Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

Sections 1 to 9, inclusive, agreed to.

There are two amendments to section 10 from Senator Alice-Mary Higgins. As outlined by the Minister of State, this section is about Ireland applying to access the funding through the European Union. Given the nature of the Bill, many of the measures are technical.

As the Minister of State outlined, prescribing how the money should be spent is not part of the function of the Bill. That is why, regretfully, I had to rule amendment No. 1 out of order.

Amendment No. 2 is along similar lines in terms of being prescriptive regarding the funding to which we are seeking access. As such, I have ruled it out of order. I regret that I had to rule the amendments out of order. I will allow the Senator to speak briefly to the section.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 10 stand part of the Bill."

I will speak to the section. I also wish to highlight some of the issues that will arise if we continue with the practice of trying to bring legislation through all Stages at once. I hope that practice will not continue because it fails to allow for nuance in the debate. When, for example, all Stages of a Bill are taken together, the Government is unable to bring forward amendments in response to amendments tabled on Committee Stage. When a Bill is dealt with properly, there is time between Committee Stage and Report Stage for amendments to be evolved in order to reflect concerns and to build co-operation and consensus across the House in respect of agreed wording. That is how the process of legislative scrutiny should properly be progressed. We lose something when we deal with all Stages together. For example, in the normal course I would reword the amendments that have been ruled out of order and table them on Report Stage.

I believe I will be able to speak to the issues relating to amendment No. 1, which relates to section 10 and has been ruled out of order, when discussing amendment No. 3. With absolute respect to the Cathaoirleach, I ask that in the future further consideration be given to such amendments in the context of legislation dealing with other financial instruments coming before the House. Amendment No. 4 is not about how the money is spent. Rather, it deals with the functioning of the Bill and-----

I have addressed that matter.

-----relates directly to a section and to the functions outlined therein, which is------

On the amendment, we will-----

The amendment relates to section 12.2 of the fund description and the specific powers allocated thereunder which, as such, can be considered to form part of the Bill. The mechanisms by which decisions will be made in terms of a change in the beneficial mix are set out on page 39 of the Bill.

The amendments have not been grouped. We will deal with amendment No. 4 in due course.

I am speaking to amendment No. 2, which relates to section 10. I am speaking to the section.

The Senator is speaking to amendment No. 4.

No, I am speaking to amendments Nos. 1 and 2 which have been ruled out of order. I am speaking to the section they were intended to amend. This issue is not simply about an amount that goes in and I am certainly not simply talking about the amount that comes out. Rather, it relates to the processes for managing that. All of those processes are dealt with in the Bill. The Bill does not just stipulate the agreement that Ireland makes, it also contains a description of the fund, details on how the beneficiaries are allocated and how that operates, as well as the platform rules and dealing with the establishment the contributors' committee. All those matters form part of the Bill and, as such, part of our decision.

Many Bills relating to financial and policy decisions about our collective recovery will come before the House and it is very important that Senators be able to engage on the technical details of such legislation. It is not simply a matter of whether we want money for businesses. That is not the question. The question relates to how the recovery is undertaken, how it is accounted for and how the decisions are made. Through my amendments, I was simply trying to address the question of how decisions would be made within the committee established under the platform fund, which is incompatible with the mechanisms set out in the fund description. That said, I will address the matter further when dealing with the relevant amendment which still stands and relates to a later section.

With regard to the point made by the Senator on amendment No. 2, the amendment requires the representative appointed by Ireland to support an increase or extension of the funding or support unless directed otherwise. The amendment would tie the hands of the representative.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 11 agreed to

Senator Higgins proposed an amendment which I have ruled in order. The Senator will speak on this amendment which is a point she has made earlier referring to the Minister, three months after the Bill having been passed, laying a report before the Houses on how the funding that is talked about would be spent.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 7, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:

“Support for Public Services and Public Infrastructure

12. The Minister shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas, a report outlining how Ireland will seek to use the Fund

alongside the EU Covid-19 Recovery Fund to support investment in Ireland’s public sector, public services and public infrastructure.”.

The three months that I have set out here is a narrow period of time for a report but it reflects the urgency and the speed at which decisions are being made, decisions around very large volumes of stimulus money and decisions around the direction and shape of the recovery for the years and, potentially, the decade ahead. We have spoken, and rightly so, including on the Microenterprise Bill we debated last week, about small businesses which are a great part of the recovery. It is appropriate that 63% of the EIB fund here is dedicated to those businesses. People have also said that it is very important that we make sure it actually works for them.

