Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I call the leader of the Sinn Féin Party, Deputy McDonald. She has some additional time today because of the new parliamentary arrangements.

That is excellent and is, I am sure, met with joy universally. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his opening statement.

There are many things I might have raised with the Taoiseach today as we return to session. I did not think I would be raising the issue of energy costs, but here we are. This morning, people woke to the news that some 1 million of them are to face higher electricity costs from the beginning of October. This is a result of the 3.4% price hike announced by Electric Ireland. It is important that we all understand the level of anger and stress this news will bring.

There is no doubt that the past six months have been incredibly difficult for people. Many have lost their jobs and many others have seen their household income collapse. It is fair to say that families throughout the land are struggling to make ends meet, with hundreds of thousands of people reliant on State income support and many others working reduced hours. Indeed, many people wonder whether they will ever go back to normal working life again. Those working from home have already seen their energy costs increase as a result. Ordinary people have also faced price hikes by insurance companies and banks. The last thing people can afford now is higher electricity bills as we move into winter.

This move by Electric Ireland will add further financial pressure on families. Sinn Féin believes that a freeze on energy prices during the current Covid-19 pandemic should be introduced. There are big fears among the public that this particular hike will kick-start a deluge of price increases. In blunt terms, that would lead to many families finding it incredibly difficult to heat their homes or to turn on a light during a winter that falls in the middle of a global pandemic. EUROSTAT tells us that consumers in Ireland already pay some of the highest electricity prices in Europe. We know that hundreds of thousands of people live in what is called fuel poverty but which means they struggle or are unable to heat their homes. It should be said also that the Government is planning to introduce a significant hike in the carbon tax in the upcoming budget and that this will put increased pressure on those same families.

One cannot blame people, therefore, for thinking that, even in the grip of a public health emergency, rip-off Ireland is alive and well and that big companies will make sure they get their pound of flesh. People hear the words of solidarity and the slogan that we are all in this together and they see the comforting television adverts from companies telling them not to worry or stress and that their service provider has their back, but then their bills go up again.

I say to the Taoiseach very clearly and explicitly that this hike in energy prices is an ask too far. It goes directly against the fairness and understanding that we urge among the public whom we serve. Rather than hiking prices, energy providers should be working with their customers. They should recognise the circumstances in which we find ourselves and they should be moving towards the freeze in prices and costs to which I referred. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene on this matter. I ask him to direct the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to intervene with the regulator, the utility companies, the network provider and anyone else with whom he and the Government must intervene because this needs to be sorted out.

I fully accept that this news will come as a blow to many consumers in the light of the very significant and severe economic environment within which we are operating. It is not a Government decision. As the Deputy noted at the conclusion of her remarks, the regulators of such utilities and the companies themselves are centre stage in decisions of this kind.

That said, I have no doubt that the Minister and the Government will engage with Electric Ireland on this matter and its overall plans. The Government will work to see how we can continue to alleviate the pressures that many people are under as a result of the global pandemic and the economic fallout from it. The Government intervention to date has, by any yardstick, been unprecedented in terms of endeavouring to help people who are suffering as a result of the pandemic, particularly those who have lost jobs and companies that continue to employ people. Right now, up to 600,000 people are still on the wage subsidy scheme or the pandemic unemployment payment, which is a very significant number. Although certain sectors of the economy have managed to sustain, particularly the knowledge side of the economy, life sciences and technology companies, we know that the hospitality, aviation and other sectors, including the arts and those across the board in tourism, have taken a significant hit.

The collapse of international tourism, for example, has resulted in significant job losses in the services sector, in particular in the hospitality sector, and other areas where wages would not have been too high where people are now on unemployment or on the pandemic payment. In that context, we take the point that any increase in charges negatively affects people. That is why the VAT rate came down yesterday as part of the July stimulus which will be of some help in relation to people on low incomes and in terms of the wider range of charges that people face through their daily lives.

In terms of the forthcoming budget, Government will look actively at how it can support people on low incomes and people on social protection. The Deputy will be aware that in the context of carbon tax, one of the key pillars of the Government's response is to provide for an avoidance of fuel poverty and to provide from the funds that would be generated generous allowances to enable people to deal with the impact of such attacks on the expenditure that they have to incur in their daily lives.

