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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020

Vol. 1001 No. 6

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed that, for the duration of this crisis, the rapporteur's report on the Business Committee will be taken as read. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to?

It is not agreed. On the Order Paper for today is a very important motion which is fundamentally about accountability. It is a motion to begin the process of removing Seamus Woulfe from his position as a Supreme Court judge on the grounds of stated misbehaviour. The motion, which people can read, sets out the stated misbehaviour which, in a nutshell, comprises his attendance at the Oireachtas golf society dinner and his response to the crisis and scandal around that. In doing so, he undermined the public health advice.

We have discussed this with the Ceann Comhairle, with whom we have had a disagreement. In our opinion, the Standing Orders are very clear. Standing Order 77(2) states that "Where such ... [a] motion is put on the Order Paper for any day, the Dáil may either reject the said motion, or on a motion made to adjourn the debate may by motion appoint a Select Committee". Particularly when it is read together with Standing Order 77(3), where it provides that "Where the Dáil does not appoint a Select Committee in the manner provided ... within five sitting days ... [the] motion shall lapse", it is very clear that once such a motion is on the Order Paper, it must be taken. The Ceann Comhairle's position is that it does not have to be taken and can sit there and, presumably, it will lapse. We think it is a basic democratic right. We have a right to bring a motion to begin a process of impeachment. The Dáil has a right to reject or accept that motion. All we need is five minutes. I ask the House to reject the Order of Business and to provide five minutes so that we can take this motion.

Deputy, you have been advised on two occasions in relation to this. The interpretation of Standing Orders is not mine alone. The interpretation of Standing Orders that you have been given is that of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, of our legal department and is the interpretation, I think, of the majority of members of the Business Committee, all of whom have made it abundantly clear to you, and I believe you very clearly understand. You are a highly intelligent Member of this House and you very clearly understand what the Standing Orders are saying. They say quite clearly there are two ways of dealing with this motion. One is to take it in Government time, should the Government give you the time. The other is in your own Private Members' time. You-----

On a point of order-----

No, you are not in order, Deputy Smith. You have Private Members' time tomorrow evening, Deputy Murphy, and you have chosen not to take this. That is your business, Deputy; nobody else's. I cannot hear you, Deputy Smith. I am sorry.

I will shout if the Ceann Comhairle likes but there is a point of order to be raised. I disagree with the Ceann Comhairle regarding the advice of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser, OPLA. I attended that briefing in the convention centre and the office gave contrary advice.

No, you are out of order. You can have only one Member of your party speaking on the Order of Business. You have objected to the Order-----

Deputy Murphy was not there. I was.

Well, excuse me-----

I have other Deputies in this Chamber who will confirm what I have said.

Excuse me, Deputy. You had a formal briefing, which I organised, at which the Secretary General, senior staff and members the OPLA were present and explained the situation to you. You may not have agreed with the outcome because it did not suit the particular approach you had-----

A Cheann Comhairle, it is the explanation that I want to challenge you on.

Sorry, Deputy. You are not in order.

There are other Deputies in this House who will confirm my version of events.

Please, you are not in order, Deputy. You are objecting to the Order of Business; that is fine. I will put the question. Sorry, Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

I have listened to this debate and to the points made by Deputies Murphy and Smith.

As you know, a Cheann Comhairle, we discussed this in the Business Committee last Thursday. I believe it presents something of a challenge collectively for the Houses in the way the Standing Order is being interpreted. Deputy Paul Murphy has referred to Standing Orders 77(2) and 77(3). Right now, we have a motion on the Order Paper to remove a judge from the Superior Courts. Let us imagine we had a motion and then that motion was removed and another motion was put forward to establish a committee to look at this matter. Right now, the interpretation is that it can be taken in Private Members' time. What if we have a scenario where there is a Member who is not a member of a group?

We cannot get into that.

Bear with me, a Cheann Comhairle. I am actually-----

We cannot get into that. Wait now, please. We have a highly reputable skilled and experienced legal team who work for us here in the Houses of the Oireachtas. They have taken on numerous cases on our behalf. We have put our faith in them. I have absolute faith in them, as I have absolute faith in the senior members of the service who are absolutely objective and impartial. They have guided us and we have reached a conclusion. We are not getting into the detail.

(Interruptions).

We are talking about taking advice. There are two versions of advice.

Deputy, you are not the leader of the group. Deputy Paul Murphy has been speaking.

I asked a question on the advice. I was told doctors differ and patients die. That was the answer.

Resume your seat, Deputy Smith.

