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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Question No. 98 taken with Written Answers.

Fiscal Policy

Richard Bruton

Question:

99. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Finance if he will indicate the relaxed European Union rules that are now available to member states' taxation and public finance ministers in order to assist in confronting the present crisis and if he will indicate the possibilities they open up. [46332/22]

If anyone could be in any doubt about the depth and length of the crisis we are now facing, such doubts were dispelled when war crimes were discovered in areas that President Putin had been forced to abandon. He is now proposing referendums in those occupied territories and is making nuclear threats. In that context, what changes in response are possible in state aid, tax relief, new credit guarantees, new approaches to warehousing bills or taxes under EU rules?

There has not yet been any further change in the budgetary framework that is available to countries. The general escape clause that keeps the EU fiscal rules in place but gives countries more flexibility in their levels of borrowing was activated again for this year and next year. That gives countries the flexibility they need to be able to borrow in response to the very pressing and serious global issues that the Deputy referred to and continue to come to light.

The country-specific recommendation to Ireland under the European semester process was for us to continue to adopt a neutral fiscal stance, which is a way of describing the need for us to help households and businesses but not do things that make the inflationary challenges faced by Ireland deeper and bigger. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and I aim to get that balance right and we are working to that end. A reviewed state aid framework is in place to allow countries to continue to put measures in place, particularly to support employers.

This has been of assistance to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in its plans to look at credit and how we could support businesses that are viable but are facing another really serious shock.

I concur entirely with the Deputy that we are seeing such evidence of further crimes against our fellow Europeans. I am sure the UN will have listened carefully to the words of President Zelenskyy and the call for further action that he has made.

I think the Minister. Anyone who listened to me will know I am calling for a national energy resilience campaign. I see potential state-aid obstacles standing in the way of such a scheme. In many businesses there are no supports for solar energy. The SME test which is to try to proof small businesses against some changes is not in place in Ireland. I see the potential for tax relief for retrofitting, for example, as a way of nudging people to do things now. I see smart meters which we have put in at enormous expense constrained by GDPR rules from being used to deliver savings to people. The Minister should look not at the macro but at the micro. Can we make changes that are now permissible which would nudge people to do things in the midst of this crisis? That would be very good in the long run as well as saving money in the short term.

I take the Deputy's point that we need to look at how we can provide guidance - probably stronger than nudging - to help to deepen the resilience he is referring to. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is looking at different ways in which this could be done. I know that the challenges we are facing at the moment with the price and availability of energy are very serious. As the Deputy knows, really important changes happened in the years after the last great energy shock of the 1970s which opened up new sources of energy and changed the price of that energy. Likewise, from the Irish point of view, we need to intensify two things that we are doing. First, we need to take the kinds of steps the Deputy mentioned and which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is working on to make better use of the energy that is available to us. Second, we need to go all out to make our country an exporter of clean energy to Europe and the world because we have the resources to do that.

I urge that consideration be given to short-period tax concessions with limited life to look at things like downsizing, adaptation of homes and vacancy. These two are structural high use of energy. We are not good at occupying effectively. Short-term tax concessions could help people who want to make changes to make those changes. It makes a lot of sense not only because we face housing difficulties but also because of the energy difficulties at the moment.

Deputy Bruton is a veteran of these kinds of policy debates and is well versed in the Dáil. He will know as well as I do that it is difficult to bring in tax reliefs and concessions that are short term in nature which can be quickly modified. That said, I know the House will be aware of two other ways in which we are trying to do this. I concur entirely with the Deputy that making use of existing buildings that are in place is not only necessary for responding to our housing needs but is also the most energy-efficient thing to do. The changes that the Minister, Deputy, Darragh O'Brien, has now announced on the fund to provide additional grants to taxpayers to make use of buildings that are currently unused and to broaden the application of that show how the Government is trying to respond to the need that the Deputy has identified. My commitment to introduce a vacant property tax to change the incentives regarding unused property is the other way in which we are aiming to do it. I thank the Deputy for raising these serious matters here today.

