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Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Mairéad Farrell: Information on Mairéad  Farrell Zoom on Mairéad  Farrell] In case the Government needs reminding, in the financial sector it holds a majority stake in both AIB and Permanent TSB to the tune of 75% and it holds a 14% stake in Bank of Ireland. I cannot think of any other shareholder with such a major stake that takes this kind of hands-off approach. It is clear that the restrictions will last for some time. We are all aware of that, so schemes such as the EWSS will be with us throughout 2021 to support people. We must ensure that the Government addresses the fact that people cannot get a mortgage because they are on the EWSS. I urge the Minister to do that.

Deputy Claire Kerrane: Information on Claire Kerrane Zoom on Claire Kerrane I join with my colleagues in welcoming the extension of the employment wage subsidy scheme at the existing rates. I note that a similar announcement has been made on the pandemic unemployment payment, which is welcome. In the case of the PUP, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has said that in the coming weeks the Government will be looking at a possible extension beyond 31 March. It is now February, so I ask that the Minister would do likewise for the EWSS. It is important that workers and families have a bit of certainty as they go through the month of February and into March. It is especially important given the Government's inaction today in terms of helping those very people with growing bills which is a major concern, but it is not something on which the Government is going to take action.

As is the case with the PUP, the upper limit is €350 for all those earning in excess of €400 and all those workers are on reduced income. A big issue arises in that, regrettably, mortgage breaks have not been announced. I ask the Minister to examine the matter again. The banks should be doing their bit in the middle of the pandemic.

Deputy Ged Nash: Information on Ged Nash Zoom on Ged Nash I thank the Minister for presenting this important motion this afternoon. The Labour Party fully supports the motion and the extension of the EWSS going forward. The TWSS, and its successor the EWSS, have been an extraordinarily important initiative taken by the Government. It has literally been a lifesaver for countless businesses and workers across the country.

  The Minister might recall that a couple of short years ago the Labour Party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions separately called for the development of such a scheme to help to counteract the then threat of a potential hard Brexit in the event of no deal being agreed. We have been discussing the principle of wage subsidy schemes in this House and outside for some time and now it is a reality to support businesses and jobs across the country. It has been a considerable success. The Minister admitted that the scheme will, in effect, be extended to the end of the year to deal with the reality of the situation currently for so many businesses and workers.

  I believe the wage subsidy scheme, or something of this nature, must become a permanent feature of the labour market, in particular to assist workers with the just transition. So many workers and businesses are at risk as we move towards a zero-carbon situation and schemes like this will be most important. If they are to become embedded in the system, it is important that they evolve and that the State ensures that we get better outcomes for workers and businesses. For that reason, in the context of our pre-budget proposals late last year, the Labour Party proposed a German-style short time working scheme which we called ObairGhear. It would involve attaching conditions around training, upskilling, productivity for access to schemes and also that employers obtaining benefits from such schemes would ensure no lay-offs would occur for the duration of their involvement in such schemes. We also believe any such schemes should be conditional on the recognition of trade unions and collective agreements applying to workers in such employment.

  I will briefly turn to the issue of the EWSS and mortgages. Last October, I lifted the lid on the practice of banks, including State-owned banks such as Permanent TSB and AIB, asking mortgage applicants whether their employer was availing of the EWSS. Not only has this practice continued in recent months, but it has escalated. I have been contacted by numerous people, mainly couples who are first-time buyers and who are now being denied drawdown on their mortgage by banks due to their employer being registered on the EWSS. The Minister and his team might be familiar with one such case, that of Adele and her partner, who have written to him directly on this issue. Adele is not a pseudonym. She has consented to her name being identified, such is her frustration at the way she has been treated. She and her partner, like many others across the country, who I have been directly helping, are now in a fight to secure their home with their bank, which has explicitly stated it will not proceed with the mortgage because the "employer is availing of the wage subsidy". The implications of this statement are massive. More than 300,000 workers and some 30,000 employers are availing of the scheme. This is at the height of a national housing crisis that predates the Covid pandemic. There is now a very real danger that the recent publication of the list of employers receiving the EWSS on the Revenue website may serve as a mortgage blacklist, even if the customer himself or herself does not qualify to have his or her pay subsidised through the scheme by virtue of the fact that he or she might be a higher earner.

  As Adele stated to the Minister in her email, the bank's behaviour is nothing short of "disgraceful". She said banks are stabbing people in the back. I noted a similar case in the Irish Independent yesterday. The Minister might be familiar with it. Banks are performing U-turns only after pressure from lawyers, Deputies like me or by journalists asking tricky questions. This is not the way business should be done in this country. For every person who is fighting against the banks, there are countless more who do not have the time, energy or resources to do so. I urge the Minister to give a firm commitment to the House to deal with this form of mortgage blacklisting and ensure that no other homeowner, whose means support their application, is put in this position.

  I do not reference my constituent, Adele, to in any way ambush the Minister. He may not have seen that particular case himself although his team may have. I am sure he will respond to it in due course. I reference Adele because her case illustrates a wider problem. Hundreds of individuals across the country whom I have dealt with in recent months are in the exact same situation. That is deeply unfair, and it needs to be resolved.

Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill: Information on Jennifer Carroll MacNeill Zoom on Jennifer Carroll MacNeill I thank the Minister for bringing the motion on this extremely important subject, the EWSS, to the House today. I thank him for his work on this, for putting the scheme in place and for its efficiencies to date. It is fair to say that without it we would have more than 300,000 employees who would either be on substantially lower incomes or who may not be in work at all. This transfer from the State to families directly is able to keep people paying existing mortgages and allow them to continue with their lifestyle and employment. Employment is the most important issue for any household to maintain itself.

I thank the Minister for his work in that regard but also for the role he has played in Europe. It is fair to say that none of this would have been possible without the sort of cohesion that has been generated with the participation of the Minister. It is very welcome that the ECB and other institutions have been able to take a very different approach now than was the case previously in 2011 when we did not have an opportunity to take countercyclical stimulus measures of this kind, or indeed other kinds, and where the pressures were very different. That is only possible for a number of reasons. One is that we had a well-run economy going into the pandemic, where there was close to full employment in technical terms. We had good jobs, and we still have good jobs and the opportunity to create more and we have had an activated and engaged labour market using the skills it has. To be able to ride out this crisis and get through it we need the type of supports that ensure people can stay with their employer. This scheme has been doing that extremely well.

It is also fair to say that the existence of the scheme and its efficiency have been able to contribute to our income tax performance, which has been better than all of our predictions and those of the Department. I accept it is a circular process. One of the aspects of the scheme that has been so helpful to businesses, especially small businesses and employees in them, is the certainty that the EWSS model has given them. They can continue to get through the difficulties of lockdowns and the difficulties they face in other parts of their lives knowing there is a degree of income security in their house for those who are eligible to avail of it. I urge the Minister to continue to provide that certainty.

I appreciate the motion before the House and the fact that the deadline under the Act is the end of June.

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