Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
Unfortunately, as I have already stated that will not be possible. Time was not allowed for that and it was not brought to my attention, I regret to say, until it was too late. I had assumed the slot finished at 7 p.m., in which case there would have been plenty of time for everybody to make a contribution. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are a number of amendments which I think-----
I hope the Minister will respond on the section. Section 1 deals with definitions. The problem with one definition is that it refers to employers only in terms of the wage subsidy scheme, WSS. As I pointed out on Second Stage, many people need an income subsidy but they are not employers or they are their own employer, that is, they are self-employed or lone traders. This group, to put it bluntly, has been left hung out to dry in the July stimulus. They should get the benefit of an income subsidy.
I would like the Minister and Government to explain why this is happening. Some sectors have been decimated by public health measures that have protected us all, and people's willingness to adhere to them. Why are employees now being betrayed - there is no other way to describe it - by having their PUP payments cut without being offered an alternative support until their sector recovers? The Government owes these people an explanation. They are very angry.
I spoke to Mary Coughlan on the telephone. She was quite happy for me to cite her as an example. Her case is typical of many self-employed artists. They have had their PUP payments cut from €350 to €203. She pointed out that pre-Covid she earned €20,000 a year, which is a modest income. As a result of Covid and the public health measures, she has had 35 concerts cancelled in Britain, Norway, Finland and elsewhere. She has no idea when there will be any substantial recovery in the gigs available to her. This is all because of public health measures. We need to protect our society, but her livelihood is gone.
Her story is repeated by dozens of people working in the sector. Lighting designers and self-employed musicians were earning €25,000 or €30,000 a year. Their payments have been cut to €203 despite the fact that they were earning in excess of €200 a week because of the way income for the self-employed is reckoned by Revenue. I could go through a long list of those affected, but I do not have time to mention them all.
Many musicians, including Mary, pointed out to me that they regularly do gigs for Pieta House, women's refuges and support various good causes for free on national television.
Then, when a moment comes for a bit of reciprocal solidarity from the Government, the artists, musicians and the crew standing beside them are cut loose. I really want the Minister to understand that the mental health trauma a lot of these people are going through is severe. The musicians' association that has been set up with 4,000 members is saying a large number of musicians and crew are suffering from serious stress, anxiety and mental health issues because their incomes have been slaughtered but they have no way to get back to full earning capacity.
They have appealed, as have I on their behalf for weeks now, for an income subsidy the same as the Minister is giving to employers. They are not asking for handouts but for the same income subsidy scheme, or similar, to the ones the Minister is providing for employers. If they lost 30% of their turnover, he is paying the wages of their employees. Why can he not do that for the musicians, crew, artists and actors? It is wrong. Why can he not do it for taxi drivers who are in the same boat? They are having their payments cut again. I can read out the names. They have had them cut, and more will be cut as a result of what the Minister did yesterday. They are now being whipped back to work but there is no work for them. They are asking for an income subsidy the same as the Minister was giving to thousands of, often profitable, companies. Will he please do that? It is relevant to this section, because there is no reference to this group in the definitions section but there should be, because that is what "We are all in it together" means. Or is it that we are all in it together but some people are more all in together than other people, to paraphrase George Orwell. It is rotten and it is a breach of the trust and solidarity that the Minister preached and people bought into over the past number of months because these people have served our society and now, they are being cut loose and betrayed. I appeal to him to please respond and tell us what he will do to help these people.
I too want to speak to this section and echo what Deputy Boyd Barrett said. It is cruel that the self-employed are once again discriminated against regarding the PUP. The failure of the Government to take the 2019 assessment into account was an oversight that caused untold hardship. These people, as Deputy Boyd Barrett and others have said, are self-made. Many of them, perhaps, were in employment ten 10 years ago or whenever and decided to take up their hobby and turn it into a business. Then, when they became successful, they became self-employed, but they take risks. Many of them have loans and use their own family home as the guarantee for the loan.
