Wednesday, 27 May 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I remind Members that it was agreed in the House last week that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report from the Business Committee shall not be read out but should be taken as read. Accordingly, I will proceed to put the two proposals relating to this week's business. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to?
That is today. It is to be taken after the Taoiseach's questions. There is a fundamental problem here because there is a flaw in this process. These Revised Estimates have not yet been published. We, as a party, have sought a detailed briefing on them; we have not got one. If we hold off passing this motion until 2 o'clock, it will delay the publication of the Revised Estimates even more. This is a very unusual circumstance. We have a caretaker Government and an unelected Minister. We have Estimates being presented which, based on the figures we have seen, suggest that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the wage subsidy scheme will end in June. That is outrageous if that is the proposition that is being put or if it is the case that the Estimates are going to be out of date even before we debate them. This is ludicrous. We cannot support the Order of Business unless we get a guarantee from Government that the Estimates will be published today as soon as possible and that there is a clear verbal briefing for the Opposition. We have sought it in writing and have been told that it is not forthcoming. That is unacceptable. We will oppose the Order of Business if we do not get that commitment from Government.
I concur with that point, but I want to raise another issue. The sessions we are having this week, and indeed every week, were established on the basis that we could ask questions of Ministers and get accountability during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week in the Dáil, I was given a commitment by the CMO that they would publish the minutes of the expert advisory group to NPHET.
No, hold on, a Cheann Comhairle. I am pointing out that the procedures and the mechanisms for accountability set up by the Business Committee, where I first sought the publication of the minutes of the expert advisory group on 16 March-----
At this point the Dáil and the Business Committee are being treated with contempt by the refusal to publish the minutes of the expert advisory group; the people who are supposed to be advising NPHET on the public health response.
I also take issue with the Estimates not being published. We need to see those. There are too many issues around the Covid payments. We know that they were rushed in and every effort was made but there are too many anomalies. Let us face it, people have been overpaid and now we will run out of money to pay the real people who need it. We need to see the Estimates and the spokespersons of the groups in the Oireachtas need to get a decent and full briefing by the Minister. I also have issues about tomorrow's business but that is another matter.
I wish to say something on the briefing as silence is consent. I am of the same opinion that we require a commitment that there will be a full briefing. This is a huge sum and we must be fully apprised of it, and in good time, before people can debate the issue.
We will allow the Taoiseach to answer. Will it be possible to give a guarantee to the Opposition Members that they will have a detailed briefing on the Estimates? Is that to be prior to the proposal being moved?
While I am open to correction, I understand that this technical motion allowing for publication of the Estimate, which is to be taken without debate, will not be taken until after questions to the Taoiseach. I propose that we take it now, in order that we can allow the Estimate to be published with a proviso from the Taoiseach guaranteeing that there will be sufficient oral briefing for Opposition spokespeople, given the importance of this.
For clarity, this is an Estimate which is being presented to the House on a no-policy-change basis. If any changes are to be made to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in future, the Government has not made that decision. Like many Estimates in the past, this allows the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to continue to pay all social welfare payments - pensions, disability, carers, one-parent family, PUP, all of it - beyond 8 June when the Department will reach 80% of its funding ceiling. If this is not passed, it will not be possible for the Department to continue to pay any social welfare or pension payment from 8 June. It is done on a no-policy-change basis; all we are asking the House is for authorisation to keep paying those payments.
I am sure that can be arranged but it literally is that simple. Nobody is being asked to vote for any legislation or change to the pandemic unemployment payment. No decision has been made on that by Government. This is an Estimates motion to allow the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to continue to pay pensions and other welfare payments from 8 June because if it is not passed, the Department will meet its 80% ceiling and cannot pay any payments. In normal times, and I appreciate these are not normal times, this is the kind of thing that would be passed by the House after a committee hearing of an hour or an hour and a half, probably with very limited debate and no vote on it.
I fully appreciate that Deputies will want to raise and discuss other issues but the only question being asked of the House is to pass this Estimate in order that all social welfare payments can continue to be paid from 8 June on a no-policy-change basis.
No, it is not. If I could just make the fundamental point that the Taoiseach missed; he conceded that these Estimates are on a no-change basis. If that is the case, then the two most fundamental payments that are on the minds of people who lost their jobs, namely, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the wage subsidy scheme, are to end in June.
I am happy to clarify that, a Cheann Comhairle. As I have already said in this House, a week ago, if not two weeks ago, it is the intention of the Government to extend the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the wage subsidy scheme but that is a separate issue. A Cabinet decision has not been made on that yet. That will have to be done, probably some time next week. All we are asking the House to do tomorrow is to vote on a social welfare Estimate to allow us to continue to pay existing social welfare payments and pensions from 8 June. Because of the massive rise in unemployment, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is running out of money and we need an Estimate passed in order that it can make those payments on 8 June.
