Tánaiste questions number of construction workers on pandemic payment

Leo Varadkar says need to ‘dig down’ into figures when so many building sites open

Leo Varadkar is Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and his department will take over Employment Affairs, which had been part of the Social Protection portfolio. Photograph: Damien Eagers/PA Wire

Leo Varadkar is Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and his department will take over Employment Affairs, which had been part of the Social Protection portfolio. Photograph: Damien Eagers/PA Wire

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has questioned the large numbers in the construction industry still getting the pandemic unemployment payment, despite the increased level of building activity.

He said there is something “not right” about the numbers in the sector in receipt of the payment.

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil that construction activity had been back for six weeks and “we are told that 80 per cent of sites are now open”. But he said “there are still 45,000 construction workers in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment.

“There is something not right there. I do not know what it is, but we need to dig down into that and get people back on site.”

Mr Varadkar is Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and his department will take over Employment Affairs, which had been part of the Social Protection portfolio.

He was responding to Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan who called for supports to get those on low incomes back to work and to assist labour intensive work “particularly in the building industry, rather than what we tended to do in past recessions, which was to focus on large-scale investment projects”.

They were speaking during a debate on revised Estimates for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

Mr Varadkar pledged that the July stimulus package the Government is preparing will be “radical and far reaching” and of a scale to meet the challenge facing businesses and the economy.

He also said the Government would decide “in the next couple of days” whether to appeal the High Court judgment that legislation making a sectoral employment order in the electrical industry was unconstitutional.

Mr Varadkar opened the debate on the revised Estimates for his department which is seeking authorisation for an additional €483 million in funding to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Later today the Government will also seek approval for the authorisation of almost €2 billion in additional funding for the Department of Health, bringing expenditure to over €20 billion.

The Tánaiste said there was “no time to waste”, more needed to be done and it would be outlined in the July stimulus programme. He also said there would be additional measures when the economic recovery plan is launched in October.

Mr Varadkar also referred to Budget 2020 which he said “recognised the potentially disastrous effects of a No Deal Brexit” through provision of a contingency fund in such an event.

He warned that the “possibility of no agreement cannot be ruled out” and the contingency fund “may well be required and will have to be given further consideration in the months ahead”.

The revised funding for the department will bring total expenditure from €970.9 million in the original estimate to over €1.4 billion, including €1.115 billion in capital funding.

Sinn Féin spokeswoman Imelda Munster said her party would support the Estimates but she believed there was “no sense of urgency” from Government to deal with the need for adequate grant aid and interest-free easily applied for loans for those not in a in a position to borrow.

Fianna Fail’s Niall Collins said the temporary wage subsidy scheme should be tapered off over time and “not just come to a shuddering end”. He said the “warehousing of tax liabilities” would have to be made available to the business sector.

Labour’s Ged Nash criticised the 5 per cent and 6 per cent interest rates on loans that the Government was packaging as “supports” when what they urgently needed were grants and loans at near zero interest rates.

“This strategy is akin to handing a drowning person an anchor instead of a lifebuoy. They will simply sink,” he said.