Thursday, 4 March 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Ní hamháin go bhfuil fadhbanna ann maidir leis an roll-amach den vacsaín ach tá fadhbanna níos mó ná sin. Thug an tAire Sláinte gealltanas go mbeadh an vacsaín acu siúd atá os cionn 85 bliana d’aois roimh dheireadh na seachtaine seo ach tá a fhios againn anois nach bhfuil sin ag dul a tharlú. Tá dochtúirí ginearálta faoi bhrú mar go n-inseofar do chuid acu go mbeidh an vacsaín ag teacht ar lá faoi leith agus ní tharlaíonn sin. Ansin bíonn ar na dochtúirí teaghlaigh seo na céadta scairteacha ghutháin a dhéanamh agus na coinní le seandaoine a chur ar ceal. Níl seo maith go leor.
We are at a crucial point in the suppression of Covid-19 and the roll-out of the vaccine, but the Government is dropping the ball on both fronts and letting people down. Figures released yesterday by the Department of Justice show that international travel is increasing. That is because there is no serious deterrent to travel in place at present and little or no follow-up. That puts all of us at risk, regardless of how strongly people are trying to adhere to the public health advice.
It is also increasingly clear that problems relating to the roll-out of the vaccine go well beyond the issue of slow supply. Last week, the Minister for Health wrote to all Deputies to say that the HSE had confirmed to him that it was on target to administer a dose to all people aged over 85 years by the end of the week. He has since rowed back from that position and the Government is now set to miss that target. General practitioners have contacted us to express their serious concerns about the buddy system. They tell us they have not been provided with a single point of contact to co-ordinate the roll-out. The communication is shambolic, with little notice given as to when the vaccine will be made available to their practices and patients. Other GPs have been telling us that while they were promised vaccines on certain dates, the vaccines did not arrive. That leaves GPs obliged to make hundreds of telephone calls to cancel vaccination appointments for their vulnerable, elderly patients. This is simply unacceptable. It must be resolved, and resolved quickly.
The HSE must examine this urgently. It must reassure the public, who want their loved ones to be vaccinated. What is happening here? What is the situation? There has been a lengthy lead-in time. We all knew that it would be necessary to deliver the logistics for a vaccination programme. The uncertainty in this regard is causing great anxiety.
All the while, another issue I raised with the Tánaiste remains unresolved. It is the urgent need to afford priority vaccination for family carers. Many carers are at their wit's end. I am sure they have spoken to the Tánaiste in the same way they have spoken to us. The question thousands of carers ask is: who steps in to take care of the vulnerable family members who need around-the-clock care, seven days a week, if they get sick? This is especially true for carers with vulnerable children who cannot yet be vaccinated. Their only protection is if the carer is vaccinated. Family carers provide care that is often very specialised, intense and intimate. The case for family carers to be afforded some level of priority is very strong, but the Government has not listened so far.
Perhaps the Tánaiste will not take my word for it, but he should listen to the words of the carers. One lady writes:
I am a family carer. I have cared for my Dad for the last ten years. He has Parkinson's and dementia, and my mother suffers from serious medical conditions. If I get sick, there will be nobody else to care for either of them or to even bring groceries to their house.
Another carer tells us:
My little girl has special needs and I am so fed up of fighting for her basic rights. My biggest worry is if me or my husband get Covid as I fear the impacts for Ella. We would not self-isolate from her as she simply would just think that we have left her. It is an insult being so far down the list with absolutely no back-up plan.
I want the Tánaiste to answer the question that is on the mind of every carer in the country, and that is: who will step in? The Tánaiste told me two weeks ago that he asked the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to examine this matter, but we have heard nothing since then. It is time for the Tánaiste to afford family carers the respect and recognition they deserve. Will the Government provide the relief family carers so badly need and tell them if they will be afforded priority for vaccination?
Tá brón orm go raibh mé déanach. Tá dul chun cinn maith á dhéanamh i leith dáileadh na vacsaíne. Táthar tuar go mbainfear amach an sprioc de 500,000 an tseachtain seo. Beidh an chéad dáileog faighte ag ár gclainne agus ag ár gcairde a bhfuil os cionn 85 bliana d’aois faoi dheireadh na seachtaine seo. Cé go bhfuil bóthar fada amach romhainn go fóill, tá sé le feiceáil go bhfuil toradh dearfach anseo agus go hidirnáisiúnta ó thaobh tionchar na vacsaíní. Tá sé mar sprioc ag an Rialtas go mbeidh an chéad dáileog den vacsaín faighte ag breis agus 80% de dhaoine fásta faoi dheireadh mhí an Mheithimh.
