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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 6

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I extend my solidarity and good wishes to the two members of An Garda Síochána who were shot and injured in the course of their duties last night in Whitechapel in Blanchardstown here in Dublin. We are very conscious of the fact that members of the Garda put themselves in harm's way day in and day out to keep our communities safe. We express our appreciation for this and extend our solidarity to the two gardaí in question and to the community in Blanchardstown for which this is also a very violent ordeal.

On Friday, the Taoiseach will make his announcement on the next phase of the reopening of our society and our economy. There is no doubt there is a feeling of hope and optimism as we look forward to getting back to some kind of normality. People want to get back to work and businesses want to reopen. As we head towards Friday, there are still 300,000 workers relying on the pandemic unemployment payment and a further 300,000 still depend on the wage subsidy scheme. As the Taoiseach is aware, many of these people have not seen a day’s work in more than a year. Despite the reopening, they are not sure when they will get back to work. They depend on these income supports to pay the bills, pay rent, provide for their children and put food on the table.

The Taoiseach had planned to cut these supports from January but the onset of the third wave forced him to change his mind. In April, he resurrected his intention to introduce cuts from the end of June, even though thousands of workers and businesses will still be prevented from earning. As the Taoiseach is aware, the sectors affected include aviation, arts and entertainment, restaurants and pubs that do not have outdoor areas, as well as aspects of the tourism sector that cater for international visitors. In addition to the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme, those receiving the short-time work support are also in a situation where their eligibility is coming to an end but they will not be back in full employment.

For weeks, these workers have had a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, said the Government would give clarity regarding the future of these payments by the end of May. It is 26 May but these workers still do not know what they will face come the end of June. It is unfair to leave them with this level of stress and anxiety. Everybody wants to get back to work as soon as it is possible and safe. These workers are not looking for big bonuses or the massive pay hikes that others have seen during the crisis. They simply want fairness and an assurance from their Government that the rug will not be pulled from under them while they are still going through very difficult times.

It is not good enough simply to say that there will not be a cliff edge. These workers need to know they will not face any cut. We have consistently said to the Taoiseach that so long as we have a public health emergency that prevents people from going to work or reopening their businesses they need to be supported, and I am sure the Taoiseach agrees with this. Everyone wants to get back to work but the reality is that we will still face restrictions for some time and, let us say it out loud, we are still unclear and cannot be certain about new variants in the future. It is clear that income supports should continue until the autumn at least. This makes sense.

Thank you, Deputy.

Workers and businesses have lost incomes. In his announcement on Friday, will the Taoiseach tell those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme-----

The time is up, Deputy.

-----that their payments will not be cut at the end of June?

I welcome the Deputy's acknowledgement that progress is being made on dealing with the Covid crisis and that the plan is working in terms of the steady cautious reopening of society as the vaccination programme successfully rolls out with great momentum. A total of 96% of the supply that comes in is being administered within a week by the HSE. People have commented on the efficiency of the vaccination programme and how effective it is. We have been very clear consistently in our interventions since the commencement of the pandemic. Throughout last summer and the first six months of this year, the State and Government intervention has been unprecedented in supporting incomes and in supporting businesses and enterprises. The entire rationale for this has been to protect as many jobs as we possibly can and to protect incomes above what they would otherwise have been given the impact of the virus on so many industries.

Without question, the impact has been most significant on the hospitality sector, the aviation sector, the arts and entertainment sectors and a number of other sectors that are related to these areas, such as taxi drivers. We have always amended our schemes with a view to trying to get more and more sectors covered by the supports. The next phase will be how we re-engineer, and facilitate the rebooting of, these sectors of the economy over the coming six months.

The national economic recovery plan will be the framework within which we identify the growth areas for the future and how we assist economic recovery as we reopen society in an effective way. We have said there will be no cliff edge in terms of the reduction of supports and this remains the position. The Cabinet subcommittee on economic recovery will continue to meet to finalise and fine-tune the national economic recovery plan. We are very conscious of the significant difficulties in aviation for the workers in that sector, including pilots, cabin crew, ground handling staff and throughout the sector. They have been out of work for a long time because of Covid-19, particularly because of the third wave. There are also the related hospitality and tourism industries. There will be good news in June for the hospitality sector, as hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and guest houses will come back on 2 June and outdoor dining and drinking will return on 7 June. This is very positive. We will be in a position on Friday to clarify what is possible for June and July in all of these sectors, particularly aviation, hospitality, the arts and sport.

