Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Maternity Services

This is not the first time I have spoken about this issue. I addressed it last Monday. Senator Flynn told us of her happy news on that occasion and I wish her well.

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I certainly hope he can bring some clarity to the issue about which I am speaking today. There is a need for the lifting of restrictions on appointments, labours and visits to neonatal wards in maternity hospitals. We often think of the Coombe, Hollis Street and the Rotunda as the three maternity hospitals in Ireland and while they are the main three, there are another 16 maternity units around the country. On average, 62,000 children are born every year. I estimate approximately 70,000 babies have been born since Covid-19 came upon our shores. It is sad that we have had approximately 14,000 miscarriages in that period of time. Pregnancies are generally happy and joyful occasions for mums and their partners although they are not without their stresses and worries, particularly for those who may have had difficult experiences previously. Partners have not been allowed into hospitals for scans and have only been allowed in for the very end of labour. For many women, that end of labour has come quite quickly and their partner has not made it in and that has made for difficult times. One mum of four, a strong and feisty lady, said to me that when she gave birth to those children, a big thing was that she felt she had an advocate there. She was giving away control and power and needed somebody who was there solely for her.

Every woman I have met has spoken in glowing terms about the maternity services, the midwives, the doctors and the nurses. This is not about that; this is about the help and the support that needs to be given at a difficult time. I was emailed by one lady about having a miscarriage last year and how difficult it was for her to hear of it in a hospital setting. She had to go back out and within a matter of 20 minutes to explain and go through all of those emotions again with her partner who had not been there with her to listen to that.

Two ladies, Emma and Ciara, have set up this amazing Facebook page, In Our Shoes, and the stories would bring tears to a stone.

The fact that all of our hospital staff are vaccinated surely means it is time for these restrictions to be lifted. Dr. Colm Henry spoke about this and said that it would be expected that these restrictions would be lifted and Dr. Peter Boylan said the same but the problem is that there is no uniformity among our 19 maternity units. It is very clear at this point that pregnant women have suffered enough. They and their partners need the opportunity to be present for these scans, for the bad and the good news, to be present for all of labour, and to be able to attend neonatal units. I hope that the Minister of State has good news for us today because it was lacking in all of the positive good news yesterday. I thank the House.

I thank the Senator for raising what is a very important issue. The senior Minister, Deputy Donnelly, myself and many others fully appreciate how restrictions across the health system are affecting service users. I acknowledge that the restrictions in maternity hospitals are particularly difficult for expectant mums and their partners. Indeed, a year and a half ago I was the partner of an expectant mum and the support that we were able to give one another, and especially, that I was able to give her was huge. Many of my friends and constituents have raised this issue and it is one that we would like resolved as quickly as possible.

It is our aim that the impact of Covid-19 on women and their families in maternity hospitals be kept to an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of Covid-19 in our communities, it has been necessary to introduce restrictions in our maternity hospitals to protect not only women, babies and staff, but the maternity services as a whole. This has been achieved in part by the introduction of restrictions on persons attending in maternity hospitals and this, regrettably, has affected the access of partners to maternity wards, theatres, and appointments.

It is worth remembering that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are cared for in our maternity hospitals, including fragile infants at the very extremes of prematurity and the sickness of newborns with very complex needs. There are also many vulnerable mums with additional medical needs and everyone can agree that their safety and that of their babies must be a priority.

To date, our maternity hospitals have performed very well in that regard and have continued to protect the well-being of women, babies and staff while providing safe, quality, maternity care.

Throughout this pandemic, maternity sites have continued to review their restrictions on a weekly basis, with some undertaking reviews daily. We need to recognise that the challenges faced by our maternity hospitals vary considerably between hospitals and that significant variations in caseload, complexity and infrastructure exist throughout the system. That is why we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach to restrictions and some local flexibility is required to provide for the different circumstances that may arise in different maternity units. Decisions on restrictions are, therefore, made, implemented and reviewed at hospital level.

The national women and infants health programme has advised the Department of Health that it has issued a communication to clinical leads in each maternity network requesting that the improving situation regarding community transmission and immunisation of front-line workers be taken into consideration when restrictions are being reviewed. The programme will continue to engage with the clinical leads to support a phased relaxation of restrictions and to provide advice on any area of particular challenge while continuing to advise that the overarching requirement is to protect the health of our pregnant population.

I assure the Senator the decision to restrict attendance in maternity hospitals has not been taken lightly. Front-line staff and hospital management are acutely aware of the very important support provided by partners and the national women and infants health programme has assured the Department that maternity hospitals wish to facilitate this support as far as possible and that restrictions are being reviewed regularly with a view to phased relaxation, bearing in mind the overarching need to protect the health of our pregnant population.