However, an economy is not simply made up of the private sector but also consists of the public sector. The public sector is a key employer and customer as it buys from other businesses and contributes to our lifeblood and is part of the very real physical infrastructure of our island. The public sector is a key actor for society and the economy and when we plan a recovery, we cannot leave the public sector at the end as a thing that we might spend money on if we get taxes from the private sector. The public sector is the key. This is the case internationally and historically in the case of stimulus. If we look at the Green New Deal, which has been much-cited recently, or the New Deal that Roosevelt brought through, there was an acknowledgement in these that the public sector would be a key employer and would be building national infrastructure at a time when other building might not be taking place and that it would be creating collective public goods and assets to raise our economy. That is part of the recovery.

There is a concern that in the instruments and packages that have been coming through so far that public sector investment has not been very visible. The Microenterprise Bill rightly focused on the very small businesses. The Bill before us focuses predominantly on small businesses which I welcome, but it does give money to larger businesses. Some 7% is to be given to venture and growth investment through the European investment fund, but only 5% might go to public companies. While the Minister of State mentioned Irish Rail and other companies, these are not eligible at the moment under this fund. Only public companies in the medical and research area are eligible. All the other public companies are not represented. I am not saying that they must fit into this fund but I have pointed out mechanisms whereby this fund might be adapted to incorporate them. What I am hoping for with this amendment is that the Minister of State might set out that if these companies are not included in this fund, where they will be in the other EU recovery fund, some of which, as has been outlined, may not be through loans but through grants. We know that up to €500 billion has been earmarked in potential grants for sectors and areas that need investment across Europe. Many public sector services, ranging from An Post right through to our public transport and to potential public childcare services, should be considered within that recovery fund and have a strong role in it. This amendment calls on the Minister of State to bring to us Ireland’s vision for how that is going to be happening, which is very important.

I return specifically to the question of medical and research public companies, which are the only ones eligible to which this fund can deliver.

As we face the Covid health crisis, we know public healthcare has been crucial. We also know that in the search for a vaccine and treatment, it is very important that public research has a role. We have seen the situation in the United States where, deplorably, I believe, there was an attempt to purchase a monopoly on a drug that could provide treatment in respect of Covid-19. We know there are projects such as the people's vaccine under way, and wonderful initiatives such as the one Costa Rica started with the World Health Organization to try to have a pool of technology so public health systems across the world can back each other up in facing this crisis.

I want to make sure that if there is a brilliant scheme or a research project that comes out of one of our Irish universities, if there are scientists in Ireland who are working for public companies that believe they can contribute something to help us deal with the Covid-19 crisis, something that is not just profitable but is a public good, they will be encouraged and supported to access funding, and the Government will ensure the instruments work for them. Again, they are also employers and these are scientists within Ireland, and we want to see our researchers working in those ways too. That is why I believe it is crucial.

I hope the Minister of State will be able to accept this amendment. I also recognise that, regardless of whether an amendment is made to the legislation today, he has an opportunity today to commit to coming back to the House and to publishing a strategy for the public sector, public employment and public and social infrastructure, and how they will be integral to, funded, invested in and boosted as part of the new vision for how we move forward out of Covid-19.

Again, this is a big issue across Europe. It is an issue for the European Investment Bank as well because the EIB has, unfortunately, had a very strong and narrow private sector focus. This impacts on its international lending to developing countries, where it has often said it would give medical funding but only to the private sector, when we know many countries are trying to build their public health services right now. That is where they need help and support. It is an issue for Ireland and for Europe, but it is also part of that vision of global recovery and how we build robust public systems that employ people and that give us a solid, resilient landscape for a future crisis and a healthy foundation for a thriving economy that will have both public and private actors.

I appreciate the Senator’s comments. However, this legislation has to pass. While the Bill is seven pages long, the schedules are lengthy and have been agreed by all of the 27 EU countries. I do not think any country can unilaterally change them without the consent of the other 26. The points the Senator makes will be very appropriate in the context of the upcoming budget discussions when we return after the summer recess and the revised capital plan that is necessary now we are coming out of Covid. Social funding and the level of funding by all State organisations will be and should be in that capital plan, whether it is borrowing directly through the European Investment Bank or from whatever other source. There will be a good opportunity in the discussions on the budget and the new capital plan to tease out everything the Senator has just raised. It is not appropriate to this legislation today but the points will be fully taken on board when we come to that debate after the summer recess. I am not in a position to accept the amendment.

I put on record Sinn Féin’s support for the amendment. I accept what the Minister says and we are not going to oppose this Bill today and we are going to support him in getting it passed. However, Senator Higgins has identified a very important gap in terms of support for public services and how we go about setting up our public services. I will give one example. We have all been rightly happy to applaud public sector front-line workers who have literally put their lives on the line in the last few months. However, let us record in this House that some of those workers are outsourced to private companies, so the workers delivering meals in our hospitals, for example, the hospital in Galway, get paid €10.10 per hour.

