Friday, 27 March 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Planning and Development Act 2000 (Section 181) Regulations 2020, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion re Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; No. 2a, Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020 – all Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, with the proceedings at the debate on Second Stage to be brought to a conclusion after 90 minutes with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, time can be shared and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate, the proceedings on Committee and Remaining Stages shall be brought to a conclusion after three hours if not previously concluded, the proceedings on Committee Stage shall be brought to a conclusion within the following timetable by one question in each case which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government and the question shall dispose of all amendments addressed to the Part or Parts of the Bill to which they refer, or to the Preamble or Title, as appropriate, provided that if a Part concludes earlier than indicated the next Part shall immediately commence - Parts 1, 2 and 3, 55 minutes; Parts 4 and 5, 50 minutes; Parts 6, 7, 8 and 9, preamble and Title, 75 minutes; and No. 3, motion re earlier signature of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020, to be taken on conclusion of No. 2awithout debate.
With the Cathaoirleach's indulgence, I echo his remarks of last week that on the Order of Business we are discussing important legislation and I believe it is in all of our interests, in particular, those of the people who this Bill affects, that we get our business done on the Order of Business as efficiently as possible, and ask Members to respect that.
I ask at the beginning of the Order of Business that Members of the House, in tandem with the Dáil last night, would stand to applaud to our front line and health workers and those who are providing essential services in appreciation and thanks as Members of the Upper House.
We have a special sitting today in the most extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. Insofar as I can as Cathaoirleach, I urge Members to respect the Order of Business and just deal with the substantive debate. Members can expand. Most Members have eight minutes in which to speak unless they share time while second speakers have five minutes. I was probably too lenient on the last occasion and was criticised for it - appropriately. The Tánaiste is waiting so I ask Members to deal with the Order of Business efficiently and swiftly and to be very much to the point.
I will be brief but I wish to raise a few issues relating to the legislation we passed last week. First, I extend my condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil group to the ten families who lost loved ones yesterday, as well as to those who lost loved ones in the past week due to Covid-19 and to those in intensive care. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha. I also commend the Leader of the House on suggesting we clap front-line workers. Many of us stood outside our houses yesterday at 8 p.m. and witnessed the clapping for the front-line workers. It was very emotional. It felt like a very small gesture but I think it was appreciated. Obviously, the best thing we can do is stay at home and not encourage the further transmission of this virus.
Another thing we have all witnessed in the past while is the fact that many hospital workers on the front line are lacking personal protective equipment, PPE. If we look at other countries, we can see doctors and nurses fully kitted out in hazmat suits and really high-end PPE whereas in Ireland, we see bibs and masks. There is a significant order coming in but I urge the Minister for Health to do everything he can to get this PPE to those who need it on the front line quickly and expediently.
Dr. Gabrielle Colleran from the Irish Hospital Consultants Association said this morning that she wanted people to know that those with non-Covid-19 symptoms should still go to hospital, particularly those with heart attack or stroke-like symptoms, because they have a pathway for care for those people and want to look after them.
I have three points to make about the legislation passed last week. I understand that the Covid-19 payment is for those aged between 18 and 66. As there are people over 66 who, although they are in receipt of the contributory pension still rely on their income from their jobs, which they have lost, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection should look into this. We would also like to find out whether the wage subsidy scheme applies to company owners and directors. We were told that the Covid-19 payment scheme would apply in full to part-time workers but now we understand they will only get €203. Could we get some clarification on that?
Finally, nursing homes are crying out for help. There are 25,000 highly vulnerable people in nursing homes. We know they are the most vulnerable. Once this virus gets into a nursing home, it is very serious. Nursing homes are looking for support, PPE, staffing and funding so I ask the Government to look into this as well.
I am cognisant of the time today. Like everyone in here today, I begin by paying tribute to all those committing time, energy and resources to combatting the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether one is a front-line salaried worker or a volunteer, support teams composed of employees and volunteers and tens of thousands of people are giving of their time, energy and money to navigate their way through this crisis and all must be commended. Furthermore, in an era of information overload exacerbated by the global pandemic, it is critically important to disseminate credible, trusted and validated information and the Government must be commended on the publication of the public information booklet on Covid-19. Truth and transparency are central to collectively tackling this scourge.