Some of this equipment is frightfully expensive, and not only that for the musicians, but for sound and lighting engineers and event organisers. There are many of them and, as I have said several times, it is part of our culture. Whatever music type it is, it is part of our heritage. To be told now to go off and get another job is totally disgraceful. Are we going to wipe away, disband and cast away the wonderful groups that we have? Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned Mary Coughlan. There are thousands of Mary Coughlans and others like her, who had full bookings and full engagements until the Government decision in March, which we all supported in good faith. They are now being discriminated against totally and utterly. Their diaries were full and they were not looking for anything from the Government. They were paying their VAT and other taxes, and insurance on the equipment. They were paying their motor insurance and for their vehicles.
In a survey the MEAI has conducted on its 4,000 members, 11.6% had utility bills in arrears and 9.7% had to sell essential equipment to cover household expenses. How will they get started again if they had to sell this equipment? Some of them have a huge affection for their instruments. They mind them the same as they would mind their children. They love their instruments and by using them with exemplary skills, they give solace and entertainment to all of us and many other people. Some 7% had lost, or were in danger of losing, their vehicle. That vehicle might be a crew car or van that is used to bring their kids to school or to go on outings. It is a work van but also the family mode of transport. A further 3.4% are in danger of losing their home. It is shocking and we talk about the homeless here and the so-called vulture funds. Are they going to be fired to the vultures? Some 17.4% are dealing with mental health worries as a result of the financial stress, which is shocking. Another 2.4% have considered self-harm. These people are outgoing and giving of themselves and their talents for the entertainment of others. They help people's mental health and now they are in that situation themselves. The Minister seems to be hard-faced and stony-faced in their plight. We must stand up and support them. It is shocking that he can just roll over here.
I am going to question the Covid-19 pandemic once again. Are we trying to drive small businesspeople out of business? That is what it seems like to me. They are people who have the motivation to be self-employed and pay their taxes and to get a group or a band together, which gives more employment to the sound and lighting engineers, and create an industry themselves. I think we are trying to drive them out of business.
They are like the publicans, who we are definitely trying to drive out of business, the small shop owners, the taxi drivers and the man in the van, whether he be a service man, a food delivery service or pizza delivery person or whatever. They are self-employed, which is what we want, because we cannot all get jobs off the State or other people. We want creators of jobs and of businesses but these businesses are being downtrodden.
Of course, the over-66s are cast totally to the wasteland. I do not know what is wrong with the Government parties that he cannot see this. They do not get it or understand it. Do none of them ever come to this or any other venue for a gig? Do any Ministers ever go to the dance hall to have a dance, or to the Comhaltas seisiúin, or, indeed, the Fleadh Cheoil, or the ordinary concerts or the ordinary busking in the pub or in the street? They will be wiped out. Does the Minister want a cold, stony-faced culture? We will be good Europeans all right but our own Irish heritage, our dúchas, our faith will be wiped out. The Government seems to be trying to wipe out any spirit of Irishness or any spirit of a people, race or history.
Yes we are, and it is all part of the section about our entertainers. They are being abandoned, cast away, left behind and stood on and got rid of. It is a shame on the Ministers and his Cabinet colleagues. Stimulus package, my backside. The Minister cannot be so discriminatory against people like this. If they went to the courts, they would win a challenge but they cannot afford to go. Their mental health and their houses are under threat, as are their families, their transport, everything - their very being. Artists are the same way. There is a wonderful artist in my own town. They give of themselves so willingly for charities all the time. All supports, no matter what it is, they give under the arches in Clonmel for Cuan Saor women's refuge and it is the same in every town and village in the country. The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are heartless people without an ounce of goodwill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this issue. In defence of the Minister, I know that at least he has good taste in music because I tend to find him at gigs I go to myself. He has a deep knowledge and interest in the arts and Irish culture and that is to be welcomed.
He does not need to be convinced that support is required for the culture and arts sector in Ireland but it is the nature of that support that we need to discuss. I did not need to be persuaded by the emails we have all received in recent days about the difficult position artists and those in the creative industries more generally find themselves in. I knew that because of my own involvement in the arts. I know the great difficulty people are experiencing now.
There is a strong argument, and I have said it from the get-go, to maintain the top PUP rate of €350 per week to all of those who are working ion the creative industries, including artists, technicians and people working in venues until those venues and the sector itself is more substantially reopened. We know that will be among the last of the sectors to reopen more substantially and we need to prepare for that. I have a significant fear that we are at risk of losing an entire generation of artists and entertainers in this country.
