Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (5, 6, 7)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [35252/20]

View answer

Alan Kelly

Question:

6. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit in his Department. [36603/20]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [36676/20]

View answer

Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.

The parliamentary liaison unit assists Government in its relationship with the Oireachtas. It works with the Office of the Government Chief Whip on issues that arise at the Business Committee and the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform, including Dáil reform proposals and amendments to Standing Orders.

The unit also supports the Office of the Government Chief Whip in the implementation of the Government's legislative programme. The unit assists the office of the leader of the Green Party in work relating to Cabinet, cabinet committees and oversight of the implementation of the programme for Government.

The unit provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad. It highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues and provides assistance in engaging with the new processes arising from Dáil reform.

The unit is staffed by 3.5 whole-time equivalent staff, made up of 1 principal officer, 1.5 higher executive officer and 1 clerical officer.

First, I am increasingly at a loss as to what this liaison unit is doing. The Taoiseach has cited its efforts - no doubt they are legion - to effect Dáil reform. Yet, not 40 minutes or an hour ago we had an exchange in which the Taoiseach steadfastly refused even the current accountability mechanisms not to mention any new innovation. I imagine we will all take that with a grain of salt.

Second, I have raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the need for provision for remote learning for children living with a medically vulnerable person. I have written to him on this. He has come back with a completely unsatisfactory answer - it is almost dismissive - to the effect that health and safety standards relating to mask wearing and handwashing and so on have to be observed by these children. By the way, their parents are terrified to send them to school, such is the nature of the medical vulnerability in their homes. That was the kind of brush-off answer I got.

Funny enough, when my colleague, Deputy Bríd Smith, raised the same issue with the Tánaiste, he was far more engaged on this matter. The Tánaiste informed her that he was engaging with the Minister for Education to establish exactly how an online platform could be provided for these children. There is neither rhyme nor reason to what the Taoiseach is at. He is blocking us from doing our job and, it seems, all the while not doing his own.

During the previous Dáil, the Taoiseach was a champion of Dáil reform. He committed to end Government control of Dáil business in 2016. Yet, as soon as he took over the reins, he seemed to go into reverse. As Deputy McDonald said earlier, basic levels of accountability that we expect in this House are not being complied with, as is evidenced from the Taoiseach's approach only half an hour ago in response to legitimate requests by Opposition Members to have the Minister for Justice come to the House to answer valid questions regarding the selection process for Mr. Justice Woulfe. These are valid legitimate concerns.

The Taoiseach spouts all the time about the separation of powers and issues that are completely bogus. It is guff entirely. As Taoiseach, he should ensure that another central tenet of the Constitution is protected. He should ensure the ability of the Legislature to oversee and critique the function of the Executive and decisions that the Executive makes.

The Minister for Justice was able to go on "Six One News" and LMFM - my local radio station and hers - yesterday to talk about this process. Yet, she does not see fit to come to this House to answer legitimate questions that Members, individually and collectively, have for her.

I heard the Taoiseach say in his initial response that there was a function for the parliamentary liaison unit in supporting Green Party members. Am I right? Can the Taoiseach elaborate a little on that? Can he elaborate more generally on the actual role of the parliamentary liaison unit is at the moment given that there are no Independent members of Government?

It seems to me that the parliamentary liaison unit remit is to do everything to shut down the voices of questioning from the Opposition. There has essentially been a systematic drive by the Government to do that. The latest example of this is the refusal to allow the Minister for Justice to come to the House to address questions. We also saw this with the change in speaking arrangements. I have raised this several times but I am really aggrieved tonight. We have an important debate on Covid-19 strategy. Our party will have six and a half minutes. The Government will have 75 minutes. We will hear speaker after speaker backing up the Government line. Yet, we have six and a half minutes to put forward our thoughts and suggestions. To be honest, these suggestions might actually help the Government in the current situation.

