Thursday, 1 July 2021
Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
We are here today to discuss the legislation that will give effect to some of the decisions announced on 1 June as part of the Government's economic plan, which sets out a new phase of supports for this next stage of recovery as businesses reopen. In the past few weeks, it has been possible to ease restrictions as more and more citizens, including the most vulnerable, are vaccinated. A more cautious approach is being taken for the next phase of reopening following the most recent public health advice. The Government recognises this is difficult for many sectors, and particularly for so many businesses that believed they would be able to open next week.
We are seeing significant reductions in the number in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, as employees go back to work. According to Department of Social Protection data, nearly 90,000 people came off the PUP in the four weeks leading to 22 June, and a further decrease, of 16,000, occurred in the week to 29 June.
This Bill is relatively short but it provides certainty to businesses as public health restrictions are eased. It allows them to plan as they reopen and resume trading at a normal level. This is urgent legislation since two of the Government support schemes, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, were both due to expire on 30 June. However, the Revenue Commissioners may operate these schemes for a short period under care and management provisions of the Taxes Consolidation Act so payments can continue.
I pay tribute to the Revenue Commissioners and staff who operated the various schemes, including the EWSS and the CRSS, that provided much-needed support to businesses in a very responsive way. The Minister for Finance has asked me to inform the House that he requested the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach to agree to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill in recognition of its urgent objective of providing necessary supports to businesses. The committee has agreed to this waiver.
The Bill will provide a legislative basis for the actions agreed by the Government at the start of June to support businesses. Let me outline these measures. The EWSS will be extended to 31 December 2021. The CRSS will be extended and enhanced to provide additional supports to businesses upon reopening and give certainty to businesses still directly affected by public health restrictions. A new additional business support scheme, to be called the business resumption support scheme, BRSS, will be for businesses with reduced turnover as a result of public health restrictions, and it will be implemented in September 2021. The tax debt warehousing scheme will be extended. This is to allow the period in which liabilities arising can be warehoused to be extended to the end of 2021 for all eligible taxpayers, with an interest-free period during 2022 and to include overpayments under the EWSS in the scheme. The reduced rate of VAT, 9%, applying temporarily to hospitality and tourism-related goods and services will be extended until 31 August 2022.
The Bill will also put the financial resolutions of 19 May, which introduced the 10% stamp duty charge on multiple purchases of houses, on a permanent statutory footing. In addition, on the advice of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Bill will provide for an exemption from the 10% stamp duty charge for the provision of the mortgage-to-rent scheme by private sector participants. Mortgage to rent is an important part of the broader social and affordable housing agenda. Members should note the Minister's intention, again on the advice of the Minister for Housing Local Government and Heritage, to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to facilitate an exemption from the 10% stamp duty charge in circumstances where houses are bought by investors for leasing to local authorities.
The Bill is relatively short and contains 15 sections. I will run through them in brief. The first 12 deal with the various business supports and the remaining ones deal with the stamp duty issue and the financial resolutions passed by the Dáil on 19 May.
Section 1 is a definitions section.
Section 2 provides for the extension of the EWSS to 31 September 2021 and the retention of the current enhanced subsidy rates until 30 September 2021. It does thisby amending section 28B, inserted by the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Act 2020, of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020. It also provides for the retention of the 30% reduction in turnover or orders threshold and a modification to widen the reference period to assess eligibility for the scheme, with effect from 1 July 2021. The EWSS is a central pillar of our response to this pandemic, supporting businesses, encouraging employment and helping to maintain the links between employers and employees. As of today, direct subsidy payments of over €3.75 billion have been made, with an additional €611 million given in PRSI relief to over 50,300 employers in respect of 600,000 workers.
Sections 3 and 4 make several changes in relation to the CRSS. They provide for the extension of the scheme to September 2021. The power of the Minister for Finance to extend the scheme further, to 31 December 2021, by order, is not changed. I will undertake an assessment in September to consider the extension of the scheme to the end of December 2021.
In addition, section 4 provides for enhanced restart week payments under the scheme for businesses reopening after a period of restriction. Under the amended provisions, the level of restart week payment a business may claim will depend on the date on which it reopens. I will go into detail on that. Where the business reopened between 29 April and 1 June 2021, it may claim for a restart payment equal to two weeks at double the normal rate for the CRSS, subject to a maximum weekly payment of €5,000. Where the business reopens between 2 June 2021 and 31 December 2021, it may claim for a restart payment equal to three weeks at double the normal rate for the CRSS, and that is subject to a maximum weekly amount of €10,000. In all other cases, the standard restart week payment will apply, which is one week at the standard rate for the CRSS, subject to a maximum weekly amount of €5,000. A business may qualify once for either the double restart week payment or the triple restart week payment. The scheme has been very effective in providing targeted support to businesses that were forced to close or restrict access to their premises on foot of public health restrictions. There are currently 22,800 businesses, with 26,800 premises, registered for the CRSS with the Revenue Commissioners. In total, €636 million has been claimed by businesses under the scheme, with over 11,000 premises claiming restart payments as restrictions have eased in some sectors.
Following the announcement on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 that the reopening of indoor dining will not proceed next Monday, as planned, the Government agreed that the CRSS would be amended to allow for a double week payment to businesses that remain closed or are significantly restricted under the public health restrictions from the week commencing 5 July for two weeks, subject to the statutory cap of €5,000 per week. The Minister intends to make an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage to provide for these additional payments.
Section 5 provides for the BRSS, which gives a new support to businesses that have been significantly impacted throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It inserts a new section, section 485A, into the Taxes Consolidation Act that makes provision for the BRSS. I will now outline the scheme's key features.
First, the scheme is first available to affected self-employed individuals and companies who carry on a trade or trading activities, the profits from which are "chargeable to tax under Case I of Schedule D". It is also available to persons who carry on a trade in partnership and any trading activity carried on by charities and sporting bodies. To qualify under this scheme, a business must be able to demonstrate that its turnover under the defined specified period of 1 September 2020 to 31 August 2021 will be no more than 25% of their turnover in 2019. Additional provisions are made in respect of businesses that commenced trading later than the end of 2019. Qualifying businesses will be able to make a claim for payment calculated on the basis of three weeks of 10% of the first €20,000 weekly turnover and 5% thereafter. This is based on average turnover for 2019 and will be subject to a maximum payment of €15,000. Payments made under the scheme will be treated as an advance credit for trading expenses.
To make a claim under the scheme a number of other conditions must be satisfied including that the person has an up-to-date tax clearance certificate, that he or she has complied with their value-added tax obligations, that he or she is not entitled to make a claim for the CRSS on 1 September 2021 and that the business is actively carrying on its trade and has an intention to continue to do so. The person must register the claim on the Revenue online service and must make a declaration that the person satisfies the conditions to make a claim under this section. Provision is made for the publication of the name of claimants of BRSS on the Revenue’s website.
This new scheme is designed to support some of the worst affected businesses during the pandemic and especially those that continue to be significantly impacted, even after the easing of public health restrictions. The scheme is designed to be as inclusive as possible. It is subject to the key requirement that turnover is significantly impacted and will apply first to businesses that qualified for CRSS but no longer do so on 1 September. Second, it will apply to businesses that qualify for supports provided to employers under the employment wage subsidy scheme. Third, it will apply to businesses that may have qualified for other sectoral supports such as the small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC, and Fáilte Ireland’s tourism business continuity scheme.
As I have said, the intention of the scheme is to assist businesses which were significantly impacted throughout the pandemic and to be as inclusive as possible. Anchors necessarily included in the CRSS, such as that to have a fixed business premises and that access to this premises was restricted or prohibited, are not included in the BRSS. In addition, the scheme will be open to sectors that did not qualify for CRSS because of specific tax requirements, such as charities and sporting bodies. It is intended that the registration for the BRSS will open from 1 September.
As Deputies will be aware, the Finance Act 2020 provided that a temporarily reduced rate of value added tax of 9% applies from 1 November 2022 to 31 December 2021 to the supply of restaurant and catering services, guest and holiday accommodation, and entertainment services such as admission to cinemas, theatres, museums, fairgrounds, amusement park and sporting facilities, as well as to hairdressers and the use of certain printed matter such as brochures, maps and programmes. Section 6 extends the application of the 9% VAT rate to these supplies to continue until 31 August 2022.
I mentioned earlier the ability of the Revenue Commissioners to provide much-needed and timely support to businesses. Debt warehousing has provided over 86,000 individual businesses with vital liquidity support. This includes 2,600 large cases and medium enterprise division taxpayers, which has significant employment implications.
At the end of May some €2.4 billion of tax debt had been warehoused. The main components were VAT at €1.3 billion and employer PAYE at €1.1 billion.
The next sections of the Bill, sections 7 to 12, make further provision for warehousing. In all cases the warehousing scheme will have three phases or periods. Period 1 will be extended until 31 December 2021; period 2, called the zero interest phase, will run from 1 January 2022 until 31 December 2022, during which time no interest will be charged on warehoused relevant tax from period 1; and period 3, the reduced interest phase, will run from 1 January 2023 until the relevant tax is repaid to Revenue. During Period 3, interest will be charged at approximately 3% per annum on warehoused relevant tax from period 1.
Warehousing is available to businesses which, as a consequence of Covid-19, are unable to pay their relevant tax and which have filed all relevant PAYE and EWSS returns. The extension of the scheme and streamlining of the dates of each period will give clarity and certainty to businesses as to their tax liabilities for the remainder of 2021 and will assist them with their cash flow as they seek to recover from such a difficult trading period. Section 7 provides for the warehousing of EWSS overpayments received by employers which must be refunded to Revenue. Section 8 deals with refunds of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, payments. Section 9 deals with PAYE, section 10 deals with certain income tax, section 11 deals with VAT and section 12 deals with PRSI.
Deputies will recall that a financial resolution was approved by the Dáil on 19 May 2021 in order to amend the Stamp Duties Consolidation Act 1999 through the insertion of a new section 31E titled “Stamp duty on certain acquisitions of residential property”. The purpose of this new section is to impose a higher stamp duty on multiple purchases of residential units, and the financial resolution allowed it to have immediate effect. It forms part of the Government’s response to the recent phenomenon of the purchasing in bulk by commercial institutional investors of homes at or near completion in competition with the owner-occupier market.
Section 13 of this Bill places Section 31E of the Stamp Duties Consolidation Act 1999 on a permanent statutory footing. As the Members will recall, this section imposes a 10% rate of stamp duty on the acquisition, on or after 20 May 2021, of certain types of residential units where an aggregate of ten or more such units is acquired during a rolling 12-month period. This is a significant increase on the standard stamp duty rates that apply to the acquisition of residential property, which is 1% of the value of property up to €1 million and 2% of the value that exceeds €1 million. The 10% rate applies in respect of the acquisition of residential units, such as houses and duplexes but not apartments. The measure is intended to disincentivise the purchase of multiple residential units by a single corporate entity or individual. The section also contains a number of anti-avoidance provisions.
Turning to section 14, a key area in the broader social housing agenda is the mortgage to rent, MTR, scheme. Approved housing bodies, which are exempt from the 10% stamp duty, are an integral part of the MTR scheme and their participation in the scheme has enabled a significant number of borrowers to remain in their home as social housing tenants. In an effort to increase the potential of the scheme to meet the needs of more borrowers, the Government has provided for non-approved housing body entities, that is, private sector participants, to purchase properties under the scheme to increase the scale of successful cases that could benefit from the scheme over time. However, as things stand, these private sector participants are not exempt from the higher stamp duty rate. The Government has agreed that an exemption from the 10% stamp duty would be provided for them and section 14 of this Bill is drafted to facilitate this.
Finally, section 15 is the usual section with the Short Title of the Bill.
In conclusion, the Government has kept its promise that there will be no cliff-edge to supports for businesses and it is extending and enhancing supports to business as they reopen. The new business resumption support scheme will provide additional support to the businesses worst affected by the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. The EWSS and CRSS will be extended. The tax debt warehousing scheme will be extended to the end of this year, with no interest charged throughout 2022.
On 19 May, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, informed the House of his intention to place the financial resolution agreed that evening on a permanent legislative footing. This Bill will do that, as well as taking care of certain other aspects of the stamp duty for multiple purchases of houses and I commend it to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on what is now the third Bill with financial provisions in response to the pandemic. For the third time, Sinn Féin will support the financial provisions which will support our economy and ensure that it is in a position to recover strongly from the impact of this pandemic.
In this regard I draw attention to recent comments made by the Minister for Finance during his election campaign in Dublin Bay South, during which it is reported that he said that Sinn Féin are against all of the measures that laid the foundations for us to be able to help our country during the pandemic. This is such nonsense from the Minister. It seems that the Minister has truly lost the run of himself and has chosen to respond to the fact the Government is not getting the reception that it expected by making groundless accusations.
As the Minister knows, my party supported the previous two financial provisions Bills in response to Covid-19. Indeed, we sought to improve that legislation and the schemes it introduced. For example, we sought to ensure that women returning from maternity leave would not be excluded from the temporary wage subsidy scheme. Such changes subsequently came to pass. In a similar vein, Sinn Féin will support this legislation for the very reason that it will support our economy and businesses while protecting the jobs and incomes of workers and families. That is what we have sought to do. We will also engage with this legislation and seek to improve it where it falls short, in our opinion. In that regard we will submit amendments to sections 13 and 14 of the Bill, which give investment funds free rein in the housing market to price struggling buyers out of homeownership. Before that, however, I wish to speak about the earlier provisions of the Bill and the background against which they are being introduced.
As public health measures and restrictions have been eased, the economy has rebounded strongly. With the continued roll-out of the vaccine, a return to regular consumer spending and supportive policy measures, we are in a strong position to see a recovery in jobs and economic activity. This view has been given by both the ESRI in recent weeks and the Central Bank today. The pandemic and the public health restrictions to suppress its spread were always a temporary and Government-imposed pause on economic activity, different from any economic shock we have experienced thus far. The responsibility of the State is to respond to that shock and that was the clear objective. The clear objective was to protect incomes and to support businesses while preventing any long-term scarring of the economy. A refusal to act quickly and to do whatever it takes would have undermined recovery and magnified the impact and duration of the economic damage that has been done.
