Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Gnó na Dála - Business of Dáil
I wish to raise a matter under Standing Orders before we commence Leaders' Questions. I did not get a chance to discuss it with the Ceann Comhairle in advance. I seek the agreement of the House to an adjournment of at least an hour to allow Members an opportunity to consider documentation pertaining to a topical issue of the gravest concern which was announced yesterday by the Government. I refer to the national broadband plan. The Government indicated that Members would be provided with the documentation by 8 o'clock this morning, but it was basically dumped on us at 1.55 p.m. RTÉ must have received the information in advance as it conducted an interview on the matter with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. The documentation is of the most grave and serious kind and relates to correspondence from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding the national broadband plan and the unprecedented risks to the State, in the words of the Secretary General of that Department. That letter and another substantive document were provided to us at 1.55 p.m. It is clear that the leaders of each of the parties and groups in the House wished to ask questions on the broadband issue. It seems to me that the Dáil is being treated very shabbily. Members were promised some time ago that we would be given the advice of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. No one expected this type of approach, involving a big announcement yesterday by the Government with access to the airwaves and so on and the media being given various links, etc. We understood that we would be provided the documentation at 8 a.m. today to allow us time to consider it and be in a position to ask the most up-to-date and informed questions of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Bruton, regarding the national broadband plan. Under Standing Orders, I am seeking the adjournment of the House to enable us to get to grips with this documentation and be able to ask fully informed questions.
It is obviously a matter for the House to decide. Fianna Fáil and another party sought a debate on this very important matter and, by agreement, in excess of two hours was set aside for it tomorrow.
We made a promise in the House that we would do things differently after the debacle of the national children's hospital. A Government decision to award the biggest public sector contract in history was approved by the Cabinet. It was promised that the grounding documentation would be published at 8 a.m. today, which is bad enough given that it was after the opinion editorial from the Taoiseach and all the spin had been done. Then it was promised to be published at 9 a.m. and then at midday. It was finally published online at 1.55 p.m., with Leaders' Questions to take place in the House at 2 p.m. That is not a good enough way of dealing with these matters, particularly when some of the documentation questions the economic sense of this. We must be able to read that documentation before having Leaders' Questions or any other type of questions in the House, so there is strong merit in affording us the chance to read the 24 documents that were published five minutes before the House sat.
This is a cynical way for the Government to do its business. I do not know what, if any, explanation there is for publication of these documents five minutes before Leaders' Questions. I am also not sure where the Taoiseach is. As the Head of the Government the Taoiseach is the person to whom questions should be put and who should give the answers on behalf of the Government. I support the proposal that we adjourn. We must read this documentation so we can put questions in an informed manner.
On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I agree with the sentiments expressed by the other party leaders. This is nothing short of an election gimmick, a rush because of the Taoiseach putting his two feet into other issues. The Government wants to get this out so it can sell its candidates throughout the country. The public is aware of what is happening and will not be fooled anymore. Rural people deserve proper broadband but they are not getting it and they will not get it with this plan. The Government has been putting it off hour by hour to hide the deceit. There must be a special debate on it in the House and the Taoiseach, as well as the Minister, must be present to answer the questions.
I agree with the points made. Often we end up with an announcement of something that has already happened and we take a retrospective look at it. We have an obligation to inform ourselves in advance on this occasion. I too believe it is a cynical move to dump this information at this point in the day when it is known that Leaders' Questions are due to take place. The timing of the announcement has also been quite cynical.
We received a briefing in the Sycamore Room for an hour and a half or so from noon today. One of the key things we learned is that contracts for this will not be signed for months. That calls the timing into question. It is all last minute and election orientated. That is not appropriate in a Dáil which has seen cost overruns become a big issue. That type of process is not good enough.
I am completely at the disposal of the House. The position is that we took a decision yesterday. We have sought to provide all the documentation, which is substantial and required significant redaction to ensure it was fit for publication. Leaders' Questions is an event that takes place every day in the House. The Taoiseach is not here today to take those questions because of international commitments. I have indicated to the Oireachtas committee that I am willing to attend and I have indicated to the House that I am open to a debate and-or questions. I am available to answer questions in the House at any stage. The Taoiseach will always be here to answer questions, as he is every week throughout the year.
There is nothing underhand about this. After considerable consideration and after the House rightly asking when this decision will be made, we have made a decision to appoint a preferred bidder.
We are now moving to a stage of entering into firm contracts and that will take some time. However, I have always indicated that I would be as open as possible when we had made this decision and that we would make the information available.
I am happy to take questions at any stage the House indicates but as I understood it, this slot was Leaders' Questions. I was asked and am happy to take Leaders' Questions in the same way as I am happy to take questions at any stage that the Ceann Comhairle assigns through the-----
The Government must have known that we would be asking questions about the national broadband plan during Leaders' Questions. That is a fairly reasonable expectation. Heretofore, we had been advised that we would get all the advices from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It was made clear some time ago that a full and transparent approach would be adopted with Dáil Éireann regarding this plan. At 1.55 p.m., five minutes before we were about to take Leaders' Questions, very serious documentation was published. This is not any ordinary documentation. It is correspondence from the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that talks about an unprecedented risk to the State. It raises very serious questions about the level of risk that the preferred bidder is to take up and significant language is used in the letter from that Secretary General in that regard. I understand the operator has projected a rate of return that seems very high, given the risk profile and so on. A further document was published at 1.55 p.m. containing a substantial number of pages. It is essentially a memorandum from one Department to the other. There is a long section on risk that I have not had a chance to read.
I presume that nobody has had a chance to read it. All I am suggesting is a suspension for an hour and a half in order that people can read it because we are entitled to-----
Sorry, 3.30 p.m., whereupon we would resume with Leaders' Questions. The remaining business would have to be abbreviated arising out of this because I presume that Members do not want to be here until the early hours of the morning. I do not know whether it is in order but we will hear from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.
Of course, it is important that we discuss this issue but we also have Report Stage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018 later this evening. The time was extended to 9 p.m. to facilitate the passing of that Bill. If we are to suspend, we must extend the sitting of the House as well to take Report Stage of the Bill.
If we are to deal with this officially, we must have a formal motion put to the House that stipulates the period of the suspension. Then it is a matter for the House to decide whether or not to suspend. Is Deputy Micheál Martin making a proposal?
At the end of an hour and a half, we will come back to Leaders' Questions. If we turn around the process, are we in a position do that? Are Members agreeable? Agreed. I thank them for their co-operation. It is quite unusual.
I understand that there is a further Government proposal in respect of the taking of business given the request to accommodate the legislation on housing and the broadband debate.