Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Health (Termination of Pregnancy Services) (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2023 (Bill 54 of 2023): Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 7, line 4, after “writing” to insert the following: “, or by any other manner and in any such system as may be prescribed by the Minister in accordance with subsection (6),”.
This is about the warning system we talked about during the course of this Bill. In other words, if somebody commits an offence by breaching a safe access zone, a garda can give them a warning, tell them what they are doing is not on and move them on. The question arose in the course of the discussion around this of how the Garda would record warnings as protests moved from one health delivery centre to another, whether that be a GP clinic, a family planning centre or a hospital. The answer we were given was that it does not have a system to record the warnings as of yet. I have said this before and I will say it again. I find it bizarre that in 2023, members of a modern police force cannot record and share with each other such information on time in these settings. Otherwise, we may well be wasting our time trying to pass this Bill and enact it so women and people accessing abortion services remain safe, workers do not feel intimidated, doctors' clinics are not threatened and their homes or other places cannot be picketed or intimidated. That is why I submitted these amendments.
Amendment No. 3 provides that in consultation with the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Health shall prescribe by way of regulation systems that shall be used to record warnings. I do not think the Minister is going to accept this. What he said in the past was that he cannot instruct the Garda Síochána on how to do its work. Generally speaking, that is probably correct but there is an absence of a system whereby gardaí can record warnings of protestors or those who object to abortion services who move from location to location in the act of attempting to intimidate either those who provide the service or those who access it.
The Minister will be aware I tabled the same amendments on Committee Stage. I withdrew them in recognition of the clarity he brought and the logic of his argument at the time. I still think I was right to withdraw them at that point. However, on reflection, I welcome that an Teachta Smith has tabled similar amendments with the same intent. From memory, the Minister's argument was that An Garda Síochána does not have a system to record these warnings in the first instance. There is a system to record an offence or a potential charge, namely, the PULSE system, but An Garda Síochána does not record warnings. The Minister stated it was not his job to involve himself in operational matters of An Garda Síochána. As we put this legislation in place, I welcome that we have got to where we are now and are close to the point when this Bill will become a reality, which is important. I accept that and commend everyone who was involved in pushing for it and the Minister and his officials on moving it forward.
What we were also getting at in the discussion on Committee Stage was that it would be better if there was a centralised system to record these warnings. Perhaps it is something An Garda Síochána could do. That is what was said. It could be looked at in the context of a review. We will reach an amendment on that later. Nothing is stopping us inserting this subsection or agreeing to this amendment that gives the Minister a power, and in the event that there is a warning system in the future, an amendment Bill will not be needed. All that will be necessary is for the Minister to commence the section. The Minister will have the power to commence various sections of the Bill and in respect of this particular provision, it would be reasonable for him to say he cannot move forward with this as the warning systems are not in place. That might be an impetus for An Garda Síochána to put such a system in place. For those reasons, if the amendments are pressed, I will support them, but I accept the logic of the Minister's position on Committee Stage. If he thinks about it, he will realise this does not require him to do anything other than accept the amendments. If such a warning system were in place, it would be in legislation and could be commenced either by him or some future Minister for Health.
I thank an Teachta Smith for tabling the amendments and I support them.
I welcome the Bill. I note that, like many others, I pushed for the Bill for many years. Back in 2018, when we were making the case for safe access zone laws, none of us thought it would take five years. It is a shame it has taken so long. However, I commend the Minister and his officials on getting it to this point and I note that groups such as Together for Safety and others have welcomed it and have pushed for it to come into law swiftly. I do not want to delay matters further.
Deputy Smith has brought forward these amendments in the spirit of constructive engagement, seeking to ensure the legislation will be effective in its application, that An Garda Síochána will have sufficient powers to ensure proper enforcement and that the legislation is future-proofed. I see these two amendments as facilitative and constructive and the Labour Party will also support them.
Again, I commend the Minister and his officials on bringing the Bill forward and note it has received a strong welcome from all who have campaigned for so long for it.
I am happy to support both amendments tabled by Deputy Smith. This is part of a wider debate about prior warning we have had on a number of occasions. Amendment No. 1 is sensible in that, at the moment, the Bill requires the warning in writing and there could be other means of recording a warning. It future-proofs the legislation. I am happy to support the insertion of "by any other manner and in any such system as may be prescribed by the Minister in accordance with subsection (6)". It makes absolute sense for it not to have to be in writing. It can be way of technology or any other way. It is sensible to provide for that.
Amendment No. 3 proposes a requirement to consult the Minister for Justice and then the Minister could by regulation prescribe a system. If there are more efficient or secure ways of issuing a warning, it could be done by regulation. We would not have to go back to primary legislation. Both of the amendments make absolute sense and I hope the Minister will support them.
I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for tabling the amendments. We had a good discussion about this on Committee Stage and we will discuss it again now.
I acknowledge Deputy Bacik's long-standing advocacy. Many of us were involved in that referendum, but in fairness to Deputy Bacik, she has significant standing and history of advocacy and work over many years.
The first amendment seeks to give An Garda Síochána the ability, other than in writing, to record warnings, that is, digitally and so forth. The advice I was given is that "in writing" covers all of that. Whether a garda writes it in a notebook, writes it down electronically or notes it on a phone or electronic device, it is all covered. The issue of warnings came from the committee. It was not in the original Bill. The report I received from the committee recommended this. The committee had a thoughtful debate on the fact it wanted these warnings to be written down. In a way, we have already amended the Bill to add this section. I acknowledge the considered work of the committee in arriving at a place where these warnings will be recorded. We all accept they will be recorded. The additional point Deputies Smith and Shortall made is that they are not recorded centrally because there is no centralised system to do so at the moment. I have no doubt that if and when the systems An Garda Síochána has available are expanded to this area, it would be facilitated. The clear advice I was given, as per our discussion on Committee Stage, was that the amendment is not necessary as this is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána. It would not necessarily be covered by regulation. It is something An Garda Síochána would do as part of its day-to-day operations, for example, by expanding the PULSE system.
Second, as discussed on Committee Stage, I have received clear advice that it would not be appropriate for any Minister for Health to put in place detailed operational regulations for An Garda Síochána, in the same way that we would not want any Minister for Justice to put in place regulations around patient safety issues or such matters. Health regulations are a matter for the Minister for Health. Therefore, it is not appropriate for a Minister for Health to include these.
We had a useful discussion at a committee meeting when Deputy Smith and other colleagues asked how we will check whether this is a problem. An Garda Síochána does not believe it will be a problem. I do not believe it will be a problem, but I fully accept that we want to look at it, because on the back of the committee's recommendation, this is a new thing An Garda Síochána will be doing. We will come to this in subsequent amendments, but on the back of our proceedings on Committee Stage, I have tabled a new amendment on a review and that review could also encompass this. If there are any issues with it - I do not believe there will be but I am open to the fact that there may be - they will be included in a review. If matters were then brought to the Minister for Justice of the day, they could act and say we need to regulate this or update the PULSE system or take whatever actions might come out of that review. I know the amendments were tabled in absolute good faith to try to have the best possible system.
I believe the rationale being put forward for why I cannot accept these amendments is solid but, at the same time, I want to leave the door open. This has not happened previously. A safe access zone has never been provided for in Ireland and these sorts of warnings have never been put in place under statute. We are leaving open, therefore, a review of that within a pretty short period. I tried to reflect the committee discussions on what that period might be, and Deputies will see that 18 months is what I am proposing.
For those reasons, I cannot accept the amendments, but I fully understand and appreciate the concern Deputy Smith is looking to address.
