Friday, 23 March 2007
Criminal Justice Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed)
Before I address the substantive topic, I wish to briefly take issue with the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell's remarks about the absence of certain representatives from the Chamber yesterday. He knows as well as I do about the demands placed on those in smaller parties. He is often conspicuous by his own absence from the Chamber when legislation he has put forward is being debated. Unlike the TÃ¡naiste, I and many of my colleagues try to cover several portfolios. It is a cheap shot to try to take issue with us over our absence at particular times from the Chamber.
Yesterday, I pointed out many of the concerns people have about the Criminal Justice Bill. Not only is rushed legislation by its very nature often bad legislation but the Bill itself proposes to take away various fundamental rights and freedoms. It is going too far, too quickly. Others agree with me such as those in the Law Society, for example. Many people are concerned about the strong measures contained in the Bill.
The TÃ¡naiste is very much aware of problems that have arisen over individuals who have been kept for prolonged periods in Garda custody. He is also well aware of difficulties that continue to this day within An Garda SÃochÃ¡na. Therefore, I am surprised he would allow in the Bill for periods of detention in Garda custody of up to seven days. Civil rights issues often arise when people are kept in Garda custody for prolonged periods without charges being preferred. A seven day period of detention by the Garda is a dangerous step. The TÃ¡naiste should reconsider this measure.
I referred yesterday to the right to silence. Many countries have no provision for the dramatic measures suggested by the TÃ¡naiste regarding the removal of the right to silence. In the United States, one has to subpoena a witness to remove his or her right to silence. That is a very dramatic step to take and it is one which should only be used in limited circumstances. The TÃ¡naiste may argue the proposal would only apply in certain cases but it is a retrograde step. There is no substitute for good, old-fashioned policing and more emphasis should be placed on this rather than removing fundamental freedoms from individuals.
I am concerned about the recommendations for mandatory sentencing in certain areas. Judges are the people best equipped to make decisions on these issues. I am concerned about the freedom of the Judiciary that has been long enjoyed if they are told what sentence to give in certain cases. We need people within the Judiciary who can react to individual cases as they see fit. It is dangerous to push them strongly in a certain direction.
The Green Party is concerned about the restrictions on the right to silence. We are also concerned about the extension of detention periods and mandatory sentencing. Most of all, we are concerned at the manner in which this Bill is being pushed before the House against the protests of many bodies, including the Law Society and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The TÃ¡naiste should think again. I urge him to wait and listen to the recommendations of the committees he has set up to deal with these fundamental issues, rather than rushing legislation through the House. It makes for bad law and the Green Party is opposed to the railroading of legislation.
I did not think I would get another opportunity to make a Second Stage speech but I am pleased to have the chance as I wish to make some points on the Bill before the House. The Criminal Justice Bill 2007 is the 68th item of criminal justice legislation we will have passed in approximately 20 years. I have a full list of the legislation which commenced with the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1985, which I can read if the House wishes. I was supplied with this information in response to a parliamentary question. The list was updated by two Acts passed in 2005, five Acts in 2006 and this Bill is the second one to appear in 2007.
It appears the impact of the legislation has been minimal. Much of the criminal justice legislation seems to impact more on law abiding citizens than on criminals, yet the Minister continues to churn out one law after the other. No sooner is one Bill passed than another is presented. One could well ask how long it will be before another criminal justice Bill is presented to the House. It would be a legitimate question for the House to ask who is protecting the interests of law abiding citizens. To use cricketing parlance, it appears to me the Minister is guilty of LBW â legislation before wrath. Meanwhile, the crime industry grows quicker than the tiger economy. We will soon have more judges than TDs if the annual incremental increase in judicial appointments continues.
A survey released by the ESRI this week claims Dublin is now the murder capital of Europe. Perhaps the TÃ¡naiste will respond to this point when he sums up the debate. The ESRI figures show the rates of homicide in Dublin increased by 44.5% from the period 1990-92 to 2000-02. Last year, 26 gun murders were recorded in Ireland, most of which occurred in Dublin. This was a record figure for homicides.
On the basis of these figures, one would not believe criminals are fearful of legislation alone. A rethink of the legislative production mill approach is necessary. It is time the wrath of the Government was brought down in an organised and strategic way, not on an ad hoc basis, on the heads of those who ply their criminal trade. We require more of the Rudy Giuliani approach and less of the Harry Houdini approach. We need someone who takes charge of the situation rather than an escape artist who regularly produces new stunts. It is time the criminal justice legislation was reviewed by the Law Reform Commission. We have created a criminal law industry and now vie with one another to say which of us can increase numbers of gardaÃ. Soon, according to a billboard advertisement paid for by the Progressive Democrats, the Minister's party, we will have 14,000. On top of that, there is an auxiliary Garda force. There are the almost 70 laws that I mentioned, and then there is the number of judges appointed.
In 1961, there were 52 judges. In 1977, there were 63, and in 1981, the figure was 69. By 1991, we had 82. That rose to 100 in 1995, 106 the following year, and 108 in 1997. By 2002, we had 115 judges, and today we have 131 of them, as well as the PIAB. Mr. Justice Finnegan is a former President of the High Court. Although I do not know him very well, I admire everything he does. He seems not only a good judge but a decent and practical man. However, I recently read in The Irish Independent that he had raised a need for even more judges to be appointed to the district court to tackle the modern scourge of what he termed "quality of life crimes" destroying local communities. He makes a good case for the courts in question. However, as a Legislature, we cannot carry on increasing the number of judges through endless increments.
We will soon have more judges than Deputies, and everyone thinks that we have too many of the latter. Great geniuses, including better-known journalists such as Vincent Browne, constantly tell us that we have too many Deputies, yet now we are told that to solve our problems we require even more judges. I may be wrong on all this, since I do not practise at the Bar and have no immediate experience of its operations. However, it is my role to question and raise such issues.
The Judiciary and the broader legal profession enjoy an inside track on many such matters and can make a case quietly and convincingly. Over the period in question, the Government and Opposition have increased the number of judges incrementally in response to representations. We are all very good at making a case for ourselves. It would be a great idea if there were more MEPs, and some Deputies present would prefer more Ministers. However, if we are to have more judges, surely someone should carry out an independent assessment of the numbers required in each court to administer the system efficiently.
I suggest this to the Minister. For several years I chaired the Committee of Public Accounts, and I once wrote a thesis on the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, in which I have taken a great interest over the years. The Minister may be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General is an independent officer of the Constitution who reports directly to this House and is therefore independent in the exercise of his duties. However, by law the House can confer additional powers on him. Since this is a matter of one branch of Government scrutinising the numbers in another, it would be a very good idea to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the courts system, its efficiency, administration, hours, holidays, workload and pressures, along with all the other pros and cons, afterwards reporting to the House on the optimum number of judges in each court. If his conclusion is that more are needed, so be it.
Increasing the number of judges through almost annual â sometimes twice-yearly â increments is not the best way to go about the business of the State. I cannot see how it might benefit the administration of justice. Furthermore, evidence suggests that, whereas in the main we have been served extremely well by the Judiciary, the constant increases in judges' numbers have debased the currency somewhat, as it were. That is worthy of independent examination.
Whenever I raise such issues, people get very fretful over in the Four Courts, the Law Library and everywhere else. I am not attacking judges or the law, whose practice is an important part of our civilised way of life. The role of judges is important, but they are human beings like everyone else, and they too are capable of special pleading based on self-interest. We cannot continue endlessly to increase numbers of judges and gardaÃ, and the amount of legislation passed, while making so little impact on headline crime. If that is the process, something is wrong, and it is time that we had an independent assessment. I suggest to the Minister that the Comptroller and Auditor General is the man to do it.
There is a need for strategic thinking on the resources we invest in addressing crime. It is certainly a very serious issue for many people, and evidence shows that certain well-organised criminals do not give twopence for the law and will circumvent it at every opportunity. We need the resources to deal with that, but when we create them, we are entitled to expect accountability in how they are spent. We are entitled to expect from judges and the Garda that, if they are paid to do a job, they do it. We do not have endless resources to create ever more judges at the drop of a hat, and it is time the question received some examination.
I will make one further point before resuming my seat. It concerns the question raised by Gay Byrne and others of whether it is not time to consider legalising drugs. I welcome the issue being raised, since there is too little democratic debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas and Ireland generally on important questions. Often we make up our minds on issues, one that regularly springs to mind being Irish neutrality. We take a great view of it without properly debating or understanding the principles on which it is allegedly based. There should not be any sacred cows, and it is important that Mr. Byrne has raised such questions and that people have the opportunity to make points for and against the argument.
I do not think Gay Byrne thought out what he said, however, or that those who supported him gave much consideration to the matter. If we decide not to have any criminal sanction regarding drugs, does that mean that one will be able to turn up at a pharmacy and request sleeping tablets, or simply buy them on the street corner? Might one do the same with tablets for heart treatment? There must be some regulation of when and how drugs are used to protect the public. If one is not talking about prescription drugs but about legalising heroin, cocaine and marijuana, one would have to ask oneself what they are. We would need standards, and the drugs would have to be packaged and controlled in some form to meet those criteria.
New and more extreme drugs are emerging. Do we simply say that one should be able to purchase whatever one wishes on the street without having to go to an appointed pharmacist? Have we not learnt enough from those drugs that we have legalised, tobacco and alcohol? We have to hold the line somewhere, and if we fail to do it on cocaine, heroin and marijuana, when will we do so? Will it be when the drugs have become ever more extreme? What are the implications for those who drive lorries, fly aeroplanes or practise as doctors, judges and legislators for a living? Should we all be able to have whatever we want, whenever we want it? People may ask why there should be a law against this, but there is such a law because this House passed it. That is what we are elected to do. The electorate chooses 166 Members of this Chamber because they do want a jungle, they want law and order. They want rules by which we can all live, following proper debate and consideration. This House has taken a considered view of the matter and has made laws accordingly.
I welcome the debate during which many points have been made. Mr. Gay Byrne made his points out of frustration, concern and a genuine wish to find another way of dealing with this major problem in society. We should stand back a little, however, and ask ourselves what are the real implications of decriminalising hard drugs or legalising the use of drugs generally. It would take a lot to convince me of that step, although I am prepared to listen to the debate. In the European Parliament at present a major debate is going on about what vodka is composed of, how one can brand something as vodka, and whether or not one can include vanilla in it. The reality is that we may have to define marijuana. Some people say, for example, that marijuana should be legalised for medical purposes. I would not have the slightest problem with marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anything else that is described as a medicine, being used in a prescribed form to treat somebody if such treatment is shown to work. If such drugs are properly prescribed, controlled and used for medical reasons, it does not amount to drug abuse. If, however, we legislated to make marijuana available on prescription because it assists people, we would then have to define it. What is grown in a back garden might be totally different from what is prescribed by a doctor. It may have different qualities and may adversely affect a patient's condition.
We should be careful not to get carried away by arguments that do not fit. We must insist on law and order. This House is not simply a nuisance, we are in the business of making laws to try to create a society in which people can live in harmony and prosperity. That must be done by accepting rules we all understand and are accountable for, and which cannot be overridden by bullies. That is how we should approach this particular issue.
I ask the Minister to consider what I have said about judges. If we need 20 or 30 more judges â even one judge for every 20,000 people, which is more than the number of TDs â then so be it. We should have no more incremental appointments of three, five or six judges, however. The Minister is not the only one who is at it, we all are. We should have no more of this. Let us get an assessment by the Comptroller and Auditor General of how many judges we need, how they perform their tasks, their hours of work and the pressures they are under. We would then know whether we need more or fewer judges and could act comprehensively, rather than in a piecemeal manner. The Minister should take the same legislative approach.
In his heart, the Minister thinks that by passing all this legislation he will hammer the criminals. The harder he hammers them the better, as far as I am concerned. The problem is, however, that every law we pass also affects law-abiding people, so checks and balances are required. That is why we are here, in addition to the Judiciary and the President. The Minister should ask the Law Reform Commission to examine the relevant legislation that has been passed over the last 20 years and tell us whether some of it may need to be amended or otherwise modernised perhaps by the inclusion of a sunset clause. Legislation should not adversely affect the interests of law-abiding people who go about their business without breaking any law. The Minister can hammer criminals as hard as he likes, but we should not pass legislation that criminals will ignore and which will have an adverse effect on people who would not break the law in a month of Sundays.
Like other speakers, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The provisions of the Bill are geared to deal with what is now commonly described as gangland crime. I have some difficulty with categorising all crimes in the manner we are tending to do. I have particular concerns about glamorising some criminals by ascribing certain titles either to them individually or by describing their crimes in a certain fashion. The latest example of that approach involves references to tiger kidnapping. Such references bring extra pain and stress to the victims involved because of the added notoriety they bring to such cases. In addition, however, they may also give the criminal a psychological boost arising from that notoriety. I ask people to consider that aspect of the matter.
Throughout history, there have been plenty of examples of extra damage being done by the notoriety that was bestowed on certain criminals. The media can argue that it may make a story more colourful but we must all work together in order to deal with crime. While we all have an important role to play in that respect, if we are to have a real impact we will need to reconsider our approach to certain aspects of this matter, as it affects everyone. Those who are not direct victims of crime are still affected by criminality, even though they may not realise it and may not provide the necessary support to combat it. They are paying the price either through extra taxation to support the necessary services or by way of indirect charges for insurance and other costs that arise as a result of crime.
