Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Questions (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [40487/20]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Economic Recovery and Investment will next meet. [41796/20]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport last met. [42005/20]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

6. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42008/20]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport last met. [42009/20]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42051/20]

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Mick Barry

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42079/20]

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Oral answers (38 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of eight occasions, most recently on 4 December. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled. Membership of the committee is comprised of the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Employment and Trade; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and for Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment. Its initial focus was on developing the July jobs stimulus. It is also overseeing the development of the national economic plan, which is due to be launched shortly. Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment.

The Government continues to invest in our national infrastructure. This is evidenced by the commitment of capital allocation of more than €10 billion in budget 2021, making public investment in Ireland one of the highest per capita in the EU. Specifically, the budget 2021 allocation for the Department of Transport is €3.5 billion, which includes €1.8 billion funding announced for sustainable transport, cycling, walking and greenways, and €1.3 billion for national, regional and local roads. This will ensure that our transport network continues to grow sustainably into the future, providing viable and affordable transport options, while also working to meet our climate and environmental objectives. Issues relating to the economy and to transport are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

With regard to the forthcoming national economic plan, significant initiatives will be taken in terms of continuing the unprecedented supports the Government has provided for businesses and through income supports across the economy. It is also looking at new areas for economic opportunity in terms of digital transformation, for example, particularly in the public services and our health service, given we need to transform the health service electronically and from a digital perspective.

It is also about investment in the green economy, where there are opportunities to create jobs in retrofitting, for example, in enhanced investment in sewage treatment plants, in enhancing our environment and in alternative and innovative farming in respect of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and in providing funding opportunities for farming with regard to forestry, native species and so on. There is a range of opportunities that will be encapsulated by the national economic plan.

Given the number of questioners can we, please, stick to the allocated time in order to be able to get a response from the Taoiseach? I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Income and pension differentials are a very serious economic issue. I do not want to spend too much time on this because I want to ask about another issue but the Taoiseach knows, and I ask him to, please, not be dishonest, that when we sought restoration of the FEMPI pay and pension cuts, it was for low and middle income earners. He had four items of legislation which targeted particular segments, including the higher paid pensioners and civil servants, so I ask him not to give us the nonsense that there is not a way to stop obscene increases for people on already obscene pensions in excess of €100,000.

From the transport point of view, I ask about the plight of the taxi drivers yet again. There was a temporary waiver on the ten-year rule for having to get a new taxi for the year 2020 but there are 1,600 taxi drivers who, in 2021, starting with the first taxi driver on 3 January, are required to replace their taxis, which they cannot afford to do because they have lost all the income for this year. They have asked about this and there was a review, a consultation and so on but they have no clue whether they will get a waiver for 2021 and, if they do not get a waiver, they will not be able to afford to run their businesses and replace their cars. Can the Taoiseach, please, give a clear indication to taxi drivers now that the ten-year rule for 2021 will be waived and that those 1,600 taxi drivers and others who are not sure what will happen in the middle of next year will not have to replace perfectly good taxis that must, in any event, pass NCTs and suitability tests?

My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, asked the Taoiseach yesterday if it was the Government's intention to ratify the International Labour Organization, ILO, Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. As he did not have an opportunity to respond as time ran out, I would be grateful if he could clarify the Government position today.

Covid-19 has created new challenges for the workforce and exacerbated existing inequities. Remote working has created significant advantages. However, there is a flip side that needs to be recognised and addressed. Research shows that remote workers are at greater risk of being overlooked for training and promotional opportunities. The new EU directive on work-life balance gives workers a right to be flexible and remote working for carers and parents. The concern is that by limiting the right to this cohort of workers, the take-up will come primarily from women. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has recommended that the right to flexible work, when transposed into domestic law, be extended to all workers to avoid unintentional but very real negative consequences. Will the Government give consideration to that?

A call for a new deal for retail and distribution workers has also been launched. Women working in these sectors can earn up to 19% less than their male counterparts. As the Taoiseach knows, Ireland has the third highest rate of low pay in the European Union, with a median wage of just €313 a week for staff in the accommodation and food sectors. Retail and distribution workers account for 19% of all workers in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP. Ireland is ranked second worst among OECD countries for housing affordability and equally high costs associated with childcare compound excessive living costs for those on very modest incomes. Furthermore, the absence of collective bargaining rights further restricts the ability of workers and their trade unions to secure fair pay. Economic strategies must incorporate enhanced rights for these workers including the right to a living wage, protections to ensure decent work and, finally, providing for the right to collective bargaining.

There have been fundamental shifts in the world of work and a renewed societal premium attached to front-line services. This needs to be reflected in enhanced terms and conditions, as well as legislative and workplace rights. I ask that the Taoiseach and his Ministers actively and constructively engage on these matters in the time ahead because we need integrated economic strategies that mainstream workers' rights.