Sinn Féin played a constructive role in ensuring that that objective was met. In March of last year I wrote to the Minister outlining a set of principles and policies that should underpin the State's response to the economic impact of the pandemic at a time when we were just learning of the potential impact of that same pandemic. In that correspondence I argued for a suite of measures ranging from a wage subsidy scheme to direct fiscal supports for businesses. Throughout this period, Sinn Féin has supported and facilitated the introduction of measures that have offset and cushioned the economic shock of the past 16 months. This has been done through the accelerated passage of legislation, which is definitely not the norm and should not be the norm in these Houses.
As the vaccination roll-out gathers pace and restrictions ease, the broader economy is expected to recover in headline terms. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has projected economic growth of 11.1% this year and 6.9% next year. While the Central Bank's projections are less optimistic than those of the ESRI, they still point to robust growth this year and next year. We know the growth is largely driven - and we will not be fooled by the numbers - by a strong performance not only in the export of pharmaceutical goods and ICT services but also in contract manufacturing. However, those figures fail to reflect the uneven impact of the pandemic and the level of damage still felt in the domestic economy, in particular in sectors such as tourism and hospitality, which we have spoken so much of in the past.
The pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme have been crucial in protecting incomes, supporting businesses and maintaining the link between employers and workers to ensure a successful return to employment for as many as possible. Before the easing of restrictions in May, almost a third of the workforce was in receipt of a payment or subsidy through either the PUP or the EWSS. Last year Sinn Féin called on the Government to reverse its planned decision to cut the pandemic unemployment payment, a call that was heard and implemented by the Government, albeit late in the day. Sinn Féin engaged with the Minister and the Government on all iterations of the wage subsidy scheme, successfully arguing for changes that provided greater support for workers and employers. These included provision for those returning from maternity leave, an increase in the bottom rate of payment so as to ensure that workers were not provided with less support through the scheme than they would have had through the PUP, and an increase in rates under the employment wage subsidy scheme, which were subsequently acted on by the Government in October 2020. We will continue to engage to improve and to amend these schemes and to make sure they are fit for purpose for the times we live in.
The majority of provisions in this Bill give legislative effect to a number of actions recently announced as part of the economic recovery plan. Section 2 provides for the extension of the EWSS until the end of the year, with the current rates of subsidy under the scheme remaining until 30 September. The legislation also modifies the reference period for the assessment of eligibility. Sinn Féin supports this extension, which offers critical support for employers and workers in the retention of jobs. With the wage subsidy scheme to be extended until the end of the year, Sinn Féin has argued for the introduction on a permanent basis of a short-time working scheme that could act as an automatic stabiliser in response to downturns as a means to retain employment and stave off the threat of long-term unemployment. Such a scheme has served other countries such as Germany well as a countercyclical tool to reduce unemployment when the business cycle would do otherwise. I encourage the Government to look at our proposals and to take them on board.
Sections 3 and 4 would provide for the extension and enhancement of the Covid restrictions support scheme for consumer-facing businesses impacted by the public health restrictions. I note that this legislation does not provide for the double week payment from 5 July for a period of two weeks in response to the delay in the reopening of indoor dining. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether it is necessary to amend the legislation to provide for this double payment or whether it can be provided through other means. Since the introduction of the Covid restrictions support scheme, Sinn Féin has been critical of the number and types of businesses that have been excluded from the scheme despite the impact of public health measures on their trading, including those with non-rateable premises and suppliers. We have made that point time and time again. We therefore welcomed the Government's introduction of the small business assistance scheme in March, despite its late introduction.
Section 5 of the Bill introduces a new scheme, the business resumption support scheme, which will provide support for businesses that continue to be impacted by the pandemic - and we know that many will - and is set to be introduced in September. It is crucial that the eligibility criteria for this scheme do not exclude affected businesses as the CRSS did.
Section 6 of the Bill extends the reduced 9% rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sector until 31 August 2022, a measure my party and I welcome. Sinn Féin argued for the introduction of the 9% rate for the hospitality and tourism sector in our submission to the July stimulus programme last year. The Government ignored this and did not implement the rate then but did so on 1 November of that year. Again, delay is better than inaction. The reduced rate will allow businesses in the sector to absorb the reduction on their balance sheets and support their cash margins.
Sections 7 to 12, inclusive, provide for the extension of the tax debt warehousing scheme, allowing for the period in which tax liabilities can be warehoused to be extended until the end of the year, with an interest-free period in 2022. I note also that section 7 allows for overpayments under the EWSS to be warehoused in a similar manner. On a related issue, I ask the Minister of State and Revenue to ensure that efforts to claw back overpayments under the scheme, through either accident or abuse of the scheme, are adequately resourced and funded. Any attempt by certain employers to receive payments under the scheme with the consequence of reduced pay for their workers where there was no entitlement to the scheme should be thoroughly investigated, with appropriate repercussions following. I reiterate that my party welcomes the extension of these supports, which are crucial to protect jobs and to avoid any long-term scarring of the economy or undermining of the recovery.
Sections 13 and 14 provide for different measures entirely and are in response to the scandal of investment funds snapping up homes under the noses of struggling homebuyers. This is a system that has been facilitated and encouraged by Government policy through tax advantages and exemptions which Sinn Féin have opposed for years. Sections 13 and 14 of the Bill give legislative effect to the financial resolutions passed by the Dáil last month.
I reiterate that in response to the measures announced in the context of that financial resolution, the share price of leading institutional investors in the Irish housing market rose. That speaks volumes. These measures were introduced in response to public outrage at something that is neither new nor accidental, namely, the block purchase of homes, during a housing crisis. It has been taking place for a number of years and is a direct result of Government policy. The block purchase of homes in Maynooth was simply the straw that broke the camel's back.
The Government has since scrambled to introduce measures that give the appearance of action. The tax status enjoyed by these funds for several years has given them financial firepower against which struggling home buyers could never compete, with no corporation tax on their rental profits, no capital gains tax on disposals and minimal stamp duty. That is what allowed investment funds to price struggling home buyers out of the housing market and led to increases in house prices and the amounts paid by struggling renters. It allowed them to make combined operating profits of €3 billion from 2017 to 2019. Year after year, Sinn Féin has called for these tax advantages to be ended and has tabled amendments to successive Finance Bills to facilitate this. Every year, those amendments were opposed by Fine Gael. Only last year, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party opposed our amendment suggesting the introduction of a stamp duty surcharge on these investment funds, acting against the interests of struggling home buyers and in favour of investment funds and private developers.
This legislation is the Minister's response. It is the bare minimum. He takes those in the Dáil and the public for fools. The Minister has set a stamp duty charge so low that it cannot act as an effective deterrent. Such a charge will only reduce the rental yield for these funds by 10%, a hit they can easily absorb, and will either lead to them increasing rents over a period by 10% or splitting the difference. The charge is too low and Sinn Féin will be tabling amendments to have it increased.
Worse still, the provisions of this legislation are littered with gaps and exemptions. Forward purchase agreements that have already been made between funds and developers will avoid the stamp duty charge, despite the residential units having not yet been built. The Minister cannot even tell us how many homes bought up by investment funds will avoid this stamp duty charge as a result. Under section 31E(7), the Minister has ensured that apartments are excluded from the charge, ignoring the advice of a senior official in his own Department who warned that "by having no extra stamp duty on the bulk purchase of apartments, you potentially drive the individual home purchaser out of that market". That is exactly what will happen. The same official argued for a proposal that would ensure that these funds could not buy up full apartment blocks but the Government ignored this advice and took the side of institutional investor against the interests of struggling home buyers. There is no surprise here.
The Government has simply put a sign over Dublin city, where the majority of new builds are apartments, which says “Aspiring homeowners need not enter”. The reality is that the Government has waved the white flag. It has surrendered this city to the vulture funds by not imposing that surcharge on apartments to this funds. Worse, the Minister of State has come before the House to say that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, rather than the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, who is bringing forward an amendment to the legislation on Committee Stage which will exempt the funds that buy houses from the increased stamp duty if they lease them back to local authorities. Let me put on record what the Taoiseach said in the House just three weeks ago in response to the scandal in Maynooth where an investment fund bought up these homes under the noses of aspiring house purchasers. He said:
Let [the] message go out loud and clear from Government. No local authority should be on the other side of this, engaging in a long lease with these institutional investors...
Now we are told that the Government is going to do the exact opposite of what the Taoiseach said. The Minister is going to exempt these funds from buying homes if they sell them to local authorities. You could not make this up.
The Bill is riddled with holes. It is pro-investment funds legislation because the Government has exempted apartments and created another loophole through which funds will drive a horse and carriage. Anyone who understands what is happening in the market knows this is why they are piling into Ireland. It is because there is a scheme whereby they can buy this stock, push up the prices and then sell the homes involved back to local authorities through a long-term scheme which the Taoiseach said does not offer value for money.
The Labour Party and I are happy to support the continuation of the schemes as outlined in the Bill. The scale of the support provided to businesses and to working people who may have lost their work through no fault of their own in the last 16 to 17 months is unprecedented. We all agree that there should be no cliff edge facing any business or worker with the removal of any of these critical supports at a very sensitive time in the pandemic and our economic recovery. This week has told us how unpredictable the virus is and will continue to be, and we have to be very careful how we proceed. We are still far from the shore and there may still be choppy waters ahead.
While there may be no cliff edge for many businesses and many thousands of workers with the maintenance of the EWSS, the CRSS and the extension of the tax warehousing scheme, which is very generous indeed, the same really cannot be said for those who may have to continue to have a decent floor of social protection through the PUP. In light of what we know about the impact of the Delta variant and what public health experts tell us may be coming down the tracks, I would ask the Government to review the position in respect of to the PUP and any possible reductions. There are sectors like the arts and entertainment that are most unlikely to come back strongly as soon as we would all like. A decent safety net has to be continued for those workers and others who are likely to be the last to get back to anything close to normal operating levels any time soon.
While we welcome its extension, this is another missed opportunity to reform the EWSS into a German-style short-time work and training scheme and make it a permanent feature of our labour market. I note that recently, Sinn Féin has started to be supportive of the position originally enunciated by the Labour Party in 2019 in the context of Brexit and business unemployment supports that we believed were required then. Likewise, with the ever-growing challenge of climate change, a permanent wage-subsidy scheme with an appropriate retraining element will be a crucial tool for ensuring a just transition, ensuring that workers are upskilled and remain productive and our businesses remain competitive in uncertain times as our industrial and economic model changes.
Labour has consistently called for a training element to be incorporated into the wage subsidy scheme like other equivalent EU schemes. The Central Bank and OECD and other august think tanks are on the same page. I would like to hear from the Minister of State, and maybe on another occasion from the Minister for Finance, on the current thinking on the introduction of a training element, conditional on access to any reform of the wage subsidy scheme, that maybe under consideration.
Time and again, I have raised the obstacles faced by some mortgage applicants whose employers are accessing the EWSS, even though the applicants may not be paid through it themselves. I note the growing numbers of mortgage drawdowns for first time buyers but I think that masks the very real and worrying problems faced by some mortgage applicants who are now being put to the back of the queue because some lenders are now making calls not only on their personal circumstances but also on the viability of the firms where they work because the company has made an appearance on the Revenue’s wage subsidy scheme list.
I do not expect the Minister to make an intervention but I know the Minister of State would agree with me, and the Minister for Finance and other Ministers are on record as saying, that banks must treat people fairly during the pandemic. That is the position of the Central Bank too, but in my experience the evidence of this is scant, certainly in regard to the obstacles being placed in the way of those who are working with companies that may be dependent on the wage subsidy scheme, even though the owners are not being paid through the scheme.
I ask that the Minister examine, as a once-off gesture, scrapping the tax bills associated with the TWSS from last year and the PUP. This has been dismissed previously by some who should know better as something of a populist move. It is nothing of the kind. It makes economic sense and can act as a form of stimulus for towns across the country. It would cost less than what the Government allocated to the doomed stay-and-spend scheme. By and large, those who are on the TWSS and PUP are most unlikely to have been among the group who managed to save €12 billion in exceptional savings that we hope will be unleashed into the economy in the short to medium term. This is something worth revisiting. It would be a gesture of solidarity to a lot of younger workers in particular.
I will now turn to the section dealing with the CRSS. There is an anomaly for the likes of travel agents which are caught in a real trap. Travel agents in Louth and elsewhere have been advised by Revenue that under the reopening of non-essential retail, they no longer qualify for the CRSS. This is nonsensical given the particular set of circumstances in which they find themselves. Many have seen turnover plummet by up to 95% compared with 2019, and they are still not trading to any great degree. Even when forward bookings are made for 2022, the agents will not necessarily get any real income from the bookings until eight weeks before clients are due to travel. That is my understanding of how the industry operates. These businesses are in a desperate situation. Technically, they are open for business, but from what I can see, their work mostly involves advising existing customers on previous bookings, organising refunds and changing travel plans. Although they are open, they are not generating much income. They are servicing the needs of existing customers and not generating much by way of income or turnover. Could a discrete support be designed to assist them in what is a fairly unique situation?
I strongly welcome the move on the new business resumption support scheme, BRSS. Those businesses that do not pay rates and do not operate bricks and mortar premises have been neglected for too long. I made the case for a scheme such as this months ago and it is very welcome.
I will move now to the extension of the 9% VAT rate cut. I do not question the motivation because I know we all want to do everything we possibly can to help a bruised and battered sector that has been through the mill in the past 15 or 16 months. However, this is a very expensive subsidy for a sector that, in truth, has been hampered by a public health problem, not one of demand. Will the Minister of State provide a figure for the anticipated cost of this extension? Does he or do his Government colleagues have any concerns in respect of the deadweight effect experienced the last time such a cut was introduced after two years of operation of the previous scheme?