We need to skip over the next question.

I believe Deputy Griffin contacted your office. I do not know whether it is possible to take the question.

It is through the Ceann Comhairle’s office.

Yes, sorry, that is what I mean.

I actually thought I was going to let the Deputy, but it is grouped with other questions later.

Excuse me; I understand.

I would like to, but if I start, I would be in serious trouble so I will stick with the rule.

Question No. 100 taken after Question No. 101.

Mortgage Interest Rates

Bernard Durkan

Question:

101. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Finance the degree to which Irish mortgage borrowers can expect to be in a position to borrow at a similar rate to those available throughout Europe given their perceived Single Market entitlements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46365/22]

A pet subject of mine is access to the Single Market, to which we all aspire as members of the European Union. It relates to the costs of borrowing at this particular time with interest rates increasing. In the past we did not always avail of the same interest rates that prevailed in the rest of Europe.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter so regularly with me. I also thank him for his participation and attendance at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach on this and other matters which I greatly value.

The Deputy will be aware of the first part of what I am about to say, which is that this is a commercial matter for individual lenders. I cannot determine the interest rates they charge nor indeed is the Deputy asking me to do that. I wish to bring to the attention of the House some changes that have occurred in this area. The interest rates on new mortgages in Ireland are now falling. For example, in July 2022, which is the latest information available to me, the weighted average interest rate was 2.63%, which is down from 2.69% at the end of 2021 and 2.73% in July 2021. Most new mortgages in Ireland are now fixed-rate mortgages and the average interest rates on these mortgages of 2.5% at the end of July is a little bit lower.

While I grant that these are only very gradual and moderate changes, they are in the context of change that has been taking place over recent years where we have seen this gradual change occur. The gap between average Irish and eurozone mortgage interest rates was 1.4% at the end of 2021. At the end of July, it is now 0.55%. That gap has narrowed and has changed. Much could yet happen with those interest rates in the time ahead as the House is aware, but that narrowing has occurred in the recent period due to changes the Deputy is aware of as more fixed-rate products have been accepted by consumers.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which I fully understand. Unfortunately for some borrowers in this country it would appear that when the interest rates increase across Europe, we get the benefit of parity with them, but that if they are lower than our interest rates, we do not get parity. I appreciate all the reasons and understand them fully. However, under the rules of the Single Market we are entitled to the same as everyone else as it happens, whether we like it or not or whether they like it or not. As I have mentioned previously, a taxation subcommittee of the Parliament is going around Europe at the moment. As has been the subject of various discussions, it will seek to impose wealth taxes on inheritance taxes and increase them in a punitive way. In order to do that, it wants to get control over the financial system and have majority voting apply, in which case it would then determine budgets, taxation etc.

I thank the Deputy for his steadfast approach to these matters in recent years. I know he is strongly supportive of the European Union. He equally appreciates that some decisions need to be taken at a national level and we need to protect our right to do so. The Deputy is, of course, correct about the operation of the Single Market. However, national regulators still determine how much capital individual national banks hold, which in turn plays a role in the setting of interest rates in the different jurisdictions. Other institutions and forces are involved in the setting of interest rates.

I go back to the point I made to the Deputy a moment ago. At the end of 2021, the average mortgage rate in the eurozone was 1.29%.

In July it went to 2.08%, so it went up. Across the same period, it has gone from 1.4% at the end of 2021 in Ireland to now 0.55%. That is the narrowing of the differential.

I understand and appreciate that. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply, but we need to remain vigilant. While we are a committed member of the European Union, and we appreciate all that the European Union has done for us, we are also members of the eurozone and have been committed members of that. As I had to explain to some of our visitors the other day, we stood by and defended it when a lot of other people were attacking it. The fact remains that we must be vigilant.

