Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

I remind colleagues that this item of business must conclude at 12.45 p.m. They should bear that in mind in terms of their contributions. It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to the House.

SECTION 1

Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 4 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 3. Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, to delete lines 7 to 21 and substitute the following:

“ “(b) Part 3, continue in operation for the period beginning on the 10th day of June 2021 and ending on the 30th day of September 2021.”.”.

The Minister is very welcome back to the House. I spoke extensively on Second Stage yesterday regarding my objection to the duration of the proposed extension of these lockdown measures to 9 November. There is no information, data or public knowledge relating to the extension. The virus is one with which we have lived and there is significant public awareness of it. The vaccine roll-out is currently under way. The virus is not the unknown threat necessitating these measures that it arguably once was.

The circumstances justifying these emergency measures no longer exist. It follows, therefore, that the continuation of these measures, particularly in the absence of the most robust and critical analysis, can no longer reasonably be claimed to be a proportionate response to a pressing need to preserve public health. The impact that the continuation of the lockdown measures will have on freedom of movement, the EU digital Covid-19 pass, foreign travel and the mental health of individuals, as well as the negative effect on employment and struggling SMEs, mean that the extension would do more harm than good.

It is for these reasons that I strongly oppose the Bill as it stands. The Bill cannot reasonably be said to have passed the legal requirement of proportionality or necessity. I propose that the powers be extended until no later than 30 September 2021. Any further extension, as this Bill proposes, cannot be claimed to be lawful interference with the rights of individuals.

Before Senator Mullen speaks, what amendments are in this group?

We are discussing amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive.

The Minister may recall that in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan met President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, he began with a famous line, saying that he would let Gorbachev know why he could not trust him. That is a question that I find myself having to ask the Government at this point as we discuss emergency powers in this House yet again. Throughout this crisis, I have been among many who have said that given the scale of the threat to public health, we had to trust the Government to make decisions in the public interest and to use the draconian powers that we gave it only to the extent necessary. Notwithstanding the good work that has been done, the Minister and Government have taken our trust for granted in many respects and have abused their power.

I draw the Minister's attention to one matter. On 29 March, I asked the him in this House to address the legality or otherwise of the ban on public worship and the points raised by people such as Professor Oran Doyle in Trinity College Dublin about the idea that the regulations as they stood at that point did not actually manage to make the organisation of religious worship illegal, while at the same time the gardaí were imposing fines on at least one priest I was aware of for saying mass publicly. The Minister replied:

I would prefer to get the Senator a written response because he asked a very reasonable and very important question about what is legal and what is advisory. I want to ensure he gets a precise answer to that question. I will ensure that the Department reverts to him with exactly that.

Two months later, I have received no such response in writing or otherwise, despite his express commitment to me as a public representative in this House. How does the Minister expect me or any other Senator to vote for an extension of emergency powers when he has not accounted in even the most basic way for what I claimed was a flagrant breach of the existing powers that he had been given? He went and amended the regulations quickly and somewhat secretly to make sure that he was on stronger legal ground in enforcing the restrictions on worship that then stood. I cannot understand and do not know whether it was a matter of incompetence or insouciance, whether his departmental officials do not care about the commitments that he gives in the Dáil or Seanad or whether he has instructed them not to bother with non-Government inquiries. I just do not know. I was mystified by the discourtesy of it. I do not claim to have any rights greater than other citizen but I would have thought that when a Minister gives a commitment on the floor of the House, it would be followed up on.

The biggest question hanging over the legislation is why an extension to November is needed at all. The Tánaiste said last week that everyone who wants a vaccination will be offered one by the end of June. On that basis, surely we can reasonably expect the entire population to be vaccinated by August? If that expectation is reasonable, why on earth does the Government need to extend these powers until November? What exactly does it foresee that it would be needed for in circumstances where virtually the entire population will have been vaccinated?

