Deputy Thomas Gould was in possession. The Deputy has four minutes.
Finance Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
I want to discuss a measure that shows the Government was unfair and underhanded in the 2021 budget and that has been enacted in legislation. Everyone knows that Sinn Féin opposed carbon tax. We believe that climate change can only be addressed by holding big business to account. I am not sure whether someone from Fine Gael is now in charge of the lobbying for big business and corporations but whoever is in charge they are doing a very good job with this.
In 2009, the Institute of Public Health in Ireland found a direct association between fuel poverty and poor health. People living in fuel poverty have greater healthcare needs. They cannot afford to keep their homes warm and they suffer because of that. They suffer in the short term but also in the long term.
In 2019, the EU SILC, statistics on income and living conditions, analysis showed that almost 400,000 people in Ireland suffer or experience fuel deprivation. Shockingly, we are among the top five countries for energy price hikes. How can the Government justify adding to that fuel poverty? Instead of sneaking in carbon taxes that will increase every year for the next ten years, this Government should focus on bringing forward Sinn Féin's legislation that would ban winter disconnections.
I have already made my feelings on carbon tax known. The carbon tax increases are harmful, nasty and most unfair on those who cannot afford to pay them. Children will suffer the most from fuel poverty. That is according to the ESRI's own statistics. Children who are already suffering will suffer more and that is a direct result of a decision taken by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
We can talk all we want about climate change and the need for action but that does not need to be action directed at ordinary people who are struggling to survive. This Government is so out of touch with ordinary workers and families that it cannot even imagine how harmful this policy is for people. It would do the Government good to take a minute to listen to ordinary people, step away from cronyism and big business and look at the impact of its decisions.
On 25 March, I raised the issue of student nurses not getting paid even though they were working at the front line. At the time, they had lost their part-time jobs, which we know students need to pay their way through college, but because they were front-line workers they could not work. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, announced that student nurses would get paid and I, along with the student nurses, believed that the matter had been resolved. It turns out now, however, that it has not been resolved and, once again, student nurses are being exploited. The hypocrisy shown by this Government is a disgrace. It is protecting banks, vulture funds and large corporations but there is no protection for student nurses working on the front line in our healthcare service.
The scheme established to ensure student nurses would be paid as healthcare assistants recognised they were expected to work as full-time workers, but now it has been disbanded. Where is the recognition? I ask that student nurses be paid directly because they are doing vital work.
I am sharing time with Deputies Carey, Christopher O'Sullivan and Richmond.
I want to address four issues related to the Finance Bill and the budget. The first concerns youth unemployment. The biggest threat to this country's economy in the short and long terms is long-term youth unemployment. We are aware from other economies, our history and the history of other countries that it can destroy not only an economy but also a society. I welcome the fact that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been reintroduced at the high level to ensure anyone who has lost a job recently may benefit from it. The Government needs to be commended on the employment wage subsidy scheme. It is an important piece of our armoury to protect young people who are in various vulnerable jobs but who can be protected by the State's stronger financial arm to ensure their jobs persist. We need to ensure this continues to operate for as long as we are introducing restrictions. The Government, however, needs to consider whether companies in receipt of the payment under the scheme are at the same time paying out dividends to their shareholders. This would be against the spirit of the scheme. I raised this with the Minister for Finance in a parliamentary question but I did not get a full answer.
A second issue we need to discuss and keep a close eye on is the continuing role of foreign direct investment, FDI, in Ireland and its importance to our economy. We can see that as a result of the downturn because of the pandemic and the associated restrictions, the domestic economy has suffered significantly. What is noticeable, however, is that the multinational sector, the FDI part of Ireland's economy, has continued to operate very well. We see this in the fact that the revenues coming from the FDI companies are continuing. This underlines the importance of the sector to our economy. The Government should be aware of it. We have to be careful to ensure we protect that aspect of our economy. In that regard, it is noticeable that in the budget, an immediate change was introduced to the capital allowances regime under section 291A of the Taxes Consolidation Act. Irrespective of the merits of that change, we have to be careful about introducing changes that affect FDI investment that are immediate or unannounced. There should be greater engagement with the sector to ensure we can retain the large amount of Exchequer revenue that comes from it, which supports the Irish economy.
The third point I want to make concerns the employment investment incentive scheme. A strange feature of it is that investors in a qualifying company can get 40% tax relief provided they are not a connected party. The effect is that tax relief is available to those with surplus income in respect of such investment but not available to a person who has developed a small business and wants to develop it further by investing his earned income in it. The scheme should be amended to ensure small businesses can secure investment from those most interested in developing. Why not encourage someone who has invested in a small business to develop it further? The Government should look into this in respect of the scheme.
The fourth and final matter to which I want to refer concerns the help-to-buy scheme. We need to recognise that for people earning €40,000 per year or less, it is still very difficult to avail of the scheme because of the requirement to get a mortgage. We need to recognise that we should not have circumstances in which purchasing accommodation is beyond the means of those earning a standard or average wage of €40,000, or, rather, a low wage, because that is what it is. We need to examine the scheme to ensure house ownership is available to persons at the lower end of the income ladder and to ensure our economy can progress by having people operating within it who have the stability and security of a home that they know they will own owing to their hard work and investment.
I support the Finance Bill. Budget 2021 is designed to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people and to help the most vulnerable in these uncertain times by investing now in public services and infrastructure for the future well-being of our country. In my limited time, I will focus on a number of areas, including Shannon Airport, tourism and the opportunities presented through remote working.
The €10 million package to assist Cork and Shannon airports is a welcome aspect of the budget. When the €5 million earmarked for Shannon is coupled with the €6.1 million allocated earlier this year, it amounts to €11.1 million for capital investment in the airport, which would otherwise have to be covered using Shannon Group's own resources. We need to build on that progress by ensuring the Government now takes vital steps to include Shannon in the regional airports programme, thus providing operational and capital funding to the key economic driver in the mid-west region. Without the vital global connectivity delivered through Shannon, many of the FDI companies in the mid-west simply would not have located in the region.
Last year, I visited Jaguar Land Rover with the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. The facility does cutting-edge research on driverless and electric vehicles. It is located in the Shannon industrial zone. It is just one of many leading companies located in Shannon. There are 10,000 people employed in the industrial estate and 80 aviation companies located there. There are also aircraft leasing, maintenance, repair and overhaul companies in Shannon. It is my strong belief that the Government needs to step in to provide supports directly to airlines to ensure that strategic routes, such as those to Heathrow, New York and Boston, are underpinned by Government support to provide vital global connectivity. A key principle in the forthcoming national economic plan must be to realise the potential of all our island. Due recognition must be given to the mid-west region and Shannon Airport as a catalyst for economic development. With Brexit looming, there is an added need to provide the financial supports necessary for both capital and operational expenditure, along with the finances necessary to facilitate the reintroduction of the strategic routes I have mentioned.
The tourism sector has suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, tourism across County Clare supported 12,000 jobs and generated €266 million in revenue annually for the local economy. I welcomed the reduction in the VAT rate and the extension of the rates waiver scheme. As part of the recovery strategy after the last recession, the Government introduced several innovative schemes and ideas, including the Wild Atlantic Way and the Gathering. We need new ideas of this kind. I call on the Government to organise a new-ideas forum in that regard. It might be possible to have transition year students come up with suggestions through Fáilte Ireland.
Remote working is the new norm. The nature of office-based work has changed dramatically during the course of the pandemic. With that in mind, I believe we need to encourage businesses and employees with tax incentives, allowances and grants. We also need to accelerate urgently the national broadband plan while creating a necklace of community digital hubs to allow people easy access to the digital world, thereby breathing life back into rural towns and villages. I acknowledge the funding provided in budget 2021 to start this process. I also welcome the progress on formulating a national remote-working policy, for which I pushed in my time as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development.
If we as a nation were to embrace remote working in a co-ordinated way, it would have many positive aspects. It would lead to a better work-life balance, cut out the need to commute, which would be good for the environment, and free up our time so that we could spend it with our families and give back to our communities.
I look forward to the Minister of State's proposals to my proposals.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the two Ministers on the monumental and significant budget 2021. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, played his part as well and I thank him for attending. That said, I wish to discuss elements of the Bill and the budget that need tweaking.
The Bill will legislate for the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. A brilliant scheme, it has already been broadly welcomed by businesses. It will provide a business with up to as much as €5,000 per week. However, be it the restart scheme, the restart plus scheme or the CRSS, the same businesses are falling through the cracks.
I wish to speak on behalf of sound engineers and lighting engineers. They constitute one of the business sectors most impacted by the restrictions. I have spoken to industry representatives. These engineers are struggling and many are fearful that they will not see past the lockdown and the end of this recession. To qualify for the CRSS, a person has to have a fixed premises. As can be imagined, not all sound and lighting engineers have such. Some have an element of warehousing and pay rates on it, but that is not considered a premises under the scheme. This needs to be fixed. These are the people who are involved in many of our favourite productions nationally, be they festivals, television productions or so on. We will need sound and lighting engineers after the pandemic.
We need to expedite payments under the CRSS. My understanding is that it will be the end of November before the first payments are made, but they need to happen earlier because businesses are screaming out for that funding.
The VAT reduction has been broadly welcomed by the tourism industry. Along with other measures taken in respect of tourism, it is a major step. However, it will only be effective for businesses that are in a position to reopen and trade. Although all of this is pending figures, it is important that we prepare now for the end of level 5 restrictions. Thankfully, the figures are going the right way and the R number is reducing, so we must prepare for level 3 restrictions come the start of December. We cannot permit a situation where restaurants and pubs that serve food will have to rely solely on outdoor dining. It would not be practical in the middle of winter. It would not be an option. I ask that the Minister of State bring the message to the Cabinet that we should consider how to tweak the level 3 restrictions to allow some element of indoor dining, perhaps with a few extra measures in place. It will be vital if the hospitality sector is to avail of the VAT reduction.
I wish to make a case for the funding of voluntary organisations. The Irish Red Cross is one of the most important such organisations. In my home town of Clonakilty, the Irish Red Cross is on standby at every festival, event, parade and race meeting. It provides a vital service, but it relies heavily on the fees it is paid for those events. With the events not happening, the income of our local Irish Red Cross has been decimated. We need to step in and bail out the Irish Red Cross. In my town, it might have to vacate its premises because of funding issues. It also has to maintain vehicles. An intervention is necessary so that the likes of the Irish Red Cross in Clonakilty can survive and see out the pandemic.
The best way for the carbon tax to lessen the impact on those with lower incomes is through social welfare, as is being done in the budget, but also through the warmer homes scheme. There are still considerable delays in rolling it out and allowing people to access its financing. We need to sort that out straight away.
I thank the Government for introducing this Bill.
It is difficult in five minutes to give a frank overview of the Bill, but like other Deputies, I will try to adapt one or two important points. I appreciate the Minister of State taking the time to take the Bill through the House.
I welcome the Bill and the budget, which have clearly been crafted to face the two most difficult threats faced by our nation and economy now and possibly in our history, namely, Covid-19, a pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in a century, and the sometimes forgotten or occasionally remembered threat of Brexit. The negotiations are ongoing and we are still unclear on whether there will be a deal. There is no such thing as a good Brexit. Anyone with half an economic sense in his or her body would know that Brexit was a terrible idea, not just for the UK, but also for those around the UK, like us. That is why the €3.4 billion Brexit and Covid recovery fund included in budget 2021 and the specific €100 million allocation for businesses to prepare for Brexit are so important.
Many people are understandably worried about these twin threats. Thankfully, budget 2021 includes no income tax increases. This is very important, as is the increase in the USC thresholds contained in section 2. We should be cognisant that we cannot tax our way out of economic difficulty. Putting additional strains on households through income tax increases would not be appropriate during what is a difficult time for many. Permitting people to retain more of their incomes, thereby allowing them to inject those funds back into the local economy and support small businesses, will help to see our communities and businesses through Brexit and Covid-19. Therefore, I welcome the specific sectoral measures in the budget that will allow our businesses to get through these challenges.
Like Deputy O'Callaghan, I welcome the new CRSS for businesses whose premises are affected by restrictions and that have experienced significant reductions in their turnovers. It is right that the Government has included in the scheme businesses that are still trading at less than 25% of their previous turnovers, allowing restaurants and cafés that have switched to takeaway services to participate. It is good to see that more than 1,000 businesses have already registered with Revenue for the CRSS. I urge businesses, particularly those in my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, that have been impacted by the restrictions to seek out these supports to see them through this difficult time.
I welcome the targeted approach to supporting sectors that the Government has adopted throughout the pandemic, in particular in this budget. I strongly welcome the return of the 9% VAT rate, which is allowed for in section 37 of the Bill. The estimated €401 million cost of the reduction will be vital to many businesses that have been badly impacted by the pandemic, be they restaurants, hairdressers or cinemas. Whether they pass the reduction on to their customers or retain it in-house is up to them. It is understandable if they are not in a position to pass it on, given how important it is that they be able to reopen when the restrictions are lifted.
I welcome the contents of the Bill, which rightly address the many difficult challenges facing our country. The Bill and the budget to which it largely gives effect have been crafted in the most difficult circumstances, unimaginable to many a year ago. As a country, an economy and, most importantly, a people, we face the twin threats of Covid-19 and Brexit as best prepared as possible thanks to this Bill.
Deputies Michael Moynihan and O'Dowd are sharing time.
I welcome the Bill and its many measures. The Finance Bill gives us an annual opportunity to reflect on the budget and the measures contained therein, but also on issues that we need to consider.
This is my first time to speak in the Chamber with the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, present in his new role.
I congratulate him on his position and wish him well. I listened intently to his passionate discussion on the issue of insurance. I know he will make a major impact on that area and I wish him well on that. There are many issues and challenges in that area. The credit unions are also under his remit. How the credit unions go forward, how they will trade and the many issues facing the credit union movement will have to be monitored. The credit union movement has been a bedrock for people in society, including the less-well-off, over the years and since the foundation of the movement by Nora Herlihy from Ballydesmond. We are all proud of that and of how she started the credit union movement. I wish the Minister of State well in his role. I know that he will bring his years of valuable experience in finance and from being in Leinster House to bear on the portfolio.
There are several things I wish to clarify or ensure are clarified in the Finance Bill. These include the new incentives for first-time buyers and those that were to come to a conclusion at the end of 2020 and are being rolled over. It was decided earlier in the year that the first-time buyer's grant would be rolled over to 2021. The Finance Bill has to be passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas and has to be signed into law before the Revenue systems are in place to ensure people can avail of it throughout 2021. It is important that clear guidance is given by the Minister or the Government representative in the wrap-up to the effect that this measure will be available throughout 2021 even if people have no portion of the mortgage drawn down in 2020. It is important to ensure that.
Several measures are rolled over in agriculture, including the consanguinity relief and other measures that continue the 1% allocation. These are important measures. When a farm or business is being transferred from one generation to another there is considerable activity prior to the budget. Will the stamp duty changes remain? Will the stamp duty changes be carried over for several years? Invariably, in the years I have been here, the changes have always been carried over. It is important to have clear guidance. Farm families are making decisions about transferring to the next generation. Clear guidance should be given to ensure these measures will be continued in future. All parties, but especially our party, are engaged in trying to ensure the viability of the family farm and that the family farm survives. It is the bedrock of the agriculture industry and the rural economy. It supports many jobs not only at the farm gate but throughout the agriculture and food industries. It also allows us to be absolutely confident that the food we are eating is produced to the highest level and to the proper regulations. It is important to do that.
