Tuesday, 13 July 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
As Members know, we have agreed that for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report on the Order of Business shall be taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?
They are not agreed. The contempt the Government has demonstrated towards the Opposition in recent weeks in rushing through legislation with guillotines applied across the board is totally unacceptable. The disrespect for sectoral committees and for the Opposition's duty and responsibility to scrutinise legislation is totally unacceptable. There is not enough time to debate the local property tax Bill, for example.
On foot of the proposed emergency health legislation, an emergency meeting of the Business Committee was held earlier and the Opposition indicated it would agree to more sitting days. We have no opposition to additional sitting days and we could even sit next week. Let us take enough time to go through these matters.
The Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 formally cedes Rockall to Britain and that has never been done in legislation before. It has 45 minutes allocated to the debate but Sinn Féin has submitted dozens of amendments. It is derisory and disrespectful and the order must change. I ask the Taoiseach to agree to more sitting days this week and next week.
We have major concerns about the vaccination passports for the reopening of hospitality being discriminatory and unethical and about young people working in the hospitality sector potentially being put in the position of risking their health. These are serious matters. In that context, the idea that the legislation is going to be rammed through in one day, when it has such serious implications in the context of civil liberties, health and equality, is absolutely unacceptable.
On the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021, many people will be facing a significant additional financial burden on what some of us consider to be a deeply unfair tax on the family home. Again, this legislation is being rammed through. What is happening on both counts is unacceptable. We strongly object. There should be more time for all of these things. If necessary, we should sit next week in order to have proper scrutiny.
We object to the Order of Business. We have had no proper discussion on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. We are aware that peat producers and those who operate nurseries are outside the House today and are greatly concerned about issues coming down the track in that regard.
On the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, Deputies still do not received copies of the legislation that the Cabinet is supposed to have produced. We are supposed to have a amendments in by 5 p.m. After a row at the Business Committee, my group will have ten minutes - one minute and 40 seconds per Deputy - to speak on this important legislation. The Government has a totalitarian and authoritarian agenda. We are in danger of becoming a checkpoint society where anyone from bouncers, restaurant staff and gardaí can demand to see our medical papers. This is unethical. It is medical apartheid, as I said last week. We have been told through briefings that the Minister for Health can, at any time, introduce statutory instruments to allow another group of people to do this. It could be the Army or anybody who decides to do it. I am looking for more time for the debate on this legislation. It cannot go ahead. This legislation is totally regressive and yet we do not have time to debate it. The Dáil must sit on Friday or next week to debate it properly.
Whatever is agreed at the Business Committee on Thursdays is becoming completely irrelevant. This is increasingly becoming a pattern. There is not enough time. We knew that the Health (Amendment) Bill was coming since last Thursday. It was not published until earlier today, however, and we have now been presented with a revised schedule. There is not enough time to debate the Bill. This is a fundamentally flawed way of doing the business of the Oireachtas. This time last year, the Dáil session ended in a walkout, which was not what we wanted to see. Now, we have been presented legislation that is literally dividing the country in two yet we have just over two and a half hours in which to debate it. We have only seen it today but amendments are due in a couple of hours. That is not the way to do business. This was coming down the tracks and we had plenty of time. There is no need to operate like this.
I agree with my colleagues on the guillotining of Bills. I also object to the Order of Business on the basis that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 will be the subject of a very short debate. The Bill is being guillotined. Fundamental changes were made in the Seanad just last week and the legislation is now being rushed through. The changes and amendments that were made changed the Bill from being something that was meant to be science driven and evidence driven to something that is now politically driven. That is unacceptable and represents a slap in the face to the people, the committee members and the experts, all of whom gave evidence and their time to ensure that we got a very robust Bill. The Government has completely undermined that. I ask that we be given additional time to debate this because there are serious issues which need to be discussed.
I must also make a point about the words that are being flung out here, such as "authoritarian" and "apartheid", as if they involve no consequences. I have a message for one of our colleagues from the Auschwitz Museum, which states: "Instrumentalization of the tragedy of all people who...suffered, were humiliated, tortured & murdered by the hateful totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline." I ask Members not to refer to that. It is absolutely disgraceful that people's memories are being trampled on in this way. Members should not be comparing vaccination programmes to the Holocaust.
I wish to be associated with the comments of all previous speakers in objecting to the Order of Business, in particular to the proposal on the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. As has been stated, we are not getting enough time to debate it. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill is also being guillotined and only a short amount of speaking time is being made available. Legislation used to be rushed through coming up to the recess at Christmas but now it is happening in the run-up to the summer break. It is not proper for the Parliament or for democracy. We must oppose it and set down a marker stating that it is not right and it should not be allowed to continue. The reality of the situation is that the Government will continue with it, and we will continue to oppose it.