I thank Deputy Durkan for tabling the question. Notwithstanding the Minister's response - the narrowing of the gap is very welcome - we are subject to competition in Ireland and that has been our biggest issue because we are such a small country. There has been much talk about banking union, which would have an impact upon the sort of products Deputy Durkan referred to in his question, but also for insurance and assurance. Probably one of the biggest issues at the moment, of which I am sure the Minister is only too aware is liability, in particular for the likes of bouncy castles and all the rest of it. With an open market, we can see other jurisdictions bringing products into Ireland that are not currently available. Notwithstanding the narrowing, as the Deputy has said, there are opportunities for us to be vigilant as to the price volatility.

I and the Department of Finance will be forever careful and monitoring developments in this area because it is so fundamental to us. Deputy Farrell made an important point regarding the provision of financial services such as insurance products. I recognise the work the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has done in this area where he has been making the case for Ireland as a good place for new insurance services to be provided. He has been successful in supporting and making progress with the availability of insurance products for particular parts of the economy that have been difficult to get. As Deputy Farrell has outlined, I am well aware of the difficulties we have had in getting insurance in some areas in recent years. It is very important that we continue to offer an environment in which a wide variety of insurance services are available within the country. We are also a banking market in which two banks have just left, and we need to be honest in acknowledging the impact that has had and the signals it has sent out about Ireland. That is why now being vigilant, as the Deputy has just said, regarding competition in the economy and the role the three large banks are going to play in meeting mortgage and lending needs for the economy and people is such an important priority for the Department of Finance and for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CPCC, and the work the Central Bank does.

We now go back to Question No. 100, which Deputy Carroll MacNeill is taking on behalf of Deputy Colm Burke.

Tax Code

Colm Burke

Question:

100. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Finance if consideration will be given to increasing inheritance tax thresholds given the increase in house prices; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46185/22]

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for facilitating the question, which I am taking on behalf of Deputy Colm Burke. In fact, I take it on behalf of many people with a strong interest in the answer to this question on inheritance tax thresholds having regard to the progressivity of the income tax and local property tax systems and the rise in house prices. What is the Minister's view on that following this week's commission on taxation report?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. As she is aware, capital acquisitions tax, CAT, is a tax which applies to both gifts and inheritances. The relationship between the person giving a gift or inheritance and the person who receives it determines the maximum amount, known as the "group threshold", below which CAT does not arise.

As Deputy Carroll MacNeill will be aware, I am not in a position to indicate any decisions that I am going to make in a detailed way in advance of the budget but, in responding to the proposals by the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, I did make very clear that in general I do not have any plans to increase the amount of inheritance tax people pay at the point at which inheritance takes place.

I fully appreciate how sensitive a matter this is for many families. I appreciate that at moments of death and difficulty within families these issues are sensitive and we need to be fair to them. In general, that is my view on the matter. I made this clear when the commission's report was published last week. The Deputy will appreciate and understand that, for now, I cannot go any further than that in terms of any detailed responses I might make, in particular in light of the changes that are happening in the value of homes in recent years.

I thank the Minister for his response. I sometimes wonder with the reporting of this whether people really understand who is concerned about it and who is bothered by it. It is as if it is all millionaires and billionaires that are somehow going to benefit from this. I keep thinking about a woman just off Johnstown Road in my constituency, who has paid off her mortgage with income after tax. Her husband is a mechanic. She has not had any change in her car since 2007. She has two daughters that she has put through college and supported with their education, who are now earning salaries as nurses and working extremely hard in hospitals in Dublin while living in Wicklow. What she is concerned about is making provision for her family. It is a very primal sort of concern. She has said to me she is not a rich woman, she is not flaithiúlach with her money in any way. She is a woman who has worked hard. She has never received nor sought anything from the State. She has put every penny she has into her family's education and making and providing a home for them. Her concern now is not her daughters' concern at the point of her death, but her reconciliation with herself that she has made provision for them. The questions around inheritance tax deeply upset people. They imagine that there will be some enormous change. People have a deep, primal feeling about how they make provision for their children, and them being stable, and they are concerned about that. That is why this debate is so important.