I appreciate that there have been some issues and delays with the vaccine programme. A consignment of 25,000 AstraZeneca vaccines that we had expected to arrive last week did not arrive at short notice. We are told it will arrive before the end of the month, allowing us to catch up. There will be weeks when we fall behind target and there will be weeks when we go ahead of target. I acknowledge that there have been difficulties in getting the vaccine to some general practices. This is a big logistical operation and we need to be patient and supportive with the HSE as it works this out and gets the job done.
There are reasons for optimism and reasons for comfort. By this weekend 500,000 vaccines will have been given in the State. We will be close to completion with nursing home staff and residents, with front-line healthcare workers, and we will be there or thereabouts with the over-85s. This week already we have moved on to people in the 80 to 84 age group, which is very encouraging. This is happening in some parts of the country.
On priority and how people are prioritise, at the moment two groups are being prioritised. The first is the healthcare workers, and we all understand why this should be the case because they are the ones most at risk of getting this virus, and people over the age of 70 and those under the age of 70 with medical conditions because they are the ones most likely to get severely ill and most likely to die from this virus. The groups being prioritised are healthcare workers, who are most at risk of getting sick, people over the age of 70, and those under the age of 70 who have a medical condition who are most at risk of dying or getting very sick as a result of this virus. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, advises that these are the groups that should be prioritised. The Government agrees with that prioritisation. While I totally appreciate and value the work done by carers all over the country I do not believe they should be prioritised at the expense of healthcare workers, at the expense of those aged over 70 or at the expense of those under 70 who have a severe medical condition. In fairness, I do not think that Deputy Doherty believes that either. We all accept that healthcare workers must come first, then the elderly and then people with medical conditions as they are most at risk. Once they have all had their first dose, then NIAC will be able to consider other groups, including carers. I do not believe one should play politics with this, which Sinn Féin is doing. If Deputy Doherty was being honest in his position he would at least say who he thinks should be downgraded. Any time one moves any group or profession, anybody in society or any cohort up the list of priority, by definition one has to move somebody down. When the Deputy calls for groups to be prioritised and does not have the honesty to say who he wants to be moved down the list, it means that the Deputy's position is not genuine and that he is playing politics. Carers are too busy and have too much on their hands to be played politics with in the way the Deputy is doing.
That is a very disappointing response from the Tánaiste. I will make the point that the only person playing politics here is the Tánaiste. There is a very genuine argument and rationale for having some priority for family carers. There is no priority for them at all at the moment. They fall into the general population priority of age groups. I know many of these family carers. Some of them are very close to me. Do not tell me that I am playing politics with this when I know the risks associated with this. Some of these carers look after very vulnerable children and if they contract Covid-19, it could have serious consequences for these younger children. Did the Tánaiste ask for the advice with regard to family carers? He said in the Dáil that this advice was being sought and last week he said he had not got it. All we are asking is whether NIAC has given advice on family carers.
With regard to the mess around communication and the infrastructure not being properly in place to roll out the vaccine for the over-85s, the Tánaiste's argument that AstraZeneca did not arrive last week does not wash. AstraZeneca is not being provided to the over-85s.
The problem is that the Tánaiste has been in government for quite a period of time and we do not have the proper infrastructure in the middle of March, where GPs had to cancel hundreds of appointments because the vaccines that should be arriving are not arriving, and others are getting it with very little notice.
The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". The Government has asked NIAC to consider prioritising family carers after the current groups. I strongly believe it is right that we prioritise healthcare workers, those most likely to get sick, people over 70 and people under 70 with medical conditions because they are most likely to die or get very sick from this virus. We have asked NIAC to give consideration to prioritising family carers, once those groups have been vaccinated because they should be prioritised. I am disappointed, once again, that Deputy Doherty will not answer my question. Any time one moves a group of people - several hundred thousand people in this case - up the list, one has to bring somebody down the list. The fact that the Deputy will not say so really shows how hollow and dishonest his position is and how he is trying to court votes and take advantage of family carers in the way he is. I believe this is entirely wrong. Trying to play politics in this way with carers, who have too much to worry about than this type of carry on, is the most cynical form of politics possible.
