Thursday, 10 September 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
In July, Members stood in the Seanad in silence to remember Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali and seven other front-line workers who lost their lives in the service of others during this pandemic. This week, Dr. Ali's daughter, Dr. Samar Fatima Ali, spoke of her unending grief at the loss of her father, one of those front-line workers. The heroism of Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali and the grief of his family throw the events in Clifden in August into sharp focus. I raise the issues of that event and the heroism of the Ali family and our front-line workers to remind Senators of our duty as representatives to redouble our efforts to restore the trust of the public.The event in August has undermined public faith in public representatives. This has led to citizens of this State questioning if there is one rule for them and another rule for the lawmakers. In this country, all citizens are equal. Nobody is above the rules. That is the case whether one is a Minister, a Senator, a Commissioner or a judge. The contrast between Clifden and the sacrifices that hundreds of thousands of people are making every day has been corrosive on the public trust in politicians at a time when we need all the moral authority possible in asking people to make life-altering sacrifices. At this stage, Members of this House who attended that dinner in Clifden have acknowledged their mistake and expressed their regret. They have been sanctioned by their parties. I know that they will be at the forefront in regaining the public trust over the coming years. The reality is that as politicians and representatives we owe it to Dr. Ali and his family and all families affected by Covid-19 to work together over the coming days, weeks and months to support our communities and our country as we continue to fight this pandemic.
Under the powers conferred on me by Standing Order 22(2) of the Standing Orders of Seanad Éireann Relative to Public Business, I summoned Seanad Éireann to meet at 10.30 a.m. on 10 September 2020 for the purpose of considering the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020. Under Standing Orders, today's business is confined to the subject matter set out in the summons dated 7 September 2020, specifically, No. 1 on today's Order Paper. Directly related to No. 1 is No. 2, the earlier signature motion to enable the Bill, if passed, to be signed by the President at an earlier date. No other business can be taken today. Contributions on the Order of Business will, therefore, be strictly confined to the arrangements for the taking of the two items of business, and any amendments proposed to the Order of Business must relate only to those arrangements. Contributions by Members to the substance of the Bill should be reserved for the debate on the Bill and should not be made on the Order of Business.
I invite the Leader to propose the arrangements for the taking of Nos. 1 and 2.
We are in a terrible situation. There are two views in Britain, one of which is that an Englishman's word is his bond, which was my father's attitude, and the other Mr. Johnson's view, which seems to go with the French view, perfide Albion. How can we trust a country that violates international law? This is a really serious matter and we should not be precluded from discussing it.
I appreciate that. As the father of the House, I feel a certain responsibility to the democratic traditions of this House. We have domestic situations around fobbing in. We are told we must fob in. We are also told that we must stay at home, observe social distancing and stay out of the office. The messaging is contradictory.
That matter is also one for the CPP. Many of the issues that Senators might raise today will be matters for the CPP. I will indicate when that is the case and ask the Senators concerned to sit down accordingly. As I outlined, the Order of Business is strictly in regard to the arrangements that the Leader will now outline.
The Order of Business is No. 1, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020 - all Stages, to be taken at 1 p.m., with the contributions of groups' spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each on Second Stage, and with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter, and No. 2, earlier signature motion on the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 without debate.
I support the Order of Business and will reserve my comments on the substance of the Bill until the discussion later.
I wish to put on the record of the House that there was an attempt by the Government to have the Seanad sit yesterday and to have a longer sitting today to accommodate the Minister for Education and Skills yesterday and the Minister with responsibility for higher education today-----
With regard to the Order of Business, some Members of the House have expressed dissatisfaction that all Stages of the Bill are being taken today. If we had been facilitated in sitting yesterday and in having two sitting days, and to have the Ministers with responsibility for education and higher education before the House, we would not have had to take all Stages today. We were trying to accommodate those views and the Opposition-----
It is related to the Order of Business and to the question of what is being put on the record. It is in the discretion and power of the Government to convene and to have other sessions. The suggestion is that other Members of this House have somehow stopped the Government from having a session with the Minister. As somebody who has strong views on higher education, the return to higher education and education in general, to suggest that we have stopped that from happening is an inaccuracy. Given that the previous speaker said she would like to put that on the record, I would like to have it expunged and withdrawn from the record. Then I am happy to proceed to discuss the Order of Business with due process.