We have been meeting regularly in relation to the implementation and delivery of a wide range of measures that were contained in the July stimulus programme which we announced less than six weeks ago. It involves an injection of close to €8 billion into the economy. We are doing everything we possibly can to get spending delivered on key projects from housing to education right across the board and through that to create employment and opportunities for people. The almost €400 million that we provided to education has been instrumental in a range of minor works carried out in schools across the country, for example, which has enabled people to get work and to get opportunities to ply their trade. That has been very effective. Our provision for housing voids, for example, involving over 2,000 by the end of the year, is also with a view to giving people work. That said, we will engage with Electric Ireland. We will seek to do everything we possibly can to support people who are facing significant household bills across the board.

The past six months were very difficult for people and the next six months will equally be difficult as we face into maybe the most difficult winter season in living memory. Big asks are being made of businesses, as the Taoiseach says, of workers and of families. In that context, any hike in energy costs or any utility cost is quite simply out of the question. We have had a hard time, but it has been particularly hard for low-paid workers, low-income families, seasonal workers and younger workers. It is in that spirit that I want the Taoiseach not simply to intervene with Electric Ireland, the Regulator and the networks. I want the Taoiseach to put a stop to this proposed hike and to any proposal to increase energy costs in the coming period.

I also ask the Taoiseach to put a stop to the hike in the public service obligation, PSO, levy levied by the Government which is set to increase by more than 100% in the near future. The Taoiseach needs to stop that also because the rhetoric of support for families and workers who are trying to make ends meet in the most difficult of circumstances has to be matched by action. Not alone must we see an end to this proposed increase by Electric Ireland, it needs to be made clear to all other suppliers that hikes in energy costs are not acceptable and will not be allowed happen. Equally, the Government should cancel this proposed hike in the PSO levy and in a concrete way, demonstrate in that support for workers and families - the people who have kept society together and on whom we are relying for social solidarity to get us through the hard times - that the Taoiseach and the entire Government will, in fact, not simply talk but act.

The Government did not make this decision relating to Electric Ireland, as Deputy knows well. It is not correct for the Government to interfere with every regulator come hell or high water. We will do everything we can, as we have, in an historic and unprecedented way, to support people in difficulty. That is the Government's objective as we go through an unprecedented global pandemic. The State intervention measures that have been adopted have been extraordinary, which should be acknowledged. I have outlined some and there are many more. The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure, along with the leaders of the three parties which make up the Government, constantly monitor the economic impact of the pandemic and how we can live with it for the foreseeable future through to 2021 in health, education and also economic activity. That involves climate change. We do not want to pull back from our commitment to the agenda around climate change. The Deputy may wish us to do so but we have a comprehensive view that part of the economic rejuvenation of the country is in a green new deal. That has to happen. It will create new jobs and opportunities in renewable energy and other areas. We need to get on with that. We cannot keep resiling from it.

This is a fairly difficult question for the Taoiseach but one that the public wants asked today as we return from the summer recess. What is the Government's plan for Covid? Are we going to suppress it? Are we going to try to contain it? Are we going to try to eliminate it? Covid arrived in Ireland at the best time from the perspective of our climate, but we are now heading into six months of grave difficulty. The public needs to know the Government's plan. The Taoiseach has had all summer to think about it, so I presume he will have an answer. The people need to have a vision. The previous Taoiseach set out a vision or roadmap. Will the Taoiseach do so now in reply to me?

There are 221 people on trolleys, which is a signal, as it is only 2 September. What will it be like on 2 December? How will we ensure that the elderly in this country have a life to live? We face into this for at least another year or year and a half, and maybe longer. They must be allowed to live. How will we ensure that people with disabilities, the most vulnerable in our society, have a life to live, access to treatments and the stimulation that they need?

