Wednesday, 2 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 9, inclusive, together.
The national reform programme is an important element of the European semester, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination which takes place among EU member states. As part of the semester, each member state prepares and submits a national reform programme to the European Commission each April. This provides an overview of reforms and policy actions, including in response to country-specific recommendations. Preparation of the national reform programme is co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach with input from relevant Departments and agencies.
For 2021, in line with guidance from the European Commission, Ireland's national reform programme has been integrated into our national recovery and resilience plan. The national recovery and resilience plan is required to access funding under the EU's recovery and resilience facility. Ireland is expected to receive €915 million in grants in 2021 and 2022, with a further set of grants to be allocated in 2023. A draft of Ireland's national recovery and resilience plan was submitted to the Commission by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 28 May 2021. The key aspects were also included in the Government's economic recovery plan published earlier this week.
I am on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which deals with a lot of these and with reports and commentaries on the Irish economic situation. It is an interesting fact that groups like the IMF, which we do not associate with left-wing ideology, have said a number of things. One is that income supports should not be pulled too early. Despite that, the Government has given an arbitrary date to pull income supports from people whose income and livelihood have been devastated by Covid and the pandemic measures the Government has taken.
I repeat the point about the musicians. There is no clear timeframe for musicians and the Government will cut their PUP. They are eating, as one reported to me last night, bread and jam for dinner. There is a problem. They say the onerous character of the eligibility criteria for MEBAS means the majority of musicians will not qualify.
Another thing various bodies commenting on the Irish post-Covid period have said is that we have to really invest in education and retraining. I have repeatedly raised the question with the Taoiseach of psychologists and the fact they have to work unpaid on placement and face shocking fees, such that it is almost impossible for people from a working-class or modest-income background to get a doctorate in psychology. Can we do something to reduce the burden of fees and stop the situation where they have to work for nothing on placement across the health service?
This national reform programme talks about climate action but, like so much else from the Government, the talk and the actions do not add up. At the same time as the fine talk, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has given the green light to Irish Cement to start burning a million tyres a year in its cement kiln in Limerick city. How on earth in this day and age can it be acceptable for big business to burn tyres in the city, right beside a school, a public park and people’s homes? There are major climate implications and serious health risks, especially if something goes wrong, as has happened repeatedly in the past in this factory. This plan should be resisted. Limerick Against Pollution has done great work campaigning against this over the years and the people of Limerick should not accept this. Together with the climate movement, they should organise protests and civil disobedience to stop these tyre-burning plans and protect our planet.
It also incidentally highlights a severe lack of accountability of the EPA, which has, for example, special exemptions from lawsuits despite many recommendations that it should not have such. Will the Taoiseach intervene and ensure this dangerous project does not go ahead and that there is a proper review of how it was given permission in the first place?
Ireland’s national reform programme is to be integrated into the Government’s national recovery and resilience plan. The aim, as I understand it, is to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid and make our economy and society more sustainable, resilient and better prepared for the challenges ahead. On that basis, what provision does the national reform programme intend to make for tackling poverty or committing to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights?
Yesterday the Taoiseach was asked to report on his recent engagements with the social partners and we could summarise the Taoiseach's update as underwhelming. Despite establishing a social dialogue unit in his Department, it appears its only engagements have been with the Labour Employer Economic Forum. In its submission to the national reform programme last year, Social Justice Ireland recommended an implementation mechanism for the European Pillar of Social Rights be established involving social and civil society partners. Has the Taoiseach considered tasking his new unit with this work? Crucially, Social Justice Ireland called for this implementation of the pillar to be progressed in ways that are legally binding, aiming for equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion. When we look at the current and historic barriers to equality of opportunity for people with disabilities, carers, young people from areas of disadvantage or the Traveller community, it is clear we need brand new thinking and new approaches in tackling inequality.
I will make three points. First, yesterday we got the national recovery and resilience plan. The Government will have to reconsider what it is doing in relation to PUP, particularly for those in the arts and entertainment industry and a number of others sectors which will not survive if the Government continues with this cut. I think the Taoiseach knows that. It is also an opportunity to reform the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and make it more substantial. Transforming EWSS into a short-term work scheme would ensure we have a support system in place for future downturns. Yesterday was not the first time we have heard about plans to link unemployment payments to past work PAYE and PRSI contributions. This is a standard model in many EU countries. However, will there be PRSI increases or changes in the budget to fund this? It is a valid question.
Second, the general scheme of the local property tax was published today. There is not one mention of the equalisation fund. What is the Government's stance on that fund? There are 20 local authorities depending on €133 million. I presume it is staying and it is standard. Are there any changes the Taoiseach needs to notify us of?
