Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I raise the issue of the sacking of the former Minister, Deputy Cowen. Many were left scratching their heads as to what changed between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. yesterday. The Taoiseach moved very swiftly from fully backing his man to sacking him. People wonder whether the Taoiseach learned something new and whether there is another twist in the tale or another piece of information. The truth, however, is that the Taoiseach knew this whole sorry story from the very beginning, unlike the rest of us who learned of it piecemeal. Did the Taoiseach share the full story with the Tánaiste and with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on 4 July, when he learned the full story, or did he feed it to them piecemeal?

He had the full story and he failed to act. That is the truth and that is the problem. He accepted an apology from the then Minister, Deputy Cowen, which we all, including myself, believe was absolutely genuine. The Taoiseach, however, also chose to stand by someone who was challenging a Garda record and account and who had sought to avoid a Garda checkpoint according to that account. He allowed him to give an incomplete statement to the Dáil and he failed to act for a week before it all unravelled yesterday on the floor of the Dáil. This raises very serious questions about the Taoiseach as Head of Government because it was only when his lack of judgment was exposed that he chose to act. In a very short period, he went from backing the then Minister, Deputy Cowen, to sacking him. Tá ceisteanna don Taoiseach mar cheannaire an Rialtais. Laistigh de tamall gearr chuaigh sé ó chosaint Teachta Cowen go dtí é a chur as a phost.

I have a series of questions for the Taoiseach. He said in the Dáil yesterday that he had seen the document, the PULSE record, that morning and that "having seen it, I can say that it is not quite as it has been portrayed." The Taoiseach therefore actively moved to play down the content of the Garda PULSE record. However, by 9 p.m. last night, he said that the issues in that same record were so serious and raised such fundamental questions that they had to be addressed and that he had moved to sack Deputy Cowen because he would not deal with these issues before the Dáil. This raises two questions. Did the Taoiseach mislead the Dáil by playing down the content of that PULSE record? If that is not the case, what did he learn after 2 p.m. yesterday? When he sacked the then Minister, Deputy Cowen, he said that he had asked or instructed him to answer the legitimate and serious questions arising from the Garda PULSE record in the Dáil, yet only hours earlier he had voted against bringing Deputy Cowen before the Dáil to do just that.

The Taoiseach confirmed yesterday that he had been made aware of the allegation that Deputy Cowen avoided a Garda checkpoint and that he spoke to him the weekend before last on this matter. That was prior to Deputy Cowen making what was to be a full statement to the Dáil. The Taoiseach let that go. He allowed an incomplete statement to stand on the record of the Dáil. The Taoiseach seems to have sacked Deputy Cowen for his failure or refusal to answer questions. I hope he will now, as Head of Government, answer questions on the issues he needs to clarify.

Ar dtús báire, ní aontaím leis an Teachta. Níl an ceart aici sa mhéid atá ráite aici go dtí seo. I strongly disagree with the Deputy's assertion that I knew about this on 3 or 4 July. Allegations, assertions and media questions are not facts. Deputy Cowen is still, as he was at the time, adamant with regard to the accuracy of the report from his PULSE file. At that stage, he did not have access to that file and I certainly did not. I did not see it until yesterday morning. I sought it on Monday night but Deputy Cowen was not in a position to bring it with him at that time. I told him I needed to see the file. I had a long discussion with him on Monday night regarding his account of what transpired. At approximately 7.30 a.m. the following morning, a copy of the file itself was sent to my phone. I had discussions with him on Monday night and read the actual, factual account in the report for the first time yesterday morning. The Deputy should not assert that I knew what I knew yesterday morning a week ago because I did not. I read it myself in what the garda put on the file.

I also had a difficulty insofar as Deputy Cowen questions the accuracy of that report on the file and is going through a legal process to get it changed. In addition, the matter of the release of his data is being examined and investigated by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I was, however, fully satisfied yesterday that the Deputy should come before the Dáil. That was Deputy McDonald's assertion yesterday; she demanded that he come before the Dáil to make a statement. We voted for the Order of Business as agreed by the Business Committee yesterday. The Order of Business, however, did not preclude Deputy Cowen making a statement. I made it clear to Deputy Cowen yesterday morning that he should come before the House. He said he would not, and I told him I wanted him to reflect on that. As soon as Leaders' Questions was over, I contacted the Deputy and told him that his position in refusing to come before the Dáil was not acceptable or tenable and that he would have to come before the Dáil. He still refused to take that route.

The fundamental difference between myself and Deputy Cowen on this issue is that he took a legal route and a legalistic approach to defend his rights, in his words, as a citizen and as a public representative. In my view, this issue could only be resolved through the political route, that is, by coming before Dáil Éireann. It did not have to be yesterday, it could have been today or tomorrow, but a comprehensive statement on this issue from the Deputy was required in this House. I accept what Deputies in this House have said. I believe that office holders, and Ministers in particular, should come before the House to answer questions on issues of public interest.

I have the record of what the Taoiseach said yesterday. He made clear that he was fully aware of all aspects of the story regarding Deputy Cowen from the beginning. That is not an assertion of mine; it has been clarified by the Taoiseach. He said:

I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Cowen, the weekend before last and he adamantly denied any suggestion or implication that he would have evaded or attempted to avoid a checkpoint.

The Taoiseach had that information. Did he share it with the Tánaiste or the leader of the Green Party? I ask the Taoiseach to please answer that question. He had that information and therefore knew full well that Deputy Cowen's statement to the Dáil was incomplete. He did not, however, challenge Deputy Cowen on it. Above all else, the Taoiseach stood behind, and today has continued to stand behind, an assertion by a former senior Minister and senior member of the Taoiseach's party which contradicts a Garda record. I am sure the Taoiseach will appreciate that is a very serious matter. I believe it is unprecedented for the Head of Government to side with a party colleague in contradicting a Garda record, using the cover of legal processes to so do. The Taoiseach's judgment in all of this is very much in question. He had the information. Did he share it with his partners in government? He allowed his colleague to make an incomplete statement.

It was the Taoiseach and his colleagues in government who prevented Deputy Cowen from coming yesterday, today or any other day to give an account of himself and to answer what the Taoiseach concedes are very legitimate questions.

The Deputy is again making false assertions.

I am not standing by any assertion by Deputy Cowen in respect of the Garda statement. Does Deputy McDonald understand that? I am not standing by the assertion in relation to the Garda record on the file. That is the point. I read the file yesterday. I spoke to Deputy Cowen the night before. There is a process in place and I do not want to prejudice it, but I have my own view on it. I did not have that perspective a week ago. The Deputy needs to understand that it is great to be making the assertions but I am deeply conscious that it is a very difficult day for the Cowen family and for Barry and his family. I have to put that on the record. I have never sought in any shape or form to undermine any garda or to undermine the accuracy or the credibility of any garda statement on the file. I only saw it for the first time yesterday morning. I had a discussion with Deputy Cowen the evening before that. I drew my own conclusions and that is why I felt it needed a Dáil statement.

Which the Taoiseach prevented.

I did not prevent-----

The Taoiseach should please be allowed to speak without interruption.

There was a tactical device to force a vote on the issue. The issue was on the Order of Business. I had come into the House after having asked Deputy Cowen to consider his position and reflect on his decision not to come into the House. In my view, he should have come into the House.

I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up.

I was giving him time and space to reflect on that. In my view, he should have come into the House. In the afternoon, when he still refused to respond to my view that he should come into the House, I was left with no alternative then-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

-----but to seek the termination of his appointment. We both disagreed in terms of the route. He wanted to go the legal route but for me that was not tenable in the context of being an officeholder.

I do not wish the former Minister, Deputy Cowen, any ill will. It is a very difficult day for him and his family but the Taoiseach has set a record as regards firing a Minister in the quickest time ever - 17 days. It is quite confusing listening to the Taoiseach's contribution now and what he has said over the past week or two because not an awful lot has changed since 3 July when the story broke and the Taoiseach's awareness of "issues". He should not mind the semantics. The issues surrounding what was in the public domain have not changed dramatically. I feel what has changed is the political consequences for the Taoiseach, and that is worrying. The information regarding what happened and the Taoiseach's awareness of it at some level has not changed; what has changed is the Taoiseach's interpretation of this. The executive summary is that as long as it was not going to cause a huge issue for the Taoiseach politically, then the Minister, Deputy Cowen, could stay, but if it was, he could not. It was fine, as long as the additional information that came out over the weekend in The Sunday Times and then in the Irish Independent was not in the public domain and as long as it was secret but then once it all came out, it was not. I am sad to say it raises questions about the Taoiseach's judgment; it really does. It raises questions also about what the Taoiseach said. He stated: "I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Cowen, the weekend before last and he adamantly denied any suggestion or implication that he evaded or attempted to avoid a checkpoint." To the Taoiseach's knowledge, nothing has changed.

