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COVID-19 recovery funds must help the weakest, state bishops and justice group

By Ann Marie Foley - 27 July, 2020

European bishops have welcomed the solidarity shown by EU leaders in agreeing the COVID-19 recovery fund, but have said they hope that it will help the weakest.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, stated that the agreement reached by EU leaders on 21 July for a €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund was “a solution which expresses solidarity inside the European Union”.

Cardinal Hollerich continued that he hopes “the recovery fund will help the weakest economies, the economies most touched by the pandemic to grow, and to be there for people, for the real people who constitute the European Union, so that also the next generation can live in peace and in certain prosperity.”

Bishop Noel Treanor, bishop of Down and Connor and vice president of COMECE, also welcomed the outcome of the prolonged negotiations for the fund at the meeting of the European Council.

COMECE, which includes bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the 27 member states of the European Union, is based in Brussels and monitors the political processes of the European Union and the legal developments in all areas of interest to the Catholic Church.

Separately in Ireland, the new Government launched its own July Jobs Stimulus package worth €7 billion, of which €2 billion is in loans. Social Justice Ireland (SJI) stated that this has welcome elements which have the potential to support businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises, to absorb the economic impact of COVID-19.

“It remains to be seen if the package is of the scale required to begin the process of real economic recovery for the many businesses impacted, to alleviate the financial hardship of households on reduced incomes and to secure medium-to-long-term societal wellbeing,” stated SJI.

The justice group added that monitoring is required to ensure key outcomes are achieved.

SJI stated that the plan for helping businesses to retain and create jobs is positive in extending the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (now to be called Employment Wage Support Scheme) and the extension of, and increase in, payment of the Restart Grant for Enterprises. However, it cautioned that the reduced rate for the Employment Wage Support Scheme of €203 per week will not cover the decreases in employment income.

The plan for supporting people without jobs, especially young people, has a lot of positives according to SJI, including the extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment until April 2021. However, the payment is to be reduced to take into account previous incomes and to bring it into line with existing social welfare payments. This will create a ‘three-tier’ social welfare system, according to SJI, which is urging the Government to reform the social welfare system and index it to a ‘minimum essential budget standard’.

SJI welcomed additional training places and funding for training, but stated that higher education facilities face a huge funding crisis and the less well-off will suffer as a result of this.

While initiatives like giving money back to those who holiday in Ireland seem positive, SJI said they give nothing to those who cannot afford a holiday anyhow.

Other initiatives include tax reliefs, reduction in VAT, as well as a fund to return vacant local authority housing to use. However, SJI suggested the fund does not allow for small-scale projects such as the conversion of over-the-shop units and local projects which would provide jobs in the community.

Other investments are planned by the Government in areas such as schools, travel, public transport and infrastructure as well as renewable energy and other ‘just transition’ projects; however, SJI questioned whether such investments will help counter educational and other disadvantages.

SJI also pointed out that the Government’s stimulus plan fails to address three vital issues – childcare, regional balance and protection of the environment. Addressing each of these issues would involve creating more jobs and allowing more people back to work.

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