Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Criminal Justice Bill 2004: Motion (Resumed).
—offences relating to organised crime including an offence of participating or contributing to any activity of a criminal organisation for the purpose of enhancing the ability of such an organisation to commit or facilitate a serious offence whether inside or outside the State, an offence of committing an offence for the benefit of a criminal organisation and an offence of conspiracy to commit a serious offence;
—the Children Act 2001 to provide for civil proceedings in relation to anti-social behaviour by children aged 12 or over and other juvenile justice matters, including amendments to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for the provision and operation of children detention schools from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform;
Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt le mo chomhghleacaithe, na Teachtaí Finian McGrath, Catherine Murphy agus Sargent.
According to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 aim to bring criminal law up to date and make it relevant to the needs of modern society. However, he is electioneering at the expense of democracy. He is engaged in a war on fundamental rights and has a coalition of eager allies in his Fianna Fáil partners, much of the media and the so-called alternative coalition. The Minister is hyperactively producing legislative reforms that are, in the main, unnecessary. His proposals amount to superficial gimmicks which he is selling to the public as quick-fix solutions via his press releases, seeking cheap votes.
There are no quick-fix solutions to today's complex crime problem. Reform, restructuring and resourcing of the Garda Síochána is needed to ensure enforcement of existing laws. It is vital that new provisions are evidence-based and human rights compliant. My Sinn Féin colleagues, civil libertarians and children's rights groups have expressed serious concern at the number and intent of some of the measures proposed by the Minister. Among those causing concern are the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders and the motivation, legality and potential effectiveness of new sections regarding gangland crime, conspiracy, drugs, sentencing and electronic tagging.
The ability of Sinn Féin, NGOs and the Irish Human Rights Commission to absorb and analyse the Minister's proposals, thereby contributing to the development of sound legislation in this area, has been greatly inhibited by the Minister's typically anti-democratic actions. The Bill began in 2004 with 38 sections and the Minister is now introducing over 200 amendments, of which we only had sight last week. There are substantial differences between these amendments and the heads of the Bill he published at the end of last year. Yesterday he indicated in the House that he intends to introduce more sections on Report Stage. The whole thing is a joke.
I will focus on one area of particular concern, the new provisions on organised crime. My reading of the proposed amendments is from a human rights perspective. A series of red-line issues are thrown up. It appears the Minister's desire to be seen to be doing something, anything, to address the country's growing gangland crime problem has led him to propose a series of rash new offences and proceedings that would have grave and dangerous consequences for the fundamental civil and political rights of the people. The Human Rights Commission questioned whether the Minister's proposals on organised crime are a proportionate or necessary response to the problem of organised crime. It concluded: "the activity which is targeted here is already subject to appropriate criminal sanction through existing common law and statute which prohibit conspiracy to commit an offence and prohibit the aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring of an offence". The Irish Council for Civil Liberties argued in its submission yesterday to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, that existing laws are sufficient. The ICCL argued that the Minister's proposals lack certainty and clarity and that the effort would be better spent on improving law enforcement, that is developing and resourcing proper community policing initiatives.
To add to the sound arguments against the Minister's proposals put forward by the Human Rights Commission and the ICCL, his provisions on organised crime are based largely on the Canadian criminal code. The same section of the Canadian criminal code the Minister is eager to introduce here was recently found by the Supreme Court of British Columbia to be in violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom. The Minister's proposals are framed in such a way that one could almost be found guilty of an offence for baby-sitting a possible criminal's children. The prosecution would not have to prove that any criminal offence was committed or that the defendant knew about it if it was.
Instead of assaulting the fundamental rights underpinning this democracy the Minister should reform, restructure and resource the Garda. As a priority he should arrange for the civilianisation of appropriate tasks such as certain administrative duties and the introduction of a dedicated traffic corps thereby freeing up trained gardaí to fight crime. Sinn Féin will oppose all measures proposed by the Minister that fail to comply with international best practice and human rights standards, and that will ultimately fail to address the country's crime problems. I urge the Minister to withdraw this Bill and begin afresh.
Crime, like health, is a major issue. In recent weeks we have seen people suffer as victims of crime, the drugs issue and massive violence being used against our citizens. It is important we address this issue in a serious and comprehensive way. I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Ms Donna Cleary in Coolock, one of my constituents who was recently murdered at a party. She was a young mother, shot down in the dead of night by people armed with guns and high on drugs. That this innocent woman was slaughtered at a party is a disgrace. While I blame the people directly involved, we need more than sympathy for the families affected. The Cleary family needs practical support and I urge all the groups, particularly those working with victims to assist them. We also need a policing response and action. I have a simple and old-fashioned, though relevant, philosophy on crime. If one does the crime, one should do the time without whingeing. Gardaí should not go into communities and demand respect but earn it, and this will gather community support. Although I welcome constructive comments on the solution to crime, increasing powers and creating new offences are only cosmetic exercises. When tackling crime, addressing social, economic and educational disadvantage must be a major part of the solution. We also need programmes to assist violent and dysfunctional children at an early age. It is too late to help them after they have been lost in the system. As part of the policing solution we need more gardaí working with the community, on the beat, not sitting in their offices, in Garda stations or whizzing around in patrol cars. That is the reality and our citizens demand it. We want them to be on the beat for six hours in every eight hour shift, not doing other jobs.
We need a properly planned anti-drugs strategy, because drugs lead to more violence in our society. In the approach adopted in the Bill and its amendments there is a tendency to see the solution to crime in terms of increasing policing powers and creating new offences. The Garda and the criminal justice system are severely under-funded and the measures proposed by the Minister are cosmetic and not justified by the background information. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has not done his job on crime. I urge him to wake up, to avoid little debates and rows on numbers with the private schoolboy people such as the Opposition spokesperson. It is not acceptable. The people demand action, more community policing, a serious response to crime and that the Garda does its job in a professional way.
I want to concentrate on anti-social behaviour orders. The proposal is on reducing the burden of proof from the criminal justice system, where a reasonable doubt applies, to the civil burden of proof, where it is about the balance of probabilities. On his visit to the UK in November 2004 the Commissioner for Human Rights stated:
The proper evidential requirements and sensible control of what actually constitutes anti-social behaviour are essential, as ASBOs can bring their subjects literally a misplaced step away from the criminal justice system. Indeed ASBOs blur the boundaries between the civil and criminal justice systems and great care must consequently be taken to ensure the rights to a fair trial and liberty are respected. 42% of all ASBOs up to 2003 were breached. The concern is that the excessive use of ASBOs is more likely to exacerbate the anti-social behaviour and crime amongst youth than effectively prevent it and this is for two reasons. Firstly, ASBO breaches have resulted in large numbers of children being detained. 46% of young people received immediate custody upon conviction of a breach. The chair of the Youth Justice Board has conceded that the rise in the young offender population in custody in 2004 resulted mainly from breaches of ASBOs. Given the high reconviction conviction rates for detained juvenile offenders one wonders whether the detention of juveniles for non-criminal behaviour will not lead to more serious offences on release.
Much of what has been described as anti-social behaviour is criminal behaviour. Public order and damage to property offences already exist on the statute books. We need the personnel to pursue vandalism, damage to property and being drunk and disorderly. We have seen too many public relations exercises such as "zero-tolerance". This is yet another attempt to give the impression that something is being done. Again I quote the Commissioner for Human Rights:
One cannot but wonder, indeed, whether their purpose is not more to reassure the public that something is being done and better still, by local residents themselves, than the actual prevention of the anti-social behaviour itself.
I saw first hand what happened when by-laws sanctioning those who were causing a serious problem with drinking parties were introduced by Leixlip Town Council. The object was to reduce the problem. All that occurred was the creation of an additional stream of income and the local authority had to administer the system. A great administrative burden was placed on the local authority. It was found in the United Kingdom that it required a virtual army of administrative staff to process the orders, track offences and follow those who had breached the orders. There is a public service embargo preventing the recruitment of civilians to the Garda to do non-frontline work and it is being proposed to put trained police officers into offices to track ASBOs. This is madness.
I have seen excellent work done by junior liaison officers and good community policing. The problem is that there are insufficient resources. However, to obtain further Garda resources, there needs to be increased crime rates. Good policing is not just about detection rates, it is also about prevention. We need to approach this matter differently.
ASBO excesses have been well-publicised. Two notable examples include the serving of an ASBO on an 87 year old woman for being repeatedly sarcastic and on a 17 year old deaf girl for spitting. Orders tend to apply to those on the fringes of society and those with severe behavioural problems. We are trading away our civil liberties instead of allocating money for resources to deal with the problem.
Tááthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an mBille um Cheartas Coiriúil 2004. In his opening address, the Minister referred to giving extra powers to the Garda Síochána. I ask that he devote as much attention to the reforms needed in the force. People need to hear more about these in light of the Morris tribunal.
The issue of resources, which my colleagues have mentioned, was not covered in the Minister's opening address. He needs to return to this given that there have been more problems associated with a lack of resources than with a lack of powers. The Minister proposes to amend the firearms and explosives legislation. However, it is still the case that international arms traders are very easily approached over the Internet. I read in a newspaper over the weekend that schoolgirls in Portlaoise were able to access fairly frightening torture equipment and weapons over the Internet, just to prove it could be done. I do not believe the Minister is tackling the problem, nor does the legislation under discussion contain proposals to do so.
Amending the fireworks legislation of 1875 is one matter but monitoring communities and acting on foot of the tsunami of fireworks entering this country is another. Resources and education are badly needed in this regard. Serious incidents have occurred such as the blowing up of an animal corpse with fireworks. The Garda certainly needs greater resources to tackle the type of behaviour sometimes evident in our communities.
I agree with Deputies who mentioned the inadequacy and counter-productive nature of ASBOs in that they focus on the marginalised in the community. Not only do they lead to a culture of criminalisation, they also highlight the lack of resources. It is an end-of-pipe type of approach rather than one characterised by preventing the problem in the first place. In this regard, more juvenile liaison officers are badly needed, as are more uniformed gardaí.
I have received a number of letters on this subject, one of which is from a resident in Doneraile in County Cork. It states:
In my young days when crime was almost nil . . . we had a resident sergeant plus 4 resident gardaí. Today in 2006 we have no resident garda, a despicable situation that has now gone on for the past few years, when crime and vandalism [are at an unacceptable level]. I am requesting you and other politicians to help this town of Doneraile to fight for a resident garda sergeant, plus a resident garda. In fact, I am not alone requesting you, I am pleading with you to help us get law-enforcement officers. I will say . . . it is nothing short of a disgrace to have to beg for a resident law-enforcement officer for a growing town with an equally growing population[.]
This is typical of letters I receive from individuals throughout the country.
My area covers Balbriggan, Rush, Lusk, Skerries, Garristown, Naul, Ballyboughal and Oldtown, and also Trinity House and Oberstown. The Garda district of Balbriggan had more uniformed gardaí in 1988 than it does today although the population was approximately half of what it is today. This is an indictment of a Government that has anything to say crime, as this legislation purports to do. In 2006, there are 33 station personnel, including 15 uniformed gardaí, four sergeants and personnel in other roles the Garda has been given. The Garda needs to have personnel in these roles. Although there were more uniformed gardaí in the district in 1988, there was no drugs unit and there was not as much serious crime as there is today, nor were there community policing or foreign national responsibilities.
The Government is clearly attempting to paint a picture to the effect that there is no problem and that it is just adding to the powers of the Garda. However, law and order are in crisis because of cutting corners in the provision of resources. The Commissioner's statement that we need to increase Garda strength to 15,000, 1,000 more than the Minister was considering, even in his wildest dreams, indicates that the Garda is at the end of its tether.
The Minister's proposal to increase the retirement age of gardaí takes the biscuit altogether. Gardaí are doing their level best to get out of the force early because they are so demoralised, have no back-up and are expected to a number of jobs all at once. They are not getting the help they need from the Government and additional powers will not solve this problem. I hope the Government spokesperson, when wrapping up this debate, will indicate clearly that the resources the Garda needs will be provided. Only then will we take the Bill seriously.
I preface my remarks by expressing my sympathy on the death of Ruairí Brugha. I did not have the opportunity to add my voice to the expressions of sympathy. It is often forgotten that Ruairí Brugha, when he was first elected in Dublin South County in 1973, represented the Tallaght area.
I am very happy to contribute to this debate. I was waiting for my colleague, Deputy Sargent, to praise the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform because, when I was listening to the news on TV3 last Saturday evening, I heard Ursula Halligan tell us rather excitedly from Kilkenny that the Minister had cheered up the Greens. The Deputy was busy and may have missed it.
That was some achievement and the Deputy might give him some credit for it. I waited in vain but maybe the Deputy will avail of another opportunity to do so.
My good friend Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to electioneering but, according to my count, there are at least 400 more days before the election. We have a long way to go.
