Fire Services Bill, 1981: Report Stage.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 10, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:

"(3) For the purpose of an investigation under subsection (2) (d) the Council shall have discretion as to the manner in which the investigation shall be carried out and in particular may carry out the investigation wholly or partly in public and the Council or a person authorised by the Council (in this section referred to as an authorised person) may—

(a) enter at all reasonable times and inspect any land or building,

(b) take on to land or into a building any person or equipment and examine, test or take samples of any thing,

(c) by notice in writing require any person to give any relevant information or produce plans or documents and for such purpose to attend and to give evidence before the Council or an authorised person, and

(d) take evidence on oath and for that purpose administer an oath.

(4) Any person who—

(a) refuses entry to any land or building for the purpose of this section, or

(b) obstructs or impedes the Council or an authorised person in the exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (3) *, or

(c) fails or refuses to comply with any requirement of the Council or an authorised person, or

(d) wilfully or recklessly gives to the Council or an authorised person any information which is false or misleading in a material respect,

shall be guilty of an offence.".

On Committee Stage, a number of Deputies urged me to consider giving the council powers to conduct inspections, require the attendance of persons and take evidence on oath for an investigation of fire or other incident under subsection 2(d) of section 16 and that provision should be made for public hearings. I carefully examined all the points made by the Deputies and, in response, I put down the amendment before you and which I believe answers the criticisms made. The amendment gives the council itself or a person conducting an investigation on their behalf, power to enter lands or buildings at any reasonable hour and conduct an inspection. They may also take other persons or equipment with them and are being given power to carry out any necessary tests or to take samples for testing. They will also have power to compel a person to provide information or documentation relevant to the investigation and to require a person to give evidence on oath, if necessary.

While the council will be free to decide how they should carry out their investigation they will also have discretion to decide whether all or part of it should be held in public. As I stressed on Committee Stage, if there is need for a full-scale public judicial inquiry, the powers under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts, 1921-1979, can be availed of, as they were in the case of the Whiddy and Stardust tribunals. It should be remembered also that, in view of the obligations imposed by section 18, in future more fires are likely to come under scrutiny by the courts. While this amendment gives the council discretion to conduct the investigation in their own way and to determine procedures to be followed. I must emphasise that it it is my belief and intention that the power of investigation given to a council should be used as informally as possible. I expect the council will get the co-operation of people connected with incidents being investigated and the powers which the amendment seeks to confer should be regarded as reserve powers only to be used when absolutely necessary. I hope this amendment meets the points raised by various Deputies on both sections 16 and 22.

I welcome the change of heart by the Minister. I am glad he took the opportunity of the week's delay from Committee to Report Stages to reconsider the stand which he took on Committee Stage debate on the previous amendment. This is a vast improvement and meets many of the arguments we made in the four-hour session when we discussed his original proposals included in amendment No. 12 on Committee Stage. Our argument then was that the type of investigation to be carried out by the Fire Services Council, as envisaged in the amendment, was far too weak and left too many loopholes with regard to inquiries. This new power now envisaged by the Minister is much stronger.

If the Minister and the Government have had an opportunity to consider the situation, is the Minister yet in a position to say what type of inquiry will be held into the Bundoran fire? We discussed the Bundoran tragedy at great length on Committee Stage and it was regrettable that the Minister was unable to confirm commitments made in the past, when his party were in opposition, with regard to holding a public inquiry into the tragedy. The Minister has gone so far to meet the wishes of the Fianna Fáil Party with regard to the amendment on Report Stage that he should go the rest of the way and let us know which form of inquiry is to be used in the investigation of the Bundoran tragedy. The argument repeatedly put forward by the Minister on Committee Stage was that pending the passing of this legislation through The Dáil and Seanad and signing by the President and the setting up of the council, he would stay his hand with regard to the type of inquiry to be set up.

