Tuesday, 13 February 2007
In the past 15 months, I have attended 70 public meetings in various places around the country. I am appalled, which is not too strong a word, at the complete inability of the Government to deal with the issue of crime on our streets and the fear that is present in so many areas. People cannot walk the streets of many towns and cities in safety.
Criminals in this country are now importing the most sophisticated weaponry one could imagine by the tonne. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with his hysterical rantings on an occasional basis, waves another sheet of paper containing another plan. His last plan was produced in November 2005 and consisted of three pages of detailed measures to be implemented to deal with criminals. Every time there is a serious issue, another plan is produced. Every time an innocent person is gunned down, it is a watershed or the sting of a dying wasp and another plan is produced.
Violent crime has surged over the past three years and the response from Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government has been simply pathetic. There is no war on crime but there should be a war on crime. If the Taoiseach will not do it, I will. We need action now. In the past 12 months in economically strong Ireland, murder has increased by 43%, gun crime has increased by 39% and rape has increased by25%. Unfortunately, there has never been a better time to be a violent criminal in this country. The Taoiseach and the absent Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have done nothing but talk about plans, plans and more plans. What is the Taoiseach's response today in view of the fact that last year, there were 66 homicides, 26 of which were gun-related? Gun culture in Ireland in 2007 is simply out of hand. I assume we will get another litany of expenditure in this area when what is needed is action. Over the past 15 months, we have pointed out serious issues to the Taoiseach which he could have addressed but did not.
Will the Opposition give poor Deputy Kenny a chance? Deputy Kenny knows the figures he has quoted are just made up. The Central Statistics Office produces the figures. I checked and I am not allowed to use the unparliamentary term for it. The Deputy knows it was a totally made up, twisted load of lies.
The Taoiseach has already withdrawn it.
I intend to ask Members who continue to interrupt to leave the House. It is grossly unfair to Deputy Kenny who submitted a Leaders' Question if there are interruptions and then there is not time to reply to the question. I ask Members to allow business to proceed in a normal, orderly and correct fashion in a parliamentary democracy, which is that the speaker called by Chair speaks and nobody else.
Deputy Kenny raised two issues. He outlined figures, which I must correct. According to the CSO census data and inter-census estimates of population, the crime rate per thousand of population dropped from 26 in 2003 to 24.5 last year. The figures for 2004 and 2005 were 24.5 and 24.8, respectively. The comparative crime rate per thousand a decade ago was 27.8. The figures show a welcome decrease in the high number of burglaries, which is down 14.6%; theft from the person, down 22%; and a decrease of 34% in detection of firearms, which contributed to a reduction of 3.4% in the discharge of firearms. I am giving the correct figures, as per the CSO.
Last November the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated he would bring forward further legislative proposals because of a number of issues that had arisen relating to bail, sentencing, the right to silence and so on. The proposals have been in draft form and have been worked out in the Department. We also said we would prepare legislation on a DNA database. The House called for such updating. It has been agreed that fingerprints, like DNA samples, may be retained indefinitely and the Garda will have access to a much larger intelligence source. Over the past two years there was condemnation that our database was behind other countries and our legislative base was not adequate. In November when we discussed these issues, questions arose regarding detention periods, particularly the detention period associated with tiger kidnappings.
The Minister's proposals are in the criminal justice Bill. We have introduced a large number of Bills but this legislation will update them and it will be tougher. As Deputy Kenny said, we are dealing with more sophisticated criminals who are big into drug trafficking, firearms and other gangland activity. That means, periodically, one must do things that, on civil libertarian grounds, one would not normally do. The initiatives will toughen up the bail and sentencing provisions and provide for new offences.
These issues were considered in drafting previous criminal justice legislation but it was considered that a tougher line than was necessary would have resulted. However, because of the gangland crime last year, we must take that line.
The Taoiseach has been travelling around the country. Cocaine, cannabis, heroin and ecstasy are available in every townland, parish, village and city. Apparently, if one wants a snort or a shot of these drugs, one will have it within ten or 15 minutes anywhere. So much for zero tolerance.
The Taoiseach referred to a reduction in burglary figures. One can break into a house — many are empty during the day — and cause €500,000 worth of damage but it is not a burglary unless something is stolen. The reason burglary figures are down is they are being deliberately massaged. It is no longer categorised as a burglary if houses are broken into and vandalised but nothing is stolen.
I refer to three figures from last year — 33, 595 and 97. The figure 33 refers to the number of people charged with homicide who were out on bail. The figure of 595 refers to the number of people charged with assault who were out on bail and 97 refers to the number of people charged with sexual offences who were out on bail.
