Thursday, 18 February 2021
Covid-19 (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
I am glad to have this opportunity to update the House on the topic of business and Covid-19 under this new format of statements and questions and answers. I look forward to answering Deputies' questions. I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Troy.
Although today's topic is business and Covid-19, I will also speak about how my Department is supporting employees. Covid-19 financial assistance, low cost loans and workplace health and safety guidance are in place for workers as much as for businesses. Every business saved is at least one job saved, a livelihood secured and a family sustained. The financial support the Government is providing to businesses and workers in unprecedented. Almost 1 million people of working age are now in receipt of weekly payments, including the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, employment wage subsidy and jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. Support for business includes the weekly Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, payment for businesses forced to close their doors to the public, reduced VAT rates, a commercial rates holiday, the sustaining enterprise fund, the tourism business continuity scheme and low cost loans.
Last week, I announced €160 million in additional funding for businesses during the pandemic. This includes a new €60 million scheme, the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, which is being developed to provide grants to businesses that are ineligible for the Government's other existing schemes that are designed to help defray the cost of fixed costs. Wholesalers, suppliers, caterers, office-based enterprises and events companies that are down more than 75% in turnover on last year and in receipt of a rates bill may benefit. While the grant is modest at €8,000, it will help smaller businesses in particular to cover the costs of rent, insurance, utilities and security. An additional €10 million will be allocated to the Covid-19 products scheme to help in the fight against the virus. Firms researching or manufacturing personal protective equipment, PPE, sanitisers, tests, equipment or other medicinal products which are relevant to the battle against Covid-19 are eligible for funding of up to 50% of their capital investment costs. The Government also approved an additional €90 million for the sustaining enterprise fund which offers funding of up to €800,000, with €200,000 or 50% in non-repayable grants to eligible manufacturing and internationally traded services companies. Deputies may not be as familiar with this fund as they are with other schemes, but it has proven to be very popular and has helped to protect 22,000 jobs throughout the State.
The three main schemes, the CRSS, employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS and PUP, compare favourably with any other packages on offer in other countries. It is important to explain that the EWSS is designed to help with payroll costs and to keep people in employment, the PUP is to replace lost income for those laid off, and the CRSS and CBAS are to assist with fixed costs that businesses have to pay even when closed. The Government is very much open to proposals from specific sectors as to how it can help further. However, I must be clear that our schemes are there to help meet fixed costs that cannot be avoided and to provide basic weekly income support up to maximum of €350 per week. We cannot provide compensation for loss of personal income above this level or compensation for loss of profits for any sector. To do so for any single sector would be unfair and it would be unaffordable to do so for all.
To complement the unprecedented levels of financial assistance to businesses, we are also going to fast-track the introduction of a new, low cost, so-called summary rescue process, separate from the examinership process, which some people have referred to as examinership lite. A public consultation is under way, and legislation is planned for the summer. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, has responsibility for company law and he will take the lead on this.
Turning to workers' rights, the Government moved swiftly last year to introduce the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit. This payment provides €350 per week to anyone who is self-isolating with Covid-19. awaiting a test or restricting his or her movements on the instruction of a doctor or the HSE. In most cases, it is paid for two weeks, but can be paid for much longer if somebody is out sick with Covid-19 for a prolonged period. The existence of this payment is sometimes lost in the debate about sick pay. However, I acknowledge that the pandemic has highlighted the need to put a longer term, sustainable scheme in place to cover all illnesses and bring Ireland into line with most other EU countries. I have committed to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme for Ireland as part of my work programme for this year. Having consulted the public, unions and employers, we plan to have a general scheme by the end of next month, with legislation enacted by the summer.
Separately, in line with the programme for Government, I have formally asked the Low Pay Commission to examine and make recommendations on the best approach and design for a living wage for Ireland. This is now included in the Low Pay Commission's work plan for 2021. I welcome the fact the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has retaken its seats on the Low Pay Commission. I am very conscious that the living wage, sick pay and auto enrolment will present additional costs for businesses, particularly small businesses, over the coming years. We must consider carefully how to manage these major reforms, how they are sequenced and timed and how the additional costs are met. Our objective is to improve terms and conditions for many and to raise the threshold of decency for those in poorly paid and insecure employment, but this will not be achieved if, as an unintended consequence, businesses become less viable, hours are cut and jobs are lost. We must guard against that and get the balance right.
Part of my Department's remit is protecting the health and safety of workers and members of the public in workplaces. The Government published the Work Safely Protocol on 20 November 2020, to replace the Return to Work Safely Protocol. It incorporates the current advice on the public health measures needed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace as issued by NPHET and the Department of Health. The Health and Safety Authority continues to be the lead agency for monitoring compliance with the protocol. Its inspectorate is supplemented significantly by deploying other inspectors from across Government, including from the Workplace Relations Commission, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, environmental health officers from the HSE, the Department of Education as well as the Sea-Fisheries Protection Agency and Tusla. This has resulted in an additional 700 inspectors checking compliance with the protocol as part of their normal inspection regime. To date in excess of 25,500 Covid-19 inspections of workplaces, checking compliance with the protocol, have taken place. Compliance in workplaces is reported to be high, but we must remain vigilant. Officials are now re-examining the Work Safely Protocol in line with the new version of the living with Covid-19 plan and any reopening of the economy that may occur later in the spring or summer.
Turning to the wider economic picture, I believe the pandemic has accelerated some of the deep structural shifts that were already in motion across the economy. The sudden shift online poses serious problems for the traditional retail industry, for example. We have begun to see the consequences of that unfold in the cases of Debenhams and Arcadia. More and more purchases are happening online, and while there will be more jobs in tech, warehousing and delivery, there will be fewer jobs as sales assistants. Retraining and other opportunities will be key.
The pandemic also widened the digital divide. While many workers in well-paid jobs moved seamlessly to the online world, many customer-facing workers in more vulnerable sectors simply could not move online. At primary, secondary and third level, students from less well-off backgrounds and in rural areas have faced similar challenges. The Government has worked on a range of initiatives to help narrow the gap. On the positive side, the move online has proven that remote working can work on a mass scale. Our remote work strategy, published last month, set out our plan to build a new and better normal, incorporating all that we have learned from living our lives and doing business in a very different way for the past year. The requirement to work from home where possible has demonstrated how viable home, remote and blended working can be. Post pandemic, I want remote working to be part of a new world of work. As part of this, next month I will be signing a legally admissible code of practice on the right to disconnect, and later this year we will introduce legislation to provide employees with the right to request remote working.
Despite all the challenges we face, I am optimistic for the year ahead, especially the second half. When I last spoke here in October on the topic of business and Brexit, we discussed the very serious implications of a possible no-deal Brexit. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement has led to some difficulties for businesses, and we are working our way through them, but the economic outlook is much improved because we have a deal.
October's budget was premised on the basis of a no-deal Brexit and the absence of the broadly available vaccine. Neither scenario has materialised in 2021, which provides us with grounds for hope. On the down side, however, October's budget did not project a prolonged level 5 lockdown in January, February and March.
Unlike previous occasions in our history Ireland entered this economic crisis in a very strong position, with low unemployment, a budget surplus, falling public and private sector debt, and exports in 2020 broke all records. We are again expecting economic growth in 2021, at least as measured by GDP and GNI*. This is driven by Ireland's booming export sector and the release of pent up consumer demand later in the year. However, as is often the case headline figures such as GNP, GDP and GNI* do not paint the full picture and do not describe the human experience of people currently living in this society and economy. The Irish economy is hurting and people are hurting, and sadly will hurt for months to come. Therefore, in the short term, the Government will extend into quarter 2 the vital financial supports in place for business, including the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, employment wage subsidy scheme, and the pandemic unemployment payment. It will also provide more targeted financial support, beyond quarter 2 for those sectors that have been particularly wounded by this pandemic, such as aviation, tourism, hospitality, the arts and entertainment.
We will bounce back, possibly sooner and quicker than some people think, but I am not naive to think that things will go back to normal, nor should they. Some things will change forever and the pandemic will leave scars, economic and social, lost family and friends, lost jobs, and lost livelihoods. Our challenge is to rebuild the economy, and not just return to the old normal, but to build a better new normal when the pandemic is over.
As Minister of State with responsibility for trade promotion, digital and company regulation, I am acutely aware of the need for the regulatory regime and Ireland to be supportive and adaptable to the change and challenges that our businesses face, and to ensure that the right balance is struck when making laws in the area of company, competition and consumer law. Since taking office, I focused my attention on measures to put in place over the lifetime of this Government.
Excellent progress has been made across three areas of company, competition and consumer law which are under my remit. I delivered on the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020 which has resulted in companies and co-ops having the ability to hold AGMs remotely, an increased period of protection in examinership, and an increase of the threshold at which a company can be wound up. These important amendments ensure the normal operation of the Companies Act during the pandemic and provide breathing space to companies struggling with pressures under liquidity. The amendments can remain in place by Covid-19 continues to disrupt business operations.
The Company Registration Office has also shown considerable flexibility on the deadlines for filing annual returns in recognition of the additional challenges faced in companies. It has also introduced a new filing system which will permanently simplify the filing process.
I have been particularly mindful of the challenges that will face small companies, the backbone of our economy, as and when the country emerges from the shadow of Covid-19. I want to make sure that those companies which are fundamentally viable businesses have access to an affordable small company rescue process, which the Tánaiste mentioned. At our request, the company law review group, CLRG, considered the issue and made recommendations in this regard. My Department is developing legislation at pace and a public consultation exercise is under way. I encourage key stakeholders to make submissions. I want to have the legislation in place before the summer break. I would greatly appreciate the support of the Opposition in ensuring we can achieve that.
I also want to ensure that employees of companies which are entering insolvency have knowledge of, and access to, their rights under company law. I expect the CLRG to report to me over the next fortnight on the issue of employee rights when a company goes into liquidation and have made arrangements to discuss these company law matters with the chair of the CLRG in early March. Again, any legislative proposals will be my priority.
Also in the area of company law, we are progressing the legislation to establish the ODCE as stand alone agency to be called the corporate enforcement authority. I eagerly await the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment as I want to go to Cabinet as soon as possible in order to have the Bill published and introduced. This is an important step in ensuring that Ireland has a strong company law enforcement regime.
I also want to strengthen competition law. The forthcoming Competition (Amendment) Bill, which is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, will give national competition authorities such as the CCPC new powers with regard to enforcing competition law. The legislation will break new ground in this area, giving the authorities teeth by providing for administrative sanctions and other tools. Again, I look forward to the joint committee’s report which I will consider carefully before having the Bill brought to the Government for publication.
Speaking of competition, I want to ensure that businesses and consumers have access to affordable and competitively priced insurance. I have instructed my officials to develop new legislation concerning the Personal Injuries Assessment Board which will widen its scope and develop it functions as regards assessments. This is but one part of a comprehensive cross-government insurance action plan, which is being led by the Tánaiste.
On broader matters of insurance and its impact on business continuity there can be no ambiguity from insurance companies in paying legitimate claims on business interruption policies. The courts have given their verdicts, the Central Bank has issued its instructions and insurance companies must now honour valid claims from businesses without delay. I hope the legitimate claims will be resolved swiftly and allow those businesses with valid claims to access fair compensation.
It must also be noted with regards to insurance the subject of forbearance. Anecdotal reports indicate that many businesses have not been afforded such reprieves. I call on the insurance companies to honour their commitments in relation to affording businesses which are closed or whose activity is reduced due to the pandemic to be awarded an element of forbearance. I acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of the insurance industry to the overall economy and the many tens of thousands it employs - no one wants to cripple this industry - but what we do expect is fair play and due process for their customers.