I have a number of questions about how we got to this point, and some of them go deeper than the Taoiseach or the former Minister, Deputy Cowen, in respect of the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. How did the Minister, Deputy Cowen, receive the data from An Garda Síochána? The Taoiseach referred to it as a Garda report or record but he refers to it as a PULSE file. Which is it?

I am holding a subject access request form in my hand. This is how one gets information about oneself from An Garda Síochána. It usually takes between one and three months. I respect the data protection issues here but how was the information provided to the then Minister, Deputy Cowen? Was it expedited for some reason and how is that justified in the case of a Minister? Citizens do not get PULSE files. It is really worrying in terms of the information that has been provided, the process by which this information was provided to a Minister, the channels by which that was asked for and how that was delivered. Many people in An Garda Síochána and their families are watching this and wondering about it. How was the information provided? We need to know if the information that has been provided included any details outside of raw personal data. For instance, are gardaí named? If they are, thousands of gardaí around the country who are doing their job today are deeply worried and concerned that what they put into the system in a PULSE file will be identified as being from them, not necessarily their raw data-----

The Deputy’s time is up.

-----is going to be presentable to a Minister at some future date.

The first point I would make is that it now seems to be the case on the Opposition side that the assertion by a journalist, who is entitled to make assertions and points, is fact, and that one should act immediately on it. That seems to be the import of what is being said here this afternoon.

I never said that.

I cannot act on that, nor should I. In terms of the acquisition of the file, Deputy Cowen was faced with a situation where he was being presented with private material about himself from journalistic sources. In other words, they had information about him relating to a PULSE file on him that he himself did not have. His point was that he was very taken aback by any assertions in respect of certain details. He was very clear. He acknowledged in the Dáil that he was guilty of a drink-driving offence, but seems to have been completely taken aback and shocked at any other implications. That is the language he used. Then information was coming out about speeding fines. Deputy Cowen related to me that he then rang the Garda directly to seek access to his own information, given that others in the media had it. I am just telling the Deputy what happened. I think a person has an entitlement to their own personal data if others have it and are putting questions in relation to it.

That is a bigger question that everyone in this House should be concerned about as well in terms of data and the release of data. That is a wider more fundamental policy question that we all have to be conscious of. On another day in this House we will go on about companies and multinationals and citizens' rights, which is important too and is valid.

Deputy Cowen then got access to his file in the middle of last week, I think. He challenged that and he then wanted to correct the record. Apparently, one is entitled to seek a correction of a record about oneself and he has undertaken that particular process. Likewise, we know the Garda Commissioner has asked GSOC to investigate the wider issue of the protection of the Deputy's personal data.

At all stages I wanted to be fair to the person and that is why I sought the report on Monday night. It is not my record and I do not necessarily have an entitlement to it. Deputy Cowen did not bring it along with him on Monday night as it was with his solicitor. I said I needed to see it following our discussion. There is material on the file relating to the Deputy, which I must be careful about as I am not in a position to release it. My understanding is that it is a PULSE file.

The Taoiseach has not given us much clarity on anything. I accept there are data protection issues at play. I also accept that the Data Protection Commission and GSOC will have to undertake serious investigations and there are wider issues concerning a citizen of the State, in this case, Deputy Cowen, but there is a process by which anyone gets information and it takes time. The Taoiseach never answered the question on whether it is an actual printout of a PULSE file. Is there information about An Garda Síochána being made available to Ministers? These are serious questions about precedent and the Taoiseach has not answered any of them.

The Taoiseach was aware that there were issues around this situation and about what happened with the former Minister, Deputy Cowen. He was aware of this on 3 July. Nothing changed in relation to the Taoiseach's information. Am I to understand that the Taoiseach was happy that Deputy Cowen did not address it when he made his statement but was not happy yesterday evening? No information has been given on what changed the Taoiseach's mind and that is the crux of the issue.

I have raised a whole range of questions here which have a broader consequence for An Garda Síochána, the administration of justice and the protection of Garda personnel in the performance of their duty. Where the hell is the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, in all of this? She has been tweeting about greenways. There are serious issues at the heart of An Garda Síochána and-----

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

-----the Department of Justice and Equality, and how justice is administered, but we have not heard a peep out of the Minister. In fairness to the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Flanagan, with whom I had many run-ins, he would certainly-----

I thank the Deputy. Can the Taoiseach deal with the question, please?

-----have been out making it very clear that he was the Minister for Justice and Equality, that some of the actions here-----

I thank Deputy Kelly but his time is up.

-----were not acceptable and that members of An Garda Síochána should be protected in their actions.

Again, I have to be very clear. I made it very clear in my speech to the House yesterday evening, and again today and also to Deputy Cowen on Monday evening and yesterday morning, that he had an obligation to speak to the House to clarify issues that had emerged. Particularly since I saw the PULSE file itself, I felt he should because there was a demand that he come-----

Has the Taoiseach seen the PULSE file?

I am sorry, but this is an issue of grave public controversy.

Has the Taoiseach seen the PULSE file?

I asked Deputy Cowen to share his personal data with me. To be fair to him, he did so in the end. I felt I needed that because I am here now accounting to the House. One moment it is being said that I know everything without seeing any PULSE file, the next moment when I do seek access to the PULSE file that is something that is terribly wrong as well. That is not fair or balanced. It is an issue of huge public controversy involving a Government Minister. Information pertaining to him was in the public domain that he did not have access to. If one accepts that, it logically follows that he should have access to it because other people are commenting on it and writing about it.

Is it a PULSE file or a report?

I cannot be definitive about that. My understanding is that it is a PULSE file, but I do not know. I was given information. From my understanding, it is a PULSE file.

I thank the Taoiseach, his time is up.

The provenance of it is this: it relates to the drink-driving incident and it relates to two other issues, one of which is a speeding fine, which the Deputy knows about because it was published in the newspaper. Deputy Cowen was in a situation where people had more information about what was on his file than he himself might have had-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

-----and that is a very difficult position for anybody to be in. To be fair to him, he then sought access in that context. I think that was fair enough, given the gravity of what was being said and given the issues.

The fallout from the sacking of Deputy Cowen as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine inevitably switches the spotlight to the Taoiseach himself. The obvious question involves what occurred between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. yesterday, because there was certainly no indication in the Taoiseach's responses at Leaders' Questions that it would transpire as it did. While the incident took place in 2016 it is recent news to most of us, including the Taoiseach. It originally came into the public domain on 3 July. It may well have been in the Irish Independent before John Mooney's first story in The Sunday Times. Not only was it in the former Minister's interest and in the public interest that he fully address the outstanding issues, but it was also in the new Government's interest that he did so. There is no doubt that this has been a bad start for the Government at a time when the focus of attention should be on the risks from Covid, on safely restarting our society and economy and on building leadership and trust. It is early days but it is difficult to know what to make of the new Government that the Taoiseach leads. There is no doubt that people are busy, as our new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, has told us, but does that mean the schools will reopen in September? The Government is busy with the July stimulus and hopefully it will be well targeted. It has also been busy limiting Opposition voices with the new arrangements in this House.

The indecision around flights into this country from areas where Covid-19 is reproducing rapidly, particularly the US, is the biggest cause of public concern at the moment. Quite frankly, it is being viewed with disbelief. I have heard several Ministers minimising the risk by telling us that just 250 people are coming into the country from the US on a daily basis and some are self-isolating. However, 250 people per day is 2,500 people over ten days. They are coming from what is the epicentre of the virus at the moment. The people of the US are free to choose whoever they wish to lead them but we can all see how the virus is being handled there. As I have said, it is the epicentre of the pandemic. The seriousness of it is being minimised there with tragic consequences. We have to factor that into the public's understanding of this matter. That is why the US is such a high-risk country. On several occasions, our people have been ahead of us on this issue and they are ahead of us again. Despite the huge Ryanair marketing campaign for cheap flights, people have largely heeded the warning to restrict themselves to essential travel and are choosing to holiday at home.

I thank the Deputy.

We know the Cabinet will consider a green list of safe countries to travel to. Will it consider a red list where the epicentre of the virus is located? Will the Taoiseach tell us what is happening in practice when people arrive into the country at the moment?

The Deputy's time is up.

People do not want to be made fools of by adhering to the rules and then worrying that if they holiday here they will be mingling with people coming in from high-risk areas without self-isolating. That needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Deputy began by asking a number of questions about the events of yesterday evening. Again, the fundamental issue yesterday was Deputy Cowen's refusal to respond to my request that he address Dáil Éireann on the issue. I felt he needed to come into the House to clarify the issues that had arisen, particularly following my reading of the file and my discussions with him the evening before. He felt that would prejudice his rights in respect of the two processes that are under way concerning the data. That is the fundamental point. Prior to 2 p.m. he had not agreed to do so. When I went back to my office I contacted him immediately and made the point that it was not tenable if he was not prepared to come into the House at some stage to clarify matters. That is the essence of it.

