Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 provides that, subject to certain conditions, somebody who has been convicted of a minor offence will not be required to disclose it when applying for a job. There is a great line at the end of "Macbeth" when Macbeth considers the wrong he has done and says:
I am in bloodIn other words, it was easier to continue committing crimes than to start over. There is something wrong if it is easier to continue in crime than to start a new life. If we are serious about reducing the level of recidivism and stopping the revolving door, we have to act. Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille, toisc go dtugann sé seans nua do dhaoine a dhein dearmad agus a bhí ar an mbóthar mícheart tosnú ar an mbóthar ceart, but I do not think it goes far enough. The Bill provides for exceptions such as sexual offences and other serious offences tried by the Central Criminal Court. I acknowledge the need for the disclosure of convictions for those who work with children or vulnerable persons. However, we do not want to preclude those who pose no threat to children or vulnerable persons. Convictions will also have to be disclosed when individuals apply for taxi and private security licences. I understand the taxi issue has been discussed previously in a different context, but concerns have been expressed that the same regulations will apply to all applicants, regardless of country of origin.
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
We know the phrase "commit the crime and do the time", but every opportunity should be given to individuals to start afresh once they have faced up to their punishment. If we are serious about preventing recidivism, we must get such individuals into productive employment at the earliest opportunity. The seven year wait in the case of a custodial sentence of up to 12 months is too long, as is the period of three years in the case of a fine of up to €500. Research indicates that the optimal time for a clean slate is just after completing a sentence. The sooner an offender gets a job, the higher the odds that he or she will not reoffend. As a representative for Dublin Central, one of the biggest prisons in the country, Mountjoy Prison, is in my constituency. People from certain parts of Dublin Central make up a disproportionate number of those who go to jail. I have known teenagers from my youth club days, particularly young boys, who I am sure would not have reoffended if jobs had been available for them when they left prison after their first offence. I doubt that waiting up to seven years for a conviction to be considered spent will help a young person to stay out of jail.
The Penal Reform Trust made an interesting submission on the Bill. It gave the example of person A who received a nine month sentence which was suspended for two years but who is still feeling the effects 14 years later. He is working abroad and wants to return to Ireland, but his criminal record defines what he can do. Person B received a fine for possession of cannabis 20 years ago and is still precluded from working with children. That person feels demonised for a mistake made a long time ago. The trust believes that where an individual is given an entirely suspended sentence which is not subsequently revoked, it should be treated as a non-custodial sentence. The issue of isolated incidents must be taken into account. Somebody who makes a mistake or a single transgression for a minor offence should not receive a life sentence which defines what he or she can do for the rest of his or her life.
Section 258 of the Children Act 2011 states offences committed by people under the age of 18 years can be considered spent under certain circumstances. This is an acknowledgement that past behaviour is not indicative of future behaviour. I do not see why that principle cannot be applied to older offenders. Tá aithne agam ar dhaoine ó mo dháilcheantar a bhí i bpríosún. Thóg siad gach seans a fuair siad san bpríosún i gcomhair oideachais nó i gcomhair oiliúna. Tháinig siad amach as an bpríosún i bhfad níos fearr agus réidh chun leanúint ar aghaidh lena saoil. Caithfimid cabhrú leis na daoine sin agus gan baic a chur os a gcomhair amach. Perhaps if we lived in a society that was equitable and fair, nobody would need to be afraid to reveal a past conviction.
I acknowledge the work of the Mercy Law Resource Centre which advocates that the proposed spent conviction scheme be extended to the provision of publicly funded housing by local authorities. Its submission which has merit suggests only information on unspent convictions should be disclosed to a local authority. It also calls for an extension of the equality legislation to include a prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of a past criminal conviction and recommends the establishment of an independent body with enforcement powers to investigate complaints under the proposed scheme. This will be needed if we are to combat the issue of homelessness among those who come out of prison. There is a strong link between homelessness, crime and reoffending. Homelessness can lead to crime and being released from prison can lead to homelessness in the absence of a proper housing strategy. It is vital that we stop that cycle. A recent survey found that 33% of Irish female prisoners in Dóchas and 35% of male prisoners were homeless after release.
In my constituency anti-social behaviour is prevalent in certain housing estates. I support the system of estate management checks, but we cannot exclude individuals from local authority housing on the basis of information from the Garda without taking into account its relevance, accuracy or seriousness. We must differentiate between different crimes. I am concerned that the information provided by the Garda includes not only criminal convictions but also cautions, warnings, investigations without charge, pending investigations and dismissals under the Probation Act.
Some of these minor crimes result from addiction and alcoholism, but those who deal with their issues, attend rehab services, complete the 12 step programmes and have turned their lives around towards sobriety may not be housed by the local authority if they have a conviction, a sentence, a fine or a caution relating to that drug or alcohol use. For this reason, people coming out of rehab services or prison may not be housed and will move into emergency accommodation. This is very expensive and not always appropriate because it means they are mixing with people in a state of addiction, which will not help their recovery. They often end up homeless and the cycle begins again. I would like to see the Bill extended to include the provision of housing in a balanced and fair way.
With regard to enforcement powers and penalties, the enforcement-investigation powers of the Data Protection Commissioner should be extended to include complaints under the scheme. There must be some penalty system or enforcement will not be effective. A scheme that aims to facilitate the reintegration of ex-offenders into society must be welcomed. However, the gaps in the proposed legislation must be addressed. The Minister spoke about not doing enough, but the Bill only goes just a short way in this area.
I would like to mention two projects. The first, not in my constituency, is called Care after Prison in the Dublin 2 and Dublin 8 areas. This project is a partnership between a group of people, the Carmelite community and the Dublin YMCA. In the past year and a half it has worked with over 160 ex-offenders. It provides a range of services, including counselling and peer support. It has provided from its own resources a highly committed and motivated experienced team which provides information and support, whether to do with counselling, housing, training or education. The recidivism rate for those participating in the project is 0%. The budget for the project in the past year was €29,400, a small proportion of which came from the local authority. If we are serious about preventing recidivism, this is a project that works and I see no reason not to look at it more seriously. It costs €14,000 to keep a person on methadone for one year. We have a project that is working to help keep people totally drug free, saving €14,000, but that money is not being returned to it to help more people to become drug free.
