Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tens of thousands of people have gone back to work this month and many more will go back in the weeks ahead as restrictions are lifted. This is very good news because people need and want to be back at work. Their enthusiasm to return was demonstrated last year when 400,000 went back to work as restrictions were lifted. Workers do not want to be on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. They, and indeed all of us, hope such supports will be required and necessary only for the shortest possible time. The reality is that, come September, some people will still be locked out of work due to public health restrictions. Among them will be those in aviation, hospitality and events, those whose jobs depend on international travel and those in many other sectors. That is why the Taoiseach's decision to start cutting the PUP by instalments of €50 from September is premature and deeply unfair.

It has always been understood that when the Government stops people from going back to their place of employment, for good public health reasons, it has a responsibility to support them. It seems now, however, that the Government has chosen to pull the rug from under the workers. I heard a woman on the radio last week who said she remained locked out of work despite the reopening. She described her experience and said that for the first six months of lockdown, her family availed of the mortgage break and that when that went, the family tapped into their savings. Now that money is gone too. How on earth is it fair to say to this woman or thousands of workers like her who will not be back at work in September and may not be allowed back until next year that their supports are going to be cut? The Taoiseach is walking away from his responsibility to these workers and their families. He will cut their income, in effect, by one third. That is absolutely huge. It is the difference between them just getting by for the next few months and not doing so.

For the vast majority, the need for the PUP will fall away naturally as sectors reopen. That is what the evidence tells us but the Taoiseach's decision to cut the PUP ensures those who remain locked out of work will be made poorer. They still have to pay their mortgages, rent, childcare fees and utility bills but they will be abandoned by the Government when they are at the end of their tether. What happened to "We are all in this together", as was the slogan of the Government? The Taoiseach promised no cliff edge but cliff edges mean nothing to those who are relying on every single euro. To slash payments by €50 a go is devastating when workers are prevented from working.

What the Taoiseach now proposes is a mirror of the plan he wanted to introduce in January but it was the wrong approach then and it is the wrong approach now. His approach to this matter sends out a signal that the recovery he envisages is one that is unfair and leaves people behind. Let us not go down that road again. I ask the Taoiseach not to press ahead with these cuts and to ensure that full support will remain in place for those workers who are prevented from going to work for as long as they are prevented from doing so.

First of all, I agree with the Deputy in terms of the good news in recent weeks that people are returning to work in considerable numbers. We have been in a position to do this through our management of the pandemic and though a successful and efficiently run vaccination programme which is having a dramatic impact on the severity of illness in society from the virus and on reducing death and hospitalisation and numbers in intensive care. The efficient national vaccination effort is enabling us to return to economic growth and recovery and to bring people back to work.

What we announced today in terms of extending the schemes is a continuation of that economic recovery story. We have fulfilled our commitment in terms of not having a cliff edge. The employment wage subsidy scheme supports 315,000 workers. We are extending that to Christmas. The whole idea is to support enterprise and to enable enterprises that retain jobs to stay viable and keep jobs going in the economy.

We are doing the same with the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme extension with enhanced restart payments of three weeks at a double rate. This will be significant for people in hospitality, for example, and in other sectors. This significant restart grant really gives people a fighting chance not only in maintaining the employment they have maintained under the supports they have got from Government but by increasing employment in the coming weeks. We know that more and more people will come off the pandemic unemployment payment during the summer months. We are extending the pandemic unemployment payment out to September. Then, gradually, we are easing out of that up to February 2022.

