Thursday, 15 July 2021
Firearms and Offensive Weapons (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Martin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan, the proposer of the Bill. It is an important debate to have in the House. Much of this came from several incidents in the early part of the year. A woman from Mongolia who worked as a cleaner was stabbed not far from where the House is sitting. Such tragedies that are suffered by families really bring into sharp focus the need to do something on these issues. Deputy O'Callaghan referred to Cameron Blair and the situation in that regard. I noticed that the person recently sentenced in connection with that case was carrying a kitchen knife above his head at the time. Although the knives that are the primary focus of this legislation are offensive weapon-type knives in particular, the reality is that knives are everywhere in communities and societies. In that context, offensive weapons are lying around in the kitchens of most households. The point in respect of domestic violence is well made. Knives are a weapon that have been used, or threatened to be used, on many occasions in that context. We need to be cognisant of that as well.
On the Bill itself, I agree and Deputy O'Callaghan has acknowledged that this will not be the solution to the entire problem. It may be part of the solution and it is certainly good to have a debate on the issue. The current provision is for a sentence of up to five years. My understanding is that these cases rarely, if ever, go to the Circuit Court. The vast majority of the cases are dealt with in the District Court, where the person is charged with possession of a knife only and there are no mitigating circumstances or additional charges and the sentence can be quite light. However, there are cases in which knives or other offensive weapons, such as tools that are normally used for cutting hedges, are being carried around as offensive weapons. We need strong legislation to deal with such behaviour as there is a serious threat of serious injury in that context.
The Minister of State referred to the fact that there are ebbs and flows in the incidence of knife crime. I looked up the figures for 2006-11. There was an average of approximately 250 cases of knife attacks involving hospitalisation per annum in that five-year period. In the following five-year period, the yearly average decreased to approximately 180 such cases. The number of incidents goes up and down. There were a couple of months recently when there were many very serious incidents and murders in this city and that brought sharp focus onto the issue.
The reality is that we have to consider best practice elsewhere. Reference was made to Scotland in that regard but there are examples in other countries. In 1995 a model was introduced in Boston and, within five years, the number of serious knife crime attacks reduced by more than 60%. All of those models point to the use of other measures which really relate to education, training, offering opportunity to people, ensuring there are supports for communities, anti-poverty measures, youth work, drug addiction services and addiction services in general. One of the key things we should be considering is increasing funding for all of those services. It is a broader issue than the focus of the Bill, which is on knife crime. It goes to a range of criminal activity into which young people in particular can fall, leading to a very chaotic and turbulent lifestyle which usually ends in tragedy.
One of the key initiatives in many of the attempts to tackle this issue in other jurisdictions was to ensure that people who were convicted and ended up in prison as a result of knife crime were given adequate training and an adequate sense of hope. When they were released, protection and services were put in place for them and it was ensured that they had a place to live and the opportunity for training and work. Those people then became advocates and role models who went to speak to young people in danger of going down the same tragic path. That was found to be one of the best ways to address the issue. The importance of that peer group work stems from the fact it was not a person with a degree from some university who was telling the young people how to live, change or improve their lives but, rather, people from their community who had gone through the same type of chaotic lifestyle and, perhaps, early childhood they had experienced. There may be work such as that to be done here. It is certainly a common example of the approach taken in many of the jurisdictions where they had a lot of success tackling this problem. There have also been amnesties during which knives were handed in and so on, but that was only done when all of the other things were in place.
Tougher sentences alone will not resolve this issue. I do not think the individuals who are carrying a knife for whatever reason or are engaged in some kind of street battle will think for a moment about whether it is a five-year sentence or a ten-year sentence they will get. The reality is that they are in a different place. It is not about the sentence at that stage; it is about other things that are dominating their lives and it is dealing with those other things first that will resolve the issue.
I refer to the current problems and the possible ways of resolving them. I commend the Minister of State on the work to which he referred in the context of moving into that space and the work that was done on the issue of scramblers. A similar approach could be taken in respect of knife crime. We should be trying to extend local community safety partnerships, which are currently at pilot stage, to all areas as quickly as possible and particularly to areas where there are issues in respect of knife crime. It is usually the case that areas that have knife crime issues suffer from under-funding and have drug addiction issues and a range of other criminal and social issues. It all crosses over and there needs to be co-ordinated work between all the various agencies. Although criminal justice has a part to play, it is the failure and under-funding of all other agencies that leads to the criminal justice system being required.
I refer to the issue of mental health services in that regard. Many of those in prison are there as a result of mental health issues they may have developed due to the chaotic lifestyle they were leading or psychotic episodes while on drugs or recovering from drugs. If we had proper drug addiction services and youth services in particular in place, there would not be as much knife crime, addiction or mugging and all of the things that go with that.
Deputy O'Callaghan is to be commended on bringing forward the Bill. I think he acknowledges that it is not the end of the road and will not solve any problem initially, but it certainly puts a stronger deterrent in place. However, there is so much more work to do on the other side of the issue. I look forward to a full and comprehensive debate on Committee Stage of the Bill, when we can tease out and examine all of that and consider how we can come up with a solution. It is essential that a project similar to those that have worked in other jurisdictions is put in place. We need to look to best practice internationally, apply it and put the required funding in place because what cost can be put on one individual losing his or her life or undergoing a tragic and life-changing incident as a result of knife crime? A cost cannot be put on that.
If we simply narrow it down to financial terms, where a person ends up in prison and is in Mountjoy, it involves a substantial cost to the State to keep them there for the length of the sentence. If those costs were put into services at the early stages to ensure that did not happen, it would be money well-spent. The old saying, "a stitch in time saves nine", is a model we need to consider when we look at the whole system of how we deal with the issue of juvenile crime in particular and how we can deal with it and resolve it.
The Bill is a start, and I commend Deputy O'Callaghan on bringing it forward. I commend the Minister of State on the work he is doing on the issue. However, I feel that we need to look at the issue in a broader context. I hope we can do that in the coming days.