There are challenges in the agriculture industry, in particular in respect of the beef industry. I note in the budget there is a pilot scheme to look at calf to beef and the beef coming off the dairy industry. We should look at that. I have reflected on the farm-to-fork projects of the European Commission and the recent document that came out from Teagasc on the challenges facing the industry, not only in biodiversity but in respect of antibiotics and antimicrobial traces as well. There are many issues in these areas. The farmer - the person producing the food - has been engaging singularly with the vast body of science that is developing to ensure we have a proper food industry. We need to encourage Teagasc and the private advisers who are doing such an excellent job in encouraging, advising and directing the primary practitioners in farming to work in a safe environmentally friendly manner.
There are several other issues. In the budget it was welcome that the disability sector got €100 million. There is not one person in this House or outside it who would not accept that the entire disability sector is in crisis. The challenges that have presented heretofore have been reflected on. Anyone listening to the Order of Business not only since this Dáil was formed but during the past 12 months will be aware of the issues of respite and the challenges in the disability sector. It is in poor shape. Many challenges face us in the industry.
I am delighted to be Chairman of the relevant committee and I will work hard with the committee members. We have had several meetings. I am positively enthused by the passion and commitment of the members of the committee. I believe we will be able to shine a light on the challenges. Moreover, I believe the additional €20 million announced last week for the disability sector is most welcome. We must accept that there are major challenges in the sector relating to work practices and we need to ensure the right outcomes. I have been saying this in the Chamber and elsewhere for some time that I believe that what has been happening in the disability sector will mean that a future Taoiseach will have to apologise for the way the sector has been treated.
I calmly listened to the radio on Saturday or Sunday morning. I do not get too involved in it but I was absolutely frustrated last Sunday morning when I heard Miriam O'Callaghan interviewing the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone. She talked about writing a book on her time in government. Was she elected to the Government to make things better for the people and children or was she elected to write a book? Over four years the services for children and people with disabilities went backwards and nothing was achieved. I was absolutely fuming at the radio when I was listening to it. Another book is coming out of it. We are here at this point. We are elected to do the best we can for the people we represent in the time we are in Leinster House or in any other elected position. It is sickening in the extreme to listen to people commentating and going on. They are there to make a difference but to my mind that particular Minister did nothing to advance the causes of children or people with disabilities or anything else under her remit. I have to say that.
I also want to bring up several issues that have been discussed. Primary medical certificates have been stopped completely since the court case earlier this year. That is completely unacceptable. Many people, including many public representatives across the floor of the House, are unable to get a decision on primary certificates. I want all the Ministers involved in this to bring clear guidance. It is in need of overhaul. This is not the first time I have said as much. It needs to be practical and tailored towards the needs of people. I call on the Government to look at this as quickly as possible to ensure we have the right outcomes.
Since the pandemic struck eight months ago we have seen the way life changed for people. People are working from home and things have changed far beyond what the political system could even possibly have contemplated in that period. It is time to revisit a serious decentralisation of Departments out of Dublin. Any such changes that were put in place in the past 20 or 25 years worked well. We all know that when we are interacting with Departments outside Dublin, they are excellent. I am not saying those in Dublin are not excellent, but it does work. It can work now more than ever. The Government needs to look at a vast programme of decentralisation to ensure vibrancy in rural communities. It is time that we looked at the post office network in terms of digital hubs and a new vibrancy in the rural towns and villages with all the Departments.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an díospóireacht seo. Ní raibh go leor ama againn, i ndáiríre, nuair a bhí an buiséad ann chun labhairt faoi. Tugadh dhá nóiméad domsa ar a naoi a chlog oíche Déardaoin. Tá sé an-sásúil, má tá an t-am againn, go bhfuil an deis ag gnáth Bhaill na Dála labhairt ar feadh deich nóiméad, más mian leo, ar rudaí tábhachtacha cosúil leis an mbuiséad agus leis an mBille seo.
This is a very important debate. The Bill gives effect to the budget, which governs how the State will be financed and run, as far as taxation and supports for communities and businesses are concerned, for the next 12 months. What is particularly important at this time in the Bill is the recognition that Covid is dominant in the thinking of the Government and the Opposition, and indeed right throughout the world, and that it has had a hugely complex impact on all aspects of our society. It is, unfortunately, responsible for us all being this very day on level 5 in Ireland, with tens of thousands of people unable to work and businesses in a very difficult trading position, some of them facing actions from banks, creditors and so on. Therefore, the supports in the Bill and the budget for businesses are hugely important.
In particular, the Covid restriction subsidy scheme is a lifesaver for many businesses. It is not the be-all and end-all but it means something to the businesses that have been significantly and adversely impacted in terms of the volume of business they have been able to carry out. Initially, in the budget, the threshold was at least 80%. I welcome the threshold now being reduced in the Bill to 75%. It will really support more businesses. It is hugely important that the enterprise culture in this country is supported fully. Over the years there has been a much greater recognition of the risk people take on in setting up their businesses. It is important that when we reach a huge national and international crisis such as Covid, the supports are definitely there. I am aware of many businesses in my town that have applied for this subsidy and they very much welcome it. The employment wage subsidy scheme is also hugely important, as was the PUP. I think it has given confidence to people and businesses, notwithstanding the very difficult position they are in, that there is a breathing space. It is really keeping the wolves from the door. It is dealing with the debts they have that they cannot meet because they have no income. It helps to relieve some of that pressure.
It is not in itself the only answer, however. The answer is the population taking on board all the protocols to reduce the transfer of Covid and not taking the risks that, unfortunately, some of us took. We drove the R-nought well below 1 - I think it was below 0.5 earlier this year - but it has, unfortunately, climbed back up again. I welcome very much the significant reduction achieved, notwithstanding the fact that no death is acceptable, obviously. There are significant changes taking place as we speak, and I welcome that.
I also welcome the support the State is giving in committing to not reducing the rate of corporation tax. We are all focused at the moment on the American presidential election. Mr. Biden has my support. I know he has the support of my family living in the United States. Mr. Biden hails originally from County Louth. His mother's family were Finnegans from Cooley, and we are all very proud that he has his foot on the threshold and hopefully-----
Did the Deputy get a visit to the constituency?
He actually came to meet me-----
He did, in County Louth. He was very nice. It might upset the Deputy but it is very nice to have a Vice President visit one's county and community.
It is very much on topic as well.
I just wanted to inform Deputy Murphy. I know that things like that upset him, but I think it is great. Also, for the record, Mr. Biden has had a very important relationship with Irish America. My brother, who is part of the Irish-American business community in New York, is very proud to have been associated with him as well as Bill Clinton and others. The reason I raise this is that our corporation tax policy sustains the American investment in this country, with something like 155,000 people directly employed day in, day out. It helps to attract and keep industries and American investment companies, such as in the ICT, technology, pharmaceutical and medical appliance businesses. If we did not have that excellent relationship with America and did not keep our tax policy as it is, we would not have a lot of that investment. That is why it is hugely important that this was referred to specifically in the budget and the Minister's speech.
For smaller businesses the waiver on rates is hugely important. Small businesses find it very hard to meet their local tax bills. The commitment in the Bill to reduce the VAT rate is particularly important. We have suffered greatly as a result of this pandemic, particularly the tourist industry, the catering industry and the people who provide significant services and maintain excellent services in our community year in, year out and month in, month out. When they are prevented because of the pandemic from opening their doors, it is hugely important that this tax is reduced. I believe there is pent-up demand in our economy. It is clearly there in the level of savings, which, as I understand it, has never been higher. I refer to people's personal incomes, the banks and so on. That pent-up demand should be released and we will be able to visit our friends and relatives all over the country and spend our money in our hotels and restaurants. That is hugely important and gives an increasing confidence to business, notwithstanding the dark clouds under which they must operate at the moment. It offers them hope and the possibility, and the probability, that when we go back down to level 3 or, please God, even level 2, that we will release that pent-up demand into our economy, that the income that those companies so badly need will return to their coffers and that families' quality of life will return. It is exceedingly difficult on all families, on everybody, that we have these physical restrictions. They have a significant and adverse impact not just on people's bank balances or their capacity to open businesses but also on mental health. There are other social impacts which have to be ameliorated and dealt with.
I welcome what is in this Finance Bill. I welcome the opportunity to talk about it and to listen and learn. If we have learned anything in this country, and if we look at the rest of Europe, where Covid is increasing exponentially, it is that we are at least dealing with the pandemic medically and insofar as human behaviour is concerned. The core and the heart of our society is looking after all those people who have lost their jobs and businesses that cannot operate. At the heart and the very core of this legislation is support for our communities, particularly our business communities now in their time of greatest need. I welcome the Bill. Fágfaidh mé an 31 soicind atá fágtha agam don chéad chainteoir eile.
I am not sure if Deputies are paying attention, but we are moving through this debate pretty quickly and there are lots of slots not being taken. I say this in case people are missing their slots.
This Finance Bill underlines yet again that we have a Government of millionaires looking after the billionaires. Not only are we in the middle of a health crisis, but let us not forget the housing crisis. Yet in this Finance Bill the Government proposes to extend a tax break for major developers which actually encourages them to hoard land for even longer.
The Government stamp duty refund scheme proposals will not only hand over more money to some of the richest developers in this country, it also allows them to continue to drag their feet on actually building homes on the land they own. This scheme refunds developers almost three quarters of their stamp duty costs. The Government now proposes to extend the scheme even further making completion dates as late as June 2025 eligible for this refund. This extension means developers can sit on their land even longer watching its price rise and even get a handout from the Government for doing so while the homeless figures rise and the housing crisis deepens.
We have seen again and again how this is a Government of the golden circle from schmoozing with lobbyists over golf at Clifden to Ministers becoming banking and corporate lobbyists and to the Tánaiste pulling strings for his friends. This proposal is a continuation of that approach. It is a law written for the property speculators and is being proposed here today by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. The proposal has been largely missed by many Deputies and the media and, in fact, there has been remarkably little discussion at all about the residential development stamp duty refund scheme.
Even by the Government's logic, the idea of extending the deadline out to cover properties completed by mid-2025 makes no sense. We know developers are hoarding land and watching land prices rise. Extending this scheme gives them an extra year of hoarding. If the goal is to encourage developers to actually build, this extension will only do the opposite.
The same is the case with the so-called help-to-buy scheme which is also being extended. The Government is once again handing money to super-rich property developers and trying to tell us it is really about helping home buyers. The so-called help-to-buy scheme is really a help-to-profit for developers scam. It lets developers hike up property prices an extra €30,000 for first-time buyers. Government spin doctors like to present it as a stimulus to encourage developers or to help buyers, a sort of trickle-down economics idea where if one throws money at developers, hopefully, they will build houses. While I am sure it will make the Government popular among its friends in the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, it will only make the housing crisis even worse by making homes more unaffordable.
There should not be a penny more in handouts to those profiteering from the housing crisis. Instead, we need a left Government with socialist policies to take on the speculators, developers and big corporate landlords. The reliance on the market to deliver housing has succeeded only in making a tiny few wealthy but it has failed ordinary people abysmally and deepened the crisis. A left Government with socialist policies would build public homes on public land. It would nationalise land that is being hoarded and bring the properties of the corporate landlords into democratic public ownership.
I also want to talk about the changes to the carbon tax included in this Finance Bill. This proposed carbon tax increase has nothing to do with protecting the environment. It is an austerity tax with a thin coat of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan's, green paint. Now the Government is proposing to lock in a decade of carbon tax hikes right up to €250 on a tank of heating oil by 2030. That might be small change for Government Ministers but it is a major bill for ordinary workers. Hiking up these taxes does nothing to help someone reduce his or her carbon footprint. It does nothing to tackle the big business polluters who are responsible for this crisis. All it does is let the Government pretend it is doing something while undermining support for the real climate action we need.
Instead of a decade of rising carbon tax, we need a decade of a green new deal with socialist policies to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030. We need investment in free, green and frequent public transport. We need investment in green jobs such as those in healthcare and education. We need to move to a four-day or 30-hour week without loss of pay. We need a just transition to a sustainable model of agriculture without small farmers being hit. Rather than hammering ordinary people, we need a Government that will stand up to big business polluters and bring the key polluting industries into democratic public ownership and in that way enable us to plan for the rapid and just transition we need.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about a group of people almost ignored in this Finance Bill and in this budget, that is, the postgraduate students who are working in universities across the country. The Government is turning largely a blind eye to the fact they are being exploited under its nose. The Government gave them a fairly meagre €1,500 extra in terms of grants but that is it. It is completely inadequate while the Government benefits from their exploitation and refuses to allocate the extra funding needed for third level to raise these students and workers to a decent standard of living.
Many people have no idea thousands of unpaid workers in our universities are forced to work for free. People spend thousands of euros on some of the highest college fees in Europe and they do not even realise many of the people teaching their children in college are completely unpaid. The treatment of postgraduate workers in this country is a disgrace. Last month, the Minister with responsibility for higher education admitted in an answer to a question from me that it was common practice for PhD students to be required to do five hours per week teaching without payment. He seems to think it is perfectly okay for people to be expected to work for free. Right now, we are seeing how crucial these postgraduate students are to the running of our universities. Much of the tutorials, laboratories and other teaching takes place due to them. If, in the morning, they all withheld their free labour and refused to work, every college in the country would collapse and be unable to deliver their courses and yet the Government seems to think they do not deserve payment for their work. It is time to treat workers fairly. No one should work for free. They should be paid a decent wage.
A particularly shocking part of this is many of these postgraduate students are required to sign a declaration that there is no element of service between themselves and the university despite the fact they are being told they must work five hours per week without pay. Worse than that, National University of Ireland, NUI, Galway, reportedly one of the worst offenders in all this, even demands that students who receive Irish Research Council funding do unpaid hours despite the fact the guidelines for that scholarship clearly state that any teaching duties should be appropriately remunerated. It seems the colleges think they are a law unto themselves and think it is okay to exploit postgraduate students by making them work for free like this. It seems, unfortunately, that the Government is perfectly okay with that. I support those postgraduate students who are getting organised to fight for their rights and for their right to be paid for the work they do rather than being exploited and made to work for free.
It must be difficult to try to balance all the factors that must be taken into account when pulling together a budget under the sort of economic, social and political system we live in, but no doubt, the Government is doing it. That is what it does all the time and it makes clear political decisions about where and what it targets in terms of revenue raising.
I want to put it into the context of the three crises we are facing across the globe. Obviously, the pandemic and climate change are massive crises and, as a consequence of those, the failure of the competitive and irresponsible capitalist system we live under, an economic crisis is looming large over us. With that trio facing it, the Government has designed a budget.
One thing stands out for me, however, and I say this mainly as somebody who participated for months on end in a special committee that was set up to look at how we deal with climate change. The climate action committee was given resources. People were employed to help, advise and work with us to work through all the modules and stuff we had to look at. We got experts in from around the world. We got financial experts and scientists in and we did months of work on the climate action plan.
That plan is now being used as cover for what the Government describes as a "cross-party consensus" on how we should go forward with climate action. However, the main thing coming out of the Government's action plan is an increase in carbon taxes that is locked in, year-on-year, for ten years. The Minister of State was not a member of that committee but those of us who were will remember the long debates we had on this issue. We never reached a cross-party consensus on it. Instead, a number of us stood our ground and argued what we thought was the obvious point that carbon taxes would not help to reduce emissions and reliance on fossil fuels but would, in fact, function as a regressive measure directed at the wrong target. The increase in carbon taxes diverts attention away from the systemic nature of carbon pollution, which is rooted in the free market economy and the vested interests of fossil fuel corporations. Those corporations continue to profit from their reliance on oil, coal and gas, as do the companies that rely on the production of plastic. The Government is asking ordinary people to shoulder the blame for the climate action that has not been taken, when 71% of all emissions come from 100 global corporations. This approach is not only regressive but it is also dangerous. It ignores the rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented transitions in energy, land and urban infrastructure, including transport, buildings and industrial systems. We are told that the increase in carbon taxes will be ring-fenced and used to implement the plans that are needed around these transitions, including a just transition. In fact, that is exactly what it will not do.
