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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 4

Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The Bill provides a legislative basis for a number of changes to the main Covid supports that have been announced by the Government and are being implemented by the Revenue Commissioners at the moment on an administrative basis. I am using the opportunity of the Bill to include a number of other financial items that require legislative solutions. One of these is to ensure the pandemic special recognition payment of €1,000 to be paid for or on behalf of the Minister for Health will be tax free. I will return to this and other items in a moment.

It is my hope and expectation that this will be the last Bill I will bring forward with the phrase "Covid-19" in the Title. When the pandemic struck two years ago, we quickly brought in emergency legislation, namely, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 to provide various supports for businesses, including the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. The Government allowed a significant increase in public debt to absorb the fallout from the pandemic. The prudent management of the public finances in the years preceding the pandemic allowed this. However, as we look beyond the pandemic, even with the latest significant challenge we face with regard to the war in Ukraine, we need to again be careful with the public finances and begin to put the debt ratio on a downward path, and, therefore, the necessary supports that we put in place are coming to an end. The ending of these supports has been well flagged and I have kept my promise that there would be no cliff edge to the withdrawal of supports.

The labour force survey has shown the economy has rebounded quickly as businesses reopened. Employment increased by almost 225,000 in 2021 and the total number employed is very close to the target of 2.5 million people at work that was set out in the economic recovery plan last year. The Exchequer figures last week were also positive. They showed that tax receipts continue to record strong growth in the opening months of this year. Although the annual comparisons are flattering due to a number of factors, the underlying trends are a good signal of the continued momentum in the domestic economy.

As we hopefully leave the great challenge of Covid behind us, there are now other exceptionally serious developments to be faced, most notably the awful situation and horrendous war in Ukraine. The discussion of the Bill is not the time to speak about that or the response of the Government to the emerging situation there. However, it does show that while recent trends have been positive, we cannot be complacent. For example, we are already seeing, and responding to, the effects higher prices are having in the economy and households.

Part of the restoration of public finances will involve the removal of supports for businesses as they reopen and no longer need them. and the Bill includes a number of final adjustments to these supports. The TWSS was introduced on 26 March 2020. It was replaced by the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, on 1 September 2020. The EWSS was provided for in the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Act 2020. It provided an economy-wide support and has been extended and amended on a number of occasions. The Finance Act 2020 introduced the enhanced rates of subsidy with effect from 20 October 2020 to 31 January 2021. The enhanced rates were extended to 31 March 2021 by ministerial order. There was a further extension of EWSS with the enhanced rates of subsidy to 30 June 2021, by way of ministerial order. Then, as part of the Government’s economic recovery plan, the EWSS was extended to 31 December 2021 by the Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021. Those arrangements were subsequently enhanced as part of an announcement on 9 December 2021.

Section 2 provides for further enhancements in response to the evolving public health situation. First, the scheme was reopened for certain businesses that would not otherwise be eligible as announced on 21 December 2021. Second, enhanced support would be provided to businesses that were directly impacted by the public health regulations introduced in late December 2021, with a delay in the step-down arrangements for such firms that will continue to receive support until 31 May. As Members will be aware, the EWSS has played a central role in supporting businesses, encouraging employment and helping to maintain the link between employers and employees. It has now helped 719,900 employees.

The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, was introduced by the Finance Act 2020. Section 4 gives a legislative basis for the final change announced in response to the public health restrictions in December last. It provides for an increase in the turnover reduction criteria from no more than 25% of 2019 turnover to no more than 40%. It was also made available to newer businesses during the period 13 October to 26 July. In addition, certain charities and sporting bodies that carry on similar trading activities to businesses became eligible to apply for CRSS in the most recent period of restrictions, that is, from December 2021 to January 2022.

Tax debt warehousing was introduced in 2020 by the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Act 2020. As announced in January last year, the Government has agreed that the period when tax liabilities arising can be warehoused will be extended to 30 April 2022 for all businesses eligible for Covid-19 support schemes. This will allow businesses that have been most impacted additional time to recover before their tax liabilities have to be paid. Their period of zero interest will, therefore, commence from 1 May 2022 until 30 April 2023, with interest at the reduced rate of 3% payable thereafter until the debt is paid down. This extension is provided for in sections 5 to 10, inclusive.

Section 11 relates to the Government decision of 21 January to waive the excise duty associated with court fees in respect of applications for special exemption orders until 30 April.

As I stated, there are a number of additional matters I am using the Bill to deal with.

The Government has agreed to give a recognition payment of €1,000 tax free to eligible front-line health and ambulance workers. An equivalent payment will be provided for relevant staff in private sector nursing homes and hospices that were affected by Covid-19. The payment recognises the dedication and commitment of these staff during this extraordinary period and ensures the payment will not be subject to income tax, universal social charge, USC, or PRSI.

With regard to stamp duty, Deputies will recall in 2021, as part of the Government’s response to the bulk-purchasing of residential properties by commercial institutional investors, a higher 10% rate of stamp duty on multiple purchases of residential properties was introduced. Section 12 makes a further amendment to address a further social and affordable housing issue in the context of the 10% stamp duty charge, namely, cost rental. In summary, it is proposed to make provision for a partial repayment scheme for properties designated as cost-rental dwellings by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage under Part 3 of the Affordable Housing Act 2021 within six months of their acquisition. What this means in practical terms is that qualifying taxpayers will get a refund of the difference between the 10% rate and the normal stamp duty rate which in most instances will be 1%. The beneficiaries of this amendment will be those involved in the delivery of cost-rental homes at scale and includes approved housing bodies, such as the Land Development Agency and local authorities.

With regard to the tax treatment of payments made under the proposed voluntary Brexit whitefish fleet decommissioning scheme, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine received the final report of the seafood task force, focused on navigating change, last October. In line with the recommendations of the report the Minister has proposed compensating fishers to voluntarily decommission fishing vessels in order to rebalance and maintain sustainability of the Irish fishing fleet in light of transfers of quota shares to the UK under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement that has a significant negative impact on the fishing opportunities available to the Irish fleet. Section 13 will provide for the tax treatment of payments made under the scheme.

Finally, section 14 makes provision for the funding of the Central Bank central mechanism for information on safe-deposit boxes and bank and payment account and in the operation of the register of beneficial ownership of certain financial vehicles, which are required as part of the transposition of EU anti-money laundering directives.

This Bill provides a legislative basis for the changes to various support schemes for businesses that were announced in December and January last as well as a number of matters I have outlined. It underlines the responsiveness of the Government to the needs of businesses for supports while remaining cognisant of the need to prudently manage and restore the public finances.

I am also announcing a temporary reduction in the excise rates for auto fuels. The Government recognises the impact felt by so many of the current fuel price increases. While these trends are driven primarily by global factors, I have taken the decision to alleviate some of the impacts through the domestic taxation of fuel. Effective from midnight tonight, there will be a reduction of 20 cent in the excise rate for petrol and 15 cent on auto diesel, with a proportionate 2 cent reduction for the excise on marked gas oil or green diesel. These measures are VAT inclusive and will last until 1 September. I will bring a Financial Resolution before the House later this evening to give immediate effect to these changes. These reductions are in addition to the extensive cost-of-living supports already announced this year, specifically the €200 energy credit, public transport fare reductions, fuel allowance increases, an enhanced drug payment scheme and bringing forward the working family payment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus táim buíoch díot freisin an deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an mBille seo inniu sa Dáil. Mar a dúirt an tAire féin, tá súil agam gurbh é seo an t-am deireanach a bheimid ag déileáil le reachtaíocht ó thaobh Covid-19 agus an gá a bhí ann le reachtaíocht sciobtha a thabhairt isteach le dhá bhliain anuas agus go bhfuilimid anois ar an taobh eile de. Den mhórchuid, tá súil agam gurbh é seo an píosa reachtaíochta deireanach a bheimid ag déileáil leis ach caithfimid fanacht faichilleach mar níl dabht ar bith go bhfuil Covid-19 go fóill sa phobal agus níl a fhios ag aon duine cén dóigh ar féidir leis an víreas seo a spré féin agus an dóigh a thiocfadh leis teacht go dtí cineál de mutation eile amach anseo. Caithfimid a bheith faichilleach ansin.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this financial legislation, which deals with the coronavirus pandemic. As the Minister said, we hope this is the last legislation on Covid-19 the House will deal with but we have to remain on our guard in respect of this because we know the virus is still in our community and in our midst. We cannot, therefore, accurately predict the mutation of the virus in the time ahead. Like all Members, I live in hope.

The Bill, in the main, provides for the Covid-19 financial measures that were put in place by the House and the Government following the outbreak of the Omicron variant. I will briefly address each of the measures, all of which Sinn Féin supported at the time and still supports now that they are being codified in legislation.

First, the Bill provides for the reopening of the employment wage subsidy scheme for businesses which would otherwise not have had access to the scheme at that time as they would not have been eligible and that such businesses can continue to be supported until the scheme expires. The legislation also provides certain businesses which are no longer eligible to reapply from 1 January of this year, a measure we proposed and supported. The Bill also provides for businesses that were directly impacted by public health measures introduced in December in response to the variant, such as the 8 p.m. closing time and the 50% capacity restriction, to be able to avail of enhanced rates for the month of February, with a more gradual and tapered step-down out of the scheme. Again, that is a measure we welcome.

Second, the Bill provides for changes to the Covid restrictions support scheme, whereby the turnover reduction criterion was raised from 25% to 40%. Newer businesses which were set up from October 2020 could also avail of the scheme, together with the inclusion of certain charities and organisations. It is important to acknowledge that under such schemes, the State provided crucial liquidity and support, without which we would have potentially entered a recession and would have definitely experienced a significant wave of job losses, most likely permanent. These schemes were necessary to save jobs and that is why such schemes were introduced by virtually all advanced economies. I note that such measures were not possible for many of the developing nations. Again, this reveals the cost of global inequality, with poor nations exiting the pandemic in a more fragile condition than they had entered it. As a nation, we must address this in the future.

Domestically, the EWSS provided support of over €7.6 billion. This is a huge figure when put into context and none of us thought it would be so high when we were dealing with the relevant legislation in those early days. The scheme supported 50,000 employers and 720,000 employees. In the main, this was money well spent. However, I regret that the necessary checks and balances were not in place to prohibit the excessive passing of public subsidies from taxpayers to shareholders in the form of dividend payments. This is a point I raised with the Minister even before he produced the scheme and it is unfortunate the matter was not dealt with.

Similarly, more than €700 million has been paid to businesses through the CRSS. Again this was vital and supported employment to ensure we were in a position to recover from the pandemic. As I have done on numerous occasions, I again commend Revenue on the swiftness with which it was able to establish this process in a very difficult and challenging time. Like the rest of us, Revenue staff were working under Covid-19 restrictions.

However, time and again, the Revenue Commissioners have shown themselves to be an excellent organisation that is able to respond to the requirements set by this House. I also commend the departmental officials on their work on both schemes. I know a massive effort went into this and I am sure they went beyond the call of duty in making sure that as many jobs, workers and people were supported in as timely a manner as possible.

This shows how agile and responsive the State can be in times of crisis. We must ensure that this agility and responsive State are a permanent feature here, not just something that happens at a time of pandemic when we are all worried about each other's health and safety and, indeed, the impact it has on the economy and on the well-being of society. It showed the capacity of the Revenue Commissioners to get support out to citizens in a speedy and targeted manner. While we are dealing with a finance Bill here, that was not unique to officials in the Department of Finance or the Revenue Commissioners. We also saw it in other Departments, such as the Department of Social Protection, as well as among front-line workers, health staff, hospitals, nursing homes and throughout society, where everybody put their shoulders to the wheel. Unfortunately, given the position today with a war in Ukraine, there is a lot to be asked again of the public as we deal with the consequences of that war, including a huge influx of people who are fleeing the war to our shores and the challenges that will bring.

Returning to the Bill, the tax debt warehousing scheme has been crucial to support the liquidity of businesses, and I welcome the extension of both the repayment dates and the interest-free period. Another measure relating to the pandemic that I must mention is the pandemic special recognition grant. It should be noted that the criteria for a qualifying individual who receives this grant are not included in the Bill but are instead delegated to the Minister for Health. We have been waiting for the details of this payment, including who will receive it and who will not. The criteria governing it have been discussed for many months now. The Government must clarify these details as healthcare workers have been waiting for a long time.

I will briefly talk about the miscellaneous provisions in the legislation, particularly those relating to stamp duty. The Minister knows well my strong views and the strong views of my party on the issue of stamp duty and how it is applied. It is applied at too low a rate. That is not surprising given that the Minister refused to even countenance this for many years until there was a public outcry and he could find nowhere else to hide on the matter. He introduced it at a rate of 10% and excluded apartments completely. That has allowed for the plunder of this city and others by these funds, which are snapping up apartments from under the noses of first-time buyers and renting them at exorbitant cost. Obviously, the Minister has provided sweetheart tax deals that mean they do not have to pay any tax on that rent also. This Bill deals with an exemption from even that low rate of tax. Where, for example, an investment fund bulk-purchases homes and they are subsequently designated cost-rental homes by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the fund will evade the 10% stamp duty surcharge that was introduced last year. There are a number of issues in this regard. First, the Affordable Housing Act 2021 is vague regarding the criteria for being designated a cost rental. There is no minimum period established in that legislation so it does not say whether it is six months, six years or 60 years. It does not say many other things, yet here there is a very clear criterion where the funds can avoid paying that stamp duty at even that low rate, if the Minister, and it is solely the responsibility of the Minister, designates a scheme, a housing estate or, indeed, a number of houses as cost rental.

