The House has agreed that for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency, the rapporteur's report on the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. There are two proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
It is not agreed. This is now the sixth week where the Dáil is sitting for half its usual hours. Normally the Dáil sits 33 or 34 hours a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and we are sitting for half that time. That means we have no Taoiseach's questions, no Ministers' questions and instead of three Private Members' slots for dealing with legislation we have one. Topical issues, Questions on Promised Legislation and Leaders' Questions have been reduced. This is intolerable for the Opposition and intolerable that this continues. To add insult to injury, for the second time in three weeks we have no opportunity for statements and questions to the Minister for Health on the public health response and the vaccine roll-out, which is the very reason we are reduced to half our normal time. It is intolerable and this has to change. The Government will produce a schedule to the Business Committee tomorrow. According to the report of the Business Committee, the Opposition has registered its dissent for the third week in a row.
The Government is not listening to the Opposition. It is preventing the Opposition from doing its job in this democracy, which is to introduce legislation and hold Government to account. That has to stop this week.
As we have been stating for weeks now, it is completely unacceptable that the Government is using the Covid crisis to shield itself from legitimate questioning and accountability on a range of pressing issues for people in this country by limiting time for debates, questions to An Taoiseach and, critically, the pandemic, thus breaking a commitment that there would be a standing debate on Covid and dealing with the pandemic. It is outrageous.
I want to mention a specific item on today's order, namely, the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. We will discuss the substance of that Bill later, which I believe is a heist of the public land banks in the interests of private developers. This Bill, which by any standards is probably one of the most important Bills that will come before this House in the foreseeable future, did not go through pre-legislative scrutiny and no waiver was sought from the Business Committee for a Bill that deals with the entire public land bank. That is unacceptable.
The Deputy has made his point.
There are a number of new heads in the Bill dealing with how it is proposed to involve private investors in public land and definitions of affordable housing, none of which has been through pre-legislative scrutiny, as is required under the legislative process.
A number of Deputies want to contribute. We cannot have lengthy statements.
There is a difficult balancing act to strike at this time - there is no doubt about that - but we feel that balance is not being struck at the moment, in particular in terms of the standing request for a third debate on Covid, which the Labour Party made prior to Christmas and has made every week since, and the increasing need for Taoiseach's questions. We do not vote against the Order of Business every week. We make our decisions week by week, but we feel that balance is not being struck and we ask that that be taken back to the Business Committee on Thursday.
I wish to put on record our support for the stance being taken today. It is clear the Dáil is being used to stifle the Government's response and to make sure it is kept clear of any negative publicity in regard to what is happening. There are genuine and legitimate questions that need to be asked and answered in regard to the Government's handling of the Covid crisis. At the very least, we should be moving to a third sitting day for six or more hours.
It is completely unacceptable that each week at the Business Committee we request time for the most important issue in the country to be discussed and scrutinised in the Dáil, which is our management of the Covid crisis, and each week that request is not facilitated by the Government. We should be sitting three days a week to do that. It is a bad look for the Government not to be allowing that level of scrutiny. This is happening in a week where the Government has turned away journalists from press conferences and sought to change the ESRI's critique of its housing policy. In the interests of proper accountability and scrutiny, the Government should respond and have a proper amount of time set aside for scrutiny and debate this week and in future weeks.
Accountability and democracy should not be victims of Covid. They are more important now in this crisis than they ever were. Ministers are being insulated from accountability within this Chamber due to the lack of opportunity available to the Opposition to debate the crisis in areas such as nursing homes, vaccines roll-out, education and housing. I appeal to the Government to support a return to a three-day Dáil week.
We in the Rural Independent Group try to be constructive at Business Committee meetings. We know how challenging these times are, but the Government is hiding behind shorter sittings and not enough debate on issues such as the Land Development Agency Bill 2021, the management or mismanagement of the Covid situation, the manipulation of figures and the situation with our schools, hospitals and front-line workers. It is not good enough. Surely, given the size of the Convention Centre and the cost in terms of Dáil sittings here, the Dáil could sit for a third day for, say, six hours rather than a long day. We understand the health and safety guidelines, but this is a huge space. People are asking us why we cannot meet here for longer. Other people do not have the luxury of moving to a facility like this. We should show leadership and allow for proper scrutiny and debate and Taoiseach's questions and answers.
Before I call the Taoiseach, as Chairman of the Business Committee I would like to make a brief contribution. It is a matter for this House what business is transacted here each week, but to be fair and reasonable, the Business Committee, over an extended period of time, has tried to address the sittings of the Dáil conscious of (1) the public health advice, (2) the advice of our own health and safety consultants, and (3) the submissions we have received from the union groups representing the staff who support us here at all times. Members of the Business Committee will be aware that the Clerk of the Dáil produced a comprehensive report some weeks ago setting out why the reduced sessions were felt to be necessary. It is at the end of the day a matter for the House.
I am very surprised by the commentary and assertions of Deputies Mac Lochlainn, Duncan Smith, Cian O'Callaghan, Boyd Barrett, Tóibín and Mattie McGrath that somehow Government is invoking Covid-19 as a basis for the two-day sessions in terms of the Dáil. That is not the case. Some of those Deputies would be very quick to attack Government for ignoring public health advice and health and safety guidelines. My understanding is that the Business Committee, collectively and irrespective of party, has been advised on public health grounds that this is the optimal way to proceed. Please contradict me if that is not the case. Please correct me if that is not the case.
May I correct the Taoiseach?
The Government has not ordained this or imposed this.
We are talking about-----
The Taoiseach, without interruption, please.