With that in mind, yesterday, the Labour Party published a Bill to provide sick leave and parental leave for workers. I ask the Taoiseach to support this wholeheartedly. The acting Chief Medical Officer and the chief executive of the HSE have both called for this. Ireland is one of only five countries, along with Cyprus, Denmark, Greece and Portugal, which does not have this on a statutory basis. We cannot have a situation where workers going into meat plants or other settings take paracetamol or Calpol to hide their temperature. If they have a choice between going to work with a symptom of Covid or not getting paid, it is a fairly stark choice. That needs to be eliminated for the workers and for society. The Government must do this. There is no choice when it comes to our position with the virus. Otherwise, the Government cannot have credibility if it asks other counties to go into lockdown, as it did with the three counties which have done so, without ensuring there is sick pay for low-paid workers who have a very stark choice of whether to go into work. Of course they should not do so but they would not get paid otherwise.

We must also ensure that all parents and guardians who have children going back to school in these weeks, and this week 30 children in one school had to leave, know they can get paid for the duration of time the school is closed.

What alternative have they got? What is the plan? Second, will the Taoiseach ensure in respect of what is an absolutely essential issue as far as we are concerned and about which we have written to all political parties to ask for support-----

The Deputy’s time is up.

-----he brings in provision for sick pay on a statutory basis and ensures there is parental leave for parents whose children are in schools affected by Covid-19?

In the first instance the Deputy has asked about three key points in his part of Leaders’ Questions which I have noted and will deal with.

The Government’s plan is to suppress the virus and from the very beginning all political parties in this House took it as a basic principle that they would go with the advice of the public health authorities and that was accepted in this House. I am not so sure that it is accepted as much anymore, if truth be told and perhaps the Deputy should say what his views on this are. This is fundamental. We had much consensus from the outset of the pandemic in taking on board the advice, not just of the Chief Medical Officer but of NPHET and the broader public health community. This served us well and if one looks at comparators around Europe and internationally, the countries which broadly speaking - I am not saying to every single letter of the guideline issue - followed public health advice did much better as to mortality, illness and cases than those countries which chose to ignore initially the public health advice. We would all do well to reflect on that point. I sense the rush to try to dispense with this rule and that rule and every other instruction or advice that comes our way. Instinctively, we want to break free from the impact, the restraints and the restrictions of this pandemic. This is easier said than done. We want to suppress this virus but to live with it also. The Government will be producing a plan towards the middle of September which we will bring to the Dáil and which will create a framework around which we can live with the virus.

As I said last week we want to protect lives above all but we also want to protect livelihoods. That is key. As I said earlier we are monitoring the economic fallout which is very significant. We cannot be blind to the reality of the €25 billion to €30 billion deficit this year with further significant borrowing throughout 2021 to maintain and sustain the supports that we have in different sectors of the economy. These are the realities. There is a very strong economic dimension to this that we cannot ignore which does not ultimately trump the health dynamic which is essentially to protect lives and save people, but we have learned a lot from the first phase. We had to suspend elements in the reopening of the roadmap because public health advice said that it was important that we did that. The three local lockdowns, as they were called, in Laois, Offaly and Kildare, which were not quite the same as the national lockdown, worked. We thank the people of those counties who suffered a great deal in implementing and living with the severe restrictions that were introduced. The outcome from a public health perspective is that they worked in reducing and getting the case numbers down. We need to learn lessons from that.

I thank the Taoiseach.

I know that the local Deputies and public representatives in those counties from all political parties took much heat and I want to thank them for working with the health and public expenditure Departments to see what we could do to help people in those situations.

I thank the Taoiseach.

I apologise for going over time here but on the question of sick pay, we will work constructively with the Deputy on this legislation which has many including, of course, financial implications. We have already moved ahead to create an infrastructure around Covid-19 illness payments, particularly in direct provision and meat plant contexts to make it very clear that every worker in such situations will get sick pay. I take Deputy Kelly’s point on the legislation that he is talking about, which is that it is to create a more permanent provision around sick pay and the right of workers to this.

I thank the Taoiseach and I am glad he has outlined for the first time the date on which he will publish a plan. He had all of the summer to do this but I welcome the fact that we will have it in two weeks' time. which we will have to wait for now.

The Taoiseach has put a challenge in asking me whether we are all following public health advice.