It is important to educate the public on those aspects of the issue, as we did 20 or 25 years ago concerning the threat posed by illegal drugs. People must understand that they have a role to play. The public are confused by the current crime situation and are unsure as to how they can support crime prevention measures. They are confused by the judicial system in general. The prohibition on Members mentioning any specific cases in this Chamber is part of the separation of responsibilities, to which we all subscribe, between the Legislature and the Judiciary. Nonetheless, members of the public are greatly concerned by the current situation concerning many reported court cases. Apart from the mismanagement of affairs within the system, which can lead to cases being struck out, repeatedly adjourned or mishandled, there is the serious issue of inconsistency in sentencing. Almost invariably, when this matter is raised we are told by someone or other, "You only think it is wrong because you don't know the facts of the case". That may be true in a few situations but in the vast majority of cases nowadays there is detailed coverage of what is involved, so we are able to make up our own minds on whether the right sentence has been handed down. There is huge concern and the level of inconsistency in sentencing seems to be increasing.
We are rightly discouraged from referring to individual cases, but one can read the decisions that have led to the current serious disquiet. They have also possibly undermined public confidence in the system. The Bill is designed to apprehend and deal properly with criminals â serious criminals in particular â but the role of the Judiciary requires urgent attention. I am not suggesting political interference, as such, but as with all professions, there is a need for constant revision and education of the professionals involved. We highlighted this matter in our earlier discussion on the Pharmacy Bill. As with other professions, judges should be encouraged to keep themselves updated. For the purpose of consistency, a more collegiate approach to the issue is required, including cross-case discussions. Judges should not isolate themselves from society. We all understand the dangers involved in the role and how different and difficult it is. I believe their role is so vital to the system that the importance of public confidence in them cannot be overstated. It is important they have input in legislation such as this. Deputy Gay Mitchell mentioned the Law Reform Commission earlier and I believe that constant monitoring, discussion and advice is essential in this regard. People must understand what we are doing in this legislation.
Such an approach could prevent comments such as the one that was reported regarding the Act passed on mandatory sentences for certain drug offences when Deputy O'Donoghue was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The statement was that "no political hack will tell me how to run my court". I do not know if that comment was actually made but it was reported and if it was made it would be a huge cause for concern as the political hack referred to was a senior Cabinet Minister. Such a comment would be a cause for worry in any field but it is a particular concern given the structure of the Judiciary.
We all have a role to play in crime prevention, some more than others, and ours, as legislators, is huge. We must try to be consistent along with the Garda, the Judiciary and the public. Crime prevention, from the public's point of view, is about active participation with and support for the Garda and it has been stated many times that people who do not wish to be policed will not be policed, as is evident in countries experiencing difficulties upholding law and order. It is necessary to have public support at all levels, whether it be for auxiliary forces or something else.
I try not to be divisive on these issues but the Opposition condemns the Government for inaction on crime on one hand and announces its policy proposals in media-friendly soundbites that attract headlines and may instil fear in people. On the other hand, when it comes to addressing the issue, doing the job of governing, the Opposition backs off and will not take on the responsibility of legislating against criminals and thugs. It comes as no surprise that Members of the Opposition suggest that this Criminal Justice Bill should not be rushed in while they scramble to get on television news bulletins and write letters to newspapers about problems with the bail laws, sentencing and so on. Deputy Mitchell suggested a slow process on this involving more discussions, reviews and reports but there are extremely serious issues relating to bail, sentencing, re-offending and crime prevention and this Criminal Justice Bill is an attempt to tackle such matters.
The time for this legislation is now because society is changing, criminals are changing, their equipment and modus operandi are changing and the law should change to reflect this. I have concerns relating to the civil liberties approach which I will mention later. In recent months family members of employees have been tied up and kidnapped following raids on post offices, banks and money handling firms and this legislation aims to tackle such shocking situations by providing gardaÃ with the power to detain suspects for up to seven days. It is not helpful to the public to describe such incidents as tiger kidnappings and to raise the profile of the people involved. This arm of the legislation is a direct attempt to tackle the problem of gang crimes head on. I am sure the Opposition would be unhappy to let gang crime go unresolved, yet their stance on this Bill suggests otherwise.
I appeal for the support of the Opposition on this Bill. If some Bills have been found unconstitutional through the years and some have been challenged, it proves there are people capable of taking on the legislators to use the Constitution in any way possible. If there is a problem with this Bill it can be revised but we must pass this legislation.
The Bill deals with detention, the right to bail, the nature of sentencing and how the courts deal with the silence or non-co-operation of accused persons. It also provides for mandatory minimum sentences in drugs cases which is a facet of the Bill that has been criticised and I refer to the previous reported comment of a member of the Judiciary. The public sees total inconsistency in sentencing. A person caught with drugs for personal use may get three or four years in jail while a suspended sentence may be given to a person caught with drugs worth an amount of money that would frighten people. We are entitled to know the details in such cases and why certain decisions were made; people must be answerable in this regard.
The measures to be introduced in this Bill may be seen as harsh but we cannot be soft on criminals, particularly those who commit serious crimes; they are certainly not soft on the public. It is time to get tough in certain cases because there are horrific things being reported in newspapers. I do not wish to play good cop, bad cop. In the past week there were reports of a person in the northern jurisdiction who had his face smashed beyond recognition with a shovel. It hardly bears thinking about. We must be serious on the legal side of these issues and the penalties to be paid for such offences.
Laws are in place to protect the law abiding citizens of the State, not to shield the guilty and I am not sure what Deputy Gay Mitchell's point was in this respect. A person who commits a crime must serve the time but I do not see how this affects an innocent person. There will be people, I do not like to describe them as do-gooders, who will suggest this Bill is an attack on civil liberties but I believe it is an attack on serious criminal elements that have infiltrated communities around the country. When I hear discussions of civil liberties I seldom hear concern for victims, for the elderly who cannot leave their homes after dark for fear of what is happening around them. I hear little sympathy for people who have lost everything in robberies, who have been battered and so on. These people do not seem to count when it comes to civil liberties. I believe civil liberties should be applied to all people equally, not just those who wish to commit crime, and balance is needed in this regard. We are all concerned about people being wrongly charged but there is a system for reviewing such decisions and for compensating people in such circumstances.
The new legislation will add to the resources of the Garda as well as those of the prosecution services and the courts. We had been criticised in the past for not responding swiftly yet when we do we are still criticised. It is time for action, not inaction, and that is why this Bill must be passed into law as quickly as possible.
I have long felt that crime initiatives and strengthening the powers of the Garda will be ineffective if sentencing is not consistent throughout the State. I raised this point previously with the Minister through a parliamentary question when I asked if crimes of a similar nature were sentenced in a consistent fashion throughout the State and how this was monitored. That was long before this Bill was printed but the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, pointed out that the courts are independent in the exercise of judicial functions and that the traditional approach to sentencing is for the Oireachtas to lay down maximum penalties and for the courts to impose appropriate penalties after considering cases. The difficulty lies in the interpretation of appropriate penalties because it is hard to see some of the sentences that have been handed down as appropriate. The Minister said the system reflects the separation of powers and that while it is for the Executive to lay down the possible punishment range it is for the courts to decide the punishments to be applied to the offender, taking account of the seriousness of the crime and all circumstances of the case and of the offender. Members of the public and legislators would subscribe to this approach if we were given open and transparent reasons for decisions. The practice by which the Director of Public Prosecutions does not state the reasons for non-prosecution gives rise to concerns. Sentencing decisions is another area in need of examination.
It is not unreasonable to require members of the Judiciary to operate with the same degree of circumspection as the rest of us. This Government has done more than any of its predecessors to combat crime, the nature of which changes continually. The budget of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na has been increased by 10% to â¬1.445 billion this year, while Garda numbers now exceed 13,000. I hope the Garda Reserve will contribute to better policing in communities nationwide.
To be parochial, I have figures on Garda numbers in Cork. The personnel strength of the Cork city division on 31 December 1997 and 31 December 2006 was 540 and 641, respectively. This constitutes an increase of 102 or 18.8% in the number of personnel allocated over a decade, a reasonable increase in Garda strength. I do not have the expertise or knowledge to tell my local chief superintendent that garda X or Y should be deployed elsewhere. It is good that I can walk into my local Garda station and discuss local policing issues. Deployment decisions are, however, a matter for the line commander, rather than a trade union or others outside the force. It is the Minister's duty to supply a sufficient number of gardaÃ. I am pleased with the increase in Garda numbers in the Cork area. That is not to say the city has more criminals or crime than other areas but it needs the same levels of policing as any other major urban area.
Of the critically important amendments to the Bail Act, the rights and wrongs of electronic tagging have attracted most attention. If one breaks the law at any level, one must serve the sentence or pay the fine. If one commits murder, one must serve life in prison. If one enters a bank or post office and waves around a gun, one must serve an appropriate sentence in jail. We do not use modern technology as much as we should and if new means become available for monitoring people released on bail, so be it.
Some of the sentences handed down for firearms offences are inadequate and the law must be updated to provide for increased sentences for these types of offences. I am not qualified to speak with authority on the issue of bail. The implementation of provisions on bail is a matter for the Judiciary paying due regard to the laws laid down by the Oireachtas.
I welcome the legislation's technical amendment to provisions governing appeals from a District Court to a Circuit Court and so forth. The Pharmacies Bill before the House this morning amends an Act introduced 130 years ago. I would not like legislation in the area of justice to remain unchanged for so long.
It is necessary to use modern technology to confront and challenge those who take new approaches to committing crime. We learned much from the war we fought during the bad times of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. We should examine this era to try to learn further lessons for dealing with current problems.
I alluded to my concern about categorising all criminals. It is handy to use terms such as white collar and blue collar crime but company law, laws on gun crime and guns and other forms of law create confusion. We must differentiate only between those who break the law and those who uphold it and whatever measures are required to deal with the former should be implemented with the full support of legislators.
I compliment the Minister on introducing this timely legislation. As I can only dream about the expertise he possesses in this area, I will allow myself to be led by him on the Bill. It is preferable to enact this legislation now and deal with any mistakes that may be identified at a later date, rather than allow circumstances on the ground to continue.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice Bill 2007. The Fine Gael Party and the majority of Opposition Deputies support most of its provisions and while we hope to improve the legislation, we do not propose to block it. We argue it is being rushed through the House too quickly because we do not want flaws to emerge later, as happened with previous Bills. If we leave grey areas or scope to appeal to higher courts, we will give gang members an opportunity to get away with their crimes. For this reason, the legislation must be strong, clear and without loopholes. This debate provides an opportunity to have a good debate and further time for scrutiny will be available on Committee Stage.
Many of the Minister's colleagues are not aware of the time and effort invested in the previous Criminal Justice Act. Committee Stage of that Bill lasted for more than three months and the legislation was bandied about the House for two years. The Bill before us is even bigger.
Government Members have commented on Opposition complaints. If the previous Bill took so long, why should this one be shoved through the House so quickly? I hope sufficient time will be made available to debate it. This is a large Bill on paper but it should not be treated as if it will solve every problem, the impression given by recent press statements. It appears to have been introduced to save the Minister's reputation.
While the legislation contains good provisions, it will not work without money, resources and equipment to back it up, a point made by the Minister in his address. While canvassing in Kilskeer in the Kells area of County Meath earlier this week, I met a lady who had been robbed four times in the past two years. Three weeks ago, I met an 84 year old woman in Navan who had been robbed five times in the past three years. This legislation will not solve their problems.
The reason I support the Bill is that it has been introduced primarily to tackle gangland crime. We are informed it has been rushed into the House because of gangland murders left, right and centre. I am pleased the Minister circulated a copy of a speech he made in 2004. It was a good speech with many good ideas. My problem is that he needs to back up his words with action. The Minister and the Government in general have failed to do so. More than three years ago, the Minister stated: "Ireland has become a more violent place and the level of gang related killings calls for a firm response from Government". Legislation did not become urgent last October or December but before the Minister took office.
There is no quick solution to gangland crime. The Bill is another worthy attempt to tackle a problem that has been festering for a long time. We should be under no illusion that this issue arose only last winter. The Minister clearly identified it as a major issue three years ago. Last year, however, the figures for deaths by shooting were the highest in the history of the State. These provisions should have been introduced long since. We must ensure the Bill is enacted quickly but it should not be rushed through because that may result in poor legislation. We should take adequate time to discuss it, especially if the election does not take place until June. That gives us additional time for debate. Perhaps the Minister knows more about this than I do.
I did not know that but I am glad to hear it. That gives us two more years to knock on constituents' doors.
The Minister described this Bill as a courageous response to the difficulties we face and argues that we must provide leadership on this issue. It is no big deal and we do not deserve a medal; it is something we must do. There were comments during yesterday's debate suggesting that this legislation is wonderful. That is not so â it is basic common sense. It will allow us to take control from gangland criminals and to make life more difficult for them. There is no need for us to pat ourselves on the back.
