Friday, 18 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank Senators for their comments and for supporting the Bill. I also thank Senators on all sides for the acknowledgement of the great expenditure that went into protecting people and businesses this year. The pandemic unemployment payment was a significant innovation and rapidly delivered by the Department of Social Protection. Impressively, most people got this payment online. For businesses, there was the tax relief at source, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme. There were full rebates of rates for the year, along with restart grants and trading online vouchers.
Even with all of that, however, it has still been difficult for people in the hospitality sector. It is incredibly difficult for somebody to have a business reopen and then shut down again, to be given hope and then have it dashed. Some pubs in Dublin which never served food have never reopened because they did not have a chance all year long. That has been incredibly difficult for those people, no matter how much support they were given. The frequency with which they have been opened and shut down has created anxiety. I will bring those sentiments to the attention of Ministers.
The Cabinet will be meeting throughout the Christmas break and over the new year as we are still in a critical period. The vaccine roll-out project, one of the most important projects in the history of the State, is taking place and will have to be got right. Dealing with daily data which shows how the disease is spreading must also be responded to by the Government. All the way through Christmas, the Cabinet will be working on that.
I have been working on the base funding of local authorities - Galway was mentioned - and it is being reviewed. I take the point that it has always been discussed in the context of local property tax but it can be considered separately as well. Whatever is done, it would be difficult to produce a funding model that satisfies everybody and that every local authority feels it has been fairly treated. It is a challenge and it is not a simple thing to do. It is difficult to divine what the logic was at the start. I am working on that and I know there have been detailed proposals as to how it could be reworked. If the Senator wants to come to my office, I am happy to engage on that.
Our programme for Government includes a commitment to the full implementation of the Moorhead report which involves a dramatic difference in the way councillors are paid. All major public expenditure decisions that involve pay always come back to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because they involve multi-year commitments, not just something within one year's budget. They have to be approved. I am happy to find out what stage that is at and report back to the Seanad. Many Members are concerned about the pay and conditions of councillors. We know the endpoint is the full implementation of the Moorhead report.
I was a councillor for a number of years and served as cathaoirleach of my local council. I have first-hand experience of the difficulties and the challenges councillors have nowadays, particularly this year when they cannot even meet easily. One function of a local authority is that it is the agency designated for emergencies. During severe weather emergencies, it is the local authority which grits the streets for example. It is the local authorities which stood up during the pandemic to provide emergency services to older people, to bring food to their homes and to organise volunteer groups. I am grateful to them for all of that, particularly the chief executive of my own council. I am still in contact with my local authority. I was meant to meet its chief executive, Philomena Poole, who is very competent, this morning but I am here. I will report to the House as how we are getting on with the Moorhead report.
Tax reliefs were mentioned by Senator Gavan. My Department is keen to eliminate as many tax reliefs as possible. They are expensive and grow like weeds. They are sometimes introduced to facilitate legislative or strategic change. A decade ago, there was a major pruning back of tax reliefs. If there are any which the Senator would like to see abolished, he should feel free to ask me and we would be very happy to consider them.
It is our policy to bring in a statutory right to sick pay. Ireland is one of the developed countries which does not have such a statutory right. At the start of the pandemic, it was brought into focus that many people did not have a right to sick pay. It is dangerous for the population if those on low wages are obliged to go to work at a time when disease is spreading. That is why the rules were changed to allow for people to claim pay on an accelerated basis where they felt they had symptoms of corona virus. We need to extend that into a general statutory right for sick pay for all workers. That is something we are working on.