Is cúis áthais dom fáilte a chur roimh an Tánaiste go dtí an Seanad. Táimid buíoch go bhfuil sé ag dul i dteagmháil linn faoin ábhar práinneach seo. I thank Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, for being here to lead and respond to this important debate. We are hopeful that our contributions will inform final outcomes and decisions. I invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to open the debate.
Business and Covid-19: Statements
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak on business and Covid-19. This may be the first time I have addressed the Twenty-sixth Seanad. It is also a pleasure to be back in the Dáil Chamber. I am not sure I have been here this year. We have been exiled to the convention centre but I am glad Senators are making good use of the Chamber during our brief exile.
I offer belated congratulations to Senators on their election to this august House. In particular, I congratulate Senator Maria Byrne on her return to the Seanad. I also congratulate Senator Horkan.
It is now 14 months since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland. Since then, Covid 19 has dominated our lives and the political agenda. One in 7,000 people in Ireland, North and South, have lost their lives and the public health measures designed to prevent further deaths have taken their toll on people's lives and livelihoods. The Government certainly has not got everything right but there is much to be proud of in Ireland's collective response to the pandemic. We have one of the lowest mortality rates in Europe. Our much criticised health service has stood up to scrutiny, our front-line and essential workers have excelled and our businesses adapted overnight.
While we came too close for comfort, we never ran out of ICU beds and never came close to capacity in terms of ventilators or oxygen, or general bed capacity. Unlike many other countries, we did not have to send patients abroad. We have a same-day testing capacity service for Covid and a vaccine programme that has vaccines administered to patients within days of their delivery to the State. With the intensification of our vaccination programme over the next couple of weeks, we can now be hopeful for the future. More than 200,000 people have been vaccinated in the last seven days and we expect close to 250,000 people to be vaccinated next week.
Yesterday's announcement on the reopening of the economy provides a pathway out of this incredibly difficult period for us but it cannot be a false dawn. We must avoid a fourth wave of hospitalisations and deaths this side of autumn-winter 2021, if not entirely. People have sacrificed too much and waited too long. This time, we want to see construction, retail, hospitality and tourism reopen and stay open. So we will continue to reopen the economy based on four tests: stable or falling cases and that is a reproductive number at or below 1; the condition and capacity of our hospitals and ICUs; the vaccine programme’s progress; and any concern about new variants.
India's terrible second wave is a reminder that we must proceed with caution. It is also a reminder that this is a global fight against a highly infectious disease and nobody is safe until everyone is safe. Ensuring that all the world is vaccinated is a mammoth task and is best done through multilateral action through COVAX, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. Where capacity exists, companies that have developed vaccines should licence their product, especially in the global south. Unfortunately, little capacity does exist in reality and so will take time.
On the one-year anniversary of COVAX, the vaccine-sharing facility, we must be honest with ourselves that it is the rich countries, including Ireland, that will vaccinate first. We must redouble our efforts to help less well-off countries catch up. In the meantime, we must do everything we can to send help to India, and we are.
I think the House will agree that the Government's financial supports for both workers and businesses have not been found wanting. The three main schemes, the employment wage subsidy scheme, the pandemic unemployment payment and the Covid restrictions support scheme, compare favourably with any other packages on offer in other countries. We also need to be honest about ourselves, this is borrowed money, and money provided by banks, bondholders and the European Central Bank, institutions that some wanted to burn, default on or repudiate only a decade ago. It was wise that we did not. Nonetheless, this debt will have to be serviced and refinanced but not just yet. There is time to allow our economy to recover.
We have complemented the three main schemes with sectoral schemes such as the tourism business continuity scheme and the small business assistance scheme for COVID, from which there will be a second round of funding shortly. We have also provided a range of other interventions, including commercial rates waivers, tax warehousing, restart grants and low-cost loans.
Around this time next month, we will publish the national economic recovery plan. It will present our vision for what the post recovery economy will look like, and how we plan to support businesses and employees in the months ahead. I think it is going to be a rocky road but I think we are much better placed to recover quickly than we were from the great recession a decade ago. That is partly because the Government has been able to intervene and provide direct financial assistance to businesses and employees when they needed it most. We went into this pandemic with public finances in good order, our debt was falling and we were able to borrow cheaply and easily when we needed to. If we stay on track, I believe we can recover all the jobs lost during the pandemic by 2023.
As a Government, we understand the importance of continued financial supports to business. We will ensure there is no cliff-edge scenario, especially for firms in particularly affected sectors such as aviation, tourism, hospitality, the arts and entertainment. Some businesses will bounce back quickly. Indeed, a number of businesses are already repaying the subsidies paid to them by the Government but others will take longer to come back, if at all. We are also going to look at ways to make State-backed loans more attractive and easier to access within the state-aid rules of the European Union.
We know companies are going to require increased liquidity when they reopen over the coming weeks and months and we need to make that assistance as cost-effective and useful as possible. We will complement this financial assistance with a new summary rescue process to provide small companies breathing space to restructure in a fast and inexpensive way that is an alternative to the examinership process through the Circuit Court and High Court. This legislation is being prepared by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and will be coming to the House before the summer recess. With the support of Members, I hope we pass the Bill in good time.
I have also asked my officials to work on guidance for employers to make greater use of antigen testing. Some companies are already using it and we want to encourage companies to use it more in our workplaces as another tool to combat Covid-19.
Following a reconfiguration of Departments, my Department has been renamed the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and has taken on some of the employment rights policy remit from the Department of Social Protection. Members may be aware that I am pursuing initiatives to improve workers’ terms, conditions and pay in the coming years. I believe this makes economic sense and is morally right. We must do so, however, in a way that is not counterproductive. If businesses are forced to shed jobs or reduce people's hours due to rising labour costs, nobody will gain from that scenario.
The pandemic has highlighted that there is no legal obligation on employers to provide sick pay in Ireland. The Government has introduced enhanced illness benefit, but it is evident that a longer term, more sustainable scheme now needs to be put in place for all illnesses and not just Covid-19. We are currently finalising the general scheme of a statutory sick pay bill with colleagues in the Department of Social Protection. It will build on the social protections we have put in place over the past five years, including the introduction of paternity benefit, parental leave benefit, the restoration of treatment benefit and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed and farmers, including treatment benefit, jobseeker's benefit and the invalidity pension. We have also effectively abolished zero-hour contracts and increased the minimum wage well ahead of inflation.
The pandemic has prompted us to redefine what we mean by front-line or essential workers. When I was growing up, we thought of them as doctors, nurses, gardaí or paramedics – generally people in a uniform with good public sector jobs, pensions, and who were paid more than the average or median wage. But now we also think of the retail and transport workers, cleaners, security guards and food service staff - the people who kept us going during this pandemic. One of the legacies of the pandemic must be better terms and conditions for everyone, including the move to a living wage and access to an occupational pension for all workers to supplement the State pension.
Earlier this month, following my request, the Low Pay Commission formally began work on examining how Ireland can move towards a living wage during the period of this Government. The study will look at international evidence on living wages and examine different calculation methods. It should report in the second half of this year, allowing us to make meaningful progress on this project next year.
Another dividend and legacy of the pandemic will be the move to remote working. When the pandemic is over, many of us will return to the office and will be glad to do so, but things will never be the same again. Through the implementation of our remote work strategy, I want to make sure that we seize this opportunity to make a permanent change in the way we work - a better work-life balance, less commuting and more collaborative office environments. In addition to the recently signed right to disconnect code of practice, I will be introducing legislation on the right to request remote work. It will provide a clear framework around which requesting, approving or refusing remote work can be based.
I am under no illusions about how difficult the coming months will be for businesses. Some are barely hanging on and simply will not survive into 2022. Reopening will not be successful for everyone. Last week’s announcements by KBC and Carphone Warehouse were a stark reminder of the serious difficulties we are facing in the months ahead. The change in how we shop and bank was not caused by the pandemic but it has accelerated it and it will be permanent. When it comes to the twin transition, digital and green, there will be jobs lost as well as gained, and new businesses as well as business failures. For our part, the Government will be doing everything possible to help the retail and banking sectors adapt and to help employees reskill for new jobs where old jobs are lost.
I look forward to hearing the Senators’ contributions and to responding to their questions.
I thank the Tánaiste for setting out the parameters of the debate and hopefully provoking a good discussion. A large number of Members are offering. Unless they are really decent with their colleagues and stick to the time, some will be left out. By going over, they will be preventing a colleague from speaking. I call Senator Ahearn for Fine Gael.
One could almost use the two hours for this debate to talk individually on this subject, it is so vital. I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and thank him and his officials in the Department for the work they have done over the past year during Covid-19. I also thank all the local enterprise offices, LEOs, across the country for the role they played, in particular in Tipperary where it is led by Anthony Fitzgerald. The first thing I want to touch on is a local issue in Clonmel and the Ballingarrane business, science and technology campus, the first of its kind in the country. It is a partnership between IDA Ireland, the LEO and Tipperary County Council. It has been set up as a pilot project. There is a growing requirement for a modern, sustainable, commercial building in rural areas to attract businesses to come to rural Ireland, to give them the option of coming to Clonmel, Thurles or Nenagh rather than going to obvious locations of Cork and Dublin. The key attraction is that it saves 18 months for a business to set up because looking for premises can take quite a long time, but here it is up and running for them. It will play a key role in our strategy for our rural future. If we are going to attract people to live in rural Ireland and set their base there, it is important for the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment to play its role in bringing businesses to rural Ireland. I ask that the Tánaiste encourages IDA Ireland to continue supporting this project and to support more right across the country, as it will play a vital role.