I have noticed that people have talked about their constituencies in this debate and I will certainly mention mine in my contribution. I went for a walk today around the old streets from which I came. I do not come from Tallaght but was born in this parish and lived in St. Stephen's Street and South Great George's Street. I said in a speech some time ago that I was born in a bygone era in Dublin and, having listened to some of the contributions, I believe it is fair to reflect on this. As I grew up in Crumlin, I remember that the biggest event of any day was when the local garda cycled from the Garda station down the streets and through Derry Park, which Deputy Ó Snodaigh will know very well, and took our ball. I am not a bit afraid to say from the Government benches that this is the kind of policing to which we need to return. It is very important to have visibility and to have the male and female members of the Garda on our streets. This is the way forward in dealing with our communities.
There has been much controversy recently about anti-social behaviour orders and the question of a Garda reserve. It is very important that we speak up for what the Minister is trying to achieve in some of these issues. He has heard all sorts of comments from every side of the House, including from the Fianna Fáil benches, yesterday and today. As a Government Deputy, I will not claim that everything is right in my community, but at the same time we should try to work with the Minister and bring to his attention the issues of concern to us and try to get action. I do that not only as a Deputy, but also as a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, where we all see what the Minister is trying to do. I have heard Opposition colleagues marvel at the workload in that regard and that on a regular basis the Minister engages with us, which is important.
I am not afraid to say that we face challenges as far as crime is concerned. The area of Dublin which I represent and in which I live is different from the place where I grew up. It is becoming a dangerous place with much crime. Not a day goes by without crime making the headlines. We need to press the Government to ensure the Garda is properly resourced to deal with crime. We need to tackle the bosses and their gangs and take them out of business.
I always want to be positive about the work of the Garda, particularly in my constituency. I disagree with the advice of senior Garda management in the Phoenix Park and senior officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the need for Garda facilities in my town of Tallaght. My constituency is very relevant to the debate. While Dublin South-West includes the town of Tallaght, which is the third largest population centre in the country, it also includes rural areas like Brittas and Bohernabreena, and other population centres like Firhouse, Greenhills and Templeogue. My constituency has 74,000 people, but there is only one Garda station. While we are served by other stations in the region, in Clondalkin, Terenure, Crumlin and Rathfarnham, we have only one Garda station.
Tallaght Garda station was built in 1989 before the town developed to its present size. Members and certainly the Ceann Comhairle will remember the Tallaght of 1989, with no Square, hospital, civic centre or civic theatre. It had none of the facilities, which thankfully have been introduced in the past 15 years. I have often mentioned — I am sure the Irish Examiner will pick me up for mentioning it again — that 20 cranes are working on the town centre land, thousands of apartments are being developed and new housing estates are being developed, particularly to the west of the town, in Marlfield, Kiltipper, Westbrook and Carrickmore. We still have only one Garda station, with fewer gardaí than in Limerick which has a smaller population than Tallaght.
We need the Minister to understand that Tallaght has those needs. We need the development of the new Garda station, which is being progressed, as the Minister advised me some weeks ago. I understand that a planning application is being progressed by the OPW. The Garda authorities and the Department believe that Tallaght does not need another Garda station, which I absolutely refute. I will not sit idly by because Tallaght needs a second Garda station. I have made a case for the rest of the constituency. A Garda station situated west of the Square would be of great benefit to those communities and to the whole area.
Considerable progress has been made regarding the work of the Garda in Tallaght and the other areas. I am always happy to support the work of community gardaí in every community, particularly my own. They work on a weekly basis with the local authority and provide a clinic setting where people can go to discuss problems they are having in the estates. These clinics operate on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Tallaght, Jobstown, Killinarden and Fettercairn.
Other colleagues have talked about the need for the JLO scheme to be beefed up, to give resources to the drugs unit and to help Garda visibility by promoting the use of mountain bicycles, the horse unit etc. I am glad my communities have been able to take advantage of those programmes. I strongly support the Garda youth diversion projects. Killinarden, Jobstown and Fettercairn in the Tallaght area have very successful projects. On a number of occasions recently in Dáil debates, at the Oireachtas joint committee and through other means, I have drawn the Minister's attention to the need to fund the St. Aengus stay in school project in Tymon North in Tallaght. When I brought in a group from St. Aengus's parish to meet the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, he was able to confirm that the project will be funded. While the Garda understands it has been confirmed, the document has not been signed and I hope it can be confirmed in the next few days.
From previous contributions I have made on crime and Garda resources for my constituency, Members will know that I believe strongly in community involvement, which is why I feel the proposal for a Garda reserve is reasonable. Members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights accompanied the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform last April on a visit to the London Metropolitan Police in New Scotland Yard. We saw what it is doing regarding community policing and reservists. During that weekend, Deputy Finian McGrath and I had the opportunity to go on a detail with policemen, which was an amazing experience. We saw how the police respond to situations. As it happened on the day of a match between Chelsea and Fulham, many people were out and about with considerable potential for high spirits. While it might sound sad to some Members, I found it a great experience, which gave me a good understanding as to what can be done with community policing.
I mentioned my own town a few times and I would like to mention some other activities I strongly support in Tallaght. The Tallaght Garda has a so-called "one-person programme" working with what I will call the international community in our town. The programme has been very successful. The community garda, Jim Fleming, has been working with the local schools and in recent times pupils from all the schools took advantage of the facilities in the National Basketball Arena. That represents an extension of the Garda diversion project and it has been very successful
We need to understand the concerns of victims. I have been a long-time supporter of victim support programmes. We need to do as much as possible to facilitate victims and ensure their needs are considered. Victim organisations, particularly Victim Support, often make the point that the needs of victims are not addressed in legislation. I was a victim of crime on a few occasions and it had a significant effect on me. Every day I meet families who are the subject of even more serious crime than that to which I have been subjected and it affects them greatly. I ask the Department officials to convey this message to the Minister. I have made representations to the Minister in respect of the victim support facilities in Tallaght Courthouse. As some Members may know, that courthouse has not operated for some months following a fire. It is being renovated and it is understood that Judge McDonnell will be back very shortly, to which the local community looks forward. People have concerns about the victim support facilities being moved to another part of the courthouse. I hope the Minister will respond in a positive way to the reasonable representations I have made to him by ensuring that victim support is facilitated and there are no difficulties in that regard.
I also want to talk about the operations of peace commissioners, which is an issue that a number of people have raised with me. I am sure Members will recall that until two years ago, peace commissioners were allowed to sign search warrants under theft legislation which was subsequently amended to disallow them from doing so. If gardaí want to obtain search warrants on foot of cases of theft or larceny, they are required to present themselves before a District Court judge. However, it can be difficult to obtain access to District Court judges out of hours, especially at weekends. Peace commissioners are allowed to sign search warrants for drugs searches under drugs legislation, often resulting in large quantities of drugs worth millions of euro being taken off the streets, as we have seen in recent times. Peace commissioners are available to gardaí on a 24-hour basis. They often attend the court cases which arise from the issuing of drugs search warrants. It is difficult to understand, therefore, why peace commissioners cannot issue search warrants under theft legislation, for example in the case of the theft of equipment or property worth €100.
This regulation causes a great deal of frustration for gardaí who seek such warrants out of hours. I hope the Minister will examine this problem and amend the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 to facilitate the issuing of warrants under theft legislation. This issue has been brought to my attention by a number of peace commissioners in the Tallaght region. I am a peace commissioner. It is not something I always wanted to do but I am always happy to oblige the Garda. I ask the Minister to consider this matter and tell the House whether changes can be made.
A number of colleagues referred to the difficulties which arise from the use of fireworks. Deputies are contacted every year by people concerned about the problems caused in their communities by fireworks and bonfires. I receive complaints every year from communities in which fireworks are being discharged in a haphazard, illegal and dangerous manner. Local authorities say every year they will take action — South Dublin County Council is no different in that regard — but we always end up talking about what went wrong and saying we will have to take action next year.
I have listened carefully to a number of contributions to this debate in which Deputies have referred to the difficulties and challenges posed by the use of fireworks. I ask the Minister to understand the significant concerns in many communities in that regard and to examine the matter. We say every year that something definite must be done in our communities, but we always seem to end up saying we will take action next year. We find that we are doing the same things when the following year comes around. Given that this issue has been raised by successive speakers throughout this debate, it is clear that action is required.
Perhaps the Minister will consider telling the Garda authorities that more liaison should take place with local authorities to ensure that these matters are dealt with. We should ensure that bonfires are organised properly, as they are in the Aylesbury district of Tallaght every year. Such organisation ensures that illegal fireworks are not discharged and open spaces are not damaged. I am trying to spread this gospel throughout my constituency. Perhaps the Minister will promote this idea elsewhere because we should understand the need for it.
Many speakers have referred to the threat and danger posed to our communities by drugs. I have applauded on many occasions the good work of the Garda in dealing with drug gangs. I do not disagree with the Member who said yesterday that much of the blatant and serious crime taking place at present, such as the shootings on the M50, is being perpetrated by gangs who are making easy money. My constituency has suffered from drug problems as much as anywhere over recent years. We need to keep on top of the problem. I agree with Deputies who have argued that this is not just a law and order issue, although that aspect of it is clearly important. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, whose efforts to date I applaud, to acknowledge that the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs continues to face challenges in this regard. It is important that we continue to support communities like those in Dublin South-West, which are no different to those in other parts of the country in this respect, through the gardaí and by other means.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this motion. I acknowledge the presence in the House of my good friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, whose work in this regard I am always happy to applaud. Some people questioned whether this important debate should have taken place, but it is good that we have been able to discuss the various issues. I have listened to all the contributions and it was good to hear the trends. I hope the Minister will take particular note of what we all say in a general and global sense. I remind him to consider the specific issues I have raised, including the need for a new Garda station in the Tallaght area. I hope he will support me in that regard.
I do not mean any disrespect to Deputy O'Connor, who put his finger on the drugs issue, when I ask him to pick out the aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 which will make a difference on the streets. As far as I can tell, the legislation will do nothing to bring about change in respect of drugs. I have examined the Bill and I think it is useless.
When I listened to the Minister's opening speech yesterday, the first thing that caught my attention was his remark that, "it has taken somewhat longer than I hoped it would to bring this motion before the House". The fact is that he was forced to initiate this debate because he was embarrassed by what happened last week. When some people raised concerns about the number of amendments proposed to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, he conceded the point. The Minister has given us some nonsense about the need for an open debate on the issue, but if it were up to him, we would not be having this debate. He was forced into it.
The other thing that caught my attention was the Minister's comment in defence of his record that, "the number of headline crimes was heading for well over 500,000 if the rainbow Government had remained in office for five years". That is like me saying that the way things are going, half the people in this Chamber will be murdered if Deputy McDowell remains as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform over the next five years.
It is probably the weakest thing I have ever heard anyone say when trying to defend their record. The Minister is genuinely embarrassed because he knows that the amendments to this Bill do not provide for mandatory minimum sentences. It is a bit of a joke.
It has been proven that the manner in which legislation is written has allowed judges to disregard what Government Deputies would describe as "mandatory minimum sentences". We know that the sentences in question are not mandatory. The supposedly mandatory ten-year sentence has been handed down in just 3% or 4% of the cases which have been brought before the courts since 1999. I do not know how one can refer to it as a mandatory minimum sentence in such circumstances.
The Government's efforts to tackle the problem of drugs over its last four years in office have represented a complete failure. Such substantial quantities of drugs have never before been circulated in this country. Deputy O'Connor's comment that a large percentage of crime stems from the drug trade and the culture of the drug world was something of an understatement. Many crimes such as street violence, anti-social behaviour, gangland murders and burglaries stem from the drug trade. The Government has done practically nothing to prevent it. This Bill is more of the same. We are constantly being regaled by press conferences on the extra drug seizures around the country. We all know there have never been more drugs in the country. Members will not contradict me when I say that in small villages in counties such as Clare one can find drugs that were not available five or ten years ago. Four years ago I could have said there was no heroin in some parts of County Waterford. That is not the case any longer. When I came into the Dáil first, they were available as far south as Carlow. Now they are freely available in some towns in Waterford. That is the legacy of this Government as far as the whole drugs issue is concerned.
The response seems to be that the Government is going to amend the provision inserted into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1997 by the Criminal Justice Act. This was the so-called famous ten-year mandatory minimum sentence. One gets ten years if found in possession of over €12,700 worth of drugs. It is not mandatory, however. Judges, as everyone has acknowledged, including Members on the Government side, know that there is a massive opt-out here. Judges have been laughing at this provision for the last six years. The offending part of the Bill is this: "This section shall not apply where the court is satisfied that there are exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence". They will not give the sentence, essentially, if there are exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence. It allows judges, basically to ignore this completely. I am not reading that from the amendment to do with drugs. Rather, it is the amendment to section 15 of the Firearms Act.