We all have a common interest in reducing the level of crime. A strong spent convictions Bill would help to do this, but a weak one will add to the level of crime. Most of us have been victims of crime at some stage. At one time, when I was undertaking civil works for Dublin City Council, I was robbed 25 times in one year and not once did I get anything back, as it was mostly small machinery that was stolen. I also had a JCB excavator burned out in Finglas, a mini-digger taken in Dame Lane, a lorry taken in Russell Street, while a crane was sabotaged when the copper cable was removed from it. It was worth about €15,000 at the time. These crimes do not warm people to criminals, but we must understand there is a reason for their behaviour. We should not forget that the greatest suffering inflicted on Irish people in recent years was not caused by burglars in jeans but by professionals in designer suits.
The majority of people in prison come from a small number of disadvantaged communities. If we want to reduce the level of crime, the focus of imprisonment must be on rehabilitation, given that repeat offenders play a major role in crime levels. The rate of repeat offences is high - one of every two people leaving prison will be back again within four years. Peter McVerry who knows more about prisons and crime problems than any of us asks why we should be surprised by this because great numbers of prisoners spend their time in overcrowded, drug filled and violent prisons, with little or no constructive activity to occupy them. The only skill many prisoners acquire while in prison is how to commit crime more successfully on their release. Peter McVerry says many people leave prison without any arrangement being put in place to ensure they have accommodation, access to a social welfare payment or supports to help them to adjust to life outside.
When people are in custody, we have a great opportunity to address the personal difficulties they have experienced. We also have a duty of care to ensure that on release, they have some chance of not sliding rapidly back into a life of crime. Ultimately, society's "us" and "them" mentality towards criminals prevents a serious attempt to reduce crime levels. Most people now know that 196 young people died in or shortly after leaving the care of the State in the decade 2000 to 2010. Most died from unnatural causes, a drug overdose, by suicide or as a result of violence. An investigation was carried out, followed by a report and there was widespread outrage at the failure of the State to adequately care for the young people concerned. In the same decade 135 people died while in prison or within one month of leaving prison. In other words, at the time of their deaths, they were or had recently been in the care of the State. Most died from unnatural causes, a drug overdose, by suicide and as a result of violence. However, there was no investigation, no report and no outrage. There was no comment from any politician and no commitment to deal with the deficiencies in the system that may have led to some of their deaths.
Sadly, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill retains a strong element of the "us" and "them" mentality. It allows prison sentences of 12 months or less for certain types of offences to be considered spent after a period of time in an attempt to assist the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. It also applies to suspended sentences of up to 24 months and lesser penalties such as community service or fines. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust which is committed to reducing imprisonment and the progressive reform of the penal system, based on evidence-led policies, points out that the definition of "excluded sentences" in section 1 of the Bill sets out the maximum custodial sentence at 12 months imprisonment. This means that only those who have spent 12 months or less in prison may have their convictions considered spent. The Irish Penal Reform Trust argues that this should be extended at least to sentences of 30 months and ideally to sentences of 48 months or less. It states the limit of 12 months could be raised without any risk to public safety or of diminishing the punishment handed down by the courts.
Spent convictions are not about mitigating punishment but about rehabilitation and acknowledging the person's successful effort to move on from offending behaviour. It is about supporting change in behaviour by removing barriers to participation in employment, education and other aspects of day to day life. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has stated the UK legislation is now the most liberal in the Commonwealth, with a limit of 48 months, and that in comparison to Australia and New Zealand, what is being proposed in the Bill is liberal. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust argues that we should look closer to home for best practice. In countries such as France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Italy the individual who is the subject of the criminal record search is generally the only person allowed to request the information. Moreover, the emphasis in Europe is more on an individual's right for the crime to be forgotten, particularly in France, rather than the employer's right to know. As well as this, the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Mercy Law Resource Centre have all recommended that a broad prohibition on discrimination on grounds of criminal conviction must be introduced into equality legislation. They have argued that the impact of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill is diminished in the absence of such a prohibition.
There is a need to decriminalise certain kinds of offences. A six year study of drug laws in Britain by leading scientists, police officers, academics and experts has concluded that it is time to introduce decriminalisation of certain drugs.
The report by the UK Drug Policy Commission, an independent advisory body, states possession of small amounts of controlled drugs should no longer be a criminal offence. The commission concludes that such a move would not lead to a significant increase in use. The experts say criminal sanctions should be replaced with simple civil penalties such as a fine, attendance at a drug awareness session or a referral to a drug treatment programme. They also say imposing minimal or no sanctions on those growing cannabis for personal use could go some way towards undermining the increasing number of illicit cannabis factories controlled by organised crime. These issues are as relevant in Ireland as they are in Britain and we need to take a serious look at them.
This is a mean-spirited Bill which has been designed by people who come from an area with a low crime crime and have no understanding of how others have encountered problems in the first place. Worse still, people in this country who come from the "right" area will potentially not even have to go to court in the first place. I will give some examples.
On 3 June I was heading to Dublin in my car for a meeting in the Dáil building when I was stopped by a Garda car. I had been using my phone. The garda in question told me I would be receiving a fine. I distinctly remember thanking the garda for doing his job well and commenting that his actions might extend my life. I headed off on my business and received a fixed penalty notice in the post. A few days later I bumped into a Garda sergeant who informed me he was aware I had received a notice. He asked me what had happened and I told him the story. He told me I was covered under the rule on travelling to the Dáil. I informed him that there was no point, but he insisted that I write to the station and explain. I did so and no points were added to my licence. I will supply the name of the garda in question to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, in order that he can use it in his internal review of the penalty points issue. I had planned to name him in the Dáil, but I was informed by people who seem to know how this place works that I would be stopped and that would be the end of my speech.
