Thursday, 15 July 2021
Firearms and Offensive Weapons (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
James Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
I echo the sentiments of Deputy Devlin in thanking the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Ceann Comhairle, the ushers and other staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, the staff in the convention centre and the members of An Garda Síochána who assisted us. They have done Trojan work over the recent period in keeping us all safe and effective as we did our work in the convention centre.
I acknowledge the great public concern, which the Government shares, arising from a number of serious knife crimes that have occurred in recent months and years. We are all conscious in this House of the serious impact violent crime, particularly attacks of a random nature, has on victims and families. I join all Deputies in condemning such crimes in the strongest possible terms. These offences pose serious questions of the criminal justice system. They raise questions of our society in terms of the conditions that exist to induce some of our citizens to engage in such crimes. They also raise particular challenges for Members in our role of reflecting the concerns of the people we represent.
Deputy Jim O'Callaghan is to be commended for seeking to advance the legislative position in this area. His Bill gives us an opportunity to reflect on the appropriate policy and legislative response to the issue of knife crime. I have had an opportunity to discuss this issue with the Deputy on a number of occasions since my appointment as Minister of State, as well as with Deputies Devlin, McAuliffe, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Martin Kenny and others. I know the concern in regard to knife crime is shared right across the House. The overall picture on crimes involving the use of knives in this State is a mixed one. This is not in any way to downplay the traumatic effect of individual offences on victims and their families. I will seek to address this debate by placing it in the wider context of the available data on the extent of crimes involving knives and other offensive weapons, policy considerations on the most effective responses to such crime and some observations in regard to the provisions in the Bill.
Information on knife-related crime gathered by An Garda Síochána notes that such crime trends should be viewed in the context of the pandemic and the associated general decrease in criminality, but also the successful number of proactive seizures and interventions. While there was a decline in overall knife seizures in the period from 2010 to 2016, there has been an increase in the number of knives seized each year since then. This is due in large part to the introduction of new systems for the recording of all objects seized, including knives. More recently, there has also been an increase due to proactive policing operations, particularly during 2020, which saw an increased Garda presence due to the Covid-19 restrictions. This is reflected in the fact that knives, at 1.4%, accounted for the lowest ever proportion of all objects seized. The Government welcomes and supports the continued efforts of An Garda Síochána in this regard.
The most recent available HSE data, for 2005 to 2019, show a general decline in hospital discharges following an assault by knife since 2006. This is consistent with the trend shown by Garda data on crime incidents where a knife was involved. While there was a slight increase in hospital discharges following an assault by knife between 2018 and 2019, the numbers remain considerably lower than those seen up to 2011 and below the slight rises seen between 2013 and 2015. That is not in any way to lessen the seriousness of these crimes. Overall, while there is no strong evidence to suggest there has been any increase in crime incidents involving knives, any such incident is very serious and we must always be focused on lowering the incidence as much as possible. We should have regard to this mixed picture when considering the need for further measures.
I am aware that knives, given their accessibility in the home, may be used in domestic violence. This is a serious and deeply concerning issue. The use of a knife against a person in his or her home by a person he or she should be able to trust is a truly despicable act. I urge anybody who is in fear of his or her safety to reach out to An Garda Síochána and seek help.
Crime of any sort is not a phenomenon that exists in isolation. It is inevitably connected to significant and often complex underlying factors, including the insidious influence of criminal groups tempting young people into a life of crime, the effects of trauma and personal adversity, and the immediate effects of the misuse of alcohol or illegal drugs. All of these factors must be taken into account when considering policy and legislative options. There is a need for a more focused consideration of the factors that prompt people to carry knives in public places and any additional practical measures that might be useful, whether law enforcement or community engagement initiatives. There is international evidence to suggest that knife-carrying may be related to a perceived need for self-protection but we would need to validate those indications in an Irish context. The international evidence cautions against generic awareness campaigns, particularly if targeted at young people, as having a possible unintended consequence of increasing feelings of insecurity or creating the impression that knife-carrying is more widespread that it is. However, that does not negate the need for, or importance of, educating people on the dangers of carrying knives. It can be difficult to strike a balance in this regard but it is important to do so.
We need to develop an approach that addresses the specific circumstances in communities in this country and which can be pursued through our policing and public service frameworks. Nevertheless, examples in other jurisdictions may prove useful. In particular, we may have something to learn from the public health approach to knife crime that has been employed in Scotland. Previously, the approach there involved a focus on police enforcement. There was a change in focus in 2004 to looking at this type of violence as a public health problem. This was based on a recognition of the relationship between inequality and violence and the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Between 2008 and 2012, a strategy was put in place involving direct engagement with violent offenders, which provided an opportunity to break the cycle of offending. A range of projects to engage offenders and at-risk persons was put in place, with an emphasis on education, employment and self-improvement. In this State, current approaches such as the youth justice strategy, Garda diversion projects and probation schemes align with those taken in Scotland and will be further developed in the context of ongoing work.
To support a reasoned assessment of options to enhance responses to knife crime, I am convening a special subgroup of the forum on antisocial behaviour to examine this matter in the coming weeks. Some months ago, I convened a similar forum to address the issue of scramblers, out of which came reforming legislation and funding streams to provide social supports within the communities affected by the menace of scramblers. I established the forum on antisocial behaviour in October last year, in line with a commitment in the programme for Government. It draws together key agencies and expert representatives from community, business and academic backgrounds. The intention is that a subgroup of the forum will examine the various aspects of the knife crime phenomenon, including community-based programmes, areas for further research and how legislation might best be framed to support enforcement and a reduction in the carrying of knives and their use in violent crime.
Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's Bill will form an important part of that review and will be examined by the subgroup. This broad and considered approach will enable us to arrive at legislative proposals that are clearly aimed at producing effective results and putting plans in place to provide supports for communities. Issues relating to education and harm reduction will also form an important part of the subgroup's deliberations. It will carry out its work over a period of three months and will report as soon as possible thereafter on the proposed steps to be taken. I welcome the input of Deputy Jim O'Callaghan or any other Deputy into the work of the forum.
I turn now to the provisions of the Bill. The proposed removal of judicial discretion to impose a fine not exceeding €5,000 on summary conviction for possession of a knife or related articles may be problematic in certain technical aspects but that is something on which we can work with the Deputy prior to Committee Stage. Of course, in instances of assault where an offensive weapon is used, other charges may be brought that are more serious in nature and attract a higher sentence.
For example, where a knife is used, charges may be brought for assault causing serious bodily harm, attempted murder or murder.
Notwithstanding these initial points, I support the absolute principle behind the Bill, namely, that the penalties for offences involving knife crime or similar related articles should be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the significant trauma inflicted on victims of crime. I acknowledge the number of fatalities and serious injuries arising from knife-related incidents and the Government sympathises with those families. I know several Deputies have voiced concerns with regard to such incidents. The question of how best to achieve a proportionate response is one I am happy to discuss both now and in the future with all Deputies. This is, of course, subject to the usual scrutiny of the Bill. The Joint Committee on Justice will assess and discuss the Bill in more detail. Of course, any Bill involving the possibility of a money message usually has to be considered by Cabinet.
Finally, the message needs to go out that it is never appropriate to carry a knife, even for defensive purposes. When a knife is produced, it can cause serious risk of tragic outcomes, very often for the person who pulls the knife. We have to ensure that message goes out clearly. I thank Deputies O'Callaghan and Devlin for their contributions, as well as Deputy Martin Kenny who is about to contribute to the debate.