We are in a very severe level 5. It is not only Members but the people behind the scenes who lead to a Dáil sitting happening. There are far more people involved than just the elected representatives. The public health advice has guided the behaviour of the Parliament in this issue. That should be acknowledged.
Numbers are still high out there. Society is in a very severe level of restrictions. There are still in excess of 800 people in hospital and significant numbers in intensive care. Case numbers are still too high and there is a variant. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control report issued on Monday, the potential for the disease to spread is high to very high. That is the context in which we are all operating throughout society.
There will be a Cabinet committee on Thursday on Covid-19 at which we will engage with NPHET and it will make a presentation. I have spoken to the acting CMO. Our immediate priority is a phased return for education, but it will be phased. We are talking about very limited situations after that. That is where we are right now in terms of the Covid plan.
This week's schedule provides for three debates on Covid. Every week, it has been dominated by Covid. The Tánaiste will be here tomorrow for a debate on trade, employment, business and Covid, in respect of which 135 minutes are provided. Earlier, at 10 a.m. there will be statements and questions and answers on drug and alcohol services, homelessness and Covid-19, which do need to be articulated and debated, in particular homelessness and Covid-19 and how it is impacting on the homeless across the board. Today, at 1 p.m. the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be here for a debate on the agriculture, food and the fisheries sector and Covid-19, in respect of which 135 minutes are provided. The Government has approached Covid every week on a thematic basis.
On the Land Development Agency legislation, I acknowledge there are a number of new heads and significant additions to the Bill. We need to get on with the housing agenda.
The Deputy has taken a rather propagandistic position on the Bill, and that is his entitlement, but the country is screaming for new houses to be built.
We cannot go into detail on that.
That is why that Bill is tabled for deliberation and consideration.
I met with the leader of the Sinn Féin Party last evening and I said we were open to consideration for debates in regard to Northern Ireland, for example, next week, if that is what it desires. We are open to constructive engagement with the Opposition in terms of how debates are developed, but the Business Committee, ultimately, is the correct forum to deliberate on those issues.
Is the business for today agreed to?
Very briefly, a Cheann Comhairle, the question was asked about public health. Why has the Taoiseach refused, for two out of three weeks, to bring the Minister for Health into this House to be accountable on the very issue that has locked us down for half of the hours that we normally sit, that is, the public health response and vaccines? This is the second time, in two out of three weeks, that the Taoiseach has refused what was understood to be a standing slot. What has that got to do with the public health response?
The Minister for Health will be in tomorrow morning.
No. Just to be clear, and everybody in the Opposition knows this-----
Can we hear the Taoiseach's response?
Sorry, the Department of Health is in tomorrow morning.
The Taoiseach knows the question I am asking. I ask that he answer it.
I am answering the question. Every week, we have had nearly a day, in effect, devoted to Covid. It is not just all about vaccinations either, because the other issues need to be dealt with and debated also. That is fair to say.
Deputy Shortall is trying to say something but I cannot hear her.
For a long time now, there has not been an opportunity to have any debate on the Government response to Covid. The Government announced its response this week and it is talking about another version of the living with Covid plan, but it has not allowed any debate in the Dáil on the Government response. That is just not acceptable. When one combines that with the fact that there has not been any engagement with the Opposition since last November in terms of briefings, there is just no communication going on here at all.
I have to reject that. Deputy Shortall has a habit of consistently and continually asserting something which is not true in terms of consultation. It is just not true.
Tell us the dates.
By way of clarification, the Taoiseach has not met the groups or the leaders of the groups since last November. That is the fact of it.
Okay. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to?
- Burke, Colm.
- Cahill, Jackie.
- Canney, Seán.
- Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
- Chambers, Jack.
- Creed, Michael.
- Crowe, Cathal.
- Devlin, Cormac.
- Duffy, Francis Noel.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- Farrell, Alan.
- Flaherty, Joe.
- Heydon, Martin.
- Higgins, Emer.
- Lahart, John.
- Leddin, Brian.
- Madigan, Josepha.
- Matthews, Steven.
- McAuliffe, Paul.
- McConalogue, Charlie.
- McHugh, Joe.
- Moynihan, Aindrias.
- O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
- Shanahan, Matt.
- Boyd Barrett, Richard.
- Carthy, Matt.
- Clarke, Sorca.
- Farrell, Mairéad.
- Gould, Thomas.
- Healy-Rae, Michael.
- Kelly, Alan.
- Kenny, Martin.
- Kerrane, Claire.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McDonald, Mary Lou.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Mythen, Johnny.
- O'Callaghan, Cian.
- Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
- Pringle, Thomas.
- Sherlock, Sean.
- Shortall, Róisín.
- Tóibín, Peadar.
Wednesday's business is agreed to. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? It is not agreed.
I will not delay or call a vote because I know people want to have Questions on Promised Legislation. However, I want to say something about the Government's refusal to compromise with the Opposition. We said at the Business Committee that all we needed was approximately an extra six hours in the week to accommodate the health debate we are looking for on the Covid-19 crisis, questions to An Taoiseach, Private Members' business and so on. The Taoiseach refuses point blank to make any concessions because he does not want to be questioned. He wants to shield himself. That is the truth of it. The Taoiseach should not be trying to pass off the blame dishonestly on anyone else.
I am in here every week answering questions and Deputy Boyd Barrett knows that. I have no issue with coming in here to answer questions on a whole range of issues. Deputy Boyd Barrett should not be accusing the Government side or myself of trying to avoid answering questions or dealing with issues. I am in here every single week and that is the way it should be. I will always hold myself accountable in respect of that.
The slots for questions to An Taoiseach are gone.
I have long suspected that the agenda from the Deputy's perspective is to deprive other Deputies in the House from an opportunity to get their chance to speak.
That has always been his position.