He touched on remote working and its importance. More colleagues will speak on that. We will have a discussion on remote working in Tipperary in May and I thank him for agreeing to host that. It is for anyone in Tipperary who is interested in the subject and what the Government hopes to do. Anyone wanting to register for the meeting on 11 May at 8 p.m. can go to shareyourfuture.ie/tipperary. As we move out of the pandemic it will play a very significant role in business and quality of life.
I welcome the significant announcements made yesterday on the reopening of the country, particularly in respect of business and hospitality. It has been incredibly difficult over the past year but especially over the past four or five months for the hospitality industry. I welcome the Tánaiste saying there would not be a cliff-edge approach to reopening of hospitality. Last summer, we put investment in place for hospitality with the restart grant, the restart grant plus, and EWSS payments, which were all in place for reopening after phase 1. It would make sense that when they reopen after a longer time, there would be supports available for them. The sector is calling for initial supports but also long-term initiatives such as the 9% VAT rate, and if it was possible to maintain it for some years. It was hugely successful in 2009 and 2010, or maybe it was a little after that, when it was brought forward. The hit for the sector this year was even bigger than it was in the previous crash so the VAT rate will be really important.
I refer to the outdoor dining scheme.
I met representatives from restaurants and traditional and food-serving pubs in Cahir last week. The Tánaiste has visited Cahir and he knows it is a beautiful small town of about 3,000 people. It is a perfect setting for a rural area which can accommodate outdoor dining or seating areas in a wonderful setting of a small town with a castle. It is a picturesque area and a prime example of how we can encourage the reimagining of rural towns. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, will be focusing on that aspect in the years to come. In supporting those industries, it is important that we have a scheme not just for dining and to extend it beyond that aspect. I would love to talk about a range of things, but I am conscious many people want to speak on this subject. I will be happy to work with the Tánaiste on a range of issues in future and I thank him for being here.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House, and I agree with him on congratulating Senators Maria Byrne and Horkan on their election. As the Tánaiste said, it is a long time since he has been in this Chamber physically and in the Seanad. There is unfinished business regarding Seanad reform, which we will return to another today. The roadmap outlined yesterday by the Taoiseach, and which the Tánaiste has reiterated in part, is useful and welcome. People's hopes have been raised and there is a sense of confidence that as the vaccination process kicks in, the likelihood of increased hospitalisations and a fourth wave is diminishing. That is a welcome state of affairs.
We must, however, address some serious issues we have left unaddressed for a long time. One of them is the unique vulnerability of the Irish health system to these kinds of pandemics. We also have a low rate of ICU capacity, which makes us uniquely sensitive. We have to press the emergency brake far faster and more aggressively than other countries because for more than ten years, we have failed to generate adequate responses concerning increasing ICU capacity. In addition, we must prepare for the contingency of a fourth wave and consider the seasonal aspect of these types of coronavirus infections. We must plan against the contingency that there may be a fourth wave of Covid-19 in the winter of this year. I would like to hear the Government tell us what those plans are, because there are lessons to be learned.
I also wish to reflect briefly on the need to examine where things have gone right and wrong. Our testing and tracing system did not seem to be robust. On the other hand, the vaccination programme, once we had the vaccines, seems to have gone very well. I have received the first jab and what I saw in the Aviva Stadium was very effective. I compliment everybody involved. However, there are things that we must look at regarding the whole approach of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in providing advice to the Government. I would like to have a critical analysis of whether it was really necessary to close the construction and ordinary retail sectors to the extent that they were. I fully appreciate that general mobility was one of the things NPHET had in mind in respect of the closing of those individual sectors. Regarding the economic damage done by some sectoral decisions, however, the setback in the provision of housing was a significant choice and I would love to see some objective analysis conducted in that regard. It should not be carried out by NPHET and should not be self-examination. There should be an independent examination of whether we got things right or wrong or if we did too much or too little in certain areas.
There are many things which remain to be done. The Tánaiste correctly stated that we face into a slow reopening and rebuilding of the economy and that we are well-positioned economically to do both. I ask the Tánaiste to pass on to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, the real need to reconsider the rate of capital gains tax for the next two years. When we reduced the rate of capital gains tax from 40% to 20% in 1997, we noted that there was an increase in yield of the order of 500%. It is not just the yield to the Exchequer I have in mind - though we will need increased Exchequer funding - it is also the need to make assets more available and sales and transfers of assets more practical for those people who are trying to help the economy recover.
There are many other things I would like to say but time does not permit me to do so. We have many lessons to learn and it is essential that the people who made the decisions are not the judges of the correctness, incorrectness or efficacy of those decisions. Other people have to put their mind to assessing those issues.
I thank the Tánaiste for attending. I send sincere best wishes to the people of India in particular, who are going through a very difficult time at the moment, and beyond. Any support the Government can give, must be given.
It is important to acknowledge the substantial, unprecedented supports which the Tánaiste has outlined and which the Government has put in place, while also recognising that, despite these supports, thousands of businesses across the country remain under significant pressure due to the crisis not of their making. The Tánaiste touched on it matter earlier, and I believe that we need to consider an examinership-like process to allow any insolvent SMEs to restructure debts using a fast-track process without the large expense of going to court, which would prove too costly for SMEs. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste could indicate whether any changes to the current structure may be implemented, especially for the hospitality sector, which is extremely labour-intensive in nature. Part of the criteria might need to be looked at in the context of employment details in order to meet that criteria. While most sectors have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, the scale of damage has not been the same for all. The hospitality sector has paid a heavier price than most, as we all know. The sector employed almost 200,000 people and was worth in the region of €8 billion to our economy prior to Covid.
The recent announcement by An Taoiseach that there will be a hospitality sector stimulus package in the coming months is much-needed and positive news. I acknowledge the restart week Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, payment announced yesterday, which will allow businesses that are able to open as restrictions are eased to claim increased and double payments for a number of weeks. Businesses in the sector have been shut for the vast majority of the past 15 months, some of them for the entirety of that period. This has been the case, unfortunately, for traditional pubs across the country, especially in Dublin. There will be substantial work needed for these businesses to be in a suitable condition for reopening and this will come at considerable expense. It would be worth examining whether some of the funding planned for the hospitality sector stimulus could be used now to provide a restart grant for these businesses. I would be interested to hear the views of the Tánaiste on that.
The employment wage subsidy scheme is currently scheduled to run until the end of June. I appreciate that it is being run at considerable expense to the State but strong consideration needs to be given to extending the scheme for the remainder of 2021. The feedback I have received, particularly in Galway city, is that the scheme is essential in order to give businesses an opportunity to rebuild while limiting their expenses. We all want business to survive, rebound from this crisis and grow again and, if we make extra investment now, it may prove the difference for thousands of businesses across the country getting back on their feet and giving them a window to ensure they can become sustainable before supports are removed.
As for yesterday's announcement, I ask the Tánaiste to give consideration to restaurants, coffee shops and gastropubs. He will be familiar with this in Dublin but I refer in particular to the inner city where I am from, in Galway. There are two hotels in my area on the same street and yet my food-serving business will not be allowed open. I ask the Tánaiste, if possible, to publish the medical evidence to state why it is allowed for restaurants in hotels to be open and not restaurants across the street. It is a bit unfair and needs to be looked at.
The outdoor areas will be used by people within that vicinity and the guests will be kept in the hotels. As a compromise, it might be suitable that no alcohol be served in the indoor area and a timescale be put in place up to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. It is difficult for the restaurants and coffee shops that bring life and vibrancy to our cities. We need to look at that again and give consideration to no alcohol being served indoors and up to a certain period of time.
We need to support hospitality. We need to treat all hospitality sectors equally. It is a particularly difficult time. The Tánaiste mentioned it in his contribution. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment to publishing the scientific and medical advice as to why indoor gastropubs, restaurants and coffee shops cannot open when hotels can?
It is welcome to have the Tánaiste in the Chamber today. It is great to see a safe and sure plan for reopening. Of course, I encourage remote work and investment in the west, which would be brilliant.
I too, welcome the Tánaiste to the House, as well as the hope that many of the Government announcements brought to people around the country. One only had to listen to "Morning Ireland" this morning to hear what this meant to grandparents, in particular. It gives hope to so many people. However, there are a number of areas I would like to bring up with the Tánaiste that have been flagged with me by various business owners in recent weeks and days.
The Government has been able to get to this day due to the enormous sacrifices of the Irish people. It is important we now ensure, to the greatest possible level, that we never go back to level 5 lockdowns and do everything we can to achieve this. It is equally important that business owners and employees know exactly where they stand with regard to the temporary wage measures introduced by the Government.
I heard the Tánaiste state last night that Government will not allow a cliff-edge and that an announcement would be made by the end of May. Speaking to a number of business owners and those in receipt of these payments, there is a need for certainty and clarity and to allow business to plan. There is also a call that even when these businesses reopen, as has been said here this morning, some form of wage support should continue for a number of weeks while businesses and their employees find their feet in an emerging Ireland, still dealing with levels of Covid-19. I hope that serious consideration is given to such a payment.
We can never go back, particularly for the many businesses that had opened for short periods, only to close their doors once again due to the new waves of infection that were targeting our country. During this time, it was the small family businesses in the main that were hit most. They were under serious threat from large multiples which, whether we like it or not, had traded during the pandemic and were selling many of the items these smaller family-run businesses were not allowed to sell. This can never happen again. These same small, family-run businesses are the heartbeat of many of our towns and communities and many are close to closure and will need support into the future.