Let me clarify. Regarding the sitting yesterday, this will come up at the CPP. It relates to the Order of Business before us today, the sitting of the House and the arrangements. We made an attempt to facilitate a sitting in the Seanad Chamber. We needed agreement from everybody and we will discuss this further at the CPP. We could not get the agreement of Members not to call for divisions yesterday. We would not be in compliance with public health guidelines if we had a sitting in the Seanad Chamber-----
I have outlined exactly the situation. As outlined by Senator Chambers, I wanted to correct what was said. Senator Chambers said that agreement could not be reached and that is correct. Agreement could not be reached yesterday-----
Again, I am happy to agree to meet in the Seanad and so forth. Nonetheless, let us be clear that the initial statement was that we wanted to bring in the Ministers, but agreement could not be reached. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the clarification as to the point on which agreement could not be reached. To use a sweeping statement such as agreement could not be reached with regard to Ministers coming to the Seanad to speak and to answer questions was inaccurate. It has been clarified by the Cathaoirleach and it has been clarified in relation to the vote. That was not in Senator Chambers's initial statement.
If that was the Senators' interpretation of what I said that is not my issue. What I said was completely accurate, as has been confirmed by the Cathaoirleach of this House. I never suggested it was Senator Higgins. I said that we could not reach agreement. That is 100% accurate. It needed no clarification.
First I want to observe that having stated that the business of this sitting of the Seanad was solely concerned with the Government's Bill, the Cathaoirleach himself then breached it by making remarks about Clifden.
I do not agree with some of what was said and I do not believe it is the function of the Chair to make remarks of that kind. I do not believe it is the function of the Ceann Comhairle to make far more trenchant remarks in his Chamber.
Excuse me, a Chathaoirligh. If we are here to discuss one item only, which is the Bill and the Order of Business relating to it today, then the Cathaoirleach himself led off by breaching that. Just remember that. It is not the Cathaoirleach's function to talk from that seat about Commissioners or judges. It is not that at all.
On the point raised by Senator McDowell, that issue will obviously be coming before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, as the Senator is aware. It is about the ordinary running of this House. That is the function of the Chair.
I am just pointing out that if the Order of Business is to be adhered to, then the Cathaoirleach should do it himself.
I do not believe that the measure before us is of such urgency that it must be dealt with in one day. I do not believe we should be in a position that there is pressure on us not to call votes because of the cumbersome nature of votes being called.
I am not talking about yesterday. I am talking about today and whether this Bill is of sufficient urgency to justify having all Stages dealt with in one day, putting us under pressure not to call votes on amendments, etc., in order to rush the Bill through.
That is the point I make. I am opposed to the idea that this Bill needs to be rushed through in one day. Some of the measures in it are good, some are excessive and some need to be amended. There is no need for us to rush it through. This is not an emergency. In my view, and I may be in a minority on this, it is not a matter of tremendous urgency that the particular powers to close pubs in circumstances that are envisaged by the Bill, either temporarily or for longer periods, must be rushed through without adequate consideration. We are supposed to be a revising Chamber. We are supposed to be a Chamber that looks carefully at legislation that comes before us. It is simply not acceptable that the House is reduced to the state of being a rubber stamp.I fully accept that the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas are doing their level best to marry the idea of public health guidelines to the sitting arrangements of these Houses. I fully accept that there are pressure points and difficulties involved in both. However, as I will be raising at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges later, there is the Mansion House around the corner which, in my youth, could accommodate 2,000 or 3,000 people at an Ard Fheis and certainly could-----
I suggest, a Chathaoirligh, that we agree to meet tomorrow. Then we could have a proper Order of Business today. There would not be the rush and we could have votes tomorrow and today. Would that not solve it, if we met on Friday?
For the third time, Chairman, I am not talking about the education debate. I am talking about the attempt today to rush through in one day without adequate consideration the criminal justice Bill which is before us. I am not talking about the education statements at all. I am saying I object-----
That is all part of a plan to get this Bill rushed through into legislation and not adequately considered. It is a phony urgency that attaches to this Bill. For that reason I am not content to agree to the Order of Business.
Fair enough. I will outline to the House one more time that there was a lot of effort put in over the last couple of weeks to try to get agreement that we would sit for two days, but on one of those days we could not have votes because we did not have arrangements to sit in the Seanad Chamber and have votes at the same time. We could not get agreement among the Members of the House. We can only do it safely by agreement. That is why we did not sit yesterday as had been proposed. That is why business is confined to today as it stands. I call Senator Ó Donnghaile.
