Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, together.
The parliamentary liaison unit in my Department assists the Government in its relationship with the Oireachtas. It works with the Office of the Government Chief Whip on issues that arise at the Business Committee and the Committee on Dáil Reform and Standing Orders, including Dáil reform proposals and amendments to Standing Orders. The unit supports the Office of the Government Chief Whip in the implementation of the Government's legislative programme. In addition, the unit assists the office of the leader of the Green Party in work relating to Cabinet, Cabinet committees and oversight of the implementation of the programme for Government. In carrying out these duties, it provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad, highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues and provides assistance in engaging with the new processes arising from Dáil reform. The unit is staffed by 3.5 whole-time equivalent staff, consisting of one principal officer, 1.5 higher executive officers and one clerical officer.
The parliamentary liaison unit is a very important one. In the previous Dáil, there was significant reform arising from the dynamic that was in place with the confidence and supply agreement. The Taoiseach was a big champion of Dáil reform but we have now gone backwards. I accept that these are difficult circumstances because of Covid but Bill after Bill is now being rushed through the Dáil and Bills are being guillotined. Considered amendments to very important legislation will never see the light of day. They are never considered and we do not get responses from Ministers because they are never debated as we do not have enough time. It changes the whole dynamic of how we work here. Deputies get up and say what they have to say on an amendment that is not related to the issue they want to discuss, purely because they have to get it on record.
We cannot continue like this. Everything is last minute dot com. There is no time for review or scrutiny. Pre-legislative scrutiny has been thrown out the window. I can understand that things have to be done differently from time to time but now that this is becoming a consistent pattern, it is a real issue. I would like the Taoiseach to reflect over the summer to see how we can change this in order that we can better do our work collectively, both Government and Opposition, and stop the use of the guillotine and rushed legislation. If the Taoiseach was sitting on this side of the House, I guarantee he would be saying what I am saying.
As regards the parliamentary unit and working with us, very important legislation on hospitality is going through the Dáil this week. There have now been three different statements from the Government on the role of GPs in issuing certificates for those who have been infected with Covid. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, said that GPs can issue letters and then the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, came out and said she misspoke. This is the new word when Ministers get things wrong. The Government says he or she misspoke. I love it. I wish that had been around in my day.
I probably did but we did not say the person misspoke; we said it was a mistake. At least we were honest about it.
We now have confirmation that GPs can issue letters. Those are three different statements on the same topic. That is not the way to work with the Opposition. Members of the Government do not know what they are doing themselves. I am asking this sincerely. The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, has issued a statement on this matter. We cannot have a situation where GPs will up to 90 all day, every day, issuing letters. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected by this. I ask the Taoiseach to inform the House what the position is. It is very difficult for the Opposition to work with the Government on issues and provide constructive opposition when the Ministers in this Government do not know what they are talking about in the first place or are inconsistent.
Notwithstanding the parliamentary liaison unit and the work that is done by the three staff the Taoiseach identified, the level of confusion and disorganisation within his Administration is remarkable. We have seen this again in respect of the Covid certificate. It would be helpful if the Taoiseach could clarify the matter of issuing letters and the role or otherwise of GPs in that regard.
I also raise the voisinage fisheries agreement between Britain and Ireland. As the Taoiseach knows, it has been in place since the 1960s and allows for reciprocal access to inshore waters for fishermen North and South. Brexit scuppered this arrangement and has created a hard fishing border for fishermen based in the North, who are no longer allowed to fish in the South's waters. The Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Act 2019 enacted by the previous Government was meant to address this issue, but that has turned out not to be the case.
While the Government and the European Commission have restored access for the North's fishing fleet to inshore waters, there remains a hard sea border in offshore waters.
Does the Taoiseach accept that this goes against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and more to the point, that it goes against the spirit of the Brexit trade deal that specifically recognised existing fisheries arrangements in place prior to Brexit? Can the outline the position of Government on this matter and provide a timeline within which the reciprocal arrangements for the North's fishing vessels in offshore waters will be reinstated?
The unit deals with the Dáil in progressing the programme for Government. A key challenge is the question of youth unemployment. In that context, I want to ask the Taoiseach about the work placement employment programme, JobBridge 2.0. There will be 10,000 positions for six months with 30 hours of work per week for €306. No doubt the Taoiseach will tell me that amounts to the minimum wage of €10.20 per hour but all the work placement participants will be on jobseeker's allowance of €203. This means that they will receive an extra €103 for 30 hours of work, or €3.43 per hour. Does the Taoiseach accept that this is a cheap labour scheme? Can he confirm that it is not the State paying €203 and the employer topping it up but that every single penny will be paid by the State and that the employer will pay zero? Can the Taoiseach give me one good reason an employer would hire someone at trade union rates of pay or at the living wage of €12.30 per hour when it can hire ten people so cheaply on the Government's new cheap labour scheme?