The Tánaiste keeps telling us he wants to see pay and workers' rights improved as a consequence of the pandemic. He says he wants to focus his priorities on the needs of private sector workers, many of whom are not members of trade unions, where trade unions may not be recognised and where the pay and conditions of workers need to be improved. I take that with a very liberal pinch of salt. He should insist on the hospitality sector engaging in the joint labour committee, JLC, provided for in law since 2012, as a condition of this support going forward in order to provide improved collectively bargained pay and conditions for hospitality workers. Until he does that, I take issue with his commitment to the interests of younger workers in the hospitality sector and elsewhere. He could make a decision on that overnight and encourage the actors in the sector to come together under the sectoral bargaining system that is robust and constitutionally sound. That would achieve the kinds of outcomes the Tánaiste says he wants.
In respect of the provision of the 10% stamp duty on bulk purchases of homes, I agree that it is a mistake not to include apartments. As I have said before, I am pleased that the exemption will also be provided to approved housing bodies, AHBs, that are active in the mortgage-to-rent space. There was consternation when they were not included in the initial instrument and I am pleased that they are now. I was in contact with both the Department of Finance and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in this regard in recent weeks. Mortgage-to-rent is a viable, good and sustainable solution for many who have distressed mortgages and the move to exclude mortgage-to-rent providers from the charge of 10% makes sense.
There was a strong focus this week at the national economic dialogue, NED, on the need to avoid a procyclical stance. I understand that. There is much talk about medium-term targets for the deficit and how permanent increases in spending might be funded in a sustainable way. We need to have a serious debate about the utility of the current EU fiscal rules framework. I have no doubt that this is a hot topic of discussion in EU capitals and within the Eurogroup over which the Minister for Finance currently presides. As we know, these rules were agreed at another time entirely and they need to be reviewed. It appears that the low interest rate environment will be maintained for some time. I am reassured by recent comments made by the head of the NTMA when, to paraphrase him, he said he is not overly worried about borrowing costs in the near and medium-term future. Mr. Philip Lane of the ECB also recently said "there is no risk of a new period of exceptionally high price growth" when addressing concerns expressed across Europe on the potential for inflation.
We are not certain when the EU fiscal rules will kick in again. Mr. Klaas Knot of the ECB said at the start of June that "fiscal flexibility is needed and has to be an integral feature of the framework". I agree with him, as do my Labour Party colleagues. In saying all of that, we will have to avoid an overly procyclical stance. Everybody accepts that. Growth looks set to be strong, but as the Central Bank stated in its review today, it will be uneven. Nobody is saying that we should spend too much of what we do not have on current spending, but now is the time to use the propitious environment we are in to borrow a bit more to crack housing, health, climate and childcare.
Before Covid, Ireland had the lowest level of general government expenditure of our peer countries. We can and should invest wisely and strategically to address the deficits we have. It is not just me saying that. IBEC, the American Chamber of Commerce and others are making this case too. Our debt levels are high, but so are everyone else's. There is much concern in Merrion Street about this level of debt and how and when we might address it. There is not much wrong with running a modest budget deficit for a little longer than some would like, if we decide to use borrowing, for example, to double investment in housing. The ESRI made a very cogent case for that only two or three weeks ago. Nobody in their right mind is saying that we should not concern ourselves with the deficit, and its size. However, it would be irresponsible if we did not concern ourselves with it. That said, balancing the budget should not be a policy end in itself. Nor should any of us be ideologically blinded or too dogmatic about this. We are in a different set of circumstances now than we were in 2008 and 2009. It is not a mortal sin to run a modest, medium-sized and serviceable budget deficit if it is being done for the right reasons and not to run up current spending in an irresponsible way.
The ESRI and the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, have done important work and the latter has shown how we can, to a large degree, grow our way out of our current indebtedness. That is provided responsible public investment decisions are taken. By all means, let us get the deficit down, but we should do it in a gradual and structured way that does not kill the patient or damage the recovery or our plans to invest sensibly in the future.
Before Covid-19 struck, Ireland had the lowest general government expenditure in the league of rich nations. Now is the time to get rid of the innate conservatism that has dominated Irish politics and economic thinking and take advantage of the circumstances, build homes and tackle the infrastructural bottlenecks that are holding our economy and progress back.
If we look at our demographics, the issues that will be facing us for years are clear. The population is getting older. There will be fewer workers to provide the tax euro we need. We need to use the current climate to do the things we may not be able to do in 20 years, and it will be too late then in any case.
I look forward to a debate on the summer economic statement, which will no doubt seek to address some of these very live issues. I hope the summer economic statement is published before the Dáil's summer recess because it is important, at this pivotal time for our economy, that this House has the opportunity to hold the Government to account and to provide our own input into the future direction of this economy. Another live debate is the question of how we, as a State, can fund the permanent increases in spending that Covid has ushered in, and this is a perspective that dominated the national economic dialogue this week. When we are discussing this Bill, Government supports and so on, we cannot be immune to that. We need to figure out how to resource the additional spending that most of us in this House agree needs to occur over the next few years.
The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, and others see, in terms of health spending and other big spending areas, additional expenditure of approximately €5 billion a year. That is in the base and it is not going away. Of course, the Government was rebuked by IFAC only a matter of weeks ago and its spending plans and economic forecasts were dismissed. IFAC does not see the plans as credible; I do not either and I do not think the public do either.
The Covid experience has seen a greater understanding of the role of the State and how it is ultimately the State that we expect to deliver for us. I hope we are all agreed that the State has delivered - with all its expertise and its mandate and authority, it has delivered in our hour of extreme need. This is very clear in the context of the supports provided, which will be renewed and refreshed when this Bill passes all stages. We should credit people with understanding that a better healthcare system has to be funded, that better welfare supports will mean additional asks of the PRSI system and that if councils are to provide the amenities, then we will need to pay for them through a modest charge on residential property. We cannot be Boston and Berlin at the same time. A tax cutting agenda and a narrowing of the tax base, bizarrely advocated by some who claim to be of the left, will not mean better public services and most people will not be conned into believing that that trick can be pulled off. We need a serious conversation about tax and services in this country. We need to decide on what we want and how the services we say we want ought to be resourced.
I commend the Minister for Finance and the Government more generally on the setting up of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, which is an important innovation. The one criticism I have is that it has not been placed on a permanent statutory footing. Pretty average workers on pretty average pay in this country have to pay similar amounts of income tax and other taxes to peers in analogous countries. It is not actually a high tax country, despite the rhetoric of some who do not believe in taxes at all, it seems to me, but who then cannot tell us where we are going to get the money to run the public services on which we all depend. Most wealth, as we know, is held not in income but in assets. Taxes on wealth and a very serious top-down review of very costly and poorly targeted reliefs and exemptions can, I believe, have the potential to help us fund a new direction for the country as we emerge from this great disruption - this great public health crisis but also economic crisis - and, I hope, help us on our way to forging a new social contract for the Irish people.
I thank Deputy Nash. I ask Members to try to concentrate on the provisions of the Bill. I call Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, who is substituting for Deputy James O'Connor.
I thank the Minister of State. I believe this legislation is to be welcomed and that it forms an important part of the economic recovery plan. It is crucial that we support businesses as public health restrictions are eased. Local businesses are the lifeblood of our communities. From speaking to businesses in my own county of Carlow, I know they have gone through a massively demanding time since March of last year. Nobody could have foreseen the fallout from Covid-19 or the way in which our lives were turned upside down by the health emergencies. However, we have adapted and we have learned to live with this disease. I strongly believe that, as a people, we will come out stronger from this.
I have been heartened by the way local businesses in Carlow have adapted to these trying times. It has been inspirational to see how people have come together and worked through this pandemic. One thing that has come out of Covid is that people have got such a big sense of community, and businesses are working together and helping each other, which is crucial. We have seen this happen, although it has been very hard.
To turn to the Bill, I am fully supportive of the extension of the employment wage subsidy scheme until the end of 2021. The extension and enhancement of the Covid restrictions support scheme is also welcome and provides additional supports to businesses upon reopening. It also gives certainty to businesses that are still affected by public health restrictions and certainty is something we definitely need in these most uncertain times. The new and additional business resumption support scheme that will be implemented in September 2021 is a welcome initiative.
Businesses will need all the help they can get as they get back on their feet following the unprecedented time we have all gone through. This legislation acknowledges the frail nature of firms in certain sectors as they emerge from the impact of public health restrictions. It is also about giving business a hand up, not just a handout. I welcome the announcement that businesses that remain closed or that are heavily restricted under the public health restrictions may make a claim for additional CRSS support. Initiatives such as the business resumption support scheme show that this Government understands what businesses have gone through since March of last year. We are all in this together and it is only by working together and looking after each other that we will get through these most challenging times.
The extension of the reduced 9% rate of VAT for hospitality and tourism until the end of August 2022 will provide continued support to the hospitality sector, which has been particularly affected by the public health measures introduced to tackle the pandemic. I hope it will help. It is a fact that many businesses have not yet been able to reopen and the extension of the reduced rate will provide for a long period to assist recovery in this sector. The reduced rate of 9% will apply to areas such as catering, restaurant supplies, tourism accommodation, cinemas, theatres, museums, historic houses, open farms, amusement parks and hairdressers. All of these activities are part of everyday life in our country but they all came to a shuddering stop because of Covid. This legislation will help these businesses in a practical way as they try to get back on their feet.
One thing we have all learned through this pandemic is that we took things for granted in our lives. I believe we have been able to gain a newfound appreciation for what we have. We are now seeing our world through new eyes. Never again will we take for granted activities such as meeting friends for dinner or visiting museums or parks. It is probably part of our culture but, like everything else, it is something people take for granted, for example, being able to give their mother or sister a hug, which was not possible when things were really bad. We have come a long way with the vaccine but the supports will be crucial.
Covid-19 has disrupted all of our lives. I spoke to a constituent today and I was taken aback by what she said. This woman was highly driven and ambitious and, having taken time off work to look after her sick mother, she sought to return to the workforce. She was interviewed for a role in the community employment scheme at the beginning of this year and, thankfully, she was successful in getting a position in Carlow. She went through all of the relevant stages for the role, including Garda vetting, and was looking forward to resuming employment. However, due to the pandemic, her starting date has been postponed, not once, not twice, but three times. In the meantime, her contributions to jobseeker’s benefit ran out and she was no longer eligible for the payment. As this woman is no longer receiving a social welfare payment, she is no longer eligible for employment through the CE scheme. The role in Carlow is still available for her but she is no longer eligible to take it up. She could have taken up other positions in the meantime, but this was the one she wanted and now, through no fault of her own, she is no longer eligible for it. As she told me today on the phone, she has been left in limbo by Covid. These are people who we should not forget as we try to get our country back on its feet. That example involves a woman I know well.
She is my neighbour and through no fault of her own, she has lost access to that scheme due to Covid. When I submitted an appeal about this to the Department, it told me that nothing could be done. Many small things are being forgotten. It is unacceptable. If we do not look after workers on the community employment schemes and others, they will have been forgotten due to the pandemic through no fault of their own.
Part of the Bill addresses housing. I firmly believe that everybody deserves a home. People in the Minister of State's constituency might come in, looking for housing. We need to finance housing and to have affordable housing. We need to make sure that everyone who meets the criteria to buy a home is able to buy one. When we pass these Bills, we need to make sure that we look after the most vulnerable people in society. They are sometimes forgotten.
As the country opens, we must be mindful of lessons learned. We must continue to look out for and value one another. I welcome this legislation. It will assist our businesses in a practical way as they seek to return to what they do best.
The provisions contained in this Bill provide for enhancements to existing Covid-19 supports, as well as the introduction of the business resumption support scheme. We need to do more for small business owners where businesses are closed due to the pandemic in order that they will have a business to reopen when it is safe to do so. Every day, I am contacted by small business owners, mostly in the hospitality sector. They are genuinely worried that they will not have a business to reopen if the Government does not listen to their concerns. Every single one of them is critical of this Government and of the red tape involved in business supports. The temporary wage subsidy scheme was developed in haste. As the old saying goes, act in haste, repent in leisure. The frequently asked questions section on Revenue's website about the temporary wage subsidy scheme has been revised nearly 20 times and stretches to 79 pages. We saw significant tax bills being sent to workers, which is exactly what they do not need at this time. Workers cannot take much more of this.
Business owners need certainty to enable them to plan and to help them to keep their businesses alive. We do not need the haphazard approach of this Government in recent days. Business owners who have contacted me have also been critical of the Government's deafness to their plight. A deaf ear has been turned to businesses that do not fit the narrow definition of businesses covered by legislative change. The Government has been too slow to react.
The Bill also gives statutory effect to the financial resolution passed by the Dáil relating to the rate of stamp duty applying to the bulk purchase of housing. The decision to exclude apartments from this legislation has been criticised by many. Even the Secretary General at the Department of Finance has been critical of this decision. In reality, this change is just a speed bump for vulture funds instead of the roadblock that it should be. They will continue to plunder housing stock but they will do it in groups of ten now instead of groups of 100. The Government's housing policy must favour ordinary workers and their families, not the status quoof favouring developers and vulture funds. Sinn Féin in government will ensure that it does this. The last speaker said that we are all in this together. I do not think so.
We have supported the Government stepping in when it needed to, to ensure that businesses were given adequate supports to survive in the last period. We supported this absolute necessity, whether through the pandemic wage subsidy scheme, replaced by the employment wage subsidy scheme, and the pandemic unemployment payment. We need to ensure that we have these protections. As much as we thought in recent weeks that we were moving to a better place, which we might still be overall, it has stalled. As we have had the dreaded Delta variant, we need Government action to deal with the variant versus the vaccination scenario. There are new guidelines from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, regarding young people and use of the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. We need to ensure that the timelines are sped up as soon as possible to facilitate this.
While we all welcomed the Covid restrictions support scheme, at the time a significant number of businesses fell between stools and missed out on those necessary supports. We knew there were issues with those people who did not necessarily pay rates and may have had non-rateable offices but still had significant overheads. I think in particular of companies with substantial numbers of vehicles, insurance and other costs. Many were lucky and were close to going to the wall. I had considerable interaction with the Minister of State, Deputy English, and I brought examples to him, the Tánaiste and others of firms in Dundalk and throughout County Louth that were impacted in this way. The small business assistance scheme and the business resumption support scheme could be the solution for many of these businesses. We need to ensure that that happens.
