An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

I call Deputy Peter Burke to announce the business for today.

In relation to today's business, it is proposed that, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the only business to be taken shall be the business as set out in the Report of the Business Committee dated 31 March 2020, with no Questions on Promised Legislation;

No. 4, statements on Covid-19 – health, shall conclude within one hour and 45 minutes and shall be confined to a single round, with the statement of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups or a Member nominated in their stead not exceeding ten minutes each, a five-minute response by a Minister or Minister of State, and not more than two Members sharing a speaking slot; No. 5, statements on Covid-19 – social protection, shall conclude within one hour and 45 minutes and shall be confined to a single round, with the statement of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups or a Member nominated in their stead not exceeding ten minutes each, a five-minute response by a Minister or Minister of State, and not more than two Members sharing a speaking slot; and the Dáil shall adjourn on the conclusion of statements on Covid-19 – social protection until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 16 April 2020.

Is the proposal agreed?

It is not agreed. As we discussed at length at the Business Committee, some of us are very strongly of the view that the Government should be subject to questions, particularly on matters pertaining to the current public health crisis, notably the Taoiseach, the Ministers for Health, and Housing, Planning and Local Government, and other key Ministers who are making important decisions on the public health emergency. There is no reason that could not take place next week. We believe this view is more than compliant with and very much in the spirit of the World Health Organization's view that in a public health emergency, transparency of decision-making and confidence in the authorities are key to gaining public support, trust and compliance with public health measures.

At the moment, most Deputies are inundated with questions, concerns, fears and anxieties being expressed by the public. Those matters need to be put before Government in order that the public's questions can be answered. I see no difficulty in that happening.

The Dáil should meet next week. I do not accept the proposal of the Business Committee. It is not non-essential work for Deputies to come here and raise the concerns of their constituents, and to question and hold to account the Government - or should I say the caretaker Government. I will be voting against the proposal.

I agree with the two Deputies who have outlined why we should sit. Some commentary in recent days in the media and elsewhere has been regrettable. In some way, Parliament is being seen as an optional extra, rather than the constitutional imperative it is. I sympathise with your efforts, a Cheann Comhairle, and those of staff of the House in seeking to find a remedy which honours the requirement for the safety of staff, Members and all others associated. We also need to give good example. However, there is a need as the Deputies have said.

Notwithstanding that, I believe that 16 April is not too far away. On the basis that all groups, including those of the Deputies who have just spoken, are engaged - or hopefully are engaged - in forming a Government, which I hope can be done within a fortnight, perhaps on 16 April we will have a vote for Taoiseach at this location, in the Convention Centre or another location as suggested. On that basis, we will support the Dáil adjourning until 16 April, with the caveat that all of us have a responsibility. I appeal to your good offices, a Cheann Comhairle, to ensure we embrace the constitutional imperative that Parliament is. It is most certainly not an optional extra, despite the views of some people, be they officials, media or otherwise, who feel it in some way is.

I agree with the objections made and will give an example of why the Deputies are correct in what they have stated. This is changing so quickly. One of the consequences the country is facing is that home help hours have not been reduced but completely cut. That is a consequence of the decisions that had to be taken.

I am supporting the Minister for Health in this 100% and commending him. However, when a result like that comes from decisions that have been taken, I believe we have to be able to stand clear. We have to be able to hold the Government to account in a working together way. It is not that we want to come in here and knock stripes of the Minister or anything like that; that is not what I am talking about. We are talking about the welfare and health of the people inside this room and the staff in this building. I am interested and very worried as is each Deputy about the health and well-being of the people who are at home today and who have got phone calls telling them their home help has been stopped. Those people could potentially finish up in our acute hospitals or our community hospitals as a result of home help being stopped. No one inside here and no one in government wants that to happen. I know the Minister for Health does not want that to happen. We have to work together and be able to discuss these issues and problems and that is why I support the Deputies in saying it is our job to come here and give the Minister what we are hearing. In fairness, he needs us all to work together with him, not against him.

I agree that we should meet next Thursday. It is vitally important. There are workplaces that are not essential but the Dáil is very necessary. It needs to be in place to hold the Government to account and to make Government accountable for its actions. Whether that is the part-time or caretaker Government that we have now or a new Government, the Dáil has to meet. That should override any other consideration. I know we can do it in a way that protects staff here as well and have a minimal number of staff here. That is vitally important too but I do not think it outweighs the importance of the actual Members of the Dáil itself.

I also support the business of the Dáil to continue. It is very important that we should remember we are asking front-line health people to go in to work in the most arduous of circumstances to continue their duty. I do not think it is fair that any Member of this House should be cocooning at home. People need to remember that Teachta Dála means "messenger of the people". We need to carry the people's message here very forcibly and the business of the House must not be interrupted.

I concur with all of my colleagues on the aforementioned in that we do have to have accountability. There are many issues on which we would like answers through a question and answer session. Yesterday I partook in a HSE briefing that lasted for two hours. In the first 45 minutes, only two Deputies had asked questions. It is not acceptable and I would prefer to see the Dáil sitting, showing the people that we are able to practise what many of our front-line staff have to practise on a daily basis. The recommendations are in place, we are perfectly capable and it is badly needed at this time.

I should point out, perhaps mostly for the benefit of new Deputies, that when it comes to a possible vote on the Order of Business, what we are talking about here is a situation in which if the proposal before the House is not agreed then there would be no business at all transacted today. The only matter really that falls to be decided is the date of the next sitting, which is proposed for 16 April. I ask Deputies to bear that in mind. Does the Minister wish to respond?

Is there an amendment proposed?

There is no amended proposal.

First, I acknowledge the huge cross-party and cross-grouping support, interest and work in respect of this issue. I think there are ten groupings in this House between parties and groupings of Independents. The co-operation, collaboration and support from each and every one of those groupings is at the level that I think the Irish people would expect. The Irish people are not expecting us to approach this in a partisan manner, nor do I believe their people's representatives are and I take Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's point in that regard. We are providing a significant level of briefing and interactions.

Let the Minister answer.

Officials who are working extraordinarily hard seven days a week and who have not seen their families in weeks are working and making themselves available, as they want to and should, to brief Deputies and keep them up to date. They are doing a superb job and they deserve our support. In addition to that, myself and the Taoiseach will again brief leaders of all groupings in this House today as we are doing on at least a weekly basis. As a Member of this House, a Cheann Comhairle, I very much take the point about the paramount importance of the work of Dáil Éireann and the fact that it needs to be carried out in a transparent way.

However, I am deeply uneasy from a public health point of view that the House is meeting for this session today. That is not to say that the Dáil cannot meet. The European Parliament has met digitally or virtually in recent weeks. With a little ingenuity and innovation, it would not be beyond us to do what is being done in workplaces across the country.

Members should be clear that we are risking public health by being here today. No one in this Chamber is a close contact of mine. Members may be close contacts of their staff or family. Deputies are travelling from their households, beyond their close contacts, and coming into contact with other Members as well as officials, ushers and clerks for whom attendance is not optional. Their safety and health are of paramount importance. I appreciate the significant work done by the Ceann Comhairle in discharging his duties, but by sitting today in this fashion the House is sending a message that runs counter to the public health message to stay at home.

I ask Members to bear in mind that, as I stated, the House will either agree to this proposal or we will all go home.

May we amend the proposal to allow the House to sit next week?

An amendment has not been tabled. Is the Order of Business agreed? Agreed.