The reason I am raising the issue of sick pay and parental leave is because the acting Chief Medical Officer raised it himself last Thursday. Sick pay is an important issue when it comes to the potential spread of Covid, especially clusters. People who should not be going into work are going into work. It is as simple as that. They need to be taken on. We need to ensure there is a legislative provision and a statutory scheme to ensure workers do not have to choose between not getting paid and going in with symptoms of Covid. It is basic, simple and necessary. The acting Chief Medical Officer and the head of the HSE have called for it. The Taoiseach is asking us all to follow public health advice and we are, and the Taoiseach is always saying we should. The Taoiseach now needs to follow the advice on this specific issue.

Workers do not need to go into situations which put society in a vulnerable place. The way to deal with that is to ensure there is proper provision of sick pay across the board, especially in low-paid jobs. We all know that there are many large places of employment where clusters are being created and there is no sick pay. For instance, I was contacted by a representative of one of the groups in the meat industry when there was an outbreak in my county. I asked four questions relating to sick pay. Two weeks later, they still have not come back to me. I understand that one has to have a contract of over a year before one will even be considered for something like that, but many of the contracts are for less than a year. Workers will go into environments that they should not be going into, because they will not get paid otherwise. The Taoiseach needs to deal with this. This is a public health issue as well as a workers' rights issue.

I have dealt with it.

The Taoiseach has not dealt with it.

The Deputy has a tendency to develop a melodramatic posture when he is addressing people from time to time.

The Deputy has. The Government introduced the Covid-19 illness benefit. Some €330 is available per week to employed and self-employed workers. It is paid for two weeks where a person is medically certified as self-isolated, and can be extended for a further two weeks and for a maximum of ten weeks where a person is medically certified as being diagnosed with Covid-19. We extended this payment to workers who live in direct provision. I spoke to the acting Chief Medical Officer over a month ago about this.

Why is it-----

Hold on. Last month, the Government also approved the extension of Covid-19 illness benefit to the end of March 2021. It is important to note that the Covid-19 illness benefit payment and the pandemic unemployment payment are also available to people living in direct provision centres as well as to applicants for international protection who live in the community outside of the direct provision system. I discussed this with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, over a month ago. We considered how we get into the direct provision centres and meat plants to make sure workers know their rights and entitlements and do not fear having to put their hands up to say they have symptoms.

I know that. I accept the necessity to intervene here. We all agree on that. As I said to the Deputy, I will constructively engage with his legislation, which has more longer-term implications for the broader workforce.

We do not have time.

We have intervened in direct provision.

Follow the acting Chief Medical Officer's advice.

We have discussed this with the acting Chief Medical Officer. We are collectively on the same page with regard to this. We have made provision for it from the State's side so that workers know-----

I will remind the Taoiseach about that.

-----that if they get sick or have to self-isolate, they will not lose out. That is something we have communicated and will continue to communicate.

We will have to live with Covid until a vaccine is found. That is self-evident. One significant ingredient in dealing with that is maintaining public goodwill. To do that, the message and information have to be coherent and understood, and the measures that are taken have to be seen to be fair and proportionate. Another component is that when something is a failure, we need to name it as a failure and deal with it as a failure. As a representative from Kildare, I know there is a substantial sense of relief that lockdown has been lifted, but it has had significant consequences. Businesses have closed and jobs have been lost for good. The lockdown in Kildare, Laois and Offaly followed a number of large outbreaks originating in meat processing plants that subsequently spread to people's homes. There is a sense that State agencies dropped the ball and that high-risk places of employment were not being monitored, and there is a price to pay for both the economy and society.

That full county lockdowns remain part of the regime means that we must learn lessons from what has happened here. Many of those who work in meat plants are low paid and often are migrant workers working in poor conditions. Workers are paid on a piece-time basis, which necessitates very high levels of productivity, which did not reduce. It is inconsistent with social distancing. The all-important thing is the bottom line and that productivity are maintained. Slaughterhouses especially are cold and wet environments and are conducive anyway to regular colds and flu. They are noisy places that require people to shout to communicate. Many of those who work in the industry are not organised. Very often the employer organises the work permit and is also the landlord. It is not an equal relationship and this is fundamental to the problem, as is our cheap food policy which also has consequences for farmers and consequences with exploitation. Covid-19 has demonstrated just how interconnected we are.