I am not trying to correct the Minister, and while it is true there have not previously been safe access zones, it is only recently there has been access to abortion in this country, which gives rise to the protests that are happening outside providers, whether they are hospitals, clinics, GP services or whatever.
There has, however, for a long time been an amendment to the Electoral Act. In just my personal experience, there is a zone around a polling station that persons cannot go beyond to distribute leaflets encouraging people to vote for candidates. People have crossed those boundaries in the past, inadvertently in most cases, given they are ordinary, decent local residents who have wanted to support a candidate, and I am speaking only about my own case where they have been looking to support me. They would have been stopped by a garda at the Ballyfermot Civic Centre and told to get out because they were too close. Later that evening, they might have been at the De La Salle school and again not realised they were within the restricted area, and they would then have been told by the garda they were warned earlier.
There must be informal ways, therefore, for members of the Garda discuss these issues with one another. They could certainly create a WhatsApp group for safe access zones whereby a Garda member could say they had warned Joe Bloggs or Mr. X in Kerry and that he turned up again in Cork. These people do that and are already doing it, but we have the experience of implementing zones that cannot be entered. It applies to elections, and all we are asking is that we do it for women's health, their right to access health and the right of people to deliver that healthcare without being intimidated.
As regards the Minister's comment about a Minister for Health not being able to instruct the Garda, amendment No. 3 refers to "following consultation with the Minister for Justice", whom the Minister for Health could consult to ask whether he or she will tell the Garda that it needs to set up a WhatsApp group to identify the roaming protesters who are breaking the law in order that we would know they have been forewarned and yet continue to do it. I can see this happening. The Minister probably cannot, but these are mobile protests that move around rural Ireland in particular, with the same people on them.
I appreciate the Minister talking about putting in a mechanism for review, and I hope he will accept an amendment to the effect that the review will be as short as possible.
There is an obvious logic in what the Minister is saying in that, as Minister for Health, he does not want to involve himself in justice issues or operational issues that pertain to An Garda Síochána and, in general terms, that makes sense. He has to accept, however, that what we are talking about here are health regulations and a health Bill that is coming from his office, and there has been engagement with the Department of Justice and extensive engagement with An Garda Síochána. In fact, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, in our pre-legislative scrutiny, had sessions with An Garda Síochána as well. The point we made to the Minister in the pre-legislative scrutiny report was that this is about the enforceability of the Bill, and that is the main reason these amendments were tabled in the first instance.
We all accept the Bill will add value. We campaigned for it and advocacy groups, women and others have been looking for it on the back of the termination of pregnancy Act. Safe access zones were committed to and I am happy they will very shortly be in place. Nevertheless, this is a health Bill and it is about regulations, and the question relates to its enforceability. It might be a bit of a stretch, therefore, for the Minister to say he does not have any input, involvement or say on the enforceability side of it. I say that gently as opposed to labouring the point. For that reason, I will support the amendments.
I do not really agree with the Minister's response. First, he said it came from the pre-legislative scrutiny that there would be a warning system. The whole idea of having an offence dependent on a prior warning came from the Minister's Department, and I think we all struggled to figure out how that would work in practice. I do not think anybody provided a satisfactory answer to us and I do not think any of us was able to visualise how it would work, although we will be discussing that in the context of the next grouping.
What we are saying is there needs to be some system of recording, and my understanding of Deputy Smith's amendments is that, first, that system does not have to be in writing and can be digital, as she said. It could involve having, say, a flag on the PULSE system, or there may be other ways of doing it. Let us hope there will be a satisfactory way of doing it, but amendment No. 1 merely states that the legislation should provide for systems other than a written record. It is about keeping options open.
Amendment No. 3 will allow the Minister, having consulted the Garda on its proposals for a system other than a written one, to provide for that, although it is not saying he will have to come up with the system, which would not be appropriate. That is my understanding of the two amendments. As I said, they make absolute sense and the Minister should be open to accepting them.
First, I thank the Minister for his kind words. Certainly, it has been a long road. I was just calculating that it was 34 years ago that I and a group of other students were threatened with prison for giving information on abortion to women in crisis pregnancies. We have come a long way since then but I certainly never thought at the time that it would take so long. Five years on from 2018, there has been a long delay in putting in place the necessary safe access zones. Other Deputies have spoken about the need for them but, clearly, anyone who speaks to a doctor, a medical receptionist or a practice nurse involved in the delivery of the service of abortion will be aware of the sort of intimidation going on under the radar and at a low level.
I spoke at the inaugural conference of abortion providers in Dublin earlier this year and heard from GPs, hospital doctors and other medical staff about the sort of intimidation receptionists are under, especially in small practices where GPs are known to be providers and where there is a high level of conscientious objection and, therefore, individual providers can be targeted. Even just a stone's throw from here, outside Holles Street hospital, we are seeing ongoing protests, so we are all aware of the context and the need for this legislation. It will have an important effect on deterring protesters and, therefore, on encouraging more doctors to provide where they see there is an effective action they can take against protests and intimidation.
That is why it is so important we ensure the legislation is going to be effective. The two amendments are designed to ensure it will be effective, that the warning system provided for will be robust and that there will, crucially, be a future-proofed recording method that will be more facilitative and less prescriptive. Currently, as we know, section 4(2) is very clear in stating that Garda members shall record instances in writing, and what the amendments seek to do is simply to provide a little more flexibility around that.
Finally, on the points made about whether it is the remit of the Minister for Justice or the Minister for Health, I think that, in the case of all the amending health legislation we brought forward during Covid, the Minister for Health was the designated Minister to issue directions, even on the penal provisions. That is a technical point but an important one.
This week, a large number of Deputies in the Chamber decried efforts made by some British politicians to stop protests in Britain against the horrific war in Gaza.
Many of those speakers rightly said that in no circumstance should the democratic right to protest be prevented and that protest was the foundation stone of a democracy. I, as an Irish republican, will always point to the North of Ireland when protests were banned and the outcomes that created in the political situation there. While I do not agree with or support many of the protests happening outside certain hospitals, etc., I always support the right to protest, even if I do not agree with it. In the same way, I always support the right of freedom of speech even if I do not agree with it. It is more important to support those fundamental democratic rights when you do not agree with it. Supporting those rights only when they are in sympathy with your views is not what democracy is about.
When the Garda Commissioner was asked about what legislation was necessary for providing safe zones, he said the legislation as it existed was satisfactory and sufficient. I listened in this Chamber to many Deputies about reports of protests outside certain hospitals that, when investigated, were proven not to be true. I heard Deputies from the Government talking about protests outside some GP locations on certain days when they were happening on Saturdays. I always urge protests to be respectful and decent. My worry is that the foundation stone of a democracy, the right to protest, will be deleted in certain areas by the Bill. Given the location of some of the providers of abortion, it will mean significant parts of our city as well. In some places, there might be the right to protest for abortion but not against. In some cases, a mother might be able to say to her daughter that she should be able to proceed with an abortion in a café in the curtilage of one of these providers but not be able to give advice against it. There is a situation in which 85% of abortions in this State currently are as a result of the socioeconomic situation many people are in. I know of one woman who felt she did not have the economic ability to have her child. When she was on the way to have an abortion in Britain, she met a charity which offered her financial support so she could proceed to have her child. She had her child, raised her daughter and now, because of that intervention, is involved in trying to provide economic supports to women as they enter abortion clinics in England. There is also a dystopian situation happening in Britain. I do not know if the Minister saw it. Individuals are being arrested by police there for silent prayer outside abortion clinics. Police officers are asking individuals what they are thinking and praying about, and if it is in the two areas that fit under that legislation, they are arrested. There is something very Orwellian about a society that asks citizens in a public space what they are thinking and praying about regarding these issues.