Every one of them stood in a court and had their applications for bail granted. What kind of a country is the Taoiseach running? We proposed in the House on several occasions that judges be given the right, on the advice of a garda and on the basis of Garda evidence, to electronically tag criminals where serious offences are involved. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was out of the blocks within 15 minutes saying this was rubbish and this could not be done.
A total of 33 people charged with homicide, 595 charged with assault and 97 charged with sexual offences were out on bail last year. Where is the war on crime we have been promised? Where is the right of a judge to tag electronically if necessary or the right to earn remission in jail without a quarter of the sentence being completed before the criminal enters prison? Where is the evidence that the Taoiseach's Government and his hysterical Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform are capable of dealing with criminals? Criminals are not quaking in their boots. They laugh at the inability of the Government to deal with this.
I remind the Deputy that people are innocent until they are proven guilty. People who come before the courts are entitled under our Constitution and the law of the land to make their case. It is another issue if the Deputy is asking that everybody who comes before the courts should be locked up and he can implement that.
I also remind the Deputy of the principle of separation of powers. All those who came before the courts did not look to me to ask what happened. It is fair enough to ask me whether we should stiffen our bail laws and that is precisely what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will do in the criminal justice Bill. These issues were examined previously but the House refused to toughen the bail laws many times because of concerns.
A senior garda can give his opinion that a bail application should be refused on the grounds that it is his opinion that the person will commit serious offences if granted bail. The applicant may be required to give a statement of his assets at home and abroad; his income and the sources of his income; his previous criminal record; and any offences committed while on bail. Applications for serious offences will generally be heard in the Circuit Court rather than the High Court with a right to a full appeal to the High Court. Many will believe that these proposals are too tough.
Similar proposals have been examined many times previously and Members have rejected such proposals many times.
On sentencing, there will be tighter controls to monitor post-release activity and enhanced penalties will be provided for those who re-offend within seven years of a previous serious offence. Further guidance will be provided on the circumstances where the mandatory minimum sentence will apply in cases involving firearms and drug trafficking.
New offences will be created, which will be aimed at those who assist and facilitate gangland bosses. It will be a serious offence to have cash or articles without being able to account for them and there will be changes relating to the right to silence. The law will be updated and clarified and, as a result, a suspect will be in no doubt about the implications of not giving a full account when asked by the Garda. On detention periods, persons arrested for a serious offence of the type associated with tiger kidnappings may be held for up to seven days, the same as is currently the case for drug trafficking. I already referred to DNA fingerprints.
We should support the efforts of the Garda and others in the various schemes aimed at drug prevention to try to eliminate the problems we have and not overstate or exaggerate the severity of the problem in communities. The situation is not as the Deputies portray it.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the unimaginable horror that befell a working class community in north Dublin 26 years ago tonight. As I understand it, the families of the Stardust victims will hold a vigil outside the gates of Dáil Éireann tonight. This relates to their conviction that a number of legitimate questions remain unanswered about the tragedy that befell their community and about what happened on the night. I thank the Government for the fact that the exhumation sought by the relatives has happened, although it has taken a very long time.
Going back over the record of the House when my colleague, Deputy Broughan, raised this issue on so many occasions, I looked at what the Taoiseach said in 2001. The answers we have been getting since then are exactly the same as the Taoiseach told him in 2001. This time last year we raised this issue in the belief that the response from the Government would be different on that occasion. This followed on the preparation of a dossier by lawyers on behalf of the relatives of the victims and a television programme which was a particularly good example of public service broadcasting by "Prime Time" which looked at the destruction of 48 young lives that night, the subsequent tribunal which found that the forensic protection of the site was inadequate and at the danger the tribunal was misled as to the layout of the premises and, therefore, possibly misled as to the cause of the fire. The fact of whether the fire was arson or accident was fundamentally material. The first persons compensated were the owners of the premises concerned.
The Taoiseach committed last year, in questions since, and as recently as 14 December 2006 to my colleague, Deputy Broughan, that his response to the relatives after all these years was imminent. They had expected that response before Christmas. There has been no response. I understand there was subsequent contact between the Taoiseach's office and lawyers on behalf of the victims' relatives and that, as a result, they understood he was about to forward to them terms of reference for an independent, external examination. Those terms of reference have not been forthcoming. I do not know what is the hold-up nor do I know what kind of inquiry is proposed. Will the Taoiseach indicate what kind of inquiry is proposed?
Is a prominent senior counsel or retired judicial figure going in as I requested to review the papers, the tribunal report and the dossiers submitted on behalf of the relatives and will he have the back-up of the necessary technical expertise to do his job? Why have replies not been given to the relatives? What kind of inquiry is the Taoiseach contemplating and when will they be replied to?
