Tuesday, 6 October 2020
Ceisteanna – Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment has been established and first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of five occasions, most recently on 22 September. The Cabinet committee is scheduled to meet next on 9 October.
Membership of the committee comprises the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for enterprise, employment and trade, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and for Transport, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Minister for media, tourism, arts, culture, sport and the Gaeltacht. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will attend when required.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment. Its initial focus was on developing the July jobs stimulus. The July jobs stimulus, a package of over €7 billion worth of measures, was announced by the Government on 23 July. It is designed to stimulate a jobs-led recovery and to build economic confidence, while continuing to manage the impact of Covid-19. It includes measures to extend income and employment supports to affected individuals and companies, to help people get back into work, training or education, to build confidence among businesses and support them through the months ahead, to invest in job-rich infrastructure projects in every part of the country and to invest in areas of future growth like the green economy.
Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment.
They can also arise at the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change. Issues relating to the economy and to transport are regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings where all formal decisions are made.
In the summer the Government had the opportunity to follow New Zealand and crush Covid. Instead, it turned a blind eye to the outbreaks in meat factories, ignored the calls for sick pay for workers and wound down the level of testing. It took the decision to accelerate through the phases and to reopen the economy, under pressure of lobbying from businesses and for the image of the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar. Unfortunately, the same approach of allowing the interests of private, short-term profit to stand before public health is being pursued by the Government. Despite urging others to follow medical advice, the Taoiseach is not following the recommendations of NPHET. What we saw last night from the Tánaiste was disgraceful. The result will be more outbreaks, more deaths and more lockdowns.
Does the Taoiseach not accept that it is likely that the Government will be forced to go to level 5 in any case but later, for longer and after more deaths? NPHET in its letter to the Government was clear that a gradual approach will not have a sufficient or timely impact. Sometimes people say this is the Government putting the economy before public health. It is actually only short-term profit being put first, however. The consequence of this roundabout and yo-yo of lockdowns and partial reopenings will be devastating not only for public health but also for wider society and the economy, from the point of view of ordinary people.
From midnight tonight, the entire country will be at level 3. As the restrictions tighten, there could be and should be an increase in supports but there will not be. In fact, those on the pandemic unemployment payment have seen their supports cut. They are down between €50 and €100 every week, money needed to keep a roof over one's head, put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door. I put it to the Taoiseach that those cuts should be reversed more or less immediately and not later than next Tuesday's budget.
I want to return to an issue I raised earlier to which the Taoiseach did not have time to respond, namely, the hundreds of former Debenhams workers, overwhelmingly women, who, this Friday, will have been forced to picket for the past six months. Now, they must continue to picket in the cold weather with the Covid virus on the increase. KPMG ignored the Taoiseach's mild appeal four weeks ago to have talks with these workers and their representatives. Will the Taoiseach make a strong, clear and unambiguous call on KPMG to stop messing around and get to the table with a serious offer for these workers?
I echo Deputy Barry's call with regard to the Debenhams workers. It is shameful that 1,000 workers have to continue their protest for this length of time to get basic justice and decent treatment from the liquidator. Debenhams clearly does not care a damn about them. The Taoiseach must exercise the influence he has to ensure those workers get a just settlement. Martin in Blackrock, who I mentioned earlier, repeats his invitation for the Taoiseach to, in all seriousness, sit down with him, Eilish, Viv, Helen and others to talk to them about why they are there and what they expect of the Government to ensure they get just treatment.
I cannot understand why the Government will not restore the pandemic unemployment payment. There is no difference between now and March in terms of the bills, mortgages, financial pressures and so on facing people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. How does the Taoiseach think people whose work has been stopped and whose income has been drastically reduced as a result of the pandemic are going to pay their bills? The Taoiseach must answer them. It seems to me that there is no other answer other than that the Government has to restore those payments and protections as a minimum measure.