The Chair is suggesting likewise. That is not all, however. In December 2011 I attended a meeting in the Roscommon County Council building. When I was approaching the roundabout coming up to the building, I was stopped by the Garda and informed that I would be receiving a fixed penalty points notice because I was on my mobile phone again. I said "Okay" and headed into the meeting. At the meeting I casually mentioned that I had been foolishly using my mobile phone while driving and would be getting two penalty points. The meeting proceeded and afterwards I drove home. When I spotted my phone ringing approximately ten minutes into my journey - I learn a lesson eventually - I pulled in to answer it. A senior county council official was on the phone. He informed me that he had sorted out my penalty points issue for me. To this day, I have not received penalty points or a fine.
Whatever about the case in which the penalty points were removed on the grounds that I was travelling to the Dáil, there is no case for what happened in this situation. Not only is a cohort of gardaí going around asking people if they want penalty points cancelled, but it also appears that there is a franchise system, whereby a person who is cosy with a senior garda can have people's offences quashed. As I have suggested, the Bill before the House has been put together by people who come from areas where crime is very low. If they ever commit an offence, they will never have to face charges. The Garda Commissioner and the Minister might not believe this is true.
When the Garda Commissioner announced the penalty points fraud investigation, he said, "There is no question of what has been described as a culture of non-enforcement of penalties being tolerated by An Garda Síochána." How can my experience be explained in that context? I did not ask the Garda sergeant in question to get involved, but he insisted that he should. I do not believe it was an attempt to trip me up. I believe it is a culture which has festered for years. All the garda was doing was what he had learned along the way. Leaving that case aside, it is quite extraordinary to think a senior county council official would feel confident that approaching a senior garda would enable him to have penalty points quashed for a citizen.
Many people will ask why I did not release this information before the press released some of it. I had understood it was illegal for gardaí to release such confidential information. Strictly speaking, I was the only one who could release such information. I had intended to do so on publication of the internal review by the Minister. That was not my original idea, but I eventually worked out that this was where it would have the most impact. My intention was to be able to show clearly on the day of the launch of the review that there was systematic abuse, something I believe the report will attempt to whitewash.
Last week I attended a court case in Loughrea to support my fellow turf cutters. Several people were in court that day on penalty points offences. We have been told by the Minister that people who have had their penalty points revoked had them revoked for good reasons. Many people in Loughrea courthouse put up a far stronger case than my own in support of the revocation of their penalty points, but they were ignored. Some of them were given four penalty points. I had a similar experience when I appealed penalty points in Roscommon courthouse some years ago. I had a good and legitimate reason for my appeal - a priest was visiting my father-in-law in hospital because he was on his death bed - but instead I was given four penalty points.
The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 does not do what it says on the tin. We are discussing it at a time when supposedly important people like me - I am one of them now - do not even have to go to the court in the first place. If the justice system is to work, it must be seen to be above favour. Our system is not. Corruption is like rust. It starts out small and cannot be seen, but if it is not kept in check, it corrodes everything. That is what is happening in the Garda Síochána. It started out as something small and has reached the point where people feel confident that they can cover up the murder of a priest who was such a good man that he had been named Roscommon person of the year.
I have contacted the fines office in County Clare to ask how I can go about having the punishment that should have been imposed on me in the first place - my fine and my penalty points - restored. I am calling on the 15 Members of the Oireachtas who have been referred to in media reports to tell us whether they were approached by the Garda or if they proactively went about having their penalty points removed. If that happens, perhaps we will be able to talk about the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012, for a start, with a little credibility. However, we will not be able to do so as long as the system in place in this country ensures the important people never have to go before the courts in the first place.
I am sorry I did not speak before Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan because his speech is a hard act to follow. He has raised some important issues. We should start our discussion of spent convictions by looking at how people end up before the law and getting convictions in the first place. It is absolutely correct to say there is a culture in the State whereby a connected person with influence is outside the law in some way and can receive privileges and exemptions that are not afforded to people born on the other side of the tracks. Equally, there is evidence to suggest that when people collide with members of the Garda, the position I have described can be abused and they can end up with convictions also.
This important Bill is a start, but it certainly does not go far enough in dealing with this issue, which is at the heart of certain questions. What type of society do we want to live in? What is the basis of the criminal justice system? As other Deputies have said, the idea that incarceration and custodial sentencing represent a way forward as we try to transform society is particularly ludicrous in this era of austerity when there is so much emphasis on cutbacks and so many attacks on public expenditure. It does not stack up on any ground. Given the cost of incarcerating people, substantial savings could be made by taking people out of the prison net. I am surprised that a much greater focus is not being placed on rehabilitation.
We must consider how the system works from the outset - how people are apprehended and trials are conducted, whether sentencing policy is consistent and what goes on in prison. People must have the right to move on when their time is done and their sentences are served. We need to have consistency, transparency and proportionality in the system. While the principle of this legislation is good, the Bill does not go nearly far enough. If this issue is not addressed, a person who was sentenced after something relatively minor happened a long time ago, which certainly does not define his or her current contribution to society, could end up serving a life sentence. If he or she has to carry that conviction, for example, when dealing with prospective employers, it increases the likelihood of him or her becoming a career criminal. A person cannot gain employment if his or her record follows him or her around and taints him or her in this way. That is not a good way forward because it costs society in the long run.
I will not repeat the points made by other Deputies. I do not think the Bill goes far enough. The proposed time period of 12 months is paltry.
Why should it even be 48 months? Why should it not be 60 months to start the ball rolling? That would be legitimate and not cause a danger to anybody else. I agree with the points made by the Irish Penal Reform Trust on having a simpler rehabilitation scheme laid out.
I am concerned about a couple of issues, the first being the question of excluding particular areas of employment. I do not see any basis for discrimination in this regard, given that it is an erosion of human rights. The reference to "relevant work" should be removed from the Bill. If there are concerns because somebody is dealing with children or security issues, they can be dealt with under the vetting legislation, although that in itself raises other issues, given that, under the vetting system, people brought for prosecution may not have ended up with a conviction, but the very fact dthat they were in court can be used against them in applying for a job. To take the issue of public order offences, I will use the example of people who could be served with an adult caution under the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act. If they admit their guilt and accept the order, this does not have to be disclosed. However, if they do not accept an adult caution because they believe they are innocent, choose to go to court to defend the issue, go on trial and are acquitted, the very fact that there was a trial may, in some instances, have to be disclosed and can be used to discredit the person with a prospective employer, which is ludicrous.