I hope that no Government Senators will run for the smelling salts if I mention the game of golf. It has caused some political turmoil in recent times. I am sure the golfers in the House were watching the final day of the US PGA tournament in South Carolina at the weekend. That is a place with a similar population to our own at approximately 5 million. Its Covid statistics have been similar to ours of late as well. On Saturday, it had 362 cases and one death. At the last count, we had 425 cases and four deaths. Some 40% of its population has had at least one dose of the vaccine. We are not far behind that, at 33%. The difference is that they are reopening their state. The mandatory wearing of face masks was suspended in early May. Last Sunday, 10,000 spectators were allowed on to the course to witness Phil Mickelson, who is wonderful at 50, winning. Here in Ireland, no more than 25 can attend a funeral.

We are here talking about extending the Government's draconian powers until November. What is it that justifies the difference in approach? The Government constantly maintains that its caution is based on scientific evidence, but is it? Why are other countries opening up much faster than Ireland and with no apparent significant ill effects, given the rate of vaccinations. The Government has not exactly contributed to a climate of trust, such that we would accept its assurances at this point that there is a rationale for what it is doing at face value.

I draw the Minister's attention to a conversation that I had over the weekend with a hospital consultant, who pointed out that many healthcare workers received the AstraZeneca vaccine. With this vaccine, the time before the second jab is much greater than would be the case with, for example, the Pfizer vaccine, the first jab of which I have received. He put it to me that there is now a situation where many healthcare workers are less protected than many people who might not be operating in the healthcare sector. We heard at the weekend that even after the second jab, the level of protection against the Indian variant would be approximately 60% in the case of AstraZeneca and somewhat higher in the case of some of the other vaccines. If healthcare workers have received the first jab of AstraZeneca, should it not be the case that they are prioritised for a second jab, much sooner than others who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine would get it? It seems to me that there is a risk. The hospital consultant was of a view that some healthcare workers were being put at unnecessary risk because of the delay with getting the second jab.

The Minister may think it unnecessarily pernickety of me to have raised the issue that I did about the lack of clarity around the law on public worship some months back and the fact that he did not respond to my questions. There was a real worry. The police prosecuting citizens on the basis of non-existent laws is the very definition of the abuse of executive power. If something like that happened in Hungary or Poland, Twitter and TikTok would be awash with virtue-signalling condemnations from Ministers. Even the politburos in Beijing and Pyongyang generally have the decency to at least pretend to put formal laws in place before they start prosecuting their own citizens. I am not for a moment comparing this Government with repressive regimes elsewhere but it has become a bit casual about our democratic institutions. It has presumed too much about its right to carry on and to keep saying that what it is doing is in the public interest, and generally disrespecting the very Parliament that has given it powers to do what it does. That is the reason for my interventions.

We want to support the Government but it has shown itself to be less than interested in keeping Parliament fully informed. In fact, there has been a virtual collapse of parliamentary accountability over the past year, a point that was well made by my colleague, Senator McDowell, in a recent article by him that I read. The Taoiseach has made a seemingly endless stream of announcements on live television instead of making them to the Dáil. The Dáil was in session when he made his latest such announcement on the "Six One News". Meanwhile, both of these Houses are barely working half hours, even though many Oireachtas Members and staff have been vaccinated.

Senators on the Government side are clearly satisfied with whatever excuse is necessary to protect the Government from scrutiny but that has to end now. It is time that the Minister got serious about his parliamentary responsibility, even while we support him in the measures he has been taking to keep this country safe. I am supporting Senator Keogan's amendments because the Minister has not earned our trust at this point. To echo former US President Reagan’s statement, the Minister gives us reason not to trust that he is on the level when he says he is doing things in the public interest. There does not seem to be a good reason to continue to extend these powers until November in circumstances where most people will have been vaccinated much earlier. There is certainly not a reason to leave in legislation the ability to continue to make regulations extending ministerial powers further. If there are future problems in regard to this pandemic or anything else, the Minister should have to come back to the Dáil and Seanad in the normal way and introduce legislation on which we would vote in the normal way. That is not too much to ask in a parliamentary democracy. It is about time that the Minister reflected on the importance of parliamentary democracy, the citizens’ right to have their Government properly scrutinised and tested by their elected representatives, and those representatives’ right to get answers in a timely fashion when they are asking reasonable questions on their behalf.

Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh an Aire. I want to speak to my amendments in the group, Nos. 2 and 4. I have spoken at length about the rationale for them. The Opposition groups in the Seanad are seeking to do similar things but in a different way and with different intended outcomes. The discussion we had yesterday was respectful, by and large. From right across the Chamber and, indeed, the Minister, we heard concerns over the level of power being gifted to the Minister. We heard from Members across the House on the merits of such draconian powers being brought back for regular scrutiny and approval and for a regular vote by the Oireachtas. That is entirely appropriate and in keeping with proper parliamentary procedure. That is really the purpose of my two amendments in this group and similar amendments concerning other sections of the Bill. I seek to replace the word "November" with "July" and to bring the Minister back here to give us an early opportunity to engage with him, hopefully in a much more comprehensive way and in a way that affords us, as parliamentarians and legislators, an opportunity to properly scrutinise the measures. I have said consistently during our consideration in the House of legislation pertaining to the emergency that while we understood the position and wanted to work collaboratively with the Government and other parties, additional time had to be given to us. I appreciate entirely that we were operating in a different set of circumstances throughout last year but we should have more than just one hour in which to engage on Committee and Remaining Stages of such important legislation. Before even getting into all the other arguments that Members across the House and, indeed, the Minister made yesterday, the fact that we have only one hour in which to deal with this legislation today champions my argument that the Minister should come back here in July.

Having worked well with colleagues in the Civil Engagement and Independent groups, I believe our motion is the way to go. I say respectfully to colleagues that I will not be able to support their amendments but I understand why they have been tabled. July — in the course of the summer and in the context of what we have to deal with at that time — is an appropriate time for the Minister to come back. I look forward to being able to move amendments Nos. 2 and 4.

Our amendment, No. 3, is part of this grouping. It relates to the extension of the emergency measures by resolution. The emergency measures introduced by the Health (Preservation, Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 and the other relevant Acts last year are extraordinary. They are unlike any other emergency legislation we have seen in recent history. Although they may be necessary, there is no doubt but that they amount to a substantial restriction on human rights and civil liberties. The Bill, as currently drafted, provides that the operation of these emergency measures may be extended by a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas. At the same time, the Bill neglects to set a limit on the number of resolutions that could be introduced to keep these measures in operation. In practice, it means that the Bill does not provide for a real sunset clause. It is therefore possible that the operation of the emergency legislation could be extended indefinitely by a series of three-month resolutions. The Civil Engagement Group is moving its amendment to ensure the emergency measures, as issued, may be extended once and only for two months. If the Government wishes to extend the operation of the legislation beyond that period, it must do so in the form of a Bill, to be scrutinised and debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas. A resolution or motion is not a substitute for legislation. This is especially the case when the legislation at issue is as far-reaching and consequential as the emergency legislation we are debating today.

The various Stages of the legislative process are not just a series of formalities or boxes to be ticked. They exist to ensure laws delineating rights and obligations are properly scrutinised. We ask that the Houses of the Oireachtas be given the opportunity to perform their function and to scrutinise and debate this important legislation.

I have listened carefully to the debates both yesterday and today, particularly on the matter of the time limit. To a large extent, I agree with what was said but, unfortunately, we are still in a very precarious situation. While people are uncomfortable with the date in November, it exists for a reason. I was disappointed to hear Senator Mullen stating he did not get a written reply from the Minister on the position on masses. I was actually in the Chamber when the discussion took place and I heard the Minister make the commitment. I would imagine it was just an oversight and that there was nothing ill-intended. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the position.