The Minister is telling us he is introducing a minimum mandatory sentence for the possession of firearms. What he has also done is to include the line which provides that if there are exceptional and specific circumstances, the section does not apply. He has handed the judges the exact same opt-out that was given six years ago in the case of drugs. It is as useless as the Criminal Justice Act 1999. For the last four years I have been listening to the Minister and others complaining that the provision was being completely ignored by judges saying it was the norm and not the exception. Yet the Government tables amendments as regards firearms and puts in exactly the same line, so that every judge can ignore it just as much as he or she can as regards the provision on drugs.
The defence is probably more pathetic. Basically it is that an individual's criminal record will have to be taken into consideration from now on. Surely, that was a matter of course in any courtroom anyway. It is mind-bogglingly idiotic to assume that a court would not take someone's criminal record into consideration anyway. The Minister said at the committee hearing that when the court was considering imposing a lesser or reduced sentence, it should have regard to whether this would compromise the public's protection against drug traffickers. I assume the courts take public protection into consideration as a matter of course. Probably the most useless line from legislation dealing with criminal issues has been re-inserted for the whole area of firearms after it had been proven not to be worth the paper it is written on. In fairness to some Fianna Fáil backbenchers, surely the Minister of State will agree with that and that this will have to be rewritten. As it stands every judge will continue to laugh at this. If the Government is serious about taking on drug offenders, we should start to seriously consider taking on the Judiciary when it comes to constitutional issues that arise between the Legislature and the Judiciary. This Bill does not do that. It allows the Judiciary to sidestep everything in this Bill.
I am pleased to address the House on the issue of criminal justice. The whole area of law and order is one which we are all concerned about and that concern is growing all the time. Some shocking events in Dublin recently have suggested that this country is in a bad way and that criminal justice is an aspiration rather than a reality in 2006. The events in Dublin, while shocking and tragic, should not detract totally from the fact the country is experiencing a worrying deterioration of law and order. In my constituency crime rates in the more urbanised areas have grown significantly in recent years. In the Clonmel Garda district, which takes in Carrick-on-Suir and Fethard, recorded headline crimes in 2004 amounted to 523. Figures that I received from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform a week ago indicate that this figure had increased by 37% to 717 in 2005. The figures indicate that thefts and burglaries jumped most significantly, from 387 in 2004 to 528 in 2005, a rise of 36% in just one year. In the context of such massive increases in thefts and burglaries, it is difficult for people to feel safe in their homes and businesses. It is no comfort to know that of the 528 thefts and burglaries recorded in 2005, only 192, slightly over one third, were detected. The solution to the escalating crime levels is to increase the numbers of gardaí and give them adequate resources. If criminal numbers are growing and they have access to ever-improving technology, the State must ensure Garda numbers and resources keep pace. In my constituency that has certainly not been the case. Fethard for example, is a town in part of the district in which crime has been growing significantly in recent years. When this Government came into office in 1997, Fethard had three gardaí. It now has two. So the trend in Fethard has been increasing crime and decreasing Garda numbers. The downgrading of rural Garda stations is not confined to Fethard. Other stations in my constituency affected include Emly, Golden and Dundrum. The trend is relentless not alone in mine but in every constituency throughout the country.
Rural Garda stations fulfil many functions. Deputy Cregan could name a few, as well.
The most obvious of these is to ensure the law is upheld and order prevails. People in a locality feel safer when there is a garda stationed in their area. They are pleased to see their local gardaí patrolling the area. They know the physical presence of a garda in an area is a crime deterrent. This is of particular importance to the elderly who often feel especially vulnerable, particularly if they live alone. One constituent phoned me in a state of some distress last year because his local Garda sergeant had retired and had not been replaced. There is a direct correlation between the loss of that Garda post and the steep rise in anti-social behaviour in the small town. Those in the locality feel very let down by Government. They believe that rural Ireland has once again been forgotten and that it does not matter if their area is subject to vandalism, drug abuse, thefts, burglaries and so forth because this level of crime does not merit the appointment of a garda. Even though no Government in the history of the State has ever had so much money flooding the Exchequer, no allocation was made to provide a garda for this small town. Its people were, and still are, expected to put up with anti-social behaviour and petty crime and to just get used to it. That is life in rural Ireland under this Government.
Clonmel is a sizeable urban area with many problems, not least among them anti-social behaviour, thefts and burglaries, assaults and drug offences. In nine years, Clonmel's garda numbers have increased by four. This increase is not all it seems, given that Fethard which is part of Clonmel's Garda district lost a garda during this period. Another example of under-resourcing is that in my entire constituency just three gardaí are dedicated to tackling drugs crime. It is generally acknowledged that only 10% of drugs coming into the country are detected. If we want that statistic to increase, we must increase the number of gardaí that are dedicated to this area. The number of gardaí must be increased if we are to tackle crime, particularly in regard to drugs.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important legislation. The only difficulties I have with it, like other speakers, is the length of time it has taken to come through the system and the fact that such a large volume of additions has been tacked on to it. This issue has been the source of debate in the House yesterday and today. It is absolutely impossible to give this matter any real consideration in a five or six-minute period, so rather than do that I will concentrate on a few issues.
When I spoke on the original Bill I referred to the anomaly of including the issue of firearms in the legislation. It is unfortunate that this was the chosen mechanism. The matter should have been dealt with by itself. The issue must be dealt with comprehensively and must include the matter of storage and training for those who are permitted to use firearms. We should not allow somebody to be in control of an ordinary shotgun without some degree of understanding and monitoring.
Crime figures have been the focus of attention in this House recently and I will not allow myself to be accused by the Minister of misusing his figures. However, the reality on the ground is what we see and in the Border region I represent, which is also represented by the Ceann Comhairle, the number of gardaí in the stations is minimal compared to the number there in the past. I welcome the peace process and all to do with it but if we are to treat it seriously and bring it to a final conclusion there is justification for a real involvement of manpower, be it at Garda or Army level, in that area.
I congratulate the Garda and the PSNI for the job they did on the Border in Armagh. The alternative small farm enterprise that has become so common along the Border is totally and absolutely unacceptable to me. Has the Minister worked out how much finance we are losing in taxes due to the diesel that is being cleaned? Would that money not be better used in providing the extra personnel to ensure that this matter is dealt with once and for all?
Let us consider what it would mean to the peace process if we could say that at last we had dealt with criminality. That is the real question as far as I am concerned. I want to see the Good Friday Agreement finalised. I want to see criminality from whatever side ended. There is no doubt that it happens on both sides. I also want to see Sinn Féin take an active part in the police force in Northern Ireland, as it is meant to do. Then we could solve for once and for all the issue of criminality along the Border. This is not the only manifestation of criminality that is at issue, people also cross the Border to raid shops and go back across it with impunity. That cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.
In the area I represent, from the far end of Cavan right along the Border, about two Garda stations are open 24 hours a day. I heard speakers refer to Tallaght having only one barracks, and that may be so, but while we have many barracks they are ones that have nothing but a green man at night. That is not much comfort to the elderly, shopkeepers or business people whose premises are being robbed and who cannot even go to Mass without being sure that when they return their houses will not have been robbed. Several cases of the latter type of robbery occurred before Christmas where people were obviously being watched. As soon as people left home, their houses were robbed.
The party to which I belong is committed to law and order and we will give this Bill every support we can, within reason. I urge the Minister to ensure that the committee is given sufficient time to properly scrutinise the amendments so that whenever the legislation comes before the courts, as it will, it will be found to be in favour of ordinary people, the victims and not the criminals.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion on the Criminal Justice Bill. The amendments proposed by the Minister are an appropriate legislative response to the issues that have been raised by Members on both sides of the House recently.
I agree with Deputy Crawford's final comment that he would like adequate time to be provided for all the amendments to be dealt with in the committee. It is important such time is made available. I was involved in the Select Committee on Education and Science where we were required to deal with in excess of 500 amendments and time was found to deal with them in full. I think the Deputies opposite will agree that was the case. I would not support the use of the guillotine in this case and, if necessary, extra time should be provided for late sittings because this is significant legislation and the amendments put forward by the Minister are far-reaching and cover a wide area.
As Deputy Crawford stated, if the legislation is to stand up in the courts the amendments need to be given proper scrutiny in the committee. I urge the Minister to make provision for that and to be prepared to spend the necessary time on Committee Stage. That is most important, particularly in light of the number of amendments in comparison with the proposed legislation as originally devised. Some Members have argued that it would have been preferable to introduce new legislation instead of making changes by way of amendment to cover some elements of the Bill, but that is not what has been decided.
I agree with Deputy Hayes's emphasis on the fact that we need more gardaí. There is a record number of gardaí and that number will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. One only has to look at the number of recruits currently in training in Templemore for evidence of this.
The proposed legislation and the amendments are far-reaching. They include the issues of dealing with firearms, a gun amnesty, a new offence of participating in or contributing to criminal activity, the updating of laws relating to drug offences, a new offence of importing drugs to the value of more than €13,000, a new offence of supplying drugs, a drugs offenders' register, a new offence of supplying drugs to prisons. The Bill also deals with the issue of anti-social behaviour orders and makes provision for the protection of staff in accident and emergency units and other medical officers. A variety of provisions in the original legislation are also relevant such as provisions dealing with warrants and periods of detention, collection of evidence and the protection of crime scenes.
Operation Anvil has been up and running for ten months. It started in the Dublin metropolitan region in May 2005 with a view to addressing the serious problems of gun crime, robberies, burglaries and to combat the emerging gun culture. Operation Anvil is to be extended outside the Dublin metropolitan region during 2006. The Minister obtained funding to enable Operation Anvil to continue as long as it is deemed necessary in operational policing terms. All operational personnel in the Dublin metropolitan region may be employed in Operation Anvil as the need arises. Personnel from the national Garda units are also deployed on the operation as appropriate. To date, 31 people have been arrested on the charge of murder, 440 persons for serious assaults, 414 for offences relating to robbery and 907 for burglary offences. A total of 8,300 drugs searches have been carried out, 873 searches for theft offences and 776 for firearms. More than 26,000 checkpoints were set up and a total of seizures include 374 firearms and 3,934 vehicles. This is a brief summary of Operation Anvil.
It would be fair and accurate to say that some of those results would probably have been achieved by the Garda Síochána even without the benefit of Operation Anvil. However, it has acted as a preventative measure as a result of the number of checkpoints established which have also led to detection.
My constituency has in recent times seen a significant rise in drugs and gangland-related crimes. A drive-by shooting occurred last weekend on the M50 and N4 and there have been a number of murders by means of shootings.
People in my constituency are scared because those alleged to be involved in crime might be in the area. Innocent people are afraid of what could happen to them by association. The Minister stated last night that the headline figure is decreasing in relation to the population. However, gangland and organised crime and drug-related gangland crime are on the increase.
I remind the House of what happened ten years ago about half a mile from my house. It was 26 June 1996, the day Veronica Guerin was murdered. In response to her murder, the Garda Síochána established a thorough and detailed investigation over an extended period and its results were far-reaching. Many serious players in drugs and gangland crime were arrested and imprisoned and some of them fled the country. The operation was extremely successful. The Garda Síochána demonstrated its capacity to deal with this type of organised gangland crime when it was resourced and tasked to do so.
I compare the achievements of Operation Anvil with the investigation into the Veronica Guerin case. The people involved in gangland crime today, those involved in shootings and being shot, are in their 20s. They have filled the void created by the success of the investigation into the murder of Veronica Guerin. It is time for a new operation to deal with gangland crime over and above what is offered by Operation Anvil which has now been rolled out on a national level. However, it is time the Garda Síochána was resourced to target those who are profiting from and organising crime. The same commitment and enthusiasm must be shown and it requires an effort from all of us. This is the only way to tackle the growing problem of gangland crime.
This will require commitment and leadership from the Minister and the delivery must start with him. He will require the backing of the Government and it requires committed implementation by gardaí. The Garda Síochána has demonstrated its capacity to deliver when it is resourced and tasked to do so and this was shown in the investigation of Veronica Guerin's murder.
Gangland crime is a growing problem. Gangland and related drugs crime is not just confined to criminals murdering each other; it filters down through every level of society and we need to deal with it at the top. The people involved have no respect or regard for human life, no regard for property, no regard for anything. It is time we initiated a new operation above and beyond what is envisaged in Operation Anvil and I am sorry the Minister is not in the House to hear this. We do not have a crisis that is out of control but gangland crime is growing and we need to tackle it with something more than what is envisaged in Operation Anvil.
I asked the Minister a year ago whether it would be possible to include a provision for a gun amnesty in the Bill. I am pleased to see this proposal will be included. Some people may argue that those involved in serious crime will not avail of such an amnesty but a gun amnesty is an important first step.
A gun amnesty in the UK some years ago resulted in the return of 43,000 guns and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition. Those in possession of illegal firearms must be afforded the opportunity to get rid of them if we are to introduce serious and tough legislation and tough mandatory sentencing.
I refer to a recent gun amnesty in Ottawa where a collection service was organised by the local police force for all sorts of reasons. The police collected more than half the total number of guns.