The Minister mentioned that he introduced a new crime package in the latter half of last year, including an increase in the number of gardaÃ from 14,000 to 15,000. This is welcome but I hope the additional recruits will be full-time gardaÃ. The Minister should consider measures to reform the rosters to ensure gardaÃ are on duty at the right times and in the right places. As an additional crime prevention measure, the Minister spoke about sanctioning 300 additional civil administration support posts for the Garda SÃochÃ¡na. The programme for Government promised that all the 500 to 600 gardaÃ engaged in civilian duties would be relieved of those duties. Five years later, however, most of them remain in those roles.
This is taking place at the very end of the Government's lifetime instead of five years ago. We are given all this rhetoric to suggest the problem is being tackled but that is not the case. We seek actions rather than words.
The Minister tells us the retirement age for gardaÃ and sergeants will increase from 57 to 60. Will consideration be given to a package to attract back into the force, retired gardaÃ, many of whom have valuable experience and advice to impart? In times of desperate measures, when we are under attack from gangland criminals, we should look to the gardaÃ who left the force after years of service, perhaps because of working conditions. An attractive package might encourage some of them to return, whether on a consultancy basis or to undertake weekend duties, for example. This might be of some assistance in stamping out gangland criminality.
We must change the system so that various professionals can work in the Garda SÃochÃ¡na without having to retrain as a garda for three or four years. Provision was made in legislation enacted last year that the Garda Commissioner may engage civilian staff with expertise in various areas. This is not being done, however. There are many professionals with great qualifications and experience in various areas of criminal law and detective work, for example, who cannot obtain employment with the Garda. We should review this situation because we are losing out on experience and talent that could be put to good effect.
The Minister has described gangland criminality as a threat that is not confined to certain areas in Dublin but one that we increasingly face in every part of the country and in all strata of society. I am in total agreement with him. Crime, particularly gangland crime, has increased in many areas. Criminals are moving into the greater Dublin region and making use of motorways and other infrastructure provided by the Government to spread their wings. The Minister must act on his observations in this regard.
In County Meath, for example, Garda figures have hardly budged in the past 20 years. The incidence of crime has increased by 73% in Trim, but Garda numbers are the same as they were two decades ago. Likewise, the population of my town of Navan has almost trebled and crime incidents have increased by 55%, but there has been no increase in Garda numbers for 20 years. There are important questions to be asked in this regard. If the Minister accepts there are serious problems outside Dublin, why does he not put the gardaÃ in place to tackle them? That is the way to prevent crime and improve detection rates.
In the past seven or eight years, for instance, less than 50% of murders have been detected and less than 30% have proceeded through the courts. We cannot expect better results if the additional gardaÃ are not in place. It is not merely a question of tough legislation and tough talk; the resources must be provided where they are needed. The Minister has overseen a significant increase in Garda numbers in recent years and there are plans to train more. There is no point in doing so, however, if they are not assigned where they are most needed.
I welcome the provisions to speed up the criminal justice process. The proposals to improve the quality of decision-making in certain bail cases through improved provision of additional information to the courts, such as assets and money owed, are positive. I also welcome the provision for opinion evidence to be permissible in court in certain cases by gardaÃ of chief superintendent rank or higher. We must ensure such evidence is heeded. In many instances, bail is granted despite Garda advice that it should be refused.
I particularly welcome the provision to impose electronic monitoring on those released on bail. Some of the debate on this issue last night was about nothing. The Minister has made a good decision and he should see it through. It is crazy that people on bail are in a position to commit more crimes. Whether it applies to 5,000 or 10,000 people per year is of no concern. Such activity can be stamped out through the use of electronic tagging. It may not work on its own and additional surveillance may be required but everyone, especially victims, will at least feel more confident that those who are released on bail are subject to some surveillance. Electronic tagging would not be required if the court process was speedier. It may no longer be required if we eventually achieve a more efficient court system but it is certainly necessary for now.
Section 13 permits the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to enter a contract with appropriate people for the operation of electronic monitoring. Will the Minister clarify what is meant by "appropriate"?
Section 18 allows for a great deal of discretion for the court in regard to bail amounts. I am not sure whether this is positive or negative. The current system seems haphazard, with very low amounts set in some cases. Does the Minister intend to give further direction in this regard? I welcome the provision to allow the prosecution to appeal decisions on bail. I understand only the applicant can currently do so.
Applicants who have criminal records and are clearly engaged in criminal activity on an ongoing basis should be refused bail. It seems, however, that many of them assume they will be granted bail as a right. Bail should be a privilege rather than a right. I accept that a lack of prison facilities sometimes means there is no option but to grant bail. We must reach the situation, however, where bail is not something that is given automatically to the majority of applicants.
I welcome section 22, which amends the Criminal Justice Act 1984 by allowing sentences for an offence committed while on bail to run consecutively. There is no point in releasing a prisoner only to imprison him or her at a later stage for a crime committed while on bail. In the case of younger offenders in particular, offenders facing multiple charges are initially brought into court to deal with only one of those charges. Such offenders may serve a sentence for that crime, be released and then go through the court process again six months later to face a second charge. All the time spent on retraining such offenders while they are in prison for the first crime is useless if they are to return to prison several months later.
The system must be changed to allow all charges against single offenders to be dealt with at once so they can serve all their prison time in one go, receive all the treatment and assistance they need and go back into society without the fear of being returned to prison, thus defeating all the rehabilitative work the State has done. I acknowledge that this will be a difficult change to make and is not simply a case of waving a magic wand. We should work towards that end.
The Minister has spoken about the extensive work being done in prison to rehabilitate offenders, including drug treatment programmes, work experience and so on. This is all positive. However, the State does not do enough to help offenders when they leave prison and wish to become functional members of society. If ex-offenders do not feel part of society, it may only be a matter of time before they revert to criminal activity. This is an issue not only for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It also involves other Departments in terms of assisting them in securing housing and employment. We are failing ourselves as a society if we do not rectify this problem in the system.
Sections 24 and 25 deal with sentencing. Members on this side of the House have argued for the establishment of a register of sentences that would offer strict guidelines. This would mean the Judiciary knows exactly what the Legislature expects in terms of sentences. The TÃ¡naiste said last night and in previous speeches that he would prefer the Judiciary to draw up its own guidelines on sentencing and would leave it to do that. I remind him that he said the same three years ago when he said it was important for it to devise guidelines and sentences, and that he would provide the necessary funding for training. However, in the past three or four years nothing has happened in this regard. A person's address still decides his or her sentence or it depends on whoever the judge passing sentence happens to be. That is unfair. We should have balanced sentencing and guidelines.
I understand there are some extreme circumstances and that judges must retain independence. However, guidelines on sentencing should be set out clearly and there should be a requirement for judges who vary from those guidelines to explain their reasons for doing so to all involved, particularly victims. I am not happy that the TÃ¡naiste feels we should leave it to the Judiciary. He said he would do all he can to encourage it and provide funding for developing guidelines, but I am not satisfied because nothing has happened to improve the situation in recent years.
In 1996 a Law Reform Commission report recommended a review of guidelines on sentencing. It is now 2007 and there has been no real change. Perhaps there are some changes on the way, but we need them now. The Law Reform Commission does good work and issues many reports which we receive, but who decides what priority is given to those reports? The commission recommended changes previously on the issue of mandatory sentences for persons involved in sexual acts with persons under the age of 15. These changes were recommended over 20 years ago, but no Government dealt with the issue until last year when it became a serious issue because a person was being released from prison. I asked before for a system to be put in place in the Oireachtas to highlight important issues such as this and make the necessary provisions to deal with them. These reports should not just sit on the shelf in every Deputy's office; we should act on them. I know it is the job of the Opposition to highlight such issues, but somebody should be appointed by Government to point out where change is needed and what recommendations should be acted on. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations are left to one side until something happens to make them urgent. We need change in this regard.
I welcome the main provision of the Bill to copperfasten the mandatory sentence for drug offences. The Minister dealt with the sections that provide for exceptional circumstances where a person would get a sentence of less than ten years. I hope the legislation is strong and clear enough to deal with the problem and that the knock-on effect will be that judges will impose the mandatory sentence. Drug peddlers are a menace to society and peddle death, not just drugs. We need to be tough in our dealings with them and I hope the legislation covers this.
The ten-year minimum sentence has been in existence since 1999, but it has not been used in most cases. When the TÃ¡naiste spoke on this issue before Christmas and attacked judges, he spoke about the problem as if it was new and as if he had just been told judges were not imposing proper sentences, but that is not the case. He highlighted the issue three years ago and I and others have raised it many times. We have known about the problem for years, but it is only in the past couple of months the Minister decided to act on it and make his feelings known to judges. I realise he cannot demand that judges impose particular sentences unless there is a change in legislation. I do not know how the TÃ¡naiste got away with raising the issue recently as if it was something new. It is not, and the failure to deal with it before falls on the Minister.
It has not worked. We have many lovely Acts, but we want action. We want follow-on action to the Acts because that is much more important for the people.
I welcome the crime prevention order in section 25. It is a good idea, but I question whether ten years is too long. How it will work has not been set out clearly and we need further clarification. To be under the order for ten years may be unfair on some ex-offender who makes a good effort to behave. It should be reviewed every few years. While we must be tough on crime, we must be fair to those who make an effort to rehabilitate themselves and get back into society. This crime prevention order should not be left hanging over them. The order is a good idea and it is important to provide for it in the Bill as it gives victims a feeling of security because they know that even when a person leaves prison, he or she will be watched. I welcome that.
I welcome the Bill for the most part and hope the resources needed will be provided to back it up. This is the third Criminal Justice Bill on which I have spoken. Each time the Minister announces one of these Bills he points out how great they are and suggests they will solve all the problems. If that is the case, why am I speaking on a third Bill? I hope this one works. It touches on the issues, but the Minister also needs to review sentencing and guidelines for judges to be fair to the people.
I will share time with Deputy Fiona O'Malley.
Like my colleagues, I welcome this Bill and congratulate the Minister on the introduction of legislation to ensure that gangland bosses will no longer have handed down to them derisory and inadequate sentences. Modern Ireland has seen an unacceptable increase in gangland activity, resulting in 26 gangland murders in 2006. I fully and unequivocally support this Bill as I believe it strengthens the hands of the Garda and the DPP. It is timely that criminals should fear our criminal justice system. The current situation has been brought about by the failure of the Judiciary to ensure that these dangerous criminals receive punishment commensurate with their crime.
The murder of Veronica Guerin saw a massive public outcry and demands for justice, to which the Judiciary responded. That response has now weakened and the Judiciary has reverted to a softly, softly approach to crime and to the punishment of same. Judges talk of proportionality in sentencing. Where is the proportionality in the case of a gangland boss, who is responsible for numerous deaths, walking away with a suspended sentence for drug crime? It seems that the scales of justice have been tilted so far in favour of the accused that they are about to fall over. I, therefore, take this opportunity to raise a matter of grave concern to the people of this State.
I am of Longford, and not far from here, at the main entrance to Trinity College, is situated a commemorative bust to a very famous Longford man, Oliver Goldsmith. Indeed, a summer school to celebrate his life and work takes place annually in Ballymahon. In 1770, Goldsmith's best known poem, "The Deserted Village" was published. Prior to its publication, in a letter to his friend Joshua Reynolds outlining the intended social comment of the poem, he wrote: "In regretting the depopulation of the country, I inveigh against the increase of our luxuries and here also I expect the shout of modern politicians against me". In the poem, Goldsmith's declares: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay."
Goldsmith's words are perhaps even more relevant in the Ireland of the Celtic tiger than 250 years ago. No doubt, the accumulation, display and obsession with wealth is all too obvious. We must ask ourselves whether our society is one in which "men decay". For me, the greatest single indicator of societal decay is the lack of social justice, which still exists in important areas of our society.
I take this opportunity to speak on one such social injustice. On 12 March 2007, a man convicted of a brutal and shocking rape walked free from the court in which he was tried. Adam Keane left the Central Criminal Court, effectively a free man, leaving in his wake a woman devastated in body and soul, her dignity and integrity in tatters and her quality of life destroyed forever. Is this the quality of justice that Mary Shannon from Clare deserves? The precedents are clear and unequivocal. In the DPP v. M in 1994 it was decreed a sentence should be proportional to the gravity of the offence and the personal circumstances of the offender. While temporary or permanent insanity could be deemed to be a mitigating personal circumstance, a self-induced state of intoxication or drug-driven delirium surely cannot be deemed such. On the specific crime of rape, the DPP v. Tiernan in 1989 is specific. This judgment from the Supreme Court handed down by the then Chief Justice, Mr. Finlay, stated that save in exceptional circumstances a person convicted of rape should receive an immediate and substantial custodial sentence. He also stated he would find it hard to see a situation that would justify departure from this principle. As was the case here and as it should be from now on the convicted rapist is the one on whom the onus to appeal the severity of the sentence should fall. This creates a binding precedent for all courts in respect of rape.
The contemptible submission of Mr. Justice Carney that the NY case decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal, subordinate to the Supreme Court, should be a precedent in the sentencing of the crime of rape is reprehensible and unacceptable.
