Thursday, 11 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Cé gur tugadh úinéirí na dtithe tábhairne FBD os comhair na cúirte agus cé go raibh bua acu sa chúirt, tá comhlachtaí amuigh ansin le polasaithe árachais a chosnaíonn iad in éadan Covid-19 agus níl na comhlachtaí árachais ag cloí leis na polasaithe sin. Caithfidh Banc Ceannais na hÉireann gníomhú air seo. In May last year, four pubs launched a High Court action against FBD Insurance. These businesses had nowhere left to turn so they decided to fight their corner in the courts. The case revolved around the issue of business interruption insurance and whether they were covered as a result of the Government's closure in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Soon after the Government's order to close, I received hundreds of insurance policies from those who have been forced to close. It became clear to me that many of them had cover, while others had a very strong case. Despite this, insurance companies were refusing to accept indemnity.
I raised the specific case of FBD policy on the floor of the Dáil in March last year and again in April, and I have raised the issue many times since. As we know, the same is happening with insurance firms in Britain, but the regulator there, the Financial Conduct Authority, FCA, took action. It reached out to businesses and gathered a sample of 21 different types of insurance policy, which form part of the FCA's court action. This ensured a binding result for as many businesses as possible. The FCA did this in the public interest and to enhance its consumer protection mandate. Last month, it won its case. The decision is legally binding on eight insurers in Britain and thousands of businesses will receive payouts, a financial lifeline for so many of them that are struggling at this time.
I have previously called on the Central Bank of Ireland to intervene in a similar manner, including in March and April last year. I have called on the Government to support that call. The Central Bank and the Government took no action at that time and that is why the four pubs were forced to defend themselves in the courts. Last week, thankfully, the High Court ruled in their favour and against FBD and judged that these businesses were covered for business interruption as a result of Covid-19. Now they will receive compensation to which they were entitled all along. The judgment could affect up to 1,300 other businesses that hold similar policies with FBD. However, thousands of other businesses have similar but not identical policies with other insurers. We know the industry is still trying to wriggle out of paying these valid claims. As the CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland has made clear, insurance companies, including AIG, Aviva, Allianz, RSA and QBE, are still dragging their heels and refusing to pay even interim payments to businesses. This needs to stop.
There are two options. Either the Central Bank intervenes, as I have been calling for since as far back as last March, or there will be a wave of litigation at a cost that is too high for many small businesses. Since March last year, I have been calling for the Central Bank to intervene. Business interruption risks becoming the tracker mortgage scandal of the insurance industry. I wrote to the Governor of the Central Bank and to the Tánaiste again last week requesting that the Central Bank undertake an examination similar to the tracker mortgage examination. This would mean an audit of all business interruption insurance policies, intrusive supervision of claims handling, handling claims speedily and the enforcement of a strict sanction regime. This is what business needs. The Central Bank has always had this power and role but it refuses to use it.
Will the Tánaiste support my request for the Central Bank to stand up for small businesses and undertake an examination of business interruption insurance across the insurance industry?
The decision of the High Court last week is very significant. The High Court ruled in favour of four pubs that have business interruption policies with FBD. There is yet to be a decision on the quantum. That will be adjudicated in the courts later this month. In that sense, this case is still active and we need to bear that in mind. The ruling could have implications for other small businesses and companies that have similar policies with this insurer or others. It is important that we all examine the implications of this judgment.
On the role of the Central Bank, the Deputy knows that it is an independent regulator. It operates independent of Government and it does not take direction from Government. Over the course of the past few months and even in the past year, the Deputy has called on the Government to intervene to direct the Central Bank to do something. The Deputy does not say those things because he is stupid; he is not a stupid man. He says those things because he hopes other people are stupid and he believes that they may think that the Government has this power of intervention; it does not. The Central Bank is independent. It is an independent regulator and it has to decide for itself whether it is going to intervene or get involved in this particular matter. I know the Central Bank is aware of this issue and that it is examining it. It will make a determination independently, as an independent Central Bank should. The Central Bank is not subject to any direction from Government. Any calls the Deputy makes to Government to somehow intervene or direct the Central Bank to do something are totally disingenuous. They are an attempt by him to mislead people in small business, to pretend that he is on their side when he knows full well the Central Bank is independent and Government cannot direct it to do these things.