The challenge is to reduce the number of guns on the streets and to reduce easy access to them. The mandatory sentencing accompanying this legislation is absolutely critical.
I listened to Deputy Deasy who stated that mandatory sentencing was not tight enough and he was concerned that judges would have too much leeway. If this is the case it is a detail to be dealt with on Committee Stage and cannot be left as it is. If we are to rid the streets of guns, we must have tough, mandatory sentencing so that those using, holding and supplying guns are held accountable. In Ottawa, which is an interesting case, a type of reward system was set up to encourage people with information on illegal firearms to report it. If we intend to have a gun amnesty, it must be accompanied by mandatory sentencing and a proper awareness campaign to make people aware that guns cannot be kept.
The Minister proposes significant updates to the laws relating to drug offences. They include changes to strengthen the provisions on the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking, which came into being through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and the Criminal Justice Act 1999. There is widespread concern that those caught in possession of significant amounts of drugs are not serving the minimum mandatory sentence of ten years. It is important that clarity is brought to this issue. The Minister indicated this clarity in his proposed amendments which will be discussed in detail on Committee Stage. If it is the desire of the House that we have tough mandatory sentencing, it is for the Judiciary to be directed accordingly and for the guidelines to be strict and detailed. I hope this will emerge as a result of Committee Stage.
Those who have an interest in law will be aware of the following issue which was brought to my attention and which the Minister is addressing. Several people have been murdered in cold blood in my area. If a murder victim were to be shot dead and a person were to be arrested, that person would normally be arrested under the Offences Against the State Act and could be held for a period of 24 hours, with an extension of 24 hours sanctioned by a Garda superintendent and a further 24 hours sanctioned by the courts. However, if the murder victim were stabbed to death, the person arrested would be charged under section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act. The period of detention in this case would be merely six hours and a further six hours sanctioned by a Garda superintendent, with no possibility of extension. In both types of case a murder would have been committed but the realistic prospects of the Garda Síochána solving the crime of murder committed through a stabbing, beating or otherwise would be greatly diminished.
The Garda Síochána must be afforded reasonable opportunities in this regard. I welcome the fact that these issues are being addressed in the Bill and the proposed amendments, specifically those dealing with securing evidence and securing the scene of the crime. These measures will help gardaí to secure convictions in the many cases where they are aware of the perpetrators but find it difficult to get the type of evidence they need promptly.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important motion. The Celtic tiger economy and the associated affluence of the country in recent years is positive and to be welcomed by all. There is, unfortunately, a negative side to this progress. We have seen a distinct lack of respect creep into society, accompanied by a lack of moral values. We are paying a price for our prosperity and affluence.
It is time this issue was tackled to ensure that the greatest civil liberties of all, namely, that people can sleep easy in their beds at night and walk the streets of our towns and cities during the day or night, are protected. Those criticising the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders take the high moral ground. They are the goody-goodies who claim we are infringing this or that right. I come down firmly on the side of the ordinary citizen, young or elderly. The most important civil liberties we must protect are, as I have just said, the right to walk our streets without fear of being assaulted, intimidated or otherwise and to sleep easy in our beds at night. We owe this to the elderly. I fully support the implementation of any measures, including anti-social behaviour orders, which would achieve this.
Reference was made by several speakers to the number of gardaí. As they were parochial in their contributions, I will be parochial as well. In the town where my office is based, Newcastlewest in west Limerick, there has been substantial population growth in the past four or five years but little increase in Garda numbers. While I compliment the gardaí in that district for their excellent work in crime prevention and detection, more prevention is needed. The only way to achieve this is by appointing additional gardaí to places like Newcastlewest and other small rural stations throughout west Limerick.
There have been increases in Garda numbers at national level, which I welcome and for which I compliment the Minister and the Government. There have also been increases at divisional level in the Limerick Garda division. However, there has been little or no increase in the district. We tend to concentrate our minds on the larger centres of population where crime is more serious, but this is sometimes at the expense of the smaller locations where crime may not be as serious but where anti-social behaviour and assaults occur late at night. We must clamp down on this behaviour. It is an important issue for the Government and one which must be addressed.
Deputy Deasy raised the issue of sentencing and referred to a specific line in the Bill. Like Deputies Deasy and Curran, if a section of the Bill gives increased discretion in sentencing, I disagree with it, although I depend on the contributions of the previous speakers as I have not studied the Bill. There is too much discretion at present. It has been used not only in high profile cases but also in lesser known cases. The public finds it hard to understand how a person who commits a crime and is sent to prison is released just months later. At the other end of the scale, a person who commits a much lesser crime can spend much longer in prison. I am not satisfied with the application of discretion. Minimum mandatory sentencing should mean just that. With regard to a gun amnesty and subsequent prosecutions for those who do not avail of it, it is important that we would implement to the letter of the law the minimum mandatory sentence.
I commend the Bill. I wish the Minister every success in his endeavours and compliment him on his performance to date.
It is worth noting the pattern already developing in the contributions on the Bill. Regardless of which side of the House the speakers are on, they are essentially critical of the track record of the Government, in particular the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and cite serious problems across the board with the Minister's responsibility to ensure law and order in communities. This raises question marks over the track record of the Minister. As the level of serious crime rises, the level of the detection of crimes is falling.
Much emphasis has been given to serious crimes such as murder, assaults and other crimes committed in particular parts of our cities. However, this is not just a city problem. Gangs operate through violence and intimidation. They do not operate by electoral area. Part of the constituency I represent is the town of Bray, County Wicklow. A gang has been operating in my town for years. Two people have been murdered, one man in his home and another who was tortured, in effect, to death. The crimes have gone unpunished. Only the other day, a member of this gang entered a house in Bray where a householder had the temerity to stand up to those who burgled his house. As a consequence, the gang leader came and intimidated the householder. This type of activity is extremely frightening for people in their communities. It needs to be highlighted and dealt with here in a way that will be effective.
It is not only in our towns that there are significant problems. Two nights ago I attended a community council meeting in Roundwood, which as well as having the highest pub in Ireland will be known to most people as the gateway to Glendalough. It is a small village and one of the shops there has recently experienced two armed robberies, which were carried out by people crazed on cocaine and desperate to get money at any cost. This is a symptom of a major drugs problem that prevails particularly in Dublin city, which has a ripple effect extending to rural communities such as Roundwood. Some 60% of crimes in County Wicklow are committed by people living outside the county. That community needs resources in the same way as any other community.
An application was submitted recently to the Garda Commissioner for the deployment of an extra 220 gardaí for counties Wexford and Wicklow. This request was raised by way of parliamentary question and while we received a reply we have not seen any action. The members of the community attending that meeting the other night were angry about this problem, about the fact they do not have a Garda station and that gardaí are not living locally looking after their community. They find that deeply disturbing. They are more than willing to play their part through the community alert programme and whatever else needs to be done but they cannot do it without gardaí. The absence of gardaí is a cause of great distress to local communities. I urge the Minister to ensure he lives up to his commitment to provide the extra gardaí promised and to make sure that they are on the beat. He should talk a little less and act a little more.
I am delighted to have some time to speak on what is probably the most pressing issue, together with the health services, namely, the genuine fear in our communities of a real and justified concern about escalating crime levels, particularly serious crime. A day does not pass without the national media covering yet another ratcheting up of the seriousness of crime that makes Ireland look increasingly like the Los Angeles we saw portrayed in the crime movies or Chicago in the bad days. That is no longer hyperbole.
The measures before us are needed and God knows they are long overdue. I want to comment on the role of the Dáil in dealing with these matters. It is not good enough that the Minister's attitude is that we can present a series of proposals, he can graft on bits and pieces as he goes along and make up a strategy to deal with one of the most urgent social issues with new ideas and a new policy every day such that when a Bill has a Second Reading, it comes to Committee an entirely different vehicle. The Minister cannot continue to make it up as he goes along and pretend this is a satisfactory way to deal with what now amounts to a crisis. Just as the Tánaiste has belatedly recognised a crisis in the health service, it is time the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform recognised a crisis in public confidence in the criminal justice system. What is required is joined-up policy as well as determined leadership but, unfortunately, neither is currently available from the Minister and the Government.
I wish to mention two critical components of the many components that could occupy the time of this House. The first issue is effective policing. That is the cornerstone of all of this. In November 2000, five and a half years ago, I published, on behalf of the Labour Party, comprehensive proposals to establish effective policing here. I published proposals for legislation in a comprehensive policy document. I stated at that time that:
Labour more than any other party knows the impact of crime on certain sections of the public. It demoralises working class communities, terrifies the elderly and destroys the lives of our young people through drugs. In this context, effective policing must be seen not as a luxury but as an essential component of any attempt to sustain and improve the quality of life of all our citizens.
That five and a half year old statement is as real and as important today as it was then. I regret that the comprehensive policy platform that was proposed then was not implemented, although bits of it were albeit reluctantly over time by two Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The building of real partnership between communities and policing has still to be achieved. Without such partnership the criminal will continue, as I fear is the reality today, to have the upper hand. I welcome the considered contribution to this debate by Deputy Curran when he talked about the concerted, united, joined-up reaction after the murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996. That is the type of co-ordination we need.
The second key component of a co-ordinated policy is judicial reform. Consistent decisions of the courts are a prerequisite of public confidence in our criminal justice system. The Minister's predecessor promised reform to ensure adequate judicial training, specialisation and a new mechanism for accountability. Speaker after speaker on both sides of the House have talked about the erosion of confidence because of the lack of consistency in judicial decisions. People will know individual criminals who are as routinely before the courts as the court clerk and it simply is not good enough. The proposals put forward by the Minister's predecessor included a constitutional referendum, but all of those have been dropped. We now have dialogue and discussion and no substantial reform.
I hope we will have many other opportunities to deal with this issue and not only on Committee Stage, in respect of which I join with others in saying that appropriate time should be allocated for it. Furthermore, Members who are not members of the Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights will want to involve themselves in that debate.
The Minister is addicted to his own media image. The trotting out of the patently false mantra that "it was worse in your time" will not wash any more. He must accept responsibility for the situation here and now to solve the crisis and not have the illusion in which he indulges all the time that his rhetoric is a solution.
I wish to reflect on the anti-social behaviour aspect of the problem referred to in many of the contributions made on both sides of the House. When we try to investigate the cause of the anti-social behaviour that causes such anxiety, worry and concern to many people, one wonders what research goes into providing guidelines on the headings of a Bill such as this and what way it will affect the community.
Community life has dramatically changed in the past ten years because there are now many different nationalities living here and many people are living in estates and are all working which was not the position heretofore. Community life as we knew it is slowly but surely dwindling away and we are not doing anything to resurrect it. If we could do that and get people to focus on the value of community life and of the family in creating a sense of community, maybe we could form a basis for trying to defeat anti-social behaviour. If we do not do that and continue to think that putting youngsters behind bars will solve this problem, from my understanding of what is happening and of youngsters, we are taking the wrong road. Those youngsters are time and again being put into jail. Unfortunately, some of them have been in jail 30 or 40 times. It has done absolutely no good. It has done nothing to benefit the community to which they return. The Government has done nothing to resurrect community life, protect it and ensure today's youngsters will not be tomorrow's criminals. We are heading in the other direction. The problems are evident. The Government can introduce whatever legislation it likes but if it does not take measures to support the basis of society, which founded and grew the Celtic tiger economy, we will lose that impetus and the value of what is there. If anti-social behaviour orders are used as the means of resolving it, we will see youngsters in jail and we will have to reopen the jails the Minister closed because of insufficient space.
Although we have spent vast amounts of national lottery money on providing facilities, at this stage it is necessary to reflect and move the goalposts further to get value for money. To do that, we must involve the community, community policing and the heads of the associations to which we gave the money in rebuilding the community and in regaining the life which was so treasured in the past and which seems to be dwindling from us.
Putting more people in jail should not be the only answer and is not our purpose. Surely we place greater value on community than stating the only answer is to put people behind bars and maybe that will teach them a lesson. The evidence shows it will not teach them a lesson and that people who have been this problematic previously will not be reflective and therefore we must attempt prevention, although not by this mechanism. As I stated, I have seen hundreds of these youngsters coming out of jail probably worse than when they went in. In developing this case, the Minister must reflect and work with other Departments such as the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, to create community involvement with which we all can work so anti-social behaviour will be a issue of the past. Community life would be re-instigated and in that way society would move forward positively.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on these amendments. It is extraordinary, just over two years after this Bill was presented, that we are finally getting around to deal comprehensively with it in the House. I strongly support these amendments. I reiterate at the outset the nub of my party's policy, which is tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.
