Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill 2021 in this House, and I look forward to our discussion of its provisions here today. The principal objective of this Bill is to include a new category of "enforcement guard" in the list of private security services licensed by the Private Security Authority under the 2004 Act.

Many of us will recall the removal of persons from a private property on North Frederick Street in September 2018 on foot of a High Court order. The persons were removed by a private security firm. The personnel who attended at the property on behalf of the private security firm are not currently subject to regulation or licensing by the Private Security Authority under the Private Security Services Act 2004, as amended. This is because the activity does not fall within the definition of what constitutes a security service under the Act.

Such occurrences by unregulated persons who are not required to wear identification, ID, or be licensed is unacceptable. It inevitably leads to flash points and many real concerns. Court orders obviously have to be upheld but they need to be upheld, if necessary, by persons who are properly regulated, who are identifiable and who have been trained.

In light of the widespread dissatisfaction with events at the property on North Frederick Street and the inherent risk associated with unregulated persons carrying out such functions, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, made a commitment to the Dáil in September 2018 that the law governing the area of persons involved in the execution of court orders that are not licensable by the Private Security Authority would be examined. The Minister established an interdepartmental working group chaired by the Department of Justice, comprising officials from the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána, the County Registrars Association, Revenue Commissioners, Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Private Security Authority itself.

The remit of the working group was to examine the steps necessary to bring the regulation and licensing of security personnel assisting those enforcing court orders for eviction or repossession within the remit of the Private Security Authority. Bringing such personnel within the licensing remit of the Private Security Authority was the key recommendation of the interdepartmental working group report. On 22 October 2019, the Government approved the drafting of the Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill. The majority of the provisions in the Bill arise from the working group report but the opportunity was also taken to make two further amendments to the 2004 Act which were specifically requested by the Private Security Authority.

Before proceeding further, I would like to acknowledge Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire's Private Members' Bill, Regulation of Private Security Firms Bill 2019, which contained similar objectives to the Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill. On Second Stage, in November last, I shared Deputy Ó Laoghaire's concerns that the law in this area should be comprehensive and the Government did not oppose the Deputy's Private Members' Bill on Second Stage. I indicated that progressing this Government legislation was of high importance to the Government and I am pleased to be here today to present this Bill. There was encouraging support for this legislative change to progress when it was discussed then and I hope to see that support will be replicated today and in the next Stages of the Bill.

I am sure that everyone in this House will agree with me that the security industry in Ireland is one which has come far. It is an industry where society demands more than light-touch regulation and in which public confidence must be maintained. The Bill before us is proof of the Government's commitment to promote and ensure best practice in the industry.

I strongly believe that it is in the public interest that everyone involved in the private security industry operates to the highest possible standards. Bringing this new category of security service within the remit of the Private Security Authority will mean that enforcement guards will require a licence to operate in this area. It will ensure that they are subject to the training standards and licensing regime operated by the Private Security Authority.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 is a standard provision which includes the definition of the term "Principal Act". Section 2 is the key section of the Bill and inserts an additional category and a definition of "enforcement guard" in the list of security services covered by the Private Security Services Act 2004. The section also inserts definitions of a "county registrar", "court messenger", and "sheriff". The definition of an "enforcement guard" means a person other than a sheriff, country registrar or court messenger who for remuneration, as part of his or her duties, is authorised to perform any of the following functions: removing one or more persons from any premises or any other place in order to take possession of the premises or place; controlling, supervising or restricting entry by one or more persons to any premises or any other place in order to take possession of the premises or place; or seizing goods or other property in lieu of an outstanding debt, which said authorisation is conferred by or under an enactment, pursuant to a court order, in accordance with an agreement or a consent, pursuant to a contract, or otherwise in accordance with the law.

The insertion of this category and definition will ensure that an enforcement guard must hold a licence. It will be an offence to operate as an enforcement guard without a Private Security Authority licence. Such individuals will also be subject to the training standards and licensing regime operated by the authority. It will also be an offence to represent oneself as an enforcement guard by advertisement or displaying any object purporting to indicate that the holder is a licensed enforcement guard. For both offences, a person may be liable for a class A fine or imprisonment for up to 12 months or both on summary conviction. A conviction on indictment can lead to imprisonment of up to five years or imposition of a fine.