That is a shocking response from the Tánaiste who has ministerial responsibility for enterprise. The Tánaiste said that I am trying mislead businesses that I am on their side. I have met the Central Bank privately and discussed with them the need for an examination of this issue similar to the tracker mortgage examination. I have provided it with documentation in regard to how insurance companies are wriggling out of policies. The Central Bank asked for that documentation. There is nothing preventing us as Members of the Oireachtas, or the Tánaiste as Minister, sharing the same type of information and supporting my request. The Central Bank will makes its own decision. The Tánaiste should not try to wriggle out of the situation. The reality is he led the Government last year. I put this case to him and he washed his hands of it. He did nothing. I will give an example. A local hairdresser in Donegal has a policy with QBE.
Under the terms, she is covered for interruption or interference of the business in consequence of the following event: an occurrence of a notifiable disease within a radius of 25 miles of the premises. That is covered in the policy but a local business that employs a number of people in a local community does not have the resources to fight it through the courts.
That is why we in this House need to make a united call for the Central Bank to intervene now, as has happened across the water, to ensure that its consumer protection role, which has been gifted to it by the Houses of the Oireachtas, is enacted. I would appreciate if the Tánaiste, instead of criticising me and what I am trying to do on behalf of these businesses, would maybe make a stand on behalf of the businesses and support me in my call. I have written to him, as he requested me to do, saying what needs to be done.
I thank the Deputy. The situation is, and he knows this full well, that the Government cannot interfere in court cases, full stop. His attempts to call on Government to interfere in court cases is totally disingenuous. Nor can the Government direct the Central Bank-----
The only reason the Deputy needs to shout me down when I answer is that he does not want people to hear the truth. That is the only reason that he has to try to shout me down every time I try to answer. He knows full well that the Government cannot interfere in court cases. He knows full well that the Government cannot direct an independent regulator like the Central Bank. The Central Bank is aware of the issue and has been apprised of the issue - it was apprised of it long before the Deputy did anything about it. It is examining the situation and it will be up to the Central Bank to decide on the appropriate course of action.
In the meantime, the case has happened. It was an important test case and I pay tribute to those who took that case. I think it is good that FBD Insurance said that it would cover the cost, whatever the outcome. I pay tribute to the people who took the case. We now have case law that says that cases like this are argued and adjudicated in favour of the clients. We will see in the next few weeks - this case is still active - what the quantum is and what the implications are for other businesses.
The UK variant is now the dominant virus and we can see just how difficult it is to get the numbers down. Yesterday, there were over 1,000 positive cases, six weeks after the level 5 restrictions were imposed, with another six weeks in level 5 all but announced. There were just under 1,000 people in hospital yesterday, with the numbers in ICU remaining in the low 200s and, sadly, we are still hearing of high numbers of deaths. RTÉ's "Prime Time" programme from Tallaght hospital earlier this week was a reminder of the huge physical and emotional cost to our healthcare workers, which is, clearly, totally unfair and utterly unsustainable.
While the positive numbers have fallen from the shocking peak in mid-January, suppressing the virus is going to be really difficult. That is all the more reason that we cannot risk importing new variants that could be vaccine-resistant. I raised the issue of international travel with the Tánaiste three weeks ago and I asked about quarantine. He said it would be disproportionate and unworkable. He also told me that the majority of people travelling were doing so for essential purposes, which is clearly not the case. I wonder where he got that information. The Government has since announced that it intends to introduce quarantine and also some additional measures. However, the practical aspects of quarantine lag far behind the announcement. The expectation was that we would be all in here passing the legislation that was needed and that there would be some forward planning for worst-case scenarios, which obviously has not happened.
Test, trace and isolate are key parts of our strategy in the suppression of the virus, but the Tánaiste has said that it is impossible when the numbers get very high to use that effectively as a strategy. We can see that there are two ways of dealing with this virus until the vaccine gives us protection. One is to go for near-zero suppression, with aggressive test, trace and isolate together with strict measures in place to prevent further variants arriving into the country. However, such measures have to be workable; they cannot be self-governing. The other way is rolling lockdowns, with all the damage that they bring. There is no easy solution to this. There is damage no matter what. It is a question of limiting that damage, but it seems that we have a bit of both.
We are hearing that the plan for living with Covid is due to be updated. What does the Government mean by "living with Covid"? Instead of dates, can the Tánaiste state what that looks like in numbers? Is it near zero cases or is it cases in the low hundreds? We can see when it is low hundreds how quickly that can escalate. The day the UK flights were halted in December, there were 484 cases, 200 people were in hospital and 31 were in ICU. We have seen what happened since. I have a few specific questions in this regard. If there is to be a further six-week lockdown, what is the aim in terms of numbers? Has that been modelled and is it known what activities are most dominant in terms of the spread of the virus? The public needs specific rather than general information.