Last evening, two gardaí were shot and wounded. As I said in my statement last evening, it illustrates once again the extraordinary commitment and contribution of An Garda Síochána to the public well-being and the public interest. Last night's incident illustrates that around every corner as the gardaí go about their duty one never knows what can befall them. I wish the two gardaí a speedy recovery and thank An Garda Síochána for its consistent support of the public interest and of our citizens as they go about their daily duties.

I am sure the House joins with the Taoiseach and Deputy McDonald in these good wishes.

I certainly reiterate the sentiments in respect of the gardaí.

There have been, not just here but internationally, what the Taoiseach describes correctly as unprecedented interventions to support people in a context of an unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes, public health emergency and social emergency.

What I am asking from the Taoiseach is not to reiterate the no "cliff edge" position. I want the Taoiseach to tell hundreds of thousands of people who are still relying on the pandemic unemployment payment, the wage subsidy scheme and the short-term work support that they will not experience a cut. I make that request to the Taoiseach in the full knowledge that workers want to get back to work and we want to get them there. We want to get business reopened and we want to do it safely. We know we will not have a complete reopening of society and the economy in each sector overnight. For those workers, can the Taoiseach assure them that there will be no cut and can he further assure them that the supports they rely on will be extended to the autumn at least?

As I said, the Cabinet sub-committee on economic recovery will be meeting in the next number of days to discuss the national economic recovery plan. Part of that plan will focus on the digital transformation and jobs in the new green economy. It will also be focusing in on the medium-term framework for particular sectors that have suffered more than most as a result of the pandemic and factors relating to it. That means evolving the supports towards the second half of the year and a proper targeting of those supports to facilitate growth because we want to facilitate people to get back to work in the different sectors as safely and as securely as we possibly can.

If one thinks of what has happened over the past number of months, construction has come back. Retail now has come back. Our schools are reopened for quite some time and our childcare has reopened. This plan is working and we have managed to keep the pressure on the virus whilst rolling out the vaccination programme. That is our intention and we are mindful of protecting people and businesses and jobs to the optimal degree that we possibly can as a Government.

I also want to be associated with the remarks in relation to the gardaí and send my party's well wishes for a speedy recovery and solidarity to both the gardaí and the community who have been traumatised by this.

Whenever the Government's housing policy comes under attack, the Taoiseach consistently tells us that the State, and not the cuckoo funds, is the biggest player in the housing market. Let us examine this. The Government has called its housing budget the biggest in the history of the State and, at €3.3 billion, it is, but is our money being well spent?

Fine Gael's Rebuilding Ireland programme had a construction target of 8,900 social homes for 2021. Under the Government's revised plan, the target has increased to 9,500. Given the Government has upped the housing budget by €500 million, an additional 593 housing units does not seem like much bang for the buck. Despite the fact that construction target has increased by 593 houses, the Government claims that an additional 28,500 households will secure social housing this year compared to Rebuilding Ireland's target of 22,157. If construction has increased by only 593 units, how is it that social housing provision is increasing by 6,343? The answer is the private rental sector, through an increase of 5,800 housing assistance payment, HAP, mostly, and rental accommodation scheme, RAS, tenancies. The Government's plan to proved social housing is utterly reliant on the private market.

Long-term leasing deals entered into with vulture and cuckoo funds are rapidly increasing but we have no way of knowing how many of these are currently being negotiated. Replies to parliamentary questions cannot be relied on, which is shocking. The only reliable information we get is when individual local authorities speak to journalists and divulge figures. The deputy chief executive of Dublin City Council, Mr. Brendan Kenny, has said that the local authority is negotiating for 1,700 long-term leases. The Taoiseach stated that long-term leasing deals entered into with cuckoo funds are bad value for money and the prospect of local authorities being locked into so many for up to 30 years must fill him with dread.

