Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Ar ndóigh, beidh díospóireacht fhiúntach againn. I remind Members, as a courtesy, that Committee Stage will be adjourned in two hours, so they should be conscious of that as they contribute.
Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021: Committee Stage
Amendments Nos. 1, 3 and 10 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
" "authorised trade union" means a trade union which holds a negotiation licence under the Trade Union Acts 1941 to 1990;".
The Minister is very welcome. I thank him for taking the time to attend. I am really pleased to be able to move to Committee Stage of the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021. While Sinn Féin is very proud to be supporting it, I must stress the cross-party nature of the campaign behind it. The Bill has been co-signed by members of Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Civil Engagement Group, the Green Party and Fianna Fáil, as well as by the father of the House, Senator Norris.
A Bill has been commissioned and drafted by Together for Safety, a national campaign group working for legislation that would enforce safe access zones around all family planning centres, maternity hospitals and healthcare facilities in Ireland that provide or give information on abortion. All credit for this legislation belongs to Together for Safety and its tireless campaigners across the country. I am thrilled to have three of the many activists from Together for Safety in our Chamber this afternoon, namely, Karen Sugrue, Yvie Murphy and Victoria. I thank them so much for the work and the tireless campaigning that they brought to this Bill and for the broad coalition of support for this Bill, which was built by Together for Safety. It is a tremendous achievement.
I will be brief because we have just a couple of hours to progress this legislation through Committee Stage. I want to be clear that we need this legislation without further delay, because women and pregnant people are entitled to access essential healthcare, including access to termination of pregnancy services, in privacy and dignity, without being subject to intimidation, harassment and the subtle but deliberate chilling effect that anti-choice protestors bring to hospitals, family planning and GP settings across the State. I know that the Minister was informed in the past week of a disturbing new development in my home city, Limerick, where the timing of these anti-choice protests is now coinciding with the timing of appointments for terminations. It is clear, from a number of people who have spoken to Together for Safety, that information is being leaked. These protestors are now targeting women and pregnant people as they arrive for their terminations. That is disgraceful, and it speaks to the urgency required in respect of this Bill. We introduced this Bill three months ago. I was delighted by and appreciate the fact that the Minister allowed the Bill to pass Second Stage. He said that we are all on the same page. I believe we are. It is important to move this Bill forward.
I look forward to the remainder of this Committee Stage debate. A number of the amendments are in response to concerns the Minister raised on Second Stage. We look forward to working with him in order that we can move the legislation forward as a matter of urgency and give women and pregnant people the protection that they deserve, which is already in place in a number of jurisdictions across the world. We need to deliver that as quickly as possible for our people in this State.
I welcome our distinguished visitors in the Gallery.
I welcome the Minister and our guests from Together for Safety. What Senator Gavan said is important. This Bill has been drafted by Together for Safety and the work that it has done in reaching out to all of us is welcome. When we operate on a cross-party basis in the Seanad, as we have on a number of issues, particularly with regard to women's healthcare, contraception, the stalking legislation dealt with yesterday and the new legislation about character references in sexual assault cases that was launched yesterday, it is beneficial to politics and society. I ask the Minister to address, in response to these amendments, where matters are at present. The legislation was supposed to have included safe access zones in 2019. That was expected. I know the Minister has previously said that he has a commitment about this, which is welcome. We need to pass this legislation and we need to hear what the Department will do, including a timeline for safe access zones. Senator Gavan has listened to what came up last time. I see from the first amendment that he also listened to concerns from trade unions and other groups and tabled that amendment on the basis that it would address some concerns. That is an important point that the Minister might take into consideration when allowing it to progress, although it is up to us to allow it to pass, and from the Government's perspective.
I welcome the Minister. It is great to see visitors back in the Public Gallery once again. People who have engaged in and led the campaign relating to this Bill have filled the Gallery. It is a relief to see citizens back in their Parliament.
It is glaring that there are no Government amendments to the Bill. There should always be an onus on Government to proactively engage in respect of Private Member's Bills, particularly in view of the fact that they represent the opportunity for citizens and parliamentarians bring forward legislation. I am somewhat disappointed not to see any Government amendments. The principle behind the Bill is about providing unencumbered access to facilities that provide legal termination of pregnancy services and protecting individuals who provide such services and allowing citizens to access those services, as is their right. I wanted to give my support to the Bill again. I hope to speak on other amendments.
I will be brief because I am conscious that we want to finish Committee Stage today. I am glad to see this being progressed and to see the support across the House. It is important to remember that in the debate prior to the referendum, it was extremely difficult for people to come forward and to talk about their experiences. We had decades of silence when people were intimidated with regard to talking about their experiences, realities and the challenges and choices that they faced. It was powerful when people stepped forward, particularly when one bears in mind that they had criminal offences hanging over their heads at the time. It should not be the case that after that referendum and those hard conversations, when people made their children, that people again face intimidation, harassment or fear in stepping forward, when they are trying to access the health services that they are entitled to and need. It is not acceptable to have any lingering of this dimension of intimidation, silencing and pressure. We had long enough of that. The people chose to change it. We are now at the point of ensuring that the ancillary recommendations related to contraception and the promise about safe access zones are delivered. We knew that these would be issues. The committee anticipated them and made recommendations.
There is a concern that there are still hospitals in Ireland that are not providing people with the care they need. It is a real concern if there are hospitals where people are being pressured indirectly. This Bill is not just about hospitals, it is also about GP practices. I was moved when I heard about the practical implementation of access. Many rural GPs have their offices where their homes are. They have been subjected to protests outside their homes, which is not acceptable. It is important that we create a space which is safe, supportive and where people can access what they need, and in order that people can deliver the services they want and are bound to deliver by good ethics.
I am glad that the Bill is moving forward. I am not sure if we are speaking on amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, at this point.
We are discussing amendments Nos. 1, 3 and 10.
The amendments reflect the fact that Senator Gavan and the many lawyers and academics working with Together for Safety, as well as the campaigners themselves, have listened to the concerns raised. I imagine that because there has been a collegial spirit in the approach to this legislation and that because that approach has been so cross-party in nature, then if there are further thoughts, this is a clear message that we are happy to listen to and reflect the Government's concerns.
What if there are concerns about, for example, the narrowing piece? The phrase “services provided for the provision of contraception or advice in relation to contraception” might be too wide and is being narrowed. If that is too narrow, let us know because we still have Report Stage in which to refine the legislation further. We are all keen to get this exactly right; likewise in the case of the powers of members of the Garda Síochána.
There is a clear engagement here. If there are further questions either on these amendments or the Bill, I urge the Minister to work constructively with us between now and Report Stage to ensure we are all completely happy with the wording that goes through.
As co-signatories, we fully support the amendment. I welcome and thank Together for Safety for all the work it has done on this legislation.
The Bill is about patient safety and well-being and also the safety and well-being of doctors, GPs and their staff. We are not just talking about the people who want to access reproductive healthcare but also the staff. As Senator Gavan alluded to, the fact that some of these protests have been timed to take place at the same time as appointments is extremely concerning situation for staff and patients. It is also very frightening and worrying for prospective patients. People who will have no choice but to avail, unfortunately, of healthcare in Limerick hospital know there may potentially be a timed protest when they go into the hospital. That is a terrifying fact and I hope the Minister is taking it very seriously.