I thank the Deputy for her questions. To clarify, and I have clarified it before, when I used the term "disproportionate", what I was referring to was the fact that it could be argued, and I think it will be argued, that it is disproportionate to impose mandatory hotel quarantine on people who do not have Covid when we do not do that to people who do have Covid. At the moment, there are lots of people in the country who have tested positive for Covid and, fortunately, none of them is in mandatory hotel quarantine. That is where we may very well run into a very genuine legal issue around proportionality, because the vast majority of people travelling in from overseas do not have Covid and they have a test to say they do not, whereas we know there are hundreds of people every day in Ireland testing positive for Covid and we do not mandatorily quarantine them. Obviously, anything that could save hundreds of lives or thousands of lives is proportionate in my view. The disproportionality point is a different point and perhaps is one that we will hear about in the courts at some point in the future.
In regard to cases, it is important to say that we have gone from a situation where we were seeing 6,000 or 7,000 cases a day to 1,000 or fewer a day now. That is a very significant reduction in the caseload. The number in hospital is below 1,000 and the number of people in ICU is about 170. While we have seen a very significant decrease from the peak of the third wave, these figures are still higher than the peak of the first wave and we have a long way to go yet before we are in a position to ease restrictions substantially. We need to get down to much lower numbers than we have now.
We have not agreed an exact number. I know why the Deputy would like that. It is something that I would have liked in the past. However, the advice we have from NPHET is very strong on this, namely, that it is very wrong to pick particular exact numbers and that we need to look at a number of things in the round. It is not just the five-day or seven-day case number average, the positivity rate, the number of people in ICU, the number of people in hospital or the number of hospital beds available. We have to look at all of these things and using one or two metrics, NPHET advises, is too crude. The Government has accepted that advice.
In terms of strategies, I do not think it is a choice between one or two strategies. There are a lot of slogans floating around and there are many different strategies and sub-strategies. It is the detail that is important. There really is not any strategy, unfortunately, that avoids the risk of rolling lockdowns or snap lockdowns. We saw in Perth the other day that one or two cases of community transmission led to a five-day snap lockdown there. In our context, with our geography, with the Border, with people coming in in the front of trucks and the back of trucks, if we applied the same policy here, we would probably have snap lockdowns every week, every two weeks or every three weeks. We have to bear in mind that our geography does affect us.
In terms of living with Covid, what that means is suppression. It means reducing numbers as low as we can so that we can open society and the economy in a way that is sustainable. Yes, there is modelling done on this but, no, we have not picked any exact numbers. NPHET advised that for reasons I explained.
When the word "disproportionate" was used by the Tánaiste, the way the public hears it is that it is okay for people to go on holiday but they cannot send their kids to school. That is the way it is heard. It is important that there is an understanding of just exactly how the public is hearing some of this. Indeed, a further six-week lockdown has all but been announced. It came from leaks from two parliamentary party meetings. That needs to be managed much differently. It is not fair that the public hears in that particular way.
The public need an expectation of exactly what the milestones are in reducing this virus and what might be open in terms of schools or if we are going to open a lot more. We can only do that by getting it right down. We have to be straight with people on that.
I am sure the Deputy will agree and appreciate that the way things are heard is not always what was said or what was meant. That applies even without being misrepresented. Something a person says or means can be heard in a different way. Anyway, I am happy once again to clarify the point. Anything that will save hundreds or thousands of lives is proportionate in my view. We may run into a legal issue around proportionality. I have explained to the House that this may arise.
I agree with the Deputy's question and comment. We need to get numbers down as low as possible before we can safety reopen our society and economy. I believe that is what all of us in the House want. There is little point in reopening things one then has to close three weeks later. That is why we need to get numbers down as low as we possibly can. We simply do not know what that is in the current context.
A question was asked about international travel. As Deputies know, the Government has already introduced polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. We did that in January. We have already introduced mandatory home quarantine. We did that some weeks ago. We will be extending the number of countries included in the category 2 list. These are countries for which mandatory hotel quarantine is required. There are 18 countries, including 16 in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Austria and the United Arab Emirates. They have been added to Brazil and South Africa.
I wish to raise an issue that affects many people throughout the country. It relates to the community employment, CE, schemes in place that offer so much in terms of service throughout society. They are embedded in everything we do.
In July 2017 the community employment policy unit changed the rules relating to the length of time a participant who is over 55 years of age can remain on the scheme without taking a break. Up to that point, a person over 55 years could work their full lifetime entitlement of six years without taking a break. However, from July 2017, a participant over 55 years of age was obliged to take a break once he or she worked for three consecutive years. The Department included a saver clause that allowed those over 55 years who had started on CE schemes prior to 3 July 2017 to remain on a scheme under the rules that existed before that date if it was more beneficial to them.
