I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Bill I am proposing today is a short and relatively simple one, with a specific purpose in connection with licensed premises and certain private membership clubs. However, the importance of this Bill is much broader than that. The Covid-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to all of our society. The public health restrictions that have been in place since the outset of the pandemic have not been easy for anyone. The pandemic has impacted on all of our lives, in big ways and small. The vast majority of people and businesses in Ireland have complied with public health restrictions across the last six difficult months because they understand that doing so is the most sure way to keep us all safe and to help us to return as quickly as possible to the more open society that we have enjoyed but can no longer take for granted. My firm belief is that this Bill will help to bring us further on that road by encouraging the small minority of licensed premises which are acting contrary to public health regulations to bring themselves into compliance, and by providing An Garda Síochána with the powers to act swiftly to enforce the law, where necessary. The creation of these powers will further incentivise responsible licensees to ensure full compliance with the public health regulations.
As Deputies will be aware, An Garda Síochána has been carrying out extensive work in support of the range of public health measures since the outset of the pandemic. The graduated policing approach which has been adopted in all of its actions, whereby Garda members engage, educate, encourage and only as a last resort enforce relevant emergency regulations, has been very effective. Since the introduction of Operation Navigation at the start of July, An Garda Síochána has been carrying out regular checks on licensed premises for adherence to Covid-19 public health regulations. Thousands of checks have been carried out. It is clear from the Commissioner's public reports on this operation that the vast majority of licensed premises have been acting in compliance with the regulations. I sincerely thank them for that. However, the unfortunate reality is that some licensed premises are flouting the law and risking the health of their customers and the wider public. An Garda Síochána has identified that between Friday, 3 July and Sunday, 23 August, a total of 165 potential breaches were recorded, including a number of licensed premises at which multiple potential breaches were identified. This represents an unacceptable risk to human life and public health in the context of Covid-19. It also undermines the efforts and sacrifices made by so many others in our society.
This Bill aims to provide for further enforcement powers required by An Garda Síochána to deal swiftly and effectively with such breaches at licensed premises or certain registered private clubs. I assure Deputies and the public that I understand and fully expect that the graduated policing approach we have seen to date will continue to be pursued by gardaí. If this Bill is enacted, I do not expect to see these powers used frequently. However, let us also be clear that this graduated approach depends for its efficacy on a realistic prospect of enforcement at the final stage. My firm belief is that by providing these additional enforcement powers to gardaí, we will see an improvement in compliance with Covid regulations by publicans, restaurateurs and operators of private clubs, in the interest of public health and in a way that will protect the gradual reopening of our society.
In terms of the detail of the Bill, I will now outline its contents to the House. Sections 1 and 2 are standard. They relate to the interpretation and application of the Act to licensed premises and clubs selling or suppling liquor to members or visitors for consumption on the premises. Section 3 provides for entry without warrant of a member of An Garda Síochána to such a premises for inspection and other purposes under the Bill and creates an offence where a person prevents or obstructs, or attempts to prevent or obstruct, a garda from doing so.
Sections 4 to 7, inclusive, set out clearly the three key new powers I am proposing. Under section 31A of the Health Act 1947, which was introduced to deal with Covid-19, a member of An Garda Síochána can give a direction to a person who, in the garda's view, is failing to comply with a penal regulation made under the section. If the person does not comply with the garda's direction, he or she is committing an offence. In addition to the offence under the 1947 Act, these sections provide that where a licensed premises fails to comply with directions of An Garda Síochána in relation to the public health regulations, a Garda member of at least superintendent rank may make an immediate closure order for the remainder of the day once he or she is satisfied based on the information provided that there has been a failure to comply with a direction given and it is appropriate to do so; An Garda Síochána may apply to the District Court for an emergency closure order for a period of up to 72 hours where there has been a failure to comply with more than one direction on more than one occasion; An Garda Síochána may issue a compliance notice to a relevant premises where there has been a failure to comply with a direction, ordering them to comply forthwith and warning them of the consequences of a failure to comply with the notice; and An Garda Síochána may apply to the District Court for a temporary closure order where there has been a failure to comply with a compliance notice issued under section 6 and this failure is likely to continue or recur.