Section 3 inserts a further exemption from licensing by the Private Security Authority for those engaged in the enforced collection of Revenue liabilities by a sheriff or county registrar. Where, in exceptional circumstances, there might be a need to engage security personnel, existing protocols have been updated in Revenue to include a requirement that such personnel are licensed by the Private Security Authority. Section 4 extends the provisions of section 26 of the Private Security Services Act 2004 allowing the Private Security Authority to refuse to renew a licence, or suspend or revoke a licence of a body corporate for the actions of its members.

This will include the actions of directors, shareholders, managers, secretaries or other similar officers of the body corporate or any person purporting to act in that capacity and will ensure that the PSA has the ability to appropriately regulate its licences.

Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 33(3) of the Private Security Services Act 2004 to make the register of licensed persons available for inspection free of charge by members of the public both at its principal office and online. Currently the register of licensed persons is only available for inspection at the principal office of the PSA during office hours. This amendment will make inspection of the register more convenient for members of the public.

Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 48(1) of the Private Security Services Act 2004 to include an offence of "impersonating an inspector" in the list of offences detailed in the subsection. The amendment will make it an offence for a person to falsely represent himself or herself as an inspector. A person found guilty of this offence will be liable to a fine not exceeding €3,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both. Section 7 repeals a number of provisions, including section 4(4) of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act 1926. Under this section, court offices are obliged to display court messengers' names and places of residence. This has posed a risk to the safety of county registrars and court messengers carrying out their duties and is, therefore, being repealed. As I said earlier, section 5 provides for the amendment of section 33(3) of the Private Security Services Act 2004 to make the register of licensed persons available for inspection free of charge by members of the public both at its principal office and online. As a result of this provision, section 33(6) of the principal Act, which provides that the register be printed and published annually, and section 33(7) of the principal Act, which requires that once the register is published, a copy is to be furnished to every Garda station, are no longer required. Section 8 contains standard provisions relating to the Short Title, commencement and collective citation.

I wish to underline again the importance of this short Bill. Private security has a key contribution to make to safeguarding all of our citizens. Its role is varied and impacts on citizens in all aspects of Irish life from work to social activity. Private security personnel occupy a position of trust, engaging in regular interactions with members of the public and should operate to the highest of standards. I am pleased that with the introduction of these amendments, the PSA can continue to play an important role vis-à-vis the private security industry and the important contribution it makes to the protection of our community. Confidence in the industry has improved greatly due to the manner in which the PSA carries out its functions, providing clients of private security service providers with assurance that the industry is working to the highest standards possible. I wish to place on the record of the House my appreciation of the work of the authority and its staff. I also want to thank security personnel who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, despite the challenges. I also wish to acknowledge those who have been unable to work throughout the pandemic. It is my hope that they will be back serving their communities in the near future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Sinn Féin will support this legislation, which addresses an issue that arose in many incidents across the country in recent years. The incident in North Frederick Street was the straw that broke the camel's back for many people. We have seen the actions of unregulated private security firms whose personnel were uncontrolled and untrained, unknown and often masked. There were incidents of security personnel coming into areas, sometimes from other jurisdictions, in a Wild West-type scenario, which is something that we could not allow to stand. In that context, this legislation is very important and I agree with the Minister that it should progress through the Houses as speedily as possible. Adequate training and regulation of those engaged in private security activities must be put in place.

This Bill is similar to legislation introduced by Deputy Ó Laoghaire in 2019, which the Government allowed to progress to Second Stage. The Government has now replaced that legislation with its own Bill, which is often what Governments do. Deputy Ó Laoghaire, myself and others were contacted by our constituents about this issue. We recognised that this was an urgent situation that needed to be dealt with and that legislation was required. We brought that legislation forward in good faith. I hope to see support in the House for bringing this Bill forward to Committee Stage, when we can amend or tweak it and get into more detail on it.