The judgments of the Court of Criminal Appeal which prompted such an outrageous judgment from Mr. Justice Carney are equally contemptible. Does this court feel itself to be superior to the Supreme Court? Did Mr. Justice Carney feel the same? Does society rely on such whimsical judgments being passed by judges who perceive a past slight on them from a higher court? The Judiciary, as much as the Cabinet and the Legislature, is there to protect the right of the citizen. This was in the minds neither of the judge when he gave his judgment nor of the Court of Criminal Appeal in the NY case. These judgments show that the discretion granted to the Judiciary should come under serious scrutiny.
I have brought my concerns and those of what I believe to be the majority of fair-minded and law abiding citizens to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and have argued that the existing guidelines that were clear in the Supreme Court decision are not being followed which is leading to the erosion of confidence in the entire criminal justice system. I have suggested that these Houses should make the sentences mandatory. In principle the TÃ¡naiste agrees with some of what I say, and should the situation continue mandatory sentencing may be a possibility.
The TÃ¡naiste should introduce mandatory minimal custodial sentencing for the crime of rape now. If with his legal expertise, he feels this is not appropriate now I call on him to consider the introduction of at least mandatory statutory sentencing guidelines to which judges must refer when delivering their judgments. I also call on him to introduce an ombudsman's office for the Judiciary which, among other things would ensure compliance with the guidelines and that personal precedent, which appears to be taking hold on the Bench and hardly serves the cause of justice will not continue to be followed. The precedents I have cited are those which should be acted on.
In sentencing a 26 year old man for robbery in Monaghan Judge Sean McBride said that if he had a licensed gun he would blow the head off anyone who came into his house. He subsequently issued a qualified apology for his words but not for his intent and his revulsion at the violation of the safety of people's homes and the security of their private place. What would he or any learned judge have said if some person entered his house and raped his wife or daughter? Would he subsequently apologise for his reaction to such an event? I ask the male Members of this august assembly how they would feel if Mary Shannon was their wife, sister, mother or daughter. Would they accept a non-custodial sentence as sufficient in this abominable set of circumstances?
On 20 March the Circuit Criminal Court in Galway gave a member of the local authority a deserved 12 month sentence for a fraud of â¬7,000 and an attempted fraud of a further â¬7,500. To compare low level fraud to a brutal rape is like comparing the McGillicuddy Reeks to the Alps, yet this crime merited incarceration while Mary Shannon's rapist walked free. That local authority member has a personal right to appeal. Mary Shannon has no personal right of appeal. It lies with a third party, the DPP, to exercise this right on her behalf if he so chooses. I call on him to do so because I have no doubt that the delay is causing extreme distress. I ask him also to introduce legislation to allow the victim in such a circumstance to instruct the DPP to appeal on her behalf as he would in a civil action with her own legal counsel.
I wish to ensure that never again in this State can a convicted rapist walk from a court with a suspended sentence. I repeat Goldsmith's prophetic words: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay". I hope this is not the land to which we aspire.
I draw the attention of the House to two rulings of the Chair, No. 45, which states that members of the Judiciary are independent by virtue of the Constitution and may neither be criticised nor have their rulings referred to in the House, except on a substantive motion, and ruling No. 436 which states that a Member may neither make a charge against, nor discuss the conduct or actions of judges or justices. Members should bear those rulings in mind.
That makes one wonder what we are here for. I welcome the introduction of this Bill. In a society where drugs have emboldened thugs in a unprecedented way, our security forces must be empowered to be able to deal effectively to eliminate the gangland culture which is emerging in urban centres throughout the country. The lucrative trade of the sale and distribution of drugs underpins this horrific violence.
It is wise of the TÃ¡naiste to introduce tough measures which send a clear signal to criminals that very little tolerance will be shown in respect of drug crime and firearms offences. I read with great interest the TÃ¡naiste's speech last night and wish to quote from it:
From time to time this House is confronted with issues that go to the heart of our role as national legislators. On such occasions, a courageous response on our part can give leadership and can galvanise society into clear and determined action. The Criminal Justice Bill 2007, which I am pleased to introduce today, provides the House with an opportunity to send a clear and unambiguous message that, as a society, we are not prepared to allow organised criminal gangs set about the destruction of families and communities.
I pay tribute to those fine words and their good sentiment. That is what the Bill should and I hope will do. It is wise of the TÃ¡naiste to act with such alacrity and bring forward this legislation so swiftly.
The TÃ¡naiste goes on to remark that some of the particularly vicious and tragic murders which took place in December last year demonstrated that criminal gangs believed they could act with impunity. The law was clearly not acting as a deterrent and this makes a folly of it.
Inconsistency in sentencing is just as damaging to the integrity of the law and respect or regard for the legal profession. The TÃ¡naiste referred to this also in his speech:
I made the point that there has to be consistency in sentencing. When it comes to the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions applicable to section 15A drug trafficking offences, the will of the Oireachtas, which is also the will of the people, must be given effect... It is a conservative measure to reflect the values of society put in place for the guidance of the Judiciary and to stop people in the drugs trade from serving short sentences and resuming their criminal activities.
Some people may argue that a statutory scheme is not necessary for consistency in sentencing for drug or firearm offences, but if that were the case, there would be no need for legislation...people must be under no illusion that the people of Ireland expect coherent, rational and consistent sentencing from the courts, and if they do not see that, it amounts to potentially grave damage to the administration of justice.
Again, I could not agree more. I welcome this tough stance on sentencing for these vicious crimes. However, the question of mandatory sentencing for convicted rapists has been overlooked in the Bill, as initiated.
Deputy Sexton spoke about events that took place last week and I agree with her. The decision of a judge to allow a convicted rapist go free without a custodial sentence is an outrage and confidence in the Judiciary has been put to the test. Contrast this sentence with that handed down to a councillor who defrauded a local authority of Â£7,000; he got a sentence of over a year. What does that tell us about our value system?
I do not believe there is a worse crime than rape, apart from murder. That said, I would like to see zero tolerance and as tough an approach to the crime of rape as is now being applied to drugs and firearms offences. I understand the Minister's reluctance to interfere in the dispensing of justice, but if the will of the Oireachtas is being ignored, as he has said, Members have both a duty and responsibility to act to remedy the problem. The judge in the case referred to by Deputy Sexton has, in a moment of madness, thrown away his reputation as a fair-minded, proportionate and, most important, consistent adjudicator. I appreciate that mandatory sentencing is a blunt instrument but, frankly, circumstances really could not get much worse.
I applaud the courage of Mary Shannon in waiving her right to anonymity to highlight this gross miscarriage of justice. I have no doubt her courage was fuelled by anger and dismay at the justice system, which has let her down badly. I regard the system as broken in regard to the treatment of rape victims and, as a legislator, I feel a duty to have the matter rectified, as Deputy Sexton indicated.
Having had discussions with the Minister, I know he will be aware of our concern for the introduction of a mandatory sentence for rape. I was informed during our discussions that the Judiciary was asked many years ago to proceed with the introduction of sentencing guidelines but it has not done so. In the face of this inertia, we have an opportunity to step in and provide direction and a framework in which sentencing for the vicious crime of rape can be made mandatory. The only problem I have with the introduction of a mandatory sentence concerns the criminalisation of people under 17 who engage in consensual sex. I recognise this poses a problem but it is incumbent on the House to deal with it. This matter will be taken up very quickly during the term of the next DÃ¡il, when, I hope, we will agree on the age of consent on an all-party basis. We must deal with the matter swiftly.
The best solution involves both mandatory sentencing and a sentence advisory panel modelled on the one that operates in the United Kingdom. Proportionality, consistency, appropriateness and, above all, transparency are most important in sentencing for crime. Our current system certainly does not offer these, as instanced by the events last week. This Bill affords us the opportunity to incorporate these elements into future sentencing policy and I hope the Minister will consider an amendment to include mandatory sentences for rape. Events such as the one last week display how desperately we need it.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate but it is very difficult to understand what the Bill is about. It purports to make amendments to some of the most fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system but one cannot help believing it has much more to do with the upcoming general election. The Minister has been engaging in a lot of tough talking over recent weeks, particularly in recent days, and this approach seems to be much more geared towards creating an impression within the media than anything else. It is not too difficult for him to create an impression given the awe in which he is held by a number of media commentators. He is certainly working very hard to create an impression. This is fine but it is presuming that the parliamentary procedures we are supposed to respect in this House will be complied with and assumes people have very short memories. Sometimes, as public representatives, we feel people have short memories but the Minister is obviously staking a lot on this belief and on the fact that his tough talking this week will influence the electorate in the upcoming general election.
Many will approach the issue of crime during the election campaign on the basis of their experience over recent years. When those who are concerned about crime go to cast their votes, they will ask themselves whether they feel safer now than they did five years ago. When people think about this, they will give the Government a very clear answer because, quite clearly, they do not feel safer in their homes, on the streets or in their communities. There is no reason they should, considering the crime figures available to us.
The Minister has adopted the aforementioned approach and is to take major steps affecting the criminal justice system in the belief it will solve all the problems. This is how he is spinning the issue but one must ask why he is introducing this Bill a matter of weeks before the general election. He has been in office for the past five years and has had ample time to address these issues if he felt they were important. Last year, this House and the Seanad spent months debating the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which was supposed to be the solution to all our problems and which was the result of months of consultation. It was so complex that after its publication the Minister tabled 200 amendments thereto. The Members who debated the Bill at the time did so in good faith and the Minister portrayed it as the solution to all the problems that existed, yet, nine or ten months later, we are debating yet another criminal justice Bill.
Why did the Minister get it so wrong last year and why, after five years in office, are the crime figures so appalling? It is not as if the Minister just came to office as a newcomer in 2002 without any background or experience. He took on the justice portfolio having served a term as Attorney General and he therefore must have known the issues and problems that exist. Now, only after ten years, and in the dying weeks of this Administration, is he coming up with a solution. How can anybody believe anything he is saying? He has treated the public and this House with utter contempt.
Members and the public are not fools and will not be fooled by the Minister's pretence in recent weeks that he is doing something. He has had his opportunity and failed dismally. He has had responsibility for justice over the past five years as Minister, and previously as Attorney General, but serious crime rates are now higher than ever. Last year there were 26 gun murders, which is the highest annual number ever in the State. The Minister presided over that so he cannot pretend to us now that he will do something about it in the last few weeks of this Government.
I had regard for the Minister's parliamentary performance in the past. He enjoyed respect from all sides of the House for his DÃ¡il contributions in previous years, particularly when serving in opposition, but the manner in which he has handled this legislation is a disgrace and an affront to democracy. The Minister knows well there is a long tradition that even the simplest legislation is supposed to be published at least two weeks in advance of the debate taking place in this House. This complex and important Bill was published on 15 March and the Minister did not allow any time for proper scrutiny of the Bill. He attempted to rush it through all Stages and it was only after opposition from this side of the House that he was persuaded to allow a certain amount of time for it, although it is still not adequate.
Just as important as the Minister's failure to allow adequate time for the Opposition to consider this legislation, he allowed little or no time for the many interest groups that have a legitimate role in commenting on our justice system, such as the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Irish Human Rights Commission and many others that have an interest in the area. The Minister has denied those bodies an opportunity to consider this Bill or have any input into it. He is truncating the debate on Second and Committee Stages in an attempt to rush the legislation through before the DÃ¡il rises. That is an unacceptable way to do parliamentary business. The ICCL has circulated a paper it was obliged to produce today. The Irish Human Rights Commission is not yet in a position to do that and we have not heard from the Bar Council and the Law Society. That is not an acceptable way to do parliamentary business.
The Labour Party will not oppose this Bill but we are strongly opposed to the manner in which it has been handled and in which it is being rushed. We do not oppose the principles of the Bill but we want the time to consider its detail because that is where difficulty always lies. It is important that the concerns of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties are recorded in respect of the Bill. It has had to rush a response to the Bill because it was not consulted or given time to consider it. I am not in a position to respond to the concerns it has raised and I do not know if the Minister is in a position to do that, but I will raise the concerns anyway and see if the Minister can respond in his summing up at the end of Second Stage. The ICCL is entitled to that, as are the many others concerned about civil liberties.
Section 25 allows for the introduction of crime prevention orders. These have not been the subject of debate or consultation so far. At first, they seem similar to the serious crime prevention orders in draft serious crimes legislation in Britain. By contrast, however, serious crime prevention orders in Britain are the subject of intensive and informed debate within and outside the British Parliament. None of that debate has taken place here and it remains unclear from the Bill how the crime prevention orders proposed in it would mesh with the restriction on movement orders the Minister introduced in last year's Bill.
This Bill proposes to broaden the categories of offences for which people can be held in Garda custody for up to seven days, despite the fact that an existing seven day detention power is rarely, if ever, used. This substantial expansion of Garda detention powers is being proposed in the absence of concrete evidence that it will have any impact on gangland crime. When reviewing the existing seven day detention powers for drug trafficking offences, concerns were raised by the Council of Europe Committee on the Prevention of Torture. The ICCL expresses its concerns about the implications of this provision and the fact that there is no basis for this proposal. It has not been discussed and the Minister has not proposed any grounds on which he believes this will make any difference.