In the course of the long and tedious committee debate to which I referred, we pushed very hard for the Government to commission a comprehensive inquiry into the extent and nature of fuel poverty across all cohorts of the population. We asked that the impacts of an increased carbon tax on all those cohorts in the short, medium and long term be considered prior to the introduction of any such increase. We did not get cross-party support for our proposals. As I said, however, there also was not cross-party support for the approach the Government is taking, which is to impose year-on-year increase in carbon taxes, for ten years, without first bringing in the measures that will help people to change their personal behaviour. Saoirse McHugh, a former member of the Green Party and candidate for the European Parliament, has spoken about the difficulty for her, living on Achill Island, of changing her personal behaviour when there are no buses to take her around and off the island. She relies on a diesel-fuelled car to get around. How can she change her behaviour when she cannot afford to retrofit the old and cold stone cottage in which she lives? The supports are not coming from the State to the people who need them most. At yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action, Professor Kevin Anderson denounced increases in carbon taxes as a weapon that was being used to punish the wrong people. He pointed out that the very wealthy are the biggest consumers and producers of CO2 emissions on the planet. The people we should be going after, he said, are those who fly most often, live in bigger houses and drive faster cars.
There was one recommendation on which we did reach cross-party agreement in the Joint Committee on Climate Action of the last Dáil. Resources were spent on employing people and engaging experts from around the globe, the committee did its work and there was one priority recommendation we managed to get passed. That recommendation stated:
That this committee recommends that the Department of Finance commission an inquiry into the revenue that could be realised through the introduction of a carbon tax on the profits of corporations and firms directly linked to the production and sale of gas, oil, coal and other fossil fuels. That inquiry should look at the revenue that could be realised from the imposition of a carbon tax on the profits of other corporations and firms linked to the high usage of fossil fuels, including aviation, shipping, etc.
What has become of that cross-party recommendation? Is the Minister of State aware of any inquiry in his Department into how we might raise what would, I believe, be far greater amounts of revenue by taxing the real polluters rather than ordinary people? I am sure every Deputy in the House has spoken to a plethora of people who have had to make the choice between having a hot meal or heating their home. Many of these people are only a few measly euro above the threshold that would entitle them to a fuel allowance. That is happening everywhere. Representatives from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul told the committee that, in their view, the level of fuel poverty in households throughout the country is significantly underestimated. They have done the research and they work at the coalface with the people they have to subsidise. They spoke about having given out some €4 million in subsidies to help people to pay their electricity and gas bills and buy coal, turf or sticks to heat their homes.
The Government has chosen to ignore that evidence and to impose increases that will penalise those who can least afford it. It has ignored the priority recommendation of the committee tasked with examining the issue, which points them in the direction of where they can raise the most revenue, namely, by going after the big polluters, not the people who will struggle to survive through this winter. I take this opportunity to raise an issue that really needs to be raised again. The same people are being penalised by the pay-as-you-go utility companies by the way in which the €100 subsidy that was given at the beginning of the lockdown is being clawed back. That money, which people used to top up their gas or electricity meters, is being taken back at a rate of 60%. If they top up their pay-as-you-go card by a tenner, for example, they will get €4 worth of heat and energy for it. That is happening everywhere and every Deputy in the House knows it. When people are dependent on this way of paying their utility bills, it means they are living hand to mouth and are struggling to pay their bills week by week. The people in that situation are mainly on social protection but they also include people on low pay, pensioners etc. This reality is being ignored by the Government. The utility companies should be brought in and told to stop this practice immediately. Indeed, in the case of any subsidy that has been given during this lockdown and any subsidy that is given during future lockdowns - I expect there will be more lockdowns because of the refusal to pursue a zero Covid strategy - it should not be permitted to recoup that subsidy, in a merciless and vulgar way, from people who can little afford to pay it back at the rate demanded. The Government must intervene on this issue straight away.
To reiterate, the idea that there is cross-party consensus for the raising of carbon taxes on ordinary people is absolutely false. There is no such consensus. In fact, the largest Opposition party is opposed to it. It is not just the socialists and parties of the left who are against it; Sinn Féin and other Independent and Opposition Deputies are also opposed. The Government is choosing to ignore what we are screaming at it. It is locking in the carbon tax for ten years without introducing a single measure to reduce CO2 emissions. The Joint Committee on Climate Action is engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny of the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill 2020, which the Government wants to push through before Christmas. That Bill will define the governance structure around which we deal with climate change. One of the proposed provisions is that the Minister must have regard to 25 separate conditions before a single climate action is implemented. Those conditions include consideration of the specific and special nature of the cattle herd and the healthiness of the competition within the economy at the time. The Government cannot accommodate 25 competing interests and, at the same time, say it is taking the action necessary to bring us in line with the Paris Agreement requirement to bring down our CO2 emissions. All it is doing is punishing the most vulnerable and increasing the burden on those who are at least responsible for the disgraceful situation we are in.
As the planet hurtles towards more droughts, runaway fires, floods and starvation, which will mostly impact its poorest inhabitants, including the poor in this country who pay the most for flood damage to their homes and so on, the Government offers no solution other than to go after those people again and let the fossil fuel, aviation and shipping industries run as rampantly as they choose. The Government is barking up the wrong tree, not only by imposing carbon taxes on ordinary people but by locking them in for the next ten years. It is utterly outrageous, disgraceful and the wrong way to go about deling with CO2 emissions.
For the benefit of Deputies waiting to speak, the next slot is for the Rural Independent Group, after which we will proceed to a Government slot and then to Sinn Féin. The debate has moved quickly and some of the slots have not been filled.
I said the Regional Group by mistake. It comes after that. We are moving on to the Government slot. Deputies Ó Cuív and Kieran O'Donnell are in that slot.
As a contingency, if Deputy O'Donnell turns up I will share time with him but if he does not, I reserve the right to keep going.
There was a time when much time was given to the Finance Bill and I was a little disappointed to find that it is to finish this evening. I noticed in recent Dáileanna-----
I beg the Deputy's pardon. It is to run today; it is not necessarily to finish.
Good. I am glad to hear that.
It is not down to finish today. Níl sé le críochnú inniu.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I note every time I get on to the Whip's office I am told I will have five minutes, ten minutes or whatever.
It is a 20-minute slot. It proceeds in 20-minute slots. It does not necessarily finish today but if the slots-----
There must be some misunderstanding.
If the slots are not filled, it will finish, but if the slots are filled, it will not finish.
I cannot understand. I asked the Whip's office for 20 minutes and it said had a limited number of slots.
The Deputy might take that up with the Whip, más féidir.
I will certainly.
Tá neart ama ann do gach grúpa anseo.
Glacaim le comhairle an Leas-Cheann Comhairle mar is í an Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta.
Sin an fáth go bhfuil an Leas-Cheann Comhairle ann, le comhairle a thabhairt.
Leanfaimid ar aghaidh.
Táim ag atosú an clog.
Gabhaim an-bhuíochas léi as ucht a comhairle.
Tá sé saor in aisce.
Bíonn deá-chomhairle ar fáil in aisce uaithi i gcónaí.
First of all, I would like to deal with some specific issues in the budget. In the second half of my contribution, I will talk about the wizardry of modern finance and how, as a simple person, I wonder at times how this magic money is always coming about. There used to be certainties. Matter could not be created or destroyed. Then it was found that if one split the atom, one could destroy matter but one could create energy out of it. Therefore, it became that energy could neither be created nor destroyed. There used be principles in relation to finance that there was no such thing as a free lunch but the world seems to be having a great free lunch at present. I wonder, if it is so simple, why it was not done before. It is something worth debating. Before we come to those issues, people have to live in the immediate and in the immediate effects of a pandemic.
The first thing we have to recognise is that a big slice of society, those whose incomes have stayed the same, because they have not had the same spending opportunities on holidays, on hospitality or whatever, will probably save more money or have more money for paying off their debts than they would have had otherwise because every time there is a lockdown or even a semi-lockdown, the opportunities for spending reduce. Then there is the other half of our society who have been impoverished by what has happened. Many of them, those in small and medium-sized enterprises who had never depended on the State and got on with their business, now find that the basis of business has disappeared.
In the main, I would have to say the Government has done a reasonable job trying to help a fair number of people with fairly accessible schemes. I do not get a significant number of complaints about accessing the schemes but we know there are significant sectors that the schemes keep seeming to miss. It is something we will have to look at again to see what sectors or types of business are still left out of the loop.
When the initial pandemic payment came in, because it was based on what one did in January, February and March, all of the seasonal industries in the west were left out. That was a considerable challenge because in the more rural parts of the country that depended on seasonal tourism, January, February and March is holiday time when they get a break from the hard work of 12 and 14 hours a day from St. Patrick's Day or Easter sometimes up to Christmas.
When one looks at the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, there are two conditions. A person's business has to be closed down by the closedown. The other condition I understand that is there in practice is that one has to have an office or some place of business. There are many businesses in this country that do not have a specific place of business. Their place of business is their own homes. There is nothing wrong with that because, if one went back 150 years, cottage industries were prevalent and farming was prevalent. Work was done from people's own homes. It is only in the more modern world we have insisted on everybody having an office, etc. That actually was a function of telecommunications. It is hard to believe that when I went to Corr na Móna the first shock was that it was hard to get a telephone. When we built the co-op, it took us a year to get a telephone and unless one was in the office, one could not be contacted. Now younger people have never experienced the world without the phone in their pocket so wherever they are, that is where their office is. We have progressed to a fantastic situation where there is no need for an office. With the CRSS, businesses that provide services, such as the limousine business, got caught out. Strangely, groups such as the small fishermen are not in a good way because there was a market collapse, and not that they were stopped fishing. For example, limousine owners were told that there are all these loans available, but they are only available if they buy an extra limousine. Who will buy an extra limousine at this stage? It is hard enough for them to pay for the ones they have. What they needed was help to pay back the money they had borrowed.
On a bigger policy level in regard to welfare, tax and so on, we seem to have moved into an as-you-were situation of no policy change. There were little bits here or there. The earned relief was brought up to €1,650, but that was going there anyway. There was no significant shift in how we do our taxes or where the burden of taxes lies, and these can be done in a cost-neutral way. I hope that is not a sign of things to come because we need changes in the tax system. As I often said, for the ordinary person living his or her life and trying to make tax returns, the tax system is inordinately complex and we need to look at making life simpler. The past ten years, with the introduction of the universal social charge, USC, and its multiple rules and crinkles, have added a third payroll tax. We would be better returning to the two-tax system of tax and PRSI contributions. The present one is merely ministering to a fetish of the Department of Finance that is a backdoor way of taking people on low incomes, which I disagree with.
For the past ten years the age exemption was reduced, and has stayed reduced, and the basic tax credits have stayed the same so while welfare has gone up - I counted seven or eight increases in the past ten years of €5 per year, or an increase of €35 per week - more people who have a small private pension or in small self-employment wind up in the tax net.
That is a clear policy of the Department of Finance because it seems to me that it wants to take more tax off the low-paid.
I come to an issue that puzzles me. I wonder how it is that there is no comeback on it. Every country in the world has had a bad economic year, or to put it more precisely, their governments have had a bad economic year. There are sectors of economies which have had a great year, for example the high-tech companies that work online and sell all the programmes we all use every day, and anybody who sells Internet services. Most governments have wound up spending much more money than they are taking in and creating huge deficits. We are told, with justification, that there is no harm in borrowing €20 billion, €30 billion, or any figure one can name. We are told that we can keep writing the cheques because we can get long-term money for free, and that monopoly money is now the way the world is.
The House should remember that we are borrowing €30 billion but when one takes that across all the countries of Europe and all the countries of the world there is a massive amount of borrowing going on. In the old days of conventional banking, if one was borrowing a huge heap of money, somebody would have needed to have saved that money and to have put it in the bank before the bank could lend it. We have gone way beyond that in the sophistication of our systems, however. Consequently, this is not money that was saved, invested and made available for borrowing. I am very open to the Minister of State, who is an erudite man, explaining to me where all the money is coming from, why it is being given out for free and what effect it is going to have in the long term. Is somebody going to tell me this will have no long-term effect because free money can be created every year? It defies every rule of conventional economics that would have obtained here prior to the last two years.
Ten years ago, during the other crisis, if we had suggested to Europe that it should keep printing money all the time, it would have refused and insisted we borrow the money on the market. It would have argued that money must be real and said that we could not keep writing blank cheques. I much prefer this way of solving the problem than the last way, whereby we were paying between 8% and 10% for money at some stages. However, I still query that it is this handy, that we can keep doing this and that there is not going to be a sting in the tail somewhere. We would have been told that if we kept writing cheques and creating money out of nothing, and if central banks all over the world kept creating all this money out of nowhere, it would create rampant inflation. Now everyone is going to tell me that is not happening. It is surely not happening at the moment but maybe that is because there is a constraint on people's spending. I see very little commentary on this. I see very little questioning of how we have suddenly wound up in this utopia where we can keep writing money without it having an effect on inflation or the value of money. It seems that the answer to all of the world's finance problems was really handy all the time, but I am sure it is not that simple. Nothing ever is, if we look at all the downturns before. What happened in the 1930s in Europe was hyperinflation. Sometimes in Ireland, debate at the higher level is very much focused on today, on orthodoxy, on not rocking the boat and on not questioning the basic logic of the situations in which we find ourselves.
At the beginning of my contribution I said we have created two sections of society. The people in one section depend on subsidies from the State when they are lucky. When they are unlucky, they are told to suck it up even if they are facing dire financial and personal problems. The only thing they are being offered is new loans for new equipment; no help is bring offered with the debts they have. On the other hand, if the truth be told, there are many people in certain types of business that are much better off. My worry is that when things settle down and Covid disappears, which no doubt it will, we will get rapid inflation. When there is an overgenerous money supply, price inflation will happen. I am concerned that we will hit in a second whammy all the people who have been hit in the first whammy. The people who were not hit in the first whammy will be relatively better off because they will have much fewer or no borrowings and doubtless they will have invested in long-term savings at very low interest rates before the chickens come home to roost. If the interest rates go up, their money will go up because that is what happens. On the other hand, the people who must borrow to survive will find the interest rates on new borrowings for them will go up and they will not be immune.
Some people will speak about the assurances that the economists will give us. I am sure all the European economists and the people writing all this money are going to assure us that everything is under control. It is said that once bitten, twice shy. I sat in government in the 2008 period when report after report from the OECD and all the rest came in. There is no point in denying that although there were a few outlier economists, and a few people who questioned, the vast majority of reputable economists at the time told us that there would be a soft landing and so on. When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac broke in America, I remember putting a phone call through to the Taoiseach's Department and asking a senior adviser if this had implications for Ireland. I was blithely assured that we did not have sub-prime lending in Ireland, that there was no issue and that everything was under control. I do not think I need to emphasise or go into any detail about what the real truth was: on that sunny day when the news broke about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the United States of America, we saw the beginning of a huge international financial turmoil which scarred and hurt many people.
I hope that when the Minister of State is summing up, he will be able to explain to me in simple English how suddenly the world has changed so much because of Covid that we could start writing all of this money throughout the world and there is literally no downside to it and there will be no day of reckoning. If it is as simple as this, why did the economists not think it up a long time ago? We could have provided a lot of services that a lot of people needed and we need not have worried about the cost.