The Minister has come forward with this type of amendment which calls for witnesses and evidence under oath. This is similar to the tribunal of inquiry to be set up up under the 1921 Act. Would the Minister care to comment on what type of inquiry there will be? On Committee Stage we argued this point at great length and the Minister should give us this information. What will be the tribunal's terms of reference? Who will chair it? On what date will it first sit? The Minister made the point that in his view the need for a public inquiry is not now so urgent because of the time lag since the tragedy. However, I do not share that view because it has been revealed that there was a leak of part of the Garda report and there is a sense of unease in the public mind because there are other reports available on file which are not available to the public. I ask the Minister to release this information.

I do not want to spend this evening discussing the need for an inquiry into the Bundoran tragedy, although this comes under this amendment which says:

(3) For the purpose of an investigation under subsection (2) (d) the Council shall have discretion as to the manner in which the investigation shall be carried out and in particular may carry out the investigation wholly or partly in public and the Council or a person authorised by the Council (in this section referred to as an authorised person) may—

(a) enter at all reasonable times and inspect any land or building.

We argued that a discretion similar to the power envisaged in the Bill for the staff of fire authorities should be extended to the council and its staff and agents. I am glad the Minister accepts our point and has included in this amendment which reads: "the Council shall have discretion as to the manner in which the investigation shall be carried out". Will the council be totally independent of the Minister? On Committee Stage the Minister's amendment No. 12 to section 16 read:

16.—(1) The Minister may by order establish a body which shall be known as the Fire Services Council (in this section referred to as the Council) to perform such services for or on behalf of the Minister or fire authorities as he may specify from time to time.

In section 1 we are talking about the investigations carried out on the Minister's behalf from time to time. New section 3 says "the Council shall have discretion as to the manner in which the investigation shall be carried out". Will the council be totally independent and carry out investigations without instructions from the Minister? Will they carry out investigations with the co-operation of the Minister? How does the Minister see section 1 and new section 3 sitting together?

I am concerned about the public aspect of these inquiries. In this amendment it says that the council "may carry out the investigation wholly or partly in public and the Council or a person authorised by the Council..." Fianna Fáil will be asking for the Bundoran fire tragedy inquiry to be held wholly in public, whether it is set up under the 1921 Act or under this council. All inquiries by this council into any tragedy or disaster, whether fire, flood or any other tragedy, should be held in public. The Bill envisages that the fire authorities will not only be active in the area of fires but also in the performance of other duties. Section 25 says:

A fire authority may carry out or assist in any operations of an emergency nature, whether or not a risk of fire is involved, and a fire authority may accordingly make such provision for the rescue or safeguarding of persons and protection of property as it considers necessary for the purposes of that function.

An emergency situation can cover a train crash, a building collapsing and many other different types of tragedy and in such cases the public have a right to know what happened. There should not be even a suspicion of an attempt by bureaucracy to hide details of tragedies from the public and that is why investigations by this council should be held in public at all times. While there might be only one person involved in a tragedy, his family, neighbours and the community at large have as much right to know the full details of what happened that night as the families of people involved in a tragedy where 30 or 40 lives were lost. I ask the Minister to accept that the need for public accountability is vital in investigations into tragedies.

The Minister's amendment in paragraph (a) about entering at all reasonable times to inspect any land or building, is a step forward and an indication that he has accepted the arguments put forward by this side of the House. The same applies to paragraph (b) in the Minister's amendment. It is along the lines of the points argued by this side of the House and by Deputy Mervyn Taylor on the Government side. This brings me to the question of funding of the Fire Services Council. Taking on these powers will involve the Fire Services Council in recruiting advisers and experts when investigating any tragedy. That means manpower and money. We all accept that the Bill, a comprehensive piece of legislation, reorganises the fire service, sets out general obligations with regard to fire safety and involves a change from fire fighting to fire prevention. In this area of fire prevention it will be necessary to employ experts and additional staff. It will also be necessary to retrain existing staff That leads me to the embargo of last July on the employment of additional staff in the public service.