I am disappointed with the response of the Minister of State. I completely accept and understand, as I am sure does every Member, the necessity to introduce restrictions in our maternity hospitals to protect women, babies and staff but we have now moved to a stage where pregnant women will be prioritised for vaccination and our healthcare staff have been vaccinated. Honestly, the damage being done to women through not having the support of their partners is incalculable. Earlier, I mentioned a lady who wrote to me about what she went through with a miscarriage last year. The other part of the story is that she is now pregnant again, thankfully, and has had a healthy pregnancy so far. She is absolutely petrified of having to go through all of this again. I honestly believe this should be a priority. The Minister of State's comment that we need to have local flexibility is understandable but the general rule should be that partners are allowed for these three key areas, with flexibility coming in where there is a problem.

This does not come under my remit, although I am responding to the matter. I acknowledge the difficulties and anxieties that restrictions in our maternity services have placed on women and their partners over the period of Covid-19. Any deviation from normal practice is a cause of regret. I hope our maternity services have performed very well in this regard and have continued to provide a safe and quality maternity care during this very difficult time. However, it must be borne in mind that maternity hospitals and units introduced these measures to protect the well-being of women. The national women and infants health programme has issued a communication to the clinical leads in each maternity network requesting that restrictions be reviewed and I hope they will be. The Department has been assured that all maternity hospitals are reviewing their restrictions with a view to phased relaxation as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. I hope there is some positivity.

I welcome this development but the House should be aware that any phased relaxation on restrictions may be subject to change as the situation evolves, bearing in mind the overarching need to protect the health and well-being of our pregnant population. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I and many Senators, Deputies and Ministers have friends and constituents, particularly women, who are anxious that they get support from their partners. This is not my area but I hope the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible.

National Childcare Scheme

The Minister is very welcome to the House.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to the House. There is a glaring and urgent need to review the national childcare scheme. For many families, the subvention is very welcome and helps to pay for childcare but it would be incorrect to say it is a universal subvention available to all parents. The Labour Party acknowledges that there has been progress in the Department over the past year with regard to the support provided for the payment of wages in the childcare sector and emergency income supports. At the same time, however, we have the introduction of the national childcare scheme which effectively excludes the children of some of the most disadvantaged families in this city and across the country. Some of these children are living in the most challenging, overcrowded and difficult of circumstances, particularly where I live in Dublin Central but right across the country.

There are a number of issues with the design of the national childcare scheme. First, there is the loss of financial support, particularly for after-school care for children whose parents are on very low incomes or are not working. Second, there is the inconsistent way in which the sponsorship system operates and the rash manner in which sponsorship can be withdrawn, particularly when a family moves from emergency accommodation into a house. This is a hugely traumatic time in people's lives. I know of one instance where the support was removed within one month, while in other cases it takes six or seven months to be removed. Third, the application process discriminates against those with poor literacy or English language skills. In some cases, providers have had to fill out the form for families. The original idea was to have an application process that would allow autonomy for families to get the supports they need.

Many representatives of childcare facilities have told me they raised these issues with the Department when the scheme was being designed. I know the Minister was not in the Department two years ago. At that time, providers asked for additions to be made to the national childcare scheme but nobody listened to them. We are now approaching a perfect storm. Representatives of community childcare facilities have told me they will not be able to continue in operation owing to the lack of funding provided for the children for whom they care. When the previous scheme was introduced, band C was introduced at the last minute in recognition of the fact that those who provide community childcare places needed to be looked after and provided for.

These facilities are not just about minding children. They are a family support for the most disadvantaged of families. I pay particular tribute to the childcare after-school schemes provided by St. Mary's, the Larkin Centre, Ozanam House and many other services in the inner city with which I am familiar. They provide an incredible service to families and we would lost without them.

We have talked about breaking the cycle and tackling disadvantage. The north inner city task force has lots of money for additional security and improving the area. All of that will be worth nothing if we do not direct resources at the youngest residents and citizens of disadvantaged areas. We need to do more.

Two years ago, providers in the inner city called for research to be undertaken on the gap in childcare places and the additional therapeutic needs of children in childcare places and those who need them in the inner city. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been holding up this research because it believes the outcome will conflict with existing Government policy. We need the Department to champion children, particularly the most disadvantaged children. I know the Minister feels strongly about this but we cannot have a situation where this basic research on what is needed in the inner city is not being funded and provided. I ask that the Department take this matter very seriously in the context of looking at the overall issue of the new national childcare scheme and what is needed for the most disadvantaged families.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I might just speak broadly about the national childcare scheme before addressing the Senator's specific points.

The national childcare scheme is built on the basis families are supported in accessing early learning and childcare based on need. The manner in which the needs of families are addressed is progressive and ensures that those who have the least income receive the highest hourly subsidies. In this way, we target our resources at those most in need. More than 53,000 children have benefited from the scheme to date. The ratio of targeted to universal beneficiaries on the national childcare scheme is 2.6:1, which is a significant increase on the on the older scheme, the ratio of which was 1.6:1. The national childcare scheme has made the higher targeted subsidies available to a greater number of people.