I fully support this Bill and its capacity and additional mechanisms in exceptional circumstances to underpin an overall multifaceted strategic plan to deal with coronavirus. There is no silver bullet. This legislation will assist in the interim to protect tenants, landlords, medical staff and healthcare workers; support the re-engagement of Defence Forces; support employees and employers; and ensure the State can function through these challenging circumstances. I applaud those behind the testing strategy and I support any initiative that can expand or accelerate the testing regime. Testing and tracing, in conjunction with isolation and social distancing, can defeat this threat. Testing in the Republic has been more advanced and broader than in the North and this must be acknowledged with 15,000 tests a day carried out here compared to around 1,150 per day by next week in Northern Ireland but we can never test enough.In addition, it must be noted that for testing to be effective it must be faster, engaging earlier and driving results quicker to really impact on containing the spread of the virus. We need to continually follow the advice of medical experts and be led by them because testing has limitations around resources and time and therefore, when the case definition has changed we must support expert opinion about utilising resources to best effect. This is in all our interests.
We have good companies in Ireland working flat out to assist in this battle, for example, companies such as O'Neills, who are better known for the manufacture of sports gear and clothing, which is now redirecting resources to the manufacture of protective clothing for medical staff. A number of companies are working hard to develop tests and test kits for coronavirus, something we should support and assist to fast-track the development and supply of test kits. In fact, a reference was made to this yesterday by a Deputy in the Dáil who suggested that contact should be made with Randox, a company in Northern Ireland that is already developing test kits. The interesting point for me is that one does not need to go to Northern Ireland, Randox is already operating in the Republic of Ireland.
I received a phone call on Wednesday evening from Senator Billy Lawless who is in Chicago. He is grounded in Chicago as a consequence of Covid-19 and is unable to return to Ireland for the Seanad sittings and asked me on his behalf to wish all the candidates the very best in the upcoming election, but that was not the purpose of his call. He called to apologise for his inability to vote to support any candidates in the upcoming Seanad election because even though he was able to present himself to an official to mark his ballot paper as supervised, he was unable to vote. This issue was made all the more frustrating by the fact that his wife, Anne, and his daughter Clodagh were both able to vote, unsupervised, on the NUI panel. It was not for want to trying. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, sent a personal note stating that he was unable to propose any amendment to the law or make an exception for any individual. Furthermore, Senator Lawless also asked me to thank Martin Groves for "his Trojan efforts exploring all avenues to enable him to exercise his right", something, unfortunately, he was unable to do. This is a further example of an issue concerning the functioning of the Seanad that must be addressed in Seanad reform to ensure this House remains fit for purpose and can operate along robust protocols and principles in an appropriate manner in the 21st century.
Each of the first two speakers has doubled their time. I am trying to be lenient and fair but there are serious issues to be dealt with today. There is a Minister waiting. I urge Members to bear in mind that they have a maximum of two minutes and they should try to respect that. I do not want to bang on the bell and dictate but I ask people to please respect the rules. I remind all that the big issue of today is the emergency legislation. I call Senator Máire Devine next and also urge her to be brief.
I usually am, a Chathaoirligh. This is an extraordinary human and economic crisis that we are going through. I express sympathy and solidarity with people across the globe, especially those at the epicentre at present. This is the first disease outbreak in generations and it is also the first since social media has become a main form of interaction. I caution the deliberate spread of disinformation. Risk communication is so important that all of us need to focus on providing authoritative information to ensure accurate data drive our actions, unlike that idiot across the Atlantic whose gung-ho attitude is promoting lethal medicine as a cure. A witch doctor is the last thing health science needs.
I welcome student nurses who are effectively on the front line now. We need to look at paying them and all other staff, including student radiographers and others. Medics are effectively performing wartime triage, facing many ethical and traumatic challenges in the national and international arena. I am sorry but this is quite upsetting, as I know how the situation is for them. The solidarity displayed last night in my neighbourhood at 8 p.m., the surge of kindness and the atmosphere of altruism were delightful. Long may it last. The call from all workers in front-line services is "Stay at home because they can't". People should please stay at home. We have no idea where this will go or how long it will last. We are focusing on bending the curve. The exceptional disruption to the economy will need bold policies for recovery but let us never forget that money is meant to serve and is precisely for moments such as this.As we recover physically, mentally and economically, we cannot fixate on what markets demand over and above people. We must treasure what is valuable and boldly tackle inequality and climate crisis. While world scientists and researchers work on a cure and a vaccine, it is the basics of personal hygiene and physical distancing which will hold the line until the weakness of Covid-19 is exploited. Wash your hands. Stay at home.
