Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of plans for a well-being framework for Ireland. [30930/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress to date by his Department in its development of a well-being framework for Ireland. [31400/21]

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Alan Kelly

Question:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [32052/21]

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John Lahart

Question:

4. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach the work being undertaken to construct a well-being framework for Ireland. [33187/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress to date by his Department in developing a well-being framework for Ireland. [33210/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33211/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33377/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in national economic recovery plan. [33399/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33402/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing the national economic recovery plan. [33404/21]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

The economic recovery plan was launched on Tuesday, 1 June. With the economy now reopening in clear phases, and vaccine roll-out comprehensively under way, the plan sets out renewed supports, investments and policies for a new stage of economic recovery, building on the unprecedented support provided to date.

The plan includes in excess of €3.5 billion in further labour market and enterprise supports and just under €1 billion additional funding under our national recovery and resilience plan. It will help to drive a jobs-rich recovery, with an overarching ambition of 2.5 million people in work by 2024. The plan expands key pandemic supports, including the employment wage subsidy scheme and pandemic unemployment payment, providing clarity and certainty for businesses and employees over the period ahead.

It also sets out our pathway to the sustainable rebuilding and renewal of our economy across four pillars; ensuring sustainable public finances, with the forthcoming summer economic statement to include further details on our deficit reduction strategy; helping people back into work through intense activation and reskilling and upskilling opportunities; rebuilding sustainable enterprises through targeted supports for recovery and by future-proofing enterprise to be more resilient, innovative and productive; and a balanced and inclusive recovery through strategic investment, balanced regional development and improving living standards.

The development of the economic recovery plan was overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. It was co-ordinated through my Department and prepared in close co-operation with key Departments. The implementation of the plan will also be overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. The development of new measures of well-being to assess progress are important in ensuring a balanced and inclusive economy and society. It is a commitment in the programme for Government in recognition that in order to achieve a well-rounded policy-making system there is a pressing need to move beyond uniquely economic measures. To this end, the development of a new well-being framework is a deliverable of the economic recovery plan.

In early February, the Government agreed to an approach to developing an overarching well-being framework for Ireland utilising the OECD well-being framework as a starting point and building on national work already undertaken in this area. Work on the development of the well-being framework is being led by my Department, working closely with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments and agencies. There is also consultation with experts and stakeholders on development of the framework through the National Economic and Social Council, NESC.

The development of the framework will be an iterative process and evolve over time. Its intended to submit an initial report to Government in the coming weeks.

Young people have borne the brunt of the pandemic. They are stuck at home, many with parents, or are renting and paying huge rent. As the Taoiseach will be aware, the Residential Tenancies Bill (No. 2) Bill 2021 comes before the Dáil later today. This is further emergency legislation, but it will not deal with the issues in respect of which renters need a break. We need to close the loophole in regard to the 8% rent increase. The Bill, as published, does not do that. It merely extends protections for those who proactively register as financially impacted by Covid-19 and makes exceptions for people experiencing an extreme financial impact. The numbers registering as being financially impacted are very low, at approximately 475 to date, compared to the thousands of people renting who will not be covered by the Bill and will be subject to the 8% rent increase in rent pressure zones.

Many tenants, especially those living in Dublin, are already paying an average of €2,000 per month. They cannot afford an 8% increase, which will cost them an extra €160 per month or €1,920 per annum. This is not feasible or fair and it is not sustainable. What does the Government propose to do in this regard? The Labour Party has tabled amendments that seek to freeze rents for tenants up to 2023. We have also tabled another amendment to address the 8% issue. We expect the Government will not accept them, but why not? This is a crisis issue for renters, particularly young people and young people in Dublin. The Government needs to address these issues.

There are several hundred musicians and performers outside the Dáil as we speak who have come here to protest about the abysmal failure of the Government to engage with them about a roadmap back to work, clarity as to when they can get back to work and their concern about the plans to essentially make them jobseekers. As I previously told the Taoiseach, the cliff edge for them is a reduction of their pandemic unemployment payments when, as a result of Government measures around public health, they have not been able to work, they have no idea when they will be able to get back to work and potentially they will be forced to identify as jobseekers. Despite some funding being provided to this sector, these people, the vast majority of them ordinary jobbing musicians and performers, have got nothing in terms of support.

