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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 7

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I request all Members please to adhere to the time allocated. We are sitting very late each evening and a time overrun at this stage means we will be even later. I call Deputy McDonald.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has withdrawn from the Low Pay Commission. Its general secretary, Patricia King, stated that it did so because the commission was not prepared to go beyond an increase of 1% in the minimum wage for 2021. A 1% increase would mean an increase of 10 cent an hour for the workers affected - the thousands of low-paid workers who have kept us going during this pandemic. Overnight, when the going got tough, many of those workers were classified as essential. When the chips were down it was not to the high rollers, bankers, corporate landlords or millionaire executives that we turned; no, in our time of need, it was to retail workers who stock our shelves, delivery van drivers, supply chain workers, carers and cleaners that we turned.

These workers were essential, these workers are essential and these workers have always been essential. They were commended and cheered, but they cannot feed their children with applause and flowery rhetoric. They rely on a meaningful increase in the minimum wage to pay their bills, rents and mortgages. Those workers need decent pay - a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. There is something very wrong when members of a Low Pay Commission cannot agree to a meaningful increase for low paid workers, workers who were rightly described as heroes only a few short weeks ago.

One in five workers is a low-paid worker in Ireland, and 100,000 people at work live in poverty. That is the reality. The Taoiseach and his Government have turned their backs on these workers. The new employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, locks 153,000 of the lowest paid workers out and the Government has been put at risk of losing their jobs. It has left their employers in a terrible position, because they do not have the money or resources to pay the very modest wages. The Government, therefore, has hurt not only low-paid workers but also businesses. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has also been cut, a move certain to drive more workers and households into debt and distress, and this has been done at a time tens of thousands of workers remain out of work because of the Covid-19 crisis.

To summarise the situation, since 1 September, over the past three weeks, the Government has locked 153,000 of the lowest paid workers out of the EWSS, the PUP has been cut for those losing their jobs because of Government-imposed public health restrictions, and now we have a Low Pay Commission that will not deal with low pay. Is this the Taoiseach's version of "we are all in this together"? I ask that because it strikes me that all this has the fingerprints of the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar, and Fine Gael all over it. What does the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, propose to do to reverse these absolutely disastrous decisions that will injure and hurt low-paid workers and their families?

It is fundamentally wrong of the Deputy to attempt to make political capital out of a decision of the independent Low Pay Commission, which is not dictated to or influenced by the Government. In fact, the past five recommendations from the commission have been accepted by the Government. The Government supports low-paid workers. We have the fourth-highest minimum wage in European systems with a statutory minimum wage.

Right now, it is an extraordinary political charge for the Deputy to make about the Government not supporting low-paid workers. Under the EWSS, 350,000 workers will be supported by the State, as it continues. More than 200,000 workers are supported by the PUP, and a further 200,000 are supported on the live register. Approximately 750,000 workers, therefore, are still being supported by the State, right now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To try to create the impression, therefore, that the Government is out to get people is outrageous in the context of an unprecedented intervention by the Government and the State to support workers at all levels, to support sectors and to do so in a sustainable way that can keep us going right throughout 2021. That is what the Government has been about. I regret the fact that ICTU has pulled out of the Low Pay Commission. I understand its reasons. It wants an increase of 20 cent in the minimum wage as opposed to 10 cent. I hope ICTU can rejoin the commission, because all of us in the House agree with an independent statutory body to decide on low pay.

Regarding the minimum wage, many employers are now in significant difficulty and the Deputy must know that. That is why the Government is supporting so many employers under the EWSS. Deputy McDonald and I do not pay the minimum wage; employers in small-to-medium-sized businesses do. They are under pressure, but, thankfully, many are proving resilient, even in the teeth of Covid-19. We must continue to support them because, fundamentally, what the Government wants to do is support people on low incomes and support workers, but also to create new employment opportunities. Substantial funding was put aside in the form of a wide range of placements, including via Skillnet Ireland, Springboard, the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme and additional third level places, to create more than 30,000 new places that can allow people to reorient and help them to get employment in areas such as retrofitting and similar areas where the State can spend additional capital funding to create employment and work.

I heard what Patricia King, the head of Congress, said, and I have great respect for the work ICTU does on fairness and in looking after low-paid workers. There will, obviously, be further engagement between the Government and ICTU regarding this matter, but it also has to be acknowledged that the Government, recognising the independence of the Low Pay Commission, has accepted all of its recommendations since 2016. We continue, however, to support workers through the various schemes we have developed and to keep as many jobs going as we possibly can in this society and economy.