This is an enormously difficult situation, there is no doubt. I know many people disagree with my views on this and I know they come from the position of human and civil rights. Any measure of a democracy is how it tolerates different views or those different from establishment views. I am concerned this Bill starts to eliminate spaces where people can respectfully and peacefully protest about these issues. The idea that we have a society that is looking in numerous places to get rid of public protest is very dangerous.
The other element about which I am fearful concerning this particular amendment is that there is a situation in which people are looking for older people who might be standing silently outside of abortion providers to be put in jail, and you put that beside the idea that there is an enormous spike in crime and antisocial behaviour, a phenomenal increase in unprovoked vicious attacks and a doubling of rapes, sexual assault and murder. The Garda force is phenomenally limited in its resources. Every year, for the last five, the number of gardaí has fallen and recruitment and morale are falling. Yet, the political establishment is looking for ideological reasons to push that resource to get rid of the right to freedom of protest.
Outside of the political and media bubble, where many people live in towns and villages without the safety of Garda resources, they will ask themselves what is happening. That we are looking to take further Garda resources and reduce the level of peaceful and respectful protest in the country is wrong.
I want to address this legislation, which I think is draconian in its overreach. We had a statement from the Garda Commissioner, as Deputy Tóibín alluded to, who said there was no need for this legislation and that we already had it. This Bill introduces new offences concerning the aforementioned prohibited conduct and implements a system of escalating penalties. It grants enforcement powers to An Garda Síochána, including the ability to issue warnings with a criminal conviction resulting in a fine of up to €2,500 and-or up to six months in prison for third and subsequent offences, as per section 5(3), which is a prerequisite for committing an offence under this legislation. Nevertheless, it is essential to acknowledge that this extensive legislation encroaches upon individuals' rights and raises concerns regarding the suppression of free speech - totally, as far as I am concerned - resembling elements of fascism. Restricting protests near abortion facilities can be viewed as an infringement of civil liberties and an undermining of democratic values.
Any supporter of democratic principles, as we all proclaim to be here, should distance themselves from this legislation as it represents a direct assault on people's rights to pray, express conscientious objections and protect their beliefs. The Bill primarily aims to stifle open discourse within a democracy, which is concerning. It is truthful to recognise the importance of preserving space for diverse opinions and maintaining democratic ideals that foster a thriving society. The introduction of the Bill not only curtails the rights to protest and pray but also sets a dangerous precedent by restricting fundamental liberties in material that echoes oppressive regimes of the past. It beggars belief that we are introducing this kind of legislation. We see what is going on today in the Middle East and many parts of the world and we proclaim to be supporters of freedom and democratic principles. It is imperative to remember that a vibrant democracy thrives on free exchanges of ideas and the ability of citizens to peacefully voice their opinions. The legislation, however, undermines these principles by suppressing dissenting voices and limiting the expression of deeply held beliefs. Surely we are entitled to have deeply held beliefs in this country in 2023.
The right to protest and the freedom to express one's religion are pillars of a democratic society. By eroding these rights through restrictive measures, we risk sliding down a slippery slope towards an authoritarian regime; I honestly believe that. The introduction of safe access zones may be seen as a response to concerns raised by stakeholders and research that highlighted the negative impact of protests on individuals seeking or providing information about pregnancy services. It is essential to ensure any legislative measures taken are proportionate, balanced and respect the fundamental rights of all citizens. We must be cautious not to create a chilling effect on freedom of expression and a right to peaceful assembly.
Balancing these rights is a delicate task that requires extremely careful consideration. The potential criminalisation of individuals who engage in prohibited conduct within safe access zones raises questions about the proportionality of the penalties. We must ensure that any sanctions imposed are moderate and reasonable.
This is total overreach. I have proudly marched down O'Connell Street many times with thousands of citizens of Ireland who believe firmly in the right to life and are pro-life. God knows, if our mothers terminated our lives we would not be here at all. That is a chilling effect. The freedom to hold democratically expressed rights and march down the main street in our capital could be prohibited under the Bill because we would be within 100 m of certain facilities. That is the case in any town or village. It is bonkers. People could inadvertently walk down the street, not knowing there was a medical facility which offers abortion services, even a doctor's surgery. The march could be interrupted and stopped. This is an outrageous and preposterous thought. To think that we would pass that into legislation is bizarre and grotesque. I cannot find words to describe it.
It is total overreach from the House if, as I believe we will, we pass this Bill. It is repugnant to the Constitution, and is certainly repugnant to me and my values and those of tens of thousands of people. The people who voted to repeal the eighth amendment did not vote for this. This is a three-card trick. They were sold a pup. Perhaps a limited number voted for this, but the vast majority did not. They were misled.
That the Government will pass this Bill, under the watch of the Minister, is preposterous and outrageous. Pro-life organisations and others want to give solace and advice, not in a menacing or threatening way. If they are doing that, they should not be. The Garda has powers under existing legislation to stop them doing that and arrest them if they do not desist. Those powers are in place. The Garda Commissioner, whom we criticise often enough, has said that he and its members have the necessary powers, but we want to be leaders in preposterous legislation. On the other hand, we will be shouting about Gaza and voting for freedom of expression and rights while we want to destroy and diminish rights. P.H. Pearse and the men of 1921 and 1923 fought for the freedom of this country, and this is the kind of freedom we want. It is outrageous.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I too have serious reservations about the idea of bringing in legislation to more or less curtail people from expressing a view that they may have. It is important that we set ourselves back from this and look at what the Garda Commissioner has said. He said he has the legislation to protect people. Why are we bringing in more legislation for a specific purpose? What is that doing? What message is that sending to people who want to express an opinion? The Bill is being introduced for a specific purpose, namely to keep people away from places where abortions are being carried out.
The Minister said some of these issues relate to the Department of Justice. That is why I question why the Minister for Health is introducing the Bill to curtail people from exercising their democratic right to protest. We expect protesters outside the Houses tonight. Are we going to start banning everybody who does not agree with us? Where are we going with all of this? At the end of the day, the Minister can bring in all the legislation he likes, but we do not have the resources to enforce it.
There is something radically wrong. TII has proposed to introduce legislation to close lay-bys. We do not have the gardaí to enforce that. We are introducing more legislation in an attempt to say that we are doing something. In fact, we do not need this legislation in this country. It is something that concerns me greatly. We have spoken about freedom of expression. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin was banned from being interviewed on radio and television. What purpose does that serve? This is a policy that is being blindly followed and we need to stand back from it.
Needless to say, the Bill will probably pass. It is something that is bringing our democracy back backwards rather than forwards. I ask the Government to consider where all of this will end up and why we are presenting a Bill for a particular issue. In what other cases will this Bill be used as a template? What precedent are we setting in trying to curtail democracy? It is something we have to consider very clearly.
When we talk about what is happening in the world today, such as what is happening in Ukraine and Gaza, people are exercised about all of the wrongs that are being done, how people are not being allowed to express their views, democracy not being allowed and all of that. We have a good and thriving democracy, but we are beginning to build legislation that will erode the thriving democracy we have and we should be proud of. I ask the Minister to consider the purpose of the Bill. When the Garda Commissioner says he does not need this legislation to deal with any issues that arise, it is important that we listen to him.
A key commitment of the programme for Government was to establish exclusion zones around medical facilities. The Minister subsequently legislated for the designation of safe access loans around our healthcare premises. We are well aware that there has been extensive co-operation and consultation with the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in developing this important and landmark Bill.