The Cathaoirleach stated in his remarks to us that this is a special sitting of the Seanad. The point I want to make is that it should not be. It should have been the business as scheduled and presented to Members at the end of last week. I do not know where this issue of not agreeing to the two days sitting is emanating from. I was asked as leader of the Sinn Féin group and gave our consent to the proposal as outlined by the Leader. I think it is a fair accommodation. In his address to us before the Order of Business this morning, the Cathaoirleach rightly spoke about reinstilling public confidence in this Chamber. The best way for us to seek to do that is to be meeting regularly, actively and in a way that deals with the big issues.
In terms of the Order of Business, perhaps the Cathaoirleach could advise me. I think part of his role is to advise and protect us in terms of our entitlements to ask questions and get guidance. I have flagged consistently over the past couple of weeks, as I am sure all Members will acknowledge, that the consistent approach of rushing all Stages of a Bill, and sometimes two Bills, through the Seanad in one day is not good practice and should be a cause of deep concern for Members. It is not a good way to do business.I do not agree that this is how we should approach today's sitting. What happened to Commencement matters? Why are there no Commencement matters? No one needs a vote on Commencement matters.
I will say this. I have made my point. I am deeply concerned that, when we look at the approach in the round, we can see we have gone from being called back early and having three-day sittings, to having a two-day sitting and now to having a one-day sitting with one item. That does not bode well.
It should not have been a special sitting. That is the point. I know of the Cathaoirleach's interest in the issue of Brexit and our collective well-being and future. The members of the British Government are on their feet in their parliament telling us that they are going to break international law.
This has gone beyond the realm of being disrespectful to Members of this House to bordering on being undemocratic in terms of what is being done. It should give everyone in this House cause for concern. If this is to become the precedent, then it is deeply worrying. I am confident in saying that those of us on this side of the House would be highly reluctant to participate in business that reduces and demeans the House and amounts to a rubber-stamping exercise involving racing through all Stages of a Bill in one fell swoop. It is a disgrace.
I understand that Senator Ó Donnghaile agreed to the arrangements that were being proposed for Wednesday and Thursday. Not everyone did. The issue with regard to bringing up Brexit and other matters does not relate to a special sitting. The only person who asked me to bring back this House to address any item was the Taoiseach. No Senator wrote to me to ask that we discuss Brexit or any other item.
No, the only thing that I was asked to bring the House back for, in a letter from the Taoiseach, was for the Senators to consider the Bill that will soon come before us. No Senator asked me to bring back the House for any other reason. This is why I do not accept some of the statements that have been made. If Senators would like us to come back earlier than they all agreed and voted on, they must communicate that to me. As I have said, it is a power under Standing Order 22.
I would like to speak about the Order of Business. I suggest, with the greatest of respect, that the Cathaoirleach might stop digging and stop dominating the Order of Business. He has spoken, with respect, more than anyone else this morning on the Order of Business.
I did not interrupt anyone. I have not made any points of order. I simply want to set out my position and that of the Labour Party - I believe it is a fair and reasonable one - on the Order of Business. First, it is disingenuous to suggest that either Opposition Senators or any other Senators have some sort of obligation to recall the House. As someone who did seek to recall the House, the Senator will know it is a power that is available, but it is not used lightly and is used rarely.
In fairness, when we knew that the Seanad was being recalled early, we all supported that. We all anticipated, as Senator Ó Donnghaile, Senator McDowell and others have said, and saw from the draft schedule that there would be debates on education in this crucial week, when we see thousands of children back to school and thousands of our school leavers getting their leaving certificate results.It was reasonable for us to assume that would take place, and that we would debate education along with the Covid Bill, which we were looking forward to debating over a reasonable period. When contacted for the Labour Party group last week, I was happy to agree on behalf of my group that we would sitt over two days, that we would forgo the calling of votes on the Order of Business on the Wednesday, that we would have the Second Stage debate on the criminal justice Bill and that if any of us had an issue with that Bill we would call a vote in the knowledge it would be adjourned until Thursday when we would have a sitting in the Dáil Chamber. I thought that was a reasonable accommodation. We sought to be co-operative with the Leader and everyone concerned. I am very disappointed that two-day sitting did not happen, and, as Senator Ó Donnghaile said, I thought it was until there was a change of tack at very short notice.
