Extra day to Dáil debate on extending State’s powers during pandemic

TD says if Government is going to ‘roll over’ any regulations they need to be debated

A Garda checkpoint mounted as part of Operation Fanacht on the M4 between Leixlip and Maynooth  this month.  Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

A Garda checkpoint mounted as part of Operation Fanacht on the M4 between Leixlip and Maynooth this month. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The Dáil is set to sit for an extra day this week in order to give more time to debate extending extraordinary powers given to the State during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Oireachtas Business Committee on Tuesday night agreed a revised schedule which will see three sessions given over to debating the extension of so-called sunset clauses.

There will also be time to debate rules to limit evictions during the Level 5 restrictions coming into place this week.

There is also time set aside on a draft schedule for Thursday and Friday, approved tonight by the Dáil’s business committee, to debate the Mother and Baby Homes records, and for statements on the move to level 5 of Covid restrictions. The committee agreed the schedule with dissent from opposition members on Tuesday evening, with formal ratification to follow in the Dáil later in the evening.

It comes after civil liberties groups and the Opposition criticised Government plans to allow just 45 minutes of debate for the extension to the a so-called “sunset clause”, which would have seen the powers expire on November 9th.

Members of the Dáil’s Business Committee were told on Monday that the Government intended to extend powers under Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 until June 2021.

Many of the regulations which are key to the Government response to the pandemic were rolled out under this legislation. The move reignited concerns about oversight of extraordinary powers given to the Government in its effort to deal with the virus.

Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said this section of the Act has been the basis for multiple regulations introduced by the Minister for Health during the crisis.

“It gives powers to the Minister for Health to introduce regulations under the Health Act. That has been the primary legal basis for more than 20 regulations we have had since April, dealing with movement, work, international travel and the passenger information forms,” he said.

Mr Herrick had said the 45-minute slot allotted indicated that there was “to be no substantive Oireachtas consideration”.

Accountability

Opposition figures also criticised the move. Michael McNamara, an Independent TD for Clare who chairs the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee, said the move was tantamount to “stopping parliamentary accountability”.

“If you take out the ordinary checks and balances of power in a democracy it’s a very dangerous thing. If the Government are going to roll over any regulations they need to be debated.”

David Kenny, assistant professor in the school of law in Trinity College Dublin, said the introduction of sunsetting is one of the most important elements of powers such as those in question.

“Serious and rigorous legislative discussion of extension of powers is necessary, as is more active scrutiny by the legislature of the regulations made under these Acts,” he said.