My Government colleagues and I are committed to seeing effective insurance reform and the actions set out in the action plan for insurance are essential to reducing the cost of insurance and dealing with the negative impact this has on businesses and consumers. I look forward to the publication by the Judicial Council on the new award guidelines. I hope it is ambitious in its proposals. Reform of the Personal Injuries Board and enhancing the powers of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is a top priority for me to bring about effective change for consumers, businesses and community and voluntary groups.
The Government has rapidly put in place comprehensive packages to help businesses and workers during the pandemic, including the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, low-cost loans, the deferral and warehousing of tax liabilities and the waiver of commercial rates. Last week, the Government announced the new €60 million scheme, called the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, that is being developed to provide grants to businesses ineligible for the Government’s other existing schemes. The introduction of the scheme will act as a further aid for businesses as part of the suite of enterprise measures that are already in operation, and crucially help the majority of these enterprises which have been locked out of CRSS.
It is estimated that up to 7,500 eligible businesses may benefit from this scheme.
This scheme will help address some of the needs of businesses as we navigate the ongoing public health crisis, keeping viable businesses in operation and supporting jobs. However, it is important to recognise that the scheme is not a silver bullet and while many more businesses will be able to avail of the many Government supports, there are others which cannot, such as the event sector. I will continue to work with this sector and with my colleagues in government, particularly the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin,to ensure that this sector is further supported.
I am sharing some time with my colleague, Teachta Doherty. I ask the Minister that we would go back and forth with the questions and answers and try to respect the time, if possible. Time is short and I do not want to go into my colleague's time. Also, if there is a question that requires a follow-up I ask that we may engage afterwards on it.
I will start by raising the issue of Ulster Bank. I am aware that my colleague, Teachta Doherty, raised it already in the context of the broader implications but I want to focus on the men and women employed in Ulster Bank, many of whom found out through the media about the potential decision being made by NatWest so, naturally, they are extremely concerned. There is enough going on in the world without that. Has the Minister been in touch with Ulster Bank to discuss the potential losses of 2,500 jobs in this State and the 600 that potentially could be lost in the North? I ask him to use some of the time today to publicly express support for the use of the transfer of undertakings legislation to ensure that as many of those jobs in the bank, specifically those in the sales and services sector, are protected.
The Minster's Department will be working to assess the broader implications. There are implications for workers. There will be implications for business also. We are talking about the potential loss of jobs but there will be implications in the event that the decision goes the way believe it will go. There will be implications for businesses and for those workers. I ask the Minister to arrange a briefing for the Opposition spokespersons on this and also to bring us up to speed on the actions his Department will be taking to support the jobs and those businesses impacted by this decision. I ask also that the Minister would engage, as a matter of priority, with the Financial Services Union, FSU. I am aware it is seeking an emergency meeting with him to discuss how some or all of those jobs can be saved.
I thank the Deputy. The Minister for Finance is leading on this issue on behalf of the Government. He has been in touch, as recently as yesterday, with Ulster Bank and its parent, NatWest. He has also met with the FSU. He is keeping me, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, informed of the situation but he is the lead person for the Government on all aspects relating to the Ulster Bank situation.
I understand that any restructuring that may occur will probably be for the Republic of Ireland, not for Northern Ireland, but that may change. In response to Deputy Doherty's request earlier, I know the Minister for Finance will be happy to brief Opposition spokespeople on this as the situation evolves but, unfortunately, just like Deputy O'Reilly, we are hearing a lot of it from the media also. I know that must be a very unpleasant experience for staff and for customers also. We have not been informed, and my Department has to be formally informed of any collective redundancies. We have received no notification of that as things stand. Obviously, the objectives of Government, to the extent that it is involved in this, and these are commercial decisions for NatWest, are to protect the customers, save as many jobs as is possible and minimise the number of compulsory redundancies and obviously the use of TUPE is an option in that regard.
I want to raise the issue of bogus self-employment, which he will be aware of. The pandemic has exposed the nasty and disgusting nature of bogus self-employment within this State. We know that those workers misclassified as self-employed receive reduced entitlement to social welfare but also they do not have access to the same level of sick pay. We could debate all day the adequacy of the sick pay arrangements but these people have none. The recent judgment regarding the Domino's workers shows that cognisance has to be taken of the actual relationship and not just the contractual relationship. Many of these people are given a bicycle and a navigation system, patted on the back and told they are an entrepreneur now but the pandemic has exposed the real need for action to be taken on this area. We know that this is a playground for unscrupulous employers. I use the word "unscrupulous" but I have others that I would use for those employers. Effectively, they have workers but they do not have any responsibility. That puts decent employers in a very invidious position. It allows unscrupulous employers to get away with extremely poor treatment of their workers and in the middle of a pandemic when we cannot have a significant cohort of workers in a situation where they do not have access to a sick pay scheme. Will the Minister outline what his Department is and will be doing to tackle the issue of bogus self-employment, especially in the gig economy where we all saw recently the implications for the workers in that area?
I thank the Deputy. I have no doubt whatsoever that bogus self-employment is very real and is a problem in our economy and our society but it is worth pointing out that the percentage of people who are self-employed in Ireland has not changed much in recent years. There is a narrative out there that there has been a huge drift to self-employment and that more people who in the past would have been directly employed are now self-employed. That is not the case. In fact, the percentage of people self-employed out of the total workforce has not changed significantly in a very long time, and it is worth checking out those details. The numbers may change because more people are employed but the percentage of the workforce that is self-employed is much the same as it has been for a very long time. Self-employment can be advantageous. People often like the tax arrangements that occur in self-employment such as the way one can write off expenses, costs and so on. They like the flexibility around it but that is not to say that there are not abuses. The scope section in the Department of Social Protection has a particular role in that in determining whether somebody is self-employed. The Revenue Commissioners can do that also.
I am taking up the issue of delivery riders with the company. I am trying to make contact with it at the moment. The right thing to do in that particular scenario, and it is a particular scenario, is that they should be directly employed with the minimum number of hours. There is no reason flexibility cannot be achieved in other ways but one could employ people directly with the minimum number of hours and then pay extra or bonuses, as appropriate, for particular work done.
I would dispute the use of the word "flexible" and I do not believe that is what people want. I used to represent home helps and employers were always telling me that they did not like to be tied down with anything awkward like a contract. Believe me, workers like being tied down with a contract. They like having that contract codified, particularly in these times, in terms of their entitlement to sick pay and all of those other things that those of us who are properly employed regard as the absolute basic minimum.
I ask the Minister about the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS. At the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment in October I outlined the issues with regard to the exclusion of many businesses from the scheme. I asked that these schemes be expanded to cater for those excluded businesses. In November, Teachta Doherty highlighted the limitations of the CRSS directly to the Minister for Finance. Following on from the debate at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment I wrote to the Minister restating my concerns about the scheme. I further outlined the businesses and the sectors that have been excluded. The announcement of the new CBAS was welcome, and we welcomed it at the time. It offered hope to some businesses but there are still businesses that are excluded. I recently heard Paddy Cullivan speak on Today FM about his own business. He is excluded because he does not have a rateable premises. In the interests of protecting as many businesses as possible I ask the Minister to examine those businesses whose turnover has fallen by 75%, that are excluded from both the CRSS and the CBAS but which nonetheless want to ensure they can keep their businesses viable. I note the Minister calls it the CBAS but the CBAS is only a cod if it does not deliver for those businesses that really need it.
I have to give the Deputy that one.
The CRSS is working very well and I get very good feedback from businesses about it. It is helping them with their fixed costs. It is not the only scheme out there and there is a tourism continuity scheme for businesses that were not included. There is also a transport scheme and the new CBAS, which was only announced the other day. We should bear in mind the employment wage subsidy scheme, which helps with payroll, and the other schemes, including the CRSS, the CBAS and the tourism continuity scheme that are to help with fixed costs.
We are open to new schemes to help sectors that have been left out. I stated when launching the CBAS that it would not be the final scheme. I want to see more real-life examples of companies that are down 75% in turnover and have fixed costs that they cannot avoid. I am not getting many of these but I want them. When we look into the detail of many cases, the issue is lost income or profits and not fixed costs. We would like to see more real-world examples of companies down 75% or more in turnover and have substantial fixed costs that they would like help with. This is instead of compensation for lost income or profits, which is very different.
I raise the question of Aer Lingus, which is relevant to my constituency and that of the Tánaiste. I received an email from an Aer Lingus worker. She had some savings that she hoped to use to buy a home but she is now regarded by the bank as an "uncertain" customer. Will the Tánaiste engage with the Minister for Transport to ensure all the recommendations of the aviation task force are put in place? Will the task force recommendations be refreshed in light of the fact that the aviation industry is looking at a second year of closures? It is vital to our connectivity and it is a significant employer for those of us who live and work around the airport. More needs to be done to ensure we can save the aviation sector. In the interests of saving time, I am happy to receive a reply in writing on the matter.
The aviation task force report is probably pretty out of date at this stage. It involves reopening our skies and allowing people to fly again but the country has moved on from that process, which was to rely on testing. We are not relying solely on such testing any more.
I say very clearly that Aer Lingus will not be allowed to fail. It is already receiving substantial financial support from the Government both through the employment wage subsidy scheme and funding through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. Confidential discussions are under way involving the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on further support for the company so it can be there when we need it again.
I have three questions but as I am very short on time I will ask them as quickly as possible. The first concerns the future growth loan scheme. It is working well because there is longer tenure than the credit guarantee scheme, which is not going as well. Since expanding in July, there have been 4,000 applications but only 2,000 loans approved. I am told AIB and Bank of Ireland is fully subscribed and the Department has said Ulster Bank is still accepting loan applications. We have been told by businesses that it is fully subscribed as well, however, so businesses cannot access credit for six months. Will the Tánaiste give an update on what is left in the envelope of the future growth loan scheme and will he consider expanding the scheme, as it should be expanded?
The second matter is Ulster Bank, which was raised earlier. One cannot overestimate the impact this will have, particularly on small businesses that rely on credit. If their loans are sold or transferred there is no guarantee the new entity will have the same risk profile to allow for overdrafts or credit. Does the Government have a contingency plan? It is fine being briefed on this but is there a plan to use the likes of Permanent TSB, which does not have a business book, to step into that gap?
The final question concerns business interruption. I received correspondence from the Central Bank yesterday and I am glad it has looked at 250 different types of policies from over 30 insurers. It is pushing back against insurers that are refusing to pay out on policies. We know a limited number have started to pay out already. The regulator in Britain has a system where a small or medium enterprise can test a policy on the Financial Conduct Authority website to see if it provides adequate cover. Here, businesses have no idea what is happening or the view of the regulator on the business interruption insurance they hold.
We need to find a way to bring certainty to business because we are nearly a year on from these claims being made. What is the Tánaiste's view on how we can bring that transparency and certainty to bear? Should the Central Bank be communicating with businesses that it thinks may have policies covered by business interruption insurance?
As the Deputy states, the future growth loan scheme is working very well. It is long-term money but it is for a particular purpose where companies want to and can expand, so they would already be doing quite well. The microfinance loan for very small businesses is also going very well. The credit guarantee scheme was not doing so well but there has been a big pick-up in the past month or two. I will come back to the Deputy in writing with some of the data on availability but last week we allocated more capital to the future growth loan scheme. That may free more lending. I will write to the Deputy with the correct detail.
I should leave it to the Minister for Finance to update the Opposition on Ulster Bank and I will ensure the briefing occurs as soon as possible. As I indicated to the Deputy last week, the Central Bank has been active on the question of business interruption insurance for a long time and it assessed 250 policies, approximately half of which do not cover Covid-19. Half of the remaining policies cover it if the interruption is caused by the virus on the premises and the remaining policies cover it if the virus is in the vicinity. From speaking with people in business, I know they want the valid policies to be honoured now and for money to be paid. They are not looking forward to years of litigation or a prolonged examination by the Central Bank. They want the policies honoured and paid, and that is what I want too. I will meet representatives of the Central Bank in the next couple of weeks to see what more they can do to make that happen. I will take up the Deputy's suggestion with them as it is a good one.