The only thing that is extraordinary is the Taoiseach's extraordinary lack of fairness and his even more extraordinary lack of self-awareness in this regard. Let us rehearse the facts again. The Government's new wage subsidy scheme excludes 153,000 workers who earn €151 a week or less. They are not eligible and are excluded from the scheme. That hurts those workers, it hurts their employers and the Government has left them out in the cold, very deliberately. That is a fact. The Government has also cut the PUP, so another 150,000 or more workers are down €50 or €100 a week. That is also a fact. That hurts those workers and their families, and now we have a Low Pay Commission that is not minded to deal in any acceptable way with the issue of low pay.

Does the Taoiseach, therefore, agree with ICTU that the minimum increase to the minimum wage ought to be 20 cent an hour or more? Will he move beyond his sort of delusional reverie and into the real world with us and address those low-paid workers excluded from the Government's wage subsidy scheme and those who will be hurt by the changes to PUP? Will the Taoiseach tell those workers how he is going to correct for those very bad decisions?

The Deputy uses every situation to tell untruths, rather than the truth, about the reality out there.

She is fundamentally wrong about the wage subsidy scheme. That scheme is about employers who employ people. The Deputy knows that there are various formulas designed to facilitate, for example, employers whose turnover has dropped to 70% of the previous year and so on. The Deputy deliberately distorts what has been an effective and unprecedented intervention in the labour market to protect employers, enterprises and workers. As I said, it is expected that 350,000 people will benefit from the scheme. Can the Deputy not acknowledge that a substantial and unprecedented intervention has been made by the State on behalf of taxpayers to support employment? Why does the Deputy always feel the need to distort facts and, if you like, smear people who are definitely trying to do their best? She does it all the time for political advantage.

We extended the pandemic unemployment payment until the middle of next year and did so quicker than any other European country. We made that decision. The rates have come down but they are closely proximate to what people would have been earning before they were laid off.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

It is open now for the first time to new entrants and seasonal workers.

The Deputy knows that the Low Pay Commission is not the Government. It is an independent statutory body and the Deputy knows that, yet she came in here this morning trying to pretend that the Low Pay Commission is an arm of the Government. It is not. It is an independent body set up by this Oireachtas, including the Deputy. She makes political charges when it suits her and does not deal with reality.

On a point of order, the Taoiseach has responded in the manner he has. I just have to say-----

That is not a point of order.

That is not a point of order.

I know that we do not have a fact-checking facility for the Oireachtas but the facts that I set out about the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment-----

That is not a point of order. That is an abuse of the House.

The Deputy has made her point.

-----are accurate and I would like that recorded on the record of the Dáil. I do not appreciate being accused of laying untruths before the House. That is not true.

I am sure the Taoiseach would agree that we need to focus on giving stronger public health messages to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus because the indications are that many people across all age groups are not hearing the messages. That is the case for various reasons, which I will not go into now. The Taoiseach spoke at the weekend about using influencers and I hope he will go ahead and do that quickly. It is important that we use influencers for all age, interest and ethnic cohorts. I would like to see the Government doing that quickly.

Would the Taoiseach also agree that there is a role for cross-party messaging to urge people to comply with public health advice? Ideally, we would have done that last Friday but it is not too late. An initiative should be taken by this House in that regard.

If compliance rates can be raised substantially, we have the prospect of bringing down the current critically high rates. The aim should be to do that in the quickest possible time, ideally in the next three weeks, but certainly within a reasonable period.

I wish to raise a wider issue with the Taoiseach. What strategy should be pursued in the medium and long term? There has been little or no political or public discussion in that regard. There are essentially three possible strategies, namely, herd immunity, zero or near elimination and what we are doing. The five-level plan is a good framework because it distinguishes rates and responses in different areas but it is not a strategy. We are doing a certain level of testing. There are few controls on flights. We are continuing with public health messaging about mask wearing and social distancing but that is clearly not enough. Our response to a surge is a lockdown or a close-down. That can work in the short term but is not a sustainable strategy even in the medium term because the price being paid is simply too high and we will not keep the public with us.

Should we not consider the pros and cons of alternative strategies? There is no perfect strategy by any means and there are winners and losers in every approach but we need public and political discussion on which is the optimal way of managing the virus. The way we manage the virus, the strategy that we use, should be reached through open discussion, based on evidence and taking a broad view of what is in our health, social and economic interest. It is unfortunate that there is no forum for that at the moment. We need to reach consensus. Things like cutting the pandemic unemployment payment and extending protections for tenants are political issues but agreeing the best way of managing and controlling the virus should not be political issues.

