Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

Cathal Crowe

Question:

1. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met; and when the next meeting is planned. [29523/21]

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Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

2. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [29604/21]

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Alan Kelly

Question:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [30928/21]

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Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

4. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met; and when it will next meet. [31792/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

5. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [31404/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [31406/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [33209/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on transport last met; and when it will next meet. [33550/21]

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Oral answers (28 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment has been established and first met on 8 July 2020. It has met on a total of 13 occasions, most recently on 27 May. The next meeting is not yet scheduled. The members of the committee are the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Other Ministers or Ministers of State attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment and had an initial focus last year on developing the July jobs stimulus. Most recently, it has overseen the development of the Government's economic recovery plan. This plan, which was launched on 1 June, sets out renewed supports, investments and policies for a new stage of recovery in order to support people back into work and bring about a sustainable rebuilding and renewal of our economy and society. The plan builds on the already unprecedented level of support provided by the Government to those impacted by the pandemic to date. The committee is also overseeing the ongoing review of the national development plan.

Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise at other Cabinet committees, such as the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change, and the Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland and Brexit. Issues relating to transport are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

I thank the Taoiseach very much. I note that Deputy Cathal Crowe is not present and call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan to speak now.

I welcome the recent publication of the national economic recovery plan, which outlines how the Government will spend almost €1 billion in funding that it has received from the EU. Specifically referring to my own constituency of Cork North-Central and the north side of Cork city, we have a number of investments that we are looking forward to over the coming years. I refer in particular to the urban regeneration and development fund announcement on the docklands, the recent Irish Rail announcement of €184 million, the potential movement on the Cork north ring road and, hopefully, a new elective hospital for the north side of Cork city. Can the Taoiseach clarify what investments he envisages in the north side of Cork city going forward?

The figures from EUROSTAT yesterday show that Ireland ranks 13th out of 27 EU countries on household living standards, falling behind Germany, Italy and Lithuania. That is where we really stand when the impact of multinationals on our GDP is stripped out. When it comes to living standards and what people can actually afford to buy to live their lives, Irish people are in fact less well-off than the EU average. That is what these figures are saying and is a reflection on the high prices here. One of the principal drivers of that is the record levels of rent and the high cost of buying a home. Childcare, obviously, is another such factor.

The social contract between the State and its people is that if one works hard, contributes and pays one's taxes, one will be able to afford such things as housing and childcare. The Economic Social and Research Institute has said we need to double our investment in housing. I ask the Taoiseach directly whether will this happen. The head of the National Treasury Management Agency, Conor O'Kelly, said yesterday that the Government can borrow millions of euro more to build homes for years to come as low interest rates will be locked in. This is his prediction. Does the Taoiseach agree with him?

Two questions arise as a result of all of this data coming in. First, will this be reflected in the review of the national development plan and in the budget of this year? Will we be able to put that amount of money forward for housing? Second, does the Taoiseach agree with the Tánaiste's recent comments that 40,000 homes have to be built each year, and will be?

Economic recovery in Mayo, the west and many other parts of the country relies on the roll-out of broadband. That is why we welcomed the €2.7 billion contract. There is a disconnect between the talk from the Government on the future of work and the potential of more remote working, and the reality on the ground in Mayo. In the first 18 months, only 4,378 homes and businesses have been reached out of a target of 115,000 and only 632 of these have actually been connected. Given that contractors were allowed to continue working on the roll-out over the past year, it is necessary for the Taoiseach to explain what has happened and why so little progress has been made. People in my constituency of Mayo want to know what is going on. For them to see such a shocking low number of connections is completely discouraging. There has not been an adequate explanation of the situation. What is the new agreed downgraded target for the connections this year? What penalties will National Broadband Ireland face for falling so far behind schedule? Does the Taoiseach share our concern? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said he hopes to negotiate a new contract and he will invoke the change control procedure in the broadband contract. Can the Taoiseach tell us what is going on because we are very concerned at this point about the contract and all of the promises that have been made around broadband for rural Ireland?

I am getting concerned about the time being left for answers but I call Deputy Boyd Barrett to speak on behalf of Deputy Smith.