The national childcare scheme has been in operation for 18 months. Of course, that period has coincided with the very difficult Covid crisis. My Department has engaged an external consultant to review the first year of the scheme. I specifically asked for the review to include the usage by socio-economically disadvantaged families and providers serving socio-economically disadvantaged communities. At my request, those two points will be specifically looked at in that review. At the same time, work is ongoing on the provision of a new funding model for the entire childcare sector. We have discussed it previously in this House.

That work is being led by an expert group. It is due to report later this year. It is looking at mechanisms to ensure that the very substantial amount of money the State is putting in right now and the increased amount of money we will put into childcare in the future, is targeted. It has been asked to look specifically at how we can target communities and children of greatest disadvantage. A number of papers have been published on that. I am sure that the Senator is familiar with them already. It is a specific part of what we are trying to achieve in terms of the new funding model. In the interim, my Department continues to support services, particularly those whose sustainability is in question. There is a dedicated sustainability fund with which any service can engage.

I thank the Minister for that most detailed reply. I very much look forward to the findings of the review of the first year of the scheme. I am heartened to hear that it is being undertaken. I must say , however, that the lack of emphasis on after-school care is most problematic. The Minister spoke about how, during term time, the child's development needs are generally met through school participation. If a child comes from a chaotic household, their capacity to do homework is limited and they may need additional help outside of school hours. These needs are not being met currently if that child cannot access after-school care.

I have heard countless stories from people working in early years services in the inner city who say they are providing services in lieu of formal therapy that people cannot access because of such long waiting lists. These are children who are presenting with behavioural difficulties or who do not have the supports at home to help them with homework. These after-school facilities are providing that care. That is not being recognised in the national childcare scheme at the moment. I urge and plead with the Minister to ensure that it is a key part of his review and that it is incorporated into the design of the scheme in the future.

I am very much aware of the concerns that have been raised by providers, particularly in areas of great disadvantage, on some elements of the implementation of the scheme and particularly on the after school-issue. I have met providers, including from the Senator's local area with Senator Fitzpatrick, which is why I have outlined the three elements I am dealing with including, in the immediate term, broadening out access to sponsorship. The information on sponsorship has not got out well this year, primarily due to Covid. The HSE has not been in a position to do that, obviously its focus has been elsewhere, so we engaged with it and particularly with Tusla to ensure information about sponsorship arrangements is going out. I have asked, in the context of the review of the first year, that specific focus be given to those types of concerns we are discussing today in terms of socioeconomic disadvantage. Finally, there is a discrete part of the expert funding review group looking at the long-term issue of how we fund services in these areas. In the short-, medium- and long-term fronts, we are taking this issue very seriously. I look forward to the information from these reviews coming back and acting on it.

Aquaculture Licences

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I seek clarity on the statutory timeframes pertaining to aquaculture licences. The Minister of State will be very much aware of the issues in the licensing regime. Unlike other regimes, there appear to be no timelines. Anyone seeking planning permission for a commercial or residential property tomorrow morning would have a timeline from the local authority and then there is an opportunity to take it to An Bord Pleanála. Those timelines are not applicable here which creates great frustration, particularly for communities. I mention Kinsale in particular this morning. A 25-acre mussel farm in Charlesfort, beside the dock in Kinsale, was proposed on 21 December 2018. Very little information has come forward on it. One of the submissions made by residents said to put a fish farm in Kinsale Harbour itself would be like letting a farmer grow turnips in a public park. There are issues with getting information out to the public. I have written to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine several times seeking clarity on the status of this application and seeking an update on the decision. We have seen nothing but a response from the Department to the effect that all queries regarding applications are under active consideration and it would be inappropriate to comment. We have no information on where the application is in the system, there is no transparency or understanding of when a decision will be made.

Our office has done research on this. It is a huge issue for the people in Kinsale. Under section 31(1) of the fishing Act of 1997, the Minister must determine an application within four weeks of the date of all the information being provided. That is really interesting.

Section 32 of the Act states that if it is not possible for the Minister to determine the application within the set period, he or she must write to the applicants to give them an understanding of a timeframe for the making of a decision. I am looking for a process to be put in place to enable the public to be made aware of what stage an application is at and the issues involved.

The situation we have now relies on one thing, namely, seeking clarification regarding the point at which an application is considered to be complete. I say this because four weeks after that there is an obligation to have provided an answer, but nobody understands the point to which the word "complete" refers. As a result, there is nothing but misinformation circulating. I ask the Minister of State to use section 31(2) of the Act and notify the public of the progress of applications and to provide some understanding of where applications are in the system. It is nearly two and a half years since the application to which I refer was made, with no understanding of when it is going to be complete or the issues pertaining to it. Therefore, the whole system has failed the public. Some two and a half years later there has been no update and no understanding of the current position. It is not possible to understand where that application is in the system, despite the applicants continuously writing to the Department. This would not happen under any other planning process, so we need clarity on how the public can get the relevant information.