I thank the Deputy for her questions and the points she has raised. I accept that a debate on public health should transcend party politics and politics in general. I said at the weekend that it is important to communicate in different ways on different platforms to different age cohorts, ethnic minorities and migrant workers. We worked on the issue of employment in meat plants and people in direct provision over the summer in terms of language, messaging and communication in respect of sick pay being available to people in direct provision, for example, if they were positive for coronavirus and required to self-isolate. I take those points.

On the Deputy's point about cross-party messaging, after the announcement on Friday evening in respect of restrictions, we briefed all parties in Dublin. The latter are representative of all parties in this House. I will go further and organise a briefing with party leaders. The health spokespersons of different parties were also looking for a briefing. Last Thursday and Friday were hectic days for members of NPHET and for the acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and all involved but they stayed late on Friday evening to brief Dublin representatives.

The Deputy is correct about compliance rates. We want people to comply with the guidance. An enormous collective effort is required to get these numbers down significantly. It is within our capacity, as a people, to do that by reducing our social contacts, avoiding unnecessary congregations and wearing masks where possible. We can make an impact on the numbers by doing that.

On the point that the Deputy made about strategy, by instinct I do not believe in the herd immunity approach. Those who advocated for it early on did not fully realise the impact of this virus on people's health. It seems that the virus can be damaging to some people's lungs and health over the medium term even if they survive. It can have longer term health implications for some people and we do not know enough about how deadly this virus is to go along with the idea of a herd immunity approach because it carries enormous risks.

The strategy of elimination has not quite worked where it has been tried. It has been effective in New Zealand but its geographic location is different to ours. We are in a different situation geographically. We must also accept that the economic and social implications of an elimination strategy would be significant and severe on workers and society.

I think that the strategy to suppress the virus that we are pursuing now is the correct one. That said, I am not an expert on public health. I recall the Deputy saying, as I said, at the outbreak of the virus that we should adhere as much as possible to public health advice. Our public health advice at the moment is to endeavour to stabilise and suppress the spread of the virus while maintaining a quality of life, having as many people working as possible, with our schools open and health services resumed to the greatest extent possible.

I did not ask the Taoiseach to have the discussion about different strategies here. I am saying that a situation needs to be created where we can have that open discussion, where we are prepared to be open and frank and face up to the serious problems and challenges in testing and tracing. We need a forum to ask are we adequately resourced and ready for rapid test technology. Is it right that the HSE should be expected to manage testing and tracing while it is running the health service and coping with the demands of Covid? Can we trace the places where the virus is being transmitted? Is there potential for an all-Ireland approach to this?

What can we do about importation? All of those things need to be discussed, not just thrown out here in this adversarial setting. We need to have proper discussion about the pros and cons of different strategies and how we are going to move forward in the medium and longer term in managing this virus.

I do not expect a reply today but I ask the Taoiseach to give consideration to facilitating cross-party discussion of the approach to managing the virus. What is happening at the moment is not working. We need to reinforce the immediate messages because they are the only way we can drive down the critical figures now. That is not sustainable, however. I ask the Taoiseach to consider a cross-party approach to this issue.

I have absolutely no difficulty in accepting a cross-party approach to this issue. My understanding is that the Covid committee has met a lot of experts.

No, that is not what is involved. We are talking about discussions.

Let me finish, please. The Covid committee has met a lot of experts who have discussed herd immunity and elimination strategies. There has been a reasonable degree of public debate on this on the airwaves. I have watched infectious disease consultants with different perspectives, some of whom advocate elimination and others who advocate herd immunity.

It needs to be a cross-party-----

There has been a public debate among the scientific community, the medical community and some politicians.

All of my comments in response to the Deputy endeavour to be constructive. The Deputy referred to the three strategies, so it is reasonable to respond to them. If she is suggesting some new forum should be created in a non-contentious environment that would facilitate a calmer and more reasonable timeframe to explore these issues, it would be a good idea.

One of the challenges we face is that many people who could usefully contribute to that debate are on the front line. I will give it consideration. I understand where she is coming from because we have to think through how we will manage the situation over the next period of time. There is a lot of wishful thinking around a vaccine. That may not come immediately. The WHO feels it may be the middle of next year before one is available. I take the Deputy's point overall, and I am willing to respond positively to it and will give it some thought and consideration.

In 2004, European legislation established a requirement that all veterinary medicinal products intended for use in food-producing animals should be subject to a veterinary prescription. However, a 2006 EU directive allows for an exemption and the maintenance of non-prescription status for a certain number of these products which do not represent a risk to human or animal health. This meant that the rights of what are termed responsible persons were protected and since then, they have been able to continue to prescribe and dispense veterinary medicines when classified as licensed or agricultural merchants.