When the Taoiseach states that the State is one of the biggest players in the housing market, let us be clear about what he means. In case there is any confusion, I want to clarify. The State is prolific in the private rental market. Obviously, that is through those supports I referred to, but it is also snapping up homes on long leases. The State is also, via the strategic investment fund, pumping hundreds of millions of euro into large developments that are exclusively bought by cuckoo funds, and obviously that strategic investment fund is what is left of the pension fund. The State is also determined to sell off vast tracts of land at rock-bottom prices. Therefore, the State is a big player but on the wrong side.

What is wrong with doing what we have always done, and that is directly building? What is wrong with using the Ó Cualann model at scale?

I thank the Deputy of raising the issue of housing which is the key social issue of our time and of our generation.

First, there is nothing wrong with the direct-build model. I want to see more direct build and I am supporting more direct build. We are saying Government wants to develop that.

The housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme the Deputy referred to has been in place since 2014. I do not think the Deputy is suggesting that we switch off that scheme right now because that would mean thousands of people who are dependent, who do not have the incomes to buy or to secure houses, would be deprived of accommodation. That is not a practical suggestion that we immediately wean people off that. There has to be a phased rebalancing of focus in terms of direct building, increasing the housing stock of local authorities and of approved social housing bodies so that one reduces the dependancy on HAP and leasing initiatives over time.

Long-term leasing is bad value. Any public private partnerships, PPPs, or partnerships should involve the stock coming back to the State after such a timeframe. That is my view and I continue to make that clear. However, let us be honest also that the bulk of the focus over the next number of years will be on build in the social housing context but, more than that, in terms of the allocations and the provisions. For example, €690 million is going for affordability measures. That will be the cost rental scheme, the shared equity scheme, the help to buy and Rebuilding Ireland. That is to enable people to afford to buy houses in the private sector but it is very important that people are given opportunities and supports by Government to be able to buy housing at affordable levels. The expansion of Part V of the planning Act to designate a range of homes for first-time buyers, and also for social, within any scheme is an important aspect of that. The 400 units in the cost rental 25% below market values is a good initiative.

We have brought 2,500 social homes back into use since we came into office. These are local authority houses that were lying idle. We gave specific funding to get them back into use. This year, funding is being provided to local authorities to remediate approximately 3,000 units. There is real urgency being applied to this issue. I do not want to see vacant local authority houses out there. That is, in my view, something that we can do quickly and in a focused way.

The Land Development Agency Bill will provide for social and affordable housing on the agency's lands. We need that legislation through to enable the agency to get going. Also, there has been progress made in relation to family homelessness. Overall, we want to directly build 50,000 new homes over the next five years.

The real capacity issue for us as a country is delivery. We are simply not building enough housing units, year by year, right now. Covid-19 hit us last year. It has hit us this year in terms of outputs but we simply have to get supply up. Everybody, at every level, local authority level and national level, needs to put the focus on delivery and getting projects finished.

I am on the record, in 2014, when HAP was introduced, as saying that unless it was accompanied by substantial building what would happen would be that we would be paying in perpetuity rents to the private sector. Essentially, that is what we are seeing because the scale of what is being built is being outstripped by the amount that is being spent on rents.

If long-term leasing is bad, what is the Taoiseach doing about it? One cannot rely on replies to parliamentary questions on this. One hears about long-term leasing locally.

It does not appear on a list anywhere in terms of what is negotiated or concluded. We know what has happened. There is a terrible lack of transparency in what is happening. It is being pushed heavily by the Housing Agency. There is a brochure on its website. In terms of how Ireland is being marketed, there is reference to rental returns. We are being picked over. What is the Taoiseach going to do about long-term leasing? It is going to be such a benefit to the sector that it will mean we will live on the never-never.

We have made the position very clear. There are schemes in place. Last evening a scheme went through in Fingal. It has been in preparation for quite some time. There was opposition to that, again, and that is the point. The Deputy's party opposed it.

If we keep on opposing every single housing project that comes before us-----

It is Hobson's choice.