Could the Minister tell us whether he has had a request from the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, Mr. Robin Swann, because it appears that he has stated publicly that he has sought a meeting with our Minister on several occasions over the past couple of weeks to discuss co-operation between the North and South? Such a meeting should be facilitated. There should be weekly meetings with Mr. Swann so we can have an all-island approach to taking on and beating this deadly virus. We need co-operation from all areas, regions and stakeholders on the island. If the meeting has been requested, I urge the Minister to facilitate it.

The amendments are tabled with good intention. Under normal circumstances, one would have to say they are very reasonable but we are still not in normal circumstances.

Unfortunately, every week there are people dying as a result of this disease.

As Senator Conway outlined, there is merit in the amendments tabled by colleagues. I accept the good faith in which they are put down. There is particular merit in the proposal outlined by Senator Ruane on the limiting of the automatic rolling over of the renewal periods.

I will address some of the comments made by Senator Mullen. I too was watching the golf a few days ago. It was a great performance by the winner but the weather is completely different in the United States. One can have a very full outdoor life at the moment in the United States. I wish we had better weather.

The funeral restrictions are very harsh. I unfortunately lost two uncles during the past 14 months and had to watch their funerals on YouTube. It is very restrictive but it is done with the best of intentions. Senator Mullen referenced the fact that the Minister needed to earn the trust of the public. I think he has more than earned the trust of the public. The schools have reopened, the vaccination programme is flying along, our death rate and infection rates are dropping and we are holding it together very well. To suggest the Minister and the Government need to earn the trust and that they have not already earned it is highly insulting.

The constant references to repressive regimes when referring to the Government or anything the Government tries to do are highly insulting. Other people have referred to Ireland as being like a Nazi country and a Hitler regime being run. That is completely inappropriate and we need to stop with-----

Will the Senator take a point?

No, the Senator had his time to speak. On the topic of human rights and the State oppressing the human rights of people, I remind the Senator of the many women who had to go to the European Court of Human Rights to vindicate their health rights. I am talking about women like Deirdre Conroy, who had to sue this State because she could not access termination services.

It is because babies have rights too. The Senator should not be frightened of that.

Senator Clifford-Lee, without interruption.

If we are talking about human rights and oppressive regimes, that is what is in place in this country. It is completely inappropriate for Members of this House and the Lower House to constantly use emotive language when we are discussing these health regulations. Members put down amendments in good faith. I do not question the good faith of anybody in this House but to use inappropriate and insulting language like that is completely inappropriate. I ask Senator Mullen to retract his comments from earlier today.

I was clear that I was not comparing the Government with a repressive regime but we need to be aware of the dangers.

If the Senator wants to have a debate about human rights, let us have a full debate about human rights and how women's human rights were suppressed in this country for years.

There is no need to protract this on either side. The next speaker is Senator Higgins.

There is a number of detailed aspects in each of the four Bills being extended here and each time one of them came through we engaged and put forward amendments. In many cases, there was no chance to debate those amendments. In all cases, there was no acceptance of the amendments, even those that came from Government Senators who spotted flaws in the drafting of the legislation. Given the way this Bill is being put through and the fact there is only one hour for this Stage, we have not had the opportunity to give our detailed proposals on every section of each of these Bills and that is not appropriate.

We had to make a choice which is not appropriate in parliamentary scrutiny. We had to say we would only get to make maybe two points about these four large Bills and the operation of the numerous statutory instruments that have been created under them. If we have to choose one thing, let us make sure we at least protect the process for the future.

I have many opinions on many aspects. I support public health measures. I have often called for stronger public health measures on different aspects. This is not about being for or against public health measures. It is about whether one believes it is appropriate, when a Minister is given greater powers than a Minister would normally hold by the Oireachtas, that there should be an appropriate coming back for scrutiny.

We came in in March in an emergency and showed great solidarity across the House. We all supported the measures. The Minister who came in then at least justified and talked about the compromise and why it would expire on 9 November. He gave the justification that it could be in the middle of the night and that we did not yet know how parliaments would operate. It was March 2020. That was the justification for the emergency powers legislation. We did not know but now we know how we operate in a pandemic. It is difficult but we operate. I do not see what the excuse is. The Minister needs to say what the excuse is for not having any future date when this legislation will come back for parliamentary scrutiny. That is the challenge and the key question.

