I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill, entitled the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010 provides, as indicated in the Long Title, for amendment of existing legislation on civil legal aid, civil liability, private security services, intoxicating liquor, equality, bankruptcy, maintenance of spouses and children, solicitors, conveyancing, statutory declarations and domestic violence.
While many of the provisions in this type of Bill are technical only, there are important changes that will strengthen the law and make it more efficient and effective. The explanatory memorandum provided with the Bill on publication is detailed and will be of assistance to those Deputies wishing to familiarise themselves with the various provisions of the Bill that form, in total, as many as nine Parts.
I propose to comment on what might be regarded as the more important features of the Bill. I say that with some hesitation because the Bill is a response to a large number of inputs from a wide range of particular interests who have recommended or sought changes in the law. To mention just a few, it has involved the Legal Aid Board, the Courts Service, the Private Security Authority, the anti-human trafficking unit of my Department, the Law Reform Commission and other Departments. While each of the changes now provided are important in themselves, some changes will have a greater impact than others. What we call the Statute Book will, I think, be generally enhanced by the provisions in the Bill but better still, as I am sure Members will agree, is that the lives of people, the organisation of some agencies and the public interest will be better served.
Part 2 of the Bill gives statutory backing to allow the Legal Aid Board to provide legal advice in relation to criminal matters to alleged victims of human trafficking offences in connection with the trafficking or related offences and any related prosecution. The Legal Aid Board will be in a position to provide legal advice to victims of human trafficking all through the criminal justice process to ensure that the victim is fully protected and advised of his or her role as a witness. The amendment will enable full effect to be given the Council of Europe Convention on action against trafficking in human beings and to a UN protocol on trafficking in persons, in particular women and children. I arranged for the ratification of these instruments this summer, both of which are in operation in the State.
The Government takes seriously the crime of human trafficking. The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 criminalises trafficking of persons for sexual or labour exploitation and provides for penalties of up to life imprisonment. The high level interdepartmental group on combating trafficking in human beings and a dedicated anti-human trafficking unit have been established in my Department to co-ordinate a comprehensive, holistic and whole of Government response to the issue of human trafficking. A national action plan to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings was published in June 2009. The plan provides the blueprint for the State's response to this issue.
Once a potential victim comes to the attention of the competent authority, which for cases of human trafficking is the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, they are immediately offered access to a range of services. These include accommodation with the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, medical and support services through a HSE care plan based on their individual needs and legal services provided by the Legal Aid Board. On enforcement, the Garda Síochána has identified trafficking in human beings as one of its priorities in the annual policing plan and has established a human trafficking investigation and co-ordination unit in the Garda National Immigration Bureau. There is a dedicated website —www.blueblindfold.gov.ie - and a hotline number and an e-mail address to which people can report any suspicions of human trafficking to the Garda Síochána.
Part 3 of the Bill is aresponse to those in voluntary groups or organisations who have asked for more clarity in the law in regard to persons who act in good faith as Good Samaritans to provide assistance in the event of an accident or emergency and where persons volunteer to provide care, advice or assistance to others. Voluntary activity is, of course, essential in any society. It is important that the law should, as far as possible, protect those who are committed to making a positive difference in the communities in which they live and work. The new provisions are framed on the basis of recommendations from the Law Reform Commission which was asked by the then Attorney General — the late and very esteemed Rory Brady — to consider the civil liability of those Good Samaritans who intervene to assist and help an injured person. I am glad to be in a position now to implement the recommendations of the commission albeit with some technical and legal changes. The new law will mean that protection is provided from liability for persons involved in voluntary work for charitable or other purposes for the benefit of society, including sports, recreation and rescue. While the Bill sets out an ordinary standard of care for volunteer organisations, provision is also made for account to be taken of the benefit accruing to society as a result of the organisation's work in determining whether it is just and reasonable to impose liability. To achieve balance in the law, volunteers will be required to act in a way that does not contribute to gross negligence, while the volunteer organisation with whom they operate will be held to the higher standard of ordinary negligence.