I thank the Deputy very much. I take her point that there are citizens who worked hard in their lives, in particular those who worked at a time when tax rates were far higher than they are now and when interest rates on the properties to which Deputy Carroll MacNeill refers were far higher than they are today or may even become. As people do all of that, they begin to think about their children and other family members. This is a very important decision for them. That is why I am pleased to confirm yet again to the Deputy that, in general, I am not planning any significant changes in this area at the moment. Any detailed matters in regard to this issue, as always, await budget day and the decisions we make. The point the Deputy makes to me this morning is well made. I know so many families, as do all Members of the House, who have worked hard during their lives and are now thinking about the future and what decisions they may have to make. I understand the point the Deputy makes.

It is an altruistic position because, as the Minister says, what a person is trying to do is make decisions in the best interests perhaps not of themselves but of their children and helping them to plan their lives. As the Minister says, these mortgages are paid off after tax from net income with tax rates extremely high and with no other source of support from the State. It is about being able to give certainty to people at a time of deep uncertainty, which we have had through Covid and that is of unknown duration. People can cling to something that is certain, which is that they have paid off their mortgage and they know they have done that. To be able to care for and make provision for their children, but not always other family members, is a very primal concern. I thank the Minister for his response. It will give important comfort to the type of people whom I have described who have worked extremely hard in this State as teachers, nurses and in various professions - the ordinary people of Ireland who have paid off their mortgages and who genuinely are concerned about this issue.

I thank the Minister for his response and the reassurance that the capital acquisitions tax will not rise in the budget. I cannot better what Deputy Carroll MacNeill has had to say in terms of the position that a relatively small number of people in the State find themselves. Having paid extortionate interest rates in the 1980s and high taxation, among other concerns, they want to support the future of their children when they pass.

I am not a fan or a supporter of this sort of taxation but I recognise it makes a valuable contribution to the Exchequer. I was heartened by the comments of the Minister at the debate on the Commission on Taxation and Welfare report last week and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute at this point.

As I said, I understand the important issues the Deputies are raising and I hope I have been clear in the responses I have given. We will continue with our work on preparing the budget.

Banking Sector

Brendan Smith

Question:

102. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Finance the discussions that he and his Department have had with the Central Bank in respect of an extension of the timeframe for banks (details supplied) exiting the market here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46296/22]

The Minister may recall I have been raising with him constantly in this House the difficulties arising for customers of KBC Bank and Ulster Bank due to their exiting the State. As he will be aware, the Border region areas, such as Cavan-Monaghan, had a heavy reliance on Ulster Bank, which had a great network of branches in the past that, unfortunately, diminished big time. The exiting of these banks from the State, in particular Ulster Bank, creates further difficulties for people in areas such as mine, where there will be a significant diminution in the level of financial services available. Furthermore, of course, people are meeting ongoing difficulties in setting up new accounts with other financial institutions.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge that he has been raising this issue with me from the beginning, at the moment when concerns began to develop regarding the future of Ulster Bank. Given the importance of that bank in the communities he represents, he has raised this issue regularly with me in the House.

As he will be aware, while I deeply regret the decision made by Ulster Bank and KBC, I do not have a role to play in the operational decisions they are making. Nevertheless, this is a matter of great focus for our Central Bank and the Department, and we are engaging regularly on this matter with the banks that are withdrawing. Representatives of both banks are meeting my officials at least monthly and providing information to the Department of Finance regarding account closures. My Department is also engaging regularly with the Central Bank of Ireland, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Banking & Payments Federation of Ireland to ensure a cohesive and orderly approach to this issue. Both banks are providing their customers with six months’ notice to close their accounts and have committed not to close any branches this year.

The advertising campaign that is under way, which is prominent and has a high profile, is reminding consumers of what they need to do. As for the progress made, on 9 September, the Central Bank released statistics on account change, which indicated that 24% of the current and deposit accounts that were open at the beginning of the year in Ulster Bank and KBC had been closed by the end of August. That points to the efforts that are under way to deal with this matter in a careful way. I want the remaining banks to have the resources in place to deal with the account migration that is under way.

