Tuesday, 12 July 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 14, inclusive together.
The economic policy unit is part of the economic division of my Department. The unit supports me, as Taoiseach, in delivering sustainable and balanced economic growth and in advancing the Government's economic priorities. The unit also advises me on a broad range of economic policy areas and issues and provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues. It supports the delivery of the Government's economic commitments, as outlined in the programme for Government, especially where these are cross-cutting issues affecting multiple Departments. In particular, it supports the work of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment and a number of related senior officials’ groups, as well as the Cabinet committee sub-group on insurance reform.
The unit is also responsible for co-ordinating Ireland's participation in the European Semester process, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination among EU member states. This includes preparing each year the national reform programme for submission to the European Commission. The national reform programme provides an overview of economic reforms and policy actions under way in Ireland, including in response to country-specific recommendations received.
The unit is also responsible for liaison with the Central Statistics Office.
The horrific outcomes of sub-standard Celtic-tiger building practices and the widespread use of blocks and backfill with deleterious materials such as pyrite, mica and pyrrhotite remain with us today. Last week, we witnessed in the Chamber the heartbreak and devastation of families let down by the Government's substandard defective blocks legislation, but today I want to raise the issue of a large apartment development in my constituency called Ivy Exchange. It was built during a time of reckless building practices. Residents are still living with significant fire safety and structural defects - defects that will cost homeowners more than €9 million to remedy. The owners' management company is taking the only course of action open to it, which is to pursue the developer through the courts. Much has been reported in the media, setting out the very aggressive and costly litigation of the developer, Cosgrave, against the management committee in an effort to shut down the residents' only avenue of redress. Residents, of course, should not be left to the mercy of Cosgrave or, indeed, the courts. The State should have protections in place. Where it has failed to deliver these protections, there should be a mechanism of redress. What action does the Government propose to take to support the Ivy Exchange residents?
As we know, the summer economic statement was published last week in a context in which we are seeing the living standards of hundreds of thousands of people fall because of prices rising beyond their control and the soaring inflation rate, which was nearly 10% in June.
Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the budget will increase social welfare payments in line with the rate of inflation? Will he introduce a windfall tax on the profits of energy companies at a time when, according to the ESRI, one third of households are in energy poverty? We believe a windfall tax would fund more targeted measures to address this. We also know that when announcing the summer economic statement the Minister said there would be scope for additional one-off measures on budget day that would not result in a long-term increase in Government spending. How much exactly has the Government planned for these cost-of-living measures? Will the Taoiseach commit to a windfall tax on energy profits and increase social welfare in line with the cost of living as part of the budget?
Recently, the Tánaiste made references to the possible introduction of Uber to this country. Over the weekend, The Irish Timesdetailed that the origin of this was John Moran, the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance, lobbying a former Minister to put Uber's plans into the election manifesto of Fine Gael. What is the attitude of the Taoiseach to all of this? We had taxi drivers absolutely hammered during Covid. It is still unclear whether the Government will meet their demand to do away with the ten-year rule. It is a big problem for them given all of the lost income. The last thing they need now is Uber coming in and completely undermining the taxi industry in this country at the behest of corporate lobbyists.
I also want to ask the Taoiseach about what seems to be an incredible case of corporate capture of politics. We have a situation where, on 7 January 2016, John Moran told Uber executives he had made proposals to the economic adviser of the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to include supportive language about the sharing economy in the Fine Gael manifesto. Five weeks later, the manifesto included a reference that "New platforms are being developed that allow everyone to earn extra income in this sharing economy". John Moran was able to say to Uber that it would recognise the text. It is quite incredible what has been revealed. These are the Taoiseach's coalition partners. It has also been reported that political lobbying meetings in 2015 and 2016 for Uber with Enda Kenny, Cabinet Ministers and a senior civil servant were not declared in John Moran's returns to the lobbying register, even though records of the lobbying feature in the leaked Uber files.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the ending of many local employment services and job clubs throughout the State. The Taoiseach knows there was a commitment in the programme for Government to increase the availability of activation services. It specifically stated it would include those run by local employment services. Unfortunately since then, as the Taoiseach knows, there has been a tender. It will move away from the community not-for-profit base and towards a for-profit model. There are 26 local employment services and 40 job clubs throughout the State. Just under 400 staff have no idea whether they will have a job from 1 September. The announcement on phase 2 of the tender was due in June. We are now in July. Staff have no idea whether they have a job. Some services have had to issue termination notices. Nobody has any idea what is going on. Some of these staff, including in the Taoiseach's constituency, have given 20 or 25 years of service to their local communities. They are being treated appallingly by the Government to move from the community not-for-profit base that worked very well to a for-profit model that we saw fail abysmally in JobPath.