On the Government's focus, the legislative output from the Government this month is probably the largest volume of legislation in any one month for quite some time. It needs to be said that it is designed to underpin our response to Covid and the economic recovery. The preparations are well advanced for the jobs stimulus which will be launched at some stage next week. Again, it is critical for the support of small to medium-sized companies and indeed people's livelihoods and incomes, particularly through the two pillars of the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme.

On Covid-19 and travel, I met the acting CMO last evening. NPHET has provided advice to the Government. There will be a Cabinet meeting this evening on phase 4 of the roadmap and we will be responding to the advice that NPHET has provided to us. There is concern about increased numbers. They are not attributed to last week or the week before. There were some issues from mid-June onwards about behaviour and so on that we need to be very conscious of. The figures are still relatively low in Ireland.

We need to be very cautious and careful about how we proceed from now on in respect of this. My immediate priorities are to facilitate the reopening of schools, which is the number one national objective, and to maintain capacity in our health services to treat non-Covid conditions and illnesses. That is my approach.

I thank the Taoiseach, the time is up.

On the travel issue, the decision in terms of the green list will be taken next Monday but along with that will be issues pertaining to stronger defences and a stronger presence at airports, and further issues to which the Deputy has alluded will be examined.

The Taoiseach dealt with the issue relating to Deputy Cowen and what he knew. He went on to talk about the legislative programme. We all understand that there is a high degree of co-operation from the Opposition on this but it will be all at nought if we end up with a second wave similar to the one we have already had and we have to lock down a second time. This is why people are so concerned about travel from the United States in particular at present, or other countries at the epicentre. There is no confidence. We have seen on the television that restaurateurs have become those who vet people and ask them whether they have recently arrived and self-isolated. This tells us there is no confidence in the systems in place. We know that it is an offence not to fill out the locator form correctly but people do not have confidence regarding the arrival of flights or the follow up.

The time is up Deputy, please.

That is the issue that needs urgent attention today.

The Taoiseach to conclude on this matter, please.

I accept the Deputy's well-articulated concerns and she is correct that people are very concerned about the fact there is travelling from what we might call hot spot areas or areas that, to me, appear to be out of control with regard to the virus. I accept the Deputy's point on this. Since the start of the pandemic, travel has never been banned. The Deputy's point about follow-up is equally true and accepted. In our announcement some weeks ago, we indicated that this dimension had to be improved upon, in terms of follow-up and engagement with those who have arrived into the country. I watched a report on "Prime Time" last night in which quite a number of people who had come into the country were interviewed. Some are citizens here and some work here and they were coming back from these hot spot areas. All said they were committed to quarantining, staying in isolation for two weeks and obeying the guidelines. I accept the Deputy's point that more needs to be done-----

Thank you, Taoiseach, the time is up.

-----in terms of the other areas the Deputy has highlighted.

As they marched to the Dáil today, Debenhams workers chanted, "Apple got sorted out. We got sold out." The Taoiseach supported the successful appeal against Apple paying the State €13 billion. The Debenhams workers are campaigning for the far smaller sum of €13 million but the Government is taking no action on their behalf. This €13 million is the sum necessary to provide almost 1,000 Debenhams workers with two weeks' statutory redundancy and two weeks per year of service to top it up. To try to win this modest sum, these workers are forced to resort to picketing the 11 Debenhams stores in the Republic of Ireland. It might be more accurate for me to say these shops are being blockaded. They are being picketed around the clock with a view to blocking any attempt to remove stock. The workers understand that liquidation law, framed by the Taoiseach's party and Fine Gael, leaves them way down the pecking order and that they are very unlikely to have their redundancy pay topped up by the liquidator. As the dispute approaches its 100th day this Saturday, blockading the stock in the stores is the one bargaining chip left to these workers and they intend to use it.

I have listened carefully to the Taoiseach's comments on this issue over the past eight days. He offers sympathy on the workers' plight. He downplays the possibility of workers receiving more than the statutory redundancy. He promises the possibility of law reform to improve workers' rights in liquidation situations but only after a review and, implicitly, quite some time later in the lifetime of the Government. To be blunt, this is not going to cut it with these workers. As the acting shop steward for the Blanchardstown store, Ann Peppard, said outside the Dáil less than an hour ago, Micheál Martin's sympathy will not pay her mortgage.

They know that Debenhams can afford to make a just settlement. They know Debenhams has 122 stores currently trading in the UK and that the UK parent company has profited from online sales sourced in the Republic of Ireland every day since the Irish stores closed. They are digging in for a better deal. I honestly do not see how the liquidator will get that stock out. I am certain sure that the threat of arrest will not work. I cannot see court injunctions working either. Sooner or later, the Government will have to intervene here. The Taoiseach was part of a Government that introduced emergency legislation in 2008 when it rushed through the bank guarantee, which ended up costing the taxpayer €64 billion. Is he telling us that whereas emergency legislation for bankers was introduced in 2008 he cannot introduce it for workers in 2020?

A total of €5 million is owed to the Revenue by Debenhams. Is the Taoiseach prepared to say this €5 million should be used towards providing these workers with that basic decent redundancy settlement of two weeks plus two?

On the Deputy's opening statement on Apple getting sorted and so on, Apple did not get sorted. Apple is also about workers. Apple has been in Ireland since 1980 and the court decision is that there was no state aid to Apple. This is the essential point that the court decided. Apple now employs 6,000 people throughout the country. This is important. There has been an ongoing view from the Deputy and others consistently undermining the role of multinational companies in Ireland. I want to put on the record that it is an important role. It underpins the work of many small to medium sized companies that also create thousands of jobs. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs involved in companies such as Apple. It was important in terms of protecting the industrial policy of the past 30 or 40 years, in my view, to identify the State's credibility and reputation whereby we do things within the law.

That said, with regard to Debenhams workers I will not commit to something I cannot legally deliver. I will not do that in the House. I have said before that the treatment of the workers by Debenhams was unacceptable and wrong and that the law does need to change. This in itself will not benefit the workers themselves. The State has to do everything it possibly can through its various schemes and mechanisms to support the workers. Ideally, we can secure alternative employment and provide a range of other supports over and above income supports to help the workers. There is a long-established position in terms of statutory redundancy being the State's mechanism to support workers in this situation. This still holds. That said, this does not in itself provide satisfaction for the workers because they are being denied justice by the company. The company's behaviour has been disreputable and wrong. It has not treated workers with the dignity or respect they deserve or given them supports..

This dispute is now an historic dispute, as it is the first dispute of the coronavirus lockdown. The flagship store for Debenhams is on Henry Street in Dublin, the scene of another historic strike, the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike in the mid-1980s. That dispute was resolved by a Government introducing legislation that in name may not have been emergency legislation but effectively was special legislation, taking apartheid South African goods off the shelves. There is a deadlock in this dispute. There is a risk of arrest and court injunctions facing these workers. The Government will have to intervene.

Legislation must be introduced to resolve it. The Taoiseach said that he hoped alternative employment could be secured for the workers. That is an interesting point, but it has just been thrown out and left hanging. Can he be a little more specific about what he means and what actions he is prepared to take in that regard?

Finally, next Saturday will be the 100th day of this dispute, but in that 100 days the Taoiseach has yet to meet a delegation of Debenhams workers. The workers would like him to meet them. Is the Taoiseach prepared to meet a delegation of Debenhams workers to discuss the issues they are facing?

First, I did participate in a Zoom meeting with Debenhams workers, and the Deputy should know that. Of course, I will meet a delegation of the workers. There is no difficulty whatsoever. I have communicated with workers in my constituency in that regard. The difficulty I have is that in situations such as this I am very reluctant to create false expectations and false hopes for people who are going through a traumatic time after losing their work in such unacceptable circumstances. The Deputy can stand here and say that we should introduce emergency legislation without specifying what he has in mind or whether it is tenable or sustainable.

In terms of my remarks about the State using all its apparatus to support workers, I recall being Minister with responsibility for enterprise when Motorola closed in Cork resulting in the loss of 400 to 500 jobs. We marshalled all the agencies ranging from Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to what was then FÁS to work with the workers collectively and individually to make a new start and get people jobs. That was an interesting study in itself because many new companies were born out of that experience. However, it took a fair degree of collaboration between State agencies working with the workers in that tech sector, and there were good outcomes in that respect. I am always of the view that the State should work with workers who have been made redundant to ensure it can secure alternative employment and give whatever supports the State has available to help workers to reskill, retrain or gain employment elsewhere.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the nomination by the Taoiseach of Deputy Dara Calleary for appointment by the President to be a member of the Government.

