Parliamentary Digest 15th May

A round up of what’s going on in the Bundestag, Bundesrat and state parliaments

Second law to protect the population in an national epidemic

Calendar

The “Second law to protect the population in an national epidemic” or as it’s known in the media, the “pandemic law,” was passed in the Bundestag on Thursday and Bundesrat on Friday. It provides for changes to various existing laws and regulations that are intended to help combat the pandemic better. The measures had already been examined in the relevant parliamentary committees (see below)

The main provisions were:

A massive expansion in testing to include preventative testing; the Ministry of Health can now oblige the health insurance companies to pay for tests even if people show no symptoms. Testing is also to be expanded in nursing homes or hospitals.

A bonus of up to 1,000 euros for nursing care staff to be paid by the health insurance companies, which will receive a subsidy from the federal government. Health Minister Jens Spahn estimated that the total cost of the bonus would be 1 billion euros. The federal states and employers in nursing can also increase this tax-free corona premium by up to 500 euros.

50 million of extra funding for local health departments.

Expansion of flu vaccinations in order to prevent the health system from being overburdened by another wave of flu.

An obligation for laboratories to report the number of negative tests as well as positive ones.

Health Minister Jens Spahn’s plan for ‘immunity passports‘ was dropped since immunity after having been infected with the virus has not yet been proven and could create a false sense of security.

Opposition parties – the AfD, FDP and Left Party – criticised the far-reaching powers that result from the health protection laws, calling them constitutionally questionable and unacceptable. The AfD accused the government of harassing citizens with senseless conditions and causing people to panic, despair and lack of prospects and warned that a new lockdown would cost more victims than the actual corona crisis, “fuelled by mass unemployment and rural exodus”. The FDP asked whether “blanket authorisations” for government were necessary, while the Left Party also saw the scope of the regulatory powers as problematic.

Jens Spahn argued that, “We have achieved a lot together.” At the beginning of the pandemic, the health system was overwhelmed in some countries, but in Germany the momentum of the pandemic had been stopped: The country can be proud of that, he said, and it’s now about securing what has been gained.

Earlier in the week, the Health Committee had considered the package of laws and took evidence about problems with financing. The proposal to increase the number of corona tests to four and a half million a week, with health insurance companies covering the costs was discussed: The umbrella organisation of statutory health insurance companies (GKV) said that companies will refuse to cover the costs of purely prophylactic corona tests if there were no symptoms or if the person had not been in the vicinity of people at risk. The extra costs of around 60 million euros per million additional tests could mean a rise in health insurance contributions.

The Bundestag was sitting this week.

Information about what is happening in the Bundestag on a daily basis (including in committees and parliamentary questions) can be found in the ‘Heute im Bundestag’ section of the Bundestag website (in German) here. The timetable can be found here and agendas and sittings under ‘Tagesordnungen und Sitzungsverlauf’ here.

The next sitting week for the Bundestag is 25th – 29th May.

Health Minister Jens Spahn talking about the new package of ‘pandemic laws’ in a socially distanced Bundestag

The Bundesrat had a plenary sitting on 15th May. Information about the plenary sessions of the Bundesrat can be found here and information about its responsibilities here.

Next week, Bundesrat committees will be meeting and the next plenary session is Friday, 5th June.

A short guide in English about how legislation is passed in Germany can be found here and the Rules of Procedure in Parliament here.

Social Package II

The Social Package II was also passed and contained the following provisions:

An íncrease in short work money (where workers are temporarily laid off and receive a percentage of their wages from the government), from between 60- 67% to as much as 87%, depending on the length of time a worker is laid off. This proposal had been considered by the Labour and Social Affairs Committee earlier in the week. While the increase was generally welcomed, there were some criticisms. A German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) representative argued that the procedure was very complicated and also that the rates were too low, especially for service sectors that are currently badly affected, such as the hospitality industry, with many workers unable to meet the basic needs. A BA representative said that for each month and for every short-time worker, working time and wage documents must be checked retrospectively in the payroll lists, a lengthy and costly process. The Federal Association of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) described the regulation as “socio-politically questionable;” the flat-rate increases in short-time working allowance will not combat emergencies in individual cases, “but fuel expectations of the welfare state that will overwhelm it financially in the long term.”