This legislation is an example, in the month of March, of how we are able to deal with things that were introduced last year. It shows that there is flexibility, and not only flexibility but that where there is a willingness, there is a way to meet the needs of society. It is extremely unfortunate that the Minister has decided not to use that today, but has decided to bring forward a resolution that does not go to the limits of what he could do to reduce the cost of excise on motorists in respect of fuel, petrol and diesel. The Minister has completely ignored the plight of those who are trying to heat their homes, who face a €700 hike in home heating oil, and has decided not to reduce that excise by even 1 cent. That is deeply regrettable and shameful.

Mar a dúradh níos luaithe, tá súil againn gurb í seo an uair dheireanach a bheidh orainn déileáil le scéimeanna cosúil leo seo mar gheall ar Covid-19. As was mentioned previously, we all are hoping that this will be the last time that we have to deal with these Covid-related measures. Hopefully, we really are seeing the back of Covid-19.

This Bill will give legislative effect to the changes to certain Covid support schemes announced by the Government in December 2021 and January 2022. They were the changes announced in response to the most recent period of public health restrictions. The Bill deals with the changes to the CRSS, the EWSS, tax debt warehousing and so forth, but it also provides for the introduction of a new measure, the pandemic special recognition payment or what is more commonly known as the Covid bonus, which is what I wish to focus on. Its introduction is most certainly welcome. We all have recognised for a long time how difficult it has been for front-line healthcare workers during the pandemic. At a time people did not know much about, or have much information on, Covid-19, those workers were very much on the front line.

There has been concern about the scope of who qualifies and the fact that certain sectors are not included. People feel that it is too narrow. There is ongoing uncertainty about who will meet the criteria for this award. All Members will have been contacted about this by different people in their constituencies. As to the payment itself and how it will work, the Minister outlined that the Bill provides for an exemption from income tax, USC and PRSI in respect of the recognition payment made to specified categories of front-line healthcare workers up to a maximum of €1,000 per individual. However, as I said, many who worked on the front line appear to have been left behind. Family carers have been to the forefront in this pandemic and should be included in this payment. I have spoken to many carers who are bitterly disappointed that they appear to have been forgotten. As Ms Catherine Cox of Family Carers Ireland pointed out in a letter to The Irish Times last week, carers:

...went above and beyond the call of duty to protect the most vulnerable, and this risk must be rewarded. Over the course of the past two years, family carers saw services and supports for their loved ones depleted and, in many cases, eradicated. As a direct consequence, the State saved money.

Ms Cox contends that family carers save the State in excess of €20 billion every year. At present, there are 116,000 carers in receipt of the carer's support grant.

Many Members will have dealt with family carers during the pandemic in the past two years and we saw how they were affected. They experienced reduced respite hours and limited access to day care centres. I dealt with people whose children were unable to attend their schools. That had an impact. As a result, it increased the workload for all family carers. It also meant great hardship for all the families affected. The carer's role is 24-7, and, in some cases, it means exactly that because the carer has to stay awake during the night to mind the child. The carers had hoped to be recognised through this recognition payment.

Tá a fhios againn ar fad gur fhulaing na daoine is leochailí inár gcuid sochaí go hollmhór le linn na paindéime. Is dócha go bhfuil na daoine atá ag tabhairt aire dóibh lá i ndiaidh lae, daoine nach raibh seirbhísí acu le linn na paindéime mar gheall go raibh ar na seirbhísí sin dúnadh síos, cineál brónach nó curtha as nach bhfuil siad chun an €1,000 seo a fháil.

I welcome the extension of the tax warehousing arrangements for businesses impacted by the new restrictions that were introduced in December 2021.

This is a practical move and it will benefit many of the businesses affected by the severe but very short-term changes. More broadly, we need to look at the serious issue of hidden debt for SMEs and microbusinesses to ensure it does not hinder their recovery in the medium term.

Increased energy and fuel costs, a shortage of materials and goods, inflation and a host of other difficulties have hit businesses like a ton of bricks at what is the worst time, I am sure the Minister will agree. If SMEs and microbusinesses are going to have a chance of returning to profitability and getting out from under the current crises they are going to need to have this warehouse debt taken into consideration. I have spoken to many SMEs, microbusinesses and family businesses and they are concerned that on top of their hidden debt, such as warehouse tax debts and commercial rent arrears, fuel and energy costs and inflation are creating an unsustainable business environment. Warehouse tax debt currently stands at approximately €3.2 billion. This debt will have to be repaid with interest of 3% from next January. It is important the Government looks at the feasibility of repayments, the rate of interest, the length of repayments and other factors in the face of rising costs. Circumstances have changed and they continue to change on an hourly if not a daily basis.

We all agree SMEs are the backbone of our economy, especially in terms of employment and local employment. The fact they have this warehoused debt should be a concern for all of us. It might be a case the Government needs to look at this specific issue, assess the structures that could be put in place for businesses to recover and for people to re-enter employment as we move, unfortunately, from Covid into a new and growing crisis. Many businesses have suggested solutions such as repayment of tax debt over an elongated period or reduced interest rates that would ease the burden of tax liabilities and ensure they can survive in the current climate. However, as is ever the case in these situations, a two-way dialogue between business and the State will inevitably uncover the most workable solution for all parties. I encourage the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance to engage with businesses in this regard. Unfortunately, the current situation is radically different from that which prevailed a month ago.

Does the Minister agree that the EU fiscal rules need to be amended or at least suspended until 2024 given the inflation crisis and the impacts of the war that we see are growing? The effects of inflation and the war in Ukraine mean this option must be seriously considered. We are experiencing a fragile recovery, which was already threatened by consistently higher prices than forecast. Now we have the turmoil caused by the Russian attack on Ukraine. This brutal attack has rightly provoked sanctions from the EU and others. These sanctions are acknowledged as not being cost free for those of us living in the EU. Their impact on any recovery must be seriously considered.

The Covid recognition payment is provided for specifically in the Bill. The manner in which the payment has been dealt with has been shocking. The payment was dangled in front of workers at the coalface of the Covid crisis. Many were led to believe they would qualify for the bonus, and justifiably so given the rumblings and murmurs that were coming from Ministers. However, they were then told by a variety of Ministers they would not qualify and it would only be a select and small group of healthcare professionals, who are absolutely deserving, who would receive the payment. The way this was done was very unfair. The Government led workers right up the garden path. It should have been clear and upfront from the very start. It should have been straight with workers to tell them who would qualify, how they would qualify and when it would be paid instead of leaving all of these questions in the air.

People feel they were told they were going to qualify only then to be told they would not. This is very much true in the case of family carers. We all know the work they do. We see them in our constituency offices. More often, we speak to them on the phone because very often they cannot get out to visit us in our constituency offices. They deserve recognition for the additional work they have had to undertake in the past two years. Practically all supports were withdrawn. Carers were left very isolated. They really are the forgotten of our front-line workers. They protect our health service on an ongoing basis. If the Minister recalls, in March 2020, the cry from the Government and the Opposition benches was to protect the health services at all costs. These people did so. They absolutely protected the health services by staying inside and minding their loved ones on their own. The world of a family carer is very small. Their world got even smaller. The Minister should consider rewarding them because in their own way they were on the front line.

I will pick up from where Deputy O'Reilly left off. There has been some anxiety with how the Covid recognition payment has been managed. My colleague, Deputy Alan Kelly, first mooted the notion of a Covid recognition payment for all those who work in the health service in various roles. They worked very courageously, bravely and selflessly during the darkest days of the pandemic. They put themselves in harm's way. To the credit of the Minister and the Government they have introduced a scheme, although it has divided opinion. Inevitably, schemes such as this do. Sometimes it is difficult to know when and where to draw the line. Will the Minister confirm on the record in his response that the payment will be applied to all workers who work in sections 38 and 39 organisations and in residential disability services? I understand this is correct but there seems to be in my constituency among those I represent some confusion about this. I am pleased the scheme will not attract tax or USC. It is important the entire extent of the payment being made will find its way into the pockets of those healthcare workers who need it. It is an important recognition.

We are living through an incredible time in our history. Of that we have no doubt. We have experienced the most significant public health event of the past century with Covid-19, followed closely by war in Europe the nature of which we have not seen since the Second World War. We are living through an incredible period of history. History will record that the previous caretaker Government and this Government introduced phenomenal unprecedented measures to support our society and our economy through the darkest of times. History will also record the fact the House united in support of the measures proposed by the Minister and his colleagues, and that these measures have so effectively helped workers, businesses and society more general through an extraordinarily difficult period. It was important that the House and society united behind those measures in our battle against an unknown pandemic. I recall very well the long and late nights we had in here almost two years ago debating how we might approach Covid-19 and the types of supports we ought to introduce when we did not know the full extent of what we were dealing with. The country has by and large responded very well. That is to the credit of the Minister, the Government and everybody in the House.

Many of the supports introduced during Covid-19 were crucial in supporting jobs and businesses through a difficult period. The EWSS helped more than 719,000 employees and protected jobs, wages and businesses. It is not difficult to imagine where we would be if we did not have the extent of those supports available in our economy. With its continued presence for a period, there are a few things that need to be considered in the context of the wage subsidy scheme. I recall in previous months there were concerns about mortgage eligibility for those on the EWSS and tax liability issues for employees been paid through the EWSS and the TWSS. While the EWSS scheme is still operating, the Government must ensure these issues are dealt with and that employees who did not get to choose whether they were paid through the EWSS are not negatively impacted as a result from a tax point of view.

We have to hold onto the lessons we learned during the pandemic and not simply remove all vestiges of support all of a sudden. That could plunge businesses and employees back into a normal that never really worked in the first place. Since 2019, the Labour Party has been calling for a permanent form of wage subsidy scheme to be in our toolbox for dealing with crises in our economy. The EWSS worked by and large. It can continue to provide people with greater opportunities to train, upskill and grow.

As the reality of climate change worsens with each passing day, a permanent wage subsidy scheme with an appropriate retraining element could be a crucial tool in ensuring a just transition as we decarbonise our society. The Labour Party's own proposal for a permanent wage subsidy scheme would put the protection of workers, jobs and wages first by protecting State-subsidised employees from lay-offs and would ensure support was linked to prior earnings with compulsory employer top-ups. Importantly, the kinds of schemes we have been talking about would guarantee that each worker would have, for example, an individual retraining or upskilling plan to help improve productivity and prepare workers for potential new opportunities. We know only too well that, with the pace of change in our economy, many jobs we are familiar with now will be entirely obsolete in the not-too-distant future. That is a challenge facing our economy.

In October 2020, the OECD published a comparative report on Covid wage subsidy schemes. That study emphasised the need to "Promote training while on reduced working hours". This includes digital upskilling that could be tailored to individual needs and delivered remotely. Half of all Irish adults lack the digital skills needed to compete in the modern workplace, and in the two schemes we have had, there has not been any attempt to link wage support with in-work training and continuing professional development. When Covid threatened the economy, the Government made very important interventions. We have to learn our lessons with regard to how those wage subsidy schemes worked, how they could be placed on a more permanent footing, and how they could be tailored to meet some of the demands we will inevitably have in future.

My views on the question of the payment of dividends by firms that have benefited from the wage subsidy scheme have been on the record for a long time. The operation of certain schemes across the European Union essentially prohibited the payment of dividends to shareholders in companies benefiting from state largesse and support during the pandemic. We have consistently made the case that strict conditions for accessing cash support should have been introduced. These would have included a prohibition on the payment of dividends and bonuses by firms using the scheme and a prohibition on companies that operate from tax havens making use of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS.

As we know, it emerged late last year that, as we could have predicted, profitable multinational companies and profitable indigenous Irish companies that had received significant taxpayer support subsequently paid out millions in dividends to their shareholders. That was not illegal or unlawful. There was nothing in the legislation governing the wage subsidy schemes that prohibited it. However, that does not mean it sits well with me or with members of the public. Based on an approach I made to it, the Committee of Public Accounts has asked the Revenue Commissioners, the Minister's own Department and others for their views on this. It is important to establish those views, especially if we are to develop new wage subsidy schemes in the future to meet some of the challenges we will inevitably have in our economy.

Some very profitable companies that made use of the EWSS, thereby benefiting from State largesse, paid out dividends to shareholders while, in contrast, nearly half of all workers who availed of the TWSS have been hit with a double whammy of tax bills of up to €2,900 in addition to many seeing a significant cut to their pay packets. Last year, I called for these tax bills to be scrapped on a once-off basis and I am doing so again in light of the cost-of-living crisis we are facing. The Minister will recall that, in late 2020, the Government set aside considerable resources for a subsidy scheme to support tourism that went almost untapped. The resources were there to try to help people by means of scrapping those tax bills on a once-off basis but, unfortunately, Government chose not to do that.