I receive daily queries from worried, uncertain, stressed and anxious people, each of whom wants reassurance and a flicker of light for the future. I want to raise a few particular issues with the Minister of State and I would appreciate if I could get a response in due course. Covid-19 has hit the bus and coach transport sector particularly hard. Since the crisis began, tourist numbers have collapsed, factories and offices have closed and the hospitality sector and all major events have ceased. The result has been almost total fall-off in passenger numbers, with a huge financial impact on transport providers. Private bus and coach operators employ 11,500 full-time staff nationwide and have a yearly turnover of €600 million. They operate 90% of school transport services and the vast majority of Irish commercial bus services. They also play a huge role in tourism provision. These are all services that will be needed in the future when the scourge of this pandemic ends. We look forward to the day when tourists will flock back to Ireland. We all know children will still need to get to school. People will want to attend events throughout the country. Everyone, once more, will be on the move. The question is whether the existing bus and coach operators will still be there to provide transport and assist in the revival of our economy. Under current circumstances, it is inevitable that many of them will be forced out of business.
The sector is not seeking anything more than others. It is asking for the introduction of a turnover-linked direct Government grant to assist with liquidity. It requires the restoration of the fuel rebate. In addition, it has identified the need for reclassification of VAT status to harmonise the island's VAT system to enable operators in the South of Ireland to reclaim VAT. This is essential in light of Brexit. It has also highlighted the need for supporting scheduled services to help to ensure a sustained and professional delivery of services. It requires membership of the tourism task force and the initiation of a new public transport recovery task force with an independent chair and budget.
I also wish to raise with the Minister of State another travel-related issue. This is with regard to travel agents. While the Government is keen to move to the co-ordinated system to enable air travel to resume, medical advisers, as we have heard this week, are emphatic they do not recommend any non-essential travel out of the country. Airlines command most of the media coverage on this issue but travel agents throughout the country are hanging on by their fingertips. When I first raised the plight of these businesses back in July, there were 190 licensed travel agents operating in Ireland. This number has decreased considerably and many of them have ceased to exist.
While travel agents were initially relieved to hear they were to be included in the Covid restrictions support scheme, as many of them need capital to continue, I have been advised by several operators in Tipperary and other places that they are finding it impossible to get any banking support. One particular business has applied no less than three times for a bank loan to try to keep the business afloat. It has been refused each time as it is impossible for it to confirm to the bank when the business can resume normal trading. Will the Minister of State confirm that travel agents are in fact included in the Covid restrictions support scheme? There is still an element of doubt about it. The scheme opened last Monday and already more than 1,000 applications have been received by the Department. Will the Minister of State confirm the timeline for the decisions on these applications? Are there other plans under consideration to assist this business sector, which has been one of the hardest hit throughout the pandemic?
I wish to raise the concerns and plight of learner drivers who, through no fault of their own, are unable to sit a driver test at this time unless they are deemed to be an essential worker. While this is frustrating in itself, to compound it, and what is grossly unfair, is that the insurance companies are penalising them because they are still driving on a provisional licence. This situation is impacting on 85,000 mainly young people throughout the country. It is estimated the financial cost to each of them in terms of increased insurance premiums will be in the region of €600. This issue must be addressed. Insurance companies should not be permitted to profit as a result of this pandemic at the expense of people who are powerless to address their situations.
Another group that feels overlooked by the Government are those aged over 66 who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Many of them have borrowings and financial commitments that were entered into because they had income from employment. Due to their receipt of the State pension, they do not qualify for Covid payments. They still have to meet the same financial commitments on a reduced income. Will those aged over 66 continue to be unfairly excluded from receiving a Covid payment?
I concur with the remarks of Deputy Lowry on those aged over 66. It is very important that we do not leave out these people as they have surely contributed a huge amount. At the beginning of Covid they lost out in their businesses and were put to the pin of their collar to try to survive. They deserve more than this.
I want to raise a number of issues with regard to the budget. As we know, the LEADER programme, which is a rural development programme for Ireland, will finish on 31 December. Over the past five years, it provided €250 million in funds. However, the new programme will not be in place next year so we will have a gap. I am very surprised to see there are no plans in the budget to provide for transitional funding for next year. The fund itself provides for projects in community development, job creation and economic development in rural Ireland with a bottom-up approach. Over the past five years, we have seen what the benefits have been for rural Ireland. In these strange times, it would be very remiss of the Government not to take on board the fact we cannot have a drop-off cliff-edge point and wait for another 18 months to start a new scheme. It is very important we have some way of providing continuity to this sector over the next 12 months.
I want to raise the issue of young people who want to buy homes. I welcome the continuation of the help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers of new homes. I believe the scheme should be extended to include first-time buyers of second-hand houses. Likewise, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme also needs to be expanded to allow first-time buyers of second-hand homes to get mortgages for the refurbishment of these homes. In our budget submission, the Regional Group asked for an incentive for young people to be able to purchase vacant houses in towns and villages.
This was an incentive of approximately €15,000 per house. That has been ignored, and in these times when we are all talking about building houses, at the same time we talk about the number of vacant houses in towns and villages throughout the country. I see these small but very effective schemes as a way of delivering homes and incentivising young people to buy homes in the towns, refurbish them for modern living and bring life back into the towns. Anything we put into this will give a dividend back and will also help us take care of the many people on the housing list.
As the Minister knows, the post office network is under very severe pressure. The prospect of unrestrained closures is facing us next year, given the existing supports will be running out in June of next year. We had a debate in the House last week on this issue. Grant Thornton, in its analysis, reckons that what is required is a €70 million intervention to keep the post office network operational. Again, I would argue this subvention will only add to the prospect of the post offices delivering between €334 million and €776 million annually in social dividend to this country. We have seen through the pandemic the amount of engagement post offices have had with people in isolated areas, where to have the post office van call is the only contact for people who are living on their own and vulnerable.
Beyond that, the post offices have lost 25% of their turnover between 2019 and 2020. There is a crisis facing us in the coming months and I would like to see the budget take into account the fact we need to do something. The budget as it is framed is putting a lot of money into the economy, and it is good we are putting money into people who are putting it into the economy so the economy will continue to survive. It is also important, however, that we are not just throwing money at problems. From a budgetary point of view, we need to see that the money we put in is spent wisely and it is important we make sure, whatever we put in, that the outcomes are being delivered.
With regard to health and the issue of disabilities, we have a lot of work to do in these areas and we are putting a lot of money into these budgets. My fear is that we are putting in so much that we do not know how to account for it at the other end. How are we making sure it is filtering down to the people who need it most? How do we make sure it gets to the front line, to the people with disabilities, to give them the transport, services and home help they require?
In that vein, it is important that we prioritise delivery and investment in the bottom-up approach. Carers, who are trying to keep people out of nursing homes, thereby saving the State millions of euro, should be dealt with in a way that is fair and reasonable. It is very important that we should not stand over the fact it takes 15 weeks to process a carer’s allowance application, and then maybe another five to six weeks if a person is under review, and even longer if a person is going for an appeal. All through that time, the carer gets no return and no support. I ask the Minister to bring that back to the Cabinet table.
I welcome the publication of the Finance Bill. I know it is not a perfect document but there is quite a lot of good stuff in it and, on that basis, I am going to support its passage through the Dáil. In the time I have available, I want to focus on one specific provision at the bottom of page 11, the Naval Service seagoing personal tax credit, which is very important. I very much welcome the fact this tax credit is going to be included in the 2021 fiscal year as well. This year, 2020, was the first year it came in, and I am very happy to see it is going to be rolled over. It would be very useful if we could get clarity in regard to this tax credit. Is it going to be continued to be rolled over into the future or is it just for a couple of years? Any kind of clarity or certainty the Minister can bring to the question would be much appreciated.
I welcome the very small increase in the tax credit for 2020, given it was €1,270 per annum and has been increased to €1,500 for 2021. That is a good thing, but again, the scale of the increase does not match the scale of the problem at all. Nonetheless, it is progress in the right direction. I acknowledge the contribution of the Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Michael McGrath, in organising these schemes. In isolation, they are not going to make a massive difference, but as part of a cumulative effort to improve things in the Naval Service and across the Defence Forces, it should have a sizeable impact over time.
From a Defence Forces perspective, we still have exactly the same problems. They are still the lowest paid public servants and there is only one reason for that, namely, they will not strike or cannot strike. As a result, they have almost no bargaining power and no leverage when it comes to pay negotiations and, in fact, they are practically laughed out of the room, if they even get into the room. That is an area we need to work on. In 2017, when the naval commanders put in a request to the then Minister to bring in a tax credit, they were not looking to peg the Naval Service tax credit with the fisher tax credit but to peg it with the seafarers tax credit, which is a far bigger credit, four times larger than the one that is on offer at the moment. The seafarers tax credit is €6,350 per annum and that is where we need to aim for in regard to the Naval Service. The seafarers credit is for people who work on ferries, merchant vessels, offshore oil and gas rigs or any kind of drilling platform. To me, the Naval Service is the nation's primary seagoing service. I cannot think of any agency that would be more worthy of such a tax credit than the Naval Service and it is something we should certainly opt for.
An increase in the credit is very important and it would have five very positive effects. First, it would assist with the retention crisis in the Naval Service, which is very important, particularly on the eve of a hard Brexit, which is only weeks away. Currently, the situation is that we have very highly qualified, highly experienced people who wish to remain in the Naval Service but who just cannot afford to stay because the pay rates are so low. It would be similar to anybody in this Chamber buying a very expensive sports car and then just giving the car away for free three or four years down the line. It makes no commercial, practical or financial sense whatsoever.
The second advantage is that there is no risk of contagion if we increase the tax credit to the Naval Service. There are very few public servants who work offshore and, in fact, so few employees work offshore in this tax jurisdiction that any additional tax credits given to Naval Service personnel would have almost negligible or minimal second-order effects.
Third, generally speaking, it is the lower ranks who tend to travel on the high seas more than the higher ranks, so if a tax credit is given for sea travel, it will disproportionately and preferentially support lower paid personnel. That is precisely what this Chamber should be about, that is, identifying pressure points where the more needy people are and then supporting them.
Fourth, seagoing is quite difficult, particularly from a family-friendly perspective. It is important from a tax credit point of view that we focus on and support the people on whom the burden of work on the high seas falls. That is another advantage to giving a tax credit in that the people who actually travel at sea, and who are often away for three or four weeks at a time from their families, will get rewarded for this.
Fifth, this tax credit is available to all personnel. Unlike the service commitments scheme that was announced only a couple of weeks ago, if a tax credit is increased over the next few years, it is available to all personnel, and it would not have the same divisive effect that the service commitments scheme has started to have in the Naval Service.
I thank the relevant Ministers for bringing in these two measures. They will make a small bit of progress. It demonstrates that the trajectory we are on is progress but much more needs to be done. I would like to see this tax credit move from €1,500 per annum towards the €6,350 seafarers' allowances. Our Naval Service protects us every hour of every day and the least they deserve is for us to reciprocate and protect them as well.
I concur with the remarks of my Kildare South colleague on the Defence Forces in general. The issue of the Defence Forces has been with us for a long time. Hopefully, it is not being ignored. I am told that it is not and I hope matters will develop in their favour in the not too distant future.
The Finance Bill gives statutory effect to the provisions of the budget and I congratulate the Ministers and the Minister of State for the provisions they have introduced so far. This is a challenging time in which we find ourselves. Challenging times have not gone away, nor are they likely to in the short, medium or long term. I am strongly of the opinion that the Government should remain alert at all times over the next 12 months to issues that may arise and situations, as have been referred to by a number of speakers, of people who fall through the cracks of the system and who, despite the best efforts of the Administration, find it difficult to survive. Those issues develop as time goes by in a negative and particularly incisive way for the people who are affected. Points have been made by previous speakers on all sides of the House on this situation.
Covid and Brexit present huge challenges, not only for the Government of this country but for those of other countries as well. That is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The sad and unfortunate part is that these two issues have been outside the control of any government in this country and, as far as Covid is concerned, is outside the control of any government across the globe.
It is timely to reflect on the situation that has been referred to in respect of housing. A huge demand has been creating a backlog for some time and it has not been addressed because it could not be addressed - first, because of the lack of resources during the economic crash and, now, followed by the challenges of Covid, which again put huge stress on the wherewithal to make substantial provisions to address these issues.
A number of speakers referred to the length of time it takes to process applications for various types of assistance at present. That does not apply to everything but it certainly applies to some things. For example, there were the local authority small dwellings Act loans under the 1966 Act which people below a certain income limit were entitled to in years gone by. It can now take up to six months to process the equivalent of one of these loans through the local authorities. I am told the reason is the number of provisions and requirements and that it is not possible to produce the approvals any quicker. I remember when it was possible to bring one of these applications into the local authority on a Monday morning and have it approved on Thursday. That day has long since passed but if we want to put our finger on a button, that is one that needs to be looked at as a matter of extreme urgency. There is no sense in standing idly by and saying this is terrible and that we need to do something about it. We need to do something about it and it has been done before. I remind myself and everybody else that the local authorities are not banks but a housing authority. Housing is a huge issue at present, has been for a number of years and will remain so for the foreseeable future unless something dramatic is done to address it.
The other thing I will say on housing is that this impacts largely on young people and first-time buyers, who are at a huge disadvantage at present. They cannot compete in the market with those who have direct access to more liberal financial institutions or whatever. The simple fact is that house prices in this country are way too high. There is no sense in people pretending that that is what they are valued at or whatever the case may be.
I carried out an experiment over the past ten years along with a number of other councillors whereby we thought it was possible to build houses and make them available to people who were financially qualified. We proved it was possible to provide a house for first-time buyers at less than half the cost of houses on the market at the same time. They were brand new houses and we went through all the procedures and bought the sites. What happened after that was ironic. If circumstances change, as they will, and people have to move on and sell, there is a clawback from those people as these were allegedly subsidised sites. No reference was made to the fact that they had bought the sites as well. It annoys me intensely that we have not been able to do anything about this over a long number of years. It is no good blaming the present Government or the previous Government: it is over a long number of years.
There was a system called the shared ownership scheme which was intended to assist those on an income below what would gain them a loan in the commercial market and above what would get them a local authority house. There was a provision whereby roughly half the mortgage was on rent and the other half was on the mortgage - half the value of the house and half the equity. What happened was that somebody decided to improve the situation. There was a system whereby the rental part of the equity was approximately the same as a local authority differential rent. However, somebody decided to increase it by 4% per annum. Ten years in the position left them with a 40% increase which meant they could never get out of that spot and would always have to remain where they were or rent from some landlord somewhere else. Many people objected to it, as I did. Whoever the person was who put that barb into the housing situation has much to answer for because it created a huge housing problem which continues in this country and will continue for a considerable time.
A time when we can all make a constructive contribution to economic thinking in this House is budget time and the time of the Finance Bill. It was always the case that the Minister, and I am glad to see the Minister of State present, took into account the issues raised by Members and these were brought to the Department and acted on. Sometimes they were acted on quickly and sometimes they were not. That was the system and it worked extremely well. I have severe doubts as to whether it applies in the same way nowadays.
We also have Brexit and it is not on its own, as we all know. It is Brexit along with Covid, and the two together is a double whammy.
