Dáil debates

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020: Motion


7:05 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 (No. 14 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 9th day of November, 2020 and ending on the 9th day of June, 2021."

Deputies will be aware that section 17 of the Act provides that the Act shall continue in operation until 9 November 2020 unless a resolution approving its continuation has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before that date. Having regard to the continuing grave threat to public health posed by Covid-19, and as provided for in the legislation, I am now bringing forward a proposal that the Act should continue in operation until 9 June 2021. That date aligns with the timeframe of the Government's medium to long term strategy, Recovery and Resilience 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19 which was published on 15 September and spans a period of six to nine months. Furthermore, the continued operation of the Act to 9 June next year is necessary in order to ensure that we can apply the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations made under the relevant Department of Health legislation. In this regard, the House will recall that it recently resolved that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 should continue in operation for the period beginning on 9 November and ending on 9 June 2021. It is important that the Covid-19 regulations and the powers contained in this Act remain in alignment for the same period.

By way of background, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 was signed into law by the President on 11 September 2020. It provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers to ensure strict adherence to public health measures on premises selling alcohol for consumption on the premises, having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of Covid-19.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to all of society. Members will be conscious that Covid-19 remains a real threat to all of us, particularly our most vulnerable citizens. The country has been at level 5 of the resilience and recovery plan since Thursday, 22 October. This remains a critical time for the country and we all continue to have a special responsibility to comply with the public health guidelines and regulations for the good of everybody. Under level 5, pubs and restaurants are closed, but I hope they will soon reopen if we are successful in tackling the virus.

I acknowledge that the public health restrictions that have been in place since the outset of the pandemic have not been easy for everyone. The pandemic has had an impact on all of our lives. The vast majority of people and businesses have complied with public health restrictions during this difficult period because they understand that so doing is the most effective way to help to keep us all safe. It is also the best way to help us to return to a situation where there will be fewer restrictions or no restrictions at all.

The vast majority of publicans have been fully compliant with what has been asked of them even though they have put their livelihoods on hold. However, it would be completely unfair if the few who wish to flout the law and put their customers at risk are allowed to do so without consequences. The Act gives the Garda the power to enter such premises to encourage the small minority of publicans who are acting contrary to public health regulations to bring themselves into compliance and it provides An Garda Síochána with the powers to act swiftly to enforce the law where necessary.

I have been advised that An Garda Síochána has taken extensive action in support of the public health restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic. A graduated response to policing has been adopted from the outset, based on the Garda tradition of policing by consent. This approach has seen gardaí follow the four Es: engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce the relevant provisions.

I wish to once again compliment the gardaí who have done exemplary work on the front line throughout the pandemic. They have been diligent and thorough in their work. They have responded with compassion and empathy to difficult situations in which people have found themselves. Their response has been low key and effective. As Minister for Justice, I am extremely grateful for their hard work and professionalism during this extraordinary time. I know Members on all sides of the House will agree with me on that point.

The Garda Commissioner's reports have supported the view that the vast majority of licensed premises have been acting in compliance with the relevant regulations. That is evidenced by the fact that the number of crime incidents recorded by An Garda Síochána relating to licensed premises between 3 July 2020 and 24 October 2020 was 281, but fewer than 100 such incidents have taken place since this law was enacted approximately two months ago. There were only 11 reported incidents in the week to 24 October 2020. These figures must be seen in the context of the varying restrictions on licensed premises and, in particular, their effect in counties which were there at that point under levels 3 or 4. As all licensed premises are currently closed, the need to have such measures in place may not seem obvious. However, if a publican decides to ignore the current restrictions and open a licensed premises, An Garda Síochána has the power to immediately take action. Level 5 is only in place until the start of December and I think all Deputies will accept that Covid-19 will be with us well into 2021.

In that context, therefore, and in line with the Government's Recovery and Resilience 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, the emergency measures contained in the Act will continue to be required. The Garda Commissioner has reported to me that An Garda Síochána has not, as yet, issued any closure orders or compliance notices. Consideration has been given to each of the powers contained in the Act but they have not been required to date. I am happy that is the case. When I introduced the legislation in the House, I stated that it would be my preference for the small minority of publicans to come into compliance and that I hoped there would be no closures under the Act. I was clear that enforcement should be and would remain a last resort. The entire purpose of the enforcement power legislation is to try to enhance compliance, not to trick people or to catch them out. Everybody is given an opportunity to co-operate and work with An Garda Síochána.

There is no immediate penalty where a licensed premises is flouting the regulations. The first thing that happens is that the licensee or manager is given a direction to come into compliance. The penalties in the Act only kick in if the publican fails to comply with that direction. Some Deputies may state that the fact that no closure orders have been issued is evidence that the powers are not needed. The Commissioner is of the view that it is because of these powers that those publicans who wish to flout the law have come into compliance. Consequently, it has not been necessary to issue any closure orders so far. The Commissioner noted that the legislation has supported An Garda Síochána through its graduated policing response and he has strongly supported the continuation of these powers into 2021.

Notwithstanding the existence of these provisions, I assure Deputies that I fully expect that the graduated policing approach we have seen to date in all aspects of dealing with the pandemic will continue to be pursued by the Garda. By continuing to provide these additional enforcement powers to the Garda, we will see an improvement in compliance with Covid regulations by publicans, restaurateurs and operators of registered clubs in the interest of public health and in a way that will facilitate the gradual reopening of society.

As I indicated in my opening remarks, the continued operation of the Act is closely related to the new health regulations prepared by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the recently enacted Health (Amendment) Act 2020. I will refer briefly to the provisions of that Act. As provided for in the recent amendments to the Health Act 1947, the Minister for Health may make regulations prescribing provisions for the purposes of enforcement under the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act. That Minister may also make regulations prescribing penal provisions to be fixed penalty provisions. Officials from my Department and the Department of Health are currently co-operating to develop statutory instruments to be made by the Minister for Health. However, I should point out that the purpose of the fixed penalty system is to help to change behaviour. The objective of the Government here is to prevent the kind of behaviour that endangers others. A large number of fines being issued for non-compliance is not the desired outcome.

The matter before the House is relatively straightforward. I am simply proposing the continued but time-limited application of legislation which was scrutinised and passed by this House only recently. The circumstances leading to the enactment of the legislation have not changed. The continued application of the Act facilitates a necessary, proportionate, carefully balanced and human rights compliant approach to address the small minority of licensed premises which are showing disregard for public health regulations. Clear safeguards have been provided throughout the Act, such as, in particular, the requirement for involvement of a Garda member of at least superintendent rank, the time-limited nature of the closures and the provision for possibility of appeal.

I repeat a point I made earlier. None of these provisions can be triggered unless a person fails to comply with a Garda direction in the first instance. Providing for these additional limited powers until next June will enable the Garda to move swiftly to address those cases in which licensed premises and private clubs breach public health regulations. I again acknowledge and support the hard work and efforts being made by the vast majority of licensed premises to operate within the law.

I commend the resolution to the House. I thank Members for their attention. I look forward to hearing their observations on the matter.

7:15 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete the words ‘9th day of June, 2021’ and to substitute the words ‘9th day of February, 2021’ therefor.

I will be sharing time with Deputy Cullinane.

Our amendment relates to the length of time for which the Minister seeks to extend these powers. We understand we are in the most unusual and unfortunate circumstances where extreme powers like these are required. At times that happens, but when extreme powers such as these are in place, they need to be revisited as often as possible to ensure they are fully assessed, and we have full buy-in from the public. That is one of the big issues in all of this.