I wish to make this clear. It is important that I am allowed to respond. I am not questioning the judgment or advice of the service.

What are you doing, Deputy?

I am saying this presents a problem.

It does not present any problem.

We cannot drive the horse backwards and forwards at the same time. It is that we either accept the advice or we do not.

It presents a problem. Let us imagine we have a scenario where, for example, we ask Solidarity-People Before Profit to put forward this motion in Private Members' time. This issue has an implication for the wider House. The point was made at the Business Committee last Thursday. Is there an argument for us to examine this at the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform? I appreciate it is as it is now.

Then bring that up at the Dáil reform committee.

Is there an argument to look at the issue of what would be called Dáil time? Rather than Government time and Opposition time, can we have space where something like this - a sensitive issue with constitutional implications - is considered? I put that forward to you, a Cheann Comhairle, for consideration.

That is a perfectly reasonable proposition.

As a member of the Dáil reform committee, you can bring it up there.

That is all I wanted to put forward.

Do that. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to?

Question put: "That the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 32; Níl, 12; Staon, 0.

  • Browne, James.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Healy-Rae, Danny.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Murphy, Verona.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Callaghan, Jim.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Richmond, Neale.

Níl

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • Mitchell, Denise.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • O'Reilly, Louise.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Tully, Pauline.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Brendan Griffin and Marc Ó Cathasaigh; Níl, Deputies Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Paul Murphy.
Question declared carried.

Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?

It is not agreed. I repeat the point made earlier that everyone should see it as in his or her own interests that the Standing Orders are not misinterpreted. I say that with all due respect to those who are interpreting them. It is not very clear at all, according to what the Ceann Comhairle is telling us, that Standing Order 77(2) still does not stand. It states:

Where such an Article 35.4.1° motion is put on the Order Paper for any day, the Dáil may either reject the said motion, or on a motion made to adjourn the debate may by motion appoint a Select Committee to take [it] ...

In all the time it has taken us to discuss this, it would have taken five minutes to take the motion on the Order Paper. It is a constitutional right of any Independent Deputy who is not part of a group, or, indeed, any Government backbencher, to put such a motion on the agenda. That constitutional right is being denied them by this specific interpretation of Standing Orders. That is why we are objecting to the Order of Business. I reiterate what I said earlier, which the Ceann Comhairle did not hear. Contradictory advice was given to us by various different elements of the OPLA. There was contradictory advice and when I questioned it, I was told that doctors differ and patients die.

What is all that about? We are interpreting Standing Orders as they are written while the Ceann Comhairle's office is interpreting them in a way that blocks the constitutional individual rights of Deputies elected to do their job.

That is a very serious charge, Deputy. I did not hear any contradictory advice given to anybody. I refute the idea that the parliamentary legal department gave contradictory advice to anyone. I also refute the allegation that we are trying to block something that is somebody's constitutional initiative. You have tabled, as is your right, a motion which you could take, if you wanted to, tomorrow night in the Private Members' time that you have. You have two hours in which to take it, but you have chosen, Deputy, not to take it tomorrow and to have this argument today. That is your choice, and it is your choice as well to reject the legal advice that you have been given, but they are, nonetheless, the facts.

The legal advice given to us, a Cheann Comhairle, never once said to us that we had to take it in Private Members' time. The Standing Orders do not say that. It is your interpretation of it that says it has to be taken in Private Members' time. We are not making a choice between defending these student nurses and their right to be paid properly and the constitutional right of a Deputy to put down such a motion under Article 35.4.1° of Bunreacht na hÉireann. It is the interpretation that is standing in the way, not our use of Private Members' time to defend a group of front-line workers.

Okay. Thank you very much, Deputy.

Question, "That the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business be agreed to", put and declared carried.

Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to?

Not agreed. I will restate the essential point that the Standing Order very clearly does not envisage a situation where an Article 35 motion could be put, would simply sit on the Order Paper and would then lapse after a period. It is clear that it envisages a situation where there are two options at that first stage. Either the motion is rejected and that is the end of the process or a motion to adjourn the debate is passed and then, within five days, a select committee has to be appointed. Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point is crucial because if we did not happen to have Private Members' time within five days of putting the motion, or if a Member was not part of any grouping, as is his or her right, or if it was a back bench Government Deputy, then, according to the interpretation that you have, a Cheann Comhairle, and I accept that others are informing you but ultimately it is your decision in terms of the interpretation and it is our right to challenge it, there is no mechanism for them to seek to initiate a process to remove a judge, and that is a very problematic interpretation. We think our rights are being cut across and blocked in this case, but we also think that the rights of other Deputies in future would be cut across by such an interpretation.