I appreciate that agreement was not forthcoming from everyone. However, it is the obligation of the Government to ensure there is sufficient time to debate a Bill that is not as urgent as it might appear. I have just done a major review of criminal justice and police enforcement powers under Covid and we could have waited a little longer. It would have been perfectly possible to have the debate on the criminal justice Bill today and tomorrow in the Dáil Chamber thereby giving all of us the opportunity to debate it in the usual timeframe.
The Labour Party has amendments in. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, put those amendments in in the Dáil. There was a lengthy debate on them and they were put to a vote. We are anxious to do the same today but not on a day when we have all Stages of the Bill. I have placed the Labour Party's position very clearly on the record. It is a reasonable position and I am very disappointed that it has not been within the capacity of the Government side to ensure that we would have a two-day sitting this week, notwithstanding there was not agreement about the use of the Seanad Chamber and that we could not have sat in the Dáil Chamber over two days.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, and the Cathaoirleach can guide me if I am not entitled to do so, to remove Committee and Remaining Stages of the criminal justice Bill and replace them with the statements on education that we were promised, on which my colleague, the Seanad spokesperson for education, Senator Hoey, had prepared comments on and about which all of us were anxious to discuss in such a crucial week for education.
We want to have a fair debate on the Covid Bill. We supported it in the Dáil so it is not that we are looking to oppose it for its own sake. We have real concerns about it, which Deputy Howlin raised and which I hope to raise today. We do not believe that it is appropriate to debate all Stages of that Bill today.
I propose the amendment to the Order of Business - I think I am entitled to do so - and I hope there will be strong support for it. It is bad practice in the Seanad to rush all Stages through and it is unseemly and unedifying that we are having such a big row about procedures on our first day back when the country faces so many crucial challenges, with Covid, Brexit and rising rates of infection. It is really unfortunate that we are in this position. We sought to be constructive and co-operative. I am sorry that agreement was not possible but there could have been another way to sit Thursday and Friday, or indeed sit today and Monday when the Dáil will not be using this Chamber.
The Committee on Procedure and Privileges will sit later. I express my disappointment that it will coincide with the criminal justice Bill, on which I am leading for the Labour Party group and therefore must shuttle between two venues. That is not ideal and others will be in the same position. I would like the committee to be able to come to a good compromise where we can ensure we are sitting and debating in a way that ensures everyone has a right to vote and Bills are not being rushed through at all Stages when this is not necessary.
The Senator may put forward an amendment that Committee Stage be taken on a different day. It cannot be proposed to put another item of business in its place. If the Senator wishes to propose that and get another Member to second this, we can deal with it at the end of the Leader's contribution.
I have listened with concern from my office to what is going on here this morning. There are two issues on which I would like the Cathaoirleach to comment. There is ongoing concern among Members, myself included, about the rushing of legislation and the taking of all Stages in one day is clearly within the Cathaoirleach's understanding of what the Order of Business discussion today may entail because, as he said, it is about deciding the arrangements for taking the criminal justice Bill today. The other issue causing concern which I want to ask about is the right of Members to raise other important and pressing issues, as has been mentioned by Senators McDowell, Norris and others.
I have a specific question for the Cathaoirleach about the order and the basis for it. Mr. Martin Groves's letter to each member of the Seanad, which I only saw this morning, states that the Cathaoirleach asked him to remind Senators that this is a special sitting and that the purpose, therefore, of the Order of Business is simply to decide the arrangements. What is the Cathaoirleach's basis for telling us that the fact that this is a special sitting somehow curtails or limits the right of Senators to raise issues on the Order of Business which they believe need to be discussed today or any other day? Mr. Groves's letter to us does not cite any Standing Order of this House. I heard the Cathaoirleach say that the Taoiseach requested this sitting and that, therefore, this sitting is somehow to be understood as being different from any other sitting. It is not clear to me the basis upon which the Cathaoirleach is saying that only certain issues may be brought up on the Order of Business. My understanding is that the Order of Business provides the opportunity for Senators to raise issues which they believe need to be discussed urgently or otherwise.
We have only had three special sittings and, at the request of the Taoiseach, this sitting relates specifically to this item. The Order of Business we are discussing and the items we are discussing relate to the arrangements for today. In that context, I ask Senator Mullen to confine his statements to what the Leader has outlined.
