Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

General Practitioner Services

A thriving town centre general practice in Templemore is closing as the HSE has failed to appoint a replacement for the retiring doctor. The proposed closure of this practice, which has 800 patients, is causing distress, fear and inconvenience. Patient-doctor relationships are built on trust and confidence. The family doctor ethos is cherished and respected by every family in Templemore and the district. Medical card patients in Templemore are being transferred to the only other GP practice in the town. Private patients have been left to source their own future medical care. In Templemore, the GP in question made his intentions known to the HSE last February. The HSE recruitment campaign has failed dismally to attract interest from doctors. The people of Templemore are angry and feel let down by the HSE. I give way to my colleagues.

I thank the Minister and Leas-Cheann Comhairle for taking this Topical Issue matter this evening. We were at a protest in Templemore last Saturday. We have been contacted by numerous constituents in the area who are extremely concerned about the general practice of Dr. Hennessy not being filled by the HSE. Dr. Hennessy had a significant practice over many years and he served the locality well. The HSE failed and it has not tried hard enough. My request to the Minister tonight is for the HSE to provide an extension of six months to the practice in the town to allow ample time to get a replacement. This is for both public and private patients. If public patients are taken on by the other practice in the town, that practice will be overrun with patients. We have seen mergers of practices in other areas of our county where the level of service to patients is not up to the standard required. The earnest request I make of the Minister this evening is for a six-month extension for Dr. Hennessy's practice in Templemore to allow the HSE ample time to get a replacement.

I echo the words of Deputies Lowry and Cahill. The people of Templemore are angry that the HSE seems to be ignoring them for some reason. Some 700 patients are being transferred from one practice to another that is already at capacity. This will lead to trouble and is just not good enough. I know from other Deputies and the people of Templemore that the HSE has not communicated what is going on to the people of the town. We all know there are problems with getting locums or replacements but the HSE is talking about no longer providing locum GP cover from 21 October. There is significant worry in the community. As with the other Deputies, I seek an extension and ask the HSE to push to replace Dr. Hennessy. We realise Dr. Hennessy is at retirement age.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. I thank all three Deputies for raising the issue of the impending closure of a general practice in Templemore following the recent retirement of Dr. Joe Hennessy. The Government is committed to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP services and that general practice is sustainable in all areas in the future. It is imperative that general practice remains an attractive career option for newly-qualified GPs and that services are provided in a way which is accessible to all patients.

The Government is aware of workforce issues facing general practice, including the influence of demographic factors. In recent years, it has implemented a number of measures to improve recruitment and retention in general practice. These measures include increasing investment in general practice by approximately 40%, to €210 million, between 2019 and 2023 under the terms of the 2019 general medical service and general practice agreement. The agreement provides for increased support for GPs working in rural practices and for those in disadvantaged urban areas, and for improvements to maternity and paternity leave arrangements. In addition, the number of GP training places increased from 120 in 2009 to 233 in 2021, an increase of 94% over the 12-year period in question. The intention is to continue to achieve annual increases in the number of training places available. These measures will see an increase in the number of GPs working in the State, improving access to GP services for patients throughout the country.

Regarding the GP vacancy in Templemore, it has not, to date, been possible to source a locum to provide consistent cover for this practice. Since July 2021, eight locum doctors have provided cover, which is not ideal for delivering a quality service and continuity of care for patients. Two recruitment campaigns have been undertaken. The panel was advertised locally, nationally and in the British Medical Journal. In addition, the advertisement was shared with all GMS practices across the mid-west and with the mid-west training scheme in an attempt to attract newly-qualified GPs. Unfortunately, the HSE has not been successful in recruiting a GP to this single-handed general practice in Templemore. It is therefore planned that the group practice in the town of Templemore will take on the panel of patients on an interim basis. An additional GP has been recruited by the practice, which means that three doctors will provide the additional capacity, to provide a safe, accessible and consistent service to the patients in Templemore and the surrounding area. Additional nursing and administrative staff have also been recruited for the practice. This reflects the developing trend in general practice to have larger practices, which can both improve the services available to patients and provide an improved working environment for GPs and their staff.