I commend the unit on all the work and co-ordination it does. One of its responsibilities is liaising with the Parliamentary Budget Office. Is the Taoiseach intending to strengthen the role of the Parliamentary Budget Office in terms of the advice that it gives, particularly as we come towards budget 2022 and the national development plan review? Would the Taoiseach envisage replicating the Parliamentary Budget Office model in other areas?
The unit is supposed to assist in giving legislative effect to programme for Government plans. One of the aspects of the programme for Government the Taoiseach has repeatedly stressed is that he would support those sectors that have been impacted particularly harshly by public health measures. One of the sectors that I have mentioned many times is that comprising musicians, live performers, entertainers and so on. It appears that if they benefit from the live performance support scheme, LPSS, and do one or two gigs, they cannot go back on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and they are effectively forced to be jobseekers. The latter is despite the fact that their sector has not reopened. There is no plan, even with the reopening of hospitality, for it to fully reopen. It is grossly unfair that musicians, entertainers and live performers are being pushed over a PUP cliff when they do some work on a pilot scheme, particularly when that is an isolated bit of work for them.
It is appropriate that we have a question on the parliamentary liaison unit of the Government because the behaviour of the Government towards the Parliament in the past week has been striking. The Government has taken a bullying approach, using its majority to bulldoze things through without proper discussion. There have been two examples in the past week. Last Thursday, there was a motion to ram through the increase in the property tax without pre-legislative scrutiny and without the agreement of the relevant committee even. This week, far more seriously, unprecedented and discriminatory legislation that poses a threat to public health is being brought in and the Government plans, against the wishes of every Opposition group on the Business Committee, to get it through in one day. How is that a democratic approach to these important issues? I am against the substance of what is in it but does the Taoiseach not at least accept that we should have had a debate about this over a proper period? The way the Government is doing it risks the making of serious mistakes.
The Deputy said I championed it. I noted what he said carefully. Deputy Calleary spoke about one of the key aspects of one of the reform measures we pushed, which is the Parliamentary Budget Office. That was a Fianna Fáil proposal in the previous election that we followed through on. Some of the key reforms in the programme for Government include expanding the role of the Parliamentary Budget Office to independently audit the cost of individual tax and spending measures contained in political parties' budget submissions and general election manifestos and to assess their overall dynamic impact and broader economic impact. It also includes continuing to ensure that Oireachtas committee chairs are allocated according to the d'Hondt system. The latter was an important reform when it was introduced. It also includes introducing a new system to register Oireachtas attendance and protect the integrity of the expenses system. We will work on all of those areas.
The Deputy raised a broader issue of the guillotining of Bills, etc. On climate change, for example, a lot of views were taken on board through the Oireachtas committee's pre-legislative scrutiny phase and subsequently. It is a Bill that has gone through change as it has gone through the House, and yet it is groundbreaking legislation. This has been an active session from a legislative point of view and a balance has to be struck between having due time for debate on legislation and also getting legislation through. We have a major housing crisis and there has been much activity on the part of the Minister in respect of a range of legislative housing initiatives that we need to get through. We need to place the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing in order to get on with the business of building houses and getting houses built. We need to get the affordability Bill through - I am glad it has been passed by this House - in order to enable people to buy houses they can afford. We can have paralysis by analysis or agility and some degree of speed and efficiency and thereby get things done.
More broadly on some of the issues that have been raised, I would say to the Opposition and to those on the far left in particular, that at the beginning of this session there was a demand almost every week for a debate on something. I am not stating that those issues were not important but the balance between a legislative Chamber and a debating Chamber sometimes gets lost. Deputies seem to be more interested in statements and debates than giving more time to legislation. Then they complain afterwards that there is not enough time for legislation. The week is short. I have consistently stated, in opposition and in government, that the Government time devoted and allocated for legislation is, with the best will in the world, tight enough. Many Members use the House as a platform. They have an entitlement to do so because they have been elected. Let us not pretend that the management or utilisation of our time or how individual Deputies or different parties will use their time in the Dáil is all one-sided. There are many sides to that argument. Different parties will have different perspectives and emphases in that regard. That needs to be said.
On hospitality, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, is the key office for certificate generation in the context of the digital Covid-19 certificates for vaccination and recovery. They are being produced by the OGCIO using data provided by the HSE. That is it. Vaccination certificates are being pushed out and that approach is enabling us to get certificates to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. For example, for certificates based on vaccination, you can get the certificate if you have been vaccinated against Covid-19 if the HSE has a valid email address for you from the vaccination process. You will get your digital Covid certificate by email. Otherwise, you will get your certificate by post. The digital Covid certificate will be in portable document format, PDF, and when that is emailed to you-----
I will come to that. You may download it to your phone where the quick response, QR, code on the PDF may be inspected or scanned. These digital Covid certificates will be emailed or posted in the coming days. It is already happening. A certificate of recovery will be available from 11 days after a positive test and will be valid for no more than 180 days.
The digital Covid certificate can be requested via a helpline, the details of which will be published shortly.