I take on board the comments made by Senator Lombard regarding transparency. It is important in any licensing process. I am usually talking about forestry licensing, so it is good to be here to substitute for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to talk about aquaculture licensing. He sends his apologies that he cannot be here to respond to this matter in person.

My Department considers applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment Act 1997) and the Foreshore Act 1933, and other applicable national and EU legislation. It is a complex process. Several statutory frameworks and time frames are set out in the legislation regarding aquaculture licensing. The process also involves consultation with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers, as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation. The statutory time frames in respect of the public and statutory consultation processes are set out in SI 236/1998, and on the instruction of my Department, the applicant is required to publish a notice of the application in a newspaper circulating in the vicinity of the proposed aquaculture within two weeks of the instruction. The applicant is required to submit a copy of the newspaper in which the notice was published to my Department within one week of its publication.

In the case of shellfish or seaweed licensing, the legislation provides for a period of 30 days in which the public may make a written submission on the application and for a six-week period in which the statutory consultees may make written submissions. In the case of finfish, the time frame for public and statutory consultation is eight weeks. Following the closing date of the public and statutory consultations, all submissions are sent to the applicant and the applicant has the opportunity to submit written comments regarding the submissions within three weeks of the date of issue. The average time for processing a fully-complete aquaculture licence application varies, because it depends on several aspects such as location, species, the scale and intensity of production, the statutory status of sites, potential visual impact and a whole plethora of environmental impacts.

My Department takes full account of all scientific and technical advice, as well as issues identified during the public and statutory consultation phases. Further factors that can impact on the time taken to process an application can include the need for an appropriate assessment if the application is within Natura 2000 area, whether the application is required to be accompanied by an environmental impact statement, EIS, or an environmental impact assessment, EIA, report, and consideration of any submissions or observations raised during the public consultation period and the need for additional underwater or archaeological assessments, etc.. As a result, licence applications must go through several stages.

Once the Minister has made a determination in respect of an application, the legislation requires this decision be published within 28 days.

My Department places the reasons for the determination on the Department's website and places a notice in the newspaper in which the applicant placed the application notice. Notice of the foreshore licensing determination is also placed in Iris Oifigiúil.

The legislation also provides for an appeals mechanism and, from the date of the publication of the decision, any interested parties can lodge an appeal within 28 days to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, ALAB, an independent statutory body. The timelines for appeals processes is a matter for the ALAB.

That gives an overview of the process of a licence being issued. I cannot comment specifically on the example the Senator provided but I encourage him to engage further with my Department and I will see if we can get any more information for him on that inquiry.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is about that section of the Minister of State's contribution which goes through all of the issues pertaining to the licence. The real issue is there is nobody going back to the community and telling the people who have made observations or submissions what is happening. We have no idea in Kinsale what has been looked for regarding this licence. We have no idea whether studies have been looked for or about the timeframes regarding such studies. No public information has been made available. The need for the Department to update and inform residents who have made submissions is very much apparent. That is the flaw in the system. Because of that we have a gap and that gap is information. I appeal to the Minister of State to inform the public of what is going on. At the moment we are in a black hole, unfortunately.

As I started my opening speech, I will start this one by agreeing that transparency is important in this process so that people in the communities in which these licences are sought are aware of what is happening, and indeed the applicant him or herself.

I can only speak to what has happened in the forestry sector in terms of licences. We have a forestry licence viewer, which is a new, more interactive facility for forestry licences that the public can access and see the information. It may not give every detail at this stage. Maybe it exists for the aquaculture licensing sector. I do not know. If it does not, maybe that is something they could look into to make it more transparent and provide that public participation piece that is often missing from licensing and planning applications.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to the Chamber.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for coming here to respond to my Commencement matter, which speaks to the need for the Government to provide financial and other supports to the taxi service industry.

I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government. Today is a hopeful day. The announcement yesterday was very welcome to all sectors of industry and community and we are all looking forward with much greater hope today than we have been for a long time. I commend the Minister of State and the Government. It has been a challenging year. I acknowledge the support the Government has put in place for businesses, community organisations and families to help us all through from a financial perspective and a services perspective.

As I said, my Commencement matter speaks to the Government's need to respond to the taxi sector. I am a city dweller and anybody living in any of our cities or rural towns will be aware of how vitally important taxis are to our public transportation services.

There are more than 23,000 licensed taxis in the country. They are a very important mode of public transportation. Taxis are safe and economical and offer city and urban dwellers an alternative to owning a private car, so they are hugely important. They have continued to operate during the pandemic and have provided a vital public transport service on the front line throughout the pandemic.