That exemption is now under threat following EU plans to introduce new regulations in January 2022. This regulation, if implemented, will mean that only vets will be allowed to prescribe these products and this will have a detrimental impact as at least 3,000 jobs in the agricultural merchant sector will be lost. This will be another blow to rural counties like Laois and Offaly. There is absolutely no reason this should be allowed to happen.

The EU justification for the new rules is that only vets have enough knowledge and skill to prescribe certain antimicrobial drugs but this is patent nonsense. Thousands of highly trained and skilled agricultural merchants have been dispensing these drugs since 2006 and there is no solid evidence to suggest why this needs to change. Fortunately, there is an additional derogation clause that would permit responsible persons to continue issuing a veterinary prescription when the regulation comes into force in 2022.

Today, I want to ask the Taoiseach if he will instruct the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department to urgently adopt this derogation and, thereby, save thousands of jobs and prevent job losses in the rural economy. The sector employs and creates 10,000 jobs directly and indirectly. Organisations like the Independent Licensed Merchants Association, ILMA, and Ollie Ryan of Midland Veterinary, Tullamore, have already said that if this EU regulation is signed into law it will lead to job losses, possibly create a cartel, be extremely anti-competitive and create another burden for farming families who would also be subjected to a lot of hassle in getting their medicines. It would also bring up issues around traceability as farmers would be able to buy these products in the North of Ireland, given that it will operate a different system to us.

We have an opportunity to save thousands of rural jobs if the Government acts quickly on this issue and seeks a derogation. I hope the Taoiseach and Government will commit to doing that today and signal their intention to adopt the derogation that is already provided for in EU law. I understand agri-merchants have received letters stating that the derogation is there to be applied for by the Government.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. She indicated that the directive has not been finalised. There is still work to be done on the directive and I presume negotiations are still under way. I will talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My understanding is that the Chairman of the agriculture committee intends to facilitate a discussion at the committee on this issue where inputs can be made by Deputy Nolan and other Deputies and Senators and the issue can be examined in greater detail, in particular the application or not of the additional derogation clause.

The Deputy can take it that nobody wants to create any situation overnight whereby people are rendered unemployed as a result of the application of this directive. I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I take from the Deputy's contribution the significance of what is envisaged and its potential implications for many in the sector. Obviously, safety and protecting health is always paramount but she has indicated that this issue has been ongoing since 2006 under previous regulatory frameworks. An update is close to finalisation for application in 2022. As a member state, Ireland, along with other European colleagues, will be involved in finalising that. We should also facilitate inputs. I will come back to the Deputy on the matter in respect of my engagement with the Minister.

I thank the Taoiseach for his constructive response and recognition that this will lead to job losses if it is not rectified. I also want to point out that agricultural merchants want to work collaboratively and constructively on this issue. I have spoken to the owners of many agricultural merchants, including Ollie Ryan of Midland Veterinary and J. Grennan & Sons, based in Kilcormac and Rath. They want to work constructively and collaboratively but feel there is no way forward other than this derogation which they want to be finalised.

We can prevent jobs being lost in rural Ireland and can help to protect the fragile rural economy. I understand that many issues are beyond the reach of the Government, such as job losses due to the pandemic or Brexit, but this issue is within the control of Government. The problem could be very simply solved by seeking the derogation and I urge the Taoiseach, as he said, to speak to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department about the issue.

My understanding is that a stakeholders' forum has been established in regard to this issue and that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is engaging with that forum. It has met twice and I understand efforts will be made to come up with a compromise and resolution of this issue. I will take the Deputy's concerns to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and discuss them with him. I will ask him to engage with her. As the Chairman of the agriculture committee, Deputy Jackie Cahill, has said, there will be further discussion facilitated at the committee well in advance of the deadline in order to get a reasonable resolution of this issue for all concerned.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 restrictions around our society have been hard and necessary. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that the restrictions are fully followed. As we are standing here today, it is quite possible and probable that my county, Donegal, will move into the next stage of restrictions in the coming days, but we will have to wait and see what happens.

There are some restrictions that do not seem to make sense to me and many other people. I am thinking specifically of the restrictions in place in maternity wards. It is nonsensical that partners or husbands of pregnant women are not allowed into the delivery ward with their partner, and doubly so that they are not allowed to attend the 20-week scan and have to sit outside in the car park in many cases. As one constituent put it to me:

Pregnant women throughout the country are currently going through appointments, scans, labour and sometimes even birthing alone in what is arguably the most vulnerable time of their lives. This is especially true for people who get the devastating news that their pregnancies are not viable or those who have to go through a miscarriage without a loved one present. It is unacceptable and not something anyone should have to face alone.

