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Covid-19 (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin] If there is a difficulty, I ask the Minister to advise the House that he intends to fix it, and to do so in a way so as not to disenfranchise the redundancy rights of workers during this pandemic.

On the issue of the minimum wage directive, does the Minister regret his decision to co-sign a letter attempting to undermine the proposed European minimum wage directive? Does he accept that he was part of an effort to block the effective implementation of the directive? Does he accept that Ireland had pre-Covid rates of 23% of the population on low pay, as defined by the OECD, and that 40% of young workers were in insecure work? Does he accept that with less than 30% of the working population covered by collective bargaining, we are far below the 70% coverage deemed normal and desirable in the European context? I ask the Minister whether he or his Department has taken any further action in respect of the proposed minimum wage directive, what future plans exist regarding Ireland's response to this directive, and what plans he has to reduce the dependence of our economy on low pay.

I appreciate that I am eating up most of the time allotted, so a written response would be appreciated to this, my last question. Is the Minister aware of the difficulties faced by small businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes, looking to expand into food trucks and mobile businesses? Has he had any conversations with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the causal trading by-laws, which in many cases do not allow sufficient flexibility for councils to rapidly create new locations for such services? I have drafted a Bill at the request of a cross-party group of councillors in the Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle area, including Councillors Brian McDonagh and Eoghan O'Brien, which I will be happy to make available to the Minister. With time, other emergency legislation and the co-operation of the Government, it could be delivered quickly.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar They are all very reasonable questions. Unfortunately, I cannot write as quickly as the Deputy can speak, so I may have missed a few of them. I will do my best to answer those I can remember.

It is the case that the average interest rates on mortgages and loans in Ireland are too high, and higher than the EU average. However, they have been falling, and falling substantially in recent years. It should be borne in mind that like-for-like comparisons are often misleading. Other countries have much higher bank charges. For example, we will often find very low interest rates in Denmark, but what we are not told about are the sign-up and bank charges and all the other charges they pay but we do not. Unfortunately, one of the other reasons we have higher interest rates in this State relative to other countries, including the UK and the EU, is historically high levels of non-payment. When people do not pay their debts, whether it is individuals or businesses, it has a social consequence. It makes it harder for others to get credit, and those who do face higher interest rates. Often, Members in this House try to ride both horses in that regard, saying it is okay for people not to pay their debts and then complaining when other people cannot get credit or are expected to pay high interest rates. I do not believe the Deputy is one of those, but there are others in this House who do that and it is wrong. It is also one of the reasons banks in Ireland must have such high capital reserves. That is a major disincentive. Even if a foreign bank comes into Ireland and wants to offer loans or products at a better rate or under better terms, it cannot,because, just by operating in Ireland, it has to set aside large amounts of capital because of our historic high levels of non-payment.

On the issue of Ulster Bank, the Minister for Finance is leading on that for the Government. He has been in discussions with NatWest about potential solutions. I know the transfer of undertakings (protection of employment), TUPE, regulations can apply, but I do not know if they can apply in all circumstances. I do not want to misspeak and get it wrong. they certainly can apply.

On the minimum wage directive, it was a letter that was co-signed with the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Austria. We do have a concern. Ireland has the second or third highest minimum wage in the EU. I am proud to have been part of a Government that increased it by 25% or 30% over the past four or five years. We would not want a scenario in which the minimum wage was set within EU rules that meant we could not increase it or move to a living wage, for example, if there was an EU rule which stated it had to be 50% or 40% of average income, or something similar. We want to ensure it improves conditions and that we do not end up signing up to an EU directive that is a lowest common denominator one, which is what often happens.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Deputy Brendan Smith is sharing time with Deputies Alan Farrell, Bruton and Cathal Crowe.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith As the Tánaiste is aware, there are widespread concerns in many communities about the decision taken by NatWest Bank some time ago to consider all strategic options on the future of Ulster Bank. Ulster Bank has 88 branches in our State and has more than 2,800 employees. It has a substantial presence in the Border region, especially in my own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, with three branches in County Cavan and one in Monaghan. It has been an integral part of Irish commercial life, and it has been trading in our country for almost 200 years. Any thought of the closure of this bank and its branch network would be devastating for many communities and for the employees of the bank. Any further diminution in banking competition in this country would be most concerning and damaging. Ulster Bank is the third largest bank and we lack banking competition in this country as it is.

In my own constituency, there are Ulster Bank branches in Ballyconnell, Cavan town, Ballyjamesduff and Monaghan town. Traditionally, Ulster Bank has been very much associated with Ulster and the Border region. It has had a very successful business, by and large, for the most of 200 years in communities right throughout our island. As the third largest bank in the country, we cannot afford to lose it. From speaking to employees for some time and interacting with private individuals and people with small and medium enterprises, I know Ulster Bank's business is across all sectors of our economy. From the perspective of employees, business, enterprise and many communities, it is essential a further clear message is sent to NatWest that we want to see Ulster Bank retained in its current format, with its 88 branches and more than 2,500 employees.

For some time, I have engaged with the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach on this matter. I appeal to the Tánaiste, as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to give a clear message to NatWest management that we want to see Ulster Bank remain in our State. We do not want to see it exit our State, with the serious consequences it will entail for some many individuals, families, households and businesses of all sizes. It has been extremely important in our communities. It was subject to major rationalisation over the years. I want to see that network retained and the jobs of its employees protected.

Deputy Alan Farrell: Information on Alan Farrell Zoom on Alan Farrell First, I welcome the Tánaiste's comments on Aer Lingus. I think he will accept that most employees on the support schemes and who are sitting at home will take his comments literally when he states that Aer Lingus will not be allowed to fail.

The past 12 months have been a particularly punishing time for business, which I know the Tánaiste and all Members of the House accept. It is acutely important that we also recognise that the pandemic has not just had a catastrophic effect on our businesses and the Exchequer but also on the mental health and well-being of employees, regardless of age, skill or sector. Throughout this pandemic, we have been committed to supporting enterprise through the various schemes. In fact, a cursory glance at the Department's website shows four pages of schemes, grants and loans that are available to businesses or have been over the past 12 months.

Specifically, I want to focus on the hospitality sector. As the Minister is aware, quite a number of businesses, including restaurants, pubs, etc. have not been able to trade for a sustained period of time over the past 12 months. The Minister has mentioned the CRSS, the details of which have recently been announced. However, I must ask whether supports might be available in respect of the restart grant. Also, on the interesting point made by a Deputy about businesses, especially restaurants, that want to set up a temporary vehicle-based business, I ask whether supports will be available for them through the Minister's Department.

The other question I have to ask concerns the working from home options, which I know our colleague, Senator Currie, has made much of over recent months. There are initiatives there, but I would be very interested to hear whether supports will be available to employers to help them support their own employees in making as much as they can of working from home as a policy rather than returning to office-based work once the pandemic lifts from these shores.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton As vaccines start to take effect and we begin to see improvement in our figures, we need a credible pathway for reopening our economy. It must be made clear that it will not be a return to what had been there previously. We are now entering a period of dramatic, transformative change. That must be at the heart of it.

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