Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

This morning, the National Women's Council of Ireland and a group of parents, mostly mothers, held a demonstration outside Leinster House in support of the call for an extension to maternity leave and pay. During the Covid-19 crisis, many women have called for a 12-week extension because the emergency has fundamentally impacted on and changed the nature of the important time that they have to spend with their new babies.

Rugadh leanaí i lár na géarchéime seo agus tá deacrachtaí ag roinnt teaghlaigh mar gheall ar Covid-19 agus mar gheall ar easpa tacaíochta ón Rialtas. Caithfidh an Rialtas saoire mháithreachais a leathnú chun faoiseamh a thabhairt do theaghlaigh atá faoi bhrú.

On 11 June, the National Women's Council handed in a petition signed by more than 28,000 people, supporting this demand. It gave that petition to the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar. At that time, Deputy Varadkar said that he would give full and meaningful consideration to the request for the extension. The programme for Government commits to extending paid parental leave for parents to allow them to spend more time with their baby during the first year and although the language is vague, it raises the expectation that the Government will now act.

Extending maternity leave and pay is the right thing to do, particularly in these times of public health emergency, during which women have given birth without their partner present, they have faced the first few months of motherhood without access to the usual important supports, and the disruption caused by the Covid-19 crisis has consumed time that should have been about the mother and her new baby. What usually characterises this important time has been replaced by immense levels of stress, as the Taoiseach knows. Covid-19 has had a real effect on these families and it has been my view for some time that maternity leave in this State is not fit for purpose. The scheme is unfair and outdated, but perhaps how we remedy that is a discussion for another day. For now, I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that his Government will do the right thing and that he will extend maternity leave and maternity pay for the 12 weeks requested.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I am conscious that Deputy Bríd Smith raised this with the outgoing Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, some time ago in the context of the significant impact on women, particularly those on maternity leave, that Covid-19 has had, especially with regard to access to the normal supports such as childcare, baby groups and so on that was denied to mothers during this critical period.

Admhaím go bhfuil agus go raibh brú ar na mná sin filleadh i gcomhthéacs an coróinvíreas. Níl aon amhras gur sin an scéal agus tá an Rialtas ag déanamh scrúdú ar an gceist, ach níl sí simplí. Tá an-chuid laistigh den cheist, agus tá roinnt le déanamh fós, go háirithe ó thaobh réiteach na ceiste.

The Department of Justice and Equality has policy responsibility for maternity leave while the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection pays the benefit. This matter is being examined by the Government and there is consultation between the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Minister for Justice and Equality, although that Department is breaking up, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The retrospective nature of what is proposed may create legal and policy difficulties. For example, some of the women who have exhausted their maternity benefit are now back at work or on the pandemic unemployment payment. Other stakeholders are involved and there will be consultation with other stakeholders on this, particularly employers who are facing challenges with Covid-19. In that context, I spoke to the Ministers yesterday. They are engaged in consultations on this issue. It is our intention to come back with a very considered response on the issue shortly and to deal with the matters I have outlined to the Deputy.

In that case, we are of one mind. We all recognise that those women and couples who have had children in this period have faced very considerable difficulties and stress without all of the normal supports that new parents generally enjoy when they bring home their newborn.

This is a very straightforward request. The Taoiseach should not hide behind a veil of complexity. The simple facts are that these women need additional time. They need additional leave and they need to be sure that that additional leave will be paid leave. To me, this is very straightforward, not least because childcare provision is now under such stress. There is no certainty for many parents that they will be able to get adequate and appropriate childcare, particularly for newborn infants.

I again ask the Taoiseach to act swiftly. I understand that the Minister for Justice and Equality in the previous Government had some jurisdiction on these issues. Responsibility for equality has now been moved to a different Department. I do not wish this issue to get lost in the labyrinth or the bureaucratic machinations of the new Government. This is not a time for delay. This is a time for timely action. The matter is time sensitive because many women are now on maternity leave. They are looking at the prospect and the pressure of returning to work. As his first act in government, I ask the Taoiseach to act now, make a clear decision on the matter, act fairly and do the right thing by Irish women and these new mothers.