Yet again, I have to raise with the Taoiseach the plight of the taxi drivers. The so-called package that was announced by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is worth about €300 per taxi driver, given that they have lost many thousands of euro in income in the past year and have carried ongoing costs. It goes nowhere near meeting the demands they made. They met with the Taoiseach and have written to him subsequently, but have received no direct response from him. They want to know whether that is the end of it now. Is that all they are getting? In particular, they are pleading around the issue of the extension of the ten-year rule to something like 15 years. Otherwise, many of these drivers who have lost a year's income and are carrying debts will have to replace their vehicles at the end of this year. They simply will not have the money to do so. Given that billions of euro have rightly been given to other industries, will the Taoiseach tell the taxi drivers that a measure that would actually cost nothing will be agreed? I refer to the extension of the ten-year rule to become a 15-year rule. This would remove a huge burden from their shoulders and would allow them to plan over the coming years while the recovery of their industry remains very uncertain.

Yesterday, the ESRI issued a report which refutes the key justification the Government has put forward for cutting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in September. For months we have had to listen to millionaire business owners, like Pat McDonagh of Supermac's, calling for cuts to the PUP and claiming it was so high it meant that workers were better off not working. Yesterday's ESRI report exposed that as being simply untrue. In fact, it highlighted the major damage that cutting the PUP would have in taking money out of the economy. It also referred to the cliff edge that is facing students come September. Those who usually rely on part-time work to pay their way through education will find it very difficult to get work. The Government is creating a cliff edge for them which will potentially force them out of third level education.

It is time to change course. Cutting the PUP, or trying to intimidate or shame those on the PUP with checkpoints or Government propaganda, is simply not on. Will the Taoiseach reconsider this position?

At a meeting this morning of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, the Aer Lingus CEO, Ms Lynne Embleton, was asked whether she would keep 200 Cork workers on the books for ten weeks that Cork Airport is to be closed for runway repairs in September, October and November. She replied that at the time of the decision to announce the layoffs, there was uncertainty regarding the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, its continuance and what form that continuance would take. Given that there is no longer uncertainty about the EWSS, and given that it will be in place for the September to November period when Cork Airport will be shut, Ms Embleton and Aer Lingus no longer have an excuse not to keep those workers on the books.

Will the Taoiseach tell the House that the continued payment of the EWSS to Aer Lingus must now mean that plans to temporarily lay off 200 workers will be cancelled, and that the workers must remain on the books for that ten-week period?

I too raise the ESRI data published yesterday and urge the Taoiseach to form and launch an ambitious, thoughtful and far-reaching recovery package for young people and young workers because all the data reflect that they have been hardest hit and the damage will remain for some time. Social Justice Ireland, the OECD and many others have recognised this fact. The Government's efforts thus far in addressing these issues for younger people have been minimalist, to be polite about it. I urge the Taoiseach to be ambitious, thoughtful and expansive in the support and ambition shown for younger people and younger workers.

To respond to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, URDF funding will be substantial, at more than €300 million, for the docklands in Cork, which encompasses the south docks as well as the northern side. It will create employment overall in the region, which will be of great significance for the infrastructural works that will facilitate both residential and commercial developments in the Cork docklands of benefit to many people living in the northside of Cork.

The Irish Rail investment of €185 million in commuter rail, particularly in regard to the revamp of Kent Station and the Cobh line, from Glounthaune to Monard, will have significant impacts throughout the northside of Cork and the hinterland around the northside of Cork city and county. It will be a significant investment because it will leverage and incentivise further urban development along the rail track. The idea is that in order to get sustainable communities, there needs to be investment in a combination of public transport and housing. It will be very interesting to see how the development pans out. We are very keen that it will lead to significant economic development on the northside of Cork, and I believe this rail investment will in time come to be seen as very important.

On the new elective hospital, the HSE has made submissions in that regard and land on the northside of Cork has been identified as one potential location. It is important that we modernise healthcare facilities throughout the country, and a number of elective hospitals have been identified. Some work, negotiations and considerations are still under way with the HSE in the context of Sláintecare, whose framework covers this, and the Government will eventually be involved in the decision-making. The hospital will make for a very significant development in modernising our healthcare system and will make it more efficient in terms of elective care. It will take pressure off the trauma centres and the centres for excellence and ensure we can get through our waiting lists much more quickly than is currently the case at the major trauma centres.