They are paid the minimum wage. If we are serious about changing and moving to a better normal than the one from which we have come, we must incorporate investment in public services to change that. It makes absolutely no sense to allow a model of outsourcing that condemns important workers who put their lives on the line to poverty pay as a matter of fact. If we are serious about changing politics for the future, we need to address the point Senator Higgins made on making the commitment to public service.

I was struck by what Senator Sherlock said. She expressed a concern I have also. There seems to be an ideological weakness here. Let us face it, Fine Gael has never exactly liked the public sector. Fianna Fáil did once but that was a long time ago.

The Senator should keep to the section.

On the section, if we are going to see the changes we need, the Government needs to embrace genuine investment in the public sector that changes people's lives, particularly those of front-line workers. We must do better by them.

I thank Senator Gavan for his support and I thank the Minister of State for his recognition of the importance of the points made. If he is not taking them on board, I hope he might be able to make a commitment on reporting. It is one thing to say that concerns will be taken on board in the budget, but it is another to say what I propose.

Our second concern - it is an overriding concern - relates to transparency. I have mentioned groups such as Counter Balance, which has highlighted that the EIB is one organisation that needs to tell us how countries are using the fund. This reflects the language in the amendment. We need to know the decisions that are being made. This is a genuine concern. The objectives are not aspirational extras, they are primary objectives. They are called main objectives. Among the main objectives are the achievement of the sustainable development goals, the eradication or reduction of poverty, and climate mitigation and adaptation. This is not a wish list on the side along with economic recovery. These are three objectives among perhaps seven and they have equal standing. That is what I mean when I talk about how the fund is to be used. We need some indication that information will be fed back on how the fund has worked in terms of all those objectives and the public service requirements we mentioned.

In addition to acknowledging the importance of the public sector and public investment, the Minister of State and his officials - I recognise that he is stepping very ably into a Department that will have many other actors - should have a plan that the Government will share with all of us, hopefully across both Houses, outlining how Ireland, particularly in the context of its presidency of the Eurogroup, intends to give leadership regarding investment in the public sector and public infrastructure as part of the recovery. It does not have to be a report of the kind I have outlined; I just ask that some kind of vision document be shared with us in regard to this issue.

I stated earlier that, as a result of the debate in the Dáil, the Minister has given a commitment, in the context of payments into the fund or repayments to Ireland, that there will be a report within three months. The details will be included in any annual or subsequent report. The Minister has also committed that when the fund's annual audited statements are approved, including by the Irish representative on the committee, they will be brought back to the Oireachtas for discussion. There is not a mechanism of the kind in question, however.

With regard to borrowing, I said at the very beginning that this provision is mainly for businesses. Some 95% of the fund is expected to be for private companies. I am telling them to start looking for the funding. Only a tiny proportion of this fund is earmarked for public sector bodies, which can borrow from the EIB in any event. Therefore, they are not depending on the fund in order to borrow from the EIB. I do not believe we can produce a report dealing with only 5% of a fund and not the other 95%.

We have to wait until we receive the total amount. Again, the majority of it will represent lending to the private sector, so there will not be scrutiny of the financial affairs of every company that obtains a loan from this. It is important to say that while there will be debate, no confidential or financially sensitive information on any small business in Ireland that goes through this process will be a part of any report. That has to be understood in case Members felt there was a lack of transparency. That is as much as I can say and I cannot give any further commitment other than what the Minister has said.

I have a specific question. I appreciate the point about the private affairs of each company, and that is not what we would look for detail on. In the report the Minster of State has already committed to doing, can I confirm that will include the main objectives that are listed for the fund? I mentioned the ones I like, but there are lots of other objectives that Members will like, such as regional development, and which are also important. The main objective listed in part 2.12 of the platform rules is that those main objectives will be reported on as part of that report. In that circumstance, I would be happy to withdraw my amendment.

The main objectives and policies of the fund will be debated and it is up to the Members of the Oireachtas in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann to decide how much detailed consideration they give to those debates. It will be there, and if Members choose to nod it through in a half an hour, that is up to them. If they want to give it three days, that it is up to them. The detail will be there and it will be up to Members to tease out that report in as much detail as they want.

In that context, I would be happy to withdraw the amendment to facilitate speedier passing of the Bill.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 4 has been ruled out of order because it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill. Would the Senator like to speak on it?

I thank the Cathaoirleach for offering me the opportunity to speak on it but I am hoping that elements of it might be reflected in this report that we are looking forward to receiving.

Amendment No. 4 not moved.
Section 12 agreed to.
Schedules 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.