It is our intention to do the right thing but to do it in a considered way. It is not as simple as the Deputy has outlined and there are both legal and policy complexities with it. The estimated cost is €78 million and it would affect about 24,500 women. That is being considered by the relevant Departments. I do not intend to come in here and say what might be popular or just give a simple affirmative response. I want to see a considered response from the Departments concerned. It will come to Government and obviously we will influence that. The Government will make a decision on it bearing in mind all the wider issues the Deputy also alluded to. The programme for Government gives very clear commitments to improving maternity leave, paternity leave as well as the wider strategy designed to improve the quality of life of mothers, particularly after their babies are born.

The Taoiseach has probably had the shortest honeymoon period of any incoming Taoiseach in the history of the State. It lasted about two hours before some of his colleagues started turning on him. That has continued for the last week and a half, even up to today. I appreciate that he is only a week and a half in the job but he is not a newcomer to politics. He is one of the most experienced people in the House. There is, therefore, a reasonable expectation that he will hit the ground running and provide stability and a clear direction for the people. Instead, he has had to manage a considerable amount of unrest, commencing with open criticism from his own party. As we now know, one of his Ministers has had to apologise to him and publicly for his driving ban while on a provisional licence.

We will deal with that matter later and I hope we will get full clarity. In the same week, the Minister for Health has stood over an interview in which he admitted taking illegal drugs. That is another matter that needs to be teased out further by the Taoiseach. In addition, a Fianna Fáil MEP ignored the requirement for quarantine when he travelled to the Taoiseach's inauguration.

I must ask the Taoiseach now that Fianna Fáil is back in government, are its public representatives above the law again and above public health advice? The Taoiseach comes from old Fianna Fáil politics. It has not been a good first week for the Government and the Taoiseach must think that. The modus operandi looks to have returned to an old style of cute hoor politics. I am not sure how the Taoiseach's colleagues in government will respond to that style. What kind of example does it give to the public when three senior Fianna Fáil representatives have openly flouted the law and public health rules?

On top of that, the leaders of one of the Opposition parties in this Chamber, Sinn Féin, broke all social distancing rules to attend an IRA funeral and rally, as it turned out, in Belfast. That was the second time that members of Sinn Féin attended a funeral during the Covid lockdown while everyone else had to respectfully stay at home while friends, neighbours and supporters were laid to rest. People might expect the practice of exceptionalism from Sinn Féin but the public may have thought that Fianna Fáil had been humbled since it led the Government during the financial crash.

The first act of the new Minister for Education and Skills was to bellow about a new grant for an extension to a school in her constituency despite the country being in the biggest educational crisis in the history of the State. Fianna Fáil is certainly back in power. The country needs a stable Government, not more of this. This kind of activity needs to end this week. People are rightly concerned about whether they can return to work, whether health services will resume soon, when schools will reopen and how rent and mortgage arrears will be dealt with. When will the Taoiseach be in a position to provide the people with a clear statement on all four of those issues? The Taoiseach must ensure that a plan will be in place for the summer months and September.

I do not accept the Deputy's analysis of the first week of the Government. He can talk about internal party issues pertaining to certain individuals but my focus has been unwavering since I was elected Taoiseach. That focus has been on policy and substance from the beginning. We have an extensive legislative programme for this month, as the Business Committee is well aware. I would say that the programme is unprecedented in terms of the amount of legislation we will try to get through the House in order to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on the economy. We will deal with the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill, the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill, the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill, the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill to set up the Department of Higher of Education and Research and various other items of legislation. The Cabinet subcommittees have already been established by the Government.

I spent a week speaking to the President of the EU Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, and the President of the EU Council, Mr. Charles Michel, Mr. Michel Barnier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson - in the context of Brexit - and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, about matters such as the European recovery fund, the multi-annual financial framework and how Europe, as an entity, will deal with Brexit and the Irish position on it. I have been very focused. Other stuff goes on, as it always does in politics, and we will deal with that too. From the perspective of the Government, we must focus on the people.

The Deputy asked about reopening schools and travel advice. The Government has focused on those issues in the past week. We had a meeting of the Covid-19 sub-committee on Friday to deal with the matter of international travel.

We had an extensive consultation with Government colleagues and announced the decision yesterday that the existing advice against unnecessary travel abroad will continue in the interests of public safety and suppressing the virus. Above all, this is to help us get schools open in September. It is a passion of mine that we get the schools open in September because children's development rests on it. We limit the life chances of children if we deprive them any longer of schooling and education. The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid will meet again to discuss that issue now that we have dealt with international travel. The committee will now focus in on education and engaging with the education authorities on the return to school.

