The Labour Party slot has two minutes remaining. Is Deputy Nash availing of his two minutes?
Expenditure Response to Covid-19 Crisis: Statements (Resumed)
Did you manage to enjoy some episodes from a box set yesterday evening while you-----
Alas no, because I am afraid some paperwork was awaiting me. I am saving myself for the weekend. We might get an opportunity. The Deputy might recommend something to me.
I will pick up from where I concluded yesterday evening. I was referring to the Government's honouring of the commitment made to public servants under the existing public sector pay agreement. I suggested that if we did not have an agreement in place, public servants and civil servants could well be targeted for pay cuts given the economic situation in which we find ourselves. Public sector pay agreements are important for industrial stability, for fairness in our public service, for future planning and in recognising the key role our public servants have played. Covid-19 should never be used as an excuse not to honour any agreements.
I mention in passing community employment supervisors who were crucial in the upskilling and reskilling of those who were out of work during the last crisis. They will play an equally if not even more important role in reshaping our economy and community response in the post-Covid-19 recovery. They make an invaluable contribution to our society but still do not have access to occupational pension schemes, which is a running sore in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform should have taken the opportunity in recent months to re-establish engagement with the unions representing community employment supervisors to ensure the recommendation that came from the Labour Court in 2007 is finally honoured.
The Revised Estimates presented earlier this year lacked clarity. We have seen big bailouts to big business without any conditions and expensive tax reliefs to higher earners despite strong evidence from the departmental officials that many of those schemes will be a deadweight loss. In the coming months with the budget and the proposed national economic plan it will be crucial in charting the Covid-19 recovery that we develop a new social contract for our citizens to give them hope for the future. We cannot go back to the broken model I mentioned in my remarks yesterday. We will need clarity on a public investment strategy that will build the required capacity in our public services - in housing, health and childcare - and put us on track to meet our climate emissions targets, and ultimately get people back to work to build a better and more sustainable post-Covid Ireland.
Deputy James O'Connor will now give us a perspective from east Cork.
I am very happy to have the opportunity to discuss public expenditure related to Covid and our economy in general. In recent weeks society, large businesses and the Government have started to come to terms with how long we will be living with the Covid-19 virus and have started to put a plan in place for how we will continue to do our business. A factor that needs to be addressed ahead of the upcoming budget is how we will continue to foot the bill for the enormous financial cost that Covid-19 has caused for our country. Many different suggestions and ideas have been proposed. The programme for Government proposes a review of the national development plan as one of the first major actions of the Government. I look forward to having an opportunity to engage with that.
Yesterday we heard some discussion on creating employment and generating an economic stimulus on a balanced regional basis through shovel-ready projects. There are many such projects in my constituency of Cork East which will need to go before the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for decision. A few minutes ago I had a phone call with the Minister for Education and Skills to discuss some of these projects within my constituency. Planning permissions, which have been controversial in many ways, for secondary schools in the Mallow area and in the Carrigtwohill area have finally been granted and are ready for tender. Having discussed this with the Minister, I am happy to report to the House that these projects should go out to tender as early as January or February of next year, which is very significant and will be a major boost to the local economy if the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will recognise that these capital projects need to be undertaken. They will be very important in creating employment in the area while also tackling some of the major social issues.
In the constituency of Cork East, which I have the honour to represent, many issues repeatedly come up. We have a major infrastructure deficit. I saw many wonderful plans as a child growing up, including Transport 21. On a regional basis, billions of euro have been allocated to the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy to address transport issues in Cork county and the metropolitan area of Cork city. The review of the national development plan, NDP, represents a great opportunity to bring many of these projects forward while borrowing is cheap. The opportunity cost of not doing anything on that would be deeply concerning. We need to look at areas that missed out when the last national development plan was put in place. I know the Minister will be putting a significant amount of effort into ensuring Deputies from all sides of the House have some degree of engagement with that.
In recent months I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, on the requirement to upgrade the road infrastructure for the town of Youghal. I know the Ceann Comhairle is very familiar with my part of the world which suffered enormous economic hardship with over 4,000 jobs lost at the turn of the millennium because of the textile industry and low-skill labour relocating to eastern Europe. There is good news out there; it is not all negative. The largest capital investment ever in the town will take place in the very near future with the EirGrid interconnector between Ireland and France. I know we will be discussing our focus on renewable energy and tackling climate change later today in the House. We need to delve into ongoing projects and figure out how places such as Youghal, Midleton and Killeagh, in my part of the world and for which I was first elected as a councillor a number of months ago, would benefit from such projects.
There has been considerable negativity by some local representatives in the constituency of Cork East over what is going on. In reality, given what is on the table and up for discussion in the coming months, it is a very exciting time for the community I represent. School projects are ongoing. We have a serious school capacity crisis in east Cork, which has been well documented. I compliment the Minister for Education and Skills on her work to date on that problem. On doorsteps during the election campaign that issue was repeatedly raised. In many cases the consequences were devastating with families needing to travel great distances to find access to secondary schools, particularly for children with special needs. Youghal, for example, has no specific autism spectrum disorder, ASD, adult education centres or day facilities. When reviewing the NDP we should look at that issue to see if funding can be found to be allocated to that area.
Unemployment is a major problem for young people. They need opportunities and we need to find work for them. Thousands of people have been returning to Ireland as we are dealing with an international economic crisis. Their livelihoods have been put into turmoil as a result.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to utilise the NDP review and this year's budget to see if we can bring home more of the people we lost in the previous recession and try to integrate them back into our society and economy. For that to happen we need to build houses, schools, hospitals and the public services that are so desperately needed. I will put my shoulder to the wheel with members of the Cabinet on that. I do not plan on wasting a single day while Fianna Fáil is in government to ensure we take every opportunity available to us. It is a great honour to be here. I am aware that there is considerable expectation on the Government to pick up from, perhaps, a rocky start. I look forward to working with the Ministers in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the budget.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, for his engagement on issues concerning Cork Airport. We had a very strong discussion on the report of the task force for aviation recovery that was undertaken by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. There is a need for a multi-departmental approach to deal with that report. It cannot be dealt with only by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It deserves a conversation at the Cabinet table. I have been in contact with many of the workers at Cork Airport, as I mentioned in the House yesterday, and they are in a very serious situation. We need to recognise how much the airports are worth annually to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in terms of the tax revenues coming in from the airline industry and the aviation sector generally. The sector helps to fund a serious number of projects that go on at a grassroots level in our economy. It is very important, where there is scope to bring in tax revenues rather than raising taxes on ordinary citizens, that concentrate to some degree on figuring out how we can recover those sectors.
I wish to express my dissatisfaction and the dissatisfaction of the people I represent with the Government's spending in response to Covid-19. For example, almost €9 million has been spent on advertising since the start of the pandemic. That figure does not include the recent hiring of a public relations firm following criticisms of the mixed messaging around Covid restrictions. A communications and advisory firm was engaged to help with the launch of the medium-term Covid plan on Tuesday. I hope the company has not yet been paid because the number of messages and calls I have received about the launch shows it would not be money well spent. There has been huge confusion over what is meant by level 2, level 2 and a bit minus the wet pubs and everything else in between. Where is the clarity that is needed? The Government and the Department of Health already employ a large number of staff to deal with media and communications. Does the Government feel it has a problem in communicating its message? The solution to that should not to be hire public relations firms but to communicate the message better. It might also be wise to stop Ministers from constantly contradicting each other.
In my capacity as party spokesperson for older people, I have met many of the groups representing older people, all of which feel that the people they represent were forgotten about by the Government in its response to Covid-19. It was no accident that this pandemic had a disproportionate effect on older citizens. We saw from the oversubscription of the Age Action and Irish Red Cross hardship fund that older people feel they are being left behind. There were 42,000 inquiries to that fund and 21,000 applications, of which just 453 were granted. This shortfall is no fault of Age Action and the Irish Red Cross, which managed to secure corporate sponsorship of more than €100,000 for the fund. We need a Government-backed hardship fund for older people to be established and properly resourced. We must prioritise older people and the services that provide care for them and we must ensure day care services can be reopened. We must consider the mental health of older people as well as their physical health. We need to focus our efforts on reopening health services. It is absolutely unacceptable that routine screening and appointments for other services have not recommenced. Before the Covid crisis, waiting lists were already at an unacceptable level. I hate to think how they will look by the end of the year if things continue as they have been.
We also need to give proper resources to suicide prevention. We all know the effect Covid has had on the mental health of our population. We have seen the effect that proper investment and a credible plan have had on the number of road deaths. We need a body like the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to tackle the epidemic of suicide. We need proper investment and a credible plan, and that plan must include the provision of 24-7 mental health services. Anything else is simply not acceptable. Suicide does not just affect those who take their own lives. It affects their families, friends and communities. That effect can be felt for generations, such is the impact on those who are left behind.
Finally, I wish to raise the situation of HOPE(D), a local mental health charity in Newbridge, County Kildare. The service is in danger of closing because Covid-19 has decimated its fundraising programmes. The HSE refers people to HOPE(D) but refuses to provide adequate funding for the service. Let us think about that for a moment. I am asking that the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach intervene directly to ensure this service gets the help it deserves.
Given the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is no surprise that we are talking about an unprecedented level of public expenditure. So far this year, expenditure has grossly exceeded projections and that is all down to the Covid pandemic. We are in the most extraordinary of circumstances and we all accept the underlying reasons for the substantial additional expenditure. My party very much supports the approach that has been taken by the Government in prioritising public health and the health measures that needed to be put in place urgently and on a continuing basis in the fight against Covid. We also very much support what the Government has done to protect jobs and provide income supports for the many thousands of people who suffered and continue to suffer a major shock to their economic circumstances and their ability to earn a living.
However, the experience over the past six or seven months has exposed very graphically the weaknesses in how we provide public services. Some of us have been beating that drum for a long time but some of those in government have denied this was the case and have instead preferred to talk about tax cuts and to make promises to people which did not have any basis in economic or social policy. There was a playing to the gallery in regard to tax cuts while ignoring the fundamental problems we have in this country in respect of how we provide public services. Most other modern European countries regard public services as being for all of the public. Public services should be universal services that are available to everybody, not what some people in this Government think they are, namely, services for low-income groups or the poor. The progressive way of running a society and economy is to provide universal public services. Doing so benefits everybody. It helps to avoid exclusion and inequality and it also drives down the cost of living. If people can access healthcare or any other public service on a universal basis, it gives them more disposable income and also ensures the heat is taken out of wage demands. Fundamentally, it is a more efficient way of providing services and also a fairer way of doing so.