I appreciate this is not the remit of the Minister of State but the National Transport Authority, NTA, conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on taxi drivers and its research shows that almost 100% of taxi drivers have suffered a massive decrease in income since the pandemic. At the same, almost 100% of the taxi drivers had introduced measures at their own cost to ensure their services could continue to operate in a Covid-19 safe way. They installed barriers, wore masks, introduced hand sanitisers and adopted cashless payments at their own expense.

Throughout the pandemic, the taxi drivers as business operators, have had no support. The only support they were provided with was the pandemic unemployment payment. I recognise they were given the opportunity to continue to earn up €480 per month, but they have fixed annual costs of €11,000 per year. Instead of using their pandemic unemployment payment to pay for their groceries and family expenses, they have been paying for their insurance and cost of maintenance.

On top of that, they have an obligation to renew their car every ten years. I accept that last October, the Minister introduced a delay on renewal fees and registrations until June of this year, but that expires at the end of this year. It is unrealistic to expect any business owner to make a once-in-a-decade capital investment in his or her business when he or she has been, more or less, without a livelihood for the past 12 months.

The taxi drivers have lost confidence in the taxi advisory group. As I said at the outset, taxis are a vital component in our public transportation infrastructure and services. I urge the Minister of State to respond to the lack of confidence in the taxi advisory group expressed by the taxi sector and advise the House on how the Minister, Deputy Ryan, intends to respond to that situation.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for raising this matter and will report her remarks directly back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, if I do not get to cover them all in the short time available.

The Government is acutely aware of the difficult situation facing the taxi and small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, met with the advisory committee on SPSVs to hear first hand about the difficulties facing the sector and to discuss the challenges ahead. The sector is particularly dependant on the hospitality industry. The gradual reopening of society over the coming months should, it is hoped, see passenger demand for services begin to return.

Nevertheless, we are not there yet and people understand that. Covid-19 continues to have a profound effect on the working lives of individuals from all walks of life throughout the country. That is why the Government has put in place support measures with broad eligibility criteria. Self-employed individuals such as taxi operators can and have availed of these supports, including the pandemic unemployment payment and liquidity, investment, and tax relief measures.

I want to use my time to mainly talk about the supports available to taxi drivers but the Minister has asked me to deal with two issues specifically. I want to reiterate on behalf of the Minister that there are no plans to change the access arrangements to bus lanes. This has been made clear to taxi representatives in the Minister's meeting and his Department's correspondence with them. I sincerely hope this clarifies the matter once and for all. I reiterate there are no plans to change access arrangements to bus lanes.

It has been two decades since quantitative controls on the taxi industry were lifted. It is well known that the taxi industry has been badly affected by Covid-19 and, as experience over the past two years has shown, few people wish to enter the industry. A moratorium on licenses would not deliver any practical benefits to anyone and, accordingly, there are no plans to introduce one for the practical reason there are not a large number of people seeking to enter the industry in the first place.

The Government is committed to providing practical supports to assist SPSV operators and to support drivers' return to work when circumstances allow. This is why self-employed individuals, including taxi drivers, can earn up to €960 in an eight-week period. That is €120 per week or almost €6,240, net of expenses, without jeopardising their pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, payments. Taxi drivers can actually continue in business, do a small amount of business and earn up to €120, net of expenses. That is profit on top of their PUP. I understand that is not enough in itself, because the level of business is not out there to justify taxi drivers all going back on the road. Normally, there could be well over 1,000 taxi drivers at Dublin Airport on any given day. It was mentioned to me that, at this stage, there are only approximately 40 there on any given day. The €120 is a good system in place for those who are in a position to take advantage of it but there is not enough business going around for many taxi drivers to avail of it.

Furthermore, taxi operators coming off the PUP and returning to work full-time can avail of the enterprise support grant, a €1,000 grant which can be used towards the costs associated with reopening a business. This can include personal protective equipment, vehicle costs and cleaning supplies.

The suite of Covid-19 measures is complemented by specific industry measures. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has introduced late fee waivers, facilitated temporary licence suspensions and insurance suspensions, and provided guidance to operators on reducing the risk of Covid. The Department of Transport has provided for the waiving of all standard taxi licence renewal fees for 2021 at a cost of €2.6 million to date.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome his clarification of the situation with regard to the bus lanes. That is an operational matter and it is important that there is clarity around that issue.

I also welcome the supports the Minister of State mentioned and the fact that taxi drivers can earn up to €120 a week. However, they cannot do so because there is no business. That is the truth of it. They have fixed costs of €11,000 a year. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Transport is willing to engage. I urge the Minister of State to ask him to meet taxi driver representatives, together with Oireachtas Members from the Government parties. It is really important that we carve out an agreed partnership for a sustained future for this vital public transportation service that will make it sustainable for the next five to ten years.

I also have a specific request, that is, that the Minister of State asks the Minister of Transport to extend the ten-year vehicle requirement to 2025. Taxi drivers have lost the best part of two years in the operation of those vehicles, which is two years of their livelihoods. They are not in a position to make a once-in-a-decade capital investment in their business. It would be gesture of sincere commitment to that sector, were the Government to extend that period up to 2025.