Pursuant to section 4(1) of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 1946, I propose to assign him to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In his short time as Government Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, has shown that he is committed not just to reforming the Dáil but also to overseeing a comprehensive legislative programme, which I referred to earlier. The legislative programme for the month of July is the busiest for one month in a long time, and I acknowledge the co-operation of other parties in the House. Most of that legislation will underpin economic recovery in dealing with the continued challenges of Covid-19.

It is crucial for our country to have a strong, progressive, sustainable and resilient agrifood sector. It is one of most important indigenous sectors, providing more than 170,000 jobs and accounting for 10% of exports. The Government is committed to supporting farmers and food businesses, which underpin towns and villages across the country. There are many challenges facing agriculture, such as Brexit, Covid-19, climate change in the future, Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations and the multiannual financial framework, MFF, which we will discuss later this week at the European Council. In the negotiations on the next CAP, we are seeking to protect the family farm and farm incomes, and maintaining the CAP budget will be our top priority.

I know that Deputy Calleary will be an effective Minister. He will work hard and diligently at implementing the ambitious commitments in the programme for Government on agriculture, food and the marine. I wish him well in his new role and commend his appointment to the House.

I also take this opportunity to inform the House that it is my intention to seek the approval of the Cabinet this evening to appoint the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Jack Chambers, as the Government Chief Whip and Deputy Fleming as Minister of State in the Department of Finance with responsibility for financial services, credit unions and insurance. I know the House will join me in wishing them both well in their new posts.

I extend my sincere congratulations to Deputies Calleary, Chambers and Fleming, respectively. The appointment of a new Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine happens at a crucial time for the agriculture sector on our island. Family farms face an uncertain future and the threat of Brexit remains real. It is an important job and I wish Deputy Calleary very well in his role.

Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the circumstances in which the vacancy arose. The controversy, which we discussed again earlier, surrounding the sacking of Deputy Cowen has unquestionably undermined public confidence in this new Government after little more than two weeks in office. I put it to the Taoiseach earlier that the way these matters have been handled has called his judgment into question and raises serious concerns about how he will deal with controversies in the time ahead. He should be in no doubt that the people are looking at this latest mess and they are exasperated, experiencing the terrible sinking feeling that they are in line for more of the same. The Taoiseach has been at pains to say that Fianna Fáil has changed, but the message from this debacle is clear. It is that Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted to do the right thing, that good governance and the public interest always seem to come a distant second to what is politically expedient. One cannot blame people for thinking that it is same old Fianna Fáil, dodging and being less than full with their accounts to the Dáil and the people.

We should be discussing how Ireland can recover from the Covid-19 crisis and we need to discuss solutions to housing and childcare but, unfortunately, because Fianna Fáil cannot change and cannot take up the job of government seriously, we have been discussing a political controversy only a few short weeks after this new Government came into being. I regard that as a failure on the Taoiseach's part. I do not believe he grasps the import or the full consequences of this. People remember previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments and how they operated. They know they cost them very dearly. They are determined, and we are determined, that we are not going down that road again. People deserve a great deal better. Let us remind ourselves that people voted for something better last February. Now, here we are a few short months later with Fianna Fáil back at the helm, and here we go again. The Taoiseach's answers today, frankly, have not been satisfactory. In fact, he failed to answer any of the critical questions I and others put to him, including, interestingly, about the knowledge of the Tánaiste, the leader of Fine Gael, and Deputy Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party, and when they got access to the full facts regarding the controversy and the Deputy Cowen debacle. Instead of being fully forthcoming, the Taoiseach has decided to stick to an approach that muddies the waters. That is not good enough.

I again appeal to him to answer the questions, at some stage, that have been put. He sacked a senior Cabinet Minister because he said he had asked him to answer questions and the Minister steadfastly refused. Irony of ironies, the Taoiseach who did the sacking is himself not prepared to answer in a straightforward way the questions that have been put to him about his actions, decisions and judgment.

I wish the new appointees well, particularly the new Minister, Deputy Calleary, who has served a long apprenticeship in Leinster House and in politics. I truly wish him well in his brief. There is a bit of ground to make up now. This was in many ways a delayed appointment. I am sure his disappointment has now been assuaged. I wish him the best of luck. I also wish the Ministers of State, Deputies Chambers and Fleming, well. I served with Deputy Fleming on the Committee of Public Accounts. He was the Chairman of the committee when I was Vice Chairman. At times he can be very forensic in his analysis, so when it comes to the insurance industry I hope he will be forensic because we need that. I extend my best wishes to all three appointees.

There is, though, an issue arising with the Government. It has had an exceptionally poor start. I do not say that with any malice, but I and other Deputies have asked a range of questions today as to what happened in respect of Deputy Cowen, questions that are broader than just Deputy Cowen. I respect his personal rights and requirements under data protection and that he should ensure that all those rights are vindicated. I also respect the fact that there must be inquiries as to how certain information got into the public domain. There are, however, deeper issues, and I have raised very serious questions with the Taoiseach and he did not have any answers. I forensically asked him questions about the information he knew about. There are also contradictions in some of the statements he has made, and they will all be combed through, so he needs to put an end to this. He needs to think today about how he will do so because many people are now asking extensive questions that go beyond even the issue at hand and into how he is handling things. I urge him to think over the next 24 hours about how best he can put an end to this.

There are broader issues of competence here. There has been a lot of change in the Department of Health. From a Government perspective, the Taoiseach needs to get a handle on this. There is a new acting Secretary General, a new Minister, a new Chief Medical Officer and a range of other people. The Taoiseach needs to pick up the baton and ensure that the process by which we make decisions for the good of this country continues and that people have confidence on the whole range of issues.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has disappeared. There are so many issues with what has transpired over the past few days. The fact that she has not made any public comment on them is just bizarre. The Taoiseach will have to take a real look at transparency and how the Government deals with things. I have tabled a whole range of parliamentary questions, as have my colleagues in the Labour Party, and the way in which the Government has handled them is a disgrace. I will forward them to the Ceann Comhairle, as usual, to look for more information from the Ministers because they refused to answer the questions.

Together with this is the fact that the Freedom of Information Act needs a complete overhaul. The issue of giving out information has not resulted in a good start. Given the Taoiseach's track record as leader of Fianna Fáil while in opposition, I hope to see greater transparency.

The Minister with responsibility for housing has not been clear as to what he will do about the extension of the ban on evictions or about mortgages. From what I hear, the quantum in respect of the July stimulus will not be anywhere near what is required. Hope for young people is very quickly evaporating. I accept, because the Taoiseach has stated as much, that opening schools is the biggest priority. However, given the interview the Minister for Education and Skills gave to the Sunday Independent last week, I have zero confidence in this regard, so things need to change there pretty quickly. It was absolutely incredible to read. There are concerns about childcare as well and where we are going in that regard.

There is, however, a July stimulus for one group of people. I refer to the number of advisers being appointed to the Taoiseach's office, the Tánaiste's office and the office of the Minister with responsibility for transport and climate change, as well as to the Ministers of State, the new head of protocol, who will be in the Tánaiste's office, and the drivers. Funding has been provided to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade so he can continue with his Garda driver and his Garda car. There is a July stimulus for all them.

It has not been a good start for the Government. Let today be a watermark and a change in order that the whole country can, it is hoped, move on and get through Covid. However, the way in which the Government has shown leadership to date has not given us much cause for hope.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Calleary. His is an incredibly important portfolio. I wish him well. I know these are not the circumstances in which he would have wished for this to happen and that he will be thinking of Deputy Cowen and his family from that point of view.

There was a lot of attention on the failure to allocate a Minister for the west, but there is no such thing as a Minister for the west. I accept there is a region that feels very disenfranchised. The key issue is that Ministers are for all the country; it is the portfolio that matters. This will nonetheless be seen as a gain in the west but at an expense of the midlands. Deputy Fleming, with whom I served on the Committee of Public Accounts, is being appointed as Minister for State, but there is no doubt but that that will be the feeling. There is something wrong with our politics when that is how ministerial appointments are perceived. A Minister cannot be a Minister for a region or an individual constituency. We have heard very concerning things from that point of view in recent weeks. It is essential, however, that Government functions in such a way that Ministers are for all the country. This is one of the areas on which we need to hold this Government to account. There is evidence from previous Administrations that whichever Deputy is in a particular position can matter hugely to his or her individual constituency. However, we need to move towards objective resource allocation so we do not end up with postcode lotteries in the provision of public services and infrastructure, and that resources are fairly allocated and based on need, not the location of a particular Minister. We would all gain from such an approach.

I am all in favour of expertise being available to Ministers, but I think the number of advisers and the actual expertise being brought in will become sources of serious concern because in some cases it is quite difficult to see exactly what that expertise is, other than media management. I think there will be close scrutiny of that.

