Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

11:55 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Roimh na ceisteanna, déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Dlí agus Cirt, Teachta McEntee, agus lena fear céile, Paul. Mar is eol dúinn, rugadh mac di cúpla uair ó shin. Ar mo shon féin agus ar son na Dála, déanaim comhghairdeas leo. Go mairfidh siad a nuaíocht agus a saol nua, mar is saol nua atá i gceist. Is lá stairiúil é mar níor tharla sé cheana gur rugadh leanbh d'Aire agus í i mbun oifige. Guím gach rath ar an Aire agus ar a clann. Rachaimid ar aghaidh anois leis na ceisteanna.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I want to take a moment to also offer my congratulations to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband on the wonderful news of the arrival of their baby boy this morning. As my grandmother used to say, a baby brings their own luck. I wish the Minister, her husband and their new baby all of the luck in the world. I remind the Tánaiste that the Minister herself said before she left that the measures put in place are a sticking plaster, so we have work to do, but this is a very good and historic day, as she is the first full Minister to give birth in office. We wish her all the very best.

Today, the Government will set out the plan for reopening in the coming months. This is a very positive day, and it is due to the dedication of the public and front-line health workers, who never wavered in the fight against this virus. The positivity of easing restrictions and reopening our economy also brings with it some worry for businesses and workers. I am very happy that tens of thousands of workers - many of whom have not seen a day's work for more than a year - will be able to return to their workplaces in the coming weeks and months. However, we know that public health advice means than many others will not be able to do so. I think about workers in aviation, tourism-dependent industries, travel agents and many people who will not be able to find work in their partially reopened industries. They will continue to be out of work through no fault of their own and those workers must be supported.

While the Government has continuously said there will be no cliff edge when it comes to income supports, it is unfair that it would not put some shape on what that means and give those words some meaning for the workers and business owners. The Taoiseach yesterday refused to give concrete assurance to workers and businesses who may be out of work beyond June due to Covid-19. The very least they deserve is certainty that the supports on which they depend will not be cut while public health restrictions remain in place. Workers and businesses in sectors that have not reopened, and may not reopen as quickly as others, need to know that they are not facing cuts or reductions of any sort come July. It is only fair that as long as people cannot go to work, or businesses cannot reopen due to public health advice, that those workers, business and families will retain the full support afforded to them. I urge the Tánaiste to set that out.

Businesses too need a lifeline. Chambers Ireland set out its view today. It said that businesses must be given certainty on how long wage supports, grant aid, waivers and debt warehousing will be available. So too have the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, restaurateurs, vintners, retailers and many more. They are looking for as much certainty as can be given and I share their view. In respect of the wage subsidy scheme, I believe it is incumbent on the Government to articulate a firm commitment to maintaining support until such time as businesses are not only reopened, but properly established, up and running and fully trading.

Regarding the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, many businesses that have been closed for months now fear that if they are allowed reopen and trade, their trade could bring them just over the threshold to qualify - but they would still be well out of pocket compared to what we refer to as normal times. They are looking for the qualification point for the CRSS to be flexible in light of this, and I urge the Tánaiste to support that. Sinn Féin supports the position. The simple fact of the matter is that easing the restrictions and getting business back up and running will not turn the clock back to March 2020. In the past 14 months, SMEs and family-run businesses have warehoused more than €1 billion worth of tax debt with Revenue, many have commercial rent arrears, and others have bank debt. These are all significant issues that require solutions. Unless they are addressed, many businesses will not survive and thousands of jobs could potentially be lost. We cannot allow that to happen. I ask the Tánaiste to set out that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the wage subsidy scheme will remain in place for the length of time that public health restrictions are in place. Will the qualifying restrictions for the CRSS be examined and will a flexible arrangement be agreed with Revenue regarding the continued warehousing of tax debt for SMEs?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I join with you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, by offering my sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Helen McEntee who delivered a baby boy last night, and to her husband, Paul Hickey. They have made history. This is the first time that a serving member of the Government in Ireland has given birth. When it comes to equality and diversity it is often said that people need to see it before they know they can be it. I hope that young women and girls will see today that in Ireland one can hold high office, take maternity leave, raise a family and be supported to do so. I accept we have more work to do in this area, but it is a positive day and history is being made today by the McEntee and Hickey family.