The reason we did not meet the 100,000 target last week was because of the AstraZeneca not arriving-----
I want to ask the Tánaiste today about the volume of job losses recently. It is destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. I am concerned that some of the losses are coming under the cover of Covid. I am not alone in that regard. All of the changes in banking will rip the heart out of so many rural and urban towns across the State. Ulster Bank's announcement affects 2,800 staff, Bank of Ireland is closing 88 branches affecting 1,400 staff and on top of that, the Kerry Group announcement of the loss of 150 jobs and Aer Lingus's job losses are reaching 600. These are just the jobs we hear about. There is a growing epidemic of job losses in all sectors and small businesses, and not just where we would expect some issues due to Covid.
The Central Statistics Office, CSO, has put the February adjusted unemployment rate at just under 25%, which is more than 330,000 people or one in four workers. The situation is even worse for young people, which is a real concern, with 57% of young people being out of work. This will be a scar on that generation and the body politic, collectively, will have to address it. We have a national crisis and we need to take responsibility in terms of how we are going to get out of this. Before the Tánaiste refers to them, I accept and welcome all of the income supports and business supports that have been put in place. I have, however, a real issue with the fact that Ireland is saying we are only eligible for €853 million from the EU recovery and resilience fund. This simply is not enough. I do not believe it is proportionate or fair. I know we have had a changed economic situation over the past years. Where is our national economic recovery plan? What are we going to do on the redundancies where ICTU has warned of hundreds of thousands of workers who could lose out on redundancy payments because of time spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, would not be counted?
Bearing all of this in mind, what is the Government's plan to ensure that some job losses are not being pushed out by some companies using Covid as cover? When will our national economic recovery plan be published? Specifically, what are we going to do to prevent the scarring of a generation of young people, given what they have gone through? Will the Tánaiste make a commitment today that workers who are made redundant will not lose out because of time spent on the PUP?
Many job losses have been announced in recent weeks, which are a deep concerns to all of us. As the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I get notification of many of those, and I am very aware of the real impact it is having on people.
Some of those job losses are directly related to Covid-19, for example, in the airlines the Deputy mentioned. Some are not; they would have happened in any case. I refer to those in banking and those in the Kerry Group, for example, which the Deputy mentioned. In fairness, nobody in those industries, certainly not in the banks and certainly not in the Kerry Group, has pretended they are related to Covid. They are related to restructuring in the case of the Kerry Group and to a change in the way people bank and the way banks operate in regard to banking.
In terms of the policy of Government, it is three-fold. First, it is to save as many jobs and businesses that we can, particularly those businesses that are viable but vulnerable. We have put €11 billion into that already if we take the employment wage subsidy scheme, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRISS, and the pandemic unemployment payment. A a huge amount of money is borrowed but it is the right decision to borrow that money to save as many jobs and businesses as possible.
The second is to continue to create new jobs. What is encouraging at the moment is that there is still a very good pipeline of new jobs being created, particularly in areas like technology, digital, pharmaceutical, medical devices, distribution and transport. IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, EI, under my remit, are driving forward that jobs agenda.
The third is offering training and educational opportunities to as many people as possible to people who may wish to retrain to gain new skills and to the young people the Deputy mentioned. More people will start third level education this year than ever before and from a more diverse set of backgrounds than ever before. The same applies to lifelong learning and further education, which is being driven forward very much by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris.
In terms of the timeline for the national economic plan, we had initially proposed to do that in January given the effect of the third wave on our country in terms of jobs lost and the effect on the economy. We have put back that. We expect now that it will be in the summer, probably around May or June, but in April we will have the stability programme update, the spring statement, which will be brought in by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Also in April, we will have the allocations from the €850 million European recovery fund and, hopefully, the €1 billion Brexit fund but that is still under negotiation. We will then have the revised national development plan and the new economic plan, which we expect to have for May or June.
The issue the Deputy raised on redundancy is difficult and complicated. It affects a number of issues and we are in discussions with unions and employers on that. Nobody wants to see a year's redundancy being lost because people were on the PUP through no fault of their own. At the same time putting that cost on business has a consequence also. We are trying to work out that in consultation with ICTU and IBEC.
I thank the Tánaiste. Regarding the PUP and redundancy, speed is of the essence. It is affecting people's lives in terms of decision making. I would appreciate a quicker timeline. This issue has been raised continuously with me by ICTU. It cannot affect people's redundancy so we need to work out a formula for dealing with it.
I noted in his reply that the Tánaiste did not answer the question on the plan with regard to young people. I have a serious concern that we need to be planning now for young people because they have been scarred unlike any others trying to enter the workforce, losing their jobs, etc. What is the plan for young people?
