Almost half the Cabinet has failed to turn up in the Dáil for topical questions this year — despite a pledge by the Government that debates would be revamped and junior ministers would not just read scripts.
Figures obtained by the Irish Examiner reveal that Health Minister Simon Harris and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy are the worst offenders — attending just one such debate out of a total 63.
Details for the first half of this year show that seven Cabinet members sent their junior ministers to answer Dáil questions instead of them during 74 topical debates. These debates are designed to address mainly local concerns for TDs or particular problems relating to crime, spending or services.
A breakdown of attendance records for topical debates for senior ministers between January 15 and May 14 shows Mr Harris attended none out of 49 listed for him, sending junior ministers instead.
This week as she was taking questions about children in pain with scoliosis waiting months for treatment, junior minister Catherine Byrne told the Dáil she didn’t know where Mr Harris was or what she could say. she told stunned TDs:
I did not know up to two hours ago whether or not I would be taking this. I do not know whether or not what I suggest is possible
Records show that Mr Murphy attended one Dáil topical debate out of 14 during the half year. Others failed to attend any such debates, including Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney (0/3), Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe (0/7), Defence Minister Leo Varadkar (0/1) and Business Minister Heather Humphreys (0/1).
When Fine Gael returned to power in 2011, its programme for government committed to enhancing Dáil debates. It said the Government would “significantly revamp the adjournment debate forum”.
Furthermore, it would end “the practice of one junior minister reading out scripts” about a “range of issues of which he or she knows nothing about”.
The records, compiled by Fianna Fáil, show senior ministers who attended more topical debates.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan attended six out of 10 during the half year, Transport Minister Shane Ross was present for 17 of 18, while the senior minister for education took nine of 15. Agriculture Minister Michael Creed took three out of five debates while the minister for communications took seven out of ten.
Culture Minister Josepha Madigan attended two out of three debates while Employment Minister Regina Doherty took one out of two. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone was the only Cabinet member to turn up for all topical debates in her name, attending five. Fianna Fáil party whip Michael Moynihan was damning in his criticism of senior ministers ignoring their parliamentary responsibilities.