Only a small number of people at the top of the sector make what we might describe as a decent income. Most people working in the arts and culture sector supplement their income by working in hospitality, retail, care and so on. By coincidence, hospitality and some areas of retail happen to be areas that have been absolutely decimated by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Therefore, those working in the arts and creative industries more generally have had a double whammy.
I appeal to the Minister, given his understanding of and interest in the arts, to consider what kind of package could be put together to rescue those who work in the industry. We have all heard the testimony, not just from the emails we have all received, but from friends, family and people we admire and respect about the great difficulty they are in at the moment.
I looked in detail at a scheme that was developed in Denmark to help to support venues. If we do not have the venues, performers will have nowhere to perform when we get through this, as we will. I ask the Minister to take a close look at that to ensure that our physical arts infrastructure is still in place when we get out on the right side of this pandemic. We need to have a generation of artists that are supported by the country. We cannot just offer them tea and sympathy, nor should we just display tokenism towards them. I would never accuse the Minister of that but I ask him to seriously look at putting together a package to support those who work in the industry and the venues involved in the industry until the sector reopens more substantially.
I also want to speak about musicians and artists. Ireland is known for its music and song, which are part of our tradition. We are very proud of that tradition when we go to America or elsewhere abroad. I am very concerned that we do not have any supports in that area. We need to address this and give support to people who have worked and paid taxes all their lives. Through no fault of their own, Covid-19 has just put a stop to everything. They are not to be blamed for that. This is a time when we need to show our support to musicians and tour guides.
I received an email from a taxi driver today. He said he has been forced back to work without the customer base to make a decent living and cover his outgoings. There are no grants or other assistance from the Government. These people have worked and paid their taxes all their lives and are now looking for support from us. The least we can do is give them the help they need just until they all get back on their feet. I also ask we give grants and other supports to these industries that need them because they really need them.
Ba mhaith liom cur leis an mhéid atá ráite ó thaobh na healaíontóirí agus iad siúd atá ag obair i dtionscal an cheoil. We have previously raised the issue of supports for the arts and Deputy McDonald raised it earlier today. Deputy Ó Snodaigh has met representatives of the various groups. There is a serious issue that has been well articulated. It is probably best captured in the survey of members of the industry. It is stark that two thirds of them are talking about issues with mental health. Most concerning is that 3% have considered self-harm. That probably captures very quickly the real pain and suffering that many people in that sector are experiencing because of the lack of supports and particularly because of decisions taken that have resulted in income from the State that they had relied on being cut.
There is enormous uncertainty. There was always a mantra from Government that people would be supported as long as society remains closed. For our artists who breathe cultural life into our nation, their means to make ends meet and make a living is still closed as a result of social distancing. In some cases, people offered a gig at a wedding are concerned about taking it because it might result in losing their payment meaning they have no support whatsoever regardless of how little support is there. These individuals need a support package.
We know the circumstances that led to this. We know that the State and Government did the right thing in closing down the economy to protect people's lives. However, with that comes a responsibility, which is why in amendment No. 11, I have tried to address some of this by allowing the Minister to have a more targeted approach for different categories of workers. It may not be perfect, but it addresses the idea that not everyone is the same and some groups of workers will be hit harder and longer as a result of the pandemic and the restrictions we have.
We will not resolve this tonight but it would be worthwhile for the Minister to meet a group of Deputies or creating a way in which we, as a Legislature, can support them. It would be a powerful signal to send out. These are the people we turn to for inspiration. They are the people, whether poets or musicians, the former Taoiseach often quotes in his speeches. They are the people who give us inspiration and sometimes lift our hearts in dark days, and we all need that.
They are also the people who have travelled throughout this country and further afield to make ends meet. Some of them have done that for decades. They have never relied, nor had to rely, on State support. I have spoken to some of them who are household names. They have never relied on State support because their talent was able to get them through. In some cases, that forced them to travel abroad to earn their crus, but they did that without complaint. This is the time to stand up and support them and to find a way in which we can lift from them the burden that is so clearly captured in the survey of those 1,000 members.