The Minister outlined what happens when gardaí enter licensed premises that are selling alcohol. If there are breaches of the guidelines in respect of that, the Garda can make a legitimate case for that to end and if that is not adhered to, it then has powers to close the premises for 24 hours or whatever, which is fair enough. Under difficult circumstances we accept that needs to happen. However, extending them to June of next year makes people ask why it is going that far ahead. Much of this is about buy-in from the public and trying to get people on board and bring them with us. We have been trying to do that through all of this. All parties and groupings in this House have tried to work with the Government to ensure we can keep coronavirus at bay, keep our people safe, keep our businesses open as much as possible and continue with as much of normal life as possible in the safest circumstances possible. That is what we all want to try to do.

A very profound principle in law is that if a law is introduced that does not have the confidence of the public and the public feel it is difficult to enforce, it removes people's respect not just for that particular law but for all other laws as well. We always need to guard against that danger. When we introduce extreme measures like this, we need to ensure we do not undermine people's confidence in what we are trying to do. We get the maximum buy-in we possibly we can from everyone in society to ensure compliance. I hate using the word "compliance" because it gives a hierarchal nature to it. This is about everyone working together for the best possible end goal, to protect all people who are out there doing their best, as the vast majority of people are.

To build that confidence, we need to look forward to the day when level 5 restrictions end and we go back down the scale, hopefully to level 3 or below. To build confidence and to ensure people understand that is what we want to do, we need to see from Government a clear plan for getting there. When we leave level 5, how will we ensure we have a strategy in place to avoid going back to that level again? We need to get our heads around that and work on it.

We tabled this amendment because a timescale going out to June is too far ahead to be able to get people to buy into the strategy without having a sense of where we are going with the plan to ensure we never return to level 5 again. I hope the Minister recognises that is what we are trying to do and accepts our amendment to revisit the provisions in February, which is in three months. We can then look a further three months forward if need be. Hopefully we would not need to do that then. The more often we can revisit these matters, re-examine them and learn from the experience we have when they are in force, the better.

As I said, we need to have a strategy. The World Health Organization and the vast majority of medical experts in this country and elsewhere tell us that the key to keeping this virus or any virus at bay is by having a very effective testing system that is fast and efficient, and also a highly efficient tracing system. That is one of the issues on which we need to try to get people's confidence back. I have a great fear that many people in our communities are losing confidence in this process. We need to restore that confidence.

This is a small country, and everyone knows someone who has the virus or somebody who is a neighbour of somebody who has the virus. They are all sharing the experience of what happened. They contacted their GP and it took four days before they got notification of the test. It was two days later before they went for the test and it was another three days before the result of the test. People hear all these stories which give the impression that the system is broken and not working. They feel under pressure and that they are being forced or somehow coerced into adhering to all these rules and regulations, while on the other side of it not enough effort is being done by the health services to ensure adequate testing facilities are available and the testing is fast enough.

Contact tracing is the big one that we all hear people telling us about. The incident that happened about ten days ago where people who tested positive were told to contact their own close contacts was a retrograde step as we try to build and secure that confidence.

Much work remains to be done. The issue at hand is the need to have a law that will build the confidence of the people. The Government must do more to do that. Unfortunately, that has not happened. While the broad thrust of this Bill may be appropriate at this time, it is certainly not appropriate to extend it for length of time proposed. It would certainly not be appropriate to keep this measure in place for almost nine months into the future when people do not have confidence in the contact tracing and testing. That would be a bad thing to do and would undermine the confidence of the public in what we are all trying to work together to achieve.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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In the early stages of the pandemic, we supported emergency measures that we felt were necessary to ensure there was a level of enforcement of the restrictions that were introduced. Despite some commentary from the Minister's party leader, and also from the Taoiseach, that the Opposition has not been supportive on occasions, the support that the Government in this State has got from the Opposition compares favourably with other states in Europe and around the world. There has been widespread support and acceptance that, while none of us want them, restrictions are needed to protect people's health. There is an acceptance of some level of enforcement. However, we need fairness in how the Government approaches these matters.

Time and again we have given the power to Government. On previous occasions we have given the power to the Minister for Health to draft regulations and statutory instruments only for those regulations and statutory instruments to bite him, the Government and us because we do not have sight of the regulations when we pass the primary legislation that gives him the power to do so. We saw that when he tripped himself up over the requirements to take details of what people ate in restaurants and how badly communicated that was.

When the powers were given to him in a recent Bill to introduce fines for people who moved beyond 5 km for non-essential journeys and also for house parties, we again said we could not sign up blind. I asked the Minister to ensure we did not get to hear of these regulations and statutory instruments through the media. I asked that when he is crafting these regulations and before he publishes them on his website and signs off on them he would brief members of the Opposition so that we would get sight of them first. What happened today? An article in The Irish Timesoutlined details of how much these fines will be, what they will relate to, apparently again arising from a leak from Cabinet regarding an incorporeal meeting of Cabinet that was held to discuss the issue. That is why we did not support the legislation at the time. We were again being asked to give powers to the Minister blind to allow him to make the regulations and we would not have any control over them.

We tabled an amendment proposing that those regulations would then come back to the Dáil for approval, and other parties put down similar amendments, all of which were refused. Of course there must be restrictions, enforcement and legislation but the emergency powers are really draconian. The Minister for Health has accepted that. We cannot extend them for seven months. It is too long. We have tabled an amendment for the extension to end until 9 February rather than 9 June 2021. As a result, we would come back next year, hopefully in a better position with the numbers down and with a better plan on how we can deal with, manage and live with Covid and would not be obliged to have this yo-yo approach of being in and out of lockdown and restrictions that we have now. For all those reasons, we have tabled an amendment, which I will support. If the Government does not support it, I will vote against the Government motion.

7:25 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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We are addressing issues that no one would like to address, namely, the extension of emergency draconian powers that in no normal circumstances would we support. The mere fact that the Dáil is meeting in a conference venue rather than our normal home in Leinster House underscores how extraordinary these times are.

The issues at the heart of the legislation have been debated and passed by the House already. The only issue at stake in this debate is that of time. I have listened to the very reasonable case put forward by our Sinn Féin colleague that an extension until next June is far too long. I am sympathetic to that view but I am also sympathetic to the view which the Minister put to yesterday's briefing to Members that we need to make all the regulations understandable to the public. That means they must all be aligned. Different termination dates for different sets of regulations will utterly confuse the public. I am minded to accept the argument that this particular set of regulations need to align with the other regulations that were agreed to last, at least in theory, until next June. None of us envisaged in September that we would be talking about restrictions of this nature going on until June of next year, and hopefully they will not have to. The Minister might reiterate in her concluding comments that if things improve remarkably, and please God they will, early next year and there is a vaccine and we have suppressed the virus, that all this will lapse as soon as it is prudent to do so and there is no requirement to stick to any arbitrary date but that the measures will be taken off the Statute Book and out of functionality.

We are all pleased to see today's Covid figures in the sense that the R rate of infection is now below 1 again. Hopefully that is the sign of a trend that will continue, though we must continue to be vigilant.

There is a certain irony that all the premises that will be directly affected by this set of measures are currently shut. There will be no impact on them unless someone is running a shebeen completely unlawfully and need to be acted against. During this debate we must mention the plight of the publicans who are really on their knees, and beyond that. We must be mindful of that when we enact these sorts of measures. We must not only reach out to them but make it crystal clear that we understand their position and are willing to provide State supports for them to survive this unprecedented time. I hope the Minister will mention that in her final comments.