Huge issues have been exposed in terms of how our public services are provided. This is especially true of healthcare and social care. It is also the case with childcare and the privatised model that has been followed. We can see the problems with how we fund education services, including the high dependency on income from foreign students, which is not a sustainable way of funding the education system. In the case of housing, there are few or no protections for renters and we have completely failed in making housing affordable for people. For that reason, special measures had to be put in place. It was the right thing to do but lessons should be learned from it. As we move to a more sustainable longer-term situation, the funding we apply now should be based around there being no going back to the old way of doing things. Investment should be based on achieving reform at the same time as spending. It must be focused on bringing about effective changes in how we provide public services.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, recently launched a very good document, entitled No Going Back. That should be the message from the Government, that there is no going back to the old way of doing things. There must be no going back to the two-tier health service, for instance, and the lack of adequacy of our public services generally. All public services should be provided on a universal basis.
We can actually do that now because we have the potential to borrow at very significant levels. Money is available at 0% interest rates and sometimes at negative ones. That capacity is there at the moment and it makes absolute sense to avail of that borrowing capacity in order to provide investment in services which will make our society and our economy much more sustainable. This is, therefore, an opportunity as well as a crisis. The other important point we must keep to the fore is that any recovery plan must ensure it is a job-centred recovery. For the moment, that means continuing with the labour market supports but in the longer term it means looking at how we create high-quality, high-worth jobs. Too often in the past we have been happy to accept precarious, low-paid jobs. This is an opportunity to right that wrong. The other side of that is providing adequate supports on an ongoing basis to businesses and there must be undertakings in that respect.
I refer to spending overall and the excess spending we have seen so far. I wish to address the issue of testing and tracing, the strategy for it and the fact that we have never been able to ramp up and gear up the testing and tracing system to the point that is required. From the beginning, we have been promised that this would be the case and that our main strategy was testing, tracing and isolating. We have never done that to the extent and at the speed required. Every time I have spoken on Covid in this House, going back to the very first debates, I have said that unless we get testing and tracing right, none of the rest can be properly dealt with. It is fundamental to everything we are doing in this country and six or seven months down the road we still have not got up to that capacity of 100,000 tests per week and we still do not have the staff to provide that service. I do not know why those staff were not recruited during the summer months. We are continuing to redeploy people from critical areas of the health service into testing and tracing, leaving important areas like speech and language therapy, audiology and other key parts of our health service understaffed and exposed. We should have the additional staff in place by now. It is really unforgivable that the lull during the summer months was not availed of in order to do that.
There are also questions about the precise expenditure on testing and tracing. The Government sanctioned funding of €206 million in 2020 for this purpose, although the HSE has estimated that the potential cost will be as high as €414 million. That is if full capacity is used and we should be up to full capacity at this stage. In the first half of the year, however, less than €50 million was spent. I have a suspicion that that is why we did not gear up the testing and tracing system, namely, that a brake was put on the resources available to do what was necessary. This raises a lot of questions about why so little was spent in the first half of the year and why we have not done that if our primary strategy is to flatten the curve and suppress the virus. In the past seven days Minsters have been speaking about 77,000 tests. It is supposed to be 100,000 so it is falling well short of that.
On nursing homes and the additional expenditure there, this is again exposing a system which does not work. Substantial additional funding had to be used as a bailout for nursing homes. It is absolutely critical that we continue to provide that funding. There are questions about why we are doing that in a situation where 80% of nursing homes are privatised and tax-incentivised. They are supposed to be profit-making and indeed they are, so why is the State bailing out the sector? We have to do what we have to do now but a reckoning will have to come very shortly about that, along with an acceptance that the model is absolutely wrong.
I have a brief point to make about aviation. Our aviation sector is on its knees. There have been huge problems with the failure to deal with the whole question of international travel which I will not repeat. Some 140,000 jobs depend on the sector. There are 4,000 people working in Aer Lingus, which is the only national carrier that has not got state aid from its national government. This is an issue that must be addressed urgently. These people have been left swinging in the wind because the Government has not been prepared to step up and put in place the kind of funding required to support that sector. Unless that is done there is a very serious risk Aer Lingus will collapse. It needs urgent attention by Government, the company needs State aid urgently and we need to see the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation recovery task force.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. I was Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight in the last Dáil for four years. As the Members opposite will know the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, visited the committee on many occasions and we were very grateful for its presence. I was very taken by the message IFAC's representatives delivered this morning. It may have surprised some people as it did not necessarily conform with the messages that IFAC would be associated with. As a previous chair of IFAC has said, one of the purposes for which the council was established in first place was "[...] to institutionalise the memory of the crash" so that we would not make the same mistakes. Part of the memory which has certainly been institutionalised within the memory and consciousness of Irish people was the pain and suffering that was endured during the crash. People suffered economic loss and mental and psychological pain as a result of it. The opportunity that has existed in previous times for people to leave our shores is obviously not there now. As such IFAC's message this morning was in essence that this is not the time to be penny-pinching. In fact its central message was that this is the time to carry the workforce and those who need it most through this tortuous, tedious time.
I am mindful of the fact that there is a considerable section of the country and society which has escaped pretty much unscathed in financial and economic terms, albeit that they may in some cases have contracted the virus and would have suffered equally to everybody else. There are those, however, who are in the employ of companies which have escaped virtually unscathed, in different sectors of the economy. When we see those who have remained reasonably comfortable during this phase and we consider the five or six wealthiest companies in the world, it is time to have a conversation about what role those companies can play in the economic welfare and the welfare of the community in general.
I was formerly spokesperson on Dublin for my party and Dublin is very nervous today. The Ceann Comhairle will appreciate this as his constituency went through three lockdowns in total, one of which was a repeated lockdown. It would help if the heaving of sighs from the Opposition side of the House could be a bit quieter. I remind Deputies that at the time of the crash-----
Had it nothing to do with Deputy Lahart then?
-----if it were not for the decisions taken - this is a point I was going to come to later - the really tough decisions that involved incredible burdens for the Irish people which were taken by the former Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, and the former Minister for Finance, the late Mr. Brian Lenihan, then this country would not be in a position to borrow anything at any rate because our credibility internationally and in the markets would be bust. This is something Members on the other side of the House would be best to remember from time to time. Sometimes one must take tough decisions. We now have the benefit of credibility and a record of paying our debts. I accept that some of those burdens were unfair but it has enabled us now to be in a position to borrow billions of euro and to enable this State to fulfil the contract between the State and the citizen.
I do not think at any other time in its history has the State fulfilled the unwritten social contract and expectation that exists to be delivered by it to its citizens as it has since the onset of the virus.
There are those who say they represent those who get up for work early in the morning. The key message for me today is that our focus must now be on those who cannot get a night's sleep because of the worries and anxieties they carry, and who wake up wondering what today will bring. While they have not lost their jobs, some of them have been told they can reopen and get back to business but then have been thwarted. This has happened four times to publicans in Dublin. Others have mentioned Aer Lingus workers. There are also the taxi drivers and, along with my colleagues, I will meet some of their representatives today. Their asks are not huge or significant.
To interpret what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said, it is that now is not the time to be penny pinching. The previous Government was incredibly generous, and rightly so, about the needs of the ordinary working people in the country. Now is not the time to start tightening the belt or to consider tightening it, particularly for those front-line workers, who now include teachers. All Deputies will have had texts and messages from teachers in schools where a child who had come in with some symptoms was taken home and is isolating. Those teachers are now wondering and living anxiously to see whether they have contracted the virus. Gardaí have successfully policed during the pandemic in the consensual way that only the Irish police force can. It is admired abroad for the way in which it polices its communities and it continues to do so. In a very short period, public servants processed hundreds of thousands of payments that provided necessary assistance. There are also the self-employed people, whether in the entertainment industry, music industry, crafts, social and cultural industries and others, who just have not been able to get back to work. They are the people among the 200,000 who have not gone back to work and who should be our primary focus as we move into the budgetary cycle. Essentially, this is what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said today.
I was a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight - Deputy Boyd Barrett will also appreciate this - and I always took on board what IFAC said and took its advice very seriously. I thought it was always very measured. It was very critical of the previous Government. That criticism was never really taken on board or treated seriously by the media. It was heavily critical for a period of four years until, finally, the previous Minister for Finance took on board the message of being over-reliant on corporation tax.
I have mentioned the sectors I want to highlight. Consider the €13 billion deficit for this year and what the previous Government spent. One or two of my colleagues were criticised because they said there were people who receive the Covid payment who did not need it. This was communicated rather poorly. The message was clearly that there were people who received the Covid payment for whom it represented three or four times the income they were receiving for short-term part-time work. This continues to happen and I would like to see it invigilated. The taxpayers deserve to know the money they pay in taxes is redirected correctly, fairly and justly in terms of social protection measures. This is not to say people are scamming but everybody knows there were students who might have had part-time work that earned them €30 or €40 a week and they got the €350 Covid payment for months. Some of their friends who had a part-time job in SuperValu or Dunnes Stores and continued to work to stack shelves for €240 or €300 a week saw their friends getting €350 for doing nothing. This should not persist.
Yesterday, my colleague, Deputy O'Dea, made a point about looking at the huge budget that has been expended and looking at what might be needed. For example, taxi drivers want small things, such as the return of the wage subsidy they were on because essentially they are paying mortgages on their cars. They want no new licences issued until this is over, which is perfectly reasonable. The smallest ask of all is that those with cars coming up to ten years old at the end of the year be given an extension because they are repaying. Chauffeurs, limousine drivers and coach driving companies have been mentioned, as has everybody involved in tourism.
Last night, the point was made very strongly, and I urge the Minister to consider it, that those involved in the travel agency business do not get paid until people actually travel. They did their end of the booking of holidays last year for consumers' holidays that were to take place this year. They do not get paid by the company at the other end of the travel route until the holiday actually begins. These holidays were cancelled and the travel agents have to pay back the money. They have no earned income for this year and they have lost some income they had to pay back from last year.
If Covid has shown one thing, especially in Dublin, it is that the city has become utterly reliant on tourism. The city is dying. There is grass growing in parts of Molesworth Street. I come into Dublin every Sunday and street furniture was introduced on a number of streets and it was very successful. People could sit outside and feel safer in the fresh air having a coffee or a glass of wine. Dublin City Council was very enthusiastic about this. That street furniture has not been there for the past three weeks. There is very little reason for people to come in. The city is dying. We have been down at the convention centre. The headquarters of PwC is beside the convention centre. Recently, I spoke to somebody and I hope I have the figures roughly correct. There are 1,500 work stations in that building but only 100 of them are active at present. This explains why on all of the plazas running parallel to the convention centre on the tram tracks, and on the streets off the tram tracks behind it, the coffee shops and restaurants are closed. No one is going into the newsagents to buy newspapers. The workers are not there. No one is using the sandwich bars or buying their lunches. We are hanging these businesses out to dry.