I met the Minister for Health and the acting Secretary General of the Department of Health last evening in order to focus in on the non-Covid strand of disease, illnesses and the need for diagnostics, to get resumption of services now that critical care beds have been freed up as a result of the suppression of the virus. The number of patients in such beds has been significantly reduced. I have not wasted an hour since I was elected Taoiseach in the context of concentrating on the fundamentals that face the Irish people. No politician is above the law and no politician should be above the law. In respect of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Cowen, the Deputy will note that punishment was meted out in respect of his transgression four years ago.

I am delighted that the Taoiseach referenced so often in his reply that not one hour has been wasted. He has been very focused. He has gone into an awful lot of detail, he said it numerous times, and specifics. In that context, I want to ask him one question. There are hundreds of thousands of people worried about their livelihoods. The Government has its July stimulus coming forward. As policymakers and as legislators, we do not have the information we need to plan for this crisis. The Central Statistics Office reports that just over 131,000 people were unemployed at the end of June, which is the seasonally adjusted, traditional unemployment figure of 5.8%. However, at the same time, it reports a Covid-19 adjusted unemployment rate of 22.5%. There is a world of difference between the two figures. I do not want figures to be massaged. Given all the specific, detailed work and the fact that not an hour has been wasted, I am sure that today, 7 July, the Taoiseach has the capacity to confirm - to the best of his knowledge, to be fair - what is the real unemployment rate as of today.

Again, the Covid figure is the one I take as my yardstick in terms of the unemployment rate and the reality of the situation for many people. Of course, in the context of those supports, the jobs stimulus programme will focus on that area and on the wage subsidy scheme, which has protected thousands of jobs. We can get into all sorts of statistics, but it remains unclear how many companies will be viable over time. Many companies have been and are being protected by the wage subsidy scheme. Part of the July stimulus programme will be to evaluate that scheme and fine-tune it. No one will come off a cliff as a result of any policy decisions. The July job stimulus is aimed not just at protecting jobs but at creating additional jobs. It is going to be an uncertain time ahead in terms of the employment situation. There are various estimates made by the bodies that project employment figures and so on. I hope some of them are realised in the context of a significant reduction by the end of the year. It is fair to say to all concerned, however, that supports will be necessary in the medium term but also that initiatives will have to be taken to create jobs and alternative opportunities, particularly for young people.

We note from the number of clusters and deaths from Covid-19 in the nursing home sector just how exposed that sector was and the tragic consequences that followed from that exposure.

At the height of the crisis, the sector's lack of preparedness was raised in the House on numerous occasions. We heard concerns raised by Nursing Home Ireland as early as the beginning of March, including concerns about safe and appropriate discharges from acute hospitals to nursing homes, about staff being recruited into the health service at the expense of the nursing home sector raising the risk that it would endanger older people, concerns about PPE, testing and so on. More information came into the public domain yesterday in The Irish Times as a result of a freedom of information request. We learned that senior HSE officials privately raised major concern about coronavirus hitting nursing homes in March with one flagging their “totally inadequate preparation” and another saying it could be “the biggest live risk” facing the health service. We learned that agency staff were being supplied to nursing homes at double cost, where they were available. Safe Ireland has raised serious concerns about the care of the late Mr. Ultan Meehan, a nursing home resident from County Meath, after he was admitted to Connolly Hospital. The care home was unable to manage his care for a facial wound which became badly infected.

Will the Taoiseach commit to ensure that Mr. Meehan's wife, Mary, is given a full report? This could be undertaken by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, or the expert panel. The previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, established a Covid committee - an expert panel - to investigate the nursing home sector on 23 May. This expert panel was supposed to report by the end of June. Has it reported and, if not, when is this likely to happen? The temporary assistance payment scheme to nursing homes was amended by the Minister for Health last week. It reduces the overall amount. Is that because of an income-related reason? Is it funding or was there another rationale? If there is a rationale, will the Taoiseach provide it to the Dáil? Does he believe that clinical governance should remain the responsibility of the nursing home sector? If not, who should have responsibility and how quickly can it be put in place?

In Opposition, the Taoiseach was one of those who raised concerns about the nursing home sector. How concerned is he now about what is emerging in the public domain about the sector and how exposed it was? How satisfied is he that on his watch, the sector is fully prepared should there be another outbreak?

