Seanad debates

Friday, 27 March 2020

An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19) 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage


12:00 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

We are here today to take part in one of the last acts of the 25th Seanad. It is extraordinary that the legislation this Seanad will pass in its final hours will be among the most important ever passed in this House.

The provisions before the House could never have been imagined as necessary even a few months ago. Who could have predicted that we would be challenged to legislate in the face of a global pandemic that is sweeping the world and killing tens of thousands of people? Yesterday, Ireland lost ten people. It was, by far, the darkest day of this emergency so far for us. Altogether, Covid-19 has taken 19 lives to date and 29 lives on this island. Families and friends are in our thoughts and prayers but, in truth, we know we must brace ourselves for much worse to come. This is not nearly over. As was outlined by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, last night, this invisible enemy is just beginning its spread through our country and people. We know from the experience of other countries and the mathematical predictions available that a great deal is still to come. We also know from the experience of others that we can act, and those actions can make a huge difference to the spread of this virus and save thousands of lives.

We are far from helpless in facing the virus. We continue to prepare our hospitals and healthcare settings through the heroic work of healthcare professionals ranging from doctors and nurses to cleaning staff, management, scientists, carers and caterers. The message that can be most effective and that should be reinforced every day is that everybody must play their part in this national effort. We know what we must do. Social distancing, washing hands and staying at home matter. Following the clear instructions of authorities and the HSE matters. That will save lives. We can all play our part, and we must.

We have seen emergencies in recent years in Ireland. I have been in this Chamber many times as we faced the legislative and policy challenges of Brexit. Yesterday the Taoiseach spoke about how the emergency laws we passed for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit gave us some level of provision to take off the shelf in the early days of this emergency. That is very true. However, while Brexit was in many ways a fight for our citizens' identity and livelihoods, this is a fight for our citizens' lives. Circumstances now are far from ideal for legislating. We are being confronted with a once-in-a-century crisis in the aftermath of a Dáil election with no clear winner and in the midst of new Seanad elections, in which many of the Senators present are involved.The public are not interested in excuses, however, nor should they be. They expect us to do our jobs and to do everything in our power to protect them. To tackle Covid-19, Ireland needs, from our politicians, the legislation before us and may need more in the weeks ahead. It also needs a Government that is strong and stable; one that is realistic, ambitious and diverse; one that can last with the authority, mandate and majority to make decisions quickly, to pass legislation through the Houses at short notice if necessary, and to provide the leadership needed in the times ahead; one that not only makes the right decisions now, in the face of a global pandemic, but is also planning for a recovery that can inspire hope and confidence that we will emerge stronger and more united as a country; and one that is able to look to the future with optimism, based on a clear path forward that a Government needs to design.

Everything the Government is doing is shaped by prioritising the most effective response possible to combating Covid-19 and the impact it is having throughout society. In light of the challenges that lie ahead, part of the priority for me must now be finding a way to work with others to design a basis for a Government that can command a lasting majority in the Oireachtas. It is possible to get this done, and I believe it is possible to get this done quickly. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are working together through our negotiating teams to shape a process that, I hope, will encourage others to join us in designing this diverse yet stable Government with a credible mandate, not only to lead us through this emergency but also to focus on reimagining and reshaping Ireland for the better as we emerge on the other side. I invite others to play their part in these efforts. Ireland needs you.

Ireland's Government, as well as its civil and public service, has worked night and day to be as ready as we can be for the weeks ahead. I again thank all parties and Independents for the responsible role they have played in this House and in the Dáil, and I know we will see the same again today. We have before us a suite of laws that cross multiple parts of government and that will impact multiple sectors of our society. I will now outline some of the provisions for Senators and later, I hope, respond to some of the issues they will want to raise.

We are protecting renters and that important feeling of security in our homes, which is so vital for all of us at this time. The Bill will amend the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2019 to prevent both the termination of residential tenancies and rent increases for the duration of this crisis. The termination prohibition relates to cases where a notice of termination has been issued, including where the notice period has expired, and to future cases where a notice of termination might be issued. The rent increase prohibition will prevent any rent increases during this crisis, a period that may be extended. If any landlord in Ireland thinks he or she can ignore the law we are passing, he or she is very much mistaken. Part 3 contains measures that will give the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government powers for disregarding certain periods during the crisis to avoid breaching statutory deadlines relating to planning and building development. This is modelled on similar provisions in the planning laws that cover the Christmas period and is designed to avoid deemed decisions, or financial penalties where decisions are not being made within the statutory limits, and judicial reviews, where individuals contend that the process was not in accordance with statute.