Regarding Covid, the process is as follows: yesterday the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, met and issued a letter of advice to the Government. Last night, the Covid sub-committee met and we developed a proposal late last night that will be put to the Cabinet this afternoon. Should the Cabinet agree to that proposal, the Taoiseach will make a full announcement around 6 p.m. this evening. It is a day of hope for Ireland. All things going to plan, over the course of May, June and July most businesses will reopen. Hundreds of thousands of people currently on the pandemic unemployment payment will be able to return to work and we will see a lot of our personal freedoms restored. In May alone, we could see as many as 15,000 businesses reopen and as many as 200,000 people being offered their jobs back.

I join with Deputy O'Reilly in thanking the Irish people for their resilience, co-operation and adherence to the regulations and restrictions. I know it has not been easy but it has made a big difference and it has put us in a much better place than many of our peer countries. I especially want to thank the HSE and the staff of our public health service. One of the untold stories of this pandemic is how well the health service performed. The health service often gets a lot of bad press, sometimes deservedly, but it really stood up to the challenge. We never ran out of ICU capacity, beds, oxygen or ventilators. We are able to do same-day tests with next-day results for a virus that did not exist almost a year or so ago. We have seen an extraordinary performance from the health service in that regard, not least when it comes to vaccines. Once they get into the country, in 95% of cases they are administered to people within a week.

Keeping that is going to be difficult but that is what we intend to do.

On financial supports, such as the pandemic unemployment payment, the wage subsidy scheme, the weekly CRSS payment and the rates holiday, I can confirm that they will remain in place until the end of June. By the end of May, we will set out a clear plan for people and businesses as to what will happen from July onwards. The Government fully appreciates that there are certain sectors that are going to need additional and ongoing financial support because of the difficulties they will face in reopening and recovering. These include the hospitality, tourism, aviation and events and arts sectors. The latter will need ongoing financial support for quite some time. We will set out a plan to do that before the end of May. The existing financial supports will stay in place, as they are, until at least the end of June.

When the restrictions are eased we will see a bounce in consumer spending. There is a lot of pent-up demand and money in savings accounts. There will be a bounce but we need to make sure that it is not a dead cat bounce. The last thing we want to see is a boom in consumer spending that falls off in a few months' time when we are withdrawing the financial supports that people and businesses need. That would be a mistake. We need to get this right.

We need to be honest in this House. This is all borrowed money. It is not money that we generated ourselves through our labour or taxes. This is money that has been borrowed from banks and bondholders, with the help of the ECB. It will have to be refinanced, and we need to be honest about that.

12:05 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The Tánaiste said most businesses will open. Most will, but some will not. Most workers who were in work in March 2020 will go back, which is fair enough, but some of them will not. Those workers are absolutely terrified by the date of 1 July because they do not know what is coming. We should bear in mind that many of these workers were doing the kind of work, facilitated by the Government, that meant they were not in a position to have savings. If they had savings, they have been depleted. I urge the Tánaiste to engage directly with worker and industry representatives when formulating the plan, not in big forums but on a one-to-one basis, so that he can hear directly what supports they need.

I urge him to consider flexibility around the CRSS scheme because it is a lifeline for workers and businesses in terms of keeping them going. They need a level of certainty. I welcome the fact that there will be a plan in May but, as matters stand today, can the Tánaiste commit to a period of real and meaningful engagement with these people, specifically workers' representatives?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I can give her an assurance that I will do exactly that. I will be speaking to business organisations this evening, after the Cabinet meeting. I will be meeting, in small-group format, as I often do, with the Labour Employer Economic Forum, which comprises unions and employers, next week. There will be detailed engagement with unions and employers over the next couple of days.

The CRSS scheme, which is a weekly grant for businesses that are closed, will remain in place until businesses reopen. It will also remain in place if a business is trading at significantly reduced capacity. For example, many restaurants and pubs that might be able to open outdoors in June will still be able to avail of the payment because their trading will be so restricted by the rules that will be in place. As the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Taoiseach always say, there will be no cliff edge at the end of June. There will be no rapid withdrawal of financial supports. We know they need to continue and that our economy has a better chance of bouncing back if they continue.