The Taoiseach has talked about how important the role of Chief Whip is and has made a big issue of that. I agree with him: it is a very important position. Three weeks on, however, there are justifiable questions about this. I wish Deputy Chambers well in his new role. Government has a job to do, but so has the Opposition. Within the framework document the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste produced, the role of the Opposition was acknowledged. I am quite concerned about the majoritarianism we are seeing come to pass in respect of the Dáil reform committee and the curtailment of some voices in the Opposition. We should be very concerned about that. It is not on for Members of this Parliament not to be able to sit on committees and hold the Government to account. That cannot be the way in which this proceeds.

I hope there will be a rethink of the approach that has been forthcoming from some quarters. These are important roles and, again, I wish the Ministers, Deputies Calleary, Fleming and Chambers, well.

This controversy is not over. The Taoiseach has sacked Deputy Cowen to try to draw a line under it and he is spinning furiously about what he knew in an attempt to evade responsibility. However, the essence of the matter is very clear and it will come out. The Taoiseach colluded with the then Minister to keep vital information from the Dáil. They relied on legal threats to keep that vital information from the media. If it was not for The Sunday Times publishing the article, including the reference to the Garda report last Sunday, the Taoiseach would never have asked Deputy Cowen to answer questions before the Dáil and nobody would be any the wiser.

Earlier, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that Ministers should come before the House to answer questions of public interest. However, the Taoiseach's Government voted twice - on 7 July and yesterday, 14 July - to shield the former Minister, Deputy Cowen, from facing those questions. The Taoiseach abused his majority to ensure he would not face questions and would come in and make a statement and waltz out again without facing any questions. The Taoiseach was backed in that by the Labour Party the first time around and by a number of Independents both times. Ironically, the Minister who now replaces Deputy Cowen was then in his role as Chief Whip, ensuring the questions would not be asked. The Taoiseach‘s statement today that Ministers should face questions is clearly disingenuous.

The Taoiseach relies very heavily on the fact he did not get a copy of the Garda report until Tuesday morning but he knew of its existence on 3 July. He was told about it by a journalist and he knew there was a reference in it to a serious incident about evading a Garda checkpoint. The Taoiseach tried to wriggle out of that by saying it was what a journalist told him and he did not know what was in the report. However, the point is he knew the significance of that at that time. Over the weekend of 4 and 5 July, he discussed the matter with Deputy Cowen and, as part of that discussion, it is clear from Deputy Cowen’s statement that he discussed this Garda report. The Taoiseach knew the significance of this report. He discussed it and together they agreed that when Deputy Cowen made a statement to the Dáil on 7 July, he would not tell the Dáil about it. They agreed he would speak about having a full and frank disclosure and about avoiding a damaging drip feed of information and yet Deputy Cowen chose, with the agreement of the Taoiseach, not to put this vital information into the public domain. From the absence of the Tánaiste from the Chamber and the repeated failure of the Taoiseach to answer point-blank questions about whether he told the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, it seems extremely likely that he chose not to tell his coalition partners about it.

Is it not the case that the Taoiseach relied on legal threats to gag the media? He agreed with Deputy Cowen that, in making his full statement on 7 July, he would not tell the Dáil about the existence of this Garda report and the reference to evading the checkpoint because the Taoiseach and Deputy Cowen thought at that point that the legal threats had done their job. They thought the media would not publish and they would be able to move on. If The Sunday Times had not published that story last Sunday, is it not the case that the Taoiseach would not have asked Deputy Cowen to answer questions in the Dáil and there will be no question of accountability?

What we have in this absolute dumpster fire of two and a half weeks of a Government is a clear display of the culture of Fianna Fáil. It is a party that is about power and not about ideology. The squabbling between different backbench Members over who should get what junior or senior ministerial jobs at a time when one in four people is unemployed and then this consistent attempt to avoid accountability, which is continuing right now from the Taoiseach, remind people correctly of everything that Fianna Fáil is about and it is tainting correctly the Green Party and Fine Gael as long as they stand beside Fianna Fáil.

On my behalf and that the Regional Group of Members, I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Calleary, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Chambers and Fleming. I know all three would not like being appointed in the manner they have been appointed but I congratulate them nonetheless. I particularly congratulate the Minister, Deputy Calleary, on his accession to a full seat at the Cabinet table. Very few people have secured the opportunity to sit around the Cabinet table and it is a great honour and a huge responsibility, particularly at a time when huge change is needed. The Minister will get the good wishes of every Member of this House. I have enjoyed working with the Minister over the past few weeks in facilitating the heavy legislative workload that is going through the House at the moment. The skill set he has developed since his election to Dáil Éireann in terms of working with people will be a vital tool for him working in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, both in Ireland and the Council of Ministers level, where he will really have to roll up his sleeves. It is a huge honour for the Minister and for his family, who know the ebbs and flows of politics, and I think of them as well today.

I know he will do a good job for his country, his county and his party in his role in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There are huge challenges there at the moment, particularly in relation to the viability of family farms, particularly in the suckler sector, which the Minister will know well. There is a need to protect the overall Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, vote at European and domestic levels and to ensure the new environmental schemes that are introduced are farmer focused and farmer friendly. We have indications from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that we will see a new farm retirement scheme and that would be warmly welcomed because of the age profile in agriculture, particularly within the beef sector. It is not a good age profile to drive the type of change that is needed to sustain the viability of many family firms across this country.

I congratulate the new Minister and wish him the best of luck. If I could give him one piece of advice, it would be to take on board the suggestions from the Opposition side of the House. I know he will take those on board because it should not be about Government and Opposition. It should be about Parliament inputting in a constructive way to come forward with practical and implementable solutions for the challenges we now face in an economy and society post Covid-19.

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news last night that my neighbour, Deputy Cowen, had been sacked by An Taoiseach. This is not an easy time for Deputy Cowen or his family. He is in a very lonely place at this point. I have known him since he entered Dáil Éireann and I have worked with him and his brother. At a time when just transition is a key term across the midlands, it was reassuring to know that we had someone at the Cabinet table who knew the issues and challenges facing our communities as a result of the wind down of Bord na Móna. I know Deputy Cowen will continue to work hard for his constituents in Laois and Offaly and keep a close eye, along with myself, on the plans for just transition across the midland counties. I wish Deputy Cowen and the Ministers, Deputies Calleary, Chambers and Fleming, very well in the future.

Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghuí ar na hAirí ar son an Rural Independent Group.

I compliment Deputy Calleary on his forthcoming appointment as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and wish him well. I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and the incoming Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, on their new positions. In his time as Chief Whip, Deputy Calleary has worked exceptionally well with the Whips of the different parties and groups. There is a huge legislative programme to get through but he has always been understanding and engaging in his role as Chief Whip. He has looked for agreement rather than division. I have worked with Deputy Calleary for decades, going back to his days in Ógra Fianna Fáil, and since he came into the Dáil in 2007. I have had many a joust and jostle with him and no doubt we will have many more, but I know the west is wide awake this morning.

I do not mind what others say about Ministers for regions, but regions must be represented at the Cabinet and, before today, the west was not represented. Now it will be well and truly represented. I know there will be a small celebration in Carty's Bar in Knock and other places. Breda Laffey will be very happy, as will many others. Deputy Calleary's wife, his mother and all his family will be proud. I wish him well and look forward to working with him in these very difficult and challenging times, with the Common Agricultural Policy negotiations and the demise of agriculture. If he can make one mark, I hope it will be to cut out half the bureaucracy and red tape that is involved in the schemes run by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Many of those schemes are going back with moneys not drawn down simply because of the bureaucratic red tape.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, well and I look forward to working with him as Chief Whip. The incoming Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, who is from close to my own heartland of Tipperary, proved his ability, capacity for forensic questioning and fairness as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts. He will be well able for the challenge that is put up to him today.

It is a sad time for the former Minister, Deputy Cowen. I wish him, his wife, his mum, his brother, who is in recovery, and all the Cowen family well. I knew and had engagement with his late dad, Ber, when he served as Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture. He often travelled to meetings at the greyhound track in Clonmel and engaged with people there. The Cowen family has a long and proud history of service to politics. I stood up yesterday in this House to speak about the situation following Deputy Cowen's statement to the Dáil last week. I have just received a text message indicating that the Garda Síochána has contacted the Data Protection Commissioner to investigate the leak of information relating to Deputy Cowen. This is a very serious situation and it is why I did not support the proposal yesterday to have another debate or ask additional questions. We have a huge legislative programme and a huge amount of work to get through. Deputy Cowen came into the House last week to give a profound apology for a crime he committed and for which he paid the price. He did the crime and he did the time. Now we are going to have a forensic investigation of the matter. Are any of us who ever robbed an orchard going to be hauled before the Oireachtas for statements?