Another issue raised with me by a number of businesses is the rates waiver offered by the Government this year. These are businesses that had to take out working capital loans to keep their businesses going. In securing these loans, the projected turnover they gave to their financial institutions has not materialised, due to the Covid-19 restrictions they are operating under. However, their local authority tells them they have not demonstrated that their turnover in the claim period from 1 January to 31 March did not exceed 25% of the average weekly turnover for the governing year of 2019.
I ask the Tánaiste and his Department to reconsider this turnover limit for those who have contacted me. I am sure there are other businesses in the same position and a rates waiver could mean the ability to continue for many of those who have contacted me and, I am sure, others in this House.
As we look forward to an Irish summer at home, there are a number of points I would like to bring up with the Tánaiste.
There is a very welcome exemption for restaurants to operate as takeaways for the remainder of 2021. The removal of section 254 fees was also a step in the right direction. However, I have received a number of queries from those operating in our towns and villages about the third part of the announcement, which is that awnings and coverings will be treated as street furniture. Will the Tánaiste confirm today that this will be the case and that local authorities will not send inspectors out to examine every awning and its location? For this to work for business, those in this trade will need to erect coverings, and they need to know they will be okay and will not face inspections.
Another issue I am sure the Tánaiste and every Member in this House has been contacted about is the urgent need to provide extra bins and public toilets in many of our villages and towns in scenic areas. We are in exceptional and unprecedented times. The answers I am getting back from councillors throughout the country is that they are being told by the executives of their local authorities that they have no money to provide this service or the hours it would take to clean up these situations by paying staff. Leaving aside collective responsibility for the moment, we have already had a debate in this House on this issue and on litter. I introduced legislation on the matter that I hope Government will assist further. Let us instead take a common-sense approach and provide the finance to our local authorities to allow for these bins and extra toilets, thereby presenting and encouraging our population to go outdoors and avail of the terrific fare so many of our restaurants and food outlets provide.
The so-called food trucks are a growing area which have brought many people into the food business. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste could look at this area and possibly bring forward legislation and supports for what needs to happen for these businesses and what they are providing for so many new people who have entered the food industry.
On the eve of May Day I will finish by thanking, as the Tánaiste has already done and I am sure everybody in the House will, all those workers who have worked without fear or favour since this pandemic began. It is always important to remember those who have lost their lives while working during these turbulent times for our country. I will take the opportunity to raise with the Tánaiste the totally unacceptable current levels of youth unemployment in this country. I have previously raised my concerns and the concerns of those working in this area when we discussed this matter last year. At that time, Government, including the Tánaiste, acknowledged this was a serious problem and that Government would do all in its power to address it. At that stage, the level was just over 30%. Today, estimates are that the figure could be close to around 50%. There is no doubt the pandemic is responsible for contributing to these unacceptably high figures when the traditional youth employment areas of tourism are hit most. I ask Government to address it.
I ask everyone to note we have to keep to time if we are to allow everyone to speak.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is deas é a fheiceáil sa Teach seo don chéad uair ó toghadh don Seanad mé. I welcome the Tánaiste. It is good to see him in the House for the first time since I became a Senator. It is a very positive day today. People woke up slightly happier, maybe, than they have been in 14 months.
Bearing in mind there has been provision of approximately €30 billion in supports for individuals and businesses, how will the phasing out of these supports be done in a way that will still support vulnerable sectors, such as tourism, aviation and hospitality? These are three key matters we really need focus on, not just in my area of Clare, but in the entire region. Some 260,000 people work in the tourism sector alone. In the mid-west, the tourism sector brought in €472 million in 2019. As you can imagine, that has paled into non-existence, practically, in the past 14 months. Some 90% of the 270,000 jobs in tourism were lost during Covid. In Clare alone there would normally be 10,000 people employed in the tourism sector.
To help salvage this industry, I ask to see what extra supports the Government is hoping to bring in. I have talked to tourism businesses and the head of tourism. I have talked and listened to many people. I heard a couple of good examples of more funding, such as for tourism boards locally for advertising why visitors should come to their county and for a staycation initiative for people who might travel to other counties now that they can. There are many places to discover. We all know about the famous ones but every county has these special places. It is now time that people rediscovered places that are not so well known because we still want to maintain social distancing and spread out more. I would like to see some extra supports for tourism boards, like Clare tourism, to be able to promote these places.
Can local authority rates be waived until March 2022? This is basically a wish list. The retention of the 9% VAT rate is one of the things that really makes a difference to businesses. Ireland has some of the highest business costs in Europe, so we need our tourism tax rate to be in line with the rest of Europe. We need to keep the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, in place until March 2022 to help the tourism industry through the winter period. We also need to provide more supports for the local enterprise offices.
I cannot emphasise them enough and the Minister himself mentioned the important role the LEOs have played. That was ironic as they have the same name as the Minister. The local enterprise offices have played a huge role in helping small businesses keep afloat during the pandemic. They have worked tirelessly to get businesses online, help them with marketing and help them get sales online. It is of paramount importance that we support them further because they have a lot more work left to do. They need extra staff and funding. They can currently only support member employers with up to ten staff. There is a gap between the LEOs and Enterprise Ireland for the firms with up to 20 staff. That cohort is falling between the cracks and I would like to see the LEOs being able to extend their offerings to that sector.
I know the Minister attended the opening of the Green for Micro scheme. That is something we need to look at because the recovery has to involve a green economy but not just because of the climate. As I have been saying for about 20 years, it makes economic sense as well to be green and Green for Micro is a superb programme. It also needs to be extended to other businesses. If people do not know about it we should tell every small business that the Green for Micro scheme will come into a business, offer a free two-day audit and then give the business a report on how it can save money and energy in the business by cutting costs. That is invaluable and saves businesses money.
I have to mention Shannon Airport because not only is it an airport but it is the nucleus of everything in that region. Pre-Covid, we saw a complete imbalance in the distribution of flights into the country. We need to address that issue and I ask the Minister to take that seriously because it affects the whole region of the mid-west.
I mention the Safe Pass programme. We need jobs for young people and the construction industry has been at a halt. I have been working with Deputy Niall Collins on this issue. We have to prioritise Safe Pass. It was stalled last year and it has not been possible to run the courses because they are all offline. Can the Minister clarify the extension of the expiry dates of the Safe Pass certificates? Can he get it online as is done in the rest of Europe? It is ridiculous that in this day and age we cannot do it online and simplify the whole thing. We should have done that already.
On small businesses and how they can cut costs by being greener, it would be good to see more incentives for them. When there are businesses carrying out green initiatives, they should be given extra praise or warranting as well. My fear is that as we move into a green economy, we have had greenwashing for years. It is time that greenwashing was not acceptable anymore. I remember seeing a petrol station getting the national green award. Those days are over. Let us recognise the people who are really doing the work. There is a woman in west Clare who is recycling plastics. Some 90% of her work is recycling and the rest is selling them as fencing posts. Sharon Barrington in west Clare was talking to me about her work. Those kinds of people are heroes. I would like to see extra supports put in place and I ask the Minister to read the book Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher if he has not done so because moving forward we have to do what is better for our pockets and planet.
As Senator Garvey mentioned, supports for local enterprise offices are important.
I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He gave a thoughtful speech and I will begin by making a number of points on the back of that. The Minister spoke about the global situation with vaccines. Perhaps he will clarify whether his Government will support the call for a waiver on intellectual property rights for vaccines? That is what the world needs and we need to be at the forefront in making that call.
I welcome the Minister's comments on the sick pay Bill and we look forward to working with him on it. I also welcome his commitment to progressing towards a living wage, which is extremely important, and remote working. I am looking forward to working with the Minister on those matters.
I am conscious of time so I will rattle through a few of these points as quickly as I can. I welcome the additional supports announced yesterday regarding the CRSS. Unfortunately we still have this issue of the exclusion of businesses without a fixed premises. It seems extremely unfair and I ask the Minister to have a further look at it.
The issue of business debt is a concern. I know the Minister supplied data to a colleague of mine telling us that there is €1 billion in tax liabilities under the debt warehousing scheme. That is a good scheme that deserves support but we need to make sure that as businesses come out of lockdown, they are not tripped up by those liabilities. I know many suggestions have been made in that regard, such as reduced interest rates or some kind of elongated payments. Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that issue.
Like others, I want to focus on retail and I have two key asks in this regard.
The first is that the Government heed the call from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to set up a retail stakeholder group of employers, unions and Departments to agree and develop a new vision for retail because we know it will not work the way it did previously. There has been a real shock in terms of the volume of online trading. We need to see that group up and running. I hope the Tánaiste will give me a positive response to that.
Second, he must implement the Duffy Cahill recommendations to protect workers facing collective redundancy situations. As he alluded to, we are facing a significant number of redundancies. I fear many of them will be in the retail sector. Many of the Debenhams workers have been on the picket line for more than a year. I was a SIPTU official during the Clerys dispute. It is completely unacceptable for the Government to ignore a report that is now five years old with practical proposals to protect workers and their right to decent collective redundancy. I ask the Tánaiste to give us a positive answer and a timeline in respect of that issue.
On the building back better strategy, I am glad the Tánaiste referenced the number of essential workers and the fact that so many of them are not well paid at present. In fact, our rate on low pay is 23%. It is much higher than the OECD average of 15%. We have a means of addressing that, which is to use our procurement policy much better than we do. The State spend each year is €12 billion. We need to adopt community wealth-building principles whereby we use key anchor institutions, both nationally and locally, get them to do procurement differently and build in clauses relating to a living wage, collective bargaining and high environmental standards. That way we will see a much benefit for our local economies. It is a different way of doing business. It is essential. It is core Sinn Féin policy and we are very keen to work with the Tánaiste on it. We need to see that change. If we do not build back better, we will go back to the bad old ways of doing things which left us with this high rate of low-paid workers of 23%. I would like to see new thinking in that regard.