The absence of a test centre, whereby people had to travel on public transport, was another failure. The length of time it took for some of the tests to come back initially was a failure. All of those things cannot be repeated. We have to get absolute assurances that they cannot be repeated.

There is a second lesson with regard to public goodwill, which is the availability of usable data. The rationale for full county lockdowns is still being questioned within those counties. The data hub was updated on 12 August. I understand it will be further updated on 12 September. It showed a wide variation in cases in different parts of the locked down counties. It has to be updated weekly. People will judge for themselves. They do not want to be treated in a paternalistic way that says "we know best and we know where things are". People want to be able to see the evidence to support some of the measures. If it does this the Government brings public goodwill with it.

I have three questions. Will the Taoiseach agree to the establishment of a task force to examine the meat industry? Will the Taoiseach arrange for a weekly update of the usable data in the data hub where people can look at the data themselves? Will the Taoiseach visit the areas that were locked down? There are very real learnings to be had from listening to people who have had that second lockdown, which was way different from the first lockdown.

I thank Deputy Murphy for the series of questions raising very real concerns and issues relating to people from the Deputy's county, the impact of the lockdowns and the whole situation around high-risk areas such as meat plants, which to a large extent represented the perfect storm in the spread of the virus, and related issues.

Again, the decision to intervene in the three counties by bringing in severe restrictions was necessitated by advice from the public health doctors. I was in regular and almost daily contact with the acting Chief Medical Officer when numbers were going up during the summer. NPHET felt that utilising this method and this tool, restricted to three counties, could yield results as a short, sharp mechanism to bring down the numbers. This has worked. The public health people are adamant that this has worked. Those who model these numbers are adamant that the measure has worked. It did, however, have a price. We know at first hand that the people who took a lot on board, including hoteliers and many people involved in providing employment, endured a lot. Lessons can be learned from it. I do not like the idea of closing down an entire county. Most politicians and most of those in government would avoid it. It is easier to avoid having to do these things and having to make these decisions rather than doing them. The lessons are important and will form part of the plan I spoke of earlier. Testing and tracing are essential in enabling us to live with the virus. The Deputy was briefed yesterday.

We arranged a briefing for Opposition leaders with the acting CMO and others. Serial testing is now under way in the three counties in respect of meat plants. The positivity rate is at about 0.5% but of course the virus can spread at any time. We could finish that serial testing programme and the following week a person could go in to work with Covid-19 and spread it. We need constant pressure on the virus through the testing and tracing mechanisms. That, to me, is key.

We also have to look at the entire meat processing industry from end to end. I refer not just to the workplace itself but to the accommodation, its nature and quality as well as transport to and from work. These cannot be seen as three separate pieces but as a continuum. While the rate might be 0.5% in the serial testing programme, somewhere else along that continuum, either in terms of transport arrangements or housing, the virus could be developing again and could come into the factory, where it can spread very quickly because of the conditions that pertain in meat factories.

Thank you Taoiseach.

I am very clear that we must have this engagement with the meat industry and with other sectors that are important and which create employment. The rights of workers in the meat industry need strengthening and I believe collective representation for those workers is important. That will form part of the Government's continuing engagement with the industry.

Does that mean the Taoiseach will set up a task force? Will he provide the data people want? It generates goodwill if people can see the situation for themselves. We are talking here about adults who have doubts but who are being told "It's grand; we have it; it'll work; we know best". That does not wash; people want to see the information. The information is there in the data hub and it was clear when it was published on 12 August that there were wide variations in the number of cases. I am not saying there were not cases but there were wide variations. I live a mile from the Dublin county boundary but 50 kilometres away from Kildare Chilling. It did not make sense to me that I could go to Kildare town, where there was a very large outbreak and circulate with no problem. I could then go to work in Dublin the following day. That is the kind of thing that led to people arguing the county lockdown did not make sense. People did not understand how that was a coherent piece of advice from a public health perspective. People need information so they can make up their minds themselves and I ask that it be provided.