I will now move on to the response to the cost-of-living crisis because it is important, when talking about all of the supports that were introduced to help combat the economic and social problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, to look again at the Government's response to the cost-of-living crisis. The Government acted very boldly and with ambition and courage in responding to Covid-19 but I do not believe as much courage has been targeted at the problem of the cost of living. There has not been as much innovative thinking. It seems we are back to normal and to an assumption that the market will resolve itself and that people will ultimately be fine. Notwithstanding the measures the Government has brought in, it is simply the case that people will have to suck it up and get through this as best as they can and that we will come out the other side.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, our principal concern is obviously for the people of Ukraine who are the victims of Vladimir Putin's illegal war and occupation of that sovereign nation. That should be our first concern, but Ireland and the Irish people are going to face very significant economic impacts and we need to be mindful of that. We already have an enormous challenge in respect of the cost of living, especially for low and middle-income workers. That is going to become even more complex in the coming period. We cannot anticipate precisely what is going to happen. Nobody can. However, we need to scenario plan at this time and to use the spectacular resources available to us because of the hard work of Irish workers, the nearly 2.5 million people who are at work. We need to target those resources where they are needed most. There needs to be some serious thinking from Government with regard to how to address those challenges.

I look forward to engaging later with the Minister on the financial resolution with a view to developing some alternative measures to assist workers and ordinary families through the worst of this crisis. We need to do everything we can to protect the living standards of the people at this very uncertain time. I will engage with the Minister constructively, as I always try to do and as will my Labour Party colleagues, over the coming period to try to develop solutions to those very serious challenges.

I support the Bill. It gives legislative effect to the changes to the Covid support schemes announced by Government in response to the public health restrictions and introduced from 21 December 2021 right through to January of this year. These supports have been vitally important to businesses throughout the pandemic and it is very important the necessary legislation be put in place as soon as possible. I do not always pay tribute to the previous Government but, at the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, we were moving from an election cycle and through Government formation talks and the Minister and his colleagues took up the cudgels and carried it on until this current Government was formed. From the very get-go, the mantra was to keep Ireland and its population safe and to protect lives but also to protect the economy. We are still not fully out of the Covid pandemic. Some people close to me received a diagnosis of Covid just this week. We are still in that realm or space and, even though the matter has left a lot of the public discourse, we are still dealing with it. In the fullness of time, what those who serve in government and those who support it will truly be judged on is how safe we kept the country and how well we supported the economy. In both regards, not a perfect job has been done but a pretty good job has. I believe that has been recognised internationally.

There are, of course, problems as we emerge from a situation of peak Covid. Is Deputy O'Reilly okay? I am sorry.

What is the Deputy apologising for?

I thought she indicated that she wished to speak.

If I did indicate that I was going to speak, I would indicate to the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. I ask an Teachta to please continue.

Perfect. There are, of course, challenges as we emerge from that situation of peak Covid. One of these is the cost of living. The cost of living has spiralled out of control for many families. Many families are put very much to the pin of their collar. I welcome what the Minister has done overnight and into this morning in looking at ways to alleviate the burden of costs on people with regard to their fuel bills. More needs to be done because what I have seen and what has been spoken about in all forms of media, including social media and mainstream media, is overnight price hikes. We saw some forecourts upping the price of petrol and diesel by 15 cent. That could be in the realm of price gouging. There is a taxation regime in place and there is excise duty and the Minister is taking measures to deal with that.

It is unforgivable that petrol stations would try to get ahead of Government by increasing prices before policy gets there.

I wish to speak about construction costs. The Government has a very comprehensive policy to deal with the housing crisis and there are many elements to that. Key to everything is building houses, be they social housing, affordable housing or private housing. At the moment it is nigh on impossible for someone who has planning permission and who wants to develop a home to get a contractor to tender and carry out the work. The Government and indeed all of Europe have not yet fully grasped the supply chain issue there.

Prior to and in the early months of the Covid pandemic, the Government, in step with our European partners, was able to work across international boundaries to develop a very fluid supply chain of personal protective equipment, PPE, and then, latterly, vaccines. The next supply chain that needs to be corrected is building materials. At the moment workers have been forced to walk off some construction sites because the next pay cheque is not coming in; the materials are not there. Government needs to grasp this issue.

This legislation deals with Covid supports. Overnight, I was appalled to receive an email from someone in my constituency who has spent the past two years proffering a theory that Covid does not exist, that RTÉ is fake news and that none of this ever really happened. I was appalled to see that now the rhetoric has moved to fake news on Ukraine. That is where that whole ideology has now shifted to. Shame on those promoting that ideology because Covid has been very real and has taken many lives. The nurses, the front-line staff and those who shored up the economy during this period need to be front and centre of our minds.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and to outline some concerns regarding business supports in the short term but probably more importantly in the medium term. Before that I would like to take moment to reflect on the past two years and the role of the State during this period. While we in the Social Democrats might have done some things differently during the pandemic, we all accept that major efforts were made to scale up radically the role of the State, efforts which many possibly on the Government benches could not have imagined themselves undertaking.

While this is not necessarily the view of the Minister present, I know some of his colleagues would be very much in favour of a small state. We had been moving in that direction somewhat with the provision of particular public services. However, that changed very radically and we only survived the pandemic by the State becoming very heavily involved in many aspects of our country and economy. It is a matter of some regret that we seem to be unwinding that approach to a certain extent, and there is a strong case for us to learn from the experience of the past two years of the critical importance of the State taking responsibility for the provision of particular services - obviously housing, healthcare and childcare.

The experience of the past two years also exposed very substantial weaknesses in how we provide our key public services, certainly in the housing area where the State had to move to introduce a ban on rent increases, how publicly provided housing had to be made available very quickly for people who were especially vulnerable, and where the State had to move to create a single tier-health service. That worked very well and we would not have survived if we had not brought in capacity from the private sector. It highlighted many weaknesses in how we provide services and it is important we learn lessons from that. It took a crisis to teach small government proponents the critical role of the State in society and in our economy. People across the board would recognise that and certainly the business community recognises it now.

I was at that recent IBEC seminar where the Minister was a guest speaker. This goes back a few weeks before the developments in Ukraine. I was a bit concerned that people were talking about the top-line figures. While the top-line figures for the performance of the economy are very strong, and all credit for that, when we look below those and see what is actually happening in our society, it does not paint a such a good picture. The prime issue is the impact of the unaffordability of housing on so many people. In addition, many other people are denied timely access to healthcare. Childcare is very expensive and takes up so much of family budgets. They are the real world matters people are dealing with in their day-to-day lives and it is regrettable there was not much recognition of that. While credit is due regarding the top-line figures, we also need to consider what is happening with the so-called lived experiences of many people. In the key areas of public provision, the picture is certainly not so rosy.

I hope the Government does not have a short memory regarding the role of the State. Instead of unwinding the role of the State, it should strengthen it, particularly in respect of public provision of services. I think that is now being recognised in the childcare area where there have been important developments in the budget. Although we still have a very long way to go, the principles are recognised. The principles of Sláintecare are also recognised and set out in the all-party plan, but we have not yet fully committed to implementing that. It would appear those lessons have not been learned yet on the housing front.

The employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme were examples of major of Government interventions that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. They proved to be invaluable supports for businesses throughout the pandemic. We now look forward to the weaning-off phase, which by its nature must be slow. Those supports kept many businesses and workers afloat by critically keeping staff connected to their place of employment and their employers during an exceptionally difficult period. All of those principles were very good and I recognise what has been done. Credit is due to the Minister and others who have been involved in providing those supports.

However, the difficulties facing businesses, as we all know, have not gone away. They have just receded somewhat in many cases. We are seeing a rapid and welcome bounce-back, but the medium and long-term future of a certain cohort of businesses could still be a doubt. While the disruptive force of Covid has, thankfully, waned considerably, its effects are still deeply felt by many small and medium-sized businesses in particular, especially those in sectors that were forced to close completely for periods of time or seriously curtailed their operations in some cases on an ongoing basis. Therefore, these changes to the EWSS and the CRSS are very welcome, especially for businesses that missed out on the all-important Christmas trade or were only established during the pandemic. However, more targeted supports will, of course, be needed. I think there is a recognition of that, especially for businesses that bore the brunt of the rolling lockdowns.

While the Government has established schemes for the entertainment and tourism industries, ongoing engagement with these sectors is needed to ensure their survival to the greatest extent possible. I believe there is recognition of that. The relatively high number of jobs lost in these sectors during the pandemic was clear evidence, if any were needed, of the size and importance of our tourism and hospitality industry.

Those small and medium-sized businesses, which is what they are in the main, may continue to need Government supports to remain viable in the medium term. Without these businesses, the very heartbeat of so many of our villages, towns and cities would be lost. Such losses would further compound the dereliction found across a large number of towns and villages since the recession.

Notwithstanding the importance of these schemes, it should be noted that there have been abuses of business supports throughout the pandemic. We have to recognise that, and those abuses must be dealt with. While we all accept that the vast majority of companies that availed of Covid-19 wage supports did so absolutely legitimately, it has been widely reported that some companies exploited them and that there was an element of gaming the system. I remember the Tánaiste talking about this in the early days of the pandemic. I think he was Taoiseach at the time. He spoke about the importance of being aware of the potential for that and having systems in place to deal with it. The exploitation took the form of businesses paying out dividends to shareholders while claiming wage subsidies. That is abhorrent to many people. Obviously, it has been an exceptionally difficult time for so many of our people, and the idea of some of our big and successful companies gaming the system, as I said, leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth and should not have been allowed. One of the most egregious examples of abuse of taxpayers' money, and it has been reported as such, was by O'Flaherty Holdings, which distributes Mercedes-Benz products in Ireland. That company claimed almost €1.8 million in wage subsidies in 2020 before then paying a similar amount in a dividend to an offshore company in the Isle of Man. Lest we forget, a huge amount of money, over €7 billion, was paid out to private companies, so the importance of robust checks and balances cannot be overstated. That profitable companies effectively hoarded large sums of taxpayers' money is absolutely reprehensible. Conditionalities to ensure that dividends could not be paid out from companies receiving state supports were applied in the UK. There is no valid reason, as far as I can see, why that could not have been replicated here, aside from some kind of unwillingness to upset that particular community. While I appreciate that these schemes were set up in a hurry and in very much crisis circumstances and, on balance, have been hugely successful, their design must be evaluated and an audit of firms that paid out dividends should be carried out. Although the Minister has said he is keeping the schemes under review, I wonder what exactly that means and why the Minister refused to ban wage-supported companies from paying dividends to shareholders. I just cannot understand the rationale for doing that. Some members of this Government have previously been quick to highlight social welfare fraud or misuse by individuals, but they are not so quick to do so when it is large private businesses involved in fraud. It seems sometimes that ideology clouds their reading of the numbers.

I wish to talk for a few minutes about the PUP. I recognise that it is a somewhat separate issue but it is on a related note. I wish to raise some concerns about the planned review of PUP claimants. My colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, is pursuing this issue at the Committee of Public Accounts, but I would like to flag these concerns with the Minister now. While I understand that work on this is only commencing, many questions have arisen. For instance, will this retrospective review lead to sanctions or penalties where non-compliance is identified? Will there be a payment or a tax credit adjustment? We just do not know how the Government intends to pursue this. If something wrong has occurred, we should ensure that people make amends, but how exactly is it proposed to do so? These are quite important questions, and a degree of understanding will be needed in many cases - for instance, where a worker did not return to work as his or her employer was not following public health advice or enforcing public health measures. Regrettably, there were quite a few instances of those problems. Also, I think many of us had raised with us instances in which a worker or family member was in what was regarded as a very high-risk category and his or her workplace was not a safe environment. I am sure the Minister, like the rest of us, had such cases brought to his attention. There were people who had very vulnerable people at home or had very serious underlying conditions themselves, which put them at a very high risk, but they were expected to go into work. That could have been a life-threatening situation to put themselves in. They did not go into work and claimed the PUP. It is therefore important that there is a recognition of the difficulties involved for many people and that a sympathetic view is taken in pursuing this issue.

Finally on this matter, there are legitimate concerns about the review of self-employed PUP claimants. I understand that Revenue data such as self-employment PRSI returns and business analytics tools will be used in this exercise. It would be very important to establish whether there is a legal basis for that data exchange first. We had those difficulties in the past, with question marks around the public services card. Before any of those data are shared, the exchange has to be in keeping with data protection law.

Those are just some of the issues that must be addressed. I ask the Government not to turn this review into any kind of scapegoating exercise against all PUP recipients, not least when the same level of scrutiny is clearly not applied to powerful private companies.

Another scheme that kept many businesses afloat during the pandemic was debt warehousing. According to Revenue figures, 105,000 businesses availed of that scheme, while €3.2 billion worth of tax owed has been warehoused. The decision to extend the period during which tax liabilities can be warehoused will be a welcome relief to businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic. A lot of debt has built up, however, and for many businesses, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, that looming horizon is a cause for much concern.