It is the parties of the left, in the main, which were grandstanding on this issue. I resent the fact that yesterday, after I opposed her party's proposal regarding Deputy Cowen, the self-proclaimed leader of the Opposition, who thinks other Opposition Deputies will be silenced, told me it was the most untruthful statement I ever uttered.

I will be writing to the Ceann Comhairle about this. When I consulted her to find out what her issue was, she told me I was a slíbhín.

Imagine that. It might not be on the record but the journalists heard her say it. I will take no lessons on slíbhínism from a party with such a murky past and which is still involved with that past. It is a party that is denying that it did not want to be in government and now its leader wants to be total leader of the Opposition. None of us in the Rural Independent Group, the Regional Group or the Social Democrats has any voice. That is the diktat of the unelected leader of Sinn Féin. I do not know of any democracy in Europe that has appointed leaders, but we have one in the North and the South.

If Deputy McDonald thinks I am a Member under her wing and I will bow and kowtow to her, she is mistaken. What she said was a disgraceful rebuff and if I said it, I would have the Me Too brigade down on me. Deputy McDonald said it and I expect an apology. She said it and she was heard saying it.

(Interruptions).

I ask to be allowed to speak and Deputy McDonald will have time to reply. The journalists in the Gallery heard what she said and my colleague, Deputy Michael Collins, heard it. If that is the new politics we have heard about, my goodness we are in trouble. Will threats and kneecappings be next? We lost three good Sinn Féin councillors in Tipperary when they were bullied out of their party. I take no bullying from Deputy McDonald or anybody else.

(Interruptions).

I wish Deputy Cowen and his family all the best at this tough time for them. We in the Rural Independent Group will speak without fear or favour on issues affecting rural Ireland and the people we represent. We will not be downtrodden or bullied by Sinn Féin or anybody else. This is the party that did not want to go into government, but it wants to have seats in the front row of the Dáil and all the Opposition speaking time, and it wants to limit all the roles for smaller groups. The new politics that Sinn Féin wants is to take us back to the past.

That was the entertainment for today.

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire nua, an Teachta Calleary, agus leis an mbeirt eile. Guím gach rath orthu ina róil nua. Cuireann sé iontas orm, áfach, nach ndearna an Taoiseach tagairt ar bith d'Aire sóisearach don Ghaeltacht. Ar ais arís, níl trácht ar bith ar an nGaeltacht i mbliain chinniúnach maidir le hAcht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla agus maidir le polasaí do na hoileáin. B'fhéidir go mbeidh an Taoiseach in ann soiléiriú a thabhairt air sin.

I congratulate the Minister and Ministers of State on their new roles. I cannot let the occasion pass without saying that the elevation of a further three wise men brings into sharp focus the long journey we have to go towards gender equality. The role of Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is an extremely important one in terms of sustainable rural and regional development and the challenges that present in regard to climate change and bringing farmers and their families on board. I wish the incoming Minister, Deputy Calleary, the best in all of that. However, the circumstances of his appointment and the sacking of the previous Minister leave a lot of unanswered questions. While I wish the Taoiseach the best and I think he has a good heart behind his actions, he has handled this situation very badly. In my view, his judgment has been brought into question by his handling of the matter.

Nobody in the Opposition asked for a head on a plate. We did not ask for a Minister to be sacked. All we asked for was openness and accountability. Indeed, some members of the Opposition voted against proposals put forward on this side of the House. We simply asked for questions to be answered. The need for accountability was the strongest messages we got from people during the election campaign. We all make mistakes and we all do something wrong. Nobody here can say they did not do something wrong at some time. Where members of the Government make mistakes, there is an onus on them to come into the House and explain, particularly in the circumstances that pertained in this case, where there was the release of a Garda record. We do not know how it was released. We do not know what the particular record was, or whether it was a PULSE record or something obtained under data protection.

Then there is the whole question of Ministers being vetted. As I understand it, nominees go through a vetting process by the Garda before their appointment. The Taoiseach is shaking his head, so I might be wrong about that. I presumed they go through such a process, just as teachers and others have to be vetted before they are appointed. Are Ministers vetted by the Garda and, if so, what emerged from that in Deputy Cowen's case? Then there is the very serious question of data being released in the manner in which they appear to have been released. I certainly agree with the Taoiseach that there is a serious question to address in that regard.

I am sharing time with Deputy Fitzmaurice. I offer my sincere good wishes to the new Minister, Deputy Calleary; the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers; and the new Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. I am especially pleased that we now have a Minister of State with responsibility for credit unions. I look forward to working with him to ensure there is an appropriate regulatory framework for the not-for-profit, member-owned credit unions that have consistently supported communities. I wish all three appointees well. I am pleased to see that the new appointments give a certain rebalancing from the perspective of the regions. The big news is the appointment as Minister of Deputy Calleary, who faces huge challenges in securing an adequate CAP budget. I look forward to seeing him pursue the Fianna Fáil policy of convergence of the basic payment in the next round and in the transition phase. I wish him well in his work and I look forward to working with him.

In regard to Deputy Cowen, it is important to note that there is an ongoing process. He disputes the PULSE record and, as a citizen, he has a right to do so. However, as a Minister, he had a duty to come into the House and answer questions and he chose not to do that. Finally, on a personal level, this is a devastating blow for Deputy Cowen and his family. As a fellow Member of Dáil Éireann, I feel for them. Politics can be a brutal business.

I was shocked and saddened by the Taoiseach's actions yesterday evening in regard to Deputy Cowen. I think it was a trial by media. I wish Deputy Calleary the very best of luck. The ministerial map is at least being rebalanced a small bit for the west of Ireland. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, whose mother hails from Castlerea, the best of luck, and likewise the incoming Minister of State, Deputy Fleming.

The new Minister, Deputy Calleary, has a job at hand today. I think he will get support from many in the House wishing him the best of luck. However, he should remember that for years, there has been an imbalance in agriculture, and the conglomerates have been looked after year upon year by previous Governments. The Minister comes from an area where small family farms keep the community viable and where the butcher shop and local shop are kept going by the local farmers. Now is his opportunity to leave a mark in agriculture over the next few years, for the farmers of the west and the north-west who have been forgotten for many years. I wish him the very best of luck in the future.

I send my thoughts to Deputy Cowen and his family. It is incredibly difficult when one loses office in the circumstances we witnessed last night. There are issues and questions again about how people's personal private data are revealed to the public and we have to look at that in a variety of different ways. Regardless of that matter, it is true what the Taoiseach said in that we in the political system are held to higher standards. That is particularly the case when it comes to people questioning the integrity, independence or accuracy of An Garda Síochána. We have a particular responsibility to get that right.

This has been a terribly difficult issue for the individuals involved. My experience is that I was informed by the Taoiseach about it in a timely and fair manner and I respect and support his judgment calls, which were difficult judgment calls. We welcome and look forward to working with the new Minister, Deputy Calleary, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Chambers and Fleming, in the critical work they have to do. While this has been a difficult political and personal issue, I do not believe it will distract from the vital work the Government has to do. We face immediate challenges in how we manage Covid, stimulate our economy and effect change in the health and housing systems. This Government can, and will, continue to work cohesively and with all its energies to address the challenges facing our people.

We must now put the question. The question is-----

On a point of order, will the Taoiseach clarify who is now the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht? Deputy Calleary, who I wish well in his new position, was responsible for the Gaeltacht. Is there now no Minister of State for the Gaeltacht or where does that responsibility lie? Is it with the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers?

Can the Taoiseach clarify this matter now, or will he do so at a later stage?

Deputy Chambers assumes the position Deputy Calleary held.

It is Deputy Chambers.

Question put and declared carried.

Some 38 Deputies have indicated, eight of them having been carried forward from yesterday. I plead with Members to stick to the one-minute time limit. I call Deputy McDonald.

The ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases expires on Monday next. As the Taoiseach will be aware, tens of thousands of renters who have lost income due to Covid-19 are protected by this ban and without it, they will be immediately at risk of eviction or perhaps homelessness. There were worrying reports in last weekend's papers that the Taoiseach is being advised not to extend the ban. I remind him that during the general election when we in Sinn Féin spoke about a rent freeze and applying protections for those renters, we were told it could not be done. In fact, many went so far as to say that to do so would be unconstitutional, yet those protections were then introduced, albeit in the context of a public health emergency. Will the Taoiseach clarify the Government's position? I ask him to commit to extending these protections, not just to October but to year's end, and to also commit to introducing a rent arrears debt resolution scheme, including the option of partial or full rent write-downs.

There was no Covid-19 during the general election and the assertions made then bore no relationship to what subsequently happened. The eviction ban and freeze on rent increases was grounded in the emergency public health legislation arising out of Covid-19. There are issues around that but the Government is examining them. We are conscious that it has helped public health by preventing homelessness and reducing homelessness, evictions and so on, and that that trend would continue. There has been a relaxation of emergency measures under the roadmap but the Government is giving this very detailed scrutiny right now and we will consider it at Government meetings over the coming weeks.