Deputy Doherty and a number of other Members from Sinn Féin have pointed out the elephant in the room, which is the fact that we are still dealing with a housing crisis. We are not dealing with the issue of investment funds pricing regular people out of business. We have a stamp duty percentage that just does not cut the mustard. We need the Government to get real but we need to ensure that we have an adequate response for those businesses, families and people who need the supports as we continue through this period.
I will address a subject broached by my colleague about businesses that have fallen through the cracks. The circus sector has been left behind. It has been thrown from Billy to Jack, told to go to the Arts Council, and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, which has sent it back to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Finance. It has achieved nothing so far. These organisations have functioned for maybe 150 years. It is one of the most successful performance art sectors that exists in the country. It washes its face economically, while most others do not manage that. It is phenomenal with regard to regional delivery since it goes to every single town in the country. There is probably not a child or anybody here who has not been able to attend that sort of performance art at some stage in their lives. On a rainy day on holidays in Waterville, County Kerry, it is a godsend to be able to bring kids to such an event.
I hope that the Minister of State has some influence to achieve change with this. I mean this sincerely. They have been left to rot on the vine. They are selling their materials, big tops, tents, and trucks, all necessary things. There is a significant chance that this sector will not be able to survive and that this 150- or 200-year-old heritage will not be able to survive unless it gets financial help. It has received bits and pieces but it is window dressing instead of the finances that it needs.
Regarding enterprise supports, it is impossible for me to convey the level of anger, frustration and complete disbelief at what is happening with small businesses. The science that has been accepted by every single other European country is being completely ignored in this State. We are not operating under the same science as any other European country. As of tomorrow, every single other European country will allow for legal indoor dining. Ireland will be alone, isolated, insular and inward-looking with its decision to prevent restaurants and pub owners from allowing indoor dining to function.
That is an incredible and extraordinarily damaging situation. The Government has now said it is looking for a solution, an extremely controversial one, which is some kind of vaccine passport to operate that. Nobody believes the Government will get that together within the next two weeks. Nobody in this country believes the Government will get that together before September, in truth.
In fairness, this is related to small businesses, which are at the heart of this crisis and the target of much of what is in this Bill, if the truth be told. There has to be a solution brought forward. That solution has to follow what the likes of Denmark and Finland did in their countries. They looked at the science, made decisions and have opened up safely for more than two months now.
Hospitality workers are a sector of society significantly targeted by this Bill. Hospitality workers are being massively stuffed. It is interesting there is a by-election on 8 July. In many ways, that by-election was timed to take place just two or three days after hospitality was meant to open up. We have a crisis in small to medium-sized enterprises in hospitality. The Dublin Bay South constituency, for example, has hundreds of pubs, restaurants, clubs and hotels and thousands of workers who should be working in those areas but are not at the moment. The reason they are not is the Government cannot make a decision.
It is absolutely the job of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to give advice on this issue, but it has very tight terms of reference. Its terms of reference are purely related to Covid and nothing else. It does not take cancer care or any other healthcare into consideration. It does not even touch on enterprise, small business or finance, which we are discussing. The Government has the terms of reference to look at those particular issues and the broader terms of reference to make sure that everything is balanced within society, but it has now outsourced complete decision-making on this issue to NPHET. I do not mean this in a personal way, but Micheál Martin has a track record, politically, of not wanting to make hard decisions. He has a track record, going back many years, of setting up committees and having reports written. That information stands for itself. However, as a result of that inability to make a decision, we have whole sectors of the economy and society that are stuffed, economically.
The truth of the matter is that cases of Covid will rise again when we come to September and October. There is no doubt about that. This is a coronavirus, which has a seasonal profile and we will see increased cases in the second half of this year. To a business, a week in July is worth seven weeks in November and December. Many of these businesses will only make their money at this time of the year. It is very sad to hear of Government backbenchers kicking up a storm at the moment, but people need to stand up and put their votes where their mouths are. Just a couple of weeks ago, legislation on emergency powers went through this Dáil and all those Deputies voted for the Government's legislation. Those same Deputies are now kicking up having voted for that legislation.
The main Opposition party has sat on the fence for the last number of months on this issue. SF should stand for "sitting on a fence" when it comes to this key issue for people throughout the country. People who advocated zero-Covid are now hopping to the other side of the fence very quickly. There are unbelievable situations where political parties such as the Social Democrats, Labour Party and others are sticking their fingers in the air, finding out which way the wind is blowing and changing on this and, all the while, a sector of society is absolutely busted.
I heard today the Government is putting antigen testing in place. The organisation now in place to work out an antigen test system in this country has not got its terms of reference. This is six months, or more, after the EU gave the go-ahead for it. It is around 12 months since many countries, and some private companies, got it together to do antigen testing. Antigen testing could be run to help these small businesses that are in this desperate situation at the moment. I welcome the financial supports for these small businesses but, in many ways, they are now zombie businesses. If many of these businesses do not get to function this summer, and they still have not properly opened by October, supports or no supports they are toast and are going down the drain. Once those supports are pulled away from these zombie businesses they, and the people who work for them, will fall.
Workers in the hospitality sector used to be the people People Before Profit and Solidarity stood for, but not any more. These workers are allowed to swing for themselves. We have a situation where they have been pushed into poverty and debt and are having significant difficulties keeping roofs over their heads at the moment. I welcome the supports we are providing for them but one thing that would actually support them so they, and aviation industry workers, could go back to work, is to have antigen testing available and functioning now. It is incredible that they have been marching on the streets and yet antigen testing still remains in the future tense. Why does antigen testing remain in the future tense for this Government? How can it be, after so long and when so much damage has been wrought in these small businesses throughout the country, that the word "antigen" only exists in the future tense in this country? If I hear another Minister going on the radio to say, "We are looking into antigen testing", my brain may explode, along with the rest of the country. It is just so hard to believe.
My sister, Mairéad Tóibín, is a pharmacist. She says the pharmacists of this country could run antigen testing on behalf of people. People could go to a pharmacist on the day they want to go for a pint, or a feed, get their antigen test done, get a stamp from the pharmacist and away they would go. There seems to be a complete lack of practicality and urgency from this Government at this moment in time. I have good regard for the Minister. I know he has a strong interest in doing the right thing for his constituency and the country, but I am still shocked that nobody is cracking the whip, the pressure is not coming on and anger is not translating into action by the Government.
The cost of this Bill is another aspect of it. It has not been discussed at all. Right now, we are running up to approximately €40 billion in costs as regards all the extra Government expenditure over the last 15 months. Some €40 billion starts to put this crisis in the same ballpark as the banking crisis. It puts it in the same space as the banking crisis, as a cost to the State. It is different at this moment in time in that there is access to credit to allow the flow of money to go where it is needed and, do not get me wrong, I am not arguing for one second that any of these supports are pulled because I am not. I am saying this debt will have repercussions and is not cost free. It will steal from future investment. Mark my words, we will watch cuts to investment in housing, health, infrastructure and the environment over the next ten years on the back of this debt. As true as night follows day, debt equals a reduction in spending. Typically, under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's political logic, it also includes an increase in taxation for those who are most vulnerable and cannot afford it.
My instinct on this is very simple. One of the ways we can stop this debt from further increasing is to allow people go back to work. People want to go back to work and they can do safely. Aontú has councillors in the North of Ireland. Our councillor in Derry, Emmet Doyle, came down to help us recently with our election campaign and was dumbfounded that indoor dining and pubs were closed. They have been open for two months in the North of Ireland and not a bother on them if truth be told. While much of the focus is, rightly, on extra supports and their extension to people throughout the country, we cannot ignore the logic of getting people back to work. It is the elephant in the room in all these discussions. Keeping people away from work leads to poverty and debt, while getting people back to work leads to them getting on with their lives. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying for one second that restrictions may not be necessary in future. All I am saying is that, today, conditions do not exist in this country for the restrictions the Government is interested in.
There are 44 people with Covid in hospital in this State. All of those people could fit into any house in this country. There are plenty of hospitals with no Covid cases, yet cancer, mental health, heart disease and stroke services are not fully operational. It is an incredible situation.
Let us keep the antennae of cautiousness well up, operational and focused and let us listen to the science, but let us operate under the same science as the rest of Europe. There is only one science. There is not a European version of it and an Irish version of it. There is one science and the rest of Europe has managed to plug into the logic of it, that is, to be careful but to live as well.
A Cheann Comhairle, hold on a second. I came in here prepared to contribute. I have been sitting in my office watching the debate. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, is jumping the queue. There are two Deputies here to speak. It is not fair.
I am asking the Ceann Comhairle to be reasonable. There is plenty of time and a shortage of speakers. I am asking the Ceann Comhairle to allow the two Deputies who have bothered to turn up to speak to do so.
I will make an exception in respect of Deputies Boyd Barrett and Michael Collins. I am not making any further exceptions. It is extraordinary, having called on the Minister of State to respond, to have to ask him to resume his seat in order that we can go back to two Deputies. I will do it on this occasion, but I will not be doing it again.
I appreciate that. I know the Ceann Comhairle does not disagree with this because we have discussed it, but it further underlines the point about the change of the speaking order enforced by the Government, which guarantees this sort of uncertainty. The Government insists that it has multiple slots before some of us get to speak and then no one from the Government side bothers to turn up. It is further confirmation of the sabotage of debate in this House.
We will support this Bill because it provides for an extension of supports for those who have been hit as a result of the pandemic and whose incomes or livelihoods have been affected by public health measures. It goes without saying that we would support that, as we have done in the past. We will not try to block the passage of this Bill in any way because we want to see those supports extended. However, there are many things that should be in this Bill that are not. I will come to the stamp duty issue later. The measures in this Bill to prevent the cuckoo funds swooping in and buying large amounts of property and pricing ordinary people out of the market are tokenistic. I am not even sure they are actually designed to achieve what the Government says they are designed to achieve. I think they are designed to appease public opinion.
I will first speak to the income supports. The Minister of State might provide clarity on the following issue in his closing remarks. On multiple occasions, I have highlighted the need for support for particular groups that have been most hard hit or extremely hard hit by the pandemic and the public health measures, that is, musicians, performers, people in events and entertainment and taxi drivers. That is not an exhaustive list. I heard other Deputies mention travel agents and so on, but I know more about the musicians, events and performance side and taxi drivers.
I want to ask a straight question, but on the basis of past experience, I pretty much know the answer. Are the approximately 26,000 taxi drivers in this country and their families who depend on their income, which is a large cohort of people, once again excluded from the business supports under the small business assistance scheme for Covid and the Covid restrictions support scheme or will that change under the new business resumption support scheme? I had a look at the application form and information on the SBASC on the Department website. When one reads through the criteria for application a taxi driver could tick every box only to find that at the end of the form a statement that PSV drivers cannot apply for it. For no explicable reason, they cannot apply for it. It is open to many other businesses that are deserving of it, but taxi drivers are excluded. Has that changed? Will taxi drivers be eligible for the new scheme or are they once again excluded?
I remind the Minister of State, as I have reminded multiple other Ministers in this House, that according to an NTA survey in relation to taxi drivers, they are paying, on average, approximately €11,000 on fixed costs in terms of maintenance, car repayments, insurance and fuel and so on, which they are required to do in order that they can continue to operate, but which they have not been able to meet because their income has collapsed for the last year and a half. In that regard, there has been no full recovery and it is likely full recovery is even further away as a result of the decision to delay the full reopening of the hospitality sector, which is deeply connected to the viability of the taxi industry.
Will the business resumption support scheme be extended to taxi drivers or is the Government once again excluding them? If so, it begs the question as to what this Government has got against taxi drivers. When it comes to one group, despite the constant repetitions that there will be no cliff edge for those affected, which I heard again today from the Minister of State, there is a cliff edge in relation to the PUP. The Minister of State might clarify if that is the case. As the taxi drivers understand it, they are facing a cliff edge on the PUP, some of them from 7 September and others in early November, because if their PUP is reduced to €203, they are then required to sign on for jobseeker's allowance.
Taxi drivers cannot sign on for this allowance and so either must face the prospect of giving up their jobs and livelihoods to go on a jobseeker's payment or must sign off all supports, even though they are carrying all of the accumulated costs of the last year for which the Government has given them no support. Their industry is still not fully recovered so they cannot hope to earn a full living in September when those changes to the pandemic unemployment payment kick in. Will the Minister of State please clarify that point? According to what the Department of Social Protection is telling the taxi drivers, once they hit the level of €203, they will be informed that they have to go on jobseeker's allowance. This is despite other suggestions having been made by other Ministers to the effect that the PUP supports for taxi drivers should be maintained until February of next year. There is, therefore, a direct contradiction between what the Department of Social Protection is saying and what other Ministers have said about supports for taxi drivers.
Many of these same points apply in the case of musicians. Will musicians, performers and others who work in live entertainment be able to benefit from the business resumption support scheme or are there going to be further exclusions for people who do not have rateable premises, outward looking businesses and so on? Are they going to benefit from those supports? To date, the vast majority have not. Some who have premises and some of the bigger small companies or medium-sized companies in music and entertainment have benefited from some of the support schemes, and are very glad to have done so, but the ordinary jobbing individual or lone trader who is a musician, performer or similar has been excluded from the support schemes to date. Is that going to change with the new scheme proposed here? I fear and suspect it is not and that once again the Government has let down this cohort. I would like the Minister of State to tell me I am wrong.