The Department of Finance's annual taxation report, published last August, depicted a positive outlook, with income tax revenues declining by just 1% to €22.7 billion. The fact that some businesses did exceptionally well during the pandemic must be borne in mind. I am talking about IT businesses, pharma businesses and so on. It was a very profitable period for some, and that skews the figures somewhat. However, that does not accurately reflect the picture on the ground for so many businesses that are concerned about their futures. As the report identifies, tax revenue held up strongly because the biggest disruption to the labour market was concentrated in sectors that are relatively income tax poor. These include the hospitality industry and other service sectors, which were especially devastated by the lockdowns. This in itself speaks volumes about the extent of the low pay issue in our economy, which brings its own problems and needs to be addressed in its own right. When we look past the headline figures, we can see clearly that small and medium-sized businesses in these sectors are the most vulnerable. While many are experiencing a bounceback, with 57% of SMEs having reported profit during 2021, which is extremely welcome, compared with just 31% in 2020, many fear that this could be just short-term. We must not forget that a large number of businesses are still burdened by warehoused debt. When it comes time to pay that back, it could have a major impact on profitability and even viability.

This is where the medium-term problems arise, especially for those who will require phased payment arrangements. Flexibility and understanding for the individual circumstances of small and medium-sized businesses will be of the utmost importance. We cannot allow a situation where local businesses which would be viable in normal circumstances were it not for the inability to repay warehoused tax are forced to shut their doors. These businesses are in this position because they followed public health advice. For hospitality businesses, in particular, the loss of the Christmas trade had a major impact on turnover. Now that they are recovering, they should not be punished for past restrictions on their business. We need to be patient.

The legislation also deals with the Covid-19 recognition payment for front-line workers. Since this payment was announced in January, it has been mired in controversy and confusion. The Government mismanaged the announcement by drip-feeding information from the start. Almost two months later, it is still not entirely clear who is entitled to get the payment. The Government has often been accused of kite-flying and it would be difficult to find a clearer example than this recognition payment. There has been a vacuum of information since January, leading to somewhat of a bidding war. Why is that? It is because the Government's definition of a front-line worker is too narrow. For example, will section 39 workers be included? They are front-line workers who donned PPE every day and were central to keeping health services going. They experience a lesser status than their HSE counterparts and are paid at a lower rate, even though, in many cases, they do exactly the same work. Ultimately, I believe front-line workers would prefer better pay and conditions and reform in the health and social care sector. A recent EU report was critical of those health and social care services.

I hope the Government will bear in mind some of those points as this legislation makes its way through the Houses.

We talk about the rising cost of fuels and worry about the upset this is causing people. I am being contacted by people who worked on the front line during Covid-19 wondering if there are any details on when and to whom the bonus will be paid. While Ministers are kite-flying about further restrictions to the eligibility, people are waiting on this and are relying on it in some cases. There are still no clear signs of when they will get it and who will get it. These decisions need to be planned by the Government before being announced. Announcing that there will be a bonus is not good enough. The Taoiseach spends much of the time trying to find ways to blame Sinn Féin and discredit our proposals. His time would be better spent asking his Ministers not to get people's hopes up with half-planned schemes and confusing announcements. Will home helps be entitled to the bonus? Will those working in the addiction sector on the front line be entitled to it? Will those in the disabilities sector who worked during the pandemic be entitled to it? Many other sectors feel they should be entitled to the bonus because they worked through the pandemic on the front line to keep this country and our people safe. People risked their lives for the State and this is the thanks they get.

Will the Government look at how the electricity credit will be applied to those with hardship meters? They are some of the most vulnerable people and they have to top up by €10 each time before they get €100 because there is a limit on it. It will cost them €30 to get the €200 bonus for electricity that everyone else gets for free. Is that fair? Many of these people are struggling and need help. We should not put up barriers to this for people who are vulnerable and who need and deserve it.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The pandemic uprooted the lives of everybody in Ireland and had a severe impact on our business community. No one will forget particularly March of 2020, when an unprecedented situation befell us. The impacts of the pandemic spared no one and no organisation. Businesses of all sizes faced uncertainty that no one envisaged. I am proud of the actions taken by the previous and present Governments to protect jobs, livelihoods and lives during the pandemic. We stepped into the unknown to provide employees and employers with certain financial assistance, be it the pandemic unemployment payment, the TWSS or its successor the EWSS. There can be no doubt these measures prevented undue hardship for people and families throughout the country and helped businesses survive an existential crisis.

The Bill provides for a wide range of measures that will continue some of the supports brought in during the pandemic and for a number of other issues facing the nation today. It will continue supports for businesses in the time ahead, address continued instability in the business community and allow some businesses which previously lost eligibility to become eligible again for those supports. The CRSS will be allowed the flexibility it needs to act effectively, especially in relation to turnover rates.

We were all amazed by the courage and determination of front-line workers through the pandemic and it is easy, now that we have much easier access to vaccines and have reopened our economy, to minimise or dismiss the gravity of the situation we were in. Without vaccination or full knowledge of the transmissibility of the virus, nurses, doctors, hospital workers and many others stepped into the breach and risked their lives to protect others and save lives. The Bill will facilitate the one-off payment of €1,000 to front-line workers and ensure this payment is not subject to income tax, USC or PRSI. It is right we make this offer as a token of our gratitude to workers who risked so much for our society.

Notwithstanding the comments of other Members, the criteria are quite clear. I understand there are some grey areas and I am sure the Minister has received similar representations to what I have received. I hope they can be ironed out in the coming weeks.. The Bill will also benefit those purchasing a home, which is an incredibly important part of the commitments this Government has given, by increasing the rate of stamp duty introduced by the Government on the bulk purchase of properties, amounting to 10%. The Bill will allow cost rental homes to be refunded the difference in stamp duty between the higher and standard rates.

We have all watched the events unfolding in Ukraine with horror. For good reason, there is great concern about the knock-on effects the war will have on day-to-day expenses for our citizens and on European economies. There is no way we can avoid them. Europe's reliance on oil and gas from Russia has exposed a chink in the armour of the EU. The war has already resulted in the determination of EU nations to reduce their reliance on Russian gas and oil. However, unlike the US and UK and because of the exposure certain countries have, we are unable to remove ourselves from that market. Ireland does not use any Russian oil or gas, but we use oil and gas from countries that avail of Russian oil and gas. Therefore, the price of their oil and gas will increase and that will have a knock-on effect here. Whichever way we turn, unfortunately, we will face increased prices. While Ireland does not receive a substantial supply from Russia, our partners do and this will place a significant burden on us in the coming months and, most likely, years. It is therefore welcome that this Bill seeks to ease the burden at the pump.

Excise duty will be eased as of midnight tonight in tangible terms. It will mean 20 cent a litre is taken off petrol prices and 15 cent a litre is taken off diesel. These are important steps to help families at this time of international uncertainty. I note and want to put on the record that I contacted several service stations in my constituency last week when I noted prices had gone up. They had not received a delivery of fuel to their stations. They had just cranked up the prices. As of this morning, I understand that another service station, not in my constituency but in the city centre, has cranked up its prices, even though it has not received a delivery of oil. I verified this fact. It was done, I presume, on the back of the notification that there would be an excise duty reduction. This is reprehensible. I appreciate that the Government is not in the business of setting prices for products, however we might wish we could, but it was a rather disgraceful act. I know I am not alone in observing this phenomenon in recent weeks.

The war in Ukraine also reminds us of the importance of doubling down in our effort to produce even more clean renewable energy here at home. Lessons are being learned throughout the European Union regarding the need to leverage ourselves off Russian oil and gas, and oil and gas in general. This is a good and positive step. Investing in our renewable energy sector will not only reduce our reliance on international markets and events, but will also mean that we will be able to deliver cheaper energy to every home in Ireland and see the surplus energy that is created being exported. This offers us a potential scenario that Ireland has rarely had, namely, to be a large-scale exporter of clean and responsibly sourced energy. This would not only bring wealth to our nation but also jobs and investment in communities throughout the country.

In the years ahead, when we look back on the pandemic - and we must be mindful that it is not over - we will consider the value of entering a time of national crisis from a position of strength, one I believe we would not have been able to address appropriately had it not been for the restorative measures implemented over the past decade, despite some of them being very tough. We cannot forget the lesson that while it was easy to say it was the right thing to do, and it was, we as a nation must also understand that we need to be able to finance such actions. I shudder to think where we might have been had it not been for the restorative actions of the Irish people in terms of the restoration of the economy.

We do not know where the Ukraine war will lead us as a nation or a continent. We do know there will be economic and financial impacts as we look to the future. Therefore, we must continue to manage our finances responsibly and allow ourselves the space to react to any crisis that may emerge out of the blue and cause havoc to our economy if we were not to manage it correctly.

This Bill will give legislative effect for extensions to the EWSS and the CRSS. It also introduces the so-called pandemic special recognition payment or the Covid bonus. While this is welcome, it comes late and with qualifying criteria that are far too narrow. The Government's mushroom management means that everybody is kept in the dark until the latest reactionary leak. Even now, there is a continuing lack of clarity over who will meet the criteria to qualify for the bonus. The Government must include family carers who save the Government millions of euro every day, and yes, it is millions of euro every day.

Family Carers Ireland estimates that carers save the State €20 billion each year. It is probably more, and yet the Government begrudges just two days' worth of that saving to give them a small token of gratitude. This is not good enough. While the Minister is at it, it is also high time that the long-promised pension provision for carers was sorted out. We also need to ensure that workers in section 38 and 39 organisations are included, along with section 10 organisations that help the homeless. These groups exist because the State has abdicated its responsibilities. It is now payback time. There must be clarity for community swabbers who are coming to the end of their contracts and may finish work before the payment is made. Will they be included?

In recent weeks, Bank of Ireland announced profits of €1.4 billion, while AIB profits were €629 million. It is shameful that due to Government inaction they continue to pay no tax on any of these profits. They were private companies when they almost bankrupted this country. Each and every taxpayer is still paying for their recklessness and those enterprises should have to pay for their actions. Families here are paying the highest mortgage rates in Europe. The average first-time buyer mortgage is approximately €225,000 and someone borrowing this amount would pay €936 a month. The average paid in the EU is €762 a month. This mean that an extra €63,000 in interest is paid over the lifetime of the loan in Ireland. Imagine paying €63,000 in interest over the lifetime of a loan. Is the Minister losing the plot?

We also had the recent announcement that the ESB made a record profit of €679 million last year. Thousands of homeowners are struggling to pay soaring energy bills and the Government must act immediately to address the imbalance. If there are to be hair shirts, it should be hair shirts all around. As we know from recent history, however, it is hair shirts for many and Charvet shirts for the few. The Minister must act now.

I welcome the opportunity to speak today. In general, the Government's financial response to the challenges caused by Covid-19 has been fair and mostly adequate. I think it is fair to say that the response has been timely and that the sectors most affected have been supported. All this, however, is coming at a huge financial cost, and it is one that will take generations to repay. The bottom line is that these measures were needed at the time and we effectively had no choice. Unfortunately, many businesses did not survive the periods of lockdown and many more will not survive when the financial supports are lifted.

This is the point I raise today. Many businesses are only just about surviving and the Covid-19-related supports they are receiving are effectively keeping them afloat. As I said many times before, we need to support these businesses in future. We cannot simply cut off the supports and see what happens. Many of these businesses are local family-based companies, with two to ten workers. They are the lifeblood of the Irish economy. Most of the publicity goes to the large multinational companies, and there is no doubt that they provide extensive employment, but we must also fully support the small indigenous businesses that exist in every county. There are many owners of such businesses in Dundalk and they all welcomed the supports they received during the lockdown periods, but they are all worried about the impact when these supports are lifted. Many of them have stated that they fear they will find it difficult to maintain their existing workforces without these supports and, in some situations, even fear for their future entirely.

If we look at the financial costs to the State, I think everybody can agree that it is better to support workers in employment than to support them while they rely on social welfare. That is why I call on the Government to maintain these supports for the thousands of small Irish firms for as long as possible to allow them to get back on their feet fully. The bottom line is that if we do not support these businesses now, there is a great danger they will close. Once closed, they will be difficult to reopen. We must keep supporting these businesses to allow them to survive. This will, in turn, allow them to make a significant contribution not only to the Irish economy but also to our society.

Another point I raise is that some large companies were able to make dividend payments to shareholders, who in many cases were also directors of these companies, while at the same time receiving thousands, or in some cases millions, of euro in Government supports. This is morally wrong and must be examined. It is simply wrong that these companies were allowed to do this. What measures has the Government put in place to investigate this and what measures are in place to allow the Government to recoup this money in future if it is shown that the money was not needed? Why is it that large companies could receive thousands, or in some cases millions, of euro of taxpayers' funds, while at the same time paying large amounts in dividends to shareholders and directors? We need to look at this situation carefully.

Turning to the dramatically rising cost of living, this is the next great challenge our society faces. The unprovoked actions of Russia are adding greatly to these price rises. I appeal to the Minister to put in place whatever measures are needed to support our business community. To put this into context, I spoke to representatives of several businesses and the increased costs they are facing are frightening. To give an example, one company in the food industry used to have an energy bill that was usually around €25,000 each month. Its bill is now averaging over €55,000 per month, which means it has more than doubled.