I ask the Taoiseach whether the Cabinet has had a discussion on the newly revamped Irish Aviation Authority and the appointment of its new CEO. He is due to take up that appointment on 1 January 2021 but yet he comes from a company that has an appalling record on both issues that his new job will enjoin him to deal with. Ryanair has an appalling record on the treatment of workers and consumers, with many passengers waiting long periods for refunds and thousands left waiting for cancellations to be dealt with. While the revamped authority will look after both consumer rights and the question of safety on our airlines and at our airports, to give this job of CEO of the newly vamped Irish Aviation Authority to somebody from this company is equivalent to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

We also have widespread complaints from the industry, and Ryanair in particular across Europe, of abuse of workers' rights, with the Covid-19 pandemic being used to sack workers and to breach the International Aviation Safety Assessment, IASA, health and safety regulations in terms of having to walk up and down the aircraft aisle to sell alcohol and tickets to passengers, which involves touching off and dealing with passengers multiple times during flights. Will the Taoiseach comment on the appointment, which I believe is a major insult to the aviation workers and passengers alike and tells us all we need to know about Ireland's low regulation and neoliberal approach to this very important industry?

Charles Dickens wrote about a tale of two cities but right here we have a tale of two economies. On the one hand, Goodbody is saying that Irish GDP will be higher this year than last year despite Covid. That is something that is fuelled by the kind of fictitious financial trickery that has seen Kellogg's direct more than €1 billion worth of sales through Ireland. Irish people are not eating €1 billion worth of cereal, despite the coronavirus crisis, but it will pay little or no corporation tax on that nor will it pay it in other countries. In fact, it is getting €100 million in tax credits from the State. While it is the best of times for billionaires, it is the worst of times for many ordinary workers.

The Dickensian nature of this Government is most aptly shown in its Scrooge-like treatment of student nurses and its continued refusal to pay them a living wage. The Taoiseach has made much of saying that it does pay the fourth year workers, who he admits are doing a crucial job and therefore accepts have to be paid. Does he, however, stand over the fact that they are paid less than the minimum wage? Does he agree that, at the very least, they should be paid a living wage?

The Taoiseach's response is to say that we are being divisive to point out the fact that student nurses are working for free. He says we are being even more divisive in trying to rectify that situation by bringing forward a motion. How come it is us that is divisive rather than the Taoiseach and his Government, which is allowing a situation to persist of non-payment of student nurses for labour they are doing while he simultaneously hands over money to judges, former taoisigh etc.?

Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach about the situation in the Arcadia group but he did not have time to reply so I will ask about it again because there are 900 workers whose jobs are on the line and, unlike Sir Philip Green, they cannot sail off into the sunset in a £100 million yacht. The company is in the hands of the liquidator who will try it for another six weeks but that only brings us up to the second week in January. There is a real danger that workers will get no more than the statutory two weeks, despite the fact that there is an agreement in the company for two plus two, that is, four weeks per year of service being the company agreement.

When this issue arose earlier in the year with the Debenhams workers, hope was expressed on the Taoiseach's side of the House that this would be the last group of workers who would have to face a situation such as this one but the Arcadia workers are in that front line now, together with the Debenhams workers.

The programme for Government committed to a review of workers' rights in a liquidation situation. I have asked the Taoiseach about that previously but I am asking again with renewed urgency. There needs to be urgency on the Taoiseach's side too because this is a bread and butter issue for hundreds of workers who are facing redundancy and the dole this Christmas and new year if something does not arise in the next six weeks.

Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about FEMPI reversal and said that I knew well he was speaking about low and middle income groups. That is exactly what happened. Successive Governments and the Oireachtas reversed FEMPI, first, for lower income groups, then middle income groups, and kept higher income groups until the end, when it was no longer legally feasible not to do it. That is the reality as per the 2017 Act. If Deputy Boyd Barrett had his way with his motion in 2016-----

-----he would have got rid of FEMPI in its entirety, which would have meant that higher earners would have had the full reversal five years ago rather than getting it in July 2021. Those are the facts and the Deputy cannot get away from them.

We simultaneously said-----

The Deputy said it was dictatorial and so on, but he should not try to weasel out of what his actions would have caused in 2016. If his motion was passed in 2016, it would have caused the reversal of the cuts on the highest earners and highest pensions, which he is now railing against.

On taxis and the temporary waiver of the ten-year rule, I will engage with the Minister responsible, Deputy Ryan, to get clarity for taxis, especially in the context of their incomes being significantly reduced by the impact of Covid on hospitality and so on.