We are not just doing that. All of that is in parallel with an unprecedented work activation programme with substantial funding being allocated to reskilling training programmes, upskilling programmes, education places, increased apprenticeships and increased internship programmes. There will be more placements available in the public service for many people and investment in research to create a new approach and new orientations within the economy. We will use the funding we are receiving from the recovery and resilience fund in Europe not only to invest in the human capital side and in people but also to create new jobs in retrofitting and public transport. This is what we are going to do with the railway project for Cork, which will be significant in terms of leveraging other economic and employment opportunities there. That is one example. Another is the new facility in Beggar's Bush. The new Department building there is a pathway finder building. It will be state-of-the-art in terms of emissions reduction and so on. This is an imaginative programme designed to prepare the country for recovery in the coming period and to start growing jobs in new sectors like the green economy and digital transformation. It is about giving the supports to aviation that are required and about clarity in direction of travel in terms of the reopening of international travel and the events industry. Significant supports are in place for musicians under the music entertainment business assistance scheme. This will support musicians in wedding bands or those who perform in smaller live venues. We are initiating a basic income pilot scheme for artists.

This is a significant comprehensive agenda ultimately with a view that by 2024 we will have 2.5 million people in jobs. That will exceed the numbers of people in employment before the pandemic. The broader objective of Government is to create opportunities for people to return to work.

Be that as it may, the Taoiseach will acknowledge that come September there are workers who will not be returned to work and who will not be in a position to get back to work. The Taoiseach knows that. The economy will not be operating at full tilt by September. The Taoiseach knows that. Yet, the Government is choosing to cut the supports that these workers and their families rely on. Everybody wants to get back to work as quickly as possible. However, the State and the Government have to make provision for the section of workers who will not have returned by September or even during the course of this year, including workers in aviation, events and hospitality.

It is wrong and unfair to punish those workers who cannot return to work because of a public health emergency. I again put it to the Taoiseach that the fair thing to do is for this Government to tell every worker that we want them to return to work quickly and safely but also to support them for as long as they cannot return to work because of the public health emergency. I invite the Taoiseach to do that rather than to cut the very support these people need to survive and which they will need through September. Many of them will rely on it until the end of the year.

As I said earlier, hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and guesthouses will open again tomorrow. This will create jobs and get people back to work. Next week, restaurants, pubs and other facilities will open. All of that will help. Last February, approximately 481,000 people were on the pandemic unemployment payment. This figure has already decreased to 334,000 and it will continue to decrease over the summer months. We have extended the pandemic unemployment payment until September.

The Government will then cut it.

The Deputy and her party's spokespeople agreed that it would have to be phased out. Deputy Doherty is on the record as saying that. No one expected emergency pandemic payments to remain forever. We now want to allocate resources elsewhere. We will help everybody who has difficulty getting a job as we move into the latter half of 2021. Very substantial resources are being put into upskilling provision in terms of places in further education, apprenticeships and third level education. The thousands of workers who have been supported through the employment wage subsidy scheme should also not be forgotten.

There are many positive things in today's plan, particularly the supports for small businesses, which are critical in creating employment. Will the Taoiseach address the issue of people who have lost their jobs as a result of the Covid pandemic? He has repeatedly promised that there will be no cliff edge when it comes to the withdrawal of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, yet today he has announced that there will be such a cliff edge. No matter what level of restrictions are in place across the country in September, payments will be reduced by €50. A further reduction of €50 will occur in November and a final reduction of €50 in February. In total, this amounts to a massive 40% cut to an already meagre payment. This is the very definition of a cliff edge. The Government has chosen an arbitrary date and determined to cut people's payments, no matter what the public health advice is at that time and no matter what jobs are or are not available. These payments are a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs were casualties of the pandemic.

Experience tells us that, when businesses reopen, people will go back to work. They do not want to remain on the PUP longer than they have to. Last year, 400,000 people closed their PUP claims once the economy partially reopened. Since this payment was introduced more than a year ago, just 3,000 complaints have been made to the Department of Social Protection by employers alleging that staff were reluctant to return to the workforce. That is 3,000 out of more than 600,000 people, or 0.5%. The Department has also clarified that the vast majority of those 3,000 cases did not involve any misclaiming. Why then has the Taoiseach done what he has sworn he would not do? Why has he created a cliff edge for those in receipt of this payment, a cliff edge which will undoubtedly lead many more into poverty?