Again, I reiterate that you have two hours on Wednesday evening which, if you chose, you could use to deal with this particular matter, but you have chosen not to use those two hours for that particular matter. That is a simple fact.

And also put our-----

Sorry, I am not finished. The point you make about Deputy Mac Lochlainn's earlier intervention is very valid. This is a matter that can be discussed in detail at the Dáil reform committee. We may not have a perfect system in existence here, but from my point of view, I accept the advice given to me by skilled legal officers and by experienced senior personnel here in the Houses of the Oireachtas, and I trust those people. You may know better than all of the rest of us, and you are down in the courts challenging decisions we have made. Maybe that will be found in your favour as well, but we can only operate on the basis of the quality advice that we are given. I cannot ignore it. You can, and you are.

On the same subject but from a slightly different vantage point, given that the motion in question is around the potential removal of a judge from the Supreme Court Bench, that is a very serious matter and I do not think it is desirable that a motion can be put down and that it lingers on the Order Paper indefinitely. Is it not in our interests that we deal with the matter either way, whatever is the outcome, and that the matter is then dispensed with, rather than, if I understand the interpretation of what the Ceann Comhairle is saying, having this matter simply rest on the Order Paper indefinitely? I would find that an extraordinary situation given the seriousness of the matter at hand and given all of the issues we have traversed around, such as the separation of powers and the importance of the judicial function. I have a concern around that. I am not gainsaying the advice that the Ceann Comhairle has been given - I do not know; I have not been at these briefings - but I am very uneasy at the idea of a motion of such gravity and consequence simply resting on the Order Paper indefinitely.

The Rural Independent Group came to the conclusion some weeks back that there was no grounds for impeachment which is why we are opposed to any motion. This is simply grandstanding and game playing. We had a debate with the Minister last week, albeit limited. I respect the legal advice we have got and thank the Ceann Comhairle for organising it. We are only holding up the show. The Members could remove the motion and it would not come up every week because it is only grandstanding and showboating.

I do not think that we can make up the rules as we go along. We have a Dáil reform committee. It has met on quite a number of occasions. It has laid out the Standing Orders of the House. It is a long standing precedent that the Ceann Comhairle, following advice and so forth, adjudicates on issues. Sometimes that adjudication does not find favour with some in the House, but that does not mean that those some can then dictate debates and dictate the agenda because it does not suit. It is not fair to say that the motion lies on the Order Paper. It is a matter of considerable import, and one would have thought that any person tabling a motion of that kind, given the constitutional nature of it and given its profound implications, would be quite prepared to use their Private Members' time to dispose of it and deal with it one way or the other. Instead, the Opposition seems to want to change the ground rules as laid down by the Dáil and interpret them to suit its case.

Before I came to the House, I checked to see if any issues were likely to arise and was told no, quite a constructive Business Committee meeting had taken place to prepare for this week. Every week now, without fail, there are votes on the Order of Business, notwithstanding the Business Committee meeting and ordering the schedule and so on. There is a mechanism for dealing with this and it should have been availed of. It is late in the day, following the tabling of the motion, to say that we must now reform how we do Standing Orders to suit our agenda or a particular agenda. I do not think that is on, quite frankly, and if there is a ruling from the Chair, there comes a time when that ruling has to be accepted. We cannot all be rulers. We cannot all be Ceann Comhairle in this House.

There is a bigger issue here and Deputy Mac Lochlainn alluded to it. I raised it last week at the Business Committee, and it relates to what becomes Dáil business and what becomes Private Members' business. The reality is that if I or my group wanted to put this motion forward, it would be way after Christmas before it would be heard, going by what the Ceann Comhairle said about how the Dáil takes these proceedings. I do not think that would be fair either, that it would be on the Order Paper for that length of time before it would be dealt with. That just would not be right. There is a need to develop Dáil time as opposed to Private Members' time. That has to be done and that should be done in this situation. This is a situation that is particular to the Dáil. It is the Dáil that has this responsibility, not private Members, the Government or anyone else. That is the reality of the situation and it does need to be addressed.

The reform committee can look at it.

I have no doubt that this is a serious issue, but every week, hundreds of serious issues are brought to this Chamber in promised legislation. For weeks, they have got no airing at all because all of promised legislation's time is being taken up by these battles.

There has to be a system by which Deputies can bring questions on promised legislation to the floor of the Dáil on the weekly basis. It is not happening now. This is a farce.

