A Chathaoirligh, will we get a hard copy of the proposed amendments?
Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
They are available in the ante room. I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, on this unprecedented occasion. Thank you for your patience and courtesy in waiting for the Order of Business to conclude.
We are here today to take part in one of the last acts of the 25th Seanad. It is extraordinary that the legislation this Seanad will pass in its final hours will be among the most important ever passed in this House.
The provisions before the House could never have been imagined as necessary even a few months ago. Who could have predicted that we would be challenged to legislate in the face of a global pandemic that is sweeping the world and killing tens of thousands of people? Yesterday, Ireland lost ten people. It was, by far, the darkest day of this emergency so far for us. Altogether, Covid-19 has taken 19 lives to date and 29 lives on this island. Families and friends are in our thoughts and prayers but, in truth, we know we must brace ourselves for much worse to come. This is not nearly over. As was outlined by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, last night, this invisible enemy is just beginning its spread through our country and people. We know from the experience of other countries and the mathematical predictions available that a great deal is still to come. We also know from the experience of others that we can act, and those actions can make a huge difference to the spread of this virus and save thousands of lives.
We are far from helpless in facing the virus. We continue to prepare our hospitals and healthcare settings through the heroic work of healthcare professionals ranging from doctors and nurses to cleaning staff, management, scientists, carers and caterers. The message that can be most effective and that should be reinforced every day is that everybody must play their part in this national effort. We know what we must do. Social distancing, washing hands and staying at home matter. Following the clear instructions of authorities and the HSE matters. That will save lives. We can all play our part, and we must.
We have seen emergencies in recent years in Ireland. I have been in this Chamber many times as we faced the legislative and policy challenges of Brexit. Yesterday the Taoiseach spoke about how the emergency laws we passed for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit gave us some level of provision to take off the shelf in the early days of this emergency. That is very true. However, while Brexit was in many ways a fight for our citizens' identity and livelihoods, this is a fight for our citizens' lives. Circumstances now are far from ideal for legislating. We are being confronted with a once-in-a-century crisis in the aftermath of a Dáil election with no clear winner and in the midst of new Seanad elections, in which many of the Senators present are involved.
The public are not interested in excuses, however, nor should they be. They expect us to do our jobs and to do everything in our power to protect them. To tackle Covid-19, Ireland needs, from our politicians, the proposed legislation before us and may need more in the weeks ahead. It also needs a Government that is strong and stable; one that is realistic, ambitious and diverse; one that can last with the authority, mandate and majority to make decisions quickly, to pass legislation through the Houses at short notice if necessary, and to provide the leadership needed in the times ahead; one that not only makes the right decisions now, in the face of a global pandemic, but is also planning for a recovery that can inspire hope and confidence that we will emerge stronger and more united as a country; and one that is able to look to the future with optimism, based on a clear path forward that a Government needs to design.
Everything the Government is doing is shaped by prioritising the most effective response possible to combating Covid-19 and the impact it is having throughout society. In light of the challenges that lie ahead, part of the priority for me must now be finding a way to work with others to design a basis for a Government that can command a lasting majority in the Oireachtas. It is possible to get this done, and I believe it is possible to get this done quickly. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are working together through our negotiating teams to shape a process that, I hope, will encourage others to join us in designing this diverse yet stable Government with a credible mandate, not only to lead us through this emergency but also to focus on reimagining and reshaping Ireland for the better as we emerge on the other side. I invite others to play their part in these efforts. Ireland needs you.
Ireland's Government, as well as its Civil Service and public service, has worked night and day to be as ready as we can be for the weeks ahead. I again thank all parties and Independents for the responsible role they have played in this House and in the Dáil, and I know we will see the same again today. We have before us a suite of laws that cross multiple parts of government and that will impact multiple sectors of our society. I will now outline some of the provisions for Senators and later, I hope, respond to some of the issues they will want to raise.
We are protecting renters and that important feeling of security in our homes, which is so vital for all of us at this time. The Bill will amend the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2019 to prevent both the termination of residential tenancies and rent increases for the duration of this crisis. The termination prohibition relates to cases where a notice of termination has been issued, including where the notice period has expired, and to future cases where a notice of termination might be issued. The rent increase prohibition will prevent any rent increases during this crisis, a period that may be extended. If any landlord in Ireland thinks he or she can ignore the law we are passing, he or she is very much mistaken. Part 3 contains measures that will give the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government powers for disregarding certain periods during the crisis to avoid breaching statutory deadlines relating to planning and building development. This is modelled on similar provisions in the planning laws that cover the Christmas period and is designed to avoid deemed decisions, or financial penalties where decisions are not being made within the statutory limits, and judicial reviews, where individuals contend that the process was not in accordance with statute.
Part 4 contains amendments from the Department of Health.
The Bill contains a number of amendments to the Mental Health Acts 2001 to 2018 designed to facilitate the important ongoing operation of the mental health tribunals for the duration of the exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic. It will broaden the list of consultant psychiatrists available to the tribunal and extend the period in which the tribunal must make decisions. It will allow for reduced physical contact by allowing a second psychiatrist to examine a patient remotely and it will allow for one-member, paper-based tribunals, minimising personal interaction.
The Bill is allowing the fast-tracking of recruitment to bring back those who have answered the call to help the health service in the front line. It facilitates the re-employment of retired health sector workers by empowering regulators to adopt a more streamlined and simplified restoration process to the register of their profession for individuals who wish to respond to this emergency. This includes doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, pharmacists and other health and social care professionals, such as social workers, physiotherapists, radiographers, dietitians, opticians and occupational therapists. With staff shortages in the health sector, possibly exacerbated by health professionals becoming ill, as many have, it may be necessary to redeploy staff to positions where they are carrying out functions outside their normal role. We are enormously grateful to all of those who are answering the call.
The Defence Forces and gardaí will also play a vital role in the challenging period ahead. Part 5 enables the re-enlistment of former enlisted members to fill certain critical technical positions in the Permanent Defence Force. This provision to enable re-enlistment will support the Defence Forces in responding to the current crisis and more generally thereafter.
We are ensuring that the most vulnerable communities in Ireland are being reached and supported. The Bill includes measures from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Part 6 of the Bill includes provisions to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004 and Part 7 amends the Redundancy Payments Act 1967.