Well-being was mentioned. There is nothing that has assisted, and generally assists, our well-being more than music, performance and entertainment yet these areas have got nothing. What does the Government propose to do for the musicians and performers that will not force them over a cliff edge but will give them clarity as to when they can return to work and some financial support or compensation for the suffering they have endured for the last year and a half?

I refer to the well worn phrase from our generation that children should be seen and not heard. While we do not associate that with the modern generation and age group 18 to 25, it seems to be very embedded still culturally. Forced to lockdown down like the rest of us, this group was treated equally in that sense even though they had least to fear. Having done that, they are last among equals when it comes to the administration of vaccines. They accept that or we, at least, think they accept that because nobody seems to speak for them.

In my previous profession I came across a phrase that had a deep impact on me, that is, "lack of expression leads to depression." When talking to the 18 to 25 year olds I get the strong impression that they feel nobody will listen to them. They are angry. The CMO has specifically informed the under 25 age group that they cannot travel this year and it looks like they will not be vaccinated until later this year. In terms of the well-being framework, I would urge the Government to follow the model of our colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who in her deliberations over the rescheduling of the leaving certificate, ensured the students had an equal voice to that of the parents, the teachers, the management and all the stakeholders. Government needs to seek out a mechanism through which we can give this age cohort a voice and people from their own age group who will advocate for them.

Bank profits and the interests of bankers should not be allowed to dictate access to housing in this country, yet that is the direction in which the Government is going. The announcement this morning that the Government plans to sell off the State's remaining shares in Bank of Ireland means that the bottom line will become an even greater focus within that bank and that profit will be the driver to an even greater extent. This is bad news for banking jobs, young people trying to get a loan or a mortgage and those who seriously want to tackle the housing crisis.

Having said that solving the housing crisis is the priority of Government, how can the Taoiseach now justify putting access to loans, mortgages and housing 100% within Bank of Ireland into the hands of those who are concerned only about the bottom line and the maximisation of profit?

The economic recovery plan rests on four pillars. Pillar four provides for strategic investment in infrastructure and reforms that enhance our long-term capacity for growth. Capital expenditure is something I feel very strongly about, but I am concerned that the EU fiscal rules, as currently constituted, could serve to stymie badly needed capital investment and our efforts to achieve a green new deal and just transition. The European Commission is set to reopen its public consultation on reform of the fiscal rules in the coming weeks. The Commission is widely expected to put forward proposals for simplifying the rules and providing greater incentives for productive investment and changes to debt levels. These rules are almost 30 years old. As long as they have been with us so, too, have been calls for their reform. Reformist proposals include exempting public investment, cyclically adjusting the 3% ceiling, shifting from a deficit ceiling to a public debt ceiling, swapping the system of fiscal rules for fiscal standards and so on. The question is: will the reforms go far enough?

I ask the Taoiseach to outline what position the Government will take with regard to the proposed reform of the rules and if it is currently working on a submission?

The Government tells us we are to have an outdoor summer, which is very important for wellness, but over a year into a pandemic the outdoor public facilities are still entirely inadequate. I will give an example. In the South Dublin County Council area there are many beautiful parks, but the bins are overflowing, there are very few spaces for people to sit with friends and family and there are almost no toilets.

People are suffering from an underinvestment in facilities and in staff to take care of them. Last year, the Government gave an extra €80,000 to South Dublin County Council to pay for extra parks, a completely paltry figure. Are we going to get the investment we need in the South Dublin County Council area and across the country to ensure that we can have bins, public seating, accessible toilets, water fountains, proper lighting and outdoor gym facilities? That is the investment we urgently need now if we are to have this outdoor summer.

I believe the Taoiseach will agree that the River Liffey looks exceptional today. It is buzzing with boats and there is an extraordinary protest outside. I want to focus, however, on coastal small fisheries and the environment. The Taoiseach will know that, on 12 June, the mackerel quota for this type of hook and line fishing by the fishers of our small coastal communities was reached and this type of fishing was stopped. This quota is approximately 0.05% of the entire national quota. I will put this in the perspective of the total quota for the entire country for hook and line mackerel fishing. The market for mackerel caught in this way, which is the most environmentally friendly way of fishing mackerel, has recently increased. It is sustainable ecofishing involving no catching of dolphins, whales, turtles or any of the other poor creatures that get caught in the nets of the big factory ships. One of these big factory ships could use up the entire annual quota available to the hook and line fishers of the entire country in one day. This industry is of immense benefit to our coastal communities, many of which have shrunk and continue to shrink. The Taoiseach is going to have to intervene to ensure that benefit is not restricted by this small national quota and that these fishing communities are allowed to thrive. They have lost the right to fish wild salmon and spurdog and there has been a depletion in crab and lobster. They need these hook and line fisheries which, I reiterate, are eco-friendly and better for the other species in the sea. Communities rely on this entirely and I would like the Taoiseach to comment on the matter.