I ask the Taoiseach to respond on the taskforce and the weekly updating of the data hub. Will he visit those areas? We have to learn from this. If this is part of the regime, the Taoiseach has to hear about it because the second lockdown was very different from the first time round.

Of course I will visit the areas. I did not want to do so during the period of the severe restrictions but we were in touch with the chambers of commerce. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, the Tánaiste and others were in touch with affected people in the three counties and we will continue to engage with them.

On the data hub, the Deputy heard yesterday from the acting CMO that the next uploading of data will be in September. I have asked for greater provision of data. NPHET was very clear that it should be county wide. We asked the same questions that Deputy Murphy has asked, including whether we could lock down selected parts of a county. The team was very clear that the cases were county wide and that we needed to introduce a county-wide lockdown. Of course there are inconsistencies with quite a number of the restrictions. I did not like the restrictions related to sport, particularly when I heard the news that the 200 spectators were gone. I did not jump for joy when I heard that; quite the opposite actually and I would love that to change. What the measures were about, if one thinks about it, is that we wanted people to continue working as best they could within the economy. The restrictions in Kildare, Laois and Offaly were not the same as the lockdown that happened nationally earlier. They were more nuanced but by virtue of that fact, they were perhaps more difficult to communicate.

Although, I will say this much: adherence to public guidelines is up over the past two months. It is significantly up on the position in May and June, which is interesting. People look at the figures and see the rises and so on like that. That said, I will visit. I agree with the Deputy on the data.

On the task force, I want to see what the best mechanism is for getting to grips with this quickly in terms of this industry and other sectors. Direct provision is another area we have to engage with seriously in terms of helping the residents there and ensuring that they are not in centres where disease spreads regularly.

We face a grim and depressing fact that while we might have hoped, when the Dáil broke up, that the situation with Covid-19 would incrementally improve, those hopes have been dashed and we are facing an ongoing battle with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. That means the economic and employment impacts on vast numbers of workers, who have had their income and employment stolen by the pandemic and by necessary public health restrictions, leave them facing a precarious future. Given that, I believe it is no longer, if it was ever, justifiable for the Government to go ahead with the plan to cut the pandemic unemployment payment on 17 September for 264,000 workers who do not want to be unemployed but who lost their jobs and incomes because of compliance with public health measures and when many of those workers would like to go back to work but cannot because of measures that are out of their control and because of the fight of Covid-19.

It is nothing short of punishing the worst economic victims of the Covid-19 crisis for the Government to go ahead with a plan to cut their pandemic unemployment payments on 17 September. I am appealing to the Taoiseach not to do it. It is not justified. It is not fair. Those workers, who cannot return to work or, if they do, will only be able to earn a tiny fraction of what they previously would have been able to earn because of public health restrictions, should not be punished. They have contributed just as much as everyone else in the public health effort, but they, unfortunately, are not able to return to work or full income-earning capacity.

The taxi drivers decided last night that they have to protest on 15 September - there will be a drive-by protest - because they are faced with a dilemma between the devil and the deep blue sea. They either stay on the pandemic payment that the Government is going to cut or they go back to work, where they can only earn a tiny fraction of what they previously earned through no fault of their own. Music, arts and entertainment workers face their payments being cut even though there is no work or virtually no work for them to return to. It is not fair. Regarding the Debenhams workers, who will be marching here this evening and who lost their jobs as a result of a cynical company using Covid-19 as an excuse to throw them on the scrapheap, how is it fair to cut their income when they would like to be at work but they cannot go back to work, or if they do go back to work, they will not be able to earn a viable living that will allow them to pay their bills, mortgages and rents? It is not justifiable. It is not fair.

I am asking the Taoiseach, ahead of 17 September, not to do that to people, not to impose further hardship when all of us are facing into a very difficult period with Covid-19. Are we still all in it together? If we are, the Taoiseach cannot justify cutting the PUP on 17 September.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government is not about punishing anyone and has not been from the outset of the pandemic. The key responses in terms of the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme have, as I have said before, been unprecedented and significant and have supported a significant number of people. This week approximately €17.2 million will be paid out to approximately 225,000 people in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment.

