Three or four weeks ago, I attended a meeting at the Bush Hotel with a group of vintners. There was a large turnout, with 25 or 30 publicans from all over Sligo and Leitrim in attendance as well as three out of the four Deputies, including me, who represent the Sligo-Leitrim constituency. The main message I got that day was that publicans want to get back behind the counter and to reopen their businesses in a responsible way. They pointed out that many of them have family members who are vulnerable to Covid and they recognise the need to be careful and to comply with whatever restrictions are in place. They were really anxious that they should be allowed to do so.
They were also anxious, if that could not happen, that a proper compensation package or other measure would be put in place to ensure they could survive into the future. Apart from that, the real thing they wanted was to be able to open.
They were critical of and there was much anger about a very small number of pubs in my constituency that were open and were abusing the situation. The vintners were of the opinion that something had to be done about those pubs. Examples of such businesses were given and discussed. The vast majority of the pubs that are open and serving food are doing so in a responsible way. They have screens, PPE and hand sanitisers and they ensure people order food when they come in. They serve food on the premises in a responsible way. They write down the names of their customers and the times they have been there and do all of that properly. That is how the majority of open pubs are operating, but there is a small minority of whom all Deputies have heard who are abusing the situation. Those pubs may be full, lack social distancing and have people on the premises who are very drunk. The rules are not being adhered to in those pubs. The vintners who are watching on and cannot open their pubs are saying that something must be done about this. I accept and understand that that is what the Bill will do. That is why Sinn Féin generally supports it although, as many Deputies have stated, it is draconian legislation. It is exactly the kind of thing we should not be doing, but we are in a situation that is far removed from normal circumstances. This is abnormal legislation for abnormal times. That is the message we need to bring home clearly.
On the issue of the other pubs reopening, the real problem is that the Government messed this up a couple of months ago when it allowed some pubs to open because they serve food but other pubs were not allowed to open. Proper thought should have been put into that, even if it delayed the reopening for a week or two, in order to get it right and allow all pubs to open. That could be done if the number of customers in each pub was limited. Some people have asked how that would be policed. As a constructive suggestion, I note that every licensed premises in the country must be inspected by a fire officer who states clearly on the fire certificate the maximum number of people it is appropriate or safe to have on the premises. That is how it happens when there is no Covid. It would be very apt to bring in a regulation to specify an appropriate percentage, such as 35%, of the maximum number that could be on the premises under normal circumstances. If the fire certificate of a pub stipulates that it should have no more than 100 people in it, such a regulation could provide that it could have no more than 35 people on the premises in order to allow for social distancing. If a measure of that kind was put in place for all pubs, along with all of the other measures such as recording who comes in and at what time, their names and phone numbers and so on, ensuring the usage of PPE and social distancing and doing all of that properly, every pub in the country should be able to open.
The Garda should be able to go in and check that all the regulations are being adhered to. If somebody is acting the maggot and not doing things as they are supposed to be done, that person is endangering not just other publicans, although that is part of it, he or she is endangering his or her own community, staff and family. We need to ensure that does not happen. The way forward is to come up with a solution by virtue of which all pubs can open under strict guidelines that are strictly adhered to, with strong measures in place to ensure that is done. That is what this legislation does.
I know there are certain issues with regard to the Bill. Deputies have raised such issues, particularly the fact the inspecting Garda member need not be in uniform or the reference to "relevant premises". I point out that section 2 defines a relevant premises as a premises "where intoxicating liquor is sold or supplied for consumption on the premises - (a) under a licence, or (b) of a club". The Bill does not apply to houses but, rather, licensed premises and clubs. In those circumstances, this legislation is appropriate for the times we are in. It would be totally inappropriate for it be brought in in normal circumstances, as all Deputies are aware.
The issues have been discussed in the round in great detail. I accept that the members of NPHET are the experts in this matter. They are the medical experts who meet collectively to discuss and debate every possibility and context in which Covid is a danger to our community, people and health services. They come up with proposals regarding what can be done. Those proposals are put to the Government and the Cabinet makes decisions on them. By and large, we accept that those proposals are made in the best of faith and that most of the measures are brought in in good faith in order to protect the community. That is why we are all trying to work together to make that happen. It may be that in a month's time or two months' time NPHET may put forward another proposal in respect of pubs. There needs to be a little flexibility to allow such proposals to be implemented and, if appropriate, to allow the Garda to ensure that those regulations are adhered to properly.
Many Deputies referred to this being rushed legislation. I absolutely agree that it has been rushed and should not be brought in in this way. We should have committees up and running, but we do not have them. We should have pre-legislative scrutiny but we cannot have it if the committees are not up and running. All of that is clear. I was significantly angered by the way legislation was dealt with in the final days before the summer recess. A section was inserted into the Bill but Opposition Deputies were given no prior notice of that. How it was handled was an absolute scandal and looked very bad for the Department, the Minister and everyone involved. However, that has not happened in the context of this Bill. It does what it says on the bottle. We should try to work together to make it happen.
The sunset clause whereby the powers will lapse on 9 November must be adhered to. The Dáil must consider the matter again on 9 November. It is to be hoped that we will be in a better situation by then and will be trying to get more things open and more parts of our society to work better together to better deal with Covid. We all need to work together to do that. The virus is not going to go away; it will be here for quite a long time. I understand from where people are coming with regard to attacking the Bill and stating it is this, that or the other. It is a reflection of the anger, suspicion and worry that many people have. Their lives have been impacted so negatively by all of this but, at the end of the day, Deputies must work together in the best interest of the public good. That is what we are here to do. If we can do so with regard to this legislation, accepting that it has a sunset clause and will end on 9 November unless the House decides to extend it, that is the way forward. We need to look at it in the round and see exactly what it will do.
On the amendment, I await with interest the Minister's response to it and her rational for the inclusion of the relevant clause. If there are good reasons for the clause, we must accept them, but if there are not, the amendment should be accepted by the Minister.