In the time left, I need to address the issue of Shannon Airport. This is a difficult one for the Tánaiste because he was intimately involved in the making the airport independent eight years ago. At that time, in fairness, there were cheerleaders across the mid-west saying it was a good idea. The situation has changed. He will probably be aware that every political party in this Chamber has called on him, via the Oireachtas transport committee reports, to reintegrate Shannon into a network of airports. Pitching Shannon into competition with Dublin and Cork on an island this small was never a good idea but the notion that it is still a good idea in the wake of Covid is frankly ludicrous. We need to build back better, in particular, with Shannon, and that means reintegrating Shannon into a national airport authority. I would ask the Tánaiste to agree not only with me, but with his colleagues, Deputies Carey and O'Donnell from the mid-west, and Senator Buttimer, all of whom signed up to this call to reintegrate Shannon into a new national airport authority. We have had years of failure regarding Shannon. It is, as others have mentioned, key to the future of the mid-west in terms of tourism and commercial activity. This is the time when we have to make those changes. It is an abject failure of Government policy if we do not make those changes soon. We have already had a year of inaction on this. Bring Shannon back into a new national airport authority. Give Shannon the future and the investment that it deserves. Do not go by the old failed policies. The Tánaiste is isolated on this issue at this point. All political parties are calling on the Tánaiste to act on Shannon and I call on him to do that today as well.
I thank the Senator for keeping to the time. As he mentioned, it is important to focus on the living wage as well and the work that has been done by the Tánaiste's office. I call Senator Casey.
I, equally, take this opportunity to welcome the Tánaiste to the House. The last time I spoke to him I was on the other side of the aisle asking him questions on employment in Arklow. I want to put on record at this point my thanks, from a hospitality industry point of view, for the supports that have been given to the industry without which we would not be surviving here today.
Originally, this debate was to be on the medium to long-term effects of Covid on my industry but last night's announcement has probably brought it back to today's scenario. Last night gave us a significant element of hope that we are returning to what will be a new normality. Let us hope we do not go back from that new normality because businesses cannot afford to go back from that. I do not mean that only from a commercial point of view. There is health and well-being to consider.
I was with my brother yesterday at 6 p.m. when the announcement was made. Even though I knew what was coming, it was not real until the Taoiseach said it.
Immediately things changed, so we dropped the paintbrushes, the steam cleaners were put away and the gardening stopped. We now go back to what we should always have been doing, namely, ordering, looking to trying to hire staff and starting to promote the business. However, we are doing that from a privileged point of view because we own a hotel. I must acknowledge the inequality in last night's announcement. We operate a hotel so we will be able to open for indoor dining on 2 June. The restaurant down the road, to which the same conditions and regulations will be applied, cannot open and the pub further down the road cannot open. We will be allowed to offer indoor dining for a full week before outdoor dining actually opens up. When 10 May arrives, the locals can come up to my hotel and dine outside while the privileged people, the residents, can dine indoors. There is a certain sense of inequality there and I am not too sure about it.
The other thing that was missing last night was the roadmap to when indoor dining will actually happen. A lack of news in that regard is leading to a significant frustration among people. I am not too sure if this is based on science or on something else. If it is based on science, give us the information because the industry needs it and restore equality for everyone because, as I said, restaurants must comply with the same regulations as hotels and vice versa.
The Tánaiste stated that my industry has been one of those most affected by the pandemic. We now look to medium- to long-term solutions. The previous Government, which the Tánaiste led, looked to the hospitality industry to take us out of the crisis we were experiencing at that time. During that period, more than 90,000 new jobs were created in the tourism industry. I tell the Tánaiste that it is now the tourism industry looking to the Government for support so it can survive. As he will be well aware, it has been very difficult for our industry to access credit with the banking industry and to refinance. Trying to borrow new money when one is struggling to pay off existing debt is very difficult. The Government has different ways it can assist us in that regard. The 9% VAT rate has been mentioned in that context. It can assist us. It allows us to gain an extra 4% in our margins, which goes to bottom line and allows us to pay off our bills. Whole tax warehousing of VAT and PRSI is also a way to proceed. If that could be reinvented in a new format whereby it is equally applied to everybody, it could give credit to businesses over a certain period and would prevent them having to go to the banking industry for loans. Therefore, indirectly, through Revenue, the Government could help fund the ongoing operating costs of the industry through a warehousing scheme.
My time is running our very quickly. On VAT, trying to restore international commercial tourism - because our city centres have been more affected than anywhere else - introducing a VAT refund scheme for conference events from outside Europe would be an option. These are among the little changes the Government can make and directly intervene to help the industry survive. It is all about our margins at the end of the day and the Government has many things it could do in that regard.
I thank the Senator and wish him and his family well with the reopening on 2 June. It really is great news to hear. I call Senator Currie, who has five minutes.
I welcome the Tánaiste and commend him on launching his pathway out of the pandemic which successfully combines hope and caution. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, summed up our health approach quite nicely on Wednesday when he said that we need to keep the numbers low and the vaccines high. I would add that we need to continue to limit our contacts but widen our access to services, allow the movement of people but continue to restrict the virus. We have always focused on saving lives and livelihoods but we have put severe pressure on our hospitality, retail, leisure and events industries and the communities which depend on them. We have learned a great deal along the way and we cannot miss the opportunity to build back better.
I am reassured by the steps the Government is taking in that regard, such as introducing a living wage, working with the Low Pay Commission, introducing sick pay, the proposals on the right to disconnect, the right to request flexible work and, of course, the SME task force that it is hoped will look at issues such as the challenges around digital working.
The businesses with which I have engaged talk about ongoing EWSS and CRSS payments, grant waivers, debt warehousing and VAT at 9%. They could not be eased into the crisis but they can be eased out of it. They are worried about their levels of debt, so the double CRSS in May and June is good news which will support businesses reopening, as is the commitment that by the end of May we will have a clear path for people and businesses from July onwards. Certain sectors, and even sectors within sectors, will continue to need particular support, especially restaurants and pubs that cannot serve outside and the tourism, events and aviation industries. Hotels in Dublin and other cities will need additional attention as they may not pull in the same numbers during the summer as other parts of the country. Outdoor dining supports should be made available to all pubs.
We need to think about waste management in our public outdoor spaces. I am talking about litter. I have spoken previously in this House about the Casual Trading Act 1995. Councils need to look at their individual by-laws and bring in things like litter management, and the relevant Minister can issue guidelines on that. I hope the role of antigen testing comes into clearer focus as part of the plan the Government will be bringing out in May.
The traffic on our streets has increased in the past week so I welcome the advice that people should continue to work from home until September. The Return to Work Safely Protocol was last updated in November, before the vaccine roll-out. Maybe we should update it to address the vaccine and include vaccine-related advice for employers.
I could not have the Tánaiste here and not talk about remote working infrastructure. Surveys currently show that most people want a hybrid approach to office life but people can only ask for what they know. I want us to ensure people who want to move to places where they cannot commute to the office two or three days a week can still benefit from the Our Rural Future plans, which are excellent, and with the right approach they and those communities can do so. There are growing numbers of Irish-founded, location-agnostic companies in Ireland like Flexco, which has more than 1,000 employees, Flipdish and Glofox. There are also international companies like Spotify and GitLab, which is the biggest remote employer in Ireland. These companies are run through a technology-first approach. It is tech that brings the company together rather than a building, so it does not matter if people are in Malin Head or Mizen Head because they will have the same work experience and opportunities. Organisations that want to embrace hybrid working could learn a lot from these companies. Not all roles can be done remotely, but if we are going to make remote working work, we need to look at merging the successful principles of the remote companies we have here in Ireland with those of office-based companies to create the best hybrid practices. The Government can play a leadership and educational role to help ensure the supply of good remote jobs and opportunities if we are going to make the rural future strategy flourish. A little in this area will go a long way.
The announcement of €5 million yesterday for the connected hubs fund as part of Our Rural Future is fantastic. However, I do not want to see our cities, urban villages and suburban areas left behind. There seem to be fewer funds available for those areas. These areas do not have the real estate for home offices. They could have a potent mix of traditional businesses on the main street combined with innovation-driven remote working hubs, which could be very powerful. Places like Blanchardstown village could benefit from such an approach. I could go on but I will finish up on time.
I warmly welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. It is a privilege to hold political office as a Senator and to be able to address him on matters of great public importance. I commend him on the calm and assured leadership he displayed last year when the pandemic reached our shores. In a time of grave uncertainty, he communicated with the nation in a very clear and composed way, which gave people a measure of reassurance. The main themes of my statement today are recovery and reform.
People have suffered greatly on account of the pandemic and the restrictions. Some have suffered more than others, of course, so recovery is needed to give them back their jobs, improve their lives and provide hope. I am talking about recovery in a holistic sense, including the recovery of people's physical and mental health, recovery of the health system and public services and economic recovery, job creation and a social, cultural and religious revival. Reform is also needed.
We need to take an objective and forensic look at every aspect of the pandemic and how it was handled. We need to learn from it. What did we do well? What worked? What failures were there? What did not work? What were the costs and benefits of lockdown? We need to examine all the evidence through an impartial and critical lens. We need to permit open discussion to make sure that we are much better prepared for any similar kind of emergency in the future. We can agree that weaknesses have been exposed by the pandemic, not least our intensive care unit and hospital capacity issues. Both bed numbers and staffing shortages need to be addressed to help ensure that we will not be inclined to enter into the harshest, longest lockdown in Europe should another pandemic materialise. We need commitment from Government to address these chronic issues of capacity and staffing, to reduce hospital waiting lists, alleviate the suffering of patients and save lives. What can we do better to ensure the economy and society can function more normally next time? Could we designate an exclusive pandemic hospital in each region and isolate all cases in these facilities to enable normal healthcare to continue with minimal disruption? Could we utilise rapid antigen testing to allow the economy and society to remain open to a far greater degree?