We also need to be honest with people, however. This is borrowed money from the ECB, banks, bondholders and from those some people wanted to burn not too long ago. Thankfully, we are able to borrow that money but it has to be refinanced.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I ask Deputies to keep to the time in order to facilitate matters.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I would like to join with others in extending congratulations to the Minister for Justice and her husband on the arrival of their new baby and extend very warm wishes to them. The Tánaiste said that people have to see it to be it. There is no doubt that the Minister for Justice has provided a very good example in that regard. We also need to see it from Government in terms of making provision for senior politicians in respect of the provision of supports during pregnancy and the early months of motherhood. We look forward to that, particularly in the context of the findings of the Citizens' Assembly at the weekend. We look forward to early action from the Government in that regard.

A new relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programme for Catholic primary schools was published this week, as the Tánaiste knows. It was developed by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference. The programme, in its introduction, states that when discussing LGBTQ+ plus issues with children, "the Church's teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted". We know what that teaching is. Relationships between men and women are natural. LGBTQ+ relationships are "intrinsically disordered".

As recently as last month, incredibly, the Vatican reaffirmed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God "cannot bless sin". That is the church's position. Let us not pretend otherwise. However, it is not the State's position or the public's position. We had a marriage equality referendum in this country in 2015 which passed by a huge majority. Same-sex marriage is every bit as valid as a heterosexual marriage.

Teaching children that relationships can be placed in a hierarchy depending on sexual orientation should be an anathema in any modern republic. Do we really want LGBTQ+ children, who may be struggling with their sexual orientation, to be taught in schools that their relationships are in any way less worthy, meaningful, loving or deserving of respect than their heterosexual peers? That is the inference of this programme.

This is an issue that does not just affect children. Speaking at the INTO's annual conference at the start of the month, its vice president Joe McKeown said that up to 4,000 LGBTQ+ teachers are hiding their sexual orientation because they feared their jobs or promotion prospects would be harmed if their school patrons discovered their true identity.

The Tánaiste may say that Catholic schools have an ethos, but sex education needs to be fact-based. Facts do not have an ethos. Can he tell me why, in 2021, RSE for Irish children is being developed by Catholic bishops and not the National Council for Curriculum Assessment? Why has the Minister for Education remained silent on this? What is the Government going to do to ensure pluralism in our schools and that we teach our children mutual respect?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Shortall for raising this important matter. The programme for Government is explicit on this and states that the Government will develop inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for RSE and social, personal and health education, SPHE, across primary and post-primary schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships. That is the Government's policy and position, and it is what we expect to be upheld in publicly funded schools.

As things stand, all schools have to have an RSE policy and that has to be developed in consultation with school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. A school's programme for RSE is developed and taught in the context of the school's RSE policy. The ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about the issues involved, but may influence how the content is treated.

Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students and is a mandatory part of the curriculum in all primary and post-primary schools for junior cycle. RSE is required at all levels from primary through senior cycle and the Department has set out the content for each of these programmes in SPHE syllabuses and guidelines. The primary level SPHE curriculum currently used in schools was published in 1999. Its purpose is to foster the personal development, health and well-being of the individual child to help him or her to create and maintain supportive relationships and to enable children to make safe and healthy decisions now and into the future. All schools are required to have an RSE policy that is developed in consultation with the school community, including management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. A school's programme for RSE is developed and taught in the context of its RSE policy. It is important to note that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about the issues, but ethos may influence how it is treated, as I have said.

In April 2018, a review of RSE in schools was announced. The report was published by the NCCA on 11 December 2019. The NCCA was asked to look at a number of specific issues regarding RSE and the curriculum, developments in respect of contraception, healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships, safe use of the Internet and social media, relationships and self-esteem and also LBGTQ+ matters. The immediate focus of the work was on creating support materials for teachers to support effective teaching and learning linked to the current curriculum. This work is progressing well and the first section of the toolkit, a portal repository of teaching and learning resources linked to the primary SPHE curriculum, the SPHE junior certificate short course and the SPHE framework, has been published and the second section is due to be published at the end of April. In tandem with the development of the online toolkit, preparation for redeveloping the SPHE curriculum has begun, with an initial focus on the junior cycle.