The Regional Group noted its disquiet this morning at the Business Committee, in particular on the guillotining of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. I echo what other Deputies have said. I know we are in the run-in to the recess, but this is extremely important legislation and the Regional Group has done a lot to try to promote screening using antigen testing. We will not have any time to look at that in detail or to table amendments.
The lack of debate on the local property tax must also be re-examined.
In the context of the legislation pertaining to hospitality, the fundamental objective is to facilitate the reopening of indoor dining and hospitality in a safe way, in line with the advice from the national public health authorities. This is not something we would ordinarily enter into in terms of differentiating between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but with the spread of the Delta variant, there is an obligation on the Government and on the Oireachtas to protect those who are not vaccinated from getting Covid-19. The Government plan takes a three-phase approach. In the first instance, it is to facilitate the reopening of hospitality and indoor dining-----
-----through vaccination certificates, and to restrict it to those who are vaccinated and those who have recovered from Covid The second phase is to do an assessment of the potential use of PCR testing and the third phase is to look at antigen testing. The legislation provides a framework to enable that to happen.
One way or the other, we must get off the fence in this regard. Last week, people were urging us to bring forward proposals. We are now bringing forward proposals. We indicated last week that we would have a plan by 19 July. It is fairly straightforward, simple legislation. I accept that we would not ordinarily engage in such measures, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic.
So far, we have safely reopened a lot of society and the economy. We want to consolidate the progress we have made in bringing so many jobs back into the economy and keeping the pressure on the virus. We want to commence the next phase, which is challenging because of the Delta variant. I do not underestimate the risks. I do not underestimate Delta. That is why the public health authorities and NPHET were very clear in their advice that indoor dining would be restricted to the vaccinated and those who have recovered from Covid.
It is in the light of that advice that the legislation is framed. We said we would have a plan by 19 July for the hospitality sector.
It is interesting that France and Greece are moving in the same direction. Ireland would have been considered an outlier ten days ago in this regard, but not so any more. Such is the fast-moving nature and evolution of Covid-19 that we must protect people. That is the context for the measures. We also need solutions to the issues that have arisen in respect of indoor dining and hospitality.
In respect of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, a lot of time has been allocated to it. Even the pre-legislative scrutiny was very extensive.
The CAP has been debated in this House. Through the Chair, we should refrain from the frequent use of such language. In recent weeks, I have asked the Deputy not to keep using terms such as "Nazis" and "totalitarianism".
Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Bernard Durkan, Alan Farrell, Joe Flaherty, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Seán Haughey, Neasa Hourigan, John Lahart, Michael Lowry, Josepha Madigan, Micheál Martin, Steven Matthews, Charlie McConalogue, Joe McHugh, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, John Paul Phelan, Matt Shanahan, Niamh Smyth, Robert Troy.
John Brady, Martin Browne, Holly Cairns, Sorca Clarke, Réada Cronin, Marian Harkin, Danny Healy-Rae, Alan Kelly, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Paul Murphy, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Duncan Smith, Jennifer Whitmore.
It is very clear that the full and safe reopening of the hospitality sector is urgent so that businesses can open, workers can get back to work and people can interact socially once again. Instead of a thought-out orderly plan to make this happen we have, once again, a last minute scramble from the three parties of government to produce legislation that is discriminatory, ill thought-out and which many will regard as unenforceable. The Government will force this legislation through the House with very limited debate. That is wrong. I cannot understand why the issue of PCR testing and antigen testing as mechanisms and tools, along with proper and effective infection control, are again being kicked down the road.
I have to say, regrettably, that since the Government was formed, on the issue of Covid and Government policy pertaining to it, the Deputy and her party have decided to take a divided and divisive approach, an incoherent and inconsistent approach. Whatever way the wind blows, they take that course. They take a Tadhg an dá thaobh approach. They are hunting with the hound and running with the hare, whichever way. It is all about votes and how they exploit the issue today and how they exploit Covid next week. They are not solution driven or solution orientated. It is all about exploitation for electoral gain. That is the only and sole criterion the Deputy uses in her assessment of Government initiatives.
Sometimes they are for the opening of hospitality. A month later, they are for zero Covid. Other times they are for anybody being able to travel into the country. Other times they want mandatory hotel quarantine.
It is time the Deputy got off the fence. Does she want hospitality to open, as she says she does? Then she should deal accordingly with the plans the Government has put before her to do it safely. The reason the testing is not there is because the public health advice is clear. We are following public health advice in respect of the vaccinated and non-vaccinated. The Deputy knows that.
I thank the Taoiseach for his kind and gracious words and all of those who gave me such a warm welcome today on my first day in big school, as it feels. I am very grateful and honoured to have been elected last week to represent my home constituency of Dublin Bay South. I am just over the moon to be here. I thank all of those who supported me. I thank my amazing campaign team, my parliamentary Labour Party colleagues, my director of elections, Deputy Duncan Smith, and my great campaign manager, Dermot Ryan. I also thank Chloe Manahan, Paul Daly and all my family. I thank everyone so much.
