1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers that will be hired by his Department. [22238/20]
Vol. 997 No. 3
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers that will be hired by his Department. [22238/20]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers he is planning to hire in his Department. [23666/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
Under the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997, Ministers and Ministers of State who regularly attend Cabinet meetings may request the approval of the Government to appoint special advisers. The Act also provides that other Ministers of State may also appoint a special adviser. The requirement for specialist policy input and advice is a matter for each individual Minister to consider, having regard to his or her area of responsibility and the support in place in the relevant Departments.
I have begun the process of putting in place a range of appropriate advisory supports that I might need in my role as Taoiseach and head of the Government. The make-up of my team currently consists of a chief of staff at deputy secretary level, a deputy chief of staff at assistant secretary level, a part-time economic adviser at assistant secretary level and three special advisers at principal officer level.
In line with the provisions of the Public Service Management Act 1997, two special advisers may be assigned to the Government Chief Whip. There is currently one special adviser at principal officer level assigned to the office of the Government Chief Whip. Approval for the appointment of an adviser to the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs will be sought by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
As outlined in the programme for Government, a number of reforms have been implemented to ensure openness and constructive co-operation within the Government. These include the establishment of an office of the Tánaiste and an office of the leader of the Green Party within the Department of the Taoiseach and located in Government Buildings. Special advisers in the office of the Tánaiste currently consist of a chief of staff at deputy secretary level and four special advisers, three at principal officer level and one at assistant principal level. Special advisers in the office of the leader of the Green Party consist of two joint chiefs of staff at assistant secretary level and three special advisers at principal officer level, two of whom are part-time. It should be noted that all of the above appointments are subject to Government approval over the coming weeks, following which relevant contracts, statements of qualifications and statements of relationships will be laid before the Oireachtas.
The Taoiseach's Department likes its advisers. I received a written response to a parliamentary question from the Taoiseach last week with details of 18 special advisers in his Department. The Irish Independent estimated yesterday that the cost of 15 of those advisers was at least €1.5 million a year. The Taoiseach's response did not, however, list the three Government press secretaries that are also being hired. If those three are added to the 18 special advisers, the total number of special advisers across the collective offices of the three party leaders in government is 21. That is a hell of a lot of advisers. If those costs are estimated on a pro rata basis, they come to approximately €2 million. Does the Taoiseach intend to hire any more advisers? There are 21 already. I am not even making a political point here. It is ridiculous. Is this the line? Is 21 enough? Do the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the leader of the Green Party intend to hire any more advisers?
Given that we are in a pandemic, I would have hoped that one of the totality of the 21 advisers would come from a public health background. I would not have any issue with that. It would have been desirable and useful and might have been helpful today. I would have thought that a good idea. Do any of the 18 special advisers listed, or the further three Government press secretaries, have any background in health whatsoever? I ask the Taoiseach to clarify that. It would be helpful if one of the 21 did, given where we are as a country. I am surprised that there is not one among the whole lot within the Government's collective cabinets, given the new profile of the Tánaiste. I might be wrong. I ask the Taoiseach to outline whether that is the case.
There are many Ministers of State wandering around the place wondering if they are going to get an adviser. I understand there is a bit of a dispute between the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on this matter. Will there be a school of advisers or will the Ministers of State have individual ones? Those advisers have not been hired yet. The Government Chief Whip has one adviser but he is sitting at Cabinet. Will those who are sitting at Cabinet be left with just one adviser, or two, or will they be part of the school? In the response received from the Taoiseach, John Carroll is listed in the office of the Tánaiste. He has now been moved up to the role of Fine Gael general secretary. I congratulate him on that. Is there now a redundancy there as well? Those are my questions for the Taoiseach.
When the Taoiseach was leader of the Opposition, he would regularly get up and berate the then Taoiseach, who is now the Tánaiste, for excessive reliance on special advisers.
Not on advisers. I never did that.
He definitely did.
It was a separate issue.