I endorse what has been said by previous speakers about the arts and artists. I might slightly disagree with Deputy Mattie McGrath. I do not know that we would be good Europeans by shooting everything down. We have adopted a far more restrictive approach than the rest of the European Union. One only has to look at the European Commission site, reopen.europa.eu, to see that very clearly. Which approach is ultimately the better will be determined in time, but after a considerable length of time.
I make a point about the definition of employers. This employment wage-subsidy scheme, as it is to become, is confined to those in employment and excludes the self-employed. Obviously, the great majority of artists and people in the entertainment business are self-employed. The self-employed sector goes far beyond that. There is a long-standing debate in this House - albeit in a different setting - on the appropriate social welfare payments and social welfare net to make available to the self-employed. Of course, this is not a social welfare payment and we are not discussing a social welfare Bill. This is simply a financial measure to stop people becoming unemployed and to stop viable businesses going to the wall until we can get businesses up and running.
In that line, I urge the Minister to consider including self-employed people to ensure they do not end up leaving their business. I am not talking about somebody who is suddenly claiming to be self-employed if they were not previously. It is very clear from Revenue records whether somebody was self-employed in 2019. If they get money along the way and they ultimately end up having more than 70% of last year's income, it is all the better. There is absolutely no loss to the State and the money is returned in the same way it is in respect of an employee. I urge the Minister to consider self-employed people.
I too appeal to the Minister and support the calls to help the people who have been the bearers of our culture and whom we will need if we are to hand that culture on to the next generation. I refer to groups such as Siamsa Tíre in Tralee and people like Nicky and Anne McAuliffe, who have taught so many young musicians in Kerry. We cannot afford to lose these kinds of people. We need to see after them. There are also people like Mike Cronin and Mike Doyle who went around the whole Ring of Kerry playing music for a group of cyclists, including Derry Healy and others, which was raising funds for Gene Tangney who spent nine or ten weeks on a life support machine in Tralee hospital with coronavirus. I am talking about people who do great work like that.
I will also mention Neily O'Connor, to whose music one would dance on the table. He plays sets all over Kerry. He is at a standstill. Like everyone else, he needs to put food on the table. So do Derry and Rosie Healy who play and teach music to youngsters.
There is also the matter of event centres such as the INEC, Scott's Hotel in Killarney, the Fáilte Hotel and the Dunloe Hotel. There is no music coming out of their doors now which means there is no work for our artists, including those who play the accordion, fiddle, concert flute and guitar. We need to support them in their hour of need. When people's heads are down and they have a lot of troubles and worries, these are the people who take their minds off the troubles of the day. They come out of these places feeling better and looking forward to the future. They may go in down and out but they come out changed people after a session of listening to these kinds of people.
Our tradition and our culture are very important. We must know where we came from and that the people who come after us will carry on the traditions we give them, including story-telling and other things. We need to maintain those traditions and our identity. It is very important to maintain our identity and our sense of who we were, who we are and who we will be in the future. I ask the Minister to do something for these people. They were hardly mentioned until a few days ago. We need to give them some recognition. The recognition I am talking about is a financial package.
This is needed by people such as the members of Truly Diverse, a band that plays at weddings. They are at a total standstill. They have young children and must put food on the table like everyone else. We need to look after those people. I have left out a lot of people but the Minister will have got the thrust of what I am saying. I appeal to him to do his best for these people.
With regard to Deputy Boyd Barrett's intervention, I was very willing to respond to the points raised on Second Stage. I was here for all of the Second Stage debate, as I should be when legislation of this importance is discussed. I listened to every Deputy and took note of what they said. I would have been in a position to respond. I want to put on the record of the House that I did not respond to the Second Stage debate because I was not permitted to rather than because I did not want to.