General medical card scheme patients have been advised of the new arrangements and how to access the new practice.

While the HSE has no responsibility for private patients, private patients have been advised by practice staff of the need to source a new GP. Private patients can contact the group practice, or any other practice of their choice, to request to be taken on as a private patient. Should any private patient find it difficult to source a new GP, he or she can contact the local HSE primary care unit which can support him or her in accessing a GP insofar as it is possible.

The scenario in Templemore is being replicated throughout rural Ireland. The entire system must be examined as a matter of urgency. Attracting GPs to sole practices in rural areas has been a problem for a very long time. The problem is growing and will continue to grow. We must lift the excessive restrictions on qualified doctors from countries outside Europe who are willing to practice in Ireland. Incentives must be put in place to make rural practices more attractive to GPs to avert a pending crisis. As far back as 2015, the Irish College of General Practitioners stated that if measures were not introduced to support rural practices, further inequality of access to healthcare among rural populations would result. This warning was ignored. Templemore is just one example of the fall-out from that lack of policy.

I thank the Minister of State for her answer, but I am not overly happy with it. The reply I received from the HSE stated that Templemore is a rural setting and it was finding it impossible to get a replacement. This is a town that is on the Dublin-Cork railway line and only about five or six miles from the Dublin-Limerick motorway. It has a great educational infrastructure and would be an attractive place for any young GP to begin a practice.

This situation is replicated throughout rural Ireland. The HSE is failing to fill places in practices. The reimbursement of GPs in these areas has to be looked at. An incentive has to be put in place to make young GPs look at rural locations. As I said, Templemore is anything but in the rural hinterland. It is a town that is extremely accessible to every part of the country, with the transport infrastructure it has. When we see a town like this fail to get a GP, it shows why the HSE is failing in other parts of rural Ireland. The merger of GP practices is not working. When practices are merged in other towns in Tipperary, patients do not get the level of service they deserve and expect.

I also thank the Minister of State for her reply. The HSE informed me, through a parliamentary question, that it has not been successful in getting a GP for a single-handed practice in Templemore. In that same reply, the HSE all but admitted that it wants to see all GP services delivered through a single clinic. As Deputy Cahill said, a single practice, or everything in one setting, is not working. It is like the closure of St. Brigid's Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir. I have been contacted by people in Cahir about the difficulty they have in accessing GP services in the town, which leads people to go to the accident and emergency department in Clonmel hospital when they cannot get a doctor. That is creating problems for the hospital there. A similar situation is arising in Thurles because a replacement GP in a practice there cannot be sourced by the HSE.

As far as I, and the people I talk to, are concerned, it is another attack on the health services in Tipperary. The HSE needs to get real. As Deputy Lowry said, we need to see GPs from outside the country being brought in to relieve the backlogs.

I reiterate the Government's commitment to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to quality GP services. That is what all the Deputies have reiterated tonight. The important role that GPs play in the delivery of our health service and the commitment to providing a responsive and high-quality service to patients is acknowledged. The workload in many GP practices remains quite heavy and the last few years have been particularly challenging.

I also recognise that GPs working in rural and socially disadvantaged areas play a particularly important role. I assure the House that the Government is committed to ensuring that general practices in such areas remain a sustainable and attractive option for doctors. The 2019 agreement on the reform and modernisation of the general medical services contract will be key in supporting and resourcing general practice into the future and making it a more attractive career option for young doctors.

On GP services in Templemore, as I outlined earlier, the HSE has made every effort to fill the vacancy but has been unsuccessful. In order to ensure the continuity of care, and in the best interests of patients, an alternative arrangement has been put in place with an existing group practice in the town of Templemore. This arrangement will ensure local access to GP services for existing patients of the retired GP. However, I will take on board the request that Deputy Cahill initially made about an extension of six months; I will take that back to the Minister. I assure Deputies that the HSE is committed to working with GPs in the area to ensure services can continue to be provided to the local community.