I assure the Deputy the Central Bank and my Department will continue to monitor the matter closely because it is a very big project that matters deeply to those consumers and bank users that will switch bank.

I thank the Minister. His Department and the Central Bank have had more engagement with stakeholders since we debated this issue early in the process, and I welcome that. He stated that at the end of August, only 24% of customers had closed their accounts, which means 76% of people had yet to do so, with only 40% of the timeframe remaining. It is not practical to think this process of migrating huge numbers of accounts will be completed by the end of April next year. I accept that the Central Bank, which is in consultation with the two banks, cannot issue an edict, but it has to discuss what is realistic and what will happen. The last thing we need to see is accounts being closed automatically because people have not been able to meet the deadline. I know some very IT-literate people who could not transfer their accounts and set up new ones online. Some of them sought and got meetings in banks. Individual officials in various financial institutions have been helpful when people have got appointments, but the banks have not provided the additional personnel to their branches that they promised to provide. One bank quoted the number of additional staff it has taken on but it did not itemise the fact that a considerable proportion of those people were working abroad and not at branches in our State.

I agree that while 24% is a big change versus where we were earlier in the year, there remains a great deal that needs to be done. Nevertheless, while that means 76% of the accounts are still open, that does not mean all those accounts are still active. More than 600,000 new accounts have been set up in the three remaining banks, which points to consumers responding back to getting their accounts in order and getting ready to make the change.

I take the Deputy's point. We need to ensure that AIB, Bank of Ireland and PTSB do all they can to have the staff ready. I am aware of the concerns raised about this. At least one of the banks is planning to be open for four Saturdays in a row to get ready for this change, which shows the work that is under way, but the Central Bank and I will continue to engage in this matter because it is the biggest change to happen for many consumers of banking services in Ireland for a long time.

In the consultation the Minister and the Central Bank will have with the banks, I urge ongoing contact with the Financial Services Union, which has a great overview of what is happening at branch level and throughout the State. I compliment John O'Connell and his colleagues in the Financial Services Union on their advocacy on behalf not just of their union members but of the public in general in regard to banking and banking services.

The Central Bank has indicated that staffing within the banks is not adequate and has questioned how realistic the timeframe is. The Irish Farmers Association also has concerns. A large number of farmers will get payments from the middle of October and many of them do not have their new accounts in place. Similarly, Age Action Ireland has expressed concerns about people who have not had the opportunity to become familiar with IT and who are not able to open accounts on a personal basis. These are issues on which the Central Bank and the Department need to keep a constant eye and vigilance.

I appreciate the Minister's ongoing support on the matter.

There are indeed important issues we need to monitor and play a role in. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has reminded me of the role our credit unions can play in also providing new services and accounts to people who are former customers of the two banks that are leaving. I am very much aware of the point the Deputy made about how not everybody is able to access services digitally and through the use of IT, and I have information regarding the work the various banks have done to provide telephone numbers and helplines for customers who may be vulnerable or who may be experiencing the kind of difficulties to which he referred. I will not take up the time of the House in reading out the telephone numbers but they are available. Customers have a responsibility and need to play their role in getting ready for this change but so do the banks, the Central Bank of Ireland and my Department, and we will certainly play our role.

Flexible Work Practices

Colm Burke

Question:

103. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Finance if financial supports for working from home will be increased given the increase in the cost of utilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46184/22]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

108. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Finance if he plans to expand remote-working relief in budget 2023; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46279/22]

Alan Farrell

Question:

111. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for Finance if financial supports for working from home will be examined given the increase in the cost of utilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46209/22]

The question of working from home has taken an unexpected, negative turn in recent months with the rise in energy prices, such as for gas and electricity. What is the Minister’s view on that as we enter the winter months?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 103, 108 and 111 together. The programme for Government includes a commitment to facilitate and support remote working. As part of the national remote working strategy, in 2021, the tax strategy group reviewed the tax arrangements for remote working in respect of both employees and employers. That paper is now available on my Department’s website.

