Coronavirus: House parties legislation ‘flawed, unworkable, bizarre’

Government refuses to accept amendment from FG Senator who highlighted errors

Minister for Justice and Equality Helen McEntee. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Justice and Equality Helen McEntee. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The Government has been accused of proceeding with “flawed”, “unworkable”and “bizarre” legislation after a major Seanad row over the introduction of on-the-spot fines for non-compliance with public health guidance.

The legislation, which passed the Seanad, introduces a sliding scale of fixed penalty charges up from an estimated €50 to €500 for offences including the non-wearing of facial coverings and up to €1,000 for organising house parties. The law comes into effect in relation to house parties this weekend, but the penalty fines are set to be introduced in the coming weeks.

The Government refused to accept amendments from Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward, a barrister.

Mr Ward highlighted problems with the Health (Amendment) Bill, which introduces fines for the holding of house parties by occupiers, for not wearing facial coverings in required situations and for travelling more than 5km from home.

The Senator warned that the definition in the Bill of the occupier of a house was unworkable. Under the law as drafted, unless the owner of a dwelling is present, gardaí cannot demand that anyone else in charge of the house direct people at the party to leave. In addition, gardaí cannot ask the name of the person in charge unless that person is the owner.

He also introduced an amendment to address flaws in the Bill around the issuing by gardaí of fixed-notice penalties. Mr Ward said the Bill had to take account of a whole raft of factors but instead it was drafted on the basis of an either/or option. For a fine to be issued all factors and not just one had to be considered.

He was supported by Independent Senator Michael McDowell, who said “just because we are dealing with emergency legislation it doesn’t mean the Constitution goes out the window”.

Amendments withdrawn

Minister of State Frankie Feighan refused to accept the amendments. He said that to do so would delay bringing the enforcement powers into effect and he stressed that “enforcement is a last resort”.

Mr Ward withdrew his amendments and the Bill was passed. Earlier the Dáil passed the Bill after warnings that public compliance with the legislation would “collapse” if the Government did not get things right.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the Government was demanding that the Opposition give you a blank cheque to go and draft the regulations to decide what will be subject to a fixed-charge notice”.

Independent TD Michael McNamara said “this is a fig leaf. This Bill is trying to give responsibility to An Garda Síochána to do the work the health service failed to do.”

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the Government objective in introducing on-the-spot fines for non-compliance with public health guidance was to change behaviour and not to catch people out or try to punish them. She insisted “it is to prevent the kind of behaviour that endangers others”.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Earlier, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris described as “powerful” new powers being given to the force to shut down house parties , saying he did not agree with some of those within the force questioning if the powers were workable.

However, when asked if he wanted the new powers, Mr Harris’s welcome for them was lukewarm. “The good thing is that a piece of legislation backs this up. Then I’m a public servant, a good and faithful servant at that, and I’ll do as I’m told,” he said, adding that taking enforcement action against people would be the “last resort in all cases” and only in “extreme cases”.

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