In this regard, I acknowledge the initiative of Deputies Timmins and Flanagan in sponsoring a Private Members' Bill on the matter. I think that they will agree that the provisions that I have brought forward will meet in full their concerns in this area.
The amendments contained in Part 4 of the Bill, again many of them quite technical in nature, will result in the strengthening of the capacity of the Private Security Authority, PSA, in areas such as licensing and enforcement and will enable it to keep up to date in an evolving industry dealing with ongoing technological advances. The PSA has brought about a significant and welcome transformation of the security industry over the past few years. There are in addition many acknowledged positive benefits for the industry itself, the wider business community and the public alike, including a reduction in the potential for criminal activity.
On the basis of experience of operation of the PSA over the past number of years, it has become clear that its effectiveness can be improved by the changes provided for in the Bill. The amendments provide for improvements to the licensing process of the authority, including technical changes to certain aspects of the renewal procedures and the ability to grant a temporary licence in particular circumstances. The expansion of the authority's powers to request information, in the case of a contractor, from a wider group of individuals than is currently the case will augment further what are already very substantial gains to the State arising from tax certification and other compliance measures brought about through the licensing process.
Security services are the subject of change owing to advances in technology and it is important that the legislation underpinning the authority takes this into account. The amendments of the Private Security Services Act provided for in Part 4 of the Bill help to update the Act. They will also facilitate changes in the fee structure of the Private Security Authority. Provision is made to allow the authority to appoint persons, in addition to its own staff, to be an inspector and so give the authority the ability to contract in outside inspectors, if necessary. A useful new provision is that the authority will be in a position to issue a temporary licence to an applicant who is a new entrant to the industry for a period not exceeding six months, during which the applicant can prove he or she has the necessary competence to perform the security services in question. The authority may, in exceptional circumstances, extend the temporary licence for a further three month period, if necessary. I am also making provision to allow the authority to recover, through the fees charged, as much of the expenses incurred in running it as it considers appropriate.
Part 5 of the Bill makes provision for statutory backing for codes of conduct in relation to the sale and supply of intoxicating liquor. This is an important provision which is designed to encourage voluntary compliance with licensing law provisions by licensees generally, or categories of licensees, and will complement the Garda's overall enforcement programme. It forms part, therefore, of the Government's strategy to continue to combat alcohol-related harm in our society. Deputies may recall that during discussions leading up to enactment of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 I was asked by representative bodies in the mixed trading sector to consider the possibility of a voluntary code of practice as an alternative to the statutory provisions requiring structural separation of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets such as supermarkets and convenience stores. I agreed to this subject to agreement on the terms of such a code and independent verification of compliance with it.
The code of practice for the mixed trading sector was subsequently agreed and the sector appointed Mr. Pádraic White as chairperson of a new body, Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland, RRAI, to oversee its implementation. He submitted his first compliance report last autumn which showed that considerable progress had been made in the code's first year of operation. I am expecting submission of the 2010 report shortly. The purpose of section 14 is to give codes of practice, which have been entered into voluntarily by licence holders, quasi-legal status. It provides that while non-compliance with such a code will not be an offence and, therefore, will not attract a fine or other such penalty, non-compliance will constitute a ground upon which an objection to renewal of the licence concerned can be made. This will help to ensure that licensees implement the terms of any codes to which they have signed up and will give the Garda and instrument to promote compliance.
This section will permit the drawing up and implementation of voluntary codes to cover areas of licensing law but also areas such as the advertising and marketing of alcohol products and staff training, which are not covered by the licensing code.
I want to stress that such codes will not replace but will rather complement statutory provisions. They will not reduce enforcement of the law but rather assist in promoting compliance. Licensees who commit offences under licensing law will continue to be prosecuted by the gardaí in our courts if offences are committed.
The Bill, in Part 6, provides for a small number of amendments to the Equality Acts. These amendments are intended to improve the efficiency and user friendliness of the Equality Tribunal in handling complaints and to take into account legal decisions at both national and EU level. I have agreed with my colleague, the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, to incorporate the amendments in this Bill so that the legislative changes can be effected at an early date.