In response to the Senator's two specific requests, I assure her that I will speak directly to the Minister about meeting taxi driver representatives. The Senator mentioned members of the Government parties as well. She also mentioned the issue of extending the rule that requires vehicles be replaced every ten years. I understand, and I am subject to correction, that it is in place for this year but was not in place last year. There is a bit of a lacuna and taxi drivers might be waiting for clarification on that. I am not in a position to say whether any of that will happen, except that I will take the Senator's concerns directly to the Minister.

As regards the supports to purchase electric vehicles, the amount available has been increased to €15 million. This will allow €20,000 per operator to scrap older vehicles and make the switch to full electric models. It is a very good scheme but with income being so tight, I acknowledge that taxi drivers might not have funding to finance the balance of the cost of the car. It is a very generous grant scheme but finding the balance of the funding is very difficult. It is an issue I will take directly back to the Minister.

Tax Compliance

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and the Chair for listing this Commencement matter. According to the tax and duty manual, under the capital acquisitions tax part 15 on insurance policies and in particular under sections 72 and 73 of the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Act, it is possible to put in place an insurance policy, the purpose of which is to meet the anticipated capital acquisitions tax which will occur on the death of any individual.

The proceeds of the insurance policy do not effectively add to the size of the estate for the purpose of capital acquisitions tax and they are available to the personal representative of the deceased to discharge the CAT liability, usually inheritance tax, for relatives who the property owner wishes to protect. That is fine and it works reasonably well except that it can be expensive on some occasions. The strange thing about the insurance policy is that the wealthier the person providing the insurance is, the less of a burden it is to that person to avail of the policy. For example, somebody might want to provide for the likely CAT, which will occur if he or she dies and has to leave his or her home to a child or whatever. The issue is that one of the prerequisites for qualifying under sections 72 and 73 is that the person who takes out the insurance policy effectively has to pay the premiums himself or herself.

This issue has not been raised by wealthy people but it has been presented to me by a broker who operates in the Cork area that he sees injustices, namely that less well-off people who are not in a position to fund the premiums find themselves at a disadvantage compared with people who are better off in a similar situation. He tells me this would be remedied by allowing the likely inheritor to participate in the insurance policy. This could be done by noting his or her interest on the policy; making him or her a contributor to the policy; or exempting any assistance her or she gives to his or her parents to pay for the insurance from CAT, gift tax, income tax or whatever. His view is that as between people in relatively similar situations, the present requirement that the disponer under an inheritance should pay the insurance policy premia effectively discriminates unfairly against those with lesser means as opposed to those with greater means.

I ask the Minister of State to examine this issue and consider some means whereby the person for whose benefit the insurance policy is put in place could contribute to the extra expense imposed on the person who has to be the policyholder.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The proposal is as follows: "The need for the Minister for Finance to examine the feasibility of a legislative change to allow children to take out life cover in respect of their parents for the specific purpose of paying inheritance tax after the death of the parent(s)." I might come back to some of the other points the Senator has raised in my second contribution.

The issue of inheritance tax after the death of an individual's parents is a sensitive subject, and one where qualified financial advisers are available to advise. The Senator has been talking to a broker on that but I am talking about tax experts as well. He will also appreciate that the Minister for Finance is responsible for the legal framework for insurance and that neither he nor the Central Bank of Ireland can intervene in the provision or pricing of insurance products, as this is a commercial matter that individual companies assess on a case-by-case basis.

This position is reinforced by the EU framework for insurance - the solvency Il directive.

With regard to the request from the Senator, I do not believe that this change is necessary, either in relation to insurance or the CAT legislation. In Ireland, I understand that the general practice where a parent wishes to prevent his or her child from having an inheritance tax liability is that the parent may take out a specific type of life assurance cover, generally referred to as section 72 cover, to which the Senator referred to Generally, the parent takes out life assurance for the purpose of covering any future inheritance tax liability on behalf of his or her child, rather than the children taking out a policy in respect of their parents. Section 72 life assurance policies are particular types of life assurance policies, which are approved by the Revenue Commissioners under section 72 of the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Act 2003. This legislation provides for a relief on the proceeds of certain life assurance policies used to pay inheritance tax. These policies are widely available in the market. They are generally whole-of-life assurance policies and will provide that the proceeds are tax free insofar as they are used to pay an inheritance tax bill.

For completeness, the Department also consulted with the Revenue Commissioners on the Senator's query as it may have inheritance tax law implications. As proposed by him, their view is nothing in CAT legislation prevents a child from taking out life cover in respect of his or her parents for the specific purpose of paying inheritance tax after the death of a parent or parents. However, the concept of insurable interest would be relevant as the child would have to prove to the insurance company that he or she has a financial necessity for such a policy. I recall that the principle of insurable interest in insurance legislation was recently modernised under the Consumer Insurance Contracts Act 2019. Accordingly, the introduction of this Act is a significant development in insurance law for consumers, which, among other things, reforms the contractual relationship between consumers and insurers.