The right to silence is of concern, although personally I support these proposals. The issue, however, has been around for a long time so why, after five years in office, is it only now that the Minister is acting?
Part 3 of the Bill covers sentencing and provides for new sentencing arrangements for particular categories of offences. I draw the Minister's attention to the comments of the retired High Court judge, Mr. Feargus Flood, when he said that mandatory sentencing, per se, is an infringement of their judicial function which not only requires observance of the law but fairness and justice for the individual concerned. In the context of a discussion of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, the Minister made the point to the select committee that sentencing guidance for judges could not be too prescriptive lest it be deemed unconstitutional. Why is the Minister now satisfied that the provisions in this Bill could not be deemed unconstitutional? The Minister is flip-flopping on this and other issues.
Points made by the Opposition and other interested bodies over the years have been utterly opposed by the Minister but now he proposes the same measures, such as electronic tagging. Deputy Howlin quoted yesterday the Minister's response to a Fine Gael proposal on electronic tagging, that it was too expensive and the technology was insufficient, and he dismissed the idea. Now, coming up to the election, it sounds like a good idea that might go down well with the punters so the Minister favours electronic tagging without any explanation for his complete shift of opinion since last year.
It is difficult to explain these changes other than as efforts by the Minister to create an impression that he is serious about crime. We have now reached the point where we have significant levels of serious crime but we have had nothing but knee-jerk reactions in the past five years to the mounting crime problem. That serious crime problem did not appear overnight. There was not a sudden upsurge in gun crime and gangland crime, for example. It was a gradual process. It has been happening over a number of years yet the failure of the Minister to address the causes and effects of that crime has led us to a situation where that crime is out of control in many ways. There is a great deal of fear in certain communities. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Carey, and I share a constituency where there is a great deal of concern about the extent of serious crime that has been allowed to develop.
The Minister will recall that the Acting Chairman, a representative of the other TD in the Dublin North-West constituency, and myself met with him privately in 2003 to express our growing concern about what was happening in our constituency. I am sure many other Members may have had similar meetings with him to raise their concerns. We did that in a private way because we were genuinely concerned about what was happening. People were being intimidated and threatened out of their own communities. Council officials were being threatened. GardaÃ were afraid to tackle the problem. When a blind eye is turned to that type of activity, why should anybody be surprised when, in a matter of two or three years later, the situation is completely out of control? We went to the Minister in good faith on that occasion but he rubbished what we were saying about our constituency. He said it was not true, it was nonsense and that we were exaggerating.
Yes, and the Minister continued to completely ignore what people had said to him in private about their concerns about the increasing level of crime.
We are paying the price now for the Minister's inactivity. We are paying the price for his bluff and bluster and his continuous exposure on the radio with his pal Sam Smyth or his other pals on other radio stations in the media generally. He is rarely off the media talking about everything under the sun except his own stewardship and when it comes to his stewardship in terms of controlling the level of crime in this country, his performance has been abysmal.
In my constituency of Dublin North-West, and the same could be repeated in a number of other constituencies, there were 38 homicides last year. The level of crime that allows that to happen is crime that is increasing over many years. I mention homicides but we are talking also about attempted murder and threatened murder using the official Garda headings. We had a 6% rise in assaults and a 9% rise in burglaries. That is what we are dealing with and the Minister's response, in the case of the Finglas area, is to reduce the number of gardaÃ in the community Garda service. We have fewer gardaÃ now in the community Garda service in Finglas, which unfortunately has registered on a regular basis in terms of serious crime, than we had three years ago. We have two Garda stations in Dublin North-West which are hovels â the Ballymun station and the Finglas station. They are long overdueââ
ââand long promised for refurbishment but not a sod has been turned yet. We have had promise after promise during the Minister's stewardship but nothing is happening.
On a local basis, CCTV for Finglas was promised in 1996 and 11 years later there is not a single camera in place. The Minister can engage in all the bluff and bluster he likes. He can try to fool the people but in terms of the members of the public who are trying to cope with the levels of crime being experienced in many of our communities, his bluster means nothing. It is only bluster and people will not be fooled.
They are down, yes. Incidentally, I was the only one officialdom picked on. Nobody else was picked on. I would appreciate the Chair's protection.
I acknowledge the presence of the Minister and his contribution to this area. I could easily ambush him by talking about the proposed new Garda station for my home town of Tallaght but I am aware he is working on that and that he will have good news for me in the coming weeks. In fairness to the previous speaker, there are issues which are of concern to all of us and in fairness to the Minister, he has listened to those concerns.
We are in receipt of many representations on this Bill. The civil liberties organisation has contacted us and the Minister will be aware of its concerns about aspects of the Bill including the crime prevention orders, the seven day Garda custody measure, the right to silence change, the sentencing issues and the conditions for granting bail. Reference was made to the fact that organisations have not had an opportunity to listen to the debate and examine the Bill but it is fair to say that groups are responding.
I visited my old school in Drimnagh Castle this morning where I had not been for over 40 years. It was an amazing experience to go into my former classroom which, as the youngsters told me, probably has not changed since the time I left school. I am always anxious to visit schools. My former school is not in my constituency but as the Minister might be aware, Drimnagh Castle has a great reputation and many young people from my constituency, especially Tallaght, are students and they were happy to see me, as one would expect. As I said, I am always anxious to visit schools, as the Acting Chairman is aware, and deal with the cynicism of young people. I am not responding to the previous speaker but the House will be interested to know that the Minister's name, function and the work being achieved registered among that third year class this morning.
They spoke about justice issues and crime issues. Perhaps those of us who attended Drimnagh Castle are different but I am telling the truth. The Minister will be glad to know that what he is trying to achieve is having an impact on people. It is important that young people have a positive view in terms of justice and crime issues and that we get across that message. I speak not only as a DÃ¡il Deputy for a major population centre but as someone who has taken a good deal of time to work with the Minister and colleagues including my friend, Deputy SeÃ¡n Ardagh, Deputy Finian McGrath and others on the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. Whatever else one can say about the Minister, he has brought a lot of business before the House and raised many issues. Incidentally, I do not see any sign of an election. I am told there will not be an election until the summer and therefore I do not know if the previous speaker was right when she referred to our last few weeks here. Criminal justice issues will continue to be raised here and in Tallaght, Finglas, Ballymun, Marino, Cork, Ranelagh and throughout the country. That is only fair and it has never been any different.
I said in the earlier debate that I come from a different era in Dublin. As a small child living not far from here in the south inner city I remember being aware of justice issues. Dublin appeared to be a different place then and I remember my grandmother talking about what I now know to be anti-social behaviour and petty crime. There are challenges facing every generation regarding these issues and it is right that we take time to examine them.
We will always put pressure on the Minister of the day to ensure the Garda is given the proper resources and that proper Garda stations are built. I live in Tallaght, the third largest population centre in the country, with only one Garda station. Garda services are provided to that huge community from other Garda stations in Clondalkin, Crumlin, Terenure and Rathfarnham. In the geographical area covered by my constituency, Dublin South-West, there is only one physical Garda station. I will continue to put pressure on the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, because I am anxious to make progress on getting a new Garda station. I was glad to receive a reply to a parliamentary question recently in which the TÃ¡naiste stated that provision is being made in those plans for a new courthouse. I discussed that matter at a social occasion in Jobstown yesterday with the local judge, Judge McDonnell, who while he seemed very happy, looks forward to the day when the positive announcement is made.
There are many aspects of crime that are of concern to the public. In any debate we will raise all sorts of pet points. The TÃ¡naiste yesterday told us that the Bill amends the Garda SÃochÃ¡na Act 2005 by establishing a new executive management board. The board members will be the Garda Commissioner as chairperson, the Deputy Garda Commissioners and a member of the civilian staff of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na. The three non-executive members will be appointed by the Government on the nomination of the Minister. The board will keep under review the performance of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na in its functions, as well as the arrangements and strategies in place to support and enhance the performance of those functions. The board will provide six-monthly reports to the Minister and they will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. New and stronger provisions are introduced regarding special inquiry provisions.
It is important for the Garda always to have the confidence of the public and of the Oireachtas. Many issues have been raised in recent times and there is no point in my rehearsing them here. All gardaÃ I have ever come across do their jobs in a very effective way. As in every other walk in life, there may be difficulties in that regard. In fairness to the TÃ¡naiste, he has always promoted the importance of the Garda retaining the confidence and support of the public. That should be the case in all the Garda's dealing with the public. Let it deal with crime and be forceful with criminals. Let it not be afraid to take on the hard issues. However, let us also understand the importance of the public believing they are getting good service. When a member of the public goes to a Garda station for an issue unrelated to him or her breaking the law, it should be a good experience. We will need to continue to work hard in that regard.
I speak as somebody who has gone through my entire community and political life without ever having had recourse to criticising the Garda. Many colleagues have different attitudes and some have made a career in doing that. It is not as if I am any different; I just take the view that is not the way I want to do it. I have good memories of my dealings with the Garda over a long period. When I was small and tempted to play football out on Derry Park and was persuaded by the local garda on his bicycle to go up to Pearse Park, I was happy to do so. I brought those experiences to my community, political and private life now based in Tallaght. It is important that the Garda be given the resources and opportunities to get out into our communities. It is good to see gardaÃ in the community. I am always happy as I drive around Tallaght to co-operate when stopped at a Garda checkpoint to verify road tax, etc.
It is important that the Garda be seen to be a friendly force, which when it needs to be tough and enforce the law can do so. At the same time it should continue to provide a good service. I often say to the staff in my office that when people contact us it is a bit like running a sweetshop; if we do not provide the service and do the job properly they will go elsewhere. While it might be somewhat unfair to make that comparison regarding the work of the Garda, the same logic applies. It is about public service and ensuring the public is safe and happy and that the service is provided.
I am pleased with a number of the efforts the TÃ¡naiste has made in recent times to ensure that accountability is in place, the public can see what is happening and the public is happy with the support and services the Garda provides.
The Bill makes specific reference to drugs and the difficulties they have caused for communities. Deputy Shortall mentioned Finglas and I noticed the Acting Chairman nodded his approval. We all share urban constituencies. I am not afraid to say that I am a proud Dubliner. While it is not limited to this city, Dublin has had its problems not just with general crime as would be expected in the capital, but also with drug-related crime. Events such as the killings have upset the public hugely. While I did not know many of the people who have been killed, including yesterday's victim, as a citizen of the country and certainly as someone who is privileged to be a Deputy I am upset and concerned that these events happen. Years ago we only saw such events in films. It is not just an Irish phenomenon; it is happening in the UK and across the world. I am always upset when I hear of somebody being murdered.
The news reports of yesterday's killing have suggested it was related to drugs, which highlights the fact that gangs are making easy money and impacting on all our communities. Tallaght is no different and no worse than anywhere else and there has been a handle on many of the issues. The drugs problem is an issue for many communities and crime relating to drugs affects many communities. This problem goes beyond my constituency and affects every area in the country. In my latter days on a health board many colleagues made the point that the issue is just as challenging in other parts of the country. We all need to make representations to the health authorities, the Minister for Health and Children and the HSE on the need to continue properly funded and resourced programmes to deal with those issues.
I have always made the point that ultimately the drugs problem is a law and order issue. It is about dealing with supply. I recently heard somebody on the radio point to the great success of the Garda in recent times throughout the country and certainly in the Dublin region, including places close to my constituency. However, as I believe certain sources have confirmed, it is just the tip of the iceberg. There would be huge community support for giving the Garda everything it needs to address the drugs problem.
I am making my contribution and making my point. I do not believe anybody on these benches, including the TÃ¡naiste, would deny that problems exist, which is why he spends every waking moment, as far I can gather, doing his job.
I am not patronising. Whenever I have contacted the TÃ¡naiste he has always been helpful and I am not afraid to say so. He was the first man to welcome me when I came into this House and spoke to me about the problems in my constituency. All Deputies contact him regarding issues in their constituencies. It is not true to say he does not listen or respond to us. I am not afraid to say that and if people want to report it, I am quite happy with that. Like other Members, I do not get many opportunities to get into the media.
I wanted to make that point on drugs crime and to demonstrate to Deputy Shortall that I am not afraid to grasp the nettle when I need to do so.
One of the issues I continue to tackle, and pursue the Minister on, is CCTV for my constituency. There is a programme which I hope will provide CCTV for Tallaght sooner rather than later.
We are all sensitive on the point that we are in the last couple of months of this DÃ¡il but the election has not been called yet and while the public suggest everything we do relates to the election, I do not believe that. One has to keep doing one's job and keep one's focus. I do not believe I am looking for a job. I have a job and will complete it up to election day. The public can then decide what they want and what they want me to do for the rest of my life. I am happy with that. In the meanwhile, however, I will continue to raise the issues of concern to my community, as I have in this contribution. As in other areas of Dublin, CCTV is an issue in my constituency and I hope the Minister will continue to give it attention. We were disappointed when it was not included in the pilot programme. Perhaps that is fair but I had hoped account would be taken of Dublin South-West in this regard. I hope we can now look forward to CCTV being provided.
People sometimes smile when I refer to Tallaght but we should remember it is the third largest population centre in the country, has a huge youth population and has the kind of issues one would expect to have to deal with in any major urban area. It is no different from any other part of Dublin.
