Wednesday, 3 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The House has agreed that for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report on the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. There are two proposals to be considered by the House today arising from this week's business. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?
As the Ceann Comhairle knows, for the last number of weeks we have expressed our opposition to the failure of the Government at the Business Committee to honour a commitment it made to ensure the Covid emergency and the response to it are a standing issue on a severely curtailed Dáil agenda. The Government has refused to honour that commitment, which I understood had been agreed at the Business Committee. Given the dire situation we are facing in ICUs and nursing homes, the huge debate about the Government's failure to properly implement mandatory quarantine and the debate about zero Covid, the very least we deserve is a proper debate on these matters this week in the Dáil. It should be a standing issue on the agenda every week, given the health emergency we face.
I do not agree with the Order of Business. It is unbelievable that in the midst of a pandemic that is worsening in many aspects, there is no time allocated to discuss the Government's response to Covid. An announcement was made last week and no time was allowed to debate it whatsoever. There are umpteen aspects to this, including the fact that we are probably facing a public health doctors' strike very shortly because of the Government's failure to address the valid concerns those essential workers have. It is shocking that we could have public health doctors striking in the midst of a pandemic. The Taoiseach must allow the time. We have to have engagement on this and there are so many aspects to it that adequate time must be provided.
We are in unprecedented times. The Dáil is unique in the world in sitting in an alternative Parliament. We have halved the sitting hours every week and the Opposition has co-operated and accepted this very reluctantly. We have a solemn responsibility to represent the people who voted for us. We have a solemn responsibility in a democracy to hold the Government to account. The very reason we are in this unprecedented situation is because of a public health crisis. We need to ask questions every week. The Minister for Health is on every news and radio channel. He needs to be in this Parliament on a weekly basis being accountable to us as democratically elected representatives. We understood it was agreed that that would be a standing slot for that and it is not on the Order of Business this week. The Opposition absolutely cannot agree to the schedule and at this late hour we appeal again to put aside a slot so we can hold the Government to account and do our job.
Our group is unhappy with the Order of Business too but coming onto this floor every week and wasting time on Questions on Promised Legislation is very unfair to Deputies as well. I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Chief Whip, Deputy Chambers, to be more flexible and understanding at the Business Committee, to try to get things sorted out like we used to and not to have time-wasting on the floor of the Chamber. We could be here for two weeks and the Taoiseach would not answer any questions anyway so it makes no difference but we need more time to discuss these issues.
It is vitally important that the Dáil is what representatives are accountable to. That is where the discussions should be taking place, not on TV3 or RTÉ or anywhere else. People should be accountable here in the Parliament and let everyone see what they are actually saying in the Parliament. That is vitally important. The Dáil is on restricted time as things stand because we are trying to facilitate a national crisis but that does not mean the Government has carte blancheto go ahead and do whatever it wants without accountability.
Throughout my political life I have been a very strong supporter of Parliament and accountability in Parliament, whether in opposition or in government.
I am in here every week. In this country, taoisigh are in Parliament far more than their counterparts in other jurisdictions across Europe. That is a good thing. It is a fact that does not get-----
No, I am not speaking about China or Korea. I am speaking about closer to the home in terms of presence and attendance at Parliament. In the Dáil, it has been a long-standing feature that taoisigh spend more time in the Chamber answering questions than do their counterparts in other European Parliaments. That is all I am saying.
The problem right now is the variant. There is genuine concern regarding the degree to which the variant can transmit more easily. There is concern that we could be plateauing at the level we are at now because of the impact of the variant. That concern is a genuine one. We need to monitor what is going on more generally in various workplaces. That said, every week the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, has been in this Chamber discussing vaccines and addressing issues raised by people in regard to the vaccination programme. As of 31 January, 207,000 vaccines were received, 197,730 from Pfizer and 9,000 from Moderna.
Again, the bulk of those have been administered within time. That was dealt with in questions last week and in the previous week. This week, what is envisaged is statements and questions on mental health and Covid. Some 100 minutes fixed debate is provided. That is very important. Many Deputies have raised issues about mental health and Covid and we need to debate that issue. It needs to be debated in the media as well. The media are entitled to engage with politicians in the media as well, if necessary. A further 100 minutes fixed debate is provided for statements and questions to the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, in respect of his responsibilities related to Covid-19. Both are important issues that need to be dealt with by the House as well.
Cathal Berry, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Jackie Cahill, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Patrick Costello, Michael Creed, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Joe Flaherty, Emer Higgins, John Lahart, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Joe McHugh, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Fergus O'Dowd, Christopher O'Sullivan, Neale Richmond, Matt Shanahan.
Richard Boyd Barrett, Pat Buckley, Joan Collins, Michael Collins, Paul Donnelly, Mairead Farrell, Alan Kelly, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Mattie McGrath, Cian O'Callaghan, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Róisín Shortall, Peadar Tóibín, Mark Ward.
They are not agreed. Thursday would have been the logical day, as I see it, to have the promised debate on the Covid-19 response and the public health crisis. It is deeply ironic that the Taoiseach should cite as justification for not having that debate the non-essential travel and work requirements. It is precisely the Government's failure to police non-essential travel and non-essential work that means the situation is dangerously plateauing. We need to discuss that in detail this week and interrogate the Government's policy.
It is also ironic that the Taoiseach has cited his greater participation in the business of the House when the other issue I have raised for the past few weeks is the fact that the two sessions of Questions to the Taoiseach that normally follow Leaders' Questions are gone. We asked for just one of those sessions to be reinstated, as a compromise, in order that the Taoiseach would be subject to questioning. That was absolutely rejected. The Government is trying to minimise its exposure to questioning at a critical time for the country.
The Deputy is deliberately distorting what I said. I was responding to Deputy Mac Lochlainn, who legitimately raised issues around the sitting of Parliament and so on. I was not justifying anything in regard to the number of days here and so on. I get the impression that Deputy Boyd Barrett wants to create opportunities to hog the debate himself, to the detriment of many other backbenchers from other parties across the House. He wants to create scenarios where he is getting far more of an input than others.
The Deputy knows that it is envisaged that there will be debates on Covid tomorrow. I do not know why he is just ignoring that reality. There will be a 100-minute debate, with statements, questions and answers, on mental health and Covid, which I think most Deputies in the House believe is a very serious issue which should be debated.
The Deputy asked for it, but unless the House sits for 24 hours on the trot, I do not see how he will get everything in. That is just the reality.
Next, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is coming in to discuss the impact of Covid on childcare. There are also 100 minutes fixed for that debate.
I did not raise these issues, Deputy McGrath. Others did, and I am entitled to respond to the assertions that were made by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I am simply saying that the bulk of Thursday's business is to do with Covid issues relating to mental health, children and childcare. After those debates will be the resumed Second Stage debate on the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2020, and the Order for Second Stage and Second Stage of the Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020. There will also be a Topical Issues debate, which Deputies want. Back bench Deputies appreciate the opportunity given by those debates. That is what is being provided for in the Order of Business.