I hope the Bill will address the chill effect that these protests are designed to achieve. The actions of the protestors are rooted in judgment and not in compassion. The strategy has been used for decades in the US, UK and elsewhere in Europe. I cannot comprehend that people feel they have a right to cause hurt and upset instead of showing care and compassion for fellow people. There are legitimate means to express disquiet over abortion in Ireland, which do not hurt, impede, insult or upset people as they access necessary healthcare.
The main purpose of this Bill is to provide dignity while obtaining healthcare. The vote on this matter four years ago was resounding and we have waited four years for this legislation, which was promised a long time ago. As Senator Warfield noted, the Government has not tabled any amendments. Is that because the Government is happy with the legislation and does not see a reason to make any changes or does it plan to write its own legislation? If the latter is the case, why are we proceeding in the way we are? Will the Government support the passage of the Bill through the Houses? Has the Government not tabled amendments because it agrees with everything that has been said?
To speak to the amendments, I love to see the strengthening of references to trade unions. The stronger the reference, the better. We will support all the amendments.
Amendment No. 11 deals with the power of a member of An Garda Síochána to give direction. If there is an issue with that, I ask the Minister to give us guidance. Is the amendment written in a way that reflects what the Garda Síochána believes it would be able to do? There have been some concerns expressed about the powers of An Garda Síochána and what gardaí will and will not be able to do, and whether it is appropriate. I am interested in hearing the Minister's thoughts on the proposed new section. I specifically want to know whether it is moving in the right direction? Does the Minister or An Garda Síochána have concerns about whether this guidance and legislation are appropriate?
This Bill has been a long time coming. We need to get our act together. We had a very clear "Yes" vote in the referendum and a very clear promise that there would be legislation. It is time that we got it done.
It is great to be in the Seanad among like-minded colleagues who have worked for many years to improve women's healthcare. It is also great to have our guests from Together for Safety in the Gallery. I thank them for all of the work they have done, not only on this legislation but also on keeping this important issue on the political agenda.
I look forward to getting a timeline from the Minister setting out how we can protect workers and the people who seek to access services. We must make sure we have a fit-for-purpose healthcare system in Ireland. We passed legislation on termination services but there are a number of gaps. I hope we can speedily close those gaps.
I know the Minister is deeply committed to this issue. Its inclusion in the programme for Government was a recognition that it is a very important issue and one that needs to be solved. We have been promised this legislation for a long time, as Senator Hoey said. Four years is too long. The Minister took up the mantle when he went into the Department because no work had been done on the issue by the Department or his predecessor. Notwithstanding that the Minister had to deal with difficult health issues, he has put an awful lot of work into this issue. I hope that by virtue of his deep commitment, we will be able to move this legislation forward and get it across the line.
I look forward to hearing the Minister outline how he will approach this issue. Members of this House and the other House are deeply committed to solving this issue. People should not have to face the terror experienced in Limerick, as has been outlined. That is absolutely horrendous and similar situations have occurred in other parts of the country. In large swathes of rural Ireland services are not available because of this intimidation. That is not on and we cannot stand for it any longer. I and colleagues across the House will not stand for it.
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute on this legislation. I thank the Senators who brought this issue before us for allowing us an opportunity to debate this matter again.
I welcome and support the Bill. How could I not do so?
We last debated this issue in October and it is now February. What progress has been made? I hope the Government is not minded to leave this matter inextricably linked with the review of the operation of the primary legislation for termination services because too much harm is being done daily in the meantime. I am concerned that too few people are prepared to offer services for fear of their own safety. I thank the Together for Safety group for all its work and welcome its members to the Gallery.
The timing of protests to coincide with clear red-circled appointments is a sinister development on a number of fronts. It suggests there is activism somewhere within the hospital. That being the case, while this is a matter for the individuals involved, from a GDPR perspective it is horrific that such personal and sensitive information is being released. There is no reason action cannot be taken within the hospital. Such action should be of a very radical nature because if this happened in any other service or with respect to access to any other medical treatment, it would be viewed very badly. The particular nature of this case suggests there is political activism taking place, and that is unreasonable. It is not our place to hold a review but I am anxious to know - perhaps Senator Gavan knows - whether the Data Protection Commission is involved. Is there an active investigation. If not, there should be one? Has the commission been properly notified? It should investigate this matter. From my experience of data investigations and breaches, I know they can be incisive investigations. That is what is needed here. The obligations on a data controller to preserve and safeguard information are onerous. Both sides of that are engaged.
In June, this Government will have been in power for nearly two years. There is no excuse for not having legislation on this matter.
Either we completely support this all the way through, or, if there is some other plan, we need to know about it. We need to know the timeline as to when it will be operated. I refer to safeguarding the providers of termination services and those who need to access them.
The Minister is welcome to the House to take this important Bill. I welcome it, and I commend all those, in this House and outside it, who have brought us to this point. We need to legislate for safe access zones at abortion clinics urgently. This issue is about respect and dignity. It is concerned with supporting women’s right to make these decisions and about supporting their dignity and their privacy. Sadly, legislation in this regard is undoubtedly needed. It is sad to think that we are in a position where we must bring this Bill before the House, but this is the situation. People’s right to protest is, of course, of paramount importance. We must support that right. There is, however, a distinct difference between registering a protest about something and hiding behind one’s right to protest in order to intimidate people from accessing healthcare. That is what this legislation is concerned with. It is about intimidation.
Safe access zones are needed to protect the right to protest and people’s right to access healthcare. They are already used in other countries, including parts of Canada, Australia and the US. We must follow suit. This is already an incredibly sensitive and upsetting time for women. They deserve our respect and protection and that of the State. I am concerned that protests at these clinics will deter people from exercising their right to access healthcare, many of whom are in crisis pregnancy situations and do not need extra pressure or stress. As the chair of the Women’s Caucus, I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that people’s access to healthcare is protected.
Senator Gavan can have another word shortly. I call the Minister.
I thank the Senators for their contributions. I particularly welcome the group, Together for Safety, that has come here today. I acknowledge the great work its members have done and the advocacy and the energy the group has brought to this important issue.
The most important thing to state is that we are legislating for safe access zones. That is happening. It is in the programme for Government; we are doing that. It is for the Oireachtas to decide whether it will be a version of this Bill, which would require significant changes, and we can go through those points later, or whether it happens in the form of a new Bill being brought in on an all-party basis. We are, however, legislating for these safe access zones. This is happening. Termination of pregnancy services are legal. They were agreed by an overwhelming majority in a referendum. It is completely unacceptable for any woman to be harassed and intimidated in accessing such services. It is completely unacceptable for any clinician to be harassed or intimated, or worse, in providing these services. We are not going to stand for that.
A view has been expressed to me through the avenue of legal opinion, and it is also held by An Garda Síochána, that additional powers are not required. The current powers are sufficient. It is not a view I agree with and not one that I have accepted. It is not the view of this House or, I believe, of the Lower House. We are legislating. This is happening. These sorts of tactics and intimidation are not okay. I have spoken to GPs who have been on the receiving end of this type of treatment, in cases where they had their clinics are beside their homes, with entry through the same gate. I have been on the receiving end of this type of behaviour as well, although not relating to the termination of pregnancy services. My children have been on the receiving end of it. I know what it feels like and I know what it feels like as a parent when one's home is targeted. We will not stand for women in this country being intimidated, attacked, abused and moralised at when accessing healthcare services. The only question I am concerned with is determining the quickest and most robust way to get us to enacting the legislation. That is it. That is all I am interested in.