I am expecting my first baby in January and had to receive emergency care at 13 weeks gestation. I was in the gynaecology unit at Letterkenny University Hospital for almost five hours. My frantic partner had to wait in the car park for the duration. He has since missed out on milestone moments like the crucial 20-week anomaly scan.

Another constituent states:

Letterkenny University Hospital are refusing to permit partners to accompany women to their scans and I really do not think that this is justifiable. Anyone can walk through the corridors of the hospital to right outside the door of the foetal assessment unit, which is in the gynae department so it is separate from the maternity wards, and if partners take all the precautions then surely that one staff member carrying out the scan is at no risk. These strict and unreasonable policies are causing such a cruel and unnecessary added anguish to mothers and fathers who are already suffering enough.

This is especially true for people who get the devastating news that their pregnancies are not viable and those who have to go through a miscarriage without a loved one present. The World Health Organization guidelines state that Covid-19 should not impact on a woman’s right to have a partner of her choice with her throughout a pregnancy. It is also true that only allowing the father in at the eleventh hour is putting the man’s needs ahead of a woman’s and does not recognise that she has an internationally recognised human right to have her support present. Will the Taoiseach ensure that maternity wards will make the reasonable decision to allow partners to be present at the most important time in pregnancies, at least at the birth and the 20-week scan, which are the most critical points?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. For the vast majority of people, giving birth is one of the most magical and beautiful moments that one can experience in life. For some, it can, as the Deputy has said, be very difficult and traumatic. In either situation, the presence of a partner is very valuable, important and, in ordinary times, essential. What has been happening in maternity wards in this situation is a reminder of how indiscriminate and devastating the pandemic has been in upending the norms of the human experience. We should, in the first instance, always acknowledge that this is Covid-19 really upending our lives and normal experiences. To be fair to all concerned in maternity and gynaecological wards and so on, the fundamental principle is to do no harm and their fundamental objective is to protect people - mothers, babies and front-line workers. That is, I surmise, the genuine motivation behind the restrictions that have been applied.

That said, I know the acting Chief Medical Officer is aware of the Department of Health's engagement with Dr. Peter McKenna, the clinical director for the national women and infants health programme, who has confirmed that the programme is working on a document to seek to ensure that, as far as practicable and having due regard to local circumstances, a consistent national approach to visitor restrictions in maternity hospitals is developed. I have heard a number of Deputies raise this issue over the past fortnight or so. The difficulty of uniformity across the system is because different locations have different risks and protocols applying in different hospitals and maternity wards. That also has to be acknowledged. There has to be some degree of local decision-making in respect of the overarching objective of protecting people in situations such as this. I will continue to work with the Minister for Health and those involved to see if we can get a satisfactory national approach to this matter.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response but it does not go far enough. He spoke about visitor restrictions and how we are to deal with that issue. The issue here is not visitor restrictions but restrictions that are stopping one person - the support for a pregnant woman - from being present at vital times in the pregnancy. It is not about visitor restrictions or visitors attending maternity wards or anything like that; it is about more than that. If staff are at risk from the partner of a pregnant woman, they are also at risk from the pregnant woman. Having one extra person in the ward or room is not going to make a significant difference. That needs to be taken on board. This is an extreme effect of the restrictions.

The national maternity strategy is running alongside Covid-19. This strategy's aim is to achieve a woman-centred maternity system that promises dignity, respect and compassion in the provision of services. This, sadly, is lacking and it needs to be addressed. This sounds like another example of male chauvinistic privilege that women tell me they often feel when they interact with services and decision-making around their fundamental rights and bodily autonomy. They should be able to have the support present for them at all the important times. The most important person in this whole process is the woman and her child. They should be at the centre of the decision-making. I ask the Taoiseach to address that point.

I agree 100% with the Deputy that they should be uppermost. We have to acknowledge the risk managers in hospitals, those whose overarching objective is to protect people. We should accept the motivation of all involved which, I surmise, is genuine. Nobody is wilfully doing this. This goes against the very grain of what is natural and normal in such situations.

We need to be fair here. We are politicians who bring back to the Chamber the concerns of the people we represent but we have to balance that with rushing in and ordering or instructing people on the ground who have responsibilities and legal obligations in dealing with the protection of mothers, babies and staff as well. That said, work is under way on this, as I have said, and my understanding is that Dr. Peter McKenna is working on developing a document for a consistent national approach to visitor restrictions in maternity hospitals. People understand the issues here. The important point is to affirm the fundamental principle of not doing harm and protecting all concerned to the optimal degree possible.