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
The Tánaiste is very welcome. It was very strange travelling up to Dublin today from Limerick to find there were no cars on the road during rush hour. Obviously, that is a very good thing in that it shows that people are listening. What we are facing though is still shocking.
I commend people from all parties for the effort they have made, in particular the Government for its response to the recent crisis. Sinn Féin is determined to play a constructive role. We will demonstrate that today in the amendments we have tabled. We will not push any amendment to a full vote, although we may put a couple of them to a voice vote. We will withdraw some amendments too because we do not want to, unnecessarily, prolong this debate. We want to deal with the business that needs to be dealt with, see the Bill through and get the support people badly need.
I begin by expressing my sympathy to the families who have already lost loved ones to Covid-19. It was very shocking to hear the figure of ten and yet, as has already been acknowledged, we know there are worse figures, unfortunately, to come. I pay tribute to all of our healthcare workers who are responding so magnificently to this crisis. They are truly in the front line, putting their own health at risk in order to care for and save the lives of our loved ones. The statistic that one in four persons who have contracted Covid-19 is a healthcare worker tells us all we need to know about the bravery of those people, especially those coming back into the service, like my colleague, Senator Devine, whom I know has volunteered already. They deserve not only our respect and admiration but real delivery in terms of the issues on which they need support. I refer in particular to the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE. I listened to "Morning Ireland" this morning and I am glad to hear the shipment is coming in on Sunday. I am also glad to hear that we have not quite run out of PPE but Senator Higgins's point about making sure we listen to workers on the front line is particularly pertinent in that regard. Of course, it is not just healthcare workers, it is retail workers, power workers, transport workers, truck drivers, workers in factories such as Medtronic, which makes ventilators, where I used to serve as a union official, pharmacy workers, and the Defence Forces.
I was very struck by the quote from Jeremy Corbyn and I want to read it into the record of the House. On his last appearance as leader of the Labour Party in Britain he said:
We can all now see that jobs that are never celebrate[d] are essential to keep society going. Think of the refuse workers, the supermarket shelf-stackers, the delivery drivers, the cleaners. [He said, those grades of worker] are often dismissed as low-skilled. But I ask, who are we least able to do without in a crisis – the refuse collector or the billionaire hedge fund manager?
He asked who is doing more for our society at this very moment. I think it was a very powerful quote from Jeremy.
I want to address the issue of safety. I welcome the statement from SIPTU yesterday. It is very significant because SIPTU is by far the largest union when it comes to construction workers.SIPTU put out a clear statement calling for the immediate closure of workplaces and building sites where workers are at risk of Covid-19. The key point is that trade unions cannot close these sites. Employers cannot close these sites as they are contractually bound to deliver. We need the Government to shut down those sites. Having given the Tánaiste credit for so many good things this Government has done in recent weeks, I ask him not to dodge this because it is difficult. Workers are at risk. They are obliged to go to work until those sites are closed. The only organisation which can close these sites is the Government. There are 30,000 workers involved. We all know that they are not safe. We need the Government to act in exactly the same way it has on other issues. We cannot delay on this particular issue.
The proposed changes to the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act, specifically the decisions to adopt Sinn Féin’s proposals to halt evictions and freeze rents are welcome. I was disappointed, however, to hear those changes characterised by the Taoiseach yesterday as representing bad policy in the normal course of events and only being acceptable because of the current emergency. Clearly our Taoiseach still remains unaware of the emergency in housing that has been ongoing for the past five years and more. The Government should go further and ensure renters who do not have a tenancy agreement are also protected.
A provision was added by my colleagues in People Before Profit yesterday to protect people on licence. We are not clear as to whether it does or not. It would be helpful to know whether that amendment added to the Bill gives legal effect to protect people on licence in terms of their accommodation.
There is an issue with provisions to ensure people do not rack up a crushing level of debt in rent arrears. We know this is a problem that will be happening. We are asking the Government to consult with landlords, tenants and mortgage organisations to come up with a report on how this issue can be dealt with. That is a reasonable request. We will not push it to a vote today but under our amendments are looking for a commitment in this regard. I ask other Senators who believe this is sensible proposal to give it verbal support today.
The proposals on a temporary wage subsidy are welcome. Significant credit should be given to the trade union movement for its work on coming up with this model, alongside ourselves. I share some of the concerns that Senator Mulherin referred to concerning Richard Grogan’s article. I do not know whether the Tánaiste saw this article on the scheme. My concern is simple. The scheme has to work. Employers have to buy into it. Workers need to be engaged through it. Then we can see a better status for our economy, as well as for working people and families. Richard Grogan expressed particular concern in terms of fraudulent trading. I would like to see those concerns addressed when the Tánaiste responds.
The wage subsidy proposals do not go far enough, as noted by Deputy Pearse Doherty yesterday. There is a danger that they could be open to abuse by unscrupulous employers. Sinn Féin proposes a model that will guarantee 100% of income up to €525 a week for workers and the self-employed who are laid off due to this crisis. My union, SIPTU, brought out a similar proposal. Employers should have to make up the rest of the 30% of workers’ salaries in our view. Under the Government's proposals, employers can just pay 1% towards employees’ pay and still avail of this scheme.
People naturally talk about the concerns regarding the cost involved in these proposals. Can I remind Members that only ten years ago, we spent €64 billion bailing out the banks? By my reckoning, at €300 million a week, that gives us a good four years to bail out people. Surely people are more important than banks in this whole process.