I have answered questions in the House on this issue a number of times. In fairness, Deputies Rabbitte and Broughan, and other Members of the House, have raised it with me as well, including Members on my own side. Tonight is the anniversary of the fire of St. Valentine's Day of 1981 which resulted in 48 deaths and 200 people injured. It was an overwhelming tragedy which left an enduring mark on the city and a generation and certainly on a considerable number of people in Coolock and surrounding areas.
I have tried extremely hard in recent years, particularly in the past year, to try to progress this matter which dates back a quarter of a century. I met the Stardust Victims' Committee. I have had numerous contacts with it over the years through various groupings within the families affected and we discussed their concerns. There are two main issues. When I took up this matter last year they were to prepare a report and I was to have meetings with the group prior to the summer. Because the report was not ready the meeting was postponed to September which was six months later. I add this fact about when we received the documentation, for the benefit of Deputy Rabbitte.
The group focused on two issues, namely, the completion of the identification of the five young men interred together at Sutton and, second, they asked that the State would undertake a further inquiry into the cause of the fire. In close consultation with the bereaved families, we have embarked on a process which I hope will lead to the identification of the five victims following the exhumations last week and the taking of DNA samples from the victims and relatives. I am confident we will be able to provide identification of their lost members with certainty for the families in the coming months. This has been a difficult and protracted period. I thank everybody involved, especially the families, for their patience and assistance in the carrying out of this process.
In regard to the campaign for a new inquiry into the cause of the fire, we acknowledge the significant achievement of the families with their solicitor, Mr. Greg O'Neill, in compiling the report — Nothing but the Truth. It was indicated in December to the Stardust Victims' Committee that we would be satisfied to arrange for an independent and external examination of the submission by a person with suitable legal experience. I am not sure when, but this was an issue into which Deputy Rabbitte asked me to inquire in a debate in the House. Officials of my Department are engaged with the solicitor of the families to bring forward an appropriate procedure and timetable for the work.
If necessary, I will go into the detail of all that is involved but I do not think it is. However, if Deputy Rabbitte wishes, I will do so. The consideration of the submission received from the families will involve a careful examination of the several issues raised with regard to the original inquiry and the significance of certain scientific evidence that has been brought under review. This examination calls for a specialised and professional judgment. It is not a policy consideration.
Let me be clear about my position, I remember the horror of the events of that terrible night. I met many of the bereaved families on that night and over the years. I was the administrator in the Mater Hospital on-call that night. When we met in September, I told them I would support proposals for action that would offer significant prospects for success. This was the case with regard to the identification procedure for the five young men. Actions have followed swiftly, a process that is under way and moving to completion. The potential of a new inquiry was not evident to the same extent but I am satisfied enough to have the matter considered further and to offer support to the families in pursuing it. This includes helping them through the process of making legal arrangements.
I am confident that arrangements for the examination will be settled in the coming days. This will be followed quickly by the appointment of an examiner. I suggested an eminent person but this person was not satisfactory. We can reach agreement on this and on terms of reference. I am conscious of the anniversary of the tragedy and the intention to hold a vigil outside Leinster House tonight to remind us of the loss and the enduring concerns. I acknowledge that and sympathise with the families. We extend our deepest sympathies to those who suffered as a result of the Stardust disaster.
Some 26 years later, I do not wish to publish terms of reference that have not been agreed by the legal representatives. The terms of reference must concern the issues raised by the families and their interpretation of what happened. There is no new evidence, just a new interpretation.
I do not wish to play politics with this matter. I spoke with Deputy Broughan in the corridor last week and allowed him to speak with my officials. If the Deputy wants to play politics with the matter, there is no point in me trying to deal with it here. He knows——
Yes, and they felt like this 26 years ago. I am trying to ensure they do not feel the same in 26 years' time. I am trying to resolve it in a manner suggested by Deputy Broughan's party leader. I cannot go against the State's forensic scientists and reopen an investigation. I can only do so on the interpretation of the evidence, as suggested by Deputy Rabbitte, and I am prepared to do so.
These people are emotive and it is difficult. I do my best to deal with the families and have provided resources to their legal representatives. I have undergone the trauma they have gone through in dealing with the exhumations. I do not wish to publish terms of reference to which people will object five minutes later. I am trying to get agreement so there can be closure. Otherwise, it will go on forever. My best and most senior officials and forensic scientists are dealing with this and we are trying to conclude it.
The Taoiseach said that he received the dossier in September. I have a copy of the letter, dated 6 July 2006, that accompanied the dossier. While I do not seek to make an issue of it, this dossier was compiled in the first half of the year and submitted on 6 July, but the families still do not have a reply.