He lambasted the Tánaiste weekly for reliance on PR and accused the then Government of being a Government of spin. It is quite extraordinary to have 21 advisers, including three press secretaries. On top of that, there was an announcement this week that a PR firm will be employed to mediate between NPHET, the public health advisers, and the Government. It will be a buffer which will dilute and finesse the message because the Government has got it so wrong and made such a mess of conveying the public health message that we now need a PR spin team to try to get it right. I put it to the Taoiseach that this is not the right way to go about things. If one wants to instil confidence, clarity and certainty about public health measures, having a load of spin doctors and advisers who specialise in giving advice but may not have any particular expertise in the areas of substance that people want to know about is not the way forward. The Government needs to listen to people on the ground who really know and engage with them more. It would not have to spend so much on advisers or PR people if it listened to the front-line healthcare workers, nurses, laboratory people, doctors or taxi drivers who are out there. It should listen to the people on the ground who actually understand how things work on the ground. Then it might gain clarity about how to convey messages that would bring the public with it. The Government is compounding the mistakes it has made over the last number of weeks by surrounding itself with buffers, PR people and specialist advisers.
The moral of this story is that even legions of advisers cannot save the Government when it is clueless about what it is doing.
With 21 advisers - God almighty - are they advising the Taoiseach or is it that he is not listening to the advice? I am unclear. I have never seen so much incoherence emanate from any Administration. The bar is high for bad government, but the Government is up there. It has exceeded all expectations in a way that is dramatic. What are the 21 advisers costing the taxpayer? What are we to make of reports that the acting Chief Medical Officer provides separate briefings to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste? What is the reason for that? Is it more of this rivalry? Have the Taoiseach's advisers advised him that that is not smart or good government?
It is extraordinary the degree to which Deputies will come to the House and take whatever they read in the newspaper as fact, as the Deputy has just done. I thought she was paying attention to the press conference this morning, but she clearly was not because that question was asked. There are no separate briefings for the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. As the Tánaiste stated, he was briefed once by Dr. Ronan Glynn in the past while, at a half-hour session, and then he had another briefing with the head of the modelling advisory group. There is nothing wrong with that. We have both been briefed jointly, as members of the Covid-19 Cabinet sub-committee, by the acting Chief Medical Officer. This is a non-story, yet the Deputy comes in here and tries to elevate to something that it is not-----
I asked the Taoiseach a question.
The Deputy did not.
She does not ask questions; she deliberately makes assertions to create a propaganda spin, and she is good at it.
Moreover, the Sinn Féin Party is no stranger to special advisers. It invented the whole concept to an extraordinary degree in the Northern Ireland Executive, where it has SPADs, as the Deputy calls them, all over the place. We saw the trouble they got the party into in respect of the debacle over the fuel scheme and so on.
Third, the Deputy has some neck to talk to people about incoherence when Sinn Féin as a party has been in denial for so long about the blatant breaching of guidelines that happened at the late Bobby Storey's funeral. I ask the Deputy to look at how long it took her to apologise for that, yet she attacks everybody else for incoherence and for being in denial. Everyone else in this jurisdiction was accountable for that kind of breach. The Deputy was not accountable and Sinn Féin was not accountable. It is one rule for Sinn Féin and different rules for everybody else in the House. That is the level of incoherence and denial that the Deputy practises, and she is in no position to lecture anybody on these issues.
Will the Taoiseach answer the questions?
I have answered the questions.
To respond to Deputy Kelly, the concept of special advisers is not new. We have three parties, and an office has been established for the leader of each party within that to ensure that the Government can get the programme for Government implemented. That is the origin of special advisers, which the Labour Party, to its credit, brought in when Dick Spring became Tánaiste after the 1992 general election.
He did not have 21 advisers, though.
He was the first to bring in a special office of the Tánaiste, which is what is happening on this occasion. I think it is important and it will happen into the future, of that I have no doubt. It happened in the previous Government, where Independent Ministers had special advisers. The concept and the numbers of special advisers are not new. As a three-party Government, the respective parties are very focused and the advisers' role is to deliver the programme for Government issues.
While I do not want to go into the details of individuals, given that they are entitled to their private lives, the chief of staff has a well-known background in health, having worked in industrial relations at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and on the front line prior to that. She was also an adviser at the Department of Health for three and a half years, so she is very well versed in health matters. Nevertheless, the acting Chief Medical Officer is the key, along with NPHET, for public health advice, and that is the way it should be in terms of presenting advice to the Government.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, I have always accepted the need for advisers in government, which is why, as Opposition leader, I never focused on special advisers, whether with the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, or when the Tánaiste was Taoiseach. I focused on the political communications unit, and had fundamental issues with its structure and how Parliament and the Government should operate. The Government has not hired a public relations firm for the Government-wide plan. The Department of Health has hired advice for public health dimensions, but the Government as a whole has not. There has been a Government communications programme in respect of the pandemic from its commencement, with all the various advertisements that people will have seen on the television, in the newspapers and so on.