For us to do this, though, we must be really honest with each other. This is complicated. This measure was promised years ago. It was not legislated for by the previous Government, and that was partly because the previous Minister was presented with a significant amount of legal opinion which said that this type of provision was unnecessary and unconstitutional or would have too much of a chilling effect on civil liberties. We hold civil liberties to be sacred in this country and a delicate balance must be found. An Garda Síochána informed my predecessor and the Department at the time that these powers, this law and the fulfilment of this promise was not necessary. It is a complex subject.
In responding to this legislation, I have pages and pages containing legal opinion on why various parts of it would not work. We discussed much of what I am referring to on Second Stage. Therefore, I reiterate that we must be honest in this regard. What we are trying to do here is difficult. If it had been straightforward, an Act would have been passed by now. It is not easy to do this, and some trade-offs are required. We are pushing up against civil liberties when we do this. We all take this point deadly serious. We must, therefore, get this legislation right. What we need to enact is legislation that is legally robust. I think it will be challenged in the courts. It will certainly be assessed to see if a constitutional challenge can be taken. The legal advice I have is that the Bill before us, as it stands, or even with minor amendments, would not survive a constitutional challenge. We must, therefore, make some root-and-branch changes to this Bill or draft something else. Both those options are possible. First and foremost, however, the resulting legislation must be legally and constitutionally robust.
The legislation must also be effective. We must be clear regarding our policy intent. Are we talking about safe access zones around maternity units? We are. Are we talking about safe access zones around GP clinics? I believe we are. Are we talking about safe access zones around pharmacies? I am not sure we are, but this Bill would bring that about. Are we talking about safe access zones around the offices of students' unions? I do not think we are. The legal opinion I have, though, is that this legislation would do many things which I do not think many of us want. For example, if 100 m safe access zones were to be created in somewhere like Dublin city around every pharmacy, GP and family planning clinic, etc., then we would end up in a situation where we could not have legitimate protest or demonstrations, either for or against aspect of the termination of pregnancy.
This is not to critique the Bill. This is an incredibly complicated subject. It is why we do not have such an Act in place now. I am only saying that we must find a delicate and legally and constitutionally robust balance. The legislation we enact in this regard must be enforceable and it must be cognisant of civil liberties. That is something we, as legislators, hold sacrosanct. We have important and significant protections for our civil liberties in Bunreacht na hÉireann and in European law. Any time we seek to make an exception to those provisions, and this is what we would be doing, we would be carving out an exception in this regard and we must be cognisant of doing so in the appropriate way.
We need a Bill that fulfils the policy objectives here and we must be clear about what those objectives are. Is it intended to cover GP clinics, pharmacies, family planning centres and so on? What kinds of protests and demonstrations and what type of expressions of freedom of speech will be acceptable in those zones?
Is any kind acceptable? Are some kinds acceptable but not others? We need to be really clear on the policy objective. This needs to a cross-party decision to the greatest extent possible.
I was asked, correctly and very directly, what has happened since October. A lot of work has gone on. There has been a lot of analysis of this Bill. I have been pushing this very hard within the Department. The unit has also been working on assisted human reproduction, which I know the Senator is also very interested in. It has been pushing both and has run up against some very serious legal challenges as to how to put this in place.
We have also instigated the review of the legislation on the termination of pregnancy. I take the point that we should not tie the publication of the heads of a Bill or the passing of this Bill to the outcome of the review of the termination of pregnancy legislation but we are in the middle of a really comprehensive consultation with women who are using these services, clinicians who are providing them and the wider public and civil society. This has been discussed directly with the chair of the review group and access to services is within the scope of the current consultation. I am not going to wait months for a final report on phase 1. As has been discussed with the team and the chair, we also need to draw in those experiences and those testimonies. It is very important that we do so. We should not finalise a Bill and then listen to what this big consultation has said and realise that we have missed things. It is a shorter-term thing. It is not a matter of pushing it out to the end of the year or anything but we need to do that as well.
Yesterday, I wrote to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Health and we also had a chat earlier on today. I told him that I want to bring the officials in the Department of Health who are immersed in the legal challenges, the opportunities and the different options that are available to a cross-party group. That could be the Joint Committee on Health. I have written to the committee asking whether it could free up time within the next four weeks. I am not talking about a session of one or two hours; this is going to take a bit of time. The committee is going to consider my request and come back to me very shortly. If it cannot free up time, and it may not because I know it is flat out and is meeting three times this week, we are going to convene an all-party group to bring together people who are interested in this. The group will have a detailed conversation with officials from the Department of Health. We have received detailed advice from the Department of Justice and could potentially bring in other officials, as required. We need to spend a bit of time, on an all-party basis, deciding what we want to achieve and identifying the genuine legal challenges we need to overcome to make sure this is robust, stacks up and will survive any challenges. We then need to decide how to roll it out. That is what I am proposing to do.
The Government will not be opposing the Bill before the House. There is support for this Bill right across the House, which is very welcome to see. I will also not be opposing any of the amendments. Colleagues have asked why the Government has not tabled amendments. The reason I have not tabled any amendments is that the officials are still working through exactly how this can work. We all need to be honest with one another. The advice I have been given is that it is hard to get this right. If it was easy, there would already be an Act. Rather than tabling amendments, we need to have this conversation in the coming weeks. We need to agree on the policies, be honest with each other and listen to the officials with regard to legal challenges, operational challenges and enforcement challenges. We then need to figure out a way forward and then either table very significant amendments to the Bill or redraft it. From my perspective, it is a matter of determining the quickest route to getting the right legislation on the Statute Book. That is my contribution for now.
I thank the Minister for that clear explanation.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his response and for again being very clear on the fact that we need to legislate and that we will do so. That is a very important measure and I want to acknowledge it. However, I am concerned. To be clear, my concern does not relate to the Minister. He has been very consistent in his messaging on this matter from day one. I am concerned that, as recently as last August, his Department was saying there was no need for this Bill. I am concerned because we are now four years on from the promise that safe access zones would be legislated for and yet Department officials are apparently saying more time is needed. I am concerned by the lack of timelines. I agree with the Minister's point about an all-party approach but I think that is what we have here. I could not be more positive about the contributions of my colleagues from the Government parties here today. We have the ability to do that here.
This is a good Bill. It has been drafted well. I accept that the Minister's officials have concerns. I suggest that, after today, we meet with his officials. Let us make sure that is done on an all-party basis because no one is trying to claim the crown in this regard. Let us work through those concerns as quickly as we can because my concern is that, in 12 months' time, Senator Clifford-Lee, Senator Conway or I might still be asking where the legislation is. Where are we going to be at that point? In the meantime, there are women going to appointments in Limerick today and being targeted by these anti-choice protestors. These women have waited too long. Collectively, we need to do better. We can absolutely deal with the questions the Minister has raised. He made a point about registered premises. We can have that conversation. We are restricting it more here but we can look at it again on Report Stage. We have time between Committee Stage and Report Stage to strengthen this Bill and to take on board concerns in order to deliver a Bill that almost everyone here knows is necessary. That is what we have to do today.