I empathise with much of the Deputy's comments about the challenges that faced the nursing home sector at the outset of Covid-19. I do not believe it was adequately prepared at that time to cope with the pandemic. Much has been learned since. The expert panel has been set up by the previous Minister and I understand it should report within the next fortnight. It will be an important basis on which to evaluate policy in the next number of months. There is comprehensive testing in nursing homes now. In one nursing home, five people have the virus who are asymptomatic. That illustrates how even now, with the suppression of the virus, the challenges clearly still there in the sector.

On clinical governance, I will be guided by the report of the expert panel, however we have learned enough from the experience during the pandemic to accept that changes must take place around governance in the nursing home sector, particularly on the clinical side. Stronger clinical oversight will be required.

That is my view on that.

I am also very concerned about the case that has been raised of Mary Bartley Meehan. HIQA is the regulating authority for the nursing home sector and Ms Bartley Meehan is entitled, at the very least, to a report, and from what I have read of the case, it should be reviewed. I have sought from the Department of Health a further update on this particular case. It is very worrying indeed as to Ms Bartley Meehan’s own experiences when she visited, where she lost both her son, Adrian, and her husband. It is a very traumatic and shocking situation which deserves a comprehensive and full response for Mary Bartley Meehan herself and her family, and that should be done.

As to future preparation and preparedness for any resurgence in the virus, the testing exercise that is under way is something I take solace from in the sense that we desire the HSE and the public health authorities to be on top of this in the nursing home sector to ensure that it is not caught off guard as perhaps it was at the outset of the Covid-19 virus outbreak, which was an unprecedented global pandemic. At the beginning all concern was around the acute hospital side and the nursing home side received attention somewhat later.

I take it then that the Taoiseach will be talking to HIQA to ensure that that report is done and will be produced for that tragic case.

The Taoiseach did not address the issue of the reduction of funding. Will he address that in his response, and if there is a report or evaluation, that that will be provided to the Dáil?

Is the Taoiseach surprised about the kind of warnings that were coming from senior officials in the HSE who had a responsibility? Very serious concerns were raised. Is he concerned that they did not come into play earlier, because they were being raised at the beginning of March? Some of these concerns, including those from Nursing Home Ireland, were being raised at the same time that NPHET was saying that there was not a requirement to isolate nursing homes from visitors. It was at a very early stage. Does that surprise the Taoiseach? This has been raised. We all felt that we were a bit dismissed when we raised the issue about what we were seeing in nursing homes. Will those concerns in particular be looked at by the expert committee?

On the specific response to the issue of the temporary assistance payment and the funding issue, we have to accept that when a global pandemic of this scale emerges, which is once in a hundred years, lessons have to be learned from it. There should be comprehensive reviews of everything that took place, but with a view to learning lessons and not trying to damn people or apportion particular blame. The exercise has to be about learning lessons, because if it happens again, we need to be able to respond better and more effectively. We do not want future public health officials or public servants hamstrung by the fact that there may be another inquiry conducted into what they are doing in the middle of a crisis.

All international responses to crises have this is a basic standard, that we look back to evaluate and learn and ensure that those lessons are applied to future pandemics and crises. That is the general philosophy and one that I would have. That said, the fact that senior people raised those concerns is a worry, although the system did respond. The biggest issue early on was personal protective equipment, PPE. Public health officials will still say that it may not necessarily have been visitors coming into the nursing homes that was the primary conduit or cause of the transmission of the virus and that there were other factors as well. The current testing is beginning to throw some light on that also at the moment.

The last time the Taoiseach and his party were in government and faced with a major crisis, at that time caused by the greed of bankers and developers, working people got it in the neck, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs or had cuts to their pay and a decade of austerity followed. For most people the test as to whether Fianna Fáil has changed and will lead the Government of change that people voted for on 8 February is how working people will fair under its government. A key and immediate litmus test as to whether it will bring that change and whether ordinary, working people are going to get a fair deal and the support they need under this Government, faced with another crisis, is the situation faced by 1,500 Debenhams workers who have been protesting following Debenhams' treatment of them in the most despicable manner by, without consultation and without notice, moving the company into liquidation in April of this year. The company has refused to negotiate with the workers and is orchestrating this situation. Even though there are probably tens of millions of euro worth of stock in the stores in Henry Street, Blackrock, Cork, Tallaght and Blanchardstown, apparently, this is a company with no assets. This is because, conveniently, the company, through a subsidiary, lent itself some money and made the Irish business a co-guarantor on money that it lent to itself, effectively eliminating all assets from the balance sheet of the company. This is despicable treatment of workers.