The programme for Government is virtually silent on the question of workers' rights and there can be no even or fair recovery in the absence of a focus on collective bargaining and decent pay and wages. I acknowledge the welcome commitment in the programme to a living wage, but there is no timeline of any substance. What is required is for the riding instructions of the Low Pay Commission to be changed in legislation to give it a legal target to transform the national minimum wage rate to a living wage over the next period. In the absence of such a move, the aspiration to convert the minimum wage to a living wage will remain just that - a mere aspiration. Does the Taoiseach have any plans to amend the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 to give the Low Pay Commission a legal timeframe within which to work to deliver a living wage for the workers of this country? Will he confirm that the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has received the annual report from the commission with recommendations on the rate of the national minimum wage for 2021? When will Cabinet consider that report, and will the Government accept the recommendation that is about to be lodged?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As an overall policy position, I am establishing a new social dialogue unit within my Department and I would like to explore the issues to which the Deputy has referred such as collective bargaining and so on with the various stakeholders in that regard.

I will check with the Tánaiste about receipt of the Low Pay Commission report. The position in recent years has been to adhere to the recommendations of the commission. As regards the Deputy's specific point about whether the commission would be tasked with transforming the minimum wage, that has not specifically been committed to yet. It is an interesting idea and I am open to engaging with the Deputy, as I am sure the Tánaiste will be, about constructive progress we can make on workers' rights in general.

The programme for Government seeks to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. Dependable broadband is essential to support rural communities, foster businesses in our towns and villages and enable people to work from home and students to learn online. Every day, I am contacted by people who are extremely frustrated at their appalling Internet access. Throughout lockdown, people resorted to working from church car parks in their cars. Some teachers could not access the Internet at home to teach remotely. The list goes on. What assurances can the Taoiseach give the people of west Cork and rural Ireland that we will have dependable broadband soon?

The programme for Government has raised the prospect of moving to try to accelerate the national broadband plan. That is, however, something that must be followed through in some detail regarding engagement with the company concerning what is possible. I accept fully the point made by the Deputy regarding the poor quality of broadband in rural Ireland being a real inhibitor of economic rejuvenation and development.

As I said to one of the Deputy's colleagues yesterday, Skibbereen is a good example of what can happen when a significant hub and connectivity is developed. That is something I am conscious of and I take the Deputy's point. We will do whatever we possibly can to accelerate the national broadband plan and to enable people to engage in a range of activities, social, educational and economic, in rural Ireland.

Page 119 of the programme for Government contains a promise for political reform. That promise appears, at the very least, a little aspirational now. I have a simple question for the Taoiseach. If The Sunday Times had not published the story about the Garda report last Sunday, is it not the case that the Taoiseach would not have asked Deputy Cowen to answer questions in the Dáil? Is it also not the case that the Taoiseach was relying on legal threats to gag the media and that he had agreed previously with Deputy Cowen that he would not tell the Dáil about the Garda report because the Taoiseach thought that those legal threats would prevent the media from publishing?

First, the Deputy made a statement earlier that was completely wrong and untrue. I did not collude with anybody regarding any legal action or any legal initiative. I respectfully suggest that the Deputy should not be making such loose allegations and assertions that are wholly without foundation.

I did not say that.

It comes easy to the Deputy's lips to throw innuendoes and accusations around the place.

Answer the question.

The Deputy is, however, out of order. Deputy Cowen took his own initiative regarding legal action to protect his name and reputation, as he saw it, and in respect of ascertaining his own personal data. I saw the PULSE detail yesterday morning for the first time and I also had a lengthy discussion with Deputy Cowen the evening before. I have already dealt with this issue in that respect.

My record in this House, since the day I was elected and since the time I have held many Ministries, has been about accountability to the House. I never held back and I have no issue regarding holding back from the House. Deputy Cowen, for his own reason, to which he is entitled, had a different perspective on the matter regarding pursuing his entitlements and rights as he saw it. That is particularly the case regarding the release of his data. The Deputy should not be accusing me of colluding in some sort of plot to suppress that-----

The Sunday Times-----

That is the position.

Deputy Murphy, please. The Deputy has had his question. I call Deputy Naughten.

The last Government and this Government committed to the reform of the nursing home fair deal legislation. It has been promised for the last four years to prohibit the forced sale of farms and businesses across the country of older people resident in nursing homes and to remove the effective ban on the option for older people of leasing out up to 9,000 vacant homes. At present, those people are being charged three times under the fair deal rules if they lease a house out, rather than just once if they leave it vacant. When will we see the publication of that legislation?

We need those urgent changes regarding the fair deal scheme legislation. Farmers are still being discriminated against, especially small family farms. There is a duty on us here to ensure that we are helping these family farms to survive in every way we can. When will those changes take place? The last Government led farmers up the garden path on this issue and I believe the legislation needs to change urgently.

I thank the Deputies for raising what is an important issue for the farming community. I do not think that legislation will be dealt with this month, so it will fall to the autumn session. I have, however, asked the Ministers to prioritise this matter and it is in the programme for Government. The Deputies are correct, however, that people have been waiting for some time. There have been some issues with some of the stakeholders regarding this matter, which perhaps have delayed its progress, but I am determined that we will get this legislation published and into the House.

Given the extremely disturbing nature of the commentary of the activist Peter Tatchell presenting sex education with children in a positive light, will the Taoiseach confirm that Mr. Tatchell or his organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and the other organisations with which he is associated, did not have any engagement with the Department of Education and Skills and will not have any engagement, but more importantly did not have any engagement with the Minister for children and the policy regarding sex education for our children in national schools? The commentary of Mr. Tatchell is very disturbing and I want to know if Mr. Tatchell, or any of the organisations with which he is involved, and they are numerous and he is a patron of some, has had any engagement and if so what is the nature of that engagement?

I will make two points on this issue. I do not believe so but I do not know the man at all. The attacks on the Minister for children were completely outrageous and unacceptable. It was the kind of online hate campaign that we should really be very strongly against. We have good centre ground in this country that really resents the online vile hatred that is directed against people in an unjustified way. That is not what the Deputy is saying, I accept that, but-----

That is not what I said.

No. My experience regarding the development of the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programme is that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, will have an input, as well as expertise from psychologists etc.. It is a much more rounded formulation and development for children, obviously age appropriate and with different programs at different levels. Much work goes into that and it is considered and important work. It needs to be modernised.

At what age-----

It is based on core human values of respect, consent, self-esteem and self-respect. People have misguided views regarding what sex education is about and what sexuality and relationship education is about and we need to keep this in perspective. Frankly, I would have thought the last place for that to be deliberated upon is on social media.

I am following up on last week when I asked a question about masks. I refer to the 2 m social distancing on public transport having been reduced to 1 m without the mandatory wearing of masks or criminal consequences or fines. It is welcome that that happened this Monday. I use buses and public transport all the time. I was on the bus yesterday and everybody was wearing masks and I was on the Luas today and everybody was also wearing masks. The drivers, however, were expected to tell people that they could not board without a mask. I think that is outrageous and the issue should be looked at from the perspective of the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, raising the issue of policing public transport.

We are increasingly reaching a point now where everybody should be wearing a mask in public in indoor places, such as in supermarkets and other retail outlets and even in here. We should all be wearing masks to protect one another. I am not an expert in this area, but the Government should be looking at this issue now from the point of view of public health. I would like the Taoiseach's opinion on this matter.

I recall the Deputy raising this issue last week and I did move to try to bring this matter to a conclusion. That is why on Friday the Minister for Health signed the regulations regarding the wearing of masks on public transport. I did that notwithstanding the tensions. These things can be delayed indefinitely because of people wanting to know who is going to do everything, specifically and exactly. It is interesting that once the regulations were signed, the public adhered to them. It is always my view that the public is generally compliant with regulations that are passed in the public interest and so it turned out.

I respect the position of the NBRU. My late father was a founding member of the NBRU and sometimes I am accused of having too soft a spot for it by other unions. Notwithstanding that, we need to work collectively to ensure that what has emerged remains the position. Regarding other sectors, we need to examine what the position will be in respect of retail locations, for example. That is something that will be subject to further examination.

On page 113, the programme for Government refers to outlining preparations for post-Covid-19 education and the return to school. The Taoiseach has just said that it is the number one priority. Parents, however, were absolutely aghast at the interview given by the Minister for Education and Skills to the Sunday Independent because there was scarcely any answer at all in the interview.

It is 15 July, it is four months since schools closed and it is about six weeks until schools reopen. Consultations only began in mid to late May. We were promised a roadmap a month ago.