We stepped up to the mark in February and March. IFAC is saying very clearly in its advice to the Government that this is not the time to step back from this mark in the interests of fiscal prudence. The citizens of this country need the Government to support them, whether they are publicans, taxi drivers, those involved in travel agencies, tourism and hospitality businesses, public servants and teachers and children who need personal protective equipment, PPE, whether in a fee-paying school or not. I do not have a fee-paying school in my constituency. Every child in the State is equal and deserving and has a right to the best health and safety provision the State can provide.
The key message I want to impress on the Minister is that our focus needs to be on those who have not been getting a night's sleep for the past three or four months worrying about their businesses, their rising debts and their inability to pay back loans and mortgages. The State stepped in for a period and it must sustain that assistance during the most trying period in the history of the Republic.
I agree with much of what has been said on either side of the House on the subject we are dealing with, which is expenditure. We need to be brave. Whatever the rights and wrongs people claim from a left or right background on fiscal prudence versus austerity, and whatever rules pertained previously, we are now in a completely different situation. We are talking in economic terms of something that is akin to how Europe was at the end of the Second World War, and what we need is a Marshall plan type solution.
That involves huge amounts of money to buoy up and sustain what we have, as well as ensuring we can stimulate when necessary.
At this point, we are obviously worried as Covid-19 numbers get worse, along with the negative outworkings for people's health. We are also concerned about the economic impact that this will have. First and foremost, we need to stabilise and then ensure that we keep as much business, as many jobs and as much of our society in operation until we get to the far end of this. I accept we do not quite know. While we have not had the clarity we would have liked with the Government's roadmap for the next six to nine months, we must accept that we could be looking at a situation closer to two years. We have to prepare for all of this and be incredibly brave.
As several Members have said, we all know sectors which cannot foresee any major changes to their businesses, their jobs or how they can open up. We had taxi drivers this week outside this House in large numbers putting clear asks to the Government. I have even heard Members from the Government parties espouse some of these asks. Some of these asks are monetary but there are straightforward ones such as extending the ten-year rule on taxi vehicles which would allow people get through this gap at this point in time. We need to look at those sorts of solutions.
Beyond that, we need to build and maintain a capacity for testing, tracing and isolating. We will absolutely destroy whatever good economic work has been done if we cannot keep the show on the road. The reality is that we do not have the capacity required. I mentioned in the House earlier and last night that there was a piece on "Six One News" on the difficulty getting particular reagents for use in rapid testing. Rapid testing got this House through a particular fiasco recently. As I said yesterday, I was thankful that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was Covid negative. It was absolutely vital, however, that he was able to get access to a rapid test. We need to ensure as many people as possible can get access to such tests.
The high Covid rate is a significant issue coming up in every constituency. My constituency, Louth, has worrying figures. We also have instances in schools. School and public health authorities are doing all they can. It is concerning, however. The only part of this that we have complete control over and which can improve matters is testing.
Beyond that, we must realise the moneys we can draw down from Europe. We need to ensure we have a conversation with our European neighbours on introducing imaginative responses. As much as we accept in certain cases people will require loans, there is a significant difficulty with the 4:1 loan to grant ratio on what has been offered to date. This must be rectified.
While we must deal with taxi drivers, we must also deal with travel agents who find themselves in situations in which they will no longer able to operate. While some businesses are down 30% to 50%, travel agents are down nearly 100%. We need to ensure moneys are made available to stabilise and stimulate, to keep the businesses we will need after this point and to continue with the society we have. If we do not do this, we will be facing into an abyss which none of us can contemplate.
I call Deputy Boyd Barrett who is sharing time with Deputy Barry.
As our representative on the Business Committee, I asked for this debate a number of weeks ago. It is telling about the coup d'état the new Government implemented to silence the smaller parties that having asked for the debate, we had to wait for three or four Government speakers who spoke during three different slots before some of us got to respond to the Government's position. It is an insult that the senior Minister is nowhere to be seen. The fact that the senior Minister has disappeared long before most of the political groups in the House have responded to the Government's position is not just an insult to us - that is less important - because it is also an insult to democracy and to the people outside. It is shameful.
The reason I particularly requested this debate was because I knew we would hear all the narrative from the Government about stimulus, how we have to protect people in the face of Covid and how we have to invest in the new normal. We would have to listen to all this narrative, belied by the fact that today the Government is going to cut the incomes of tens of thousands of working people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods as a result of the Government's public health measures. These are measures which the majority of the public support and without whose support we would be in a worse situation with Covid-19. Rather than thanking them, however, with solidarity and upholding the principle that we are all in it together, it seems that some people are more in it together than others. It is a tale of two pandemics.
If any member of the Cabinet turned out to be Covid positive and had to quarantine for two weeks, would they be put on a reduced pandemic unemployment payment? No. They would continue to enjoy their extraordinary salaries - the full 100% payout - while taxi drivers, who were on the streets the other day, are having their payments cut today. It is kicking them while they are down when they have lost large amounts of income and livelihoods with debts accumulating. The Government today has stuck the knife into the events and music workers whose livelihoods and ability to earn income have been slaughtered by the pandemic. With rising infection rates, they have no prospect or roadmap back to possible viability. They have their rents, mortgages and bills accumulating but they are being knifed in the back. One can include in the list tour operators, bar workers in the wet pubs and cleaners and caterers in many of the office complexes which are not functioning. These are the people whose sacrifices we need and who the Government is calling on to deal with the threat of Covid-19. They have been knifed in the back today with pandemic unemployment payment cuts, however. There is no other way to characterise it. It is a betrayal of the principle that we are all in it together. That lie is exposed with this sickening cut.
The Government even now should pull back on that cut. Only a few million euro would be required for the 35,000 people in the live entertainment industry and the 25,000 taxi drivers. It would be buttons. For other people, however, the Government just signs the cheques. The cheques get signed for the large profitable companies.
As our speaking time is so limited now, there are many issues we cannot bring up. However, I want to raise one issue which was brought to my attention the other day. While all the musicians, live events people and actual performers have had their payments cut, others, like film producers, get handed massive money. The EU requires each government to print out the details of the state aid that goes to film producers. The Committee of Public Accounts should look at this. The crowd making "The Last Duel" in Ardmore Studios also made "Vikings" before. Over the last five or six years, they received tax credits for "Vikings" that were listed as being between €10 million and €30 million. Is it €10 million, €15 million, €20 million or €30 million? We do not know. There is no accountability when one hands the cheques over to wealthy film producers. However, the taxi drivers, the tour operators, the arts workers and the people on the ground are knifed in the back. It seems we are not all in this together.
A Cheann Comhairle, what day is it today?
It is Thursday. It is also the day the Government is cutting the pandemic unemployment payment by €50 per week for many people and €100 for many other people. It is not a small adjustment, not a few bob here or a few bob there, but a cut of €100 or €50 per week for tens of thousands of people who do not have the option of going back to work. It is not possible for them to do so in the vast majority of cases because of the pandemic. It might be one thing if the virus were settling down, if the situation were improving and if they had the prospect of going back to work in a week, two weeks or three weeks, but it is the opposite scenario. The virus is on the rise and they have little chance of going back to work in the next week or two or three - perhaps not for a matter of months - yet they are forced to survive on €100 or €50 less per week.
I listened carefully to Deputy Lahart's contribution - incredible stuff. He said the Government's priority should be the people who are not able to sleep tonight because of the worry they are living with in their lives. It was an incredible statement from a member of a Fianna Fáil Party that is standing together with the Green Party and Fine Gael today and proposing to cut people's weekly incomes by €50 or €100. How many people does Deputy Lahart think were able to sleep last month or last week who will not be able to sleep tonight because of the action of the Government Deputies on the benches on which he sits? Yet he comes in here with crocodile tears for people who are not able to sleep tonight when it is his actions that are contributing to people's sleeplessness. This raises the issue of the mental health impacts of this. Younger people will probably be disproportionately hit by this. I think people in precarious employment will be disproportionately hit by it. What has this money been used for? Has it been used for mad socialising over recent months? It has not. It has been used by people first and foremost to pay their rent and to put food on the table, and the Government is taking that money away from them today. Shame on it.
Some people will ask whether the country can continue to afford to pay out sums on this scale in payments of this type. It is not an unfair question because a debt of €30 billion will be built up from this year alone. What that points towards, however, is that it is not possible to keep making these payments without taking action on the issue of wealth taxes. Ten people in this country have a combined personal wealth of €50 billion, and the Government will not even entertain a debate on the question of a wealth tax. It turns its back on the opportunity to go after Apple for more than €14 billion but says we cannot afford to continue with these payments. We have to continue with them. The cutbacks should be reversed. People need this money to survive, and the country will be able to afford the payments if we go after the wealth with serious wealth taxes.
The Fianna Fáil Party, according to information we got at the weekend, now enjoys the support of one voter in ten in this country. In 2011 it had a meltdown election in which it got 17% of the vote. That is nearly double the support it has at the moment. The Fianna Fáil Party is headed towards the rocks, and if it wants to drive its ship right onto the rocks and wreck it, it can continue with policies such as this. It will pay a price for it.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is timely and if it was Deputy Boyd Barrett who asked for it, he was perfectly correct in doing so. I cannot disagree with some of the points he made in his contribution. I say to the Government, and generally to Members of the House, that we have to look at not just what is happening today but also the forecast for Covid over the next 12 months. The decisions we take cannot be withdrawn as quickly as they might be in other circumstances. They are decisions to support people. The decision being made today is not correct. I think people have an awful lot of negativity going on in their lives. They deserve the support that they should get from a Government to ensure that their quality of life remains somewhat stable during a time of great instability. This offers an opportunity to change and reform. Telling the truth would be one of the changes or reforms I would suggest, as would abandoning the politics of spin because that is what we have got into. Instead of talking about the broad spectrum of problems and the figures at macro level, we should look at the lives of people. Let us look at what is happening out there.
Kids cannot go to school on buses. They are being left on the side of the road. They cannot afford to pay the bus fares, or they have been late paying them, and we are doing nothing for them. They will be deprived of days of education and we do not respond to it. I say this knowing that good stuff was done in terms of Government and supports, but other stuff was not done or has not got down to impact the lives of people, as it should, or as quickly as it should.