I will conclude on yesterday's briefing and the views of An Garda Síochána. We were told by the Minister's officials that An Garda Síochána is happy with these provisions and supports their extension. There was some doubt over whether there was general support for the extension of difficult measures but I think there is support for these measures. The running of licensed premises is something for which we need more than the carrot of exhortation. Obviously the prime purpose is to change behaviour and it is interesting to not that no place has been closed on foot of these measures. Part of the confidence we are giving to the Minister might be reciprocated by giving us very regular updates on the operation of all these measures, rather than waiting until we put down parliamentary questions, in order that we know their impact. I ask her to give Members the firm assurance that these powers will be removed from the Statute Book as soon as they are no longer necessary.

Patrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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I wish to consider three different groups of constituents who have contacted me and on whom this legislation touches. The first is comprised of people have seen licensed premises operate with a callous disregard for laws and for health and safety. They are contacting me because of the public health danger that such behaviour brings, particularly at times of greater restriction. These are people who are concerned about their own health and that of their community and who might be concerned about going into another lockdown, as turned out to be the case, because the virus was not held in check. When they see people gathering in pubs and smoking in contravention of the rules, they get annoyed and angry. They want the Garda to be able to do something. If this legislation enables the Garda to act on that and support the protection of public health that people want, then this is positive.

I also have been contacted by publicans and restaurant owners who went to great efforts to fit out their premises to meet public health standards, who put in outdoor seating, provided PPE to staff, reduced the number of tables and the number of covers they served and therefore the amount of money they can take in through the door, while facing the same costs. They did this so that they could run their business responsibly during the public health emergency. When they see a pub or licensed premises down the road which is not doing that but is carrying on in flagrant disregard, it gets to them for several reasons. If a law is not enforced, that reduces the respect for others. Owners of licensed premises ask why they should put money, time and effort into protecting health if others do not. Legislation like this allows them to do what they need to do protect public health in the confidence that they will not be undercut by unfair competition based on someone down the road ignoring the rules. Then there are the people who work in these premises and who want to be able to go to work in safety. They want to work in a place where its operators have put in the time to consider public health and put in the measures that are necessary to keep customers and staff safe. If we adhere to the public health guidelines and the measures required, we can keep staff safe and ensure that there are jobs. If we do not do that and if we allow a free-for-all by not giving the Garda the power of enforcement needed, then we are not protecting the position of those staff or their health and safety in order that they can come to work with some confidence. I note the Garda has been obliged to use such powers very infrequently but where it has done so, it has been with great calm.

If we can address the needs of those three separate groups, we will be doing well with this legislation and this motion.

The Garda has played a very important part in how we have managed the pandemic, from the very beginning through to now and the restrictions that currently apply. Unfortunately, gardái have often come in for very serious abuse. There has been an increase in the number of people concerned about the restrictions and some of the stuff that is happening around us. They are scared, as many of us are, and they are being exploited and taken advantage of by elements who want to push a far-right ideology and use the pandemic to undermine the State. I am not saying that everybody who has concerns about the restrictions, the lockdown or the pandemic is coming from that place. However, as Commissioner Harris noted, there certainly are some people coming from that place and exploiting people's concerns. We must acknowledge the work the Garda has done, including in implementing a graduated response which fits very well with the provisions we are discussing. I echo Deputy Howlin's comment that these powers should only be on the Statute Book for as long as they are necessary. As he acknowledged, the unfortunate thing is that they are still necessary at this time.

For all the reasons I have outlined, I commend the motion to the House.

7:35 pm

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The next speaker is Deputy Daly but I see that he is not in the Chamber. Does his party colleague, Deputy Gould, wish to take the slot, which is three and a half minutes?

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I do not wish to use up the time if Deputy Daly is just running late. I support Deputy Martin Kenny's amendment to the motion. Will the Acting Chairman indicate whether I may return to the point I was making in my contribution on Second Stage of the Finance Bill 2020?

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy must confine his comments to the motion that is before the House.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I agree with the points made by Deputies Martin Kenny and Cullinane.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I see that Deputy Daly has arrived in the Chamber.

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will give way.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Gould kept the engine ticking over for Deputy Daly.

Pa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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I was interested to hear the recent remarks by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, on the issue of the imposition of fines for breaking quarantining rules. He spoke about how he would prefer there to be a greater understanding of the requirements and that a well-informed and knowledgeable public is more motivated to buy into such measures. Senior representatives of An Garda Síochána have spoken in similar terms about how achieving that type of buy-in is the preferable goal in this pandemic. An issue we discussed at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response with witnesses from the Law Society and Dr. David Kenny was that the difference between what is health advice and what is the law has not always been clear.

The Government is running the risk of that type of confusion continuing. In the absence of the pre-legislative scrutiny that generally applies, there has been very little time to discuss all the detailed regulations that have been introduced and all the nuances of the issues. That is not in any way desirable because we want people to be honest with contact tracers and doctors and, if they have symptoms, to declare themselves. Criminalising behaviour which is, of course, unacceptable from a public health perspectives gives rise to the risk, as Dr. Holohan said, of driving people who may need testing underground. This is something that must be avoided, and that objective is the basis of our proposal for a shorter time period for these regulations. Appropriate powers and resources for An Garda Síochána will continue to be important but the public must have confidence that the Government is striking the right balance. These are extraordinary powers for extraordinary times. Without the usual pre-legislative scrutiny, they must be kept under regular review.

While we support the continuation of the measures set out in this legislation, we must provide hope that their end is anticipated. Extending the legislation to next summer sends the wrong message at a time when many people are wilting under the pressure of the regulations. People in their 60s are coming to me saying they cannot go for a walk on Banna Beach. Independent retailers whose businesses have been in their family for years cannot open, despite the lack of evidence that Covid-19 is transmitted in such premises. The people of Valentia Harbour, who are supposed to be putting in any objections they might have to aquaculture licences, cannot travel outside their 5 km zone to view the proposals, which are located in Portmagee and Cahersiveen Garda stations. People's patience is running out and extending the provisions to next summer sends the wrong message. I support the amendment put forward by Deputy Martin Kenny.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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This not the kind of legislation that any of us wants to be debating or supporting. My colleagues and I will support the proposal for a reduced timeframe, as provided for in the Sinn Féin amendment. There is no doubt that some measures are required to be available to the Garda to deal with non-compliance. However, as colleagues have pointed out, the pubs are closed at the moment, as are the hotels. If Twitter can be believed, the Taoiseach has told the Fianna Fáil Party tonight that there will be no early end to the lockdown and it will last the full six weeks. That will come as a huge disappointment to people because there is the hope that there would be an honest review of the current restrictions after four weeks if the numbers allow for some relaxation.

There is no doubt that we are seeing some very positive signs in terms of the R-nought number moving below one. That is happening not because of the punitive measures that are being taken but because the public has bought into getting the virus under control. It has not been achieved by a high degree of enforcement. When I speak to people who are critical of the restrictions, the point they often make is that some of the things that are being done are a bit counterproductive, such as the road checks and reductions in traffic lanes on major arteries at peak times when people are going to and coming from work. Nobody is being stopped and all that is happening is that traffic jams are being created. People are quite cross about that. They are saying that they only want to go to or get home from work and they really do not see the benefit of the road blocks and other measures. It is really important that the Government does not lose the public by imposing measures that are not seen to really address the issues. In the case of targeting non-compliance such as that of pubs which are flouting the law, I certainly can see the sense in doing that and the need to do it.

