Politics has to work to deliver solutions during the COVID-19 crisis

19 March 2020

Remarks by Alan Kelly on second stage of COVID-19 emergency legislation, Dáil Éireann, Thursday 19th March 2020.

As somebody who has worked with the health service over the last four years in my role as Labour Party spokesperson on health, I would like to commence my contribution by acknowledging the health workers who will be the heroes in our country in the coming days, weeks and months. I also acknowledge their representative bodies and unions – which have all behaved in such a responsible manner, the 30,000 people who have volunteered and the emergency services.

We are a resilient country and we will show that once more in the next few months.

We also need to remember that politics has to work. Our country is in an emergency situation. Politics has to work across all sides of this House and it is working across us all. I acknowledge the speech made by the Taoiseach on St. Patrick’s night. Bearing that in mind, when it comes to politics I also want to quote Dr. Michael J. Ryan, a fellow Irishman, who is the chief executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme. He said: “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection… the greatest error is not to move.”

We need to bear that in mind today as we go through all of what we have to do for the people of this country.

I want to raise a number of issues which will not be covered by this legislation which I want to put on the record so the Government can look at them. The Government will possibly not be able to look at them in a perfect way given everything that is going on but there are issues that need to be dealt with.

When it comes to the issue of people who are renting and the Government, we need solutions quickly. The solutions that I understand will be proposed need to not push off rents but to freeze them, which I know is constitutionally allowable because I sat there, I got the advice and I have the advice. Those solutions also need to ensure that people who are renting do not have a debt crystallised. This is not like dealing with mortgages. The debt cannot be crystallised or pushed off. They cannot pay it so the State has to intervene. I cannot be any clearer than that. That is what has to happen in the coming days and weeks.

When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, a couple of anomalies need to be dealt with. Where employers want to top up the payment, we need to ensure that can be done and that if somebody is temporarily unemployed, any top-up does not become a technically taxable gift under taxation law. This can be amended next week so I ask the Government to do so. We also need to ensure we are not at risk of creating a perverse incentive. Therefore, we have to agree that if any employer agrees to pay some or part of any employee’s wages while he or she is laid off, this should be incentivised rather than penalised. We need to ensure there is no perverse logic here.

When it comes to the banks and mortgages, I was not happy that the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland came into the Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, rather than the Minister going to the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland. We have to ensure that all other lending institutions that are dealing with a proportion of the people in this country come under the same conditions as were prescribed yesterday with the main banks. We cannot have a situation where people are left outside the conditions. A regulatory process needs to kick in quickly.

Furthermore, we also need to deal with a range of other issues. We need to ensure that the credit unions of Ireland can allow smaller payments to be made by those who are contributing and that there will not be an impact on their financial relationship with the Central Bank because they are showing some compassion to those who are borrowing money from them.

With regard to healthcare workers, once and for all, we collectively need to make sure that all healthcare workers have the proper personal protective equipment. It is not acceptable that we would have two tiers in regard to how we protect our workers. This is an issue I have been working on for over a week to try to ensure we have the same standards geographically and across public and private. We cannot have our workers put at risk.

With regard to utility bills and payments, we need all utility operators to treat their customers in a fair fashion. If that needs regulatory change or intervention from Government, let us have it.

We need to consider what payments will be made to non-EU migrants on stamp 1 and stamp 2 permits to ensure they do not fall below the poverty line. We also need to look at the duration of residency permits. We do not need a scenario where the offices at Burgh Quay or Garda stations have thousands of people queueing in the coming months to have this dealt with. We need to push it out.

We need to look at business insurance to ensure that if some insurance schedules do not include illnesses such as this, businesses will not close down or be hugely affected. I presume the insurance industry has been called in by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
We need to ensure gouging is not taking place with regard to student accommodation across the country, where people have paid up for six months but will not be using the accommodation.

Can we bring in legislation to ensure we can use mobile phone data for contact tracing? While there are issues before the courts, this is critical. We need to use mobile phone data for contact tracing, so we have to deal with this issue.

The elderly are very concerned in regard to a number of issues so let us make their lives easier. On the issues of new driver licences and the NCT, can we push those out for a period to facilitate the elderly?

With regard to the leaving certificate, I am glad the Minister made his announcement in the last couple of hours. Surely, as a society and a country, logistically, we can ensure that those who are worried about doing their leaving certificate will be able to do it. We have the time to do that. We need to give them certainty because they are very worried about this.

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