One could take nursing homes as an example. During debate in the Covid-19 committee, we discovered the terrible abuse in nursing homes and the terrible lack of proper governance and care for elderly people, whom we all declare we support and acknowledge for the contribution they have made in this country. We spoke of the meat plants and the terrible issues that exist there, yet the Government was slow in doing anything about those plants. Then when it did something it was too little and too late, and now we have further clusters breaking out in various plants, including one in Waterford today. We learned that the inspections were carried out with notice given. Who notifies someone that they are going to come and audit them? They just arrive and audit, if they are serious about their job.
Children have been damaged in the course of this pandemic. I refer in particular to children on the autistic spectrum who have gone through their assessments, have turned to the HSE for support and services and have been told it will take years because of the length of the list on which they find themselves. Even though we are spending huge amounts of money on other parts of the economy, those who are marginalised and less well off and those who are on waiting lists are the ones who are suffering because they are being neglected and overlooked and the appropriate levels of funding are not being sent to the parts of the HSE where professionals are waiting to expand services.
If we are serious about the bus industry, the coach industry, chauffeurs and the like, surely to God we should be setting out for them a pathway of support according to which they can plan and on which they can rely. That is not being done in any realistic way. Those who are over 66 and still working but on a pension have been treated very badly. We all know this and have raised the issue here ,but again nothing has been done. Travel agents have appealed to every one of us in this House for understanding and supports and have not got what they require to keep their doors open and keep jobs in many rural towns and villages. Local authority funding has been dramatically affected by Covid.
Incomes have dropped, commercial rates are not being paid and businesses are not performing. They cannot because they have no customers or they are regulated in such a way that it is not worth their while opening. These are the basic issues that need to be addressed. We cannot claim success until we raise the boats of those who are marginalised and in need of State help.
The other side is the expenditure side in terms of what we do in this House. I have put down many parliamentary questions and I am talking about the truth. They take a lot of money to process, to answer and to deal with. That system has gotten worse. The amount of nonsense information included in a reply in order to deflect from the question and not to answer it is truly shocking. We pay civil servants to write these replies and send them out and the replies are next to useless. We stand over it and accept it. I do not accept it because it is a bad reflection on this House and it is a way of avoiding a serious issue that a Member might have when he puts down a parliamentary question which should provide an answer.
We set up tribunals and inquiries and I have asked on numerous occasions to raise a question about these and to bring it in as a topical issue. I have never been successful. Yet the questions remain about Shane O'Farrell's murder on the road. Why have the terms of reference not been agreed to allow that tribunal to go forward? The name of John Barrett was mentioned here by the Minister for Justice and Equality and reference was made to a tribunal to find out what is happening in his case. Nothing has been said to this House in relation to that tribunal. Frank Mulcahy is a similar case. To show the disregard that Government and politics have for those who are so marginalised that they have very poor representation, just look at what they are doing in the Grace case. It is an utter scandal that people who were non-verbal, marginalised and sexually and physically abused should still be waiting on the result of that tribunal. Yet the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte - I am not sure which - signed another extension of that tribunal.
If we are going to do things right, we need to look to the first responsibility that a Government has, which is to keep its people safe. For many years and many Governments, that has not been happening. This House is used as a sounding board or relief valve for people to get up, including myself, and say whatever they want on a particular topic or an issue in their own constituencies. One might as well be whistling past the graveyard, because the response from Ministers is generally one that is handed to them by a civil servant. These Ministers were at one time in opposition and calling for all of this but in government this is their only answer. I do not blame the civil servants. I blame the political system for the manner in which it ignores the true value of this House and of the democracy that caused this House to be put in place and the Members elected to it. Regardless of how many speeches are made about reform, controlling expenditure, a sensible spend and supporting people, it all falls on deaf ears. I have yet to meet a Minister or Government that will proactively pursue an agenda of reform and control of expenditure that is worthwhile and that brings about resolution, reform and understanding of what the people we represent are going through.
I have raised specific issues around businesses and the core of the problem is that, for the foreseeable future, the businesses that work, are profitable and pay taxes will be few and far between, except for the bigger ones. We will have less of a tax take and, therefore, less to slice up to support those in society who need supports most. We have to keep those businesses going. We have to understand each sector and make sure they get paid and supported accordingly. We have to make sure workers and their rights are acknowledged and supported. We have to ensure that we invest now when that money is accessible in terms of rates and our credibility for raising money and so on, because we will not have the taxes.
There are two Green Ministers here. Whatever happens in this budget, they cannot say, for the sake of climate change and doing something about it, that they will put a tax on somebody and make their life worse. I want to see change and reform. I want to support a green agenda, renewal, green jobs and so on but, above all, I want to see politics change to the extent that those who cannot put the dinner on the table, those who have difficulty with their children and the elderly who find it hard to make ends meet no longer have to suffer. Whatever cake is there to be divided up in the context of this budget, we must start with the less well-off and make sure they are okay so that by the time the Government has allocated its money, the only ones left are the ones that are okay or can be okay. We need to deal with the waiting lists and provide the quality of life the people we represent deserve. We need to deal with those issues. If it deals with the minor issues, the ones that are causing the difficulty, then the Government will bring the people with it. At the moment it seems to be a Government for the few, while the rest suffer and are misunderstood in terms of their lives.
We have to remember that not everybody marches to the same mad drumbeat. There are those in society who like to take it easier and those who cannot or will not work. We have to reflect all of what is in society in the decisions we make in the budget. No more bluff or spin. Tell the truth.
The response to this pandemic has put unexpected and unprecedented demands on the Irish economy and gross spending is considerably up. Increased spending of this nature was inevitable and justified by the need to invest in the public good. The phrases I have used, "the need to invest" and "the public good", are two matters I will return to later. Social protection and health were given particular attention and that is to be recognised and welcomed. When faced with a pandemic such as this, it is obviously not possible to get everything right immediately. I acknowledge that some of the shortcomings we in the Opposition have pointed out have been addressed to an extent, although not necessarily to the extent or level that we called for.
The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is one of the huge investments that the Government committed itself to. It acted as a financial lifeline to many families who suddenly found their income virtually wiped out. However, it had its issues. People over the age of 66 were ineligible, leaving many workers and business owners to fall through the cracks. There were issues with the lack of appeals and there was confusion about means testing for families when a family member is in receipt of a Covid payment. There were also questions about the decision to reduce the rate of the PUP and transition from the temporary wage subsidy scheme to the employee wage subsidy scheme, which saw already reduced incomes falling further.
While I am on this topic, I will mention a problem faced by some workers in Aer Lingus. They are having difficulty getting social welfare payments for the days they are not working because the company has been refusing to sign the social welfare dockets of many workers. This became even more concerning when I learned that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was negotiating with the company on this matter. I cannot understand why the Department is negotiating regarding a matter in which it is supposed to have primacy. I hope this situation will be investigated, because I have met a brick wall in trying to get answers from the Department. While this matter is ongoing, these workers continue to suffer and go without.
Coming back to the matter at hand, the cuts in Covid-19 supports have caused people to be concerned at what lies ahead. Some are fearful that the Government is going to claw back the additional spending through austerity measures. My appeal to and my advice for the Government is to not go in this direction, but to invest in our people and their ideas instead. The programme for Government commits to setting out a medium-term roadmap detailing how Ireland will reduce the deficit and return to a broadly-balanced budget. Given the state of the country, the public needs to know how feasible an option this is and if it goes hand-in-hand with austerity. I also remind the Government that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, stated that the deficit will fall over the next five years without the need for austerity.
The economic and business landscape has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Business models are now being adapted to the requirements and challenges being faced, and this will continue. The business landscape with which we were familiar at the end of last year has changed for good. Government policy must change with it, and this change needs investment to get it grounded. At present, it is the business owners and their employees who are adapting to the current working climate. They are the ones who will ultimately shape the future of our landscape of production and, therefore, it is crucial that they are front and centre in any sectoral task force created, such as those mentioned in the programme for Government.
Investment must not be seen as a cost. It does need resources and finances, but good investment is something that can work for us, increase the productive capacity of this country, improve people's lives and boost further growth. With interest rates at a historic low, is there not an opportunity to borrow and invest in large capital infrastructure projects? Could large infrastructural upgrades be undertaken, such as an upgraded transport corridor from the east to the west of the country, running through my county of Tipperary? Projects such as these would enhance the infrastructural network outside of our main cities and increase connectivity between, for example, ports in the east and airports in the west.
Proper investment could also revolutionise our farming sector and improve its resilience to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, Brexit and other unforeseen obstacles. If interest rates should rise in the future, will the Government consider borrowing in excess of what is needed and warehousing the additional funds to address such an eventuality? The Government also needs to learn from the chaotic response to supporting the hospitality sector, our taxi services and the arts and entertainment industry. There needs to be sustained investment in the businesses that have suffered the most, and when I say "sustained", I mean investment that is tailored to specific situations, timelines and demands and not a single, one size-fits-all measure.
One more matter needs attention. The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on people is going to lead to a mental health crisis and a major demand in this area is coming down the line. The Department of Health, therefore, will need to stop biding its time or there will be nothing left to invest in our mental health services. The Department will need to step up and spend on mental health services and it should also think of investing in the many voluntary organisations, such as Connection and Recovery in Mental Health and Addiction, CARMHA, in Nenagh, which are addressing the current gaps in services.
I thank the Deputy and ask him to finish up now, please.
I ask that this expenditure response be seen as an opportunity to invest in our country and our people. It was stated recently that the recovery will be investment-led and we need the Government to commit to that statement.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I tabled a parliamentary question earlier in the week regarding an issue I raised in the House last week. I refer to the anomaly in respect of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will know that when this was first mooted I argued strongly that we need to maintain the link between employees and employers. The TWSS has been very successful in doing that. I understand the reasoning in moving to the employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, but the difficulty is that we have a cohort of businesses that are not trading, that are not open and if there was justification for the TWSS up to now, then that justification remains today. It is okay for businesses that are trading and have some cash flow. In that case, the argument can be made for the EWSS. The TWSS, however, should remain in place for businesses that are forced to remain closed because of public health conditions. Unless that scheme is available to those businesses, that link between employers and employees will now be broken.
We have all received correspondence this week from people within the domestic live entertainment industry, a sector with approximately 35,000 employees. They fall into this category, as have employees of public houses up to now. I suspect that will remain the case for the foreseeable future regarding employees of public houses in the Dublin area. They have not had any income coming in since, but have availed of the TWSS. That is now gone, however, and the EWSS does not, in any way, help to support that link between the employer and the employee. It is imperative, therefore, that the TWSS is reintroduced for businesses that the Government has stated must remain closed.