Agriculture Schemes

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for being in attendance. It is important to recall that the beef exceptional aid measure was put in place to provide farmers with temporary financial aid in response to a prolonged period of depressed beef prices. It was a recognition that farmers were on their knees. The difficulty with the scheme from the outset was that it included a provision that farmers were required to commit to a 5% reduction in bovine livestock manure nitrogen, effectively meaning they were to reduce their stocking rate. When you consider that most of the farmers availing of this scheme were suckler farmers, who are probably the most sustainable farmers and producers of beef in the world, it made little sense. It was something I had a little concern about from the very start.

Notwithstanding that, the scheme was beset with confusion from the very beginning. Almost immediately, we heard reports of farmers waiting up to six weeks to receive figures from the Department, and farm advisers who had figures that were different from the Department's. As a result of those debacles, a deferral or six-month extension to the scheme was secured, rightly, at the height of the third wave of Covid. This was the least that farmers should have expected. However, we now learn that 3,627 farmers within the State are now facing a clawback of €5,227,820. This is money that is now being taken from farmers who received the payment in the first place because of exceptional need.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State today instructed his officials to apologise for attempting to raid areas of natural constraint, ANC, and targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, payments in a very underhand manner. I appeal to him to put in place measures that we seek exceptional support at a European level to provide a further extension to those farmers who were not able to avail of the first one.

I acknowledge Deputy Carthy for allowing me to share his time on Topical Issue matters and I thank the Minister of State for being present. This scheme was brought in for hard-pressed beef finishers in 2019, who suffered continuous bad beef prices over a prolonged period. The conditions of the scheme were extremely bureaucratic for hard-pressed beef finishers. The fact that it was undersubscribed is a sign of how unattractive the scheme was for farmers. For a scheme for beef finishers to be undersubscribed, told its own story. It is now the case that many farmers who applied for the scheme are failing to meet the conditions and the money they received will have to be reimbursed.

These farmers are still under severe financial pressure. Beef finishing is still a very unprofitable business. I ask the Minister of State to bring in a system similar to what we had for the super levy in 2016, when farmers incurred a very large super levy bill but were given a period of years by the Commission to pay back the money. That is the very least that needs to be done in this case. We should have a prolonged period of time to allow these beef finishers to pay back the money in instalments. They just cannot afford to have the money taken from them in any calendar year. We need a sustained period of time to allow these beef finishers pay back this money.

We cannot argue that they failed to meet the criteria of the scheme. The Department will tell us an audit will insist the money be repaid. We can argue that point and, hopefully, the Minister of State will argue it strongly. These beef finishers cannot afford to pay back this money in one instalment. A precedent was set with the superlevy bill where farmers were allowed three years to pay back the money. I would seek an even longer period for these beef finishers who are still under severe financial pressure to repay this money.

I thank Deputies Carthy and Cahill for raising this issue. As has been rightly outlined, 2019 was a very difficult year for beef farmers. There was a need for support to help them cope with market difficulties, which were largely driven by Brexit. That is why we fought hard to get money from Europe to establish the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, which ended up with €77 million being paid to 33,000 farmers in 2019, €50 million of which came from the EU with the balance having come from the national Exchequer. In return, farmers were required over the following two years to reduce by 5% their bovine organic nitrogen produced on the farm. The European Commission insisted there was an element of restructuring of the Irish beef sector built into the scheme. Money is never given without some conditionality attached. That was clearly set out in article 1.3 of the Commission regulation 2019/113(2) of 2 July 2019 and it was also in section 7 of the BEAM scheme's terms and conditions in 2019. Such was the urgent nature of the market difficulty that the money was paid upfront, subject to the participants' compliance with the scheme requirements.

Almost 19,000 farmers have now met their requirements and exited the scheme. A further 11,000 farmers have opted to avail of the flexibility the Minister, Deputy McConalogoe, fought hard for and secured in January from the European Commission. This allowed a farmer to opt for a later reduction period over which the 5% could be delivered. The later period runs from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021 compared to the original period which ran from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.

