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
Mattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for convening the House today. I thank the staff and members of the Business Committee. I also thank the Minister for Health who is present and the Tánaiste. I thank the Taoiseach for the briefings given to us in recent weeks.
We are in uncharted waters and the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 tries to reflect some of that. Where would we be only for our volunteers and the magnificent people in the front line of our health services, our doctors and nurses? I have previously called them angels of mercy. Indeed, the same applies to An Garda Síochána, the Civil Defence, the Red Cross and all the volunteer organisations that have stepped up to the plate overwhelmingly in the past ten days.
Ní neart go cur le chéile. Meitheal is a great Irish word in the sense of gathering and supporting each other. People are proving that sense of meitheal and helping each other, ag cabhrú le gach duine. The young and old from the cradle to the grave are being cared for and looked after.
We have had time to learn from other countries. Thankfully we had that 14-day run-in period where some of them made mistakes. The man who never made a mistake never made anything. We are able to learn from many of the mistakes they made. Obviously, there are worries for our nearest neighbours in Britain and Northern Ireland. We also have to deal with that. I know it is a political situation and it is difficult.
I salute all the people on the front line. I plead with the public. I thank the Taoiseach for his address on the night of Lá Fhéile Phadraig. He hit the right note and struck a chord in asking the people to take this very seriously because it is a serious and unprecedented situation. If we do the right things and adhere to the requests, we may not need this legislation, which is being introduced as an issue of last resort. If it is needed, it will have to be implemented.
I have faith in the Irish people. They are a resilient race. They have fought off recessions, and Irish people, many of them religious, have gone throughout the world, championing the causes of Third World countries, often after outbreaks of war, genocide and goodness knows what. Now many of them want to return and are returning. I salute the 24,000 people who have offered to return to the HSE in different capacities. I also salute the people who have retired and people who should be looking after their families but have decided to give their time. I also thank the people who are offering to look after the childcare needs of some of the front-line workers, which is very important. Divided we fall and together we will succeed. Ní neart go cur le chéile, as I said.
This legislation provides for changes to remove the waiting period for jobseeker's payments and benefit for self-employed people. These are vital because we must look after the workforce to ensure they have a meagre amount to keep food on the table, to keep their bills paid and to keep the ship afloat.
As I said earlier, I thank the former Deputy, the Minister, Ms Regina Doherty, for the measures she has taken. Some areas need further clarification. It is expected that employers, where they can, will make the €203 payment initially and will get it back. On the way up here this morning, I listened to a very good question and answer session on Seán O'Rourke's radio programme. A lady from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was very good. If somebody wants to top up that it will disbar the person from getting the allowance.
Most employers treat their workers well and I hope the workers always reciprocate. That is how we go forward in this country and why we have such a thriving country in many ways. Where employers cannot pay the €203 but they get the €203 from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, an employer who acts out of generosity of spirit should not be penalised for giving some top-up in order to give assistance.
These changes involve significant Exchequer costs. We were briefed on that the Monday before last and all of us, groups and parties, adhered to and accepted it.
In addition to powers in respect of Covid-19 - this is a very important part of this legislation - the medical officers will have the powers of direction, not An Garda Síochána. They will be assisted by An Garda Síochána, of course, but reasonable actions must be taken in that regard. Those medical officers are suitably qualified and I know they will take those actions. We hope the necessity will not arise but we must have a sunset clause and recourse to appeals, and if these measures are to be extended the Dáil will have to sit again. I understand the logistical difficulties and so on, and we discussed them this morning at our Business Committee with the Ceann Comhairle, but we must have proper recognition of our Constitution and proper sittings of the House to make those changes.
The Bill deals with many areas, and 86 amendments have been tabled. I hope some will be accepted. Some will not, obviously.
We are all in this together. I speak on behalf of the rural Independents. I speak as a Teachta Dála ar son na ndaoine of Tiobraid Árann and I am privileged to have that role. Tipperary people will not be found wanting. The adage still stands: where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows. We have never been found wanting. We will be constructive in our support but we will have to raise issues of abuse of powers if they arise. I do not expect they will. I will send out one message to people who do not want to conform: the new section 38A, I think, refers to people who must be directed to restricted areas. People should obey this. If they do not, they will have to be instructed to do so. That is why the law is necessary. We must show the proper respect to our healthcare workers, who are on the front line, by not engaging in the kind of high jinks we saw in Temple Bar and many institutions up and down the country, including in my county. I challenge the people, including Teachtaí Dála, who were in Cheltenham to self-isolate and not come into this House. That was pretty reckless. The horsing industry might be all-powerful but it must be asked to respect this as well. This is too serious an issue, and we cannot have any protected species in this.
I want to see a moratorium on the courts. I want to see the mortgage lenders brought in as well as the banks. It is lovely to have the top five banks brought in, but we need the mortgage lenders brought in as well. We need people who are paying mortgages to be protected. We also need the 250 vulture funds, which are unwelcome in this country, unlike what the former Deputy, Michael Noonan, once said, to be stood down and stood up and to have a halt put to their gallop during this crisis - at all times, for that matter, but during this crisis especially. We need the courts, where repossessions are going on, to be temporarily stopped and stood down as well. We need to ensure that moneylenders do not become supreme. We must thank the community welfare officers, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other organisations we have been in touch with who have tried to help. We must deal with the insurance companies. We have failed over the past 20 years to put any manners on them. They are making huge profits. They are refusing cover at present. They say a pandemic is not one of the listed items. Did you ever here the like of it? A pandemic is being ruled out as a reason not for trying to get rich from insurance companies but for trying to make a claim to support one's family or business in order that we will have businesses to take up the slack when this passes. It will pass with the help of our front-line workers, the Garda Síochána, all the agencies of the State and the people supporting them. A nation cannot support any police force without its people. This time our nation and our public services cannot support us without the support of every man, woman and child obeying the requests and doing what we can to help one another and slow down this outbreak. I thank the clergy as well for the work they are doing at this time trying to administer to sick people and in these sad times officiating at funerals and so on.
This legislation is necessary, and we in the rural Independents will support it. However, we will be quick enough to respond if there are issues of overreach, and we need to come back to this House whenever this must be extended to vote it through again.