There were quite a number of questions. Deputy Lahart's comments on children and young people not having a sufficient voice during the pandemic struck me and resonated with me. I take his point of view on board very seriously with regard to providing for the expression of their perspectives as we move through the summer and into the autumn period, particularly with regard to the reopening of colleges, further education and third level education. We are committed to this reopening and to making sure their voices are taken on board. We are also committed to facilitating young people's return to college and their early vaccination in the third quarter. Yesterday, the Ark centre, in an innovative initiative, brought children in to communicate with Members of Dáil Éireann and the Oireachtas generally with regard to their perspective on the pandemic. This was covered on RTÉ yesterday evening. It was excellent.

Deputy Kelly raised the issues affecting the younger generation, young people and renters. I accept that renters need a break. The rent protections legislation the Minister is bringing in later is important and should be supported. It will provide for an extension of the Covid rental provisions for a further six months, until 20 January 2022. It will also involve the first ever cost-rental units, which will be rented at 25% lower than market rents. More than 400 such units will be built and occupied before the end of this year. That is a start. We need to do far more. Rent pressure zones are being reviewed and rental supports will be dealt with through new legislation. The Minister will engage late in the Dáil with the various spokespeople for the different parties. This is an issue of which I am very conscious, particularly with regard to the increases that are occurring. We have also had a decline in the number of landlords of approximately 3,000 over the past year, which is problematic in terms of supply in the marketplace.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised an issue with regard to musicians and performers. Again, I would argue that the Government has been very supportive through a range of schemes for artists and musicians in different settings. The Ministers, Deputies Catherine Martin and Foley, have developed a new initiative in respect of artists-in-residence for schools. This is a new and significant scheme. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has engaged with all of the interests involved on an ongoing basis and will continue to do so.

Why are they outside Leinster House?

Deputy Barry referred to bank profits. As I said earlier in response to Deputy Paul Murphy, in terms of its original investment, the State realised a cash surplus in divesting its Bank of Ireland shares. There is no compelling historical evidence, which suggests that State banks do better than private sector banks. Neither model is perfect by any means. There are challenges with State banks as well although, to be frank, the percentage being divested is not one that would have resulted in significant influence with regard to bank policy or behaviour. It is approximately 13.9%. The Deputy completely exaggerated the impact of the sale of those shares as it pertains to the issue of access to mortgages or other loans. I do not see the relationship between the number of shares that are to be sold and the issues he raised.

As to the issue of the EU fiscal rules, which has been raised, the Government is engaging with and will be part of that review. Our submissions and inputs will be there. The Minister for Finance is the president of the Eurogroup and, given his position at European level, he is acutely aware of developments and movements on that front. These rules do not put in jeopardy the State's investment plans with regard to the economic recovery fund. Some of this is to be funded by the next generation funding from Europe, particularly with regard to the green economic recovery and jobs in the green economy and the digital transformation of our society in public as well as private services, towards which the plan provides resources.

With regard to the question raised as to the outdoor summer, Dublin city is actually one of the great cities for outdoors parks and facilities. There has certainly been a lot investment in recent years and over the past 12 months to enhance those parks and public spaces and to provide additional seating and some gym facilities. I visited quite a number of them during the pandemic in both the most recent and earlier lockdowns and many people are deriving great happiness and satisfaction from the amenities available across Dublin. One of the city's strengths in comparison with other European cities is its public parks. Dublin City Council and the various other local authorities are very keen to enhance those facilities. Government will continue to support those.

With regard to hook and line fisheries, I agree that these are very important. I met with fishing representatives recently. I met with all groups on Monday and at the weekend I travelled to Castletownbere and Union Hall to meet the fishers and various interests there. I have opened the social dialogue process with fishers and, with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, I intend to continue to engage.