That is a decrease of about 5,500. We now have about 225,000 on the pandemic unemployment payment, which is an overall drop of 62% on the figure in May last, which was close to 600,000. From 17 September, as the Deputy correctly says, the rates are changing and coming down, although they are very closely related to what people were earning before they went on the pandemic unemployment payment itself. What we have done, critically, is to extend it right to April of next year and to put it on a more sustainable footing, unlike other jurisdictions, where it is being cut from next October, or is finished from next October onwards.

Given the fact it is plateauing around 225,000, or may come down further to 200,000, we will reflect on and review all that because we want to support people and help people get through this pandemic, and to provide safety nets for them. Therefore, the Government constantly and consistently monitors both of those schemes - the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment scheme. Overall, about €3.3 billion has been spent on the pandemic unemployment payment to date, which reflects the Government's commitment to supporting people who have been very badly affected by the pandemic. In respect of certain sectors, and in respect of Ministers with responsibility for arts, culture, tourism and so on, we are consistently looking at ways in which we can provide alternative income streams or employment opportunities for people in those particular sectors. I mentioned earlier the July stimulus, for example, and we have to work further on that to make sure we can translate elements of that funding into real working opportunities for people, and also add value to society and the economy in terms of projects we can get done, such as badly needed projects in housing, health, education and community and town centre renewal, for example. That is where I would like to see our continued support for people manifested as well. We are keeping the situation under review.

The Government has not extended the pandemic unemployment payment to April because it is going to cut it to the level that effectively makes it the same as the jobseeker’s allowance. It is cutting the income support payment for people who would like to return to work. The fact the numbers on the PUP have steadily come down in line with the restrictions affecting their particular sectors of the economy or industry shows that people who are on the PUP do not want to be unemployed. They are unemployed because of public health restrictions impacting on their particular sectors, robbing them of their ability to work at all or to earn a viable income. It is not fair to pull the rug from under their feet. It amounts to effective punishment of people who would like to return to work but cannot, or if they do return, will plunge themselves into poverty because they can only earn a fraction of what they previously earned. Taxi drivers on the road are earning 70% to 80% less than they were earning pre-pandemic. It is not fair to punish them. They need support.

Thank you, Deputy.

For arts, music and other entertainment performers, there is nothing or only tiny amounts out there for them. We need support, not cuts in the income supports for them or for the Debenhams workers who are coming here tonight and who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

I ask the Deputy to conclude, please.

These people do not need to be punished on 17 September; they need support. Do not cut their income supports, please.

The whole thrust of Government policy is not to punish; it is to support. Any objective analysis of Government interventions to date would have to accept that was the case. The level of State intervention is unprecedented, and rightly so, because it is an unprecedented global pandemic.

Both schemes are being extended to April - that is the fact. The Deputy is talking about the rates. From 17 September, the PUP will be paid at three rates: people who previously earned more than €300 per week will receive €300 per week; if they earned between €200 per week and €300 per week, they will receive €250; and if they earned less than €200, they will receive €203. That is what was stated back in July and it will continue for a much longer period than originally envisaged.

We are not pulling the rug from under anybody with the changed rates. Also, in terms of different sectors of the economy, we have intervened and responded. This is unprecedented action in many respects, where the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance and Business, Enterprise and Innovation have to come together to devise schemes to support various sectors of the economy which through no fault of their own cannot get back up and running. We are aware of the issues facing the performing arts in terms of audiences not being available physically. We have to do everything we can to support that sector and the individuals working in it. That is our desire and our objective.

The Deputy spoke to me previously about taxi drivers. Those are areas that we are continuing to analyse. I know that the Tánaiste is doing so in respect of a range of individuals who may not be rateable, for example, in different self-employments. They pose challenges in terms of how one responds to the more complex issues arising for enterprises and so on.

We are over time. I ask the Taoiseach to conclude.

We will continue to work on those issues. I take the sincerity of the Deputy's comments in regard to Debenhams, the workers of which we are continuing to engage with.