It is one of the biggest challenges we are ever likely to face. We have all discussed this and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I do not agree on some of the issues, as we pointed out to each other yesterday evening. We have a responsibility to the health of our population in the first instance, the people who are here now and their children. We have a responsibility to children, the middle aged, the elderly and the vulnerable. We have a first responsibility to those people and it is our duty, as caring citizens, to make sure that we do the best that we can to look after their interests. Restrictions have been identified as necessary, as I believe they are, but we have a choice. We can ignore these restrictions and go about our business as if there is no threat at all. We can continue to consort and fraternise as if there is no challenge. If we do that, we will pay a price for it. If we ignore the issues raised by our health services and experts, we will pay a higher price. It is important that we recognise that it is possible to fight this pandemic voluntarily by simply following the restrictions. If we do that, we will not need lockdowns and shutdowns. We will not need to impose penalties and the Garda will not have to enforce restrictions. It is in our own hands. It is voluntary, highly effective and efficient, and workable. It is a matter for ourselves to take it into account. To follow the restrictions would be beneficial to the entire community from an economic point of view.
I hope we can continue in this vein. This is now an economic and budgetary issue. It will impact not only this generation but future generations. It will seriously affect the well-being of this country's economy. If we do not look after the well-being of our economy in the next two, three or four years, the children who are now being born may have to carry the burden for that in the future.
I will issue a slight warning to us all that we have to pay back the moneys that we are now borrowing. The simplest way to do that is to achieve economic growth in the interim whereby our debts in proportion to our economic development come together, as it were, or merge. We do not want to start to recover money by imposing steep and sharp penalties. I have noticed that my colleagues from around the House have referred to draconian issues but few people refer to what happened before Draco. Poor old Draco gets blamed for everything now but before he introduced his system, a long time ago now, the alternative system was much worse and involved execution, beheading, garrotting and major slaughter. Draco is now reviled and I am not suggesting that he be brought back, but I remind people that things were an awful lot worse before his time.
We want also to recognise that the threat of Brexit is not of our making but is of the making of another country. For some unknown reason, right across the globe, we are going through a period of renationalisation and a reassertion of nationalistic values that is not welcome. I and people of my generation thought that we had overcome those issues because of factual experience and unfortunate developments that took place throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, people's memories are short enough and we are where we are. There is a series of stark questions in front of us now. We must ask ourselves have we the resolve, resourcefulness, ability, courage and stamina to tackle this matter head on because it is a big challenge.
We were reminded, some time ago, by a minister in another jurisdiction that a little touch of starvation might bring us to our senses. I do not think it is necessary to go down that road. That is an unfortunate road on which we dwelt for many years. I will simply say that I support the Government's efforts to bring about an ordered withdrawal of the UK from the EU and an amicable resolution to Brexit, although I do not know whether it can happen or not. I am worried, as the deadline comes closer and closer that there is a danger that the small player in such a field can get squeezed. I acknowledge the support that this country has received from our colleagues across the European Union. I am conscious of the fact that we owe them a great deal for their solidarity towards us. It would have been just as easy for them to walk away and pretend it was not happening. They did not do that. They stood up to their commitment. They are still doing that and I hope they will continue to do so.
I also hear people expressing the sentiment that we will have to do something. We will have to do something but the danger is that, when we are in a tight corner, we might do something that is not in our best interests. We should recognise that we are equals in this debate and that, as equals, we stand our ground, do what we have to do, hold our heads up and maintain our position. That is the way to get the best possible result. That is still available to us.
I am not making a political point when I say the following, but we have all had occasion to point out the advantages of the all-Ireland, all-island economy and the way it has operated. We know that for the past 25 or 30 years, we had all of that. We have been free of the Border and able to travel from one end of the island to the other without restriction on investment or jobs, or access to those things, and it has worked extremely well even though we had emerged from a difficult era for peace on the island. It has been without a doubt the best of provisions and it was there in the nick of time.
I do not accept the notion that we should not offer to our colleagues on the other half of this island an alternative to a united country. We should not tell them, "A united Ireland, or else." I know that is not what is intended. There are some times when it is insensitive and not a good time to face one's opponent with an obligation to concede or leave the field. That does not work and has not worked in the past. We have a tragic history in that regard in this country. We need to be conscious of that as we move into the future.
We also need to make provisions to be able to sell our goods and services unimpeded right across the globe as members of the European community. As time passes, obstacles that we have not foreseen may arise. I compliment our negotiators, the former Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the current Taoiseach and other Ministers on the manner in which they have handled Ireland's position through the EU and the way that the EU has responded. It is in stark contrast to other issues that have arisen in other countries all over the world. We have shown solidarity. We have stuck and stood together and supported each other in a time of crisis.
I hope this Finance Bill meets its targets in full. If it does not, and if a need for modifications arises in the course of the year, we should address that. We need to look again and again, as time goes by, to see where the Bill has had a negative impact and do something about it as required. There is not much sense in waiting for a year or two before we wake up to those impacts. I believe that we have the wherewithal to do these things. I believe we have the resilience and determination to do these things. I also believe we have an obligation to do these things, not only for ourselves and the present generation, but for future generations.
We must also invest now in the youth of today, the young home buyers and householders who are entering the phase of their lives where they have significant responsibilities and challenges. We need to support them in the ways I and others have referred to. If we stand together and recognise each other's position and the challenges faced and we address them, we will prevail.
This is the Finance Bill which followed on from the budget. We will recall the budget announcement when we heard one Government spokesman person after another cry out that this was the largest budget in the history of the State. We were all deafened by the assertions of that statement and yet it is ironic that that statement has been met by the numbers of people who have told us in the days and weeks since that the only thing the budget did for them was to make them poorer. It was a completely missed opportunity on so many fronts, particularly for those from rural communities.
The Government did not just decide that in the middle of a pandemic that it would move forward with the very tokenistic and regressive measure of increasing the carbon taxes. It actually went so far as to state in legislation that it was going to increase the carbon tax every year until 2030. We have never seen before such arrogance from a failed position. The Government did not introduce legislation to say that old age pensioners, for example, would secure increases for every year until 2030, or that pharmacy payments would increase in line with the cost of living up until 2030. The only measure that the Government categorically committed both itself and future governments to was an increase in a policy and a taxation that does not work. The reason that it does not work for people in my constituency is that this is an unavoidable tax, despite the assertions by others. If people need their cars to get to work in my community they have no alternative whatsoever. They have to drive their cars. Essentially, the carbon tax increase is a tax on people for trying to do their best and to make a life for their family. There was very little of significance in the budget for rural communities or the farming community.
The major announcement was a new Covid-19 so-called support scheme of €40 million for farmers. That has since been revealed as being simply an extension of the beef scheme. There is nothing new in it. Sinn Féin had rightly advocated that all Pillar 2 schemes, including environmental schemes, should continue through the transition period but we do not wish to laud or seek plaudits for simply asking to continue some schemes that take a little bit of the burden off our spending. This Government has been very willing and able to regurgitate previous failed policies on countless occasions.
The Minister here is a Fianna Fáil representative. Prior to the election, Fianna Fáil committed to an additional €45 million for our suckler farmers. Where is it? I asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he has managed to find that because it is not in the budget and it is not in this Finance Bill. Sinn Féin had advocated a new dispensation for our farmers recognising that they are the heartbeat of our rural communities and local economies. We had proposed a funding stream to ensure that we could deliver a suckler payment scheme of up to €300 per cow. We saw what the Government offered our suckler farmers in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when we were here discussing such issues as the closure of marts and the 30-month and four-movement rules with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We saw a Minister who was completely out of touch.
Since the budget we have returned to level 5 restrictions and we have seen families, communities and businesses under increased stress. What we have not seen are increased supports, which are badly needed, particularly for those in rural communities. Can the Minister evaluate the impact of the carbon tax? That has a big impact on the families and communities I represent. I ask him to re-evaluate that and to be a sane voice in government and to tell it that in the interests of the environment and of our communities, it needs to change tack.
The programme for Government committed to support and enable a strong community sector. However, at the first hurdle of the 2021 budget, this Government has stumbled at the first fence. It is important to put into context the contribution the community, voluntary and charity sector makes in Ireland. It comprises 34,842 charitable organisations, 86,481 volunteer directors and trustees, directly employs 165,000 people and manages a turnover of €14.2 billion. These organisations raise more than half of this income themselves, subsidising in a major way the cost of public services in Ireland. Indecon Economic Consultants, estimate that the total direct and indirect value of the work of Ireland’s charities exceeds €24 billion per year and supports 289,000 employees and yet the funding of one sector, the community development sector, has seen a drop of 16% in funding in this budget which is completely shocking. During the Covid-19 crisis, the success of the Community Call and the initiative of bringing local organisations together to support communities in each local authority area was acknowledged by everyone as a completely wonderful service.
It is imperative that we build on the incredible work and success of the Community Call initiative. As an organiser in my community with our local GAA clubs, I saw the impact that had on people within our local community, on those who were older and vulnerable. The social networks during this Covid-19 crisis pandemic had fully collapsed and it left people, like senior citizens and those who were vulnerable, completely isolated. Were it not for Community Call, we would have seen really catastrophic situations. I know there has been an impact on the mental and physical health of people but the Community Call initiative certainly helped many people. That is why we need to look at this Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on people and at what we do at that community level to support people as we move forward.
I wish to talk about the community services programme, CSP. There has been a fundamental failure to keep up with the basic costs of the community services programme. We have projects which are dealing with vulnerable people, Travellers, people with disabilities, recovering drug users, ex-prisoners, meals-on-wheels, shops, cafés, community centres, etc., under the community services programme. The funding that was initially allocated when this programme started covered the basic cost of the minimum wage. It has not moved a single cent since then. These projects now have to fund the gap between what is given through the CSP and the minimum wage and quite a number of these projects try to reach what we might call “the living wage”. It is very important that we look at this. Unfortunately, this budget was another missed opportunity to bridge that gap to support this sector. Bear in mind that during this crisis the community, voluntary and charity sector lost upwards on €500 million in fundraising and other ways in which it raised money itself, including by renting buildings. It is important to say again that the Indecon report stated that 57% of the projects that were receiving the CSP payments could not proceed without that funding. This will have a catastrophic effect on our local communities.
I will deal briefly with community centres. We are facing a time bomb in the coming years with regard to capital funding for community centres, particularly those not owned by local authorities. It is critical that we look at providing multi-annual funding for them because those are the projects that provide services such as dancing, bingo, youth services, meals on wheels, arts and music. They provide all those services to our local communities at an affordable cost. If the community centres are not available, those other services will not be available either. It is unfortunate that we have not had the same amount of funding for the community, voluntary and charities sector that we have had for the business sector.
Budget 2021 will be judged by the way it impacts on citizens' lives, whether it improves, disimproves or has no impact on them. It is important that we talk about real citizens. I want to give the Minister an outline of a letter I got today from a constituent. He says that he is in agony. He has problems with his cervical spine, which he says is busted, and his lumbar spine. He has been told by neurology and rheumatology that he needs a scan but he has also been told that he may have to wait years for that. If he had money - he is on a disability payment while his wife has a long-term illness also - he would probably be able to get a private scan tomorrow. Two private scans would cost €700 but it may as well be €7 million because this man does not have that money. He has been forced to go to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to see if it will cover some of the cost. I asked him if he was in pain. Doctors normally ask patients to describe their pain between one and ten, one being an ache and increasing to ten depending on severity. This man says he is in agony, and he is looking for help in that regard. That is an example of one section of our population that we are failing.
The Covid-19 pandemic should have been a wake-up call for the Government to see that our health service was woefully under-resourced and unprepared for a major crisis. It highlighted a weakness whereby politicians, but also senior management, seemed unable or unwilling to change elements of policy that were not working or needed immediate attention. We have seen that with the private hospitals not being fully utilised or put on hold during the early days of the pandemic. We saw the expensive accommodation and facilities in Citywest not being used in any serious way. There was no flexibility in that regard. This is a facility that has to date cost up to €21 million. When the owners bought the hotel it cost them €24 million. Again, we see an issue with the use of public moneys. In terms of moneys allocated to the health service in budget 2021, it is simply noise until we hear the detail on how it will be spent, or misspent. I refer again to the man who wrote to me and the difficulties he is experiencing.
No one would have foreseen the extent of the Covid pandemic but we had warning signs in previous years. Swine flu and bird flu caused health professionals to highlight the weaknesses in our system. Even the seasonal flu outbreaks caused major strain in our capacity to provide healthcare to our citizens, with accident and emergency departments filled to brim every year with people on trolleys for days at a time.
We need a budget that is fit for purpose in terms of building up our hospital bed capacity, not only to deal with the realities of Covid but with a growing and ageing population. Budget 2021 provides for an additional 66 ICU beds but that is only one quarter of what we need to put into the system to be at a proper bed capacity level. That is not a new figure. In 2009, 11 years ago, the HSE commissioned another expensive report that told us we would need 579 ICU beds by 2020. When Covid struck, we had only 255. The Minister was in the House the other day and he said that additional beds will be provided. We know that a lack of ICU beds is not just a problem during the pandemic but is a bottleneck within the system where critical care is needed for elective surgical procedures. Far too often we hear constituents talking about life-saving elective procedures being cancelled at the last minute. What is happening to people is cruel and wrong.
I cannot understand the reason medical cards for the terminally ill were not provided for in budget 2021. There is support in this House from all parties, and none, for that measure, which was promised last year by the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris.
In my constituency, surgeons from Tallaght hospital have been taking to the airwaves to plead with the Government to build up facilities and support with regard to ICU beds. We cannot wait years for that. People cannot wait much longer. We need changes now.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Finance Bill. I want to raise two issues, the first of which is the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. Under the CRSS announced in the budget a business that is impacted by Covid-19 related restrictions, including closure, can make a claim to Revenue for a payment for each week it is affected by those restrictions. That is a welcome support given the massive impact Covid-19 is having on certain businesses across the State. While most businesses have been impacted in some way this year, certain businesses have been severely affected from day one back in March. It has not been a case of one size fits all.
Travel agents have been one of the worst impacted sectors. Given the collapse of international travel due to the pandemic, their entire business model has fallen off a cliff. Despite that, however, travel agents have had to stay open throughout the pandemic to process refunds and vouchers for customers even though they have had no income coming in. When the CRSS was first announced, travel agents were not included. That was a major blow to the sector. They are permitted now to apply for the scheme under level 5 but this is set to be removed when level 5 restrictions are downgraded. The fact of the matter is that there is no level 1, 2, 3 or 4 for travel agents. There is only level 5. The financial hardship and the impact of Covid-19 will not stop for them on 1 December. It is incredible and unacceptable that the Government will remove the support from this severely impacted sector. These are often small family businesses. I know personally of cases where the families have remortgaged the family home to stay afloat. We will need these businesses in the future when the Covid pandemic comes to an end. I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision in that regard. It is a very serious matter.
Another sector that is excluded from the CRSS is the bus, coach and chauffeur service sector. In a reply to a parliamentary question recently, the Minister stated that where a business does not ordinarily operate from a fixed business premises located in a region that is subject to restrictions, such as coach or bus operators whose business is ordinarily operated from mobile vehicles, that business will not meet the eligibility criteria. That is an incredibly unfair position to take. Many bus and coach operators who usually ferry tourists to every corner of Ireland have had no business at all this year due to Covid. There are no gigs, festivals, events or tourism. These companies often carry wealthy tourists to remote corners of Ireland and encourage spending in small craft shops and little cafés in rural villages, which supports thousands of jobs. When tourism starts to recover next year we will depend on those companies to ferry tourists around the country again. Bus, coach and chauffeur services have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. I ask the Minister to reconsider immediately his decision to exclude them from the scheme.
School bus transport is an issue I have raised consistently with various Ministers but it is still a matter that is unresolved. I welcome the additional funding for the sector but figures I have received from the Department of Education show that 97,644 tickets have been issued for school transport this year. That is far short of the 130,144 applications.