I am not going to say more than that but I will briefly refer to those first three amendments because it is important to do so. They are very simple. They simply acknowledge the fact that we need to tighten up our definition of trade unions to recognise an "authorised trade union" as one "which holds a negotiation licence under the Trade Union Acts 1941 to 1990". These three amendments, Nos. 1, 3 and 10, deal with that. They are proposed under the advice of our colleagues in the trade union who just want to make sure that spurious groups do not present themselves as trade unions, which we know is entirely possible. I hope we can deal with these amendments swiftly. Let us do the business we are here to do today and then work constructively together. Let us start that work as soon as this committee hearing is over.
I too welcome the visitors in the Gallery. Of course, I do not agree with them or with what they seek but it is politicians who should primarily be held responsible for bringing forward legislation that is neither constitutional nor necessary and for doing so on the basis of claims about decent, harmless people that we already know to be very untrue. It is about honesty. There are deeply held feelings on both sides of the abortion debate. I do not need to rehearse them here. One third of the electorate voted to recognise that an unborn child has a right to life and that this right should be protected by the law and society. That argument was lost, at least as far as numbers are concerned, but that cause will endure and see better days because the true human rights position is that we ought to treasure every human being. Once we single out any section of society and deny them the protection of the law and the care of society, we are on a very bad road and, sadly, others will suffer in due course.
With regard to this Bill, I will not rehearse what I said on Second Stage but there are serious questions about its constitutionality.
If it were passed it would diminish the fundamental rights and freedoms of a particular group of Irish citizens, namely people who want to witness to the welfare of the unborn and to offer help to those who might be changing their mind and may be in doubt about whether they want to have an abortion, and to offer that help, if asked for it, in a respectful and decent way.
When this Bill was introduced last November, I pointed to the statement made by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in which he confirmed that existing public order legislation was satisfactory to deal with any incidents related to protests, should they arise. The Commissioner also placed on record at the time that protests outside facilities where abortions are carried out had not contravened the law and were peaceful. There is nothing to suggest that the situation has changed since the Commissioner wrote to the then Minister for Health in 2019. There is, in fact, more evidence that such witnessing, as has been going on, is a relatively small amount from everything I am told. People have busy lives and it is quite a sacrifice to give of one's time to witness peacefully to the dignity and welfare of mothers and babies outside facilities where abortions may or may not be taking place at a given time.
I have met members of the pro-life movement who are dismayed and upset at the unfair way people like them are misrepresented and depicted, particularly when politicians and certain sections of the media seek to besmirch and sully their good names. It is important to put on record their concerns particularly in the light of what the Minister has just said. They would argue the motivation behind Bills like this has nothing to do with ensuring access to facilities to avail of services that are now legal. It has everything to do with silencing any dissent around abortion, and it has everything to do with trying to create a false and misleading impression of the pro-life movement in order to strengthen that case. Sadly, it seems to be that when it comes to pushing the case, whether it is activists, politicians or a Government Minister, the truth about what is actually going on does not seem to matter.
I listened to the Minister's very well-worded speech. It was incorrect for the Minister to suggest that there is support all across the House for this Bill, which I believe are the words the Minister used. The Minister must have known that there was at least one person in the Chamber who thinks this is seriously violative of human rights and human dignity, and it speaks to the Minister's carelessness around language. What struck me was the amount of taxpayers' money that must go into the Minister preparing a convoluted argument in order to be seen to be fully on board with everything that the movement for abortion rights demands. I believe this is a terrible dereliction of the Minister's duty as the Minister for Health. I believe that the Minister has a higher duty to represent all citizens not just those who have different views about abortion, but also those who would expect that the Minister would only spend time advancing legislation that is constitutional, those who would expect the Minister to come in with a full grasp of the picture of what actually happens in relation to those small number of cases where people are witness to the rights of the unborn in circumstances where they are near facilities for such procedures as violate and deny those rights take place from time to time.
When the Bill was first introduced in November, part of the justification cited for its introduction was supposedly intimidatory protests outside abortion facilities in Limerick city instigated, it was claimed, by abortion opponents. My colleague, with whom I get on with very well personally, Senator Gavan, repeated that allegation and more today when he talked about people targeting other people who are going into facilities to access abortion. Everything he says, and everything behind this Sinn Féin Bill is designed to suggest that there are some very unpleasant people out there doing some very unpleasant things. In fact, we are talking about decent people. One of them - and I am not referring to Limerick in particular - I know to be a relative of a Government Minister. They are democrats and, in many cases, are religious people. I do not make religious arguments around abortion generally because I believe it is a human rights issue for people of all faiths and none. There are many, however, who invoke the power of prayer in private, quiet and discreet ways, to hope for a better outcome. Those quiet and mainly elderly people, who hardly raise their voices, are being portrayed here as menacing and targeting types.
I must say to Senator Gavan that it is one thing to say that on the basis of information he believes to be correct, but one month after the Senator said what he said in December 2021, the University of Limerick Hospitals Group issued a public statement confirming that they had received no complaints about protests outside the hospital. The hospital spokesperson acknowledged that they were "satisfied that there is no issue with regard to safety of access at University Maternity Hospital Limerick". It was not just the Garda Commissioner, it was also the Limerick hospital. I would have expected then that Senator Gavan would correct the record, but I recall no effort being made to correct the record by Senator Gavan or others who disseminated the false and unfounded allegations against, let us call them, the pro-life supporters in the first instance. I wonder if this is because it suits a political agenda to allow a lie to go halfway around the world because the truth will still not have its boots on?
When I hear further claims being made, suggestive of some kind of collusion, and suggesting that people's personal data is somehow being leaked to those who have concerns about abortions, I am inclined to disbelieve the people who make those claims. I would urge any responsible politician to say "let us see the evidence". We already know of one lie that was told and that was used in this case by a Sinn Féin Senator to advance the legislation at an earlier date. How do I know, or how does any decent citizen know, that we are not being told another lie, and that Senator Gavan either wilfully or naïvely is, as it were, colluding? This is a word that Sinn Féin members understand.
Senator Mullen is making an allegation.
The Senator needs to withdraw that.
I am asking people to be very careful about taking claims and using them for political purposes, claims that may in fact be fully mendacious and untruthful, and may be lies. If they are true, then there is a breach of personal data that must be investigated. It is not those people who are witnessing to the dignity of the unborn outside the clinics who need to be investigated-----
I am sorry to interrupt the Senator but we did have a really respectful debate and the Senator is contributing to that. We want everyone to feel that they can come into this Chamber and speak from any perspective. I just want to draw the Senator's attention to one Standing Order in relation to suggesting that another Senator might have lied to the House. That is all. Perhaps Senator Mullen could withdraw that.
I would not want to say that-----
I would appreciate everyone here understanding the sensitivity of this issue and respecting everybody's position.
We are doing that. This is why I am being tolerant.
I am certainly happy to clarify that because, as I have said, I get on well with personally with Senator Gavan.
I think what I said - and I am happy to check the record - but I think that what I said was that he had failed to draw attention to the House that the information on which he based the legislation, the claims about intimidatory behaviour that were contradicted by the University of Limerick Hospital Group, was actually shown to be untrue. I think that I also said, or communicated in such a way as to make clear, that I was unaware of whether he had knowingly or unknowingly passed on that untruth. The only claim I make is that he has not corrected the earlier untruth that he unwittingly or otherwise brought to this floor. He has constructive knowledge now and he knows, or ought to know, that this was shown to be untrue. My point is that when I hear further allegations here today, I worry that politicians are - naïvely or intentionally I do not know - doubling down on dishonesty in order to advance a certain political goal. It would be wrong for a Government Minister to do that, it would be wrong for a Senator to do that, and it would be wrong for any citizen to do that. I think I have made my position clear. I do not know whether Senator Gavan was in a position to know that what he relayed to the House on a previous occasion was false but he owes it to the House to correct the record now that we all know that it was false.