All 33,000 farmers in the BEAM scheme had the opportunity to avail of the later reduction period if they wished and if it was necessary. Farmers could apply for the deferral between 19 March and 21 June. The Department made it clear to farmers there was no downside to applying for the deferment option because we wanted to make sure everybody who wanted to apply for that deferment could do so without any fear. Those who opted for the deferment but met the scheme conditions in the original period were automatically removed from the later reduction period because they had met the requirements. Almost 5,300 farmer participants were in this category and have exited the scheme without recoupment. The remaining 3,600 farmers decided not to opt for the later reduction period and, as of the end of June 2021, have failed to meet the obligations they signed up to under the BEAM scheme's terms and conditions.

Of the 3,600 farmers, 66% or 2,396, who are in the recoupment situation increased their nitrates during that reduction period. These 3,600 farmers will have some or all of the money they received in 2019 recouped. The total being recouped is now €5.2 million with the average recoupment per farmer at €1,700. Among the 3,600 farmers, almost 10% of cases involve less than €200 and almost a quarter involve less than €400.

The rules on recoupment of interest are the same across all schemes. They are set down. There is conditionality with respect to European rules involving European money. The Deputies highlighted concern for the farmers involved. They had the option to continue on in the scheme but decided not to do that. As I said, two thirds of these farmers decided to increase their nitrogen organic output. The majority of those farmers made that conscious decision in the full knowledge that they were outside the terms and conditions of the scheme. That was a business decision for them to make and they felt it was the right thing to do, which was their right, but the terms of the scheme mean that money has to be recouped.

I accept the communication around the recoupment letter to the 3,600 farmers could have been clearer and was not handled properly. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue has instructed Department officials to issue an apology to this cohort of farmers for the premature manner in which their moneys were deducted. I take on board the concerns raised. I am happy to answer further in response to supplementary questions.

The difficulty is we are dealing with farmers who do not have this type of money. They received this payment because it was recognised they were in exceptional difficulties. To give the Minister of State a sense of the amounts involved, in my constituency in County Cavan 133 farmers will be expected to pay back €157,000 and in Monaghan 138 farmers will be expected to pay back €193,000. If they cannot make those payments within 30 days they will be expected to pay a 3% penalty rate. I would like a direct answer to this question. Will the Department make contact with the European Commission to find flexibility to allow those farmers who did not, for whatever reason, and in some cases it was because they were not fully aware of the proposition, seek an extension, which they can now do, or measures such as Deputy Cahill said that would allow flexibility in the repayments? The Minister of State has outlined the current situation but we will not know if we can change it unless we ask.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He said there is never a scheme without conditions attached. In 2020 we had a far more straightforward scheme. I accept that EU money was not put into the 2020 scheme, but it was a far more straightforward scheme and the money was used up. Before we finish this 2019 scheme a third of the money that was allocated to hard-pressed beef finishers will not have ended up in farmers' pockets. That is a serious indictment of a scheme that was introduced to provide for hard-pressed beef farmers. I support Deputy Carthy's call to the Minister of State to return to the Commission and ensure we are given the maximum flexibility possible for these affected farmers. Their income has not improved in the interim. They are still under severe financial pressure. We need to do the utmost to ensure the future financial viability of these farmers is not put under further threat. They cannot afford to pay back this money in any significant amounts. They need consideration to be shown by the Commission. A precedent was set on the superlevy bill where farmers faced with a bill were given ample time to repay it.