I am not opposing or changing the dates. Our amendments do not change the Minister's date. I sympathise with and will probably support those who are looking for earlier dates because I think earlier review is healthier. Nonetheless, even if it goes to November, the concern is there are resolutions which, given there is a Government majority, can go through without debate. There are often one or two attached to the end of the Order of Business. They will not allow any nuance, any opportunity to say a certain aspect is working well, another aspect has had unforeseen consequences or something needs to be changed. The measures we have on statutory instruments stipulate they can be challenged within 28 days. We have forborne objecting to statutory instruments because we have given trust to and supported the Government. We have done so in the context that the powers to continue to create statutory instruments would eventually be discussed. When we came in in March, there may have been an excuse for a rush. There is no excuse now. This date has been down in Bills and has been coming for a long time. There is no excuse for this Bill to be rushed over one or two weeks. It could have been planned for and this could have been a robust and proper debate, informed by a review or by the insights that elected Members from all parties might have. That opportunity was not given. I urge the Minister to give a final date after which this will not be extended by resolution and allow at some future point, if this is to continue, that the legislation will be scrutinised in detail.

To a large extent, I made the points I wanted to make on Second Stage. Even the Title of this Bill refers to "Health and Criminal Justice", two uncomfortable bedfellows. It is important to acknowledge this legislation is not desired by anybody. The Minister made it clear in his Second Stage speech that this was an undesirable situation to be in. We would all like for this situation to be finished.

I have great sympathy with these amendments and with the frustration of Members who want this to be brought forward. I agree with Members about the timeframe of the legislation, the fact the deadline was well known in advance and that we could have done this earlier. Notwithstanding that, I do not think we can in any way question the bona fides of the Minister or Government in bringing in this legislation. I do not think this is really about human rights but I accept the criticisms of the current situation in terms of how it impinges on people's individual rights. That is an important matter for us to consider.

I agree with Senators who have said we need to be careful about the emotive language being used. For example, Senator Mullen referred to the secretive passing of regulations. Regulations are never secretively passed, so I do not think that is really what he meant. Sometimes we can use language and talk about things in a manner that is not appropriate. There is no doubt the people of Ireland have suffered through the Covid regime and as a result of these restrictions.

There is also no doubt that lives have been saved because of those restrictions. The spread of the disease has been halted because of them. However uncomfortable I am with this legislation and however unhappy I am with the restrictions and particularly the time periods involved, I have faith that they are being put in place for good, sensible and defensible reasons. That is why I cannot support the proposed amendments and I must support the legislation.

Everybody has had a fair chance now. I call the Minister to respond. I will then go back to Senator Ó Donnghaile who wishes to make an additional contribution.

I thank colleagues for their contributions, both at yesterday's session and today. Essentially the debate we are having now deals with nearly all the amendments. There are amendments at the end dealing with reporting, but essentially there are groups of amendments proposing the same thing with the four different Acts we are seeking to extend.

I had nothing to do with ordering the business and the allocation of debating time in the Seanad. I would be more than happy to come back to the Seanad to discuss the public health measures because there seems to be a very understandable appetite to discuss those measures. The Bill before us, while very important, is straightforward in that it seeks an extension to the ability to make these regulations. It is not so much about the underlying Acts themselves as extending the time periods. I would be very happy to come back to the Seanad to discuss the impact of the regulations that have been put in place and to discuss the underlying four Acts that were amended, if colleagues would like to do that.

As I said yesterday, the powers we are discussing are draconian. They do not sit well with me and they should not sit comfortably in any healthy democracy. I do not believe they would sit well with any Member either. They must be treated with considerable caution.