There is a shortfall of 32,500 seats in the school transport system, meaning one in four children has not got a place on a school bus this year. That is worse than in any other year. There should not be an annual struggle for places. It is not fair on families or students. School transport is vital and needs to be properly resourced. This year's shortfall has caused serious disruption for parents and working families who rely on school buses to bring their kids to and from school. Parents are left cramming their children into people carriers and following the bus to school, often with the children's siblings in the bus. It makes absolutely no sense. I ask that the various Departments and the Minister act on this immediately.
I am sharing time with Deputy McNamara.
I agree with many of the proposals in this Finance Bill. In the current context, the IMF has told countries that can borrow that they should do so to provide a safety net for citizens and businesses. In that context, borrowing is not only necessary but it is also prudent.
Any finance Bill has to provide a safety net for those who need it and fund essential services, including social services, in addition to providing supports to businesses in all sectors and investing in them. It has to take into account the impact of Brexit and ensure that our healthcare system can work at full capacity to meet both Covid and non-Covid healthcare requirements. The measures, in addition to being financed by borrowing, should also be financed by a progressive tax system. With regard to many of those requirements, the Finance Bill delivers.
There are gaps, however. Some essential sectors have been left out or are not adequately supported. Early childcare services comprise an example. These are essential. The rest of the economy cannot function without quality childcare that is accessible and affordable. More supports are needed to put the sector on a firm footing.
I have spoken about this matter before but really want to speak about it again because it is so important. Just as childcare is an essential service, the work of family carers is simply indispensable. Our society could not function without family carers. Our health system would be overrun and our social welfare system would collapse, yet it is incredible but true to state carers are worse off after the budget than before. Although there was a €150 increase to the carer support grant, most carers do not receive this grant. For those who do, it will not be in place until July 2021. Also, the fuel allowance has been increased but the carer's allowance is not a qualifying payment for that allowance. Most family carers will not receive it, therefore. We all know the extra expense associated with heating a home when caring for somebody.
While I am happy that an additional 5 million crucial home care hours were provided, this has to be considered in light of the fact that only 40% or, at most, 50% of day services for adults with disabilities have not been reinstated. The income disregard for the carer's allowance, which is means tested, has not increased in 13 years. People will not believe that the carer's allowance was worth a little more in 2011 than it is now. I am not talking about taking inflation into account; I am talking about hard cash.
Another area that I want to draw the Minister's attention to concerns about the employment wage subsidy scheme. It is a very good scheme but it needs to be revised because there is a cliff edge for some businesses. If turnover is down 30%, the scheme can be accessed. It cannot be accessed, however, if the turnover is down 25%, 15% or 28%. A more graduated approach is important. For example, if a business's turnover is down by between 20% and 30%, it might get the €200, and if it is down by an amount between 10% and 20% it might get a different sum. If a business's turnover is down 25%, it is really not in its interest to try to push it up. If it closes for an extra day, its turnover will be down by more than 30%, and that is not good for it, its workers or the economy. Therefore, we need to get rid of the cliff edge. The scheme is good but there should be nuance in how it is managed.
I disagree with the Government's policy on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in that the highest rate of payment, €350, should have been maintained. While payments should have been graduated, the highest rate should not have been reduced to €300. We must not forget that those accessing the payment have outgoings based on their previous income for rent, rates, the costs of childcare and food, and, basically, living. I am aware that €350 will not allow people to continue to live in the way to which they were accustomed. Nonetheless, the cut of €50 per week is really heartbreaking for many. It should be remembered that the money will be spent on food in local businesses, so it will circulate locally. Some of it will make its way back to the Exchequer through VAT, etc.
In that context, I echo the words of Deputy Ó Cuív, who spoke earlier. The problem in question is not the fault of the Government as such, because it is matter of circumstances, but we need to do something about it. We are creating a two-tier society. Many people, including all in this House and other Houses, continue to receive their salaries but many others, because certain sectors have been closed or have collapsed, often quite rightly by order of the Government, have seen their incomes drop significantly. That is one reason the upper rate of the PUP should be €350, not €300. The €50 in the difference would not solve all the problems but it might take the edge off some of them. We are all in it together so the rationale rings a bit hollow for people who have seen their PUP cut. I ask the Minister to reconsider reinstating the higher rate, at least when we are in level 4 or level 5.
On the taxation of the PUP, we need clarity. Will the Minister confirm that any payment under the scheme was not taxable before July of this year? The payment was classified as an urgent-needs payment under section 202 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. It seems, however, that this was changed during the summer through the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill. The Finance Bill has added the payment to the list of welfare payments, which means it is taxable. First, we need clarity. We need to be sure there is a legal basis for what the Government is claiming. We are talking about 600,000 people. If the payment is taxable, some of them will have tax bills. This is my third time to raise this matter, having raised it before in July and in April or May.
I was told that Revenue would work it out and so on, but we should remember that these people will have lost income and will be scrimping and saving. The last thing they will want next year or in subsequent years when they still have not caught up will be to face a tax bill or have their tax credits reduced, which essentially have the same effect. We need to clarify the situation and people need to be made aware of it.
I will quickly make three final points. According to Revenue, a young farmer is 35 years of age. If someone over 35 years of age buys a bit of land, he or she will pay stamp duty. According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EU, however, young farmers can be aged up to 40 years. This difference needs to be straightened out.
The Government has rolled over a number of agricultural schemes, but the money allocated to the new pilot rural environment protection scheme, REPS, is insufficient for the numbers exiting the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, and the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, which could amount to 20,000 or 25,000 farmers. Only €79 million or €80 million has been allocated. That is not good enough and is a real problem.
I wish to discuss community businesses briefly. These centres generate income for their communities and are run by volunteers. I have spoken to many of them. They have made application after application for some assistance in dealing with their costs, but if they are not open and providing services, they will get nothing. Will the Minister of State examine this issue?
I also wish to refer to Deputy Ó Cuív's speech, which I found interesting and impressive. I hope that all of these references to his speech by members of the Opposition do not land him in trouble within his party. Somewhat unusually for a politician, he demonstrated an ability to learn from the past, including mistakes, when this country relied on an orthodoxy and a group mentality. The Minister of State will recall that voices questioned the orthodoxy at the time. Indeed, very few of us who were involved in politics at the time will forget it. Those voices were drowned out and told that there would be a soft landing. People who questioned whether putting all our eggs in the property basket was wise were advised by the then Taoiseach that perhaps they should go and kill themselves. Others were described, not by the then Taoiseach, but by his Minister for Finance, as pinko liberals. Unfortunately, the pinko liberals came to dominate, but they were not Irish ones. They were sent in by the troika when we lost our financial independence. Like me, the Acting Chairman will clearly recall having to implement budgets on the advice of the IMF. Based on that experience, I view advice from the IMF with a little more caution than perhaps Deputy Harkin would. They were savage budgets because no one would lend to us, owing to us being broke. That is where we are heading now with our current borrowing.
Like other Deputies, I accept that businesses have been affected considerably by Covid-19. Covid-19 is a virus, so I do not buy into the wartime phraseology. It is a virus, no more, no less, but it is a serious virus and one that is affecting our economy. Our reaction as a State and as an economy to Covid-19 is doing even more damage, though. Not only are we borrowing money to seek to stimulate the economy to pull out of this, but almost uniquely in Europe we are actively closing sectors of our economy and borrowing money to compensate them for the fact that we have done so. I disagree with Deputy Harkin because I do not believe this is right. While I accept that there would be a significant downturn in many sectors of the economy without Government action, actively closing sectors of the economy and borrowing money to compensate them is economic suicide. The pandemic will cause a recession in every country in the West. Keynesian economics would suggest that the way to deal with a recession is to borrow money to generate growth again, but we are nowhere near that point. We are still at the stage of trying to deal with this situation. Borrowing money to compensate is not feasible. I share Deputy Ó Cuív's concern that, in the long term, there is a risk of hyperinflation. I look forward to the Minister of State addressing this issue.
We see the graphs and are told that Ireland is fine. We are in the middle of the borrowings table in the eurozone at 6% of GDP, which places us alongside countries that we want to be like, but we are not in the middle in the real picture. If one views our borrowings as a percentage of GNI, they represent 11%. One could say that we were comparing apples and oranges. Spain would be the next highest country, but its GDP and GNI are not very different. It is in the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg where there is a massive disparity between GDP and GNI. No matter which way we look at the situation, our borrowings as a percentage of GNI are at the top of the list in Europe.
It is not as if our GDP will not come under pressure as time moves on either, given that multinationals will come under pressure. Where the sweetheart deals that we offer multinationals are concerned, one can only eat someone else's lunch for so long. My wife tells me a funny story. She is slightly older than her younger brother and kept eating his sweets. Her father talks of her shock when she pushed her brother but he said she could not eat his sweets anymore. That is what we in Ireland are doing. We have to get real about that. What we are doing is not popular. No more than toddlers eating one another's sweets, countries eating one another's lunches is not popular.
Brexit will bring major difficulties, but when it is out of the way, there will be a move on our corporate tax base, in particular the earnings of companies that operate digitally. Countries are going to want a share of the revenues that are generated in their territories, be it a large economy like France, Germany or Spain or a smaller economy. Everyone will want a fair share of the revenues, and we will have to give the other EU states their shares eventually. That debate has largely been had and lost. We are not seeing its effects yet, but we will.
I am concerned about where we are heading economically, but that is the macro picture. Let me revert to the micro picture. We are spending vast sums of money, some of it necessarily, large amounts of it unnecessarily, to deal with Covid-19 and its effects. The arrival of Covid-19 is not within our control and I will not pretend for a moment that it is, but how the State reacts to it is. There was a committee of 19 Deputies that I had the privilege of chairing. It made a number of recommendations on how to deal with this matter. It was generally accepted that Covid-19 had laid bare structural weaknesses in our State, one of which was the over-reliance on institutional and congregated care for our elderly. We are not unique in that over-reliance, given that many other countries have the same problem, but we need to move away from the only option being care in a nursing home or other congregated setting and towards care in the community. I welcome the allocation in the budget of 5 million additional hours.
Like all headline figures, it sounds absolutely fantastic. It is a major inroad but let us break it down. A full home care package is 21 hours per week. It is not unreasonable to take the 21 hours per week and multiply it by the number of weeks in the year, since most people have home care packages for 52 weeks per year. When we do that, we find that the package provides home care for 4,579 extra people. That is welcome - I welcome it. However, at the start of this year we had 8,000 people waiting for home care packages in the State. While the measure will have an effect, it will not deal with the necessity to provide home care packages to people.
The issue of the fair deal has not been properly dealt with in respect of farm families or businesses more generally. That is an omission from this budget. People correctly expected that something might be done by this Government given the noises made in the last Dáil. I do not mean that in a pejorative way, rather I am referring to the advances that were made in the last Dáil towards having a fair deal package. Of course there is no fair deal package for people in respect of home care. There is an incentive to put people into an institution or a congregated setting rather than dealing with them in their communities. That was certainly something those in Fianna Fáil, when they were in opposition, made considerable noise about. I have heard far less about it, unfortunately, since they came to the Government. Anyway, it remains a priority for this State, one that needs to be dealt with.
I wish to move to an issue that I highlighted during the budget. A total of €38 million was allocated for additional mental health services during the budget. Again, I welcome that, as I welcomed the additional 5 million home care hours. However, like the home care hours, it is not quite what it seems, because €38 million was allocated for additional mental health services but only €12 million was allocated for the existing level of services. Everyone knows that the existing level of services costs far more than €12 million to provide. In fact, the €38 million is not for additional services. Some of it will be used to provide for existing services, but not all of it, so there is an additional spend on mental health. I wish to be clear that I welcome this. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State deal with the macro points I have raised.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to address the Finance Bill. I welcome the Minister of State. I find myself wanting to start where I had planned on finishing, that is to say, talking about the long-term sustainability of budgets of this nature. This is so given the volume of borrowing that will be necessary to fund expenditure in 2021 in addition, no doubt, to voluminous amounts of borrowing next year to meet the demands of subsequent years. It would be unfortunate if Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned all of this already. I heard the beginning of his contribution and then I took a telephone call. By the time I got off the call, he had finished. I am unsure whether he went down the same road I wish to highlight, that is to say, I believe we have to be cautious about what it is and how it is we propose to fund this.
That being said, the budget is obviously a three-pronged approach. The first is Covid-19, the second is Brexit and the third is the day-to-day running of the country. I accept that all three are absolutely necessary. If it had not been for the actions of this House in the past decade we would not have been in a position to borrow as we have done and will continue to do in the coming years.
I wish to take the opportunity to comment on several sections of the budget and the Finance Bill and indeed in general terms in respect of a couple of Departments. One has to accept the vast increase in expenditure in all Departments, including, to name a few, the Departments of Health, Social Protection, Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Finance in the context of future provision for public expenditure and pensions and the steps that are being implemented in the context of the budget. We should consider what this will mean for taxpayers and citizens throughout the country in light of the decision of the coalition Government to adhere to the commitment given by the then Opposition to amend our existing legislation. I understand that today the commission on pensions was formally established. It is important that we recognise the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Finance will have a major role to play in that process in terms of financing future pension provision. The findings of the commission might change future budgets as a result of the political commitments given. I accept this.
I wish to talk about the Department of Social Protection. I commend the former and current Cabinets on the steps they have taken with the pandemic unemployment supports across various Departments. I am referring not only to the pandemic unemployment payment but to those supports offered to enterprise as well. It is important to acknowledge that some of the schemes are not perfect. I can think of examples, including the State-backed loan guarantee that is being offered. Some firms complain that they are unable to access it because financial institutions are not taking the risk, even though there is an 80% risk on the part of the State. Of course, it is unfortunate that while the State may be backing some of these companies, there has to be acknowledgements of risk. Certain firms, unfortunately, have been unable to avail of such provisions and have had to rely on restart grants from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. This is in the context of the fact that they have had to shut down, primarily because they were not seen as viable financial entities beyond the shutdown. That is unfortunate but, having worked in the sector many years ago on the analysis side of creditworthiness, I recognise that the financial institutions should perhaps take a greater risk. Yet, there are concerns about the long-term economic impact of Covid-19 and the undoubted recession that will follow. The concern is this may have an impact on the longevity of certain companies, regardless of whether they receive State-backed loans.
I welcome the debate that has started again on the minimum wage. The reason I mention this is because the Covid pandemic unemployment payment has highlighted the disparity between what we need to do and what we have done thus far. I recognise that in the past decade the minimum wage has increased seven times. I recognise that in the past decade the minimum wage has increased by 25%. I also recognise that the cost of living in this country has always been higher than in our near neighbours. Therefore, we must recognise that our minimum wage should reflect that.
The pandemic unemployment payment also highlights another thing. It is the disparity between the payment of €350 and the unemployment payment of €203. The question is whether some form of tapered system can be introduced in future, perhaps after Covid. This could permit us to recognise that an individual who loses his job should in fact be supported more than someone who might be on welfare support for three months or six months after losing a job. Maybe some form of enhanced payment system should be introduced. As a legislative body, we need to have that discussion, perhaps at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach or at the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. This should be the start of the debate.
Deputy Harkin has raised a particular point in the House previously. Coincidentally, I was in the Chair the last time she raised the point. She referred to the potential tax burden of the pandemic unemployment payment. I echo her concerns. Individuals who find themselves on the pandemic unemployment payment are, by and large, those who are on lower income. This was the case prior to the recent move to level 5, but certainly before then, statistically, many such persons were on lower pay. Are we really looking as a Legislature at that sector with a view to insisting that they have a tax bill in a year or two? These individuals are most certainly not self-employed.
They have never done this before. Most of them are probably PAYE workers. Now we are asking them to file tax returns. I think that will present a difficulty. I have stated this before in another forum but it is something we should consider.