In my constituency and neighbouring constituencies the past six months of the McDowell era have been appalling for many individuals, families and the entire community. There have been attacks on homes, SUVs driven through walls and into doors, people shot at and homes shot up. A man with a child walking into a flats complex was shot at. Guns have been available all over the place, with people waving guns about and holding guns to people's heads on a local green. Guns have been available for €150 and less. There has been a total collapse of law and order for which the Minister is responsible. Is it any wonder some of my constituents are asking me what should they do now? Is it time for internment, for example? Is it time to consider taking the drug lords off the streets completely, get rid of them into preventative detention? As every crime journalist seems to know who these people are, I presume senior gardaí know who they are. We need to take vigorous action against them. It is unbelievable that two years have passed since these measures on criminal gangs, Mafioso and gun law were brought forward. It is unbelievable we have had to wait so long.
There have been so many shootings recently and, fortunately, by the grace of God, nobody was killed. Then there was the tragic murder of Ms Donna Cleary, a young woman who lived in an area I represented for eight or nine years, up to 2002. It is inevitable that such a tragedy would happen because the Minister did not take the vigorous, determined action that is required of him. I warned him in contributions nearly a year ago that in parts of the area I represent, and in neighbouring areas, bullet-proof vests were becoming almost a fashion accessory. With people in bullet-proof vests running around threatening communities, people and families, what did the Minister do?
Yesterday there was another serious armed robbery in my constituency. We need to take stern measures against these people who are threatening our society. Up until recently the threat seemed to be to the low-income, more deprived communities. Following a recent Saturday night, when it was clear it was spreading to every community, the Minister and the Taoiseach spoke at long last about taking action. It is appalling that they have been so dilatory for so long.
As many people accept the current Minister is a fundamentally bright man, they thought that when he got his chance to be Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform three or four years ago he would have set out a clear programme of reform and development of the Garda Síochána and of reform of the Judiciary. Although my colleague, Deputy Howlin, put forward an effective developmental and strengthening policy for the Garda Síochána when he was my party's justice spokesperson, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, did not act on it. He brought forward a Garda Bill, which had to be amended repeatedly, with no Garda authority and no clear, strong ombudsman on the lines of the Patten report for which, I think, everyone in this House asked. The Minister bears a grave responsibility.
A young colleague told me on the way into this debate that according to the OECD figures newly published on the web, Ireland spent the least on sports and youth facilities. Year after year Deputies try to drag money out of this Government. Deputy Carey, a Fianna Fáil Member who sat with me for a number of years on the urban regeneration committee of this city, knows how difficult it is to get money for these kinds of communities. I ask Deputy Carey and other similar Deputies to start taking action, even in the dying days of this Government, to bring about peace and justice for my communities.
I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this matter again; I spoke on it last June.
I will take up from where Deputy Broughan finished. Despite the robust and sometimes polemical comments, there is cross-party agreement on the issues with which we need to deal. Unfortunately, my constituency has been in the news probably more than most because of the raft of crimes that have been committed over the past long number of years. I spent 30 years teaching. Deputy Broughan has been teaching. Our constituencies neighbour each other. Unfortunately, the numbers of young people with whom I have come in contact over the years who have ended up in prison — I end up visiting, helping their parents, helping their siblings etc. — is far beyond that which I regard as being acceptable.
This morning, before I came here, I called into a school to discuss the learning support it is receiving from the Department of Education and Science and to assure the school that such support would be increased. Yesterday, I visited a school in my area which justified my belief that prevention is better than cure because, despite being one of the most deprived in the country, it managed to achieve an attendance rate of 91% by means of the school completion programme, targeted measures such as breakfast and after school clubs and the provision of the facilities noted by Deputy Broughan and me. To be fair, these facilities are slowly being delivered.
I have always felt that the delivery has been too slow. We managed to establish two significant projects in my constituency which I would like to see replicated. Ballymun, which had two or three project workers a couple of years ago, now has approximately 30 and Finglas has a dozen. These are not sufficient, however, and they are slipping into a nine to five mode, whereas I would prefer them to work at night and over weekends because that is when their support is required.
I compliment the gardaí in my constituency because they are working flat out and are second to none. They are working closely with the community and I cannot complain about their diligence, effectiveness and willingness to respond. One of the shootings which hit the headlines two weeks ago took place in my constituency but within half an hour, gardaí recovered the sawn-off shotgun involved after a report was received that it had been found in somebody's back garden. It is sad that the injured party, while lying in his hospital bed, refused to communicate with anybody, even his mother. The same individual was involved with last Saturday night's escapade on the M50. The issues we must address are difficult but we need to start with education.
I support the amendments proposed by the Minister. They are long overdue and will be accepted in communities. I have been contacted by a man who is driven demented because a gang of youngsters refuses to stop kicking balls against the side of his house at all hours of the day and night and gives him two fingers and worse. At the other end of the scale, guns are produced in rows over cars, girlfriends, games of poker and unpaid drug debts. These issues must be addressed because there is no doubt that crime is proliferating. However, our problems are not of the order experienced in Los Angeles and we should not talk about them as if they are out of control. The vast majority of people are law abiding and want to remain so.
Problems of anti-social behaviour are increasing and Deputies from every part of Ireland hear of the issues that affect people. Effective and enforceable measures will have to be put in place because I am not in favour of introducing a raft of unenforceable rules and regulations. We should try to ensure that we protect the people we are elected to serve. We have to consider ways to successfully prevent crime and, more importantly, to stop people from becoming involved in criminal activity in the first place. A number of the proposed amendments focus on these issues.
Sooner or later, every Member of this House will have served in Government. I have been long enough around to have seen the introduction of many worthwhile initiatives which have been consigned to the shelf upon the appointment of the ensuing Minister. I have seen neighbourhood youth projects, youth encounter projects and this, that and the other kind of project, but they never seem to be anything other than pilot schemes. They should be mainstreamed without prevarication.
Firearms are a significant issue, particularly in light of recent events. My constituency includes grieving families as well as ones that are causing grief to others. I know the families of two of the people questioned with regard to the murder of Donna Cleary. The parents of the families concerned are good people and it was not for the want of effort that their sons fell into a cycle of crime. Efforts were also made by State agencies to help them but, by each working on their own, these agencies go nowhere. We must aim for inter-agency co-operation. Many families live in fear of an escalation in the level of gun violence. The people involved in the M50 incident have friends who are waiting in the long grass to exact retribution, but there is a reluctance, borne of fear, to reveal their whereabouts. We need to confront the fears that exist in communities with regard to bringing information to the Garda. It is frightening that a person injured in such an incident is not prepared to talk to gardaí. I understand why this is so, although I do not condone it.
It is important that guns are removed from circulation. I am inclined to support the notion of a gun amnesty, but I cannot see the people involved in these matters acknowledging that they possess guns and asking that they be licensed or entering the local Garda station and saying, "Here is my gun, sergeant, I will be a good boy from now on". However, I applaud the attempt to use the gun amnesty to recover at least some of the guns in circulation. I compliment the family of Donna Cleary on its bravery in wanting to be associated with such an amnesty.
A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting with senior gardaí, at which the issue of sawn-off shotguns was raised. I appeal to people who possess licensed shotguns and who, for the most part, live in rural Ireland not to be under the illusion that a gun thrown under the kitchen table or into the corner of the stable will still be there when they return for it. I was told of a man who, while shooting rabbits, visited a local petrol station and placed his gun beside his car while paying for petrol. The gun was gone when he came out but it turned up later as a sawn-off shotgun. While the amendment proposed by the Minister on sawn-off shotguns is welcome in that respect, it must be obligatory that guns are kept in a secure case, regardless of the inconvenience involved, because it is not enough to claim that a gun can always be accounted for. We do not want to revert to the situation that obtained during the Troubles, when licensed shotguns had to be left in Garda stations.
Minimum mandatory sentences are necessary in the current climate. Communities will support us in ensuring they are served. I do not know how we can communicate to the Judiciary that the public is in favour of strict sentencing with little room for remission. To be fair to the Minister, I compliment him on the manner in which he has been progressively reining in the notion of early release etc. Such action must continue. The mandatory sentences for possession of drugs was introduced by a previous Dáil of which I was not a member, but it does not appear to have been taken on board to a serious extent by the Judiciary. It should reflect on this.
Operation Anvil is a very effective way of policing. It is vigorous, robust and upfront, but some people do not like it. Recently, I had to drive through three armed checkpoints on my way home. I felt secure, although I was somewhat intimidated when gardaí with submachine guns were examining my car along with uniformed gardaí. The number of cars which have been seized, together with the prosecutions made in my area, warrant this. The €83 million in Garda overtime included in this year's Estimates, €23 million higher than last year, is money well spent. It may need to be extended, but if we continue with the high profile level of policing, we will make progress.
Progress can also be made if gardaí can work alongside community gardaí who are the heart and sole of any policing force. As an old-fashioned teacher I have always argued that a moderate type of discipline is needed, be it in a classroom or a community. One cannot blow hot and cold, being a nice person one day and objectionable the next. The same principle applies to the Garda and it should be consistent. I compliment the approach of Operation Anvil.
Organised crime is a significant issue. An amendment is being proposed regarding gang membership, and this needs to be teased out. The matter was brought to my attention some nights ago when I attended a meeting where the issue was raised. We need a mechanism in place which will in some way make it an offence for a person not to give a statement. I am not a lawyer and have no legal training, but too many people are going into Garda stations and staring at the wall or a video camera, making a mockery of the system. An inference must be taken from this inaction, and it should be punishable in law. Otherwise we will have too many people holding on to information. Gaining intelligence is the nub of the problem as the intelligence needed to crack organised gun crime is not forthcoming to the extent I would like.
We have almost talked ourselves into the ground about the drugs issue. Unfortunately, drugs never became an issue of real concern until they became a problem in rural Ireland and in better-off portions of society. As long as the problem was confined to working class areas such as mine and Deputy Costello's, as well as similar areas, it was almost acceptable. This was not acceptable in the 1970s, the 1980s or the 1990s, and it is not acceptable now. The nature of these drugs has changed and the proliferation of cocaine is frightening, as is the emergence of crack cocaine.
For every shipment of heroin or cocaine which comes into the country, a gun comes with it, which is disturbing. I do not know how the scanning of consignments of freight coming through ports can be increased. I have been told by someone with knowledge of these processes that many of the guns coming through in consignments are not detectable by scanners in use at our ports because of the material from which they are made. We must examine that issue.
We should consider fast-tracking technology for the gardaí. Within about ten minutes of the shooting in Berryfield Drive a fortnight ago, the person suspected of hiring the gun was on the scene. He knew where the shooting had taken place and it is believed he was able to scan the Garda communications system. This issue should be considered, and the system should be digitised. I visited San José as part of a Dublin City Council delegation some ten or 11 years ago. The police there had onboard computers, for example, and were able to get instant information. We need to be able to do the same.
The investment in the area has been made, but I wonder if it is to the extent that it should be. I stumbled on a fact today that stunned me. I rang a part of the Garda force and asked if I could e-mail them regarding a matter. I was told that part of the force did not have e-mail or Internet access. That is extraordinary. I asked how I could send the information to them and I was told that I could e-mail it to the Garda press office and it would be circulated to the appropriate station. Even children in their bedrooms have access to the Internet at this stage. I hope I am not correct in this statement and that I can stand corrected.
Perhaps I am a slow learner. I happened to come across the issue today. The use of drug courts is an important and useful pilot. I do not know if it can be replicated or how it can be extended.
I wish to discuss anti-social behaviour. I am on the record as stating I am not a fan of anti-social behaviour orders. I am a fan of trying to ensure that the measures in the Children Act are fully implemented. I believe that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, are getting there by working together. To think that anti-social behaviour orders will be the panacea for all our ills would be to delude ourselves and the public. A measure of restraint is required, but I do not believe the blunt instrument of anti-social behaviour orders will work in all cases.
One should not forget that there is a provision in the Children Act for family conferencing, for agencies to work together and for an outcome to be agreed among parents, the offender and the community offended. I urge significant expenditure to be continued on education measures, as we are doing, with examples such as Deis at primary and post-primary schools. There should be preventative programmes in the area of health and education, and the crime diversion projects which the Garda has. These are superb projects, with an example being the FAN project in Finglas. That deals with those who are the hardest of the hardcore troublemakers. Many of the participants have become fine members of society. Given resources, the Garda Síochána will be in a position to ensure such programmes are even more effective.
This problem is not beyond resolution. I compliment the Minister on bringing in these amendments and we should consider them carefully. We should assure the public that gardaí are working flat out. The Minister, Deputy McDowell, has provided and continues to provide resources which will ensure that the Garda becomes even more effective.
The Acting Chairman can remind me when I come close to the end of my time.
I will focus on the proposed new sections of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 that specifically relate to children, primarily Part 12. My colleague, Deputy Crowe, has outlined our concerns regarding ASBOs in Part 13. The issues I can address today are limited by the time available and do not constitute an exhaustive list of Sinn Féin concerns.
In this State's report of July 2005 to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on its implementation of the convention the Government disingenuously stated:
The most important development on juvenile justice comes with the enactment of the Children Act 2001. This represents a major shift in how children in the juvenile justice and welfare systems will be treated.