It will prohibit a person from engaging in certain conduct in certain areas and surrounding certain healthcare premises. It will also provide for enforcement in respect of those engaging in conduct prohibited in such areas and sets out the liable offences in regard to such prohibited conduct. We all agree that safe access to hospitals is paramount and the Bill before the House endeavours to address that very salient point. However, I would also argue that as well as safe access there is an onus on us to ensure that families and patients have access to all of the relevant reports, information and files when things in our hospitals go wrong.
With the indulgence of the Minister, the House and the Chair, I want to raise a troubling and tragic case, namely the case of Bryonny Sainsbury, a 25-year-old woman from County Longford who, it seems, died an agonising death following a fall from her beloved horse, Louie, in 2021. She was a vibrant young lady who was full of life and enthusiasm and looked forward to the very best that life could offer her. Sadly, two years later her parents, Alison and Christopher, are no closer to getting answers for the many questions they have surrounding her care after she was admitted to Mullingar Hospital on 26 August 2021 and before her transfer to Beaumont Hospital three days later. At that point, she was critically ill and declared braindead, with life support being turned off on 31 August. In January 2023, nearly 15 months after her death, Mullingar Hospital established an independent review of her care. The Sainsbury family was advised of this development in March this year and told they would have the findings made available to them in April. Since then, there has been very little, if any, acceptable communication with the family. An adjourned inquest in early October heard that there is a divergence of views between staff at the two hospitals on the care delivered, as well as an issue about the communication between radiologists and clinical staff. The coroner, Dr. Cróna Gallagher, has requested that all reports, including the clinical review, are made available before the end of this month in anticipation of a two-day inquest proceeding on 13 and 14 December. It is very evident that this delay in handing over the clinical review and other reports is having a detrimental impact on an already heartbroken and shattered family.
If failings have been identified, Bryonny's mother has told me that they need to be known for the sake of other patients. As she told me succinctly and passionately, that is what Bryonny would have wanted. The family have the support of their neighbours, their friends, their solicitor, Ms Karen Clabby, and their barrister, Ms Esther Earley. Everyone speaks with one voice and one heart when saying that we need answers.
I appreciate this opportunity. I am coming at this on behalf of people who, like me, are pro-life and have always been that way. We respect every decision that has been taken, although we do not have to agree with them. While we can respect and debate what is being proposed in this Bill, we do not have to agree with it.
When people assemble, if they do so in a respectful way that is not threatening, intimidating or nasty, that is to be welcomed. I know people involved in pro-life groups. Obviously, the ones I know are predominantly in County Kerry. I have been working with them for many years and we have campaigned together on this issue. I am sure there are terribly nice people on the other side of the issue as well, but the ones I am speaking about are the nicest people in the world. They are reserved. Many of them are religious and many of them are not, but the one thing that they all believe in passionately – the Minister has nothing but the utmost of time for this type of people – is that, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, the person who is in charge of life is a person called God. That is what they believe in their hearts and souls. It is also what I believe. I do not deny it at all.
I would never want to offend or insult anyone with a different opinion. I would never want to say, “You are wrong and I am right”. I have never done so and never will. That is just the way I am and the way those people are. They feel that, when people voted on this in the referendum and agreed on the parameters of what was being accepted and the changes to be made, what is now being proposed was not included in that discussion. They view this as a further alienation of their beliefs and of what they stand for. I am standing in the Chamber tonight to make that point on behalf of those people. I am confident in saying that I am speaking on behalf of the people involved in pro-life groups in Kerry, who have extreme worries about what is being proposed and the further direction that the Government and the people who support this are taking. They do not want to see their right of assembly and their right to say what they think stopped. Believe me, these are not people who would want to upset someone who was attending a place having made a decision on what to do. It is not that they would want to intimidate anyone personally or anything like that. Like other Deputies, I was terribly proud that time we gathered outside on Merrion Street. The Ceann Comhairle will remember it, as I am sure he was also present to support the farmers from his constituency. There were 20,000 of us. We took off from the back on Merrion Street, marched around Leinster House and finished out front on Kildare Street. I would say there were not four gardaí on duty. There did not have to be. The gates of Leinster House were wide open and 20,000 people came protesting, but the gardaí knew that there would be no problem or hassle. Those 20,000 people came up to make their point, but the gardaí knew there would be no trouble. I would be saying the exact same about the people involved in the pro-life side of this debate. They do not want to insult, offend or hurt anyone, but they want the right to be able to stand up and speak out for what they believe in. Compare that to when you might see half a dozen or 20 people outside the gates of Leinster House and half of Dublin’s gardaí have to be present to try to keep law and order because the people are so cross, nasty and insulting towards the people working in Leinster House, including the catering staff. There are different types of people.
In this world, we have horrible people and we have nice people. There are ways of protesting and making your point. You can do so and make your argument in a nice way. We do not want to see right-thinking people with opinions being stymied, silenced or marginalised, which I suppose is the word to use for it.
I do not want to go on, as the Ceann Comhairle has a lot of things to do. I just wanted to stand up on behalf of the pro-life groups and the people who have the same beliefs as me. The ones I know are predominantly from County Kerry. I am here to speak for them tonight, and I hope I am doing so in a loud and clear fashion and making a point for them, their views and their beliefs.
I am glad to get the opportunity to contribute on this most important debate. I am firmly pro-life. I am glad that I was born and am able to see this life. I am sad that that is not the case for so many little babies who have been conceived but will not see the light of day. All they are asking, I am sure, is that they be allowed to live and come into this world. They are being denied that chance or right.
I am very sad that we are even talking about this matter at all because I love children. I have grandchildren and I love each and every one of them. I love my own children. I know that women can find themselves in a predicament, but there are plenty of ways to help them now, beginning with education. There are many avenues open to them. If they cannot see a way out, there are adoption services. There are people out there who would love to have a child but have not been able to do so. They would love to adopt children and take care of them. Doing so would mean much to them.
It is sad that this is happening and that this Bill with its exclusion zones will compound what was introduced three or four years ago. The need for the three-day period for women to think about it has been stopped. When deciding about life or death, three days is not an awful lot to ask them to wait. In any one day, I could change my mind 50 times about one very important thing. The little baby that is waiting to come into the world should at least get that chance. It is such a small thing to ask for.
Our little group asked for something else and put it to a vote in the Dáil, that being, to allow some form of pain relief. We know that in the abortion process, the babies suffer great pain. However, that was denied these little human beings, who only wanted to come into the world and did nothing wrong.
The mother has rights, but every one of us must remember that the little baby has rights after being conceived.
There are so many protections now. We need to educate young girls and advise them of all the protections and avenues open to them in order that they will not get pregnant in the first place.
With regard to exclusion zones and depriving people of the right to protest or make their case, I have not heard of protests outside any hospitals. I would not be for it, but I do not believe there is a need for exclusion zones because we do not know who is going in and out. We do not actually know where the abortion clinics are. You could find yourself outside one and not be aware that you should not be there in the first place. Who has a map or diagram showing where the abortion clinics are? I do not have one. There is no need for the exclusion zones. I ask the Minister to reconsider and not to go ahead with this Bill because there is no need in the world for it.
With regard to making a hospital like Fort Knox such that a person should not or may not go there, someone who is pro-life could be challenged for being in the hospital with somebody who is sick, or you could be sick yourself and find yourself challenged. That is not right or fair.
I was heckled here last night and heckled here today. If Deputy Cullinane wants to interrupt me, he should realise he can talk afterwards and put his point of view across. He is quite entitled to do that but he is not entitled to interrupt me here. I will not take it from him here, there or elsewhere.