The Cathaoirleach is telling us that it is the advice of the Clerk that the regulations provide that where there is a special sitting, the Order of Business debate must be confined to the items that are ordered for that day, regardless of whether the items ordered are unanimously agreed.
On an ordinary day, the convention of the House is that Senators can raise items that are not related to the Order of Business. However, that is not strictly within the rules of the House. A practice has developed over time whereby people bring up items that are not related to the matters that have been raised by the Leader on any sitting day. This issue can be raised at the meeting of the CPP later today but when we sit on an ordinary day next week or any other week, strictly speaking the Members should stick to the legislation or proposed legislation that is before the House. As this is a special sitting, I am strictly adhering to those rules. Next week, Senator Mullen and every other Senator will be able to raise the issues they want to raise today. This is a special sitting of the House and Members are here for a specific purpose. We are sticking to the rules of the House that all Members have agreed to over time. If Members want to change those rules, I am happy to hear about any such changes at the CPP or any other forum. If Members wish to write to me, they can do so and we can change the rules to accommodate people.
The only possible logical reason for having an Order of Business debate prior to the taking of the proposed business of that day is to allow for the possibility that there might be disagreement about what business is being taken on that day or how.
The Cathaoirleach is telling us, without citing any particular authority, that the Order of Business on this particular occasion, namely, arising on foot of a special sitting, precludes us from discussing whether this is the business to be taken today or whether any other business ought to be considered today.To my mind, this is an absurdity. You must do more than merely speak about the conventions of this House allowing us on other occasions to raise what you appear to regard as extraneous matters when the only basis for having an Order of Business is to allow for proposed changes, even radical alterations, to the business.
By proposing to preclude, for example, what Senator Norris and others raised about developments in the British Parliament and with the British Government, you are making a mockery of the notion of an Order of Business. You would therefore be preventing us, where there is something of tremendous and urgent public importance arising, from adverting to it with the very flimsy excuse that this is a special sitting and somehow the Order of Business debate cannot have its ordinary meaning.
What fetters us are the rules of the House, which are strict. There has been a convention to allow matters such as those that Senator Ó Donnghaile and others wished to raise but such convention is not strictly within the rules of the House.
The Senator is here as long as I have been and he has a copy of Standing Orders. Those Standing Orders specifically state with reference to the Order of Business that we are to discuss the item being outlined by the Leader.
You are referring to this in round terms but have not exercised your right - at this point I would say your duty - to point out to us why the rules specifically preclude us from raising important other matters on the Order of Business.
I would like to raise a point of order and seek clarification. The Cathaoirleach has said the long-standing tradition of the House, which I have seen over 33 years and more, and which has never been challenged, is that only the legislation or business proposed by the Government can be discussed and we cannot move to other matters. It seems to suggest that any time in future, regardless of whether there is a special sitting of the Seanad, the Cathaoirleach has the capacity to close debate on anything other than the specific items of legislation on the Order Paper. That is a very draconian power and is one I never thought resided with the Cathaoirleach.
I was not in the House at the time former Senator Kiely was Cathaoirleach but I know if anybody brought up anything aside from the items before the House on the Order of Business, he would stop it. I have not done that and previous occupants of my position have not done it. We have developed a custom now-----
On a point of order, custom and practice have changed the rules of the House and people can, as my colleagues have pointed out, raise urgent matters during the Order of Business that need debate or discussion, or which require a Minister to be called to the House.
It is not open to the Cathaoirleach or anybody in the House to change a long-standing practice. Furthermore, we have been in recess while urgent matters such as the opening of schools and the inability of people to get answers to legitimate questions have been evident over the past number of weeks. It is an affront to democracy that the Cathaoirleach or anybody else would seek to shut down debate in this House and not allow those of us with urgent matters that need addressing to have those matters brought before the House.
The public is watching. My colleague, Senator McDowell, made the point that we have been turned into a rubber stamp today. It is not what we are here for or why I was elected.
The Senator agreed to that proposal. I remind members that it is open to any Senator to write to me under Standing Orders, which Senator Craughwell undertook to do in regard to the Minister for Education and Skills coming before the House, but he did not do it. Had he written to me, I would have followed up on the matter. The Senator chose not to do so.