The Taoiseach seems to have difficulty even accepting publicly or saying out loud that the Government did in fact cut the pandemic unemployment payment. We know it was initially envisaged as a 12-week intervention. We know now that this was not the case. We know this is a protracted period of a public health and an economic crisis for workers across the State. The cut that was made has to be reversed. It is not reasonable nor is it proportionate for the State to impose restrictions which keep people away from work. That is what public health restrictions do. They are a necessary intervention of last resort. One can do that on the one hand and then cut the supports on which people rely on the other hand. That is patently unfair. The letter I referred to from the hospitality and events sector makes that point around the pandemic unemployment payment. It is not just workers but employers who recognise that this was a mistake, as was the cutting of the wage subsidy scheme. The letter also stated that what was announced in the July stimulus was not enough. The sector needs more grant aid rather than debt.
I am making the point that this is not sustainable. Carer's allowance at €350 a week could not be sustainable. If one elevates every social protection measure to €350 per week-----
There has to be sustainability to what we do. We have to think ahead. The whole idea of the pandemic unemployment payment was to open it up to new entrants. We did that because of the acknowledgement that there would be further restrictions imposed. We also extended it to April. It is my sense that we will have to extend beyond that until we get a vaccine.
The Government has to take the overall view. We are borrowing over €20 billion this year, and rightly so. We will be borrowing large amounts next year. There are limits, however. There has to be fairness across the board. The majority of pandemic unemployment payment recipients receive very close to what they were receiving prior to going on the payment, bar those on a higher level.
On the Debenhams workers, again, I am conscious of the efforts made by Mandate and others in terms of the liquidation. I am not happy with how Debenhams dealt with this. There are limitations, however, to what can be done. The Government will provide a statutory redundancy payment and will do whatever it can within its powers to get extra support for the workers where that is possible. That has been the Government's approach from the outset. I never promised something that I felt might not be achieved for the workers concerned. I am clear on that and have been when I met the workers. We will do what we can within the limits of the law to get some supports for the workers concerned.
I will speak to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the rights of Aer Lingus workers being undermined.
This idea that this is all being done for profit is nonsense. A lockdown destroys ordinary people's lives. The Deputy talks about ordinary people. Does he know what he is saying? Who suffers the most?
I know that. We have a set of criteria in the plan that we discussed with NPHET. They are broad criteria; I accept that. The bottom line is that everyone had an expectation of a graduated response.
Once there is a lockdown, there are unintended consequences. There is no point pretending it would not have a serious effect on many ordinary self-employed people who have grasped the period from the last lockdown to now to try and create viability in their business. They might employ four or five people. A lockdown on Sunday night could have spelled the end for them. These are the hard decisions we have to make and we are not making the call in terms of short-term profit. That is an outrageous and propagandistic assertion, which is more to do with ideology than reality on the ground.
Our reality is to protect people as much as we can, including lives and livelihoods. They are intertwined because a range of health consequences can emanate from people losing jobs or being unsure about their future. Their mental health can be undermined. We have to take that on board.
We may not. We still have it within our responsibility as people. We can impact on this, collectively and individually, if we pull together to try to get the numbers stabilised. If we do not, we may have to move to another level.
We may have to do that. As I said last week, the decision was at this stage not to move to level 5. I have no guarantees, just as there were no guarantees that had we moved to level 5, it would all be fine in four weeks' time.
On the New Zealand strategy, we are not New Zealand, either geographically or in terms of economic construct. We are different from New Zealand. No other country in Europe at the moment has gone ahead with a lockdown, even though their numbers are far higher than ours.
There is a range of criteria. The HSE says it has ICU capacity. We are obviously concerned and will monitor that but the HSE is running the service and the last time out, we managed. We created a surge capacity when it came and our hospitals managed.
We will have to readjust and I hope we do not get there but, if we do, we will do everything we can to protect people. There has to be balance to the debate and using language to suggest that short-term profit triumphs over everything is just propagandistic, ideological nonsense.