Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile (Atógáil) - Other Questions (Resumed)
Public Sector Pay
54. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on the call for Covid-19 bonuses in terms of improved pay and conditions for frontline workers and those otherwise negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43773/21]
The pandemic showed who the real essential workers in society are. They are not the millionaires or billionnaires but our nurses, healthcare workers, transport workers, retail workers, cleaners and many others. What plans does the Minister have to provide a Covid bonus payment to our front-line workers and when does he intend to pay them?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Following on from my exchange with Deputy Michael Collins, I wish to reiterate the position of the Government. The Government is committed to addressing this issue in the coming weeks and we do not want to allow it to drag on. We have a clear recommendation from the Labour Court, which we intend to abide by, and we will deal with this in the coming weeks. There are a range of factors that we need to take into account. We have a public sector pay deal and that will involve, as the Deputy knows, an increase in public service pay on 1 October. I have put on the record some of the costs involved with the claim that was brought forward by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and the other healthcare worker union representatives. That includes a minimum cost of €377 million but with the inclusion of overtime and the need to deploy agency staff to fill the particular service gaps that would arise in giving the extra holidays, the cost would probably be over €500 million. That excludes the people the Deputy referred to, including bus drivers; members of the Irish Prison Service; gardaí; members of the Defence Forces; and our civil servants who worked so hard over the period to process emergency payments and so on.
The Government wants to be fair in how it approaches this issue. We have incurred a large increase in our national debt over the course of the pandemic because we have done our best to look after people by way of income supports and to keep businesses going. We are seeing the benefits and fruits of that in the way the economy is rebounding very strongly. We recognise that there is a need to address this, we intend to do so in the coming weeks and we will consult with others as to the best way to do that. We are also examining the approach taken in other countries. A number of other countries have made efforts in this direction and we are looking at what they have done. We need to be fair, balanced and as inclusive as we possibly can be to recognise the efforts that so many made to help our country get through a very dark period in the last 18 months.
Front-line workers died from Covid, which they contracted while working. Many others got sick and some of them got long Covid. All suffered from stress, fatigue and mental health pressures for their services to society. Does the Minister intend to announce details of recognition payments in the budget? The Minister talked about the coming weeks but does he intend to announce it on or before budget day? What year does the Minister expect payments to start? The Minister mentioned costs of €377 million and €500 million. Is he considering the idea of a Covid wealth tax in the budget so that very high earners and corporations that made mega profits during the pandemic will be made to pay for this from the gains they made in the course of the pandemic, rather than any other sector of society paying for it?
There is always a theme of punishment and reward coming from the other side of the House. I trust the Minister on this. I would not rush into it but I do not want that to be misinterpreted as me saying that I am not enthusiastic about this. I support the thrust of it but it could easily end up being quite a divisive issue if it is not handled sensitively. The Minister rightly mentioned the front-line retail workers and I would support any call-out to industry, business and employers, particularly those in the retail space. I am sure many of them have responded in how they look after their employees but we need to get some examples of that. Then there are the unseen who we might not know about and who never get paid anyway. There are carers and SNAs but I trust the Minister and the Government to handle this with sensitivity. If this is handled the wrong way, it could go awry and be very divisive.
Deputy Lahart makes an excellent point. There is a need for us to recognise the extraordinary efforts of so many people, particularly front-line healthcare staff. Nobody has an issue with them being singled out for praise which is richly deserved. If we get this wrong it could be divisive in society. Deputy Lahart touched on carers and the extra burden that fell on them over the course of the pandemic because day services were shut down in the interest of protecting public health. There is a wide range of issues that need to be taken into account. Some private sector employers have already, as Deputy Lahart acknowledged, provided recognition to their workers by increasing the discount percentage on their staff cards, for example, and so on. That has been done in some instances but not in all. A lot of private sector employers are under great pressure and we should not forget that. To answer Deputy Barry's question, I am not committing to a particular date. I am saying that in the coming weeks we need to work through this and get it right. The Deputy is asking about points of detail about exactly when it will be paid and so on. That is the subject of consideration and I want to consult with colleagues on that.
Writing in theIrish Examineron Monday, Daniel McConnell wrote "a key question is whether the Government can get private sector buy-in". It is a key question. Given that the Minister agrees that private sector front-line workers such as those he mentioned, including retail workers, cleaners and many others, deserve a Covid bonus, what steps has the Minister taken and what steps does he intend to take to ensure they get it?
I said that I trust the Minister on this. My experience of any bonuses offered is that they end up being taxed and so the bonus that comes into an individual's hand is minor. I do not want that to be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm for this. I am really enthusiastic, as the Minister clearly is, to recognise some of the real heroes in the early days of Covid. If we remember them, and it is so easy to forget, some of the real heroes include those who were stacking the shelves and who kept food on the table when we thought there were going to be rushes and panic buying etc. It also includes those who collected our waste. Bonuses get taxed and people may end up with very little and there are many ways of marking, including financially, the extraordinarily heroic efforts people made. That heroism needs to be marked in many ways and in a lasting way. I support bonuses but one gets a bonus and then it is gone. Society needs to look at ways of seriously symbolically marking how everyone contributed, whether it was in a small or big way. I am not a capitalist but those big employers kept this economy going right through the pandemic. They continue to do so and that ensured we had significant and sufficient revenues for the State to be able to fulfil its side of the contract it has with its citizens.
It is important to make the point there is no uniformity in how the Covid pandemic impacted on businesses across different sectors in the private sector economy. It was wide and varied. Some businesses closed while others thrived. Many others are struggling and others are staying afloat because of Government supports. I do not agree with the approach that the Government should seek to compel or force the private sector to do certain things to recognise the efforts of workers over the pandemic period, but the Government can, and will, provide leadership on this issue. Even in the course of the past few minutes, we have got a sense of the complexity of this issue. Many issues need to be considered. More than 5,000 people, to date, have lost their lives due to Covid-19 and it is not over. Covid has not gone away; it is still here. We all have to continue to be vigilant and recognise that reality. There can be no declaration of victory that we are at an end point - we are not. All the issues raised by colleagues are being actively considered and we are determined to deal with this issue in the next few weeks.