The broad principle of what we are trying to do here is for the benefit of everyone, including those engaged in property-related private security activities. We do not want to see too much of such activity in our society. These situations should be dealt with in other ways apart from seizing property. Unfortunately, this was something that many people have had to face because of economic decline. People all over the country have had their property seized and have been in conflict with various banks and lending institutions, including the vulture funds that came in here, bought up loans and rode roughshod over them. There is a suggestion that this is something that only happened in the past and that it is not happening now but that is not the case. A number of weeks ago, I dealt with a farmer who had a piece of land that was provided as security for a loan that he secured during the boom. He was a very hard worker and he did everything he could to pay his debts. He signed over all of this farm payments, including his area aid payments, to cover his debt and the interest. However, his loan was bought by another company, Pepper, which refused to accept the arrangement put in place by the previous lender. It insisted on moving the loan to a liquidator and putting the property up for sale. Fortunately, the issue was finally resolved by a personal insolvency practitioner, PIP but it is deplorable that companies can act in this way and try to ride roughshod over people. When I met the couple, they were hugely distraught and upset. They felt a sense of shame that this had happened to them, even more so given that they were actually paying the loan. They were meeting their debt and yet they were faced with their land being sold. The Government must find a way to be tougher on such companies to make sure that they cannot do that to people. Today we are dealing with the regulation of the security firms that are carrying out court orders but there is also a need to ensure that situations do not reach the stage of courts issuing orders and that resolutions are found prior to that. That is one of the lessons that we should have learned from the incidents that took place in recent years. It must be said, however, that there are some people who just will not pay their debts and who will default on loans. Naturally enough, action must be taken against them. I am not avoiding that issue but clearly some companies, including so-called vulture funds, swoop on loan books and go for the quick buck. They are determined to sell if the value of the asset is larger than the loan outstanding, regardless of whether payments are being made and that is wrong. We need to find a way to deal with that but unfortunately we have not found one yet, despite having talked about it for more than ten years.

To go back to the legislation before us, the issues here are licensing by the PSA and ensuring that those who have a licence have the appropriate skill set and training to carry out the unfortunate work they have to carry out. The Minister of State said that corporate bodies would obtain licences and that individuals would also be licensed. Must each individual have a licence or can the corporate body hold one on his or her behalf? I ask him to clarify that. I also ask him to outline the situation with regard to the cost of the licences. What does it cost to apply for and obtain a licence? I am aware that for many security personnel, including bouncers in nightclubs, their work is part time in nature and not very highly paid. I am concerned that the licence fee would act as a penalty for individuals, particularly if the fee is large. Some of the licences that are distributed by the PSA are quite expensive, which must be addressed in the longer-term.

In general, we welcome this legislation and the move by Government to deal with this situation. It is long past time that it was dealt with and that the people who carry out these kinds of operations where they seize properties under court orders are held to account, because there is certainly a feeling among the general public that they are not held to account. That needs to be reversed as quickly as possible.

This legislation will go to Committee Stage at which point we will dissect it and look at it in detail. The general thrust of it should find favour with the vast majority of Members of these Houses. I have seen commentary online stating that Government is somehow trying to make it okay for people to have their property seized. The truth is that people's property is seized on a regular basis because of the way the law stands at the moment. What we are trying to do here is to try to ensure that we do not have people coming from outside the jurisdiction, who are often masked and unknown and with no sense of responsibility towards the laws of this State, carrying out these kinds of actions and acting in a very aggressive way and using bully-boy tactics, as we have seen in some cases. The gardaí in these instances, because a court order is being executed, simply have to stand back and watch it. I have spoken to gardaí who told me they were quite frustrated that they were unable to intervene because a court order was waved in their faces and they were told that these people were doing their job. We need to understand that there should be at the least an element of respect for people who are in unfortunate circumstances where they are losing their property or, in some case, perhaps their home, and that is the most tragic part of all.

This legislation will hopefully deal with that aspect of it. I assure the Minister of State of our support in trying to get it through the various Stages in the Houses over the coming weeks and months.