I would like to make two points. The Taoiseach implies there is a problem with us disagreeing with the Ceann Comhairle's interpretation. There is no problem whatsoever. Any Deputy has a right to disagree with the Ceann Comhairle's interpretation, state the grounds for this and ask for the House to overturn it. If the House did so, it would not be a vote of no confidence in the Ceann Comhairle. There is nothing illegitimate about doing that.

Regarding the use of our time, if there is an offer to use five minutes of our two hours tomorrow morning to move this motion alongside raising the issue of the student nurses, we will absolutely jump at that chance. If we can move it within that time as well as moving the motion to deal with the very important issues facing student nurses-----

The Deputy knows the rules around that as well as I do.

That is the point.

The Deputy cannot make it up as he goes along.

I am not the one who is making it up as he goes along. The words of Standing Order 77(2) are extremely clear. I encourage people to read them.

Question: "That the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business be agreed to" put and declared carried.

We believe people should have the right to retire with the State pension at the age of 65 if they so choose. The idea of sending someone to stand in a dole queue at the age of 65 is just wrong. When people have reached that age they have worked their shifts and paid their dues. We are putting a motion before the Dáil tonight calling for the State pension age of 65 to be reinstated. I call on all Deputies to support it.

I know the Taoiseach takes a different view. He plans to raise the State pension age to 67. He also knows that his plan has been strongly resisted by the people so he now says the pension age will remain at 66. However, for that to happen legislation will be needed. I would like the Taoiseach to tell us when we will see that legislation. Where is it? In the absence of legislation the pension age will increase to 67 on 1 January.

On the same issue, I would like to ask the Taoiseach-----

Deputy Bruton cannot do that.

Of course one can do that.

It is not generally allowed.

It is not normally allowed when the leaders are asking questions.

The leaders have had their questions. This is a new round.

That is a new Standing Order.

Deputy Bruton has been in government for too long.

Deputies are entitled to raise questions on the same issue.

The tradition is that the major party leaders are allowed to ask a question and are not second-guessed by second contributors. When it comes to the groups, different rules apply.

I must point out that 20 questions might typically be allowed here. The Ceann Comhairle has allocated 11 of those exclusively to the Opposition while all Government backbenchers have had no opportunity to participate on an equal basis. That is not a reasonable approach. Creating a Standing Order that protects these questions is in the interest of the Members of the House more broadly.

I tried to change that in the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform and it was resisted, including by Deputy Bruton's party.

Can Deputy McDonald get her answer?

I must respectfully say that Deputy McDonald is wrong. The legislation has been published. The pension age will remain at 66. I find her comments extraordinary when to a person, her members of the Northern Ireland Assembly all voted to raise the pension age there to 66. This is an area where the Assembly has devolved authority. Under the changes we are making, no one will have to queue for the dole at 65. We are changing the rules around applications for jobseeker's allowance. The pensions commission has been established to deal with the sustainability of pensions.

I wish to ask about cancer survival rates. A report issued last week by the National Cancer Control Programme stated that at least 2,000 cases have gone undiagnosed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is deeply concerning. We also know that the number of referrals from GPs has dropped dramatically. There are issues across the board, but I refer particularly to cancer diagnosis among men. Will the Government implement a catch-up programme to avoid a trade-off between Covid-19 and issues relating to cancer diagnosis? Cancer diagnosis is very severe. It does not have good outcomes for some people. I have met several people who have received very bad news. What are we going to do to ensure this is addressed?

There is no doubt that a catch-up programme is required in light of what transpired during the first Covid-19 lockdown, when services were essentially mothballed and many people did not turn up for appointments. There has been a significant ramping up of efforts there. Screening programmes have been re-established and non-Covid-19 health services are being protected. There is capacity in our hospital system to deal with cases now. Obviously the required protections against Covid-19, such as social distancing, are having an impact on the volume of services delivered. Investment is the key here. That investment has been made. We must now operationalise that investment and avail of private sector capacity to ramp up activity levels.

Very sadly there has recently been a spike in the number of homeless deaths. In comments to the Dáil last week, the Tánaiste gave the impression that nobody who is sleeping rough is denied access to emergency accommodation. This is not the case. Between a third and a half of the people sleeping rough in doorways and tents are being denied access to emergency accommodation. This includes people who have been sleeping rough for several weeks or months. As a matter of urgency, will the Government issue a circular instructing local authorities to provide emergency accommodation to all homeless people who request it?

Very significant resources are being put into emergency services for homeless people. That will continue. Local authorities are working with NGOs, which are experienced and have been working with the homeless for a long time, to get the best accommodation for people as they require it. The figure of a third of rough sleepers, which the Deputy cites as the number refused emergency accommodation, is a little high. I would like to interrogate it a little bit more. Perhaps the Deputy could engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on that. I do not think that is his assessment.