All I am saying is that there is no need for this Bill. It is wrong. People with a pro-life view are entitled to that view. The people who fought for us in 1916 wanted to have a democracy. I do not think it is democratic at all to try to stymie people are block them from going anywhere near where abortions may be taking place. Some people might not even know there are abortion facilities where they are. In such circumstances, there is no need for this legislation. It is only making people hurt a lot more to think this is what the Government is at. The Minister has other things to do regarding health besides bringing this Bill forward. There are so many other issues with our hospitals and people who cannot get treatment for this, that or the other. This is what the Minister chose. It is like the labelling of the bottles of beer in that he wants to go down in history as the Minister who brought this in. We will remember him for what he did not do for people.
I hope I use my two minutes carefully, correctly and usefully. I am here going on eight years. When I first got elected, we were trying to fight for the referendum on the eighth amendment. I have got a news flash for the Deputies who have just spoken: the train has left the station, the eighth amendment was passed, women do have a choice in this country, and rehashing all the old arguments serves no purpose whatsoever.
I recommend that the Deputies read the Bill we are dealing with because they will note it is not antidemocratic, not shutting down the pro-life movement and not telling the nicest people in the world in Kerry that they do not have a voice or cannot have a thought, nor is it telling the people Deputy Tóibín referred to that they cannot pray. This Bill is to establish safe access zones within 100 m of places that deliver care to women where intimidation is taking place. Believe me, it takes place. If it did not, we would not be dealing with this Bill. Let me tell the Deputies who believe they have the nicest people in the world on the anti-abortion side that about two weeks ago a pro-life, far-right activist called to my home. I was not there but my nephew took abuse. The activist threw leaflets at him and said, "Tell your auntie she has blood on her hands and that we are going to get her." I am dealing with that in my own way, through the facilities we were given here to make contact with the Garda. The people who want to tell women they do not have the right to choose and who want to stand outside clinics, hospitals and doctors' surgeries that deliver the service are not the nicest in the world all of the time. The Deputies may know many nice people and I know many nice people, including ones I do not agree with, but when the nicest people in the world are not outside a clinic and some of the most goddamn awful people are, intimidating women and doctors and prohibiting the latter from signing up to a scheme to deliver on abortion rights for women in this country through intimidating them and their families, including at their homes, a Bill is required to have safe access zones. It is not antidemocratic or shutting down anti-abortion views. Scraping the barrel by making a comparison with Gaza is the lowest thing the Deputies have done tonight. If they care all that much about life, they should please scream out about the children who cannot have incubators in Al-Shifa Hospital tonight.
I respect all views on this issue. My view is very clear. I believe these services need to be available legally and safely for women. Ireland has a very dark history when it comes to women's healthcare, particularly regarding women's reproductive rights. This Bill is one modest step that we are taking in the right direction.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right to protest and the freedom to do so. I say that as someone who has been the subject of several protests outside my own house. I fully respect the right. This Bill is about protecting the right of women to access healthcare services in our country with privacy and dignity and without harassment, which they do experience in some cases. The very same applies to our healthcare providers. The reason the existing public order legislation is not sufficient is for this very reason. Relying on the existing legislation risks an inability to intervene and secure the stated objectives of privacy and freedom from harassment for women and healthcare providers.
With regard to Deputy Bríd Smith's amendments, the legislation as worded allows the Garda the necessary flexibility within the confines of its existing systems. Critically, it permits the future use of centrally recorded warnings. There is nothing that precludes this. We have that fully covered. Moreover, I shall be proposing in a later amendment that we review all this in 18 months so that, if there is an issue, it can be dealt with.
Let me refer to Deputy Bríd Smith's opening comments, in which she very reasonably referred to the electoral zones. I believe she said the gardaí apply common sense, work together in a local area, know who the messers are, know if there is co-ordinated activity and very quickly work to address it.
For all these reasons, I strongly believe the Bill, as amended and with the written warnings based on feedback from the committee, and as I hope it will be amended shortly by way of a review in 18 months, does what we are trying to achieve and strikes the right balance.
Chris Andrews, Ivana Bacik, Mick Barry, John Brady, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Holly Cairns, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Mairead Farrell, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Johnny Guirke, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Imelda Munster, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Cian O'Callaghan, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Pauline Tully, Jennifer Whitmore.
Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Dara Calleary, Seán Canney, Ciarán Cannon, Michael Collins, 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, Seán Fleming, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Helen McEntee, Mattie McGrath, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Michael McNamara, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Verona Murphy, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Richard O'Donoghue, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, John Paul Phelan, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Peadar Tóibín.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following: “(6) The Minister shall, within one year of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas, and the relevant committee, evaluating the effectiveness of the system for recording warnings issued by the Garda Síochána pursuant to subsection (1).”.
We discussed this issue at considerable length during a number of sessions of pre-legislative scrutiny. We also discussed it on Second Stage and we discussed it on Committee Stage. The issue at stake is that in order to commit an offence under this legislation, a person has to have received a prior warning. That means that a person could protest outside a premises in, for example, Galway and may get a warning from the Garda and, a day later, a week later or a month later, he or she could protest outside a premises in Dublin and be apprehended by a garda, but that garda would have no way of establishing the fact that he or she had received a prior warning. Therefore, and as I said earlier, I have yet to be convinced that this legislation is actually workable, and the last thing we want is to pass legislation in this House and to discover in a few months' time that there is no way of operating that legislation.
The Minister has stated on a number of occasions that there is no national system in place to record prior warnings. We have talked about people protesting outside a polling station, for example, and then going up the road to another polling station. In such circumstances, generally, locally, gardaí would be aware of those people. If such a protest were to happen in one part of the country and, following that, in another part of the country, where would the communication within the Garda be? I am still waiting for an explanation, from a person in the Department, from the Garda or from the Minister, as to how exactly this system will operate. I cannot get my head around it. It would bring the legislation and the Government into disrepute if this were to be unworkable legislation, and that is my fear. Most of us do not want to find ourselves in such a situation, whereby there is no way of recording prior warnings. How, then, will the Minister implement this legislation? It is a very unusual situation whereby a prior warning is required in order to constitute an offence. I was trying to think whether there is any other area of law where a prior warning is required, and I am not aware there is.
My fear is that this legislation would be unworkable. I certainly hope that that will not be the case. The reason I have tabled this amendment is that we need to ensure we have a system that works. Nobody can outline what that system is at this point, and for that reason I say that, within a 12-month period, the Government should be required to lay a report before the House on the operation of this aspect of the legislation. This is not just a standard review. Many of us call for reviews after a year, two years or three years on the operation of legislation. It is not a general review I am talking about; it is a specific review of the effectiveness of the system for recording warnings, a system which the Minister tells us does not exist at this point.
Effectively, he is saying the legislation is not workable at this point and that, perhaps at some point in the future, it will be workable. The last thing we want is for an unworkable system to continue to be in place and for it to take some time before that is discussed again in this House or at committee.
On Committee Stage the Minister gave an undertaking that he would look at this and would come back with an amendment of his own. He has come back with an amendment, amendment No. 4, and that is about a review of the operation of the Act. He said earlier that he was meeting us halfway. I was looking for 12 months and other members were looking for 24 months and the Minister is saying that he is meeting us halfway and is talking about 18 months. The Minister is not actually talking about 18 months because the first part, part (a), of his amendment, reads “not later than 18 months after the commencement of this section, commence a review of the operation of this Act and [there is a part (b) - (a) is the review – which reads] as soon as practicable after the completion of the review, prepare a report, in writing, of the findings of the review”. What does "as soon as practicable" mean? That concerns me because that is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. The Minister is saying the review will be done within 18 months and, as soon as practicable, a report will be produced. That is why I am concerned about the timescale the Minister is talking about here. I do not think it is adequate and it is important because we need to have a very clear focus on the specific element of this amendment where we are talking about the need to review and get a report on the recording of the prior warning. That is the element we need reviewed.