The Minister spoke about how the operation of the provisions of this Act dovetail with the provisions of the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 by way of statutory instrument and so on. I have noticed that people are breaking the restrictions only when they have really genuine reasons to move around. For example, several people have contacted me who have a family member with autism for whom a regime is required to be in place that might involve going a little further than 5 km. There are people with genuine caring needs who need to break the rules. No matter how one reassures them, if they do not have that piece of paper in their pocket, they are very reluctant to move out of their 5 km area.

The people who are the most compliant are likely to be those most fearful of the statutory instrument the Government has proposed and the regulations introduced a couple of weeks ago on foot of that legislation. They will probably be those most affected by virtue of the fact that they are so compliant. The Policing Authority's report on commercial businesses indicated that when inconsistencies in the approach of An Garda Síochána arose, it was primarily due to the detail of the regulations and how they were initially communicated by the latter. I am certainly not being critical of An Garda Síochána in making that point. I am aware that Garda sergeants and inspectors had pointed out that they were very concerned about what was being asked of them. They may not have been referring to the particular component with which we were dealing but a range of other measures, particularly those in place prior to the Health (Amendment) Bill 2020 and the associated regulations. Having read those regulations, I must say that they were so prescriptive that I could see how people who should not have been greatly impacted by them would have been.

The earlier date is a signal that this House is maintaining oversight of these draconian measures. It is important that these measures do not remain on the Statute Book a minute longer than is necessary. It is better to evaluate whether they are still needed in February rather than waiting until June to do so.

7:45 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I am happy to speak on and support this Bill, which extends the sunset clause in respect of enforcement powers. It is important that these powers exist and that An Garda Síochána, other law enforcement authorities and the emergency services have the options they may require.

The concept of a sunset clause struck me in the early days of the pandemic when the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 came before the Houses. We were in those early days of trepidation, fear, uncertainty and doubt as to what we were about to face. We did not expect it to still be with us at this point, six, seven or eight months on. It struck me that this concept was missing from the first draft of that Bill in March. I contacted my party leader, now Taoiseach, to raise the matter that night. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties was discussing it the next day. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, a number of other Deputies and I tabled amendments to introduce such a clause.

The relevant provision was introduced, which was very important because all citizens in this society enjoy certain rights under the Constitution. Those rights include freedom of movement, freedom of association and other rights that allow us freedom and liberty in normal circumstances. All rights are proportionate, however. No right is absolute. The greater good must always be weighed against individual rights. The greater good of public health, which includes the right to life, health, well-being and a functioning society which is not overrun by a pandemic, can at times legitimately encroach on those other individual rights. It is a balancing act the Government has to manage in legislation while respecting the Constitution. I believe it has done so but it is important that a sunset clause was, correctly, introduced in the legislation to recognise that while these measures are quite severe and draconian and involve restrictions on some individual liberties, they are there for a reason and that they will be revisited rather than becoming the norm by default, which would be wrong. As I have said, that was introduced at the time and carried over.

We probably thought the pandemic might be gone, defeated or have dissipated by this stage. We may have thought that we would have acquired herd immunity or that a vaccine would have been available. There might have been a certain naivety, hope or expectation in those early days in spring. Many people thought this would have been behind us by the summer. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case and the pandemic is still ongoing. Again, it makes sense that the provisions enacted to manage or mitigate it and the powers given to law enforcement authorities, and An Garda Síochána in particular, be continued, maintained and carried over. We are now talking about extending these powers again and that makes sense. June 2021 seems a reasonable time to revisit it. It is six months from now. I have just listened to the end of Deputy Catherine Murphy's contribution. She always makes solid contributions and I listened with interest to her closing words. I believe she mentioned February. I am concerned that we would again be having this debate in February and, perhaps, in March, in April and so on. Let us give it time to bed down. Let us give it the seven months and let the provisions run into June 2021. That seems to be a reasonable time to take stock.

I have a couple of other points to make about this issue as a whole. We have been through the mill across the country and we are now at level 5. Kildare went through its own hard lockdown in August at a time when the rest of the country was beginning to enjoy more freedom of movement. In fact, many people were taking staycations in August at the time when Kildare went back into lockdown. Along with Laois and Offaly, Kildare was among the first counties to experience that second wave. Of course, it has since multiplied and the whole country is now at level 5. We learned a great deal from that, however. Paradoxically, one of the things we learned is that we need both the carrot and stick. If we are to enforce more stringent rules and ask people to stay at home, stay within their counties or stay within 5 km of home, the iron fist in the velvet glove is sometimes needed. Asking people nicely to do things does not always work. I found myself in many debates on local radio and in other media explaining that gardaí did not have powers of enforcement during the Kildare lockdown. I was explaining the tradition of policing by consent in this country. Part of the reason we have a largely unarmed police force is that it is the force of the people rather than the force of the establishment that matters. That is our tradition of policing on this island.

That did not necessarily work in all situations however. Unfortunately, a small minority of people threw two fingers up to the rest and say that, because they could, they would. They did not respect the gardaí on the ground, their fellow citizens or their neighbours and friends. A small few breached the rules and it was those who did that tended to make a song and dance about it. They almost revelled in the fact that they could. People threw statutory instruments at me on social media as if to say they could do what we liked because no enforcement powers were in place. Unfortunately, there are always a few who ruin things for the rest. Having said that, the vast majority of people across the country, and certainly in Kildare, have been absolutely outstanding in their commitment to beating this pandemic and to voluntarily observing the measures required to do so.

It is also important to give people information. The most important thing in any controversy or crisis is that people are informed. People are intelligent and tuned in. They have a strong conscience and will do the right thing once they understand what that entails. That is why it is so important that we run public information campaigns, as we are doing, so that people can understand how the virus is transmitted. It is now very well understood. When there is a second or third wave or when different events occur, it is important that people understand. They need to know whether it is spreading by community transmission and where the virus is transmitted. They need to know how it works and they can then make their own informed choices. On the one hand, we tell them what they should do, what the Government wants them to do while and, at times, what the law requires them to do but, on the other, we tell them why and explain the logic behind it. We tell them why they will be safer if they do certain things and why it is not safe to have a party at a neighbour's house and why it is not okay to gather in large groups without social distancing. We tell them that, because of how the virus is transmitted, certain measures should be taken.

With regard to pubs and the measures we are talking about here, these measures are obviously not mandatory. Even when we get out of level 5 and begin to edge towards normality in the early new year or even over Christmas, there will be no requirement for the powers to be used immediately or for a crackdown. The powers are there to deal with the exceptional cases of people who will not comply or adhere to the rules voluntarily and who unfortunately need that extra sanction to be brought to bear. During the Kildare lockdown, I worked night and day with multiple businesses to try to get them support packages, to get them over the line and to keep them viable and afloat. The small number of businesses who tried to go against the tide, to trade in the face of the restrictions and to get one over on their neighbouring competing businesses by disobeying the rules again really threw up two fingers. It is not a good attitude. That is a reminder for everybody that these sanctions are important.

They are proportionate and come as part of a wider balancing exercise. It is eminently sensible that there be a realistic end date. I support the motion.

7:55 pm

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Public health and adherence to guidelines are paramount in tackling the current public health crisis. Transparency, common sense, public confidence and clear messaging are the measures needed to bring the public along with the Government with these restrictions, but the Government has been found wanting in all these areas. We supported the legislation at the time but the way the Government has acted since means there is much to be answered.

There has been no transparency or rationale given as to why people had to spend €9 on a substantial meal while having a drink. Where did the €9 figure come from and what should constitute a substantial meal? How was the substantial meal going to protect people against Covid-19? There was also no transparency or rationale given on how the limit of 105 minutes was arrived at. The idea that a pub must record all food ordered by each customer and store the information for 28 days was a case of bureaucracy gone mad.

