Thursday, 19 March 2020
An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage
Gary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
It is important to recognise that this crisis will impact, first and foremost, those who have been made vulnerable by our system. Such people include those who are already sick, those without a safe home or any home at all and those who are in direct provision or overcrowded Traveller accommodation. People working in hospitals, providing essential care and cleaning services will be among the first affected, as will those who are trying to protect and provide for their families in situations of economic precariousness and insecurity, particularly one-parent families.
In his address to the nation on St. Patrick's Day, the Taoiseach spoke of the need for some groups of people to cocoon, a sentiment with which I could not agree more. The role of our welfare state and social protection system must be to wrap its arms around people when they are at their most vulnerable and protect them from the threats and ravages of homelessness, joblessness and ill health. The Taoiseach, in his speech, quoted from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and I will be so bold as to quote another former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, when I say that, "Power has only one duty - to ensure the social welfare of the people." This global pandemic has made it abundantly clear that things that we used to treasure, such as full employment, which has been spoken of many times in this Chamber, can be taken away overnight. What remains is scarcely enough to see our population through. We do not have a national health service based on need, collective bargaining legislation to protect our workers, or security of tenure for our overstretched renters. That is now glaringly obvious and we must ensure that our social welfare system steps up.
We have remarkable people in this country, the ordinary, everyday people of Ireland. Those are the same people who, yesterday, volunteered to help the health service in its time of need. Those people are our greatest asset and we must protect and cocoon them, at all costs.
It is estimated that up to 340,000 people will have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. These are our retail and hospitality workers, artists, childcare professionals and street traders. Losing a job has a crippling and terrifying impact on any family and doubly so in one-parent families. Our social welfare responses must put vulnerable groups at the centre of our planning. Our social welfare communications must be clear and in plain English so that worried families can clearly understand their entitlements.
Students in Trinity College have lost their homes and there are many more people throughout this country who fear experiencing the same situation. Families around Ireland are facing up to not seeing each other for weeks. At least two families have lost loved ones and many more families are fighting the virus.
Our society has adapted to social distancing without a blink of an eye. In spite of previous differences, political or otherwise, we have all pulled together and that is the only way we have come through this. That we are in this together is more than a cliché or touching expression. It means, in policy terms, ensuring that workers who have lost their jobs have an adequate standard of living. It is positive that this legislation will give effect to special welfare payments and advanced income supports for those who cannot work as a result of Covid-19, and that this also includes self-employed people. It is positive to see the removal of the waiting period for payment of jobseeker's benefit and allowance in these circumstances.
We must ensure that all financial barriers to self-isolation are removed and that people can put their health, and that of us all, first. We must ensure that there is a positive duty on the State to provide for those confined to isolation, to provide proper accommodation, access to support and food, to protect the environment where possible and to support care and responsibility for people, where necessary.
These laws are necessarily control and sanction-focused. Yet, we must balance this with clarity regarding what the State will provide. As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has highlighted, it is crucial that detention provisions contained in the legislation are time-limited or that they include a sunset clause stipulating that once the emergency is over they can no longer be used to interfere with rights.
When we look to our closest neighbours in the United Kingdom and across the Atlantic to the United States, it is clear that the response of our Government has been calm, appropriate, prompt and with best scientific practice at its heart. However, it is also abundantly clear that the Government must now follow up this with a ban on evictions. This has happened in the United Kingdom, France and the United States. There is no reason it cannot happen here. Property rights in our Constitution are balanced with the common good. There can be no good more common than protecting against homelessness. It is more than140 years since Anna and Charles Parnell, Michael Davitt and the Land League. Are tenants still going to have security of tenure? To ensure immediate relief for renters the rent supplement is the most appropriate mechanism administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The process will have to be simplified along the lines of the jobseekers application and caps should be removed from the housing assistance payment and the rent supplement schemes.
Our healthcare staff have been inundated with praise during recent weeks, and deservedly so. They are on the frontline in the fight against this virus. We must ensure that when this is over we fight with them and for them for better pay and conditions, just as they now fight with and for us. Some 24,000 healthcare professionals have answered the HSE call. Our country owes them a debt of gratitude that we may never be able to repay.
I wish to take this opportunity to add my endless thanks to the cleaners working on the frontline; the drivers keeping our supply chains open; those retail workers ensuring our shelves are stacked with food; our journalists and broadcasters, who are ensuring we have timely access to factual information; our gardaí and firefighters; those parents entertaining their children; schools and creches; and the families for whom this is a terrifying time for both health and financial reasons.
In extending my thanks I will go more broadly and acknowledge that Betty Williams, peace activist and Nobel laureate, died on Tuesday. I wish to record the deep thanks of the people of Ireland for her work and example. I am mindful that Ms Williams cautioned that governments do not have the answers. Indeed it is the reverse: often not only do they not have the answers but they represent the problem. Let us show in our actions in this House that we have the solutions. Let it be said that this time our politicians stood up and ensured our response placed our people - our most precious and powerful resource - at the centre of the Covid-19 response.