We do listen to people on the ground, consistently, and we engage with them. I do that and have done so all my life as a politician. It is not unique to people in opposition. All Deputies do their best to do that. We will continue to do that and to engage with people.
Deputy Kelly's concern for the Ministers of State is very touching-----
I was one myself for a few years but I had no advisers.
I think the Deputy fought hard for one eventually, particularly as a Minister.
There will not be a school and advisers will be appointed to some Ministers of State.
I thank the Taoiseach. Time is up, so I will move to the next set of questions. I ask all speakers, including the Taoiseach, to stick to questions and the responses. It is a general observation.
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with health will next meet. [22338/20]
4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [23638/20]
5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [23684/20]
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [23700/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on health was established by a Government decision on 6 July and held its first meeting on 28 July. It will meet again in the coming weeks. It will oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in respect of health, receive detailed reports on identified policy areas and consider the implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare and the development of mental health services.
In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers individually to focus on different issues. I regularly meet the Minister for Health to discuss priorities in the area of health and in particular our management and response to Covid-19. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity, with both community and acute settings affected. Resuming health and social care services, and building our capacity and capability for the pressures of winter 2020-2021 and beyond, will be particularly challenging in a way that the health service has not experienced in living memory.
Earlier today, I launched our medium-term plan, Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, which frames Ireland's approach to managing and living with Covid-19 for the coming six to nine months. It aims to bring some clarity to help everyone to plan over the medium term. The plan contains a framework for restrictive measures, which is a risk management strategy for the next six to nine months. It is designed to allow individuals, families, businesses and services better understand, anticipate and prepare for the measures the Government might introduce to stop escalation of the transmission of the disease.
In the context of the health service, the plan sets out our approach and priorities for managing and living with Covid in a range of areas, including, among other measures, prevention of infection and protection of vulnerable groups, health system response and resilience, and the continued resumption of public service delivery, including non-Covid health and social care. It is important to recognise that many vital services have continued throughout the pandemic, ensuring that priority care needs were addressed and the most vulnerable protected even at the height of this crisis.
A range of initiatives have been developed, and as these continue to be rolled out in the coming weeks and months, we will see further service resumption and increased capacity throughout the community and acute hospital system. This includes implementing new initiatives, new ways of working and eHealth solutions to keep people safe and out of the acute hospital system, such as ePharmacy, ePrescribing and virtual clinics. Today, the Cabinet agreed to allocate a record €600 million for the 2020 winter initiative to ensure that our health service has the capacity and resources needed to deal with what is forecast to be a particularly challenging few months.
I was at the taxi drivers' protest during Leaders' Questions, so I have not fully studied the roadmap, but I want to know what the strategy is, as do the people.
Specialists in public health, immunology, infectious diseases and so on are saying that we should be pursuing a zero Covid strategy as against what appears to be, in this plan, a roller-coaster strategy, going up and down and up and down, with nobody knowing quite where it ends. Has this committee considered a zero Covid strategy, which I stress is not about a return to lockdowns but precisely a return to normality by the putting in place of resources and systems, in particular the testing and tracing regime, such that we can really chase the virus and isolate it? This is a clear objective that the people can get behind and understand in terms of where we are heading. Connected to this is the question of permanent healthcare capacity. The capacity of testing and tracing has a lot to do with permanent recruitment. Many of those engaged in testing and tracing were redeployed from elsewhere. What is the envisaged number of staff required to be recruited permanently and engaged in testing and tracing to get to the state-of-the-art testing and tracing regime? What are the plans in terms of permanent increases in capacity for ICU and the health service generally in terms of recruitment because it is trained people who are needed?
In terms of public health restrictions, would it not be best to have in place a hotline for workers in employment who are worried about encroachment on health and safety guidelines and so on such that they have a means of reporting to the HSE and a system that is responsive?