If he does not mind, I am glad to acknowledge Deputy Gregory, who was always my hero when I was a humble community worker.
I have always taken the view that we socialists should stick together as much as we can. I would love to be seen as the voice of Dublin, but I am not. On a number of occasions during this contribution I have referred to the need for all of us to speak up for Dublin and not be afraid to do so â I do so in front of a Cork man. Dublin is the capital. It is important the streets of Dublin are safe and that its crime is dealt with. I am glad the Minister walks the streets of Dublin as much as the rest of us â it is important we all do so.
I intended to mention the Minister of State also. I am always happy to acknowledge the Minister of State, who was kind enough to visit Tallaght yesterday on what was a very positive occasion. I am always delighted to welcome a Lenihan to Tallaght.
When I say this, people will think I am winding it up but I genuinely appreciate when people of the standing of Deputy Brian Lenihan come to Tallaght and speak so positively, as he did yesterday, at the opening of An Turas, the new community crÃ¨che in Jobstown. As the Minister of State knows, the local judge was in attendance and made reference to the contribution made to that fine facility by people being dealt with by the probation service. It is important in a debate such as this that we should acknowledge this contribution. I am glad the Minister of State did so yesterday. We should be positive about such matters.
I am happy to have made this brief contribution â I could talk for the rest of the day about some of these issues. The Bill is a good piece of business. Colleagues across the House are entitled to make their political points â I have no difficulty with that â but this is an important Bill. I do not agree that we have not had a proper opportunity to consider the Bill, given the all-party interest in the issues during this debate. The fact that we share the various concerns is good for the democratic process. I hope we spend many more Fridays dealing with this kind of business.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It is an urgent debate which provides an opportunity for Deputies to present their different views and solutions for dealing with the criminal justice system. It is also an opportunity to put forward some new and radical ideas and also to begin thinking outside the box when it comes to dealing with crime issues.
The justice system should be based on respect and support for victims and, built into that, sensible human rights provisions. This is the key in any democratic society as well as the way forward. However, we must accept that legislation alone will not solve the crime problem â this is the important point. We need to think of other ideas, strategies and, in particular, crime prevention measures, and we need a fair and balanced justice system.
Legislation only kicks in when society fails. Crime prevention should be the buzz word when dealing with this issue. For example, if there are violent or dysfunctional children in primary schools, there should be early interventions to deal with them and assist their families. The reality is that when these children are not helped, they turn to crime and end up in prison. Crime prevention is the progressive way forward in the long term but it is also the sensible way forward. The reaction in legislation usually happens after the damage has been done â after the young plumber has been slaughtered, the young person has been killed or some other innocent victim has suffered.
Quality policing must be a major part of the strategy with regard to the Bill. We must have quality gardaÃ on the beat in their communities. A good, professional garda will have a major impact on any community, as is the case with a teacher, nurse or doctor, if that person is a good professional person. It is particularly the case with regard to policing that the right person can prevent crime, a reality I see every day in my constituency. A good garda on the beat in certain areas at certain times can reduce crime and anti-social behaviour, and can show common sense in dealing with the harassment of elderly people by gangs. This is the way forward.
We need to focus our attention on crime prevention and quality policing. It is also important to explain to gardaÃ â we could relate this to all public servants â that when we talk about building respect in the community, they must go out and earn that respect. One does not demand respect from a group of people or a section of society; a person must earn it. As Deputy Gregory will know, in the 1980s when young members of the drug squad were involved in disadvantaged areas, they built up and earned the respect of the local community by working with them. This had an impact in blocks of flats throughout the city, particularly on the north side. GardaÃ should not be so defensive. They should open their minds, get out there and earn the respect of the community.
Dealing with the Bill provides an opportunity to consider the sensible ideas I and other Independent Deputies have put forward in recent years to deal with crime and the justice issue. As I have previously stated, we need more judges. We also need preliminary hearings to be held with a view to shortening trials. I would like to see the establishment of a dedicated witness, victim and family liaison officer scheme. I also feel strongly that the courts should operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A new criminal court complex in Dublin should be designed in such a way as to segregate key players such as judges, witnesses, jury members, defendants and gardaÃ.
I note the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is present in the Chamber. We need to focus our resources on disadvantaged schools and disadvantaged areas, which should be targeted with early intervention measures, particularly counselling and family therapy sessions. I have direct experience of this in my previous job as a teacher, where an art therapy session dealt with very disruptive pupils and had an impact on reducing violence both in and out of the school.
The most important factor is community gardaÃ on the beat. On a trip to London we visited a part of the inner city where 165 community police officers were designated to the station. Six hours out of these officers' eight-hour shifts were spent in the community and housing estates, including stairways. These officers were working with the community, dealing with drug addicts and helping them to access services. This was real community policing, which is the sensible way forward.
I strongly support the more serious activities, particularly strategies like Operation Anvil against armed gangs, because one needs such strategies. I would like to see the development of Operation Anvil to deal with those criminals involved in violence, gun attacks and murders, particularly gangland crime.
As I previously stated, many of the complaints in our constituencies concern minor things which, unfortunately, are not minor to many elderly people. We need to have community gardaÃ dealing with anti-social behaviour.
We also need to face up the major incidence of white-collar crime in this country. I hope the Minister is aware of illegal scams in the insurance industry and white-collar crime in general. I am delighted to learn from Garda authorities that a number of investigations are being undertaken by the Garda bureau of fraud investigation into alleged fraud in the insurance industry. This is very important because when people break the law, irrespective of the section of society from which they come, it is essential that they are detected.
Part 3 of the Bill, which deals with sentencing, provides new sentencing arrangements for certain categories of offences, particularly those considered to be linked to organised crime and for a new type of post-release order called a crime prevention order. I welcome Part 3 because it is sensible. Crime prevention orders are a very important strategy and I commend the Minister.
However, in respect of people directly involved in crime, I also use the old-fashioned statement that if these people do the crime, they should do the time and stop whinging. It is important to say this because I have seen at first hand how some people directly involved in very violent crime are the first to moan and complain in certain situations. The wider community is losing its patience with these people, particularly those who perpetrate violent crime. I am talking about serious violent crime and serious threats and intimidation which go on all the time. I find it very upsetting to meet constituents who tell me that they are afraid to go to the gardaÃ about particular drug dealers in their area because it will get back that they told the gardaÃ about these dealers and they will be burnt out. These people regularly approach Deputies and public representatives at our clinics all over the city. It is very sad that an entire community can be intimidated.
A development I find very upsetting when I go around my constituency in the build up to the election is the number of elderly people who bolt their doors, lock the gates and stay in for the night at 7 or 7.30 p.m. These people are very fearful when people knock on their doors even at that hour of the night. This is very sad. Greed and selfishness have kicked in and we as a community must address this. The sad reality is that people in huge estates might not know their neighbours five doors down. This is a fact with which we must deal in the era of the Celtic tiger. Will we turn our back on the traditional caring society we had before and which we need to develop again? It is appropriate to mention it during the debate on crime and link it to the debate on active citizenship. There are many groups who want to help and work with the gardaÃ on these issues, but the gardaÃ must get out there, earn respect, get on with the job and act in a professional and impartial manner.
As an unapologetic old-fashioned civil libertarian, I have major concerns in respect of the right to silence and am very cautious about this section. I know that a range of safeguards are provided in this legislation as well.
Another very important issue is the management of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na. Part 7 of the Bill concerns the amendment of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na Act 2005 and deals with the functions of the executive management board. This is sensible and provides for a good way forward.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. I have concerns about certain aspects of it. The Criminal Justice Bill should be based on dealing with criminals in a strong way but should also provide justice for the victim and society as a whole.
I wanted to compliment the Minister on something since he complimented me recently. I was not sure what it would be, but I suppose it is the amount of legislation he has managed to bring in. He seems to be a great Minister for legislation. However, the legislation, including this Bill, always seems to be all over the place. There is simply no coherent strategy in the Bill. I think the Minister described it as part of his measures against organised crime.
I have watched the Minister since he took office and must say that he is out of his depth. He is certainly a very able Minister when it comes to the niceties of the law. However, when it comes to understanding how to deal with crime on the streets, drug crime, particularly in disadvantaged communities but now extending throughout the country, and organised crime, which is effectively organised drug crime, he is overwhelmed by the task.
Even the timing of this measure is evidence of this, coming as it does way past the eleventh hour of this Government. It seems to be little more than a belated public relations package put together in good time for the general election to say that these are all the things the Minister has done. I am sorry to be forced to say this because I tend to want to support any effective measure that can contribute to taking on organised crime. The reality is that during the tenure of the Government and his time as Minister, organised crime has spiralled and expanded its activities way beyond anything in the past. This the context in which I look at this measure.
I know I only have a few minutes in which to speak so I will mention what Deputy Finian McGrath said. I go to many meetings throughout my constituency. I will not mention particular communities because one never wishes to stigmatise local areas in respect of crime. When one goes to areas where there are public meetings attended by many elderly people and parents of young children who are fearful of anti-social behaviour and drug crime, one finds that they all say the same thing. They all say that what is needed as a visible deterrent is gardaÃ patrolling on the beat. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few high-profile areas, they do not see gardaÃ visibly patrolling on the beat.
Much has been said in this House about the promised 2,000 gardaÃ and so on. Seemingly, they are now on stream. The shame is that those gardaÃ were not made available when they could have been. When the money was there to bring them into service, they were not brought in. This Government has been in office in one form or another for long enough. If these gardaÃ had been brought in and the community Garda sections in the Garda SÃochÃ¡na given the manpower, they could have made a huge inroad into the drugs problem and prevented much of what has happened in more recent times and the way organised crime has developed. I agree with the view held by many communities that the greatest deterrent to crime of most sorts is the visibility of gardaÃ on the beat working with young people and linking up with people generally in the community. I am sure the Government has been aware of this for a long time, but unfortunately it has not taken the necessary action. Anything that has been done has been in a similar vein to the Bill before us, belated, at the last minute and on the eve of a general election.
As I entered the Chamber, I heard Deputy O'Connor refer to CCTV. One group in my constituency applied to Pobal, Dublin City Council and various other bodies for funding to provide a closed circuit television system in its area. Significant grants were garnered from a number of sources, but ultimately the group was informed the main grant from Pobal was dependent on its putting together â¬17,000 of its own funding, which it does not have. I do not know the TÃ¡naiste's view, but I have tabled parliamentary questions on the matter so he is familiar with the case in question. The group has managed to raise approximately â¬150,000 in official grants but this money cannot be utilised because there is a difficulty in finding â¬17,000 at the drop of a hat. Without this sum of money, the project will not go ahead. Given that crime tends to be most prevalent in less affluent areas, this issue is in need of serious re-examination.
I raised with the TÃ¡naiste on a number of occasions one of the strategies I believe should be utilised against organised crime. I suggested the Criminal Assets Bureau should be localised and that local operatives should work in communities where drug crime is extensive. The TÃ¡naiste appeared to consider it a good idea. I previously raised the issue of a criminal assets bureau, prior to its establishment, when Deputy Quinn was Minister for Finance. He thought it was a good idea also, yet nobody did anything about these issues until they were forced to do so. Even thought the TÃ¡naiste considers localising the Criminal Assets Bureau is a good idea, he appears very slow to move on it. Unless we do this, we will not get to grips with the type of lifestyle that is attracting young people into drugs crime.
I am involved with a community policing forum in the north inner city which has tried to set up a partnership between the community and the Garda and to get accountability from both parties. In the past week â possibly as a result of my raising the issue in the House â that forum met with senior gardaÃ in the Criminal Assets Bureau. I met with Garda John McDermott, the new head of the Criminal Assets Bureau, and his deputy, the co-ordinator of the forum and the chief superintendent and superintendent from Store Street Garda station. They agreed to combine their resources and designate a number of gardaÃ in the Store Street area to focus on the criminal assets of middle-range drug dealers. It is not entirely what I had in mind in localising or regionalising the Criminal Assets Bureau but it is a step in the right direction. I thank the chief superintendent of Store Street Garda station, Mick Feehan, for initiating that meeting.
When I advocated the notion that there should be a local drug unit in Store Street, I recall being told in the House that local drug units were not a good idea. However, one such unit was established in Store Street and more have been established throughout the country since then. Although the TÃ¡naiste's opinion appears to differ from this, I was informed in replies to parliamentary questions that having local sections of the Criminal Assets Bureau is not a good idea. However, I am being told this by the same people who did not believe the Criminal Assets Bureau was a good idea until they were forced to set it up.
I wish that initiative well in Store Street under the direction of Chief Superintendent Mick Feehan. It should prove of benefit to designate particular gardaÃ to be trained in liaison with the Criminal Assets Bureau to go after middle-range drug dealers and take their assets from them under existing powers. As in many other areas, the bureau itself has a limited number of gardaÃ, solicitors etc., available to it and it inevitably focuses on high profile major dealers throughout the country. Meanwhile, in my area and many other parts of Dublin, the middle-range drug dealers take control and reap the benefits and little or nothing is done about them.