I wish to take the Taoiseach up very briefly on the comment he has just made. I believe it is bizarre that we would consider an Estimate on Thursday which has implications for the rest of the year and yet Members are not to be provided with information as to the implications of that until there is a Cabinet decision next week. It was my understanding that we would have some clarity on both the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme in advance of considering the Estimate here on Thursday. The Taoiseach is now telling us that that is not the case and I think it makes a farce of what we are to consider on Thursday.
The Minister, Ms Doherty, is not here but I am sure she would be happy to provide a briefing to Opposition Members later on today. That is not a problem but I wish to clarify that it is the intention of the Government to extend the pandemic unemployment payment beyond 8 June and the wage subsidy scheme as well. The Government has yet to make a decision on to when they are extended but that is not what the Estimate Vote is about; it is about allowing the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to continue to pay all existing pension and welfare payments after 8 June, because the money runs out then.
I do not want to labour the point. We all understand that. We all want to ensure that all payments are continued, as in the normal course of events, but this will probably be a huge overrun or demand. We all understand that but we need to have accountability. We need the Minister to provide a proper briefing in order that we know exactly where we are going. We are very much putting the cart before the horse. That is not fair or right. I do not think the Taoiseach understands where we are coming from on this issue. We do not want to delay the Estimate and we do not want to deny anybody payments but we want to see where we are going and to cut our cloth according to our measure. We must understand what we are doing.
It would be helpful if the Taoiseach was able to give us a guarantee that there will be a verbal briefing today. I am sure he appreciates that this is an important part of our work here in the Dáil. We all accept that we are in unprecedented times. We have a Minister who is not elected. We have a caretaker Government. We have our job to do. A briefing needs to take place.
Following on from Deputy Naughten's point, which I also made, it is ludicrous that a decision has not been made on those other payments. We are being asked to vote on a Revised Estimate when hundreds of thousands of workers are concerned about what will happen. The Taoiseach has said there may be changes and there may be an extension to the payments.
A Cabinet decision should have been made prior to the preparation of the Revised Estimates. The Government then could have come before the Dáil and we could have had the debate on what the changes would be. Instead, that is hanging over the heads of all of those workers who need certainty at this time. That is deeply unfortunate. This motion should be taken with the proviso that we will get a briefing.
He has not done so far. My point concerns the procedures and the schedule for this week. This schedule is a sham. Commitments to transparency relating to issues such as the expert advisory group to the NPHET are made in the House and then they are just ignored.
The point of this place is basic transparency and accountability. If I ask for the minutes of the expert advisory group for two months, am promised them time and time again and never get them, something is wrong. I want the Taoiseach to tell the Minister for Health to publish the minutes of the expert advisory group. We need to know what the experts told NPHET.
The decision tomorrow will be to give the permission of the House in relation to the Revised Estimates. There is scope to make subsequent changes. We need to properly understand that in advance of tomorrow's debate. That is why there must be an absolute commitment to a briefing. None of us wants to hold this business up. We all understand its importance. None of us sees this as normal. We are dealing with a very abnormal situation.
I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett. I will pass on his concerns to the Minister for Health and ask him to fulfil that commitment if it was made. I did not make that commitment, nor did I hear it, so it is difficult for me to comment on it.
I will follow up on it.
I really hope that nobody in the House is trying to sow concern or worry among people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. People who are in receipt of the payment will continue to get it beyond 8 June. I can give that assurance to the House. The economy is only now slowly opening up. The payment will have to be extended. Nobody needs to worry. As Members know, the pandemic unemployment payment expires if a recipient is offered his or her job back, but with that proviso. Anyone who has not been offered his or her job back will continue to receive the payment beyond June. This Government or the new Government will have to make a decision as to how long that will be extended. We will also have to deal with some of the anomalies of which people are already aware. A certain number of part-time workers are now receiving more in the pandemic unemployment payment every week than they did in January and February, before the pandemic happened.
None of those decisions has to be made now. They may well be decisions for the next Government and may require a further Revised Estimate in the future. Over the course of the next week or two we will need Revised Estimates for a lot of Departments, but they will be brought to the House on a no policy change basis because as much as possible we want any new policy decisions to be made by the next Government, but sometimes we do not have any choice. As the various parties that claim to want to form a Government have failed to do so, we have to continue in our capacity as the Government and make decisions as necessary. As much as possible, however, we will leave the big policy decisions to the next Government, whenever it forms.
I am happy to commit to asking the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to give Members a briefing, but she is not here and I am here for the next two hours. After I leave this House in two hours I will ask her if she is available for a briefing. If she is, Members will get one. I have no reason to think she is not available, but I do not know that with absolute certainty.