When the Committee Stage debate commenced the Minister gave as an assurance that there would be no problem with regard to staff for the operation of the provisions in the Bill. He gave that categoric assurance but on the second day the Bill was discussed that assurance was somewhat watered down and the Minister was less than positive. The last thing we need at this stage is legislation that will not be implemented. There is a legitimate demand from the public for a reorganisation of the fire fighting services, not only fire fighting but fire prevention also. That demand has arisen because of the concern that has developed following the tragedies that occurred in the last two years. It is possible that all political parties have been lax in the past with regard to a commitment to the fire service, recognising that there were demands for the development of other services such as libraries, roads and so on. As a result the fire services did not get the attention they should have from all political parties, but it has now received a commitment in the form of this Bill and to the extent that we have the task force under the Fire Prevention Council operating, and the new building regulations operating without legal force but operating in most local authority areas. Those improvements in safety and standards are welcome but when we pass this legislation our citizens will expect, rightly, that the Government will be serious about this business and will put the various provisions in the Bill into operation.

I should like an assurance from the Minister that he will employ whatever extra personnel are necessary to implement fully all the provisions in the Bill. We want to see the fire authorities operating; we want to see the transfers involved and we want to see all authorities involving themselves in the area of fire prevention. On Committee Stage the Minister moved an amendment, which we accepted, concerning fire hydrants. That definition of a fire hydrant in section 2 is a commitment by the Oireachtas that when the hydrant is erected it will be inspected by the local authorities and the fire personnel of those authorities. It is vitally important in the event of a fire that firemen are able to go to a site and be sure that the hydrant is in working order. Inspection of such hydrants involves manpower and overtime. It involves money and a commitment by the Government to employ additional manpower. The operations of the Fire Services Council also involve considerable expense.

I will not accept a reply from the Minister to the effect that the staff will be made available. I expect that he will put forward a clarification, such as he did in the case of Tallaght station, that that station is being manned as part of the overall manning level of the local authority in which it is sited. Therefore, the overall manning level is not increased by the new service. In fact, it is being reduced by the number of firemen necessary to man that new station. As a result some other section of that authority suffers, whether it is road sweepers, maintenance men on housing estates, those involved in maintaining public parks or those involved in the construction of footpaths and roads. The overall manning level is reduced by the manpower necessary to staff that station. It is right that the fire station should be manned but it should not be done at the expense of some other service in the local authority area. That is why I want an assurance from the Minister that in implementing the provisions of this legislation the manpower involved will be additional to what is in existence already. I accept that there may be room for reorganisation — there is always room for improvement and productivity in any service, even one as efficient as some of our fire services are — but I want a commitment that once the Bill is passed the Government will not adopt the attitude that that ends their commitment to the fire service. I hope the Government do not hold that the passing of the legislation will cover any criticisms from the general public or that in reply to questions in the House they will say that they are examining the Act now that it has been passed. We are all aware of the bureaucratic and political delays that can occur but I want to hear the Minister say that there will be no such delay in this case. The legislation is too important to allow it to suffer from the Scrooge mentality of the Department of Finance. I accept the goodwill of the Minister when he says that this will not happen but I should like him to realise that in his battle with the Department of Finance he will have not only us on his side but also the full support of the general public who, legitimately, are concerned about the inadequacies of our fire protection and prevention services. Many of those inadequacies will be put right by the full implementation of this legislation.

Paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (3) represent a very important acceptance by the Minister of the points made by us during Committee Stage. These provisions which relate to the production of relevant information, plans or documents as well as to attendance for the purpose of giving evidence before the council and to the taking of evidence on oath are very important. They are central to the credibility of the type of inquiry to be set up by the fire council and they remove from my mind any suspicion or doubt I had that the type of inquiry to be held might be less than searching or less than revealing. If somebody refuses to give evidence that is required of him he will be guilty of an offence under the Act. The penalties in this regard are severe — £10,000 fine or two years in jail. I assume that is the penalty that will be involved but that is not spelled our here. The other penalty is the £500 penalty and six months in jail. The Minister might clarify which penalty is to apply in the event of lack of co-operation or refusal to co-operate with the inquiry.