I join with everybody in thanking our front-line staff, both in our hospitals and care homes, as well as in addiction services and homeless services who are struggling right now to maintain staff and get crisis staff in. I would urge again, as I did last week, to remember there are other services outside of our traditional health services which also need relief staff. This should be communicated with anybody we know in the social care setting.
I also send my sympathies to the families of the ten people who have passed away so far. I know from attending my own nanny's funeral this week that it is a hard time to lose someone, especially when one cannot hold and embrace others through that grief.
I thank the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who two weeks ago quickly agreed to meet me in the Department of Education and Skills, along with the Taoiseach's office, to look at plans to ensure vulnerable families and communities still had access to school meals. I made a proposal and the night before yesterday the Minister rang me to say they had now completed their plans to put it in place. It extended much further than any proposal I made. I thank the staff in the Department for acting quickly to ensure that all the families affected still have access to school meals.
If this is the last time that I stand here to speak after next week's elections, I know the communities like mine and the families I have aimed to support will be struggling massively. They have been struggling massively since our last economic crisis. We will struggle going forward into the future. If it is not within these walls, it will be in some guise that I will continue to support the families I have aimed to support for the past four years in this House. I thank everybody for the learnings but also for supporting me in being able to bring a message of change to the communities that I care most about.
I would like to join with the Cathaoirleach in extending sympathies to Senator Ruane on her loss. I am very sorry to hear that at such a difficult time. On behalf of Labour Party Senators, I would like to express condolences to the families of the ten people whose deaths were so sadly announced last night, to the 19 families who had been bereaved so far in this jurisdiction and the 29 on this island. I extend my sympathies to all those who have been affected either directly through illness themselves, the illness of loved ones or through job losses or other economic hardships.
I join with others in commending all our front-line workers. I was glad to participate last night on my own street in the applause in which we all took part. I also thank the Leader for suggesting we would do the same today at the end of the Order of Business. That is commendable.
On the Bill today, Senator Kevin Humphreys will be leading for us. We will be welcoming it as my colleagues, Deputies Duncan Smith and Nash, did in the Dáil last night. Several issues have been raised with me – I am sure with other colleagues too – which I have raised directly with the Minister concerning the procedures, for example, of the Mental Health Commission during this crisis. It is important to ensure there is not too onerous a regulatory or administrative burden put on those trying to operate those procedures now, particularly for inpatients.
I wish to raise one other issue concerning the operation of the Seanad which has been reported on by Marie O'Halloran in The Irish Timestoday, namely, whether an incoming Seanad can validly sit before the nomination of the Taoiseach’s nominees. Our clear advice in the Labour Party, and my own considered view having looked at the Constitution and Standing Orders, is a view shared by my Trinity College Dublin colleague, Dr. Oran Doyle, and by Tom Hickey in Dublin City University, both of whom wrote a piece in The Irish Timesyesterday expressing the view that the Seanad can be lawfully constituted without the Taoiseach's nominees.That is based on our reading of Article 18 of the Constitution. Article 18.8 gives the Taoiseach a power that cannot be confined or contradicted by Seanad Standing Orders. That power allows the Taoiseach to advise the President on the first meeting of the Seanad after a general election, regardless of whether Seanad Standing Orders require the nominees to be appointed first. If one looks at Seanad Standing Orders, one can see that Standing Order 190 gives a power to suspend Standing Orders for a sitting. Therefore, I do not even think it is necessary for us to amend our own Standing Orders to enable a newly constituted Seanad of 49 Senators to sit and validly pass legislation after next week's election before the Taoiseach's 11 nominees have been appointed. I am aware a different legal view is being expressed in Government circles, apparently on the basis of the Attorney General's advice but a reading of Article 18 of the Constitution clearly implies that the Seanad would be lawfully constituted. I say this in aid of the Government and, indeed, of all our efforts to ensure we can continue to operate through this crisis and address all the challenges that may arise and to ensure any further emergency legislation that may have to be passed may be passed. I commend all those who are working so hard to prevent the spread of this virus.