An increase in the length of time unemployment benefit is paid: if someone’s entitlement to unemployment benefit is finishing between May and December this year, the time the benefit will be paid has been extended by three months (people are entitled to unemployment benefit for a limited time period; when that ends, they go onto a different benefit system).

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) said, “We have a shared responsibility …… If individual workers are treated badly, it affects everyone.”

Children and pupils who are dependent on benefits will continue to receive a warm lunch even if their daycare center or school is closed during the pandemic.

Basic Pension

Hubertus Heil speaking about the basic pension in the Bundestag on Friday

AfD and FDP politicians criticised the plans as being too expensive and not targeted enough, while the Greens, although approving in principle, criticised the “insanely complicated” discount system of calculating the basic pension.

On Friday, the SPD’sbasic pensiondraft law was debated for the first time. The basic pension will be an additional payment that will come on top of a retiree’s pension payment if, despite having paid into the system for decades, a person would have a pension which did not cover the cost of living.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz confirmed in April that the basic pension will come in as planned on 1st January 2021, despite the corona crisis.

The CDU/CSU parlaimentary leader, Ralph Brinkhaus, this week said the bill had no chance of going through parliament since there was no agreement on how the pension was to be funded.

The bill passed the first reading, however, and was referred to the Employment and Social Affairs Committee.

Speaking in the Bundestag, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil said that the introduction of the basic pension was particularly important for those occupational groups who are currently described as “heroes of the corona crisis.” Although they have received a lot of recognition for this, “recognition is not enough: these people deserve more – decent wages and decent pensions.”

He said that in view of the billions in demands for tax money for business, it is not just a question of whether we can afford the basic pension and asked,”What kind of devastating signal does it send if we can’t afford the basic pension now?”

Conditions of slaughterhouse workers

Following outbreaks of corona amongst foreign workers in several slaughterhouses across the country, the substandard working and living conditions of the workers were exposed, with the Deustche Welle referring to modern slavery.

On Wednesday, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil said that the news was “appalling, shameful and intolerable.”

He argued that the core of the evil is “this type of sub-sub-sub-entrepreneurship” in the industry and announced he would be discussing measures to tighten rules at the Corona Cabinet meeting on 18th May.

Aid for restaurant and catering and cultural sectors

On Friday, the government introduced a draft law to cut the VAT for restaurant and catering services from 19% to 7% until June 2021, since the pandemic is particularly difficult for the restaurant and catering trade, due to the strict hygiene and clearance regulations. The reduced tax revenue is estimated at 235 million euros in 2020 and around 2.5 billion euros in 2021.

This was approved by the Bundesrat on Friday, as was a law designed to protect the cultural scene from liquidity shortages in the Corona crisis: if a cultural event is cancelled due to corona, organisers can issue vouchers to the ticket holders for the amount of the original admission price.

Aid for travel industry

An FDP motion calling for an economic stabilisation fund to be made accessible to small and medium-sized companies the travel industry was debated and referred to the Tourism Committee.

On Wednesday, the Tourism Committee heard that the government is considering a hardship fund for companies in the industry that are particularly affected by the consequences of the corona crisis.

According to government figures, 90% of companies in the tourism sector have taken advantage of short-time work benefits and 80% of immediate financial aid. 40% have benefitted from tax deferrals.

The Heinsberg study

In North Rhine Westphalia, Prof. Dr. Hendrik Streeck, the head of the “Covid-18 Case Cluster Study”, the so-called Heinsberg study, gave evidence to the Committee on Labor, Health and Social Affairs on Wednesday. The Heinsberg study has been controversial in Germany; researchers from the University of Bonn found that the number of actual Covid-19 infections could be ten times higher than thought. They estimated that 1.8 million people may have had the virus, 22% of whom were asymptomatic.

The Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, who was an early proponent of discussing Germany’s exit strategy, said the report was an important document for informing future discussions on how to proceed with coronavirus measures in Germany.

However, the report has been criticised and some have argued that that the local study does not represent the national situation.

Mystery of disappearing face masks

In the Berlin state parliament, a question from a CDU politician attempted to clear up the mystery of 200,000 protective masks ordered by the Berlin state government which had disappeared in early April. There were extraordinary reports that the USA had diverted the masks: at the time, the Tagesspiegel quoted Berlin’s Senator for the Interior as saying “We consider this an act of modern piracy. This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners.” Berlin mayor Michael Müller subsequently withdrew this allegation.

