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Limited number of TDs to attend Dáil sitting to pass emergency Covid-19 legislation

Some have called for a time limited ‘sunset clause’ to be included in the Bill relating to detentions.

The Dáil will debate the Covid-19 emergency legislation in Leinster House today.
The Dáil will debate the Covid-19 emergency legislation in Leinster House today.

ONLY A LIMITED number of TDs will be allowed to attend Leinster House today when the Dáil returns to pass emergency Covid-19 legislation.

While the majority of political parties back the legislation, a number of amendments are due to be tabled by some TDs.

The Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl wrote to party leaders last week proposing that just 48 TDs should attend the sitting today.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will be asked to limit their TDs attending to 11 each, the Greens to four, the regional independent group to three members, and all other parties and groups to two each.

The Dáil will return at 2 pm and adjourn at 5 pm to debate and pass the 19-page long Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 (You can read the legislation here).

The new legislation provides for changes to remove the waiting period for payment of Jobseekers Benefit and Jobseekers Allowance in the cases of Covid-19 diagnoses and isolation.

A government statement said that “these changes involve a significant Exchequer cost but are necessary to support the public health objective of ensuring people who need to self-isolate do so”.

The Bill also deals with the issue of detainment, which is something that already arose a number of weeks ago when Covid-19 was added to the existing list of notifiable diseases. This already includes diseases like measles and TB.

At the moment, anytime there’s a public health emergency in Ireland or a breakout of infectious disease, it’s declared, and powers are in place to detain an individual who has an infectious disease.

The emergency legislation also contains powers to detain those suspected of being infected with Covid-19. 

Under the government’s emergency measures, if a medical officer believes “in good faith” that a person is a potential source of Covid-19 or that the person is a potential risk to public health and refuses or is unlikely to self-isolate, then the medical officer can order their detention and enforce isolation. 

Medical officers can order a person’s detention in a specified hospital or another place until the medical officers decide the person’s detention to self-isolate is no longer required. 

A medical officer must also make sure a medical examination of the person detained is carried out as soon as possible and no later than 14 days from detention. 

A person can ask that their detention be reviewed “as soon as practicable” on the grounds that they believe they are not a source of infection. 

Speaking to RTE’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Liam Herrick described the emergency powers as “invasive”, adding that these powers “are so significant in terms of our fundamental rights”. 

Herrick questioned why only one medical officer is being given the power to order detention and raised concerns that there is no time limit on detention stated in the legislation. 

In addition, Herrick questioned what safeguards will be in place for a person who believes they have been inappropriately or illegally detained. 

“We need to ensure that the technical aspects of safeguards are correct,” said Herrick.

“And I think what we’re particularly interested to look at is that the standard here is that a medical officer deems the detention to be appropriate.”

Herrick has said it is imperative that any emergency legislation introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 should be time-limited, or include a sunset clause which stipulates that once this emergency is over it can no longer be used to interfere with rights.

He said the government must act within the Constitution and ensure that any restrictions of rights are proportionate and only as invasive as is necessary to protect public health.

He said our society will return to normal, and when it does, the government needs to ensure that there has been no permanent erosion of rights and that no future government could ever abuse legislation introduced to deal with this public health emergency.

TD Denis Naughten has also requested that the government insert an end date (sunset clause) into the emergency legislation.

“While I welcome the measures included in this emergency legislation to support the national response to the Covid-19 crisis, it is important that these powers are not used beyond this current situation.

“The Bill provides far-reaching powers in relation to gathering/events and travel which is understandable to deal with the current exceptional threat to human life and public health from the spread of Covid-19. It also includes the power to detain a person against their will, if it is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19

“These are very powerful legal provisions which must only be used to specifically deal with the current national health crisis, and we must be able to have the law repealed after this threat has abated.

“There are other instances where a sunset clause has been included in legislation such as the Offences Against the State Act that has to be renewed on an annual basis by Dáil Eireann” concluded Naughten. 

It has also been noted that some of the provisions in the Bill, which relate to social welfare payments, have a time limit stated in the legislation, with the provisions only in operation until 9 May 2020.

There is a clause where this can be continually renewed indefinitely by Statutory Instrument, with some stating that this should also apply to the detention clauses.

People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett said his party supports the thrust of the emergency legislation to tackle COVID-19, however, he proposes amendments to it including the ability for the state to take over private hospitals.

He said other amendments are need to strengthen the legislation, adding that he is also in favour of a time-limited clause on the detention powers, stating that any such extension to them should only be permitted by a vote of the Oireachtas.

The Bill to be debated today also provides for certain extra powers to be used if “extreme situations were to arise”, in relation to gatherings/events and travel “where there would be an immediate, exceptional and manifest risk to human life and public health from the spread of Covid-19″.

Boyd Barrett said it is of critical importance that the debate today facilitate amendments being put down and voted on and that speaking time is given to all.

017 Finance Bank CEOs Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue addressing the media in the Department of Finance. Source: RollingNews.ie

Speaking yesterday at a press conference, where social distancing between reporters was in place, Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe said “any amendments or reforms that improve the legislation, or better help us to respond back to a public health challenge” should be accepted.

“I would ask those who are putting those amendments forward though, to recognise the crisis that we’re in, and the time pressure that is there, and the need to have this legislation implemented,” he said. 

When asked about the sunset clause by TheJournal.ie yesterday, he said:

I think we should think carefully about putting in place a sunset clause on these measures until we’re all clear how long this public health crisis is going to last for. But these are emergency powers, they’re only going to be used in the most demanding circumstances. And I’m sure Minister Harris will be able to give assurance to the Dáil regarding how very rarely these powers will ever be used.

Donohoe said the country must work together.

“We must support each other,” he said, and giving assurances that “we are coming at this great challenge from a position of economic strength and that everything that can be done, is being done to deal with this economic crisis. We can and we will get through this”.

In addition to the Dáil meeting tomorrow Fine Gael will also hold its parliamentary party meeting by video and telephone conference with members phoning in from all over the country.

The minister said social distancing will be in place for those that attend the parliamentary party meeting in person.

“People will be sitting at a distance from each other,” he said, adding that if this crisis continues “we will look at other ways in which colleagues can participate in this, including to use phone conferencing.

“So, the first trial that will be taking place tomorrow morning. And we’ll see how it goes,” he said. Donohoe said that is unlikely that any vote will be taken on whether Fine Gael should enter into in-depth talks on government formation.

With reporting by Cónal Thomas

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