I had a few other things to say, particularly about mandatory sentencing. While I hope the changes in the Bill that aim to tighten up and copperfasten ten year minimum sentences are successful, I am dubious about that, given the attitude of some of the Judiciary. I recently heard an interview on RTE with a judge who showed no concern about the impact of drug crime on society. He did not think it was any of his business. He also showed very little concern about the negative impact of drug dealers on their victims within the community and seemed throughout the interview to be more concerned with the odd chance he might have of changing the ways of an occasional drug dealer by meting out more lenient sentencing. I listened carefully to his entire interview and that seemed to be the focus of his role in life as a judge. When one has an attitude like that, is it any wonder the will of this House and the communities outside it that drug dealing should be taken seriously and be dealt with severely is simply ignored by the Judiciary? Given that the changes proposed in the Bill have to allow for exceptional cases, members of the Judiciary and the excessively paid members of the legal profession will find every reason under the sun to make everyone that comes before them for drug dealing an exceptional case.
It is worth considering the Acts this Bill will amend. They include the Bail Act 1997, the Criminal Justice Act 1984, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, the Firearms Acts 1925 to 2006, the Garda SÃochÃ¡na Act 2005, the Criminal Justice Act 2006, the Sea-Fisheries and Marine Jurisdiction Act 2006, and the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 2003. That amounts to one Act in 1997, one in 1998, one in 2003, two Acts in 2005 and two Acts passed last year in 2006. During that period, the person who is now TÃ¡naiste sat at the Cabinet table as Attorney General; he remains Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A Cabinet colleague held that portfolio for the preceding years of an era when zero tolerance was promised regarding crime. When the Government originally came to power, some ten years ago, a large part of its manifesto dealt with law and order. For the two previous years, the then Opposition spokesmen had hounded the then Minister, Nora Owen, on the issue.
Nora Owen was an excellent Minister for Justice, and her performance in the Department reflected Fine Gael's strong stance on law and order since the foundation of the State. With our strong commitment to democracy and stand against terror, our party has always stood firmly by the institutions of the State, particularly the Garda SÃochÃ¡na, one of its first pillars put in place by the Provisional Government of 1923. The Garda was accorded unequivocal support, with no hesitation or secret deals to undermine its authority.
For the first five years of this Government, the talk of zero tolerance came to nothing. The previous Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform failed utterly to live up to the expectations he had created while in Opposition. The nation suffered five years of failing policies, inept management of the justice portfolio, and constantly increasing crime rates. The people had elected that Government in the hope that old and young alike might be able to walk the streets safely, that the elderly might be safe in their homes at night, and that young people might go out to enjoy themselves of an evening without the fear of being mugged.
The then Government made a well-documented and deliberate effort to distort the true crime figures before the last general election. It did not release the new figures until afterwards. After five years of Fianna FÃ¡il and the Progressive Democrats in power and promising zero tolerance of crime, the figures were increasing constantly. Everything was supposed to change when a new Government was formed, with a Progressive Democrats Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform armed with manifesto commitments to solve our law and order problems. That manifesto clearly promised to increase the strength of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na by 2,000. The programme for Government stated that the Administration would complete the current expansion of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na and increase numbers by a further 2,000.
The electorate bought the package once again, the difference this time being that it was promised by the Progressive Democrats. A watchdog of that party, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, was to deliver. The irony is that the Minister knew that, without spending substantial sums on training facilities, Templemore did not have the capacity to deliver anything like the figures promised. Crime continues to rise at an alarming rate. Not only that, but Garda SÃochÃ¡na stations are being downgraded in various parts of the country. The Government has created that situation. Despite talking constantly of its care and concern for rural Ireland, it collaborated with An Post in closing post offices and is now determined that rural Garda stations should be downgraded, leaving residents totally insecure and without any real Garda protection.
The Government's time in office is now nearly over, but when will it realise that the only way to reduce crime is to make gardaÃ more noticeable on the streets? We must have more gardaÃ on the beat and better targeting of crime hot-spots. Additional resources are needed for crime prevention and enforcement, as well as to provide special education and employment programmes for deprived communities. The watchdog is doing no better than the zero-tolerance Minister who preceded him.
The real problem is that the Government does not seem to realise that hardening restrictions and punishments alone will not solve the crime problem. If that were the case, we would have done so by now. The Minister has produced Bill after Bill, with others to amend those that were supposed to have solved the problem in the first instance. This Bill is yet another attempt to rectify problems in previous Bills that were clearly pointed out to the Minister when they were introduced.
Virtually all the changes that the Minister is introducing in this Bill, as in other recent legislation, are Opposition proposals. Recently he was forced to adopt a Labour recommendation for the protection of children that he had failed to introduce. The Bill provides for the electronic tagging of suspects released on bail. Deputy Kenny has proposed the same thing for some time, but the Minister previously considered it a ludicrous idea.
Fine Gael has proposed a special Garda unit to combat gangland crime, electronic tagging, anti-social behaviour orders, and making it an offence to be a member of a criminal gang, and has also introduced a Private Members' Bill to allow home-owners greater protection against intruders. None of those ideas was acceptable to the Minister, but as the election approached, and the Progressive Democrats stood at 1% in the polls, he needed a major PR exercise very badly in order to convince the electorate belatedly that he was the real law and order Minister.
After five years as Attorney General and another five as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, at all times accorded unstinting support by a Fianna FÃ¡il Party still reeling from its failure to implement a zero-tolerance crime policy, all that he can offer is more legislation and no results. The Minister has spent more time introducing legislation to this House than any other Minister. He constantly introduces new legislation, and we are constantly told that he has the problem under control, yet every statistic and figure clearly shows us that it is out of control and that every measure that he or the Government has taken over the last ten years has been ineffective.
The only real lack of consensus regarding the Bill concerns the undue haste with which it is being passed into law, a serious concern given the Government's record. The Bill amends and adds to laws already in existence. The usual consultation process with interested parties has not been implemented, and there are genuine concerns that protections being removed by the legislation will lead to serious miscarriages of justice. The constitutional implications have not fully been considered, and the Minister has once again been warned by the legal profession, the Judiciary, and civil rights activists of inherent flaws in the legislation.
To push ahead with such undue haste is another sign of the reckless and imprudent actions of a Minister desperate to make an impact before an election. Although there appears to be a consensus that these harsh measures are necessary, it makes it all the more important for this House to examine their potential outcomes. We should really be asking ourselves how we have let it come to this.
Why do we need more severe legislation than many other countries in order to enforce our laws? Over the past few years, experience has clearly shown that laws alone do not work. There are many reasons for this but probably the most basic is social inequality. There is no doubt that ten years of a right-of-centre Government have contributed to this situation. There is no doubt either that a concentration on individual rights, rather than the social well-being of a community, adds to an atmosphere in society that encourages crime. Inequalities in housing and education are basic symptoms that lead to crime in our communities. Unfortunately, this has led to mainstream public opinion believing that if the punishment is severe enough it will prevent crime, yet our recent deliberations on the Prisons Bill clearly demonstrated otherwise. Over a quarter of prisoners find themselves back in jail within 12 months of being released. There is considerable evidence that having experienced the company of hardened criminals in prison, those sentenced for relatively minor offences can graduate to more serious crimes.
We have had long discussions on the idea of restorative justice, yet only two such schemes are in operation â in Tallaght and Nenagh. Both have been extremely successful. Instead of running around introducing legislation, the Minister should have introduced the restorative justice scheme nationally. We have talked about non-custodial sentences and community service, but the Government has done nothing to establish such a system. Deputy Costello prepared an excellent study on community policing on behalf of the Labour Party, which clearly showed that good community gardaÃ are extremely effective in preventing crime. However, community policing remains the poor relation of the Garda SÃochÃ¡na's structures, instead of being a central plank in the fight against crime.
Everybody agrees that we need tough sentences and strict prison regimes for murderers, sex offenders and drug dealers. We do not want them passing on their evil skills to young people sentenced for minor offences. My point is a simple one: longer sentences and extra power for the Garda SÃochÃ¡na alone will not solve our crime rate. We must begin to tackle the problem at its source. The resources are there to set up a nationwide system of restorative justice and community service. We also have the resources to establish a really effective community police force, as suggested by Deputy Costello's report, which was accepted unanimously by the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.
I am not talking about additional expenditure but about the more sensible use of financial resources that are already being spent on the prison system by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. There is a lack of expenditure on our probation services. The taxpayer is paying at least â¬90,000 per annum to detain a prisoner. It is an expensive form of punishment from the taxpayer's viewpoint if all it achieves is the training of young offenders to commit even more serious crimes when they are released. The money should be spent on preventative schemes such as community policing and addressing disadvantage before the damage is done. Much of this money could also be spent on supporting and re-integrating prisoners on their release.
The Bill may give the impression that it will solve our serious crime problems. I have no doubt that it will give the impression to certain people, before the election, that the Minister is again trying to take on the issue of serious crime that has developed at an unprecedented rate over the past ten years. Everyone accepts that is the case. It happened on this Minister's watch and on this Government's watch. This Bill is not the way to deal with the matter because it is aimed at plastering over cracks in the system. We must adopt a holistic approach in order to deal with this problem. The Government has had ten years in which to do so. The Minister should recognise that laws providing for imprisonment and other punishments will not, of themselves, solve the difficulty. We must pay much more attention to how we run our society, operate the prison service and impose punishments. We must prevent our young people from becoming involved in crime in the first instance. Rushing a Bill through the Oireachtas in the space of a week will not serve community or national interests well. It is only a public relations exercise to try to get the Minister through the next few weeks and prevent the extermination of his party.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Like my colleague, the Labour Party's justice spokesperson, Deputy Howlin, I welcome the general principles underlying the legislation. Any measures aimed at successfully securing penalties against gang-related crime, including racketeering, in addition to tightening the bail rules as outlined in Part 2, are certainly welcome. It is an outrage that dastardly criminal deeds have been carried out by individuals while on bail, and this has rightly been condemned by the public.
The late timing and shambolic manner of this Bill's introduction is typical of the cavalier approach adopted by the Minister and the Government towards crime prevention and policing. This approach is also reflected in Part 8 of the Bill in which I have a particular interest. It amends the controversial Sea Fisheries Act 2006, which was passed at this time last year with very little consultation. It introduced ferocious penalties for workers in the fishing industry. It was thought in the marine and natural resources sector at the time that a package of measures had been introduced to enable a new sea fisheries protection authority to do its job, yet the new authority began its work only in the last month or so. We have had a fundamental and wide-ranging debate on penalties for sea fisheries offences, but it is amazing that a section of this Bill has had to be devoted to establishing various crimes associated with the packaging and marketing of fish products onshore. That business had to be included in the Criminal Justice Bill which, rightly, brings forward serious new measures on racketeering, drug-related crime and so on.
I heard the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, on the radio today discussing the fact that a large part of his five years as Minister was spent in consideration of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. I know from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that civil servants are often under enormous pressure to construct legislation and this is especially the case in an area as crucial as the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, the political leadership given by the Minister was found wanting and the fact that we are bringing forward an addendum to the major Bill four weeks before the end of this Government strikes me as the wrong way to do business for the people. As Deputy Catherine Murphy rightly said, this is something on which the people will pass judgment in the coming weeks.
Most Members, especially my party colleagues, support legislative measures to tackle criminal behaviour that makes a misery of the lives of decent citizens around the country, but we also need law that is well considered, consistent and constitutional so that we will not see repetition of some of the legal blunders that have been the hallmark of this Minister. In many parliaments the Minister, Deputy McDowell, would have been expected to resign last summer because his handling of the key issue was grossly incompetent. If I had been dealing with this portfolio his resignation would have been a basic requirement.
There are positive aspects to the Minister's record over the past five years and I commend him particularly on introducing the Garda Bill, as it was an important achievement. He did well to set up the Ombudsman's commission, which is due to go into operation shortly, and to establish the Garda Inspectorate. These bodies will be important in the coming years in ensuring the policing of the nation is carried out in a transparent and effective manner. I also welcome the fact that the Minister established the local Garda committees that the Labour Party proposed. The second meeting of the committee in my area is due next month. The Minister also established the Garda Reserve to which he referred in his speech. It is striking, though, that by the end of this Government term a mere 143 Garda Reserve members will have qualified out of the 1,500 we anticipated and which the Minister mentions in his speech as an achievement. I commend the Minister on bringing the Garda Bill through the Oireachtas but overall the headline levels of crime in this country show that the Minister's record is appalling.
The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, recently published a book, The Best of Times: The Social Impact of the Celtic Tiger. It uses data up to 2002 and shows that the level of homicide in Dublin rose by an astonishing 44.5% from the early 1990s to 2002. The book compares various EU capital cities and the next worst increase was in Vienna at 28% followed by London at 8%. The trends in Dublin now would be far worse because last year there were 26 appalling gangland killings. Within a five-month period six such killings occurred in the west of my constituency and presented communities with horrific circumstances in which to live. This is why I support some of the key measures before us.
I support the initiative on tagging but, as Deputy Howlin indicated, there are still questions on the technology. People are afraid that, as with other technological developments involving the Government, there may be future problems. However, anything that enables us to ensure that prisons are places where, as Deputy Catherine Murphy suggested, primarily the most hardened criminals are detained is to be welcomed. I note the concerns of many interest groups in this regard, including the submission I received from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which also flagged the seven-day Garda detention custody measures. The council also highlighted the inferences to be drawn in certain circumstances relating to the final report of the balance in the criminal law review group which, I think, the Minister appointed. There is broad public support for a more rigorous approach to gangland crime and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has attempted to address these issues as efficaciously as possibly.