When I am on the issue of the entertainment sector, the reality is that that sector is the lifeblood of the creative sector of our economy. It is a vital part of our economy and a vital part of the tourism package throughout the country, including in my own part of it, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. If we are going to try to maintain support for the tourism sector, which is a vital part of our economy, it is imperative that we also support the entertainment sector. It was the first sector to be shut down on 12 March.
What has been frustrating for many people in that sector is that they have been totally ignored until very recently. The issues and challenges in that sector have not even been acknowledged. Along with the TWSS, those who are, sadly, unemployed should be able to avail of the higher rate of PUP, that is the higher rate that has been available until this week, because they do not have the choice or the opportunity to go back working. I know pressure has been applied by employers regarding rates of payment for the PUP, and there is a certain amount of justification for that. Within this sector, however, there is no justification for the reduction in the rates of payment and this needs to be looked at again.
Supports have been provided by the Arts Council to part of the creative sector, which is welcome. That does not deal with the entertainment sector, however, because very few of the grants paid out by the Arts Council are paid to that sector. A fund needs to be put in place specifically for those working in the entertainment sector. Until recently, I would have argued in the same terms regarding the coach industry, which is another sector which has been ignored. I was told some time ago that €10 million was being provided to that sector, through Fáilte Ireland. However, no money has come down to that sector and the fear in the entertainment sector is that it is now going to be treated in the same way.
We have major challenges to face in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and what is coming down the tracks with Brexit, but this also a great opportunity to do things differently. When the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Ryan, was on this side of the House he was also articulating this point, while I was trying to implement that approach in Government. Now that he has had a chance to look at some of the files in his Department, he will be able to see exactly what I had been trying to do.
I will put to the Minister something on which I worked diligently when I was in his Department, namely, to have all Government services available online. It is important that people have access to Government services in the context of Covid-19, the lockdown we saw earlier in the year and the further lockdowns that have occurred on a county basis and may affect Dublin later this week. People should not have to rely on an office-based service which can be shut down.
One problem with the so-called mechanism that is being used for online services at the moment is that there is a failure to acknowledge that a cohort of the population will never use technology and are thereby being excluded. For example, all the motor tax offices were closed around the country as a result of the lockdown and the likelihood is that will happen again in Dublin from next week. If one does not have an email address, one cannot get motor tax in this country at present. A person who does not have the requisite IT literacy or does not want to use the online service should be able to go into their local post office where the postmaster or postmistress will do the transaction for them.
A governmental decision was made and a commitment given to put offline Government business through the post office network but, sadly, that has not been implemented since I left office. That is now on the desk of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. We need to go down that road because the mandatory introduction of the EU payments services directive 2 is coming down the track. It will require strong customer authentication to be used in all electronic transactions. Customer identification is going to become far more difficult. We are dealing with those issues in many transactions, whether in Leinster House or with our banks, but those requirements add complexity for older people. Authentication could surely be done through the local post office, providing people with access to a whole range of services to which they do not have access at the moment and must travel to queue in an office to access. Many older people do not want to do that now because of Covid-19 but we are still one decision away from progressing the matter and having front-line service available through local post offices. It has been talked about by every Member in this House when they have sat on the Opposition benches. I know well the vested interests and arguments that are being made in Merrion Street against this. I know those arguments and it will take a determined effort by the Minister to ensure that this happens. If we are serious about having transactions online, encouraging people not to queue in offices and ensuring that people do not have to travel long distances to avail of services, we need to lead by example and put these services in place through the local post office network for people who cannot avail of them online because they do not happen to have an email address or use a smart phone in tandem with their email address as may be a necessity in the not-too-distant future. Those people should not be excluded from online services and the additional discounts that are available to people who apply through an online portal for electricity, broadband and phone contracts. The mechanism is there and I know that the management of An Post is willing to meet the Minister more than halfway in that regard.
The other side of it is that because more people are now moving to electronic payments, the income for postmasters and postmistresses has dramatically fallen. Any postal worker who has been unfortunate enough to have had his or her income reviewed since Covid-19 is assessed on the basis of current transactions which have fallen off a cliff. Many of the smaller rural post offices to which the previous Government committed to support in 2018 and 2017 are no longer viable. We have not put in the additional services that we promised. That was a key part of the agreement between the Government, An Post and the postmasters. The Government has reneged on that aspect of the agreement.
I finally raise with the Minister the retrofitting of homes. I compliment An Post on the action it has taken on the green hub to establish a one-stop shop for people who want to avail of grants and supports for retrofitting their homes. An Post can put people in contact with a contractor, look at what needs to be done with a house and put the finance in place for them. The interest rate is approximately 4.9% but we should be looking to put a 0% interest rate in place. Money is available through the European Investment Bank and other European avenues can provide funding. None of the other financial institutions has bothered going down this road and An Post should be supported to do so. People who want to carry out the retrofitting of their homes should not be penalised and ought to have direct access to zero-interest loans and grants.
Seo an chéad uair go bhfuil mé sa Seomra agus an Leas-Cheann Comhairle sa Chathaoir. Guím comhghairdeas agus gach rath di ar a post nua. This is a timely debate and I have been listening to many of the contributions from my office. It is now six months since the first phase of the first lockdown. We are coming up to the preparation of the budget. This morning's report from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is useful in considering the direction of public expenditure around Covid and what we need to do in budget 2021, particularly the provision of income supports for people and businesses to allow business owners to maintain businesses, employment levels and a connection between employers and employees as we move on.
The various schemes that were introduced are a tribute to our public service because they were introduced very quickly and many people got assistance overnight through hard work, often done remotely at home and without the back-up of facilities. That happened in many Departments, but particularly in the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protections, Health, and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. People in those Departments worked incredibly hard to give that assistance and are deserving of thanks and praise.
We must now take stock, look at those supports and make sure that they are relevant and flexible, particularly for business. As market and employment conditions are changing - in some cases on a weekly basis as we move into different lockdown rules - it is important that businesses can respond using the employment subsidy scheme and that Revenue will respond to them. Revenue has been helpful in the information it has provided but we need to make sure that helpfulness and the adaptability of the scheme continue as we move into different phases of the management of Covid.
There are similar requirements for income supports. Different areas are under different pressures and some people do not have a chance to go back to work. There should be some element of flexibility around their payments. Many Deputies have spoken about this and we have all received emails and had interactions with members of the artistic, cultural and entertainment community who will, more than likely, not be able to make any money until well into next year. They have responded to the difficulties they face with innovation and creativity through online performances but those will not realistically provide the kind of income those people need.
Flexibility is needed for members of that community as they struggle on because we will need them. In fact, we need them now. Their performances have supported and lifted us in many and various ways and we will need that as we proceed forward.
Various other businesses are also subject to similar restrictions. We must ensure that the decisions we make and the supports we put in place will maintain economies and businesses until we have a vaccine for Covid. We all love our tourism industry when it is going well, but we need to ensure that the decisions taken now will keep its infrastructure in place. I refer to accommodation, coaches and buses, and visitor attractions throughout the country. If we do not support those in the industry now, they will not be there when tourism returns to normality in 2021 or 2022 and we will be scrambling to put the infrastructure back in place.
Equally, however, it is time to look differently at such infrastructure and to make capital investments. I welcome the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to establishing gateways, walkways, cycleways and so on not just as facilities for tourism but as facilities for day-to-day living in our towns and cities, which we now have to reimagine. Our towns and cities have grown shabby because resources have not been available to expend on them. Many community groups have stepped into the breach to try to keep them going, but let us use this time to reimagine them. Let us make them accessible, let us develop greenways and cycleways and let us make them disability-friendly and sensory-friendly. Let us make the kind of capital investments now that will sustain local employment in companies that carry out that kind of work while also giving us town centres, city centres and communities that are attractive to be part of, to do business in, to visit and to spend time in. This is the time to reimagine how we do that kind of thing.
We need to look at our airports in a similar way. As an island nation, our airports are incredibly important to us but the decimation of international aviation has left them on a precipice. In addition to the State airports are the regional airports, such as Ireland West Airport Knock and others, which are essential to the economy and to social interaction. These airports need support to ensure their infrastructure will still be there as we rebuild our country and society. In his role as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I ask Deputy Ryan to engage with airports and not to forget the non-DAA airports. These are also an essential part of our infrastructure and deserve the same support.
The programme for Government includes an opportunity to review the national development plan. This should be looked at in a post-Covid environment but also, as was intended during programme for Government negotiations, through the prism of a new, climate-friendly environment. We should look at projects that will allow society to adapt not only to the context of Covid but also to new ways of living to reduce our own emissions and those of our society and communities. That will involve building up the regional economy to take pressure off our societies and looking at the mindset that has evolved over the past six months as regards regional, home-based working or remote working. I hate to use the phrase "remote working" because, while it is a technical phrase, it seems to downgrade the work done. This work is still as important as it was even if it can be done from home. Many people and employers now see that it is a productive way to do work.
We need to facilitate communities in this regard. We need to facilitate rural communities by getting broadband connection points up and running quickly and by providing workspaces in rural areas so that people will have the option to leave their homes and go to a centre to benefit from the collegiality of work without leaving their communities. Many people would take the opportunity to relocate to areas to which they may not have been able to relocate before now that has arisen because of the change of attitudes regarding remote working and the increased appreciation of its productivity. We need, however, to put infrastructure in place to support it. We need to make that investment.
Throughout the crisis, we have seen substantial extra investment in areas such as health and education. The fact that this year's winter plan is worth €600 million compared with €27 million last year gives an indication of the pressure under which our health service is now and will be over the coming weeks. We must ensure this money is invested in community-based services in line with Sláintecare. Our community GPs must be empowered to make bigger decisions and given the resources they need. They must also be given out-of-hours support because many rural GPs do not have appropriate out-of-hours support and are considerably overworked. This makes it more difficult to fill GP posts.
We also have a fantastic network of district hospitals which are completely underused. They should be used more and extra beds should be opened to reduce the pressure on our acute hospitals. There are beds in Ballina, Belmullet and Swinford that could be opened and staffed to take the pressure off Mayo University Hospital. Basic services such as X-rays, physiotherapy and mental health consultations could be provided at district level so that people would not be required to travel in to Mayo University Hospital or University Hospital Galway. It would take the pressure off these hospitals. They should be focused.
Our disability day services and mental health services are still not properly up and running again. I was concerned to see that, when people had to be put into contact tracing urgently, people working in the therapies were used to fill those roles, which again adds to the waiting lists which have built up because of the shutdown. It seemed incredibly strange to use therapists to fill those roles when there is no shortage of administrative staff in the area. This has added to the misery of patients who are on waiting lists and we cannot allow it to happen again. We have to invest in those services, in dealing with those waiting lists, and in putting extra people in place. Let us take the opportunity provided by this increased investment to do so.