In a written reply, the Home Affairs and Sport Department seemed to confirm the allegations: “On April 1, 2020, the medical retailer informed the Berlin police by email that a different offer had to be made because the goods ordered by the Berlin police could not be continued….. The American government had bought up all 3M masks and would now ship them to the USA.” However, “The state of Berlin has not suffered any financial damage as a result of the failure to deliver, because a Berlin specialist dealer has made a suitable replacement offer using protective masks from another manufacturer.”

Drug trafficking on the dark web

The Bundesrat introduced a draft law to tighten postal law in view of increasing drug trafficking on the dark web. Postal staff would have to present the law enforcement agencies with damaged or declining items if their contents suggested suspected illegal trafficking in drugs, weapons or unauthorized drugs and fines of up to 500,000 euros are planned.

CO2 surcharge

It also approved a Bundestag law which provided for benefit for low income families for the CO2 surcharge which had been decided in the climate package and which will come into force in 2021: prices for heating from oil, natural gas and fuel will gradually increase. On average, the additional housing allowance in 2021 is expected to be around 15 euros per month and more than 600,000 households are said to benefit from this.

New Hamburg government not yet agreed

The newly elected Hamburg Parliament, which has had to move out of its cramped chamber and into a hall, where chairs have been placed 2 metres apart, is not yet fully up and running. In February, the SPD won 39.2% in Hamburg, but because of the corona crisis, the usual coalition building and allocation of positions has not been able to happen – the previous government is still in place.

Committees and questions

Damaging foreign flags

The Law and Consumer Protection Committee recommended the adoption of a bill to include criminal action for the denigration of the European Union and its symbols. “In the future, the public destruction or damage to a foreign flag will be punished.” This was reported by the BBC as “Germany makes burning of the EU flag punishable by up to 3 years in jail.”

Deutsche Bahn

The Transport and Digital Infrastructure Committee considered a request from the government that, should the rail company Deutsche Bahn request state liquidity support due to loss of revenue due to the corona crisis, the budget committee of the Bundestag should raise its debt limit, which is currently is 25.4 billion euros. According to Deutsche Bahn, its corona-related losses will be between 11 and 13.5 billion euros.

Infection from wild animals

The Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Committee heard evidence about the risk of infection from wild animals, based on information that 60% of known human infectious diseases are of animal origin – as are at least 75 percent of the newly emerging infectious diseases in humans. In the context of the corona pandemic, MPs addressed the issues of causes, spread and prevention, particularly in the context of zoonoses, which are infectious diseases that are caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses etc and can be transmitted between animals and humans.

Berlin Airports

The Department of Transport and Digital Infrastructure answered a written question about Berlin Airports: Berlin Airports recorded a 64.7 percent decline in passenger numbers in March this year. Further, the liquidity of Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg company (which has been responsible for building the new BER airport, which is currently 8 years late in opening) has been affected by the corona virus.

Hungary

The Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee heard evidence from the government that it is concerned about the recent restrictions on freedom of expression and the press in Hungary. The state of emergency laws approved because of the corona pandemic allow governance by decree without a time limit and punishments for spreading false or truth-distorting messages. In addition, Viktor Orbán has withdrawn half of the state funding from political parties as part of a recent budget restructuring and media is coming under the control of the government-friendly KESMA foundation. Minority rights are also being restricted. MPs called for stronger consequences, particularly from the EU.

Europol powers

The Home Affairs Committee took evidence from a group of experts an FDP motion calling for Europol to be provided with its own investigative powers. The experts agreed that Europol should be strengthened in connection with the strengthening of the EU public prosecutor’s office. However, the majority of them were sceptical about granting executive powers to Europol in member countries. The deputy director of Europol said that Europol had been created to help the member states’ police forces tackle serious crime, terrorism and cybercrime: the authority could become a central point for information exchange and analysis, but Europol officials should not conduct arrests in the Member States on their own.

Foreign investment in technology

The Economy and Energy Committee heard evidence about control of foreign investments in sensitive technology; a planned legislative change will align German law with an EU-wide new regulation. There were concerns voiced by MPs about Chinese government influence through direct investments in German companies.

Loss of hedges

In answer to a written question, the Department of Food and Agriculture said that half of the hedges in Germany have been lost on average since the 1950s. The results of the monitoring of agricultural areas however also show that the extent of the hedges and trees has not changed since 2009. Their share has been around 1.1 percent of the agricultural landscape since then.


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