Part 8 contains provisions for a temporary wage subsidy scheme and demonstrates how we are all working together during this crisis. The scheme, operated by the Revenue Commissioners as that is the most efficient way to do it, will see the Government contribute to eligible firms' wage costs by paying them a wage subsidy to be passed on to the employee on a temporary basis. In simple terms, this is about keeping employees and employers together through this period. It is a little like trying to freeze-frame what we have created over the past nine years in terms of an economy that is growing and functioning, with almost full employment, and trying to protect what has been created for a three-month or four-month period, with three months the period to which the legislation applies. This is so that when we come out the other side, many of these companies, which will have been put under huge strain in getting through this from a cash flow and business perspective, will be able, we hope, to start from where they left off, or at least close to it, and not have to start a whole recruitment process, building a skillset across their businesses all over again. From an employee perspective, there is the importance of job security through all of this, when the alternative would be effectively to be on a jobseeker's allowance, not knowing whether they will or will not have an employment opportunity in the autumn. This makes sense for everybody. Yes, it is hugely expensive, but this is an investment to get us through an emergency and out the other side, and to keep an economy and people's income intact and stable through that period, or at least as stable as we can deliver.
The scheme is targeted at all sectors and employers will be expected to top up the wages of employees, if they can afford to do it. The wage subsidy to be paid shall be determined by reference to the weekly wages paid by employers to specified employees. The payments are liable to income tax. However, the subsidy is not taxable in real-time through the PAYE system during the specified period for the Covid-19 pandemic, although it will be taxable by review at the end of the year.
In conclusion, time is not on our side today unfortunately. If we cannot get this legislation passed, people will not get paid today and in the next few days. It is as simple and blunt as that. Politicians and civil servants are often accused of getting tied up in red tape, but the speed at which this complex legislation has been drafted is extraordinary. I thank everyone who has made that happen.
If we have made mistakes, we will correct them in the weeks ahead and we will expect the co-operation of others in doing that. This may not be perfect, but as we have been advised by the World Health Organization, WHO, if we try to design something that is perfect we delay for far too long to be able to put comprehensive responses in place in a timely manner so as to respond to emergencies such as we are facing. If there are problems, we will look at them and try to correct them in time, but we need to get this legislation passed today. We are asking for everybody's co-operation in doing that.
I thank everyone. I will have a chance in another couple of hours to speak for perhaps five minutes. In case, however, I do not get the opportunity, I thank those in the House today for the last time for their service. To all those facing the uncomfortable wait for the election results next week, I wish them well. All else, however, needs to be secondary to what we are doing today. Hundreds of thousands of people are relying on us to get this done.
I remind Senators that group spokespersons have eight minutes and all others have five minutes. I call Senator Ardagh.
I am sharing time with Senator Clifford-Lee. I thank the Tánaiste for coming in. Fianna Fáil supports this Bill and the regulations brought in earlier in the week, especially concerning childcare. As the Tánaiste pointed out, the legislation to be passed is far-reaching and there are many sweeping measures that, at other times, we would have contemplated and scrutinised for much longer. I also thank the parliamentary drafters and the officials behind this legislation who spent hours, I presume, putting it together and putting in our amendments.
The Fianna Fáil group has many amendments. We do not want to delay the Bill, but we hope they will be taken on board in the future. We might push some, but we probably will not, given the legislation has to pass today and the reality of the situation. We will be going through our amendments and putting them on the record of the House. Regarding many of the provisions in this emergency legislation concerning the health system, we are seeing our health system work in a unified manner now. We hope that in a post Covid-19 Ireland we can take from this experience and that many of the measures which are transitory will become more permanent in the future. I refer not just the healthcare system working in unison, but also giving tenants more rights and security of tenure. We also saw a State-funded childcare system in the last few days. That is something we should look at on a more permanent basis in future so that people will live in a better society and have a better quality of life. We have also seen income supports, more of a living wage and, as was mentioned, fast-tracked recruitment. Many of these measures should have been taken before this crisis. It has taken a crisis to put them together in this legislation. When a Government is formed, and I hope that is soon, I hope we are going to be in a different Ireland. I hope there will be a different landscape and that it will be for the better of everybody.
I thank our communities, our neighbours and especially the front-line staff for their resilience. They are continuing to go into work every day in the knowledge that healthcare workers are the most vulnerable. They are falling sick with Covid-19 in disproportionately high numbers. Personal protective equipment, PPE, is en route and I hope it gets here as fast as possible so fewer healthcare workers get ill.
That is worrying and it must be so worrying for them, for their families and for their loved ones because they are putting themselves on the front line.
I want to say some words of thanks. This could be my last day in the Seanad although I hope it will not be. I thank the Cathaoirleach, the staff, the Ministers and all of my colleagues especially for being so kind and supportive. It has been a pleasure to work with them over the term of the Seanad.
I want to make a few comments briefly because I know we have urgent and important work to do here today. As was pointed out, hundreds of thousands of people are relying on us to do our work in as expedient a manner as possible. We hope the Minister will take on board some of our suggestions and some other amendments from other Members of the House. We want to work in a collaborative fashion and do the best job possible for the people of Ireland here today.
It is worth making the following point again and again until the message seeps through. The worst is yet to come. I am saying that without trying to take hope from people but we will face into much more difficult times and we need to hammer home the message that people need to stay home. It is okay for people to go out for a short form of exercise during the day, within their family unit, but it is not okay for people to meet up with their friends to go for walks or runs together, which I have witnessed. This is not okay. One can go out to get food or medicine but they should stay at home otherwise. This is to protect our front-line workers, who we have applauded and paid tribute to but the best tribute we can pay to them is to stay at home. It is also the vulnerable and older people within our communities who need to be protected by our actions. I want to remind people that these people often bore the brunt of the last economic collapse. They are the ones who kept the show on the road in a lot of families. They looked after grandchildren, they kept the heads of their own children above water and they kept families together in the face of massive crises. These are the people we need to show solidarity with by staying at home.
I look forward to debating the legislation but we are mindful in Fianna Fáil that it needs to go through as quickly as possible and that a stable Government should be formed. As was said, there may be issues with this legislation that we need to just put in place tonight and then we can deal with any issues that arise as quickly as possible.
I want to allocate some of my time to Senator Marshall. I thank the Minister for coming to the House. As this Bill passes through the House, I am mindful of the words of Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization that: "Speed trumps perfection." As such, I am sure none of us here will want to impede the passage of this Bill at this time.
First, I extend my sympathy to the families of those who have lost loved ones. To read some of the stories from people in the medical profession of people coming into hospital alone and dying alone is heartbreaking. In fairness to the Minister, he has put on the line for all of us what we can do to avoid that. I express my sincere gratitude to all who are working to keep this country going, including everybody from utility workers through to those packing shelves, collecting dustbins and working in front-line medical care. Without all of them, the country cannot continue.
Some things need to be put on the record today and it is to be hoped the lessons we are learning will stand to the Oireachtas in the future and we will not make the same mistakes a second time. It is amazing how some matters that were deemed unconstitutional a mere few weeks ago are suddenly possible, such as rent freezes. It is amazing how these things can happen in a crisis but I am not here to cast stones. I compliment the Government and the Minister for Finance on getting the main banks to agree to the terms they have agreed to for the duration of the crisis. There are some questions still to be answered such as, for example, whether someone who is not making mortgage payments for three months and who must pay those payments at the end of the crisis should not have them added on to the end of the mortgage instead.