There are several matters I wish to raise. I hope the Tánaiste will have time to respond to my contribution either orally or in writing. The first matter is the closure of Ulster Bank and the protection of redundancy rights for workers with respect to the pandemic unemployment payment, the EU directive on the minimum wage and, finally, casual trading by-laws. The Tánaiste knows this move will substantially reduce competition in the Irish mortgage and small and medium enterprise lending markets, which come under his remit and not just that of the Minister for Finance. Currently the average interest rate for new mortgages in Ireland is more than double the EU average and the average interest rate on SME lending and consumer loans in Ireland is also considerably higher than the EU average. Customers with mortgages and business loans will be very concerned that their loans may be flogged to vulture funds. As has also been mentioned, there are 2,800 workers who will also be concerned about their future.
Will the Tánaiste set out what he feels he can do to save these 2,800 jobs as this comes under his remit? Will the State use its majority shareholding in PTSB to create a real third force in Irish banking that would benefit customers and small and medium enterprises? Will the Tánaiste confirm the transfer of undertakings for protection of employment will apply in any possible sale or acquisition of any part of Ulster Bank to an Irish bank where the Minister for Finance is a significant shareholder?
There have been serious concerns raised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, that time on the PUP does not count towards redundancy rights. The Department has stated that the matter is legally complex and it is seeking advice on it. This seemed to be clear enough when the legislation was introduced last March. The response of the Minister for Finance at the time was:
On the questions put to me by Deputies Nash and Brady, the existing provisions in Schedule 3 to the Redundancies Payment Act 1967 already provide that periods of temporary lay-offs do not break continuity of employment. This will obviously include temporary lay-off periods due to the effects of the measures required by an employer to comply with, or as a consequence of, Government policy to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of infection of Covid 19. I hope that answers the questions
That was from the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Finance. Based on those assurances in the Dáil by the Minister for Finance and multiple assurances from officials, a Labour Party amendment at the time was not pressed. Unfortunately, the rights of workers are being put at risk by the failure of the Government to carry through on promises that were issued. The Government got co-operation on the emergency legislation because of that promise.
Will the Tánaiste ensure his Department is operating under the interpretation of the law as explained by the Minister for Finance last March?
If there is a difficulty, I ask the Minister to advise the House that he intends to fix it, and to do so in a way so as not to disenfranchise the redundancy rights of workers during this pandemic.
On the issue of the minimum wage directive, does the Minister regret his decision to co-sign a letter attempting to undermine the proposed European minimum wage directive? Does he accept that he was part of an effort to block the effective implementation of the directive? Does he accept that Ireland had pre-Covid rates of 23% of the population on low pay, as defined by the OECD, and that 40% of young workers were in insecure work? Does he accept that with less than 30% of the working population covered by collective bargaining, we are far below the 70% coverage deemed normal and desirable in the European context? I ask the Minister whether he or his Department has taken any further action in respect of the proposed minimum wage directive, what future plans exist regarding Ireland's response to this directive, and what plans he has to reduce the dependence of our economy on low pay.
I appreciate that I am eating up most of the time allotted, so a written response would be appreciated to this, my last question. Is the Minister aware of the difficulties faced by small businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes, looking to expand into food trucks and mobile businesses? Has he had any conversations with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the causal trading by-laws, which in many cases do not allow sufficient flexibility for councils to rapidly create new locations for such services? I have drafted a Bill at the request of a cross-party group of councillors in the Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle area, including Councillors Brian McDonagh and Eoghan O'Brien, which I will be happy to make available to the Minister. With time, other emergency legislation and the co-operation of the Government, it could be delivered quickly.
They are all very reasonable questions. Unfortunately, I cannot write as quickly as the Deputy can speak, so I may have missed a few of them. I will do my best to answer those I can remember.
It is the case that the average interest rates on mortgages and loans in Ireland are too high, and higher than the EU average. However, they have been falling, and falling substantially in recent years. It should be borne in mind that like-for-like comparisons are often misleading. Other countries have much higher bank charges. For example, we will often find very low interest rates in Denmark, but what we are not told about are the sign-up and bank charges and all the other charges they pay but we do not. Unfortunately, one of the other reasons we have higher interest rates in this State relative to other countries, including the UK and the EU, is historically high levels of non-payment. When people do not pay their debts, whether it is individuals or businesses, it has a social consequence. It makes it harder for others to get credit, and those who do face higher interest rates. Often, Members in this House try to ride both horses in that regard, saying it is okay for people not to pay their debts and then complaining when other people cannot get credit or are expected to pay high interest rates. I do not believe the Deputy is one of those, but there are others in this House who do that and it is wrong. It is also one of the reasons banks in Ireland must have such high capital reserves. That is a major disincentive. Even if a foreign bank comes into Ireland and wants to offer loans or products at a better rate or under better terms, it cannot,because, just by operating in Ireland, it has to set aside large amounts of capital because of our historic high levels of non-payment.
On the issue of Ulster Bank, the Minister for Finance is leading on that for the Government. He has been in discussions with NatWest about potential solutions. I know the transfer of undertakings (protection of employment), TUPE, regulations can apply, but I do not know if they can apply in all circumstances. I do not want to misspeak and get it wrong. they certainly can apply.
On the minimum wage directive, it was a letter that was co-signed with the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Austria. We do have a concern. Ireland has the second or third highest minimum wage in the EU. I am proud to have been part of a Government that increased it by 25% or 30% over the past four or five years. We would not want a scenario in which the minimum wage was set within EU rules that meant we could not increase it or move to a living wage, for example, if there was an EU rule which stated it had to be 50% or 40% of average income, or something similar. We want to ensure it improves conditions and that we do not end up signing up to an EU directive that is a lowest common denominator one, which is what often happens.
As the Tánaiste is aware, there are widespread concerns in many communities about the decision taken by NatWest Bank some time ago to consider all strategic options on the future of Ulster Bank. Ulster Bank has 88 branches in our State and has more than 2,800 employees. It has a substantial presence in the Border region, especially in my own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, with three branches in County Cavan and one in Monaghan. It has been an integral part of Irish commercial life, and it has been trading in our country for almost 200 years. Any thought of the closure of this bank and its branch network would be devastating for many communities and for the employees of the bank. Any further diminution in banking competition in this country would be most concerning and damaging. Ulster Bank is the third largest bank and we lack banking competition in this country as it is.
In my own constituency, there are Ulster Bank branches in Ballyconnell, Cavan town, Ballyjamesduff and Monaghan town. Traditionally, Ulster Bank has been very much associated with Ulster and the Border region. It has had a very successful business, by and large, for the most of 200 years in communities right throughout our island. As the third largest bank in the country, we cannot afford to lose it. From speaking to employees for some time and interacting with private individuals and people with small and medium enterprises, I know Ulster Bank's business is across all sectors of our economy. From the perspective of employees, business, enterprise and many communities, it is essential a further clear message is sent to NatWest that we want to see Ulster Bank retained in its current format, with its 88 branches and more than 2,500 employees.
For some time, I have engaged with the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach on this matter. I appeal to the Tánaiste, as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to give a clear message to NatWest management that we want to see Ulster Bank remain in our State. We do not want to see it exit our State, with the serious consequences it will entail for some many individuals, families, households and businesses of all sizes. It has been extremely important in our communities. It was subject to major rationalisation over the years. I want to see that network retained and the jobs of its employees protected.
First, I welcome the Tánaiste's comments on Aer Lingus. I think he will accept that most employees on the support schemes and who are sitting at home will take his comments literally when he states that Aer Lingus will not be allowed to fail.
The past 12 months have been a particularly punishing time for business, which I know the Tánaiste and all Members of the House accept. It is acutely important that we also recognise that the pandemic has not just had a catastrophic effect on our businesses and the Exchequer but also on the mental health and well-being of employees, regardless of age, skill or sector. Throughout this pandemic, we have been committed to supporting enterprise through the various schemes. In fact, a cursory glance at the Department's website shows four pages of schemes, grants and loans that are available to businesses or have been over the past 12 months.
Specifically, I want to focus on the hospitality sector. As the Minister is aware, quite a number of businesses, including restaurants, pubs, etc. have not been able to trade for a sustained period of time over the past 12 months. The Minister has mentioned the CRSS, the details of which have recently been announced. However, I must ask whether supports might be available in respect of the restart grant. Also, on the interesting point made by a Deputy about businesses, especially restaurants, that want to set up a temporary vehicle-based business, I ask whether supports will be available for them through the Minister's Department.
The other question I have to ask concerns the working from home options, which I know our colleague, Senator Currie, has made much of over recent months. There are initiatives there, but I would be very interested to hear whether supports will be available to employers to help them support their own employees in making as much as they can of working from home as a policy rather than returning to office-based work once the pandemic lifts from these shores.
As vaccines start to take effect and we begin to see improvement in our figures, we need a credible pathway for reopening our economy. It must be made clear that it will not be a return to what had been there previously. We are now entering a period of dramatic, transformative change. That must be at the heart of it.
As I said earlier, that will need the Government to sign up to some imaginative flagship projects, such as offshore energy projects and others which we could go through if we had the time.
We need a credible restart package and it must involve some expectations on very important players who are not directly in the control of Government, including banks, insurance companies, landlords and Revenue in its role of tax warehousing. All four of those players have a huge interest in our getting it right in terms of recovery and they must play a constructive role in that regard. The State should be giving some indication of the sort of role they ought to play. If, as will inevitably be the case, restructuring is necessary in some businesses, people need to have some certainty as to how, for example, the crystallising of redundancy obligations will occur and how that will interact with the insolvency fund at a time when many companies will be very short on cash.
In terms of transformative change, we need to roll out very rapidly what is described in the programme for Government as the town centre first initiative. We must recognise that the retail high street is dramatically changing. We need an integrated drive to use the many tools that are available to give our town and city centres a chance to revive. We also need to be anticipating that companies will have to put themselves on a pathway to low-carbon competitiveness. That has to be an integral part of any recovery plan that is articulated because the later that change is left, the less effective it will be.
I welcome the Government's commitment to a speedy rescue process. It is important that it be at the directors' initiative that they commence the process, without having to go to the court, that it will apply to companies with fewer than 50 employees and that the rescue plan must be approved by 50% plus of creditors, not the higher thresholds that apply elsewhere. I wonder, however, where the equity will come from. Is the Government looking at how effective the ISIF model of providing equity to companies coming out of difficulty but with a strong viable future has been? Is it considering other vehicles for getting new equity into viable companies?
Finally, I welcome the Tánaiste's response to the changing nature of work and his adoption of what I would describe as a new social contract in regard to the expectations from enterprise and its obligations to workers. We must see that expanded into other areas, particularly skills, where we need to see embedded in Irish enterprise apprenticeships and a commitment to lifelong learning. I hope that issue will be expanded in the Tánaiste's thinking.
I have a few points I wish to make and I hope the Tánaiste will have time to respond to them. The points relate generally to the aviation sector, which has probably been the most exposed and ravaged by the onslaught brought on by the Covid crisis. The first issue relates to the maintenance, repair and operations, MRO, sector, which is a significant part of the aviation economy. It is very large in my constituency of Clare, around Shannon Airport, and also quite large in Cork and in the hinterland of Dublin Airport. There are 22,000 aircraft registered globally, many of which land in Ireland, are repaired and then take to the sky again. That cannot happen at the moment because aviation is not operating as it normally does. The sector has been very reliant for the past number of months on the EWSS and it is looking for some indicators today and in the coming weeks that the scheme will be extended until such time as the sector recovers.