Regarding the variants of concern we are dealing with, the so-called Indian variant was referenced earlier. It is significantly more contagious than even the B117, or UK, variant which itself is significantly more contagious than the previous strains we dealt with. The UK is experiencing some worrying levels of infection and rises in cases, which we are watching very closely. With possible localised outbreaks and the need for targeted measures over the coming months, unfortunately the ability to regulate for public health measures is one that we need.

Based on our current trajectory, our hope is that we will not need to impose any new measures. It is about a sustainable unwinding of the existing measures but we need to do that carefully and in a way that hopefully will mean we will not need to reimpose the measures again. This extension is being framed around being able to sustainably unwind the measures we have in place. As I said to the House yesterday, because of the great effort by the people to get behind the public health measures that have been regulated for, the Government is meeting on Friday morning in a very positive environment. The trajectory of the disease has remained stable even in light of quite significant unwinding of restrictions and the continuing unwinding of those restrictions in coming weeks and months.

The timing of the measures is also relevant. The time periods requested are continuing to reduce. For example, the initial duration sought by both Houses from the previous Government was eight months. There was then an extension for a further seven months. After the seven-month extension we are now asking for an additional five months and the sunset clause will be three months. It has gone from eight months to seven to five to three, which is a trajectory we would all like to see. None of us wants to see these powers in operation for much longer.

Before I come to the points made by various Senators, I would like to speak about the substance of the Bill. Various points were made about Covid, vaccinations and so forth. The substance of the legislation and the substance of nearly all the amendments relate to timing. I listened very carefully to what colleagues said yesterday and I reflected on it overnight. I cannot accept the amendments for the reasons we discussed yesterday. For example, some of them seek to move the November date forward to September, and others to July. The public health view is that we need to be able to access these measures in late autumn and early December. While there is no right date, we feel 9 November is a suitable date at which point I hope we do not need to seek any further extension.

While I will not accept any of the amendments, I commit to colleagues to seek approval from Government in the very near future this week to amend the Bill on Committee Stage in the Dáil to allow for just one extended sunset clause. Essentially, we would have the five-month extension now, which is needed. We need a way to sustainably unwind the measures that are in place. I think most, if not all, colleagues will agree that we cannot just get rid of them all. Then there would be an option, which I dearly hope is never needed, which again would require agreement and would require a resolution of the Seanad, to extend for another three months. I hope we do not need that. I do not want to be back here seeking that from colleagues. Regardless, I will seek Government approval. As it requires Government to change a decision, I will need Government agreement on it.

At the end of that first three-month extension, the Act would fall. If we find ourselves in the position, which we all dearly hope we do not, whereby we need some targeted public health measures beyond February 2022, we would introduce another Bill and put it through the important safeguards that the legislative process brings.

It is a substantial change. It is based on the debate we had yesterday, reflecting on the points that were very well made. These are extraordinary powers and they should not be powers the Government has in the background all the time. They are specifically to deal with Covid. The legislation specifies that the measures must be linked to Covid and must be proportionate. There have been several legal challenges. Anyone is free to challenge whether they are linked to Covid or whether they are proportionate. There are several cases before the courts, some of which have been ruled on and others of which have been withdrawn. Senator Mullen mentioned religious services, which I will return to shortly. That, for example, is a live case before the courts.

I hope colleagues will accept that. It is a substantial change but I cannot introduce the amendment here, unfortunately, because there was not time for today's session. However, I am committing to seek Government approval to amend it on Committee Stage in the Dáil. My understanding is that it would then come back to them Seanad as an amended Bill and we can debate it again.

I think we have covered the issues that Senator Keogan raised relating to the timing of September rather than November and whether the measures will be proportionate. I believe the measures have been proportionate, as evidenced by the fact that when the number of cases rose we moved up the levels and when the number of cases reduced we began to unwind the measures as quickly as public health experts deemed safe. Therefore, the measures have moved in proportion to the level of risk that Covid has posed to us.

While I believe the various accusations Senator Mullen made are unfounded, I understand his frustration and fully accept that I made a commitment to him. Following that, I sought advice from the Attorney General, which I received.