I am trying to tease out what kind of inquiry the Taoiseach envisages. When will the terms of reference, which have been promised to the lawyers for the group in question but have not materialised, be made available? I do not wish to create expectations that cannot deliver some comfort to the relatives of the victims. I do not know the judgment on the dossier submitted.
However, some of the people concerned believe the Taoiseach has committed in principle to an inquiry. I am trying to find out what kind of inquiry. This time last year I suggested appointing a senior judicial person or a senior counsel to review the papers, the tribunal report and the forensic knowledge about fires now available. That person should have technical international expertise available to him or her in preparing a report for the Minister concerned.
People will camp out tonight who have suffered for very many years in the belief that they did not receive justice at the time. What does "independent and external investigation" mean? When will the Department deliver the terms of reference of the proposed independent external investigation to the lawyers acting on behalf of the relatives of the 48 young people who lost their lives in this tragedy in 1981?
My officials have already suggested an eminent legal person and terms of reference to the families and their representatives. We seek agreement on both. The person we suggested has carried out a number of inquiries for the State but the families will not accept that person. My officials have had the terms of reference ready for some considerable time but will not publish them until discussion with Mr. Greg O'Neill, the individual we have been dealing with for the past few years. A senior official told me he hopes to conclude this shortly. There is no blame on either side but it is a matter of seeking agreement.
While the submission was given to me in July, legal representatives were not available until after the summer break. The submission has received careful consideration. It raised several matters regarding the original inquiry and the significance of scientific evidence that has been reviewed. The examination concerns specialised professional judgments on forensic and engineering issues. A forensic scientist attended the examination. This is not a policy matter; it is a matter of specialised professional judgment. For better or for worse, a full tribunal was held on this matter at the time. I am not in a position to judge but the expert opinion is that there is nothing new in what was presented by the families. There is a different interpretation of events and specialists are examining it.
The independent inquiry would, in the first instance, consider the evidence presented by the families and their legal representatives to see if they are correct in their judgments. If they are, perhaps a full inquiry would be required. If they are wrong, the original report would stand. The person who examines the papers would have to be a legal person, either a senior counsel or a retired judge.
The person I recommended is an eminent senior counsel who has done a considerable amount of other examinations and investigations and has much knowledge of the area and the circumstances. I continue to regard that person as suitable but if that is not the case we will await another consideration and see what comes forward in that examination.
If the individual who examines these issues wants to look further I have no problem with that. I am advised that in the first place it should be an examination of the case put forward by the families and their legal representatives on the issues they have raised, as against what was considered at the time in the full inquiry. If there is another issue to examine I will not rule it out because I do not want anybody to say I ruled everything out. I am trying to be as open as possible and to find terms of reference that can allow that to happen. Then we can make real progress in this matter. I appreciate the fact that the House is endeavouring to convince the people involved that this marks considerable progress on what has happened over 26 years and that it could be concluded calmly. I understand the hurt involved but if we could deal with it calmly we could tie this down quickly and leave it to take its course.
Currently many primary school teachers are clearing up after a hectic day trying to teach in overcrowded classrooms. The Taoiseach may have heard the appalling reports from INTO teachers involved in the large meetings about the number of children in primary school classrooms around the country. In Wicklow for example, 29% of children in primary schools are in classes of over 30, in Meath the figure is 31%, in Dún Laoghaire the figure is34%, in Kildare it is 34%, in Kilkenny it is 30%, in Louth it is 30% and in my area it is a disgraceful 37%. The INTO has worked out that involves eight minutes teacher time per day for each junior infant. The Minister for Education and Science is sitting beside the Taoiseach giving him as many details hopefully as he needs. He said in the programme for Government five years ago that over the following five years his Government would "ensure that the average class size of classes for children under 9 will be below the international best-practice guideline of 20:1". There is a hell of a difference between 20:1 and over 30:1.
The situation is worse in reality because there are waiting lists in many schools, for example, in my area a parent told me there are 116 on the list to which she was invited to add her child's name, for nine places. I heard of another list of 180 for 80 places, a list of 100 names for 54 places, and in a secondary school of 400 of a list for 280 places. Classroom size is part of a much bigger failure by the Government. As we approach the end of this Government's term in office will the Taoiseach accept the reality that his Government has failed to implement the promise made in the programme for Government and apologise? Will he leave us to judge the Government on that or will the Government put the money aside to employ the teachers, fund the colleges and erect the new buildings required to meet a basic commitment in the programme for Government? The measurement included there is not impressive by international standards. Will the Taoiseach keep his promise?