Of equal importance is the IDA Ireland training grant. Many operators in the MRO sector are taking on college graduates and undergraduates to work in their hangars and other facilities where they are provided with really high-quality training. They are very reliant on IDA Ireland training grants to facilitate that. They have a cohort of staff over and above what is required at the moment to maintain aircraft but they can only retain them with the continued support of IDA Ireland training grants. That is important.
The final point I wish to raise concerns the Kurzarbeit, which is a very innovative and successful scheme operating in Germany. It is basically a short-time work benefits scheme which encourages employers to keep on employees, in some cases reducing their working week to 60% but, crucially, not laying them off. When taxation is adjusted, it ensures that people are not significantly down on their income. When people's pay is not significantly reduced, it means that their money and everything they spend circulates in the economy. By and large, it has been viewed, both within the European context and globally, as a very successful model for keeping income going to employees, not having workers laid off and ensuring people can weather everything Covid has brought. Has the Tánaiste encountered that scheme, has he been briefed on it and might he consider introducing something similar here?
I thank the Deputies. I recognise Deputy Farrell's ongoing interest in Aer Lingus, Dublin Airport and aviation workers in particular. As I said earlier, we are in discussions with Aer Lingus to see what we can do to make sure the airline survives the pandemic and is there to enable connectivity whenever we can get flying again.
In regard to the hospitality sector, it benefits from both the wage subsidy scheme and the CRSS, which applies when a premises is closed. I know many businesses have moved over to take-out and delivery and have been very innovative in that regard.
When it comes to remote working, including working from home, it is intended that the budget in October will include a tax package to provide a better set of expenses and tax deductibles for people who are engaged in such work. We are also examining means to incentivise businesses to enable people to work from home or work remotely. At the moment, some companies are stuck with both the cost of an office that is empty and the cost of people working at home. We need to help them with the transition.
As Deputy Bruton said, we are entering a period of major change. It is change that was happening anyway but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. It involves remote working and, therefore, investment in broadband. I pay tribute to the Deputy's work as Minister in making sure that contract was signed. The Deputy referred to offshore wind. The transition is going to be green and digital and, in addition, it needs to involve things like lifelong learning and second-chance education.
I am sharing time with Deputy Conway-Walsh. I had hoped to have a question-and-answer exchange with the Tánaiste but I am sure he will appreciate that I must raise the proposed lay-offs in the Kerry Group. It is a very worrying development for businesses in north Kildare. The Tánaiste will be aware that the company itself employs hundreds of my constituents in Naas. These are highly skilled workers with large financial commitments, many of them crippled with mortgages as is the norm in this State.
The Kerry Group is synonymous with Ireland and its green fields, but not so much with Malaysia or Mexico. During my time on Kildare County Council, we pulled out all the stops for the company, whose representatives got the VIP treatment, the red carpet and everything else when they came to Kildare in 2016. The Kerry Group makes huge profits, including €797 million last year and €1 billion in 2019. Has the Tánaiste had any engagement with the company and what can he do to protect the jobs in Naas, if they are affected?
Second, I would like to raise the events sector, which was referred to earlier by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. Will the Government look seriously and urgently at making the State an EU hub for the live events industry post Covid? The opportunity is there for the taking if we are ambitious and creative enough. The live industry is huge in north Kildare, much more so than I realised before I engaged with representatives late last year. It supports thousands of jobs directly and thousands more spin-off jobs. With the UK's exit from the EU, we have a critical opportunity to set ourselves up as an English-speaking gateway between the US and EU for live events. Pre-Brexit, Britain had 85% of the live production capability for touring. Now, acts from the US could come here, hire their crews, support and transport, do their rehearsals and set off for concert tours in the EU. What will the Government do to grow our live events industry and the jobs associated with it, building on our global reputation in arts and entertainment? Will the Tánaiste reach out to British live events companies that might want to transfer their businesses here and thereby create highly skilled jobs and investment in this country? We have huge talent here which traditionally had to go elsewhere. We could keep it here and the Tánaiste would have our full support if he were to look into that.
Notwithstanding what the Tánaiste said about Ulster Bank in the House earlier, if redundancies are to happen, will he be calling for the money from the sale of the bank's existing loan book to be ring-fenced for a decent redundancy package for workers?
Is it acceptable that he respond to each of my questions in turn?
It is a little unfair to Deputy Cronin. If Deputy Conway-Walsh put all her questions, we could then take the two sets together, if possible. If not, will the Tánaiste correspond?
I foresee that as the various schemes for workers and businesses come to an end, a number of companies will be withdrawing from the State. What legislation does the Government have in place to ensure that workers' rights will be protected in that scenario and that we will not end up in the circumstances in which we ended up recently regarding the Debenhams and Arcadia workers?
When is the rates waiver due to end? What arrangements has the Tánaiste put in place to ensure it can be extended so businesses will not be crippled under the weight of rates and will have some certainty as to what their expenditure will be?
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has said that, without reform, some employees, having been laid off due to the pandemic and through no fault of their own, could lose out on up to a year of redundancy pay. Will the Government reform employment law so the period spent on the PUP will count towards redundancy payments?
Has the Tánaiste considered making the EU Covid recovery fund available through the local development companies so decision-making could occur locally? Has he considered its use to enhance the transitional LEADER programme?
Kerry Group has been in contact with the Department. We are aware that 150 job losses are planned. They will not all take place in Naas but we will obviously be working to ensure redeployment is an option and that the number of compulsory redundancies will be minimised, if there are any at all.
I had not heard the idea of Ireland becoming an EU hub for live events. It sounds like a good idea. It sounds exciting. I would be interested in reading any proposals on it to determine whether my Department could help with it. The Department of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is the lead Department in this area but I have an interest in it also. I would be interested in studying any proposal that might help the sector to bounce back once it is possible to attend live events again.
On Ulster Bank, I do not believe we should jump the gun here. There has been no announcement yet. There has been no announcement of any redundancies at this stage. My Department has not been informed of any. It is a little early to be talking about the conditions of redundancy at this stage.
Regarding Kerry Group, is there engagement to determine whether some of the jobs can be saved? Is that the kind of engagement that will happen?
On the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, the Department's website stated, even up to yesterday, that the information will be provided shortly. What does "shortly" mean? There are some people who will be on a knife edge making decisions. Is it likely that the scheme will come with some of the caveats that were attached to the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS? Some businesses could not avail of the latter because they sell a service rather than a physical product and have no face-to-face interaction with customers. Could the Tánaiste indicate when the CBAS will be introduced and what will be required in order to do so? When will people be able to apply?
A second group of questions I want to ask relates to some of the schemes already in place, such as the stay and spend scheme. The latter was not originally intended to operate in level 5. Several schemes are not being availed of to the extent anticipated. Is the Tánaiste going to review them?
We have only had initial contact with Kerry Group but my understanding is that what is proposed is a consolidation of services across two of its sites. The group has more staff than work that needs to be done so I am not sure that saving the jobs, as such, is a possibility. Perhaps redeployment, early retirement and voluntary redundancy are possible. The objective is always to avoid compulsory redundancies where possible.
We intend to have the CBAS open for applications by the end of this month. There will not be any requirement for a business to be customer facing in the way there is such a requirement for the CRSS, for example, but there will be a requirement to have a premises and, therefore, fixed costs associated with that premises. That will create a difficulty for those whose business might be based in a vehicle rather than in a premises. The CBAS may not be the last scheme the Government announces. We are always looking for new schemes to assist businesses through this difficult period.
I apologise as I have forgotten the Deputy's last question.
It is fair enough to state that the stay and spend scheme has not cost very much. It has not cost as much as we had believed because people have been confined to their counties or to within a radius of 5 km. The same applies to the 9% VAT rate. The hospitality sector did not benefit from that in the way we had intended. When we get to the point where hospitality businesses can reopen, which I hope will be in the summer months, we will need to determine what more we can do to help to reboot the industry, which has been closed for much longer than any of us anticipated.
The same kind of question relates to the Ireland-based inbound agents business continuity scheme. I am told the information required to gain access to the scheme is very complex. The process is quite burdensome and there are concerns over commercial sensitivity so the take-up is not as high as it could be. The scheme appears to benefit bigger entities that are better resourced. Will the Tánaiste re-examine how the scheme is working and perhaps take soundings from those who tried to apply but did not because it appears there were issues with it?
Does the Tánaiste have a role in contributing to the applications we make for support under the European instrument for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, SURE, scheme? Are we applying in a timely way? We seem to have been among the last to apply. There is a very large amount of money available, €100 billion, but we do not want the funding to be exhausted before our applications are made.
The Minister for Finance is heading up that. He has made the application for funding under the SURE scheme. As I understand it, it involves borrowed money. It is an EU fund from which we can borrow money for schemes such as the EWSS, but it is at a blended rate. We can actually borrow more cheaply from the markets than from EU funds. It is more expensive to borrow through the SURE scheme than on the money markets. We are participating because we believe we should do so, but it is actually more expensive.
I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste said we will not be allowing Aer Lingus to fail. That is as it should be. On the discussions with Aer Lingus, do the supports being provided come with caveats regarding the kinds of services we will be able to have? I refer to our not ending up in a hub based on Manchester or to our becoming a regional airport for Manchester in terms of the flights to the US.
When I say we will not let Aer Lingus fail, I do not want to create the impression that it is in any way about to fail or anything like that, just in case I am misunderstood. What I am saying is that we are providing a lot of financial support already through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund and the EWSS.
We will provide more to enable us to retain essential connectivity with Heathrow, the United States and those key hubs in Europe, as well as for cargo. The sad truth is that the way things are going now it could be a long time before we see aviation recover. Some people are even saying we may have passed peak aviation. I am not saying that, but some people are. Saving all jobs and all routes may not be possible but we want to protect the company and make sure it is there for essential connectivity in the future.
It is critically important that we highlight the challenges being faced by many of our small and medium-sized businesses as a consequence of Brexit. We have a raft of companies which are directly affected by certificate of origin issues and are dependent on products and materials that are being trafficked through the UK. I have one case of a construction firm in Longford of which I have already apprised the Ministers of State, Deputies Troy and Byrne. If this issue is not addressed, it will affect building costs and potentially drive such costs up by double digits. We require intervention at Government level and at EU level on the issue of certificates of origin.
It is also an issue in the food sector. Panelto Foods, which has a major production facility in Longford, is directly affected and rates this highly in the risk analysis for the business at the moment. Ultimately, it will also affect living costs and food costs. A number of Departments and Revenue have put considerable time and effort into planning for life post Brexit but it is clear that the current customs arrangements are not working.
I have been contacted by Autosmart, a family business in Longford which recently celebrated 25 years in business. It supplies outlets nationwide and import significant stock from the UK. The company boss, Clive McCormack, contacted me on Tuesday and advised me that another of its 40 ft. containers has been held up at customs in Dublin. This is its second delivery to be held up in the past few weeks and the first load spent 48 hours on the docks in Dublin before being passed by customs. The container that arrived on Tuesday should have been offloaded in Longford yesterday and a fleet of trucks should then have ferried the stock around the country. It is struggling to fulfil orders through no fault of its own and this is an unnecessary impediment on an already challenged and stressed SME sector. On both occasions, the Autosmart container was randomly selected by customs for checking. We understand the process and accept it has to happen. There is no issue with that. The Longford business uses the long-established Lombard Shipping for its transport needs and, as the load was due to embark on Tuesday, the agents checked the website to clarify if the load was clear to go to Longford. The check by customs only takes a couple of minutes but these inordinate delays are costing Autosmart and many SMEs nationwide as much as two if not more days of valuable time. When we spoke to Lombards Shipping today, it still had no indication when that container will be cleared and the indications are it could be Saturday before it arrives in Longford. That is three full days after its initial due date. We simply cannot expect or assume that businesses will be able to continue operating under these circumstances and dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing whether a container will arrive today or in three days' time.