I am happy that the Minister realised the validity of the arguments we put forward in the long debate on Committee Stage. This is a total justification, if such were necessary, for having a Committee Stage debate during which details of a Bill can be teased out. Now that the Minister has gone so far I should like him to clarify the type of inquiry that is to be undertaken. In both cases the inquiry is to be sworn but we should like to hear which type of inquiry will apply in this case. In any event, the inquiry should be public. While the Bill is going through the Seanad perhaps the Minister would amend it so as to exclude the words "or partly" and thereby ensure that investigations will be in public. One can understand the need for some evidence being taken in private, perhaps technical evidence, but the need for a public inquiry is vital. I welcome the amendment.

Like Deputy Burke, I welcome the Bill in its amended form. It is a valuable addition to the fire services system and to the operation of fire authorities. I regret, however, that there remains in the Bill one provision that I can regard only as a retrogressive measure, a measure that so far as progressive thinking is concerned puts the clock back. I refer to that measure which grants an immunity to the Minister——

We are on amendment No. 1. The Deputy's amendment has not been reached yet.

I am sorry but I thought we had moved on to No.2.

When we were discussing this Bill on Tuesday last I raised the matter that is being dealt with in this amendment. At the time the Minister seemed to think that I was throwing water on the measure, so to speak. It would be far from me to do anything of that kind. With due respect to the people who drafted the Bill, the section in question could not have been operated as drafted originally. I stated at the time that the evidence that is called will not be on oath. I believe there will be a cloud over such evidence. The Minister's amendment has improved the Bill and meets our requirements. The councils and corporations will need the necessary personnel to implement this Bill. I do not believe they have the necessary personnel to do that and to inspect the many premises in their counties or corporations. Last week the Minister stated that no additional personnel will be employed and that personnel for this work will only be employed if there is a retirement or if a person leaves that employment to go to other employment.

This is the kernel of the Bill and of the amendment we are dealing with. Subsection (3) (a) of the amendment states:

Enter at all reasonable times and inspect any land or building.

A vast number of people congregate in buildings, especially in the large urban areas. When anything happens it is easy to throw around the blame and to say that the inspections were not carried out. When something happens it is the usual cant to look for a scapegoat. That is not good enough. This side of the House will have to be assured that the necessary personnel are available. In view of the embargo on additional employment imposed by the Minister for Finance, the Bill will be hampered. A number of people engaged in this type of work have informed me that they have not sufficient personnel to enforce the Bill when it is passed.

I am glad to see in subsection (3) (c) of the amendment that evidence will now be taken under oath. As I stated last week, if evidence is not taken under oath the person involved might not attend a hearing and, even if the person attended the hearing, the evidence might leave a lot to be desired. I have some reservations about an inquiry being held partly in public and partly in private. It may leave it open to suspicion, if it is held in private, that there is some type of a cover up in regard to evidence. It is hard to define what a major investigation is, because that is open to interpretation. I do not want to get into the legal aspect of that. If it is a major investigation like Bundoran or an inquiry of that nature, this would apply. I believe a public inquiry should be held in respect of the Bundoran disaster. I hope the Minister will give us an indication when that will take place. The sooner that takes place the better from the public point of view. Subsection (4) (d) of the amendment states:

wilfully or recklessly gives to the Council or an authorised person any information which is false or misleading in a material respect shall be guilty of an offence.

I understand what the word "offence" means but will that be a fine of £5,000, £10,000, three months in jail, 12 months in jail, or both? This is a very interesting point. I would like the Minister to tell us what is the penalty for an offence of that nature. If the penalty is not big enough it will not carry sufficient weight. It is most important that the Minister should spell out clearly what is the amount involved. I hope when the fire council are set up they will have sufficient personnel to deal with an inquiry. I hope they will not have to ask other consultant experts to help them. If consultants are called in, this can cost thousands of pounds.

Debate adjourned.