I thank the Deputies for their supplementary points. The fact of the matter is that almost €72 million of the €77 million has gone to beef farmers. Some 19,000 farmers met the scheme's requirements and have exited the scheme because of that. Deputy Cahill is right in saying the scheme was not over-subscribed. It was under-subscribed. A number of beef farmers who were in financial difficulties, as were all beef farmers at that time, checked the scheme's conditions and decided not to participate in it because of the conditionality attached, and that was their right. In terms of the decisions by farmers to join the scheme, lessons have been learned about the scheme's design. If one were designing a scheme from scratch in normal circumstances one would not design like this one, but it was exceptional because the need was exceptional. You would not normally pay in advance under such a scheme where the conditionality came to bear afterwards without some clawback. In an ideal world one would not do that because it can give rise to difficulties. Farmers have a right to make that decision in the full knowledge that, as two-thirds of the farmers have done, if they decide to increase their nitrogen organic output in the future - it is their right to do that - to be fair to everybody in the scheme and to those who decided not to go into it because of the conditions attached, there has to be recoupment. The rules on the interest rate and the recoupment periods are set down. They are EU regulations. Deputy Cahill mentioned the 2020 scheme and he rightly said that was fully Exchequer funded. There is much more flexibility with Exchequer funded schemes. There is not the same flexibility with EU schemes. That means we have to stick to the rules that apply. The flexibility shown in the earlier part of the year was hard fought for. Some 11,000 farmers are able to avail of that flexibility.

Tax Code

It transpires that the single malt tax shelter the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, thought he had closed down in 2018 appears to be still very much open for business. The so-called single malt allowed companies incorporated here to minimise their corporation tax bills by funnelling profits into low tax states, in this case Malta, with which we have tax treaties. We now know, thanks to Christian Aid, that at least one company, in this case, the pharmaceutical giant, Abbott, is still availing of a single malt-type tax avoid structure to avoid tax on profits from its rapid diagnostics division.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, attempted to close down the single malt structure in 2018 yet three new Abbott-related entities were set up here in 2019, purely with the intention of avoiding tax on profits. Thanks to what Christian Aid has described as the narrow drafting of the Ireland-Malta tax agreement, the deal that the Minister said in 2018 "should eliminate any remaining concerns about such structures" and which he said represented "another sign of Ireland’s commitment to tackling aggressive tax planning", it has turned out to be nothing of the sort. The Maltese operate a generous series of tax write-offs against intellectual property including licences, trademarks and so on. There is little that we in Ireland can do about that but, according to Christian Aid, it is the narrow drafting of the tax treaty that allows this abominable practice to occur in the first place. This is Ireland's problem. It is our problem. This elaborate game of pass the parcel might be lawful, bizarre as that sounds, but it is disgusting and immoral. The practice literally takes food out of the mouths of children in Ethiopia and Nepal, where Abbott sells Covid kits. Taxes on sales profits in those countries ought to be paid there. Christian Aid's analysis says that these structures will enable this entity to avoid paying corporation tax on nearly €500 million worth of profits attributable to intellectual property for its rapid tests, including its Covid-19 tests.

This is just the latest in a series of embarrassing tax controversies for the Government, although it comes at a particularly sensitive time in light of the ongoing OECD reform process. Ironically, it can be argued that the Abbott case has also come about due to the previous Government's failure to sign Ireland up to Article 12 of the OECD multilateral instrument despite warnings from Christian Aid and others at the time, including the Minister of State's ministerial colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Darragh O'Brien, that this could lead to the kind of tax avoidance we have seen revealed by Christian Aid in the media today. Today's revelations prove yet again that standing on the sidelines of international agreements and taking a "whack-a-mole" approach to closing tax loopholes, as Christian Aid has rightly described it, simply does not work when the tax avoidance industry is always one step ahead.

Is it news to the Minister of State that these kinds of scheme still exist? What action will this Government take to close the loopholes exposed here? Are Abbott and its related companies the only series of firms exploiting such arrangements? Are there more? Are the Revenue Commissioners privy to this arrangement? Do they have knowledge of the arrangement operated by Abbott? Moreover, did they approve it at any level?

I thank Deputy Nash for the opportunity to address the report on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, this evening. From the outset I must point out that, while the Deputy has mentioned the name of a particular company and has gone into its tax affairs in detail here in the Chamber, people will understand that it is absolutely not appropriate for the Minister for Finance to comment on the tax affairs of individual businesses. That is a basic law and understanding of how this Parliament should work. A Minister should not be going down the road of talking about the tax affairs of a named individual business or individual person.