I congratulate the Garda Commissioner for the speed at which he acted to get members of the Garda out of Templemore and onto the streets. When we see what has gone on with people spitting in the faces of elderly people and shouting: "Covid-19" as they run away, we clearly need a high Garda presence.
I want to deal specifically with the Defence Forces, which I am sure comes as no surprise to the Minister. The chickens clearly have come home to roost.
The neglect of the Defence Forces and the failure to have proper retention policies in place have caused the situation whereby we are now looking for veterans to come back.
I have always had some difficulty with the fact that the Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff were not regarded as peer equals when it comes to the development of defence policy. When it comes to military advice, the Chief of Staff alone should be the person offering such advice.
The members of the Defence Forces have once again shown that, regardless of the crisis and personal danger, they are ready, willing and able to stand up to the plate. I thank the Chief of Staff and wish him and his charges luck as they go forward. I congratulate the crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Dublin, the LÉ William Butler Yeats in Galway and the LÉ Eithne in Cork for their speedy reaction in getting into place. I thank the Army for supporting the Naval Service in these three areas. In particular, I am mindful of my former colleagues in An Céad Cath at Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa, Galway, who are spread throughout the country.
I have tabled several amendments on how decisions will be made with respect to this legislation. I am mindful of the fact that the legislation has to get through today and I will not be pressing the amendments to a vote. However, I am putting several points on the record. I note references to how the Minister will make a certain decision or to the Minister's opinion. Surely, the Minister's opinions or decisions should be based on advice from the Chief of Staff. Most of my amendments relate to the advice required by the Chief of Staff. We cannot have politicians making decisions about operational issues within the Defence Forces.
The military service allowance was discussed yesterday in the Dáil. Currently, we have recruits, apprentices and cadets operating in front-line services in the military. I am calling on the Minister today to take them out of service and put them back into training, where they belong, unless we pay them the military service allowance. Student nurses have been paid and there has been no difficulty. Let us treat the Defence Forces with the same esteem accorded to the health services.
I have referred the pension abatement issue to the Minister and the Taoiseach. We cannot expect veterans to come back and abate their pensions at the same time. A pension is a property right - that has been established for Members of this House many times. We cannot continue to penalise members of the Defence Forces who put themselves forward to serve the country at a time of crisis.
I heard the Minister yesterday refer to re-enlistment for a six-month period up to three years. The period of re-enlistment can be for no longer than the crisis requires it. Veterans who return to the uniform at the request or need of the State need to be able to leave immediately the crisis is over and go back to their jobs. More important, they need their jobs protected. Yesterday, my colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Berry, protected the employment of those in the Reserve Defence Force with the amendment passed in the Dáil. I call on the Minister to make a statement today to the effect that those who return to the Permanent Defence Force and who then wish to go back to civilian employment will have that employment protected by the State.
The Reserve Defence Force is available to the State 24 hours per day, seven days per week. I would like to see the Reserve used in this crisis. Many highly-skilled people are ready, willing and waiting to come back. I am sure that decision is with the Chief of Staff and I am sure he will take it.
I support the Minister in his work with the Bill. Ultimately, it is about protecting tenants, landlords, medical staff and healthcare workers. It is about those people being redeployed in front-line action against Covid-19.
No section of society escapes this crisis and agriculture is no exception. Many employed and self-employed people in agriculture will be impacted. The agricultural industry is often faced with crises and, though it is not directly impacted by infection to animals, it will feel the knock-on effects. People in agriculture are overwhelmed by the volume of information they are taking on board at the moment. There is a great deal to digest.
It should be stated to avoid any doubt that food and food supply chains will not be impacted by Covid-19. Farmers will continue to produce food to the highest standards to feed the nation through the crisis. However, those in agriculture are potentially citizens and employees who could and may succumb to the coronavirus. They could struggle to manage small and medium-sized businesses through illnesses and in the absence of support mechanisms or human resources to keep the wheels turning on a daily basis.
Credit must be given to farming organisations that have moved quickly to assist farmers and to engage.
Organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, with more than 940 branches across the State, have produced guidelines and advice for dealing with Covid-19 on the farm. It has produced Have You a Plan B?, which is a step-by-step document to assist with planning in the event of contraction of the virus, if that should happen.
Beef markets are under pressure. International buyers are nervous like never before. Carcass balancing demands will present huge challenges, which are compounded by the closure of hotels, restaurants, catering outlets and the cancellation of functions, dinners, weddings and celebrations, as well as the depleted market for the prime cuts of beef.
Multinational fast food chains have closed their doors and even though we all hope this is a temporary disruption, we should be alarmed that this would create upset in the market, albeit hopefully very brief.
Livestock marts have closed. This will present huge challenges for many because the mechanism to deliver cash in a timely manner has been lost, where the ability to sell livestock at whatever stage of growth can stave off the threat of mounting bills and debts incurred in the normal process of running the business.
The social fabric of farming in rural areas is often around livestock marts. The absence of the marts presents another problem, with the ever-present issue of social isolation. Some less social-media savvy individuals depend on the marts for social interaction with friends and neighbours.
There is also the issue, which I believe has not been truly recognised, whereby as currency fluctuates with the impact of Covid-19, on an island that currently imports some 80% of feedstock and raw material from international markets, we could face increases in the prices of feed and fertilizer, putting even more pressure on profits and margins in these very much unforeseen circumstances.
I put it to the Minister that the past few weeks have highlighted even more the necessity to work together North and South, east and west. The last few days have demonstrated that even though we have differing approaches, we are all working to the same objectives. Even though timing and technicalities have not always been the same, the objectives have always been to protect life and to manage the people and the economy through a common foe. As the pendulum swings back and forwards with regard to who is performing best, North or South, this is only a distraction. What matters is who will perform best to save lives and protect people. There are no winners or losers.
This is a unique moment in history, an aspect of which we in Northern Ireland are overlooking. It is the first time since the Great War more than 100 years ago that the people on the island of Ireland, North and South, have a shared ambition. Whether nationalist or unionist, republican or loyalist, people have united to fight a common enemy. The last time this happened was the First Word War, with nationalist and unionist soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder. Then the 1918 to 1920 flu pandemic killed 50 million to 100 million people globally. It was not discerning on creed or colour.
These are truly unique times and when we emerge from this crisis, as we will, we must capitalise on our ability to work together for the common good, to park differences and to strive to build a better economy together for all. This pandemic is undoubtedly uniting people North and South, east and west. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure that this momentum is maintained.
As we deal today with another suite of emergency measures in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I want to address some specific items. My colleagues will deal with other items in the Bill later on.
On the planning legislation, the proposal to give the Minister the power to extend statutory deadlines or to pause deadlines is, obviously, common sense. There are many reasons for this but above all we could put our whole planning system in jeopardy if the public cannot fully participate in the planning process and decisions going forward could face judicial review. This would bring further problems to the planning system.