I have seen at first hand the genuine efforts the pubs in Clondalkin, Lucan, Rathcoole, Palmerstown and Saggart made to open their premises safely and in line with public health guidelines, despite mixed messages and a lack of transparency from the Government. My heart went out not only to the licensees but also to the staff who are now back unemployed through no fault of their own.

We in Sinn Féin are not privy to the briefings that the Government receives from the National Public Health Emergency Team. As a public representative I have been asked numerous questions seeking clarity and the rationale behind these decisions. For examples, local barbers and hairdressers jumped through more hoops and red tape in order to reopen safely but they now find themselves closed again. One barber told me that if the Government said the barbers were a cause of Covid-19 outbreaks, he would happily close his doors. However, he has been given no explanation whatever for closing and there is no transparency in the process.

Gym customers have contacted me with concerns that they have about physical and mental health. Even the option for them to work out in a sterile, safe and socially distanced manner was ripped away from them, again with no transparency or rationale given.

I asked the Minister for the evidence used in the decision to close gyms under level 5 restrictions but I was left with more questions than answers. It states:

...the set of measures, individually, do not comprise a list of activities or places which are equally safe. Instead they are baskets of measures informed by public health understanding of the disease.

What are "baskets" and what measures have been used to inform how they will be filled?

We had a blanket approach the first time we had restrictions, and this was widely accepted as we never went through a pandemic before. It seems nothing has been learned from that time. If the Government had got its testing and tracing put in place correctly, it would have been able to pinpoint what businesses and activities cause the Covid outbreaks. If blankets or baskets are the solution, this chaotic Government is causing more confusion.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The next slot is for Solidarity and People Before Profit but as Deputy Bríd Smith is not here, I will proceed to the Government slot.

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House with these necessary, if unwelcome, measures. It is unwelcome for everybody to have to impose measures of this kind but of course the circumstances behind them are most unwelcome as well. We must deal with the public health measures and the enforcement of those public health measures in the interests of the protection of the health and well-being of everybody in our society. There is no Government or Member in this House that wants to introduce measures of this kind.

We have been through a detailed debate from the health, criminal justice and enforcement perspective about the need for these measures. We have discussed proportionality and the time-limited nature of it with the Minister, as well as the necessity for the Garda to have in its arsenal the capacity to enforce the regulations on foot of legislation passed by the House.

Without the capacity to enforce these regulations, we would undermine entirely the measures put forward by this House and the confidence of people that we are capable of delivering the sort of public health measures we need. We all had correspondence during the summer outlining the genuine frustrations felt by people who have been compliant, as other Deputies have mentioned, and who have found others not to be compliant. They expressed real frustration, hurt and anger arising from this, and they have asked us to introduce appropriate measures so enforcement measures could be improved. We know there is a particular link to alcohol and house parties, and we all acknowledge the impact on the licensed trade. We have tried to include supports for it. It is important that if we introduce legislation and regulations, we should have measures of enforcement with them.

It is concerning to hear Deputies from Sinn Féin introduce yet another element of confusion into this, implying that the provision of time-limited regulations linked to a published Government plan that is also time limited is confusing. Deputy Martin Kenny said this evening that in order to have buy-in from the public, there should be a measure of certainty with this and that people would not comply any more if they did not know what is going on. Surely coming back to this in a number of months would only give rise to this additional confusion. The Government has a plan and should be able to enforce it. Not doing so would generate its own confusion. It is surely entirely logical to have a plan, a means of enforcing the plan and for those elements to be linked in time at a minimum.

I do not understand the perspective being brought by Sinn Féin tonight. I cannot help but wonder if it is only about having the opportunity to say the Government is creating confusion when the Government has published a plan and tried to stick by it or adapt the plan where necessary. The Government is trying to provide a measure of enforcement appropriate to the different levels to ensure compliance with the plan in everybody's best interests. It is trying to do this by linking the elements explicitly in time.

Deputy Cullinane expressed concern about a "yo-yo" effect of coming in and out of levels rather than having a long-term plan. This also seems to introduce a measure of confusion and uncertainty in speaking about the Government's approach but I make the same point to him as I did to Deputy Martin Kenny. Again, a plan without an enforcement schedule only generates confusion rather than fixing it.

Deputy Pa Daly spoke about the criminalising of behaviour but that is not the point of what we are doing. He spoke about people who cannot go for a walk on the beach. He is right in the sense that we want people to be able to go for a walk on the beach. However, we need them to stay within the 5 km zone and if they are further away from the beach, we need them to stay at home in the best interests of everybody. That a person cannot go to the beach is a matter for regulations rather than the measure of enforcement of those regulations.

The Deputy makes the point about retail outlets closing and again we have tried to provide supports for the industries most affected by this desperate pandemic. The closure of retail outlets is relevant to the levels rather than enforcement. Accidentally confusing these elements, if that is what is being done, can only add to the confusion rather than solve it. The idea that coming back to have this conversation in February will give clarity instead of confusion is wrong.

As Deputy Howlin and others have said, these are extraordinary measures. The Minister is clear on that. We do not want to have to do this but Deputies realise these measures are proportionate, necessary and limited. There is also the possibility of review between now and the period at which they are meant to expire. It is possible, for example, that the Minister could provide an update to the justice committee on these on a regular basis, whether it is monthly or when we move through different levels. The need for enforcement, for example, is different at the different levels.

Rather than Deputies having to table parliamentary questions, the Minister could provide a written update every month or have the members of the justice committee ask additional questions. The Minister has said very clearly that she wants to be open about this and to provide information. The Garda has done this already with respect to the enforcement operations and the numbers have been very clear and quick. This is probably an appropriate and welcome measure because Deputies are uncomfortable with these regulations and for good reason. Nobody wants to have to do this but there are ways in which we can reasonably supervise the process.

To suggest that it is more rather than less confusing to change the time limit and have it be different from the measure in the plan, and the Government's plan to get to next summer, is distracting and difficult. I will be supporting the motion.

8:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We will move on as no one from Sinn Féin is present.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020 was signed into law by the President on 11 September 2020 and it provided An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers to ensure strict adherence to public health measures in licensed premises and registered clubs in respect of the grave risk to human life and public health posed by Covid 19. These provisions are due to expire on 9 November 2020 and the motion before the House is to extend them until 9 June 2021.

I put on record my support for any measures necessary to ensure public health and safety is maintained. We have seen instances in recent times whereby a minority in our society have had total disregard for the public health measures and have placed all of us in danger. That minority has unfortunately brought about a situation where we are all suffering the consequences of increased restrictions. Operation Navigation is aimed at licensed premises and this has seen gardaí engage with licence holders and the public to raise awareness of and adherence to public health measures. Operation Navigation's objective is to ensure licensed premises are complying with public health regulations. I acknowledge that the approach taken by the Garda has been one of engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce. It should be noted that the majority of licensed premises have complied with the regulations and we thank them for the sacrifice they are making. I note also the report from the Policing Authority last month showing that the use of enforcement powers by An Garda Síochána as a last resort continues to be modest.

This legislation will make it an offence to organise an event in a private home that is in breach of public health regulations. I have a problem with this measure in that we do not have a clear definition of "event". I am also concerned that people will not fully understand this part of the regulations, which could unfortunately result in people committing an offence because they were unaware it was an offence.

