National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2015 [Certified Money Bill]: Committee Stage

Bill put through Committee, reported without recommendation and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill be returned to the Dáil."

Will I have a chance to speak?

I will allow Senator Humphreys to speak. He missed his slot. The Minister of State was responding to Second Stage. If the Senator has a brief comment to make on the Bill, I will allow him some discretion.

I will not exploit the discretion the Acting Chairman has given me. I very much welcome the Bill. Investment in the tourism industry has brought real dividends. We must be slightly concerned about the VAT rate. The Minister of State referred to the 9% VAT rate which I support, although it needs to be a little more targeted. The Minister of State is right about the Dublin region. We must question whether we continue the 9% VAT rate. I accept that it would be very difficult to apply different VAT rates across the country. The Department should engage with the hospitality sector and inform it that the State, taxpayer and citizen need to see a return. The hospitality sector in the Dublin region, especially the hotel sector, is operating at capacity. If they are receiving a preferential VAT rate, there is an onus on employers to consider the long-term unemployed. They have a social and moral responsibility, especially given that they are receiving a tax break from Central Government. This tax break comes from the taxpayers and citizens and it is well over €300 million.

I have travelled quite a bit within Ireland on holidays, and restaurant prices have increased within and outside the Dublin region. Much of this relates to demand. The Minister of State mentioned Killarney. I was there recently and I also saw a substantial increase in bedroom rates and in the hotel sector. If we are not going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, we must ensure we keep our costs under control. Those costs are not labour costs but exploitation costs. The Minister of State mentioned that when there is a rugby match on a Sunday or an all-Ireland final, there is often exploitation of people who have to visit the city for those major championships. If we want them to return and use Dublin as a gateway, they must see value for money.

I ask the Minister of State to try to engage with the hospitality sector. When I was Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, I engaged with the sector regarding employment opportunities. A loud and clear message must be sent to the sector that if it wants to keep the benefit of the 9% rate, it must consider our unemployed people and youths for jobs. We can train them, but if the hospitality sector is not giving them the breaks and is constantly seeking visas for people to come in and work in those areas, it is unacceptable. We need to clearly tell the hospitality sector that if it does not play ball with us, we will put the 9% rate under the magnifying glass. Unless the sector considers employing people from the long-term unemployed group, they will lose the 9% VAT rate. They have got a very good deal and they have a social responsibility to step up to the plate.

I thank the Senator and other Senators for making the point. I agree with Senator Humphreys and that is why one of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister of State was to call in the Irish Hotels Federation and make very clear the Government’s dissatisfaction about what is happening in Dublin and certain aspects of the Dublin hotel base. Unfortunately, we need many more hotel rooms in Dublin. We cannot magic them up. If there are planning bottlenecks, we need to ensure they are widened and we can address it. I view the importance of ensuring we have adequate hotel space in the same way as we view other key pieces of infrastructure that are needed to drive the economy. In the recent past we have had the advent of a hotel which I was honoured to open, the Holiday Inn Express on O’Connell Street.

Local authorities can do much more in their areas. Hoteliers and people in the hospitality industry will say there are many areas in which they would love a face lift regarding street furniture, footpaths and public lighting and the basic infrastructure required to ensure a place is attractive for people to come in and make the massive investment of constructing a hotel. Senator Humphreys knows exactly where I am talking about. There are many places in the city that are in dire need of a face lift. I said so in the Dáil in a debate on 1916. O’Connell Street is one of the key pieces of historic infrastructure in the country. Although it is of great national significance, it has been let fall over a number of years and by a number of successive councils. Dublin City Council has neglected North King Street and other areas around this very important area from Heuston Station down to the Customs House, on both sides of the River Liffey. It has nothing to do with the Government or the Seanad. Dublin City Council needs to take its responsibility much more seriously. If we are asking people to come and make massive investments in hotels and accommodation, the very least they should have is a decent level of public lighting and street furniture.

The Senator mentioned exploitation and employment opportunities. In my response to Senator Ned O’Sullivan, I mentioned the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board. It has a fantastic record of getting employment for people from disadvantaged areas in Limerick in the local Limerick hospitality area. This is not about work visas but about our ETBs which are empowered under legislation to do the job they are required to do to meet a skills deficit. If they can do it in Limerick, they should be able to do it in Dublin. There is no reason the ETBs in this city cannot replicate exactly what is being done in the Limerick and Clare area and give opportunities to young people from disadvantaged areas to get a start in life on the first rung of the ladder.

The hotels in the mid-west region, including Clare, Limerick and north Tipperary, will say the initiative being taken in the old Krups factory, now Limerick Enterprise Development Partnership, LEDP, in Roxborough, is key to ensuring there are young people who are interested. I have met them. They are up for it and are full of enthusiasm. They are the front window of Irish tourism and are the ambassadors of the country from the first point people check into a hotel, have a pint pulled, have their dinner put down in front of them or listen to the narrative on a tour bus. The Senator is correct that we must sort out this element. There is a blueprint. I am not in favour of a new quango being established to do something that local ETBs should be doing. In my role on the leadership group of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, I am anxious to push this initiative.

I thank the Senators and the Cathaoirleach for allowing the swift passage of this important Bill. Fáilte Ireland will hit the funding ceiling very quickly. We do not want a piece of legislation to block Fáilte Ireland from making the investment to which all the Senators and Deputies referred. This gives us the opportunity to ensure the €125 million we have set aside to spend over the coming years is not kept until 2022. I hope we can get to a situation where I am, or my successor is, back in the House in the near future seeking to have the ceiling raised again. The only way we will get it raised is if local authorities, local people and local groups make applications to Fáilte Ireland for money for tourism-related infrastructural projects. I hope the Seanad supports me when I drive CEOs of local authorities to do the job they were empowered to do under an Act that was passed by the House to ensure tourism is delivered to every crossroads in Ireland. There is not a parish in the country that does not have something to offer. I hope, in my time in the Department, I make some sort of difference.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.40 p.m. and resumed at 2.20 p.m.