Under the vetting system, it is not just convictions that apply but also other specified information, which is highly dangerous, given the question of who defines it and is accountable for it. If, for example, a garda maliciously inputs some information on a person onto the PULSE system and it shows up, will it have to be disclosed? I echo many of the points made by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and consider that many of these issues are tied with the governance of An Garda Síochána, of which serious questions have been asked in terms of the lack of independent scrutiny. The reason it is tied with it is that the route to people being convicted starts initially from their contact with members of An Garda Síochána; therefore, their conduct has to be above aboard. I would be very concerned to ensure the non-disclosure aspect was removed for persons called in for interview and internal investigation by members of the Garda. What is to stop malicious information being used?
We had a meeting over the weekend with multiple victims of Garda malpractice who had given definitive evidence about how they had been unlawfully summonsed for no valid reason whatsoever because a garda, or a resident with a connection to a garda, had decided to maliciously take action against them. In one case, a man's jeep was stolen and ended up being involved in a crime and he ended up with a criminal record. The conduct of gardaí is very relevant to how people receive sentences and end up in this position. This protection needs to be built in. We need to look at the Garda Ombudsman system with regard to public accountability and independent scrutiny of the Garda, which would assist in this process.
The other issue concerns rehabilitation. I do not believe there are many people who are beyond rehabilitation. If we were to invest in this process, our society would be far better off. Obviously, part of this is the idea of a spent convictions process.
Sinn Féin welcomes this legislation which is long overdue. The inaction on this issue for so long has had a seriously negative impact on those who made mistakes in the past, paid for their non-violent crime and yet had their conviction hanging over them for the rest of their lives. Ireland is the only jurisdiction in the European Union which does not have in place appropriate legislation to ensure certain criminal convictions can be expunged and people can move on with their lives and make a clean start with a clean slate. We are all aware of the problems that result from this. People have difficulties in obtaining visas and accessing employment, education and training courses. Many of them cannot take out certain types of insurance and are prevented from taking out a mortgage on that basis.
This jurisdiction is far behind the rest of Europe on this issue. However, we do agree that an appropriate range of employments should be expressly excluded. However, these employment-related exemptions should be limited and offence-relevant. For example, it is obviously crucial that work involving substantial access to children or vulnerable adults should be afforded special protection. However, broad and blanket exclusion of all posts in health care, the Civil Service and certain legal and financial-related posts is not justified by the evidence. Where the nature of a past conviction is not relevant, employers and others should not be permitted to discriminate.
While we welcome this Bill, there are several problems with it and we will table amendments to seek to have these rectified on Committee and Report Stages. I am hopeful the Minister will take these suggestions on board. These are not "out there" suggestions but are considered normal in most other European jurisdictions. Framing this legislation correctly will be key to ensuring the successful reintegration of prisoners in society. Clearly, the Bill must apply to a wide range of convictions and the rehabilitation periods before a conviction can be spent must be reasonable and proportionate to the original conviction. In any area of employment where a conviction will still required to be declared, despite being spent must, under normal circumstances, it must be kept to a minimum and justified based on the public good.
The Bill will not apply to most sentences and, while it is welcome that it has been agreed to on Seanad Stage that suspended sentences of up to 24 months can be considered spent, it is a shame this has not been amended to ensure custodial sentences of this length and up to 48 months, as is the case under the British legislation, would also be included. We will seek to have this amended, as the Bill will currently only apply to sentences of less than one year in prison. This is simply not adequate for the needs of those who have served their sentence and are not at risk of reoffending.
There are also issues regarding the various combinations of custodial and noncustodial sentences and people may find this difficult to follow. Furthermore, some of the periods of "rehabilitation" are on the excessive side. Six to seven years in the case of certain convictions is simply too long. Likewise, a further age-related tier, linked with the length of the rehabilitation period required, should be introduced. In the Twenty-six Counties the Children's Act 2001 makes provision for the convictions of children to become spent after a time. However, an 18-year old who commits a once-off minor offence may have this conviction hanging over him or her until he or she is nearly 30 years old because the seven-year rehabilitation period dates from conviction which may take place up to two years after actual commission of the offence. Facing employment-related discrimination during these crucial years, when the foundations of a career are laid, will have lifelong negative consequences. A tier requiring shorter rehabilitation periods for those who offend between the ages of 18 and 20 years should be introduced. I understand there may be a reluctance on the part of some to go down the road of introducing different reduced rehabilitation periods in case the former prisoner concerned reoffends. However, this is certainly not the first jurisdiction to introduce such legislation; therefore, we must look to other jurisdictions which have relevant experience and see how it has actually worked for them. There is a simpler way of doing this and we will table amendments to that effect on Committee Stage.
There are other technical provisions which need to be amended. We welcome the exclusion of spent convictions from general court proceedings. However, the legislation in its current form allows circumstances that might require courts to deviate from that general approach "where justice cannot be done except by so admitting or requiring the evidence" of spent convictions, as set out in section 6(2). The implications of this are not clear.
Some exclusions related to a number of specific types of legal proceedings seem reasonable and proportionate, although others seem vague and may require further clarification. We note that the Irish Penal Reform Trust has concerns about the exclusion of certain areas of employment and the potential impact on individuals seeking to benefit from the Bill.
Regarding the provision for new areas of employment to be excluded from the Bill, any additional area of employment should only be introduced in consultation with other Departments. As there are very important issues of equality and privacy that must be addressed, the Bill should also provide for consultation with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Data Protection Commissioner. In fact, there is an argument to be made that both bodies should appear before the committee to discuss this Bill.
Sinn Féin believes effective post-release reintegration of offenders with their families and communities once a custodial sentence has been served is essential for the prevention of reoffending and, therefore, ensuring community safety.
As that is in everyone's best interests, the Bill is more than welcome.