Before Christmas if possible.

I will try to get clarity on that before Christmas and will speak to the Minister about it.

Deputy McDonald made a point about the broader economy and the workforce, and the changing nature of the economy. I agree with that. The national economic plan will deal with that when we publish it next week because it is about economic recovery, and also about understanding the changes that are occurring, particularly with technology and remote working. There may also be opportunities for job creation and economic renewal from the green economy and digital transitions. Those twin areas have been accelerated because of the pandemic. As the Deputy said, they will bring profound changes to the workplace, our economy and our way of life. We need to reorientate our approach and policies on that. The transition to a low-carbon economy, for example, will see all sectors of the economy and wider society undergo radical change, and will require significant investment, research and innovation, new ways of producing goods and consuming, and changes in the way we work, use transport and live together. We will have to bring in protections for workers who are working remotely, particularly making sure that their promotional opportunities are not undermined as a result of that.

Technology is profoundly changing our society and economy. It is driving the emergence of a new digital and knowledge-based economy, which is reshaping what we all do and how we do it, and we need to think and act strategically to take advantage of this digital transition. I believe that nowhere requires that more than the health service. Our education system will have to adapt to provide the skill sets required to enable us to avail of the opportunities that will arise. I see significant scope for public sector digitalisation to improve the quality of public services in the country. That national economic plan will be backed by unprecedented levels of investment. I will come back to the Deputy about the ratification of the ILO convention on domestic violence.

Deputy Smith raised the Irish Aviation Authority. I am not clear whether it is permissible to speak about an individual who is not a Member of the House and who I understand went through normal recruitment processes, although I will check that.

I did not say he did not. I asked the Taoiseach to comment on his appointment.

I do not run the Irish Aviation Authority. The Oireachtas, through the Government, creates agencies with a statutory basis. They go through their proper recruitment processes. We cannot politically vet everybody who goes for a State appointment. The reality is that aviation in this country has provided thousands of jobs and has been one of the success stories of the past 30 years. I know the Deputy will attack what are termed "neoliberal policies", which I do not accept, because the degree of State intervention in Ireland is significant, and that should never be denied with regard to our economic model Thousands of jobs have been created through a successful aviation strategy, which greatly helped our hospitality and tourism industry pre-Covid, with a wide range of other employment from foreign direct investment to our own companies that need that air connectivity. It is not all one-way negativity, as one might believe.

I put it to Deputies Smith, Murphy, Barry and Boyd Barrett that their economic model would not work in Ireland and would create thousands of redundancies if it was ever applied. It is at minimum a flawed economic model. It seems to me that Deputy Murphy wants to single-handedly tear up the education model we have for nursing. He has studiously avoided any reference to whether we should continue with a nursing degree programme as envisaged in the professionalisation of nursing.

Yes, we should.

He seems to think that it is okay to give any kind of work to nursing students, irrespective of the fact that they are on a learning programme. I said about the case that he raised in the Dáil yesterday that it should be forwarded to the HSE as a complaint, because it represents abuse and exploitation of that student nurse. I ask him to send that to the HSE because it should be investigated.

(Interruptions).

The case that Deputy Murphy raised yesterday should be sent and I do not know if he sent it or not. Has he?

Will the Taoiseach meet with them?

We are running out of time now.

I will send it.

The Deputy should have sent it already.

Should I do it with or without their consent?

He should have sought it by now because it is a terrible thing to do.

Deputy Barry has advisers and gets remuneration, as his party does, from taxpayers' money as well.

We are eating into time for the next batch of questions.

It seems to me that the only party that is stepping up to the plate with regard to retail is the State and the Government, through the Social Insurance Fund and statutory redundancy. The Deputy never says that.

I thank the Taoiseach.

I appeal to the Deputies not to lead people up another hill. They are great at doing that but they are short on solutions for workers.

The Arcadia Group workers-----

That is why I am talking about the Arcadia Group. I am not responsible for a British retail unit that decides it is going into liquidation. We will do everything we can to support the workers.

I am asking the Taoiseach a question on behalf of 900 Irish workers.

The Deputy has asked his question.

And I will answer it. That review is under way, as I have said. The objective is to get it completed before the end of the year. The key point is that the Government and State will step up to the plate with regard to our obligations for all redundancies.

The review will be complete by the end of the year. Is that right?

We are not responsible for every decision made by companies outside the State.

On a point of clarification about Deputy Bríd Smith's comments about the person appointed to the Irish Aviation Authority, I listened carefully to what she had to say and I took it that her issue was the employment background of the person appointed as distinct from the personality involved, otherwise I assure the House that I would have intervened.

The Ceann Comhairle has better ears than the Taoiseach.