Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I am pleased to be here for the conclusion of this debate. I acknowledge the contribution of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, earlier when I was in the Seanad. As was mentioned earlier, I very much welcome the research published today by Dr. Johnny Connolly of the University of Limerick, UL. I wish to assure the House, as it was mentioned earlier today by Deputies Broughan, Micheál Martin and others. I would be very pleased to consider it most carefully and was very pleased to note that the research was led by Dr. Connolly, who was a very valued member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which reported last year and following which report an implementation group was set up by Government to ensure the progressed implementation of in excess of 150 recommendations in that regard. I want to confirm that my Department is developing legislation to mandate what will be a joined-up, whole-of-government approach to issues of community safety, involving all of the relevant stakeholders in harm prevention. I welcome the contribution of Deputy Shortall and others who for many years have been speaking of their own experience in constituencies, perhaps none more so than Deputy Curran himself, who held a very important role as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy and indeed represents, as he does, an urban constituency. We must all work together to ensure the involvement of all appropriate stakeholders. That will involve the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Housing, Planning and Local Government, as well as many other agencies. I share the concern of Deputies. I am particularly concerned about children being lured into criminality at an early age. My Department has long supported the University of Limerick's ground-breaking Greentown study which is informing the development of both policy and practice on an ongoing basis.
On the matter of this Bill, I recognise that the intentions of the sponsoring Deputy are entirely laudable. There is widespread agreement that the grooming of children by criminal gangs is a most serious matter. However, there are significant legal and policy issues involved here. There are also operational issues that need to be addressed in the context of the current Bill. I recognise that Deputy Curran realises this and I wish to assure him of a collaborative approach as we take matters forward. The prosecution of new offences involving children is complex and far from straightforward. There are often difficulties with the workability of such proposals in practice, especially where any likely witnesses may be children or their family members, who may be already subject to coercion by the criminal elements involved in the offences or allegations of criminality. Any new legislation in this area must be considered carefully and with the utmost diligence. In many cases, people buying from children are other children themselves. It would be most unfortunate if proposals motivated by a desire to assist children who are exploited simply contributed further to the criminalisation of other children who perhaps have been themselves both coerced and exploited by criminals and criminal gangs. There is no guarantee that those who are ultimately controlling the activities of the children involved would be targeted effectively by the provisions of the Bill. I acknowledge the youth justice strategy and the leadership of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in that regard, as well as resources that are being made available to assist communities in that strategy. I acknowledge the importance of the JPCs. I heard some criticism, I think, as I entered the House but I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that the committees are most useful opportunities for public representatives to engage in a meaningful way with the chiefs of policing communities. I want to acknowledge a recent undertaking on the part of the Garda Commissioner and his senior team to visit as many joint policing committees as possible and hear first-hand from local communities. Once that exercise is complete, which it will be in the spring, I would see a far greater role for the JPCs in the context of the new divisional model where the decision-making process will be undertaken more intensely by the chief superintendent and superintendents at divisional level rather than at national level. I see important opportunities for constructive engagement of the type mentioned by Deputy Rabbitte if the JPCs use these opportunities, and I trust they will.
As I have indicated, I appreciate that the bona fides of Deputy Curran are not in doubt but are clear. The Government will not be opposing the Bill. I want to assure Deputy Curran and his colleagues that my officials will be available to meet with him if he considers that helpful, to discuss the legal, policy and operational issues that are raised by the Bill with a view towards assisting the Deputy further in his engagement. I want to acknowledge the importance of the Oireachtas legal advice and drafting services with Private Members' Bills. I do not believe there is a Department that experiences as many Private Members' Bills as does the Department of Justice and Equality, on the civil side and on the criminal side. I want to assure Deputy Curran that notwithstanding the full agenda we have, we will regard this initiative as being important and we would be happy to engage with the Deputy at an early date to ensure issues that require to be addressed are addressed prior to the Bill progressing to Committee Stage in the Houses.