Another business owner I spoke with, who employs four people, has a weekly fuel bill of approximately €300. For the past number of weeks that has risen to over €650 per week, and to put this into context, the business owner faces an annual increase in a motor fuel bill of almost €20,000. For that business this could be unsustainable over a long term.

I welcome that the Government is reducing the duty on fuel, and that will be welcomed by the many thousands of businesses across the country. The knock-on effect of all these increases in cost will eventually be substantially increased costs for the consumers in the supermarkets, and this is when we will see the real effects. I fear consumers could be facing increased shopping costs of anything between €20 and €40 per week in their shopping bill.

I welcome the pandemic special recognition payment for our front-line healthcare workers, who were heroes during the pandemic. This is very welcome for them and I fully support the measure. I hope that the administration of the payment is not bogged down in red tape and that it reaches those it was intended for. It is only right to mention the many other workers who had to work hard during lockdowns to ensure we all had access to food and services. In particular I highlight the supermarket workers, who worked right through the pandemic to ensure our supermarkets and shops remained open.

I want once more to offer my support for the measures introduced during the lockdown. These measures kept many thousands of businesses from closing permanently and supported them while they remained closed. We must now continue that support for a period to ensure these businesses remain open and viable. I also call on the Minister to address the issue of some large companies being in a position to pay out dividends to shareholders and directors while at the same time availing of Government supports. If these companies were able to pay dividends, they should not have been receiving taxpayer money. At the very least they should be made repay these supports.

I thank the Government for the work done in the past two years during the pandemic and it has done a very good job. As I said, with what is happening with Ukraine and the Russian invasion, there is much uncertainty. I come from a border town in Dundalk and we are very concerned about what will happen. In Ireland we have taken in over 2,500 Ukrainians and our friends in the UK have only taken approximately 500 people. I support fully what the Government is doing and it is right that we should help Ukrainians. I come from a Border area and we are worried that the UK is not going to follow suit. I mentioned last week on the Order of Business about the minimum price of alcohol. I fully supported the Government because it was supposed to happen in both the North and South. The last thing we want to see is people crossing the Border from South to North in order to get alcohol because if they do that, they will end up getting food and everything else. The Minister has had a thinking cap on for the past number of years so I ask him not to forget the Border areas.

I am very proud to be Irish and what the Irish are doing to help Ukraine is unbelievable. I come from Dundalk and all we can see are lorries loaded with food, clothes and everything else going up the M1 motorway. It is absolutely fantastic and we welcome the Ukrainians. Dialogue is the best way to go forward and I hope we get a quick resolution in Ukraine. I hope Ireland does its fair bit and I hope there is a peaceful outcome.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has indicated covers a range of financial measures. We must acknowledge, as other speakers have done, the pandemic supports that were introduced. I sit on the enterprise committee and we certainly asked the Government for quite a while for a number of different supports. Although we did not get it right from the start, at a later stage in particular the CRSS and the EWSS were of great help to employers. They certainly allowed businesses to keep employees on hand and in the case of hospitality it allowed them to generate outdoor seating and all that. It was a great help in summer to allow these businesses to get up and going and give them some very much-needed revenue. The EWSS is being wound down now but we must be somewhat careful in how we do that. I know we will not have a cliff edge and it runs until April but there may be businesses that continue to be affected and which find that the return to profitability is taking much longer than they would have thought.

The question of debt warehousing has been discussed tonight. It is a very important measure to allow businesses to park debt at a very difficult time when they face payments to the Revenue Commissioners. In April this year, there is debt falling due. I am glad to see that in cases in which it cannot be paid, the Government is extending the zero interest rate out to 2023, and from then a 3% interest rate will apply. That is as it should be because it will be very hard for many businesses to really get back and thriving. They must have low and flexible levels of interest repayments for the debt. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, said in his opening remarks that the basis in offering these schemes was the prudent financial management of previous years. I agree with that statement. As I said, as we go to unwind these supports now, we must be mindful of how that will have an impact.

The Bill also covers the final payment of €1,000 tax-free to front-line workers and nursing staff. Will the Minister confirm in his closing speech that this will be extended to section 38 and 39 healthcare workers and those working in the disability sector? They have done sterling work offering respite and home supports and they must be recognised. It is important that this happens along with the recognition of those who work in the nursing home sector.

In the media I also see mention of a scheme to offer compensation to those health workers and families who tragically lost their lives during Covid-19 and I also welcome that scheme. The number is approximately 23 in this country and every one of those is a tragic case because each person was coming to the aid of somebody else, using all of his or her training and expertise, without realising that he or she would ultimately become a victim of Covid-19. We certainly send sincere condolences to families that are affected in such a way. I know one family quite well who lost a healthcare worker in the family during the pandemic.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, mentioned that the economy is just beginning to open. We see that as we try to throw off the shackles of Covid-19, although we know the virus has not gone away. We have seen in the past week how there appears to be a new type of the Omicron variant going around, and having had one variant does not make a person immune to another. We must continue to practice a reasonable degree of all the flexibility we had before we started wearing masks. In particular, we must try to observe sanitisation practices and be very mindful that it is the older cohorts and those with underlying illnesses who are most at risk here.

We are now facing into what is probably another perfect storm in the form of the war in Ukraine that Russian President Putin has decided to unleash. We are well aware of the terrible tragedy this is delivering on the Ukrainian people and our hearts absolutely go out to them. We must do everything possible in this country to try to offer our support to them, and we are doing that. As I said in the House recently, I welcome the action of the Government and the heroes within the Irish people who are trying to campaign and gather goods; some are travelling to Poland and even into Ukraine to try to offer their support.

This will see significant headwinds affect our economy. There will be a vote tonight on fuel increases or rebates on fuel. That is welcome but will it be enough? My sense is that it will not be enough and I hope we will be back to discuss it soon again. For agriculture and the heavy goods industry, the current level of fuel prices is untenable for continued operations.

I know the Irish Red Cross is leading the process for pledging of accommodation for Ukrainians coming to Ireland. It is very welcome and I know we have seen a very significant donation of pledges, with over 70,000 such pledges in recent days of different levels of accommodation and support. We certainly need a fast-track system, which we will have, with personal public service numbers to be issued quickly to people arriving here so they can avail of public service payments and accommodation where required. This will also allow for schooling for children.

It is impossible to overstate the crisis that will come our way if the war in Ukraine extends to a food crisis. We have a particular issue, which I mentioned in the House last week, because Russia and Ukraine account for nearly 30% of world grain supplies. In this country, we produce very little grain that can be used to make flour and we have only one flour milling company in the country. Approximately 20% of its turnover is based on its own manufacturing and the company buys in the rest of the flour. That is for baking bread.

We can do flour all right for biscuits but not for bread. We are going to see a significant uptick in the cost of bread in the shops. This is going to impact vulnerable households very quickly. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, met with farm leaders yesterday. There is also the issue of tillage and fodder. There was talk of a tillage order but I am afraid that is not going to work out for a whole range of reasons, not least that a number of EU directives would have to be bypassed to allow a tillage order to take place. We also face a significant headwind in fertiliser costs. I was just looking at them before I came into the House. Calcium ammonia nitrate was €390 per tonne about four months ago and is €1,200 at a spot rate today, and can go to €1,400 per tonne. It is the same with urea and ammonia, which was €600 a tonne and is now €1,000 a tonne and heading higher again on a spot rate. A large Norwegian fertiliser manufacturer has signalled that it is reducing its operations because they are not sustainable with the price of natural gas. Vladimir Putin has set up the EU community from quite a long way back. He has allowed us to become totally dependent on his gas and oil. Even in our climate policy we unwittingly agreed to go forward with that construct. We are going to have to look at it now very significantly.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, said that employment is now close to 2.5 million in the economy but I think we can expect a significant headwind to that number also, certainly in terms of the economic stability of a lot of businesses. A new energy policy is going to be needed. As I said in the House recently, I am concerned that we are going to turn around in May and add further carbon prices on to fossil fuels, thereby adding to the inflation already in the economy. We see what America is now doing with liquified natural gas, upping its capacity while we have turned our back on it. We seem to be putting all our hopes in renewable energy, in solar farms which we have not yet developed. We are talking about onshore and offshore wind. Anybody who has studied the wind problem will realise that we are at least ten years away from being able to offer any type of offshore wind solution in Ireland. That means we are basically hoping two conglomerates from abroad will come in here and we will likely still be paying a very high price for energy even if it is created on and off our shores.

We have a significant problem in housing which needs to be addressed in light of where we are going with Ukraine. Have we looked at the idea of creating a housing bond, almost like a war bond, in this country? We are told we have a lot of money sitting on deposit. Can it be put to use? I know a number of builders who are availing of builder finance from larger builders simply because they cannot get builder finance from the pillar banks. They are paying up to 10% per annum APR on builder finance, which is making it unsustainable for them to go out building, never mind where the costs in materials and supplies are going. We have a major emergency and we have to do more than we are doing at present.

Ireland is facing some particular difficulties. We must hope that they will be short-lived, that the Ukraine crisis can be resolved through diplomacy and that we can get back onto the footing we were on, trying to build for the future, recover from Covid and build sustainability into our economy. Certainly there are opportunities but there are threats. It is most important that the Government would engage with all Deputies in the House. I am not sure if this was done during the Covid crisis; in fact, I can tell the Minister it was not. There is significant expertise among other Members of the House and the contacts they have. It behoves our Government now given where we are to start talking to all Deputies about advancing future Government policy.

The Bill provides for the reopening of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, for certain businesses that would otherwise not be eligible and for such businesses to continue to be supported until the expiry of the scheme. The objective of the scheme is to support employment and maintain the link between employer and employee. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has adopted a proactive and dynamic approach to supporting businesses and individuals during those challenging times, and they really were challenging.

I want to ask the Minister about hauliers, agricultural contractors and other businesses that are experiencing the same threat. Can they avail of such supports? The Taoiseach this morning told the Chamber that countries all around the world are facing the same price hikes and pressures. When Covid first came, countries all around the world faced the same threat. We all stepped up. The threat is the same now to the livelihoods of hauliers, suppliers and the agriculture sector. We are already hearing that farmers cannot continue to supply food at the current prices in the face of inflation. Even today a man rang me who was really in a desperate state. He was really upset and said he had to think about letting go of his staff and shutting down his business because he is not able to sustain the price of the fuel. This is really worrying. I firmly believe that people are on their knees and businesses are going to be in crisis.

Since Christmas so many people have told me they cannot turn on their heating in their house. The cost of heating oil has nearly doubled since January. The weather is so bad. My own mother is nearly 87. She rarely goes out of the house and she has her heating on 24-7. She is telling me now that she has to look at her options because the price of heating is unreal. If we are able to cut the price of diesel and petrol, surely we should be able to cut the price of kerosene. We cannot have people in their homes unable to turn on their heating.

I welcome the excise cut this morning. However, petrol pumps are already hiking their prices to absorb it. I have seen it happening. This is not right and we must call it out when some businesses are faced with closure and other businesses might take advantage of them. The public feel they are not being listened to. We have learned how to work together in the pandemic and we must work together now to save jobs. I firmly believe we are looking at livelihoods now.

We are giving more money to the fuel allowance recipients, which I welcome. The energy credit scheme will begin to show on people's electricity bills next month. Any help we give is so important. However, people are crying out for more help here. We need to do more on this. Can businesses suffering because of the fuel crisis avail of the wage subsidy scheme? Is the Minister exploring that in the context of the global crisis?

I welcome that the pandemic recognition payment will be tax-free as agreed by the Government. There is so much confusion. So many nurses and others have rung me confused about who will get it, when they will get it, the timeline, the criteria and what exactly is happening. While I welcome the payment, I wish to highlight the lack of information when we announce something. I just cannot understand that we do not give the proper timescale and information and let the front-line workers and our nurses know what is happening.

I ask the Minister to come back to me on these very serious issues. I know everybody is doing their best but people are very worried at the moment. They are worried about jobs. We are back again the way we were nearly two years ago but this is a different crisis. If we do not help in this crisis we are going to have massive changes. It is not good for the people of Ireland, for their mental health, for jobs or in general. I ask the Minister to do what he can and not to leave anyone in a home where they cannot afford to use their heating oil.

The price of fuel and cost of living generally are issues we have been talking about for well over a year. It has come right to the centre of the debate now but let us be honest, the issues in respect of the cost of living have been raised by many, not just the cost of fuel but also the cost of childcare, rent, housing and all these issues. The cost of fuel is now creating a massive issue for many employers, families and workers. It is very worrying. I welcome that the Government has belatedly moved after we and others had been calling for a reduction in recent days. It is not as far as we would have gone and we will be tabling an amendment today but I welcome that there is some movement. I urge the Government to listen to what we are putting forward in the amendment. It is not just about the reduction now.

I urge the Government to take stock of this, anticipate that there are likely to be other changes and take forward its excise policy on the basis of what Sinn Féin is arguing for, which is a price limit of around €1.75.