The amendments provide that the tribunal may, where appropriate, deal with cases on the basis of written submissions alone; state a case to the High Court and avoid further litigation by way of appeal; in situations where mediation has failed, the deadline for application for resumption of the hearing is extended; and the maximum amount that may be awarded in employment equality cases is increased to two years' remuneration or €40,000, whichever is greater, to provide for greater redress in situations of low-paid employment. This is designed to align the text of national law more closely with European Union equality directives. The Bill, in Part 7, will provide for certain limited amendments to the current Bankruptcy Act 1988. I have already indicated to the House on a number of occasions that I will give early attention to the final report of the Law Reform Commission on Personal Debt Management and Debt Enforcement, which is expected in the near future.
Current Irish personal insolvency law, in the opinion of Government and the commission, is in need of comprehensive reform. The Bankruptcy Act 1988 is inappropriate to meet the needs of our modern social and economic conditions. The commission, in its interim report of May 2010, recommended that, as a modest stepping stone towards more comprehensive reform of bankruptcy, the period for application to the court for discharge for bankrupt persons be reduced from 12 years to six years. It has been stated that such a reduction may have limited effect because even after a six year period has expired, further obstacles exist to the debtor's discharge, that is, payment in full of all expenses, fees and costs of the bankruptcy, as well as all preferential payments — primarily to the Revenue Commissioners — before a discharge can be obtained. As these costs and preferential debts will often amount to very large sums, in the majority of cases a debtor will be unable to meet these amounts at any stage and therefore they may remain bankrupt indefinitely. Nevertheless, the change I am making will assist those who may be in a position to meet their liabilities and, therefore, re-engage in economic activity in society.
I am providing, for the first time in Irish law, for the automatic discharge of bankruptcies on the 20th anniversary of the adjudication order in these cases. This will assist in the discharge of long-term bankrupt persons and will allow the official assignee in bankruptcy to put closure in his office on what are called legacy bankruptcies that clog up the bankruptcy system.
Part 8 of the Bill addresses difficulties which have arisen consequent on the judgment of the High Court in the McCann case of 2009 concerning the modalities of enforcement of orders for the recovery of civil debt. In that judgment, the High Court found that the Enforcement of Court Orders Act 1940 lacked a number of necessary safeguards in circumstances where a person is at risk of imprisonment. Following this judgment, the Enforcement of Court Orders (Amendment) Act 2009 inserted a series of amendments designed to protect debtors and impose obligations on the creditor. However, this has given rise, unfortunately, to difficulty in some family law cases in regard to the payment of maintenance arrears by spouses on foot of court orders. A number of Deputies on both sides of the House have raised issues in regard to that in recent months.
The purpose of the amendment I am now proposing to the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976 is to de-couple family law maintenance debt from civil debt in general. The proposed amendment to the law is based on the premise that a court has already deliberated in setting an appropriate level of maintenance and that if the debtor breaches that order without a significant change in his or her circumstances, that breach will constitute contempt of court and can be punished by imprisonment. As these are civil contempt proceedings, both the creditor and debtor will be entitled, subject to the usual criteria, to civil legal aid under the existing provisions of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995.
In Part 9 I am amending, among other matters, the Domestic Violence Act 1996 to allow a person to apply for a safety order against a person with whom he or she had a child in common, including where the couple concerned do not live together or have never lived together. The occasion of access to children can be difficult and safety issues can arise. Making safety orders available to the court in such circumstances will provide a remedy for the parties who are in need of protection. Breach of such orders will be an offence under the Act of 1996.
I am indebted to the wide range of interests who have helped to inform and shape policy in this area. The citation of the Bill, as a miscellaneous provisions Bill, is one that inevitably suggests it will operate as a magnet for all kinds of reforms and I know there are interests who will want even further changes in the law on this occasion. I am giving consideration to further requests, particularly from the Courts Service, to improve on court procedures to improve access to the courts and make them more efficient. I will, therefore, table amendments at later Stages of the Bill and will seek the co-operation of the House in this exercise.
I commend the Bill to the House.