Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
What specific measures will be taken to help the self-employed, both those under the age of 66 and those over it, if new restrictions are imposed? It looks like this will happen because there was an announcement last night without any debate or discussion with any of the party or group leaders. What supports will be put in place for hard-pressed people who have given their lives to self-employment and to providing work for others?
The pandemic has caused untold damage to people's lives and livelihoods. We recognise that and the budget is an attempt to respond. Too many businesses have been severely impacted by the restrictions needed to ensure public health safety during the pandemic. The agenda has to be to protect public health while also trying to ensure we can keep our economy alive and open, keeping people in jobs and businesses open as long as possible. Our response to Covid-19 will continue to assist those businesses affected. The budget builds on announcements made in May and in the July stimulus plan.
Budget 2021 provides a significant additional package of tax and fiscal measures to build the resilience of the economy and help vulnerable but viable businesses in all sectors. It has been well recognised by the business community that this is what the budget is trying to achieve, that is, to protect and support businesses to keep their doors open, to keep their employees on the books and, at the first available opportunity, to be able to grow that number of employees and regrow their businesses. The budget comes in addition to the July stimulus plan, a substantial financial package to stimulate our economy worth more than €5 billion, including €2 billion in loan guarantees for the new credit guarantee scheme, the benefits of which will be seen in the months ahead.
Budget 2021 is unprecedented in scale at almost €18 billion. Its purpose is to protect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in the State, irrespective of age. In 2021, workers will see no increases to income tax, the universal social charge, USC, or PRSI; a modest increase in the minimum wage, as recommended by the Low Pay Commission; and a reduction from six to three in waiting days for illness benefit, to be paid on day four, which will be of assistance not only to employees but also to businesses because we all recognise that many SMEs have been trying to work with their employees and carry some of the costs of absenteeism and so on. It will certainly help them and lead to discussion on introducing statutory sick pay, which the Tánaiste mentioned earlier and flagged in recent days. Further measures include an extension of parental leave benefit by a further three weeks to five weeks, building on the work of the previous Government; an increase in the earned income tax credit for the self-employed; and self-employed workers in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, will now be able earn up to €480 per month. A strong case was made that some SMEs have begun to get back on their feet and get some work, but they also need the support of the PUP to keep them going.
There is also a new Covid restrictions support scheme, which has already been beneficial and will continue to be. The employment wage subsidy scheme will be extended, as will the commercial rates holiday, and there is more that I can outline in my follow-up response.
I welcome the initiatives in the budget but they will not be enough for certain cohorts of people, particularly the self-employed. I accept that everybody is affected and we are all in favour of trying to avoid the risks to public health. As the Tánaiste noted on "Claire Byrne Live", however, we have to balance that with everything else, and we have not been doing so. The Minister of State referred to the €480 that self-employed people can earn. I welcome that, not because it is a support but because they want to keep their businesses. If customers ring them, they want to be allowed to help them out because they do not want some large company taking their work from them. They value the service of their customers and their customers value the businesses; it is a quid pro quo.
Self-employed people over the age of 66 have been totally excluded, such as dance teachers, musicians, artists, lorry drivers and many others. If they do not pay rates, they will not be able to avail of the schemes because they park beside houses, even though they have so many expenses. They may have built up a wide network of customers and they want to be able to maintain that. I welcome the €480 a month for those reasons, rather than for the reasons the Minister of State outlined. It just goes to show that the researchers and the people in the Department do not get it or understand what it is like to be self-employed. There are not enough of them in the Chamber talking to the Minister, although there are enough of them in the party of the Minister and the Minister of State.
I am happy to hear suggestions and ideas that the Deputy has because we are still working through the SME growth task force. We will look at all ideas and initiatives. The economic recovery plan will be published in November, for which a €3.4 billion recovery fund has been set aside to fund ideas and new initiatives and to target certain sectors through our agencies. There is also contingency funding. More than €5 billion that has been set aside to work with during 2021, to fund ideas and initiatives and to target certain sectors through our agencies, has not been allocated in detail under the budget. We can fund any ideas the Deputy might bring forward.
This is very much a budget to support business and the self-employed. We have been engaging with businesses through representative bodies and individually in recent months to find out what their needs are, the first of which is the wage subsidy scheme. We have confirmed that the scheme can be extended beyond April next year if necessary, while the restart grant, processed through rates, has been very beneficial.
Our business supports do not differentiate by age. The Deputy mentioned people over the age of 66 but our business supports are for all businesses to keep their doors open. We recognise that at some restriction levels, some companies cannot function as they normally would. We will support them more greatly in such cases, which is what the Covid restrictions support scheme is for. The main thing is that we are supporting businesses and we will work with them. We will introduce sector-specific welfare if needs be.
The Minister of State, again, is not getting the point. The over-66s have been excluded. They did not get even an additional €5 in their pensions. They got nothing. They got nothing in the PUP, which they were not eligible for. It must be increased to €350 for the other self-employed people who need it right now. Of course I appreciate that the wage subsidy scheme has been extended and that it may be extended past April, and the extension of the PUP, but they need to be increased. The Government must consider the over-66s, who have been totally abandoned and whose businesses have closed. Many of them are publicans, taxi drivers, bus drivers for private companies, bus owners or musicians with wonderful talent to share with their communities, who love and miss them dearly. That whole cohort is being missed. We cannot just abandon those over the age of 66, some of whom are fitter than we will be at that age, God bless them.
We must ensure that the hospitality sector is protected too. The Government must deal with the regulators to ensure that utility providers are not screwing places that have closed, such as hotels and bed and breakfast businesses. When they have closed, they still must pay significant utility fees and that is totally unacceptable. The Minister of State is not listening. The Government is abandoning the over-66s.
To be clear, our business supports and all the initiatives we have announced, such as the July stimulus package of more than €5 billion, the budget package of close to €18 billion that was just announced and the business supports from the Department, do not discriminate by age and certainly would not do so. We support business and job creation and that is what we are trying to do. I am happy to say the budget has addressed every issue the Deputy raised. We will do more to support business-----
I reiterate my point about business supports. If the Deputy wants to bring forward any initiatives or new ideas, we will work with them. We have worked with the events sector and the arts sector to try to respond. Naturally, the budget cannot plug every gap and every hole in the finances-----
-----but we are trying to reach out to the different sectors with the various schemes. Many businesses in the Deputy's county of Tipperary will benefit from the rates waiver. Rates have been cancelled for this year and will be subsidised by local government. There is also a fund for next year. The main asks of us from business were the restart grant, the Covid restrictions support scheme, the wage subsidy scheme and trying to manage the public health messaging so that they can keep their businesses open.
We will do that as long as we can on every level. That is what we will work on. Last night, we made changes in relation to retail to keep some of those businesses open.