The central principles underpinning the Children Act 2001 are prevention, diversion, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and detention as a punishment of last resort. The proposed additions to the current Criminal Justice Bill amount to an effort by the Government to roll back on the crucial child protection commitments made in the Children Act 2001. If these amendments are allowed to pass, then the principles that I have just listed will in fact not govern how children in this State will be treated.
In its concluding observations in 1996 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised this State for its low age of criminal responsibility. Following this the Government made a commitment to raise the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years. This commitment was expressed in the Children Act 2001 which made provisions for the reform. The Government refused to put this part of the Act into operation. Now the proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill would set the age of criminal responsibility for serious crimes at ten years, effectively lowering the age of criminal responsibility for these crimes by two years.
The Irish Youth Justice Alliance has asked what will be achieved by bringing a child aged ten years to court and detaining him or her with older teenagers without treatment, therapy or re-education. We support the alliance's argument that such children need the support of specially trained professionals and of rehabilitative and therapeutic programmes to address their complex needs and prevent them from reoffending. Sinn Féin will push for the exclusion of this provision from the Bill.
The Children Act 2001 prohibits the reporting of personal information about children facing criminal proceedings that might lead to the identification of a child in question. The Minister is now proposing to eliminate these protections by allowing the court to lift the reporting restriction in certain circumstances. The Minister's proposal contravenes Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognises the absolute right of the child to his or her privacy at all stages of proceedings.
The amendment also includes a provision to shift responsibility for the detention of children under 16 years from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. While we welcome the provision that all children under 18 years will fall under one Department, we believe the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to be the wrong choice. The report on the youth justice review published by the Department last July states that the service with responsibility for children in detention would be best located in a care and social services setting, as is the practice in many other jurisdictions. Sinn Féin will table amendments to give effect to those recommendations.
A further issue of grave concern to Sinn Féin is the provisions in the Minister's proposals for the continued use of St. Patrick's Institution for the detention of children. The Minister is prolonging the use of St. Patrick's Institution despite the fact that the practice of detaining children there runs contrary to international human rights provisions and universally accepted child protection guidelines. This fact has been identified by the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention and by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The Whittaker report on St. Patrick's Institution stated more than ten years ago that rehabilitation is not possible as the physical and environmental conditions are such as to nullify any personal development programmes. The facilities and services required would not be provided even in a renovated St. Patrick's Institution.
It is vital that youth justice policies recognise that the primary concerns of children before the courts are welfare-based. The Children Act 2001 aimed to achieve balance between the need to administer justice and the need to protect the welfare of all children. That Act, which the Government is now attempting to roll back, was not allowed to fulfil its potential to address crime or anti-social behaviour by children because this same Government starved it of resources and refused to put it into effect. Sinn Féin will vote against the inclusion of most of Part 12 in the criminal justice legislation and calls on the Government once more to resource and implement the Children Act 2001 in full.
In his opening speech the Minister referred to his strategy to "retain the confidence of the public". Does the Minister seriously believe the criminal justice system in this State enjoys the confidence of the public? He might, for example, ask the family of Rachel Kiely, where the person who raped and murdered her will be back on the streets in a year's time, no doubt to put others under threat, to judge by his activities while on bail. The Minister could ask the young women who were mutilated by Dr. Neary who, when the horrors of what he had done to them were unfolding to a shocked public, went to sun himself in Spain.
In the case of the appalling treatment of women during Garda interrogation in Donegal, some of the gardaí against whom very serious findings were made in the first tribunal report still serve in Donegal today. He might ask the families of the wives who have been murdered by their husbands, who are now household names but against whom the law is ineffective.
The latest we hear is that the murderer of Veronica Guerin may soon be a celebrity guest on "The Late Late Show". I only have three minutes but the litany is endless. I do not believe the public has confidence in the rule of law or the courts, and the Minister should start from that basis.
The Minister tells us that headline crime is very low by comparison with most western democracies. Is it really? For example, one headline crime causing great public concern at present involves the increasing lawlessness of drug gangs. Is the Minister telling us that the drug problem in this country is low by EU standards? We all know it is quite the opposite. Ireland has one of the highest rates of drug usage in the European Union. It follows logically that drug crime must also be far above the EU average. It may be the case that detected drug crime is low by EU standards and detected drug gang murders are pathetically low.
One other example which concerns many people is the level of detected burglaries. In one Garda district in my constituency there were 629 reported burglaries in 2005, of which a mere 49 were detected. That is some record. Is the Minister telling us that inspires public confidence?
I will refer briefly to the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. The Minister said he intends to make a change to take account of drug trafficking convictions. That is fine in itself but will it reverse the trend among the Judiciary to ignore the main legislative deterrent to the drug scourge in the past 20 years?
This Bill has been in preparation for two years before coming before the House. Now it comes before us complete with almost 300 amendments. While some of these are long overdue and welcome, it is foolish to think that this Bill is going to change our society when the practical implementation of so many parts of the Bill will be almost impossible.
The Bill will enlarge the grey area between the powers of the Garda Síochána to police our society effectively and the rights of the individual to enjoy the full extent of his or her rights and freedom in society. Another likely achievement of the Bill will be to tie up our court system in challenges to any aspect of the Bill which might be considered an infringement of an individual's human rights. As I said, I strongly welcome parts of the Bill, most notably the criminalisation of an assault on or threatening to assault medical personnel. Does anyone in this House believe the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will run detention centres for children at a time when our prisons are in chaos and the Garda Síochána is close to open revolt?
In the recent past we have seen major faults in the acquisition and execution of search warrants, the case of Judge Brian Curtin being an example. To hand over the granting of search warrants to ranks within the Garda Síochána at a time when we have more District Court judges than ever is foolish. Even to consider granting such powers at a time when damning revelations of abuse of existing power are disclosed daily at the Morris tribunal merely damages the trust the public has in the Legislature and the Garda Síochána. Safeguards must be put in place to ensure that those entitled to grant warrants have no involvement in the investigation requiring the warrant.
We can expect our courts to be fully occupied with challenges to the issuing of search warrants, extensions of periods of detention, the taking of bodily samples and photographs, the use of necessary force to acquire those samples and the admission of witness statements in court in the absence or denial of the witness. At a time when people are dismayed at the length of time a case takes to get to court, this Bill will ensure this delay is lengthened. It will replace the Road Traffic Acts as the most challenged legislation in the courts.
Common sense should prevail and instead of rushing this Bill and its long tailcoat of amendments through the House, proper consultation should be held with all relevant bodies to ensure a better and complete Bill passes before the House. I witnessed the Minister stating no garda would be left behind a desk in the lifetime of this Government. He has removed very few of them and replaced very few with civilian personnel.
The chief of the Garda Síochána told chief superintendents recently that he would remove all gardaí from such positions if he was given permission to employ civilian personnel by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Will the Minister grant that permission?
I checked the definition of the word "liberal" in the library because the Minister bestows that title on himself. Do I also have to find a quote to support that or is the Minister satisfied with the description? The political definition of the word is one who is favoured to constitutional changes and legal or administrative reforms tending in the direction of freedom or democracy. From my observation of the 30 Bills the Minister has passed, he takes an illiberal approach to his office. While there may be some liberal intent, much of the Minister's legislative reform is highly illiberal. That is the most damning indictment of the Minister's Administration — saying one thing and doing the opposite.
What would a liberal approach to legislation involve? It would involve careful consideration of anything restricting freedom. Anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, were introduced without analysis or proper consideration. In contrast with the public discussion in Britain, ASBOs landed on the Irish political agenda without anyone in Government knowing about them, let alone anyone in the wider academic and social community. The Minister took an illiberal approach. One of the slices in the sandwich, a colleague of the Minister's from Fianna Fáil, will shortly explain ASBOs but I do not believe anyone in Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats knew what measures would be implemented. That belies an illiberal approach to the development of legislation.
A liberal approach is one that recognises mitigating circumstances. Such circumstances cannot be described by a crowd that will always have the tendency to call for Barabbas. In our western democratic system set up under the liberal tradition, there is a role for the Judiciary to decide what is appropriate rather than legislators setting out mandatory sentences. The latter is an illiberal approach while a liberal approach is one that would examine the causes of crime and the threat of rising crime.
I agree that our crime levels are low in comparison with other states but the Minister's illiberal approach is the greatest threat to that situation. Policies of imprisonment and extensive Garda powers may lead to losing the trust that is behind our historical low levels of crime. We should address the drink culture that is promoted rather than restricted by the Government. We should address community factors in planning, one of the real checks on crime. One of the reasons we have had historically low levels of crime compared with other countries is that we had a strong sense of community spirit in this country. People knew others in the parish, what they were like and what one could and could not do.
According to the leader of the Green Party, Deputy Sargent, the worst legacy of the Government is that, despite the Taoiseach's espousal of Mr. Robert Putnam, the decisions it makes damage the community spirit upon which low crime levels depend. The Government is saying one thing and doing the opposite.
Our culture of low crime was based on the idea that money was not everything and one's personality counted for more than what one had. Perhaps the Fianna Fáil Member present will agree that this loss will be responsible for the rise in crime in Ireland. There is a sense that one must have a flash car, a flash house and flash clothes because under the Government a consumer culture has been espoused. The growing inequality that stems from the Government's political philosophy would be addressed by a liberal approach to reducing crime. The Minister is not a liberal, nor is he a republican. He seeks to encourage inequality rather than reduce it, saying one thing and acting in the opposite fashion.
This Bill has been debated on many occasions and has been the topic of conversations as a result of high profile crimes committed in our communities. The Minister has reacted to this and ensured he has brought forward proposals that go some way towards addressing the concerns and changes to society.
ASBOs have been referred to by previous speakers. We had a similar debate in 1994 when the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill was enacted. This was described as a gross infringement on civil liberties, allowing young people to be herded up when they tried to congregate. This has not turned out to be the case and, in fact, we sometimes accuse the Garda Síochána of failing to use the provisions of the Act to address concerns in our community, anti-social behaviour and intimidatory tactics.
I welcome the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders. Last year I travelled to Leicester, England to view how anti-social behaviour orders worked and impacted on communities. I went with an open mind and returned convinced that there was place in our legislation for them. Communities that have been ravaged by anti-social behaviour in various forms felt powerless and removed from the police and housing officers. The people to whom they looked for help were incapable of offering it because there was no legislative backup. The introduction of anti-social behaviour orders has made a significant difference.
I welcome the fact the Minister, when examining the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders, did not simply lift the UK formulation but has watered it down. The maximum sentence will be two years, a senior member of the Garda Síochána will need to apply to a District Court for an anti-social behaviour order and there will be street warnings and good behaviour contracts. That is positive because the purpose behind the orders is not to criminalise a young person but to give him or her a chance. He or she would get a number of yellow cards or street warnings. It gives an opportunity to juvenile liaison officers, schools and health officials to assess and address the needs of that individual. Young people feel they can act with impunity because they are unlikely to be prosecuted under current laws. We should examine the number of parents or guardians who attend court when a juvenile is before it. We have not addressed this. Although the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders is not a panacea, it gives the opportunity to get to a person at an early stage before they are involved in serious crime and are criminalised.
We must address the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour. There may be an element of dysfunctionality in the home, for example drink or substance abuse by the parents or the child, or there may be no structured home. Reference was made to family conferencing regarding the Children Act. We need a mechanism whereby parents can be given assistance. Parents may not be neglectful in their duties but incapable of parenting because they lack the skills, resources or confidence. They may have literacy problems, have dropped out of school early or have had an early pregnancy. These issues have an impact.
In addition to the deterrent of anti-social behaviour orders, we must have crime diversion programmes and stronger community policing with gardaí in the communities involved. I welcome the introduction of the Garda reserve force and see great potential for it. It is a positive step and I hope members of the Garda Síochána embrace it. Every day members of the Garda Síochána appear on television asking members of the public for co-operation in solving crimes. The best form of co-operation the public could give would be to assist the Garda Síochána in the form of a Garda reserve. The Garda reserve could be used for traffic management.
Every Friday in Fermoy in Cork one or two trained gardaí stand on the bridge directing traffic. We entrust the lives of our children to the lollipop ladies every morning when they go to school. A trained Garda reservist could direct traffic and let the front-line members of the Garda do the job they claim they want to do, to police, investigate crime and resolve the problem of crime in our communities. Traffic management and sporting events are a huge drain on Garda resources to manage what is likely to be a peaceful crowd. We go regularly from Cork to all-Ireland finals — other counties may not experience this — and see a huge number of people on their best behaviour. The reservists could play a part there.
