Thursday, 1 April 2021
Gnó na Dála - Business of Dáil
It is proposed that, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders or the Order of Business of yesterday, that the sitting shall now be suspended for 20 minutes and Private Members' business shall be taken for two hours on the conclusion of No. 28a, statements and questions and answers regarding the "Prime Time Investigates" programme on the Department of Health.
I point out that the reason we have to change the order today is due to events last night when speakers did not show up and the debate on the Public Service Pay Bill fell, even though many of the groupings in the House did not get to speak once on that very important legislation. That is a disgrace. I commend Deputy Duncan Smith from the Labour Party on making apologies for Deputy Nash not being here for his slot. However, the truth is there were nine ten-minute slots, including two Government slots, before our slot and many other Deputies who did not get to speak. Deputies who fully expected to speak on the Bill today and could not possibly have imagined they would be required to speak last night have now lost the opportunity to speak on the Public Service Pay Bill. That is outrageous and it is a direct consequence of something we warned against when the Government changed the speaking order to have multiple Government slots punctuating it before most of the party and other groups get to speak. We told the Government this would happen. It has happened again and again and now it has happened on legislation as important as the Public Service Pay Bill just because the Government wants to drown out the voices of party groups. It is now seriously disrupting the ability of this House to do its legislative business. I want to signal that. This situation cannot persist. The Government has been smirking behind the scenes about how it has essentially drowned out the Opposition. We said this would happen and it has happened again.
We asked for more time to discuss the scandal of the HSE keeping secret files on vulnerable children and families. We now have extra time. To make up for what it did last night and the consequences of its actions, the Government should give us additional time to discuss the Department of Health and HSE scandal of keeping secret files on families.
I agree with nearly everything Deputy Boyd Barrett said. The Social Democrats also lost out on the opportunity to make a contribution on that important legislation. There were to have been several speakers before my party was due to contribute. It is entirely predictable that this kind of thing would happen. There is an opportunity to extend the debate that follows Private Members' business. Only five or six minutes are available to us in a 100-minute slot, which is not adequate given the enormity of the issue. There is an opportunity to extend the time.
If I may make some comments, the members of the Committee on Dáil Reform and Business Committee know well my view on the changes that were effected to the speaking order, so I do not have to justify my views on that. Let us be frank, however. It was not Government speakers who were missing when the point was raised for the next speaker to be called yesterday. I further point out that between 2011 and 2016, I was Fianna Fáil Whip and effectively the Opposition Chief Whip. My role at the time included having a staff member to work with me to monitor the proceedings in the House to see how legislation was progressing. It was my responsibility and that of my staff member to get that right and ensure speakers were in the Chamber in time. All the groups in this House have Whips and, I believe, some staff support to do that job. I put it to the House that if Deputies were not here when business was being transacted, it was because the Whips and the Whip team were not doing the job the taxpayer is paying them to do. They should not blame anybody but themselves if they were not here when they should have been here.
First, there were nine ten-minute slots between the slot of the final Deputy to speak last night and our slot. There was, therefore, no reasonable expectation that we would speak before today but for the fact that multiple speakers in the intervening slots, including Government speakers, were not here. Our office and Whip team were monitoring what was going on in here but unlike in Dáil Éireann, the camera feed from the convention centre does not allow our Whip team to see who is in the House. It is impossible, therefore, if one is adhering to the instruction to work from home as much as possible, as our team is, to know who is physically in the House and whether our slots might come up sooner because speakers did not turn up.
It is also the case that the Chair, Leas-Cheann Comhairle and others will sometimes actually say, given that there is no camera to monitor these things, that the proceedings are moving faster because speakers are not here and therefore give a warning to our teams, who cannot possibly know that Deputies are not here. Our team was watching but was absolutely powerless to know what was happening in the House.
I am not going to have an unseemly argument with the Deputy but, really and truly, I stand by what I say, that is, that the Whip — particularly the Whip — has a responsibility to monitor and read the situation and know when a Deputy needs to be present. I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.
I am a Whip and I am getting whipped, obviously. I did check. I was downstairs, which was even worse. I rang and in fairness to the staff in the Chief Whip's office, I was told our group would not be reached in any shape, make or form. There was only 40 minutes. I came up when I saw the Minister speaking but the debate was finished when I arrived. It cannot be monitored. If people are not turning up to speak when they are supposed to, it cannot be monitored. In the last Dáil, there was certainty as to when Deputies in a group would be speaking because there was a rota and Deputies knew it. If I saw Deputy Body Barrett speaking, I would leg it up the stairs because my group would be next. Now there are Government speakers in and out between other speakers and Deputies do not know where they are.
With the greatest of respect, there was no problem with the rota. Deputies Mairéad Farrell and Louise O'Reilly were here and made their contributions. There was nobody else here. Deputy Lahart was here on the Government side and was not seeking to participate. There was nobody else here. When there was nobody else here and the Minister had responded, people came in and wanted to throw the rules of the House out. They wanted us to behave like some sort of Mickey Mouse residents' association and change the rules to suit them to let them speak even though they had not been here on time. I am not getting into an argument with Members about it. The situation is that Whips have a responsibility and they need to carry out that responsibility. They are being remunerated for it and they have staff to support them in doing it. It did not happen yesterday but it should have. What happened should not happen again.
I do not. I never looked for it either. That is the fact of it. Doing my duty yesterday evening as a Whip, I checked with the Government Chief Whip's office who was on the list of speakers and I was told to forget about it because there was-----
I have just a couple of points. I fully agree with the Ceann Comhairle that the factual position yesterday was that Deputy Boyd Barrett and his group were not present. We cannot be responsible for his time management skills or capacity to follow the rota.
I respect everyone's right to speak in this House, including backbench Government Deputies. The status quo before last July, unfortunately, was that backbench Government Deputies were being deprived of their speaking rights in this House. We have tried to address that, with balance. Deputy Boyd Barrett should note we have worked constructively across a number of proposal areas. For example, the Questions on Promised Legislation slot is being reformed, but reformed in a way that protects the smaller groups and parties and does not undermine their right to speak. We have tried to work with them on that.
What we have proposed today is the bringing forward of Private Members' business. The Rural Independent Group has a Private Members' slot. The aim is just to advance that in the ordering of business. That is what is being proposed.