I have previously raised with the Taoiseach in the House the particular challenges facing the central Border region should there be adverse impacts from Brexit in future. We are the most vulnerable part of the Border region. We are very dependent, as the Taoiseach knows, on the agrifood sector, engineering and construction and construction products. I have asked that the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, do a specific report on the opportunities and challenges for the central Border region, North and South. I am thinking of Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh.
In this context, I very much welcome the decision of the Taoiseach to allocate €40 million from the shared island fund for the restoration of the Ulster Canal. It is a very welcome and extremely important decision. It will be a wonderful cross-Border project adding to the tourism potential of the Border region and the northern half of the country. It will enhance considerably the tourism product for our island. This builds on the success of the Shannon-Erne waterway undertaken by the Fianna Fáil Party in government in the 1990s. That was a very far-sighted, innovative and forward thinking project. At that time, every political grouping in the country said it was not possible. It has turned out to be a marvellous success. It is great to see a follow-on project that will enhance considerably our tourism infrastructure. In the context of the shared island we need more investment like this to build on the natural strengths of the Border area and other areas for the benefit of the all-Ireland economy.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the Ivy Exchange residents and the general issue of poor building and defective blocks. Those builders have responsibilities. Councils have responsibilities. Authorities also have responsibilities and insurance should have a role in all of this. In a unique response the Government has decided in respect of mica, because of the humanitarian crisis with people having their houses effectively destroyed in many cases and compromised and undermined in others, to provide well over €2 million to deal with the issue. There are clearly knock-on effects. There was an earlier scheme for pyrite. There is a report coming to the Minister in respect of the defective building of apartments. It is a huge challenge for the Exchequer overall. It is an issue on which I will come back to the Deputy. I will speak to the Minister with responsibility for housing to get the most up-to-date position.
To respond to Deputy Bacik, there are several issues with regard to the cost of living. We should not lose sight of the economic recovery that has occurred. I am concerned about what may happen in 2023 with Russian gas and the energy crisis. There has been an incredible bounceback in the economy since Covid-19. There are 2.5 million people now working in the economy. We now have the highest participation rate ever in our economy. It is substantially higher than it was last year or pre-pandemic. All of this is positive. In respect of cost-of-living measures, approximately €2.5 billion has been allocated to date. We took measures last week that will increase the back-to-school allowance, deal with transport costs and provide school meals for those in DEIS schools. There will be some once-off measures, as the Deputy identified. I do not have the specific sum total yet of how much will be involved but it will be comprehensive. We are looking at the issue of a windfall tax. We will keep it under review. There are pluses and minuses. The ESB is a State company and we take a dividend from it.
We will look at welfare increases and pensions. We will look at families and children, targeting children in particular because families have higher costs. This is why we have already taken measures to reduce healthcare costs for families with children. The back-to-school allowance will help low-income families with children. Transport measures will help families. We will keep this theme going in the once-off cost-of-living package and budgetary measures. Childcare is an issue that has been identified by many in the House. It is something we would like to do more on compared with what we did last year.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of Uber. I read the articles and I commend The Irish Timesand all of the media concerned on the articles and revelations. They are important for public discourse. What is also important to keep in mind when we read it is that lobbying is a fact of life. It happens in all shapes. It does not have to be done by corporations. It can be done by NGOs or individuals. It can relate to anything in life from sport to economics. Very often companies feel the need to employ people to gain access to the political system.
Many of us have had clinics for years and people walked in the door to see us. The system is robust on this one, which is kind of important. People can lobby. It does not mean they get their way or that policy changes. The National Transport Authority, NTA, did not move. The Government of the day did not take a decision to grant access to Uber. That is an important point. There should always be full transparency. If people are lobbying, they should register the fact that they are lobbying. That is an important point with regard to the issue.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is bringing in new legislation to update our lobbying laws and register in terms of garden leave and so on. There should be a reasonable distance between people being in very senior positions and going into a lobbying role, immediately after their role in such senior positions. There are competing rights and so on in terms of the individual and the right to earn a livelihood. It is not simple but transparency is a very important way of dealing with it. The system proved itself robust if not in resisting, then at least in not acceding to the requests made by those who were doing the lobbying. That should be acknowledged as well. There was not a corporate capture of politics, as Deputy Murphy called it, in terms of-----
I am not talking about manifestos specifically. I am talking about the move to try to transform what would have been the framework for governing taxis and so on. That did not happen, notwithstanding all of the lobbying, which is an important point.
In terms of the funding of local employment services, we cannot pre-empt what has happened in terms of the tendering process. The Minister updated us this morning at Cabinet and she will make an announcement in respect of that in the coming weeks. It will deal with many of the issues the Deputy raised.
I will give consideration to asking NESC to do some work on the central Border region, if it is in a position to do so, and the opportunities for it. The Deputy is correct that the Ulster Canal is a very significant piece of work. I look forward to its completion and I hope we can go to tender on the Narrow Water bridge. We have allocated the money in order that we can go the full distance and complete the entire project.