That seems to have completely fallen off the agenda. Parents are at a loss. Many are very concerned and unbelievably frustrated. They want to know whether their children will be back for three, four or five days per week. They want to know whether they will have to wear masks on buses. They want to know how many children will be in each pod. They want to know whether schools will get extra funding, resources and teachers. All those questions are unanswered at this stage. Time is running out. It is not good enough. Of all Departments, the Department of Education and Skills has been the most slack in the Covid-19 context. Parents and teachers are frustrated.

Special needs assistants should be included as well.

There has been comprehensive engagement by the Minister and the Department - the Minister in particular - with the stakeholders involved in education with a view to facilitating the reopening of schools at the end of August. It is something to which I am personally very committed. As I have said repeatedly in the House, the reopening of schools is important for the development of the child and it is something I want to see happening. This has wider implications for the wider Covid-19 issue and the continued suppression of the virus. The Government will be considering the NPHET advice this evening in the context of the objective of getting schools open again towards the end of August.

What is the plan? When will it happen?

It may interest the Deputy to know that I spoke to the Welsh First Minister last week. In Wales schools have been open for the past three weeks - they have a later session - and this has worked far better for them than they had anticipated. My understanding is that schools in Scotland will be reopening on 11 August. We are learning lessons from other countries.

My question relates to the Charities Act 2009. Are all sections of the Act in operation?

I will have to check that. I will get a written report back to the Deputy on it.

Deputy James Browne is next. Níl sé anseo. Deputy Thomas Gould is next.

Page 56 of the programme for Government commits the Government to self-harm education programmes on drug misuse. Last week the new Minister was unaware of the serious issues relating to nitrous oxide abuse. When will these education campaigns be rolled out? What format will they take? Will the Taoiseach commit to requesting that the new Minister take one of these courses? He obviously needs it.

Is Deputy Gould going to provide it?

He will do it at a discount.

This is a very serious issue. The broad area of alcohol and drug abuse, in particular the degree to which young people are targeted, is very serious indeed. We will be working on it. It has to be cross-cutting and cross-departmental to be effective, between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health, as well as youth services. That is something we will attend to as quickly as we possibly can.

Page 97 of the programme for Government commits to establishing a high-level cross-departmental and cross-agency taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned and primary care supports on their release. The community prison links service was put in place to assist prisoners who have additional support needs for addiction and dual diagnosis when exiting prison. This service helps prisoners to assimilate and helps reduce reoffending.

At present community prison link workers are not on the approved professional telephone call and visitor lists. This means prisoners have to choose between a professional visit and a family visit. Is the Taoiseach aware of this situation? Will the Taoiseach commit to measures that will rectify this?

I presume that is on public health grounds. I will check out the situation. If the Deputy wishes to send a note to me on it I will follow it up and see what can be done.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the plight of school transport operators. They will have been out of work for six months when, hopefully, the schools reopen in September. They are one of the hardest-hit sectors. They are in serious trouble. The representative group has been in touch with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to outline measures that will help them to stay in business. They have been excluded from all grant aid. The only possibility of generating income is when schools are back. Will the Taoiseach take on board their proposals and commit to specific measures to help them in the July stimulus package? Such measures would help them to stay in business and give them a chance to recover from this crisis that has hit them so hard and is not of their making.

To be fair, the wage subsidy scheme has been of help to businesses across all sectors. Other measures have been taken to protect livelihoods as well. The July job stimulus programme will be of assistance for those in school transport in the general sense in terms of the range of supports that will be made available and opportunities to access funding. Of course the key enabler will be the reopening of the schools and the need for school transport services.

I am sure the Taoiseach, as a former Minister with responsibility for education - I have another here beside me - will value the major changes that are occurring in apprenticeships. We are going from 25 traditional apprenticeships to 100 potential new apprenticeships. One of the things that has been holding this back is the very limited involvement of the public service in apprenticeships. Will the Taoiseach consider, through either the July stimulus package or the national economic plan, providing for the public service to take on an ambitious programme of apprenticeships? Many of the apprenticeship areas are now relevant, including laboratory technicians, engineering services staff, maintenance engineers, accounting technicians, financial services staff and supply chain specialists. They are very much at the core of what the public service should be doing. It would be a great boost to apprenticeships. Let us compare Ireland to Germany. A total of 500,000 people enrol in apprenticeships every year in Germany. In Ireland it is only 1% of that number.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy. The public services need to do far more in terms of providing apprenticeships and opportunities, especially in the current crisis. They should provide opportunities for young people to avail of apprenticeships and internships.

One thinks of the great role semi-state companies played in the past in terms of apprenticeship and training across the board. It is something that needs to be rekindled, regenerated and rejuvenated in the modern public service. The Deputy has made an important point and it is one I take a personal interest in. The Minister with responsibility for higher education has raised the issue of apprenticeships and initiatives for young people in the context of the July stimulus.

The programme for Government refers to how the State has a fundamental role in ensuring the best use of the existing housing stock. A key threat to best use is short-term holiday lettings eating up supply in cases where landlords are putting a whole house or whole apartment out to rent. The existing relevant regulations have been shown to be too weak and there are issues with enforcement.

This sector has been decimated by Covid-19. The flood of properties that were in this sector but are now up for general rent on the market shows the effect the sector has on supply. While things are far lower due to Covid-19 surely this is the time to look at strengthening these regulations and addressing the structural issues. Does the Taoiseach agree that now is the time to review the regulations so we can make best use of the housing stock as things recover?

In principle, yes. This is an opportunity, particularly on the homelessness question, to drive down homelessness. The Deputy is correct in saying that it illustrates the impact short-term lettings have had on the availability of units and houses for people generally. We have to prioritise. I will certainly be speaking to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government about reviewing those regulations.

I raised privately with the Taoiseach earlier the issue of the iconic and transformative north quays project for Waterford. I know he is aware of the importance of this project. Planning permission was granted last week. The council has tried to get certainty on funding and the sequencing right for two and a half years, but this has still not happened. I spoke to the CEO of the council earlier, who is exasperated. It is very important for the future of Waterford city and the south-east. Can the Taoiseach intervene and talk to the Ministers with responsibility for housing and local government and public expenditure and reform and give the people of the south-east certainty on this iconic project so that it can go ahead very quickly?

The Deputy spoke to me before this session. It is very important project and one that has great potential for Waterford. I will pursue the issue. Notwithstanding that I am Taoiseach, it is not in my gift to instruct every Minister to provide every grant to every project. This is an important project with critical mass that can have knock-on benefits for the region. I will talk to the Ministers with responsibility for housing and public expenditure about it.

On behalf of all of the publicans in rural Ireland, I ask the Taoiseach to give them the green light to open next Monday. They have waited for 17 or 18 weeks. People living in rural valleys, glens and highways do not have the wherewithal to go to bigger towns where they have to have a meal. They do not have the time or funding to do so. People used to go to their local pub for a couple of drinks. They are at their wits' end. Mental health is an issue for publicans and people who cannot get a drink and have a conversation in rural Ireland because all the doors have been closed to them. Some two-thirds of the publicans in Dublin are working. Half of the pubs in larger towns have reopened. Nothing is happening in rural Ireland. Places such as Gneeveguilla, Scartaglin, Rathmore, Brosna, Knocknagoshel and Sneem have been shut down. It is not fair. The Government is discriminating against the publicans in rural Ireland.

I am reluctant to intervene in such lyricism. The manner in which the Deputy can ream off wonderful phrases is something I genuinely enjoy. His point is well made. In respect of the plight of publicans in rural Ireland and the life experience of people more generally in terms of the impact of Covid-19, the overriding priority will be public health. Public health advice will be made available to the Cabinet this evening and the Government will make a decision based on that. As I said earlier, there is some concern about the increase in the spread of the virus. We have to be very clear-headed about our overarching priority and where our focus needs to be. That is the approach that will inform our response to NPHET's advice.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

We are rapidly running out of time and there is no hope of dealing with all of the names that are in front of me. I will take one final question. I call Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

Sorry?

Can we get some fairness in how slots are allocated? Eight were allocated to Sinn Féin.

Not one time were we called. This is the second week in a row-----

(Interruptions).

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

Okay. I want to clarify that. First, we try to keep it short. If everybody makes a short submission in their first question, we can get through an awful lot more. If, however, people have a preamble before they raise their question, that immediately shortens the time we have. I am working off the list that was given to the Ceann Comhairle.

There is more than one Opposition party.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

I am aware of all that. The list is here. The Deputy can come and inspect it now. I am working off the list that was there. The time has now expired altogether-----

(Interruptions).

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

I am sorry. We cannot go on like this. We are not going to go on like this. The time has now expired. That is the end of the questions-----

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

We cannot go on like this. I am sorry about that, but the time has expired. It is to be hoped it will be possible to deal with the remaining questions tomorrow. That will be a matter for the Ceann Comhairle. That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.