Operation Fanacht is a high-profile Garda operation. The Garda Commissioner has stated that approximately 2,500 gardaí will be involved in this operation and their functions will include community policing, local area policing and roads policing. Part of the reason for this operation is to ensure members of the public do not travel more than 5 km from their homes except for essential purposes. Gardaí are operating highly visible checkpoints on all major routes. In recent weeks, there have been some 130 large-scale checkpoints every day, along with thousands of mobile checkpoints on secondary routes in towns and villages. It is generally agreed that the public, in the main, have fully complied with all health guidelines issued. That is why I believe the highly visible presence of gardaí on our main routes was a mistake. The majority of people have complied with the regulations, yet these checkpoints were placed on main routes. Specifically, the checkpoint on the M1 resulted in unnecessary stress and pressure on people travelling to and from work. Only those deemed to be doing essential work were supposed to be travelling to work, yet these people were faced with nightmare delays on their journeys. I understand there were only two instances where individuals were suspected of breaching travel restriction regulations, whereas the checkpoints impacted on thousands of workers. They were not necessary. I ask the Garda Commissioner to reconsider this approach to ensure the many thousands of workers travelling to work daily are no longer severely hampered by delays of more than two hours in some cases.

I also raise the issue of priests and the likelihood of them facing criminal charges should they celebrate mass in public settings. This issue has been raised before but I do not believe we have received any clear guidelines. From speaking with clergy, I know they are deeply unhappy with the current situation. Some have told me they believe the Government has a totalitarian approach to the current situation. They feel that freedom is slowly being stripped away. One priest expressed the view that priests can now be jailed for celebrating mass in public for the first time since the penal laws in force during British rule were repealed in 1829. He said the Government is orchestrating an attack on priests and the church. As Deputies will appreciate, it took a lot for the priest to say that to me. The bottom line is that the church and priests believe we are all being denied our constitutional right to practise our faith in public. In making that point, the priest stated that when Ireland moved to level 3 restrictions several weeks ago we were the only country in Europe where public worship was prohibited. No other country in Europe adopted the extreme measure of denying people the right to attend public mass or preventing a priest from celebrating a mass in public. Only Wales has followed us in closing its churches and it only adopted that approach for two weeks as part of its firebreak approach.

It is important to note that the churches went far beyond what was required to ensure worshippers were safe. As proof of this point, I understand that not one case of Covid-19 has occurred as a result of someone attending mass. All churches are closed, yet it is clear that churches were one of the safest places to be, outside of the family home, in respect of Covid-19. Priests have made the point that while churches were closed, it was still possible for people to go to beauty salons, hairdressers and mingle with hundreds of other people in large supermarkets. People are now faced with another five weeks of being unable to attend public mass and being denied the sacraments.

After this five-week period, we will either remain on level 5 or move to level 3 or 4. People could still be denied the right to attend public mass. To put this another way, why are God and the celebration of mass not considered essential services, yet off-licences can remain open? The 50 or 100 people mingling in a supermarket cannot worship in their local church while maintaining social distancing measures. The arguments made to me by priests are strong. They believe Ireland is turning into the most anti-Christian country in Europe and it is hard to argue with that. They make the point that we must not allow the current situation to change our relationship with the church and God. It is also hard to argue against that. Many people, particularly among the older generation, have a strong relationship with the church and are finding it difficult to cope. I would appreciate Deputies' support for examining this matter. If we are able to keep the schools open, we must be able to keep our churches open for public worship.

I reiterate that I support any measures necessary to maintain public health guidelines, but they must be evidence-based. I do not agree with the disruption caused to workers going to essential work each day, particularly the disruptive checkpoints on motorways.

Will the Minister give an assurance that no priest will be prosecuted for celebrating mass in public? I ask her for a clear answer and to state in no uncertain terms that no priest will be prosecuted for a public celebration of mass. Will she give me a commitment to examine whether churches will be permitted to hold public masses during the current lockdown? The Minister is present and many priests are listening. Can she please give clarity?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It is unfortunate we are where we are. This is a serious issue and it has been thrust upon us. We did not bring it upon ourselves and nor did all other countries across the globe. The virus is here, however, and it is raging. It has been clearly demonstrated that meetings of people, however large or small, contribute to it spreading. I do not mean people do so deliberately, but it just happens as a result of people meeting. Before the level 5 restrictions were introduced, it was obvious to some of us that serious breaches of the regulations were taking place. If the regulations had been strictly observed, it would have been possible to continue trying to defeat the virus and slow it down without any of the regulations we are discussing or any of the level 5 restrictions. Those will come up again for discussion when the impact of the level 5 restrictions is reviewed and we decide how to proceed from there.

It makes no sense to pretend at this stage that the virus will go away overnight or a vaccine will be found and it will quickly disappear thereafter. That is not going to happen. For as long as the virus is here and rampant, it will spread. Every occasion, therefore, where people come together in small or large numbers will allow that spread to take place. That is why many people throughout the country have made huge sacrifices, such as avoiding family members and not meeting others in case they spread or contract the virus.

In deference to those people who made those sacrifices, it behoves the rest of us to do what we can to also restrict, and to do so voluntarily and without the necessity of enforcement. That is the way it is. In the past three, six or seven weeks, it was obvious that there were many occasions when people refused to accept even the necessity of added restrictions. Some people do not believe there is a serious issue at all, which is sad because it is a serious issue. There are also people who have a notion of a conspiracy. There are civil libertarians who say, "No, we have a right to go where we wish and to meet with whoever we wish." That is fine but there is no sense at the same time of spending large amounts of taxpayers' money on trying to restrict the forward march of this virus.

It is unfortunate that we have to have enforcement but it is a result of necessity. I hope it will only be for the shortest time possible, hence the need for a sunset clause. I am one of those people who would not accept the nature of the restrictions we are discussing being enforced were it not for that necessity. All of us have a public health obligation to respond in time to the challenges that have presented themselves as a result of this virus.

It is unfortunate that we have to have restrictive measures of the nature proposed, but we have to have them. Hopefully, it will be for the shortest possible time and, more importantly, we hope that they are effective. If they are effective and we slow the rate of growth of the virus, and if we make it possible to come out of the restrictions before Christmas, we then have to look at the next level and what we must do from there on in. I believe that is the stage when the responsibility falls on every single citizen in Ireland to observe the restrictions in every way possible through social distancing, hand hygiene, avoiding crowds and congregations and so on. It is difficult and it is an imposition on us all. The alternative, however, is that we go back to more restrictions and try to defeat the virus that way. The voluntary route is far and away the best route, without compulsion. All it requires is the recognition of the seriousness of the threat of the virus. I believe that the sunset clause should reassure everyone who might have a concern.

8:15 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on this motion on the extension of the sunset clause and enforcement powers. I believe the proposed extension is far too long. It will go for seven months right up to next June. At the very outset we all supported all the emergency powers. The Taoiseach was wrong to suggest that Deputy Michael Healy-Rae did not support any of the measures. Everyone in the House did and we did our best.

There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny at any time. I am aware there was a briefing yesterday but there has been no proper debate or discourse. Earlier Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill said that we could ask questions on this at the justice committee but we have had no debates or discussions, only emergency powers. I believe that it is disproportionate in the extreme and that most of the restrictions are not logical. They have just been banged together. Fáilte Ireland was supposed to have been blamed for drawing them up, especially the one through which we could be safe from the virus if we had a €9 meal, and crazy situations like that. Publicans and many other businesses such as hairdressers, beauty saloons and small shops all put up the Perspex screens and supplied hand sanitisers. They did everything and after all the expense they went to, they have been closed again. It is so unfair. Now we want to extend these powers for the next seven months, which I will oppose. I will support the Sinn Féin amendment to have the powers reviewed again in February, which they should be.