To respond to Deputy Kelly, there are various broader metrics and standards. We are developing a well-being framework under the aegis of my Department to identify the characteristics and that will more broadly measure not just the economic metrics but also the broader quality of life in Ireland. This will be within an OECD framework. A similar model has been developed in New Zealand and elsewhere, and we are keen to adapt such a framework to Ireland. Of course, there has always been the issue between GDP and GNI in Ireland. Equally, however, the impact of foreign direct investment, FDI, in Ireland, when it is stripped out, is not accurately assessed either. It too can be understated, in regard to the quality of work and so on being provided and the historic added value of human capital, experience and expertise that have been garnered over the years, which have a consequential impact on indigenous industry, enterprise and research.

We still have much to do. As for housing, I think it is about capacity and delivery. We built about 20,000 houses last year and lost about 5,000 because of Covid. This year, it is estimated that the figure we build could be between 18,000 and 20,000, losing a further 5,000 or 6,000 because of Covid and the lockdown-----

Thank you, Taoiseach. I am afraid we have to move to the next set of questions.

We have not had any answers.

The ESRI has stated that we should, and need to, build up to 33,000 houses a year.

On the taxi question, if I may continue, a €6.5 million package was provided last week for taxi, hackney and limousine operators following my meetings with them and my engagement with the Minister for Transport. That involved €3 million for the continued waiver of vehicle licence fees in 2022, €2 million for a once-off motor tax refund scheme specifically for taxi and hackney operators and €1.5 million for a national car test, NCT, fee refund scheme. In addition to the supports for the small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry, the Government has maintained a wide-ranging programme of supports with broad eligibility criteria for individuals and businesses that have been adversely affected by Covid-19-----

We need to move to Question No. 9, I am afraid. We are out of time.

These supports include the PUP and enterprise support grants, many of which can be accessed by taxi drivers.

(Interruptions).

Why can we not have more time?

Members are proposing more time. If they want to take time from the second batch of questions, they can agree to do so. Is that agreed?

Yes. Let us hear the replies.

I had to race through the details of the taxi package. It is €6.5 million, not €300. Again, I am always open to engaging with the taxi drivers------

Will the Taoiseach consider an extension?

I have not seen the recent letter. I will follow up on that to see where it is in the system and activate that process. Deputies McAuliffe and Lahart and Senator Fitzpatrick were instrumental in organising that meeting. I will engage with them and Deputy Boyd Barrett to follow through on those issues.

The Government has decided to extend the pandemic unemployment payment from the previous midsummer date to September and beyond, into February of next year, albeit at reduced rates from September. The comments on students were not fair. The Government has been supportive of students in the context of the application of the pandemic unemployment payment in an unprecedented way. Ordinarily, students have never availed of social welfare payments while studying full time at college, yet the Government, in the context of the pandemic, supported students through the pandemic unemployment payment. It was unprecedented. It has been very helpful and supportive to students and their families and it is not fair to try to characterise it as anything but that. It is certainly not minimalist, as Deputy McDonald tried to suggest.

A great deal of populism is going on at the moment. Everybody wants to appeal to everybody and a by-election campaign is taking place, but there needs to be balance and perspective in regard to how we emerge from the pandemic and invest in new sectors. The most important thing we can do for young people is to invest in education, research and skills and reskilling, and to provide more places in further education, apprenticeships and third level.

We will do that. We did it last year and the economic recovery plan provides substantial investment for thousands of additional places, through SOLAS, the further education sector, third level and fourth level in terms of research. That is what we have to do as a country in terms of making sure we are competitive into the future as an economy. We have to invest in human capital and young people and give them the opportunity to gain additional qualifications to reskill, in terms of the retrofit programme, for example.

We need more apprenticeships in construction. Everyone talks about housing. We need more people who are skilled to build houses into the future. That human capacity has to be built up to get to the 30,000 or 40,000 capacity towards the end of the decade. That will be a key ingredient and is where resources have to be targeted in the future.

What about Cork Airport?

On Deputy Barry's question, I have not heard Ms Lynne Embleton committee's presentation. I am wary of taking on board fully what the Deputy said she said, because people often paraphrase what somebody said and it does not turn out to be exactly what the person said. However, the fact there is no uncertainty as to the continuance of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to the end of the year should facilitate the continuity in employment of the workers in the Cork location and in Shannon.

We are finished. Maybe we will take the three minutes lost from the final lot of questions, if that is okay with Members. We will go ahead now-----

No. There are four questions in each-----

We cannot keep making up the rules as we go along.