With regard to the current state of play in the planning system, the briefing note referred to the consideration, and the basis for the amendment of the legislation, that if public offices have to close at some point, the ability to view information and make submissions by the public will be constrained. Can we take it that these public offices are open at the moment and that people can go in to view planning files as normal? I would say that many people do not know that. If it is the case, and if some change is envisaged, is it coming soon? Perhaps this is a difficult question to answer, but I believe it is important.
Obviously, when we pause our whole planning process and our deadlines, we are pausing future development in the country because the basis of any development we see is a planning permission or some other consent given by the State and this applies across the board.
There is another point referred to in the briefing which I could not get clarification on. It states that the powers being provided to the Minister under this Part would address these matters by pausing processes for a time so that the decisions are not made but other work can continue to be progressed where possible in the interests of managing the overall economic aftermath of the emergency. I wonder what is this other work that can proceed under the planning and development code because I do not know of anything that can proceed absenting any consents or permissions that are required. This is not in the legislation per se, but it is to provide clarification of the underlying considerations. The Minister might be in a position to clarify that.
Another matter is the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the fundamentals of which are good. It is to keep the employer-employee relationship even though a business may not be trading owing to Covid-19. However, I am sure the Minister will be aware that employment law practitioners and insolvency practitioners - in particular, Mr. Richard Grogan whom the Tánaiste may have heard on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" - say that they would not advise any employer, especially somebody trading as a company, to avail of this scheme. They point out that there are difficulties with the scheme. In order to avail of this, the paperwork would see an employer de facto making a declaration that he or she is insolvent and in the case of a company, of course, if one is insolvent and one continues to trade, this is a matter of fraud on the part of the company directors.
Other issues were pointed out as well. On the notion of a 25% drop in turnover, it is not clear what is the relevant turnover period that the comparison should be made with. There are numerous issues. Another that stood out for me was that where an employer is in a position to pay a top-up over and above the €410 - it is a pro rata proposal - the wage the employer would pay would not be deductible as an expense of the business in the normal way that wages would be. Normally, when an employer is trading, he or she pays wages to an employee and that is deductible before profit. They seem to have a plethora of issues. The bottom line, without going into the detail, is that there is a body of experts in this field, such as employment lawyers and insolvency practitioners, stating they will not advise their clients to avail of this. I accept that is not the intention of it but perhaps the Tánaiste can give us some clarity and reassurance on those various concerns that have been raised.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As I stated when we met last week, I am conscious that, as Minster for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister is also playing a key role in the global response to this. If at an appropriate point in the debate there is an opportunity to speak to that, I would appreciate it because this is a global pandemic and we must be in international solidarity now. Particularly, I am concerned for those in developing countries who Ireland has supported. At a time when universal healthcare has been a demand from the global south for many years, this is surely a moment. I note the proposals, for example, in relation to debt forgiveness for countries in the global south that might allow them to build their services and health and social services at a time of extraordinary global threat. Those are proposals Ireland should support.
I note the Minister has spoken about the fact that this is a collective challenge. We all agree that this is a collective challenge. He has asked us to trust, and we have.
We have seen collective trust being placed in the Government, Ministers and our public services. However, part of that trust must be a mutual trust that the Government: trusts members of the Opposition and other parties, all of whom share the common goal of the public good and public health at this time; really engages and listens to the proposals put forward; and trusts that all those elected here who are bringing forward ideas are doing so in good faith and with good intentions, not for their personal or political success but for the good of the country - that we are each other's collective watchdogs and agents in trying to do this work. That is really important. Trust is one of the most powerful currencies we have at this time along with that common consideration that flows from it. Regarding that trust, I would also urge the Government, which has been very good in giving clear information in the early stages of this process and taking some very robust and responsible actions, to ensure that this same clear and forthright communication continues and is increased. I know that many of us have written to Ministers seeking answers on issues. I know they are overwhelmed but it is important that we can get those answers to pass on to others to keep social trust in place.
Regarding PPE, we saw a real concern where there was a question of people being able to identify the problem and the lack of essential protection for those who protect us and those in our hospitals. We must make sure we never seek to silence or obscure those voices but listen to them and that this listening is very palpable and heard. Now we see that there is a response and I am very glad to hear that the shipments for our hospitals and health services are coming in from Sunday. In terms of the community and voluntary sector where many are engaging and working with extraordinarily vulnerable people, the priority must be those who are working in situations where Covid-19 is known to be present but we must take into account asymptomatic transfer between extremely vulnerable people if we do not have face masks for those doing vital social and community care. It is something we need to address soon. Perhaps the Tánaiste could comment with regard to that issue.
In terms of trust, there are certain areas that have shown that they cannot be simply trusted but must be regulated. We have seen those sectors such as horse and greyhound racing and the betting industry, which had to be told to shut down. I urge the Tánaiste to take action in respect of shutting construction sites. In respect of the planning elements in the Bill such as where we need planning exemptions and exemptions in terms of building work that will be necessary as part of our collective national response to this crisis in terms of building health facilities and adapting premises, I ask him to address how we can ensure those will proceed in this planning hiatus and how we produce a climate where we permit what is necessary rather than assuming that all good practice is happening on building sites because everybody, including SIPTU, is telling us that it is not.
I am concerned with regard to employers and will table amendments relating to the language of "good intention". I would much prefer if we were clear, and I think it has been called for from the other side, around clarity on inability to pay, for example. What is the rationale for keeping or not keeping staff on? We need clarity of language. I am concerned that some of the language is a bit ambiguous in that regard and I urge the Tánaiste to clarify and tighten that up. It will be important.
Many Senators have spoken about Dr. Michael Ryan. We are all extraordinarily proud of the work that he has done in the WHO. We have heard many people quoting the fact that he said that speed sometimes trumps perfection. However, the other thing he has told us is that, and he said it in the past two days, human rights, privacy rights and human dignity are also important considerations. He said these must also be factored in and that we cannot put them aside in pursuit of public health because part of public health depends on respect for that rights-based approach to health. That was something echoed by a number of UN rapporteurs in a letter they published yesterday where they spoke about ensuring that the public health response supports all of the public, including the most vulnerable - those with disabilities, the homeless, migrants and refugees.
That is part of our public health response. It is not something we add in later. It is how we do it. In that regard, there have been requests to move the vulnerable out of direct provision centres. We cannot simply allow for persons to be moved out to intensive care units or to hospitals because we did not take the opportunity to put protection in place and to ensure safety. We also need to look at moving the vulnerable, in terms of those who are homeless in Ireland. We need to ensure they have a safe place to be during this crisis. We will all work together.