Before I address some of the issues which have been raised with regard to the opening section of this Bill, I would like to make a statement to the House. I would be obliged if, in accordance with Standing Order 196, the Chair would direct the Clerk to make the following versional corrections to the text of the Bill: on page 4, line 11, replace the word “parents” in “parents benefit” with “parent’s”, that is to say, to include an apostrophe between "parent" and "s"; on page 4 , line 16, the words in Irish should not be italicised; on page 9, line 32, insert the word “as” before the term "the first-mentioned employee" so that the sentence reads "referred to as the ‘the first-mentioned employee’"; on page 11, line 30, insert the word “the” before “Revenue Commissioners”; and on page 14, line 2, replace the term “made been” with “been made”.
In responding to the issues raised in respect of this section, it is important to put these matters in context during this debate. Many issues have been raised with regard to the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the role of the pandemic unemployment payment. As we begin this debate about the temporary wage subsidy scheme, we should anchor any discussion about the perceived limitations of the scheme in the fact that, as of today, 410,000 of our citizens are benefiting from it. They depend on the scheme for either their income or their job.
I have heard much commentary from a number of Deputies this afternoon regarding my intentions or the intentions of the previous Government and I will deal with these remarks as I work through. I see that my colleague, Deputy Ring, who was a member of that Government, has joined us for this debate. I will not accept any attempt from any Deputy, including Deputy Mattie McGrath or Deputy Boyd Barrett, in whose contribution I was disappointed, to suggest that our intentions in respect of this scheme were anything less than what they were. Our intentions were to save jobs and incomes on a weekend when hundreds of thousands of our citizens were facing great economic strain.
Hundreds of thousands of our citizens did not know if they were going to have a job and, that being the case, how they would access a social welfare payment. As the Government, we had to put together a scheme at speed and on a great scale to deal with an issue that was without precedent. I remember the Cabinet meetings that led to this scheme being agreed. I remember the days that led up to it and the feverish work that went on over days and nights to put the scheme together. I also remember the impact the scheme had on people's lives. I see that each day in my engagement with constituents and in the letters, phone calls and notes I get. I see what it has done and the effect it has had. Few of the economic interventions various Governments have made were put together with this speed, had the impact this has had, or played a role in saving jobs and incomes at a time when our country and people needed guidance and a safety net.
I listened to Deputy Harkin's contribution on Second Stage. It was a very nuanced contribution about the merits of this Bill, which she was good enough to acknowledge, and the demerits she genuinely sees in areas on which she disagrees with me. She used the image of throwing an anchor.
When the previous Government was looking to throw an anchor into the seas we found ourselves in at that time, the conditions were stormy, nobody had a compass and the horizons were unclear.
We did all that could be done in putting this scheme together. I feel the need to put this on the record of the House because of some of the contributions I heard this afternoon and the comments that were made about my intentions in this finance Bill, which I will deal with individually. I will give no quarter with regard to some of the accusations that have been this afternoon. I will dealing with issues regarding the operation of the Bill, some of which are important and genuine and may require action and further thought in the coming weeks and months in the run-up to the next finance Bill.
In saying that, I will go back to where I began. In fairness to Deputy Pearse Doherty, he acknowledged, as I have done, that this plan has worked. The wage subsidy scheme has worked. The work we did to amend the scheme, with the support of some but not all Deputies, and to taper incomes has worked. The way we have run our affairs up to this point, now supported by action from the European Union and European Central Bank, has got us to the point that we are borrowing €30 billion on behalf of Irish citizens in a year in which we will probably collect between €49 billion and €51 billion. We will borrow this money at interest rates which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. That is the backdrop, the big picture, in terms of the issues that have been raised here with me.
I will deal with each of the points that were raised. I do not know if it is because the day is long or this has been a demanding term for Deputy Boyd Barrett, as it has been for others, but I take issue with him coming in here and accusing me of looking to betray workers in this country. To do so after the work this Government and the previous one have done to try to get people back to work and, at a time of such strain, to bring in a scheme such as the wage subsidy scheme is beneath the normal kind of argument he makes and ill serves the points he makes. I take issue with the Deputy standing here and accusing me, as he did, of looking to betray anybody and I assure him that I have every bit as clear an understanding as he does of the reality facing citizens because of Covid. That accusation does not serve the argument he makes and does not reflect well on the beliefs he genuinely holds.