I mentioned that the budget's three main targets were Covid, Brexit and the day-to-day costs of running the country. I recognise the very significant increase in budgetary allocations towards various Government Departments, one being the Department of Health, which of course will be at the forefront of our response to Covid-19. However, the allocation to that Department must also address the chronic deficiency in primary healthcare and recognise our ability to meet the demands of our society in the context of our inability to hire relevant experts and consultants, for instance. I will not talk about the GP contract, but we must recognise that there has been and continues to be a difficulty in rural Ireland in promoting a sufficient number of GPs to cater for the community. The difficulty is not limited to rural Ireland. In parts of my constituency one has to wait three, four or five days to get a call back from one's GP for an appointment. These are medium-sized towns. It must be recognised that if this were a normal budget, the Department of Health would not be getting nearly as much and we would not be tackling those issues. Therefore, while healthcare is in focus, we have to recognise what the next step is in order to meet the demands of the Irish citizen.
Staying with healthcare, I acknowledge the changes to the prescription charges and the unjust and unfair levy applied to people with medical needs. Like Deputies McNamara, Durkan and Fleming, I was here pressing buttons when that levy was introduced, but it should have been abolished years ago. I recognise and acknowledge that it is moving in the right direction.
I also wish to refer to the likes of the fuel allowance to offset part of the cost of the increased carbon taxation that has been applied and the supports in that regard. I hope that in 2021, as we head towards the budget for that financial year, we recognise that we have not adjusted headline social welfare rates for our pensioners in particular. We should do that because we know that the fuel allowance does not cover the costs of carbon taxation and will not in the future. As a Legislature, we have to recognise that and ensure that the safety net is there and that we are not simply piling costs onto persons on fixed incomes. They cannot go off and get a job and earn a few bob to cover the extra costs.
I recognise with appreciation the additional supports being issued to the Department of Education, in particular in respect of the pupil-teacher ratio and children in special education. The allocation of these allowances in budgets through the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is really welcome and a step in the right direction.
Finally, I recognise the unprecedented nature not only of our budget but also of our capital budget, which in one financial year is €10 billion - €10.1 billion, I think. This has to be recognised and has indeed been acknowledged. The scale of the work ahead of us across most Government Departments to ensure we meet the demands of Irish society in 2021 is enormous. It would be a real struggle to spend it all but it would also be a real struggle not to recognise that the level of infrastructural deficit that has been present in this country for many decades has to be bridged. We need, however, to do this in a sustainable way that recognises our ability as a State to fund such provisions and ensure we recognise that while we have a responsibility to try to modernise public services and the capital infrastructure surrounding those services, we also have to do so in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. That means we need to make sure we hit our targets in our climate action plan. I refer in particular to public transport in that regard.
Considering where we were this month 12 months ago in the context of implementing budget 2020, little did we know we would find ourselves 11 or 12 months later in a world turned upside down, dominated by the attempt to control a global pandemic where hundreds of thousands have died and 3,000 members of our society have, unfortunately, succumbed to its effects. I therefore commend the Government. I also acknowledge some of the work of Members of the previous Dáil, in particular the previous Cabinet, on framing all this, and indeed I recognise members of the Opposition for forcing the Government to frame it in such a way. It is really important we recognise that there is a requirement of all of us sometimes to put down the party flag - or the non-party flag, as the case may be - and get behind a concept. In this instance the Department of Social Protection in particular has to be recognised as having responded amicably and appropriately to the pandemic. I commend the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe, and the Ministers of State in their two Departments for the enormous volume of work they must now go through to ensure we as a society are able to tackle this issue together and come out in the end, I hope, stronger for it. I thank the Acting Chairman for affording me the opportunity to speak.
Is fada an lá ó bhí 20 nóiméad agam chun páirt a ghlacadh i ndíospóireacht, so déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall an 20 nóiméad sin a úsáid go héifeachtach, ag díriú isteach ar na laigí atá sa reachtaíocht seo agus, níos tábhachtaí arís, an deis caillte ag an Rialtas athruithe cuimsitheacha a dhéanamh. Níor thapaigh sé an deis dul i ngleic leis na dúshláin atá os ár gcomhair maidir le hathrú aeráide, le Covid agus leis an mBreatimeacht, srl. It is a long time since I had 20 minutes to make a contribution in the Dáil. I think the last time the system allowed me 20 minutes was on the O'Higgins report. I made use of that time and hope I make effective use of these 20 minutes.
I wish to make two preliminary comments before I go into the bulk of the few words I wish to say. I was not expecting to speak today, which brings me to my first comment, on the changes to the speaking arrangements. My colleague, Deputy Pringle, sits on the Business Committee and he and the other colleagues on my left have fought a great battle not to change the arrangements. In spite of that, the majority of members of the committee changed the arrangements so the lesser parties have less time - not less time as such but less time by default because they are pushed down the pecking order. I am now up the pecking order today because, interestingly enough, many backbench Government Deputies, who cry out for more time, did not come in and use that time. I could not let the moment pass without saying that because this Bill was to go into another week of debate and not be completed today. It is very important because the Government has been disingenuous in saying there is not less time for the smaller parties. Actually, there is, and it is by default we are speaking today. I welcome that. As they say in Latin, carpe diem, seize the day, or seize the opportunity. I will do that.
I wish to make a second preliminary comment. In the rough and tumble of politics things are said, but earlier today Deputy Michael Moynihan talked about the former Minister, Ms Zappone, and singled her out.
I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, was there. I rarely do this but I am in my capacity now as an Independent Deputy. It really captured why we cannot make the transformative change necessary, which I will come back to, that we single out one Independent Deputy for failing to deal with disability at a time where Fianna Fáil supported the Government. Was it confidence and supply? I am not going to score political points but that is the fact. Fianna Fáil supported the Government at that time. To give one example, that Government withdrew the miserly €31.80 rehabilitative training allowance. It was not, however, miserly to those affected who received it. The Minister of State will remember we all got representations at the time. That Government, of which Katherine Zappone was just one member, was supported by Fianna Fáil. She was not the Minister with responsibility for disability so I could not just let it go. I was certainly, I hope, constructively critical of Katherine Zappone but that attack allows the Government, and the supporting Government at the time, which was Fianna Fáil, off the hook.
I have welcomed the good things in this budget. If the Minister of State will forgive me, I will not repeat them today because I want to zone in on a bigger issue. There are certainly good things in the budget and I highlighted some of them in my previous contribution.
This, however, is a budget like no other because it is a budget facing a time like no other. It is a time to make transformative change. That word "transformative" has become almost a cliché but we make it a cliché at our peril. We need to make it a reality if we are going to survive the challenges that face us captured by climate change and biodiversity emergencies, Covid-19 and Brexit. I do not say it lightly but Covid-19 and Brexit pale into insignificance compared with what we face with climate change and flooding which we discussed yesterday and the day before.
Deputy McNamara raised the matter of his committee. I want to praise the Deputy McNamara for the Trojan work he and the cross-party members did on that committee. This is what is important and this relates to the budget. In a short period, they brought experts in before them and produced and published a report that was promptly ignored. They actually managed to put Irish into it as well. Bhí píosa trí Ghaeilge istigh ann. Ní raibh sé go léir iomlán dátheangach ach rinneadh iarracht an Ghaeilge a chur isteach. They published that report and it was absolutely ignored. As the Deputy said, they highlighted the structural weaknesses in the system and they were obvious.
When we stood up for the first time back in March to talk about the emergency legislation, I referred to a letter we received from a particular union before Covid-19 started highlighting the serious situation in the health service. This is my fourth time referring to it. We did not need a letter from the union but the contents were stark regarding the situation there and the lack of primary care.
We went into Covid-19, therefore, with huge structural difficulties and huge equality in our health system. That did not happen accidentally. That happened as a result of Government policy. I spent approximately ten years of my life on a health forum and I saw at first hand what happened when the Progressive Democrats were in coalition and led the privatisation of our health service, which comes back to the point Deputy McNamara made. I am not saying he agreed with me but it did not happen by accident that 80% of our nursing homes became private. That just did not happen. That happened as a result of Government policy and, in fact, there was a time not too long ago when it was the other way around. I do not believe it was Fianna Fáil policy but, unfortunately, Fianna Fáil was led by the nose by the Progressive Democrats and it instituted a policy that ran down the public health system and absolutely resourced the private system. I saw this at first hand. I saw this in 2007 and 2008 when reports came back from the HSE saying the cost of refurbishment was why beds were closed. Beds were closed in 2006 and 2007 before the crash as a result of policy.
We can fast-forward to Covid-19 and NPHET. I am not here to criticize NPHET but from day one it did not have a broad representation. It did its job as it saw fit as a group of medics but there was not a broad representation. There was, therefore, no voice for the nursing homes, meat factories or direct provision centres. Afterwards, a narrative was given that there was a voice but there was not. I checked all the minutes until I ran out of energy. I did not see a discussion of the nursing homes or meat factories in March or April certainly but by May they were being mentioned.
Covid-19 highlighted our structural inequalities and the resources were used for that as opposed to looking at the nursing homes which we knew were in crisis. We have had years of HIQA reports pointing out the good things, absolutely, but also highlighting the problems in terms of infection control, the lack of staff or not enough mix with the staff or the absence of care plans. We went into Covid-19 and HIQA knew exactly what was going on in the nursing homes. I am not sure if anybody in NPHET asked HIQA in the beginning about the state of nursing homes or if HIQA would like to tell it. I am not sure. Perhaps, the inquiry Deputy McNamara's committee asked for will happen in due course regarding what happened the nursing homes.
We can play with figures but I am not going to because the Minister of State is very good at figures. He did tremendous work on the Committee of Public Accounts. I am not someone to argue with him about figures. This is not about figures, however, this is about what budget is necessary at this point in our history where we have all agreed there is no going back. From day one, two messages came out of Covid-19. We seem to have lost them now. One was that we are all in this together and the second was that there is no going back. We simply cannot go back because our economy and the way we were doing it was not sustainable.
If we say that, and if language is to mean something, we need a budget to reflect there is no going back. Without a doubt, the Minister did the right thing with the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and with the wage subsidy scheme. I have praised him for that. Yesterday, however, we looked at a sunset clause and I will bring it straight back to the topic. The sunset clause for the extra draconian powers we gave to the Garda to close down public houses was due to run out on 9 November. The Government came forward and asked the Opposition to extend that because we insisted and forced the Government to come back before the Dáil. The Government accepted that and came back in and had some measure of debate. Then, it asked that the clause would be extended until next June without any evidence or any basis and won by a majority.
In a nutshell, the Government extended the powers to the Garda in a time when the pubs were closed which is quite ironic. All the pubs were closed and we gave it extra powers to go in and inspect them. In the period since September before the pubs closed, the Garda never once needed those powers. That is a strange type of narrative to come in and say the Government needs to provide draconian powers, although the Minister said we were honestly never going to use them, but it was a deterrent.
It is the same thing with climate change. Rather than bringing us all on board together, and recognising that we did not lead but the people on the ground and the children led us when we declared a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency, what do we do? We associate climate change action with a carbon tax, and not just a once-off tax but one tied in for the next few years. I have my own views on it but whatever about the pros and cons of the carbon tax, it is not a good message and it is not effective to associate the need for behaviour change with carbon tax. I could not put it any better than my colleagues. Deputies Bríd Smith and Paul Murphy spoke excellently this afternoon about how we are not taxing those who are polluting the most. Now we have a Bill that ties in a carbon tax which will affect the poorest and those most disenfranchised by our unequal system. That is not a good message.
Equally, it is not a good message to send out in this time of Covid that people will be punished if they do not behave. What is needed is not punishment but education, encouragement and leadership. That leadership has been sorely lacking.
I will turn now to some of the provisions in the budget. When the Government introduced the PUP of €350 per week, it received support and praise from us all. The level at which the payment was set was a recognition that this was the minimum needed by the people who had lost their jobs during the Covid crisis. That recognition should have spurred the Government on to consider whether the others who are unemployed might also need €350. It should have spurred the Government into looking at what might be the basic wage that people need to live. The Government should have given its consideration to those questions in the context of the salaries of people in this House. I make no apology for earning a salary for the work we do. However, it is a relevant consideration when thinking about what would constitute a basic living wage that would allow everyone to participate in society. Not only did the Government not give any consideration to those questions but, as quickly as it could, it reduced the rate of the PUP. There followed a welcome U-turn in that regard but now the Government is going to tax the payment. It does not make sense to do so when so many people are depending on it to stay afloat.
The 10 cent increase in the minimum wage is an insult. There was no movement in the budget on social welfare payments and pensions. I welcome the increase in the annual allowance for carers and the introduction of additional home care hours. However, while the provision of 5 million additional hours looks good when I am standing here, I am left wondering, when I go back to Claddagh or Galway city, what it will actually mean for people. A previous speaker mentioned that the basic home care package is 20 plus hours per week. I do not know anybody in Galway who is on that care package. I know families who are getting ten or 12 hours. I know there are families caring for people with dementia, morning, noon and night, who get 12 hours a week. The Tánaiste has spoken about the people who get up early in the morning. Some of these people hardly get to bed because they are engaged in caring duties all the time. They might get a nap during the day. I am not exaggerating when I say this and I am only using the anecdote to illustrate the general point. If we are asking people to perform a caring function and giving them only ten or 12 hours of home care provision, after a lengthy waiting time, then it puts the extra 5 million hours into perspective. Who will that additional provision help? Will it be used to clear the backlog or will it do something else? Does the Minister of State accept that when somebody is caring for a person with dementia 24-7 and is getting only 12 hours of home help a week and no other respite - there is no respite in these Covid times - then there is a problem. These people are a fundamental part of the economy. Without carers, the economy cannot thrive. Significantly, the majority of carers are women, which tells its own story. That is in no way to diminish the work of the men in caring roles but it does give added significance to our failure to treat carers with respect in order that they, in turn, can treat the vulnerable and sick with dignity and respect.
It is nothing short of shocking that the help-to-buy scheme is being extended. I am no expert on figures, so I will turn to the experts to illustrate my point. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has described it as a "poorly targeted policy likely to fuel house price growth". This is the scheme the Government is extending. The ESRI points out that it has cost more than €300 million to date as against an anticipated cost of €130 million. The Minister will be very familiar with those types of cost overruns from his time as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts. Social Justice Ireland has said that the scheme "artificially stimulated the property market by providing a benefit to those who need it least." A boost is being given to those in least need of it and, meanwhile, the word "crisis" does not capture what is happening with public housing. Taking Galway as an example, I know of somebody who has been on the housing waiting list since 2003 or 2005. I cannot get an answer as to why this person has not been offered a house in 15 to 17 years. That is the extent of the dysfunction and crisis in the housing situation in Galway and the service being offered to people. At the same time, there is, of necessity, huge expenditure on homelessness. On my walk every day to and from the accommodation in which I am privileged to live, I see people sleeping in doorways. This morning, I saw somebody doing fantastic work tending to these people and checking that they were still alive. I do not know how the Government can say there is a thriving economy when that is going on. The two simply do not go together.
More than €1 billion is being put into various schemes to support people to make rental payments. How can the Minister of State, with his background, justify that amount of money going into the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and long-term leasing, and claim it is not boosting prices in the private market? We must do away with the HAP scheme but it cannot be done overnight. I ask the Minister of State not to waste time by claiming that I have called for it to be got rid of overnight. That is not what I am saying. I wish the scheme was not in place and that the State had built houses instead, but that is not what happened. Fine Gael and the Labour Party enshrined the HAP scheme in housing legislation and said it was the only game in town. That was in 2014 or 2015 and, since then, the HAP scheme has indeed been the only game in town. I see colleagues nodding in agreement. That is the language that was spoken in Galway city. From 2009 until a year ago, no houses were built in Galway because, we were told, the HAP scheme was the only game in town. Simon Communities of Ireland have told us that most people were priced out of the rental market as a result. The policy is sick but it has been enshrined once again in this budget with the increased allocation for the various schemes, including long-term leasing. When I read the newspaper, I see properties being singled out for long-term leasing back to Dublin City Council instead of public housing being built on public land.