They might provide some important feedback to help it come to a reasonable perspective and strategy. However, we get six and a half minutes. It is a joke. The Government did that deliberately to shut the Opposition down and to push certain parts of the Opposition so far down the speaking order that their voices will not be heard. In the end, the Government's undoing will be these cynical parliamentary games it is playing to shut down the Opposition. They will always surface. The mistakes will come back to haunt the Taoiseach. I urge him to stop playing games of shutting down the Opposition and to allow for open debate in this Chamber.

I thank Deputy Nash for his acknowledgment of my championing of Dáil reform in the previous Dáil, which is true. We brought in many reforms after the 2016 general election. They were significant and they were advances on anything that went before.

The Minister for Justice is willing to come into the House. She offered to come in next Tuesday and was turned down by the Opposition. Those are the facts. The Minister said she would come in and answer questions. Members would have to table the questions. That is fairly normal but that was refused. I have answered questions on the same issue, as did the Tánaiste.

To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, answered questions, as did the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Tánaiste. There have been many examples of Ministers coming in under this Government in a short space of time on specific issues.

Not on this issue.

Deputy Boyd Barrett makes the point about having only six and a half minutes but I could equally refer to the perspective of others. The three parties that make up the Government have well over 80 Members in total. It seems to be the position of Deputy Boyd Barrett and some others in the House that backbenchers and Members from the larger parties should be shut up forever and never get an opportunity. That happened in the previous Dáil, unfortunately. They were marginalised, even though they are as entitled to be heard as the Deputy. It seems to be the view of groups of six, seven, eight or more that anybody who is a Member of a large party does not have the same right or entitlement to time in a debate. It is difficult to manage it all over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but that is the context. The degree to which many Deputies were denied opportunities to have their voices heard appropriately in the previous Dáil simply because they were members of larger parties was a bit of a joke. That was their strong point and campaigning position.

It has gone too far in the other direction.

On Deputy McDonald's point on remote learning, I do not adopt a dismissive attitude to issues of that kind and I regret the Deputy using that phrase, which is not fair or correct. The Deputy raises a lot of issues with me and I have answered them fairly. I do not dismiss them. It is a serious issue for the Minister for Education and her Department. I have approached them on the issue. They will have to deal with and provide for it and there has been challenges in relation to it.

On the liaison unit, its main function is assisting the Government in its relationship with the Oireachtas. The main focus of the unit is to liaise with the Oireachtas at official level on procedural matters and with Departments to ensure they are aware of any new processes arising from Dáil reform. That said, in performing its duty, the unit would be happy to engage with any Member of the Oireachtas, where appropriate. It is not the function of the unit to support any Deputies in the House. That is a political function.

(Interruptions).

That is in relation to Dáil reform. I will check and get further clarity on that for the Deputy.

The parliamentary liaison unit is headed up by a principal officer in my Department. It is a fairly small unit. I think there are about three members. On the commitments that have been made in relation to Oireachtas reform, the unit works with the Oireachtas and officials here on advancing the reform agenda; expanding the role of the Parliamentary Budget Office to independently audit the cost of individual tax and spending measures contained in political parties' budget submissions and general election manifestos to assess their broader economic impact; and continuing to ensure that Oireachtas committees chairs are allocated according to the D'Hondt system. These are all changes which occurred in the last Dáil and had not happened before. The unit also worked on introducing a new system to register Oireachtas attendance to protect the integrity of the expenses system; ensuring that funding to Independents under the leaders' allowance is fully vouched and audited as it is for political parties; fully responding to the ruling in the Kerins Supreme Court case and making appropriate changes; reviewing the Dáil Business Committee with a view to introducing the D'Hondt system; encouraging the use of Irish as a working language of the Oireachtas; expanding Oireachtas committees' research resources; supporting the work of the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus; and developing supports and alternatives for Members of the Oireachtas to take parental leave.

Those are the broad range of activities of the liaison unit in working with the Oireachtas to try to advance and consolidate what we have achieved so far but also respond to emerging issues, such as the Kerins issue, which is finding its way through the committees and causing issues for members of various committees.