My final point is slightly off-topic but concerns reform. I understand it is to be announced that the leaving certificate results will come out on 3 September. That gives colleges and students no time. Some colleges are back a couple of days later. Is it accurate that the leaving certificate results will be out on 3 September? How are colleges and universities meant to deal with Covid issues and this issue as regards orientation and students getting accommodation if the results only come out then?
On the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett, we are not pulling supports early; we are extending them. Notwithstanding the fact Deputies thought we would be ending them at the end of June, we are not. We are extending the pandemic unemployment payment until September and, with reductions, from September right out to February. By then we will have reopened our economy and society. We will be getting people back to work and giving supports to people to get back to work and create new jobs.
The EWSS alone supports 315,000 workers and it is being extended to the end of the year. The Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, has also been enhanced in terms of the restart payment of three weeks at a double rate. That is significant. A new business resumption support scheme is being introduced. Commercial rates are being waived for another three months. The reduced 9% VAT rate will be kept going until September 2022.
All of that is about jobs. Deputy Boyd Barrett does not mention any of it. He comes in here and says nothing is being done.
The Deputy does actually. He says nothing is being done and he ignores the very substantive allocation of resources to protect jobs and to create jobs. I must put that on the record. There is a variety of support schemes. The Minister will continue to work with all those involved in the arts and music industry because we realise it has been severely hit and needs help and support. We are very committed to doing that. A number and variety of schemes have been provided.
There will be a new youth employment charter for young jobseekers; 50,000 education and training places are being rolled out; €114 million is being provided to SOLAS for a recovery skills response programme; and there is an action plan for apprenticeships extending to 2025, which will increase the number of apprentices registered to 10,000 per annum by 2025. So far, the response to the grant for the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme has worked very well and we have had a significant increase in apprenticeships, which is what we want. We want more of that.
It is a very extensive and good plan. The recovery and resilience plan we have submitted to Europe is good. It is good on the green economy, which again has been dismissed by Deputy Paul Murphy and others. It is good on education and work activation, which is important. I know, as I have experience of this. As far back as when I was Minister for Education and Science, we ran an 18 month technician training programme with Intel, Hewlett-Packard and other companies, where they provided a six months internship for people after 12 months in institutes of technology. People who were long-term unemployed got satisfying, lifelong careers from such an interventionist programme.
A range of such programmes is now in place to help people reorient and get new jobs. It is an action-focused plan, which will yield results. It will also yield results in terms of infrastructure. The investment in education is quite significant and takes up a large share of the recovery and resilience element of the funding and also the broader measures the Government is taking in particular to get people back to work and to get people opportunities in employment. As I indicated, we will work with musicians.
In terms of Deputy Paul Murphy's question, as Taoiseach I do not intervene in planning applications around the country, nor can I operationally interfere with the Environmental Protection Agency's assessments in respect of specific proposals and applications. I know it is a major issue of concern for people in the region, but the idea that I can individually go in there and just stop something is a classic overly simplistic presentation by the Deputy. He knows that full well.
In response to Deputy McDonald's question about the social dialogue unit within my Department, we are engaging, not just with the LEEF, but as I said yesterday I had quite a lengthy and very constructive engagement with the environmental pillar, for example, in respect of issues pertaining to climate change, climate change legislation and the circular economy. I am meeting shortly with the agricultural pillar. I have also met separately with Social Justice Ireland. What we need is delivery right across the system – delivery in housing at every level. The one thing that is holding us back is constant analysis, re-analysis and second guessing of this project and that project. We need action at all levels. I cannot understand how it is taking three and four years for housing projects to get through councils and then they get voted down again and they get delayed for another three years, all the while people shout and roar in here about a housing crisis.
The same applies right across the board in terms of getting things moving, for example, on climate change. We are against property tax and carbon tax, yet we want funding to do X, Y and Z all of the time. There are always equations. There is revenue and there is spending. The carbon tax is ring-fenced to deal with fuel poverty, for example; it is also ring-fenced to enable environmental projects in farming and it is also there to retrofit housing, which ultimately in the long term will help families with their fuel bills. However, that funding must be raised and ring-fenced if we want to really put meat on the bone of climate change. Sinn Féin and the far left will oppose all of that because they are opposed to tax on this, that and the other. I do not know where they think we are going to broaden the tax base to sustain real change in climate and housing. They are against everything and they oppose everything, and they keep calling for more and more spending. What is being presented consistently by Sinn Féin and the far left in this House day in, day out is economically incoherent. They cannot have it both ways all of the time, in particular in a situation when people do it differently when they are in government.
Deputy Kelly referred to the EWSS. Its fundamental objective is to protect jobs at the moment, and it has done that very effectively. It is a generous scheme as well. Many have commented on its effectiveness. We are establishing a commission on welfare and taxation to deal with the issue the Deputy identified in terms of PRSI. We do need to move to a situation where if someone is made redundant that there would be a pay-related dimension to that and he or she would not suffer a huge reduction in salary.