In summary, I do not believe there is a need to examine the feasibility of changing legislation in this regard. It can be dealt with as proposed in the Senator's matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Perhaps the terms in which the matter was phrased were not specifically accurate enough to highlight the problem that I was speaking about.

I note that he said that there is not a problem in theory with a child of a likely disponer taking out a life assurance policy providing he or she can show an insurable interest but there is this difficulty of to whom the proceeds of that policy are paid. If they are paid to the inheritor, there are issues as to whether they form part of the estate and whether they can be separately made liable for taxation.

The second point that I raise with the Minister of State is it were possible for a section 72 insurance policy to be funded - it was made clear that it can be funded by a person who expects to inherit - without in any way vitiating the policy and without having to show insurable interest or whatever, it would be an evening up between the have-nots and the haves who can avail of section 72.

I thank the Senator for his remarks. I understand the issue of insurable interest is fundamental to every insurance policy and it is not easy to get over the situation of people taking out an insurance policy unless they can prove that they have interest in the policy. That is one issue.

I take on board the Senator's second point completely. If it is payable to the estate, I would be afraid and the Senator would be concerned that the Revenue would include it as part of the estate and subject to taxation as part of the estate. That would defeat the purpose to an extent. Second, it would not have to be paid by the beneficiaries of the estate. To that extent, it means that they would benefit to some extent, but I see the complications.

I have explained that the insurable sector currently provides options for people with regard to estate planning, including through section 72, and such cover may be expensive given that it is a whole-of-life type cover and insurers will price the risk accordingly.

Nevertheless, there is no need to consider any amendments to either the insurance legislation or the tax code. It is not clear from the Commencement matter whether the Senator is suggesting insurance companies offering section 72 life insurance policies will allow the adult children to pay the premiums and therefore be considered the owners of the policy. The Senator has dealt with that in his comments in the meantime. The matter can only be dealt with in the next Finance Act.

Tax Code

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to speak about this important subject. The Minister of State will be aware of the current rates of stamp duty being charged on the purchase of homes in Ireland. We are aware also that there is a significant shortage of housing which accounts for the rise in property prices in recent months and years. Stamp duty is, in real terms, a tax on mobility. It stops people from moving house because it creates an additional expense on buying a house and moving to a new house and indeed selling another house. I want the Minister of State to consider that at a time when property is so expensive, particularly in the capital, perhaps the time has come to consider removing stamp duty altogether. I am aware this has been considered in the past and that it would leave a hole in the Exchequer accounts, there is no doubt about that. However, at a time when we have rolled out local property tax, ostensibly with a view to funding local authority activities throughout the country, it seems like double taxation that people must pay a tax at the time they move into or buy their home and they must thereafter pay an annual tax related to local authority activities. One tax for both would suffice.

At the moment, property tax is calculated at 1% of the purchase price under €1 million and 2% on every €1 of the price over €1 million. It may well be that people look at this debate and think that anybody who can afford a house at that level is doing well enough that he or she can pay the tax. However, the reality is that in places like Dún Laoghaire, where I am from, it is very difficult to find houses for below €500,000. Therefore, even a first-time buyer or new buyer coming into the market will pay €5,000 stamp duty on top of the very substantial expense connected with moving house. We should not be saying to people that, first, it is acceptable to tax them on the double given the local property tax and, second, and perhaps more importantly, we think it is acceptable for the State to stymie their mobility. We should be encouraging people to move as much or as often as they want to because it is exactly the kind of thing that will free up properties for use in a more appropriate fashion. An example of this would be somebody who is living in the former family home which is too big for him or her, or more likely a couple who live in a one-bedroom apartment who now have a child or two and want to move out. The latter is very common in the Dublin area. The expense of moving to that other property is very significant. That tax on mobility means we do not use the housing stock we have as effectively as we could. It equally applies to people who want to downsize into a smaller home, perhaps a retired couple who no longer have a need for a large house. We should be encouraging people to use property as effectively as possible and remove this tax on mobility.

I am aware this issue has already been addressed today but in the same regard, inheritance tax as currently set is a massive impediment for people. The entrance level is less advantageous than it was in 2009. Then, there was a band for children of €542,000 before they had to pay inheritance tax on, very often, the family home. That is now down to just €335,000, although I acknowledge it has been creeping up it is still very low, particularly when one is dealing with Dublin house prices. Again, there may be little sympathy around the country for that situation. However, that is the reality for people who live in Dublin where houses are expensive and when a parent dies, inheriting a family home very often brings with it the inability to keep that family home and it must be sold because the inheritance tax cannot be paid. The State should be cognisant of that and raise that band to allow people to hold on to family homes which might well be suitable for a younger family but which may also have huge sentimental value to the inheritors.