I will move on to the issue of stamp duty. It is a very serious issue. The Government is well aware that there is absolute anger and outrage at the fact that these cuckoo funds are swooping in and buying whole estates, as they did in Kildare, north Dublin and other locales, pricing out the ordinary working family, young family, young couple or whoever else is trying to purchase a home. They can forget about it because these investment funds have swooped in and bought everything. On foot of the public outrage and anger about this, and the anger expressed by many of us in the Opposition, the Government said it was going to address the issue. However, it came out with only this token measure of a 10% rate of stamp duty. In no way will this act as a disincentive to these big super-wealthy investment funds. They can well absorb the increase to 10% from the 1% or 2% they might have paid in the past. They will pass it on in the price of the house or in the cost of a lease to a local authority. An increase to 10% is of no use. It is not a serious attempt to keep out these entities that have absolutely wrecked the housing market and which are also responsible for manipulating rental prices. In many cases, they are charging absolutely extortionate rents. We all know what these people are charging, which is €2,000, €2,500, €3,000 or more a month.
This 10% rate of stamp duty will not do it. We need to do what New Zealand has done and keep them out full stop. How would this be done? We proposed amendments when the Government previously tabled a motion on this issue and we will certainly be trying to amend this legislation. The rate of stamp duty should be set at 90%. It should be absolutely punitive and prohibitive if it is to completely stop them from being able to invest. The threshold should not be ten units as this implies it is okay if they buy up nine units, after which they will be hit with this token 10%. Instead, it should be 90% and should kick in if they buy more than one unit. If we are really trying to support ordinary working people who are trying to get a home to put over their own heads rather than investors who are simply trying to make money, we need to set stamp duty at a level so high that they would not dream of buying the properties and this needs to kick in if they try to buy more than one property.
It is also absolutely shocking that, in any event, even this token 10% will not affect those who buy properties before leasing them back to local authorities. It is unbelievable. It is bad enough that the local authorities are trying to source social housing from these cuckoo and investment funds which are charging absolutely extortionate prices, but we are now going to give them tax supports to do so. One has to suspect that the Government's change of heart and U-turn on what it was saying a few weeks ago is a direct result of lobbying by the cuckoo and vulture funds. In this legislation, the Government is quite literally dancing to the tune of these vulture, investment and cuckoo funds, that are doing nothing more than trying to profit from the housing and homelessness crisis and from the misery great numbers of working people in this country are facing.
Worst of all, none of this, not even the pathetic 10% rate of stamp duty, will apply to the purchase of apartments. Of course, this is the area in which these vulture funds, cuckoo funds and investment funds are most active. They buy up entire apartment blocks. They are doing it everywhere in this city. Some of their practices are absolutely nauseating. They buy up these blocks and do not even rent them out. They are quite happy just to sit on them. It is just an investment. They do not give a damn whether people can live in these places. They buy a block as an investment, watch their capital gains advance and then flog it off afterwards without paying any tax on the capital gains or, perhaps, rent the apartments out at extortionate rates. Some of the apartments around here are owned by Lone Star. The rents on them are €3,000 a month or more. It is absolutely shocking. The Government is going to allow that to continue.
What we need to do is to exclude these vultures from the market completely. We need to recover and rescue people from the situation in which we find ourselves as a result of the disastrous policies of NAMA which unloaded the property, sites and so on that put these cuckoo funds and investment funds in charge and in control of this country's dysfunctional housing market.
We will support these minimal measures and extensions insofar as they will support some people but it is really outrageous that no serious action is being taken to stop the rampage of the cuckoo funds and investment funds that are wrecking the housing market and contributing directly to the housing crisis working people are facing. It is also absolutely disgraceful if, as I suspect is the case, groups like taxi drivers, musicians and others who have been excluded from previous income and grant support schemes are to be excluded from the new scheme put forward in this Bill.
Yes, it is. Our office communicated with the Ceann Comhairle's office to the effect that I was to share time in this slot with Deputy Boyd Barrett. The House has agreed that speakers can share time.
Will the Deputy please resume his seat? The situation is quite clear. Several speakers were not here at the time they were scheduled to speak. As a result, the debate progressed to the point at which there was nobody in the Chamber offering who had not already spoken.
I called on the Minister to respond and, as he stood to do so, Deputies Boyd Barrett and Michael Collins entered the Chamber and made a case that, because they were entering at that point, they should be allowed to speak. I agreed and made a ruling that we would hear Deputies Boyd Barrett and Michael Collins but not anybody else. I stand over that ruling.
I understand the predicament the Ceann Comhairle is in. When he called the Minister, I believe the Minister was baffled and was looking for his paperwork. He had got to his feet but had his head down looking at his paperwork because he was not expecting to be called. A representative from the Rural Independent Group was here and I was on my way up trying to get in to the building. I left Leinster House when the previous speaker was called. That gave me 22 minutes of speaking time to get from Leinster House to here. I got here in about ten and could have penalty points for it because I drove so quickly to get here on time. I arrived in the time slot written down on estimated times given to us for our group. Deputy Boyd Barrett was speaking before us and I was here for the Rural Independent Group. Other Independents are also here to speak in the slots they were given. We are told to turn up for our slots and we do so. Deputy Boyd Barrett was speaking and I made it here in time. Now the Ceann Comhairle has made a ruling in the middle of it. The Minister was not ready to respond and he did not respond.
I know the Ceann Comhairle is a fair person and I know the ruling he has made but, on a point of fairness, we are caught between two buildings. From the point of view of health and safety, we try to make sure we have enough distance between us and we stay out of this room. We are downstairs. From downstairs to here on the stairs or the lift takes four minutes. The Ceann Comhairle rings a bell here and it is an eight-minute bell and he has-----
I do not want to be disrespectful but I want to say that I was in the building. I came up specifically to participate in this debate. In accordance with the schedule we were given, I was outside observing the protocols, not wanting to come in because I suffocate with a mask on. I wanted to make a short contribution. It is not my fault that somebody made the mistake whereby we have all ended up wanting to speak, being here to speak and not being able to speak..
I appeal to the Ceann Comhairle and I will respect his decision. I will not get into an argument about it. I will put my case in a civil way. I was in the building. I came, like the others, from Leinster House and someone made a cock-up of the timing. I am not saying it was the Ceann Comhairle. I am here to make a contribution. I have asked the Minister of State to share time but I would like to use my slot if I could.
I understand the predicament the Ceann Comhairle is in. Many people did not turn up for their designated slots. I was due to have a slot at approximately 5 p.m. I am an hour and a half early. Most Deputies look at what is on the schedule and try to get here at least 40 minutes early in case a debate runs ahead of time but this is way ahead of what we have ever experienced. In fairness, the Ceann Comhairle should look at the reality of the situation. We are working between two buildings. Most of us are in Leinster House trying to work in the office and get back here for speaking slots. Many Deputies do not turn up for their slots and we are in this predicament. Those who make an effort to be here should be given a couple of minutes.
I will accept the ruling the Ceann Comhairle makes. I came in after rushing up here and maybe I made my points somewhat forcefully. I would not argue the toss on this if we were not in Covid times. We have to keep an eye on the clock and so on but I was in a place that was safe with regard to the Covid situation and as soon as I got word I got up here as quickly as I could. The point has been better made by other Deputies and, in fairness, the speakers should be allowed to have their say.
I appreciate that individual Deputies work on the basis of schedules provided to them, though not by me or my office. Deputies will have to look elsewhere for where those schedules come from. Those schedules, as I understand it, are estimated times. When we started this debate, the Minister was the only person in the House. It has happened before that numerous people have missed their slots or turned up outside of time. The precedent is that, once the Minister has been called, we do not revisit the situation. We continue and the Minister responds. In light of the reasonable case that people are making, I am persuaded that we should revert and go ahead again, giving people their allocated times. That would allow us to hear Deputy Barry. I am changing my ruling on this and will allow people in but I guarantee that it will not happen again. The Whips of the groups and parties need to take responsibility for ensuring their people are here, whether the process is running a half an hour late or an hour and a half early. It is not my job to go out and catch Deputies by the hand, lead them to the Chamber and pat them on the back. That is the job of the Whips.
I appreciate that. Gap has announced its intention to close 81 stores in the UK and Ireland. In this State, there are stores that face closure in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. I read the press statement Gap released overnight. It was full of obnoxious corporate jargon. The company did not have the decency to tell us how many workers would lose their jobs. As of now, we have no official figure in that regard but probably in the region of 100 jobs will be axed from the end of August to the end of September. Has this company availed of the employment wage subsidy scheme, the Covid restrictions support scheme or other Covid supports? If so, we should be told how much. I appreciate the Minister might not be in a position to give us that figure now. Will the Minister tell us now whether he intends, if State support money was given to this company, to try to get it back? It is not good enough that huge multinational corporate outfits take the Irish taxpayer's money and run, which is what this company is doing.
The trade union movement should act on this situation. It should take an initiative aimed at retail workers and have a real debate and conversation about what can be done to resist the retail jobs massacre. Part of what could be done, though not the only thing by a long shot, is to get behind the Debenhams Bill proposed by me and the other Solidarity-People Before Profit Deputies to improve the rights of workers when companies shut down in this fashion and with liquidations, etc.
The situation in hospitality in the past few days has focused attention on the plight of young people in general and young workers in particular. Young people in this country have not been hit the hardest by Covid on the medical side but they have been hit the hardest on the economic front. A package of supports needs to be put in place as a dividend for young people, given their sacrifices and the patient role they have played over the past 16 months. Such a package could, and should, include an increase in the minimum wage to €15 an hour. I ask Deputy Tóibín where he stands on that. He made a number of very poor points in having a go at Solidarity-People Before Profit in this debate. Will he support our campaign and call for a minimum wage of €15 an hour?
Rents should, at the very least, be frozen. In fact, they should be cut. Young people are most affected by rent prices. There are huge fees and low grants for college students. Fees should be abolished and there should be a living grant. There must be an end to discrimination against young people in respect of jobseeker's allowance. There should not be a two-tier system, young people should get the same payment as other unemployed workers and the rate should be raised. There must be no JobBridge 2.0. If there is to be training, it must be decent training, with decent pay and a job at the end of it. There must be a programme of State investment in jobs for young people. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a significant increase in Garda harassment of young people throughout the country, especially in working-class communities. Whatever needs to be done to ensure that is knocked on the head must be done.
All of this costs money and the question is from where that money should come. The answer is that there should, and must, be a Covid wealth tax. Some people and bodies have done well from the pandemic, including the likes of Google, Netflix, the large pharmaceutical companies and others, as well as some very wealthy individuals, including millionaires and billionaires. We need a Covid wealth tax to raise the funds needed to lift the living standards of the people who made sacrifices during the pandemic. Young people must be included as an important part of that.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his ruling allowing us to speak in this debate. It is a difficult time for all of us and there must be some flexibility. There is, of course, a job to be done by the Whip's office in the context of ensuring that we are all properly informed. I do not expect anyone to catch me by the hand, bring me in here and give me a slap on the back. In fact, my experience is that there are few who will do that for you in here. Usually, the Whips give you a kick in the rear end rather than a slap on the back.
I welcome all the measures that have been put in place by the Government since the very beginning of this pandemic. The Government has reached out in a general way to sectors and has given appropriate financial support. However, there are certain sectors that have continued, throughout the Covid period, to complain about a lack of support. I point to those who are self-employed in the taxi business and in private car and bus hire. They provide a valuable service and have had to fight all the way through the pandemic for support. They got some recognition recently but we must do much more for them.
Another section of society that needs support, as mentioned by other speakers, is young people. I would make a case to reach out to them and include them in some way, by means of benefits and perhaps other supports. There is no doubt that there is an economic case to be made for such support and there is also a case around health. In fact, their inclusion in society and in the available supports is absolutely essential. I include in that the health supports that are required in terms of safeguarding mental health and general well-being. We cannot ignore young people, who have lost a large portion of their lives to the Covid restrictions. The Government should reach out to them and provide them with supports that would give them a clear understanding that it is in touch with their situation and wants to support them as well as everyone else.
The people involved in private coach hire are getting back to work and providing, in line with the protocols, services for businesses and people on staycations. However, they are not being supported in a way that would allow them to have free rein throughout the country in terms of access to visitor sites. I ask that the Office of Public Works, OPW, look at opening those sites and their facilities to enable people to travel the length and breadth of the country, observing the protocols but having the facilities available to them. That is a simple thing to do and it would help business no end.
We continually make a case for the hospitality sector and I have certainly done so. Not only has it been closed for a long time but it has also been given a number of false dawns in terms of when it can reopen. Businesses have availed of the supports from the Government but they have also invested heavily. Reopening a business is not a simple thing. One cannot just reach for a grant and expect everything to follow after that. Businesses in the hospitality sector have employees who are relying on them. It is extremely difficult for those businesses to retain their employees and, for those that wish to take on extra employees, it is difficult to get them. There is much work to be done with the sector in the coming week to build trust and confidence, acknowledge what is needed and recognise the timely fashion in which it must be delivered.
Nothing like the announcement on Tuesday should ever happen again. The Government should be in a position to communicate clearly and follow the line in terms of the expectations that are given to people around reopening. It was a shocking response from the Government to close the hospitality sector again and give no date for reopening. It showed really poor management that the Government was not engaged with the sector prior to making that announcement. It raises the question of what kind of flow of information there is between the chief medical officer, the Cabinet and the rest of Government. What about us in this House? Should we not be informed of what is happening, on a weekly basis at least? We are Members of this Parliament and we represent our constituencies. We should be given full sight of any of the analysis that is taking place and the information that is flowing between the health authorities and the Government.
Finally, this legislation includes changes relating to taxes and so on. There is no place in society for vulture funds to purchase any property that could be used for social housing. We must take a step beyond where we are now and ensure that sector of the market is kept entirely for those who are most in need of social and affordable housing and those agencies that deliver housing to applicants who are on the housing lists throughout the country. We must take this step. We are supposed to be representing the people and the ones who are being entirely deprived at present are the young people starting out in life, wanting to get a foothold on the property ladder and not being able to do it. All over the country, vulture funds are eyeing up properties and not just stepping into the market but having the ability and financial muscle to take over the market. The Government needs to set down a clear marker that it will not tolerate such activity and it will put the people who are in need first, namely, young couples and those who want to get on the property ladder, and others can wait. That can be done by way of taxation and a number of suggestions in that regard have been made in the House. I would like to see the Minister and the Government imaginatively taking up those suggestions and implementing a policy that tilts the balance in favour of the State, and what we are trying to achieve in terms of policy, and away from the vulture funds.