I appreciate the very good points made by Senator Bacik on how we may constitute the next Seanad. If 11 Senators are necessary, let them be 11 who can serve this national interest and not simply the interests of parties. They could possibly be selected from parties but with that national collective interest in mind. If not, then could we ensure that in the next stage of legislation in the months ahead, we build in three Stages so that we have the power and opportunity to amend or improve legislation in this House for that collective good? Many of us will make points today but I do not believe we will be pressing amendments. I hope the Tánaiste will be able to answer us and that he can recognise that collective project we are in and that we are all mandated parts of that.
The Tánaiste is very welcome. It was very strange travelling up to Dublin today from Limerick to find there were no cars on the road during rush hour. Obviously, that is a very good thing in that it shows that people are listening. What we are facing though is still shocking.
I commend people from all parties for the effort they have made, in particular the Government for its response to the recent crisis. Sinn Féin is determined to play a constructive role. We will demonstrate that today in the amendments we have tabled. We will not push any amendment to a full vote, although we may put a couple of them to a voice vote. We will withdraw some amendments too because we do not want to, unnecessarily, prolong this debate. We want to deal with the business that needs to be dealt with, see the Bill through and get the support people badly need.
I begin by expressing my sympathy to the families who have already lost loved ones to Covid-19. It was very shocking to hear the figure of ten and yet, as has already been acknowledged, we know there are worse figures, unfortunately, to come. I pay tribute to all of our healthcare workers who are responding so magnificently to this crisis. They are truly in the front line, putting their own health at risk in order to care for and save the lives of our loved ones. The statistic that one in four persons who have contracted Covid-19 is a healthcare worker tells us all we need to know about the bravery of those people, especially those coming back into the service, like my colleague, Senator Devine, whom I know has volunteered already. They deserve not only our respect and admiration but real delivery in terms of the issues on which they need support. I refer in particular to the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE. I listened to "Morning Ireland" this morning and I am glad to hear the shipment is coming in on Sunday. I am also glad to hear that we have not quite run out of PPE but Senator Higgins's point about making sure we listen to workers on the front line is particularly pertinent in that regard. Of course, it is not just healthcare workers, it is retail workers, power workers, transport workers, truck drivers, workers in factories such as Medtronic, which makes ventilators, where I used to serve as a union official, pharmacy workers, and the Defence Forces.
I was very struck by the quote from Jeremy Corbyn and I want to read it into the record of the House. On his last appearance as leader of the Labour Party in Britain he said:
We can all now see that jobs that are never celebrate[d] are essential to keep society going. Think of the refuse workers, the supermarket shelf-stackers, the delivery drivers, the cleaners. [He said, those grades of worker] are often dismissed as low-skilled. But I ask, who are we least able to do without in a crisis – the refuse collector or the billionaire hedge fund manager?
He asked who is doing more for our society at this very moment. I think it was a very powerful quote from Jeremy.
I want to address the issue of safety. I welcome the statement from SIPTU yesterday. It is very significant because SIPTU is by far the largest union when it comes to construction workers.
SIPTU put out a clear statement calling for the immediate closure of workplaces and building sites where workers are at risk of Covid-19. The key point is that trade unions cannot close these sites. Employers cannot close these sites as they are contractually bound to deliver. We need the Government to shut down those sites. Having given the Tánaiste credit for so many good things this Government has done in recent weeks, I ask him not to dodge this because it is difficult. Workers are at risk. They are obliged to go to work until those sites are closed. The only organisation which can close these sites is the Government. There are 30,000 workers involved. We all know that they are not safe. We need the Government to act in exactly the same way it has on other issues. We cannot delay on this particular issue.
The proposed changes to the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act, specifically the decisions to adopt Sinn Féin’s proposals to halt evictions and freeze rents are welcome. I was disappointed, however, to hear those changes characterised by the Taoiseach yesterday as representing bad policy in the normal course of events and only being acceptable because of the current emergency. Clearly our Taoiseach still remains unaware of the emergency in housing that has been ongoing for the past five years and more. The Government should go further and ensure renters who do not have a tenancy agreement are also protected.
A provision was added by my colleagues in People Before Profit yesterday to protect people on licence. We are not clear as to whether it does or not. It would be helpful to know whether that amendment added to the Bill gives legal effect to protect people on licence in terms of their accommodation.
There is an issue with provisions to ensure people do not rack up a crushing level of debt in rent arrears. We know this is a problem that will be happening. We are asking the Government to consult with landlords, tenants and mortgage organisations to come up with a report on how this issue can be dealt with. That is a reasonable request. We will not push it to a vote today but under our amendments are looking for a commitment in this regard. I ask other Senators who believe this is sensible proposal to give it verbal support today.
The proposals on a temporary wage subsidy are welcome. Significant credit should be given to the trade union movement for its work on coming up with this model, alongside ourselves. I share some of the concerns that Senator Mulherin referred to concerning Richard Grogan’s article. I do not know whether the Tánaiste saw this article on the scheme. My concern is simple. The scheme has to work. Employers have to buy into it. Workers need to be engaged through it. Then we can see a better status for our economy, as well as for working people and families. Richard Grogan expressed particular concern in terms of fraudulent trading. I would like to see those concerns addressed when the Tánaiste responds.
The wage subsidy proposals do not go far enough, as noted by Deputy Pearse Doherty yesterday. There is a danger that they could be open to abuse by unscrupulous employers. Sinn Féin proposes a model that will guarantee 100% of income up to €525 a week for workers and the self-employed who are laid off due to this crisis. My union, SIPTU, brought out a similar proposal. Employers should have to make up the rest of the 30% of workers’ salaries in our view. Under the Government's proposals, employers can just pay 1% towards employees’ pay and still avail of this scheme.
People naturally talk about the concerns regarding the cost involved in these proposals. Can I remind Members that only ten years ago, we spent €64 billion bailing out the banks? By my reckoning, at €300 million a week, that gives us a good four years to bail out people. Surely people are more important than banks in this whole process.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. Like many speakers before me, I compliment him and his ministerial colleagues on the speed and response so far to this crisis. It has been excellent.
Behind the Ministers are the dedicated public servants and civil servants who have worked extremely hard to draft the Bills we have seen come through so quickly. I thank them. I take at face value what the Tánaiste said about the legislation we are facing today, that is, that if there are problems they will be fixed in the coming weeks. It is the Labour Party's intention to support the legislation today to ensure it passes speedily without amendment. That is the only way we can get the legislation on the Statute Book quickly to support people in dire circumstances.
The Tánaiste is quite right that we have not seen the peak. Unfortunately, we have already seen many people with serious illnesses pass away. I offer my sympathy to the families who have lost loved ones in very tragic circumstances.