It has been said the uniform is not visible in communities. The use of a Garda reserve force could be explored. We might have a difficult area in one part of Cork city and some of the members of the community association might be members of the reserve force. They could help the community in another area and that community could send members of its reserve in exchange. The public has great respect for the uniform, and although it has been diminished to a certain extent recently due to certain events, tribunals and what is perceived as the lack of crime resolution, in general the public has an honest, genuine commitment to and trust in the uniform. The most common complaint that every public representative hears, particularly in urban areas, is the lack of visibility of the Garda Síochána. I hope the Garda reserve force will be encouraged primarily in community policing, in assisting the front-line gardaí and ensuring the uniform has a presence. I compliment the Minister on that proposal. Although some people have opposed it, and some oppose it privately while they support it publicly, in general the public will embrace it. As time passes a certain attachment will occur with the public on that issue.
I welcome the Minister's expeditious move on firearms offences. There is a perception, backed by statistics, that gun crime is increasing. Although I have no great knowledge, I assume it is because of the epidemic of drugs in society and the profits that can be garnered from drug importation and distribution. We passed legislation some years ago in which we claimed there would be mandatory sentencing for people caught in possession of illegal substances over the value of IR£10,000. The Judiciary has failed to take into account the views of the Oireachtas on this issue. That is a grave insult to this House. While we value the independence of the Judiciary we cannot allow this situation to escalate. Members of the Judiciary must understand that drug importation and distribution is killing our young people and driving our society mad. We can dance around other issues and address other concerns, but substance abuse is the single biggest problem facing our society, and I have stated this since I came here as a public representative in 1993.
The increase in crime figures was mentioned. We all remember that not long ago we did not have a seat in our trousers and our crime figures were low. This is because society viewed itself differently. There was no affluence, most people lived in tenements and were unemployed, there was massive emigration but there was a strong, cohesive bonding of family and community. We now live in an affluent society and have escalating crime figures. This is because crime is mainly generated by the drugs trade. If somebody can convince me otherwise I would be willing to debate it. For years nightclubs in Cork and elsewhere had "chill rooms". After taking ecstasy tablets and dancing for the night people would go to a chill room to cool down and drink water. Even night clubs had a system in place to encourage people to take ecstasy tablets. Cocaine use is increasing and is available city-wide in Cork, Dublin and elsewhere.
Young people are queuing up to take lines of cocaine on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. This is driving the whole drugs industry. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's provisions regarding drugs and mandatory sentencing. However, what part of "mandatory" does the Judiciary not understand? Perhaps we should ensure that a clear signal is sent from this House to the effect that we will not accept the Judiciary reducing people's sentences on the basis of their pleas of guilt or their co-operation with the Garda Síochána when it is investigating their cases. People who import great quantities of drugs into Ireland know that if they get caught, plead guilty and assist the authorities in their investigation, they will get a reduction in their sentence. That is unacceptable. Regardless of whatever else happens, the Oireachtas must make it very clear in this legislation what it expects the Judiciary to do in respect of mandatory sentencing for the importation and distribution of drugs.
Firearms offences are increasing because of the drugs trade and those convicted are probably on drugs themselves. There is a lot of money to be made from protecting one's turf and ensuring others do not move on to one's patch. If the law is lenient on drug dealers and importers, we cannot address the underlying problems in our communities.
Anti-social behaviour was referred to. We must also address the problem of drink. Every public representative who represents urban areas will know that off-licences seem to be a problem. I do not know how we can address that. I have heard many reports of anti-social behaviour in certain areas on the opening of new off-licences. Perhaps we should ensure that there is a restriction on the number of new off-licences or their trading hours. I am not quite sure what we can do but I know the Minister has examined this matter and is considering the introduction of certain measures. In the event of the Garda being able to identify widespread under-age drinking as a result of the presence of an off-licence, there should be some mechanism whereby it could instruct that off-licence to close at certain hours. Almost immediately on the opening of a new off-licence, young people congregate and drink to excess. This leads to assaults, intimidatory activity and anti-social behaviour.
The law is an archaic system that is very slow to embrace new technologies. The Oireachtas should be proactive in ensuring that all available technologies are made available. Let us be under no illusions regarding DNA testing. It is more fail-safe than most systems, yet the taking of DNA evidence from suspects was subject to objections and concerns for years. I welcome any measure that will allow the Garda, acting within the law, to detect crime and investigate cases with the most modern technologies available to it.
I was amazed when I discovered that written statements are the only ones admissible in court and that video evidence, in spite of the technology involved, is not admissible. I know the Minister is considering this and I would welcome changes that would allow for investigation using modern technologies, speed up proceedings under our criminal justice system and bring perpetrators of crime to justice.
We must also consider the issue of burglary, although it is not covered in this Bill. It is sometimes perceived as not too serious but it is regarded as a great offence by most people to have somebody wandering around their bedrooms at 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the day or night. We do not view the problem seriously enough. One's home is one's castle and one should feel safe therein, yet week after week burglars are treated leniently in the courts wherein it is argued that they come from deprived areas or have fallen on hard times. There is no excuse for breaking into homes and intimidating people in their beds or for not viewing this as a very serious crime.
These issues are of much greater concern to the public than murders. Regardless of all the murders in the State last year, amounting to approximately 50, tens of thousands of people are affected by anti-social behaviour and burglary. These are the crimes of which most people will be victims and we must effectively resource those who are tackling them.
People will have their own views on the Minister and I certainly have mine. I commend him as he has been proactive in bringing forward legislation. Somebody described him as illiberal, but I do not mind whether he is liberal or illiberal as long as he is proactive in addressing the concerns in our communities. I welcome the motion and believe Members should have an opportunity to discuss in detail the amendments being introduced by the Minister on Committee Stage.
Very often we grandstand in this House but it is on Committee Stage that the substance of Bills should be discussed. I welcome the introduction of all the amendments, although the Opposition may have concerns in this regard. The Minister was proactive and is trying to address some of the major concerns regarding gun crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour. I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has a very tough job. Society has changed enormously and the population has increased and become far more diverse and mobile. Coupled with this, gardaí do not seem to be present, particularly in rural areas. Garda stations are being closed and locked up. Very often gardaí do not know who is living in the areas under their watch, what they are doing or where they come from. In some cases, the gardaí do not even know the areas. This must be addressed because the detection and prevention of crime are very important. It has been said time and again that if people are afraid of being caught, they will think twice about committing a crime. If they get away with one, they will commit more.
People are very concerned about crime. I attend meeting after meeting in my constituency at which people say their Garda station is closed and ask where they should go to meet a garda. They ask why all the stations, which are expensive properties, are locked up. Very often the stations are done up and then locked up because there are no gardaí. We need to train gardaí and furnish them properly with up-to-date, modern equipment. That is a priority.
I have never seen a motion such as this in the nine years I have been a Member. Perhaps the Office of the Ceann Comhairle will let me know if there is a precedent to taking legislation in the manner proposed. There probably is but, if so, it is very rare.
The Criminal Justice Bill 2004 was produced initially in July 2004 and almost two years later, we are still awaiting Committee Stage, which fact alone speaks volumes. During my Second Stage speech, I expressed concern about the practice of publishing incomplete Bills and amending them substantially on Committee Stage. I understand there are over 300 pages of amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004.
My colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, has highlighted the danger that if one minor aspect of this Bill is found to be unconstitutional on foot of one challenge, the whole lot will go down the tubes. I hope that will not happen and that we will tease out any anomalies or difficulties on Committee Stage. I agree with Deputy Curran that every amendment, from all sides of the House, must be teased out fully and properly. This is defining legislation and it is so vast that it alludes to almost all criminal justice measures. There is no way I can do it justice in seven minutes except to talk in general terms. No other Member can do so and that is why Committee Stage is so important.
Yesterday the Irish Youth Justice Alliance made a very interesting presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The alliance made some interesting points about the Children Act 2001, which unfortunately has not been fully implemented. If it had been fully implemented and resourced, many of the measures now before the House might not be needed. The group stated that the provision in section 19 to extend the Garda diversion programme to include behaviour that is not criminal in nature is a serious extension of Garda powers to include the power to intervene in the lives of children and young people from the age of ten with respect to behaviour that is not criminal in nature.
The group went on to state that the formal extension of the programme had serious net-widening potential, given that it means that children who have not committed a criminal offence will be brought into formal contact with the Garda Síochána. It referred to the proposal in certain circumstances to remove or restrict a child's right to have his or her privacy protected when an anti-social behaviour order has been made. This involves an amendment to the right to privacy which children enjoy when before the Children's Court, and represents a weakening of children's rights as set out in the Children Act 2001. There are concerns over how children are treated.
Deputy Kelleher stated he went to Leicester. I was in Scotland last week where we had a discussion about ASBOs. ASBOs are used very carefully there. The Scots see them as a serious tool and it might be useful for us to consider the experience in Scotland also.
I welcome the provisions on firearms. It is frightening that criminals now seem to accept firearms as a first option. Some people go away and then come back with a gun and use it without thinking. They may not be able to think if they are high on cocaine. Deputy Kelleher is correct in stating that we must take the problem of cocaine very seriously. I am told that it is widely available and is driving a considerable amount of serious crime. The abuse of alcohol must also be addressed.
I welcome anything that would deal with organised crime. I am very concerned about the advent of mafia-style gangs here with international contacts. We need to be absolutely ruthless with those gangs. We have been waiting almost two years for the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. It will be months before the Bill can be enacted if all these elements are to be debated properly. The Minister should have introduced a number of smaller Bills rather than doing it as he has.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Like many of my colleagues, I am disappointed at the manner in which this legislation has been handled from the beginning, both in terms of the delay in bringing it before the House, from its initial introduction in July 2004, through to the publication of so many amendments, on issues which should be dealt with through separate legislation. However, I welcome that the issues are finally being dealt with, albeit nine years after the Government parties came to office.
In dealing with a number of aspects of this Bill, I wish to bring other related issues to the Minister's attention. Legislation is clearly important but its implementation after enactment is equally crucial if not more so. While I will speak about the number of gardaí, particularly in my constituency, I must say how amazed I am that student gardaí entering their early days in Templemore training college are counted as gardaí for the purposes of the Minister's statistics. What will we do next? Will the Tánaiste count first-year medical students as doctors? This is effectively what we are doing when including trainee gardaí as full members of the force. They are not qualified, have not been trained and should not be counted until they have finished their training and have reached the required standard of excellence to be considered fully-fledged gardaí. A certain number of students drop out, fail their exams or are dismissed or suspended for disciplinary reasons. However, they are considered from the initial stages to be gardaí when we seek statistics on the number of gardaí.
I am not sure how familiar the Minister is with the position in my constituency. It is a two-county Garda division, made up of Laois and Offaly and serving small portions of neighbouring counties. While I have not availed of the offer of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for a briefing on the figures, I will use the figures I got from the Department at face value. On 5 October 2004 the division had 277 gardaí. When compared with other two-county divisions, we are fairly near the bottom of the league in terms of garda numbers. However, when one considers that none of those other divisions contain two national prisons, which are staffed out of those numbers, the Laois-Offaly division is poorly resourced in terms of garda numbers. Both Portlaoise Prison and the Midlands Prison are located in my constituency and to the best of my knowledge — if I am wrong, I am sure the Minister will be only too delighted to correct me — they are staffed out of the Laois-Offaly division. I have tabled parliamentary questions asking how many are deployed to the prison to be informed that I cannot have the figure for reasons for national security and for operational reasons. However, I believe the people of the area are entitled to this information.
I will give some specific examples of the difficulties being experienced in rural areas in Laois-Offaly. I stress that while the vast majority of gardaí I come across are extremely hard working, serious about their job and are dedicated to it, they are stretched beyond reason. In recent months a number of serious armed robberies in various homes and business have taken place. In one, the Garda was informed by a neighbour that she had seen five armed people entering a home attached to a small business. Two gardaí travelled 12 miles to arrive on the scene. Needless to say the raiders managed to escape by force of numbers and equipment. The gardaí gave chase but eventually lost them because their walkie-talkie system could not operate in the Slieve Bloom mountains and they could not maintain contact with gardaí on the other side of the mountain who had come from the Portlaoise area. The perpetrators knew if they went through the Slieve Bloom mountains the Garda could do little about it.
We cannot blame the individual members of the force for that sequence of events. They did the best job anyone could do with the manpower, resources and equipment available, but the raiders escaped and a quiet couple, in their 60s are left battered and bruised, physically and emotionally, from the experience. When I met the family, they named several towns in the vicinity and asked why gardaí from these towns could not be deployed to deal with the incident. I had to explain to them that for years these towns only had a Garda presence for a few hours a day which is ludicrous.
This scenario can be found to varying degrees across both counties. Parts of south Laois have had a spate of criminal activity in recent months and while the general public correctly want a greater Garda presence, it is just not possible with the numbers. When we meet the superintendents and the chief superintendent, this is what we are told. Only one patrol car is on duty in a division at particular times in the night. Gardaí need to use their personal mobile phones. No flak jackets or anti-stab jackets, which are common for police officers throughout the UK, are available even though the criminals they face — as we saw last weekend — are perfectly equipped to protect themselves. A person needed to call to a Garda station in the fastest growing town in Offaly seven times to get a passport form signed, because the station is not open for 24 hours despite being in an area with a large population. It is not possible to over emphasise the genuine fears of people living in these areas.