As the economy opens up over the summer months - a reopening that everyone in this House hopes will be very successful - the numbers in receipt of the PUP will significantly reduce naturally. There is no evidence that this payment is being abused or that people are preferring to claim the PUP rather than return to work. Despite this, the Taoiseach's Government has introduced a cliff edge in September, when there will be an initial 15% cut which, as I have said, will grow to 40%. A reduction of that magnitude will cause serious financial problems for those people who can least afford it. It has been a very tough year for everyone but especially for those who have been forced out of their jobs because of the pandemic. They have now been told by this Government that their meagre income will be slashed in September, even if the business in which they work has not reopened.

This announcement will cause serious stress and anxiety among a large cohort of people, many of whom are barely keeping their heads above water. Why has the Government broken its promise and introduced a cliff edge for the PUP?

I disagree fundamentally with the Deputy. We have not introduced a cliff edge. The opposite is the case. We have extended the PUP to September, following which there will be a phasing out of it out to next February, which will be second anniversary of the introduction of the payment. By then the payment will have been in place for two years. It was originally introduced for 12 weeks. That was the original timeframe the then Government put in place for the PUP. The pandemic has lasted much longer than that, obviously.

We want to create employment opportunities for people. I agree 100% that people want to work. There is no suggestion by Government or anybody that there is any abuse of the payment. Rather, we are saying that we now have to reorientate the economy and reallocate and target resources for growth and for economic recovery. That means creating substantial funding for work placement programmes, training programmes, education and higher education. For example, we want to create new jobs in retrofitting in the private sector in private housing, but also in the public sector through direct grants. We will need skill sets to enable us to do that comprehensive programme for retrofitting across the country in terms of our housing stock. People will have to retrain and reskill to do that type of work.

Likewise, a substantial allocation will be provided for the re-wetting of bogs. There will be new opportunities in the economy. It is about what we do now as we emerge from the pandemic and people naturally come off the PUP, as they will, and are, in significant numbers. It should be remembered that all the while we are supporting workers in employment as well through extensions of the employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme. The orientation of the plan is to support workers to retain the jobs they are in and are currently being subsidised and to give companies a fighting chance to retain those jobs and enhance them, and, by enhancing them, recruit people.

I will make one final point. Deputy McDonald made the point that Government has stopped people from going to work. The Government has not stopped anybody from going to work; the Covid-19 virus has stopped people from going to work and it caused the most severe and rapid recession since the wars across the world. Government has responded comprehensively to this pandemic and in a very effective way. We have underpinned income and jobs to the best of its ability and we will continue to do that, but we are moving into a new phase in economic recovery. That new phase involves the targeting and allocation of resources that can create new opportunities in new sectors of the economy, and, crucially, more support for sectors, such as aviation, tourism, the arts and live events, in the coming months, which is what we are doing in the allocation of resources.

The Taoiseach spoke about other sectors. The investment in other sectors is welcome, but it is not going to help people who will be unable to get a job by next February. Those people lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The Taoiseach has accepted that it will not be possible to reboot the economy by next February. What the is he saying to those people who will not get their jobs back by next February? He is saying to them that they can sustain a cut of 40% in their already low income. The Taoiseach will know from the studies that have been done that the basic social welfare payment is not sufficient to maintain any kind of life of dignity, yet the Government, by its actions, is forcing those people onto the breadline. What is the justification for cutting people's incomes by 40% when many of the jobs that were lost will not be reinstated by next February? We hope many new jobs will be created, but it is undoubtedly the case that there will be still high levels of unemployment among those people who have lost their jobs. What is the Government offering those people who cannot get a job by next February? At the moment, all it is offering them is a 40% cut in pay and that is going to drive them into poverty.

By the Deputy's own admission, hundreds of thousands of people came off the PUP last year and so I think she is overstating the case. The same will happen this year. I do not accept that people currently on the PUP will not be able to get a job in the economy in the coming months. I think there will be a significant recovery.