Earlier, I asked the Taoiseach about travel restrictions and the statement in the plan that those living in Dublin should be encouraged to limit their travel etc. The Taoiseach is probably aware at this stage that the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, said the opposite on the "News At One". In regard to the elderly and those who waited for the peak season to be over and have booked a staycation for this weekend but who live in Dublin, what is the Government advice? It is an honest question. My colleagues and I, and I presume other Deputies, have received texts on this issue. What are such people to do? They are not in level 2 and are not in level 3.
What is the difference between this committee and the Cabinet Covid committee in terms of responsibilities? I welcome the €600 million but strange as it may seem to say this it may not be enough. On the winter plan, I ask the Taoiseach to comment on a number of issues. I understand the plan will be launched on Thursday. Perhaps the Taoiseach will confirm if that is correct. The situation in some areas needs particular attention. Limerick University Hospital is the topic on which I have probably spoken most in this House. The situation there has been ongoing for a decade. As things stand, the hospital is at crisis point today. We need a plan for this hospital and for Cork University Hospital, where the Taoiseach will know there are issues as well. The mid-west in particular traditionally has had huge problems so we need to focus our efforts there.
There are a few other issues I would like to highlight. The Taoiseach might come back to me, as he mentioned earlier, on the vaccine. We need to get other screening back up and running, including BreastCheck, otherwise we will have delayed issues. I have continuously raised the issue of people with disabilities, which the Taoiseach will acknowledge. Our planning for the coming months needs to be elderly and disability proofed. I acknowledge the plan to recruit in regard to the testing regime. It is crazy, as pointed out by my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, to have therapists, etc., doing the work which others could be doing. For example, it could be done by people who are retired or by students.
The general perception of people is that there is a lot of confusion around the public heath advice. There is a reason for this, namely, the public health advice is not followed consistently, but instead the interests of private profit are allowed to interfere and interact with it. I am concerned the plan for living with Covid-19 is being institutionalised with the establishment of the Covid-19 oversight group, which effectively functions as a buffer as I understand it between NPHET and the Government. This group receives the public health advice from NPHET, which works it out in terms of the impact economically, socially, etc., and there the interests of private profit can come to bear. I also have a concern that this group is going to delay the process in that it is due to meet weekly and then report to NPHET, which will then have to pass on that advice to Government at a time when speed and movement in terms of action on public health is necessary.
The message of individual responsibility is not the right message. What is required is collective responsibility and the Government needs to take public action. At the heart of that action is the testing and tracing system. By way of comparison, Denmark, which has a similar population to Ireland, is now testing close to 200,000 people per week. In Ireland, 75,000 tests were carried out last week and a few weeks ago fewer than 60,000 were being carried out. In Denmark, there are free testing facilities publicly available, with testing available to anybody who wants it, including at the airports, yet here we are not even testing everybody in a classroom when there is a known Covid case. It is absolute madness. We are six months into a highly contagious pandemic and the Government is still rationing testing because it is trying to do it on the cheap. We had the opportunity to get ahead of the virus over the summer months. Will the resources be applied to bring our testing and tracing regime up to scratch?
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the ICU beds in our system. The Minister for Health confirmed in recent days that we have 255 ICU beds in the system, which is half the European average per head of population and 15% of the ICU bed capacity in Germany, for example, We are an absolute outlier in this critical resource. In 2009, an independent report found that the public health service needed to increase ICU bed capacity by 45% yet since then capacity has fallen rather than grown. There is confusion within the hospital system as to what exactly the Government contingency plan is for ICU care in terms of Covid cases and non-Covid cases. We need a permanent increase in the baseline of ICU bed provision and, of course, the staff to service those beds. When will the Government publish a plan to increase ICU capacity to ensure the very urgent care for Covid and non-Covid patients?
I will take a brief question from Deputy Barry.
It is a matter of concern to me that anti-face mask protests have been organised across the country in recent weeks. I believe that those who are anti-masks and organising these marches are anti-workers because wearing a mask protects the worker behind the counter in the shop, the driver on the bus and so on. These marches, in most cases, have been organised by the far right. They have tried to build a base on racism and on homophobia and they are now trying to do it on the basis of frustration with coronavirus restrictions. They are being helped by some of the actions of the political establishment. Golf-gate created anger which swelled the marches.
The Deputy needs to leave time for the Taoiseach to reply.