Recent years have seen significant progress in global action to address the issue of aggressive tax planning by multinational companies. Ireland has fully engaged in the base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, process since 2013 and we have proactively and diligently reformed our tax code in line with emerging new international norms. A lot has already been achieved. We must recall that, today, we have far more robust international tax rules and safeguards to prevent abuse, arbitrage, base erosion and profit shifting than existed a decade ago. Significant progress has been made.

In respect to the issues highlighted in the Christian Aid report, it is relevant to note that the Revenue Commissioners entered into a competent authority agreement with the Maltese competent authority, its Ministry of finance, to counteract so-called single malt arrangements that could otherwise result in double non-taxation. At this late hour of the night, people will forgive me for specify that when I mention "single malt", I am not talking about whiskey. The word "single" relates to a business that has single residency in an area. The word "malt" is short for "Malta" rather than having anything to do with whiskey, in case people thought that was what we were talking about here tonight. Specifically, this competent authority agreement addresses issues where there is a mismatch of residence and domicile provisions which could otherwise result in double non-taxation. I am advised that this competent authority agreement provision is operating as intended and companies should not be able to avail of double non-taxation on the basis of a mismatch of residence and domicile provisions.

The Minister is committed to taking action to ensure the Irish tax code is in line with new and emerging international tax standards as agreed globally. The January 2021 update to Ireland's corporation tax roadmap highlights the actions that have already been taken, and which will continue to be taken, in this process of corporation tax reform.

It is important to remember that in recent Finance Acts the Oireachtas has substantially progressed transposition of the anti-tax avoidance directives through: the introduction of controlled foreign company rules, anti-hybrid rules and a revised exit tax regime; the introduction of defensive measures against listed jurisdictions through enhanced controlled foreign company rules; the updating of transfer pricing rules; the introduction of legislation for OECD BEPS measures on mandatory disclosure rules; and a substantial widening of the scope of the exit tax regime with the result that, on the migration of a company from Ireland to another country of residence, the increase in the value of assets to the date of the company's departure will be chargeable to the full rate of corporation tax. It should also be recognised that Ireland has a long-standing general anti-avoidance rule which goes beyond the standard required by the EU anti-tax avoidance directives. Furthermore, in the upcoming Finance Bill, it is intended that we will complete the transposition of the anti-tax avoidance directives with the reintroduction of interest limitation rules and anti-reverse hybrid rules. It is intended that these rules will be effective from 1 January 2022.

I too understand the rules, conventions and protocols in this House but I have no difficulty in identifying, as the media have today, firms that may be practising tax strategies that, although lawful, are immoral. These are not the type of tax strategies or tax avoidance structures that should be facilitated in any way by this country. This is where we interrogate important issues of public policy in this Republic. We are elected representatives of the people and we have a constitutional obligation to interrogate and explore these issues, particularly when states such as our own and others across the European Union and the developing world are being deprived of resources that are rightfully theirs because of the arcane and elaborate structures that certain organisations are permitted to operate. It is bizarre that these are lawful, as I remarked in my initial contribution. We have seen the response from the firm involved to the media. It is predictable. It has said that it has done nothing unlawful so it is okay. That is its defence.

While I understand that the Minister of State does not want to make direct reference to this company, is he aware of any other schemes that are in place that may be similar to the single malt mechanism, which we had been told was closed down in 2018? The Minister of State has gone to some lengths to describe the kind of due diligence that the the Department and the Revenue Commissioners may engage in to identify shelters such as this where they crop up but has any recent assessment been undertaken by his Department in respect of the corporation tax liabilities of Irish-incorporated companies that are tax resident in other tax treaty partner countries since the residency rules changes in the Finance Act 2014 came into force last December?

I will make a final point with the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. This Abbott case again shows how taxable profits are being siphoned away from the poorer countries where sales are being made, in this case, Nepal and Ethiopia. I know that a spillover analysis was done by the Department regarding the impact of these kinds of measures on developing countries. Will the Minister of State undertake a similar analysis in light of these reports?

