Tuesday, 30 May 2023
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 9, inclusive, together.
The economic division in the Department develops and implements policy to promote sustainable economic development in areas such as job creation, housing, climate action, digital issues and wellbeing. This work is particularly focused on ensuring a co-ordinated approach to implementing the programme for Government and issues that cut across multiple Departments. The division supports the work of the Cabinet committees on the economy and investment, housing and environment and climate change, as well as associated senior officials groups and other cross-departmental structures.
The senior officials group on digital issues was established in 2021 to ensure an all-of-government approach to our digital transformation. It oversees implementation of Harnessing Digital - The Digital Ireland Framework, published in February 2022. A progress report published in December highlighted achievements during 2022. The group meets on a regular basis. It last met on 3 May and will meet again next month.
The economic division also maintains an overview of progress in important policy and sectoral areas in line with Government priorities, leads Ireland's participation at the annual European semester process, prepares the annual national risk assessment, leads development of Ireland's well-being framework, liaises with the Central Statistics Office and provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues
I have to raise the slow pace of delivery on social and affordable housing. Some progress is being made and I welcome the announcement that the Land Development Agency, LDA, has received planning permission for more than 800 homes in Dundrum in south Dublin.
However, there is concern about the capacity to deliver on announcements once they are made. I refer in particular to an issue in my constituency because there was a clear commitment to 900 social and affordable homes on the Irish Glass Bottle site in Poolbeg. This commitment was made over five years ago yet at the weekend, there were revelations in The Business Postthat the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is ceding more and more latitude to a consortium charged with building homes on that site and as a result, a paltry 25 affordable homes will be delivered in the first phase of development, instead of 85. Planning permission was granted over a year ago for the first 570 units and we had understood that more of those would be in the cohort that would be social and affordable. Labour Party councillors were instrumental in negotiating the original deal to ensure much-needed social and affordable homes. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that we will see the required proportion of the homes built in Poolbeg being social and affordable homes?
I wish to raise the case of 44 workers in Cork city and the race to the bottom in terms of workers' jobs, wages and conditions. The case in question is that of workers at the Irish headquarters of the Canadian corporation Telus in Mahon - a customer experience centre that manages accounts for corporate clients worldwide. These workers have been working on Telus's Airbnb account but it now seems that their jobs have been outsourced to Bucharest, Romania, where according to recruitment website, Glassdoor.ie, Telus pays a wage of around €8,000 per year to a customer support specialist. Telus is a profitable company. These jobs should not be exported. This is the race to the bottom at its worst. Is the Taoiseach concerned by the example that is being set here and can he tell us what action, if any, he intends to take regarding this matter?
Despite Ireland’s progress in digital skills, the OECD skills strategy assessment found that many do not have the necessary skills to progress in a modern economy and that participation in lifelong learning falls well behind other EU countries. Digital and green transitions will transform the type of skills required in society and society. SOLAS has advised that higher levels of skills have become increasingly important for success in the labour market, the OECD analysis reflects significant concern about current and future labour and skills gaps and we know from the census that Ireland's workforce is now slightly older with a fall in the number of people aged between 25 and 39. With the National Training Fund in surplus, we understand that the Government is considering free or subsidised upskilling in areas of acute shortage such as green energy and the digital economy. Initiatives like Springboard are working but are insufficiently ambitious in terms of student numbers and it is not clear if the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science intends to address this for the 2023-24 academic year. What measures will the Government pursue to address Ireland's shortfalls in lifelong learning and will the National Training Fund surplus be used for this purpose?
The reduction in excise duty on fuel is due to lapse in two days' time. This will put an extra 5 cent on diesel and an extra 6 cent on petrol, which is a significant jump. It will hit families extremely hard. Hiking excise duty when so many families are in poverty and so many families are in arrears on energy bills is the opposite of what must be done at the moment. Figures released to me following parliamentary questions have shown that in terms of VAT and various other taxes, the Government is taking in huge revenues off the backs of suffering families in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Last year saw more VAT taken in on electricity, gas, home heating oil, petrol, diesel and solid fuel than in any year since 2018. A total of €294 million more was taken than in 2021. This is not to mention the increase in carbon tax. Given this, is the Government really going to kick families when they are down and when they are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis by increasing excise duty in two days' time?