Many businesses have reached out to Revenue on the issue and I call on the Tánaiste to work steadfastly to resolve this issue. This is not the UK's fault or the fault of Brexit. The fault here lies squarely with enterprise, customs and Revenue. For the sake of these SMEs nationwide, this issue needs to be tackled immediately.
I appreciate the Tánaiste and the Minister of State's presence and their opening addresses. I was glad to hear the references, particularly from the Minister of State, to the businesses which, through this pandemic, have felt left behind compared to other businesses. That is dominating the representations to my office from the sectors which have not been able to access the restart grant because it was for rate payers. They have not been able to access Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and now the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, which is welcome and worthwhile, is perhaps out of reach for them. We are talking about people in the events industry, the travel industry and also, as was referred to by a colleague in another meeting, the traditional man or woman in the van, who does not have a solid business placing or anything comparable. While the current schemes are a hugely important support for businesses that qualify, for those who miss out, the loss is absolutely crushing. Many of these are small and family businesses. There is huge concern and I know there is huge societal concern. The costs are still coming in and many of the costs Deputy Flaherty referred to in relation to Brexit are devastating.
The last sector I wish to refer to and remind people of is the aviation industry. We get regular communications from pilots, the pilots' association and cabin crew. Supports are being provided at the moment. There is a pandemic unemployment payment for the individuals and airlines and airports are receiving support. However, it will most likely be one of the last sectors to open up, along with the entertainment industry. Will there be a sector to return to? As an isolated island nation, it is important we have a thriving aviation sector. I want to reaffirm its importance so those businesses, if they are able to tread water for now, will be able to reopen in due course.
We are expecting a new reopening plan, which will be welcome, but I have concerns because the latest scientific evidence is that Covid-19 will always be around, with vaccination. We may not see the same death rate and sickness but it is here to stay and we need to make sure our plans reflect that.
Much of the correspondence coming into my office is based on the last plan. I will give an example. Indoor and outdoor play centres were designated as open in level 3, but then closed in level 3 a few months ago. I am asked if they will be open in level 3 this time or if there will be a level 3 this time. This kind of last-minute change cannot occur again. We need to be clear with people if we are to take them with us on this plan. How is the Tánaiste's Department preparing to make very clear what will and will not be allowed to open? How can they open safely and under what grounds will they be closed again? Will there be clear messaging that this is a different plan?
The one thing that comes up over and over in my office is the unfairness on outlets, such as small essential services. They believe they have been left behind. The Tánaiste and I have spoken often about click and collect and I am aware the intention is not to have large numbers moving around. However, we have to find a way to support small businesses which cannot operate a full online service. As we are closer to the new plan this week than last week, will the Tánaiste tell me if click and collect will feature in the plan?
Another support from last year has raised concerns. I appreciate the Government introduced CRSS to provide 10% of last year's turnover, but this is not enough to pay one significant bill, rent or insurance costs for many businesses which are still closed. These bills still have to be paid. Are there proposals to revisit this?
Sticking with the theme of supports, I tabled a parliamentary question last month on whether the stay and spend scheme would be extended past its current termination of April 2021, given the current restrictions. I appreciate the scheme should not be viewed in isolation from other measures put in place to support businesses generally and the hospitality sector in particular but it was not usable at all really, since it only came into effect in October. The reply I received stated: "Stay and Spend is scheduled to operate until 30 April but the flexibility exists ... to extend its operation 2021 beyond that date (to end 2021)." At that stage, a decision will be made. I ask the Tánaiste to extend it. We are living with Covid now and encouraging people to stay home and go by the Covid guidelines, and rightly so. However, we need to make sure our hospitality sector is not forgotten. In doing that, we need to make sure we put more money into that area and I ask the Tánaiste to do that.
I will use my time for a question and the Tánaiste might answer in the short time available. I have already flagged this issue to his office. It is about Rehab Enterprises in Limerick and concerns 37 jobs for people with disabilities, many of whom have been working there for many years. They receive supports through the wage subsidy scheme but they receive that over a long period, not specific to Covid. Are there any circumstances whereby such an enterprise may qualify for supports under Covid to ensure these jobs are maintained? These 37 people have worked there for many years. They and their families have been in touch with me. It is something I feel strongly about. People with disabilities are entitled, like everyone else, to be able to work. The Tánaiste might address that point.
With regard to the redundancies at Rehab Enterprises Limited, the total number of people employed in Rehab Logistics Limerick is 37, 36 of whom are currently supported under the wage subsidy scheme for people with disabilities. It has now been proposed that the company will make 37 positions redundant. Over time, Rehab Logistics in Limerick has attempted to maintain its business. This has become increasingly difficult due to a number of factors, including difficulties in replacing contracts and changing market conditions. I am told the group will be engaging in a consultation process from 21 February to identify solutions and reach an agreement regarding the proposed redundancies. If a decision is taken to proceed with redundancies, Rehab will look at alternative arrangements for each employee, comprising identifying training opportunities or professional assistance to look for a new job.
As a Government, we recognise this is a vulnerable cohort of workers. The Department of Social Protection has worked closely with Rehab in similar circumstances and will do so again. That Department will assign a liaison person whose focus will be to ensure all the people affected will be directed to the appropriate supports and services available to them. The Department will work to ensure employees are able to access their entitlements swiftly and in a manner that does not cause any further distress.
I raise the impact the pandemic has had on those working in the aviation and travel sectors across Ireland. Covid-19 and its necessary restrictions have had a devastating impact on the sector. Protecting public health is the number one priority but we must also think of the essential role of aviation and travel. It employs 140,000 directly and indirectly and is vital to our island's connectivity and to our society and economy.
Without putting too fine a point on it, workers in the sector have no faith in a Green Party Minister to protect them. The Oireachtas committee is ably chaired by the Tánaiste's party colleague, the previous speaker, Deputy O'Donnell. The committee has engaged extensively with the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, Fórsa, SIPTU, Connect and other unions in the sector. We have also met with the airports, airlines and travel agents, and to a man and woman, these organisations are adamant that better support for their industry is needed. They are calling for sector-specific supports to recognise the massive hit the aviation sector has suffered, direct State investment in airports and airlines, and a German-style support package for workers. They point towards the scale and type of supports in other countries. It is no coincidence that a number of speakers have raised this issue with the Tánaiste. I am encouraged by the responses so far. I ask that the Tánaiste would reaffirm that commitment to support the sector and the jobs within it, notwithstanding the challenges that are there.
I wish to bring up an issue I spoke about earlier. National Broadband Ireland, NBI, gave me a note on some issues it believes need to be sorted out around planning permits and such in terms of streamlining the roll-out of the national broadband plan. I have sent that note to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and expect him to come back with an answer. I have also sent it on to the Tánaiste's office for his information if he is going to engage with NBI.
I want to raise an issue I brought up previously with the Tánaiste. There are a huge number of firms and individuals who believed the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and other supports would have been for them but they happened to fall between stools. In the past couple of hours, I have sent the Tánaiste a number of issues, particularly about two entertainment companies which still have huge overheads and a mobile food unit. In fairness, I did this on the basis that the Tánaiste said he had an interest in dealing with these issues. If we are not looking at a change regarding how the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, will be assessed, perhaps the Tánaiste could come back to me on whether he has any plans on a timeline regarding alternatives for these people who have fallen between stools.
It has also been brought to my attention by Dundalk Chamber of Commerce that the man in a van model is also failing. There is also an issue regarding the fact that the rates waiver assessment probably needs a greater level of flexibility. I would really appreciate if the Tánaiste could come back to me, especially with regard to an alternative to the CBAS and other supports.
I will make sure those notes to which Deputy Ó Murchú referred are brought to my attention. I am genuine in what I say about wanting to help out firms that are, perhaps, falling between the cracks and not receiving any help with fixed costs. It is always hard to design a scheme that works for everyone but we will do our best to design future schemes. The note the Deputy is going to send will be helpful in my engagement with NBI. I thank him for that as well.
With regard to aviation, and I do not necessarily mean anyone present in the House at the moment when I say this, I believe there are people in this House who are trying to have it both ways, who call for radical climate action one day and massive supports for aviation the next, who call for aviation effectively to be halted through mandatory hotel quarantining for all, probably down to a handful of flights a day, and then oppose what the Government is trying to do, which is to maintain at least some degree of reasonable and essential travel, with testing, to the UK and Europe. That cannot hold forever. Either we are going to try to help aviation to survive with a certain degree of essential travel as safely as possible or we are not. Once we get into mandatory quarantine in hotels for all, it is very hard to see how aviation can return to any level of reasonable activity for quite some time. Who knows when it will even be possible?
The aviation sector is receiving much financial support from Government. The airlines are among the main beneficiaries of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, receiving millions to help pay their staff. Aer Lingus has access to funding from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and there have been indirect Government grants to Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, Shannon Airport and to the regional airports. That will continue but it cannot continue indefinitely if we do not allow people to fly again at some point when it is safe to do so.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in March of last year, I have been advocating on behalf of two sectors that have been hit particularly hard - devastated - by the pandemic and pandemic measures. For the most part, they still remain excluded from the support schemes that have been set up. I requested that the Tánaiste meet with one of those groups, the taxi drivers, and he did so. They have explained their situation to him. Apart from a few weeks before Christmas, there is no work, or next to no work, out there for them. They are carrying costs of several hundred euro in insurance every week and several hundred euro, for the most part, in car repayments every month. They need assistance when there is no work out there for them. Many will exit the industry unless they get assistance. They have been excluded from the CRSS. They did not even get the restart grants and they are excluded from CBAS. Will the Tánaiste please give supports that will be made available to taxi drivers?
Regarding musicians and events and arts people who do not have premises, some musicians and events people are selling their equipment at the moment to sustain themselves. Their livelihoods literally are being destroyed. Again, they are being excluded because they do not have premises that are outward looking and instead are operating from a van or are paying off equipment they use. Will the Tánaiste please provide a scheme that will help them cover their fixed costs? They are being devastated.
Another small group of people I met, whom I know the Minister of State, Deputy English also met, are travel counsellors. The Government has an inward continuity business scheme for inward travel, but it does not extend to the travel counsellors because they organise travel going out of the country. However, they have fixed costs, for example, premium insurance, broadband, telephones and various other costs. I will not go through them. The costs add up to about €500 per week and they are still working but have no revenue at all coming in it because of Covid-19 restrictions. They ask that these schemes be made available to them or that there would be schemes to support them and cover those fixed costs.
Will the Government please help these people?
These are areas under the remit of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, but I am taking an interest in them. For the taxi industry, a package was put in place by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that is worth about €15 million. Also, in the budget the rules around the PUP were changed to allow people to continue to work and pick up fares while still drawing the PUP. We can give consideration to further schemes to support taxi drivers and I will take that up with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
On musicians, I know the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is working on this already and is trying to develop a scheme for musicians. More information on fixed costs would be helpful. It is an area we are having difficulty getting more information on as to people who do not have a premises and what these fixed costs are. I know they are sometimes related to vehicles and more information on that would be helpful.
On travel counsellors, if they have an office they will qualify for the CBAS. If they work from home, they probably do not.