We have to get supply up. Everybody in opposition, including the Deputy, says this is an emergency. Yet, they seem to think we have the luxury of voting everything down at the last minute when the project is before the council and all of the negotiations between council officials and other parties have been finalised. The scheme to which I refer includes over 230 social housing units and 230 affordable homes in a housing scheme of 1,200 units. Ideology gets in the way. People say they cannot and do not want to support that. There is always an excuse to object to something. We all have our political or ideological perspectives. For God's sake, we need to get houses built in this country and we need to get them going. One of the biggest problems we have is delivery on the ground and getting shovel-ready projects started.

I want to discuss Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, reform, in particular eco-farm schemes alongside convergence. Ireland is an agricultural country with the best farm producers of quality food in the world. Farmers were encouraged over the years to invest in good faith, with the belief that they were being progressive and their hard work and the food they yielded was and still is recognised as the best in the world. They were assisted by Teagasc and other semi-State bodies to become gold standard producers. The CAP was initially introduced to drive the agricultural sector to provide safe food, which is what it did, all for the benefit of the consumer, while applying the greenest methods available for the times we are in.

Farming is the largest indigenous rural industry this country has. It is rural Ireland's biggest employer, and has proud progressive producers. The Government has pulled the rug out from underneath the sector. It agreed to disincentivise the productive farmer by introducing convergence to increase the payments of non-productive farmers who have nothing to do but sit and wait for it to happen. Why is the Government driving this policy? Does it not understand that some of those most affected will be tillage farmers? Does it not realise that this is an anti-green policy?

All it will achieve is to make tillage farmers non-viable and they will exit the industry. It may be the case that this is not the intention of the Government, but that is what will happen. The sector that we have relied on for carbon sequestration has been given the biggest kick in the teeth imaginable and left wondering what it is all about. While we are past preventing convergence, the Government must understand the consequences of going beyond 75%.

It may believe in some misguided way that it will level the playing field to go further, and it will, but not in the way that the Government or the EU expects. It will level it in that the Government will make many farmers unviable because convergence, when combined with the proposal to pay eco-schemes on a flat rate per hectare, has a high risk of making more farmers unviable. Many farmers will see a reduction of 40% in their single farm payments combining both schemes. This cannot happen.

Convergence and the new proposed eco-schemes are an attack on progressive farming. What does the Government say to the next generation of progressive farmers taking over? They are all capable, willing and able to adopt to the greening of farming in Ireland. The Government is telling them to come on in, but do their worst and it will pay them more. It is telling people to come from the top to the bottom when everyone else in the world goes the other way. Can the Taoiseach commit that there will be no talk of anything above 75% on internal convergence and that eco-scheme payments will not be an addition to the basic farm payment and will not be based on costs incurred and income foregone, which will be just another form of convergence?

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very topical issue, as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is currently in Brussels working on CAP. Of course, this Government did not introduce convergence. That is the first point. The focus of the Deputy's contribution was on this Government.

This is a centrally mandated approach across the European Union and from the European Council and Parliament. It is an EU mandated policy. In the first instance, it is a system of redistribution of direct farm payment funds. It has been occurring for half a decade. It is a hugely emotive issue. Notwithstanding the fact that the matter is largely decided on in Europe, there is room for negotiation and getting the balance right.

There is room for negotiating as maximum a degree of subsidiarity as possible in implementing the proposal in Ireland. The Minister is seeking the maximum degree of subsidiarity to deal with this issue. He supports the EU Council position that convergence should be around 75% of the average by 2026, but we cannot guarantee that because the Parliament has pushed for 100% convergence. Perhaps the Deputy could talk to Mr. Mick Wallace MEP or some of the other MEPs to try to focus on getting the Parliament to reduce its ambitions in this regard. It is pushing for 100% convergence. The Portuguese Presidency has put forward compromises of between 75% and 100%. Negotiations will continue around that.