In August 2020, CE projects were alerted to a change or different interpretation of the rules relating to the length of time those over 55 years could remain on a scheme without having to take the 12-month break. This included those who started prior to 3 July 2017. The Department is now insisting that all CE participants over 55 years of age have to take a 12-month break. This seems to be at odds with the saver clause. More importantly, it is now taking numbers away from the CE schemes. I know of one scheme where the full complement would be 33. By June, the scheme will be down to 11 participants. There is a difficulty in trying to recruit new participants because they are being seconded into JobPath, an approach that is costing more money without delivering much in results. There are approximately 2,000 vacancies in CE schemes throughout the country. It has been well documented that there is a problem with referrals to CE schemes in recent years. If this cohort is allowed to exit the CE schemes, they would be depleted and it would destroy the level of service being provided throughout the country and in communities. We are not only talking about community projects. The disability sector will be affected, including the likes of Ability West, the Irish Wheelchair Association and mental health associations. They all benefit from the CE schemes.
People may believe that when we put a participant on a CE scheme, we are doing that person a favour. In fact, participants going on the schemes are doing the country a favour. Local authorities use them to carry out the work they should normally be carrying out themselves and they now rely on these people. I appeal to the Tánaiste to look into this as a matter of urgency.
I absolutely agree with Deputy Canney that the value of the work done by people on CE schemes is extraordinary. I remember the day we visited Caherlistrane together in County Galway and saw some of the phenomenal work being done. That is replicated in communities, urban and rural, throughout Ireland.
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who has delegated responsibility for CE schemes, had a constructive meeting with a delegation from CE schemes from across the country only two weeks ago. The meeting included representatives from Galway and the western region. We understand that several different issues were raised at the meeting, including the issues being experienced by some schemes in respect of people over 55 years of age. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has asked her officials to take on board the different points raised at that meeting and to come back to her with a set of proposals on how we can make these schemes work better for the benefit of everyone. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has also indicated to me that she would be happy to meet Deputy Canney and discuss the matter with him further. As the Minister for Rural and Community Development as well as for Social Protection, she recognises the vital work many CE schemes carry out in rural communities throughout the country. If there are issues causing difficulty, she wants to work with everyone to resolve them.
I would welcome the opportunity to meet the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. She is a Minister for whom I have great regard and she understands the situation.
While Department officials are looking at this, people are getting notice to go off the schemes. I know of one particular gentleman who has been told that he will finish the scheme in March and then he has to go back to his Intreo office. He has six months left in his working life before he gets the pension. It would be more prudent for that man to remain on the scheme for the sake of the scheme, as well as for the sake of the community.
My last question to the Tánaiste relates to the supervisors of these schemes. They are the leaders in the communities. The Tánaiste is well aware of the position from his time as Minister in the Department of Social Protection. These supervisors have an issue going back a long time relating to pensions and pension rights. I understand from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, that some negotiations have gone on. I would like to know when they might be concluded in order that we show respect to these supervisors and give them equality in terms of benefits and payments.
This is an issue that, as the Deputy will know, has been going on for a long time. It has been grappled with by four or five Governments at this stage. It has not been brought to resolution because there is a real difficulty around it. CE supervisors are of course entitled to the State contributory pension based on their PRSI payments. However, to be entitled to a public sector pension in the way that a nurse, civil servant or teacher might be, one must first be a public servant employed by a public body. Second, one must have paid pension contributions - a pension levy - throughout the person's working life in addition to PRSI. The difficulty is that CE scheme supervisors have done neither of these things. They have not been employed by a public body and have not paid a public sector pension levy throughout their working lives. If we were to concede the principle of giving public sector pensions to people who are not public servants and who never made public sector pension contributions, the knock-on effects would be enormous and unaffordable. The best solution is something in the vein of a gratuity or some sort of payment to recognise the fact that they did not have a pension fund. That is the kind of solution we are open to, but negotiations are not concluded.
The Government committed in 2019 to raising the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources from 30% to 70% by 2030. We all know that wind and solar generation are the best way to reduce emissions with conventional fossil fuel plant playing an important role for many years to come by providing back-up and spare capacity as we move from fossil fuels to a cleaner future. I support calls from the Cork Chamber of Commerce on Monday last for Cork Harbour to be identified as the gateway to transformative changes in Europe's transition to renewable energy. The chamber has called for urgent Government policy to unleash floating offshore wind potential.
In January of this year, EirGrid declared an amber alert for Ireland as the electrical supply system came under sustained pressure to meet high demand and record levels of consumption that placed our national grid under threat.