A very welcome process, which the Taoiseach helped to initiate by intervening in the Debenhams dispute, has begun. Tomorrow the parties will be meeting for more talks, with Mr. Kevin Foley as mediator. However, a serious problem has arisen. Commitments were made whereby the workers agreed to relax the pickets on the stores and KPMG undertook not to attempt to remove stock. KPMG has now confirmed to the media that stock has been removed from branches in Newbridge, Tallaght and Mahon Point Shopping Centre in Cork. Yesterday packers from KPMG were stacking up the stock in Henry Street. This has deeply eroded the element of trust. Both sides committed to hold off until Friday so that a resolution could be attempted. Can the Taoiseach imagine how the workers feel about this lack of good faith and the way they have been disappointed yet again by the actions of KPMG? Will the Taoiseach do something to get this back on track, restore good faith and insist that KPMG desists from moving any more stock?

A mediation process was put in place. We worked on that and we thank Mr. Kevin Foley for taking responsibility. I said in the Dáil last week that space should be given by all parties, including KPMG, to facilitate the conduct of those mediation talks.

A number of credit unions across Tipperary and indeed the country have been in contact with Deputies to say that because of Covid they are unable to hold AGMs. Under regulation, the payment of a dividend to members needs to be passed in advance at an AGM and this is not allowed by virtual means, so the dividend cannot be paid to the members. We are talking about sometimes €200 or €300 at Christmastime, when people have additional costs and expenses and the purchase of gifts, toys and extra food is required. Will the Taoiseach contact the Central Bank to ask it to give a directive to the Irish League of Credit Unions authorising credit unions to pay the dividend this year. All it has to do is make a simple amendment to allow credit unions to do this.

I have been contacted by several credit unions, including Clonmel Credit Union, which is in a very health position. The members ensured a €3.6 million profit this year, €1.7 million of which is to be distributed back to the members. They are the people who create the credit union with the wonderful staff there as well. The Central Bank can change this overnight to allow a virtual AGM to take place. Audit accounts have been submitted since early November but they have not got a result. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Finance to allow credit unions to have their AGMs virtually and to change the Act in order to allow members to spend this money in the towns, which is so badly needed, especially in these times of Covid? This is a simple matter and could be done with the stroke of a pen.

Legislation on the holding of AGMs was completed yesterday in the Seanad and will come before this House, I think, in the next two weeks. I will consult the Attorney General and the Minister for Finance, who can in turn consult the Central Bank to see if this issue can be resolved. The whole idea of the legislation was to facilitate virtual dealing or the holding of AGMs and so on because of Covid-19 and the restrictions it has imposed. I thank the Deputies for raising this.

It is a calendar month and two days since the Taoiseach took possession of the report of the independent commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. Will he please tell us whether it has come before Cabinet? If not, why not? When will it be published? What is the cause of the delay, given that legislation was pushed through the Dáil, passed by majority vote, ostensibly for the primary reason that the Government did not want to delay publication of the report.

The Taoiseach will have received correspondence in recent days from survivors of the mother and baby homes and their relatives in Bessborough, County Cork, many of whom are very concerned, particularly in light of the fact that the report has not been published, about the fact that there are plans to proceed with, or applications for planning on, a site that has not been fully investigated. Many survivors are concerned that relatives of theirs may be buried around the site. It has not been investigated. Is the Taoiseach concerned about this? Will he make a submission himself as a constituency Teachta Dála? Will he ensure that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, meets with the survivors of the Bessborough home in particular?

I have met virtually with the organisation concerned regarding Bessborough. The organisation is very focused and very pragmatic. I am not sure that the land in question is right for development, to be frank, but that is another story.

On the matter Deputy Connolly raised, that legislation was not ostensibly about delaying the publication of the-----

That was the excuse.

No, it was not the excuse, actually.

It was the explanation.

I take exception to that. The rationale put forward by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, was very clear and was to preserve and protect the records in order that people could avail of them. It was not ostensibly about anything or about delaying; it was about preserving the record. That truth will emerge. The bottom line is this: the Minister is in consultation with all the groups and a memorandum is being prepared for the Government. It is quite a comprehensive memorandum, dealing with all aspects of the report and, more critically, the Government's response to the report and the proposed response to it. We want to make sure that all the organisations that represent survivors will be communicated with and consulted with in advance of the publication and announcement.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. Nineteen Deputies have not been reached and will be given priority tomorrow.

Barr
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