No. We had a long discussion about this at the Business Committee. Obviously we had to make a decision, but I am not satisfied that we cannot have the Minister here tomorrow for two hours with a break of 40 minutes. Like everybody else, I want to see convincing evidence of scientific and medical advice. Maybe I picked it up wrongly from the Whip, but my understanding at the meeting was that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, had no problem with appearing, but the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health would not allow two hours. We had this issue last week with the Minister.
We expect workers throughout the country to work on building sites and everywhere else that, thankfully, we have opened, although we need to open more of them. We have a different rule for the House, in spite of the size of the Chamber and the distancing between the seats. I appreciate the efforts of staff and everybody else, as well as those on the front line, but this has gone on too long. We need to see the evidence, not just hear it, so that we can understand and appreciate it. There is a great deal of conflicting evidence in respect of the rules being imposed.
I saw Deputy Kelly smiling a moment ago because he has been looking for the minutes for months, but it is like pulling teeth. One cannot get a dentist's appointment and one cannot get the minutes, which is strange. I object to the proposal for dealing with tomorrow's business.
I do not wish to labour this point but there are two issues. The first relates to how we conduct our business based on the guidelines. I know the advice is that every workplace is different but look at the size of this place. This is ridiculous. I raised these concerns last week with the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle, and I wrote to the Taoiseach, although I have not yet got a response. I want to raise a broader issue-----
Yes, I did and I will reply to it, which I know the Ceann Comhairle will look forward to. We have certain conditions in the Chamber that we do not expect workers or employers throughout Ireland to mirror.
The Labour Party and I have a deep concern about whether a dangerous precedent is being created. Within these conditions, we could be working like this for a considerable period, and the likelihood is that we will be. The precedent set last week by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, will now be pushed on this week, although admittedly in a slight variation, which I respect. Is a dangerous precedent being set? If or when a Government is formed, how will the Oireachtas honour the Constitution and ensure Ministers are held to account working in those conditions, given that it may be unworkable? We need to tread very carefully here.
I refer in particular to the last part, in which the professor reminded us he had always understood that it was we who set the rules for him, rather than he setting the rules for us, but the correspondence was striking. It stated there was no public health advice anywhere that suggested a two-hour limit for meetings but rather that it was an issue of contact tracing, which the professor then described as a rule of thumb that public health officials had put together. I respectfully suggest there are issues with that and I think Deputy Kelly is correct that we should examine how we look at it in the future. I am aware of one parliament in Europe where 180 MPs turned up for a roll call today. While I do not suggest we do that, we need to look at how we will work this out into the future. I have my concerns about meeting in the Convention Centre and the costs of that. We have to rethink how we set about this. Notwithstanding the advice that has been received, the two-hour rule does not make sense to me as we move on. In the letter we received last week, Professor Cormican stated there was a very low possibility of anything happening to anybody in these circumstances. We are practising social distancing, good hygiene and so on. We need to look at the matter again.
I thought the correspondence last week was very helpful.
It has made clear that the two-hour concern is in the event of an infection and who would be considered close contacts and who would have to isolate and be tested, quickly we would hope. It is certainly not an argument for minimising ministerial appearances for the purposes of public scrutiny and should not be used for that purpose. As Deputy Kelly has said, we have here the benefit of great ventilation for all the hot air, from this end and not from the Ceann Comhairle's end. We have many advantages as a workplace. Our job is to maximise the interactions we can have and not to minimise them. I am concerned that this is being used for people to minimise their appearances here and the necessary scrutiny. This is very concerning.
We are now moving into a phase of thoughtful and careful unwinding of the public emergency measures. People are anxious to get back to work and they will get back to work, but they must see that we are back at work too. This is very important. I do not see why Ministers and officials cannot present themselves. We have the space to make the necessary arrangements. The two-hour rule around defining close contacts arises specifically in the unfortunate event of an infection. That is the status. I believe the correspondence made that very clear.
I believe most people would have expected a change as a consequence of the correspondence last week. That this has not happened is a problem. This was discussed in detail at the Business Committee. There is deep unease that there are two sets of rules depending on who one is, and that we expect people to do an eight-hour shift where the same sorts of issues do not impact.
I do not want to hold up, nor will I object to, tomorrow's business. We do need, however, to square the circle in how we go on from here. It is not just about setting the agenda for this week. It is also about how we will deal with things next week, next month and in six months' time. The proposal is not good enough. We must find a mechanism to deal with this so we can have some degree of normality, hold the Government to account and have committee meetings, all within the Covid-19 confines that are patently there.