I too thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us back in. On a side note, I congratulate Deputy McGuinness on taking the time to come to the Chamber today. The problem every week is that Government Deputies or spokespersons do not turn up. That is where all the confusion arises and where the time is lost.
I congratulated Deputy McGuinness on taking the time to contribute to the debate. It is a pity that more of his colleagues do not do likewise.
Sinn Féin welcomes any measures that will help businesses through the pandemic. It is unfortunate that the ability of the Government to plan for changes in circumstances in the course of the pandemic is so lacking. Although the extension of supports we are here to discuss is welcome, the manner in which the Government has led so many businesses to the edge of reopening just to pull the rug from under them at the last minute is a disastrous way of doing things. Supports are needed desperately but, unfortunately, the Government has a habit of allowing businesses to spend money buying stock and making preparations for reopening but then putting an end to those plans with very little notice. This is a waste of the meagre resources with which many of these businesses have left with as a result of the pandemic and it is a waste of the resources with which they have been provided. What businesses need is not just the financial supports they deserve but a clear roadmap that includes contingency plans designed to address worst-case scenarios in the event of issues of growing concern ultimately interrupting scheduled reopening or the ability to trade effectively. Unfortunately, what we have seen this week is the inability of the Government to plan for interruptions to the reopening schedule and that has thrown the plans of many businesses into disarray and wasted the money those businesses have spent in anticipation of reopening.
On a side note, before I came into the Chamber, I got a phone call from a 64-year-old taxi driver. The Department is telling taxi drivers they have to retrain. Will someone get real in that Department? I am asking that the letter sent to taxi drivers this morning be withdrawn.
Workers have also been affected by this. Although the extension of the EWSS, which Sinn Féin has been calling for, is welcome, workers are suffering as a result of other factors that are bleeding their meagre resources dry and are limiting their ability to plan for the future and secure a place to call their own. There is a discrepancy between social housing income limits in my county of Tipperary and those in neighbouring counties. Income limits in County Tipperary are up to €5,000 lower than those in counties Limerick, Kilkenny and Waterford. That is excluding people from access to social housing in Tipperary but people on the same income who live a few miles away in another county are entitled to social housing. There is no justification for this disparity. These income levels were set in 2011, a decade ago, when private rent and private property prices were much lower. Given the scale of change in the cost of living since 2011, a review of these limits is long overdue. I call on the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, who is present, and his colleagues to bear that in mind. The Minister has given no indication as to when his Department expects to have completed this review. Instead of giving an answer and addressing the issue, he has sought to kick the can down the road while engulfed in a crisis relating to the ability of investment funds to put home ownership dreams out of the reach of many young children. The Government made a half-hearted attempt to make it seem like it was dealing with the issue but, crucially, set the new stamp duty rate too low for it to be off-putting to these funds. The exemption relating to apartments has left a significant number of people out in the cold.
I too thank the Ceann Comhairle for his forbearance on the problem that has arisen today.
There are a couple of issues I wish to raise with the Minister. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the phenomenon we have seen in the past 18 months whereby the Government has become the last resort, if one likes, in terms of providing people's income. It is quite a strange scenario. Governments all over the world, many of which are very right wing, are actually doing things that are very left wing as a result of the pandemic. The Government has become the provider of income of last resort for many people and the supporter of business in many cases. All of that is welcome and has been good and fruitful and, in many cases, has got people through, but there are several situations in which problems have arisen. It would be useful if the Minister could address them.
The first relates to the banks. Several people in my constituency have been approved for home loans. A man contacted me recently on this issue. He and his wife both work. She works in the childcare sector and, as such, had to be on the wage supplement, yet, now that they have been approved for a loan and have located a house in north Leitrim which is within their reach and they can buy, they have been refused permission by one of the main banks, a bank which the State has funded and propped up, to draw down the loan. That is a big issue for many families who are now in a position where they cannot draw down the loan for which they have been approved because the State, in fairness, came to the rescue of business and made sure those people maintained their income throughout the pandemic. That is an issue with which the Minister needs to try to get to grips. He needs to meet the banks and sort this out. The banks always tell us there is no issue but the truth is that when individuals on the ground look into it, they find there is a serious issue.
The second issue I ask the Minister to address, perhaps he will come back to me on this, is that many people who received the wage supplement in the past 12 to 18 months have now discovered they will have a tax bill at the end of it because the money they received was gross income rather than net income. Tax had not been deducted from it. They were unaware of that at the time and, naturally enough, they spent the money because in most cases it was well down on their normal weekly income. They now find they will have to try to meet this tax bill some time at the end of the year. It would be useful for the Minister to make clear that there will be an accommodation with Revenue whereby people will be allowed to pay that money over time, perhaps over a couple of years, rather than having to pay it in a lump sum. That would be very useful and take a lot of pressure off many people.
Finally, there is the issue relating to banks, housing, vulture funds and all of that. This is not just a phenomenon that exists in inner city Dublin. It is in every part of the country. The pressure on people to get a roof over their heads and buy a home while competing with these funds is absolutely scandalous. What the Government has done to date will not work. There needs to be a recognition of that and the Government needs to do something concrete that will actually work and make sure these vulture funds are pushed out once and for all.
While I welcome any funds that have been given to the hospitality sector to date, the support does not go far enough. I say that as a self-employed person and in light of the fiasco during the week relating to inside dining in restaurants and pubs. As I stated yesterday, we are the only European country that does not have indoor dining. Even fully vaccinated people cannot dine inside in a pub or restaurant. Publicans and restaurateurs who have no outside areas have no alternative. They are in a predicament. Many of them do not own their pubs or restaurants. They may have mortgages, dependants or leases. They have been speaking to the banking sector and pushing back payments in the hope that they will be able to reopen. I spoke to business owners in the sector, some of whom have been in business for 40 years or 50 years and who had hoped the next generation would take over. They have spent their life savings trying to make payments while their business has been closed. The add-on costs such as insurance for the premises still have to be paid. Some of them have dependants.
I want the Government to go further in helping to support these people. Some of them need more funding because they have pushed all their resources into keeping the business afloat. After all the years spent creating a good business, they are now starting from scratch again. Some of these people are 60 years of age or 70 years of age and are trying to start their business again in the hope that the next generation will take over. I ask the Minister to ensure that the businesses that need more support will be looked after and brought with us.
Reference was made yesterday to the position of the younger generation.
They are in college and they had summer jobs and were also in receipt of a payment, which was welcomed. Many of those students will not now qualify for a SUSI grant for next year because they are slightly above the income threshold due to the payments they received during the periods when they were unemployed. I ask for that to be looked at. It should be waived for this year. Students who qualified to have their college fees paid for them last year should automatically qualify this year. What happened is not the fault of the younger generation. There was a pandemic. We must be conscious of that fact. People and families are now going to have to try and find the funds to pay the fees.
I wish to make a final brief point. The external hospitality sector is open for holidaymakers. We are all hoping to get a few days away somewhere. Following the ruling that was made during the week that the pubs will remain closed, we are hoping that all the young men and women who work in hospitality will look after us on holiday, whether it is at the pool or at outdoor sport and recreation facilities. On their nights off, however, they will not be allowed to eat or drink inside because they have not been vaccinated. This has not been thought through. The Government needs to consider those working in the hospitality sector.
The bus, taxi and limousine sectors have also been affected. The workers in these sectors must be considered. They have missed out in revenue. They have received subsidy payments during the pandemic. However, the problem is the requirement that vehicles must be replaced every nine years for drivers to get a taxi licence. Drivers have lost profits and have had to use their own savings to keep their businesses afloat, even though they were closed. Now that they are coming back to work, they face having to replace vehicles that are more than nine years old. Drivers will need three to four years to be able to recoup that to get them back to where they need to be.
Some business owners in the bus sector bought vehicles at the start of the pandemic. Some of these buses have been re-registered and parked up. While the banks granted borrowers repayment holidays, many of them have to deal with the issues they face during the loan term. When they open up their businesses again, their repayments are higher because they have to pay back the amount borrowed within the term of the loan.
We have a housing crisis, a materials crisis, a crisis at the ports and a felling licence crisis. All of these crises are causing problems for people who building or renovating homes and who are trying to make sure that they and their children will have a roof over their heads at an affordable price. I have worked in construction all my life and I have never seen the like of it. We are being told by our suppliers that they will only guarantee the price of the materials for one week. Many people want one-off houses built. I am now having to refuse to price such projects because of the fluctuation in the cost of materials coming in. When you build a house, you include a percentage margin in the contract. In determining the percentage margin, you factor in things going wrong and having to make minor amendments to the house. However, you do not factor in the cost of materials increasing week on week. In one case, in a job that we were doing, the price of steel went up by 19% over a period of three weeks. No business could sustain that. On the other side, the householders have their mortgage and have a set amount with which to build their house. Everything is pencilled in. However, such increases in the price of materials cannot be legislated for. If the issue with felling licences was resolved, there would not be so much pressure on the producers of the raw materials, such as timber. Those running businesses in the hospitality sector who need timber to create socially distanced eating and drinking areas cannot get the basic materials to do so. There is a knock-on effect. The price of insulation has also gone through the roof.
It is often said that we should go green and go electric. The ESB has announced that prices will rise by 9%. Here we go. We are pushing everything. There is a carbon tax. The people in the towns, villages and rural areas in Ireland are paying the most money because they have no infrastructure. They do not have access to bus and train services like those living in Dublin. People living in Dublin can leave their front door and find a shop within 100 yards of their home. They have access to taxis and the Luas. They have everything. However, for there is no infrastructure in towns, villages and rural areas. The people in those areas are paying the highest levels of carbon tax because they have no other choice. The Government tells us we should go electric. What happens then? The price of electricity goes up by 9%. This means that the cost of running electric vehicles will increase by 9%, as will the cost of using electricity at home. The cost of everything is increasing. The carbon tax and the cost of electricity are rising. Everything is on the rise. It is not sustainable.
Finally, I wish to make a point on the cost of rent in my area. For the past number of years, the cost of rent for a nice house in a rural area has fluctuated between €600 and €800 per month. A two-bedroom house in my area was recently leased at a cost of €1,200 per month. There are people whose children are moving home because they cannot afford to rent if they are in the family way. My son is a perfect example of this. He, his partner and my grandchild failed to find rental accommodation anywhere within a 20-mile radius of where I live. When they put their names down for a place on the market and looked at their income, they realised that they could not make ends meet. That is a problem going forward. The Government must think about it.
I know that the Government has taken some measures, but it must sit down with certain businesses. Accommodations need to be made for the next three or four years to allow people to rebuild.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to speak. It is very difficult for us to watch our time slots. As has been mentioned, often, Government politicians do not turn up for their slots. They fail to turn up, even though it is hugely important for them to speak on these issues for the people they represent. You could easily lose a speaking slot even if you are in a safe place watching the debate and trying to do your constituency work at the same time.
I wish to focus on a number of issues in relation to this Bill that need to be ironed out in this country. These issues concern the nursing home, hospitality, taxi and entertainment sectors, all of which are in very serious financial positions at present.
I will start with the nursing home sector. A very unwise decision was made during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, Nursing Homes Ireland had to call out the inadequacies of Government planning to support nursing homes and to protect residents and staff from Covid-19. Nursing homes took early action to advise that visits to homes by the public would be suspended when the public health focus was on protecting other health services and other sectors of society. This highlighted the failure to plan in respect of and support nursing homes in the fight against a virus that was having a devastating impact on those homes.
It is extremely disappointing that it has been left to nursing homes to bring our attention the fact that the Government is again abandoning them, their residents and staff. I find it very difficult that, as NPHET is warning that 700,000 cases and 2,000 deaths could occur in the coming months, the Government is removing the support for intensified infection control measures within nursing homes. As of today, 1 July 2021, the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, will cease to support the increased deployment of staff and the enhanced utilisation of specialised equipment required to intensify infection prevention control measures in nursing homes. The scheme has played an integral role in contributing to the additional costs, and supporting the implementation, of intensified infection prevention control.
Measures in private and voluntary nursing homes are not included in the context of fair deal scheme fees. The cessation of such support runs contrary to the recommendations of the public health Covid-19 nursing homes expert panel and the advice of HIQA that we must sustain the implementation of such measures. It also contradicts measures taken by the UK Government this week to extend its similar support scheme for care homes to the end of September, congisant of the ongoing necessity for intensified measures to continue to protect residents and staff from the virus.
NPHET has given a stark wake-up call that Covid-19 has not gone away, with the approaching Delta variants heightening public health concerns, yet the first supports to be withdrawn are those affecting the people who are most impacted by this pandemic, namely, nursing home residents and staff. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. There is no funding for nursing homes. The action being taken by the Government contradicts the health experts’ recommendation on continued protection of nursing home residents and staff at this continually precarious time and defies logic. Why does the Minister not ask NPHET for its advice on this again? What is happening is laughable. Can the Minister reinstate immediately the scheme to cover the months ahead? It needs to be continued to ensure sustainability and continuity of service provision. The irony of the whole thing is ridiculous. The Minister is taking money from nursing homes that are protecting the most vulnerable, yet he is closing businesses all over the country in the name of protecting the public. It makes no sense whatsoever. The Government is trying to sell the protection of people when funding should surely remain in place for the nursing homes. I would appreciate it if the Minister considered that issue further because it is of great concern to Nursing Homes Ireland, all the nursing homes and their staff and residents, who have suffered a lot for well over 12 months.
I would like to speak about the hospitality sector. Publicans and restaurateurs got an unmerciful kick again this week. A shockingly poor and ill-judged decision was made, again at the last minute. The Government seems hell-bent on promising something to the sector continuously and pulling it in the last seconds. I am told some of those affected had stock purchased. Those selling the products will not give them any credit; they want cash up-front. A decision was made in the last seconds to keep the businesses closed. This was outrageous and badly handled. The Government needs to wake up a small bit. I do not believe it has any sympathy. Admittedly, there was a storm at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting last night at which members were pulling the hair out of each other but that is not much good if something is not happening. At the end of the day, the backbenchers are no longer listened to, and some of them are not opening their mouths at all.