Taking into account all these different factors, as announced in budget 2022, the tax arrangements for remote working were enhanced and formalised in line with Government policy to facilitate and support remote working. Accordingly, for the tax year 2022, an income tax deduction amounting to 30% of the cost of vouched expenses for electricity, heat and broadband in respect of those days spent working from home can be claimed by taxpayers. The amount of the relief will depend on the particular circumstances of the remote worker in terms of the level of costs incurred and his or her marginal tax rate. However, this measure provides some relief for those with additional expenses arising from working from home. At the same time, it ensures that the traditional burden of employer-related costs are not transferred from the employer to the State and by doing so, to the wider body of taxpayers.

As Deputies will be aware, as the current deduction relates to a proportion of the cost of the relevant expenses, the amount that may be claimed will, of course, increase as the value of those expenses increases too. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill referenced a moment ago, the environment regarding working from home has, of course, changed over the past number of months for reasons the House well knows. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies regarding the operation of this policy in the time to come.

An interesting point will be interplay between the retention of the deduction and any other changes that Government introduces with regard to energy supports more broadly and how that works out for individuals. It is extraordinary how external events impact behaviour in a collective way, whether it is the change to remote working and how much that has been of benefit to people, particularly families with children of a young age who have been able to be closer to home, which is so helpful.

Given the increase in energy costs, however, I wonder whether that behaviour will now shift back to the office environment and whether there will be incentives for people to spend more time at work instead of being at home, or what that balance may be in respect of transport costs and the additional costs of leaving a child in childcare for longer rather than being at home to avail of the shared heat and electricity available in office space. We did not expect the collective move to working from home in advance of the programme for Government. As the Minister said, we had hoped to provide it in the programme to enable that more but we did not expect the effect in that way. I wonder what the effect of this will be over the winter period.

I thank the Deputy. We will take questions from Deputies Michael Moynihan and Alan Farrell.

On Question No. 108, to expand on the points on working from home that have been made, the Department and Minister must take recognition of the benefit of working from home for people and to society. People had long commutes and then started working from home. We must accept as a State that working from home which, for want of better English, was a by-product of Covid-19, has such huge benefits. We want to make sure that when the State reflects on the paper on the Department's website, but also as we look at the policy and go into the budget next week, we strengthen what the State can do in support.

The Minister made the point that he did not want the cost of remote working for private industry coming back on to the State. However, if we take it in the round and consider the enormous benefit it has had to individuals, communities and people who have been able to relocate to rural areas and who continue to live in rural areas and work from home, there have been significant benefits to society. The Minister really needs to look at that in the round. It important that is taken into recognition when he is making decisions on the paper.

I thank the Minister for his response. A very fortunate several hundred thousand people got to stay home on what was a wet and horrible morning while more than 2 million people got into their cars or on trains, bicycles or otherwise to go to work, school or third-level institutions. As other Members said, this is about harnessing what Covid-19 brought us, which I believe to be of benefit, that is, the huge number of people who stayed at home and reduced their transport costs, reduced congestion and reduced their carbon footprint. I support any measure the Government can take to enhance that, particularly against the backdrop of rising energy costs.

Anecdotally, I was in the UK during the summer and spoke to a number of extended family members who all said the same thing. Their energy bills are predicted to double, triple and quadruple, and they will spend more time the office over the winter. Of course, that is understandable step. We in government have options, however. I will be interested to see what options are exercised on Tuesday.

I thank the Deputies for the points they made. It is probably a little too early to know what the equilibrium will look like in terms of working from home. Even if we did not have the energy price change that is occurring and we were living in - to use that phrase we used for a long time - a "new normal", I still think it would be early to see what the new patterns will be regarding where work will take place. The world of work is undergoing so much change at the moment, not just due to the effects of Covid-19 but due to the fact that so many employers are working so hard to keep the workers they have and to get new ones, combined with the digitisation of the workplace that is taking place.