Next Tuesday morning there will be a protest outside Topshop on Opera Lane in Cork city centre. The protest is being organised by ex-Arcadia workers. They are angry at their former employer because they have been cheated out of the two week's pay for every two years' service redundancy agreement they had in place with the company. They are not just angry with the company, however. They are very critical of the Government as well. They saw the Clery's workers being told that they were the last ones who would be forced to suffer in this situation. Then they saw the Debenham's workers being promised the same and now it is their turn. Where is the legislation? The programme for Government said there would be legislation to improve worker's rights in a liquidation situation. We were told to expect it at Christmas, then during the new year and it is now the second half of February so what is the position on that? I will submit legislation on this issue myself if we do not see something very soon. Debenham's workers rejected the offer by a 9:1 majority. Their struggle continues. In the nearest Debenham's store to me, on Patrick Street in Cork, there is a daily picket even now. In other stores there is a watch on the stock. Workers have leverage here. There is stock in at least eight of the 11 stores and it will not move without a just settlement. There was an offer of €3 million for an upskilling fund. The shop stewards have asked that this money be transferred into a cash redundancy payment. I would like the Tánaiste to comment on that.
The European Commission has a draft directive for adequate minimum wages in EU member states and collective bargaining on a national scale, to be put in place where collective bargaining does not cover 70% of the workforce. The Tánaiste has written, along with representatives of eight other EU Governments, asking that this be diluted to a mere recommendation, something that would be worthless to workers in this country. His action will be cheered by every anti-trade union employer in the country. They know that keeping trade unions out and keeping workers from organising is key to keeping wages low, conditions below par and profits high. The Tánaiste signed that letter alongside representatives of far right Governments in Poland and Hungary. How does he explain that?
It is true, as the Tánaiste has said, that the decision has not been made on Ulster Bank but the decision will be made tonight. It is an open secret that NatWest will close Ulster Bank in this country. This includes 1.1 million customers, 89 bank branches and 2,800 workers, in a bank which has sent €3.5 billion in profit to NatWest in the UK in recent years. Does the Tánaiste support what I support, which is legislation to stop the vultures getting their hands on the mortgage loan books? Does the Tánaiste support the idea that this bank should be nationalised to save jobs and to protect services?
I thank the Tánaiste and the Ministers of State for their attendance and for the opportunity once again to discuss the business supports available during this pandemic. I have spoken before about the unprecedented supports given by Government, which have been warmly welcome and necessary for all those businesses. In particular, I mention the Covid restrictions support scheme, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the waiver of commercial rates.
The Tánaiste might outline further information about the Covid business aid scheme and when that information will be made available to businesses. There are outstanding issues with so-called orphan companies, which I have spoken about before, and the fact that they are falling between the cracks. I know the Government is examining this and I look forward to further updates on that.
As the vaccine programme is being rolled out and ramped up and as hope is returning to many businesses, people are telling me that they are beginning to look to the future. That said, the Government should use the next few weeks to examine the economic outlook and prepare a national restart plan. The current Covid supports will keep many businesses going over the coming months as they have done in recent months but there will be challenges for the economy as it begins to reopen. We know it will not be one big bang of a reopen and that has been said before. It will happen on a gradual basis and hopefully over the summer months. Many businesses have significant restart costs and as the different sectors begin to reopen they will need an injection of working capital. I ask the Tánaiste to begin preparations in this regard. If possible, an indication should be given in the Government's revised living with Covid plan. Businesses will need tapered supports while they look to reopen. Again, this should be signalled where possible and as early as possible. Early announcements such as costs of commercial rates would be welcome. Despite every support for some businesses, the landscape has changed and many will not be able to return as normal. I welcome the remarks of the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and the work he has done on the restructuring of businesses, which in some cases might have to examine an orderly wind-up, examinership or liquidation, and fast-track low-cost wind-ups or restructuring should be made easier, particularly after this pandemic.
In the time I have remaining, I ask the Tánaiste to come back to me afterwards on the online trading voucher. It has been popular, particularly in Dublin, but many people have told me that the programme has either been oversubscribed or that there are delays getting onto it. I know that €20 million was given to that but I would like an update on the uptake for that over the four Dublin local authorities.
I have a specific question that I am willing to accept a written answer on. It is on .ie domain names and the abuse of them by overseas operators. They are masquerading as Irish suppliers and then a person discovers that this business is operating from outside the jurisdiction. That has an impact on genuine .ie traders. I will make some points that will allow the Tánaiste some degree of stream of consciousness on the issue.
I saw that the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, was suggesting an additional tax on the likes of the Amazon's of this world, which have accumulated significant profits. I know this is not the Tánaiste's area but he is the equivalent of a Deputy Prime Minister so he might have some thoughts on it. This phase of us dealing with the virus strikes me as probably being the one in which the Government is at its most powerless.
In terms of things like hospitality, when does the Tánaiste see a decision maybe being able to be made on Irish people being able to holiday within Ireland? Where do we need to get to in order to allow people to make plans?
The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, might come in on the .ie domain names as he has responsibility for digital and company regulation but I think that is owned by University College Dublin. It is not Government controlled but I will come back to the Deputy on that.
I am always afraid to speculate about the future when it comes to what might or might not be possible this summer but I hope and believe that a domestic tourism season will be possible this summer. If one looks at where we got to last summer, we were down to low case numbers and that allowed people to travel around the country. We would need similar case numbers with a large number of people vaccinated.
Earlier this week, I had a Zoom meeting with a number of musicians, artists, performers and dance teachers in my constituency. I am here to make a case for these performers, artists and individuals, who bring so much entertainment and creativity to our lives. I would like to start by providing the Tánaiste with a case study of one of the individuals I met earlier this week, to prove to him how much some of these businesses and individuals need financial supports.
At this stage, it is over a year since most performers last worked at a concert, a show or an event of some form. They have not had a chance to work through no fault of their own and yet they are not receiving the supports they need to keep their heads above water financially.
One man who I met has a ten-piece band. He is both highly skilled in his area and highly educated, with both an undergraduate degree and a masters in music. He is a business owner, professional musician and technician. He formed his ten-piece band in 2008 and it quickly became one of the most in-demand bands in the country. They performed at countless weddings and corporate events all over the country, including at the Aviva Stadium and Electric Picnic. Seán lost 100% of his revenues in March 2020 and yet he has overheads he must keep up to, including insurance and a van loan, amounting to roughly €1,000 per month. This is a VAT-registered business. Seán employs nine other musicians on any given night and he pays PRSI on the musicians' wages. They are not a group of people who decide to meet up and play music just for the love of it. This is their livelihood. They all went to college, just like every other professional, to master their skills. They brought their business from strength to strength through hard work and dedication.
Seán states that since the beginning of the pandemic, his business has received absolutely no support because he does not have a rate-paying premises, and that 11 months later, having managed to survive on funds he had in the bank prior to the pandemic, his funds are running dry and he has no idea how his business will survive until his band can get back to work safely. He states that he, like any rate-paying business, pays his taxes and is registered for VAT. Unlike other rate-paying businesses, he receives no support. All he asks is that they are treated fairly, that they are not kicked to touch, and that they are treated as a viable business. Music, art and entertainment are at the heart of our culture. Businesses in this sector are asking for a level playing field like every other business. It is clear that if we do not support artists, such as musicians, DJs, dancers and singers, we will see a major drainage of talent from this industry that will never return. I ask for these viable businesses and business people to be treated fairly and supported financially.
Finally, whenever we move out of this lockdown, it is important that dance schools be permitted to teach classes in socially distanced bubbles at level 3 and below. It is only fair that dance schools are treated the same as sport and other similar activities in this regard.
The Tánaiste has a deep commitment to entrepreneurship. We share a hope that once we have finally brought the pandemic under control, we will see a new generation of entrepreneurs come forward with innovative ideas to strengthen our economy. Entrepreneurs and small businesses played an important role in the previous economic recovery and they will play an equally important role in the recovery ahead.
My hope is that domestic tourism will take place at some stage this year and that we will gain a new appreciation of holidaying in our own country. This will bring opportunities for entrepreneurs, particularly in rural areas, to develop innovative new businesses to serve this growing market.
Unfortunately, it has been brought to my attention that some new businesses, such as e-bike hire companies, are completely shut out of the insurance market. These businesses, many of which are trying to service the new greenways around the country that the Government is funding, simply cannot get off the ground because they are new entrants and not a single insurance company will offer them cover. In particular, I have been in contact with entrepreneurs in Limerick and in Kerry who have been affected by this issue. I acknowledge the work of the Government and the Tánaiste's Department in tackling insurance reform. I appreciate that it is complex, and it requires action not only from the Parliament but from the Judiciary as well. I support the Tánaiste in removing the barriers faced by our brilliant entrepreneurs, who offer some of the brightest hopes for our country's future.
I thank Deputy Leddin for those supportive words. I am due to meet Insurance Ireland in the next couple of weeks and if the Deputy can pass me on a bit more detail about those e-bike companies on greenways, I will take it up with Insurance Ireland directly and see if something can be done in that regard. I would have thought it is an insurable risk that could be covered and I do not see why they cannot get insurance. We will help if we can.
I thank Deputy Cahill for his passionate remarks in support of people who work in the music and entertainment industry. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is examining possible options for how we can help them out a bit more. The company that the Deputy describes should be eligible for the employment wage subsidy scheme to help with the wages of the staff and the members of the band. They should also be eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment, which is, as the Deputy will be aware, more than €1,000 a month. We do not provide income support or income replacement beyond that for anyone. It would not be fair to do it for one sector or affordable to do it for all. The Deputy mentioned issues around fixed costs. I can certainly see how a band that has a vehicle would have fixed costs that perhaps we can help with. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is keen to do that and has met with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and me about it. We will try to do something.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, gives increased rights to corporations, for instance, the right to sue sovereign states through corporate courts, but it does little for workers' rights. The ability of corporations to sue states will act as a major deterrent for using the state apparatus to counteract these negative effects. Taking the example of the minimum wage, Veolia, the giant French company, sued the Egyptian Government for increasing its minimum wage. Thankfully, the Egyptian Government won. Nevertheless, it incurred legal fees and arbitration costs of millions of dollars. The Government keeps telling us that CETA is good for the economy but an economy is made up of the workers within it. Can the Tánaiste explain how a treaty which permits corporations to sue the state for a minimum wage increase is good for workers and, by extension, the economy, and can give specific details in relation to that?
We are awaiting the publication of the Duffy report on the pay and terms and conditions of workers in the early years sector. I would hope that this would be the pathway to professionalise the sector given how crucial these workers have been during the pandemic. A recent SIPTU survey showed that 90% of early years workers struggle to make ends meet. Given that the Government brought in the wage subsidy scheme, this could be a perfect opportunity to expand this further and give appropriate wages for the sector. Has any consideration been given to this?
If I ever heard a red herring argument against CETA, that is one. First of all, companies can sue states. Companies sue states and governments all the time. One can go down to the commercial court and see many examples of companies suing the State. It does not mean they are successful. If the best example Deputy Farrell can come up with as an argument against CETA is that a company sued the Egyptian Government - nothing at all to do with CETA - for raising the minimum wage and lost its case, all I can say is that I have never heard a more specious argument against CETA than something like that.
The only point I would add is that CETA has been in operation in this country for the past two and a half years. As a result, we have seen a significant increase in trade between Ireland and Canada which has been of major benefit to many companies, not only multinational companies to which the Deputy alluded but SMEs as well.
A decision has been taken at Government level to refer this trade agreement to an Oireachtas committee. There is no issue, good, bad or indifferent, with having this debated. Its merits stand up for themselves. In fact, it baffles me that people talk about rushing through this agreement. When the agreement was put before the Business Committee, nobody raised a flag and stated that this was being discussed too quickly. All of a sudden, it is being discussed too quickly. There is no issue. It will be referred to an Oireachtas committee. We will have a robust debate. Certainly, from my perspective, I will have no issue in voting for it because I see the merits of the agreement.
