That Dáil Éireann resolves that the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 (No. 14 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 9th day of November, 2020 and ending on the 9th day of June, 2021."
Deputies will be aware that section 17 of the Act provides that the Act shall continue in operation until 9 November 2020 unless a resolution approving its continuation has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before that date. Having regard to the continuing grave threat to public health posed by Covid-19, and as provided for in the legislation, I am now bringing forward a proposal that the Act should continue in operation until 9 June 2021. That date aligns with the timeframe of the Government's medium to long term strategy, Recovery and Resilience 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19 which was published on 15 September and spans a period of six to nine months. Furthermore, the continued operation of the Act to 9 June next year is necessary in order to ensure that we can apply the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations made under the relevant Department of Health legislation. In this regard, the House will recall that it recently resolved that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 should continue in operation for the period beginning on 9 November and ending on 9 June 2021. It is important that the Covid-19 regulations and the powers contained in this Act remain in alignment for the same period.
By way of background, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 was signed into law by the President on 11 September 2020. It provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers to ensure strict adherence to public health measures on premises selling alcohol for consumption on the premises, having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to all of society. Members will be conscious that Covid-19 remains a real threat to all of us, particularly our most vulnerable citizens. The country has been at level 5 of the resilience and recovery plan since Thursday, 22 October. This remains a critical time for the country and we all continue to have a special responsibility to comply with the public health guidelines and regulations for the good of everybody. Under level 5, pubs and restaurants are closed, but I hope they will soon reopen if we are successful in tackling the virus.
I acknowledge that the public health restrictions that have been in place since the outset of the pandemic have not been easy for everyone. The pandemic has had an impact on all of our lives. The vast majority of people and businesses have complied with public health restrictions during this difficult period because they understand that so doing is the most effective way to help to keep us all safe. It is also the best way to help us to return to a situation where there will be fewer restrictions or no restrictions at all.
The vast majority of publicans have been fully compliant with what has been asked of them even though they have put their livelihoods on hold. However, it would be completely unfair if the few who wish to flout the law and put their customers at risk are allowed to do so without consequences. The Act gives the Garda the power to enter such premises to encourage the small minority of publicans who are acting contrary to public health regulations to bring themselves into compliance and it provides An Garda Síochána with the powers to act swiftly to enforce the law where necessary.
I have been advised that An Garda Síochána has taken extensive action in support of the public health restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic. A graduated response to policing has been adopted from the outset, based on the Garda tradition of policing by consent. This approach has seen gardaí follow the four Es: engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce the relevant provisions.
I wish to once again compliment the gardaí who have done exemplary work on the front line throughout the pandemic. They have been diligent and thorough in their work. They have responded with compassion and empathy to difficult situations in which people have found themselves. Their response has been low key and effective. As Minister for Justice, I am extremely grateful for their hard work and professionalism during this extraordinary time. I know Members on all sides of the House will agree with me on that point.
The Garda Commissioner's reports have supported the view that the vast majority of licensed premises have been acting in compliance with the relevant regulations. That is evidenced by the fact that the number of crime incidents recorded by An Garda Síochána relating to licensed premises between 3 July 2020 and 24 October 2020 was 281, but fewer than 100 such incidents have taken place since this law was enacted approximately two months ago. There were only 11 reported incidents in the week to 24 October 2020. These figures must be seen in the context of the varying restrictions on licensed premises and, in particular, their effect in counties which were there at that point under levels 3 or 4. As all licensed premises are currently closed, the need to have such measures in place may not seem obvious. However, if a publican decides to ignore the current restrictions and open a licensed premises, An Garda Síochána has the power to immediately take action. Level 5 is only in place until the start of December and I think all Deputies will accept that Covid-19 will be with us well into 2021.
In that context, therefore, and in line with the Government's Recovery and Resilience 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, the emergency measures contained in the Act will continue to be required. The Garda Commissioner has reported to me that An Garda Síochána has not, as yet, issued any closure orders or compliance notices. Consideration has been given to each of the powers contained in the Act but they have not been required to date. I am happy that is the case. When I introduced the legislation in the House, I stated that it would be my preference for the small minority of publicans to come into compliance and that I hoped there would be no closures under the Act. I was clear that enforcement should be and would remain a last resort. The entire purpose of the enforcement power legislation is to try to enhance compliance, not to trick people or to catch them out. Everybody is given an opportunity to co-operate and work with An Garda Síochána.
There is no immediate penalty where a licensed premises is flouting the regulations. The first thing that happens is that the licensee or manager is given a direction to come into compliance. The penalties in the Act only kick in if the publican fails to comply with that direction. Some Deputies may state that the fact that no closure orders have been issued is evidence that the powers are not needed. The Commissioner is of the view that it is because of these powers that those publicans who wish to flout the law have come into compliance. Consequently, it has not been necessary to issue any closure orders so far. The Commissioner noted that the legislation has supported An Garda Síochána through its graduated policing response and he has strongly supported the continuation of these powers into 2021.
Notwithstanding the existence of these provisions, I assure Deputies that I fully expect that the graduated policing approach we have seen to date in all aspects of dealing with the pandemic will continue to be pursued by the Garda. By continuing to provide these additional enforcement powers to the Garda, we will see an improvement in compliance with Covid regulations by publicans, restaurateurs and operators of registered clubs in the interest of public health and in a way that will facilitate the gradual reopening of society.
As I indicated in my opening remarks, the continued operation of the Act is closely related to the new health regulations prepared by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the recently enacted Health (Amendment) Act 2020. I will refer briefly to the provisions of that Act. As provided for in the recent amendments to the Health Act 1947, the Minister for Health may make regulations prescribing provisions for the purposes of enforcement under the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act. That Minister may also make regulations prescribing penal provisions to be fixed penalty provisions. Officials from my Department and the Department of Health are currently co-operating to develop statutory instruments to be made by the Minister for Health. However, I should point out that the purpose of the fixed penalty system is to help to change behaviour. The objective of the Government here is to prevent the kind of behaviour that endangers others. A large number of fines being issued for non-compliance is not the desired outcome.
The matter before the House is relatively straightforward. I am simply proposing the continued but time-limited application of legislation which was scrutinised and passed by this House only recently. The circumstances leading to the enactment of the legislation have not changed. The continued application of the Act facilitates 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 the Act, such as, in particular, 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.
I repeat a point I made earlier. None of these provisions can be triggered unless a person fails to comply with a Garda direction in the first instance. Providing for these additional limited powers until next June will enable the Garda to move swiftly to address those cases in which licensed premises and private clubs breach public health regulations. I again acknowledge and support the hard work and efforts being made by the vast majority of licensed premises to operate within the law.
I commend the resolution to the House. I thank Members for their attention. I look forward to hearing their observations on the matter.