I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this important Bill. I welcome the broad support it received in the Dáil last week. The purpose of the Bill is very clear from its Title. It is about new enforcement powers for the Garda Síochána for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. More specifically the Bill relates to commercial premises where alcohol is sold or supplied for consumption on the premises under a licence or in a registered club. Let me be clear from the outset that the enforcement powers in this Bill do not and cannot apply to people's homes. Last week I made the point that having the powers to close licensed premises temporarily would, in my view, allow for the wider opening of more licensed premises in the very near future. That has turned out to be the case. On Tuesday the Government took the decision to reopen wet bars that do not serve substantial meals from 21 September with the possibility of some local restrictions. This is another important step in getting our lives back to some semblance of normality, albeit in a term I do not like, the "new normal". The enactment of this Bill and the possibility of strong enforcement powers will allow for the reopening of wet bars. This State has an absolute duty to preserve and protect public health and this Government, and the previous Government, have not been slow to introduce tough and extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to minimise the risk to our citizens.
One of those measures has been to keep licensed premises closed where they do not serve substantial meals. There has been some commentary that we have treated publicans like second-class citizens, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Government is aware of how extraordinarily difficult the past six months have been for publicans. It has been our goal at all times to ensure that whatever measures we take will lead to a safe and gradual reopening of society with as few restrictions as possible. The Government is also aware that the vast majority of publicans whose premises have been open continue to comply fully with the Covid-19 restrictions. As Minister I am very grateful for the high levels of compliance from the bars and restaurants that are going through a very difficult period and want to thank them sincerely for their support. These are good, decent employers who accept that the Covid-19 regulations are necessary for the greater public good. That being said, there are always the few who will not comply with the regulations and who will continue to put their employees and customers at risk. This is not acceptable and is not fair to those who are fully compliant either. Ensuring that everyone is playing their part in complying with the public health regulations is the most sure way of keeping us all safe.
As the law stands, a Garda member who suspects that a licensee is contravening the penal provisions of the Covid-19 regulations can issue a direction to that licensee to take steps to comply. The vast majority will do so, but for those who continue to flout the regulations, we need some way of enforcing them and that is what this Bill provides. This Bill will encourage the small minority of licensed premises that are acting contrary to public health regulations to bring themselves into immediate compliance. Senators will be aware that An Garda Síochána has been carrying out extensive work in support of the range of public health measures since the onset of the pandemic. An Garda Síochána has been widely praised for the graduated policing approach which has been adopted in all of its actions since the beginning of the pandemic, whereby Garda members engage, educate and encourage and only as a last resort enforce. The enforcement powers in this Bill will continue to be a last resort for those who fail or refuse to come into compliance. In an ideal world, of course, the powers will never be used, but at most I believe they will be required infrequently.
An Garda Síochána identified a total of 198 potential breaches between Friday, 3 July and Sunday 6 August, including a number of licensed premises at which multiple potential breaches were identified. We will have to wait and see if that number increases once wet pubs reopen later this month. This is an unacceptable risk to public health. It undermines the efforts and sacrifices made by so many in our society, including the licensees who are being responsible and doing the right thing. That is why I am introducing a range of enforcement powers ranging from on-the-spot closure for the rest of the day to a maximum of a 30-day closure for repeated non-compliance with Garda directions. My firm belief is that by providing these additional enforcement powers to gardaí, we will see an immediate improvement in compliance with Covid-19 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.
I will briefly outline the contents of the Bill to the House. Sections 1 and 2 are standard and relate to the interpretation and the application of the Act to licensed premises and clubs selling or supplying liquor to members or visitors for consumption on the premises. Section 3 provides for entry without a warrant of a member of An Garda Síochána to such premises for the inspection and other purposes under the Bill and creates an offence for a person who prevents, obstructs or attempts to prevent or obstruct a garda from doing so.
Sections 4 to 7, inclusive, set out the key new powers which 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 penal regulations made under the section. If the person does not comply with the Garda direction, he or she is committing an offence. In addition to the offence under the 1947 Act, these sanctions provide that where a licensed premises fails to comply with the direction of An Garda Síochána in relation to the public health regulations, a Garda member of at least superintendent rank may in the first instance 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 the direction given and it is appropriate to do so.
Second, 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. Third, An Garda Síochána may, where there has been a failure to comply with a direction, issue a compliance notice to a relevant premises ordering it to comply forthwith and warning of the consequences of a failure to comply with the notice. An Garda Síochána may apply to the District Court for a temporary closure order where there has been a failure to comply with the compliance notice issued under section 6 and this failure is likely to continue or recur. This order could 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. We wish to ensure that all persons have an opportunity to comply. Where a mistake is made or a person does not realise that he or she is not in compliance, the person will have an opportunity to comply. 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 take further action only where there has been a failure to comply following that direction. The whole purpose of the provision is to achieve compliance and not to close down businesses. These sections also create a number of new offences where a person fails to comply with an immediate closure notice or permits a business to be open in contravention of an emergency or temporary closure notice.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I wish to repeat my comments in the Lower House that the approach taken in the 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 the 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 provide for, respectively, appeals against a compliance notice and a temporary closure order. This is in addition to provisions allowing an application to be made to discharge an emergency closure order under section 5 of the Bill.
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 for publicans or other licence holders. 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 respect of 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 Covid-19 regulations prepared by the Minister for Health, and section 13 is a necessary amendment of section 31A of the Health Act 1947. This amendment provides that the Minister for Health may prescribe penal provisions of regulations made under the Health Act 1947 to which the provisions of this Bill, in particular, will apply. He may do so following consultation with me and any other 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 Senators' 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 being passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is to reflect the expiry date contained in Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020.
I fully recognise that the powers I am proposing are significant. The Bill is necessary and proportionate and represents a carefully balanced approach to addressing the small minority of licensed premises which are showing disregard for public health regulations. None of the provisions can be triggered unless a person fails to comply with a Garda direction in the first instance.
I remind Senators that the legislation is temporary and contains a sunset clause such that it can only be extended with the approval of a resolution passed in both Houses. 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. As I stated, I am confident this will encourage greater overall compliance and will support the hard work and good faith efforts being made by the vast majority of licensed premises to operate within the law.
I commend the Bill to the House.