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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 999 No. 4

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  12 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty] While it is clear that we do not want anybody breaching these restrictions, common sense must prevail. I am mindful that there are people across the State, young and old alike, who feel isolated and alone, who are very vulnerable, and they should not suffer that. No one should be left isolated or cut-off from his or her communities. This needs to be clear. Further guidance on the compassionate grounds would be welcome. Caithfidh an Rialtas cinntiú go dtabharfar tacaíocht do na daoine sin.

The impact on incomes for workers and families also needs to be considered as level 4 restrictions are severe. Ten days ago, the Minister for Finance said that the impact of these restrictions would result in hundreds of thousands of job losses. That is, unfortunately, the reality. The public health restrictions create huge difficulties for our people. We can get through this, but only if the support is in place to help people through it. On 17 September, the Government cut the pandemic unemployment payment, removing vital income support at a time when it was most needed. On Tuesday, the Government confirmed its commitment to make these cuts permanent, to reduce income support at a time of heightened restrictions and of income loss. That was a mistake. Thousands of workers in the three counties that have entered level 4 restrictions will lose their jobs this week. They will fall back on income supports that have been cut, but they still have to pay rent and to pay mortgages to the banks. They still have to cover the cost of childcare and to put bread on the table for their families. For them, this is a time of worry, stress and anxiety and they need support.

While we hope this does not come to pass, there is a possibility that other counties may enter level 4 restrictions in the time ahead with further job losses inevitable as a result. Sinn Féin warned last month that cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment were premature and short-sighted. Last night's announcement by Government is proof of that. We know that the average person in receipt of the upper limit of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, of €300 per week had a pre-Covid income of well above €500 per week. Level 4 restrictions will result in significant income loss. Government is determined to cut the PUP by another €50 at the end of January and again by €50 at the beginning of April.

The Tánaiste will know that the virus has not gone away and that it will, unfortunately, remain with us for a while. It will be with us at the end of January and in April. For as long as that is the case the threat to job losses remains. It is crucial that workers and families have certainty that their incomes will not fall off a cliff and that they will be supported. I am calling on the Government to change direction. I am asking that it put in place an adequate income support for those people who will lose their job and those who have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic, not least in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. I am asking the Government to reverse the cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment and to bring the top level back to €350.

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar The decision to move Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan to level 4 will come as a bitter blow to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in those counties, although from my contacts with them I think the vast majority understand why it was necessary and that the decision had to be made given the very high instance of the virus in those counties relative to the rest of the State. People living in any other county should not get the wrong impression. When people hear that three of the Border counties have been moved to level 4 they may get the wrong impression that this is a problem up North or a problem along the Border. It is not. People in any part of Ireland should not take any comfort from the fact that the rules are stricter in these three counties. The virus is circulating in the community in every county in Ireland and we need to understand that that is the case and make sure that we comply with public health advice and change our behaviours. In all 32 counties, we need to embrace the public health advice. Whether we are at level 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 26 if people are not doing what they need to do it is not going to work. We know what we need to do. People need to keep apart, wash their hands regularly, cough and sneeze into their elbows or a tissue and, if they feel unwell, they need to stay at home, stay away from other people, including other people in their own household, contact their GP seeking a test and, if told to restrict their movements or to self-isolate, they should do exactly that. It is those behaviours that will get this virus under control because that is what got the virus under control in the spring when we all worked together as a nation to do so.

In terms of the financial assistance that is being provided to businesses and to individuals in the three counties, the Covid restriction subsidy scheme, CRSS, will kick-in next week. This will provide a weekly payment for any business that is closed as a result of Government regulations. We have instructed that the three counties be prioritised in terms of the applications that are made. Also companies will qualify for the employment wage subsidy scheme. It applies to any company that has seen its turnover fall by more than 30%. By virtue of these restrictions, more companies will qualify for that scheme in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan than would have otherwise and commercial rates have been waived across Ireland for the remainder of the year.

In terms of the pandemic unemployment payment, it is now based on a person's income prior to losing his or her job. People who previously earned less than €200 per week will have full income replacement in that they will receive €203 per week. Those who earned between €200 and €300 per week will receive €250 per week, which, for many, is full income replacement and for others up to 86% and those who earned more than €300 per week will receive €300 per week. I acknowledge that there are people who were full-time workers and earning more than €300 per week who will see a significant reduction in their income but it is a scheme that has to be affordable and one that compares very favourably, I am sure Deputy Doherty will acknowledge, with the schemes that exist in the UK and in Northern Ireland.

In terms of any further reductions that may occur in January, that is a matter that will be kept under review by Government. We have set aside contingency funds in the budget announced this week to allow us to extend that January deadline if we are still in the teeth of the pandemic. The flexibility to extend that deadline is available to us and we will give that consideration.

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty I agree that we need to follow the public health advice, look at how we can limit our social contacts, maintain distance from each other and dig deep at this time but it is very difficult. There is also a role for the State here in terms of the restrictions that have been introduced. When Donegal was moved to level 3, there was a surge there in claims for the pandemic unemployment payment. The number of claimants in that county increased by one third. Level 4 restrictions will result in other people losing their jobs, not only in Donegal but in Cavan and Monaghan. As the Tánaiste said, this virus is not unique to those counties and others may follow the course of action taken in those three counties. The average wage for people who are now availing of the pandemic unemployment payment at a rate of €300 per week was €560 per week. The Government has cut that support. At a time when restrictions that are being introduced by Government are resulting in people losing their jobs there is a responsibility on Government to support that income. I accept it cannot support all of it but €350 per week was the appropriate amount in April, May and June and it is the appropriate amount now. People are facing into winter and Christmas and they do not know how they will get by because the Government has cut their payments by €50, it being a significant amount for many of those who have to, as I said, pay bills, mortgage or rent and put food on the table. I am asking the Government to do the right thing. Given the increased level of restrictions Government needs to reverse the cut to the pandemic unemployment payment and to return the top rate to €350 per week.

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar When the pandemic unemployment payment was introduced by the previous Government it was only supposed to last for 12 weeks. Obviously, we have learned since then that this pandemic is going to be with us for much longer than we thought. To make sure that we could extend it well into next year, if we have to, we had to link it to wages. That was done so that we could continue to support people's incomes. These are the types of choices Governments must make and they are not easy choices at times. When I hear the Deputy speak I often feel he speaks as though his party has no experience of government on this island. There is a Sinn Féin Minister for Finance North of the Border in the Six Counties, as the Deputy describes it. There is also a Sinn Féin Minister with responsibility for welfare. It is a devolved matter. The income support being provided to people north of the Border is about £100 sterling per week under universal credit, which is much less than it is here. Part-time workers, rather than getting full income replacement, get only two thirds of their income. I appreciate Sinn Féin does not control the chequebook, but it has autonomy and it could take money from other areas and put it into an increase in the universal credit.

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