I ask the Minister of State to consider reducing these taxes on mobility and making them fairer in the context of people wanting to move house or move within their area.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I want to include the wording of the actual motion in the Official Report so people will be absolutely clear what I am replying to.

The matter the Senator submitted asked if the Minister for Finance "would consider changing the rates of 'taxes on mobility' such as stamp duty and inheritance tax, which disincentivise downsizing and make moving house particularly difficult for people in certain financial circumstances." I will address the two different taxes that have been mentioned, namely, stamp duty and inheritance tax.

The transfer of a residential property constitutes conveyance on sale for the purposes of the Stamp Duties Consolidation Act 1999. Stamp duty is payable by the transferee, that is, the acquirer of the property, whether it was transferred by way of sale or gift. Stamp duty on transfers of residential property is chargeable at the rate of 1% where the consideration does not exceed €1 million. Where the consideration exceeds €1 million, stamp duty is chargeable at 1% on the first €1 million and 2% on the balance in excess of that, as the Senator has noted. Stamp duty is set at a low and relatively flat rate, with few reliefs, to be as straightforward and transparent as possible. It is essentially a transaction tax. Without any detail as to the changes to stamp duty the Senator envisions, it is not possible to put a figure on what such a measure or measures might cost. However, I can confirm that in 2020, the stamp duty on residential property raised €156 million. Looking further back to the normality of 2019, it raised €179 million. We would not wish to forfeit even a portion of this money from the Exchequer at this time. The Senator acknowledged that such a measure would put a hole in the Exchequer's finances and we cannot consider doing that at this time. That is the truthful position. The Minister for Finance does not accept that a stamp duty rate of 1%, which is the rate most people would pay when buying a new home after downsizing, is an inhibiting factor to such a transaction. In many cases people who were downsizing would have sold a larger house and would generally have the money to pay such a duty. Therefore, he does not see the stamp duty on residential property as a "tax on mobility".

Regarding inheritances, the Senator should note that CAT is payable on the total of all taxable gifts or inheritances received by a beneficiary. There are three tax-free thresholds, which are set according to the nature of the relationship between the person transferring the asset and the beneficiary. CAT applies at a rate of 33% on all amounts above that threshold. As there is no CAT levied on the sale of a property, it is not likely in itself to disincentivise downsizing. Should an individual wish to downsize a property and distribute additional proceeds made from liquidating the equity in the home, the normal CAT rules will apply to the beneficiaries of these assets. The group A threshold applies where the beneficiary is a child of the disponer, providing a tax-free threshold of up to €335,000. The Senator stated that it was much higher but it was reduced in light of the reduction in property prices over the period to which he referred. The group B threshold of €32,500 applies where the beneficiary is a brother, sister, niece or nephew and the group C threshold of €16,250 applies to all other relationships or if there is no relationship at all. CAT applies on any values inherited or gifted above these thresholds. Therefore, a significant value of assets can be received, particularly from parent to child. I accept that may only happen in some situations where there is only one child involved and the value of the estate is not being distributed among three or four children. The Minister is not in a position to take on board the cost that would be involved in the Senator's proposal.

I understand the point the Minister of State is making but the figures he has given are half what they were in 2009. There is no mistake but that stamp duty is a tax on mobility and it disproportionately affects young people in Dublin. For people who want to buy a house in the Dún Laoghaire area, it is a very significant burden and it particularly affects first-time buyers, young buyers or small families trying to move out of an apartment and into a house. It is a disproportionate and arcane tax that is arbitrary in many respects but it also double-taxes people because after they have made that move, they are expected to continue to pay local property tax to fund local authority activities.

The Minister of State mentioned a figure of €156 million going into the Exchequer, which is a small amount. We should incentivise people to move homes as much as possible, particularly after a pandemic when they may well have found that it is easier for them to live in another area and work remotely.

We should be facilitating that and encouraging people to do it. The reality is that stamp duty does the opposite. I ask the Minister of State to consider changing that situation.

I thank the Senator for his remarks. The gist of what I said referred to people who were downsizing, as mentioned by the Senator. I took that to mean parents who were selling a house and downsizing to a smaller house. The Senator raised the example of people in an apartment, perhaps an expensive one, who want to sell it and move on to more suitable accommodation. That is a point I did not particularly cover because I was dealing only with the downsizing aspect the Senator mentioned.

Every €1 counts in a decision to downsize. I would, however, draw the Senator's attention to a recent paper from the Department of Finance and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the results of a survey of homeowners over the age 55 on their attitudes towards downsizing. The results show that of those who were unwilling to downsize, only 3.8% cited transaction costs or financial reasons as a barrier to moving. There are many other issues that prevent the mobility about which we are talking. In light of these findings and given that the benefits of transparent tax structures are widely recognised, I can confirm that the Minister has no plans to make changes of the type suggested by the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 1.31 p.m. and resumed at 1.46 p.m.