We campaigned on four key issues in the by-election. These were housing, childcare and eldercare, community facilities and climate justice. We heard a strong mood and appetite for change on these issues. I promised all of those to whom I spoke about housing, and whose stories I listened to about their experiences as renters facing insecurity of tenure, fears about rent hikes and evictions, that the first thing I would do, and the first issue I would raise in the Dáil if elected, would be protection for renters. Will the Taoiseach and the Government be willing to support the Bill I have prepared along with my colleague, Senator Rebecca Moynihan, which is before the Bills Office and would provide protection to renters, tenants and those living in rental accommodation against rent hikes and evictions and would provide for a better quality of life?
I again congratulate the Deputy on her election and I congratulate her campaign team. On these issues, the Government is very clearly focused and has already introduced groundbreaking legislation on climate justice and climate change, which I hope will get through the House this week. On housing, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has brought in very strong protection for renters. Last week, he introduced significant measures on limiting rent increases to inflation. This is a significant move given the position prior to this. The Minister deserves to be commended on this move in respect of restricting increases in rent and introducing legislation to protect renters. We will also focus on other issues in terms of childcare.
I take this first opportunity the Social Democrats have had to welcome Deputy Bacik to the House. She is a wonderful and progressive legislator.
It is 25 years since the report on revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID. The report founded the principles of community-led drug and alcohol task forces. The first of these was in my constituency in the north inner city. Twenty-five years on from the report, it is to my dismay that the north inner city drugs and alcohol task force has been suspended due to governance issues that have not been specified by the HSE or the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. It is absolutely essential that drugs task forces are community led with independent chairpersons who are nominated and elected by community representatives. I implore the Taoiseach to re-establish the north inner city drugs task force with an independent chair as chosen by the community representatives.
I have been a long-standing advocate and supporter of RAPID programmes. Previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments were very strong on tackling area disadvantage and having a whole-of-government approach to it. I have asked the Cabinet sub-committee on social affairs to examine reintroducing a similar programme. I am working with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who is responsible for community development, to see whether we can recover the focus that was there at the height of the RAPID approach to socioeconomic disadvantage in certain parts of our cities. I am very keen to develop that.
Yesterday, the Government unveiled the so-called work placement experience programme. It is a new free labour scheme for bosses whereby workers will get less than the pandemic unemployment payment and will be expected to live below the poverty line while working. Put simply, it is JobBridge 2.0. Workers on the scheme will get an extra €3.43 an hour for working 30 hours a week for six months without a guaranteed job at the end of it. Bosses can have up to ten workers on the scheme without paying a single cent. This will actively discourage the creation of real jobs. When JobBridge was abolished, the Indecon report commissioned by the Government made ten proposals for any replacement scheme. Of those ten, the Government has ignored seven. What is the point in commissioning reports if the Government is just going to ignore them? The Taoiseach says the new scheme will be policed by new caseworkers while the Pathways to Work strategy speaks about expanding the role of private contracted companies, such as Seetec and Turas Nua, in handling cases.
First, I disagree with the Deputy's analysis. I will simply say that the activation programmes and the Pathways to Work programme that was launched yesterday are very significant, very well resourced and supported financially by Government with one objective, namely, to facilitate work and working opportunities for people, specifically younger people, to reduce the numbers of people in long-term unemployment and, above all, to reduce the percentage of people in youth unemployment. Activation is important and previous experiences show that it works. Under these work experience programmes, the rate will be much higher than anything before and they will be voluntary. People will engage in the schemes in a voluntary capacity. What we saw yesterday were real-life examples of people who had participated in programmes such as this and who not only got jobs but, in some instances, went on to found their own businesses and become job creators themselves.
People are craving a sense of normality and a feeling of freedom. This is evident from the enthusiasm of the majority to be vaccinated. The issuing of digital green certificates will see thousands travel in the coming weeks. However, it will not bring joy to the thousands more who cannot obtain passports. While the April backlog of 83,000 has been reduced, there remains a minimum eight-week turnaround for online applications. Passport Express remains suspended. I am inundated with contacts from people across County Tipperary who are genuinely in need of a passport. I fully understand and appreciate the pressure under which the Passport Office is working. Staff need practical support and resources to help them cope with a heavy workload. Unless this matter is resolved, there is little point in telling people they can travel with green certificates. Without passports, they remain grounded. What is currently being done to speed up the process of issuing passports?
