Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I extend my welcome to the Minister to the Chamber and wish her well in her job in the time ahead. The Bill is designed to legally regularise assistance for the many people who have lost their jobs or whose jobs have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Of course, we want the payment to be put on a strong, statutory footing, and with that in mind, we will support the Bill.The Government is presenting this as an opportunity outside of the hothouse environment of a few months ago when the virus was out of control and many people were dying or in hospital to respond calmly to the people's needs arising from the impact of the virus on their working lives. The Bill is supposed to reflect a calm and considered response to an obvious life-threatening emergency that also has serious economic consequences.
There are many positive aspects to the Bill, such as ensuring that many of those employees who are relying on the pandemic unemployment payment - whoever named that should note that it has caused many a tongue twister - will continue receiving it. However, a Bill aiming to protect workers fails at the first hurdle, that is, where someone works in this State but lives in the North. It does not assist such workers even though they have paid their contributions to this State and make a valuable contribution to this economy. Many of them have been working and paying their dues in this State for decades. The Bill discriminates against them once again, given that the Government overlooked them when the pandemic unemployment payment was introduced in March. Instead of admitting that it had forgotten about them, though, it blamed its decision on EU regulations. We now have information that shows that that was nothing more than a pathetic excuse from a Government that had yet again exposed its partitionist nature. My party colleague, Mr. Chris MacManus, MEP, raised this issue with Europe and has received clarification from the European Commission informing him that the Government can make these payments legally. There is no barrier to this payment being made other than this Government's lack of political will. I urge the Government to include these workers as a matter of urgency. It is within its gift to make the payment if it wishes. So far, it has chosen not to do so. The Government must act to include this group of workers, who number in their thousands. Once again, the partition of this island has negatively impacted on the lives of people who live in Border constituencies. Unfortunately, the Government has left them behind.
There are further issues. Government announcements, which are changing on an hourly basis, are seeking to punish those who, for many reasons, might find themselves in an airport lounge. Even with the latest U-turn, it looks like the Government is labelling, pointing at or bordering on discriminating against people who have lost their jobs and been unable to return to work through no fault of their own and who may have already paid thousands of euro for holidays on which they now cannot get a refund all thanks to the Government's chaotic advice on travel.
My main concern has to do with how data is being used at airports to discriminate against those who have travelled before. This question needs to be answered today. Other than the Tánaiste, who clearly stated on national television last weekend that there was information being gathered at airports, I have not heard any member of the Cabinet tell us how that was done and whether it was legal. Regardless of whether it is legal, it is certainly immoral. It is immoral that a Government could allow this to happen at any time, but it is disgraceful that the Government is using such data at a time like this. In yesterday's The Irish Times, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, raised concerns about the legal basis of the Government's actions.
The Government seems to be chaotic and making up the rules as it goes along. The farce at the airports is only one example of many. It turns out that, while the Minister's Department was last week planning to cut PUP for many, the Government was oiling its gravy chain, awarding large increases in salaries for Ministers of State. In the face of anger and major opposition, the Government this week seemingly performed a U-turn on that. The Government is the only organisation that I am aware of that claims to give itself a pay cut that in fact results in a pay rise. What is going on within the Cabinet of chaos? There have been more flip-flops in its position over the past few weeks than there have been flip-flops sold in Penneys this summer. Due to the fact that we must ensure that some workers continue to receive much-needed support at this time, we will lend our support to the Bill. However, it is deeply disappointing that the Government's antics have excluded many thousands of workers and, let us not forget, pensioners in this scheme. It has caused problems for women on maternity leave and for people who have chosen to travel.
The one aspect that has been clear over the past few weeks is that the Government has been forced, not only by the strong and effective opposition by Sinn Féin and others on the left, but by people across the island to turn on outrageous decisions. As to the so-called clarity that we got from the Minister in the Chamber today, and with all due respect, the only clarity is that if someone has a private jet and is fortunate enough to travel to Monaco, he or she is fine to travel. Otherwise, anyone's guess is as good as mine.
I will make a final point if I may. I am a new Senator, but I have found it very frustrating and confusing watching many parties that almost claim to be in opposition challenging one another. The three parties in the coalition need to accept responsibility for being the Government. They wear the jersey, so they need to own it. It has been infuriating watching people challenging the Government when they are the Government. People need to accept the reality that it is a three-party coalition and they must accept responsibility when Ministers make decisions on their behalf.