It is fine to have a review of the general legislation and the operation of that after two or three years or whatever, but I am saying it is important we have a specific review of this element the legislation and that we do it within a 12-month period to keep a focus on that element of the legislation and, indeed, to keep pressure on the Garda to ensure we get to a point where we have a system in place, but that system is yet to be determined.
I am talking on amendment No. 5, but I also support the other grouped amendments, with the exception of the Minister’s amendment, and my apologies to the Minister.
We are talking about a review of the Act. It is important for us in the first instance to understand what it is the legislation does because we have had some discussion already. It is incumbent upon those of us who support the Bill to be very clear about what this legislation does. The legislation essentially is about allowing women to safely access healthcare. That is the core purpose of this Bill and it is why I very proudly support it because I believe it is certainly the right thing to do. This is to allow women to safely access healthcare without fear of intimidation. That is, for me, the core of it. It does not and it is not about stifling debate and banning protests, because people who have a pro-life view can protest outside the constituency offices of Deputies, outside Leinster House and in other places.
I want to make this point very strongly because the words "respectful" and "decent" were used earlier to describe protests. The vast majority of people who protest are respectful and decent but that cannot describe a protest which prevents a woman from accessing healthcare, uses intimidation to do so, and where the sole purpose is actually to prevent a woman from safely accessing healthcare. That cannot be described as respectful or decent, from my perspective. That is why I support the Bill.
On the review of the Bill itself, my problem with the Minister's amendment and the reason I tabled amendment No. 5 is that he says the review should take place within 18 months. Theoretically, that could be in the 18th month, which means we have to wait 18 months before a review is even commenced, but there is no completion date. There is no defined timeline as to when the review will be completed. For that reason, I simply cannot support the amendment.
I have called in my amendment for it to be completed within 24 months, which I believe is a fairer amendment and a better way to do this. We cannot have a situation where we can support or agree that we would initiate a review within 18 months and have no sense as to when that would be completed. We have already had a review, which I must say to the Minister in the context of this debate. We had a review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act itself. It was a very good review. As the Minister knows, that review made many recommendations that were operational in nature but also were legislative.
In the context of that review, I say to the Minister that there are operational issues which can be implemented very quickly and there are legislative issues which might take some time, but there is a responsibility on the Minister to ensure those recommendations are implemented. When we are talking about reviews, and particularly when we are talking about an amendment which does not have any specified timeframe as to when the review would be completed, we can only go on our experience of the most recent review into the area of abortion services which was done very diligently and comprehensively and set out very clear recommendations. It seems to me there is foot dragging by the Government and an attempt to kick it to the Committee on Health and leave it there for as long as possible. That is not going to be the case any longer because a report will come, it is hoped very quickly, from the Committee on Health.
Reviews are important because I wholeheartedly support this Bill. We as members of the Committee on Health worked very closely with the Minister and his officials, and I commend his officials on the time they gave us in our committee. They were very helpful on the questions we had. While we have some differences of opinion on some of the amendments as we have gone through all of this and we have raised concerns about the enforcement, I certainly do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister and those of his officials who have worked very well to craft a Bill which balances rights. That is what this is about. It balances rights and it achieves that balance without a doubt. I am very pleased and proud to support this Bill, but when we are talking about reviewing the Bill, I believe it needs to be clearer. It is only for the reason that there is no specified time period to complete the review that I will be opposing the Minister’s amendment, supporting my own amendment No. 5, and supporting the amendments tabled by Deputy Bacik, which is an amendment to amendment No. 4, and by Deputy Shortall.
I do not support this Bill and I will not be supporting it going forward. The right to protest and the freedom to exercise one's religion are pillars of a democratic society. By eroding these rights through restrictive measures, we risk sliding down a slippery slope towards an authoritarian regime that is far stronger than what I would ever have expected. I believe in the basic right of peaceful protest.
They have no respect for anyone, by the look of it. I believe in peaceful protest but there have been statements made in this Chamber to say that women should never be blocked going for any medical care. Of course they should not be blocked, regardless of what medical care is, but I cannot understand what the problem is with the right to peacefully protest within a certain slight area away from the building. I cannot understand that that is where democracy in this country is going to. People here inside the Dáil are encouraging people to protest outside the Dáil and outside a politician's house but not to protest outside a clinic where a child might be saved. I met many adults on this difficult subject in regard to abortion who were saved thanks to people intervening and peacefully protesting and thanks, perhaps, to families begging a mother who is definitely going through a tremendous difficulty, and that should always be respected.
The women is these cases are going through a serious crisis when they have to go this far. I have always felt that the resources of the State should be made available to help them but not to end a life. I will never support any motion or amendment that steers the direction away from the one thing for which we should be proud to stand in this island, namely, the right to have a baby born. Many people say the mother should have freedom of choice. The baby in the womb has no choice and it also needs to have choice. I will never block that choice.
I also ask the Minister to reconsider the idea of not allowing people to peacefully protest. I have no interest in people who want to protest, disrupt and cause hurt to people because any woman in that situation is in an very delicate place as it stands. We should be cautious and not create a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. Balancing these rights is a delicate task that requires careful consideration and I do not think consideration has been thought through here. There has been a swing in favour of abortion in this country. A democratic decision was made. Some 62% of the electorate in my constituency voted for abortion. I have met quite a number of people since who have told me they never realised the number of babies that would be aborted in this country. They are astonished. They thought there were a few difficult cases because that is the message they were sold. That is very sad.
Many people rather the subject of abortion not be brought up or discussed anymore because it is difficult for a lot of people. It is difficult for everybody. I know there are lovely people, whether inside in the Dáil or out there in the world, who have had abortions. I respect them and I understand the position they were in but they probably had no choice as such. They felt they had no choice but I believe there are choices out there. I am no expert and obviously I am not a woman. I respect that but while I am elected by the people of Cork South-West, I will continue to fight to save a life.
I will end by quoting an extremely good friend of mine, Pat McCarthy of Gurthdove, Goleen, who died yesterday. He was a very educated man. He said to me, when I mentioned abortion one time, that while there was a breath in his body, he would never support taking the breath from someone else's body. That man was buried in Kilmoe graveyard yesterday. Men and women like him educated me to oppose abortion in any way, shape or form. I plead with any woman who is going through a crisis pregnancy to come to my clinic and I will do everything humanly possible to help her. There is no point in anybody here or anywhere else in the world ever trying to change my mind. People should have the right to a peaceful protest. I will never agree with anybody screaming or shouting at people but a peaceful protest should be allowed. I will certainly support any amendments towards that end.
I welcome the doctors in the Public Gallery who are engaged in the provision of serves to women and have a very strong interest in this legislation passing, as do all of us who fought for many years to secure women's access to reproductive healthcare and rights to safe, legal abortion in our own country. It is so important we ensure this legislation is passed because, as I have said, its purpose is to ensure women will have safe access to healthcare services that women and girls so badly need in this country. It will also have the effect I spoke about earlier in deterring those who would seek to obstruct women's access to legal healthcare. It will have an encouraging and incentivising effect to ensure more doctors, healthcare providers and hospitals will feel empowered to offer this important service and join those who are already doing so but who, in many cases, may feel isolated in particular areas and who are facing intimidation. The Minister is aware, as we all are, that it will only be in a very small number of cases that we would ever expect to see the full power of the legislation used against those who persist in intimidating and obstructing women's access. This is not legislation that restricts the right to protest. It is really important that those who portray it as such go back and read what is in the Bill, in particular section 2, which clearly sets out a very high bar for any sort of Garda or policing intervention. I will speak in a moment about that.