12:15 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Tánaiste. It would be helpful if we had a statement from him, the Minister for Education or the Taoiseach on the new programme that has been developed. Many people would have serious difficulty with it and it would be helpful to hear what the Government's position is on it.

There are 2,800 Catholic primary schools in the country, accounting for 90% of primary schools. Does the Tánaiste know how many schools transferred patronage from either the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland to multidenominational patronage since 2016? It was eight schools. Last year, just one school in the entire year was divested. That was from Church of Ireland to Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. The snail's pace of the divestment programme is clearly untenable. It is wrong that the church is given a choice about the type of education children receive but Irish parents are not. As long as the church controls 90% of schools, that choice will be absent. This must change as a matter of urgency. What does the Government propose to do about it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is true that transfer of patronage has been very slow in the past couple of years but it is also important that transfer of patronage, where it occurs, should be done with consent. In my constituency we have a reasonable mix of schools, including community national schools, Educate Together national schools, Catholic diocese schools and a Church of Ireland school. When one talks to parents, many of them say they like the model they have and the way their school works. It is a case of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" or "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater".

It is important that we listen to parents and students, where appropriate, and ask them what model of education they want. One will often find that there are children and families from a diversity of backgrounds attending the local parish Catholic diocese school who are not looking for a change in patronage. They like the school and the way it operates and they do not want it to change fundamentally. We need to bear that in mind also. Very often, migrants who come to Ireland want to send their child to the local Catholic parish school because to them that is integration.

To come back to the Deputy's question on sex education, the Minister and Government will make a statement on that. We need to make a statement on it because the programme for Government is very clear that when it comes to this matter it has to be inclusive of LGBTI relationships.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Among the industries and groups of workers in this country are the approximately 25,000 taxi drivers who have been crucified by the impact of Covid-19 public health restrictions. That will continue for as long as other sectors on which they depend for their income, such as music, entertainment, events, tourism and aviation, are affected. However, their appeals for specific assistance to deal with the debts they are accumulating, their ongoing costs and a financial package to help them survive and recover have been consistently refused by this Government.

To add insult to injury, taxi drivers were planning to come to Government Buildings at 10 o'clock this morning to engage in a public health compliant protest where they made it absolutely clear that they would be in their cars so as not to breach public health guidelines. Despite giving that clear assurance and communicating it to the Garda, on Wednesday, one of the representatives of the four national taxi groups received a call from Pearse Street Garda station in which they were informed that if taxi drivers turned up in their cars, every driver would be fined €100 and the organisers of the protest could face up to €20,000 in fines or up to two years' imprisonment. That is absolutely shocking.

This comes on top of a development the previous Thursday when gardaí facilitated KPMG strike-breakers doing non-essential work in non-essential retail removing stock, and physically removing, in quite a brutal way, mothers and grandmothers who were fighting for fair redundancy. I could add to that the legal threats against ESB workers pursuing a legitimate fight against outsourcing and privatisation in the ESB and film workers threatened with being fined and arrested a number of weeks ago for suggesting a protest at the RDS.

I ask the Tánaiste a very simple question. Is it the case that we have one law and one form of policing for workers who are engaging in public health compliant protests to try to secure redundancy rights, financial assistance for their industries and livelihoods which have been devastated, while the same gardaí and laws are being used to facilitate KPMG strike-breakers? Is it one law for the workers and another law for the strike-breakers? That is completely unacceptable. I ask the Tánaiste to respond.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. There is only one law and those are the laws that are passed by us, including the Deputy, here in this Oireachtas. The Garda is responsible for enforcing the laws we enact here in this Oireachtas. That is what gardaí have to do.

Regarding taxi drivers, the Government acknowledges that they are among the groups that have suffered the most in this pandemic, not in health terms but certainly in economic terms. We all know their business is heavily dependent on tourism and people attending events and availing of hospitality. As a result, they have seen a very major reduction in their incomes.

I have met taxi drivers, at the Deputy's suggestion, and I am following up on some of the issues they raised with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan. Most are self-employed and, as a result, can access a range of Covid-19 financial supports, including the PUP and the credit guarantee scheme. The Department of Transport has waived licence fees for 2021 at a cost of €2.6 million.