I wish to revisit the disaster that is public liability insurance. We are hearing that the likes of Beyoncé and Coldplay will skip Ireland because of this insurance disaster. We know the damage that is being done, the danger for anyone involved in adventure tourism businesses and the issue for community centres and community organisations. We all know we need to see that duty of care legislation. Can I get a timeline for when that legislation will be through the Seanad and enacted? We know IDA Ireland needs to attract more players in but how do we make sure the savings for insurers are passed on to consumers and businesses? We know the personal injury guidelines and the impact of the reduced number of claims on them but we need it to happen for businesses and consumers.
Recently released data from the EU as part of the EU regional competitiveness index lay bare the severity of the infrastructure deficit in the west and the north west. These regions' competitiveness has been undermined by the failure of the Government and successive Governments to invest in the west and the north west. Out of the 234 designated regions across the EU, the north-west region ranks at 218th for infrastructure. This places the region in the bottom 7%, alongside some of the poorest regions in the EU such as Romania, Latvia and Bulgaria. Decades of failure to invest in the vital infrastructure needed to enable the potential of the western seaboard can no longer be tolerated. The crumbs from the table are not enough. They will not feed the ambition of those of us who truly understand the opportunity cost and the potential of the Atlantic economic corridor. What is the Government going to do to address these independently verified and shocking figures?
If you go on daft.ieor myhome.ie and look for rental accommodation, you are very unlikely to find any rental accommodation for less than €2,000 per month and you are more likely to see €2,500 to €3,000 being asked for. Many of the people who would want to rent such accommodation will be over the social housing income thresholds and, therefore, are entitled to no rent support at all but rents like these would amount to 60%, 70% or even 80% of their income. It is just not possible for people. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Commission on Taxation and Welfare that we should not have cliff edges when it comes to income supports and in particular rent supports? Will the Government introduce some sort of rent support for people who are over the social housing income thresholds because he must admit that those kind of rents are just not affordable for ordinary workers?
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the upcoming strike by water workers across the country in many different local authorities. These workers are due to strike on 7 and 8 June after voting overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. This comes after the very impressive rank-and-file activism of the water service workers pushing for these ballots. There are two fundamental issues here. One is the fact that these workers' pay, rostered overtime and allowances are not being red-circled in the event that they say they do not want to transfer to Irish Water but wish to stay with their local authorities. The second issue is their fear of the future privatisation of Irish Water if they do transfer to it. As the referendum these workers and the people were promised has not been delivered and as we do not have a guarantee that Irish Water will not be privatised in the future, when will we have a referendum with meaningful wording that enshrines public ownership of water in the Constitution?
In the same vein, there is a report in this morning's edition of the Irish Independentabout a summer of discontent. The article listed a series of workers who have voted for strike action. As well as water workers, they include firefighters, paramedics in the National Ambulance Service, emergency call operators in Munster and pilots at Emerald Airlines. We already know that nurses have voted for strike action over safe staffing levels, while the scientists who took strike action last year are before the Labour Court next week.
When we raise workers' issues here, we are constantly told that this country has a very good industrial relations model. It may be a model that works because the lid has been kept on it for so long but what does the Taoiseach have to say about a potential summer or even winter of discontent, where workers have to fight for reform of the public sector, for working conditions to improve or go back to where they were pre-Covid, over retention and recruitment and, crucially, over pay being below inflation rises?
This is a very big issue for workers throughout the country who effectively are taking pay cuts.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. I join Deputy Bacik in welcoming the decision today to grant the Land Development Agency planning permission to build another 800 homes in Dundrum in south Dublin. This will be in addition to those under construction already by the LDA not too far away in Shanganagh. It will include a mix of social and affordable-for-purchase homes. As I do not know the answer to the Deputy's question on the Poolbeg site, I will have to come back to her when I have the facts.