Since it is our view that the primary objective of justice policy is to prevent crime, part of the emphasis must be on incentivising crime-free lifestyles by ensuring gainful employment is available to ex-prisoners, but this should not be out of the reach of the majority of prisoners. To this end, unwarranted barriers and discrimination in law or policy must be proactively removed. A range of barriers currently serve to inhibit the reintegration of all those with a past conviction, especially ex-prisoners, most of which are not addressed in the Bill. The fields in which discrimination operates to exclude those with a past conviction include employment, accommodation, travel and adoption, among others. The extent of this discrimination should not be underestimated.
Sinn Féin also supports the existing regime for the expungement of criminal records of juveniles in so far as it is consistent with principles established under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A recent study found that nearly half of employers said they would not employ someone with a criminal record. Far from effectively protecting the public, these barriers actually serve to exacerbate Ireland's already high rates of repeat offending. If this and previous Governments actually wanted to remedy crime, they might have tried to do this years ago. I received a letter from the Mercy Law Resource Centre which told me that in 2011 there were 3,808 people sleeping rough. There are clear and documented links between homelessness and crime, recidivism and reoffending. Effective and humane justice policies cost the State less in the long term. We need more initiatives like this that will reduce crime and allow people to reintegrate.
A spent convictions regime for non-disclosure of criminal records should be supported by all in order to facilitate post-release reintegration through employment and prevent other forms of discrimination. More than a decade after the Good Friday Agreement, former political prisoners are still subject to grave discrimination in a wide range of areas. The political nature of the conflict in Ireland has now been recognised. This recognition must be formally extended to ex-political prisoners and discrimination against them needs to end. It is Sinn Féin's long-standing and firm position that records of all former political prisoners should be expunged to assist the process of national reconciliation and discrimination on the basis of a conflict-related conviction should be prohibited by law to enable such former prisoners to participate as equals in all aspects of economic and social life. It is a scandal that this has not been addressed in the past.
Both Sinn Féin and the Irish Human Rights Commission have also proposed that equality legislation be extended to include criminal conviction as one of the grounds on which discrimination in employment, except where objectively incompatible with job responsibilities, and the provision of services is prohibited. This protection is crucial to ensure effective post-release reintegration, in particular, through the provision of adequate and appropriate housing. This is also something that must be included in this Bill.
I urge the Minister to take on board our suggestions and commend the Bill to the House. We will engage with the Minister on Committee Stage when it commences next Wednesday and continue the discussion then.
Yes. I am delighted to see a spent convictions Bill before the Dáil. I have long had an interest in this area and recall former Deputy Barry Andrews introducing a Private Members' Bill in the last Dáil. As it did not see its way to the floor of the House on Second Stage, I am really pleased that the Government has brought it to this stage in a way that is more generous to offenders than even the approach recommended by the Law Reform Commission.
I know many may see this measure as a concession to offenders, but I see it as having widespread societal benefits. Most reasonable people would agree that minor offences should not carry a lifetime record, which is effectively a lifetime sentence for those who have offended in the past. It is easy to envisage a situation where a young person becomes involved in activities which, although resulting in a record, may be the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few years later he or she will become a model citizen. Most of us know young people who found themselves in these situations.
When the Bill was taken in the Seanad, many Senators referred to really minor offences such as fishing offences. This is not to minimise these offences, but they are minor in the scale of offending. They could include offences such as a failure to pay a television licence fee or incurring penalty points for minor offences, but they are time and circumstance-specific and, by definition in the Bill, are not repeated for five years. They are minor, once-off offences resulting, in many cases, from sheer youthful impetuosity or thoughtlessness, particular circumstances or sheer bad luck, for example, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if there is intent and real culpability, the offences proposed to be regarded as spent under the Bill are minor according to the conditions of the case and those guilty of them have not reoffended for a number of years. By definition, they are part of a person's past and I do not believe they should forever define their character and limit their prospects for the future.
It is not just offenders who will benefit from being allowed a clean slate and an opportunity to move on with the lives and reintegrate into society. There is a significant societal benefit for all of us in encouraging good behaviour, offering people the prize of leaving their record behind and rewarding their good behaviour. It gives people who have made one or possibly two past mistakes to change their life and start again. I think the Bill permits two past mistakes to be regarded as spent. It is right that the justice system sees its role as preventing future crimes and offering rehabilitative opportunities to all offenders but particularly those guilty of really minor crimes which are once-off events rather than reflective of the lifestyle of a career criminal. The Bill recognises this and as such, I very much welcome it. I am, however, disappointed that these crimes will remain on the record. I would like to see them expunged completely. Alternatively, if a record must be kept, it should be closed in order that for all normal intents and purposes such as educational opportunities such as attending courses here or abroad, insurance or travel purposes and particularly obtaining visas, there was no crime committed. That surely is the principle behind the concept of a spent conviction for minor crimes.
As proposed in the Bill, it is limited and the benefit is only for employment purposes within the State. That is a valuable opportunity and I am not denigrating it in any way, but the Bill offers the opportunity to do more. I understand ensuring the record was closed or expunged entirely would involve a cost, whereas it is to be self-administered under the Bill. For the purposes of taking out insurance or applying for a licence or an education and training courses, minor crimes committed in years past could reasonably be ignored and taken entirely from the record. We are not talking about major crimes against the person which are outside the scope of the Bill. Otherwise, people will continue paying for minor crimes in many important areas throughout their entire life, including obtaining insurance, which is important. It seems unnecessarily penal and possibly counterproductive because it limits people's life opportunities as a result of doing something very stupid in the past. Furthermore, they can never travel to the United States or many other countries. This is a significant restriction at any time, but it is particularly restrictive for young people when emigration offers the only opportunity they will ever have in many cases to find a job. To have that door closed to them forever is penal. It seems cruel that a moment of impetuosity or foolishness at the age of 18 years would forever prohibit them from availing of these opportunities.