Finally, is it fair to say now that given the disruptive nature of Covid on everything in this country the Ireland 2040 plan is in need of a total revision?
I thank the Deputy. The plan for young people and to ensure we do not have high levels of youth unemployment when the pandemic is over is three-fold: it is to save as many jobs and businesses as possible; to create new jobs, which we are doing; and to create more educational and training opportunities ranging from higher education to further education to apprenticeships to lifelong learning opportunities. All of that is being done currently and driven forward by Government.
The review of the national development plan, NDP, and Project Ireland 2040 is currently under way. We expect to be in a position in May or June, led by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, to publish a revised Project Ireland 2040, a revised NDP. That will run out to 2030. That will allow us to include more projects than are currently in it but it needs to be reviewed because one thing that is very different from when that was launched in Sligo is that we had almost full employment at the time. We are in a very different position now. Obviously, issues like employment and climate action have to move up the agenda and other issues may have to come down the agenda.
Workers have been treated appallingly during the pandemic. I refer to the front-line health workers, student nurses, Debenhams workers, Arcadia workers, taxi drivers and artists. The list could go on and on but among all the cases of abuses of groups of workers the treatment of workers in meat plants stands out as particularly shocking. They are low paid and highly exploited and are often migrant workers. They work in workplaces where a regime of fear and intimidation often exists, where almost 50% of workers say they face bullying and where Covid has run rampant in the past year.
I know of one worker who spoke up about conditions in the factory, including on social media. As a result, the employer did not sack him because then he could take an unfair dismissals case. Instead, he kicked him out of his accommodation because for many working in these plants the boss is not just their employer; he or she is also their landlord.
These workers have been abandoned repeatedly by a Government which is more interested in appeasing the beef barons than protecting the health of workers and the wider community. Today's Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, report reveals that out of 56 meat plants in the State there are 34 open outbreaks now. That is an extra four outbreaks in the past week. Almost two-thirds of meat plants across the State have had Covid cases in the past 28 days.
In the Larry Goodman-owned ABP Bandon plant, 70 out of 300 workers have tested positive for Covid. It is clear that the big beef barons are putting their wealth before their workers' health and the Government is letting them away with it. SIPTU has reported that the level of serial testing has been cut back in recent months also.
None of this should come as a surprise to the Government. It is now ten months since I first raised it in the Dáil. The response then of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was to accuse me of smearing the meat factory owners.
When the scale of the Covid outbreaks became clear, the Government was forced to feign concern. Last September, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine told the Dáil that the issue of sick pay for meat factory workers was being addressed but nothing has changed. Ninety per cent of those workers still do not have sick pay. Many feel compelled to go into work even if they feel sick. I have asked the Minister about that repeatedly and have got no response.
My questions are very simple. Will the Government act now to ensure sick pay is introduced for meat factory workers? Will it step up serial testing in the meat plants? Will it extend the eviction ban to cover those in so-called tied accommodation to stop meat factory workers and others being kicked out of their accommodation for speaking out?
I thank the Deputy. It is good to see him here for Leaders' Questions. I am not sure if this is his regular slot or whether it is a consequence of his decision to join People Before Profit but I look forward to some interesting exchanges in the months ahead.
Let me be very clear. I do not have the slightest interest in beef barons. I have never met a beef baron. I do not know what a beef baron looks like, quite frankly. That is a populist conspiracy theory and it has no legitimacy whatsoever.
With regard to meat plants, meat plants are a high risk environment, and not just in Ireland. We have seen very serious outbreaks occur in meat plants all over the world, in Europe and in America. As we learn more and more about the virus we know that it is to do with the conditions in the plant itself more so than living conditions or transport, although they can be part of the picture. It is also to do with the air, the speed, the flow and the fact that people can be in quite close quarters and that often there is a lot of noise. That is why we now understand that they are a high risk environment. There had been thoughts previously that it was related to living conditions and transport but that does not seem to be the major factor because people living in similar conditions do not have as high a rate of contracting Covid.
In terms of what we are doing about it, for a start we are doing serial testing. The Deputy acknowledged that we are carrying out serial testing in our meat plants. I understand that the incidence is low. I do not have the exact figures now but I believe it may be substantially lower than 3% or 4%, which is the current rate in our community for symptomatic people.
I think it may even be less than 1%. It is encouraging that the number of positive cases is so low. I think there is an opportunity for greater use of antigen testing in meat plants and other workplaces. It is happening in construction. Kerry Group and Combilift are doing it. I would like to see the meat industry doing it as well if it is not already doing so.