The capital programme in education this year is €540 million and 1,500 schools will benefit from improvements in renovations and restructuring this year. That has been the case for several years. The Deputy must acknowledge that in the last number of years there have been more new schools built and more renovations than ever in the history of the State.
Children who need extra help get more support than ever. Deputy Sargent knows that the majority of the extra teachers hired in recent years have, rightly, been aimed at support for children with special needs, those in disadvantaged areas and those who need help with English. We could have taken teachers across the board and reduced the pupil teacher ratio but we have employed teachers for those with special needs or in disadvantaged areas to make sure all our children in all our schools have these teachers.
These teachers have not only made an immeasurable difference to the lives of these children but they also provide vital back-up for the classroom teachers. I make no apologies for putting extra resources into those who need them most. It was the right thing to do.
If we had put the 7,000 teachers into the classrooms that would have caused a significant drop in the pupil teacher ratio. However, we did not do that but aimed overwhelmingly to help people with special needs and disabilities. We would not have been able to put the necessary resources into special education, disadvantaged children and language support. Now that these priorities have been largely addressed extra teachers have been provided in the current year to reduce class sizes and provision is being made for a further 800 primary teachers in the next academic year. The average class size nationally has been reduced from 27 to 24.
Where there are large class sizes such as the Deputy mentioned it is because a decision has been taken at local level to use the teaching resources to have smaller numbers in other classes, which I understand. A school might have one class of 35 and another of 21. Many schools have opted to do that.
I think Deputy Sargent would acknowledge that the building programme, which was very small and is now over €500 million a year, is making a significant improvement with new schools, renovation work and extensions across the country. He must also acknowledge that the 7,000 extra teachers have made a significant difference to the lives of people with special needs and disabilities.
This is a priority for the Green Party but is clearly not one for the Government. The Government wrote in the programme for Government that it would ensure average class sizes for children under nine would be below 20:1 by the time it left office. It will not do that. I suppose that is the best we can hope for in the way of a straight answer.
Disadvantaged children also suffer. The Taoiseach cannot hide behind them as a reason for his failure here. They get one to one attention for half an hour and are then abandoned back into a class.
The Minister for Education and Science can nod and tut-tut all she likes but Ireland is the only country in Europe where teachers must cope with more than 30 pupils in a classroom. That is a disgrace when compared with Greece which has an average of 18; Portugal, 16; Latvia, 17; Lithuania, 15, and in impoverished Sri Lanka, where our charities send money, there are only 20 pupils to a class and we regard the people there as needing our help.
Here, in the Taoiseach's country, the Government has a surplus of over €2 billion. We have costed the price of an extra 1,000 teachers which would reduce classes to 20 pupils, at €39 million. That amounts to 20 cent per day per pupil——
It is a big sum for the Minister for Transport who knows all about small bits of money. He spent €60 million on electronic voting, only small change. Here is small change, 20 cent per pupil per day for the basic right of a classroom of 20 pupils.
If the 4,000 teachers to whom I referred had, since 2002, been placed into mainstream classes, the ratio would have been reduced to 20:1. The case was well made that disadvantaged children and those with disabilities should be placed in smaller classes. Many such classes contain 15 or fewer pupils. Was it right to give people with fewer chances — namely, those who are disadvantaged, those who have difficulties at home or those with disabilities or learning difficulties — access to a better ratio than the norm? The judgment of the Government was that it would be better to place virtually all of the teachers to whom I refer, over a number of years, into classes for disabled and disadvantaged children, thereby reducing the ratio to 12:1, 13:1, 14:1 and 15:1 and leaving that ratio relating to mainstream classes at a higher level. I make no apologies for doing that.
When we achieved the target ratio in respect of disadvantaged and special needs teachers and provided thousands of classroom assistants last year, we then decided to put in place 1,200 additional teachers — 800 in primary schools and 400 in secondary schools — to reduce class sizes and teach languages. That was the right way to proceed. Next year, a further 800 will be appointed to reduce the ratio further. To do it the other way around would have made the figures look good. I am sure Deputies would accuse me of massaging the figures.
Deputy Sargent, there is a longstanding rule that documents are not displayed in the House. It is bad enough that the Deputy displayed it when he was on his feet. I will not tolerate the Deputy interrupting other Members who have been called to speak and I will ask him to leave the House.
The ratio for special needs classes and those relating to autism is 5:1 or 6:1 and not 15:1. We put in place resources to bring the ratio relating to these classes right down. We did not make a promise in that regard but it was the right thing to do. We reduced class sizes by providing classroom assistants and full-time teachers. The ratio in every school in the country with special needs classes is 5:1. That is a major achievement of which anyone would be proud. I am certainly proud of it.