Speech on Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Bill 2020: Second Stage

30 July 2020

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to speak on this important Bill for the financial or July stimulus package which, as we all know, seeks to address the enormous challenge that is confronting our society and economy at present. We all appreciate the enormous scale of that challenge, and those of us on the Opposition benches speak in the spirit of being constructive from Opposition in seeking to ensure that we will be able to get through the crisis as a country.

Having said that, and notwithstanding that I will be welcoming aspects of this Bill and appreciate, as my colleague Deputy Nash has stated in the Dáil, the necessity for many of the measures in it, it is, as far as we are concerned, a missed opportunity. It could have gone much further and could and should have been used to build a far more solid basis for a recovery in our view. I will elaborate a little on that point. Deputy Nash summed up this point in the Dáil that the fundamental problem we have with some of the aspects of it is that it gives cash without conditions to those least in need. Conditions could and should have been put on some of the measures to ensure that we had built a better basis for a recovery.

I was taken with an article by Dr. Shana Cohen from the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, in which she stated that we should have built a stimulus package under the slogan "Build Back Better" to ensure public services are adequately funded into the future. In that same spirit, in the run-up to the announcement of this package, we in the Labour Party put forward an alternative proposal for a stimulus package that would have invested not €7 billion but €10 billion in recovery. It would have gone further in ensuring better access to public services and would have met our five tests, which the Government stimulus does not meet. Those tests are as follows: first, the stimulus must be big enough to counteract the negative impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on jobs, businesses and household finances; second, it must be directed at the creation of good-quality jobs, especially for younger workers, as we are all conscious of the particular hit that has been taken by younger generations; third, the goal must be to create a new economic model, based on life-long learning, caring and sustainability; fourth, stimulus measures must reduce economic inequality; and fifth, it must strengthen public services, including a single-tier public health system, a safe return to school in late August or early September, which we hope to see, and major investment in public housing and public childcare.

I will focus on childcare in particular as a measure of how this stimulus package could have done better. I will be constructive, and I welcome, as did Deputy Nash, a number of the measures in this Bill. Many of us appreciate the extension of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and its replacement with the new employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to ensure businesses will be sustainable. I welcome that the turnover rule has been waived for childcare providers, which the Minister of State mentioned in his speech. We welcome the announcement of a major training and upskilling programme, although it falls short of our call to treble investment in skills. We also welcome the cut in the standard rate of VAT and provision for investment in town centres and cycling infrastructure.

As I have said, this Bill could and should have gone much further to ensure a robust basis for the recovery we want to see, with investment in public services, in particular. I will focus on childcare as an illustration of how the Government could have done better and ensured we would build back better. As the Labour Party spokesperson on children and childcare, I have already been contacted by a number of parents about widespread issues. They are concerned about increases in fees, being charged a deposit to hold a place for children who have not yet even taken up a place in childcare, and crèches that have closed. Parents are very anxious and distressed about trying to find childcare provision in the autumn when it is hoped we will see a more widespread return to work. The provision of adequate childcare is a crucial and defining test for this Government. Unfortunately, over recent weeks it has floundered around and tampered with the margins of childcare. Very welcome funding is being provided, but no attempt is being made to address the basic problem with the system of childcare, which is that it is based on a private provider, laissez-faire model and that central government has failed over decades to take any responsibility for childcare provision on a universal basis.

In the dim and distant past of January when we were facing into the general election in a very different climate, the Labour Party manifesto called for a move to a universal public childcare system. We recognised that there are 300,000 children of preschool age in this country, two thirds of whom, prior to the pandemic, were in some form of childcare, though it was all largely done on an ad hoc basis. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, who sought to introduce a more streamlined system. From talking to experts in the area and front-line providers, and as a parent and former user of childcare services, the problem remains that we do not have joined-up thinking across the Government and we do not have the sort of investment we need to change the model of childcare. I raised queries with the new Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, about cost of childcare, deposits, and crèche closures and his response was that services are requested to avoid charging or increasing fees and deposits. There is no sense of the Government taking responsibility for the provision of childcare, which we need to ensure that parents can get back to work properly and that children have access to the services they need.

Staff in the sector should also be adequately paid and have decent conditions. SIPTU recently produced research based on a survey of childcare workers showing just how precarious and low-paid the sector is for those who work within it. I am conscious that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has announced funding, which it claims totals about €300 million, for the various measures being put in place to support childcare providers in reopening, but that is simply not good enough. I recognise that providers are struggling and are doing their best to ensure there is a service available for parents, but parents, staff in the sector and, most important, children are being let down by the failure to emphasise childcare and to review and revise this area radically. I will continue to press that point.

I will raise a number of other points on this Bill, though I am aware we will be addressing them more on Committee Stage and we have tabled some amendments on these matters. A specific issue has been raised with us regarding section 2, which amends Part 7 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020. A new subsection, 28B, is provided for in respect of the new EWSS. A number of directors of small arts companies have raised concerns with me as they had been eligible under the TWSS but the new provision will exclude proprietary directors. This is going to be a major change and will have a serious impact on individuals. Can this issue be addressed?

Section 9 increases the subsidy for bicycles. As a lifelong cyclist on the cycle to work scheme, which I support, I have been pressing for many years for a bike to school scheme with similar subsidies for children. We need to ensure that children have access to bikes and are encouraged to cycle. It should be a big part of a radical review of the way in which we run public services and our society. That is a missed opportunity in this Bill. We welcome the stimulus but it does not go far enough.