The Government has, since 2020, paused further convergence until the negotiations in Brussels are concluded because we understand the issues. There are winners and losers in the convergence process and programme. I understand up to 60,000 farmers will have gained, and if we are throwing in the greening aspect the figure could be up to €95 million. About 54,000 farmers would have lost out. It is a very difficult issue. We are very conscious of it, as are the Ministers.

Since 2015 all EU member states have used this method of payment. From the Government's perspective, we believe in food security and a viable and sustainable agriculture industry, as well as food production and food safety. The Irish food production system is probably one of the most efficient, not just in Europe but globally, and is constantly working to improve its emissions performance. That is a broader debate within Europe. We want there to be more opportunities for others to increase farming incomes around environmental programmes and so forth.

I thank the Taoiseach. I am very concerned when he tries to devolve responsibility for dealing on behalf of Irish farmers to the EU Council of Ministers or whatever it is. What comes to mind is what my mother used to say, namely, if they jumped in the river would you?

The reality is that the farmers of Ireland depend on the Government, regardless of when the process began, to negotiate on their behalf to ensure that convergence does not go beyond 75%. Our fishermen are holding a protest in Cork today because this Government and previous Governments have sold them out. There is nothing to be gained for rural Ireland from the way the Government is carrying on. The eco-scheme I spoke about is another form of convergence.

The Minister spoke on the radio this morning and denied figures from his own Department that farmers stand to lose up to 32% of their basic farm payments. He denied that was the case, even though those figures have been produced by his Department. I am very concerned that the Government is on the right road with the negotiations. I ask it to do its best for what is our greatest asset.

I would point out to the Deputy that 19 EU countries are fully converged right now. Ireland is not.

We are an agricultural nation.

I know. Were it not for successive Governments, the Common Agricultural Policy would not be as central and strong as it is currently. Ireland has been one of the great defenders of the Common Agricultural Policy for many years at European Union level. We have fought, along with a few other countries, to hold the line-----

If they jumped in the river, would the Taoiseach?

-----on food production and the Common Agricultural Policy. The Minister did not deny anything this morning. He pointed out that there is a balance. Some win and have gained on this. Quite a lot of farmers have gained and quite a number of farmers have lost out because of convergence. That is the point the Minister was making this morning.

The Minister denied his own figures.

We have got to look at other initiatives, including environmental initiatives, both to increase incomes for farming and to maintain the backbone of the direct payments system, which is key to farmers. We understand that. The direct payments system is absolutely essential as a backbone for farmers to underpin their projections and sustainability from an income perspective into the future.

On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I salute and support the brave members of An Garda Síochána and wish them well in their recovery.

Ireland has become a country of the establishment. In Ireland, citizens, that is the voters, are consulted every four or five years at the time of a general election. However, institutions that are part of, or close to, the State have regular and daily access to Ministers, power and Government decision-making. In fact, many Departments even pay these organisations to provide them with advice. Is it any wonder then that the system is stacked against the ordinary man and woman?

Today, and every day, Irish people are hammered by the Government's approach to taxation. The marginal rate of tax, PRSI and USC on average workers now rests at 52%, while on the other hand the rate of corporation tax is 12.5%. This represents a difference of nearly 40 percentage points and contrasts with Germany, where an average worker pays 28% in income tax and corporation tax is 26%. In Germany, the same loopholes do not exist for large corporations and investment funds to evade paying tax while in Ireland, these loopholes mean that large investment funds, corporations and cuckoo funds pay little or no tax at all. Google, one of the world's richest companies, was facilitated to move €63 billion in profit out of Ireland in 2019 and pay €263 million in taxes, thus representing an effective tax rate of 0.4%. This means that for every €100 earned by Google it paid 40 cents in tax, but out of every €100 earned by the average worker in Ireland in 2019 he or she paid a staggering €52 in tax.

It is obvious what is going on. One does not need to be a scientist to see who is getting special treatment here. It is an utter disgrace of gigantic proportions to see the deep rot and hugely significant issues that are conveniently never debated in this House. This needs to change. The Government needs to come clean here. Successive Governments have turned a blind eye to this behaviour and conveniently swept it under the carpet. That does not resemble a socially just or democratic country. These are not the values that our founding fathers fought for, those men and women who were brave and some of whom paid the ultimate price. They were patriots and selfless men and women. They certainly did not pay the ultimate price to allow, 100 years on, constant exploitation by foreign multinational corporations and to see our people punished and abused in that way. As I said earlier, we celebrate them and we should live up to their ideals and standards.