In education, it is a great tribute to school communities, to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and to her officials that our schools are back up and running. One thing that struck me about the entire response, not just in education but across the system, is that things we were told could not be done at this time last year could be done. With regard to education, we were told assistants could not be provided to help schools reopen, but we now have them. There has been considerable investment in cleaning and sanitation right across this space. Let us never again accept that something cannot be done because of rules. When we apply imagination and urgency in the public interest, those rules get changed. We have learned a lot about that from Covid. We need to take time to take stock of where that can be done.
We have to guarantee that our education communities will maintain the same access to PPE resources and cleaning and sanitation equipment as they have at the moment. We need to make sure they retain the teaching and administration supports they were given to get them open in order to keep them open. We also still have an issue with regard to school transport. Even though substantial investments have been made, these have not resolved the challenge presented by the 50% capacity guidelines at secondary school level. Many families are greatly inconvenienced as a consequence and are unable to get back to work and to participating in their communities. Until we resolve that, we will not be able to get our education system fully back up and running.
The forthcoming budget will give us a chance to look at the next 12 months and their consequences, but we also need to be ambitious with regard to the national economic plan and the national development plan. We need to look at capital programmes that will create a basis for our economic and societal recovery and at bringing forward investments in important road projects. In my region, such projects include the N26, the N5 and the R312. These are not luxury projects but they connect communities, make our lives easier and allow industry to flourish.
There are also non-road projects to be looked at. We need to move and to give people opportunities through initiatives such as the western rail corridor. The Minister has been very generous with his time in discussing this project with us and he knows its value. It will be transformative for the west as regards rail access for passengers and freight and linking us with our regional capital of Galway for medical and educational appointments. It will also allow us to reimagine how freight is transported in and out of the west. This key project will send a signal as to the ambition of this country and show that we are rebalancing and using the Atlantic economic corridor to do so.
Many issues have arisen in the past six months which have changed the way we do things for the better. There are still things on which we are dragging along and which we are not doing properly, but more of this kind of debate will give us the chance to look at this while we get our committee system up and running. I wish both Ministers well as we proceed towards the budget and the review of the national development plan.
Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi cheist na hallaí pobail atá dúnta agus nach bhfuil aon ioncam acu in a lán bealaí. Níl aon chuma ar an scéal go bhfuil aon mhaoiniú ag teacht chun déanamh cinnte de go seasfaidh siad an fód agus chun déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil an t-árachas íoctha, go bhfuil íoctha as cúrsaí slándála agus go bhfuil siad in ann athchóirithe a dhéanamh. Bhí na hallaí seo ag brath go huile agus go hiomlán ar choláistí samhraidh in a lán bealaí. Impím ar an Rialtas beart a dhéanamh de réir na hallaí pobail seo.
The other question I want to address is a question that many Deputies have received emails about in recent days. It is on the events industry and the arts in general. It is not good enough to have a deep appreciation for the arts and culture sectors, artists, dancers, actors, musicians and the like as well as the live events industry. All were shut down overnight in March and they still have no date to recommence. It is our job as legislators to protect them and help them chart a way out of the chaos they are in now and that they will face for several months to come. It is not foreseen that most of the venues in this part of Ireland will open in the coming six months. It will be a major job to address the plight of the 35,000 who work in the live events industry as well as the many artists and those who are dependent on live events. Musicians up and down the country are now in such dire straits that they are contemplating selling their musical instruments. They are scraping by and living in sheds or cars. These are the people we need to have a shout-out for. We need the pandemic unemployment payment retained at the maximum for every one of these people. We also need the temporary work support scheme to be reintroduced. The Government changed it to the employment wage subsidy scheme. This needs to be fixed now to ensure this industry or sector of our society is fully protected. It will enable us to rely on them in the future to lighten up our hearts. Many of them have been doing that during the pandemic but we want to see live events in future.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our country, North and South. In fact, I believe it has changed all our lives in some way and I do not believe it will ever be the same again. We must never act in the same way.
The Covid-19 virus does not distinguish between rich and poor but the health outcomes for rich and poor can be seen in the statistics throughout the world. Our society must never act in a way that leaves one citizen behind. We must do what we must and be bold at this time.
I wish to recognise the positive and constructive response from the Government around issues and anomalies that we have highlighted relating to various income and business supports. The Government has addressed some of them. However, as has been mentioned by previous Deputies, it is disappointing that only yesterday some of the pandemic unemployment payments were cut. This is regrettable and should be reversed.
I am keen to focus on one main point. It is acknowledged that Governments throughout the EU, including Ireland, have abandoned the fiscal rules. Is it feasible or desirable to commit to a balanced budget in 2021? Would it not be better to run a deficit of 2% in the medium term to allow for an increase in purchasing power within the economy? Investment in infrastructure now is not costly. Surely we have learned from the disgraceful austerity years following 2008 that the approach in that period is not acceptable.
I will offer some examples of schemes that we could borrow for now to boost the economy, get people back to work and build decent community infrastructure. Dublin West is experiencing another population boom but we do not have enough schools to keep up with the growing school population. For years, parents have had to wait for schools and fight for them. My daughter is a teacher in St. Patrick's national school in Diswellstown. The school has a major issue with pyrite. For years, those involved have been campaigning to get it remedied. We can do that now. We can borrow to get that job done now. We have land ready to go for more than 800 houses in Churchfields in Fingal. We could build there tomorrow. That is ready to go. A scheme has already started there that will provide genuinely affordable housing. We do not have a single public swimming pool in Fingal. It is an absolute disgrace that in 2020 we do not have a single public swimming pool.
It is important to bear in mind that we are borrowing at extraordinarily low interest rates. In fact, they are paying us to borrow money. Surely, this is the time to invest in our community infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads and public transport.
I am sharing time with my two colleagues, who have two minutes each. The entertainment industry, which has a wide embrace, is extraordinarily important to our health and well-being. It is important not only to the entertainers and their families, who are dependent on them, but to us, the recipients, including many people who are bedbound, housebound, invalided or disabled. They love to be entertained by these people. These men and women give of their talents generously. They do all manner of fundraising gigs for many communities. They have to be supported.
The pandemic unemployment payment must be kept. It was cut yesterday but it must be retained for these people. A total of €6 million has been granted, including €1 million for the arts sector. The people I am talking about include those in showbands, one man bands, one woman bands and those working in the pub scene. They have an industry around them. They need vans, equipment, back-up sound and light and everything else. From the talks I have had with them, I understand they have been in talks with Government. The Government and the Department simply do not understand the system or what these people need. They need cash flow to try to stay alive and keep food on the table. That is very important.
As I mentioned, entertainment and community groups do excellent work. Muintir na Tíre was first founded in Tipperary. It has an excellent secretary there in Marian O'Dwyer. It has done great work. It got an old school building after the technical school closed in the 1970s. It has transformed it into a fabulous community centre and hub. It has now received approval for a grant of €139,000 for upgrades and special rooms to cater for different events. Technological events have been set up as well. The problem is that 20% was to be repaid by the community group, Newcastle Muintir na Tíre. It had no bother doing that. It was delighted to get the 80% grant but it cannot now fundraise in any shape, make or form. The grant is lying there and cannot be drawn down. We must do something for cases like this. There are many communities like this throughout the country. They are ready, willing and able. They are the enablers. They give our community the dynamic to keep going. They look after the community alert system, all the funeral parties and concerts. The McGrath school does dancing there. There is all manner of keep-fit classes and everything. It is largely booked up. I salute the caretaker, Catherine Moran, who does a wonderful job there.
The problem is the organisation cannot raise €20,000 in these circumstances. Maybe we should give it to it and ask it to pay it back when things recover and it is able to fundraise. We need to think outside the box and allow it to carry on developing. It will stimulate the local economy. There will be a contractor and the plasterers, block-layers, electricians and everyone else will have work. The local hardware shops will do business. We must think outside the box and allow it to do the works on this building. It can fundraise when it is allowed and when we are back singing, dancing and having fun - when there is hope again in our country. We do not have that anymore.
I mentioned mental health earlier. The amount of damage that has been done to mental health is shocking because of the gloom and doom on RTÉ morning, noon and night. Can we not cut off these figures? I know from a journalist already about expected happenings in Dublin. It is annoying and terrorising people. There is fear. Instead of giving hope and support we must have the spirit of the Meitheal. It is like the spirit of the late great Canon Hayes, who founded Muintir na Tíre. We never needed it more.
We have this dysfunctional Government. Thankfully, the Green Party has been left out of it today but the other two are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I do not know who is "dum" and who is "dee" but the public know what is going on and they are not happy. They are willing and ready to do battle and to do what they are asked to do, but there is confusion. What does the Government do? It hires a big public relations company, Teneo. If the Government brought that company in for the disaster this week, it should close the door again fast, whatever kind of contract there is. The people do not want spin. They want those in the Government to be seen to roll up their sleeves and do the work like people in the meitheal did. They worked with the people and stood with the people and supported them. That is badly needed.
The banks are not working. Banks are sending letters to the publicans already, in anticipation of the opening next Monday, to look for the waivers that were given in terms of the delay. Other EU countries have brought in legislation to deal with the banks. We do not have a scintilla of legislation to deal with these banks. I said it here previously; the bank robbers now are within the banks. They are not coming in with the guns. They are inside banks and robbing the people from the inside. I backed legislation to support the banks on that long, terrible night we spent in this House. It was the biggest mistake politically I ever made in my life, but what did the banks do? Pardon the expression but they are screwing every one of us. They are sending out letters now to struggling publicans and those in other businesses who are trying to get up off the ground, dust themselves down and get going ahead. That is wrong because they want to come in straight away with the first demand, and I am sure the Revenue will not be far behind them. We have to have legislation to deal with the banks because that practice is not acceptable. We must deal with them.
The self-employed are the backbone of the country and they must be supported because they are the people, whether it be the small bus owner who got nothing from Bus Éireann because he or she was not contracted to it, the van driver, the ready-mix driver or the one-man cattle operation. They are all parked up because they did not pay rates and could not get anything because they did not operate from a yard. They must be looked after. We must think outside the box. The system is unable to adjust to all of this.
Mo focal scoir. I ask the Minister of State, please, to try to change the system. I salute the civil servants who work so hard here and officials in my county council also, but we need to be able to adapt. It should not be all about form filling, regulations, accounts from last year and the year before and whatever. This is a different time. All people want is to put bread on the table, clothe their children and be able to get back out into the spirit of work again, particularly the people in the entertainment industry because they give us all a lift and raise our spirits.