Many of us would have seen the scenes at the evictions on North Frederick Street, Dublin, in particular, but also in Strokestown, County Roscommon. In many instances, the personnel involved did not conduct themselves in anything like an acceptable way. The behaviour was heavy handed in some instances. It was violent and, in many ways, it was, quite frankly, scandalous. At the time, there was a great deal of disquiet, in particular that the gardaí seemed to have very little ability to intervene or that there was almost a carte blanche afforded to the private security personnel involved.

Following these evictions, in particular those on North Frederick Street, I contacted the Private Security Authority to make a complaint because I was upset and angered. I was horrified to learn that personnel involved in the enforcement of evictions did not fall under the remit of the Private Security Authority. The enforcers at North Frederick Street and Strokestown, who hid their faces behind masks and acted in the most aggressive manner, were not accountable to anyone or to any body. There is no licensing, no training, no means of making a complaint or no redress for those who may have been wronged by them. These are just the instances that were recorded or came to media attention. Doubtless, this is an issue which has arisen in dozens of cases, or perhaps more, throughout the State. In every county in Ireland, banks, financial institutions and powerful organisations hire anyone they want to enforce evictions and court orders and who can do anything they want with no accountability or recourse for complaints.

I brought the legislative loophole to the attention of the then Minister for Justice in 2018 and he pledged to address this. While there was talk of an interdepartmental group, there was not much sign of progress, quite frankly. It was on this basis that Deputy Kenny and I brought forward a Bill in 2019, which was debated last year. I welcome the fact the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, did not oppose that legislation. The Bill was supported across the Dáil when it was debated in November. It is long past time that we dealt with this issue, due to the severity of the situation and the need to step up and protect those facing evictions.

It is incredible when one thinks that this is the most emotive and the most potentially fractious and violent area that could involve private security and yet this light touch-regulation exists. People who provide security in bars, restaurants and shops are subject to much more oversight and regulation. It is right that they are subject to oversight and regulation, but they are subject to far more oversight and regulation than those involved in enforcing evictions and other forms of court orders. At this point in time the person working at the door of Penneys is subject to more regulation than the person who has the authority to force a family out of its home, and that is completely wrong.

The least people expect is that the Government would demand the same level of accountability and transparency from security personnel enforcing eviction orders as we expect from those who work security at the door of a pub or in a shop.

In many of the violent evictions that have been widely publicised, the personnel involved displayed no visible identification. They wore masks and there was no way to determine who they represented or what right they had to enforce an order or the conditions of same. It is totally unacceptable that masked men would be given free reign for so long to turf people out of their homes without even the basic constraints of transparency. The least we should expect is that those who seek to act violently and those who have such power are subject to legislative standards, oversight and licensing, and subject to complaint and investigation mechanisms.

I welcome that the Government has acted and brought forward this Bill, but we cannot simply deal with the issue of regulation. Our focus must not only be on this area but on stopping wrongful evictions. The events on North Frederick Street and Strokestown struck a cord with people the length and breadth of Ireland - the callous behaviour was evident. It hit a raw nerve and it was a reminder of history and heritage and the fact that hundreds and thousands of evictions took place right across this island, in every parish, over the centuries. There is a concern that wrongful and forceful evictions may increase if this housing crisis escalates.

Evictions hit a raw nerve for people in this country. The event of the Famine and the Land War are seared into our collective memory. It is a very emotive image, to think of families being forced out of their home unjustly, because they cannot afford their rent or mortgage payments. The reality of it is that evictions could happen because there are many people across the State, particularly during the Covid crisis, who are out of work and at the pin of their collar as bills and debts mount up.

The absolute worse thing the Government could have done was to lift the ban on evictions, which was keeping families in their homes. Removing the ban would leave tenants vulnerable once again. I urge the Government to reconsider this and to extend the ban until at least the end of 2021.