I will address substantively the issues he raised. This is the very reason the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, only a week ago indicated that funding for the Arts Council will exceed €100 million. It is the reason she launched a fund to look at how we can share the risk of new concerts and artistic activity, which is not happening for the reasons Deputy Boyd Barrett just outlined. It is the reason the same Minister in recent days launched a number of plans, none of which the Deputy acknowledged although I am sure he knows about them given his concern for this issue, that are focused precisely on trying to deal with the very issues he raised. That is why money was made available for them in the July jobs plan of last week. It is also why, in the plan launched by the Government the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, put together additional funding purely focused on the sector the Deputy highlighted.
In regard to the point Deputy Boyd Barrett made about taxi drivers, I can see the strain many taxi drivers are under at the moment. When I meet taxi drivers in my constituency of Dublin Central I see the difficulty they face in getting back to work. Driving a taxi is a demanding job at the best of times and one on which those of us who live in the cities depend to facilitate our social, personal and work life. I see the strain taxi drivers face. That is the reason the pandemic unemployment payment was brought in for those citizens and for others. Despite the way the Deputy articulated the argument, I take the point he raises seriously. What I will do on foot of this debate is engage with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the National Transport Authority to see what can be done to deal with some of the issues the Deputy raised. I will be happy to revert to him when I have done that.
As for Deputy Mattie McGrath, his contribution was nasty, divisive and small-minded. No cause would be well served by him raising it in the way he did in this case. Deputy Nash's contribution was at least broad and nuanced enough to reflect on the issues. While he differs with me on the kinds of measures I have introduced, he is able to also acknowledge what has been done in the July jobs plan and the effect it has had. I will give no quarter to the kind of language and tone that is used in this House by Deputy Mattie McGrath. I will give no quarter to tolerating the meanness of the arguments he puts forward which demean the serious issues he raises-----
Thank you very much, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Yes, I referred to what Deputy Mattie McGrath said. If he is going to engage in the kind of debate he attempted to engage in earlier, he needs to be prepared for those who are willing to respond, and I am willing to do so. The issues the Deputy attempted to raise about artists and those who give such soul to our country are also the very reason the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, put in place such an imaginative and broad package to try to support the sector which the Government acknowledges and the Minister knows needs further support as it looks to move into a period of rebirth after such a difficult time. That was done in the plans and package of last week. It builds on the work that was done by the previous Minister, now Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. We will continue with this work through the Arts Council as we seek to respond to and support a sector that is so important for our country.
Deputy Nash made other points about the need to support the arts and culture sector, to which I listened carefully. We hope the plans from last week will have an impact, but as will be the case with much during this crisis, we face a challenge. Deputy McNamara clearly summed up the challenge the Government and all Deputies have at the moment. He made a factually correct reference to the fact that different countries are pursuing slightly different approaches, as is the wont and right of national governments. He then said that, as we respond to the great challenge and effect of this terrible disease on this country and economy, we will only know what has worked with time. Unfortunately, as he stated, the challenge is that we will probably only know if it has worked with the passage of a fair amount of time.
During that elapse of time, that passage of days, weeks, months or periods even longer than that, all I can commit to doing is trying and trying again with the resources available to me and with the resources we can raise on behalf of our country to deal with this uncertainty and to deal with this level of need. If something does not work and if there is an issue that needs to be addressed with a measure we have introduced and if I think it needs to be changed and I can change it and do something better, then that is what I will do. That is not evidence of failure; it is proof of determination. That is what employers and companies across the length and breadth of our country are doing at the moment.
I refer to the issue raised by Deputy McNamara. Again, he acknowledged some of the issues he was looking to raise would normally be dealt with outside of a finance Bill through social welfare legislation or Estimates brought forward by other Ministers. In deference to the important points he raised, we have many other grants and supports that are not included in the finance Bill but that are about how we respond to the very sort of issues he raised on behalf of the self-employed. He is correct that while we are understandably having a debate about artists today, they make up only a portion of the self-employed, albeit an important one. This is the reason we have put such focus into changes like the restart grant. It is why, in respect of the losses provision to which the Deputy referred earlier, we have brought in an equivalent provision to the corporate tax provision for those who are self-employed in recognition of the point the Deputy has raised. It is also why we have, through institutes like Microfinance Ireland, put such effort into how we can make credit available to the very kinds of businesses he raised.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of taxi drivers. I echo my understanding of the issues the Deputy raised. On foot of the contributions made by her and by other Members this afternoon I will engage with National Transport Authority on this issue.