I listened to Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan who seems to have a support network when it comes to penalty points. Some people may obtain that number of penalty points on a single day. As it is a criminal offence, it will be on their record forever, with the result that they will not be allowed entry to the United States or anywhere else. If the record was closed, one could reasonably and honestly answer "No" to the question, "Do you have a criminal conviction?" which appears on US visa application forms. This would be consistent with the position where the State considers past crimes to be atoned for and, therefore, no longer relevant, either here or abroad. However, any question about a spent conviction must be answered honestly. We cannot control what other countries ask, but this is an independent state, which means we can decide on the existence of a criminal conviction. The principle of the spent conviction is that the conviction no longer applies, which means that the question about a criminal conviction can be answered with confidence. I ask the Minister to consider this measure which would add to the Bill and make a real difference to people's lives. If it is regarded as a step too far in cases in which a custodial sentence has been imposed, I suggest it could be introduced in the first instance in the case of non-custodial sentences. I ask that suspended custodial sentences also be regarded as non-custodial sentences. I believe the Minister has already received such a recommendation.
The Bill allows for two records to be kept, only one of which will show the convictions. An offender seeking his or her record from the Garda Síochána will be provided with the two records. However, the Bill is silent on what will happen when others seek that information such as by way of a freedom of information request from the media or an individual. Anyone can submit a freedom of information request for information on convictions. Will it be an offence to reveal information on spent convictions? Does the system which will be self-administered preclude enforcement of a spent conviction? The absence of enforcement makes the new measure somewhat weaker and less effective. It raises the issue of defamation law and the legality of protecting information on spent convictions from the media, for instance. If some effort is not made to keep that information confidential or protected, the Bill may be meaningless in many ways. The information must be kept secret from those who, for whatever reason, may seek to obtain it. Enforcement of spent convictions is complex and it will be difficult to ensure the information is kept secret. A problem may arise with on-line information which is very difficult to monitor. For example, newspapers in Britain which may have reported crimes in the past are not required to remove that information from their on-line or archival records, but legislation prohibits them from writing about these crimes in the future. I question information on convictions being freely available on-line, a provision which is being introduced in some countries. I ask why the Bill is silent on such a provision which may be introduced here. Perhaps it should be included at this stage.
I appreciate that the British legislation has been in existence for 40 years; therefore, there has been an opportunity to refine and reform the regime in place there. The British legislation is a little more generous in that spent convictions are permitted in the case of longer sentences. However, the Minister has adopted a more generous approach than has previously been proposed.
I commend the motivation behind this legislation, but I would like it to include circumstances other than employment. We must consider the enforcement of the decision to regard a conviction as spent. If this is not done, it will become almost meaningless. This is ground-breaking legislation and it is a tosach maith. I commend the Bill to the House.
As Deputy Olivia Mitchell said, there have been a number of attempts to introduce such a Bill. I acknowledge Deputy Dara Calleary's Private Members' Bill. The Bill is welcome in that it provides persons convicted of certain offences with an opportunity and an incentive to move on with their lives after taking the punishment for their crimes. The Bill is not soft on crime, rather it gives some people a second chance. They will not be stigmatised for life for making one mistake which may prevent them from gaining employment. The Bill will allow such persons to put the past behind them and move on with their lives. They will have the opportunity to prove they have reformed and be enabled to lead a crime-free life in the future.
The Bill includes checks and balances to ensure its provisions cannot be used as an escape route for the disingenuous. The spent conviction provision can only be exercised twice in a lifetime. The Bill also excludes a range of employments, including those relating to the security of the State or the administration of justice and an application for certain licences. It will apply retrospectively. Those with spent convictions are excluded from seeking to work with or providing services for children or vulnerable adults. The Bill will not delete a conviction from the public record but provides that an employment opportunity will not necessitate the raking up of the past, so to speak. It is very sensible legislation. A lengthy time period is provided for between the imposition of the conviction and when it can be considered spent. The provisions do not apply to any sentence of more than 12 months.
The Bill will be of benefit to once-off offenders who, as a result of myriad circumstances which may be drink-related, are convicted in the District Court. It caters for those convicted who realise the gravity of their situation. Their long-term employment prospects are damaged and travel to certain countries becomes an issue. That moment of madness will come back to haunt them and this legislation will allow them to move on with their lives.
I agree there is a need for deterrents, which are the responsibility of the courts. There has to be a balance in the justice system between showing no mercy to hardened criminals who show neither remorse nor a willingness to mend their ways and must be removed from society and, on the other hand, helping and supporting those who want to have a second chance to demonstrate that they have mended their ways. In that context, a few weeks ago in the House I raised the matter of career criminals continually being given free legal aid. This is the other end of the spectrum. There is a need for some deterrent for criminals who show no sign of mending their ways and who must be punished. They should not be permitted to continually milk the scarce resources of the State.
I noted that Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan had harsh things to say about the Garda Síochána. As someone who has a few penalty points, I never asked and never received an offer to have them expunged, nor do I believe I should have been. The Garda Síochána is fair game and has come in for severe criticism. From experience, I am aware that gardaí do their duty to the highest standard. As with every other group, however, there are exceptions to the rule. That is why the Garda Ombudsman Commission is in place. It must be remembered that people have been dismissed from the force. I am reminded of what occurred in the case of clerical child sexual abuse. The vast majority of gardaí carry out their duties to the highest possible standard, as is the position in the case of the vast majority of priests.
We sometimes tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a need to achieve a balance and the Bill has a sense of balance. It will give people a second chance and provide them with an opportunity to prove that they have moved on and get their lives and the lives of those around them back on track. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Minister for Justice and Equality's version of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012. I wish to begin where Deputy John O'Mahony finished by stating I have penalty points. Ironically enough, I obtained most of them while travelling through Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's constituency, either on my way to the Dáil or on my way back home. I was never contacted to see if I wanted to have my penalty points expunged and never wrote a letter seeking to have them expunged. The notion that all Members of this House live in a reality which is separate from that occupied by everyone else is ridiculous. If one receives penalty points, one accepts that fact and then gets rid of them after two years. I hope someone will not obtain so many points that it will lead to him or her being banned from driving. The holier than thou attitude on this matter is crazy.
I endorse what Deputy John O'Mahony said about the Garda Síochána. Tonight, thousands of members of the force are on duty throughout the country. God knows what situations they will come across as they seek to protect the people of this state. As is the case with every operation, there are a few bad eggs. However, the vast majority of members of the Garda Síochána seek to serve both their communities and the State and they do so under tremendous pressure. That pressure has never been greater than it is today. It is completely unfair to come before the House and continually criticise gardaí, particularly in view of the fact that we depend on them so much for the security they provide for our homes and communities and in many other areas.