In fairness, we were all under the impression that the Seanad would meet yesterday and that we would have an opportunity to meet the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister with responsibility for higher education to raise urgent matters. We were under that impression, but all of a sudden the possibility of that happening disappeared.
The Cathaoirleach needs to show leadership and recall the Seanad. Today, I will disagree with the proposal to rush through the Bill in one day. I believe the Seanad needs to return next week and it needs to meet three days per week.
We have spent 50 minutes debating the need for more time to debate the Bill, which is a joke. We need to focus on the Bill. If we have to remain here and work overtime - God forbid, we are paid enough to do that - we might get through it in one day. Let us not waste any more time asking for two days to debate it when we have not even started the debate on it. The Bill is very clear. I would be optimistic about getting it through in one day if Senators would stop arguing about it.
With regard to the Order of Business, we should show respect to the Clerk and the Cathaoirleach who know better than anybody else, especially the Clerk. I say that with no offence to the Cathaoirleach as he has not been in his position very long. If the Clerk directs the Cathaoirleach on how to proceed, that is how it is. We are lucky in that we get to raise other points outside of the Bill before us during the Order of Business.
I ask Senator Mullen not to interrupt me. He should also direct his comments through the Chair. We should show respect to our fellow colleagues, in particular the Clerk, Martin Groves, who is the wise man of the House. I say that with respect to the father of the House, Senator Norris. We should also respect the rules of the House. If we are not careful, we could bring about a situation where we will not be allowed to raise on the Order of Business issues not pertaining to the Bills before us. Let us be careful.
I personally believe we should focus on the Bill before us today. Let us see how we get on. If we require a second day, so be it. Let us start the debate. I understand people's annoyance because the education issue is really important. I wanted to raise the maternity issue and fathers banned from attending at their children's births, but I did not get an opportunity to do so.
Let us start the debate on the Bill.
To be of assistance to Members, all of us in this House work in a collaborative way. Arrangements for a two-day sitting did not work out, which will be explained in detail at the CPP. I understand that there are conventions and rules in this House that have developed but are not in writing. I understand that. It would be better if they were in written format. I have had colleagues raise with me the possibility of raising issues during statements or debates. I am speaking about people who, like me, have been Members of this House for up to 15 years. I have read the Standing Orders and I have told them that under Standing Orders they can intervene during a debate or on statements by asking a colleague to give way. That is set out in the rule book. There are many issues covered in the rule book, which has been circulated.I accept what Senators Mullen and Norris stated regarding conventions having developed over time. I wish for those conventions to be codified and put down in writing in order that people can understand the rule book.
I thank the Senator for his contribution. I wish to make the point that if Members write to me to ask for the House to come back in for a special sitting, I will accommodate them. We will put that into the rule book. I guarantee that I will accommodate such requests if we can get the relevant Minister to come to the House. If Members wish for the House to reconvene earlier than planned, they should read the rule book and follow the procedure therein.
Several important points have been raised. Unfortunately, the debate has become more serious and the points that have been made are ever more concerning. Yesterday, representatives of human rights organisations appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. At the meeting, the head of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission made the point that emergency legislation should be the exception and not the rule. There is a real and significant concern that emergency legislation seems to be becoming much closer to the rule. There is concern regarding everything being declared to be emergency legislation in the absence of standards in respect of what constitutes emergency legislation. I will come to that matter when speaking to the Order of Business.
There is also a real concern that the Government decided, and the Cathaoirleach agreed, that the Seanad should be recalled to sit in special session rather than in normal session. We have heard that the rules governing special sessions have only been invoked three times in the past 13 years. It is a very serious issue if the Government is deciding to use useful new powers that curtail debate whenever it can. As matters have evolved or dissolved over the course of the morning, a much more worrying message has emerged, which is that Senators are being told we are lucky to ever get to speak about anything and may only do so at the discretion of the Cathaoirleach. In the normal course of events, it has not been for the Cathaoirleach of the day to determine the Order of Business in his or her kindness or benevolence. Rather, it is for the House to set the Order of Business. The Order of Business is proposed by the Government and it is discussed and agreed. It is the prerogative of Members to put forward other items on the Order of Business which they believe should be discussed. In the course of a normal Order of Business, Members have that prerogative, but I am afraid that is not what we have heard today. The Cathaoirleach has stated that the legislation should be the only subject of discussion, but the Order of Business is about the topics that Members wish to discuss and how the Order of Business today is to be used. For example, Senators may wish to call in a Minister to address urgent issues such as Brexit which may not relate to legislation but do relate to the business of the House.