I thank the Deputy again. I must reiterate that it would be inappropriate for a Minister or Minister of State to comment on the tax affairs of an individual taxpayer here in the House. The competent authorities agreement that was signed came into effect in November 2018. This effectively brought an end to the single malt structure the Deputy has been speaking about.

The objective of the agreement was to counteract the arrangement that sought to take income out of the charge of tax in Ireland on the basis that the company was not tax-resident in Ireland but also out of the charge of tax in Malta on the basis the company was not domiciled there.

The Christian Aid report provides no evidence that the competent authority agreement was ineffective in achieving that objective. On the contrary, paragraph 18 of the report states that the 2018 competent authority agreement appeared to end the spate of new single malt structures that multinationals had begun to set up from 2015 onwards. Since November 2018, only four companies have been incorporated in Ireland with a place of business registered in Malta. The four were subsidiaries of one group, registered in 2019. One case is being discussed and the Revenue is keeping a close eye on that.

In effect, the Christian Aid report acknowledges the competent authority agreement has achieved its objective in preventing double non-taxation that would otherwise arise from a mismatch of the rules. The real story is why sufficient prominence was not given to the Christian Aid report in that regard. Within a short period, it was effectively eliminated and there is only one case outstanding. That is receiving close scrutiny. The purpose of providing opportunities for double taxation is set out clearly in the various reports and Ireland has a proven record of improvements in our international corporation tax regime. We have listed a number of the improvements that have happened year by year over the past couple of years. There will be further developments in the coming budget.

Early Childhood Care and Education

For young families to succeed, childcare must be affordable, accessible, of high quality and sustainable. I welcome the Minister's commitment to ongoing learning and listening to providers, parents and guardians. However, despite significant increases in funding and the welcome and ambitious First 5 strategy, Ireland still has one of the most underfunded childcare systems in Europe, failing to meet the EU average of UNICEF targets for investments. We have one of the highest costs of childcare in the OECD. It is over half the average wage in Ireland.

In the early years staffing survey report for 2021, 97% of providers said they feel low pay and staff leaving the sector will have a negative impact on the provision of services. More than 70% found it extremely difficult to recruit staff in the past 12 months and 42% of early years educators are actively looking for a job outside the sector, with 75% identifying low pay as the reason for leaving the profession. Providers and educators in 4,500 early years and after-school settings in Ireland stepped up during the pandemic and the provision of quality care and education to children has been highlighted as a critical contributor to a functioning society and economy. We have to get this right in the future.

I have met and engaged with stakeholders on this. I have met and listened to providers, parents and staff. This weekend, I am meeting more stakeholders in Carlow and Kilkenny to discuss the issues in advance of budget 2022. That will be crucial. They have told me Ireland's early years system is not working for parents and is failing the educators. Underfunding of childcare has led to a lack of options for educators who leave the sector, providers who close their doors and parents and guardians who cannot afford it.

I am pleased to raise the hugely important issue of early years childcare services and the need to provide adequate funding in the next budget to ensure sustainable and accessible childcare services for 2022 at least. I do not say it lightly but there is a crisis in the sector. Early years educators are expected to work for approximately €12 per hour. That is untenable. Is it any wonder up to 50% are actively looking for employment elsewhere? Early years professionals, 98% of whom are women, are among the lowest-paid workers in Ireland with 50% earning below the living wage. That is the value we put on early years education. In the Netherlands, the hourly wage is €26 per hour. In France, it is almost €20. In Germany, it is €18. In Ireland, it is €12. An additional €75 million is the minimum needed to improve pay scales and to ensure all staff earn above the living wage.

Parents in Ireland pay the highest fees in the EU. They are, on average, about €184 per week. Compare that to Sweden, which I acknowledge is at the lower end, where childcare costs €31 per week. If the Minister were to invest a further €75 million in the upcoming budget, it would help ensure affordability for parents and, therefore, access to high quality, sustainable services. I seek the Minister's commitment on that.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. It is a key priority for me as the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to improve the affordability, accessibility and quality of early learning and care, ELC, and school age childcare, SAC. Historically, there have been low levels of investment in ELC and SAC in this country, although in the past five years we have seen a 141% increase in investment. That stands now at €638 million per year. This increase has funded a second year of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, preschool programme, an access and inclusion model, AIM, and enabled the introduction of the national childcare scheme, NCS.