One of the sectors hardest hit throughout this pandemic has been that of those involved in the entertainment business. People involved in entertainment pay their taxes and contribute to society, not only financially. Since March, most people in the entertainment business have been unable to work due to venues being closed, weddings being practically cancelled or at least whittled down where they are not allowed to have entertainment either in the church or at the celebration afterwards, and functions or dinner dances not taking place. Even funerals were not allowed to have live music due to numbers. Events of all types and sizes were not allowed to proceed. We all understand the reason for this but many of those involved in the entertainment business are finding it very hard to make ends meet. Initially, they were granted the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, of €350 only to have it cut back even though they could not return to work. As many of them do not have premises on which they pay rates, they were not eligible for many of the grants or schemes that were announced for businesses. I hoped the CBAS, which was announced two weeks ago, would fill a void and help those who were ineligible for the earlier grants or schemes.
I wish to ask a number of questions about it. Does one need a rateable business premises to apply? It has been indicated that a business's turnover needs to have fallen by 75% or more in order to apply. That seems high. What about companies whose turnovers have fallen by 70%, 65% or even 50%? Are they ineligible or can they apply for some sort of support? Are the supports backdated? Many of the people we are talking about have not worked in almost a year and have accumulated large debts in that time.
We all hope that life will return to normal as the vaccination programme rolls out. I also hope that the entertainment sector can return to normal. However, clarity is needed and a plan may have to be put in place now if that is to happen. The wedding industry contributes approximately €2 billion to the economy when everything is taken into account. Many small businesses and self-employed people are struggling. They might be in receipt of the PUP and all payments, grants and so on are welcome, but they are not sufficient for everyone. People still have to pay their mortgages and living expenses as well as cover their insurance and business overheads, which has always been difficult for them.
I would like to leave some of my four minutes so that the Tánaiste can reply. The harsh impact of Covid-19 will not vanish when we finally suppress the virus. The landscape of our lives will be forever altered by the pandemic. Not everyone will win the battle for survival and there will be casualties.
Local newspapers have been hit badly by events. The economic downturn in 2008 was the first blow, followed by advertisers switching their budgets to online platforms. Within two years, 16 local newspapers were forced to close. Newspaper titles across the country have been swallowed up in a form of centralised ownership, which has led to rationalisation. Staff have been temporarily laid off for extended periods. Others have been placed on reduced time. Those who continue to work are doing so under severe pressure as they strive to maintain quality. We must appreciate the importance of professional journalism.
Local newspapers are caught in a vicious cycle. Their primary source of income from advertising is rapidly drying up, their readership is dwindling because sports and local events are not happening, and they are struggling to hold their place against the growing popularity of the tech giants, which have increased their hold on people during the pandemic. Local radio, which provides a similar service to communities across the country, has been allocated €5 million to support Covid coverage. Local newspapers have received no direct support. They have been excluded from valuable Government Covid campaigns despite the knowledge that local newspapers are the news source of choice for the older population.
Newspapers are facing the greatest deadline in the history of print media. They need urgent financial support, but any support granted should not be used to bolster the coffers of the media corporations. It should be linked to editorial investment. It must be directed towards maintaining the position of journalists and staff. It is the staff who bring the news and the stories to the public and they need and deserve recognition. They need practical financial support to protect their futures. Without support, one of our greatest and proudest local services will disappear. I am asking for Government intervention. We cannot allow the provincial printing presses to stop.
I hope that, with the vaccination roll-out, we will be in a better position in August and September. As we all know, the tourism industry is on its knees and will not survive on staycations alone. Many in the sector have told me that staycations will not allow them to sustain their businesses for the year. Have discussions taken place on the possibility of introducing a Europe-wide Covid immunisation document, in other words, a vaccination passport? This should be considered for later in the year to help our tourism industry.
Matters relating to tourism and the media are mainly under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. She would probably be able to give the Deputy a better reply than me, but I will do the best I can with the knowledge I have.
Regarding local newspapers and radio, newspapers have benefited from the reduction in the VAT rate to 9%. It was never increased for them. They can benefit from the wage subsidy scheme if their turnover is down. We have put in place some financial support for local radio. However, the underlying problem is the fact that the world is changing and sales of newspapers, both local and national, are down. Their advertising income is also down because people are advertising in different ways. While we are always open to providing extra support for local radio, newspapers and journalism, there comes a point where we must ask ourselves how much taxpayers' money are we willing to put behind newspapers that people do not read in large numbers anymore and that people do not advertise in anymore. It is a sad situation, but a great deal of the media will move fully online in future. That is the way the world is going.
Regarding immunisation documents and passports, when the time comes - I do not know when that will be - the key to restoring a great deal of travel, including international travel, will be how people prove that they have been vaccinated and-or tested negative. We have an immunisation document with a QR code on it ready that people will get to show that they have been immunised. Other countries, for example, Israel, are using such documents so that people who hold them do not have to self-isolate. The same applies with the travel bubble that Israel has set up with Cyprus and Greece, but we in Europe are not at that point yet. The science does not yet say that being vaccinated is enough to prove that someone cannot get the virus and pass it on, but I hope that we will get there.
Earlier, I raised the issue of the banks that were refusing to honour approvals in principle for house mortgages to employees whose employers had availed of the Government's temporary wage scheme. I am dealing with many constituents in the Dundalk area who are affected by this approach. As the Tánaiste knows, the taxpayers paid and continue to pay a heavy price for the help the banks received during the financial crisis. For banks to behave in this manner now is disgraceful. I am working with many young people, including those with young families, who have done everything that has been asked of them to get a mortgage. They have made and continue to make great sacrifices in order to get approved for a mortgage. They have saved to ensure that they have the correct amount for a deposit, sourced a home and, in many cases, paid a holding deposit. They have given notice to their landlords and just when they are ready to complete their home purchases, the banks renege on their loan approval. This is a serious situation and one that the Government needs to address. To renege on a loan offer because a worker's employer has availed of a Government scheme is not only morally wrong, but surely the banks are breaching some code of practice by doing this. I am pleading with the Government to intervene in this matter.
Since the onset of this terrible pandemic, it has become clear that many workers must plan on working from their homes on a more permanent basis. Having spoken to many people who used to travel to Dublin and other areas for their jobs but who now work from home, it is clear that there are many challenges. One of the main challenges they face is that of a suitable workspace in their homes. In the initial periods of the lockdown, many of those who worked from home did so from their kitchen tables or living rooms. While this was okay for a short time, it now poses many issues. In order to create a productive work environment, they need a proper workspace in their homes. I know from speaking to many of these workers that they would embrace the option of converting a small space in their homes for work purposes. The challenge they face is the financial cost. In order to create these workspaces, they will need proper facilities, including desks and chairs, fit-for-purpose network systems and adequate lighting.
The new reality we are facing is that workers will more and more continue to work from home and we must support them. The best way to support them is to encourage employers to make a financial contribution to their workers in order to convert a section of their homes into workspaces. The employer could be encouraged and supported in doing this through a Government scheme. The benefits of this support are much greater than the financial costs. We would see less traffic on our roads, meaning less pollution. People would be more productive because they would no longer have to endure a daily commute that in some cases can amount to four hours. This is an important opportunity for the Government to make a real difference to people's working conditions.
I wish to raise the issue of banks charging negative interest rates on deposits. This is a problem that will emerge over the coming months. It is not only a problem for those who are fortunate enough to have large sums on deposit, but also for the many small savers around the country. I am talking specifically about the thousands of savers in the credit unions. Although it has not been confirmed, I am led to believe that credit unions, which mainly have their customers' deposits with mainstream banks, will be hit badly. This will undoubtedly lead to charges being imposed on their savers. That is wrong. In the traditional banking system, a bank used its deposits to loan to other customers, thereby making a profit on the difference between the interest charged on the loan and the interest paid on the deposit. Now, it appears that these banks are saying that they have too much money on deposit and, therefore, are not in a position to pay interest.
How is this the case when I have spoken to so many small and medium enterprises which tell me daily the difficulties they have obtaining credit facilities from local banks? There is something not right about this.
Another area that will affect people is the operation of solicitors' clients accounts. As the Tánaiste knows, these accounts are, in effect, only transaction accounts. The solicitors use these accounts to hold clients' sales and purchase funds, mainly from buying and selling property. The president of the County Louth Solicitors Bar Association has written to me in this regard and outlined the difficulties solicitors will face with these new charges. It is clear the approach taken by the banks in this regard is a very blatant profit-making exercise. I would like the Tánaiste to address these issues. Should he not have enough time I would appreciate it if he could ask his officials to respond in writing.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this particularly important debate and I congratulate the Tánaiste and his fellow Ministers on the work they have done in addressing the issues that have arisen in the context of Covid. A number of issues have been raised by others, which I do not intend to go through in detail, whereby some of the employment sectors have fallen between the cracks and will require another look. The important time that will come in this will be later. This will be when we see the possibility of the economy opening up again. It is at that time that particular attention will have to be paid to those entrepreneurs and business people who were in business before, had flourishing businesses and know the ropes. They know how to set up a business and run it. They know what the risks are and will be in a position to be able to proceed at short notice. They will also have to rely on the availability of various lending from the banks, which it is hoped will be forthcoming, and I expect this will be a crucial issue in terms of the recovery of the economy.
The Kerry Group has already been mentioned and I acknowledge that it has a huge investment in County Kildare. It gives tremendous employment to the county, the country and globally. I have no doubt that the minimal losses in terms of jobs will be restored at the earliest opportunity.
We have spent considerable time in the finance committee dealing with the issue of Ulster Bank. There is a huge network of Ulster Bank branches across the midlands, much more so than in any other part of the country. Across the midlands in particular it is hugely important for supplying credit to businesses, mortgage holders and a plethora of people who are very important in the creation of opportunities in the economy. The bank would not meet the committee. It refused to do so. We did not want to indulge in the exposure of any state secrets but it would have been an opportunity for the committee and the Houses of the Oireachtas to advise the bank as to the importance of maintaining a strong presence. As the Acting Chairman knows, I could go on for quite a long time but we have to leave space for others.
I have been speaking to Waterford businesses and chambers of commerce in the city and Dungarvan and I have been struck by the similarities in the Covid stories as well as the differences that have been related to us. There is great appreciation for the supports that were put in place for businesses during the pandemic. I have listened to stories of small and medium enterprises that have used online training vouchers, business continuity grants or restart grants to innovate, remain open or get back on their feet, and this is most welcome. However, a significant issue, which has already been raised with regard to the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, remains. While the new Covid business aid scheme, CBAS, is welcome, a number of businesses are still falling through the cracks, in particular those operating from non-rateable premises. This particular feature of the CRSS is hitting a specific sector of business which comprises small home-based entrepreneurs. These include therapists, caterers, interior designers, crafters and start-ups that operate from home. They are falling through the cracks in the CRSS, along with photographers, event organisers, consultants and trainers. They are missing out on this vital safety net available to others because they do not pay rates.
We need to keep in mind that one size does not fit all when it comes to business supports during this pandemic. Within retail, for example, and perhaps operating within stereotype, I hear from bike shops that are struggling to get bikes and spare parts due to a spike in demand, alongside production and distribution issues coming as a result of Brexit and Covid. Other retailers never raised cash flow to restock for 2021 because they still have seasonal stock from 2019 on their shelves.
Our entrepreneurs are facing challenges that are unexpected and unique to Covid. One Waterford business owner to whom I have been speaking sources one component of her product from China. She has seen courier charges on this product treble. This is having a serious impact on her margin. This increase in the courier charges is because of the reduction in freight capacity owing to the increase in shipping of personal protective equipment. This filters down the line to small and medium enterprises, resulting in cash flow issues and difficulties with projections and costings which, as the Tánaiste knows, are the basic foundations of running a business.
We need to recognise that one size does not fit all with businesses. Is it possible to make specific provision for businesses that operate from premises which do not qualify for rates so they are not further excluded by CRSS and left behind? Is it possible to look at an option for people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment to do some casual work without losing this payment? We have this already within the arts sector but we need to extend it. To give a specific example, if a business wants to cater for a wedding and wants to hire back its own well-trained staff for the day, it is difficult to do so because it impacts directly on the employees' pandemic unemployment payments. Is it possible to nurture home-based business and home-based entrepreneurs so they can weather this storm, reboot their businesses and rehire their staff as, it is hoped, we emerge from the pandemic?