We need to be clear that these rights are not gifts that are kindly given to us. Rather, they are part of having a functioning State which has a Parliament and a Government. Our system is not Government without Parliament or the Government kindly allowing Members of Parliament to make statements and get some local press releases and so on. It is a system of Government and Parliament. They are separate functions with separate rules and it is very worrying if those lines are blurred.
The Cathaoirleach made the point that Senators did not ask him to recall the House. Nonetheless, Senators who have returned very willingly to the House have the reasonable expectation that normal rules of parliamentary process will be in place. At 7 p.m. last night, Senators were reminded that this would be a special session.Special sessions are not normal practice. It is a concern that needs to be looked at with regard to their use. We look right now across the world, in Belarus there are concerns about democracy. There are issues around the postal system in the United States of America. There are very concerning issues for the Uighur people in China. Democracy and parliamentary process are precious. During the interval I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and he told me that international electoral observation has been suspended during Covid, for example. We really cannot be complacent, dismissive or clever about pulling strokes on how we move things around, or in how we get things done with more efficiency. I raised on the Order of Business today the question of taking all Stages of this legislation at once. It is not allowing us. When we talk about Standing Orders, let us go a level up and talk about the Constitution. My constitutional obligation, and that of everyone in the House, is to scrutinise legislation. I am being blocked from doing my job properly if I do not get to scrutinise legislation. I cannot scrutinise legislation properly in a way that gives the Government its opportunity to respond. The Government does not have to agree with me, it may think I have a valid point or it may not. That is the Government's prerogative and we each do our piece. Legislation should not be taken at all Stages at once. That cannot continue. With emergency powers, and with Ireland on the Security Council, we must hold ourselves to standards.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business put forward by Senator Bacik. I also propose a different amendment to the Order of Business. I am happy, whichever is successful. I am absolutely open, as I was open to any of the arrangements for this week. There is an idea that there are deals and that one should have written here or there. Of course we should try to work together but, crucially, the Government has the ultimate responsibility and prerogative for where we sit. My additional amendment is that perhaps we might instead take just the Report Stage, either tomorrow or on Monday.
The amendment from Senator Bacik was, I believe, for Committee and Report Stages. I second Senator Bacik's amendment. I suggest that if it is not possible to take Committee and Report Stages tomorrow or Monday that we take just Report Stage, which might be a valid option.
Those two amendments to the Order of Business have been proposed. Perhaps the Leader may need to consider the timing of the debate given the clash with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. That is, clearly, emerging as a very important meeting that Senators need to attend. Those are my proposals. Let us not start making very serious mistakes with how we do business.
To be of assistance, there is a motion before the House. This is a special sitting and we are confined to the issue of the motion. This is why I asked the rules on that to be circulated for the benefit of Members. I clarify that this is a special sitting. When we have the Order of Business next week-----
The Cathaoirleach drew my attention, very helpfully, to Standing Order 16 when I asked. It refers to the Leader of the House as opposed to the Order of Business. It refers to normal circumstance but it is clear from that that the Leader shall propose the purpose of the business of the day and it is silent on anything else. Quite clearly, when something is proposed it is obvious that it may be discussed. The Cathaoirleach continues to insist on this being a special sitting and therefore the Order of Business has some kind of different meaning or different scope. I must ask, if the normal position is as set out in Standing Order 16, what is the basis for saying that things must be any different in the context of the Order of Business taking place during a special sitting?
On a point of order, I recognise I am new here and things are being espoused in my name which I am not even sure were requested. This is the logic of my brain. I do not know how Members can say they disagree with the proposed Order of Business without saying they would rather talk about something else or proposing an alternative Order of Business. That leads to the practice we have always had whereby Members raise other issues. I do not believe Standing Order 16 applies to special sittings in a different way from ordinary sittings. I really believe in the mantra of giving respect and getting respect. With the greatest respect to Members I must point out that we are now an hour into discussing what we want to discuss. We have not even really started discussing the Order of Business. Unless we come to an agreement in the next few minutes I do not know how we will proceed. We will get to the end of the time allocated to the Order of Business without agreeing on an Order of Business. We will end up with proposals before the House to which I will unfortunately not be able to accede. That is not because I disagree with some of the comments made today. It is because I do not have access to a Chamber where we could vote tomorrow or on Monday. More important, I do not have access to a Minister in order to proceed with the legislation tomorrow or on Monday. I wonder if we could all agree that we have not gotten off to a great start.