At the end of the Order of Business, we applauded the front-line workers, whom I call the real risk-takers, namely, the staff working in the hospitals, stacking the supermarket shelves, manning the tills and driving the lorries to make sure there is a food supply for the vast majority of us. Those are the true risk-takers. While we have not reached the peak and circumstances will become more difficult, we have to have hope and look to and plan for the future. The Tánaiste referred in his speech to planning for the recovery after the crisis. After the crisis is over, we will really need to do more than stand outside the hall door and applaud the risk-takers, the people who have put their lives on the line, the very people who have suffered the worst over recent years, including nurses, supermarket workers, supermarket suppliers, those who work from day to day and the bin men and bin women who collect domestic refuge. They have not been able to afford to buy their own homes or the super rents we have seen in recent months. We have to plan to reward the real risk-takers to ensure that, when this is over, they will have the right to a home of their own, a place where they can rear their families. We must reward them.
In many ways, when we talk about risk-takers, we talk about businesspeople and tax incentives to bring businesses to Ireland but we now know who the real risk-takers are. It is the nurses, who are probably looking after somebody we love, who cannot afford to buy homes of their own. When we get through this, I would like us to apply ourselves in the same manner to ensure that everybody, including every citizen, will have a right and entitlement to a home of their own.
I acknowledge the work the Government has been doing. I acknowledge the Tánaiste's statement that if there are mistakes, they will be fixed. It is a matter of speed over perfection. I acknowledge everything has that has been done to produce legislation that is as perfect as it can be but since we need it passed speedily, there will be risks. I wish the Government and the country every success because we need to get this right in order to reduce the number of loved ones who will be lost in the coming weeks.
I am not standing for re-election to the Seanad. I extend to my colleagues who will be re-elected my very good wishes. I am aware of their hard work and of their diligence in considering legislation. In this manner, in this time, speed trumps perfection. We must move quickly to put in the supports our society badly needs. I will not delay the legislation and will be supporting it as it passes through the House. I hope the peak will not be as bad as we fear and that we can start planning for a good future for all our citizens.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I congratulate him, the Taoiseach, the other members of the Government and all the political parties and Independents on the very constructive proposals put forward and on demonstrating the speed at which the legislation can pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I express my sympathy to the people who have died in these trying times. They are difficult times for families and for people who are waiting for results or waiting to be tested. There is an eerie feeling. As Senator Gavan said, when he drove through Dublin, there was very little traffic and very little movement other than people walking around town. One thing that this has done is made everybody the same. We are all in the one boat. We are all walking around with our hands in our pockets. It does not matter whether one is high and mighty or an ordinary person. Everybody is the same. They will get the same treatment. That applies the world over. This has brought the world to its knees. I believe that there will be a solution and that we will find a way out of this.
The Government is to be complimented on the way and the swiftness with which it is dealing with the issue. I believe that the present Government is the best to deal with this for the number of weeks that it will take to get on top of things. If there was a change of Government right now, there would be new Ministers, with different people in different portfolios. I think the people who are there at present are the best to deal with it at this time. They know what is happening in their Departments and they know the people who have the responsibilities, rather than having new people trying to get their feet under the table. While it is very important that a strong and stable Government would be put in place, and all of the negotiations should rightly take place, the present Government should be left in place until we get out of this crisis.
I am delighted that there is a sunset clause in this proposed legislation and in the legislation that was passed last week. It is very important. It is also important that the Tánaiste said that if wrongs are done, they will be righted. I believe that when this is over, we should look at the legislation again to see where things went wrong and to see what can be made better. We passed emergency legislation during the crash. It had to be emergency legislation. We never looked at things that went wrong or that may have been done better in any great depth afterwards. We should have. I will give an example. In 2003 and 2004, legislation was introduced such that a redundancy payment of two weeks per year would be paid to employees, and rightly so. The people who came out worst from the crash were small sole traders. They had to pay for two weeks per year to all their employees, whether they went bust, downsized or whatever happened. Where some of those were not able to pay some or all of the redundancy to their employees, in some cases, they pleaded inability to pay, but Revenue is coming after them now. The only way out for them is that there will be a charge on their private house when they die. This does not happen to big companies. They have the option of going into liquidation and they can fold up. It is different in the case of the ordinary individual or sole trader. A number have contacted me. They have been left with substantial bills. In some cases, the State paid for the redundancy for the employees that they had employed. When they die, their houses will be sold and the funding that was paid to the employees on behalf of the employer will be taken out of the estate of that person.
That is unfair. There was an anomaly in the legislation when it was brought in. There was a clause under which 70% could be clawed back for the two weeks. Michael Noonan, as Minister for Finance, got rid of this 70% claw-back in 2013 or 2014. It has left some of the people I have mentioned in a very precarious position.
I am delighted that the Minister has said that he will correct any mistakes that have been made. I am sure that means we will look at the legislation we are passing today and at that which we passed last week. Things will never be the same again. Work practices are going to change. More and more people will be working from home and from hubs. The way in which work is done will be changed forever. We will have to adapt and adopt new measures. I presume new legislation will have to be drafted in respect of all of these different things that will take place.
I wish the Tánaiste well in his endeavours over the coming weeks. I also wish everybody in this House and the front-line staff, whom numerous speakers have mentioned, well. These staff are a credit to the country. They are putting themselves on the line and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht a tacaíochta le ceithre bliana anuas. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ní hé sin an chéad uair a raibh sé anseo. Bhí sé anseo go minic cheana ag plé go leor leor rudaí. I wish the Minister every success in what he is doing. When things get tough, real leaders are needed. I am not a member of any political party but I see that leadership in the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government. I wish the Government, Fianna Fáil and whomever else Fine Gael is having discussions on forming a new government with every success. The sooner a Government is formed, the better. The Minister has made decisions and taken action. As he said at the beginning, Government may not have got it 100% right, but it has at least taken decisive action and shown decisive leadership.
To move to another front, I will not repeat what others have said but to get really good followers, one needs good leaders. The Minister, the Taoiseach and their colleagues are showing such leadership, as are all the parties. They are all rowing in and putting on the Irish jersey to make this happen and to make it work. This is not about politics but about people's health. The Minister and the Government have to perform a number of balancing acts. The fundamental one relates to our health. My sincere sympathies go out to the families of the ten people who recently died as a result of this coronavirus and to my colleague, Senator Ruane, on the passing-----
Is the microphone picking up the Senator's speech?
Is it not?
The Senator might get closer to it.
I hope my colleague, Senator Marshall, does not mind me standing behind him. I extend my deep sympathies to Senator Ruane on the passing of her nan. I know they were very close. In my time here, Senator Ruane has been an absolutely fabulous Senator and it was a pleasure to work with her during these four years.
I will focus on the issues facing SMEs, if I may. What has been said already is very true. I will not go back and repeat all of it. Senator Mulherin made a point which relates to section 28(3) or 28(4) and to company law and companies or small businesses acting fraudulently. In order to get this funding one must sign a declaration stating that one's business's turnover has fallen by 25% and that it cannot keep going. From a legal and company law perspective, that is a significant challenge. Senator Mulherin is well placed to comment on that area because she is a lawyer and understands that space. There are a couple of other areas of interest as well. There are a couple of issues with the model.