I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this issue. I know a number of Deputies have also raised it with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. The passport service commenced the scaling up of operations on 4 May 2021 in line with the phased easing of restrictions set out in the Covid-19 resilience and recovery plan. The service has been focused since then on four priority areas, namely, clearing the Covid-19 backlog of 89,000 passport applications, processing all renewal applications, including new applications, within ten working days, processing urgent and emergency applications, and providing customer services through phone and web chat facilities. Progress has been made in clearing the Covid-19 backlog. Backlog applications that were completed properly have been processed and passports have issued. In the case of incomplete applications, the passport service has been in contact with applicants regarding the need to send in outstanding documents. Once all outstanding required documentation is received, the issuance of passports will follow. Passport service phone and web chat services are available to all people whose passport applications have, unfortunately, been affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
I would like to express my sympathy and that of the people of Tipperary and west Waterford to the McCarthy family on the sad passing of Dr. Seán McCarthy, iar-Theachta Dála agus iar-Aire Stáit and a noble doctor who served the public of Tipperary and west Waterford well and beyond.
I have to return to a medical issue concerning St. Brigid's hospital, Carrick-on-Suir. The Taoiseach has promised me umpteen times in here that he would meet Councillor Kieran Bourke, other councillors in Tipperary County Council and the hospital action committee. They are forced to come up to the convention centre tomorrow to protest and present their petition. The medical and nursing staff of the hospital, which has a state-of-the-art building, have been forced to collect signatures for that petition. They have had a huge response showing that people would put their loved ones in the hospital because they trust, value and appreciate it and the care they got there. Will the Taoiseach meet those people and the action committee to re-evaluate the scandalous decision to close down the hospital?
I said I would be willing to meet them.
I have, of course, been in touch with the McCarthy family and I hope we get an opportunity at a future date to properly pay tribute to Dr. Seán McCarthy, who was an outstanding medical practitioner and GP, an outstanding sportsman who played for Tipperary and, of course, a wonderful Deputy, Senator and Minister of State. I hope we get that opportunity to pay due tribute to him and his contribution to public life and the well-being of the people of Tipperary and the country.
In terms of St. Brigid's hospital, I believe the HSE has been in touch with the Deputies in the area. It is an ongoing issue.
The Taoiseach said a couple of weeks ago that the State should not be renting homes on a long-term basis from funds involved in the practice of bulk purchase of housing estates. He went on to say that he would like this practice to end in the long term. Last year, 1,440 homes were leased from local authorities. This year, as we now know, 2,400 homes will be leased at a cost of €1 billion over a 25-year period. The State will not own these homes and tenants could be evicted when the lease agreement ends. Is there is not a bit of déjà vugoing on here in terms of what happened when the housing assistance payment, HAP, was introduced in 2014? We were told the scheme was only going to be a short-term arrangement. It started off with a cost of €0.5 million, we were told, but €543 million in State funding now goes into private landlords' pockets. Is this not an incredible situation for the State to be in and an incredible waste of public funding when we should be doing otherwise, namely, building houses? Does the Taoiseach agree that this is a consequence of the housing policy of his Government and successive Governments?
First, as I have said, the core Government priority is to build houses, both social and affordable, and to release more State land to facilitate the building of houses and get more delivery in developing houses overall. In respect of HAP, that scheme has been there long before this Government was formed, going back, as the Deputy said, to 2014. It is a more expensive way than social leasing, it has been asserted to me. Be that as it may, I do not believe that leasing is the optimal way to provide social housing. In the immediate short term, however, it gives us the opportunity, given the shortage of direct builds, the need to build up capacity on direct builds and as part of the wider suite of measures in the intervening period, to ensure that over the next 18 months, or maybe 12 months, 2,400 families will get social housing. That is the priority.
First, I welcome Deputy Bacik to the House. I was very privileged to work with her for four years and I wish her well.
I have been contacted by parents with medical cards asking about payment for school transport. Medical cards cannot currently be inputted into the system because of the cyberattack on the HSE. I brought this up last week and I contacted Bus Éireann, which is now saying it is optional. If people can pay, they will be refunded for the first term. If not, they will not have to pay. The confusion is arising because nobody has been written to and people are panicking as to whether, if they cannot afford to pay, their children will be able to get on the bus. I ask the Taoiseach to sort this out urgently with Bus Éireann and the HSE The situation must be sorted for children who need to go on the school bus.
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue for people. She is always very close to the issues on the ground, to be fair. I will certainly talk to the Minister for Health and ask him to engage with the HSE, Bus Éireann and the Department of Education to make sure this gets sorted. People's entitlements should not in any way be curtailed because of operational difficulties as a result of Covid or whatever. That is the bottom line.
Does this mean that my question and those of the other people on the list today will have to wait until the middle of September to be raised? I wanted to ask the Taoiseach if he would extend the time for the registration of rights of way beyond 30 November.
Please resume your seat, Deputy. You know the rules of the House the same as anyone. You have not been reached and that is not my fault. Please resume your seat as we have to carry on with the business.