The Labour Party amendment is an amendment to the Minister's amendment No. 4. I refer also to Deputy Shortall's amendment No. 2 and amendment No. 5 from Deputy Cullinane. All of the amendments in this group of amendments are seeking to do the same thing, that is, to ensure a review will be carried out in a relatively short and prescribed time and that it will not be open-ended. We say it should be 12 months and Deputy Cullinane says the process should be concluded within 24 months but we are all trying to do the same thing, namely, to ensure this is a time-limited review exercise. The reason is that we have waited five years for this legislation. We all know what we want to see it do and it will be apparent within a few months if it is having the desired effect of deterring protests, ensuring safe access for women and encouraging more medics to sign up. Those are the purposes this legislation seeks to serve and which we all want it to serve.
As I said, this is not about numbers of prosecutions, nor should it be, because there should not need to be many prosecutions. That high bar is there for a reason. In section 2, it is clearly provided that this is not a general prohibition on protest. It will not stop anyone from marching down O'Connell Street, or indeed Kildare Street, to express their view about abortion. Rather, it seeks to provide limits and restrictions on particular types of conduct and only where that conduct takes place within 100 m of a healthcare provider. The safe access zone location is very prescribed, as is the type of conduct. There are four types of conduct prescribed, namely, conduct which is likely to obstruct or impede people from accessing healthcare; conduct that is communication of material in a particular manner; conduct that is likely to threaten or intimidate; and the photographing, filming or recording by people.
There is, however, a further restriction and this is really the high bar, and I speak as somebody who has defended and worked in the Criminal Courts. There is the high bar of mens reaof intention or recklessness that is provided for each of these types of conduct. It is only going to be conduct that carries the restrictions if it is carried out with intent to influence the decision of a person around accessing termination of pregnancy services or being reckless as to whether such a decision is influence. It is, therefore, very restrictive and there are also warning provisions built in. Anyone who reads this legislation and comes to it with a fair and objective perspective will see it is very carefully calibrated. It is preposterous, therefore, to suggest that it would present some sort of slippery slope or set a precedent for curtailments of protest. I agree with Deputy Bríd Smith that it is outrageous to somehow conflate this legislation with any sort of law that might curb protests against, for example, the awful killings of civilians in Gaza. It is a completely different type of legislation. Deputy Smith is right in that it is much more akin to the legislation, which we all accept, that restricts behaviour within a certain distance of a polling station on election day. It is legislation of that nature. It is much more calibrated than the public order legislation that would otherwise be used and is being used currently by gardaí.
We need to ensure the legislation is effective. That is why we are all keen to see a time-limited review provision in place. That is why the Labour Party has put forward an amendment to the Minister's amendment, which simply proposes to replace the 18-month clause with a 12-month provision. This would time-limit the review process and ensure we will know in a fairly swift fashion whether the legislation can be said to be effective.
There are concerns. Deputy Shortall raised concerns around how the warning system works.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 has a rather similar provision under section 8, where it is an offence for somebody to fail to comply with a direction to move on by a garda. That is a similar provision. The warning system will certainly have to be tested to see if it works. There may only be a relatively small number of situations where gardaí are issuing warnings and where that second step is carried out. We will see in a few months whether the legislation is effective in the other ways that we hope it will be, that is, to deter protests, to ensure women have safe access and, of course, to encourage more providers to start providing services.
The key purpose is to ensure safe access. All of us want to ensure that women have safe access to their reproductive healthcare. We have had a shameful history in this country of restricting women's access to reproductive rights, healthcare and even contraception, until relatively recently. This legislation, far from being restrictive, is facilitative of safe access. That is the best and only appropriate way to view this legislation. It is facilitative and ensures safe access to services without impediment, intimidation and obstruction. For far too long, our rights of access to healthcare have been restricted and impeded. We have been intimidated. I will not speak about my own personal experience over many years. Certainly, I have been subjected to some pretty nasty protest, as many have, seeking to impede my expression of view as a pro-choice activist for many years. It is time that we moved forward. Sometimes, during this debate this evening, it feels like we have stepped back in time, but the people spoke five years ago and they spoke by a two thirds majority to ensure women would have access to reproductive healthcare, and this legislation seeks to facilitate that.
I thank the Deputies for tabling the various amendments. Building on what Deputy Bacik said, and again in response to Deputy Collins, I respect everybody's views on this. I knocked on many doors, as I know many of us did. I listened to many people with many deeply held views, not just on either end of this, but right across the board. As I also said, our country has a dark history when it comes to women's reproductive healthcare. One of the things that happened under the previous Government was the repeal of the eighth amendment to the Constitution and the provision of termination services. One thing that is happening under this Government is a strong focus on women's healthcare and, as a core part of that, women's reproductive rights. That includes the free contraception scheme, State-funded IVF, and a new mode of care for fertility, from general practitioner, through to secondary care and to IVF, if required. It includes a wider roll-out of more maternity services and putting the woman's choice front and centre. It includes the ongoing roll-out of termination of pregnancy services.
As part of that, the Bill makes sure that women who access these services in our State can do so free of harassment, abuse and intimidation. It makes sure that our healthcare providers can provide these services free of intimidation, harassment and abuse. That is it. This is about women being able to access services in our country with privacy and dignity, free from abuse, harassment and intimidation. That is what we are seeking to achieve with this Bill.
The amendment speaks specifically to a review. We all agree that we want a review. Deputies Shortall and Bacik have suggested a 12-month period whereas Deputy Cullinane has suggested a 24-month period. While there are differences with regard to commencement versus reports being finished, I am essentially proposing an amendment that states 18 months. I have taken the wording that I have used directly from the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. Deputy Cullinane referred to the review of that Act as positive. We are getting on with implementing it. The exact wording from that review, which I think we will all agree was done appropriately and well, and was valuable, was, "The Minister shall, not later than 3 years after the commencement of this section, carry out a review of the operation of this Act." That is the language in the 2018 Act, which we all agree was done well. I literally copied and pasted that clause. The amendment I am proposing states that the Minister shall, not later than 18 months, whereas it was three years for the 2018 Act, commencement of this section, commence a review of the operation of this Act. It is literally a copy and paste of the 2018 Act.
In response to Deputy Bacik's point of whether we should bring that down to 12 months, I do not think there is any right answer to this. My view and the clear advice I have is that we want to give it a bit longer so that there is sufficient evidence and practice. The incidences that we are looking to stop through this Bill, while entirely unacceptable, are relatively rare. They are not happening all over the country on any given week. I have no doubt that, when this Act is commenced, those incidences will fall right down. We just have to leave enough time for there to have been enough activity relevant to the Bill or Act to be able to act on it. That is all the 18 months is for.
I tabled this amendment, having listened carefully to colleagues on Committee Stage. I committed to the Select Committee on Health that I would table a review amendment to address exactly that point. We are addressing Deputy Shortall's initial amendment as well as the group. That amendment specifically relates to the recording of warnings. We have to go much broader and review the entire Act. I can tell her now that the recording of the warnings is included in the operation of the Act. It is one of the elements of the Act. For that reason, while fully respecting everyone's views, I hope colleagues will support the proposal I have tabled.