I note that some petrol forecourts are increasing their prices tonight to take advantage of these provisions. They are a minority but it is very regrettable. It is a shame if a minority of operators are trying to exploit the situation. I expect the vast majority are doing the best they can with the margins they have but it seems some are taking advantage. It is vitally important that the Government's policy is clear and that it ensures the price of petrol stays at a sensible level. It is an issue for hauliers, school transport operators and many others who rely on transport for their employment.

As the previous speaker raised, there is an issue with the Covid bonus. Many family carers, in particular, were very disappointed not to be included in the scheme.

We need to ensure some of the supports that have existed in terms of capital and operating expenditure for aviation continue for the next two or three years because it will take some time for the sector to recover. It is a hugely important industry, particularly in the cities that have airports, and it is vital to protect it.

The issue in regard to the price of petrol and fuel generally highlights the need to make a rapid transition. The Government has not been ambitious enough on wind energy, especially when it comes to the lack of an auction for floating offshore wind. It is saying it will look to do that after 2030. The Scottish Government, with an inferior grid, already is offering such an auction. Despite the limits of its grid, Scotland is putting resources into ammonia and green hydrogen. There is a way this can be done. We can be a world leader in this regard and Cork Harbour can be right at the very heart of it. The failure at this stage to offer an auction for offshore floating wind shows a lack of ambition. Likewise, the failure to convene the seafood sector task force, which is meant to engage with the issues and challengers faced by mariners, says to me that the Government is not taking offshore wind generation seriously enough, particularly the potential it has to reduce the country's emissions and provide energy security and employment.

I propose to share time with Deputies Michael Collins, Michael Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae.

Fuel prices need to be reduced by a minimum of 50 cent and be locked in for a minimum of six months. The 15 cent and 20 cent reductions do not go far enough. Business owners, including quarry and construction business owners, have been ringing me this evening to say they have been told by companies to stop working because they can no longer sustain the expense of the fuel needed for running people to sites, transporting stone to build roads and so on. They are going to cease working and run on what little material they have at present. As I said, the reductions in fuel prices the Government is proposing do not go near far enough. The carbon tax it has implemented will raise €9.5 billion by 2030. The amount of extra tax it has taken on the fuel price increase is absolutely criminal. The Government will be remembered for what it has done. Does it realise what will happen down the road because of the cost of production in this country?

At the start of the Covid crisis, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stood in this House and asked people to grow lettuce on their south-facing windows. He encouraged them to go to the local hardware shop for supplies to paint the back of their houses. That is the mentality of a Minister in this Government. The same Minister stood in this House on another occasion and spoke about people sharing 30 cars among a population of 3,000 in rural areas. That is the mentality of the Minister. Now the Government is proposing a 15 cent reduction in fuel prices, in an escalating situation where there is supposed to be a 90-day reserve. The price increase should not have happened in the escalating way it did.

The responsibility of the Government is to this country but what it did next was turn to farmers and ask them to grow wheat and corn. It acknowledged that the sector is over-regulated and said it would reward farmers with a proposal, which we are being asked to vote on tonight, for a 2 cent reduction on agricultural diesel.

Are members of the Government out of their tree?

When the shelves go empty in this country, the Government will be remembered for what it did. Putin will be remembered for his disgraceful behaviour in Ukraine; Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will be remembered for what they have done to production in this country, which is no longer a breadbasket for its people. We are no longer self-sufficient because of the regulations and stipulations the Minister and his partners in government have put in place. Their reward to farmers is to reduce the price of green diesel by 2 cent.

Contractors are parked at the moment because they cannot afford to go out and plough fields. They cannot get the amount of green diesel they need at the excessive prices of €1.40, €1.42 or €1.43. The Government is offering a 2 cent reduction. Every consumer in this country, if they buy Irish products, will pay an excessive amount because of this. Everything on the shelves is going up by 50 cent or €1 because of the actions of the Government and its failure to protect people in this country. It has failed to protect our agriculture sector, which puts food on our tables. It has put everything into Europe. We are responsible for 0.1% of global emissions and we are increasing our emissions because of the amount of food we have to bring in from foreign countries. We could provide that food ourselves if the Government gave the investment that is needed.

Members of the Government know nothing about this because they live in concrete cities and think food will arrive on the shelves. I remind them that people living in Dublin and our other cities originated from rural Ireland. When the shelves go empty, they will hold Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party responsible for the excessive prices they must pay to heat their houses and put food on the table. That will show the Government how far out of touch it is with reality.

I welcome any help for businesses through the EWSS and the CRSS. Businesses suffered hugely through the Covid crisis, not knowing from one moment to the next what restrictions were being put in place or when they would be enacted. The Government kept us all hanging in this regard, although it leaked any announcements to the press days before they were made.

We have gone from Brexit to the Covid crisis and now to a war and, again, the Government is coming out with all kinds of rubbish. Last week, our group put in a motion calling for a mini-budget, which we ended up having last night. Our proposal was aimed at easing the suffering of the people who put us in our jobs. The Minister of State should not forget they also put him in his job. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, had the audacity to stand up here and slate each and every one of us. Now it is my turn to slate him. How much has the national children's hospital gone over budget? We were rightly calling it the hole in the ground at one stage, with a budget overspend of millions of euro and a site on which a helicopter cannot be landed. The Minister badly needs to close his mouth and listen to those who understand the suffering people are going through. The Green Party tail is wagging the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dog. The Minister has not a notion of what real life is like for people. He stood here last week and tried to assassinate our characters. In fact, he made a complete fool of himself as he persisted in refusing our request for a lowering of fuel prices.

This Bill provides for the Covid-19 recognition payment for healthcare workers, which will not be subject to tax. I am surprised the Minister is not taxing it but he surely will be getting the money at the pumps in any case. As a colleague said this morning, he is taxing the tax on fuel.

People working in the healthcare system want to know when they will get their €1,000. The Minister might also clarify that.

The Bill also provides for the tax treatment of payments made under the proposed Brexit whitefish fleet decommissioning scheme. Let us be honest: the only reason this scheme is being introduced is the Government, including the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, sold out our fishermen in the Brexit quota negotiations. The Government has completely betrayed the fishing sector, with a total quota loss of approximately €43 million per year. In overall terms, the Government now wants to decommission a large proportion of the Irish fleet to allow foreign-owned vessels to fish for our stock off our coasts. Yes, lads, we are giving it away to other countries while our Irish boys are being told to decommission. Well done. It is another rotten deal for the people of Ireland. It is just like farmers and others in the agriculture sector are being treated.

Just in case the Minister does not know, because he and his Government are so far removed from reality, there was a fisherman on the radio the other day who, instead of heading out fishing this week, tied up his boat. I will tell the Minister why: it would have cost him €30,000 in fuel to catch a €27,000 quota, which is what he was allowed to fish for. He would have lost €3,000 had he gone out during the week. That is not taking into account the cost of staff and other expenses. It might have cost him €15,000 to €20,000 to go out.

The country is grinding to a halt and the Government is sound asleep at the wheel. It has not got a clue. I am shocked at its councillors. I am shocked that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors - forget about the Green Party councillors because they are not with it - are not roaring and shouting on the ground seeing as their Deputies are out of touch and completely in la-la land. Surely be to God the councillors are somewhat in touch with those on the ground but maybe they are not. I am beginning to think they are not.

This Bill is supposed to help businesses that have suffered throughout the pandemic but the Government’s carry-on will put the final nail in the coffin. The Government is telling us it will reduce the cost of fuel by 15 cent and 20 cent a litre, and 2 cent a litre for the farm industry. Imagine, 2 cent for the farm industry. There is to be nothing at all for those who are trying to heat their homes. How is this going to help? We all know the price of fuel is rising rapidly. The Government has had its chance. We have given it months. For months, we pleaded with it not to introduce the carbon tax and to push it aside or out the door, but it laughed across the way.

The advice of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is to slow down when driving. I think he told people today that this would save fuel. My God, has the Government any understanding of the number of emails being received and the amount of anger? The country is on the verge of an absolute revolution and the Government sits idly by, quite happy to let it happen. It shames politics because politicians should be available to work for and help their people. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have failed. Forget the Greens because they do not care and that is their agenda. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have worked their way into their agenda.

Right now, below in Kerry, there are patients who have been lying for more than five hours in the ambulances parked outside in the yard. I will give the ages of some of the people who have been waiting on trolleys for up to 60 hours. There is a lady of 99, a lady of 98, a lady of 86 and a man of 90. They have been waiting for 60 hours in emergency departments underneath lights that cannot be turned off. They are so bright but cannot be turned off or down because they are fire lights. They have to be left on. The patients have been in the corridors for 60 hours.

I thank and compliment the hard-working staff working last night, today and tonight, including doctors and nurses. My God, what has gone wrong in a country when, at a critical time today, our emergency department could not function as such? It is very doubtful that if there had been a road traffic accident, the victims could have been brought to it because it was ceasing to function since there was not a trolley, bed or capacity. It has never been as bad as it is right now. Somebody has to stand up here tonight and talk about Kerry University Hospital and what is happening in the emergency department there. My God, it is not the fault of the staff. What has gone wrong with management and the HSE? They should hang their heads in shame tonight. Anybody who doubts me may check the records to see the ages of the patients and think about the fact that there are patients in ambulances for five hours. There are people with pressure sores who cannot be moved anywhere because they have not yet gone through the emergency department.

It is so frightening that the answer of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the fuel price increase is to drive slowly, which he believes will make everything fine. I hate talking about somebody when he is not present but I ask the him to get into the real world. He should tell a man who is hauling a big lorryload of timber over county bounds tomorrow at 4.30 a.m. to go easy. I will tell the Minister what will happen: the driver will shudder to a halt. He should tell a fisherman sailing out into the ocean to catch a shoal of fish to slow down, turn down his revs a small bit and that he will be fine. This is such rubbish and nonsense. The Minister should tell a man driving a tractor to spread slurry or plough a field - please God, he will be able to plough a field again - to turn down his revs and that he will be all right because his fuel will last a lot longer. He should tell a travelling salesman working very hard to deliver bread or milk or the drivers of lorries delivering vegetables. We are an island nation; nothing drops in out of the sky. The Minister should tell all the road hauliers that if they slow down and crawl away, they will be fine and that the cost of fuel will make no difference to them. I swear to God that anybody attached to or having anything to do with the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green group at the moment would want to be ashamed to their bones. I mean it. How they can stand over this type of nonsense is beyond belief.

What we are facing as a nation is unprecedented, but, my God, what about the crowd we have in charge? In this regard, I heard today some of the waffle, rubbish and nonsense that come out of Taoiseach’s mouth, having given the farmers and all the people involved in the agricultural sector and building industry a reduction of 2 cent per litre. Does the Government know what it is after doing? I never in my life did anything rude and I am doing it at the ground. This is what it is doing. I am not doing it to the Minister. The Government is giving the two fingers or one finger, or whatever it likes, to the whole industry. Shame on it for that. To every one of the farmers, fishermen and agricultural contractors of Ireland, let the message go out of Dáil Éireann loudly tonight that they are worth 2 cent per litre according to the Government. Every Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green politician who will ever again knock on a door will be remembered for this. It is like long ago when the farthing was taken off the pension. The people of Ireland will say the Government is the crowd that gave them 2 cent a litre and that this is what they were believed to be worth when agricultural diesel was €1.50 per litre. The right price would be 45 cent a litre but the Government is giving the farmers a reduction of 2 cent per litre. My God, it is a fair insult to the hard-working people in the sector.

What is happening in this Chamber is definitely an insult. It is an insult to the people of Ireland, the working people. It is an insult to the farmers who put so much into producing good food and who have abided by every rule and regulation. What the Government has announced here today will make no material difference. I have no personal gripe with the Minister of State whatsoever but does it not tell it all that the Government has a man who suggested we should bring back wolves? There are enough wolves around barking at every fellow’s door and people trying to stay going. In case the Minister of State does not know it, millions of euro of work has been postponed or cancelled. Hundreds of jobs are being put on hold because people cannot tender or see a way to carry on. To offer a reduction of as little as 2 cent is a shame and disgrace.

There is something else happening here as well, of course. We need to get accountability. Where is the regulator? The price of green diesel has almost crept up to the price of white diesel. There needs to be accountability but whatever is done is being taxed the Government. It is talking about putting up the carbon tax again in May. Other countries have imposed a cap to ensure people know where they are going and to ensure certainty. The increase is too much of a jump in a short time. It is an insult to farmers.

What about the elderly who are trying to heat their homes? They have also got a reduction of 2 cent.

God almighty, the Minister of State will have to review this and be fair about it. The Government must admit that since the Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations were closed down, the price of electricity has gone up weekly. It is 38% or 39% more than it was before the Government closed down those two power stations. What are we doing? We are here one day castigating Putin and every day we are buying coal from him to keep Moneypoint going. That is the truth. That is the God's gospel truth. It is a shame because Europe and our country have been built up. Putin should not be anywhere doing the harm that he is. He should not have been put in a position where he was so powerful that he could do that.

I welcome the payment to the healthcare workers. I believe it is unfair that some are deemed ineligible for the payment either because they were sick or had Covid. That must be looked at. Surely, the Minister will see the light there.