I do not believe the State should always be the first port of call for dealing with some of these costs. If this is an arrangement that works for the company, employer and employee, then the employer and company have a role to play in looking at how some costs can be alleviated. I know many different employers have done that over time.

The point was made by Deputy Moynihan that many of the benefits, particularly outside of our cities, have been really positive; I can see that. That is why going ahead with the national broadband plan was clearly the right thing to do. As noted by Deputy Alan Farrell, I am aware of how some of this may change if people see some of the costs of working from home begin to change. We will, of course, continue to monitor this to ensure we have an appropriate policy in place in that regard. We made a change last year and I will continue to monitor how it is impacting on where work takes place.

The Minister is quite right that the State cannot be the first port of call. There is, however, a general supervisory role and level of communication with businesses, in particular, to try to effect a degree of co-ordination that works for their employees. I spoke with one city centre business owner who has a core day on Wednesday. Everybody comes into the office on a Wednesday for the purposes of physically seeing each other and developing relationships and so on. That business also provides for three days per week in the office over the winter and two days per week over the summer in anticipation of summer holidays and sunny weather, etc., and just a better lifestyle. That is the planning by that business to create three core days to facilitate its employees to come in and, as I said, avail of the shared heat and electricity. It is that sort of signal from Government that we will maintain the balance in potential deductions. As the Minister said, however, business has a strong role to look after its employees. It is an important retention mechanism. We must think about it strategically and in a co-ordinated way so that we can share and pool our energy resources and costs in a way that is of maximum benefit to everyone.

I take the point regarding the State but we also need to take recognition of the State employees who can work from home, provide the same service and do the same job equally well from home a number of days per week. The State needs to examine this and make sure it has have every incentive in place in order that people are not commuting from the likes of my area in Duhallow to other large urban centres, and that they can work from home and from the hubs that are being developed in some villages and towns. There must be an incentive and a clear pathway whereby the State is saying it believes this is the future for a hybrid mechanism of working and it encourages this.

I agree entirely with Deputy Moynihan, and I support the Minister's comment that the Government does not necessarily have to be the first to move. As we all know, employers are responsible for ensuring their staff who happen to be working from home have suitable seating, among other things, which is important. The employers, therefore, play a role. I fully appreciate what the Minister is referencing and it is important that this message goes out. That said, certain issues will impact on employers, as other speakers have touched on, and it is important that the Department and the Government retain flexibility to address those matters, in addition to the welcome paper and guidance that has been issued by the Department of Finance and other Departments in recent years.

When State or local authority employees are working at home, they are often uncontactable. Part of this process should include the provision of facilities at home for employees of the State, local authorities and the HSE, paid for by their employers, to correspond over the airwaves with public representatives and other people who are trying to get them. It is a big and serious issue and these employees should be supported to do that.

The Deputy has concluded the discussion in an appropriate way because there has to be a balance. Public services still need to be provided, contact needs to be made available to citizens and consumers and employers still have to be viable and provide for and meet the needs of their customers. There is clearly a balance in how all this can be done. All the Deputies have acknowledged the huge change that has happened, and this change is beneficial for all the reasons I have heard. We need to monitor the impact the latest set of changes have on this trend and decide then if any further policy response is needed. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill said, the LEEF, which includes the Government, unions and employers, has tried to provide some guidance for how this matter can be dealt with within the private sector. As Deputy Moynihan said, we need to get the balance right in our public services to meet the needs he has referred to, while also ensuring public services are still provided.

Insurance Industry

Cormac Devlin

Question:

104. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Finance if he will report on the work that he has undertaken to bring down the cost of insurance for motorists, homeowners and businesses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46283/22]

The Government brought forward proposals that were enacted by the Oireachtas, which have brought benefits to people buying insurance cover generally. The voluntary and community groups that take out public and employers liability insurance have not benefited from the changes to the extent that they should have. This is an area that needs to be addressed.