I will concentrate on the tourism, entertainment and community and voluntary sectors in my contribution. The tourism sector is hugely important for my constituency of Cork South-West. The increase in VAT rates from 9% to 13.5%, which happened pre-Covid, had devastating consequences for the tourism industry. It was a serious error made by the Government which it could have rectified, as the UK Government did, and in terms of other models used in Europe where the rates went down to 5%. The Government had an opportunity to do that. Areas like Kinsale, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bantry, Mizen Head, Bere, Rosscarbery and Sheep's Head depend totally on tourism. If the Government had lowered the tourism VAT rate to at least 5%, it would have given those in the industry an opportunity for survival. Instead, they will have nothing to live on from now until next March or April when they might have some chance of a little bit of tourism. However, in the situation we are in now, it was a terrible mistake made by our Government not to do that.
We should look at the model in Northern Ireland. We tend to look across Europe as being the place to give us advice. We saw that the Taoiseach took advice from Europe recently and signed a statutory instrument for a penalty points system for our fishermen. In terms of the model in Northern Ireland, on the last two occasions I had a bus going to Belfast I could not book a bed in the Europa Hotel, which has 800 or 900 beds, because they are flat out busy. They are working because if a person buys a meal or stays in the hotel, he or she gets back £50 on every £100 spent. We have nothing like that here. I think the standard VAT rate went from 23% to 20%, which is nine cent off a pint. That is what we did in Ireland. Well done. That will not keep our economy going or save our tourism sector in west Cork.
The people in the entertainment industry are on their knees. They cannot even insure or tax their cars. These musicians who served our people and gave us comfort and joy through the years have been treated miserably. I would like the Minister of State to intervene in that situation.
What is Irish culture? Irish culture was music, dance, entertainment and drama. Five million euro will be handed out for musicians, but will that look after the entire segment of the industry? The Government is more interested in giving out a big lump of money to one agency than giving smaller payments to help people. People in the music industry contacted the Rural Independent Group today. I had a person on to me who could not afford to tax their vehicle.
Why not bring out something that will allow those people, even with the local pubs, which are opening up, to work? Music makes the people happy. It puts them into a good frame of mind and it is positive thinking. That industry has been closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and they see no outlet for them. It is about Irish culture and people providing entertainment, whether it is online or whatever. They should be given funding to allow them play their music online. Give them subsidies to allow them provide entertainment for people. That is what we want. We do not want one sector getting all the money and the one-person band, male and female, getting nothing. I do not want this money going to all the big people in the industry. I want it spread across the industry equally to ensure all of them get their fair share. In that way, Irish culture will be giving and they will be giving back. They need the Government's help and for that to be done in a positive way, but everyone needs to get a piece of the pie. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has to be continued to allow them keep food on their tables.
With the permission of the House, I will give four minutes of my time to Deputy Sherlock. The Exchequer returns demonstrated very clearly the huge public expenditure that has been necessarily incurred due to the pandemic. There were much-needed and very welcome additional supports for the health sector, social protection and for business, and like previous speakers, I want to see those supports continue. They are necessary to support public health, people who have lost their income and business through a very uncertain time.
In recent weeks in particular, nervousness has increased among the business community and in sectors that had closed down or partially closed down. I refer to people who had hoped to reopen to scale up their businesses again. Our statutory agencies and the Department with responsibility for business must be very conscious of the concerns among the business community, and those supports need to continue.
The substantial additional expenditure for education was very welcome also in ensuring that the 1 million children and young adults got back to education at preschool, primary, post-primary, further education and third levels. We hope to see that continue.
The July jobs stimulus package was necessary and impactive in a number of areas. To take the area of housing, there was additional activity and substantial funding for the voids programme, which is necessary to ensure that houses lying vacant in the council housing stock are brought back to habitable use.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has stated that budget 2021 will be set in the context of Covid-19 and Brexit. He outlined the necessity, which all of us in this House want to see, to protect and improve services, where possible.
I should have 13 minutes remaining on the clock but it did not start at-----
That is wrong. I will rectify that.
I thank the Acting Chairman because I am conscious of the time. The Minister also spoke about the national recovery fund and the national recovery plan. The Government must ensure that there is a clear emphasis in those plans on the need for regional balance. The pandemic has demonstrated, and my colleague, Deputy Calleary, referred to it earlier, that services do not have to be provided from our capital city or from major urban conurbation centres. Some of the key services for the public were delivered by people living in very remote areas. An issue I have discussed with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is the urgent need to ensure that our broadband infrastructure is rolled out as rapidly as possible. We know that inadequate broadband provision in many communities has made it extremely difficult for people to work from home or students to learn at home. The phrase "blended learning" will be difficult for some students who are living in areas where the broadband infrastructure is not up to the required standard.
I mentioned that the Minister, Deputy McGrath, spoke about budget 2021 in the context of the pandemic and Brexit. Since 2015, a year before the British referendum, I spoke in numerous committees of this House about the disastrous impact Brexit would have on our country. Since 1992, I have had the privilege of representing two Border counties, namely, Cavan and Monaghan. It is an area that stretches practically from the west coast, from Blacklion in Cavan, near Bundoran on the Atlantic, to Inniskeen near Dundalk on the east coast. We have a huge land border with Northern Ireland.
The result of the Brexit referendum knocked the stuffing out of communities along the Border. I had the privilege of representing those communities in the bad days prior to the peace process and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and I saw the huge improvement brought about as a result of the signing of that agreement. We have to ensure there will be no diminution in the workings of the agreement. It is so disheartening to see once again the nonsense in British politics, led by Mr. Johnson and his Tory Party. It is heartening to hear the likes of Mr. Hilary Benn, MP, and some other UK Members of Parliament who understand Ireland. Deputy Sherlock and I would have met them at various committee meetings over the past few years. I pay tribute to those who have championed Irish interests and who understand the difficulties Ireland will face if there is a no-deal Brexit. We sincerely hope Britain steps back from the brink.
I understand the position very well. I represent communities that very much depend on their neighbours north of the Border. Thankfully, since 1998 businesses that had no base in Northern Ireland now have bases on both sides of the Border. Our economies have become so interdependent that it is extremely important that there be no interruption to the way we go about our business. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade must ensure this message is hammered home to the British day in, day out.
I welcome again the commitments of senior political figures in the United States regarding the attitude they will take to a possible trade deal with Britain if there is damage done to the Good Friday Agreement. We have to ensure that message is given to the British every hour of the day because what is happening is not acceptable.
I referred to the need for greater regional balance. It is disheartening that it has taken so long to roll out proper broadband and telecommunications infrastructure throughout the country. People dealing with Eir find it absolutely frustrating. I would love the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to talk to the company and ask it to give a proper service to its customers. They are paying dearly for its services.
Deputy Calleary spoke about the need to upgrade our regional and local roads. In the area I represent, Cavan–Monaghan, most of the many small indigenous businesses, particularly in the food, engineering and construction areas, are sited along local and regional roads. A minute amount of our road network is of a national primary or national secondary character. I sincerely hope that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, in his negotiations at Government level for resources for transport in 2021, will ensure the needs of the non-national network are prioritised in addition to the needs of the national network. If we are to have regional balance and balanced regional economic development, we must ensure the infrastructure of rural counties is subject to investment at this time. The pandemic has demonstrated very clearly that everybody does not have to go to Dublin, Galway, Limerick or Cork to work. So much can be done from home and from digital hubs in our towns, including county towns and smaller towns. If, however, we are to keep people working in our smaller towns and villages, an upgrade to infrastructure is necessary. A small investment will go so far towards ensuring towns have the infrastructure to ensure people can work from home.
Just as I did here in April and May, I compliment the officials of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, in particular, and all the staff in the HSE and the front-line workers, be they in the public sector or private sector, who have done such a good job since early March working in very challenging and difficult circumstances. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was exceptional in getting payments out to people who needed them. When I contacted officials in local offices late in the evening and over weekends, just as my constituency staff did Saturday after Saturday and late evening after late evening, I noted there was always a person to take a call, return an email or contact constituents who needed a payment or individuals who needed to be reassured there would be a payment on the way to their post office or bank without delay. So many of us came across a constituent who rang us asking about the location of the social welfare office in their county town. They said they never had a reason to go to it but now had one. Many hundreds of thousands of people were accessing social welfare services who did not do so in the past. They experienced the utmost in courtesy, co-operation and help from officials in the Department. It is important to record again our appreciation for the work of public servants in our Civil Service and the public service in general, including, of course, all front-line workers, who continue to give a great service to our public.
I am very grateful to Deputy Brendan Smith for his act of kindness. It is much appreciated.
I am delighted to speak in this debate. I welcome the Minister to the House. He will not be a stranger to the benefits that the music, culture and arts communities bring to society. This point is self-evident; it is a truth. It would be very useful if the Government were to consider restoring the pandemic unemployment payment to the thousands of people whom we have heard from in the past 24 to 48 hours. We would be doing them a great service if we were to recognise their talents and the fact that they are going to be last back into the fray. I join in the calls from other Members to ask for the restoration of the pandemic unemployment payment. It would have a tremendous impact in terms of keeping people above the threshold. Many of them have fallen through the floor. We know of households that had two incomes arising from involvement in the music or arts sectors, or from production, lighting or theatre companies. There are those whose mortgages are now put in abeyance, and they have experienced a serious loss of income. If this could be re-examined, we would all welcome it.
It is important when we examine the issue of stimulus in general that we do not take our eye off the ball in respect of capital projects, particularly schools projects. In my constituency, Cork East, there are two projects of note, one concerning the Patrician Academy in Mallow and another concerning the Carrigtwohill schools campus, under the auspices of the education and training board. We learned today that the tender process for the Carrigtwohill project is not expected to start until the first quarter of 2021. We recognise that there were delays but there has been a significant delay in this project in very general terms. It was announced in 2012 so this has been going on for quite some time now. The Government is accountable, no more than we were when we were in government. In light of the delay with the planning application, and given that we now hear there are to be further deliberations on the local road infrastructure, could the Government, as the key stakeholder and the body that will ultimately be issuing the cheques, take the lead in engaging with the third-party developer, the local authority, the education and training board and the local community, which has demonstrated some forbearance regarding this issue, with a view to pressing ahead with the vital project? The knock-on effect of missing a quarter regarding progress is that more prefabs will be needed on the school campus come September 2021.