I want to highlight one area of the economy that is very much neglected, that is, social enterprises. I understand that social enterprise falls within the remit of the Department of Rural and Community Development and I echo the sentiments of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that social enterprises can play a central role in the economic and social recovery. I believe there is potential to generate employment that will enrich communities and achieve social good. The Tánaiste is the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I am challenging him not to overlook this sector. Covid-19 has shifted our understanding of our society, laid bare the inequalities that exist and revealed the inadequacy of the systems we have to serve everyone in our communities. Never has it been more important to invest in our social economy and back those who can generate not only economic value but social value too.
Forfás has estimated that the social enterprise sector could employ 65,000 people if it reached even average EU levels of output. Look at the success of social enterprises such as MyMind in providing affordable mental healthcare for 33,000 people. If I could give the Tánaiste one idea to support social enterprise start-ups to help them upskill, I would ask him to look at putting supports in to local authorities through the enterprise boards so that social enterprises can access free rental hubs and retail spaces for 18 to 24 months. These enterprises need our Government to believe in them.
Otto von Bismarck stated, "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable". I believe that to be the case. I am driven by the desire to help people, to find solutions to their problems and those facing the communities in which we live. That is what motivates me. If we have political vision and take the initiative, the people of this country will attain a tremendous amount, including economic, social and environmental recovery.
I join others in welcoming the Tánaiste. I agree with Senator Keogan about the importance of social enterprise because as part of our recovery we do not just need an economic recovery, we also need to look at a social and community recovery. At the heart of that, I ask that we put young people first. That is important. Young people have made major contributions to help us through the pandemic. We know the levels of youth employment are temporarily off the charts but it is essential, as part of the recovery, that we ensure there is a new deal for young people. Part of that, as colleagues have stated, involves addressing low pay.
The minimum wage for those aged under 18 must be addressed. In recognition of the contribution of young people, we need to address the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds continue to be paid a minimum wage of only €7.14 per hour.
I also want to talk about the importance of our cultural institutions and their reopening. The Tánaiste referred to the issue and I am aware that it falls within the brief of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Martin. Our cultural institutions are not just important from an artistic perspective; they are also employers. For theatres, arts and music venues and for those in the entertainment industries, I ask that specific measures and packages be put in place.
We are currently reviewing the national development plan, NDP. I agree with Senator Currie on the importance of remote working and that it must be taken into account as part of the NDP. We are also dealing with the fallout from Brexit. One of the benefits of Brexit is that Rosslare Europort is continuing to grow. It is essential that the M11 be completed, from Oilgate to Rosslare, to allow greater access to the port.
Many colleagues have spoken about the impact on specific businesses. I want to address how consumer behaviour has changed, the impact that will have on business and the approach that Government will need to take as a result. IBEC showed recently that in the period from November 2020 to January 2021, 49 cent in every euro spent on credit and debit cards was spent on e-commerce. There has been a dramatic shift to online purchases, not just booking flights, as has traditionally been the case, but in a whole range of other areas. This has big implications. Many Irish businesses, including in the tourism sector, are still not online to the same extent as their international competitors. We must continue to roll out supports to get all of our businesses online.
While I welcome the commercial rates waiver, that decision exposes how outdated commercial rates are as a model for funding local government. The idea that local government is funded based on the size of a shop floor is a nonsense. The commercial rates model dates back to the era of George IV in 1826. The business environment has been transformed since then. As a model of funding local government, we should abolish commercial rates. We need to find a new way of doing this. It is completely unfair that a shop on our main street that contributes to the local community is asked to pay commercial rates, whereas online operators with which it may compete do not have to contribute. This represents unfair competition.
We are seeing growing rates of cybercrime and the State needs to address the issue. The banking world is being completely transformed. There are discussions on having a new commission on the future of banking. I ask that the Tánaiste ensure that consumers are represented on that commission, both businesses and individuals. If it is only the old established players, they will not innovate. We have to look at new blockchain technologies and how they will support our businesses.
We see the adoption of new technologies and wonderful new opportunities becoming available in education and training. We must focus on upskilling and reskilling. We are seeing how technology is changing everything we do and disrupting. It is crucial that we invest in upskilling and reskilling as we come out of this period.
I am very happy today as we see the bid for the technological university of the south east being lodged. I am sure Senator Cummins will also refer to this issue. Investment must be made in higher and further education to ensure we are able to recover properly and fully.
I thank the Tánaiste for his work and the Government’s commitment and I look forward to his response.
I echo the comments of my colleague from Wexford on the technological university of the south east. I also welcome the Tánaiste's engagement with us on this very important topic of business and post-Covid recovery. Yesterday was undoubtedly a very exciting day. The sense of optimism that circulated the entire country awaiting the news on the reopening plan was palpable.
It has probably gone a little bit further than what many expected, which was a good surprise. It is now up to us, as a collective, to ensure the reopening plan is completed in the most efficient manner possible. We made significant progress on the reopening of house building at the start of this month and I welcome the moves to reopen construction fully from next Tuesday. We have been an outlier in Europe and we have seen a loss of some of our skilled workers to other countries in recent months. I hope that when we are fully reopened and projects are proceeding at a pace we can get many of these workers back to Ireland.
The confirmation that there will be no cliff edge for the financial supports for businesses has been well flagged by the Government despite many in opposition stating the opposite. The fact there will be a double CRSS payment, up to the statutory maximum of €5,000 per week, to support businesses in reopening as they exit the scheme is very welcome.
Many will be eagerly awaiting 10 May for barbers, hairdressers and personal services to reopen. I wish all those businesses well in getting through the backlog. I do not have to worry too much about my hair but even I could do with a haircut at this stage. In this context, I wonder whether the Tánaiste agrees that we have to re-examine the €2 billion Covid credit guarantee scheme, which is targeted at small and medium enterprises, small and mid-caps and primary producers. It is an excellent scheme but despite the Government underwriting 80% of the loans, it seems, on the face of it at least, that the banks are not living up to their end of the bargain. The most recent figures I have show that only €215 million has been approved despite the applications made amounting to €358 million. Something is not tallying and we need to rejig the scheme and hold the banks to account so they do what we are asking them to do, which is to lend to SMEs because they will need funds as they open.
Looking forward to June and the reopening of the hospitality sector, it is hugely welcome that the Oireachtas joint committee passed a waiving of fees for section 254 licences during the week for outside tables and chairs for the remainder of the year. I welcome that we are not distinguishing between traditional pubs that do not serve food and those that do. It is only appropriate that we do not differentiate between the supports available to them. This is why I call for the €17 million outdoor dining enhancement scheme to be available to all hospitality businesses.
We know that all gyms are not equal. Many training facilities have adapted and changed their protocols and have been operating successfully with pods of one and no sharing of equipment and no interaction between people. These are different to commercial gym operators. I had calls last night and early this morning from people looking to see whether something can be done for them. Perhaps the Minister will take this on board.
The arts and entertainment sectors, which were referenced by Senator Malcolm Byrne, are part of a big industry that employs many. People in the sectors believe that because they were not mentioned, the sectors have not been included. I know they are incorporated in the plan but I would appreciate if some clarity could be given to these sectors.
I would appreciate it if the Minister would engage with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on the tax treatment of the pandemic unemployment payment so that people returning to work are not placed on emergency tax. It is an issue that we need to examine.
I welcome the plan outlined yesterday. It gives an element of certainty at a time when we do not have much certainty in the world. I thank the Minister and his colleagues in Cabinet for their work.
It is great to have this debate this morning, when so much hope and positivity abounds and people are generally in better form because certainty has been brought to their lives.
I am not sure whether the positive feelings go as far as to help me deal with the picture on the front of the Irish Daily Mirror this morning that greeted me in Centra on Westland Row when I went in to get my newspaper, which showed the Tánaiste and Micheál Martin smiling at me with the headline "Copper Face Vaccs", and the Tánaiste talked about the outdoor area of Copper Face Jacks. Hope springs eternal, and if we do get back there this summer, I hope the Tánaiste will bring Micheál, Eamon and Mary Lou, and, most important, that the Tánaiste will be generous at the bar and maybe it will be Jägerbombs all around when he opens his wallet. We look forward to that.
I thank the Tánaiste for being here this morning, for his remarks and for the work that he has been doing, along with his Department and the Government, in supporting businesses throughout this horrific time. The challenge thrown down to the Government, the country and our society was unprecedented. Of course the whole world was dealing with the same disease at the same time. There were plenty of people in this country looking at other countries and saying they were doing this better and that better. Critically, as the Tánaiste said in his opening remarks, the overarching job was to keep people safe and ensure the health system was capable of coping. It was interesting to watch a debate on Sky News last night on the reopening of society in the UK and weighing it against the exceptionally high rate of mortality experienced. The debate there is moving on and people are judging how badly they dealt with the number of deaths they experienced. There may have been more caution shown in this country, but I equally believe the health of our people trumped everything else and, thankfully, our mortality rates are at the lower end of the chart for Europe.
For me, one of the most significant aspects of this recovery has been the cross-departmental co-operation that has taken place in supporting businesses. It is something that in the past, perhaps, government, national and local, might not be famed for. In this time of crisis, we have seen Departments not working in silos but across the board so that they could help businesses, in particular in the tourism and hospitality sector. The supports that were put in place in terms of wages supports, rates waivers and so forth were very welcome.