Sustaining it for the medium term is what the plan is about. It is not just about the immediate sort of bounceback that will happen in some sectors. It is also about maintaining that for the medium term. That is why we are allocating resources to new sectors. It is to give added funding to sectors that can create new jobs, economic activity and economic momentum, which is very important, and to underpin all of that with training and reopening the economy, as we have been doing over the past number of weeks. Construction, full retail and personal services are back. Tomorrow, hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast accommodation are back. The vaccination programme will continue to be rolled out. We look forward to restaurants and pubs reopening next week and further openings in July, all of which will create employment opportunities and facilitate people naturally coming off the pandemic unemployment payment.

One of the weekend newspapers billed the Government's reopening measures as "going for broke". I sincerely hope that was not a pun and that the plan will succeed. I have been quite critical of some of the Government measures. The Taoiseach has never taken any responsibility for some of those measures and has always said it is because of Covid that this, that or the other has closed. On the other hand, he has said we have fared better than other countries. He has taken the credit but not the downside.

I have long argued that I would have preferred to see fewer restrictions on society and the economy generally and more targeted interventions. One area in particular that needed targeted interventions was the nursing home sector and, in fairness, the Government provided the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, for the sector. However, we are learning now that in conjunction with the measures the Government is announcing, it is simultaneously taking away that temporary assistance to nursing homes. I accept that the scheme is temporary but, equally, it is essential. The threat in general has not subsided and the threat has not subsided for nursing homes in particular. We know congregated settings are a risk, whether that be direct provision centres, where there was an outbreak in Ennis last week, meat factories, where there are continuing risks and outbreaks or, indeed, nursing homes. There was an outbreak very recently in Marymount nursing home in Cork, in the Taoiseach's constituency, notwithstanding that all the staff and residents are vaccinated.

Continuing measures are necessary in nursing homes and in congregated settings more generally. If that is not funded through the TAPS, how will it be funded? We all accept that we cannot go back to the situation as it was before and that there had to be a change in practices in nursing homes. I very much welcome that change. The committee I chaired recommended a systemic change away from reliance on nursing homes towards care in the community. In conjunction with that committee, the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, set up a nursing home expert panel. The Government has not implemented any of the recommendations of the committee I chaired or the expert panel, yet, at the same time, it is taking away the supports nursing homes currently have to introduce safer practices. How are nursing homes to pay for this? If not through the TAPS, will there will be an increase in the amount they are paid through the fair deal scheme? We all accept that greater measures have to be taken and those measures must be paid for.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. We will have to agree to disagree in terms of the issue around the imposition of restrictions in society. The measures we have taken overall have resulted in fewer deaths in Ireland and less severe illness than in other countries that took a different approach. Ultimately, the role of Government is to protect lives and public health to the very best of its ability.

In terms of the nursing homes scheme, and the TAPS in particular, the first point I have to make is that the results from the vaccination programme have been very significant in terms of nursing homes, with a reduction almost to the point of elimination of severe disease in nursing homes, among both staff and residents. The serial testing is revealing that and new protocols for visiting nursing homes have been introduced as a result.

That has been very positive and needs to be acknowledged. The Government has allocated very substantial resources under TAPS. It provides contributions to nursing homes towards the cost of maintaining isolation rooms and provided a one-off contribution towards temporary visiting infrastructure during winter 2020. Over 6,675 claims have been processed and approved since 10 May. Approximately €93.9 million in direct financial support will be provided to the sector in 2021, with €42 million provided so far. That is a very substantial allocation of resources.

In addition to TAPS, the HSE has provided other enhanced measures to support nursing homes and their residents in the context of Covid-19: the Covid response teams, access to PPE and oxygen, support for staff accommodation, access to training and the serial testing programme. As Deputy McNamara will know, priority vaccination was provided to nursing homes and the uptake has been extraordinary. I think it is at nearly 99%. The strong vaccine effect is very evident in the nursing homes, with huge reductions, as I have said, in the numbers of cases and outbreaks and in mortality.