There are different views on that. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Government to resolve. I am sure the Government will be relying on expert legal advice also. I, as Cathaoirleach, will stay out of that one.
Again, I want to be brief because the Minister is waiting. Senators seem to want to contribute now because it is the last day, but since we will be here until 6 o'clock or 7 o'clock this evening, there will be loads of time. I wonder who will be here at 6 o'clock this evening debating the important issues.
I realise time is tight. I support colleagues' views on the great effort being made to tackle this unfortunate virus. We have spoken about the economy, education and the health service but the agriculture service and agriculture community also need a mention. I want to talk about the genuine mental stress farmers are under. The Cathaoirleach produced an important report many years ago on farm safety. This is the new farm safety issue. Farmers have been very isolated and are very much by themselves. I participated in a farm discussion group conversation on Monday, using a call-in centre. That is the kind of scenario we need to start talking about.
Farmers are also experiencing financial stress. The closing of the marts last Wednesday has had a major impact on the agriculture community. Farmers realise there is no need for gathering at marts but there has to be flexibility so marts can do farm-to-farm sales, which are not allowed currently under the legislation. The legislation is allowing the movement of animals only for export. Farm-to-farm movement through the mart system needs to be looked at again so farmers will have the ability to survive. One of the issues the Cathaoirleach was so strong about years ago was farm safety. The new farm-safety issue on farms is mental health. We need to start talking about it and promoting it. It is one of the key issues for all who are trapped and need a little support.
As I know for certain this is my last Order of Business, I certainly want to speak. I commiserate with Senator Ruane on the loss of her nan and with all those who have lost loved ones to this virus. It is probably the most difficult set of circumstances in which to lose a loved one, as the Senator so eloquently pointed out.
I praise my colleagues for all the work they have done. Having been working in my surgery every day, I am cognisant that every time there is a change, confusion can result. The telephones never stop ringing. I am referring to our reception and administrative staff, not just in general practitioners' surgeries but throughout our healthcare system. The staff are handling a large number of calls. I thank the public and, in particular, my own patients. They have shown such restraint and understanding over recent weeks in what is clearly a very worrying time for them.
There are many issues that need to be clarified. We will do so when considering the Bill so I will not delay. What I do want to say, however, because I feel very strongly about it, is that anybody who coughs or spits at somebody is guilty of an offence at the same level as the offence committed by somebody who threatens somebody with a syringe full of blood. What will dictate the outcome for this country and the number of people we will lose is not the behaviour of this virus but our behaviour as a society and as communities.I ask those who think that this is fun and that it is all right not to maintain social distancing to please think of the people in their lives whom they love, such as their grandparents, the vulnerable in their households who may have underlying conditions, and indeed the 21 year old girl who died in England with no underlying conditions. This is as serious a situation as we could have. We could have a really good outcome if we all obey the rules for safe social distancing, covering one's mouth with a hanky or elbow when coughing or sneezing, and staying at home as much as possible. I saw one YouTube video of doctors holding up a sign stating that they are staying at work to keep people safe, and to please stay at home to keep the doctors safe.
Senator Reilly is a medical doctor. I got a call from Senator Swanick from Mayo, who is anxious to be here today, but he rang me yesterday to say that his priority and first duty was to stay and look after the people of Mayo and Belmullet. He got his priorities right, so he decided not to come. I understand where Senator Reilly is coming from, from a medical point of view.