My point is that it is important to correct the record when we come to know that something is untrue. People must not be surprised, then, that some people will find it hard - me included - to have any faith in the claims of those making the original unfounded allegations. If claims are made, let us take them very seriously, but let us seek evidence. Let us not seek to use unsubstantiated claims in order to advance the case of legislation that is in all likelihood unconstitutional and when people in the hospital in Limerick and the Garda Commissioner have communicated to leave us in no doubt that it is unnecessary.
Of course, there are things I can see in this legislation that I would be horrified to think would go on. Words like "intimidation" and so on are contained in the legislation. However, it was made very clear at an earlier stage that the law necessary to deal with any such unacceptable behaviour, which, not surprisingly, does not appear to be happening, is already in place. It is considered bad political practice to duplicate legislation when we have the necessary legislative provisions in place to deal with it.
It is obvious to me why such intimidatory behaviour is not taking place. The mainly elderly people who gather in small numbers to witness quietly to the dignity of the unborn are people who believe in human dignity. That means they have respect not just for the unborn, but for the mother of that child and the people whose actions in ending that child's life they so passionately disagree with. That is what respect for human dignity is about. It is about respecting everybody.
However, it is also about demanding truthfulness. The Minister's words today show that he and his officials are investing a lot of time and energy in order to, as it were, cosy up to this legislation, despite its non-necessity and probable unconstitutionality. The idea that the Minister would be spending so much taxpayers' money to deal with a problem that in fact does not exist in order to placate a particular activist group is repugnant to me and many others. I say that knowing that the Minister has claimed, on the record, that he would hear from and consult all sides in relation to abortion. He has not done so. Last week, I quoted the Minister in the Seanad and I also quoted Ms Geraldine Luddy and others addressing the meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health on 8 December. The Minister said he would advertise openly for an independent chair of the three-year review of abortion services. The issue of honesty and consistency-----
That is a different issue.
I will conclude with this. The Minister said he would advertise openly. Not only did he not do so, but he never put it on the record that he was not doing so until it was dragged out of him by parliamentary questions in recent times, when he revealed that a small number of people were invited to express interest in the role of independent chair. He then appointed somebody who had engaged previously in a pattern of tweets suggestive of the fact that they supported repeal. One must wonder-----
The Senator is straying from the point.
I am not. I think the issue is-----
The issue was raised as a Commencement matter.
On a point of order, an independent chair means independent of Government, not independent of the issue.
I think most people who would have a knowledge of medical concerns would agree with-----
That being said-----
We are trying to keep this debate calm. If the Senator could-----
I am finishing up. All I would say is that is the latest spin. That is the first I have heard of that new definition of independent.
It is independent of Government; that is what it is.
So we are being told.
Please allow Senator Mullen to finish without interruption.
I am concluding. This is important because what I am putting on the record is that claims that we know to be false in some cases, and may well turn out to be false in the case of the most recent claims that have been made, are being used to bolster legislation. The Minister is not standing athwart those claims. In everything he is doing, he is seeking to facilitate and express clear support for legislation that is neither necessary nor constitutional. This is a Minister who, with his officials, has a record of not pursuing true even-handedness. An abortion review has to look at the operation of legislation, including-----
A Leas-Chathaoirligh, you are going to have to ask the Senator to withdraw his comment about the Minister.
I ask Senator Mullen to finish.
I am sorry, we need to intervene.
We are having a circular argument here.
We cannot allow Senator Mullen to say that about the Minister.
I ask Senator Mullen to conclude-----
I am very close to concluding.
-----because it is the same point.
It is as difficult for me to listen to things that I know and believe are harmful for our society and which, in some cases, I believe to be untrue, as it is for others to hear my carefully reflected upon and honestly held views about what I think is going on here. I ask colleagues to respect the fact that as far as they know, I speak for at least one third of those who voted in 2018. There may have been many other consequences of the 2018 legislation, which people who voted for repeal did not foresee, for example, the increase in the number of abortions and questions about pain relief being needed for the late-term abortions that sometimes take place.
This needs to stop.
My point is that is why we need somebody-----
Are we speaking to the amendments?
That is why-----
I am sorry, a Leas-Chathaoirligh-----
-----but we are not having this deeply-----
I ask Senator Mullen to conclude now.
The Senator needs to speak to the amendments; we are on Committee Stage.
I will let other people-----
I have listened to all the contributions and considerable latitude has been given. My points are-----
We are trying to that here and we have done it to a large extent. I think the Senator knows that.
As an Leas-Chathaoirleach knows, I would be finished by now if I had not been heckled. The attempt, of course, is to prevent the point being made. My point is that an independent person is not just somebody, as Senator Clifford-Lee stated, who-----
The Senator has made the point.
I did not get to make the point.
Thank you, Senator Mullen.
Please, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I want 30 seconds.
It is not relevant. We had a Commencement debate on the issue, to be fair.
It is relevant because it is about-----
I indulged the Senator, as he knows.
It is relevant because it is about-----
I wanted to keep this debate respectful.
It would be very respectful if people would just let each other finish.
I ask the Senator to finish now.
It has never been claimed that the only meaning of independent is independent of Government. It is obvious to any reasonable person looking in that in order-----
Again, this is not relevant. Sorry, Senator, but we can revert to the issue on another day. It is not relevant in the sense that it is about a different issue.
A Leas-Chathaoirligh, if you-----
The Senator is filibustering.
Can I just make a point?
The Bill is not about that.
He just wants to wind down the clock.
The Bill is not about the Chair.
I am about to finish. If the Leas-Chathaoirleach stops me from making my point, allows the heckler to make her point and prevents me from responding, that cannot be correct parliamentary practice.
We have given you a long time.
Let me just answer the point then.
Okay. I ask the Senator to finish his final sentence.
Please, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. You know what is going on here.
Yes, you are----
Let us be fair.
I am sorry-----
No, there is nothing-----
I am not going to go on until-----
In fairness, I ask Members to be quiet and respectful.
We are on Committee Stage.
He said that five minutes ago.
I ask Members to allow Senator Mullen finish.
He cannot continue to call people liars in this House.
Senator Gavan will be able to respond in a minute.
I did not call anybody a liar, as the Leas-Chathaoirleach knows.
Can we abandon the discussion at this point?
I ask for the protection of Leas-Chathaoirleach against the misrepresentation of what has just been said.
I ask Senator Mullen to conclude. He was given a lot of time and did very well. We are making the same arguments in circles.
The point I was trying to make was that in all of these months until now, it has not been suggested by anybody that the only meaning of independent is independent of Government. Anybody looking at how legislation is operating would know that it would have to be somebody who does not have skin in the game.
I conclude by asking the Minister to reflect on the fact that he does not just do his duty to the people of Ireland when he represents what he believes to be the majority opinion. He has an obligation to full truthfulness about the necessity, purpose and constitutionality of legislation. Just as importantly, he has an obligation to be truthful with others and with politicians. He did not do what he said he was going to do about the way he was advertising. He has not come on the record to explain it. Everything has been done, as I put it last week, in ways that suggest a dishonest approach by the Government. I am sorry to have to use that word. I ask the Minister, even at this stage, to change that approach and to-----
The Minister will respond later. Thank you, Senator.