Part 4 contains amendments from the Department of Health.The Bill contains a number of amendments to the Mental Health Acts 2001 to 2018 designed to facilitate the important ongoing operation of the mental health tribunals for the duration of the exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic. It will broaden the list of consultant psychiatrists available to the tribunal and extend the period in which the tribunal must make decisions. It will allow for reduced physical contact by allowing a second psychiatrist to examine a patient remotely and it will allow for one-member, paper-based tribunals, minimising personal interaction.

The Bill is allowing the fast-tracking of recruitment to bring back those who have answered the call to help the health service in the front line. It facilitates the re-employment of retired health sector workers by empowering regulators to adopt a more streamlined and simplified restoration process to the register of their profession for individuals who wish to respond to this emergency. This includes doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, pharmacists and other health and social care professionals, such as social workers, physiotherapists, radiographers, dietitians, opticians and occupational therapists. With staff shortages in the health sector, possibly exacerbated by health professionals becoming ill, as many have, it may be necessary to redeploy staff to positions where they are carrying out functions outside their normal role. We are enormously grateful to all of those who are answering the call.

The Defence Forces and gardaí will also play a vital role in the challenging period ahead. Part 5 enables the re-enlistment of former enlisted members to fill certain critical technical positions in the Permanent Defence Force. This provision to enable re-enlistment will support the Defence Forces in responding to the current crisis and more generally thereafter.

We are ensuring that the most vulnerable communities in Ireland are being reached and supported. The Bill includes measures from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Part 6 of the Bill includes provisions to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004 and Part 7 amends the Redundancy Payments Act 1967.

Part 8 contains provisions for a temporary wage subsidy scheme and demonstrates how we are all working together during this crisis. The scheme, operated by the Revenue Commissioners as that is the most efficient way to do it, will see the Government contribute to eligible firms' wage costs by paying them a wage subsidy to be passed on to the employee on a temporary basis. In simple terms, this is about keeping employees and employers together through this period. It is a little like trying to freeze-frame what we have created over the past nine years in terms of an economy that is growing and functioning, with almost full employment, and trying to protect what has been created for a three-month or four-month period, with three months the period to which the legislation applies. This is so that when we come out the other side, many of these companies, which will have been put under huge strain in getting through this from a cash flow and business perspective, will be able, we hope, to start from where they left off, or at least close to it, and not have to start a whole recruitment process, building a skillset across their businesses all over again. From an employee perspective, there is the importance of job security through all of this, when the alternative would be effectively to be on a jobseeker's allowance, not knowing whether they will or will not have an employment opportunity in the autumn. This makes sense for everybody. Yes, it is hugely expensive, but this is an investment to get us through an emergency and out the other side, and to keep an economy and people's income intact and stable through that period, or at least as stable as we can deliver.

The scheme is targeted at all sectors and employers will be expected to top up the wages of employees, if they can afford to do it. The wage subsidy to be paid shall be determined by reference to the weekly wages paid by employers to specified employees. The payments are liable to income tax. However, the subsidy is not taxable in real-time through the PAYE system during the specified period for the Covid-19 pandemic, although it will be taxable by review at the end of the year.In conclusion, time is not on our side today unfortunately. If we cannot get this legislation passed, people will not get paid today and in the next few days. It is as simple and blunt as that. Politicians and civil servants are often accused of getting tied up in red tape, but the speed at which this complex legislation has been drafted is extraordinary. I thank everyone who has made that happen.

If we have made mistakes, we will correct them in the weeks ahead and we will expect the co-operation of others in doing that. This may not be perfect, but as we have been advised by the World Health Organization, WHO, if we try to design something that is perfect we delay for far too long to be able to put comprehensive responses in place in a timely manner so as to respond to emergencies such as we are facing. If there are problems, we will look at them and try to correct them in time, but we need to get this legislation passed today. We are asking for everybody's co-operation in doing that.

I thank everyone. I will have a chance in another couple of hours to speak for perhaps five minutes. In case, however, I do not get the opportunity, I thank those in the House today for the last time for their service. To all those facing the uncomfortable wait for the election results next week, I wish them well. All else, however, needs to be secondary to what we are doing today. Hundreds of thousands of people are relying on us to get this done.


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