EirGrid stated that the record for peak demand was broken twice in January alone. This is the first time this has happened. Technical failures at Moneypoint, issues at Whitegate and Tarbert power stations, plus a drop in wind generation meant that for a time we came close to the lights going out in this country. The Government started yet another Government review of energy security in December, a process which is costing the Irish taxpayer €250,000. The Government says the report will not be ready for an entire year - how much information does the Government need when its own agency charged with managing supply is issuing amber alerts to the public? When the Government came to power it stopped the granting of new licences for gas, which I have serious concerns with. We are simply committing to importing all our energy instead of producing any of it ourselves. Every single Government agency - Gas Networks Ireland, GNI, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI and EirGrid - is saying our demand for gas will continue for many years. When will we have renewable energy? The Tánaiste knows it will take a minimum of ten years to produce any wind farms at the scale we need to replace the Corrib or Kinsale fields. What is the Government doing to ensure Ireland has security of energy supply for our homes, hospitals, schools and businesses? What if there had been a blackout on even one of those two days in January when we had amber alerts for Ireland? Will the Tánaiste confirm that the ban in the programme for Government does not affect the existing licences issued by the State, that they will be honoured and exploration allowed to proceed? It is important that Ireland be allowed continue the past successes we have seen at the Kinsale area gas fields which ceased production after 44 years and at Corrib, now the only producing offshore gas field in Ireland.
I can confirm that the ban on new oil and gas exploration licences does not apply to existing licences or concessions, only to new ones. The ban on gas exploration was announced by me, as Taoiseach, about a year or two ago. We are now going to legislate to ban exploration for oil and gas but existing licences and concessions will still be honoured. However, that is not the way of the future. I think we all appreciate that investment in oil and gas infrastructure is expensive and does not make sense if the plan is to move away from fossil fuels over the next few decades. That is why the Government is really ambitious about renewable energy, including offshore and onshore wind as well as other technologies. By expanding them dramatically we can reduce greenhouse gases and imports of coal, oil and gas and we can also become an electricity exporter. We currently do this on occasion but we want to do this much more.
As for the kinds of things the Government is doing, it has doubled the ESB's borrowing limit from €6 billion to €12 billion. That work is currently under way and will allow the ESB to borrow on the markets and invest big time in wind energy. Second, we are working hard to get a new marine planning law through because one of the biggest problems we have when it comes to offshore wind is a very complicated planning consent procedure to bring the wind power ashore. It is really out of date and needs to be updated. Those are the two things the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is working on with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. They are trying to get that done in the next couple of weeks or months.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. Is he aware that there is a potential carbon-neutral development proposed off Barryroe in west Cork? There is the potential to develop a gas field which is not only capable of continuing the supply we currently have from the Corrib field but is also capable of delivering a unique carbon capture and storage facility in County Cork, which could make us leaders in carbon reduction. The Barryroe site and its development could create jobs similar to the Corrib site, which created more than 1,200 for people in the area. These jobs were in harbours, villages, hotels and shops in the local area. How can the Government simply discount that potential for County Cork and for the south west of Ireland? Several weeks ago we spoke about investment in the area and there is a viable offering with a capital investment of €3 billion, which has been marginalised because of political posturing.
With the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, Ireland is now more reliant on imported energy than ever before. Energy independence is further from our reach and the recent policy changes have severely curtailed our ability to develop indigenous natural energy resources that offer lower greenhouse gas emissions and greater energy security than the imposed sources on which we are increasingly reliant. The reliance is only one issue. Pricing will become a bigger one for families and businesses across Ireland as we become more marginalised in relation to our energy. There is the potential to have this Barryroe field up and running in a very short space of time if co-operation by the Government is forthcoming and everybody works together. This will be a game changer nationally and in south-west Cork. Will the Tánaiste ensure this happens? We cannot continue to import when we have it at our own doorstep.
I have heard about and read about the Barryroe project but do not know the details. If the Deputy wants to pass them on to me I will certainly take a look at them and see if the suggestion he has made that it could be carbon-neutral stacks up. If it does it is something to which we would have to give good consideration. I do not know that, however, but if he wants to pass on more information, I would be happy to take a look at it and talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it.
There is one thing we need to appreciate about price stability and price certainty. If we can make the decisive shift, the decisive move, towards renewable energy and renewable electricity in particular, that will give us more price security and price stability than anything else. This is because the price of oil, gas and coal can fluctuate very dramatically. The price of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources is pretty stable so if we can actually get to the point where we can produce enough renewable energy, that will gives us better price security than the current situation whereby oil and gas prices can quadruple or halve in the space of just a few weeks or months.