I have two further points to make before my time runs out. The first relates to the Office of Public Works, OPW, which does great work and for which I have great admiration. I see no reason that it could not be used more effectively to deal with the housing crisis, rather than relying on the Land Development Agency, which does not have the same background and statutory underpinning. I ask the Minister of State to reflect on the potential role for the OPW, with its vast experience, in tackling the housing crisis.
My final point concerns the situation of people aged over 66, as referred to by a number of speakers. The ESRI has indicated that there were 65,000 people over the age of 66 engaged in some form of paid work in the final quarter of 2019. They have been given nothing under any of the schemes the Government has introduced. We encourage them to work and, in some cases, make them work, but then we do not provide for them.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate. The Finance Bill is always introduced after the budget and is a key component of the budgetary process. This year's budget is akin to a wartime budget. The deadly Covid virus has had a huge impact on how the economy functions and how people go about their daily lives. Its impact on businesses and on people trying to do their jobs has been immense.
I want to touch on a number of key points in my contribution. As a Deputy for the Limerick City constituency, I see the issues that affect my constituents in their daily lives. The Finance Bill includes provision for the introduction of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. It is extremely important that sufficient consideration is given to the different elements of this scheme and the provisions it needs to include. Many business people are saying they will be excluded from it. I hope that these issues will form part of the consideration of the Bill on Committee Stage.
Finance Bills are typically used to give effect to provisions that have huge significance.
The Minister of State will be well aware of the recent Supreme Court ruling on primary medical certificates. That is causing considerable difficulty where the HSE locally is not able to process these applications. I ask that consideration be given to expediting the amending of the relevant legislation in the Finance Bill itself to enable the processing of the primary medical certificates. It is hugely important.
In a Georgian Limerick context, the living city initiative has come up for review on a number of occasions. It is a welcome scheme but a body of work needs to be done around it. This is something I have called for. Limerick city has the largest footprint of Georgian buildings in the country. It runs all the way from Nicholas Street down as far as Barrington Street, encompassing virtually the entire footprint of the city centre. I believe it should be the catalyst to enable the people to start living in the city. It needs to be looked at again to see how it is working. It is a tax-based scheme. It would be hugely important.
I welcome the fact that €10 million was given towards Shannon and Cork airports in the budget. Shannon is vital for the region. I also welcome that funding has been provided for transport initiatives and it would be hugely important that we get it right. A draft transportation strategy for the Limerick-Shannon region was published recently. Public submissions were made up to 30 October. I held a virtual public meeting a week ago in which 70 to 80 people took part. I have asked that the National Transport Authority, NTA, would pause, revisit and revise the scheme. We want something that works and that enables Limerick city to do what it is being asked to do under Project Ireland 2040, which is have an increase in population of over 50% by 2040. To enable it to do that, the road system is very much endorsed within the plan: the northern distributor road, the N20, the Adare bypass and the upgrade of the N69 to Foynes. The fact that we are linking both Limerick city and Shannon Airport is hugely significant and I welcome that funding. However, we have to get it right whereby we have a rail network that effectively uses the existing rail network around the city and where we link up the likes of the Parkway and link into Moyross and then onwards to Cratloe from where we can complete a spur to Shannon Airport. These are all hugely important.
I will put in context what I believe a budget should do. A budget should be fair. A budget is basically the overarching financial roadmap for the following year that the Government lays down. I want to see the details of the economic plan. That will be hugely important. When does the Minister of State expect that plan to be announced? It must be, in essence, a mini-national development plan for the next year. I would like to see it in terms of Shannon Airport and the cities.
On Covid, we are now in level 5 and the number of virus cases is coming down. Come 1 December, I want us to be able to move into a level where people can function over Christmas and where people can fly home. I brought the latter point up at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, which I chair, with Dr. Tony Holohan recently and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, all public health permitting. Covid has been very difficult for business people. We must ensure we support them. That is why the business support must be strong enough to ensure businesses can come through level 5, that they can retain their employees and that we get the economy back up and running.
As a Deputy representing the constituency of Limerick City, which includes Birdhill and Ballinahinch in north Tipperary, I believe it is hugely important that we come through this crisis. The key will be the Finance Bill. In the context of the Finance Bill, the primary medical certificates need to be looked at. Does the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, cover everyone? We need to look at how the living city initiative in Limerick city can be reviewed in order that we can make it the real gateway to get people back into living in the city.
I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I will respond, inasmuch as I can, in the short time available.
I will make one overall point, which is that one must bear in mind that we are responding to the Covid-19 crisis, the threat of Brexit and the longer-term but not any less urgent issue of climate change and the Finance Bill must necessarily take account of all of these issues. All three are important. All three must be dealt with.
The issue that was probably raised most frequently here during the debate is a difficult one but it is clear. I genuinely believe that most Deputies knew from the day it was announced that the pandemic unemployment payment is and always was taxable. The Minister for Finance has said so repeatedly since its introduction. The effect of section 3 of the Bill is to designate the pandemic unemployment payment in the tax code as an emolument to which Chapter 4 of Part 2 of the Taxes Consolidation Act applies and, accordingly, charged to tax under Schedule D to the Taxes Consolidation Act. While that language is somewhat technical, if this requires ordinary traditional PAYE workers to file a tax return, I understand the complications of that. It is not something they would normally have had to do and that is a valid issue which, I am sure, will get discussed in detail on Committee Stage.
From the very beginning, the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2020, the legislation for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, referred to that payment as a payment made under section 102 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, and that section was used only as a convenience to get money out in a hurry. That is normally what people might use for supplementary welfare payments or emergency payments. The onset of Covid was an emergency and that section allowed payments be made in a hurry, immediately, quickly and promptly. That is why we used that particular section of the Act to make this payment through.
It was never a payment, such as the supplementary welfare allowance, that normally would go through that section of the Act because supplementary welfare allowances by their nature are normally a once-off payment. The PUP payments that were made between 13 March and 15 August were not once-off payments. They were made week in, week out on several occasions.
The PUP is an income support and shares the characteristics of jobseeker's benefit. Everybody knows jobseeker's benefit is taxed. To give a layman's version, payments through social welfare, such as supplementary welfare allowance and jobseeker's allowance, are not subject to tax. Payments in relation to income and contributions, such as jobseeker's benefit, have always been taxed. If somebody was in employment for a month or two or three during a normal year which had nothing to do with Covid, and he or she was on jobseeker's benefit drawing on his or her contributions - the PUP relates to people who were in employment as it is employment related - it was included in the person's total income at the end of the year. The simple rule of thumb - not precise but the one that most people will understand - is that if the payment is akin to a jobseeker's benefit payment, it is subject to tax like jobseeker's benefit already is and always has been, whereas if it was akin to jobseeker's allowance, a long-term social welfare payment or supplementary welfare allowance, it normally would not be subject to tax. There is a complete difference. There is a Schedule to the Social Welfare Act - it has been there for a long number of years - and unless something is listed in that particular Schedule, it is subject to tax. The Schedule lists mainly issues such as allowance payments and jobseeker's allowance.
I know Deputies are disappointed with that reply. There was much discussion over many months about when this tax comes to be paid. The question is, will people get a shock at the end of the year - several Deputies on all sides of the House were involved in this discussion - and when would they have to pay it back. Deputies were told the Revenue will come to an arrangement. Now the Minister has agreed it does not have to be paid or commenced if there is tax due and the Covid payment results in a person having to pay tax, which includes the tax on the employment they are already in.
If somebody does not go back to work and is not in a taxable situation, then this payment may not bring them into the tax net. For those who do go back into employment and have other taxable income, this will come into the reckoning in that situation. The Minster has said that can roll out for up to four years, to pay it back. I raise this because there were several debates in the House about when the tax was going to fall due and some Deputies are almost suggesting they never knew it was taxable, despite us having discussed the arrangements for the payment and the tax on the PUP all along. I just want to be straight on that. It might not be the easy thing to say but if Deputies check the Official Report, they will understand. I am trying to be straight with people because the last thing I want is for people to have the wrong impression and to then get a shock. I do not want to sidestep the issue, I want to make it crystal clear that that is the actual situation.
There was a lot of discussion about the carbon tax. Many Deputies have referred to the tax, particularly the increase to €100 per tonne by 2030, suggesting that it was the wrong approach. Across a series of studies dating back to 1992, independent modelling undertaken by the ESRI has confirmed that a rising carbon tax is likely to be the single most effective climate policy that can be pursued by Government. In order to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of these increases a targeted package of social protection interventions has been developed. The package is informed by the ESRI research that was commissioned to specifically address this issue. It includes an increase in the fuel allowance by €3.50 per week, an increase in the qualifying child payment of €2 for children under 12 and €5 for those over 12 and an increase in the living alone allowance worth €5 per week. Therefore, there are mitigating measures acknowledging that people in those categories will suffer most. The point that a carbon tax can hit people on lowest incomes the most is well made, well accepted and well understood. That is why we have put these balancing mitigation measures in place. The point is accepted across the board and there is no dispute on it. It would be very unfair to increase the carbon tax without these extra compensatory measures. They might not be as much as everybody would like but they deal with those who are in the front line as far as extra costs are concerned. I hope the measures will be of benefit when they come in early in the new year.
On the CRSS, a number of Deputies mentioned that businesses that do not operate from a fixed premises are not eligible to participate in it. Support provided under this scheme will be in the form of valuable upfront cash payments which will enable eligible businesses to meet costs associated with their premises, such as rent, insurance and utilities, at a time when, because of the specific terms of the restrictions announced by the Government, they cannot provide goods or services to their customers or can only do so to a limited extent. To increase the scope of scheme to cover any businesses impacted by Covid-19 would fundamentally change its targeted nature. It is important that most schemes the Government will be operating now will take sectoral and targeted approaches rather than be across the board for every business, some of which might not need the support as much as others. The Government understands the difficulties faced by businesses and there are a number of other measures of which Deputies will be aware. The Covid pandemic payment can help in some of those as can the employment wage subsidy scheme. There are also schemes for businesses to warehouse VAT and PAYE debts. The temporary wage subsidy scheme can be of help to some people in these situations also, and arrangements are in place for warehousing of unpaid income tax for 2019 and preliminary tax for 2020 for self-assessed taxpayers, if applicable. I understand that the scheme has just opened up and over 2,600 businesses have registered nearly 2,900 premises for the CRSS revenue in recent days. Payments will hopefully be made as quickly as possible.
The issue of coach operators was mentioned and they may be able to avail of the coach tourism business continuity scheme. There are a large number of schemes available through Fáilte Ireland which are specific to the hospitality, catering and tourism sector. Schemes are also available through local authorities. If I have one criticism it is that there are so many schemes out there from so many organisations and State bodies that one would need a compendium to put them all together. Some people might feel they are excluded from this scheme but in many cases there are other ones that can help them, so it is important to say that.
Several Deputies made the point about the help-to-buy scheme that 40% of applicants have a loan-to-value ratio of less than 85%. The Deputies might appreciate that they may have been referring to houses that were purchased rather than those which were self-built. There are different metrics applied to both because the value of the site does not come into account with the loan-to-value ratio when we are dealing with this scheme for people who are self-building normally on their own sites. It is important to say that. On this scheme, most people understand that the State has always helped people who are in a position to do so to buy their own homes. We had the mortgage interest relief scheme for decades upon decades. Most houses in Ireland were bought under that scheme and most of us were reared in houses bought under it or in social houses owned by local authorities. The concept of the State giving some little help through the tax system to people who are going to house themselves is almost part of the DNA of the people. Frankly, I am shocked that there are so many Deputies against the concept of the State helping people buy their own homes. I just cannot understand it. One may say that the builder might make a few bob out of it and argue about the statistics but the essence of the scheme is that first time buyers own their home. It is a great thing that the State should support people in this. We have done it for decades and I hope it continues. Maybe some Deputies do not like people owning their own homes and have a different political agenda. That is a matter for another day, however. I have made the position very clear on this issue.
Deputies Mairéad Farrell and Pringle referred to the provisions of the Bill in respect of NATO and the EU member states. I had to look this one up; it is definitely an interesting issue. It concerns member states undertaking a common defence effort. Ireland has a legal requirement to transpose the provision of the VAT and general excise directives to apply a zero rate of VAT and exemption for excise to certain supplies of goods and services with effect from 1 July 2020 to forces of the member states undertaking a common defence effort under the European Union's common security and defence policy. As such, failure to do so would be an infringement by Ireland. We are required to do that as a result of our involvement in the European Union's common security and defence policy.
The issue of corporation tax was raised, with some Deputies suggesting we move to have an effective rate of 6% imposed. Deputies will not be surprised when I say this Government certainly has no plans to change the current 12.5% rate. We know the importance of corporation tax and the major multinationals in Ireland because they pay very high salaries and wages compared to those paid to people in Irish-owned companies. They are normally nearly double the amount. The employees pay nearly twice as much in income tax as people working for Irish companies because the multinationals pay such high wages. That is one of the main reasons income tax receipts have remained high during the pandemic. Higher-paid workers have continued paying tax even though many people have lost their jobs and are now on the PUP and the TWSS. Due to the progressive nature of the Irish tax system, those on higher wages and salaries pay a very high level of income tax and many of those are still on the books and being employed by their companies and that is why the income tax has kept up so much.
Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned the issue of the film industry. It is indeed a requirement that for people to benefit from this scheme, they must be in compliance with the relevant employment legislation in order to claim film tax relief. I think people would accept that that is only fair. We cannot be giving tax incentives to people who do not meet the normal employment conditions.
I refer to the disabled drivers scheme. There was a Supreme Court decision on this matter recently. The Department is currently examining a range of options, including amendments to the regulations and the primary legislation. The Minister is anxious that this be done as quickly as possible.
Finally, Deputies Paul Murphy and Mairéad Farrell implied that the increase in time allowed under the stamp duty refund scheme is a gift to developers. This is a particular section in the Bill and the Deputies were the only ones to mention it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not the case. It is a limited measure in the legislation that takes account of the impact of Covid 19 measures and the ability to complete development in the time allowed. It also seeks to address issues with the completion of large-scale multi-phased developments, mainly for apartments. Covid has slowed down the development of some of these. It is only right the stamp duty legislation reflects this but obviously somebody has a different view on the matter.
I have tried to deal with most of the issues that have been raised as best I can. Several Deputies asked me to comment on free money and whether we are spending a lot of money, and the Deputies understand that. Deputy Ó Cuív had a 20-minute philosophical discussion on the matter and a few other speakers contributed on the topic. All I will say is there is no free money. Every penny we get has to be paid back. The reason we call it free is that interest is low at present. When the time comes to be repaid, interest rates may have risen. Calling it free money implies we are getting money for nothing and that it is like a grant. No grant is being given to Ireland under these measures. We are borrowing and every euro we borrow ultimately will have to be paid back, and the interest on that debt is an issue that may arise in due course. All of this money has to be paid back. I will be happy to continue the philosophical discussion with Deputy Ó Cuív on another occasion outside the Chamber.
I thank all of the Deputies for their comments during the debate yesterday and today. As the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has already said, we will consider any suggestion made during the Committee Stage debate, including amendments that are proposed. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to Committee Stage.
In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 11 November 2020.