I raise this issue in the context of this debate because it concerns a stimulus project. It has the potential to create hundreds of construction jobs. It is pertinent to the debate we are having today about not taking the foot off the pedal regarding capital expenditure when there is a deficit of the kind in question. There is a borrowing requirement. We can more than adequately proceed with these projects given our borrowing potential.
With regard to roads like the N72, N73 and the Fota Road, I speak unashamedly about my own constituency in the context of this debate because it has the potential to create jobs.
Anois bogfaimid ar aghaidh chuig an Independent Group. Glaoim ar an Teachta Connolly. Is she sharing time?
Ceapaim go bhfuil, ach tá an Teachta Pringle faoi bhrú. He is at a meeting but is on his way. I welcome the opportunity to take part of this debate. I am aware Ministers are under pressure. I wish, however, the other Minister was here because I particularly want to come back to public transport and housing in Galway.
The Government did well, initially. It responded well and did the right thing with payments and the various grants and supports that were given. I am on record on that. I am worried, however, that what has happened since is that solidarity is gone and the message going out is slightly different. Excellent language has been used like saying we can never go back to where we were, we must go forward and we must take a new approach. I wish I could believe that and see the actions based on that. The Minister of State would then have my full support because we need transformative action. We cannot go back to the way we were. We need to have a completely different vision. I do not need to give anybody lecture. The Minister of State knows as well as I do that we are facing climate change, a biodiversity catastrophe and a public housing crisis.
I have the privileged life of staying in a hotel and I walk by the Gaiety Theatre, which is closed. However, the real-life drama is outside where, on any given day, eight to ten people are outside asleep in sleeping bags, if they are lucky. That shows the type of economy we have allowed to develop up to now. I agree with Social Justice Ireland which said we must look beyond growth and take a new approach to economic policy that recognises the equal importance of social and environmental issues. We certainly did not do that to date as a society. Governments elected by the majority of people did not do that. Each of us has a responsibility for what has happened in this country but it is time to seize the opportunity and have transformative action. I say that in a week where the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, told us that we should borrow and spend. We begged it to tell us that for the past five years. Suddenly, it is telling us now to borrow and spend on public services and housing, and I welcome that. I wish the message would come across, without any manipulation or spin, that this Government is intent on building public housing on public land. I see the spin with regard to Galway. We have a housing task force, although I am not sure what it is doing. I have tried to pursue it and get the minutes. It is, however, tolerating a situation where people have been on a waiting list since 2002 without a hope of getting public housing. That is just one aspect. Parallel to that, we have public land where there are plans to develop housing that is not public housing. I have a serious concern about that.
I also come from a city, and Deputy Farrell is in the Chamber. We learned this week that there are plans to close the one municipal swimming pool. I heard another Sinn Féin Deputy talk about the absence of a pool; we have one. The headline today is that it is in dire danger of closing because of a lack of funding. Can anyone imagine that? We are talking about Monopoly money in this Chamber. We are talking about billions of euro but the city council in Galway, through its management, sees fit to say it has no choice - it looks like it, although it has not been confirmed - to close a public swimming pool at a time where obesity is at an all-time record high. What kind of lack of vision is that? What kind of absence of a process is there that a local authority does not have an open door? Perhaps it does. I do not know where the fault lies with Government. How could we tolerate such a headline? The one public swimming we have and that was closed because of Covid-19 has been reopened for the past number of weeks. I use it on a regular basis. The staff are wonderful, the facility is wonderful and here is the headline. Will the Minister of State even take that much from what I say today? I do not want to give out. I want to be part of the solution. We have a vision for the solution, that is, a sustainable development which will be just and fair and not based on cities. Cities need sustainable development but our towns and villages also need to be developed. Earlier today, I raised the pilot project and the six towns that were picked. I am not sure if the Minister of State is familiar with that. It seemed to be a wonderful idea whereby six towns were picked by the then Minister with responsibility for rural and community development, Deputy Ring. It took an extraordinarily long time to do it from 17 towns when it was conceived. The birth came much later and six towns got up to €100,000 each. I raised it this morning with the Minister. I do not know the cost of it but it looks like a report that analysed the difficulties is simply going to be ignored. That scheme was brought in as an example with the view to escalating it to all other towns in the country that needed it and, of course, the glaring absences were towns from the Gaeltacht. No town from the Gaeltacht featured among those six towns. The former Minister was good and said next time he would look at that. Of course, Deputy Ring is gone and there is a new Minister with responsibility for rural and community development. I do not know what has happened but it looks like that report is going to be shredded. I have a big difficulty with that.
Galway city had a second blow this week in an Tulach, i gcroílár na Gaeltachta arís. Dúradh le 20 fostaithe go raibh deireach lena gcuid oibre. Some 20 employees were let go in Planet Payment which is now known as Fintrax. That is on top of another loss the previous year. There is a trend here and a lack of analysis from the Government regarding the impact of Covid-19 on a local, rural and regional basis. There is a glaring absence here and the regional assembly, for example, which is not an extremely radical organisation, produced a report a few months ago to show that the north west, the west and the north had been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
When we talk about spending Monopoly money, that is, billions of euro, we must do it in a way that is sustainable and that justifies that level of borrowing. We are building a future that is sustainable and taking seriously the climate emergency we declared following so many initiatives from Kyoto onwards and from the sustainable goals. If we do not do that, it makes a mockery of all the suffering and the mantra that we were all in it together.
I mentioned Galway twice already. I will mention it a third and fourth time because of travel agents and the effect on people in the live events sector, which has been mentioned many times by colleagues here. In terms of the travel agents, again, this issue has been raised often and we have had no response. I understand the aviation sector is in serious trouble but surely a package can be thought up. For example, if we look at Galway, I will mention a travel agency because it is the last existing travel agency there. Fahy Travel has given a fantastic service to everyone in Galway like the other travel agencies that did not last. This one lasted, and when it had no money the staff stayed and worked for very little. Some staff got the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and other staff stayed on to give back money to the people who had booked holidays, and so forth. They did that in the spirit of "We are all in this together". All they are asking for is recognition that they are in trouble through no fault of their own and that the Government respond and give targeted responses to the people who are in trouble.
I will finish on a personal note in order to bring this home. We talk about the need for transformative action. On Monday, I sat in my office, as many Deputies do. I will not go into too many details but a woman sat in my office and I did not know what to say. After my fifth year as a Deputy, I am still listening to stories about the absence of proper hours for carers. I am trying to avoid identifying the people but her husband suffers from Alzheimer's disease and senility at a very young age. That family is struggling gallantly with the minimum of hours for which they are supposed to be grateful rather than having it as a right. There is absolutely no respite care. They have struggled through Covid-19. That person should not have to be in my office. We should have a statutory entitlement to home care as a right.
That family is saving the State a fortune. The difficulty is that the family will go under, I imagine, before the person who has the diagnosis of dementia, such is the strain without help.
I ask the Minister of State to work with us. I would be on his side on climate change and public housing, if he made the language mean something. However, when I hear the term "public housing" it is never that; it is always a mixture with the developers. I ask him to work with us and let us have true transformative action.
I thank all the Deputies who made constructive comments and suggestions about public expenditure during this debate. It has obviously been a very difficult year. Deputy Naughten suggested that An Post should be able to deliver public services in the same way that it delivers its traditional services, which is a position that I think everybody supports. An Post and its workers shone during the pandemic. It showed itself to be a vital public service. It continues to deliver not just letters and parcels, but public services to the public. The postmen and postwomen knocked on the doors of people who were cocooning, which will be remembered.
Just as they responded to the pandemic, the Government has responded strongly to the pandemic, seeking to protect incomes, employees and businesses from the impact of this virus. In recent months, an extensive range of measures has been introduced, with a direct expenditure impact of approximately €16 billion, which equates to 9% of GNI*, the polar opposite of austerity. This represents a significant investment in our economy and our society to support our people in these unprecedented times.
When we consider all the measures that have been introduced, including tax measures, warehousing and deferral arrangements, as well as the credit guarantee scheme and the ISIF pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, the total value of supports provided in response to Covid-19 is over €24 billion in 2020. As has been discussed here today, these supports are wide-ranging in nature and cover many sectors of society and the economy.
The Government's first priority is to protect the health and well-being of the people of Ireland. In light of this, additional resources of €2 billion have been provided to our health services so far in 2020. This additional funding has allowed for significant scaling up of capacity in our acute hospitals and community healthcare settings, as well as for purchasing of vital equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. The Government will continue to support the HSE and our front-line workers as we adjust to living alongside Covid-19. To that end, an additional €600 million has been agreed this week to fund the 2020-21 winter initiative. This will ensure our health service has the capacity and the resources required to tackle the challenging period ahead.
In these uncertain times, income support schemes have provided security for thousands of people whose employment was impacted by the public health measures necessary to contain Covid-19. To date, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has made payments of approximately €6 billion in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary wage subsidy scheme. These supports, introduced swiftly at the beginning of the crisis, have protected incomes for thousands of households across the country. The extension of the pandemic unemployment payment and the introduction of the employment wage subsidy scheme under the July stimulus will provide continued security for people in the coming months.
In support of businesses, the activities of which have been significantly curtailed this year, supports of over €900 million have been provided through the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, as well as a commercial rates waiver at a cost of about €600 million. We have come a long way, and as we reopen our economy, the focus of expenditure measures is on stimulating activity across the economy and maintaining the connection between workers and employers.
In recent weeks, schools have reopened across the country. To facilitate schools opening in a safe manner, €375 million is being allocated to the Department of Education and Skills in respect of the 2020-21 school year. Covid-19 has a significant impact on schools, and the Government is aware of the challenges that it creates for schools, teachers and students. Keeping our schools open in this new school year is a priority for the Government and this is reflected in the level of resources provided in support of the roadmap for the full return to school. For those in further and higher education too, recent months have been particularly challenging. The July stimulus provides a significant investment to this sector, providing thousands of additional places in third level, upskilling and reskilling programmes. Supports have also been provided through the new Department with responsibility for further and higher education for ICT, health and safety, and increased student supports.
Looking to 2021, it is clear that there are challenging times ahead. The economic picture has changed drastically in the last six months, from a balanced budget to a substantial projected deficit, and from strong GDP growth to a contraction of 6% in the second quarter of 2020. Introducing this level of supports was unquestionably the right thing to do, but it also comes at a significant cost.
Budget 2021 is now just weeks away. Assessing the appropriate Covid-19 measures for next year will form a key part of the Estimates process. Ensuring that our existing services also continue to be delivered to citizens efficiently and effectively will be a key consideration, particularly as we continue with reopening our society and turn our attention towards economic recovery.