The Taoiseach said earlier that he is focused on legislation. What does he propose to do to support the Debenhams workers? Debenhams cannot be allowed to siphon off assets, as it is trying to do, to prevent a fair redundancy deal for these workers. The legislation to re-order the priority creditors in situations of liquidation needs to be immediately amended such that workers in this situation are not treated in this despicable way, as happened in the case of the Clerys' workers. This issue has been well flagged. Where companies are contravening employment legislation or treating workers in this way they should suffer serious penalties for doing so. The Taoiseach needs to utilise all of the sections available to Government through the Companies Act 2014, in particular sections 599 and 608, to make sure that the company does not take off with the assets and that the workers get the fair redundancy and decent treatment they deserve. Solidarity-People Before Profit has placed a motion to this effect on the Dáil Order Paper, which the Debenhams' workers hope the Government and all parties will support and thus take the actions necessary to get them a just settlement. As we speak, these women workers are picketing outside the Henry Street store to prevent assets being physically removed from it by a cynical company that has treated them with contempt.

Debenhams has treated the workers very poorly and in a very shabby way and it is wrong to do so. The Deputy is correct that the company has availed of the legal framework within the Companies Act in regard to insolvencies, winding-up and so on, to leave the workers extremely short. The State will have to do its bit to provide, within the legal framework, what it can in terms of statutory redundancy, but it is unacceptable. In my view, the legislation will have to be re-examined in terms of the devices that companies may use, separating out assets from trading income in particular, to deprive workers of their just entitlements in terms of redundancy. This will not be simple because reform of any legislation can have unintended consequences. This issue is referenced in the programme for Government. It is an area on which work will commence in terms of examining the overall company law situation with a view to reducing the capacity of companies to deny workers their entitlements in terms of redundancy and workers' rights generally when a company is winding up.

It is an area in which work will commence in terms of examining the overall company law situation with a view to reducing the capacity of companies to deny workers their redundancy entitlements and their rights generally when a company is being wound up. That it happened in the context of Covid-19 was particularly regrettable. The sense is that Covid-19 was used as a basis for closing the company and leaving 1,500 people out of work.

I welcome, as I am sure the Debenhams workers will welcome, the Taoiseach's words of sympathy and his condemnation of how Debenhams has treated them, but the test is what the Government will do about it. We need to act urgently to do everything we can to make sure that Debenhams does not get away with manipulating the law as it stands to siphon off these assets. Its failure to consult workers and the fact that the State may have to pay out the statutory redundancy gives us certain leverage under that legislation for the insolvency fund to go after the assets of Debenhams, and we should do that. It tried to siphon off those assets but was prevented because of the heroic protests of the workers.

There are echoes of the Dunnes Stores-South Africa strike battle on those picket lines. I encourage the Taoiseach to go down and meet the women because they are an absolute inspiration and they are not going away. They are going to fight for justice. I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Government to do absolutely everything to ensure justice for the workers. The assets are in those shops. Debenhams must not be allowed to take them out. The assets should be liquidated to the benefit of the workers to ensure a just settlement for them.

There is a lot at stake because this is not just about Debenhams workers. We are facing potentially tens of thousands of similar redundancies, so this is a test. Are we going to stand with workers faced with this kind of treatment and the possibility of mass redundancies in this country to prevent that sort of shoddy treatment and to protect workers who have given decades of loyal service, as these workers have?

Again, I am not going to raise expectations that one cannot deliver on in terms of interfering in the liquidation process or making interventions that could not be legally sustained. For the existing workforce, the liquidation process and how we can leverage the remaining assets to secure the rights of workers is a challenging and complex issue, as the Deputy knows deep down. I accept his bona fides in respect of what he wishes to happen on behalf of the workers and understand where he is coming from in that regard.

There are a few dimensions to this. How can we support in the most practical way the workers who have been laid off? How can we prevent the exploitation of company law to prevent such exploitation of workers into the future? How can we build in greater protections for workers, in case of such eventualities, so that they will have greater claims and access to clawbacks following closures engineered in this way in future. That is what I would like to examine with my colleagues in government.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. We have run a bit over time but it is our first day. Perhaps from now on we might stick to the allocated time.

I understand that the Taoiseach has an announcement to make for the information of the House in respect of the appointment of Ministers and Ministers of State.