Before I call on the Leader to respond, I want to offer my sincere thanks to the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence during the term of the Seanad, and wish him the very best in his retirement. I thank the Leader, Senator Buttimer, with whom I had a very good working relationship, and the leaders and whips of all the groups here. I thank the temporary chairpersons for their assistance during the 25th Seanad, Senators Wilson, Ned O'Sullivan, Horkan, Coffey and O'Mahony, both of whom I wish well in their retirement, Senators Mulherin, who is here today, Gallagher, Conway, Noone, Paul Daly, Craughwell, Feighan and Neale Richmond, who are now elected to the other House, and Senators Lombard, Byrne and O'Reilly. I hope I am leaving nobody out. Without the acting chairs, we could not operate. I wish all on the Seanad election trail every success. We are in uncertain times and hopefully we will be back in this Chamber in the not-too-distant future. There are tough times ahead for us all and I urge Senators and their families to stay safe in light of Covid-19. Listen to the HSE and medical advice. Stay at home if at all possible. I thank the front-line workers. I commend the Leader for his suggestion that at the conclusion of the Order of Business, we will have a replica of what happened in the other House to show our appreciation to people on the front-line, including doctors, nurses, emergency services and all staff on the front.
I thank the Clerk, Martin Groves, who has done an excellent job as Clerk over the last four years. He has accomplished himself and I wish him well. I thank the Clerk-Assistant, Bridget Doody, and the staff of the Seanad Office, including Ilinca, Carol and Eden, my girl Friday, Aisling, and my secretary, Sheena, who are also particularly helpful. I thank the people in the Bills Office, Journal Office, Debates Office, the Superintendent and the Captain of the Guard, the ushers, service officers, stationery stores, cleaners, ICT unit and all the staff of the House without whom this Chamber would not function. I want to offer sincere thanks as this is the last sitting of this Seanad. I owe them appreciation. I should not forget the people who looked after me, my drivers, Bart and Kevin. There were days that I would not have made it here but for their indulgence.
I call the Leader to respond.
I send our deepest sympathies to the families of the ten people who died. On my behalf and that of the Fine Gael group, I extend our deepest sympathies to Senator Ruane on the death of her grandmother, Maureen Lotsy from Finglas. Death and bereavement is a very difficult time but it is even more so without a hug or ability to say goodbye. The legacy of Senator Ruane's grandmother will live on in her work and I offer my deepest sympathies to Senator Ruane and her family.None of us ever envisaged the situation in which we find ourselves. I pay tribute to all those working in our health system. I thank them for their work, commitment and dedication. At the end of the Order of Business, I wish to acknowledge and thank them most sincerely. At a time when our food supply chain is so critical, I also wish to thank those who work in retail, those in our shops who make sure that our shelves are full of food, those who produce and supply food, those who clean our streets and those involved in tasks we take for granted. We extend our thanks to all of these people.
Senators raised the issue of the Covid-19 Bill. I am happy to defer to the Cathaoirleach's pronouncement to the effect that Members should engage on this matter during discussion of the Bill. I ask Senator Ardagh to reflect on what Mr. Liam Woods said on "Morning Ireland" this morning. We are running low on protective equipment and clothing but we are not out of it and there is more to come. Ministers will address that issue during the course of the debate.
I thank those in the education system for their innovation in educating our young people today. As the Cathaoirleach has said, the Twenty-Fifth Seanad comes to an end today. As Leader, I thank the Cathaoirleach for his courtesy, fairness, good humour and impartiality at all times. I pay tribute to him and thank him for his work as Chair. I also pay tribute to the Leas-Chathaoirleach, who is retiring, for his unfailing courtesy to all of us. We wish him well at this time. I am sure he is anxious to be here next week for the count. We thank him as well.
We offer our thanks and compliments to retiring Members on the work they have done not only in this Seanad but in previous Seanads. I wish all who are contesting the election good luck and every success next week. Only 49 of us can be elected. I hope that as many as possible of those 49 will be Members of this outgoing Seanad. I wish all candidates well.
I thank all members of the staff. The Cathaoirleach has listed them so I will not go through them all but I thank them most sincerely for their courtesy and commitment. I particularly refer to the staff of the Seanad Office, the Bills Office and the Journal Office and to our recording people who are here today who have to endure us, often at unsocial hours. I pay tribute to Orla Murray in my office for her efficiency, courtesy and professionalism at all times. Senator Marshall made reference to Senator Lawless's predicament with regard to voting. We need to address that issue in the future.
Today is not a day for a long Order of Business. It has been a privilege and a huge honour to serve as Leader of the Seanad for the past number of years. I thank all group leaders and whips for their courtesy and professionalism. I now ask all of us to thank and salute those who have worked so tirelessly for us over recent months.