Taxi drivers eligible for the PUP are also allowed to continue to work and receive the payment. There is an income disregard which allows taxi drivers to earn up to €960 every eight weeks, net of any expenses, without jeopardising their entitlement to the payment. That is not only a crucial lifeline for those who, through no fault of their own, cannot work in the way they did previously but will also be an important financial support for drivers once they return to work and until passenger demand returns to more normal levels.

As I mentioned, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, met the taxi representative groups twice last year. I understand officials from the National Transport Authority, NTA, have been in regular dialogue for months with groups representing taxi drivers. The Minister and officials from his Department remain available to meet taxi representatives, as they would with any lobby group or representative organisation. Officials have also been engaging with the advisory committee on small public service vehicles. A meeting of the committee will be attended by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, today.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Taxi drivers have a number of simple demands, none of which have been met. They have asked for a financial package of supports to cover their fixed costs, which were estimated by the NTA a number of years ago at €11,000 a year. Those are debts they have been accumulating and they have been excluded from the schemes to support those fixed costs. They have asked for a moratorium on the issuing of licences. They have asked for the taxi advisory committee to be replaced with a body that allows them direct access to the relevant Ministers.

There are also other demands, many of which are non-financial. One such demand is to replace the rule requiring vehicles to be replaced after ten years with a rule stipulating 15 years, given that drivers have lost their incomes. None of those demands has been met and that is why the drivers were forced to organise a protest this morning. They have now had to call it off because, even though they made it clear they were going to comply with public health guidelines, they were threatened with fines, implications for the future licensing of their vehicles and the possibility of their leaders facing prison sentences or massive fines. Is that not political policing against taxi drivers? The same point could be made about what happened Debenhams workers last Thursday.

12:25 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I can only repeat what I said earlier, that is, that laws are passed here by us in the Houses of the Oireachtas. There is no law on Covid that did not come through this House. The Garda is responsible for enforcing the law. Statutory instruments can, of course, be revoked by this House. I have not yet seen a proposal to revoke any of the statutory instruments put in place since this pandemic began. As I mentioned, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is going to meet the advisory committee on small public service vehicles today. It involves some taxi drivers but also consumers and others who have an interest in the sector and industry.

On the issuing of new licences, there is widespread awareness of the acute difficulties facing the industry. Since the pandemic started, the number of licences issued has decreased to a very small one because, understandably, very few are entering the industry at present. I am told by the Department that in view of that reality and the fact that a formal halt to the issuing of licences would require legislative change and might be anti-competitive, the Minister does not see how a moratorium would deliver any real benefits to anyone at this stage.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I agree with the Tánaiste that today is a day of hope across the entire country considering some of the announcements that are being made. In particular, it is a day of hope for the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband, whom I congratulate. It is a day of hope in the mid-west but we cannot live on hope alone. There is a marked absence of announcements on when the hospitality industry will open. I refer in particular to hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. There is an absence of a plan for the aviation sector. Shannon Airport still does not have a chair and is expected to resurrect itself miraculously without one. Shannon Heritage sites are being opened. We still do not know what their future will be. It is 15 months since I raised this issue in the Dáil.

It is also a day of hope in that it is hoped some of the draconian enabling legislation passed by this Dáil will not be rolled over in June. It has been abused by successive Ministers for Health, particularly Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The Tánaiste incorrectly said he has not seen an attempt to revoke any of it. The Rural Independent Group, supported by many in my group, put a motion before this House. Notwithstanding the bleatings of some Government backbenchers who opposed the statutory instrument, those backbenchers nevertheless went through the lobbies and voted to keep it in place. Therefore, the Tánaiste is incorrect in that regard.