The bottom line concerns the payments the Minister is putting in place for the businesses. They have now been closed for months. The length of time is incredible. The businesses have been destroyed. Their loyal employees have to leave and try to find employment elsewhere, if possible. The sector might be looking for workers in the area of outdoor dining but outdoor dining is not all it is cracked up to be. I looked at the forecast for this weekend. Saturday, Sunday and Monday are to be wet. There will not be a sinner out because people are not going to stay outside in the rain. It is okay if the sun shines. I cannot understand why the Government did not sit down with representatives of the hospitality sector before it met NPHET to determine what efforts businesses would make to ensure their customers would be safe. If it did, it could then sit down with NPHET and ask how the businesses could be reopened at the beginning of July, as promised, with safeguards in place and with everyone working together. Instead, there is a shut-door policy. The sector has no say. The Government meets and talks to its representatives when the horse has bolted and businesses are in tatters.
I would greatly appreciate it if the Minister outlined this evening what compensation he has set out for the publicans and restaurateurs who have had their businesses destroyed, do not know where they stand and do not trust any Government politician. They have no faith that the Government will stand over tomorrow what it will say today.
What is happening affects musicians. They are totally dependent on the little bit of business they used to get in the pub or restaurant. They feel neglected and do not know where to turn. They have been told to consider a different type of job. It is easier said than done. Musicians who may have done something all their lives are told all of a sudden that they must change their whole world and consider a job that may not be available.
Reference was made to taxi drivers. There are ways of resolving the crisis in the taxi sector. The nine-year rule dictating when a car should be changed is incredible. It could easily be worked on. The cars are fully tested and perfect on the road in every way. There is a ruling in this regard that needs to be changed. Other rules also need to be addressed but changing this one would at least be a great help.
Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned increases in electricity bills. We have a major crisis in our country in this regard. Somebody rang me today to remind me that there is a rural charge. Now, apparently, the ESB is bringing in some generators because we are running out of electricity in our country. We will not mention the Green Party or go any further in this regard for now. There is talk about ways of saving energy but why has it not been considered that the lights in many towns and on many streets could be turned off for a few hours some night? In some parts of the airport in Cork, there are up to 500 lights. They do not need to be on all night. We are not exploring the options but we are certainly facing a crisis in that we are to have no power in the country. It is extremely worrying for many. We have had four amber alerts in the past 12 months, which is unprecedented.
The announcement during the week on the hospitality sector has affected many young people who wanted to make their first holy communion or do their confirmation. It is funny that we find out that NPHET never made a ruling on that but the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, did. He is now the new health adviser. That is a new move. He decided that first holy communions and confirmations would not go ahead. It is just one day - one day on which the children could have a little bit of enjoyment. It could have been done safely but, again, nobody sat down and talked to anybody. It is dictation from the top. Could the church have had an outdoor ceremony? There are many ways in which the issue could have been addressed but there is nobody listening. Considering all the compensation, no one has ever thought of giving compensation to the clergy or church in these difficult times.
I am pleased to support the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021, which will give effect to some of the decisions announced as part of the Government's economic recovery plan. This legislation will help to support our citizens and businesses during the next stage of our country's recovery.
Following public health advice and the risk posed by the Delta variant of Covid, particularly to those who are not yet fully vaccinated, the next phase of reopening will be based on a cautious approach. We are aware that this is a difficult decision for many sectors, particularly for so many businesses which had believed they would be able to reopen in early July.
As the country and economy have reopened slowly over the past few weeks, the demand for the PUP, EWSS and CRSS has declined sharply. Although the outlook for the next few weeks is not yet clear, the provisions of this Bill will provide certainty to businesses and allow them to plan ahead.
The EWSS has been a key component of the Government's response to the continued Covid-19 crisis to support viable firms and encourage employment in the midst of these very challenging times. This scheme gives employers impacted by Covid-19 a subsidy per employee to help to keep them in employment.
The CRSS provides support for businesses that are forced to temporarily close or to operate at significantly reduced levels because of Covid-19 restrictions that either prohibit, or significantly restrict, customers of the business from accessing the premises in which the business is carried on.
The Government's commitment to supporting businesses is underlined by the decision earlier this week that additional support will be payable under the scheme to those businesses that have been asked to remain closed in line with public health advice. Such businesses may apply for a double payment for a period of two weeks, subject to the statutory maximum payment of €5,000 per week for the weeks from 5 July to 19 July.
The extension of the tax debt warehousing scheme will give clarity and certainty to businesses as to their tax liabilities for the remainder of 2021 and will help them with their cash flow as they seek to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
This Bill also introduces a new scheme, the business resumption support scheme, which will be a great support to businesses reopening and will be implemented in September. This scheme is being introduced for vulnerable but viable businesses, particularly in sectors that were significantly impacted throughout the pandemic, even during periods when restrictions were eased. Businesses whose turnover is reduced by 75% in the reference period, 1 September 2020 to 31 August 2021, compared with 2019 will be eligible. The scheme will not be restricted by location, rate-paying or physical premises. Businesses which previously availed of other schemes such as the small business assistance scheme for Covid and the tourism business continuity scheme, for example, as well as the Covid restrictions support scheme, will be eligible to apply for a once-off payment based on a percentage of their average weekly turnover for 2019, subject to a maximum payment of €15,000, provided they meet the qualifying criteria.
The business resumption support scheme is designed to support some of the worst affected businesses in the pandemic, especially for those businesses that continue to be significantly impacted even after the easing of public health restrictions. I am also pleased that charities and sporting bodies which did not qualify for the CRSS because of specific tax treatment will be included in this scheme. That it is innovative and good for communities.
I also welcome the extension of the 9% VAT rate, following its reduction from 13.5% in budget 2021, until August next year. This will be vital to businesses in the restaurant and catering services, guest and holiday accommodation, entertainment services such as admissions to cinemas, theatres, museums, fairgrounds, amusement parks and sporting facilities, and also services such as hairdressing and other personal services. These services in all our local towns and villages have had a difficult period and the extension of the reduced VAT rate until the end of the 2022 summer season allows for a longer period of recovery for that sector. I stress that that date is approximately one year from now and extending the reduced VAT of 9% rate for such a long period is an excellent commitment.
The Bill also puts the financial resolution of 19 May, which introduced a 10% stamp duty charge on multiple purchases of houses, on a permanent statutory footing' while providing for an exemption on stamp duty to the provision of the mortgage-to-rent scheme by private sector participants, which is an important part of the broader social and affordable housing agenda. The purpose of this section is to impose a higher stamp duty rate on the multiple purchase of residential units and the financial resolution allowed this to have immediate effect. It forms part of the Government’s response to the recent phenomenon of commercial institutional investors bulk purchasing homes at or near completion in competition with the owner-occupier market and first-time and family purchasers.
The Government has been very active in providing timely and targeted supports which have been vital to so many businesses in our economy. In the region of €7 billion has been spent under the three schemes being extended under this Bill, the CRSS, the EWSS and the debt warehousing to which I referred. I am delighted the Government has kept its promise that there will be no cliff edge to supports for businesses and is extending and enhancing supports to businesses as they reopen.
It is appropriate that we are extending the vital supports such as the CRSS, EWSS and debt warehousing. The new business resumption support scheme, which will be available in September, will provide additional support to the businesses worst affected by the pandemic restrictions. The new higher rate of stamp duty will help to discourage bulk purchasing of residential properties by commercial investors.
For these and many other reasons too numerous to mention in the seven minutes available to me, I support this legislation.
I will briefly raise the issue of communions and confirmations that have been cancelled. One of the Deputies speaking earlier alluded to the appropriateness or otherwise of compensation for the church. I am not certain if I agree with him on that but there are parents who have put themselves to a considerable amount of expense. They have bought clothes, as is necessary for the ceremony for their children. They will not be able to get their money back. As we know, children grow and will not be able to use those clothes again.
Some thought needs to be given to the off-the-cuff remarks made by the Tánaiste and the very real impact they have on families. The suggestion now is that these sacraments would have proceeded if the question had not been asked. I do not know if that is true but I do know that families are really struggling and this is a real blow to them. As there are two Ministers in the House, I ask them both to give some consideration to what can be done for these families because they find that, through no fault of their own, they have gone to considerable expense. Many of them live in my area where a communion ceremony was due to take place on Saturday. What will they do now? They will not be able to get their money back and they are seriously out of pocket. As well as the disappointment for the children and their families and all that involves, they cannot understand how one sacrament, a wedding, can go ahead while other sacraments cannot. Perhaps the Government can explain that issue to the people affected. I am not saying the decision was right or wrong. I am simply asking that the Government consider the impact of the glib off-the-cuff remark made by the Tánaiste.
I welcome the business resumption supports. They will be very important but there is still a great deal that is absent. Certain sectors, such as aviation, tourism, hospitality and parts of retail, are devastated and on their knees. I will focus briefly on retail. We have seen the loss of jobs in Arcadia, Carphone Warehouse, Debenhams and, most recently, Gap. Mandate trade union has called for a forum on the future of retail. When asked about it the Tánaiste shrugged his shoulders and said retail was changing. I am asking him not to give up on the retail sector and not to shrug his shoulders or simply say people are shopping online now and that is it. Mandate's proposal for a forum on the future of retail to protect jobs is very worthwhile and I urge the Tánaiste to consider it.
On aviation, 480 jobs have been lost in Stobart Air. This will be the third time I have asked a member of the Government to appoint a person from the Department of Social Protection to deal directly with these people. They are at a complete loss having lost their jobs and they need some supports. At the third time of asking, please make this appointment.
The 180,000 jobs in the hospitality and tourism sector depend on a plan. I ask that the plan be published and some certainty given because many retailers and many of those involved in hospitality and tourism have purchased what they needed from wholesalers to get them through because they thought they would be reopening. They now find themselves out of pocket for those purchases. Many of them are down to their last shilling, as the Government knows. Bespoke packages most be provided for the sectors most affected, namely, aviation, tourism, hospitality and parts of retail.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus fáiltím roimh an deis cainte ar ábhar an Bhille thábhachtaigh seo. Tá mo thacaíocht ag dul don Rialtas maidir leis an mBille seo.
Is Bille cuimsitheach é agus tá 31 leathanach agus 15 mhír ann. Tá formhór na míreanna sin ag tabhairt tuilleadh tacaíochta do lucht gnó, do charthanachtaí agus d’eagraíochtaí eile ar an talamh. Is rud dearfach é sin.
Tá fadhbanna agam leis, ámh, ó thaobh an dá rud atá curtha isteach ann, is iad, na tacaíochtaí do lucht gnó ar lámh amháin – agus is rud maith é sin – ach ar an lámh eile cuireadh dleacht stampála isteach. Tá sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach agus ba cheart go mbeadh píosa reachtaíochta ann féin ann maidir leis an dleacht stampála.
I welcome this legislation and also the fact that I have some time to speak about it and do not have to rush. It is very important legislation, comprising 31 pages and 15 sections. I welcome it all.
My first difficulty, however, is the inclusion of provisions relating to stamp duty. Those provisions should be in separate legislation; they should not be in this Bill. I will come back to that and what is in those provisions because I have time to do so.
What is my difficulty with the Bill? There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no general scheme published and no regulatory impact assessment published. We are therefore dependent again on a helpful digest on the Bill prepared by the Library and Research Service. Its staff are under strain. They are constantly trying to produce documents for Deputies, and we are all very grateful for that.
I welcome in particular the extension of the EWSS to 31 December 2021 and the extension of the CRSS, but the Minister might tell me why that has been extended only to September 2021. The extension is up to the Minister, but why would we not give certainty at this point rather than waiting? I welcome the enhanced restart week payments under the CRSS. All that is very positive. There is also the new business resumption support scheme. We need to see the details of that, and a committee is the best place to look at that. All these schemes have been very good. I cannot fault the Government on its reaction or the supports given. Where I do fault it is on the failure in analysis. We have people coming to us, such as the various groups that have been mentioned, who fall outside of these schemes, and it is very hard as Deputies to find our way around that. I would have thought there should be an ongoing analysis of whether these schemes are meeting the needs, given the Monopoly money we are giving out, and rightly so. However, there has to be accountability and some mechanism in order that we can see whether the schemes are meeting the needs of the businesses and the organisations on the ground and the additional groups the Minister has highlighted such as sporting clubs and charities.
At some stage we will also have to consider whether we are going forward in a way that is transformative because we have no choice but to do that. Theoretically, we have learned from Covid and learned that there is a climate crisis, so we need transformative action. If those of us in opposition had suggested spending this amount of money before when we were coming up with ideas, the Government would have laughed at us, yet it is able to come up with this money, and rightly so, but it must be with an overall picture. Will we have a more sustainable green economy in the aftermath of all of this? Will we live up to our obligations under climate change legislation? Have we really learned? What makes me doubt that a little is the manner in which the Government this week had to rush through the Dáil legislation, to which I gave my full support, to take away the uncertainty on the ground which arose in Galway. I offer our gratitude to the chief superintendent there who raised the matter. The Government gave a message of an outdoor summer. That message became synonymous with outdoor eating and outdoor drinking, and no thought went into a balancing of rights. That might seem very small, but Galway is a thriving city and the message went out that we wanted people to thrive even more but only as consumers. The message of an outdoor summer did not involve a broader vision. It did not involve support for canoeing clubs, which I outlined the last day I spoke. I am allergic to repetition but it is important to repeat that no support was provided for a real outdoor summer, that is, for athletic clubs, sporting clubs, circus clubs and so on. There is a particularly good circus in Galway that involves athletics but not animals.