There are issues that need to be ironed out and we must agree to iron them out at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We must agree on how to proceed with very important business such as Brexit, maternity issues and access to school buses. The list is long and varied for all of us. It would not be fair to say they are constituency-based issues. We all want to raise very important national issues in this House, but we must have a House in which we can conduct our business. We have to come to an agreement to proceed on pro ratarules, or if we cannot do so, we must work with our officials to find a mechanism that will allow all of us to access voting rights. I do not say this lightly because the points that have been raised are very important. We are going to go around in circles until a bell is rung in a few minutes. We will all be deeply dissatisfied with the outcome of this morning's sitting. I wonder if we can find some way to get back to common ground and find a proposal allowing us to proceed with today's business. We can discuss the very important issues that have been raised in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I am sure we can change the timing of that committee if it does not work for some Members.
I thank the Leader for her intervention. We could have saved ourselves an awful lot of trouble by proceeding with a normal Order of Business. As the Cathaoirleach noted at the opening of today's sitting, there are people on the front line. They have desperate concerns. People are working in schools, or are not sure whether they can return to school because of the health and safety rules that have been introduced. There are questions around Medmark, the treatment of children who become ill in school and the mixed messages from the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills. Principals are struggling to understand the rules. Important issues needed to be raised today and we were unable to raise them. We should never shut down the Order of Business because of any one item. Vital national issues must be discussed and debated. It is deeply regrettable that in recent months this House has been turned into a rubber stamp. We are literally passing legislation in a couple of hours. I understand the State's need to get certain emergency legislation through, but non-emergency legislation is also being passed. For example, I refer to the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020, that went through under the cover of Covid-19 in the last days of the Dáil and Seanad's last term. Things like that should never be allowed to slip in under the rubric of emergency legislation.I think I have made my point. It will be difficult to agree the Order of Business. I support Senators Bacik and Higgins on how we might proceed with the Bill.
Does someone wish to second the amendment put down by Senator Higgins? I wish to clarify this because of how it was proposed that both amendments have been proposed and seconded. I wish to check with the Clerk so that it is not ruled out on a technicality.
To be helpful, in order that we avoid having two divisions, I am happy to amend my original amendment so that there is only one amendment before the House, that is, to adjourn Report and Final Stages of the Bill from today.
I thank everyone for making that proposal. Unfortunately, I cannot accede to it on the basis that I do not have the ability to make the alternative arrangements to have a second sitting tomorrow or on Monday. It is because I do not have permission to have access to the Dáil but probably more importantly because I do not have a Minister to conduct the legislation. I hear Members very loudly and clearly. I recall how standing here some six weeks ago I told the House that we would not do all Stages of Bills again and I find myself in a very uncomfortable position this week of having to ask Members to do it today. I give my solemn word today that except in the event of an emergency, by which I hope Members understand what we mean, namely, a real emergency, I will not accede to having all Stages of a Bill on a same day sitting in future. There is a caveat, we must find an agreement this afternoon at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on how we run and order our business. We have access to the Dáil Chamber probably one day a week but that will not last. There is a real argument that the Dáil should be sitting in the Dáil for three days a week. If that is the case the Seanad should be sitting in the Seanad Chamber for three days a week. I encourage agreement this afternoon but unfortunately, we cannot accept the proposal today.
Ivana Bacik, Frances Black, Victor Boyhan, Lynn Boylan, Gerard Craughwell, Eileen Flynn, Paul Gavan, Alice-Mary Higgins, Annie Hoey, Sharon Keogan, Elisha McCallion, Michael McDowell, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Lynn Ruane, Marie Sherlock, Mark Wall.
Garret Ahearn, Niall Blaney, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Lisa Chambers, Lorraine Clifford-Lee, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Michael D'Arcy, Aidan Davitt, Regina Doherty, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Mary Fitzpatrick, Robbie Gallagher, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, Vincent P Martin, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Eugene Murphy, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Ned O'Sullivan, Mary Seery Kearney, Diarmuid Wilson.