One big issue is what is happening with many companies whose costs of operating are increasing significantly. It should not be measured on sales but on sales minus cost to achieve this. One might have many sales or the same number as last year, but that does not mean one is making a profit or that one's cash flow is positive.
I spoke to the Tánaiste a couple of weeks ago and I greatly appreciate the interaction he and the Taoiseach shared with me regarding small and medium-sized businesses. There are 250,000 of them in the country, employing almost 1.2 million people. I asked at the time, and am asking again now, if we could set up an urgent SME task force with SME people who are on the front line in the task force to offer the knowledge of what it is like to do this. SMEs want to employ people and to keep their businesses going. As the Tánaiste said when I spoke to him earlier, there are two parts to this. We have to keep our head above water now, which is primarily about liquidity. However, what happens when this finishes and we are back to some sense of normality? Those companies and businesses must get up and running again rather than continue in survival mode. Another slightly different strategy is required in that regard.
Two policies are being adopted by the ECB, Europe and other countries throughout the world, including Ireland. One is a monetary policy that is focused on the Central Bank and what it is doing, which is decreasing interest rates. That is fine, but interest rates are low anyway. It is increasing money supply by buying Government and corporate bonds. The ECB has relaxed the rules under which national central banks must operate to create greater monetary flexibility. Then there are the fiscal policies that governments are introducing. I must conclude, but I ask the Tánaiste to ask his colleagues to set up the SME task force as soon as possible. I was on a webinar this morning with approximately 100 SMEs. They employ over 300,000 people. Some of the issues they raised were extremely interesting and important. They are wearing the jersey as much as everybody else. They are as passionate about their employees and our country as are employees and everybody on the front line. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith ag éisteacht liom.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Go n-éirí leis an Aire agus leis an Rialtas agus iad i mbun a ndualgais sna seachtaine agus míonna atá romhainn. This is a time when every dimension of our civic, civil and economic life is being subjected to a sustained, unprecedented and profound series of shocks. Our language and discourse, both public and private, is now dominated by idioms of virology and disease containment measures and our naturally fluent manner of interaction with each other is now shaped by a cautious and necessary distance. We have been returned once again, reluctantly and through no fault of ours, to the economic language of emergency fiscal measures and possible recession.
It is fair to say, however, that we are experiencing a surge of the right type, not the one we hope and pray will not overtake our health system. Communities have dug deep and displayed their resilience. There has been a surge in compassion, bipartisanship and humanitarian outreach. In the starkness of our predicament the ethos best expressed in the gospel of John, that greater love nobody has than he who lays down his life for his neighbour, is also on view. Of course, there is sadness. There is also the best and worst in human nature. It was troubling to see the case in Spain, although I do not know the detail of it, where elderly people were abandoned in nursing homes and some of them were found deceased. Even here some members of our community have still to wake up to the need to be selfless in their behaviour in terms of coming together and so forth. We must bring out the best in each other. There are great exemplars. There is the story of the old priest in Italy who gave up his ventilator so a young person could have it. There are also our healthcare staff who are doing wonderful things. They risk laying down their lives when they knowingly go into a more risky situation on our behalf.
It makes all of us wonder what we as individuals can do. We are all in different circumstances and will all have different ways in which we can play our part in being patriotic and good, responsible and caring members of community. We need to see the best side of our nature now.
I compliment the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, the Chief Medical Officer and all the experts for giving the country the leadership it needs at this time. We have disagreed on matters, some of them serious, but it is good that they are effectively bringing people together. With only one or two exceptions in all the discussions and debates I have heard, the language and the examples given have always sought to unite people by emphasising what we all in society believe in and are on board with. I urge them to continue giving the leadership they are giving and not to be afraid to speak out strongly to any group or section of the community about the need to avoid modes of behaviour that may be unthinkingly selfish or not sufficiently heedful of the impact they might have on others.
We are all most certainly our brothers' and sisters' keepers now. The institutions of the State have demonstrated their capacity to respond with speed when the common good is threatened and when the architecture of our national and international financial system was moving towards collapse. That gives us all hope that a pathway through this suffering and discomfort is possible. We as a Legislature can scrutinise legislation only in a limited way compared with what we would normally be called on to do. We depend on the Government and Civil Service to get it right as much as possible, as often as possible, in these fast-changing circumstances. The Tánaiste will understand, therefore, that there will be issues we will wonder about, and we will wonder whether certain aspects are being covered, although we know that some aspects will not be.
In recent days, I spoke to an elderly person who receives a limited State pension and is dependent on the small income they receive from a small rental property in a rural town. That income will be gone, of course, because the tenant can no longer pay the rent and is not in a position to get any kind of relief from the bank. I was not able to give an answer to that person and it would be difficult for the Government to give answers on such cases in the short term. One thinks in particular of people in the disability sector, who have asked whether disability service workers might be prioritised for testing alongside hospital workers, a forceful argument. They hope that the costs arising for section 39 employers with regard to Covid-19 will be met equally to those of the HSE and section 38 agencies. They are all legitimate claims from people coming from different areas of social contribution.
To touch briefly on a fraught issue, I heard the Minister for Health's response on the workings of the abortion legislation in respect of remote consultations. All I would say in that regard is that we should think carefully about the matter. There were debates on the issue in the UK House of Commons and House of Lords in which it was confirmed that a physical meeting would continue to be necessary as a safeguard for the woman and to protect her health and well-being. I acknowledge that given that the situation is moving fast, there will be issues on which we might agree or disagree, but in whatever measures are taken, I ask that the Government think carefully about unforeseen consequences of a kind that none of us would want.
It is our job as legislators to urge the Government to consider all such matters. We accept that not everything will be got right and that mistakes will be made that will have to be undone as soon as possible. For now, however, I thank the Government for what it is doing. It will have our support in getting the legislation through today. Go gcuidí Dia linn uilig sna laethanta, míonna agus seachtainí atá romhainn.
I thank all the Senators for their constructive comments. Even when concerns are expressed, it is constructive criticism. I appreciate that and we will take it on board. Like others, I express condolences to Senator Ruane in respect of her loss.
On the issues raised by Fianna Fáil and others relating to the availability of PPE, there is a global shortage of PPE for healthcare staff.
There is a competition, if one likes, that is intense to try to get contracts in order to get large volumes of PPE into different countries. We have been planning for quite some time to ensure that we would have sufficient stocks. We have effectively done a deal with Aer Lingus, which is going to fly charter flights in and out of Beijing - dozens and dozens of them - to bring back PPE that is being purchased with a contract that involves Ireland spending well over €200 million. My understanding is that this is buying what would normally be considered about 13 years worth of PPE for our health system all at the one time, potentially to be used in the next three to five months. The start of those shipments will come through in the next few days - it is expected on Sunday - and, of course, other PPE is being made available from other sectors of industry and other sources in different parts of the world. However, the bulk of what will come into the system in Ireland is expected to come from China, in particular the initial stocks in the coming days.