It is welcome that the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, finally got around to publishing the Bill. We published our own legislation in 2011, but he dismissed it and stated he would bring forward his own. He has done so now and I welcome the opportunity it provides to discuss the issue of spent convictions. As my party's spokesperson on justice and equality, I came to this matter relatively late. My colleague in the previous Dáil, former Deputy Barry Andrews, discussed it with me and presented me with the Bill he had introduced in 2008. We then reintroduced that Bill which opened up for me an entirely new area of correspondence and telephone calls with people throughout the country on their personal experiences of spent convictions. I received approximately 20 calls from parents whose children were seeking either to travel or emigrate and who could not do so as a result of minor offences they had committed in their late teens or early 20s. In many cases, they committed such offences while under the influence of alcohol or while at college. Their convictions are now on their records, which is why they are precluded from travelling to the United States and many other destinations. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position in this regard, but I understand what I have outlined will not change. In other words, such convictions will remain on people's records. Many were hoping this Bill would change the position. The people to whom I refer have already paid the price for what they did in their early or late teens or their early 20s. They were obliged to go to court and were convicted for the offences they had committed.
I apologise. However, I am most concerned about those in the 18 to 22 age bracket who have endured the public embarrassment that goes with being convicted for minor offences. However, many of their lifestyle choices are affected by the fact that they have such convictions on their records. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell correctly stated, unfortunately we are for whatever reason in a situation where the only choice many have in seeking employment is to leave the country. The trend in this regard will I hope be short lived. We have the opportunity to clarify the position of those who have convictions for minor offences once and for all in order that they might travel abroad if they so desire.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust does superb work. The Bill gives us the opportunity to discuss what we want from the justice system. Do we want rehabilitation and restoration? Do we want people to learn from their mistakes? Do we want such individuals to re-enter society, not repeat their offences, keep below the radar and live peacefully out of harm's way? Are we seeking retribution from the justice system? For many, we are seeking both. Every crime has a victim and every victim will want a certain element of retribution.
Those of us who are seeking a spent convictions regime want to change the position on convictions for relatively minor offences. It is on foot of such offences that people learn. It is because of them that they enter the criminal justice system and they will I hope learn their lesson and choose a different path. Unfortunately, people choose not to do so and there are many repeat offenders. Deputy John O'Mahony identified a serious problem in that regard, namely, the fact that repeat offenders continue to enjoy access to legal support at taxpayers' expense. I am all for a fair system of justice and everyone has the right to representation. However, when individuals repeatedly seek to access such representation, something must be done. In the context of other spheres of public expenditure, people who had committed crimes would not be allowed to repeatedly return and access what was on offer. There are no members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in the Chamber, but I am aware that the Chairman, Deputy David Stanton, has indicated his intention to do some work in this area. There is no doubt that it requires consideration.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust has raised a couple of concerns about the Bill. I refer, in particular, to the limiting of rehabilitation periods. It is welcome that the Minister made changes in this regard in the Seanad and I hope he will make further changes on Committee Stage. The shortening of the conviction period to three to seven years is an improvement on what he originally proposed, but it could be reduced further to two to four years. After all, we are discussing minor offences. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has made the point that it is after conviction and that by the time one eventually gets to court, one's chance to expunge the conviction is arising at a time when one should be obtaining the work experience one needs in order to create the foundations for one's career. As a result of convictions such as those to which I refer hanging over people, they will not get the opportunity to obtain such experience. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell stated, the offences in question are minor and a person could have obtained a conviction for committing such an offence in circumstances utterly beyond his or her control or because he or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Irish Human Rights Commission has been significantly and sharply more critical of the Bill. We agree with the commission that the Bill must be viewed in the context of National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The two are similar and their provisions cross into similar areas. It would be foolish in the extreme to implement the Bill before the House while completely ignoring the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. Where the two dovetail, steps should be taken.
The issue of discrimination on the grounds of a conviction for employment purposes must be examined. I have a certain sympathy for employers who have a right to know about someone's background. They also have the right to know whether something someone did in the past is going to influence or impact on the manner in which he or she will undertake his or her work. Employers have a right to know, but they do not have a right to discriminate. If a particular candidate is the best person for the job, an employer does not have the right to discriminate on the basis of a previous minor conviction.
That should be expunged at that stage.
I am not fully in favour of Deputy Mitchell's proposal that the entire conviction should be expunged. The employer has a right to know, and any potential candidate who has respect for a potential employer would admit to the offence, but some work needs to be done on that. A complete expungement as proposed by Deputy Mitchell probably goes a little too far.
I welcome the Bill. There is much to be improved on Committee Stage. The Minister is not the most generous in accepting Opposition amendments. He might do so on this Bill given the general all-party agreement at this Stage on it. He accepted some amendments in the Seanad before Christmas. He is probably in better humour now, but any amendments put forward on the Bill are for the good of the Bill and the good of those it seeks to address, particularly younger people who have made genuine mistakes who want to restart their lives. I hope the Minister would examine any amendments proposed in that context and also in the context of groups such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust, which does super work in this area and challenges all our perceptions about penal reform.
Yes. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012, and I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality on bringing it before the House. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the non-disclosure of certain convictions where a person has not reoffended for a certain period of time. That is to be welcomed.
In the past three years I have encountered a number of cases where people have experienced major difficulties when applying for jobs due to relatively minor offences on their criminal record. Obviously, if a person breaks the law, regardless of how minor the offence, he or she deserves to be punished. There should be no ambiguity about that. However, we can all make mistakes, particularly when we are young, and it is important that those mistakes are not held against a person for the rest of their lives, thus impinging on future career opportunities.
It is important to point out that convictions for serious offences such as murder, manslaughter and sexual offences may never become spent. Convictions resulting in sentences of more than 12 months may not become spent either, and not more than two convictions in a person's life may become spent. On that basis the Bill cannot be described as an effort to assist hardened criminals, but rather an attempt to ensure that persons who commit minor one-off offences are not stigmatised when seeking employment in the future. Essentially, the spent convictions Bill is providing people with a second chance.
