Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 April 2020

2:55 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

National solidarity has been key to our response to this crisis. Leadership, empathy and communication of the decision-making process on foot of public health expert advice has won public favour, understanding and appreciation. The curve is being flattened and, no doubt, many lives have been saved, despite our losses. I join others in commiserating with the families of all those who have died in recent weeks as a result of this crisis and beyond, as Deputy Michael McGrath has said. We have a duty to play our part in keeping this strong sense of common purpose, which requires trust in our political system and leadership. As we see the curve flattening, we also see the catastrophic impact on the economy, the public finances and jobs. Of course, this puts great pressure on that trust. It would appear, by my reckoning, that we are unfortunately reaching the legal limits associated with this Government's ability to respond to the crisis. In that vein, I ask the following questions in regard to public expenditure.

Under the Central Fund Act 1965, the Government is committed to spending four fifths or 80% of what was authorised in the Appropriation Act of the previous year before the Estimates are brought to and approved by Dáil Éireann. Some €54.6 billion was authorised in the Appropriation Act 2019 for 2019 expenditure. At a macro level, this would mean the Government has some €43.6 billion to spend before it needs to bring forward Estimates for 2020 to the Dáil for ratification. According to responses received from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will hit the 80% limit in June and, so, will be unauthorised to make further expenditures until an Estimate is voted on and passed by the Dáil. That being the case, has the Government sought and received legal advice, for example, as to whether Estimates can be brought to the Dáil under the current arrangements? We do not want a situation where Departments need to make adjustments to their individual budgets to prevent the Vote from reaching an 80% allocation.

On another issue, it is unclear when the pandemic unemployment payment expires. If it expires in May, as seems to be suggested in the health Act that was signed some weeks ago, then the Minister would, no doubt, need to sign an order to extend it. This needs to be clarified. When in law does an order need to be signed to extend the pandemic unemployment payment?

Further, under the provisions of that Act, that order needs to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. It needs to be clarified then when this will take place. Moreover, it needs to be clarified whether it is possible to lay an order before the Seanad even though the Seanad is not constituted fully. My understanding is that the order must be put before both Houses of the Oireachtas and that each of the Houses has 21 sitting days to annul the order if each House so wishes. In terms of the key questions, when after the order is made must the order be laid before both Houses? Can such an order be laid before the Seanad if the Seanad is at that point in time not fully constituted as is currently the case?

In regard to capital expenditure, most if not all major capital projects have been halted during the course of the lockdown. Has a plan been put in place to get these projects up and running? What happens if deadlines are missed and the contractor incurs additional associated costs? I am thinking specifically of the children's hospital but also of many other projects. How do the relevant contracts deal with that? Will we have to spend yet more money on the children's hospital because of delays caused by the breakdown?

Those are pivotal questions that need to be answered in the context of the Government's legislative programme, or lack of it. It may have those tools in the recent Act but the Minister needs to clarify that to ensure that we can move on.


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