With regard to public confidence, the Garda cannot govern without the support of the people and, thankfully, they have that. I thank the Garda, especially the gardaí in Tipperary and the community gardaí, including Chief Superintendent Derek Smart, Superintendent Denis Whelan in Cahir, Superintendent William Leahy in Clonmel, the community gardaí in Cahir, Sergeant Ray Moloney, and all their colleagues. The community gardaí visit the elderly and It is wonderful that the gardaí do this.

The elderly are locked away and cocooned and it is totally unfair. It beats Banagher altogether that they cannot worship in a church. A wedding can take place with 25 people or a funeral with 25 people, which is so sad, and yet the church cannot open for mass. If a pastor, a priest or a minister of any religion says a public mass, he can be fined €2,500 or even face jail. This is shocking. I believe it was 1826 when those Acts were repealed for the Penal Laws. Now we have them back again. Are we trying to frighten the people?

The Minister has been asked about the marts and perhaps she will answer a question on that. It is a very important time for farmers and she has been pleaded with to allow the marts to go ahead. They are normally big, airy places and they too have made huge strides with protections. They simply cannot do their business online. The Minister has been asked about gyms as well. I have had hoteliers on to me. I have had people crying that they cannot go to the gym at this time of year. Coursing has also been stopped. We had clarity today from the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, about game shooting being stopped, which was announced suddenly last Thursday evening. The Minister of State informed us today at a committee meeting that it was not through any ministerial order or any order for that matter, and that An Garda Síochána had brought in this law last Thursday whereby people should not go out with their dog and their gun. What is the Minister trying to do to people? People want to support her but she is not supporting them and she is not allowing them even a modicum of solace whereby they can go out with the dog and the gun, yet they can go for a walk with the dog for 5 km. Thankfully, they are not going to shoot anybody and they are good respectful people in good game clubs that have preserves. I salute my own game club, the Ardfinnan-Ballybacon-Grange and Newcastle Gun Club, which does huge work on preservation. The members raise their pheasants and look after them well through restocking and so on. This is their only recreation and it is the only season open. There are many areas like this.

There are so many anomalies, discrepancies and inconsistencies in the rules and people are confused. These are draconian powers by any manner. The Minister is losing the people, if they are not lost already. Today I became aware of a situation where a gentleman who is living here had to go to a parent's funeral abroad. The aeroplane was full of Irish tourists going to Turkey. The Government has never addressed the airports and has refused to look at the people coming and going through them. It is unbelievable that this is happening when other people cannot go for a walk or to mass or any church service and cannot go to a funeral. People cannot even get their hair or nails done. Barbers, shopkeepers and clothes shops went to huge expense to get their premises open. I spoke to a wonderful draper recently, Mr. Val O'Gorman, who has three Mr. Mister men's clothes shops that give great employment. He cannot even sell his summer stock. What are they supposed to do? The Government has ruled many business people out from receiving a payment if they are not rate payers. Everyone over the age of 66 is also ruled out from any type of a payment. There are inherent inconsistencies and unfairness with this. The Rural Independent Group and I will oppose it totally.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for being here and for her approach in all of this. I will start on a positive note because I certainly do not agree with what she said. She has, however, taken the matter seriously and she has been in the Chamber on every occasion. It is important to acknowledge that. She has also given us a written speech on each occasion and I thank her for that.

I will not support the motion. I see absolutely no reason for it. I am worried by some comments. When the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, was not in the Chair and making his contribution, I did not agree with his comments. There is a blame game going on The Minister gave a speech of a few pages. It is extraordinary that the Policing Authority was not been mentioned once, nor was there any reference to a written comment from the Garda Commissioner. Although he has been dragged into this to say that he agrees with these measures, I have seen no reference to a press release where he does. This takes me by surprise because I have read all of the Policing Authority reports, which have consistently said that additional powers are not necessary. It appears that An Garda Síochána has said the exact same thing.

The only public comment I heard the Commissioner make was that he was a good public servant and would do as he was told, which is not a resounding endorsement of the measures the Government was bringing in.

The first sunset clause was inserted as a result of a debate in this Chamber, because we were extremely concerned. We also wanted a full debate on it and we are getting some measure of a debate now. This is an extraordinary extension of draconian powers. I am on record as saying that from the beginning but I acted against my conscience at the time because the virus was such a threat. I knew they were draconian powers but I gave them careful consideration and went along with them on the basis that there would be full and frank disclosures in the seat of democracy. That has not happened and blame is now going around.

When Covid struck Ireland, we were all in receipt of a letter from one of the unions informing us about the vulnerable state of the health system, to put it mildly, and the primary care system. Covid came on top of that and decisions were made to make the public health system ready for the virus. It was not fit as a public health system. Without doubt, we ignored the vulnerable sections of our society, including direct provision, meat factories and nursing homes. From an early stage, I was extremely concerned about nursing homes but there was a consensus mentality among the vast majority of people, and among the media as well, that we were to don the green jersey, or the wine-coloured jersey in Galway, and say everything was okay when we were worried that vulnerable groups were not being protected. Then we told the over-65s to stay at home and cocoon and so on.

Now a blaming exercise is going on but the Policing Authority has complimented the vast majority of the public in seven of its reports. Nothing could have happened without their compliance. The Government is now extending draconian legislation with no basis and is using words such as "proportionate", "necessary" and "limited", which is turning language on its head because the Garda has not used these powers since the Government brought them in. It has placed the Garda in an impossible position with its regulation of meals. Gardaí are being spared at the moment because the pubs are closed but can the Minister imagine putting them in the position of going in to a pub to see whether a substantial meal was being served? Daft decisions were made such as keeping wet pubs closed while opening others and sending in An Garda Síochána to check if they were serving substantial meals. All of this was nuts.

This legislation also goes against all the research showing that we bring people on board through education and showing leadership. No leadership was shown by our leaders in Clifden during "golfgate". No leadership was shown by many others in other situations and instead we turn on people on the ground and bring in draconian legislation. This is no way to proceed with a public health campaign. First, we need honesty. Second, we need maximum information. Third, we need leadership and not of the type we got during "golfgate" in Clifden, with apologies being drawn out of people.

The Government has to stop the nonsense about wet and dry pubs. It has to stop turning language on its head. This legislation has the most serious implications for our democracy and the Government is extending it to next June based on absolutely nothing, which beggars belief. I would have thought, at the very least, that we would get a written report from the Commissioner on the necessity for these powers and the long extension, or a report from the Policing Authority outlining its views on it. I will finish in a moment because I always give out about people going over time. The Policing Authority has repeatedly asked the Garda for a complete breakdown of its existing powers in order that it can analyse them and decide if they are being used appropriately, effectively and proportionately.

8:25 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank all Deputies for their contributions. I will touch on a number of the points that have been raised. I cannot accept the proposed amendment and will outline why. Some Deputies have referred to this issue. As much as I would like to say that we will be in a different place in three months and will not need this legislation, if we are all honest with ourselves, that is not where we are going to be. We are doing this in the interest of not having to come back here every few months and have the same debate when nothing has materially changed. We have to give people certainty. As we have heard clearly, the amendment to Part 3 of the Health Act 1947, which was passed last week, extended those particular regulations to 9 June. The Government's medium-term strategy, which is a six to nine-month strategy, was launched in September of this year and that will potentially go to June as well. In August and September of this year, the first plan was coming to an end while we were working on the next one and different rules and regulations were introduced at different times, which caused some confusion. With these measures, we are trying to make sure people are very clear that all the regulations and guidelines and everything we are planning come in line with each other and that there is a finish point. Those points come together on the same date, which is 9 June. That is why we have set this timeline but also because, as much as we would like the situation to have improved so drastically that we would not need these regulations in three months, I am not sure that will be the case.