It is being considered by the Department. I regret not being able to get back to the Senator more quickly. It was complicated by the fact that the matter was before the courts. I accept that I made a commitment. I did so in good faith and it has been followed up on. I accept that the Senator has not yet got the reply, to which he has every right.

I had a very productive meeting with Archbishop Martin on the issue of religious services. We teased out various issues with regard to what can and cannot happen under the current public health measures. It is important to note that this point is now becoming moot. People can again attend religious services and such services can be held. That is very important for an awful lot of people in this country.

Will the Minister take a point from me?

That is up to the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I will allow a very brief intervention but, before Senator Mullen begins, I appeal to colleagues not to repeat the arguments. They are well made and such repetition is not helpful. If the Senator wants to ask a question, he may.

I will be very brief. I thank the Minister for his reply. I look forward to getting that letter. A holding letter is always acceptable. On the issue of the point being moot, the concern people have about these matters is that these measures can always come back. The very big question of whether it is actually constitutional to enforce these measures is hanging in the background. While the point might be moot with regard to the application of the provision now, given the very weighty issues at stake, the question needs to be answered regardless of what the regulations are.

With regard to keeping Parliament informed, I respectfully disagree with the Senator. There has been a lot of debate. Perhaps there should have been more in the Seanad. As I said, I am open to such debates, although the Seanad orders its own business. I have sat in this room week after week for sessions of questions and answers. There has been a lot of parliamentary debate. With regard to the right to access the information that informs these decisions, I wholeheartedly agree. Great efforts have been made to that end. Colleagues will be aware that most of the advice comes from NPHET, the minutes of whose meetings are all publicly available online. The NPHET documents that I receive and that NPHET use include very detailed presentations on epidemiology, clusters, outbreaks, international evidence and many other things and these are all up online. All of the advice that comes to me from the Chief Medical Officer, which historically has tended to come on a Thursday, is also online. There has been a genuine effort. It is very important that Parliament and the public have access to the rationale, the evidence and the specific public health advice given to me and to Government.

Senator Ó Donnghaile made reference to his amendments, Nos. 2 and 4. I hope I have spoken to his points when speaking about amending the legislation in the Dáil. I believe an amended deadline in July would just be too early. We are still in an evolving situation and we need those powers through the summer and autumn if we are to unwind the restrictions safely. I believe I have spoken to the points Senator Ruane raised in terms of having just one sunset clause. I hope the Senator is happy with that.

Although it is not an issue contained within the Bill, Senator Conway asked about a meeting between the Minister, Robin Swann, and myself. I confirm that he wrote to me and that I responded seeking a meeting of officials first so that a technical basis and understanding could be established. That meeting happened on Friday. In light of that, I again wrote to the Minister seeking a meeting with him. It is important. Senator Conway made the point that we should have as unified an approach as possible across the island. I wholeheartedly endorse such an approach. We also have concerns with regard to the Indian variant. The level of genome sequencing being carried out in the North is lower than the level here. We would be very interested in getting a better understanding of the extent of the prevalence of the Indian variant in the North. It is obviously something we are watching here. The Minister, Robin Swann, may have reciprocal questions with regard to the epidemiological situation and public health measures here.

Senator Higgins made similar points to those of Senator Ruane with regard to the sunset clause. I hope the Senator is happy with the proposed actions in that regard. Senator Ward also made similar points and said that none of us is at ease with this Bill. Quite frankly, we would all prefer if it did not exist and was not needed. For the reasons I have outlined, I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Ward. I cannot accept the amendments tabled for various reasons but I share the concern of the Senator, and of all colleagues, with regard to the rolling-on of powers. As I stated, I hope to seek Government agreement to amend this in the Dáil later this week.

I will now call Senator Ó Donnghaile. I appeal to people to resist the temptation to repeat entire arguments.