I believe this is also relevant to the debate around our ability to have committee hearings. Public health advice about the health implications of proximity is acting as a barrier to having further committees to cover the many different areas in our society where people are in real trouble and need their voices heard. We are told we can only have one committee because of physical constraints relating to public health guidelines. It looks like these are just excuses.
I will throw a real spanner into the works now. There is no consistency on the issue of who is considered a close contact of a person who is Covid-positive. I am sure all Members have been reading the RTÉ website since the outbreak of this crisis. At the end of every single article, it says that a person who has been in close contact in the same room as somebody else for more than 15 minutes - not two hours - is a close contact. It says that this is the public health advice. On that basis, nothing in this country would be operating at all. It is nonsense. We need consistency on this. The difference is that essential workers have been working all the time under very different conditions of close contact - according to these definitions, for two hours or 15 minutes - to keep our society functioning-----
I do not want to hold up tomorrow's business. It is important that the Estimate is adopted. I have a very serious concern around the justification for the way the Minister will present to the House tomorrow.
This is referencing the justification given last week by the Minister for Health as his reason not to come in to answer legitimate questions which I had raised here the week before regarding the operation of the meat industry which had been found to be correct. There is absolutely no medical basis for the justification that was given by the Minister for Health here last week. I do not want to see that now being used as a mechanism and a justification to set a precedent for Ministers not to be held accountable here for legitimate issues regarding the operation and management of Covid-19, as well as many other issues which will arise over the next 12 months, 18 months and two years until these restrictions are lifted.
Before I call the Taoiseach, I will just point out two matters. There is a difference between the call from many Members for a debate on the principle of this two-hour duration regime, which I believe would be more appropriately explored in some detail at the Covid committee. There is a difference between that and the issue before us today, which is simply a piece on the Order of Business, namely, do we or do we not transact the business tomorrow.
The second point Members must bear in mind is that they should read Standing Order 29 which makes it abundantly clear that it is a matter for the Government to determine which, as well as how, Ministers come in to respond to matters raised on the floor of the House.
I was about to make that point. It has always been the case - at least for as long as I have been in the House - that the Government decides which Ministers come in. It is often that a different Minister comes in but it is always the case a Minister is there.
On the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidance, for the benefit of Deputy Boyd Barrett, it is actually both, namely, 15 minutes in close proximity or two hours in the same space.
We are, however, all feeling our way through an unprecedented scenario. The truth is that, as the virus diminishes in the community - there were only 30 or so new cases yesterday - we are able to take more calculated risks. What might have been the right thing to do two or three weeks ago, may be different now and may be different again in the next couple of weeks. We should accept that it is a risk, however. There is a genuine risk that if there is any Minister or politician here for more than two hours and somebody else in the Chamber or they test positive, then all of the people in the Chamber will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. That is the truth. The objective is to make sure that the Government is held to account.
It would be much harder to hold Ministers to account if they are self-isolating in a room for 14 days.
Perhaps there is a practical solution to this. The Minister, Regina Doherty, is happy to take the Supplementary Estimate. I do not understand why it will take six hours given that it is a straightforward, no-policy change, Supplementary Estimate. She is happy to do it, however. The logical thing to do is that she does two hours here and then move directly to the committee room to do the rest from there. Then we can leave the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, out of it, if Members want Regina Doherty to be the one to do the full six hours. The solution would be for her to do two hours here in the Chamber and then move to the committee room for the next two, four or whatever number of hours it will take.
My understanding is that the Minister, Regina Doherty, who is unelected is unable to move the Estimate. It must be the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, or another Minister, who must move it.
Standing Order 29 is about the Government deciding what Ministers come in. We have no issue with that. We are told by the Whip that the Minister, Regina Doherty, has no issue with coming in. The problem is with this two-hour trick - we can call it that rather than a three-card trick - which is continuing, meaning the Government will not come in and be held accountable.
I am objecting to tomorrow’s business on that basis. We have Professor Martin Cormican's advice but we have many other advices as well. It seems the Ceann Comhairle and the Taoiseach are stuck with this. Are they welded to NPHET, the National Public Health Emergency Team? What is going on? Are we getting the answers? I am objecting totally.
Richard Boyd Barrett, James Browne, Pat Buckley, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Dara Calleary, Niall Collins, Catherine Connolly, Cathal Crowe, Pearse Doherty, Stephen Donnelly, Alan Farrell, Mairead Farrell, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Simon Harris, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Claire Kerrane, Brian Leddin, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Josepha Madigan, Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald, Michael Moynihan, Catherine Murphy, Eoghan Murphy, Denis Naughten, Malcolm Noonan, Kieran O'Donnell, Fergus O'Dowd, Louise O'Reilly, Eoin Ó Broin, Maurice Quinlivan, Eamon Ryan, Brendan Smith, Brian Stanley, Leo Varadkar.