I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate on this group. The Minister talked about the need for a broader review; I agree with him. That will take some time. We have to allow some time to see the operation of the legislation. His amendment refers to, "the findings of the review and of the conclusions drawn from those findings and cause copies of the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas." It then states that, in conducting the review, he will consult with the Minister for Justice. It is right that that kind of broader review that he speaks about should take place. We are looking at a situation where the best case scenario is two years, from what the Minister has set out in his amendment.
There is a need for a specific review and a system of recording, which is required for this legislation to be effective and which does not currently exist. That is why I am saying I do not think we should allow a lengthy lapse of time because we all want this legislation to work. It is really important for people accessing health services and also for people who want to provide the services but where there might be a chilling effect at the moment. It is important that there should be a specific, focused review within a 12-month period because do not want to let things slide for any longer in the event that the system is not working. For that reason, I will press my amendment.
I do not want to split hairs on this issue. I do not contend at all that the Minister is being unreasonable, but neither are those of us who are making our arguments. I made a point earlier that I will repeat and not labour. The Minister's amendment states that he shall, "not later than 18 months after the commencement of this section, commence a review" as opposed to completing a review. My amendment No. 5 seeks to have a report completed within 24 months. I do not think that is splitting hairs. There is a difference. I respect what the Minister said about taking the wording from the 2018 Act.
That was a good review. It was done in a timely fashion. It does not mean it will happen in this case. We are being asked to take a leap of faith. I am not saying there will be any bad faith on the part of the Minister but, having said this, while the Minister said he is moving it and progressing the review I am speaking about, I would take issue with the operational issues flowing from the Bill and certainly the legislative provisions. I have not seen anything from the Cabinet or the Government that suggests there is any speed or urgency about these particular recommendations. In fact, I have to put it to the Minister that I have seen the opposite. This is not to create a row or to create dissent. It is just my view. I want to see progress on it.
I have made my point. I do not believe the Minister is being unreasonable. I take the view that this is a very good Bill. I take the view that it is positive. I take the view that it is a step forward. I want to make another point which, for me, is important. Earlier a Deputy said somebody who goes to see a relative or friend in a clinic, GP surgery or hospital that provides abortion services could be arrested or could be subjected to the provisions of the Bill. This is clearly not the case. It is very important for us to be clear about what the Bill does and does not do. Such comments are made to sow confusion and it is wrong.
We all want to see an effective review process built into the Bill and all of the amendments, including that of the Minister, are aimed at this purpose. I appreciate that the Minister's amendment provides terms similar to the 2018 Act. As others have done, I commend Marie O'Shea and the review process of the operation of the 2018 Act. It was commendable.
The safe access zone Bill is very different. It contains a much more confined set of provisions. It is much shorter and it deals with a discrete issue. I note the point that the Minister has chosen 18 months rather than the three years in the 2018 Act. Three years was a much more appropriate time period for an Act that had so many more provisions and set in place an entire new system of very important healthcare. This is very much a facilitative Bill that is looking to provide for safe access rules. It is a much smaller and more confined policy issue.
Deputy Shortall's point on the need for a specific review into the effectiveness of the system of recording warnings is a good one. All of us also agreed that the broader review of the operation of the legislation is necessary. We will not oppose the Minister's amendment because it is far more preferable to have a review, even if it is not as time limited as we would like. The idea of having it after 12 months is preferable.
I thank the Deputies. Deputy Shortall's ask about the specific part of the Bill will be included in the broader review. Then it is just a question of 12 months or 18 months. There is no mathematically correct answer to any of this. To respond to Deputy Bacik's point, this will be a much simpler review. I anticipate there will be very few incidents to review because of the impact of the Act. Therefore, the advice I have is to let it run longer.
I want to point out that the wording we have is that it will be done after, not later than, 18 months. This does not preclude doing it after 12 months or six months. Whoever is Minister for Health will be free to initiate the review earlier than 18 months. What this states is that they can wait no longer than 18 months. I have taken the wording from the 2018 Act because it worked. It did exactly what it was meant to do and, therefore, I am using the exact same mechanism here.
I echo Deputy Cullinane's note. I would hate people watching this debate to think that somehow they could inadvertently be arrested or commit an offence on the basis of the Bill. This cannot happen. In fact, the written warning from An Garda Síochána is there for precisely this reason. If anybody protesting in good faith finds themselves in a safe access zone and does not know it, or is not aware of the provisions of the Bill and that what they are doing is prohibited, the Garda will provide a warning. No offence will have been committed at that stage. A warning does not constitute an offence. It is only if, having been clearly warned by An Garda Síochána with a written warning, that people continue with what they have been informed is prohibited activity, that they will have committed an offence.
I can only operate on the basis of the words in the Minister's amendment which state a review will be commenced after "not later than 18 months". There is no timeline for the length of the review. It also states that as soon as practicable after the completion of the review a report will be produced. This could be anything from two years up. This is my concern. I am saying we should not let this slide where there is quite serious doubt about the system of recording warnings to enable an offence to be prosecuted.
Let us see if it works. I hope it does work. Many of us have concerns about the feasibility of this. This is why I am saying that within 12 months we should get a report on the operation of this specific aspect of the legislation. It does not have to be a lengthy report or review. It is specifically on this aspect as to whether this works and whether the Garda has a system in place that is workable. This is all I am looking for. We all want to see this legislation being effective and put in place in a workable manner as quickly as possible.
Chris Andrews, Ivana Bacik, Mick Barry, John Brady, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Holly Cairns, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Mairead Farrell, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Johnny Guirke, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Cian O'Callaghan, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Pauline Tully, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet-Anne Wynne.
Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Dara Calleary, Seán Canney, Ciarán Cannon, Michael Collins, 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, Seán Fleming, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Helen McEntee, Mattie McGrath, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Verona Murphy, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Richard O'Donoghue, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, John Paul Phelan, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Peadar Tóibín.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 7, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following: “(6) The Minister may, following consultation with the Minister for Justice, prescribe by way of regulation, the systems which shall be used to record warnings issued under subsection (2).”.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 7, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following: “Review of operation of Act
6.(1) The Minister shall—(a) not later than 18 months after the commencement of this section, commence a review of the operation of this Act, and(2) In conducting a review under this section, the Minister may consult with the Minister for Justice and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate for the purpose of the review.”.
(b) as soon as practicable after the completion of the review, prepare a report, in writing, of the findings of the review and of the conclusions drawn from those findings and cause copies of the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 7, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following: “Review of operation of Act
7.The Minister shall, within 24 months of the passing of this Act, carry out a review of the operation of the Act, to include in particular a review of the effectiveness and operationalisation of section 4(2)which shall make recommendations on whether a system for recording a warning under section 4(2)should be prescribed by regulation.”.
Chris Andrews, Ivana Bacik, Mick Barry, Cathal Berry, John Brady, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Martin Browne, Richard Bruton, Pat Buckley, Colm Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Holly Cairns, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Niall Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Réada Cronin, Cathal Crowe, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Dessie Ellis, Alan Farrell, Mairead Farrell, Frank Feighan, Seán Fleming, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Brendan Griffin, Johnny Guirke, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Alan Kelly, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Mary Lou McDonald, Helen McEntee, Michael McGrath, Joe McHugh, Michael Moynihan, Imelda Munster, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Denis Naughten, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe 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, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Eamon Ryan, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Brendan Smith, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, Brian Stanley, David Stanton, Pauline Tully, Leo Varadkar, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet-Anne Wynne.