Then there was no balancing of rights in respect of residential areas. I and the other Deputies and Senators in Galway were inundated with complaints, and rightly so, from residential areas. In my area, the Claddagh, I spent four hours and 20 minutes one night observing, walking around and going up to gardaí to get them to come down. There was a mixture of reactions from those gardaí, which I understood completely. There were not enough gardaí on duty, they were worried about catching Covid, they could not do anything and they could not stop people getting drink from the off-licences. They went to the point of saying, "This is what you would expect for a summer in Galway", as people urinated publicly in the streets, drank in an out of control way and so on. Most people were absolutely well behaved - that goes without saying - but the Government's message allowed for out-of-control behaviour, with no clear message to gardaí, who were left in a limbo. In religious terms, limbo has been abolished, I understand, but gardaí were left in limbo, not knowing which law they were enforcing or how to enforce the law. They were left to exercise their discretion, which was absolutely impossible.
On top of that, and while I have the time, I will mention again by way of balance that in 2002 Galway City Council passed a Barcelona declaration after a long consultation. That declaration committed Galway city to be universally accessible for all its residents. We were moving away from labels and we had a mantra: good design enables, bad design disables. We were to roll out all our future projects, including outdoor drinking areas, under that overall umbrella of universal access. That was thrown overboard with the message from the Government to drink and eat, giving out money - I think €17 million was the figure mentioned - and telling local authorities to help as best they could to take over public space, but with no analysis and no balancing of rights. While I understand that the Government is under pressure and that there are many powerful voices, at the end of the day we have to balance rights. There was no balancing of rights in the way the message went out. I hope the Government will learn from that and come back to that.
As for the music and entertainment industry, I am on a committee. I do not turn up to its meetings very often but I warned the committee of that from the beginning. I fully support the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland. It has formed a cross-party committee. It has appealed to us and begged us to use our voices on its behalf at every forum. One of its specific demands relates to VAT. I welcome the provisions in the Bill that will keep VAT at the reduced rate of 9% but they do not apply to the music and entertainment industry. Could the Minister address that? He is more of an expert than I am in this area. This is one practical step that could be taken.
The 10% stamp duty provision should not be in the Bill, it should be in separate legislation. It is extremely important that this be debated. While it is welcome that the Government is now taking a step, it is far from comprehensive and far from what we need. An investor with more than ten houses will finally be penalised with extra stamp duty if they buy ten or more houses in one year. I imagine there will be so many loopholes in this that it will make it ineffective on the ground. However, let us take it as it is for the moment that the 10% will have some effect on the market. We are excluding apartments. Many other speakers have spoken far more eloquently than me about how daft it is to exclude apartments from this on the basis of some forward purchase agreement. It would not be good for the market or for the supply of houses. This Government and previous Governments, with their mantra about the market and their accusing us of being ideological, are actually full of ideology themselves. Their ideology is that the market will provide and that when it does not do so, the Government will provide the market with all necessary supports. When the Government talks constantly about €3 billion-odd, the biggest amount of money given by any Government for housing and public housing in this country, it fails to say that €1.5 billion of that is going directly into the pockets of landlords and in a manner that is keeping prices and rents artificially high. Looking at Galway - I will come back to Dublin - daft.ieshowed that in the first quarter of 2021, the average monthly rental price in Galway was €1,400, an increase of 6.7%. The daft.iehouse prices report, another report, showed that house prices in Galway rose by 11.9% in the year to quarter 1 of 2021.
The Simon Community takes a snapshot of the market every quarter. For the past two years, it has continuously told us that no houses are available to rent privately within the HAP limits or generally because supply is so bad. In March 2021, it reported that there were just two properties in Galway city suburbs and two properties in Galway city centre available within the standard and discretionary HAP limits.
The strategic housing development for the Crown Square scheme in Mervue, Galway, is a build-to-rent housing scheme. Originally, in 2019, it was granted permission for 288 apartments. It recently applied for modified and higher density development, blocks of four to nine storeys, with 345 apartments of which 35 are for social housing. God knows what that means because when I listen to the Government, the phrase "social housing" means anything from the housing assistance payment, HAP, which is not social housing - it is a social support but really is a market incentive - to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, to long-term leasing. On top of the scheme the Government is bringing in at 10%, it is going to exclude entities or developers that buy up more than ten houses and sell them back to local authorities. It is not possible to make this up. I have described it before as a jigsaw with no picture: there are all these pieces that the Government gives us. They include affordable housing that is not affordable, stamp duty on just ten houses or more with as many loopholes as possible to make the measures non-effective and useless and leasing schemes with no security of tenure, only security of finance for the developer or landowner but certainly not for the tenant.
I thought I was beyond shock and that I had lost that innocence that is somewhere in me that we can change things but yesterday, I read a headline stating:
Nama puts Finglas residential rental portfolio for sale at €14.5 million. Sale of 54 apartments at Prospect Hill offers buyer scope for €1.092m in annual rental income.
The article notes the sale of 54 units is "guiding at a price of €14.5 million". The reason I use this example is that it really encapsulates the bubble that the Minister is asking us to live in and asking us to believe that this bubble is normality. The guiding price of €14.5 million is for units held by NAMA in the public interest and for the common good, presumably. The writer tells us the 54 units are in the "aptly-named Prospect Hill scheme offers the prospective purchaser the opportunity to secure annual rental income of €1.092 million" and goes on to state it is part of a development of 479 apartments. Interestingly, the 54 apartments are distributed across six blocks. It is under-rented, despite the crisis, and "the subject portfolio is currently under-rented with just 26 of the units fully-occupied at an average monthly rent of €1,200", which in itself prompts a range of questions. Why are they empty under NAMA? How many other apartments under NAMA are empty? How many other are empty with other developers? Then, let us look at the delightful rent of €1,200. This delightful journalist tells us the rent is "relatively low". Remember that the median wage is €36,000, and this rent of €1,200 is "relatively low", The Irish Times tells us, "when compared to the rents being achieved across the capital at present". Significantly, the article then states "The remaining 28 units are vacant and ready for occupancy." How long have they been empty? Moreover, it states "26 of these can be let at full-market rent, as they have not been let previously" and "Market rents are in the region of €1,700 a month" and so on. The article then tells us the delightful point for a third time that the basic return per year is €1.092 million. And yet, the Minister tells us that he is seriously committed to affordable housing.
I will conclude. I do not recall having so much time for a long time and I am tiring of listening to my own voice but I have to use it to say that where we used to talk about Namaland in respect of what the Government is doing about housing, this is bubbleland. The State needs to give a clear message that housing is not a commodity; it is a home. In giving that message to the market, it would give a serious message that the State will provide homes whether through developers or, in my preference, through a mixture of small builders who are crying out for work in Galway. There should be an audit of public land, which the Land Development Agency has failed to give us. There is a task force in Galway which has never reported and which was set up because we have a crisis in Galway with people waiting on a waiting list for 15 solid years of their lives. We set up a task force that has never reported. I ask the Minister to look at that. I asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about it and he told me it had reported. He kindly gave me a copy of the reports but they are not reports. Instead, they are only letters that give an outline of when the meetings took place, who chaired them and who attended but with no analysis of the housing crisis and no attempt to give solutions.
Finally, I must take the opportunity to say that Galway City Council has no overall city architect. Let me put on the record that it has very good staff but it has no city architect and no plan for Galway overall in the interest of the common good. It has many developments that are developer-led. The harbour is entirely separate. It intends selling off public land, I would say, to the highest bidder. There is an entirely separate university development in a different area, namely, Nun's Island. There is a separate development that is a mixture of co-operation between the city council and the Land Development Agency in Sandy Road. There is Dyke Road and then there is 115 acres out at the airport. I am only mentioning some of the land and not any institutional public land owned by institutions that might be willing to give it. I look at the Minister and ask, how come no one has taken Galway, even as a pilot project, and asked why there is no overall plan based on the common good? Why would the harbour be allowed to sell off residential land to the highest bidder? Why would the Land Development Agency work with a council to maximise the cost of houses while the Minister tells us, using different language, that he is all about affordability. Kafka is not in it with the Government. Really and truly, the Government excels and when it comes to Kafka, he is only in the halfpenny place.
Deputy Connolly has sold herself short. I, personally, and many of my colleagues would sit and listen to her all day. I call on the Minister to conclude. Before he does, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak earlier, despite all the confusion.
The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, gave a very comprehensive overview of the legislation so I will confine myself to responding back to the different comments made by Opposition and Government Deputies during the debate. I want to begin by addressing some of the points made by Deputy Connolly where she invoked the darkness of Kafka in her analysis of the Department and the Government's housing policy and the work that we are doing.
I had the opportunity yesterday morning to visit the work under way in Dominick Street on the northside of Dublin, where I saw at first hand the work that is being done by Dublin City Council. It is building new public and social homes for 70 families, partly to move families from existing council accommodation in Dominick Street and with the balance being used to bring families who are on the waiting list for public and social housing into new accommodation.
To allege that this is a Government that has allowed the market to take the lead in providing accommodation to those who need support and who need housing, accommodation and homes to be delivered by the local authority and by the Government is at odds with the reality of what I saw yesterday. I saw new, excellent accommodation that will be made available at affordable rents, directly funded by the Government and delivered by Dublin City Council in the heart of the city centre. That, more than an analogy to Kafka, is the reality of what this Government is doing. The charge that the Government is not playing a leading role in the delivery of housing in the country does not stand up to scrutiny for a second when the largest single builder of homes in the country at the moment is the Government, through local authorities. We accept and believe the private sector has a role to play in building homes and it was good to hear Deputy Connolly accept that private developers have a role to play in the building of homes. However, we also believe that this must be accompanied by the State, through local authorities, directly building homes. That is what is happening in Dominick Street, in St. Mary's Mansions in Sean McDermott Street, in St. Bricin's Park in the heart of Stoneybatter and in O'Devaney Gardens, through work Dublin City Council is doing. That is the reality of what is under way and that is only a small part of the northside of Dublin. This is progress that is being replicated all over the country. We wish it were happening quicker but because of the effects of the pandemic, for a period we were not in a position to build homes. We are now coming through the pandemic, notwithstanding the challenges we face with the Delta variant, and the Government is committed to directly building homes at scale through local authorities.
I will deal with the various points made about the Bill. Deputy Doherty made the point that there is a real possibility of an uneven recovery, as we hopefully put the pandemic behind us. That is the reason the Government has such a breadth of economic supports in place. That is the reason we have the employment wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment. It is to reduce the risk of an uneven recovery and to use all of the resources that are available to us to support the income and jobs of citizens at a time in which they need help the most.
Deputy Nash referred to assessing the role of the pandemic unemployment payment and keeping it under review. It is in acknowledgement of that point that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, made the decision to extend the entry point for the pandemic unemployment payment for a while longer. She did so in recognising that there are citizens whom we would have hoped would be back at work but who will not be a position to do so. Deputy Nash takes a different view on the role of VAT in the hospitality sector. The role the rate will play for now is in supporting the viability of large employers and many small employers at exactly the time they need help the most.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor welcomed the certainty that is being provided by the schemes. We are extending many of the schemes up to the end of this year to give the certainty to which the Deputy refers. Deputy Patricia Ryan spoke about the need for small businesses to get support. Again, that is the reason the schemes are being extended, including the employment wage subsidy scheme, to provide the support small businesses need to keep them viable as we weather this phase of the pandemic. Thank God we are making progress with the number of people we are vaccinating at the moment but we know that there is still much more that needs to be done.
Deputy Tóibín stated that we are ignoring science. Whatever we can be accused of this week, a charge that cannot be levelled at us is that we are ignoring the scientists and the public health authorities that work alongside the Government and NPHET in giving us advice. He referred to the idea that the Government is outsourcing policy decisions to NPHET. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot attack the Government for the decisions we have made and also say we are outsourcing the ability to make those decisions to NPHET. It has been very difficult to make the decision to keep more of the hospitality sector closed for a number of weeks. We know the obligation we have to those affected, to outline a plan regarding how they can regain their viability through indoor hospitality and for other forms of indoor activity for other businesses that are not in hospitality. We have done it because we have been guided by how we can protect public health while we continue with vaccination programmes that are making a difference to the country.
I welcome the fact that Deputy Boyd Barrett is supporting the Bill, notwithstanding the reservations he has about various parts of it. Deputy McGuinness outlined his views on the hospitality sector and the need to work with it. I assure him that we are committed to working with it. It is because of the engagement we have had with the sector that we have an employment wage subsidy scheme that is working and a Covid restrictions support scheme that has had a major impact. We have a lower VAT rate for the hospitality sector at a time it needs it and we have waived the need to pay rates for a period because that is exactly the kind of support the hospitality sector needs.
Deputy Martin Kenny made the fair point that in many cases, the Government has stepped in as the payer of income of last resort when the pandemic hit but went on to make the observation that it was centre-right governments that were doing that. I make the case to the Deputy that it is because of how we managed our public finances up to this point, combined now with the support of the European Central Bank, that we are in a position to put in place these supports. That is not about being right wing; it is about trying to make sure that the national finances were safe, were we to be hit by the unexpected. They were in a good position and combined with the work of the European Central Bank, that has allowed us to do what we are doing at the moment.
Deputy O'Donoghue referred to the need to strengthen the supports. The reason we extended many of the supports in the way we have was to ensure that if we did hit a difficulty, as we have this week, we would not be scrambling around changing support schemes. We would have a framework in place that is effective, credible and could help, in anticipation of things not always going the way we want. That is what has happened this week.
Deputy Michael Collins referred to nursing homes. The reason changes are being made to support levels for nursing homes is because of the vaccination programme and our vaccination efforts, which in many cases began in nursing homes, to try to make safe and support our most vulnerable citizens who needed as much help as possible.
Deputy O'Reilly alleged that we are shrugging our shoulders in relation to the retail sector. Again, the very reason we have the current supports in place is to assist the retail sector. I am conscious of today's news on the decision made by Gap in the United Kingdom and in Ireland. I agree that shopping habits have changed but that does not diminish the determination of the Government to try to support retailers when this change is under way.
As for the stamp duty change included in this Bill, it is appropriate to include it here as this is a finance Bill. The reason the Government made the changes that it did is to deter behaviour that we wanted to reduce and stop but at the same time to continue to have the policies in place that allow new apartments and homes to be built. That is what we aim to do with this Bill, namely, to put the balance in place to allow new homes to be built in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.