As for sick pay, it is really important we get this message across: anyone, no matter where they work, is entitled to the enhanced illness benefit if they have Covid or symptoms of Covid, if they are waiting for a test or a test result or if they have been told by the HSE or their GP to self-isolate. The benefit is €350 per week and can be paid for up to ten weeks. It is important that this message comes across because sometimes I think that when workers hear they are not entitled to sick pay, they think that means they are entitled to nothing. That is not true. Any employee, any worker, no matter where he or she works, is entitled to €350 per week in the enhanced illness benefit. We are bringing through legislation to extend sick pay to all workers, something I am determined to do, having built on other things I have done in the past: extending social insurance rights to the self-employed, which I did as Minister for Social Protection and as Taoiseach; increasing the minimum wage to be one of the highest in Europe; and bringing in things such as paternity benefit and parental leave. These are real things we have actually done for workers, something I do not think Deputy Murphy claims to have done. Added to that now will be sick pay, and we anticipate having that legislation done this year.
If it is a populist conspiracy theory that the Government represents the interests of the beef barons and not the interests of the workers, why, ten months after this issue was first raised in the Dáil, has the Tánaiste not acted to introduce sick pay for beef factory workers? It is a very simple question. If the Government does not represent the interests of the beef barons, who had sales of €5 billion in 2018, which is huge money, why has serial testing been reduced at the plants? If the Government does not represent the interests of beef barons, why is it the case that employers who have their employees in so-called tied accommodation are not covered by the eviction ban? Why are they able to evict their workers if they speak out? There is lots and lots of evidence, unfortunately, to suggest that from the very start, when this issue was raised and the Government's response was to dismiss it, deny it and talk it down, the Government has consistently had the back not of the workers - and the workers need support - but of these big beef barons.
The job of any government - or at least any centrist government - is to represent all the people and to take account of all interests and not seek to create conspiracy theories about the 1% or to divide capital from workers or the middle class from the working class. Any responsible government, any centrist government, any moderate government, which is what we have in Ireland, tries to represent the interests of the whole population as best it can and takes into account all the factors at play. Workers need jobs, and we always have to bear that in mind in our policies too.
To respond to the question about sick pay, once again the message has to be put out there loud and clear in case any worker gets the wrong end of the stick: any worker who is off sick as a consequence of Covid is entitled to the enhanced illness benefit of €350 per week. We are bringing in legislation to extend sick pay not just to meat plant workers but to all workers who do not currently benefit from a sick pay scheme. I intend to publish that legislation before the summer recess and I hope, with the Deputy's co-operation, that we will get it through. I imagine that, as is often the case, he will find a reason to oppose it.
I will have to check the position on serial testing. The reason is probably that the risk profile has fallen and the number of positives is so low, but I do not know that for sure and I will check it.
We have entered the second year of the greatest crisis in recent history. The focus remains on suppressing Covid-19. However, those who have seen their businesses suffer and jobs evaporate are beginning to place serious emphasis on where we are heading and what the future holds. They are asking how the Government intends to rebuild for the future. As the lead Minister with responsibility for this vital task, will the Tánaiste outline his plans and his vision to revitalise our business sector and our economy? Many sectors of the Irish economy need to be nurtured and assisted with practical support to recover from the devastation of Covid. It is accepted that aviation, retail, hospitality, tourism and the arts and entertainment have seen the collapse of their business.
The aviation industry in Ireland is decimated. Prior to the pandemic, aviation supported 140,000 jobs in Ireland. The aviation industry has issued a stark warning that the longer the disruption to air travel continues, the less appealing Ireland becomes to foreign investors, which will be crucial to our recovery. It is estimated that 75% of the tourism sector depends solely on overseas visitors. There were no visitors last year, and as we approach the start of this year's season the outlook is bleak. Without our own population fully vaccinated, there is little likelihood that Ireland will be the destination of choice for tourists. Lack of tourism for a second consecutive year will spell doom for many who depend on tourism as their sole income.
Before this pandemic, 250,000 SMEs were the main source of jobs and enterprise. They are the backbone of urban and rural communities. They are family businesses, farmers, hairdressers, coffee shops and tech companies. They are innovators and risk takers. They need to reopen and trade, develop and grow again. We need to review the current Irish banking environment in respect of the provision of lending to SMEs, the financing of SMEs, the terms of credit and the banking alternatives available to them. Pre-pandemic SME interest rates were the second highest in Europe. This must be addressed.
