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New Dáil committee gets power to grill ministers and officials on crisis

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A new Oireachtas committee will have the power to question ministers and senior civil servants on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Dáil will this week vote on the formation of the new committee, which will have oversight of the Government's response to the coronavirus crisis.

Parliamentary Questions will also be reintroduced to allow TDs to seek information from Government departments on the pandemic. The parliamentary service for deputies was curtailed due to the national health emergency.

Since the start of the crisis, the Labour Party has been pushing for the establishment of a Covid-19 committee to ensure TDs can hold the acting government to account.

The party hoped it would have powers similar to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which can compel witnesses and demand documentation from departments and agencies.

However, it was decided it would have the status of a regular Oireachtas committee and will be able only to request the attendance of witnesses.

An original draft plan for the committee suggested the Taoiseach and Health Minister would not be required to attend "on the basis that they are answerable each week in the Dáil and that health officials are very busy dealing with the Covid crisis".

However, this was removed and both can now be called before hearings.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said the new committee would try to avoid quizzing ministers around the same time they were being questioned in the Dáil.

"This is an attempt to be constructive and we would be hoping the committee will not end up duplicating the work of the Dáil," the Ceann Comhairle said. Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the committee would have to "balance accountability against pragmatism".

"We are in a crisis and key people and resources should be focused on saving lives," he added.

Labour Party TD Duncan Smith, who insisted the committee should have the power to question the Taoiseach, welcomed the news. "We wanted a committee with the same powers as the PAC because of the historic nature of this crisis, but it's good news that a committee will be up and running soon," he said.

Irish Independent