This order will be for a period of not more than seven days in the case of the first order made and not more than 30 days in the case of a second or subsequent order made in relation to a premises.
I wish to state unequivocally that the enforcement measures provided for in these sections may only be taken where a direction of a member of An Garda Síochána has not been complied with. Everyone will be given an opportunity to co-operate and work with the garda who is engaging with him or her. This is in line with the approach taken by gardaí to date, that is, to direct an individual to comply with the regulations in the first instance and to only take further action where there has been a failure to come into compliance following that direction. The whole purpose of the provisions is to achieve compliance.
These sections also create a number of new offences where a person fails to comply with an immediate closure order or permits a business to be open in contravention of an emergency or temporary closure order.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I want to clearly say that the approach taken in this Bill is to provide for Garda enforcement of criminal law provisions, and not public health assessments. The approach taken in these sections is to establish the power for Garda members to make directions and enforce the penal provisions of the Covid-19 regulations and offences provided for under this Bill and the Health Act 1947. An Garda Síochána will only need to be satisfied that a relevant provision of the criminal law has been breached, not the likely impact of that breach on public health.
Sections 9 and 10 make provision for appeals against a compliance notice and a temporary closure order, respectively. This is in addition to provisions allowing an application to be made to discharge an emergency closure order under section 5 of the Bill, that is, when the emergency closure order is made the publican or licence holder can immediately seek for that to be dismissed.
An appeal may be made to the District Court in respect of a compliance notice within seven days of such a notice being issued by a member. The court may confirm, vary or revoke the notice. Any decision of the District Court in this regard can also be appealed to the Circuit Court adding an extra important safeguard.
An appeal may also be made to the Circuit Court against a temporary closure ordered by the District Court. These are important safeguards in the Bill.
Sections 11 and 12 provide that conviction of offences under this Act or the making of a closure order under the Act may be a basis for an objection in relation to a renewal of a license or, in the case of a private club, a certificate of registration.
This Bill is closely related to the new health regulations prepared by the Minister for Health and section 13 is a necessary amendment of section 31A of Health Act 1947. This amendment provides that the Minister for Health may prescribe penal provisions of regulations made under the Health Act 1947 that the provisions of this Bill will apply to. He may do so following consultation with me and any other Government Minister as he considers appropriate.
Sections 14 to 16, inclusive, contain necessary technical provisions around liability for offences by bodies corporate, exercise of jurisdiction by the District and Circuit Courts as well as service of documents.
Section 17 is primarily a technical section setting out the title and operation of the Bill. I would however particularly draw Deputies' attention to the provisions of section 17(3), which contains an explicit sunset clause. The section provides that if enacted, this legislation will continue in operation only until 9 November 2020, subject to a resolution approving its continuation passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is to reflect the expiry date of contained in Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020.
As I said at the outset, this is a straightforward Bill. While I fully recognise that the emergency powers I am proposing are significant, this Bill represents a necessary, proportionate, carefully balanced and human rights-compliant approach to address the small minority of licensed premises which are showing disregard for public health regulations.
Clear safeguards have been provided throughout, in particular through the requirement for involvement of a Garda member of at least superintendent rank; the time-limited nature of the closures; and the provision for possibility of appeal. None of these provisions can be triggered unless a person fails to comply with a Garda direction in the first instance.
Further, and as I have said, the legislation itself is temporary. Gardaí are continuing to take a graduated, proportionate and human rights-compliant approach to the enforcement of all Covid-related legislation. Providing for these additional, limited powers will enable gardaí to move swiftly to address those cases in which licensed premises and private clubs breach public health regulations, in the context of the grave threat to human life and public health that we are facing. I am confident this will encourage greater overall compliance and support the hard work and good faith efforts being made by the vast majority of licensed premises to operate within the law.
I thank all Deputies for their support and assistance in passing this through the House and waiving pre-legislative scrutiny. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing from Deputies on the matter.