Essentially, we are now into a different phase of the pandemic as we speak. The vaccination programme is having an impact. There are consequences to that as we move forward and allocate resources in a more targeted manner. Again, the Government will be there to support nursing homes. At the time of the introduction of TAPS, our nursing homes were in a far different position in respect of Covid-19. The outbreaks that were occurring are no longer occurring at all or in no way to the same extent or frequency. TAPS was part of a wider suite of supports. We should now evaluate and take lessons from the pandemic as to how in the medium term we can ensure a more supportive environment for nursing homes.

The Taoiseach did a good job of outlining what TAPS supported, and I welcome that, but how will that be supported now? He says there will be supports. I am told that nursing homes that have contacted Ministers in the Government have been told that if there is an outbreak moneys will be made available, but the point of all this is to avoid outbreaks, in particular those in congregated settings. Notwithstanding the high take-up of vaccines, there are still outbreaks, unfortunately. They are fewer in number and their consequences are lesser, I accept, but we need to avoid the outbreaks and their consequences. The Taoiseach talked about lessons being learned. We will have to look at the spread of Covid-19 in healthcare settings and congregated settings. I think a tribunal will have to be considered to look at the earlier deaths in nursing homes in particular and whether people were sent home or sent into nursing homes from acute hospitals with Covid. How will nursing homes fund the measures that continue? Yes, the risk is lesser but it is still greatest among a certain cohort, and funding needs to be provided in that regard.

The supports have been very extensive. That needs to be said because very quickly they get read into the narrative and taken for granted. They have been exceptional supports because the pandemic has created a need for exceptional supports. As we get situations under control, however, the same level of supports will not be sustainable in many areas. We can work to support nursing homes in the event of any outbreaks, for example, such that assistance would be available to a nursing home in an outbreak.

The vaccination programme has had a very significant impact in bringing the situation within nursing homes under control. This does mean that we have to reconsider both the level and scale of supports if the situation comes under control in any given environment or situation. The more important point is the medium-term relationship between the State and the private nursing home sector, how it will evolve now and how we learn lessons from the pandemic in respect of that relationship.

I wish to speak about the very sensitive issue of suicide and the effect it has on the people in our country and their families, friends and neighbours.

Sadly and tragically, more than 4,000 people have died through suicide in the past eight years. We have seen changes in that time and I thank the current and past Governments for the efforts that have been made and the moneys that have been invested in psychiatric services. Of course, we could be critical and say that more should be done, but I want to go through the positives of what we have been trying to do and highlight what we need to do to try to save more lives, which is what I want to achieve by having this debate with the Taoiseach in an open and frank way.

There is an onus of responsibility on each of us throughout political parties and the Independents. We have a job of work to do, that being, to try to save people in every way we can. Unfortunately, I have seen a new issue arising in my own county and across the border into County Cork, that is, the tragic deaths of mothers of young families, including in recent months, leaving families devastated. This has concentrated my mind on the issue. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to serve for many years on a psychiatric services committee on the old Southern Health Board. I like to think that I learned a great deal about mental illness in all its shapes and forms. I commend organisations like Pieta House on its Darkness into Light fundraiser, through which it has raised millions of euro in recent years; the Samaritans; local GPs; counsellors; and people who do their best.

I wish to speak about young people, who face a new problem, that is, online bullying and social media. This brings new challenges. The Ceann Comhairle will respect the way I wish to deal with this matter, as I will not mention a specific case, names or the like. Recently, there was an event in our courts system where a person who told untruths online was punished financially for doing so. We need to see more of that. We need to see more challenges being taken against keyboard warriors, these bullies who are intent on intimidating people. I know that, when I sit down this evening, I will receive a text message or another message from a particular individual who has taken it upon himself or herself in recent years to get on my back. I do not give a damn about this person because I am able for that type of abuse, but what about younger people who have to put up with such nonsense? It might tip them over the edge on a bad day.