Regulation may stop people with no vetting and background checks participating in the enforcement of court orders, including evictions, and that is a good thing. However, it will not prevent evictions in the first place or wrongful evictions. The Government has so far refused to bring forward workable solutions to the housing crisis and is continually, including this week, voting against measures brought forward by the Opposition. Indeed, the Government has been responsible for allowing a loophole, or legislative situation, that allows investment trusts to pounce and grab dozens of homes in housing estates, which occurred in Maynooth recently and in other places, and denying people the chance of owning their own home. There is a whole generation that wonders whether it will ever have the possibility of having a permanent home, whether that is due to the local authority housing waiting lists or because the affordable housing scheme the Government has spoken about is not practical for a start and the costs being talked about are beyond the reach of many.

Until we deal with all those situations, there will still be pressure on people with mortgages that are overextended and who are under very severe pressure. The Government must implement the Focus Ireland amendment to prevent evictions into homelessness. We need radical change in tenancy law to ensure tenants can have contracts of indefinite duration. If the Government is serious about protecting tenants, then this Bill must be just the first step in legislative changes to protect tenants from unfair evictions in the first place.

Having said all of that, I welcome that the Government supported our Bill in the past and we will, accordingly, support its Bill, which achieves the same objectives. I hope it can pass into law at an early juncture.

I am happy to support the Bill. I welcome it, notwithstanding it is a slightly belated response to a situation which caused real disquiet in communities across the country.

The specifics of what happened in North Frederick Street in 2018, which were replicated in other places across the country, caused many of our constituents to reach out to us with a real sense of concern. One of the issues in the North Frederick Street incident was that members of An Garda Síochána were present but almost as bystanders, doing nothing, as individuals carried out a court order in what most people considered a very heavy-handed way. Most people regarded what happened as unacceptable and there was a rightful clamour for legislative change, after years of debate on the issue.

I recall the debate on the regulation of the private security industry very well. There was much talk about the fact that it was unregulated. While there were very professional, well-trained and disciplined individuals involved in providing private security, unfortunately there was an element of thuggery involved that needed to be regulated. We thought in 2004 that the legislation was comprehensive and did that job. The push for a proper response to that legislation has taken some time. The Bill introduced here last November by Deputy Ó Laoghaire was a perfectly acceptable and appropriate response, which put a solution in place and addressed the lacunae in the law. I said as much in the House during the debate on Second Stage. That Bill could easily have formed the basis for any additional amendments the Government wanted to make to the 2004 Act.

I want to make a general point before going into the detail of this Bill. During the previous Dáil, mainly because of the pressure of numbers, we changed the way the Dáil itself functions. We set up supports for Opposition Oireachtas Members to draft legislation to a high standard and the Houses of the Oireachtas also negotiated with the Government a memorandum of understanding on the acceptance and vetting of Private Members' Bills. What used to be the almost exclusive prerogative of the Government to have legislation enacted was fundamentally changed. There has been some significant progress in that regard and I am very pleased that my own Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 became law last year, with the co-operation of the Minister for Justice and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, who is present. That should be the norm as opposed to the exception. It struck me as odd that the framework proposed by Deputy Ó Laoghaire was not simply travelled with and amended, as appropriate, in committee. These provisions could have become law much quicker. All of us should be able to be initiators of legislation, rather than merely responders to proposals for legislation coming from Government, as was the case for so many years.

The list of covered security services set out in the 2004 Act were door supervisor, supplier or installer of security equipment, private investigator, security consultant, security guard, provider of protected forms of transport, locksmith and supplier or installer of safes. One would expect that to be a comprehensive list of all those involved in the private security business but it then transpired that private contractors involved in enforcing court orders were not covered by the Act. Hence the need to include that category of worker in the legislation before us. As the Minister of State indicated, a working group was established and, having consulted with the industry and those directly involved, it came up with some additional amendments with which I want to deal, as well as those including private contractors involved in the enforcement of court orders. There is, however, an exception to that in sections 2 and 3 of the Bill. Section 2 proposes the insertion of an additional category and a definition-----

I regret that I have to interrupt the Deputy as we must adjourn the debate.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 4.25 p.m.