The time has come to concentrate on solutions. Hand in hand with the plans to suppress the virus must be a plan to rebuild our economy. The key focus must be on sustaining Irish jobs and exports and increasing the resilience of the enterprise base. There is now an opportunity for the Government to refresh its approach to delivering for the long-term needs of the economy. Chambers Ireland has said that with the current availability to the Government of low-interest finance, there should be a doubling of our investment in energy infrastructure and strategic transport as well as an upskilling of our workforce and support for gender equality through investment in childcare. What preparations are under way? What plans are being made to revitalise and stimulate the Irish economy? What is the timeline for Government initiatives to reboot and grow our economy? With the information available to the Tánaiste's Department, can he see our economy bouncing back in the short term?
I thank the Deputy for the question and for his ongoing interest in issues affecting businesses and employees not just in Tipperary but across the country. Our strategy is threefold. First, it is to save as many businesses that are viable and as many jobs as we can during this period of pandemic and lockdown. There has already been €11 billion invested in the economy, propping up the economy through pandemic unemployment payments, the wage subsidy scheme, the commercial rates holiday and all the other financial supports for workers and businesses, which will remain in place until at least 30 June and will need to stay in place beyond 30 June, I think, for some businesses, particularly some of those the Deputy mentioned.
The second and most important part of the strategy, of course, is to beat the virus through testing, tracing, non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines to get the virus down to low levels, therefore allowing us to reopen the economy safely and in a sustainable way. Businesses that I talk to say to me that when they are told they can reopen next time, they want to know that it will be for good or at least for a prolonged period. That is why we want to get the numbers of sick people, the numbers of deaths and the numbers of cases down very low before we reopen again.
Third, once we do that - and that is the time to restimulate and reflate the economy, when the economy is reopening - one thing we will definitely have to do is to get people spending the savings that have built up. There is €12 billion, €13 billion or €14 billion in savings in the Irish banks at the moment that was not there a year ago, and we need to avoid the paradox of thrift and encourage people to spend and invest that money once they can. It is often the case that people are unable to spend at the moment because shops and businesses are closed. We need to make sure we encourage people to spend that money in our economy once it becomes possible for them to do so. Part of this is giving people the reassurance that while we will need to bring the deficit down, that will not involve cuts to pre-existing, pre-pandemic welfare payments or pensions, will not involve pay cuts, at least where we control pay levels, and will not involve increases in income tax. I think that will give people confidence to spend and invest when the economy is opened again.
There is also the national development plan, the €850 million from the EU, and the €1 billion from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund, all of which can be used to stimulate and reflate the economy, once it is able to reopen. That is the key to it, of course.
Finally, on aviation, €200 million has been already provided to the aviation sector under different headings, to airports and airlines. We are in further discussions with Aer Lingus regarding a package of financial support for that airline.
The availability of and access to funding is crucial for small and medium sized businesses. The option of establishing a State-supported community bank should be reviewed. The post office network and the credit unions have the have the capacity and ability to bring financial services to the public. This community model works very successfully in Germany and other European countries. Pillar banks and community banks can co-exist in this market.
The departure of Ulster Bank has left the Irish consumer reliant on a duopoly. Ulster Bank holds approximately 20% of SME lending. We now know the Bank of Ireland and AIB are buying up its loan books. This will mean less competition for the consumer. Our economy needs a competitive edge within our banking system. Pillar bank monopoly will lead to restrictive and selective lending. It will facilitate higher loan charges and general manipulation of the consumer. Lack of competition in the financial sector will disadvantage business and enterprise and hold back our economy. I ask that this banking situation be reviewed. We should avail of the opportunity presented by Ulster Bank leaving-----
The Deputy is absolutely right that access to finance is crucial for businesses, and particularly the small business sector. It is not a well-known fact but currently one third of all lending to SMEs is now Government backed - it is State-backed lending. That is done through various schemes, including Brexit loans, Covid loans and the future growth loan scheme. It has been recently confirmed that Microfinance Ireland, which lends to very small businesses, will now be able to lend through the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI. That will allow us to provide additional lending through Microfinance Ireland to very small businesses. It will be welcome in small towns and villages and rural areas in particular.
I absolutely agree that the decision of Ulster Bank to leave State is bad news, but it presents an opportunity. The Minister for Finance is talking to its owner, NatWest, and has had some discussions with AIB and Permanent TSB on what opportunities might arise to reform banking and create new forces in the banking sector in Ireland.