Can the Taoiseach report on any initiatives from the Cabinet sub-committee in terms of promoting face masks? I believe there needs to be a mass campaign of worker activists on the left to challenge this development.
On face masks, let us give the people of Ireland credit. Everybody in here talks about confusion. There was no confusion among the people when we brought in regulations to make mandatory the wearing of masks on public transport and in shops. As Taoiseach, I pushed hard to make that happen. The compliance rate is 90%. Last April, only 16% of people were wearing masks. That is the answer to the far right. I agree with most of what Deputy Barry said in terms of the far right. The Government has nothing to do with it. What those involved are doing is wrong.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of the zero Covid strategy. That is not our position. We do not agree with that strategy.
It involves severe lockdowns and let us not pretend it does not. The acting Chief Medical Officer has been very clear that it is not his view or that of NPHET that it is a realistic approach or strategy. Our strategy is to live with Covid, keep people safe, protect health, maintain economic resilience and jobs and restore public services with regard to keeping schools, crèches and higher education institutions open. We are seeking to restore health services while considering quality of life issues around the arts and sports and trying to keep games and live performances going as best we can within the restrictions. We want to support community well-being on the ground as well as mental health, which is critical. That will increasingly become an issue as the pandemic continues and evolves.
Lab capacity is an issue with testing. The numbers in the plan are to have approximately 3,000 people employed for testing purposes, including swabbers, contact tracers and the many more people behind the scenes who help in the administration of the work. There is a clinical need for call one, giving people results, and public health authorities insist on that. I take Deputy Kelly's point, which I have made to the Health Service Executive, HSE, that we need a permanent workforce and that we should not redeploy from within. That is how the process started and we came from a very low base when the pandemic started. I consistently made the point and it is now happening, with recruitment under way, with more people coming to the contact tracing side in particular.
The plan has been elderly-proofed, as it were, and we respect the elderly as, arguably, these are the cohort of people who have adhered most to the guidelines issued by public health authorities. The advice from NPHET at this stage is to encourage people in Dublin not to travel outside Dublin if possible. That is what NPHET has said at this stage.
The differences between the Covid-19 and health committees are clear. The Covid-19 committee deals with all aspects of Covid-19, and that is why the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform attend the Covid-19 committee, along with the Minister for Health and ministerial advisers. It is exclusively about all aspects of Covid-19 and it would have co-ordinated the plan published today. The health committee deals with broader health matters, including the winter initiative, as well as screening, health capacity and so on.
What about the Covid-19 oversight group?
The Deputy stated "interests of private profit are allowed to interfere" but that would be the antithesis of what is envisaged. The oversight committee is to be headed by the Secretary General of the Department and it involves other Departments. This is to ensure the process is practical. I will give an example. There was a furore in the House when NPHET advised we should enforce a provision to allow people to enter people's homes to control the numbers in a household. Everybody opposed such a suggestion, saying that civil liberties were at risk. There must be some filtering of advice in terms of how we make it possible.
With a week to go to the opening of schools, there was advice out of the blue from NPHET that we should go ahead with public transport at 50% capacity. The Government could not accept that immediately, and it did not, but we said we would try to follow that advice over time. We had been working with public health authorities on protocols to bring children safely to schools, including the identification of seat numbers for kids and all that. There needs to be some fine-tuning of advice when it comes to the practical implementation of it. We must co-ordinate Departments to ensure they are linked with stakeholders.
I know it is unsatisfactory but we have gone way over time. We must move on to the final round of questions.
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [22339/20]
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment will next meet. [22610/20]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [22651/20]
10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Economic Recovery and Investment will next meet. [22655/20]
11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment will next meet. [23636/20]
12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with matters relating to transport. [23926/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment has been established and first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of four occasions, most recently on 2 September. The Cabinet committee will meet regularly but the date of the next meeting has not yet been confirmed. The membership of the committee comprises the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister with responsibility for media, tourism, arts, culture, sport and the Gaeltacht. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will attend when required.
The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for matters relating to the economy and investment. Its initial focus was on developing the July jobs stimulus. This was a package of more than €7 billion of measures announced by the Government on 23 July. It is designed to stimulate a jobs-based recovery to build economic confidence while continuing to manage the impact of Covid-19. It includes measures to extend income and employment supports to affected individuals in companies to help people get back to work, training or education, and to build confidence among businesses in supporting them through the months ahead. It is to invest in jobs-rich infrastructure and projects in every part of the country and in areas of future growth, such as the green economy.