I congratulate and thank Paul Reid and his team for the extraordinary work they are doing, not just in Ireland but also in other parts of the world, to make sure that our healthcare staff get what they need in terms of clothing, equipment and protection. I want to thank all of our hospitals, healthcare institutions, nursing homes and so on, which are managing with the stock they have right now, which will be bolstered very shortly, I am glad to say.
I also want to thank the many Members of the House who indicated they are not going to push their amendments. We will read all of the amendments carefully and if there are real issues behind those amendments that we need to respond to, the Government has a responsibility to do that. I want to give Members that very strong signal today. However, we need to get this done today. That is why I want to thank all of the parties here for indicating they are not likely to push amendments or, if they do push them, it may just be to a voice vote. There is enough experience in this Chamber to understand the consequences of amendments being accepted here, and the need to go back to the Dáil to get this legislation concluded, which would delay very significant volumes of payments for people who need them shortly.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the Defence Forces. As a former Minister for Defence, I understand a number of the points he raised quite well. In the medium term, we need to commit to setting up a separate commission for defence in regard to pay and conditions, and so on. They are a different category to every other worker in the country. They are our last line of defence and they are a resource that needs to be always there. That needs to be taken into account in the context of ensuring we have the capacity to recruit the numbers we need and, obviously, the consequences for pay and conditions that flow from that.
I want to deal with the issue of those who are coming back to re-enlist in order to assist in a national effort, particularly when many of them may be in other employment that is inactive right now. We need to ensure that people who leave the Defence Forces in a few months time, having come in to assist during this emergency, will, of course, have jobs to go back to. I will raise that issue directly with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, who will be here during Committee Stage to answer Members' questions.
With regard to the points raised by Senator Marshall, as always, he is a rock of sense in regard to the need for North-South co-operation. In an emergency, we all have the same objective. Regardless of political background, ideology or identity, we are neighbours and friends on this island, who should be working together to save as many lives as we can, and we will. I got a letter last night from Colum Eastwood, asking questions around whether an employer south of the Border, which was employing employees who are travelling from North to South, could get the subsidy. That is something the Senator can clarify with the Minister for Finance in a few minutes.
My understanding on that is clear. The Revenue is not making wage subsidy support payments based on the address or nationality of a person. This is about supporting and ensuring the connection between employees and employers remains intact. That should also apply to companies close to the Border.
Regarding employment law practitioners raising issues that may well be relevant to this legislation, this is a time for people to have a can-do attitude and to try to ensure this legislation works, and not to try to undermine it. We will make it work. The Revenue Commissioners last night issued new guidance. I got correspondence this morning from several business people which stated the guidance has been greatly helpful in clarifying some of the questions they may have had yesterday and that are being answered today. We are asking all employment law practitioners and experts advising companies to ensure that this works for their clients so that they are not excluded from the benefits that will flow from it. We can do that if we work together and if we ensure companies seek their advice from the Revenue Commissioners, and not from politicians. If important questions that need answers come from advisers and employment law practitioners, let us look to the Revenue Commissioners to provide clarity, flexibility and assurance on those questions so that this emergency legislation works for as many people as it possibly can to protect jobs and incomes. That is what we are about here.
Regarding the contribution from Senator Higgins, she is correct. I am the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and, believe me, I am spending much time trying to get Irish people home from other parts of the world right now.
The Tánaiste is doing a good job.
I am glad to say we are making good progress in Australia and Peru, two of the pressure points so far. Senator Higgins is right, of course. Whatever challenges we face here in protecting our citizens, reinforcing the health infrastructure and the staff behind it, we have to ask the question as to how on earth some countries, with extremely limited resources and effectively no health infrastructure, are going to have the capacity to respond to the pressures they will face in the weeks and months ahead. That will certainly be to the fore as we prioritise and decide how we will spend the hundreds of millions of euro that we spend in development aid, assistance and the partnerships we build in doing that.
I take the points made regarding direct provision centres and homeless people. I give the assurance that we are working on that. Several Senators raised concerns regarding construction sites. In respect of everything we do, it is important to say that the decisions we are making on guidelines for employers and employees all originate from our public health emergency team, led by the Chief Medical Officer. The advice they give is that if a workplace can comply with the social distancing guidelines, if employers can ensure they are protecting their employees and their workforce, and if they are not in the categories we have named to close temporarily, then the responsibility is there for an employer, interacting with employees, to ensure a safe workplace is provided. If that cannot be provided, then those workplaces should close. We want to link the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and others that are going to be working with employers, to ensure the guidance is being respected on site so we can maintain employment where it makes sense safely. Nobody, however, is contending or making the point that we should be requiring people to work in an unsafe environment through this emergency. There is no economic justification for that and this Government will never attempt to justify a workplace staying open on that basis. I want to make that very clear.
I also want to make sure that I answer everybody's questions.
I take the point that some wanted to go further with wage subsidies and some wanted to require employers to make sure workers get 100% of their salaries. This is an emergency and there are some employers that will not be able to pay. There are others that will be able to pay. We need to do everything we can to make sure that those companies that can pay do pay but we also need to ensure that those companies that cannot pay are not essentially pushed into insolvency unnecessarily. This is about protecting a work environment and as many SMEs as we can through this crisis so that they can grow, expand, employ people and pay good salaries when this is all over.
On the SME task force, I will speak to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys about that again. I wish to reassure Senator Ó Céidigh that the Minister and her Department have a stakeholders group where they listen to employers, trade unions and many other stakeholders that are linked to employment and SMEs. That being said, maybe there is a case to go beyond that and to allow people who understand and have lived through what it takes to build an SME successfully and survive through good times and bad to give a more direct and detailed input. I will come back to the Senator on that. For those working in SMEs who are listening today, there is updated guidance on the Revenue Commissioners' website and I encourage people to look at that.
On Senator Mullen's contribution, this is about bringing people together and that is what we are trying to do. This House has made a significant contribution to that. Politically, we come from different places in this House but we are working together to ensure we act quickly, if not perfectly. The assurance I can give Members on behalf of the Government is that for the issues they raise that are relevant and that need answers, we will endeavour to do all we can to provide those answers and to correct mistakes if they are made during this process of bringing through legislation quickly.
I thank Members for continuing to work with us.
I refer to the issue of abatement and military service allowance. Why not treat the military the same as student nurses?
We are well over time and I was going to advise the Minister that he is over time as well.
I do not want to give an answer on the hoof here that I cannot follow through on. I have heard what the Senator has had to say and I will try to come back to him on it.
Maybe the Senator could raise it on Committee Stage later.
I know the Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is here now and we can move on to both Committee and Report Stages without further delay. I thank Members for their contributions.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.