Deputy Connolly mentioned the blame game and bringing people on board with us. This is not a blame game in any way, shape or form. When this legislation was first introduced, it had the support of the vast majority of publicans, if not all, and the reason for that is the vast majority of publicans have been compliant. They are doing their best and I fully agree with Deputy Howlin that they deserve more than just our praise and thanks. They deserve our support and I hope the support we have provided to them so far has been of some help. They want and need to be able to open and do their work safely. What they do not want, when the regulations at level 5 or otherwise are in place, is to see some premises not adhering to the guidelines, putting people at risk and essentially making everybody else look bad. These regulations have been brought in to ensure that those who do not follow the guidelines will be brought into compliance. I think it is working and that, based on the very low numbers, even the idea that this regulation is in place has brought some people on board.

Deputy Howlin asked if I could give a commitment that this regulation will not continue or that it will be removed from the Statute Book once it is not needed. That will absolutely happen. I would love to say that will be the case when the deadline approaches next June, and I hope it is, but I cannot give that commitment. However, it will certainly not be reimposed once it is no longer needed. This will also be brought to the House again and there will be an opportunity for people to debate this legislation and whether it is necessary to extend it again. I am very happy to give updates if Deputies so wish, whether in the Joint Committee on Justice or otherwise. It was suggested that I might withhold information or not attend a committee. I am always very happy to attend a committee if I am asked, particularly to give updates on progress, enforcement, compliance or any of the regulations with which the Garda is involved.

A few people mentioned travel and the Garda checks. A clear and lengthy list of exemptions was published of when people can travel outside their 5 km, particularly for care needs. Gardaí have been very understanding and are willing to listen to people. One of my family members had to travel outside the 5 km yesterday for an operation. She did not have a form from the doctor or the hospital but the gardaí listened and understood and allowed her to go about her business. Gardaí have been very understanding in that regard. Granted, schools were closed back in March and April and a number of industries are now open that were not at the time, but driving around then was like driving on Christmas Day. There were no cars on the road. This week and even last week when the schools were closed, it feels as if we are pre-Covid levels with the number of cars on our roads, despite people being asked to work from home and not to go outside the 5 km unless it is absolutely necessary. There are still too many people on our roads and out and about. The Garda is not there to stop people who need to get to work from getting there on time but it is important to point out that there are still far too many people on our roads who do not need to be out and about and who can work from home.

Deputy Ward suggested that Sinn Féin has not been given any access to NPHET or health advice, which is simply not true. I again refer to the fact that as the Government was trying to decide whether to move to level 5, Sinn Féin's leader left a briefing with the CMO, top health officials, the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach after 30 minutes and then complained that there was no access to information. I completely refute that assertion. It is absolutely not the case.

Regarding the Commissioner, I would not, nor have I ever put words into his mouth or made any comments relating to the Commissioner without knowing whether or not they were his thoughts. In a letter to my Secretary General two days ago, he gave a clear commitment that he supported this legislation and its continuation. I would not ever put words into his mouth or say that he supported something when he did not.

This is not legislation that any of us wants to have here. Everybody has made that comment. It has been brought in for a specific reason, for the minority of people who are not compliant and are putting others at risk. What we have seen even in the short time since it has been introduced is that it has brought more people into compliance. I was speaking with the gardaí before this legislation was introduced and there was a higher number of repeat offenders who were continuing to break the rules, to open when they should not, or to go outside the regulations. However, once this legislation was introduced, the number of repeat offenders immediately reduced. That is not to say that everybody has been perfect but the fact that there is knowledge and understanding that there can be repercussions has made a difference. The vast majority of people are trying; the figures this week show that.

The numbers are moving in the right direction. We hope that they will continue to, and if they can, the most positive thing that can happen is that we move away from level 5, reopen our society, start to re-engage and can do so safely. We need to make sure that we continue to have the guidance, rules and regulations in place because unfortunately, as I have said, I do not think this will disappear in the next few months. We will have to live with this and work together to try to get through it. I know people will do that.

8:35 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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On a point of clarification, the Minister said that the Garda Commissioner gave her a letter. Will that letter or a segment of it be provided to us so that we know it is not just hearsay? That Minister said twice that she is not putting words in his mouth. I also asked the Minister a question about the Garda Commissioner and the game licence being stopped.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am not letting the Deputy back in. The debate is over. If the Minister wants to clarify that point, it is up to her.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Apologies. There were two things that I did not clarify. If the Garda Commissioner writes to my Department, I am not sure whether or not that can be published but I can certainly check.

Regarding game and shooting, there seems to be a suggestion that the gardaí themselves decided that this was not something that could go ahead, which is simply not the case. We have a situation where if somebody plays golf and has a golf course within 5 km of his or her home, and decided to go out on his or her own to play golf as if they decided to go for a walk, he or she cannot do it. We have asked people to stay within 5 km of their home and only to move outside of that to go for exercise. This is a sport. They have fought for many years for it to be seen as a sport and in the same way that many sports are not going ahead with the level 5 restrictions, it is the same for shooting. This is not a decision of the gardaí. This is applied as part of the level 5 restrictions.

Deputy Fitzpatrick asked about the issue of mass and whether somebody would be sent to prison or fined. The answer is "No". While it is against the law, we have not imposed a penal provision in this regard. It might not make sense but a decision was taken that this was not something we wanted a penal provision to be attached to. It is against the law. We ask people not to attend. We have asked priests. This is a difficult time for those I know. Mass is important for them every week or every day but we are asking people, particularly throughout these level 5 restrictions, to adhere to these regulations. There is not a penal provision so a person will not be put in prison or fined.

Amendment put.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time at 9.50 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 9.35 p.m. and resumed at 9.50 p.m.

Amendment put:

The Dáil divided: Tá, 63; Níl, 82; Staon, 0.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Denise Mitchell and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn; Níl, Deputies Brendan Griffin and Jack Chambers.

Chris Andrews, Mick Barry, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Holly Cairns, Seán Canney, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Michael Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Mairead Farrell, Michael Fitzmaurice, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Thomas Gould, Johnny Guirke, Marian Harkin, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Brendan Howlin, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mattie McGrath, Michael McNamara, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Verona Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Denis Naughten, Carol Nolan, Cian O'Callaghan, Richard O'Donoghue, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Eoin Ó Broin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet Wynne.


Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Norma Foley, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Marc MacSharry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Helen McEntee, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Eoghan Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy, Leo Varadkar.

Amendment declared lost.

Question put: "That the motion be agreed to."

The Dáil divided: Tá, 95; Níl, 50; Staon, 0.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Brendan Griffin and Jack Chambers; Níl, Deputies Denise Mitchell and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.

Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Holly Cairns, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Norma Foley, Gary Gannon, Brendan Griffin, Marian Harkin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, Brendan Howlin, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Marc MacSharry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Helen McEntee, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Murphy, Eoghan Murphy, Verona Murphy, Gerald Nash, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Cian O'Callaghan, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Brendan Smith, Duncan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy, Leo Varadkar, Jennifer Whitmore.


Chris Andrews, Mick Barry, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Seán Canney, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Michael Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Mairead Farrell, Michael Fitzmaurice, Kathleen Funchion, Thomas Gould, Johnny Guirke, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mattie McGrath, Michael McNamara, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Carol Nolan, Richard O'Donoghue, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Eoin Ó Broin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Bríd Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Violet Wynne.

Question declared carried.