Matters relevant to the transport sector may arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. They can also arise at the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change. Matters relating to the economy and transport are regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.
I have questioned the Taoiseach and appealed to him extensively, including today, on matters relating to taxi drivers and the public transport system. As we discussed earlier, there was a major protest involving taxi drivers today. The Taoiseach has expressed sympathy but has not given a clear commitment. When will he make a decision on the key demands being made by taxi drivers, because they are desperate? They are incurring debts and have virtually no income. They do not know whether to stay on the reducing pandemic unemployment payment or go back to work, where they cannot possibly make a living, and lose all that payment. Insurance costs, repayments, licence renewals fees, car maintenance, fuel and all these costs and debts meanwhile are clocking up. When will the Taoiseach make a decision on their central request, which is for an income subsidy to allow them a baseline income on top of which they can earn money, knowing that until we have health restrictions lifted, they will not have the capacity to fully make their living. The same question applies to the arts, music and live entertainment workers. They need to get an answer to this central request.
With regard to the taxi drivers, there are some measures that would not even cost anything. Stopping the issuing of new taxi licences would cost the Government nothing, as would extending the ten-year replacement rule to 12 years. Getting rid of the taxi advisory committee, which is completely discredited, and replacing it with a national taxi transport forum, with proper representation for taxi drivers so that they could actually be heard from, would cost nothing. When will get answers to such matters?
The 50% capacity rule on public transport, along with the fact that many people do not want to use it because they are frightened, has led to a problem and we need to increase capacity in public transport dramatically. We have some of that capacity with private buses and our taxi friends, who have no work. What will we do to increase public transport capacity given the 50% restriction on capacity?
Similarly, I want to raise with the Taoiseach the lack of pace with which his Government has responded to the economic crisis. Deputy Boyd Barrett quite correctly raises the case of the taxi drivers, but I can cite a more general example in the credit guarantee scheme, which represents a vital lifeline for business as the economic crisis has deepened. We made the case for the removal of the 50% portfolio cap for this guarantee scheme for small and medium enterprises a full two months before the Government relented and adopted our policy.
By the way, the credit guarantee scheme came to be in Ireland months after similar schemes were introduced and up and running in other European jurisdictions. Similarly, the stay and spend tax refund scheme is clumsy, awkward and falls well short of what is required for tourism and hospitality. We are second only to Spain in terms of jobs losses in the second quarter of this year. We have levels of youth unemployment that are eye-watering and terrifying, and I see no sign of any response or thought-out plan for that. It is very disappointing. If the Government deals with unemployment and particularly youth unemployment in the same slow, clumsy manner that has become the hallmark of its economic response, we will be in very big trouble.
I will raise two matters with the Taoiseach.
The first pertains to the redundancy law which was extended today. With this law the Government has effectively allowed companies to make workers redundant while refusing to allow workers who have been laid off to invoke redundancy to get the payments to which they are entitled. Instead these workers are being left in limbo. They cannot get their redundancy payments from the company, but they are told by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to look for a new job or be cut off from the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. Will the Minister intervene to ensure workers get their entitlements without any further delay?
The second issue I want to raise is the mistreatment of workers by Aer Lingus. The Taoiseach might be aware that Aer Lingus is currently paying its workers only 30% of their basic wages. These experienced workers with families to feed and rents to pay are expected to live on less than the dole. Some workers have been left with as little as €150 a week to live on while the company is bailed out by the public purse. In recent weeks I have been contacted by several of those workers. They have spoken about the impossible situation they are in and their worries about how they will survive on these poverty wages. The company has now told these workers not to reach out to Deputies, speak out on social media or talk about the situation they are facing. The rules of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme must be changed to ensure all companies in receipt of State support pay their workers decent wages.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform gave an interview to the Business Post over the weekend, which I presume the Taoiseach read. Is the Taoiseach ruling out increases to income or wealth tax in the coming budget? Has he ruled out increases to social welfare payments or the Christmas bonus? What will be the size of the national recovery fund, and will this be new money? We do not know because we have not had a statement from the Taoiseach. To what use will it be put?