Criminals are clearly aware of the lack of visibility of gardaí in urban and rural areas in the midlands and are in a position to capitalise. The growing figures for robberies and burglaries prove the point. Much Garda time is taken up in particular areas depending on the length of District Court sittings. We need to ensure that Garda time is used more effectively. This is a genuine issue and one that needs to be grappled with. Towns like Tullamore and Portlaoise have 48 fixed District Court sittings a year each requiring the attendance of up to 20 or 30 gardaí. In 2004 there were also more than 20 special sittings in each town again necessitating gardaí being present. We must look at ways of dealing with this.
I ask the Minister to consider that the gardaí should have fixed times for having their cases heard rather than all of them needing to be present at 10.30 a.m. for the commencement of court. Civil matters such as debt collection, litigation, and licensing applications should be heard at a fixed date and time. When a defendant makes a plea, consideration should be given, with the defendant's consent, to allowing the superintendent or State solicitor outline the facts and the defendant should be required to notify the prosecution of the plea in advance of the sitting. Special times and days should be set aside for family law cases in order that general District Court business and Garda time is not taken up in this way. This would make far more sense. On a typical Friday or Saturday night in any city or town, an arrest for a public order offence — even a relatively minor offence — leads to Garda time being taken up at the time of arrest and again at the time of detention. There may be a need to call a doctor or a solicitor, which can take up more time. Additional time can be spent questioning, investigating, getting statements, preparing the book of evidence, taking the case to court and waiting for it to be heard. It is possible that even more time will be lost if the person is transferred to prison. If there had been more gardaí on the streets, it is possible that the public order offence would not have been committed and a great deal of time and resources would have been saved.
I accept the principle behind the proposal to establish a Garda reserve, which is a topical issue at the moment. Before such a step is taken, however, we should ensure that all matters within the existing force are right. We should resource the Garda by giving it the numbers and equipment it needs before we examine other issues.
On anti-social behaviour orders, I implore the Minister to ensure that such orders are used as a very last resort. I have concerns about them. I ask him to form a committee with his colleagues, the Ministers for Health and Children, Education and Science, Arts, Sport and Tourism and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to review the extent of the facilities available to young people. Older people than me often complain when they hear young people saying they have nothing to do, but that is genuinely the case in certain parts of the country. We have to ensure that facilities are made available for young people.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, to the House, although I would prefer it if his senior colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, were here to debate this issue. He is probably ranting and raving to journalists somewhere, or jumping on somebody else's issues, rather than on his own issues. If he were here, we could have a proper debate about this matter.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not doing a good job. We have been told for the past two years that this Bill will be the saviour of the world. In every interview he has done in that time, the Minister has said that the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 will solve all our problems. We have had to wait for two years for the legislation. We asked for the amendments a year ago, but we were not given them. How can we have a proper debate without the information we need? In recent weeks, we have been given the heads of the proposed new sections and bits of the proposed amendments. Approximately 300 pages of amendments will have to be considered on Committee Stage. I would welcome many of the Minister's proposals if I believed the Bill would work and the new provisions would be enforced. Many of the measures in the legislation are similar to existing regulations. I accept that it will tighten the law and give the Garda more powers in some cases.
Two main points should be noted in this regard. This legislation will introduce new laws, but how can we be sure they will be enforced? If we are to help gardaí to enforce existing laws and do their jobs properly, we have to give the force the resources it needs, including additional staff. It is not acceptable, in this day and age, that simple things like stab jackets have to be borrowed from forces in other countries. Criminals fly along the M50 in some of the top cars in the world, like Jaguars and Lexuses, while our gardaí go around in family saloon cars. They are not sufficiently armed or equipped to deal with criminals like those operating.
We need to get real if we are to tackle crime. It is not enough to put in place a Bill that tries to cover everything but will probably not be implemented until this time next year, just before the general election. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will claim he has tackled everything, including the fall-out from the Ferns Report, the problems in accident and emergency departments and aspects of crime such as the use of guns, in this Bill, which covers almost everything. There is something in it for everyone. I am afraid that every time we try to bring a case under the Bill, it will be challenged in the courts. This legislation is a minefield because it is so big that the lawyers representing criminals will have many easy opportunities to find loopholes in it. The manner in which it is being introduced in bits and pieces, with many amendments, may also lead to difficulties. The Minister should separate the main issues and deal with them individually.
I will refer to some aspects of the Bill about which I am happy and some of the changes which are good. I am glad the Minister has proposed the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of firearms offences. People who have guns for the wrong reasons deserve to be behind bars. Prison is mainly for those who represent a danger to society. Those who carry guns for no reason other than to do damage and cause bodily harm belong in prison. I welcome the Minister's intention to put in place laws to that effect. It is a pity this measure could not have been separated and enacted quickly to scare those who carry guns. The introduction of an amnesty is important, but the problem is that the people to whom I refer are not afraid that they will be caught. This aspect of the legislation needs to be enacted quickly to scare such people.
The Bill will tighten up the provision whereby a mandatory sentence of ten years' imprisonment is imposed on people convicted of dealing in drugs worth more than €13,000. That has been the law since 1999, but it has not been enforced in 95% of cases as a result of get-out clauses. I welcome the tightening up of this law. We need to publish better sentencing standards and guidelines to be used by judges. The types of sentences imposed should not vary depending on location. One's address should not decide the judge one gets, and the judge should not decide whether one is given two years or ten years in prison. There should not be substantial differences in length of sentence. New sentencing guidelines and policies for judges should be published.
The Minister has proposed the establishment of a drug offenders' register, on which the names of those who are convicted of drugs offences will be listed. The Garda knows such people and watches them. We need to give the Garda the power to deal with them, not the power to compile a list of their names. Everyone knows who they are.
I welcome the proposal to provide for restriction of movement orders, which will be enforced by means of electronic tagging in some cases. It is right that we should use modern technology. The criminals use such technology. They are able to defeat the Garda hands-down when it comes to technology. We have to equip our police force with modern technology that its members can avail of.
The Minister in this Bill is introducing anti-social behaviour orders which are supported by most parties. I would favour their use in conjunction with a system of penalty points for various crimes, whereby different levels of anti-social behaviour cause one to be given different numbers of penalty points. When a young person — young people will most commonly be involved in this system — approaches a certain number of points, it will be clear to everyone in the community that they have a problem on their hands and they need to step in to tackle it before it is too late. I suggest the establishment of a system of penalty points, in conjunction with the use of anti-social behaviour orders or, preferably, in advance of the use of such orders, as a means of identifying young people who are starting to get involved in crime.
I would like to speak about the speed of the legal process. The greatest deterrent to crime is the fear of getting caught. When people are caught, too long a period often elapses before they are brought to court, tried and sentenced to imprisonment or community service. The link between the punishment and the crime is sometimes blurred if a long period of time has elapsed. Some commit many more crimes while they are waiting to be tried for an earlier crime. Many out on bail commit crimes and get involved in illegal activities.
I remind the House of the importance of crime prevention. All the Bills introduced by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform relate to tackling crime after it has taken place, which is too late. We need to have some good debates about crime prevention. The Minister is an intelligent person, although he does not always act quickly. I am sure he could contribute a great deal to a debate on crime prevention. I hope such a debate can take place soon. I apologise for speaking beyond my allotted time.
I welcome the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which is extremely important. I commend the Minister, Deputy McDowell, for bringing the amendments to the Bill before the House. It is clear that we all want the most equitable and effective criminal justice legislation possible. Many surveys have shown, as if we needed surveys to tell us, that crime and law and order are sources of great concern for many. We owe it to the people to put criminals away. We should ensure that our criminal law can respond to crime in a way that retains the confidence of the public. It should provide a strong deterrent to those who seek to undermine the stability and good order of our society. Most of our citizens are law-abiding, good, decent and respectable people who want to live in peace and harmony. We should not allow the minority in our society to upset the majority. We should send a loud and clear message that crime does not pay and that there is no place for criminals in society.
The amendments proposed by the Minister will go a long way to meeting the objectives I have mentioned. Fianna Fáil has always been tough on crime. The Government has dealt with this issue in a tough manner since 1997. Crime of any kind cannot be tolerated and must be tackled head-on. Ireland's crime rate is very low compared to other western democracies, but that is not good enough. In 1995, with a population of almost 3.6 million, the crime level was at 29 per 1,000. In 2005, with a population of more than 4.1 million this rate had fallen to 24.6 per 1,000. As the Minister pointed out to the House, yesterday, based on the crime figures for 1995-96, we were heading for well more than 50,000 crimes per year if the previous Administration had remained in office for five years. This is unthinkable and only serves to highlight its ineptitude on the matter.
Today there are more gardaí. All crimes will have to be tackled and all criminal activity will have to cease. The Deputy asked me what types of crime we are talking about. I remind the Opposition that it cancelled the prison building programme and failed to put even one extra garda on the street. It failed to properly resource the Garda and to provide even one extra prison place. It supported a policy that led to 16% of sentenced prisoners being on the streets, and opposed legislation to deal with the problem of serious offences committed by offenders while on bail. It voted against legislation that would allow persons convicted of serious offences to be subject to curfew as well as against ten-year minimum sentences for substantial drug dealers.
Everybody must realise the seriousness of the situation. Members of the Opposition will have to co-operate and work together and not lecture Government Deputies on crime. They must work with the Government to ensure that when sensible serious legislation is brought forward, it is supported. Matters have gone too far. Will the Opposition start from now?
——and going to work. Fair dues to the Deputy.
There are 1,743 more gardaí today than in June 1997. The current recruitment drive is the largest for new gardaí since the foundation of the State. Starting in January 2005, more than 1,100 new gardaí per year have been and will be recruited for each of the years, 2005-07, inclusive. New recruits will not be stuck behind desks. They will be engaged in high visibility policing. They will be on the front line, out and about and engaged with people in towns, communities and cities. This means numbers in the Garda Síochána have never been greater, nor has the force ever been better resourced. This year the Garda Síochána has the highest level of resources in its history, €1,290 million, an increase of €146 million on 2005. The provision of Garda overtime in 2006 will ensure record levels of policing by uniformed and special units throughout the State. Almost €1 billion is being spent on justice.
We are committed and support law and order. On the major expenditure on justice, I welcome the new courthouse at Main Street, Longford, which will be in operation shortly. We expect the first court sittings in the autumn, at the latest. Under this Government, 1,200 new prison places have been provided since 1997. This will be increased further when the new facilities in Spike Island and Thornton Hall are completed and will bring an end to the revolving door system that previously operated. Under this Government the budget for the Prison Service has been increased by 100% and we have tackled the decades-long problem of excessive overtime in the prisons, resulting in a saving of €25 million for the taxpayer.
We welcome the administration section of the Prison Service to Longford. The diggers are on site, work has started and we look forward to its headquarters being located in Longford, shortly. I thank everyone in the Prison Service for the great help and support and for agreeing to come to Longford. We also thank the pipe band of the Prison Service for participating in the St. Patrick's Day parade in the town, getting involved with the community straightaway.
The Government introduced a mandatory ten years prison sentence for drug dealers. The Opposition opposed the legislation. The drugs problem is very serious and affecting too many. It has to stop. We appeal to people to stop purchasing drugs but the drug dealers are playing havoc with them and ruining our country. Drug dealers are in the minority and there should be no let-up or excuses for not tackling them. The Legislature and the Judiciary must be independent but the message should go out that while we know there are people who do not mean to break the law and get into trouble, if the law is broken they will have to pay the penalty. If people believe they will get away with breaking the law, they will break it.
I am glad the Bill contains plans to ensure that the grounds for considering a sentence of less than ten years are clarified. It is proposed that against mitigating factors such as co-operation and a guilty plea the court will be required to take account of previous drug trafficking convictions. A record of such convictions will be a counterbalance to any reduction that may have been felt to be appropriate. Provision will also be made for a new offence of importing drugs with a value in excess of €13,000. This offence will attract the minimum ten-year sentence. A drug offenders' register will be established, properly and rightly. This matter is too serious. People involved in drugs will not stop unless they are caught. They will have to be caught and the full rigours of the law applied. We are warning people to have nothing to do with illicit drugs or drug dealing, and not to become addicted. The law will come down heavily on transgressors. They must not think they will get away from now on, because ten years is just that and there should be no time off for anybody involved in drugs.
We must also ensure that drug offenders are registered with the Garda. The proposal is based on the same principle as the sex offenders register and will enable the movement of convicted drug dealers to be recorded in a similar fashion, that is, change of address and movement in and out of the State. This will help the Garda to monitor illegal activity and should provide useful intelligence in the fight against drug crime. Given the recent occurrence of gangland murders, we must progress these matters urgently and tackle the root of the problem.