I always have to fundamentally disagree with this label "the establishment". Every Deputy in this House is elected at every general election. I have equal respect for all Deputies by dint of the fact that they have been elected. It is too easy a label to throw out there and it is deliberately done to undermine people, when we have a strong, functioning democracy in Ireland compared to other countries. We also continue to reform our Parliament and we facilitate a whole range of groups in society to access parliamentarians, to influence policy formulation and to advocate for their interests. There are aspects of our system that continually need reform but we should always affirm the strengths of Irish democracy as the world becomes more authoritarian.

Regarding taxation, I do not know whether the Deputy is saying that 12.5% for multinationals is too low or is wrong as part of a wider model. When he speaks about those who lost their lives or fought in the War of Independence, I often think of Seán Lemass who was 16 years of age when he was in the General Post Office, GPO, in 1916. He is a person worth studying in terms of how his life evolved. He was an internationalist, he believed in joining international rules-based organisations and he was way ahead of his time in supporting access to the Common Market. In the early 1960s he could see what was coming downstream and he wanted to prepare Ireland for it. He did much work to get Ireland ready to join the EU, which is probably one of the best things this country ever did. I am particularly proud of Fianna Fáil's role in leading Ireland into the EU because it turned us from being an inward, insular island into a far more outward economy. We have benefited significantly because of our membership of the EU on so many fronts.

On the foreign direct investment model, over the past 50 years, since we decided to look outwards, we have attracted some of the best manufacturing facilities to Ireland, whether it is the Intels, Hewlett Packards or Apples of this world or the pharmaceuticals. Only this week, Pfizer announced that mRNA vaccine technology will come to Ireland to be manufactured in Grange Castle. That places Ireland at the centre of the manufacturing of vaccine substances which can be used in Europe and all over the world because it is the fastest way to get vaccines out across the world. That model will change over time and the OECD is looking at the broader framework governing corporate taxation. However, it has worked for Ireland as a small island, which has to compete with other big players in the economic field. We have attracted thousands of good-quality jobs in the farming and technology industries as well as the digital sector.

I accept that multinationals came here back in the 1980s and 1990s; they were in Clonmel. Merck Sharp and Dohme and other companies are doing great work. I am saying that 40 years on we need to review taxation. Why is the ordinary worker only paying 26% in Germany and 52% here? There are no tax havens for those multinational companies in Germany because they respect its people. We had a different issue regarding Germany last week.

The Taoiseach mentioned Seán Lemass. He and his Government colleagues bear no resemblance to those fine men and women of 1916 and 1921. None whatsoever. They have sold out to the EU. We see that with fisheries. Deputy Michael Collins has apologised for his absence from the House as he is standing this morning with the fishermen in Cork. We see it with our agricultural policy, as Deputy Verona Murphy referenced. The Government is beholden to Europe and anybody that keeps it in power. All these organisations have too much access to the Taoiseach and his Ministers. The OECD has questions to answer as well. We need to come clean, open our eyes, be fair to our people and treat them with respect. The Taoiseach is some man to lecture about good democracy when he has trampled on democracy for the past 14 months and will do so again today by voting for more draconian measures. He has some cheek.

The Irish taxation system is one of the more progressive, globally. Those who earn the most, pay the most. The overall taxation framework in Germany is much more onerous than is the case here if one takes all the social insurance and contributions that have to be made into account. The Deputy is not comparing like with like there. If he is advocating that we leave the EU, I disagree with him. We have to work for a stronger EU into the future in the context of global challenges, the most recent being the cybersecurity attack on the country and its health service. Whether it is climate change, energy efficiency or working together, if we work collectively with others, Europe will provide us with the most effective way out. There is also, of course, the trading and selling of goods and services into a huge market, which is significant for Irish companies. They create jobs by selling the goods they make and services they provide into that market.