I thank the Minister and absolutely accept that he does not set the Seanad's Order of Business. That is certainly not the point I was trying to make but, nevertheless, I still believe my point is valid in the broader context. The Minister spoke about the crux of the issue being extension. I accept that with regard to what he is trying to do but, for us, the extension is too great. By proposing to change the word "November" to the word "July" and for us to come back here in July, I am not suggesting that it is a fait accompli that the powers will lapse at that point. Neither am I suggesting that we no longer want public health advice and guidance to be taken or that we want everything to stop on 9 July. That is not at all the case. What I want is further oversight and further parliamentary scrutiny.

The Minister has made an interesting proposal with regard to what he intends to do on Committee Stage in the Dáil. I say respectfully that it probably would have been better if we had heard about this proposal before coming into the Chamber rather than hearing about it in the midst of the debate but I understand that it is a rapidly moving situation given the tight window of time. The Minister will understand and appreciate, however, that we have to operate within our political confines and the legislative realities as they are laid before us in the Seanad. I do not doubt for one second that the Minister will have proposals to make on Committee Stage in the Dáil. He specified the caveat that he has to go to Cabinet first and I understand that as well. I am sure my colleagues in the Dáil will engage and interact with the Minister on the basis of what is brought before the Dáil on Committee Stage but at this stage, in the Seanad, I still feel that the extension of these powers out to 9 November should be looked at again. I believe 9 July would be an opportune time. I take on board what the Minister has said. Nobody is saying that this will be over on 9 July but I believe, for the reasons mentioned in the arguments of colleagues right across the House, that level of scrutiny and oversight is warranted.

I have a great deal of sympathy for what Senator Higgins outlined with regard to her own amendment and what it seeks to do but, unfortunately, because I do not believe we should kick this out to 9 November and give the Government carte blanche without reserving an opportunity to engage again with the Minister, it would be difficult for me to support it.

I also asked the Minister yesterday about the correspondence from his counterpart Minister, Robin Swann, and his public utterances. I do not believe these engagements should be done via the airways or even in this House. I welcome the fact that the Minister has written back to the Minister, Robin Swann. That engagement should have been happening at a far more substantial and significant level way earlier but, if it is now happening, I wish it well. I hope it is as effective and consistent as it needs to be.

My neighbour and friend has been indicating and has not got to speak yet. I call Senator Martin.

I can understand the concerns. The enforcement powers and provisions being extended are so sweeping in nature and so draconian, for want of a better word, that I can understand people's concerns. I still have concerns myself but the Parliament is the place where we reflect public concerns. As recently as yesterday, I said that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is a Minister who listens.

I welcome the fact the Minister took on board concerns in the Dáil Chamber yesterday. It might not be ideal but we are not a talking shop. The Minister said today that he is willing to look at this. He has also given a commitment that the extension might be for once only and will not be renewed in perpetuity.

I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister. We have to support the Minister for Health. He is in a crucial role of responsibility. We can agree to disagree in a constructive way. I am opposed, however, to name calling. A unified approach is required, no matter who is the Minister for Health. I am convinced he is doing his best for his country and he deserves our support. He is not immune from criticism. I disagreed yesterday. However, I want to go on the record today to commend the Minister for promptly reconsidering the position and reflecting on the very valid concerns raised by me and others in the Seanad yesterday.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, line 9, to delete “November” and substitute “July”.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 6; Níl, 29.

  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Lynn Boylan and Niall Ó Donnghaile; Níl, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne.
Amendment declared lost.

In accordance with the order of the Seanad of this day, I am required to put the following question: "That section 1 is hereby agreed to in committee; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in committee; the Preamble and the Title are hereby agreed to in committee; the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment; Fourth Stage is hereby agreed to and completed; the Bill is hereby received for final consideration; and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 29; Níl, 4.

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne; Níl, Senators Lynn Boylan and Niall Ó Donnghaile.
Question declared carried.

In accordance with the order of the House today, the House stands adjourned until 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 28 May 2021.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 28 May 2021.