It was not just a case of allocating money - there has been an unprecedented amount of money allocated - but also in tackling regulatory aspects as well. The announcements this week by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on planning rules for cafés, restaurants and bars are very welcome, as are the exemption for restaurants to operate as takeaways until the end of this year because they cannot trade indoors, the zero fee for street furniture licences for tables outside for 2021 where a typical fee would be €125 per table, and the amendment that allows for awnings and coverings to be removed from the planning system so that these necessary additions can be made to buildings, with the fees also removed for these. The outdoor grant provided by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is really welcome, and there are businesses now furiously engaged with the process of getting their premises ready for outdoor dining and drinking this summer. Crucially, local councils are working with them to get larger public areas developed from the funds that are available to them.
While outdoor hospitality might be something that has been foisted upon us, it could be a real positive for how we use our town spaces. I pay tribute to a couple of business owners in my own town of Navan, Damien Clarke of Clarke's pub and David Snow of the Little Sicily restaurant, who have been going around the town over the past two weeks trying to get businesses on board with the idea of outdoor parklets on streets where people could dine and drink safely and which would be a great feature in the town. I pay tribute to both men because it is those ideas that will make the town an attractive place to visit and a counterbalance to the change in societal behaviour of online shopping as well.
One industry I want to touch on in respect of business supports is the media. Yesterday, we had a second tranche of funding for local radio stations amounting to €2.6 million, which I very much welcome. The local newspaper sector of this country, however, has been looking on enviously as no such fund is in place for it. Only yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, again pivoted away from the issue in the Dáil. The Tánaiste himself has spoken on this issue, saying the industry needed to change its business model. Local newspapers do not have the same operating business models and resources as national newspapers. Local Ireland, which represents 42 paid-for local newspapers, has pointed out that we are going to have blank pages in local newspapers if this continues. These newspapers cover not just events, the courts, the councils and sports but are an historical record of local communities. When one examines the premise under which local radio stations were given their money yesterday, which was in providing Covid-related programming, nobody has done more than the local newspapers of this country in covering the resilience of our local communities during the Covid pandemic. We need to address this and work past this clear bias against local newspapers and embrace them because there will be no point crying when these fine institutions, that have served our country for more than two centuries, are lost because of this.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I am delighted to be here and thank him for his kind welcome. I also thank all Members for welcoming me back warmly. It is a great honour and privilege to be here. I thank the Members of the other House for being so welcoming and supportive over the past number of months. I look forward to working with all Oireachtas Members.
It is a most opportune time to have this debate in respect of the business sector and Covid-19. Even before my election to the House, I spoke to many business owners who told me they have found the past 12 months most difficult. In the agrifood business and agriculture sector, there has been a significant shift in consumer demand and trading conditions. When I have spoken to small agrifood business owners, they have reported that while they have welcomed the emergence of remote working, there has been an effect on productivity. While they have overcome it, they have encountered difficulties when trying to obtain containers for the exporting of goods to non-EU countries. It has been a major issue for many agrifood businesses. The cost of transporting some of those crates has gone into double digits, which certainly has been a barrier to international trade. That is an issue that perhaps could be looked at.
Off-farm employment is also a significant issue. CAP has been spoken about a lot and there is an ongoing debate on it. It is very important that CAP payments be retained and given to farmers on a transparent basis. These payments are an important support to the farming industry.
Another issue that has been reported by business owners concerns access to funds. Normally, business owners have to pay trade invoices within 30 days. They are finding it difficult to access finance from the bank. Some of them are seeking to extend that period to 80 or 90 days, and it is affecting small businesses. I ask for something to be done about this issue. I understand that in France there are mandatory state credit terms and a debt collection procedure is in place. Perhaps that is something that could be considered here. I am sure it would require legislative change. While businesses have tried to work together, there are differences.
I welcome the clear plan that was announced yesterday and all the positive supports that have been in place. I support Senator Casey's view in respect of the inequality in the hospitality industry. For example, hotels will be open to residents in the short term and subsequently opened up, but people cannot dine inside restaurants and gastropubs. Many businesses cannot reopen because they do not have the outside space to facilitate outdoor dining. A special case should be made for the industry. I support the call on the VAT rate and I am of the view that a reduction in employer PRSI would be a great help. I am in favour of a proper marketing campaign for the hospitality industry, because as the Tánaiste acknowledged, it is one of the industries most affected by the pandemic. The industry is also facing a skills shortage, because many skilled workers left the industry for other sectors when there was uncertainty during the pandemic.
I would also like to raise the issue of the aviation sector. It has three key demands: a multi-year funding arrangement for State-owned regional airports, a stimulus package for airlines to encourage the rebuilding of air traffic and increased regional route marketing funds available to tourism. These demands are important because airports play a key role in the sector.
The Tánaiste also referred to the vaccine programme. Some 12,000 pharmacists have registered to become vaccinators. They have not yet been called to take up this role. Will they be used in the vaccine roll-out? It would certainly help increase the number of vaccinators available.
Many businesses have shown resilience in the pandemic. I would like to wish them all the best for their future opening.
There are many other things I would like to say but time has run out.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I will focus on one issue, namely, nightlife reform. People have been campaigning for licensing law reform for many years. Given the importance of enterprise and business, we are closer now than we have ever been to achieving it. I do not need to tell the Tánaiste that we desperately need to improve the quality of nightlife in our cities to be in line with our European neighbours for so many reasons. Culture and creativity are forged at night, in chance encounters and celebration. It is important, when many more of us will be working from home, that we have these centres where we meet, that we have a vibrant nightlife, club scene, bar scene and a diverse mix of things for people to enjoy at night in an age where we are all looking at our screens, as it might be our only encounter with someone. It is why our GAA clubs are so important but is why our nightlife is important as well. Imagine anyone being told that their local GAA club was going to close. These are the reasons why our clubs and music venues are so important.
The next steps outlined by the Government indicated that some higher risk activities will be considered at the end of June for later in the year, including indoor hospitality, restaurants, bars, nightclubs. The Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy McEntee - who I congratulate on her news - have both made positive statements on the need for licensing law reform. What is the Tánaiste's view? Will we see trial events first and if so, when? What is his view on licensing law reform? Clubs and venues pay through the roof for special exemption orders for each night they want to open beyond 12.30 a.m. On top of that there are legal fees and insurance costs which have, on their own, caused people to exit the market. When might we see such reforms? There is huge demand, as the Tánaiste will be aware, for change in this area. As my friend, Tonie Walsh said, there was a time when mammy Éire did not trust us to stay out late but there is demand now. People talk about the next social issues; I believe this is one of them.
I commend the Tánaiste on the conversation around a living wage which is also particularly important in this sector.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and wish him well with his portfolio. He holds a very important brief at this time. He told us:
Around this time next month, we will publish the national economic recovery plan. It will present our vision for what the post recovery economy will look like, and how we plan to support businesses and employees in the months ahead.
I believe he is the right man in the right job at this time, and is the man to lead us through what will be a rocky road at a vulnerable time. He has the experience of having gone through the recession ten years ago and I do not doubt that he will lead us to the very best of his ability.
The packages that were announced over the past 12 months have been greatly welcomed by the business and hospitality sectors. They are much needed but more needs to be done to get all those businesses up and running.
Senator McDowell raised an important point. When he was a Minister and Member of the other House some years ago, I think he said this country should have café bars on the streets. He is getting his wish at this stage because of all the outdoor catering that will be going on during summer. I wish everybody involved in that well because it is not easy. Catering is one of the most difficult businesses from which to try to make a living.
Senator McDowell also said we should have an in-depth look at what we did right, what we did incorrectly and where we could make improvements. An audit should be carried out of what we could do better. As the Tánaiste has often said, this virus is more prevalent indoors than outdoors. I think more outdoor activities could have opened sooner, for example, hill-climbing, golf, tennis, walking, cycling and many more similar activities. The construction sector could also have been opened earlier perhaps. I am delighted that sector will back up and running next week. It is an important enterprise for the country and creates thousands of jobs. Houses are badly needed for all those people now looking for them.
The Tánaiste said there would be a rocky road ahead. There is no doubt about that. Small businesses have suffered greatly in recent times and the same small businesses suffered greatly during the recession. An issue I have raised several times, and which the Tánaiste might take up, is that of self-employed people having to pay two weeks' redundancy. No safeguards are in place for those people, unlike for limited companies and other companies which can go into liquidation or receivership. Without such safeguards, houses and family homes are at risk. I intend later to introduce a Private Members' Bill to protect the family home. It is an issue the Tánaiste, as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, should look at, because we will see the closure of many small businesses in the months to come. This is going to be an issue
The aviation industry is also important and has been mentioned by several speakers. Knock International Airport, or Ireland West Airport, is very important to our region. Nearly 1 million passengers use it each year. We are blessed to have two good, strong airlines in Aer Lingus and Ryanair. The airlines cannot understand why the Government pushed back against reopening aviation on 1 June and tried to push the date back to September. It now appears the sector will reopen in mid or late July. Having the aviation industry up and running is badly needed because it is so important, not alone for trade but also for tourism and many other areas. The sector needs Government attention.
The Tánaiste is very welcome to the House on this important day on which hope, supports, a path forward and a significant level of vaccinations intersect. This is all in stark contrast to India, the homeland of the Tánaiste's father, from where we see upsetting and disturbing images. I am glad Ireland is playing a role in helping those in need but we must do more, especially to ensure vaccines can be supported worldwide.
From speaking to business owners in County Kildare, I know they have been glad of the supports rolled out in recent months. On that fateful day last March when the then Taoiseach, and now Tánaiste, addressed us as a nation from Washington, none of us could have foreseen the 14 months we experienced subsequently.