Of course, the Government does not want Shannon LNG. The Tánaiste says he has other plans. When will they materialise? We need gas at the present time. We should be able to buy gas from the USA, or people that are inclined to sell it to us at a reasonable price. The Government does not want Shannon LNG. It would create jobs for people in County Kerry and, in particular, north Kerry, as well as provide energy security.

The Acting Chairman never put up a finger to anyone else. Why is he putting up a finger to me now? I still have time on the clock.

The Deputy is wasting his time.

I can see the time every bit as good as you.

I am hurting you because you are Fine Gael. I am not one bit sorry in the world.

It is Fine Gael that joined the Greens and Fianna Fáil joined the Greens. Shut your mouth while I am talking.

Shut your mouth while I am talking and do not interrupt me.

What has happened here today-----

Do not push your luck, Deputy.

There is a certain decorum that is maintained in the House. You will not tell the Chair to shut up.

You are talking over me.

If you want to fight for your lunch, pick on somebody else.

The Government is making no material difference with what it is suggesting that we vote for later today. It is very unfair. The Government is being dishonest with the people. It could do more. It is saying that it cannot do more and that it is being stopped by Europe. I ask the Government to think of the people trying to go to work, morning after morning, and what it is costing them. I ask the Government to think of the farmers whose backs are to the wall and the employers. It is jeopardising all of this by not helping them in a meaningful way. The Government is making no attempt to help them. The Greens, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will suffer as a result of this, because the people are completely disillusioned with what is going on here in this Chamber in these times.

We are in unprecedented times. We have gone from a Covid crisis into a Ukrainian crisis. Clearly, we have to support the people of Ukraine, but there are issues that we must deal with domestically. We learnt a lot from the pandemic. The measures we bring in must be quick, decisive and very much sectorally-based, and they must take away uncertainty. What we are facing at the moment is coming at an enormous speed, virtually overnight. We are facing an increase in food and energy costs. Across society, sectors are being severely impacted. Everybody uses petrol, diesel and heating oil. Everyone has to eat. It affects all sections of society, some more severely than others. Certainly, the haulage sector is under severe pressure. Lower-income households are also under severe pressure. We are now moving into a second unprecedented event with the Ukrainian crisis, after just coming out of the Covid pandemic.

We can learn from Covid. Many of the measures that we brought in have been road-tested and they have worked. The EWSS and PUP scheme have worked. The various supports for different sectors have worked. We came through. People in various sectors were impacted severely and many of them are still suffering. Many in the hospitality sector are still being affected by the pandemic. Generally, as a country, our revenues held up. Coming into this, the economy generally, and the State's finances in particular, are in a reasonably good position. Our borrowings are high, but we are in a reasonably good position to deal with this particular crisis. What was announced today with the cut in excise duty is just the start. We have to keep it under review. Obviously, there are constraints in what we can do in terms of Europe, but it is something that we must be conscious of. The difference this time is that major inflationary measures are coming. There are external reasons the price of energy is going up and the price of food will go up. We need security of supply. The Government came through the pandemic crisis. We did not get everything right, but certainly, in the main, we got a lot of things right. Many businesses came through. Now, we are presented with different challenges, but the blueprint is there. The difference between Covid and now is that when Covid happened, it was a blank page. Now, it is happening and we know which measures worked and which did not. The difference here is that we will have to ensure that we find ways to guarantee that people can afford to live. That is the biggest difference now, particularly around energy and food. This will have to be reviewed on a continual basis. The factors are changing very much outside our own control. The one thing that we learned from Covid is that we must move decisively and with speed. That is what takes away the degree of uncertainty. It is something that I would like to see happening and I have no doubt that it will.

This Bill brings to light a number of points. First, it reminds us that the Covid pandemic is not over yet, and that families, households and businesses are still being affected by the threat and the effects of the virus. It also reminds us that the pandemic is never far away, and that we must maintain a state of readiness for any further complications that may lie ahead. Yet, the way certain key health workers are being excluded from the pandemic special recognition payment, which this Bill provides for, is a profound insult to them. These people are likely to be disproportionately affected by the one factor that has made the fragile situation in which many businesses and families have found themselves even worse, namely, the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent rise in energy costs that is affecting every person and business nationwide. Only this morning, a hospital worker contacted my office to say that where it once cost him €65 to €70 a week to fill a car, it now costs him €110. He also said that any changes that the Government's excise duty reduction will make have already been written off. He rang around a number of petrol stations, which are charging between €2.09 per litre of petrol and €2.24 per litre of diesel. They told him that their prices would not be changing tomorrow as they had already bought in their fuel. By not putting a cap on prices, the changes that the Government is suggesting will do little to offset the challenges being faced by people, both now and in the time to come.

I also want to raise an issue with this Bill that was discussed at length by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, namely, the provision in the Bill to provide for the tax treatment of payments made under the proposed Brexit whitefish fleet decommissioning scheme 2022. I am sorry, but I cannot understand how this Government cannot be anything but embarrassed at finding itself in a situation of its own making, whereby the fishing industry is being asked to close for business. This is all that this Government seems to be able to offer the sector, wiping out a third of the vessels that operate in Ireland's offshore commercial whitefish fleet. It is equally regrettable that when another matter concerning the fishing industry was debated on Committee Stage, every amendment that was tabled by Sinn Féin and the independent groups was rejected. That, of course, is the targeting of the fishing sector through the improper design of the traffic light system. To conclude, as we consider this Bill and the measures taken to address the Covid-19 crisis, we have to pay particular attention to one thing.

That one thing is the lessons that were learned and how those lessons are used to address the serious shortfalls in the health system that were exposed when the crisis hit. How long will the emergency department of University Hospital Limerick be bursting at the seams? How long will children across County Tipperary have to wait years to get assessments of need? How long will we continue to see the stripping of community health services from towns such as Carrick-on-Suir and Roscrea? Can the Government honestly say it is addressing the shortfalls the pandemic exposed? I do not think so.

We now move to Deputy Ó Murchú, who has 20 minutes.

It is unlikely I will be able to get all my points in within that time.

I probably will not be quite as eloquent as other speakers.

We are in an incredibly difficult situation. All Members accept the difficulties that led to the supports being introduced. We all know that none of us had any part to play in the creation of the pandemic. Rather, it was foisted upon us and a determination was made that we needed to protect the people and, beyond that, businesses and families, so supports were introduced. All Members welcome the €1,000 special recognition payment. I know there are issues relating to those working in section 38 and section 39 organisations, as well as the wider issue of family carers once again feeling hard done by. There are issues in respect of ratio payments and all the rest of it that do need to be considered. On the whole, however, it is something that should have happened earlier. We are very glad to see it happen now. However, like I said, we made a determination in respect of carrying out these supports.

Once again, we are in a situation that is not of our making. There were already conditions of inflation due to the outworkings of Covid and Brexit but, beyond that, we have had to deal with the absolutely criminal and murderous invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. Once again, support and solidarity has to be shown to the Ukrainian people but, in addition, we have to consider what mitigations can be introduced for our own people in the present circumstances. Plenty of Deputies have laid out the human situation of people who cannot afford to fill their home heating oil or make necessary journeys to hospitals or elsewhere. We have all seen how prices have shot up. Sinn Féin welcomes the fact that there are some mitigations from the Government but more will be needed.

Pegging petrol prices at €1.75 per litre is not necessarily exactly where people want them to be but it is a point of mitigation and we need to ensure that happens across the board. We recognise there has been a significant increase in the tax take and that has to be taken into account when decisions are being made. I call on the Government to consider that to ensure there is a pegging system and some sort of baseline that people will know they will pay at the pump.

I get that there are wider issues that need to be considered and that, unfortunately, we are still far more wedded to fossil fuels, and even, in some cases, to Russian fossil fuels, than we would like to be. We are not as far on as we would like to be when it comes to wind energy. There is an onus on us to deal with that. We also have to deal with the specific issue of home heating oil and the pressure in that regard.

In the past week, I raised the issue of the district heating system at Carlinn Hall, Dundalk. Unfortunately, it is a very inefficient heating system. It was initially meant to run on biofuels but ended up, as a result of unintended consequences, being heated by gas, and it loses 50% of that gas. Basically, 100 units of gas give 50 units of heat to the house. The problem is that Frontline Energy, the company that buys from Energia, is charged as a commercial customer. I have raised this issue previously. I brought it to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. It is a specific issue that will need to be dealt with. There are several of that type of district heating systems and they work in certain circumstances, such as when they use the likes of what is being proposed for Poolbeg, that is, where there is basically a heat dump that can be used rather than wasted. Obviously, that makes sense from an environmental point of view but we need to ensure there are no more situations such as that in Carlinn Hall. We will need to find solutions, particularly for people in the likes of Carlinn Hall. That will involve some sort of protection for domestic users.

It is straightforward. I will not take up any more time. We brought in the protections relating to Covid because they were needed. We are now in a situation that is not of the making of the Government or the Opposition, but we do need to protect our people. We need to mitigate where we can. I accept some of this needs to be done at European level. There is an onus on the State to make sure our voice is heard there, but we also need to do exactly what we can and there is still an opportunity to do that tonight.

I believe the Government does not appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the crisis in which we find ourselves in respect of the fuel, heating and energy costs that are facing every family in the State that is grappling with such costs. A proposal such as the one that has been put forward is a mere drop in the ocean. Taking 20 cent off a litre of petrol, 15 cent off diesel and 2 cent off agricultural diesel is an insult. I thought I read it wrong when I saw it was only 2 cent a litre off agricultural diesel, yet the Government is expecting farmers to perform miracles by increasing crop growth and getting involved in that activity. How does it expect farmers to do so if it is only cutting excise on agricultural diesel by 2 cent a litre? I ask that of the Government because it appears it has no understanding of rural Ireland or how farmers operate. It is shocking. I would appreciate it if the Government listened to farming organisations and the people of rural Ireland, who have already told the Government this and that there was a deep crisis long before there was a war in Ukraine.

I and my colleagues have been raising for the past year and a half in the House the issue of rising costs of living and the fact that people are really struggling. We are not alone in doing so. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has also raised it. It is receiving unprecedented numbers of calls, such as from people who cannot afford heating oil and are in deep crisis.

There are solutions. One solution is to completely suspend the carbon tax. It is an unfair, unjustified and regressive tax that will have serious repercussions in rural Ireland. I know for a fact that many agricultural contractors have gone out of business because of the carbon tax and the effect it has had on their businesses. I hope the Government will see sense and postpone such an increase. Indeed, I oppose this tax, as do my Rural Independent Group colleagues, because it is unfair and regressive.

It is alarming that there is no reference in the Government announcement to home heating oil or cutting excise duty on it. That is shocking when one considers the Government has closed down the midlands in terms of Bord na Móna operations. It is crazy. I ask the Government to give more consideration to allowing people to continue their traditions of turf cutting and to allow that to compensate for the fact that we do not and will not have a ready supply of oil. There is a shortage of oil, in addition to the rise in prices due to the current crisis. The logical, common-sense and right thing to do is to allow people to cut turf to compensate for what is happening and until we have alternatives. We do not have alternatives at present. To close down entire operations and stop people from cutting turf is quite shocking in light of the crisis we are in now. I ask the Government to look at that again.

I have been raising the issue of the crisis faced by hauliers for a significant time, since long before the war in Ukraine. I asked for the rebate to being increase from the current 7.5 cent per litre rate. In countries such as France it is 19 cent per litre, while in Belgium it is 22.5 cent. It is alarming that there could be serious disruption to the supply chain if hauliers cannot continue in their businesses.

I have spoken to hauliers, including Ger Hyland of Hyland Transport in Rosenallis. There is huge concern. Those people are the experts. They know how the industry runs and what needs to be done. It is my understanding that the IRHA has reached out to the Government on a number of occasions, long before the crisis got this bad.

There are serious concerns. Other transport companies, such as Nolan Transport, a huge company, are also concerned. Many jobs in rural Ireland are created by hauliers, but the Government is not giving them fair play. It is not giving the agricultural sector or ordinary motorists trying to get to work in order to bring in money to survive and meet their weekly bills fair play. Everybody in the country is affected.

The announcement from the Government is a mere drop in the ocean. It is not enough. I ask the Government to go back to the drawing board and immediately revise the carbon tax increase to make sure it does not happen. I also ask it to re-examine the home heating oil situation and allow people to burn fossil fuels and try to put something sensible in place. Instead of punishing the people of Ireland, can the Government not bring in some measures that make sense and exercise some common sense when it is needed? As I said, we are now at a point of deeper crisis. We need action from the Government.

I have answered calls from constituents all day. They are absolutely flabbergasted at the lack of meaningful action. As I said, what was announced today is a mere drop in the ocean. The price of diesel and petrol has shot up and will continue to do so. What was announced will not solve the problem, but the Government will cause serious disruption to our supply chain because many hauliers will have to park up. I do not want to see that.

I plead with the Government, on behalf of ordinary working people who are struggling to survive, to take meaningful and urgent action. The Government is not always bound by EU directives. There is nothing stopping it from dropping carbon tax on home heating oil. As far as I am aware, there is no EU directive relating to that. The Government needs to be fair and compassionate and take meaningful action that will help people in this country.