I also support section 6 of the Bill which mandates that applicants for bail must, if required, provide a statement of their net assets and income plus details of criminal convictions and previous bail conditions. This is necessary if potentially violent offenders and drug dealers are to be dealt with and removed from society.
The scourge of drugs and the increased supply of drugs is continuing to take a horrendous toll on our communities. Over the past year and a half I have attended between 12 and 15 funerals, mostly of young men who died between their late teens and mid twenties. Occasionally a person in his or her thirties, who suffered from the drug scourge in previous decades, dies in these circumstances.
The Minister, Deputy McDowell, never looks at the broader picture and this is a major failing of his relating to justice. The British Labour Party sums up the correct approach in the phrase, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The Progressive Democrats have never been tough on the causes of crime. In my constituency a major anti-drugs project, the Kilbarrack Coast Community Programme, has needed a basic facility with permanent, professional staff for the past ten years and this Government has done nothing substantial for that organisation. Another district of my constituency was plagued by anti-social behaviour and drug-related crime in the past and only in the next few weeks, in the final days of this Government, will a general community youth centre be opened, probably by the Taoiseach and the local Fianna FÃ¡il Deputies. Owing to his fundamental anti-social and economically inclined philosophy the Minister has failed to address the causes of crime. In his speech he trumpeted the additional resources allocated to the Garda, but individual constituencies such as mine have perhaps 200 gardaÃ trying cope with a population of up to 100,000 people in an area with significant crime figures.
I am struck by the contributions Mr. Vincent Browne makes in his programmes and columns every time the Garda SÃochÃ¡na annual report on crime levels is released. He suggests Ireland is not a high crime country. Mr. Browne is a journalist of the highest calibre and I admire him but I think his opinions on crime levels are wrong. There are points he should have noted about Ireland in his many decades in journalism. Tonight, in large parts of our towns and cities, people will be forced to live in terror for hours on end due to unbearable anti-social behaviour and serious drug-related crime, which completely destroy lives. It is fine for someone living in certain leafy suburbs of south Dublin to argue that Irish crime figures compare well with those of Austria but many communities live under terrible pressure because they are infested with and destroyed by crime and Garda efforts to help are hindered by a lack of manpower. The Minister has failed to address the dimensions of the problem.
Aspects of the Bill are welcome as being tough on crime and I commend civil servants for introducing it, even if it is late. Overall, the Minister and his predecessor in the Department, Deputy O'Donoghue, the zero tolerance Minister, have failed us by giving us a decade in which crime has been allowed to get out of control in many areas. The slogan for the coming election should be "Fianna FÃ¡il-PD Coalition, No Way".
While the Labour Party broadly welcomes this legislation, as our spokesperson on justice, Deputy Howlin, and my colleague, Deputy Broughan, have indicated, is it wise to rush justice legislation in this manner? Given the propensity of the Minister and despite his incredible brain â not only is he able to do Crosaire but he can swallow a thesaurus â like many brainy people he is wrong more often than many of us lesser brains. Notwithstanding our concern that the Bill is rushed, the Opposition parties give it a cautious welcome, although we do not know where some of its provisions will lead.
Section 7 appears to remove existing requirements that a Garda witness should be able to give a court a reason for his or her opinion regarding the refusal of bail; instead, Garda opinion will automatically be accepted as fact. While I am not convinced that this will be the outworking of the section, it appears the provision will result in the Garda rather than the court deciding on bail. This is innovative in terms of the administration of justice.
The Labour Party broadly welcomes section 10. It is difficult to determine whether section 13 on electronic tagging is genuinely innovative or pursues the Minister's agenda of privatisation. Studies in the United Kingdom have shown that, rather like a mobile telephone, the GPS signal emitted by the tag will be weak when cloud cover is low or the area in question has poor coverage or high buildings. It has also been discovered in the UK that the tagging companies must remove the tag on the night before the person on bail appears in court. As a consequence the person may slip down to the local pub and get jarred, thereby breaching bail conditions. The experience of electronic tagging in the UK does not inspire massive confidence but the measure is nevertheless appropriate. I ask the Minister, who is not familiar with the concept of humility, to regard it as experiential. Let us wait to see how it works.
On mandatory sentencing, murder or manslaughter results in the death of a person, while the brutal rape of a man or woman often brings to an end the victim's emotional life for years or even permanently. It is important, therefore, that judges take a strict view that these types of crimes must be punished by appropriate sentences. While it is appropriate to take into account the background of the perpetrator and any mitigating circumstances leading to the offence, murder or manslaughter destroys someone's life while a brutal rape or assault destroys the victim's emotional life. There is more than one way to kill a person. Some people have been left walking around like zombies by what has been done to them and judges need to mark this. None the less, this issue needs to be dealt with carefully.
The most unfortunate aspect of the Minister's tenure in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been his complete failure to get the message on community policing.
Three years ago, during a debate in Blanchardstown, I pleaded with him, to the applause of a large audience invited by the Minister and the Garda Commissioner, to return community gardaÃ to the beat to gather vital intelligence. According to the Central Statistics Office, in 2006 the conviction rate â as opposed to prosecution rate â for the most serious crimes, ranging from murder to arson, was zero in the Dublin metropolitan west region, which includes Blanchardstown. In most jurisdictions where good community policing intelligence is available, convictions for serious crimes are secured much faster than here. People will be aware, for example, that in the North suspects are frequently arrested soon after a murder, whereas in many cases arrests or prosecutions may take two years here. While the Garda may argue that prosecutions will eventually be secured, this sends out the wrong message to law abiding people who support the Garda and recognise the good the force does.
When the perpetrators of murder or rape, who may be known in a small community, can walk around free it sends out a message that they are immune and they will swagger around because they will not be caught. This is the class issue the Minister has failed to grasp. Obviously, he is more familiar with the leafy suburbs of Ranelagh where these types of problems are not as acute. He and his predecessor, Deputy O'Donoghue, did not get it.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill, on which varying views have been expressed. I was a Member in 1994 when the House sat all night to discuss a Criminal Justice Bill which had caused grave concern in some quarters. I shared this concern, believing that some of the proposed measures might impinge on innocent people who are often the losers in these circumstances. Even ten years ago, I would have been reluctant to support this type of legislation. The situation has gone so far off the rails, however, that the rights of ordinary citizens are being impinged upon and interfered with on a daily and nightly basis to such an extent that the law-abiding public has little or no rights. As Deputy Burton observed, it is sad that zero tolerance apparently means zero convictions, despite the increasing incidence of crime.
A detachment is developing between the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and responsibility for ensuring justice is available to people and that law and order are observed. Replies from the Minister to parliamentary questions often begin with the words "I am informed by the Garda authorities....." The Minister should be able to report to the House of Parliament on issues relevant to his Department's remit. He should take responsibility for what is happening. That is not the case, however.
Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the last ten years have ducked and dived, bobbed and weaved to escape their responsibilities. They made it clear they had no intention of taking responsibility for crime. Anyone who challenged them on this was asked whether it was proper for the Minister to interfere in the operations of the Garda. We all know well the difference between interference and ensuring justice is seen to be administered on a consistent basis.
A ridiculous situation has developed whereby crime has become popular. A certain celebrity status has attached to hardened criminals who show contempt for society and the law and who live freely on their ill-gotten gains, often in exotic destinations abroad. It is apparently impossible to bring them home and charge them with their crimes. I cannot understand why this is allowed to continue. How often have we seen offenders emerge from court and give the victory sign to the cameras? They are effectively giving this sign to society, the Garda and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is appalling that we should witness this on a regular basis and that some of these people are national celebrities.
When will the penny drop? When will the Minister recognise it is time to call a halt to this nonsense? How often have we seen hardened organised criminal gang members charged with serious crimes, including shooting, beating and robbery with violence, sniggering and laughing in court as they are granted bail? Many of them go on to commit further crimes while on bail, sometimes more than once, and may receive free legal aid. It is no wonder they give the finger to society.
It is not enough merely to talk about this issue. The greatest talker of all is the Minister, who has condemned acts of violence as though he were an Opposition Member. The reality, however, is that he has ultimate responsibility. I do not understand how this situation has come about and what the outcome may be. Is it any wonder that citizens cannot countenance what is happening and are of the view that nobody cares? Extraordinary decisions are regularly made in court whereby offenders are either allowed either to go free or receive sentences that raise serious questions about what they were doing in court in the first place.
All of these factors beg the question whether any notice is being taken of what is happening to our society. Those charged with responsibility must take charge in this regard, and ultimate responsibility rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Where a person is convicted of a serious violent crime against the person â which is a crime against humanity and society â there should be no accommodation of ridiculous arguments to the effect that the full circumstances were not known. Have victims no rights? Society lets itself down when such offenders walk free. Those charged with the responsibility of protecting society, at whatever level, have failed in their duty and are guilty of serious dereliction in the discharge of their offices. Can we continue to ignore this reality?
We hear on a regular basis that a person who has been tragically killed in gang related violence was "known to the Garda". This is what used to happen in Chicago in the 1930s. The theory then was that the various criminal gangs would wipe each other out and society would be safe once more. That theory proved to be entirely wrong. The same is happening here on a daily basis. No matter what way we turn, Members on all sides of the House will be asked what is being done to protect the rights and entitlements of innocent citizens.
Reference was made to community policy and to the much vaunted promise, which helped the Government win the last election, of the recruitment of an additional 2,000 gardaÃ. We know what came of the latter commitment. In the period since the last election, we have seen a breakdown in law and order in many estates in urban areas, to such an extent that people retire behind locked doors as soon as they return home in the evening and are afraid to venture out thereafter. Many elderly people will not leave their homes under any circumstances in the evening, even in the summer when it is bright, because of their fear of being harassed by a crowd of gougers who wish to amuse themselves by upsetting other people. This is a sad reflection on our society and justice system.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has spent much time talking about these issues but has failed miserably to deliver. I am aware that in my constituency, as I am sure is the experience of all Members, a crowd of gougers descends regularly on a particular area, whether a local authority or private housing estate, the middle of the main street or anywhere else. Their business is to deliver drugs to the various carriers who arrive to meet them. Having sat in an open space, under trees or at the street corner and harassed anybody who passes, they set fire to vehicles, break windows or damage fences on their way home. These people go unpunished.
It seems zero tolerance means that time zero has been reached, beyond which there can be no tolerance. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must clearly direct his attention at what must be done, which is to put all these people out of business. I put down a parliamentary question on this issue approximately one year ago. Of course, the information is always stale when we get it. I submitted a parliamentary question asking how much money had been taken in robberies in the previous 12 months and the reply stated that some â¬37 million had been stolen. Only â¬300,000 of that was recovered. Therefore, crime does pay. It has been paying well for a long time.
I am not directing my comments at the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, but at the two parties sharing Government for the past five years. They have thrown up their hands in horror and expressed concern at what is happening. The time for expressing concern is over and it is now time to tackle the problem. The reason the problem has grown to such an extent is that those involved in crime, in undermining society and in attacking the vulnerable have been getting away with their crimes. It has been lucrative to be involved in crime. One of the most fundamental ways to tackle crime is to make it clear to all that crime does not pay and that if they get involved in crime to make money, they will pay heavily for it.
Many contributors on this Bill have spoken about policing levels. It is appalling that we have not been able to ensure the public is adequately protected. The best way to protect the public is to get sufficient numbers of gardaÃ on the streets. We need to increase visibility and ensure gardaÃ are available.
This Bill tries to treat the problem after the event, which is the reason people are concerned. I hope the provisions in the Bill work successfully. We all know there are businesses in this city that have been the subject of extortion and threats of violence if they do not concur with suggestions for protection money. This is not Chicago we are talking about. This is happening in happy, peaceful Ireland. It has become a way of life. The reason is that some people took their eyes off the ball.
I am aware that under our Constitution a person is innocent until proven guilty and I have no problem with that. People are entitled to their rights. Unfortunately, however, this provision is being used by hardened criminals. They have driven a coach and four through the system and now show utter contempt for society. I submitted a question to the Minister recently regarding access to free legal aid for members of criminal gangs as I cannot believe they can avail of free legal aid. The Minister has not been able to respond to my question yet. He said it is a matter for the courts in the first instance, but when asked whether he provided funding for the Courts Service, the answer was to issue to me. However, it has not turned up yet.
My information is that such gangs have ready access to free legal aid. The alarm bells should have rung long ago in this regard. Why does the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform not ring somebody and demand to know what is going on with regard to free legal aid? He should know if this is happening and let us know. He should not be ashamed to come into the House and tell us. That is his responsibility. He should not shirk responsibility and duck, bob and weave his way out of it for fear the media may get a hold of it.
I would like to have more time to deal with other issues. I hope the legislation does the job it is supposed to do. I also hope that whatever Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform sits in the next Government will recognised the necessity to take full responsibility for ensuring that law and order are visibly enforced on the streets on a 24-hour basis.