The draft guiding principles developed by the expert group states:

The funding model should be based on an acceptance that ELC/SAC is a public good... It should seek to support the delivery of this public value through the provision of high quality, affordable, accessible, and sustainable ELC and SAC services.

It also states that the funding model should make best use of the available public management tools. I expect this principle will inform the report of the group.

Last December, working in partnership with SIPTU and Childhood Services Ireland-IBEC, I began a short process investigating the potential of a joint labour committee for the sector and how it might support a better wage rate. We engaged Dr. Kevin Duffy, former chair of the Labour Court, to chair the process. Following that, I wrote to the Minister of State, Deputy English, and he has since signed an establishment order for a JLC for the early years sector. I regard this as an extremely significant and welcome development. I know it has been welcomed by both employers and workers in the sector.

I thank the Minister and welcome the information he gave. As we have said, despite their qualifications, most early years professionals are earning below the living wage of €12.40 an hour. That is unacceptable. I welcome the Minister's reference to a new funding model. Will that model include a clear career path for educators and a clear guide to supports for providers struggling to sustain businesses under a significant administrative burden, which includes inspections, increased commercial rates and insurance costs? There are many issues on which we need to give confidence to childcare providers, parents and staff. That is going to be very important.

This is a vital sector and it must be supported. The Minister said he will look for more funding from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. I will be speaking to the latter in the next few days. The budget for 2022 will be crucial in this regard. I know how dedicated the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is and how important the sector is to him. We need to get the funding right and ensure the sector is not underfunded into the future.

I thank the Minister for his response. I can hear that he has a real commitment to the childcare sector. He spoke about the expert group recommendations that are due in November. Those recommendations are important but they will be too late for many in the sector. The Minister must know that. There has to be an extra investment in the sector. I am saying that €150 million is needed in the next budget, which will be announced before those recommendations are published. In my constituency, there are more than 100 childcare providers employing thousands of staff. They cannot wait for the recommendations of the expert group, which I understand has the possibility of delivering a quality service. When I said there was a crisis, I did not say it lightly. I said it because, one after another, childcare providers and those who work in the sector are telling me there is one. The expert group is great but, in the meantime, I ask the Minister to make a commitment to keep the sector afloat until its recommendations can be implemented.

I thank the Deputies. This sector, like many sectors of the economy, is coming out of an incredibly difficult time following Covid. It is a sector that certainly stepped up during the crisis, which both Deputies recognised, particularly last January when it did not shut but continued to provide early learning and care for the most vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. How we managed to deliver that was through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the sector exemption for childcare that I negotiated with the Department of Finance at the time because we knew, with the pods arrangement, that providers had an obligation to have more staff on site, which required greater funding. We provided that through the EWSS. All the providers I have met have recognised how important that support was up to this point. They also recognise that we have been very clear there will not be a cliff edge in terms of the EWSS and that the support will be tapered out.

We are now looking beyond Covid. Budget 2022 is the opportunity to move us beyond this period to start to implement the recommendations of the expert group. Those recommendations will not come as a surprise to us on the day they are published in November. I have been engaging with the group and I have a sense of the key elements. Everyone in the sector has a sense of those key elements and they will form the basis of my engagement with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and my other Government colleagues in the context of budget 2022.

It is essential, as Deputy Murnane O'Connor said, that we provide a career pathway for workers in this sector. We have a workforce plan for staff but it requires them to see that they will get a living wage as they move on through their career. One of the most depressing things for me in this regard was talking to a constituent I know well, a young woman who has just graduated from a third level institution and who left the sector after working in it for three months because the pay was so bad. We must give people like her a future in the sector. The actions the Government is taking will do that.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.05 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Thursday, 16 September 2021.