not enough and that they need grants to get them through the situation they are in.
In March, I wrote to the then Ministers for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Transport, Tourism and Sport, and the then Taoiseach as bus operators in my county of Monaghan raised with me the huge concerns that were likely to arise as a result of the restrictions. At that point, it was very clear that bespoke solutions would be required to support bus operators. Those bespoke solutions have yet to materialise and I appeal to the Taoiseach to ensure these companies, which are often vital components of rural economies and are vital to ensuring any form of connectivity in counties like my own, are supported. I ask the Taoiseach to sit down with the relevant Ministers and ensure a bespoke financial support scheme is put in place for bus and coach operators.
I also met a delegation of bus and coach operators last Saturday. It is unfair, in their situation, that bus operators in the Six Counties pay a 0% vat rate. While some other tourist facilities have been able to get some business this year, the coach and bus operators in tourist areas have been devastated and have literally no income coming in. I ask the Taoiseach to consider increasing the €10 million that has been allocated to them in order that they will be able to pay their fixed costs for the year.
I support the comments of previous speakers. The commitment to public transport is fundamental to the programme for Government and private operators play a key role in scheduled services, tourism, tours and school transport. It is an important issue. These providers are honest, decent, hard workers and they deserve the full support of the State.
I ask the Taoiseach to pay particular attention to those who provide school transport. They were left blowing in the wind for months and the Taoiseach is now asking them to step up and support the initiative he announced in recent days. I particularly draw his attention to the plight of bus and coach operators in that sector, especially in rural counties like Donegal who fill significant gaps in the absence of public transport. It is urgent now that he puts in place a package that really gets them back on the road.
I fully support the urgent need for the bus and coach sector to receive grants. This is another sector that is coming under attack. I raised this issue with the former Minister, Shane Ross. I was disappointed that no representatives from this sector were on the tourism task force, which made no sense. We need urgent grants but we also need a harmonisation of the VAT rates because competitors in the Six Counties are at an advantage. Our operators in this part of the island are losing out and I would like that addressed.
The urgency and need for supports was flagged well in advance of the Government’s July stimulus package. It has had ample time to deal with this and most of the operators feel that what the Government has come out with has completely ignored them. Will the Taoiseach outline exactly what he proposes, given the dire financial situation they are in? The financial situation of the school transport operators who expect to be up and running to bring schoolchildren back in September will never be the same again with social distancing on school buses. Can the Taoiseach outline specifically what meaningful measures of support he has in mind for those people?
This is a significant issue of concern as the Taoiseach is hearing now from Deputies. In the past 24 hours I have spoken two private coach operator providers in my own county of Donegal. There is great anxiety there because they were hoping that there would be some type of rescue plan for them in the July stimulus package. It has not materialised. These are the same companies that have been hit hard as a result of the mortgage payment breaks because they are being penalised with interest being accrued during that period. They cannot refinance their loans through the new credit guarantee unless they take out additional lending, which is not what they need. They need support from the State to make sure that they will be able to go back on the road when the tourism season picks up or when there is a demand for their services again.
On the same issue but with regard to a different group of people, I ask the Taoiseach to support the chauffeur industry. These are a group that have felt forgotten about throughout this pandemic. They are often the first and last point of contact of overseas visitors to Ireland. They collect tourists from the airports, and chauffeur them to hotels, restaurants, festivals and tourism locations across Ireland. Last week, they organised a drive-to-survive from Killarney to Donegal and from there to Dublin via Galway. They mostly drive new, state-of-the-art vehicles on which they have hefty loans and now find themselves with no bookings, a situation which is likely to continue well into 2022. Can the Taoiseach request the relevant Minister to meet with a delegation from the sector to discuss their specific concerns for the future of their industry and the Government supports that they may be able to avail of? Can these packages be available to the July stimulus Bill to help this sector, which has been decimated by the pandemic?
I also support the plight of the coach operators, both the tour and school bus operators. One group of people that have been forgotten is the drivers of these coaches. They got no coronavirus payment because they were seasonal workers, especially the tour bus operators. If the lockdown had not happened until 1 April, all of them would have been working but they have all been forgotten. Their stamps are gone and they have nothing to look forward to this winter. I appeal to the Taoiseach to ensure that those drivers get the coronavirus payment of €350 because they are well entitled to it.
I thank all the Deputies for raising the issues of coach and bus companies and how they have suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The temporary wage subsidy scheme has been a major benefit to many sectors, including this sector, to enable people to stay intact.
Let me finish. The restart grant is now up to €25,000 and is also available for those businesses. The rates relief is now fully expanded, is of six months duration, and is also an available support, as is the facility to offset any loss this year, in tax terms, against profits of last year. All of that, added up, will help. There is also a facility to refinance, for lower interest and longer terms, through the credit guarantee scheme. Critically, in the job stimulus programme a €10 million fund has been put aside specifically for this sector. The Minister with responsibility for transport will design a specific scheme to support the coach operators from hereon in. If one takes all of the existing supports together with the additional ones that were announced in the July stimulus package, which are significant, they represent a significant lifeline to companies to stay intact and operating. In addition to all of that ,there is the €10 million scheme, which will be available through the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and we will talk to the Minister to ensure that he engages with the industry.