It is good that we did not know but the plans that were put in place gave a very supportive lifeline to many businesses. It has been a learning curve for all of us, in particular for those businesses. There are a few areas we need to re-examine, particularly businesses that did not have a rateable premises. They were treated unfairly. We need to look again at the VAT issue for tourism and hospitality because it will take some time before we get back to the days we had, when we still wanted more supports.
I salute the workers in businesses and retail that kept our country going and kept us on our feet, particularly those essential workers in the retail industry who manned the tills, stocked the shelves and made sure we got everything we needed. We need to acknowledge and support those workers, many of whom are on the minimum wage. That is why I welcome the sense of moving towards a living wage. We also need to acknowledge the situations that Debenhams workers, for example, found themselves in and do our best to ensure none of our workers ever find themselves in that situation again.
On access to credit, from speaking to local businesses I know that many of them have been struggling. They are looking at how they move forward. There is a huge squeeze on from the banks and a lack of compassion and understanding which, in fairness, the Government has shown. I believe that strong conversations and more than that need to happen between the Government and the financial sector. The stresses on business people are absolutely massive and we need to make sure they are not added to.
Kildare is getting ready for business. We are a vibrant county, strategically located and with a highly educated workforce. Normally, this week we would be in the midst of the Punchestown festival, where visitors from all over the world come and spend money in our hotels, restaurants and shops. Sadly, that is not happening even though racing is going ahead. We also have the greenway and the blueway opening up, so there are many opportunities there. However, we need more investment in terms of enterprise supports for north-west Kildare and south Kildare. These areas were dependent on Bord na Móna and associated industries, and have been completely left behind. I ask the Tánaiste to look at supports he can bring for them.
I pay tribute to our local chamber of commerce and our local enterprise office headed up by Jackie McNabb and her team. They have done tremendous work in rolling out the supports and in being a sounding board for people and businesses, where needed. There is a focus on supporting remote working and that is hugely important. I have a concern about all the online activity that happened over the last 14 months. We need to look at ways to support shop local and for people to support their community shops.
My time is up. There is much more I would like to say but I appreciate having the opportunity to speak.
I appreciate the Senator's co-operation. We have a difficulty arising with time slots. We have Senators Seery Kearney and Conway next but Senator Carrigy will find it difficult to get in unless they give him a minute each or something. He is next in line. I make Senators aware of that fact. The order allotted here is Senator Conway to start, then Senator Seery Kearney. Will they give a minute each?
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and commend him on the job he is doing as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the job he did during the pandemic as Taoiseach and continues to do as Tánaiste. As has been said, it is post Covid that the real challenge will fall upon him in terms of economic recovery.
I welcome the fact we will have a plan published in the not-too-distant future. The Tánaiste will remember back in October 2011 when he stood with me at the Cliffs of Moher. Back then, the Cliffs of Moher had 800,000 visitors per year. Subsequently, initiatives such as The Gathering, the Wild Atlantic Way and other important tourism initiatives kick-started the economy. Tourism was the first industry that went into recovery after 2011 and it fuelled the economic recovery we have seen over recent years. Tourism will do that again. We do not have natural resources apart from one critically important natural resource which is our landscape, heritage, culture, tradition, shorelines and so on. It is fantastic in that regard.
Aviation is clearly important in my area of the country. We need a plan in terms of short, medium and long-term air traffic and aviation recovery, not just in terms of travel but the aviation industry. We have seen GE Capital Aviation Services, GECAS, and AerCap are joining up. Significant consolidation is taking place which will affect thousands of people working in the aviation industry. As a result of that, we will see challenges in that area. A conversation in terms of the short to medium term and a plan in terms of how we move forward in the aviation industry is urgently needed and the issue needs significant consideration.
I thank the Tánaiste for taking our statements today and I welcome him to the Seanad, although that feels a little ironic coming from me. The time has been, undoubtedly, stressful and challenging. However, this period has also given us the opportunity to see increased initiative. Covid-19 has ignited a sense of enterprise and initiative. Our duty is to ensure we harness that in the best way we can. We have seen a transformative thinking in that there has been a turn towards the accommodation of remote working and other ways of thinking about how we could do things.
The pandemic experience has been a tale of two economies and it will also be a tale of two recoveries. There are those businesses that thrived, responded to the challenges, were able to pivot and by their nature, lent themselves to the economy as it presented itself over the last year. There are also those who opened businesses during Covid-19. Boom Coffee in Inchicore opened a little coffee shop in the middle of a residential area because people were working from home and wanted to walk down to get a coffee. We can ensure that innovation continues.
However, there are, obviously, those who did not work. The hospitality industry is the prime example of that. I welcome the phased return and phased supports that have been well put in place. The sliding scale to a point of financial self-sufficiency is important.
There are also businesses and industries opening up, such as childcare, that have no idea how the post Covid-19 world will look. There are particular challenges within it. If people move from working from home or remote working towards, as our party supports, the idea of community enterprise remote working hubs, what is the challenge for childcare in its intermittent provision of childcare services? How does it hold on to consistency in the care and development of children?
We went into this pandemic with a strong economy and thriving business and, undoubtedly, that has put us in a position to be able to leverage financial supports for our people, thanks to good governance under the Fine Gael-led Government. However, we need a bespoke response that supports businesses as they respond to stress testing.
There is a new marketplace out there which means that people may live differently. It is not, therefore, only a case of easing restrictions and having a sliding scale that responds to that, but also about having a response to the new marketplace.
I met yesterday with members of the credit union movement. Credit unions have had a very interesting experience during Covid in that they have experienced unprecedented levels of saving. This causes difficulties for them because the more money they have on deposit, the more it costs them. Credit unions are very anxious to open up and provide loans, particularly to small and medium enterprises. There is an opportunity to have credit unions work like Microfinance Ireland. They have local knowledge in local communities. Infrastructural oversights and a review were put forward previously by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, but we need to accelerate those.
I have many more issues I would like to raise but I will yield to my colleague.
I appreciate that. I again apologise to Senator Conway, whose time may have been a little too short.
I thought the Leas-Chathaoirlach had tapped the bell.
It was purely an error.
I thank my two colleagues for giving me time. I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber. I welcome yesterday's announcement of the reopening of the country. The Government had committed to this and I am glad that the path ahead is clear and realistic. I thank the Tánaiste for his leadership throughout the pandemic since March 2020. That point is made to me daily in my home county of Longford. Everyone in the country has worked hard and made sacrifices since March 2020, but brighter days are ahead.
Millions of our children are back at school. Our young people returned to playing sport this week, so today is a good day. My nine-year-old returned to playing hurling on Wednesday. I have to get home this evening, as he has GAA training. My four-year-old has his first training session with the local GAA club tomorrow morning. We are starting them at that age now in Longford to see if we can catch up with Dublin, which has moved so far ahead in Leinster.
I believe the key to our recovery is our vaccination programme, which is progressing well. We need to ensure every effort is made that every vaccine received is administered as quickly as possible and that we communicate that correctly to the public. The plan laid out last night will see many thousands of people return to work in what has been a difficult time for businesses and workers. We are told the current business supports will remain in place in their current form until the end of June. However, we need to continue these supports until our economy is fully up and running. More important, we need to do everything we can to ensure that when we open our economy, it stays open.
We must also spare a thought today for those who will not have jobs to return to. Some businesses will not reopen and we need to ensure that we have supports for these workers and businesses. As we look forward to the summer months, we need to see a return of tourists, both domestic and international travellers. It is imperative that we ensure the continued survival of our aviation and hospitality sectors. I welcome the EU Covid-19 certificate allowing our citizens to travel freely and, hopefully, this will be a timely boost to our tourism and hospitality industry. As my party's tourism spokesman, I join other colleagues in asking that the outdoor dining scheme be amended to an outdoor enhancement scheme, to allow all eligible hospitality businesses to apply.
On a sporting level, my local Parkrun committee has asked me to raise an issue. I ask that Parkrun committees, which are successful in towns and villages throughout the country, be given a definitive date for when they can open. As my party's media spokesperson, I concur with Senator Cassells that some support mechanism needs to be put in place for local media, as has been done for local radio.
I will finish by saying that County Longford is open for business. I ask people to support those businesses that are reopening after such a difficult period.
The efforts everyone has made to co-operate have succeeded in ensuring all Senators who wished to speak could do so. I thank Members for that. It is my pleasure to call on the Tánaiste to respond to the debate.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I also thank Senators for a very interesting and informed debate. It is nice to come to the Seanad. I must come to the House more often because it is less adversarial and, therefore, sometimes a little more grown-up. I appreciate the comments and remarks of Senators.
Senator Ahearn has often mentioned the Ballingarrane campus to me.
There is specific mention of Clonmel in the IDA Ireland strategy. I look forward to working with the Senator on that matter because I know he has a particular and personal interest in it.
Senators McDowell and Keogan said something with which I strongly agree. They stated that when this pandemic is over - let us hope it is over in months and not years - we should carry out a proper and independent analysis of our pandemic response. We have not faced a pandemic like this in 100 years but it would be foolish to assume that it will be 100 years before we next experience one. Perhaps there will be another in a few decades or within our lifetimes. Asian countries in particular learned a lot from their experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS. We did not have that experience but next time we will have no excuses because we need to have a better response than we had. We need to think about how that will be done so that it is done in a way that yields lessons we can learn from and does not become adversarial or overly political. Paul Reid, the CEO of the HSE, rightly stated at the start of the pandemic that there is no manual for dealing with a pandemic and that we would get approximately 70% of things right and maybe 30% of things wrong. That was a good prediction but it is important that we know what the 70% we got right was so that we do that again, and what the 30% we got wrong was so that we can change our response for next time.
