Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

10:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

I support the amendment put forward by Senator Bacik. In fact, I would prefer the amendment put forward by Senator Bacik to my own. I recognise that this is work that Deputy Howlin very much brought forward and I commend the Deputy for the rigorous debate he brought to this issue in the other House.

The preferable option would be the deletion of this line. It is at a minimum unnecessary in that the definition of "direction" in the Bill, as was said, is already explicitly direction given under a relevant provision. The Bill states: ""direction" means a direction given under section 31A(7) of the Act of 1947 in relation to a relevant provision;". The word "direction" already covers it. It is at a minimum unnecessary but the greater concern is it sends a signal of ambiguity.

There has been reference to compliance. When all of the countries were being reviewed in April or May last as to how different countries were doing in their response to Covid, it is important to note Ireland fell down on certain areas. Our testing and tracing was not up and running, as it should have been. We did not have the ICT capacity that we needed. There were certain other areas, particularly, as we have seen, congregated settings which was well-flagged as a serious concern. Congregated settings, like direct provision centres and residential homes, were areas where we were being told Ireland was behind in terms of addressing them.

The area where Ireland scored highest in terms of response to Covid was on public engagement, and that was important. That was what brought our average up in terms of our response to the crisis in May. It is important that we keep that sense of public trust and part of that is clarity and a signal, such as a message on the words "or otherwise". My amendment supports the removal of the line as a whole but I focused on the two words which are a key concern for us, namely, "or otherwise". It is not clear what is meant by "or otherwise". It sends an unhelpful signal of ambiguity. It is a relevant provision or otherwise. If it is the case that "or otherwise" means the exact same as the relevant provision, which is simply measures under section 31A(7) of the Act of 1947, then we should be removing "or otherwise" as it sends a signal. However, "or otherwise" does not only mean that. It could mean anything. It is vaguely worded. It is open to different applications.

What I propose, in my amendments, is more wide-ranging. Perhaps the intention was to encompass some of the other regulations that were made under section 31A beyond subsection (7). If it is, for example, other aspects of section 31A that are envisioned as being subject to direction, that creates some concerns because section 31A involves regulations made by the Minister and it is wide-ranging, but at least we would know that it was related to section 31A and perhaps, for example, subject to the sunset clauses in respect of that section.My amendment simply states that we replace "or otherwise" with a narrowing to section 31A of the Act of 1947. As I say, the relevant provision covers section 31A(7). My additional text covers the wider parts of section 31A.

Moreover, I have another version of the amendment - one which I think is preferable - which clarifies that it should only cover the regulations that have already been made under section 31A. Obviously, under section 31A, the Minister may make new health regulations. It is difficult for us in this House to give carte blanchepowers to the Garda to implement regulations that do not even exist, that might be made under section 31A and the contents of which are unknown to us. My preference would be to remove this and narrow this Bill to the purpose for which it is set out, which is in relation to Garda actions in licensed premises and the specific areas under section 31A(7). My second preference would be that we would narrow it to section 31A(7) and other regulations which have already been made and are in the public domain and known under section 31A. A third, far less favourable option would be to narrow it to section 31A to encompass such regulations as are made under that Act on an ongoing basis. All of those options at least give some sense of what we are referring to whereas the vague use of language, such as "or otherwise", could mean anything. It could mean regulations under any area. There is no limit on what "or otherwise" might be. It simply says, under section 31(7), "whether in relation to a relevant provision or otherwise". We need clarity.

To be honest, Deputy Howlin probably argued it much better and clear than have I. The Deputy was very clear on the "or otherwise" language. It is unnecessary language. If it was removed, it would give assurance. If not, I would ask that they would accept, if they do not accept the amendment from the Labour Group, to consider my amendments as at least adding some narrowness or clarity.

There are other relevant issues, for example, the health and safety standards within licensed premises for staff. I do not know if these are intended to be covered by the "or otherwise" provision, but I imagine not. We are hearing about these new enforcement powers that we need to give the Garda but, before we broke up for the summer recess, we highlighted the fact that there were only 67 health and safety inspection officials under the Health and Safety Authority for the whole country. There were only 67 staff in charge of inspecting every workplace including licensed premises - a large number of new workplaces that will now come into play. In order to enter a premises, those health and safety officials rightly require a warrant and they require to be accompanied by the Garda. I would like the Minister to indicate, as we are giving these additional powers to the Garda to enter premises in respect of these regulations, whether there will be additional resources - perhaps even secondment - or designated resources, even including Garda resources, allocated to the Health and Safety Authority to ensure that the normal and necessary practices around workplace standards and health and safety standards and inspections are proceeding as usual, because I would be concerned at the redirection of Garda resources towards these regulations at a time when the tools we already have are not properly being used. I urge the Minister of State to accept either Senator Bacik's amendments or my own.

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