Deputy Barry raised an industrial relations dispute. I am not aware of the details of the issue. We do not have any mechanism to prevent companies from offshoring and moving jobs to other jurisdictions. We benefit from this as well. Many companies that are not Irish bring their jobs to Ireland and we need to bear this in mind. All those losing their jobs are entitled to proper information and consultation. This should happen. They are entitled to a redundancy package. The Government can step in and offer help with job searches, education, training and other opportunities to help people to go back to education or set up a business. All of these things will be made available.
With regard to upskilling I agree with Deputy McDonald that Springboard works extremely well. We will increase the amount we invest in upskilling and lifelong learning in the period ahead. When it comes to the National Training Fund, it is a good idea to build up a substantial surplus in it. There will come a time when unemployment is not as low as it is now and we will need a surplus in the National Training Fund to retrain people. We will need a surplus in the Social Insurance Fund to cover increased jobseeker costs.
My concern when I listen to Deputy McDonald and Sinn Féin is that any time they see a surplus, they want to spend it all now. What happens in five or ten years' time if we face, for some reason or another, high levels of unemployment? Who will pay for the reskilling? Who will pay the jobseeker and welfare supports?
The approach of Sinn Féin seems to be see a surplus, spend a surplus and there is nothing left when we need it down the line. This is the pathway to a return to austerity. This is what I hear all the time from Sinn Féin. It is the glide path back to austerity.
With regard to Deputy Tóibín's question on a reduction in excise on petrol and diesel, we reduced excise on petrol and diesel by 15 cent to 20 cent at a time when it was 500 cent per litre at the pumps. It has come down considerably now. It is approximately €1.40 or €1.50. He pointed out that we have taken in a lot of revenue from VAT on petrol, diesel, gas and electricity. This is true but it has also been given back. The temporary business energy support scheme has a big budget. The energy credits alone were €600 per household to 2 million households. This means €1.2 billion has been given back in energy credits alone.
With regard to Deputy Ó Murchú's question, the duty of care law is now in the Seanad. We expect to have it enacted this year but that is not entirely under our control.
Notwithstanding the fact that Beyoncé and Coldplay did not play concerts in Ireland, a large number of concerts are happening all over Ireland this year, including in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Slane. They have all obtained insurance so I am not sure whether it is as simple as the story we are being told that it is down to insurance solely.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the cliff edge and said there should not be one. I agree with him on this. This is why we have cost rental.
It is so that people who do not qualify for social housing and who used to qualify for nothing else now qualify for a cost rental. We need to review the limits every year to take into account house prices and earnings. We have increased them and I anticipate we will increase them some more.
With regard to investment in the west, enormous investment is happening in the west of Ireland at present. Only a few weeks ago the Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced probably the biggest private sector investment ever in the west of Ireland, that is, 1,000 jobs being created by Dexcom in Athenry. I will be in Mayo shortly to open the new road between Westport and Castlebar. It is a €250 million investment, which is probably the biggest ever public investment in County Mayo. I am keen to continue to engage with Ireland West Airport Knock as to how we can invest there. There is also the national broadband plan. Hundreds of millions of euro of investment are going in every year. More is needed and it will continue for so long as the parties in government are in government. If the Opposition parties get into office there will be a fundamental change of economic policy and we will be in a recession within three years and they will be cutting all of these budgets.
Mark my words and somebody keep this for the future, in the unlikely event they ever form a government.
To answer the question asked by Deputies Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith, in my view strikes are best avoided and they are always resolved in the end. They can be resolved bilaterally through talks. They can be resolved at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, or at the Labour Court. This is how the Government intervenes using its offices, the Labour Court and the WRC.
Uisce Éireann will not be privatised. This is in law already. We have committed to a referendum as well but we have not yet come up with wording.
There is always a problem with wording that might have unintended consequences in the Constitution. There is zero chance of it being privatised. It is not a company that turns a profit. I do not quite know who would purchase it.