I am glad the Minister is here because I have some questions. I was in the Chair earlier and listened attentively to his opening speech. What is happening is unbelievable and bizarre. It is grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable, GUBU. We are back in the days of the 1980s. The people cannot survive. I cannot understand the disconnect and why Government backbenchers are not telling the Government that. Are they in hiding?

The people are infuriated with the cost of living. The war is horrific and what is happening is outrageous, but this crisis was heading towards us in a gale force 9 storm before there was ever a shot fired or troop landed by Russia anywhere near Ukraine. A perfect storm was coming and the Government insisted on introducing a carbon tax. Why did the Government lock us out of voting on it again between 2020 and 2030? Carbon tax can be increased in every budget without any recourse to the House, or any discussion, debate or vote.

A businessman in my constituency, Willie O'Halloran, called me yesterday. When diesel was €1.60 the tax collected was 60 cent. If diesel is €2.60 the tax is €1.20 and if diesel goes to €3.60, which it could, the tax will be €1.80. The more prices go up, the more the Government is takes in. I want the Minister to address that honestly and tell me I am wrong. I asked the Minister of State about this, who acknowledged my point. This is daylight robbery. The Government is rubbing its hands like a fat pig going to market or a man in a fair rubbing his hands and making money out of people's misery. I cannot believe it. The Government is happy for prices to go up.

I voted against the carbon tax. Another increase will be put through in April. Will the Government change its mind on that? We have to completely change direction. We are in unprecedented times – that is one of the words in GUBU. It is a war situation. I do not remember the last war, but people told me about compulsory tillage and everything else. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, said there is a plan. Farming organisations met him yesterday and had damning criticism of him and his officials. There was no plan and nothing was discussed. What did the Minister do? He did something that the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, will go down in history for doing, namely, setting up a committee. A committee, commission or board of inquiry was what he set up as Minister for Health back in the 1980s, and he is continuing with that. There will be more papers, boards and board members being paid and nothing will be done.

I welcome the €1,000 payment, but I am disgusted and despise the way it was leaked from Cabinet. There was discussion about which people would or would not get the payment. The Government is dividing and conquering the people. There has been a lot of praise around Covid and a lot of things happened. I want to support everyone and sympathise with anyone who lost their life, but we are throwing around money like confetti at a wake. I remember the night the PUP was introduced. I fought with the Minister and begged him to base it on PRSI and what people were earning. Students who were earning €80 at the weekend got the full Covid payment. As an employer, I know that PRSI records are at my fingertips and it is paid weekly now, unlike five or six years ago.

Payback time is coming with a double whammy of the oil crisis and war. The people will be crucified. It is Lent, and Holy Week and Good Friday are coming, but the Government should not crucify all of the people. We crucified Our Lord once and that was enough. It was a horrific thing to do. I ask the Government not to crucify all of the people. Where is the compassion, moral compass and respect for the electorate? There are now so many bosses in government that it is like The Three Stooges. There is one today and there will be another one tomorrow, such as the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

I told the Taoiseach today that he is respecting, honouring and bowing down to the globalists and elite in Europe and is not serving the people. We as Teachtaí Dála are servants of the people. We are messengers of the people and must do good for the people. If we cannot do good, we should not do bad. The Government said "How high?" to Europe. How come Sweden, Denmark and Poland were able to reduce oil prices to 2018 levels? The Government has told us it will not go near VAT.

The paltry measure the Government came up with yesterday was a 20 cent cut in road diesel. Some businesses increased prices by 20 cent, and I condemn that fundamentally. It is a horrible thing to do. It is price gouging. The Government leaked the measure. Why did it not make a decision and announce it straight away so that companies could not increase prices? Some places increased prices by more than 20 cent last night. Prices went up three times today in one filling station I know.

The Government is reducing tax on road diesel by 15 cent. I said earlier to the Taoiseach that lorries will be abandoned in yards because they require AdBlue. If that is not used, vehicles will stop and be left on our roads. The Taoiseach did not answer my question. He said the hauliers are great and export all of our stuff that Europe buys from us. We pay a high price for support from Europe. It is not very supportive of us. It did not support of us during Brexit and in many other areas.

We have sold our sovereignty. I do not know what is left. Everything in this country has been sold bar the kitchen sink. What we have not sold, the Government will have sold before it is run out of government. It will be a long time before these parties are back in government again. This is nothing personal towards the Minister.

The farmers of Ireland are being asked to plough more. It now costs €300 to fill an average tractor, and that fuel would not last a day. AdBlue is required for modern tractors. I have an email in which the Green Party suggested an EU directive suggested that farmers could not plough up but only down a hill. People come up with that kind of bunkum. I know of high, dangerous land where people cannot plough up hills. People will be stopped from ploughing up hills. The Government stopped people ploughing and setting corn. The Minister was not involved in the set-aside policy, but his party was. It was an attack on nature. Spraying meant that birds, bees and other insects could not live on land.

Fianna Fáil closed the sugar factory, which was the biggest mistake that was ever made. We are now dismantling the fishing industry and giving it compensation, a horrible dirty word, to scrap vehicles. Who will feed the people with fish, a natural resource so much of which we have sold off? Who will be able to plough, sow, spray, mind, reap and harvest tillage crops if they do not have the fuel to do so?

I cannot believe the Government did not do anything about home heating oil.

The folly of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the directives from his Department is that one cannot build a house with a chimney now. People are going to freeze in their houses, and they cannot boil a kettle if they are depending on the ESB. If we get temperatures of -10°C or -12°C, the heat pumps to heat the air will stop. We know that from the last big freeze we had in 2010. Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan Rialtas? The Government is absent and is missing in action. It is persecuting the people. I do not know what kind of a death wish it has against the people. Cromwell was not as bad. We resisted him out in Cluain Meala, but he told people to head off to Connacht. The Government is giving people no place to go.

There is land in Kerry, Donegal and many other counties that is not arable. It cannot be ploughed. There is land in the valley of the Suir and the owner, Michael Morrissey, was always boasting that in 1947, when there was compulsory ploughing, he had 330 Irish acres of land - tá sé imithe anois; fuair sé bás - and there were three fields he did not have to plough because it was wetland that flooded. The Government is not taking that into account at all. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is in dreamland. He came up with a dream. The farm organisations, including Macra na Feirme, condemned what happened. They went in expecting action, but there was an empty room, empty heads and no ideas. There was no vision and no passion. It was decided to set up a committee that will meet on Friday. Imagine that, in the middle of a crisis that was here long before a bullet was ever fired in Ukraine or a soldier moved next or near it, but the Government will blame that. It has been blaming Covid for everything for the last two years. As far as I am concerned, it was total overkill. The narrative was driven by the media. Are we going to allow the narrative in this war to be driven by the media again? We are.

The Government is supposed to govern. The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, is talking about setting up another citizens' assembly. This is a citizens' assembly anseo. I have the privilege of being elected here for the time being and so has the Minister. This is a citizens' assembly. There is no talk about the cost of the citizens' assemblies. The waste of money is just phenomenal.

The Government closed down all the peat plants and the coal burning stations. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I asked the Taoiseach if he would re-examine the LNG plant - the answer was "No" - and if he will try to do some harvesting at sea - the answer was "No". We are ten years away from any real solar energy and wave energy. We are going to be perished with the cold. We will have three coats on us. I was in the Chair here this afternoon and everything went off aside from the lights. It was a technical glitch. We are all going technical now, with switches for this and switches for that, but we cannot light a fire. Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta because we cannot get the kippens that I remember an old lady in Newcastle, Josie O'Connor, gathering and keeping the fire warm. There is plenty of timber, but the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, does not want to cut it. He wants to make window boxes out of it, south-facing ones, and put carrot seeds and whatever else in them. That is his view, and we all know what he thinks about people. However, why is the Government allowing itself to be led along by the nose by the Green Party? I am not a climate change denier, but it is big hoax to punish the people. Carbon tax is a punitive tax and affects people in fuel poverty more than anything else.

It is one fiasco after another. The Minister for Finance was here last week and he insulted us, saying we did not cost anything. I asked the Minister about the children's hospital, that daft black hole that was built in the wrong place. It was a political decision by the Minister's leader and others to build it there. It is still not out of the hole, and it is going to cost billions. The national broadband plan costs billions. The Government is going to bring water from the Shannon to Dublin, through the best of the land that we are going to plough and till and grow grass on, to put it into a pipe system that leaks 48% of the water, as independent studies have shown. Kindergarten children would not behave like this, but the Government is behaving like this in the national Parliament. The Taoiseach is gone off somewhere - I do not know where he said the summit is. It is not a summit at all, but a gathering. We are welded to the globalists and the EU masters. When they say, "Jump", the Taoiseach asks how high. The Minister for Finance is the same. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is going to the Bilderberg conferences and God knows where else. World order is the next thing, when we will not have enough to eat.

In the middle of it all, I understand the Cabinet was informed yesterday that the ESB made a profit of €620 million last year. It is fleecing people with charges. The public service obligation, PSO, levy is fleeced from customers to pay for wind turbines. When the wind is not blowing when it is sunny, they are stopped and when the wind is blowing too strong, they are turned off. That is plunder of the people. The ESB should be held to account. It is a semi-State body. The Minister should call it in and tell it that it can make a profit of perhaps €10 million or so, but €620 million is more than €2 million a day. People cannot pay the bills. The bills in restaurants, pubs or any catering industry have gone up, not to mention those of the homes, the schools and voluntary boards of management trying to collect it. The Government has lost all sense of perspective and of reality. The more it puts on in taxes and the higher the price of fuel goes, the better it likes it. The Government tells us about the GDP rate and so forth. That is on the back of the blood and sweat of the people. People have to travel to work, but they will not be able to go to work. Building and construction sites will be stopped. Machines will be parked because people cannot afford to use them. They have tenders and contracts for jobs at fixed prices. They are in a perilous situation and all the Government does is go off to whatever city is picked - it might be Venice or the like - to have an informal, not formal, meeting.

I would love to know what is going on behind those closed doors. What is going on at Bilderberg? What is going on at other global meetings to which the globalist Fine Gael is connected to? Now, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, is running after it, trying to be as good as it. It is so he will get a fat job in Europe when he is run out of this Government and out of this Parliament by the people. No doubt, he will be appointed to Europe, like many others who were here. I could name some of them, but I will not. Shame on the Government to do this. We are voting against this. I did not even talk about the measure the Minister is introducing tonight regarding the excise duty. We submitted an amendment, but we have not had sight of the amendments yet, not even at this time of night and when we are due to debate it in 20 minutes.

I will comment on some of the issues raised by Deputies relating to the employment wage subsidy scheme, the pandemic special recognition payment and the emergency support schemes we had in place. I welcome the recognition by many Deputies that the support schemes played an invaluable role in protecting our economy as we grappled with the darkest moments of the pandemic. The employment wage subsidy scheme, the Covid restrictions support scheme and various other schemes such as the debt tax warehousing scheme, which will be in place across the coming years, have all protected and saved jobs during a period in which we were asking people not to go to work and asking employers to close because it was not safe for them to be open. We had a very high level of obligation to those employers and workers over this period and, as a Government, we fulfilled it. I acknowledge the constructive role that most Deputies played in this regard by supporting this legislation and seeking to improve it in different ways.

With regard to the debate this evening on the use of the employment wage subsidy scheme and the fact that a small number of employers who were on the scheme paid dividends, I acknowledge that this is an issue of concern to the House. However, the vast majority of employers who were on the scheme did not pay dividends. As regards those who did pay dividends in that period, it is a sign of some of them beginning to be in profit but also being able to invest in their own future and being able to maintain and grow jobs across the period and in the years ahead, in which we face even fresher and new challenges.

A number of colleagues raised a point regarding the future of wage subsidy schemes. We have a group in place, which is part of the pathways to work strategy, in which we will examine whether there is the potential for new, short-time work support programmes that will build on the lessons we have from the employment wage subsidy scheme and the temporary wage subsidy scheme. There is a working group under way in this regard.

Different points were made about the pandemic special recognition payment. I am advised by the Minister for Health that the Department of Health and the HSE are currently consulting with health sector trade unions. This consultation is part of the Department's and the HSE's objective to finalise the application of this measure fairly. Upon the conclusion of consultations with trade unions, full details of the application process will be published by the HSE.

It is intended that the payments will be instructed later this month.

Other issues have been raised regarding excise and fuel costs. I will leave that to the debate this evening. We will debate the proposals that have been brought forward by the Government. A number of Deputies, including Deputies Shortall and Shanahan, touched on the proposals on debt warehousing. I emphasise this is a scheme that will be in place for some businesses until 30 April 2023. That is some way away from where we are at present. I know Revenue will engage on a pragmatic basis with companies to agree a suitable phased payment plan for tax liabilities. I know it will be flexible and will recognise the value of those employers.

As I said in my introduction, I hope this is the last piece of legislation that will refer to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. It puts in place many of the provisions we need to conclude schemes that played a very valuable role in supporting jobs and employers during the pandemic. I thank Deputies who have recognised the work of the officials and the Revenue Commissioners in acting with great speed in implementing large programmes. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
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