The programme for Government recognises that insurance costs are a significant issue for some businesses, motorists, and households, as well as for sporting, community, and voluntary groups. Accordingly, the Cabinet committee subgroup on insurance reform was established to prioritise this area for further action. This reform work is being driven through the action plan for insurance reform, which sets out 66 actions, most of which have been completed. According to the second action plan implementation report, published in March this year, the reform agenda is progressing well, with some 80% of actions completed at that time. Further progress has been made in the meantime and some of the key achievements to date aimed at reducing costs include the following: first is the implementation of the personal injuries guidelines, and we are pleased that there have been judicial reviews on that which have been positive in standing over the judicial guidelines as originally set out; second, the Central Bank has put a ban on price walking for home and motor insurance, which will end the loyalty penalty imposed on some long-term customers. That was enacted and completed by the Oireachtas recently; third is the establishment of the office to promote competition in the insurance market, which aims to lower costs by promoting greater competition in the Irish market. That office is up and running and contains two elements. It is about increasing the number of businesses that are operating in the State to extend their footprint into areas where they are not issuing insurance at the moment and it seeks to encourage new insurance companies to come into the market. The main benefit of that is that it encourages consumers to come together and generate group schemes so they can go to some of the insurance companies with a significant portfolio of business, rather than each company going individually; and, fourth, is measures to reduce fraud, including the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Act 2021, which has concluded and passed through the Oireachtas, and further legislation will be coming up in the immediate future.

I will make a quick comment and maybe the Minister of State will reply to me in writing to enable other colleagues to get their questions in. Over the past 18 months public and employers liability insurance has increased by 16%. We need new insurers and the benefits of reform are not being passed on to business insurance of voluntary and community groups.

Disability Services

Pauline Tully

Question:

105. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Finance if he will provide an update on progress in the review of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46247/22]

I ask the Minister for an update on the progress that has been made to date on the review of the disabled drivers and passengers scheme.

As the Deputy will be aware, I gave a commitment to the House that a comprehensive review of the scheme would be undertaken. I am working with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on this and we both agree that the review should be brought within a wider review under the auspices of the national disability inclusion strategy. This work is under way, proposals are being developed and a further meeting of this group is taking place at the end of November to try to look at what modifications could be made to the existing scheme or whether a new scheme is needed. In parallel to this, I am supporting efforts that are under way to appoint a new board of appeal because I regret that no such board is in place. While it is taking a bit of time to do this due to the need for candidates to be Garda vetted, that work is under way.

As the Minister said, all the members of the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal resigned at the end of last year after expressing repeated concerns that the criteria for access to the scheme were way too stringent. The Minister said he is in the process of putting a new board in place but there are mounting numbers of people awaiting appeal and they are being left in limbo with nowhere to turn. The transport working group met in January and the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, stated that the review of transport supports for disabled people was a priority and that the working group's focus since that would be to scope the provision of transport supports across Departments and public bodies, with a view to assessing gaps and anomalies. I know there are many gaps and anomalies but surely this has taken far too long. How often has that working group met, how many people has it engaged with and has it engaged with the people who made up the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal for their expertise? Ireland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and there is an onus on us to provide access to transportation on an equal basis to enable people with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life.

I support Deputy Tully. We are constantly hearing about this at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters. The issues of disabled drivers and mobility need to be treated as a matter of extreme urgency by Governments and Departments to try to get a resolution to it. These people need a resolution of this point.

I take the points that have been raised by the Deputies. The working group has met on a number of occasions throughout the year and its next meeting is coming up in a number of weeks. I will play my role in trying to make progress on this issue because I accept that too many of our citizens are waiting for too long to know where they will be with the provision of valuable supports. We must work to appoint a new board and to conclude this policy work. My officials and myself will play our role in trying to accelerate and conclude that work.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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