I thank Deputy Danny Healy-Rae for points he made. His contribution covered many artists, musicians and performers that mean a lot within his own county and constituency. I think it was the Deputy who raised the concern about whether we are losing our identity. In response, I would say that the work we have all done in trying to support the arts sector over many years, but in particular the measures put in place last week, is surely a recognition of two things. First, it is a recognition of the hugely important role artists play in the soul and not just the economy of our country. Second, I want to recognise that as we work our way through this awful disease and the terrible consequences it has had for our economy and for hundreds of thousands of our citizens, we may need to do new things. We may need to do more. We may need to stop doing things we were doing recently and we may need to come up with something better. That is the spirit in which I will approach the issues the Deputy was raising. I reiterate that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, put in place a huge number of measures last week. I am sure I will be corrected on this but I believe this included taking the Arts Council's budget beyond €100 million, precisely in recognition of the different issues that have been raised.
Deputy Doherty is giving way.
First, I hope the Minister knows that I do not do personal and my comments were not in any way personalised.
I know the Minister has good taste in music and that he understands the plight of musicians. The reason I used the word "betray", however, is because there are a number of groups who really bought in, as did the vast majority of society, to the notion of "We are all in it together". In doing that, they protected our society from Covid-19 overrunning our health services and saved lives. The stakes were high and everybody, and I include the Government and the Opposition in that, bought into that "We are all in it together" principle. To some extent, differences were set aside and the hardship and mental stress of the lockdown was accepted along with the income loss suffered by many, because people really felt that we were all in this together.
What is happening now is that particular groups who made as much effort as anybody else are being left behind. That is what I meant by being betrayed. They are being forgotten about. If I sound a bit desperate to the Minister, it is because I and others have been raising those particular groups for weeks, it is now two days before the Dáil goes into recess and they do not know what they are going to do. Some people have certainty about what they are going to do over the summer. They know what their income is going to be and what the roadmap for the months ahead is going to be. They have some degree of certainty, although none of us have total certainty because in many ways, the virus is controlling our future at the moment. Nevertheless there is some form of roadmap. The Government, however, has not responded to people from these sectors despite them asking the Government again and again. This included making their case to the Special Committee on the Covid-19 Response, before which I fought to have them appear. I know the Minister understands but in his reply, he did not respond to the specific requests they have made. In my speech, I said that the wage subsidy scheme was a good one insofar as it sought to maintain the relationship between employer and employee. As such, the Minister was wrong to say I did not acknowledge this. I said it and I accept it. What I do not accept is why the Minister will not use this Bill to extend the income subsidy scheme or something similar to these particular groups of people, who cannot return to work through no fault of their own and whose employment and income has been decimated as a result of the Government-imposed public health measures, which they support for the most part. That is the question.
I was speaking to Mary Coughlan on the phone before the debate and she said something which sums up the dilemma for people in these sectors. I would really like the Minister to address the specifics here because I am talking about substance and not politics here. As I told the Minister, Mary Coughlan was earning €20,000 before Covid, which is a very modest income. She was then on the €350 per week payment because all 35 of her gigs were gone. She has now been cut down to the €203 per week rate. She has recently been offered a few gigs in reduced venues including, for example, the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray. There will only be room for 70 people in a room that used to take 300. Does the Minister know what the dilemma is for her? It is that if she takes that gig, which will not nearly recover her income, she will lose her payment. Is she actively seeking work if she refuses the gig? That is the question that needs to be answered. If she says no to it, the Minister could, under the current situation, accuse her of not actively seeking work. If she takes the gig she loses her payment. I say to the Minister this is not right. It is the same for the taxi driver, who should perhaps be cocooning and who is afraid to go out and work. Such drivers have now had their payment cut, however.
They are going out working in the taxis. There are no proper guidelines from the NTA on safety in taxis. After weeks of pleading, they are still excluded from all of the grants.