-----start to listen to both sides on the abortion issue. I say that as respectfully as I can, but the situation is very serious and regrettable.
I appreciate that. I wish to make it clear to Members that because of the gravity and sensitivity of the issue, I was trying to achieve a respectful and calm debate so that it did not turn into something it should not, and we are doing our best. We are trying to achieve that. Before Senator Hoey takes the Chair, it would be in order to let Senator Gavan respond to the specific issue relating to him, followed by Senator Boylan. I ask Senator Gavan respond only to the specific issue.
Absolutely. The specific issue Senator Mullen raised was in relation to University of Limerick Hospitals Group and its statement. I have nothing to apologise for. I have no reason to correct the record of the House because what the hospitals group said was that it did not record any complaints. We know a great number of complaints were made - indeed, the people in the Chamber today are witnesses to those complaints. Therefore, there is no need for me to correct the record of the House. I must say on the record that in the six years I have been here-----
Does the Senator want the full report?
-----I have never accused anyone in this Chamber of telling lies. I am disgusted such a charge was made against me today. The Minister can see what is happening here. It again emphasises the importance of working with the Bill. We have just 40 minutes left in this debate. This is what we will all face unless we collectively come together and work this Bill through to its conclusion and deliver what we need to in order to protect women and pregnant people approaching hospitals today across the State. Let us get going and do that. Let us work through these amendments now.
I do not want to take up time. We have seen a filibuster here before us and we know exactly what is playing out in the Chamber. I wish to welcome those from Together for Safety who are present and have done an enormous amount of work in getting this Bill as far as they have. I ask the Minister to share the legal advice he referred to, which he said in October he had and about which he spoke again today. The people who drafted this Bill are legal people. They ask that he share this advice. They are prepared to work with the Minister on this Bill but he must share what he believes are the stumbling blocks. He cannot continue to hide behind that argument and not allow those who are trying to help him to do so. Will the Minister share that legal advice with Together for Safety and the people who have help craft this Bill?
I cannot but mention Senator Mullen's comments. He continuously comes into the Chamber and talks about having respect for the people who voted "No" in the repeal the eighth amendment referendum. He is right. Absolutely everybody has a right to their democratic vote and to be respected for that vote. However, he is not listening to what the women who are trying to access healthcare are telling him. We recently had a debate in this Chamber about violence against women. We all talked about how women's voices need to be listened to. People need to listen to the experiences of women. Women are telling us they are intimidated and frightened, and there is a chilling factor in accessing healthcare. Senator Mullen is entitled to his opinion on this - that is absolutely fine - but I am asking him to open his ears and to listen to what women are telling him. They feel intimidated.
Senator Mullen can refer to those involved as decent people, mainly older people, or say they are reflecting in quiet prayer. He can say all of that. It does not matter what they are doing. The reality is that the feeling of the person they are doing it to is one of intimidation. I ask Senator Mullen to reflect on that and to listen to what those experiencing it are telling him. That is all I ask him to do. I fully support him in saying we have to respect people's different views, but when women are telling him they are being intimidated, he must listen to the voices of the women who are being intimidated.
I remind everyone we are discussing amendments Nos. 1, 3, and 10 on trade unions and the different amendments proposed. I ask that we bear that in mind.
I presume the Acting Chairperson will give me the same latitude other speakers have been given.
On the specific point Senator Mullen raised regarding the UL Hospitals Group not being notified, it does not mean An Garda Síochána was not notified. If there was activity outside the hospital, the more appropriate people to contact on that issue would have been the gardaí. I respectfully suggest there is more than one source to which a complaint can be made. If the hospital said what it said, I do not argue or dispute it. However, I believe complaints have been made in other ways.
People protest in different ways and people are hurt in different ways. People who are availing of a termination are at a vulnerable stage in their lives. It is not appropriate, even if people do not engage with them. Their mere presence, be it in quiet reflection, prayer or whatever it may be, is not appropriate. People are intimidated in many different ways. I suggest it is a form of intimidation.
I spoke to the Minister when he was before Joint Committee on Health last December. I asked him specifically about this legislation. He said it was a priority, that he was hoping to produce the heads of a Bill and bring a memo to Cabinet, and that this would be done before the end of March. I have a clear question. I presume the Minister will honour that timeline, which was made on the record of the health committee last December, because time is important. This needs to happen.
This Bill is before the House today and it will return whereupon Senators will be asked to vote on it. It is a matter of conscience as was the eighth amendment. Members of Government who voted in a certain way, for or against, did not lose the Whip. I am putting the Minister on notice that I consider this legislation as being in the realm of conscience. As such, I believe the Whip should be loosely imposed and that if a Member from the Government's side decides to vote for this legislation, he or she should not lose the Whip.
In order to avoid that situation, I strongly urge the Minister to bring his legislation to Cabinet and send it to the health committee, where pre-legislative scrutiny will happen very quickly. Senator Hoey and I, and others, are on this committee. We will ensure this happens. The Minister will then be in a position to bring his legislation to the House. He pointed out today that there are issues with the Bill and that his legal advice states there are flaws in it. I encourage him to publish that legal advice. He told the health committee before Christmas that he had already spoken to the Attorney General and the legal people in the Department concerning his own Bill. I note that it is on the priority list of legislation. It is now the beginning of February. The Minister gave a specific time commitment at the committee. I questioned him on it on a number of occasions so that we would be clear and there would be no confusion. He said the Bill would be referred to the Joint Committee on Health no later than the end of March. Will the Minister give his assurance that this time commitment will be honoured?
As no one else has indicated, the Minister might like to respond to the questions or statements.
A few direct questions have been asked. Absolutely, we will share the advice. There will be legal advice. We cannot share Attorney General advice. My understanding is that we can share departmental advice. It is an analysis as opposed to a lawyer's opinion, and what we would all understand to be legal advice. I am happy to share whatever I can in that regard. What is probably more useful to us is the departmental advice. It has gone through it section by section and has worked through many of the challenges there are with the Bill. As I said, it has done much work and is engaging with the Department of Justice.
I want to go further than sharing the advice. As I said at the start, I want to go through the Joint Committee on Health in the first instance.
If the Joint Committee on Health has not the time we will convene an all-party group to meet to not only share the advice, but I want the officials to present the advice, present the challenges, and I want a very open conversation across the parties, both those who agree and disagree. This is complex, so share the advice, yes, but let us go much further and get this either in public session or closed session, I do not mind. Whatever moves this quickest.
Of course we can share it outside the Oireachtas. We want to get as many people involved in solving this as quickly as possible. I agree with Senator Boyhan's point in regard to listening to women. We have to listen to women and to our clinicians. That is one of the reasons it is very important that some initial feedback on the consultation on the review of termination of pregnancy is important. It is quite a wide consultation and we would be well advised to make sure that we are getting that in for consideration, so that we are hearing from women and from clinicians.