I welcome the announcement of the Covid business aid scheme. The €60 million funding will greatly help those businesses that have fallen outside the scope of CRSS requirements. The scheme will be a great help to businesses in the hospitality sector if they do not qualify for CRSS, if they have rateable premises and their turnover is significantly impacted. The Fáilte Ireland business continuity scheme, which was launched recently, is also a positive move protecting those businesses that have fallen outside the remit of CRSS. This is critical if we are to have a balanced approach during the return of normality for businesses and to ensure some sectors are not left behind.
I want to raise the issue of the credit guarantee scheme. I welcome the news that several credit unions have signed up to distribute the credit from the scheme. We need to have as many channels as possible to ensure all businesses that require credit can access it. However, if we are serious about building back better, we need to have the foresight to have the necessary tools in place to be a leader and market creator from a Government perspective. The role of the Government should be on market correction policies and more focus should be on shaping the future in a stakeholder-driven approach with businesses and wider society. Giving more power to the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, would also be a great first step. The SBCI should have the ability to administer its own loans directly to businesses instead of the current system that sees either the companies assessed by the SBCI and processed by the commercial banks or directly assessed by the commercial banks. As we can see from the KfW scheme in Germany, on which the SBCI is modelled, if we want our strategic investments to be successful for the Government to play a dynamic role in the development of an economy, we need to give the SBCI the direct tools to do this. I would like to hear from the Tánaiste his thoughts on this suggestion.
In recent times, we have seen significant discussion on the arrival of Amazon with regard to its logistics operations being based in Ireland instead of the UK for the first time. One suggestion I have is that the Department looks into ways in which local entrepreneurs could exploit this opportunity. It would be a shame if we did not do so. It might help to mitigate the negative impacts of online shopping it may have.
Some of these issues were raised and answered earlier and I do not want to use up my time giving the same answers again. When it comes to the pandemic unemployment payment people are allowed to do some work and not lose the payment. I do not think it is just restricted to musicians. I think it is more general. Off the top of my head, I think people can earn up to as much as €480 a month and still retain the pandemic unemployment payment but I will double-check it. Certainly the Department of Social Protection can do it for us.
Home-based businesses are eligible for the employment wage subsidy scheme, and those who run them or work in them are also eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment. They are not eligible for CRSS or CBAS because they are for fixed costs. The general view is that people who have a home business make not have very large fixed costs. They will have some but they might not be that large, although in some cases that probably is not the case, especially if people have vehicles. We are open to schemes that might help vehicle-based businesses and home-based businesses with their fixed costs.
We need to be very clear the schemes the Government puts in place are to help with fixed costs, not to compensate for lost profits or income.
On the Deputy's suggestion on Amazon, it is investing significantly in Ireland. It employs thousands of people and is building new logistics centres here. We should seize the opportunity to encourage more Irish-based producers and companies to get on Amazon. It is something I will take up with its representatives the next time I meet them.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions and I ask for the replies in writing. Last week, I raised the issue of the importation of cars and other goods, and the major delays at ports which are shocking. Duty and VRT has to be paid.
Another issue has now arisen, namely, the three-year-old goods relief being allowed by Revenue for cars re-entering the EU from 31 December 2020 back to 1 January 2018. There was no problem for the first two years of the scheme, but Revenue is now demanding a copy of an importation licence from when the car was first imported into the EU. It is not possible to get such shipping documentation. That needs to be sorted out. The Minister also needs to deal with the issue of stamp duty, which is holding up lorries at the border for a long time.
The Minister might pass on thanks to officials in Tipperary County Council who have been very helpful with the schemes operating for businesses. As other Deputies said, many fall outside those schemes, including those aged over 66 years, musicians and entertainers. Trudi Lawlor and Billy Morrissey, along with other musicians, have come together to start a wonderful initiative. Musicians and entertainers ring fans to talk to them. They are looking for support because it has taken off beyond all belief. It is a great initiative. Something like that falls between the cracks of the Department of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The initiative needs to be developed and enhanced.
Will restart grants be available again? The money has run out and it is due to start again. People need continuity and services.
Something must be done about insurance and the banks, which are not functioning properly. They are not allowing people to do what they should do. We saw the bravery of the four individuals who took the case against FBD. They should not have had to do that. Dealing with such matters is the job of the Government.
I have a number of questions. There are terrible delays for businesses in respect of imports. I have been contacted by a number of businesses based in the midlands and have been told that there are terrible delays with customs. A customs agent has to be engaged for each transaction, which costs €80. Prior to that, an invoice has to be obtained in the UK and that can be delayed by up to four days. There is also pettiness with customs officers here who, I have heard, have taken sandwiches from drivers coming in from the UK. This sort of pettiness and bureaucracy has to be dealt with.
We need to protect every job we can in this State, in particular given Brexit and the pandemic. This is particularly important in the midlands which is undergoing a very unfair transition, as I have said a number of times in the House. I ask the Minister to please sort out the imports and customs issues. It appears that the problems lie mostly on our side.
My next issue is Ulster Bank. Will the Minister give certainty and clarity to people? Some 20,000 farmers have loans with Ulster Bank, and many customers have mortgages. They need certainty that the loan books will not be passed to a faceless entity, namely, a vulture fund. We need to ensure the loan books are passed to another pillar bank. In terms of putting people here at ease, the Minister needs to clarify that. I would be very grateful for a written reply so I can get back to my constituents.
My next issue concerns businesses in my constituency, Laois-Offaly. A tree surgeon received a quote from an insurance company of roughly €2,700 over eight years. He has now been told that because of Brexit the insurance cost is between €10,000 and €15,000, enough to put him out of business. I ask for that case to be looked into.
In August last year a company sent information to the Ceann Comhairle, who gave it to the superior officer, regarding a high performance air cleaner. We have constantly said we are looking for more time to talk in a safer environment and way. The officials did their job and reverted to the company that manufactured the high performance air cleaner. The Government has sat on this since September.
A quote for 40 units was sought. I will not mention the company's name because it would not be fair to do so. The Government received all of the information in September. We had enough for 200 units. The Oireachtas would need 40 units and the rest could have gone to front-line services. We do not have a vaccine for people. We have discussed how to get people back to work safely and make sure that things can be done safely.
A product is available which is used in Germany. It was used in hospitals in Cork yesterday and by Garda services in Ireland. The Government has not replied to the company since September. Some €1.2 million has been spent for us to talk in the Convention Centre, when we could have units in Covid centres to protect front-line services. Why has the Government not replied to the company? It is science. The machines are effective for up to 100,000 microparticles floating in the air. We all know that Covid is airborne. We all wear masks. A unit is available to protect front-line workers and other staff, and the Government has not replied to it. I want to know why.
I welcome the opportunity to bring a number of matters to the attention of the Minister and I hope I will leave him enough time to respond to one or two of them. I appreciate the supports that have been introduced – one could not help but appreciate them – including the PUP, EWSS and CRSS. Without those, businesses would be completely gone.
I refer to loan forbearance. The Minister may recall that during the first lockdown the CEOs of Ireland's five retail banks met the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and a five-point plan was laid out. One part of the plan involved loan forbearance which would not affect the credit rating of businesses. It was a very good initiative. I understand such a scheme is not in place. I have been contacted by small businesses and hotels that require loans without their credit rating being affected. I know it is not the area of responsibility of the Minister, but is it something he has raised with the Minister for Finance?
I will have to check with the Minister for Finance, but my understanding is that if a bank gives somebody a payment break that does not affect his or her credit rating. I will double check that. We no longer have blanket payment breaks for everyone who requests them. People have to need them. My understanding is that once it is granted, it does not affect a person's credit rating. I will check the position.
I would appreciate if the Minister would check that, because that is not my understanding from the businesses that have contacted me. They specifically mentioned AIB, which told them they need a clear directive from the Government on such action not affecting a business's credit rating. The Minister can appreciate that a credit downgrade has a hugely negative effect on any businesses. It is a specific net point.
I welcome the coach tourism business continuity scheme, but, as other speakers said, smaller niche companies fall outside of it. I am thinking in particular of buses on the Aran Islands. They do not come within the restricted criteria of that scheme, such as buses in use before July 2013. Such businesses would not have a turnover of €50,000 year. It is a small niche industry.
The Minister may recall that before Christmas I drew a matter to his attention, namely, the very good spending review carried out by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The Minister told me he would read it over Christmas. I am not sure whether he did but I hope he did.
It drew to our attention that bespoke solutions are required in addition to what the Department has introduced, which I acknowledge are very good. We also need bespoke industries. In particular, the review pointed out that industry in the Gaeltacht was going to be particularly impacted by both Covid and Brexit. The other startling fact is that 85% of the clients of Údarás na Gaeltachta are micro enterprises with fewer than ten employees, and 99% of its clients are small to medium enterprises employing fewer than 250 people. I mention that because it is the bread and butter. The annual report from Údarás na Gaeltachta this year shows that employment has been affected by 6% to 8%, net. More significantly, there is a 30% drop in the tourism area. The small niche industries such as the one I mentioned need bespoke solutions. I am drawing that to the Minister's attention - I am not asking for an answer now - in the context of the importance of the Gaeltacht, the Irish language and small enterprises.
I welcome the tourism business continuity scheme through Fáilte Ireland, but it took an effort to get it. It was announced in the budget. One of the two businesses in Killary that have been in contact with us is delighted with it, theoretically, but then there is the amount of time it is taking to get the cash. I understand that not a single euro will be handed over until March. Again, this is positive, but it is not quick enough.
There are also the travel agents. I will mention one in Galway because she is the last woman standing. I was going to say the last man standing. We are in level 5 and if we were in level 4, the travel agents would qualify. In the other levels they qualify for nothing. The Tánaiste might address the issue of travel agents. I realise he is keen on online banking and so forth, but many of us like travel agents. We like to walk into the premises, and it gives employment. There is trust and reliability. They need certainty. They have done their best, and for most of this time they have been working, partly paid and partly not paid, and giving refunds. Perhaps the Tánaiste will comment on the travel agency sector.
As the Deputy correctly pointed out, travel agents qualify in levels 4 and 5, but would not if we went to level 3. I believe they should because in level 3 one must stay in one's county. Logically, hotels and travel agents should continue to receive CRSS if they are in level 3. I am currently arguing this with the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. However, even if they do not qualify, they could apply for the new CBAS in that scenario.
Finally, there is the issue of the trading online voucher. The Tánaiste did not get a chance to respond on this earlier when another Deputy raised it. Again, there has been excellent uptake of the voucher. I understand that Údarás na Gaeltachta ran out of money, so the local enterprise office, LEO, in Galway took over. Will the Tánaiste comment on the trading online voucher? It is working and people are taking it up, but the money is not there.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the failure to introduce legislation to protect workers in the case of Debenhams, Clerys prior to that and now the Arcadia workers. I have to mention it because I see them in Galway and it is just unacceptable. Perhaps the Tánaiste will comment on the trading online voucher in the remaining 22 seconds.
That is a complicated area which we will return to at another time. I am not convinced that any of the legislative solutions Members have put forward would have made a difference or would make a difference in those scenarios. It is worthwhile to read the report of the chairman of the Labour Court on that.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, might assist me regarding the trading online voucher. I think there is additional funding for it.
There were in excess of 13,000 applications last year and we hope to build on that this year. The funding is allocated through our Department as the Department has responsibility for the policy. There is also another round of the online retail scheme that is operated by Enterprise Ireland. It is hoped that will be announced during February or early in March.