The deficit is expected to be €30 billion. At the end of August it was €9.5 billion. The difference is more than €20 billion, some €5 billion a month. I do not know how realistic all of this is. There is a huge lack of information from the Government. What will the real impacts of this on current and capital funding be? As I am sure the Taoiseach heard, his partner in government, the Green Party, has announced that the M20 will not happen in the next five years. Is that accurate? Is there any truth in recent commentary on the national children's hospital project? What is the situation there? What are the plans to deal with this deficit, and how will it affect future spending to which the Government has already committed?
I would like to ask a quick question about the Covid-19 plan which I am not sure is allowable. There are now restrictions on people living in Dublin. They must limit their travel outside of County Dublin. I come from Wicklow. A huge number of my constituents commute to Dublin, as do many others from Meath and Kildare. Are there any restrictions on people entering Dublin or does the plan only place limits on people leaving it?
Many Aer Lingus workers have been reduced from 50% to 30% of their wages and are unable to claim social welfare payments. People with families and mortgages have been left to survive on between €100 and €200 a week. Can the Taoiseach imagine the resulting stress and the toll on people's mental health? Uproar followed and the Government has now assured workers that payments have been sanctioned, but I want to ask the Taoiseach if this is really the case. Reports of workers being refused are still coming in. Finally, I would like the Taoiseach to comment on the fact that Aer Lingus is not paying workers the full value of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme.
Deputy Boyd Barrett was first with his query on taxi drivers, the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme. I have spoken to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Certain social protection measures allow her to help out people in certain sectors such as the arts, and she has been in contact with them. As I said to the Deputy earlier, a broader approach is under consideration. That work is being carried on between the relevant Ministers in preparation for the budget. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will be meeting representatives of taxi drivers. I take the Deputy's point about measures that do not cost money but have wider implications. He referred to suspending the issuing of taxi licences. We have extended the period of renewal from ten years to 12 years. The 50% rule concerning public transport is a public health measure. Buses do not grow on trees. They are not easy to procure. Huge efforts are underway at the moment to procure buses for school routes while complying with public health advice, but that takes time. The 50% rule regarding public transport still has a very strong public health basis. We have engaged with NPHET on this, and it is of the view that the rule should be maintained.
In response to Deputy Kelly's queries about the budget, I note that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will issue statements tomorrow on overall budgetary strategy pertaining to deficits and expenditure. Tax receipts have been buoyant, which reflects the progressive nature of the tax system but also shows that those on lower incomes have lost out more. Tax returns, particularly corporate tax receipts, have remained solid, which is helping the overall financial situation. That said, there has been an unprecedented intervention in the economy. People who use words like "awkward" and "clumsy" need to get real. The scale of the intervention is anything but awkward or clumsy. The Government has only been in place for 11 or 12 weeks. The temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme has been extended to April. The Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment has been extended, and the rates are still relative to what people were earning before Covid. It has also been opened to new entrants. There is a suite of enterprise measures such as the restart grant scheme, supports and tax measures. This will benefit lots of people involved in enterprises.
Deputy Murphy raised the issue of redundancy payments. There is an issue here that we must all face. Our overarching priority is to protect employment. If redundancy claims were triggered straight away, many enterprises could fold overnight. The whole agenda during this pandemic is to get as many enterprises as possible through it intact so that after Covid-19 they can grow again and employ their existing workforce and more workers if possible. That is a laudable objective in itself, but there are limits to it and the intervention has only been extended to November. The budget will include further financial intervention to support certain sectors of the economy. We are going to assist particularly those sectors that will not enjoy the income levels they would have enjoyed if the public health advice was otherwise.
Deputy Kelly mentioned the Green Party. I understand that the Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, website already referred to a five-year timeline for the M20, including the planning and design stages. That is where it was. People deliberately distort certain statements but that is the factual position. I remember checking it during the negotiation of the programme for Government. That was the timeline on the TII website-----
No, it was not.
-----in relation to the M20. It is committed to and it will be going ahead.
In response to Deputy Whitmore I repeat my answer to Deputy Kelly. NPHET has advised that people in Dublin should not travel outside of Dublin if possible. Obviously people who commute for work will continue to do so.
The full value of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme should be paid to employees, and I will look into the issue concerning Aer Lingus raised by Deputies Mick Barry and Paul Murphy.