I want to focus on one point in particular. I ask the Tánaiste to cast his mind back over a year to last March when the pandemic first began. Enhanced Covid illness benefit was introduced at €350 per week. The rationale for that was that people would not be disadvantaged, or would be disadvantaged as little as possible, as a result of having to self-isolate or having Covid. One could not but agree with that. It became the rationale for the rate at which the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was set. As we congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and rightly so because there is nothing more hopeful than the birth of a baby, we should recall that thousands of mothers across this State, when they went on maternity leave to give birth and bring a life into the world, had their rate of pay reduced from the PUP rate to the maternity benefit rate, which is €245. Notwithstanding all the laws we rightly have in the private sector to prevent women from being discriminated against because they, uniquely, give birth, we are quite happy to penalise them for it by reducing their payment from €350 to €245. That begs the question of the rate at which the maternity benefit is set in this country, which cherishes life and must cherish birth. Consider what is required if our economy is to have a future, bearing in mind that the Tánaiste has stressed all this money will have to be paid back. We have a relatively high birth rate in this country and need to maintain it for the good of the economy and society.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. There will be a formal announcement by the Taoiseach later today on the reopening of hotels, all the services associated with them and the hospitality industry more broadly, including pubs and restaurants. It relates to outdoor activities.

I fully agree that we need a plan for aviation and a return to international travel. Airports have received very large amounts of grant funding from the Government in recent weeks and months. Airlines have been among the biggest beneficiaries under the employment wage subsidy scheme. Hundreds of millions of euro have already gone to the aviation sector during this pandemic but what it wants and needs is to get back to business and resume flying, not grants from the Government. However, it is just too soon for the return to international travel, unfortunately. The pandemic is raging around the world; it is worse than it ever was. The number of daily cases around the world is at a record high and we cannot escape that reality. The truth is that, in a few months, the world will essentially be divided into three parts: those areas whose populations are heavily vaccinated, namely, Europe, including the UK, and Israel, some Gulf states and the US; countries whose populations are not fully vaccinated, including Brazil, India, Russia, most of Africa and South America; and countries that have adopted an elimination strategy whereby they are safe but closed off, with populations that are not vaccinated and will not be for at least another year. Travel between those groups of countries will be very difficult. We may be able to allow international travel among countries whose populations are substantially vaccinated but we are not there yet. Only Israel is in that position. It is reopening to tourism on 26 May. It will be many months before we will be at that point. We need to think ahead and plan for it, however, and that is what we intend do over the course of May.

On the question on whether the maternity benefit rate is too low, I believe it is. We set the pandemic unemployment payment and the enhanced illness benefit payment rates at €350 per week because that is 70% of average earnings in the sectors most affected, namely construction, retail and hospitality. The payment is income linked, based on how much a recipient earned before receiving it. I have often said I would like to see a reform of our welfare system so benefits such as illness benefit, maternity benefit and jobseeker's benefit are income linked. We should do that. A lot of people would oppose that but we should do it. Let us not forget, however, that all of these benefits are paid for through the Social Insurance Fund, which is now back in deficit. If we make these enhancements, we need to have a serious conversation about PRSI and whether employees and employers are willing to pay more for higher benefits. I believe that the more one pays in, the more one should get out, but that means moving to a different system. I am up for discussing it but there is too much talk about free money in this House.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I am glad the Tánaiste is not suggesting this is free money because it is a benefit that accrues from working. I am glad he agrees that women should not be penalised for going on maternity leave. It is unlawful to penalise them in the private sector. Will the Tánaiste at least address in the short term the issue whereby those going on maternity leave have to come off the PUP and take a lesser payment? I was about to call the Tánaiste "Taoiseach" because he speaks sometimes as a bystander. He has been Taoiseach of this State. It is a unique privilege. It is a position in which one can sometimes exert authority and move towards doing some of the things the Tánaiste now talks about. I invite the Tánaiste to move in that direction and perhaps commit to having the Government discuss this. I am not saying the Government will be able to implement what I propose but it should discuss a serious move towards ensuring maternity benefit and illness benefit will be set at more realistic rates.

12:35 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I will, with the help of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, look into the issue the Deputy raised of people who are on the pandemic unemployment payment moving to a lower payment, maternity benefit, and we will see whether we can do anything on it.

I had the privilege to be Taoiseach for three years and Minister for Social Protection for one year, and this is exactly the space I moved us into. I restored treatment benefit, dental and optical, for people who have paid PRSI, extended social insurance benefits, such as treatment benefit, to the self-employed and farmers. I brought in paternity benefit, extended jobseeker's benefit and invalidity pension for the first time to the self-employed and increased the minimum wage by 25%. I think I have a good record, in the brief time I had to do those things, and hope to do more in this role and any future role I may hold in government. These things need to be worked out and legislated for, and also to be funded.