For anyone in civil society or anyone outside the Oireachtas, one of the strands of the termination of pregnancy review is a public consultation so anyone can have an input and have his or her voice heard through that strand. I reiterate that it is important that, where women are being intimidated, or feel threatened, they contact the Garda. In some cases they may not do so. These are situations where women are going through incredibly difficult situations, they are under intense pressure and it is not an obvious thing. They might just want to get in or get out and get home. I fully understand that. For those who can, it is very useful to contact the Garda. Indeed there may well be cases, if An Garda Síochána is contacted it allows a complaint to be responded to. An Garda Síochána believes it has comprehensive powers right now. I encourage anyone that where it is appropriate - and I know it is not always so - to contact the Garda.
In regard to the timing, we are not going to be in a position to do pre-legislative scrutiny. There is a step before that which is what we have been discussing today. I have asked the Joint Committee on Health to meet within the next four weeks. As soon as I hear back from the Joint Committee on Health, if it is not possible for the committee to meet, within a week or two we will convene an all-party group straightaway. I would say in about four weeks from now. I will ask the Department to put together some detailed notes that can be shared for that discussion and then either the Joint Committee on Health or an all-party group will convene and meet in about four weeks to move this along.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, lines 13 and 14, to delete “services provided for the provision of contraception or advice in relation to contraception” and substitute “the prescribing of contraception”.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, to delete lines 19 and 20.
Amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, line 15, after “person” to insert “or a series of persons”.
I will briefly comment on amendment No. 2. I supported it but again it was an example of the question about pharmacies and the question about students' unions. Those concerns no longer stand now that the amendment has been agreed because it is very clear that it is only the prescribing, so it is only around medical practices and not around places for example where contraception is available or sold. That is an example of how a concern can be addressed and has been addressed.
I am a little concerned. The Minister talks about the quickest way but I am not sure what he is outlining is the quickest route. I would prefer if the Joint Committee on Health was just looking at pre-legislative scrutiny. Why not a heads of Bill? We at least know the policy thrust that we want. However, there is the idea that the Joint Committee on Health would have to have a pre-stage, then a pre-legislative scrutiny stage, and then it will have its chance when there is legislation to amend it appropriately as a committee. It seems to me that we have a Bill, which is a discussion point. I will be delighted if Government legislation comes in quickly and outflanks that but I am concerned at delays.
The Minister talked about the fact that it was not dealt with in the last Oireachtas. We might end up with a scenario where we do not deal with it in this Oireachtas, or even in this term. We had hoped to see Government legislation by March. I certainly do not think we should be starting a conversation about the possibility of legislation in March. We need to be in a conversation that is hard and is about legislation. It needs to be specific. We should be having legislation, be it our legislation - the Minister can hear the support that is in the House from many Members for it - or be it Government legislation. We should not be going into the summer and into another two- or three-month period where women cannot access the services without facing that situation. Let us be clear, we place a very tight constraint on those who are seeking to access abortion. They face that 12-week constraint. Many people will be affected and continue to be affected. Older people were mentioned. I worked with older people in a previous job for many years. Many older people are very keen for this to be done too. Many older women in particular in Ireland suffered under the previous systems and regimes. They want to know that the full change to an Ireland which actually supports women has fully happened and this is part of that.
My amendments were around "a series of persons" - as a "person", "or a series of persons". I have that concern around when one has intimidatory and harassment activity, if it is happening, maybe not to the same person multiple times but to a series of people. I have actually had engagement. As an example of that engagement with the lawyers and the legal advice of those who put the Bill together, they have assured me that the "person", singular here, will have relevant effect in terms of the person plural, so in that context I do not need to press my amendment. I have been satisfied with the legal response. It is yet another example, like amendment No. 2, of the fact that we can tease these issues out. We can work together. Let us work together inside a frame of legislation rather than moving the issue outside legislation to another general topic discussion. It has to be within a legislative frame.
I appreciate everything that Senator Higgins has said. I acknowledge the fact that she is going to withdraw those amendments. That is absolutely fine. The points she makes are very important but under the Interpretation Act 1937 we are actually covered already in regard to that. To reiterate to the Minister in regard to amendment No. 2, we are pleased to see that moved but we are open to further discussion in regard to that issue, so that we can tease it out together and happily revisit it on Report Stage if necessary. We just need to move this process on.
I thank Senator Higgins for her constructive contribution. Can I clarify with the Minister exactly what he is proposing in terms of the Joint Committee on Health? In December my understanding was that the Minister then intended to bring a memo to Cabinet in regard to the heads of the legislation, and then to refer the heads of the legislation to the committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, and this would happen at the end of March as the latest possible date. I am looking at the exact quotes, but I have more or less paraphrased the commitments the Minister gave. Why has that changed? I do not understand that. Why has the structure of what he proposed in December changed now? Is there a reason for it?
Maybe I just do not understand what the reason for this is, but I was very clear in my view that we were to have the heads of a Bill on which to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny quickly by the end of March at the latest. The Minister might explain again what he proposes to do in four weeks.
Does the Minister wish to respond?
I am more than happy to do so. I want an all-party discussion on this matter. I have been presented with opinion by the Department, which spent a lot of time looking at this. The Department got a very clear instruction from me to provide the heads of the Bill to me. It has been working very hard to that effect and has come back to say that this is very difficult to do. I am sure that if it were easy to do, Senator Conway's party would have done it in the previous Dáil, during the term of the previous Government, but it did not. One of the reasons it did not was that An Garda Síochána said it did not need this measure and had very strong advice stating that it was not necessary, would not be constitutional, would not survive a challenge and so forth. I have given very clear instruction to the Department to find solutions to the very serious challenges.
I want to make sure that there is a discussion on a cross-party basis that shapes this legislation. If I were to come up with heads of the Bill and send them to the committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, that would significantly narrow the debate, as we are all aware. The committee can respond only to what is before it. I want a broad conversation. There has to be all-party input to this from both those who agree and those who disagree with the legislation, which is absolutely fine. In the context of what we are legislating for, this is unlike a lot of the other health Bills we see, where there is a very clear policy intent, heads of the Bill are created and the detail can then be discussed. In this case, the advice I have back from the Department is that, potentially, some quite significant trade-offs must be made here. We are looking at constitutionality, civil liberties, freedom of speech and so on. It is appropriate, given the magnitude of that to which I refer, that this is discussed in the coming weeks, that we find a way forward and that we then present the heads of the Bill. I would then bring a memorandum to the Government and that would then go to the health committee for pre-legislative scrutiny.
I thank the Minister for that. I have no doubt but that this is difficult. As he stated, if it were not, one would hope it would have been done before now. What is the timeline, though? Obviously, the Minister will provide all the advice he has got from the Department which has resulted in his having to make this decision on a way forward. What is the absolute end date by which he expects the legislation to be passed in the Houses of the Oireachtas? That is what people want. Clearly, the process is complex, difficult and challenging - I totally understand that - but I would like the Minister to put on the record an end date by which he expects the legislation to have passed both Houses of the Oireachtas.
We are discussing an amendment that will be withdrawn-----
-----and I have given the Senator a great deal of latitude on the matter.
Sure. I appreciate that.
Perhaps this could be tabled as a Commencement matter or followed up with the Minister. I will see if the Minister wishes to respond, but we have limited time left within which to get through the amendments to the Bill. I appreciate that the Senator seeks an answer to his question. Does the Minister wish to come in or is he happy for us to-----
We can discuss the matter on another date. I have given the Senator everything I can at this point.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are related and will be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, line 30, to delete “six months” and substitute “one year”.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 4, line 30, after “both” to insert “or on indictment to a fine not exceeding €5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years”.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 4, line 32, after “of” where it firstly occurs to insert “supporting access to or”.