Critical care capacity has been scaled up in recent years, particularly in the last year, but it needs to be scaled up further to about 400 or 500 critical care beds on a permanent basis. As Colm Henry always says, an ICU bed is not a bed and it is not hard to buy the kit. It is a system involving intensivists who take ten years to train. I include ICU nurses, who are in short supply everywhere in the world, in that regard. This is something that will take some time to build up. Even though we had less critical care capacity than many other countries in Europe, we did not run out of it and other places did. The Netherlands, for example, had to send patients to Germany and Austria and Italy did something similar. While we might have had one of the most stringent and longest lockdowns in Europe, our rate of mortality has been among the lowest. That is not a coincidence. Countries that are perceived to have better health services than ours - the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Austria; and Luxembourg, which have health systems that we are often told to copy - have had mortality rates that are at least significantly higher than that of Ireland. We should not forget that.
I will not make a speech on Seanad reform but we should it and do it well. Something that Senator McDowell and I differed on in the previous Oireachtas was whether we should have constitutional reform. I think we should but perhaps the best start to that is to have some sort of symposium or opportunity for everyone to express their views. Everyone has different views on this, regardless of what party one is a member of, and everyone should be able to freely express their views on what the Seanad should look like. We could take it from there and not do it on party grounds. I stumbled across the Free State Constitution the other day when I was making preparations for an article I am writing. It was interesting to see how the Seanad worked in that. It was set up with the particular purpose of representing minorities and had directly elected elements on national and regional panels. I am not saying we should copy that but there are even interesting ideas from our history that we might consider.
Senator Crowe and others asked about the employment wage subsidy scheme. That will stay in its current form at least until the end of June. We will then continue it in some form after the end of June. We are not exactly sure how we will do that, whether it will be sector or turnover-based but we will work that out.
The NPHET letter with the public health advice will be published today, tomorrow or in the coming days. That says that hotels should be opened, including all of their facilities, but that indoor dining and restaurants should not be opened. There is no medical or scientific advice on that and I need to be honest about that. The reason hotels are allowed to open their restaurants or indoor dining is because they always have been allowed to do so. It has always been the case that hotels have been allowed to serve meals to their residents and we did not want to take that away. However, I hope that people who work in the restaurant sector will see outdoor dining as just a step. We would intend to move to indoor dining in July if everything goes to plan.
Senator Wall mentioned youth unemployment. The rate of youth unemployment in Ireland is high and we need to act on it. Such action must include: job opportunities from my Department; education and training opportunities from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science; and maybe more schemes from the Department of Social Protection. I often hear this figure used that we have youth unemployment of 50% or 59%. That is misleading. When we calculate youth unemployment in Ireland, we exclude anyone who is in education or training, and most of our young people are in education and training. Therefore, it is only 59% of those not in education and training who are unemployed.
By increasing places in education and training, we increase youth employment, if one understands how the maths work as I am sure the Senator does. The real figure is somewhere around 22%, including people on the pandemic unemployment payment. As retail, construction and personal services open over the next few weeks, I would hope to see that 22% fall to some figure beginning with a "1", but that is still high. We need to bear in mind that, generally, in a recession young people suffer economically the most. In a recovery, they are the ones who regain their jobs quickest. It is often people in their 50s who find it hardest to get back to work when they have lost their job in a traditional industry. We need to bear that in mind too.
On Safe Pass, we will check up that issue about it being online. It is not my area but I will check it up. I fully agree with the Senator's remarks on the local enterprise offices.
On the issue of a waiver for intellectual property rights, that is an EU matter. None of that intellectual property is held in Ireland. At present, I am not convinced that it would benefit anyone to waive intellectual property rights regarding vaccines. If there were large numbers of empty vaccine factories in the global south that could produce vaccines within weeks or months it would be one thing, but that is not the case. There is a risk that it could be counterproductive and might send the message out to scientists, industry and enterprise that if they develop these vaccines we will take their invention away from them. If we knew that would definitely benefit people in terms of production being ramped up in the global south that would be one thing but we do not know that. The debate on this has become a little too ideological and needs to be practical. What companies should do is license this to be produced in factories all over the world, whether they are in the global north or the global south, if they exist but, as we know in Ireland, they do not. There is no empty vaccine factory or pharmaceutical factory in Ireland that we could make vaccines in. We looked. It would take two or three years to produce that kind of infrastructure.
As the Taoiseach indicated, there will be a package for tourism and the tourism sector and we hope to have that as part of our announcements for the end of May. Senators Currie and Carrigy both raised the issue of the outdoor furniture grant. They said they should be for pubs and not only for restaurants, cafés and gastropubs. I agree with that and I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, about it. The Minister agrees too and she is working with Fáilte Ireland on it. We think it can be done, certainly for pubs that have their own outdoor space. It is a little trickier when it is a public footpath for many different reasons that the Senators will understand but we are hoping that it can be extended to pubs with their own outdoor space.
My Department is updating the workplace safety protocol in the next few weeks and that will have a new chapter on antigen testing giving employers clear guidance and encouragement to carry out antigen testing regularly in their workplaces.
I very much agree with Senator Malcolm Byrne's remarks on the new deal for younger people on cultural institutions. The Senator's idea of replacing commercial rates with a different model is a very good one but I do not know what it is. As is always the case, there will be different views on it, and winners and losers. It is work that somebody should do anyway. It will not be me. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, or the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, might do it.
In response to Senator Cummins, we are re-examining the Covid credit guarantee scheme to see if we can make it more attractive for business. We are constrained by state aid rules. It is a Government-backed loan. It is a low-cost loan, but it is a loan and has to be on commercial terms. We can only go so far within the EU state aid rules but we may be able to make it a bit better and more attractive and we intend to do that.
I very much take Senator Cassells's point on local newspapers and the coverage and information they provided our citizens during the pandemic. That needs to be recognised too.
On the issue of pharmacists, 1,200 of them have signed up, as Senator Byrne informed us. Some of them are a little annoyed that they have not been asked to help yet. They will be, almost certainly in June and through to July and thereafter. I would say to anyone who is a healthcare professional, even though he or she might not have been asked yet, that they should do the online course. It takes three or four hours. It means that one is a certified vaccinator. We might find in June that we have 1 million vaccines, or maybe even 2 million, and need to administer them quickly. Fifty thousand healthcare workers all putting their shoulders to the wheel, if we facilitate them, can do this very quickly.
Senator Warfield mentioned the issue of nightlife - something I miss terribly, as I know the Senator does too. I hope I am not too old to enjoy nightlife by the time this pandemic is over and our clubs, music venues and late bars reopen. It is certainly my view that the offering in our cities here in Ireland should be as good as anything on offer in Germany, Spain or the Netherlands.
That is not currently the case and probably never was. I look forward to the publication of the report of the night-time economy task force, which I think is imminent. Like the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I would support a change to licensing laws which would make opening late more economical and also a system of licensing that is more predictable in order that people who are organising events - I do not just mean night events but include people organising concerts - actually know they will get a licence. It is still the case that most of the concerts that happen in Ireland are subject to licence. There must be a better system where people have predictability around licensing. We have made provision in the summer for pilot events and I am aware some have happened in England. I was really encouraged by the results of an outdoor concert held in Barcelona. It was attended by 5,000 people and there was no social distancing but masks were worn. As very few cases were detected 12 days after the pilot, that is really encouraging and reinforces what we know already about outdoors being much safer.
Senator O'Loughlin and many other Members of the Houses have mentioned the issue of businesses without a rateable premises to me. Such businesses did not receive the restart grant or the CRSS. These are mostly home businesses although many have vans and vehicles. They have not been ordered to close by Government and have lower fixed costs than businesses with rateable premises. However, they do need help in some form and it is something I am mulling over with the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy. Perhaps if we do a new round of restart grants, and we intend to, we can do something for those businesses so they at least get some financial support which they did not previously.
I agree with what Senator Seery Kearney said about the new marketplace. The economy is going to be very different post pandemic and we must have a think about the changing demand for childcare. Blended working is going to mean people will want blended childcare. It is going to be different and we must think that through.
On the credit unions, for the first time there are now some credit unions, albeit only a small number, which are lending to businesses through the Government-backed guarantee. That is a change and a positive one for the future. People often talk about bringing the Sparkassen model to Ireland and perhaps we should give that more and further consideration. However, could our credit unions not become that, to a certain extent? The credit unions in our local areas are the people who know our local citizens and business people and maybe if we are going to have a community banking system that lends to business, it might be an adaptation of the credit unions rather than something set up from scratch by people who do not know our business people and communities so well.
Finally, on the Duffy Cahill report, as I mentioned earlier the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will bring in a new company law Bill before the summer. We are leaving some space in that Bill to make some changes, as recommended by that report. However, we must be honest about the difference that legislation can make. It certainly is not going to be retrospective. As the Senator will know, the Clerys dispute was a very different dispute to the Debenhams one. All disputes are different but in the Clerys case there was a very big asset in the form of a very big building on O'Connell Street, and that allowed for an additional payment to be made to the workers there, over and above their statutory redundancy. Debenhams was a much more straightforward insolvency. The company went bust; its debts exceeded its assets. In that scenario, people only get what they are legally entitled to, unfortunately. The workers there were badly treated by their employer but they were not very well advised by others on what was achievable and what was not. That is unfortunate because a deal was there on the table for statutory redundancy, an extra €1 million and several hundred jobs being saved. There was not even a ballot on that and I believe that was a mistake.