First of all, I thank the Deputy for the question and for the very constructive and non-partisan manner in which he has raised the issue. This is an extremely important issue that always has to command the full attention of the House across all political persuasions. Families and communities the length and breadth of the country have been affected by suicide. It is important to continue to raise awareness and to speak openly about mental health. That is important within our education curriculum and outside of our education curriculum.

The Connecting for Life strategy is Ireland's national suicide reduction strategy. It aims to reduce suicide and self-harm rates across society and in priority groups. We have the National Office for Suicide Prevention within the HSE. It was established to co-ordinate suicide reduction efforts around the country and to implement the strategy. Funding has increased on an annual basis, but it is not just about funding alone. It is about the proper delivery of services and co-ordination. Suicide prevention funding would have gone up progressively from about €3 million ten years ago to about €13 million or so now. Also, the National Office for Suicide Prevention works with the non-governmental and community sector in particular and with the HSE in an advisory role. About 20 partner non-governmental organisations are involved and 54% of the funding would go to those non-governmental organisations - groups like Pieta House, the Samaritans, Suicide or Survive and the Family Resource Centres.

It has been a while coming, but about 24 of the 26 emergency departments now have access to a mental health professional at all times, I am informed, through liaison mental health services based in acute hospitals or the national clinical programme for the management of self-harm in emergency departments.

That is important. In addition, prior to the pandemic, community mental health teams provided access to a seven-day per week mental health service. This is still in place and available for existing mental health service users in a blended format in compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. The seven-day telehealth service includes the crisis text line 50808, yourmentalhealth.ie, the information line 1800111888 and NGO partners' online supports.

Access and traffic to all of those services has increased during the Covid-19 period and we have an extra obligation to do more now during this period and its aftermath to support people, and young people in particular. That is why an education and well-being initiative, as part of funding that was allocated in the return of schools during the Covid-19 period, is focusing on the mental well-being of young people.

The main message to get out of this debate is that no one should ever need to feel alone. It is making the connection between the person who is at a critical time in his or her life and making it easier for him or her, whether that is through the local GP, calling the Samaritans, or calling a friend, but also accessing the services that are there that the Government is funding. It is about making a person feel in this country that there is no need to feel lost or alone. You can put up your hand, dial your phone or call out for help and that help is there.

Every one of us, and especially politicians because we are quite simply dealing with so many people every day of the week, should be looking out for people’s mental health as well as for all of the other aspects of their lives that we try to positively impact upon. We should be on our guard because if by doing our work properly we can save any people going through the torture and anguish that is suicide, it would be a job very well done. It is an onus and responsibility that each of us have, which we should take very seriously and conscientiously.

I agree 100% with what the Deputy said. We always have to watch out for the vulnerabilities in others and be alert and aware. As he said earlier, we should be open in talking about mental health and about suicide but also in letting people know, which I consistently say to young people, that they should be kinder to each other. In life, people should be kinder to each other than is often the case and the Deputy referenced that in his earlier remarks. It is very important in a group or crowded setting to be very conscious that not everybody may be happy at a given, particular point in time or in a good position. We then have to provide supports in the access to GPs, community health teams, or a mental health professional within the community, which the Deputy has referred to.

My view, having been in the Department of Health quite some time ago, is we need to continue to strengthen the community health teams across the length and breadth of the country. In speaking to some senior psychiatrists and to people who have been involved in mental health service provision for years, they felt that we were overly institutionalised as a country, overly focused on the acute phase of mental illness and less so on the community side. We need to build up strong community mental health teams.

I thank the Taoiseach and I also thank Deputy Healy-Rae for raising that important issue. It might also be appropriate for me to remind Members present that support services for the Oireachtas community are available should Members or staff require them. The truth is that none of us are impervious to online abuse or constant misrepresentation, which many people experience.