With amendment No. 9, I am seeking to ensure that somebody who might be accompanying somebody else - for example, a spouse - would not inadvertently fall under the text of the Bill. However, I am happy to withdraw the amendment now and address the issue on Report Stage. Clearly, we will tease out these issues in the meantime.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 4, line 36, to delete “a registered” and substitute “an authorised”.
I wish to speak to this section. My question is prompted by the meaning of a part of the section. I listened very carefully to what Senator Boylan had to say about listening to women. I agree 100% that we must never tire of listening to people on all sides of this issue and to people who have had personal experiences. I am certainly open to that, and I can understand that people might feel intimidated by the very presence of a person whom they know to have a different view. That is a problematic thing in a democracy and something we need to think about very carefully. We need to think carefully about the extent to which we silence disagreement in such situations. What prompts that comment is a certain passage in the Bill. I am very open to being assisted by Senator Gavan on this, although obviously I oppose this Bill and will vote against this section anyway. I am asking about section 3, which states:
(1) While in a safe access zone established under section 2 of this Act, a person must not:
(a) express or demonstrate support for or opposition to a person's decision to access ... or facilitate the provision of termination of pregnancy services or contraceptive services;
I ask that I be corrected if I am mistaken. There may be something else in Senator Gavan's Bill that would prevent such an outcome, but if you are, let us say, sitting in a coffee shop and having a conversation with a person and that person discloses in the course of that conversation that he or she works across the road in the hospital and is sometimes involved in abortions in some way, and if you then say, "Gosh, I am very sorry to hear that; I do not believe abortion is right", would you be in breach of the legislation? On my reading of it, you would be in breach of the legislation. That is why I ask the question. How can the Minister come in here and - if I am right - not comment in detail about ramifications such as that, or are we in some kind of parallel universe? I have noticed this only now, so I am completely open to being told that is not the meaning of the section. As far as I can see, however, if someone is within the zone and not there for any organised purpose or to witness, as I said, the dignity of the unborn or anything like that but happens to end up in conversation with somebody who might be involved in providing abortions, and if that person happens to express a view on the matter, perhaps in a coffee shop, perhaps to somebody he or she knows or an acquaintance of somebody he or she knows, that person might be in trouble under this legislation. I would be very grateful for the Senator's assistance on that.
I was watching some of the proceedings from my office. I think there is an awful lot of purposeful confusion, dare I say. I am sure of what Senator Mullen is trying to do here. Fundamentally, he is voting against the Bill, which means it is not really these things that he has an issue with. We need to be all very clear on that. If there were clarity around that matter, would he vote in favour of the Bill?
It would still highlight something very dramatic, though, would it not?
These amendments will have to go to the Dáil anyway-----
So it does not matter how wrong we get the legislation.
-----so I am sure some of the Senator's colleagues will table an amendment in the Dáil that will make him feel more comfortable with the legislation.
To go back to one of the issues raised earlier in the debate, when, as I said, I was listening in my office, I heard Senator Clifford-Lee give us all some clarity on independence. What does independence mean?
We have had a referendum in this country. The people have spoken and we do not need to go back and do it again. The issue around the independence of a chairperson relates to independence from Government. It is not about going back and redoing the entire legislation. I wanted to put my view on that, as I have done many times.
There is a lot of space in the middle between those two extremes. I think Senator O'Reilly will agree with that and take my point.
Senator Mullen and I can discuss this ourselves elsewhere, maybe over a coffee or something stronger.
I am up for that.
I assure Senator Mullen that he is safe in his coffee shop. That is not covered by the legislation and such a situation would not arise. The meaning of the phrase "express or demonstrate" is very clearly, and in a nuanced way, set out and categorised under subsection (2). The latter describes exactly what is included, for the purpose of subsection (1), within the phrase "express or demonstrate". It includes behaviour such as persistent, continuous or repeated actions and interfering with, intimidating, harassing or trying to persuade or inform somebody. It is not about a person expressing his or her opinion.
What about advising?
Advising and seeking to influence are at issue but it is not around a person expressing his or her views. Anybody can sit in a coffee shop and express his or her views but not with the intention of either influencing or intimidating another person. The issue is spelled out in some nuance and with some thought and detail under subsection (2).
I thank Senator Higgins for trying to give me reassurance and I respect what Senator Pauline O'Reilly has to say. However, if it were to be the case that only people who are in favour of legislation in some form would ever make observations about the unsought side effects or unforeseen consequences contained in a particular legislative proposal, we would not be doing our job at all. I am entitled to test these provisions and try whatever intellect I have in applying it to them. It is the same for everybody here.
I disagree with Senator Pauline O'Reilly's point about what is meant by an independent chairperson in this context. As I have said before, where legislation might have unforeseen consequences - which could be raised, in this instance, by those who might argue in favour of extending abortion services or those who might say something was not foreseen or discussed when the Bill was introduced - that is all within the remit of a review of the legislation and, therefore, independence really requires somebody who does not have an expressed personal ideological preference about any of the issues. That is always what we look for when we look for independent people. It is not just about being independent of Government; it has never thus far been described as such, so far as I can see.
In response to Senator Higgins and the point about people expressing a view, she points out that there is a whole set of subcategories that seek to define what "express or demonstrate" means, but that includes advising, persuading and informing, or attempting to advise, persuade or inform, any person concerning issues related to termination of pregnancy services etc., with references to "by any means" and "without limitation". In other words, if I am in a conversation in a coffee shop and I discover that somebody is involved in the provision of abortion, these provisions might include a situation where I were to say, "Do you know there is now a significant debate about the capacity of an unborn child to feel pain in the course of an abortion and that it should not be happening without precautionary pain relief being legislated for or ethically?", or "I would encourage you to think about whether you should be involved in providing abortions". That is all in there and I think Senator Higgins has been too rash in trying to allay the concern I have expressed. I ask her to read the text again. I think I read English as well as she can. She is a very good and powerful advocate for her point of view and I credit her with that. However, it seems clear to me that anybody who would seek to advise or even inform somebody about the injustice of abortion, if that conversation is happening within a so-called safe access zone-----
I ask Senator Mullen to keep to the section under discussion.
-----then it would be very much caught by this legislation.
What the Senator said does not offer reassurance to anybody who thinks it would be wrong to criminalise a person for simply expressing a view to a third party, such as a party who happens to be involved in the provision of services in a hospital across the road from where the conversation is taking place. This shows that the legislation is extremely draconian. It is about silencing. In a country where we have differences of opinion and where particular services are now legally available, I am up for making sure the law prevents anybody from being harassed or intimidated or any of that bad stuff. As for stopping people from having a conversation in a coffee shop, we all need to call ourselves aside here.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 5, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"Power of member of Garda Síochána to give direction
5. (1) Where a member of the Garda Síochána finds a person in a public place and suspects, with reasonable cause, that such person—
(a) intends to breach any of the provisions of sections 3 or 4 of this Act,
(b) is about to breach any of the provisions of sections 3 or 4 of this Act, or
(c) is attempting to breach the provisions of sections 3 or 4 of this Act,
the member may direct the person to leave immediately that place and the vicinity thereof in a peaceable and orderly manner.
(2) It shall be an offence for any person, without reasonable excuse, to fail to comply with a direction given by a member of the Garda Síochána under this section.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €1,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or both.".
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.