A young person called into my office recently regarding a Garda vetting application. The person in question had an intoxicated in a public place offence dating back to 2004. At the time the case was struck out of court and there was no conviction against the person. However, the offence still appeared on a Garda vetting application, which was a cause of great distress and embarrassment to them. I am aware that matters relating to Garda vetting applications are somewhat different from the spent convictions Bill about which we are speaking. However, that is a clear example of a case where a relatively minor offence will be held against a person for the rest of their life. That is relative in the context of today's debate.
One of the main purposes of the spent convictions Bill is to help with the rehabilitation of ex-offenders who have demonstrated a positive change in their ways by making it easier for them to access employment and reintegrate into society. With regard to the case to which I referred, the offence took place nine years ago, and there was no conviction. On that basis, it seems unfair that that information should have to be disclosed when applying for jobs in the future.
Other cases have been brought to my attention involving details appearing on Garda vetting disclosures where the Probation of Offenders Act was applied in the court. When a charge is dismissed under the probation Act, it is effectively a non-conviction and can only be used against a person if they are brought into court on a second or subsequent occasion. Judges, therefore, operate in the District Court on the basis that the probation Act does not affect a person's record and will not hinder future employment or travel opportunities. However, I have been advised of cases where Garda vetting applications have disclosed matters where the probation Act was applied. That impacts on a person's employment prospects and appears to be contrary to what judges and solicitors understand as being the consequence of applying the probation Act.
It seems to be unfair that persons who have been given the opportunity by the courts to have a clear record subsequently have that chance taken from them by the Garda vetting office. The obvious solution would be to amend Garda vetting policy to exclude any offences which were dismissed under the probation Act. The Minister might provide some clarification on that issue as it ties in with the main thrust of this Bill.
I welcome the Bill. It is a step in the right direction and it will bring Ireland into line with other EU member states. Essentially, it provides persons convicted of certain offences with a second chance, and it will be welcomed by those people who will now have the opportunity to leave past misdemeanours behind them and get on with the rest of their lives.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. In decades past, the idea that Garda vetting had to be carried out before one could take up any position was unthinkable yet it is now a fact of everyday life, and that change in society must be reflected in terms of the way previous convictions are dealt with and the length of the shadow they can cast upon a person's life.
Recent years have seen thousands of applications for Garda vetting submitted from organisations across a range of fields as those organisations seek to ensure that everyone involved is aware of best practice in terms of safeguarding policies, that they have signed up to those policies, and that they have been Garda vetted. Some years ago a young man or woman who ran into trouble and received a criminal conviction for a relatively minor offence could live out the rest of their lives without their work colleagues being aware of that part of their past. While the vast majority of such cases related to minor offences, there had to be cases in the past where people were allowed to work in an unsuitable context, perhaps with unsupervised access to children, because colleagues were unaware of the extent or nature of their previous convictions.
Recent decades have seen the lid lifted on the scandal of sexual abuse in Ireland, with revelations relating to every facet of life, and have prompted the recognition that much stricter procedures must be put into place in terms of the suitability of people working with children. All employers, including voluntary groups, must have much greater awareness in terms of the previous convictions of all staff and volunteers.
The Bill strikes the proper balance between releasing people from the burden of convictions recorded many decades ago and ensuring that all people working with children are properly vetted and that in such instances, all previous criminal convictions must be detailed.
I note from the Bill that convictions for murder, manslaughter and rape will never become spent under this measure, nor will convictions for sexual offences. Given the high level of recidivism among sexual offenders, that is particularly welcome. Also, people who received sentences of over 12 months will never be able to consider that those convictions are spent.
The most important element of the Bill, however, is that anyone seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults, or in sensitive positions in the civil or public service, will have to disclose their convictions.
Another important element of the Bill before the House is that the spent element of the conviction relates to the onus to disclose the conviction, as opposed to the conviction itself. The conviction remains on the person's record.
Lest anyone fear that this Bill will allow career criminals to wipe the slate clean and apply for jobs among unsuspecting colleagues, it is worth remembering that only two convictions may be considered spent during a person's life. People with multiple convictions, therefore, will have to disclose all convictions bar two, and convictions of a serious nature will still have to be disclosed. After two years a fine becomes spent, while it will take five years for a one year jail sentence to become spent.
The provision that people involved in work relating to the security of the State are excluded from the provisions of the Bill is also welcome. We cannot have a situation whereby those working in areas such as Customs and Excise have had serious criminal convictions in the past.
Another fear that many members of the public would have is that the Bill could allow serious criminals to take up jobs where they have access to members of the public, and where the public have a right to expect that their previous behaviour has been up to a certain standard. The exclusion of licence holders such as taxi licence holders and private security licence holders from the provisions of the Bill is also to be welcomed in that context.
In introducing the Bill, Ireland is following the example of most other EU member states that have enacted provisions to ensure that people convicted of offences in the past can move on with their lives.
As Garda vetting increasingly becomes a part of everyday life, it is important that people who had a conviction for an offence in a previous chapter of their lives are not excluded for ever more from accessing employment, and that they are given the chance to prove their ability to a prospective employer.
One consequence of the intense focus on the financial and economic crisis of recent years is the time and energy consumed in the Oireachtas at the expense of other less important or significant legislation. That is despite the fact that the 31st Dáil is meeting more often than any since the 1920s.
The Law Reform Commission, a State agency which undertakes exceptionally important work, can devote time to carefully scrutinising and examining the law to ensure its relevance and practicality. In 2007, the commission produced its report on spent convictions and it is regrettable that it has taken six years for it to reach this point in the Oireachtas.
The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill will draw on the practice that currently operates in many other European and OECD countries. It recognises the central point that as human beings we all make mistakes. The Bill will bring an end to circumstances in which a citizen is forced to experience the consequences of having committed a misdemeanour or small offence for many years after conviction. As Deputies, we often draw on the experience of constituents who have come to see us. Daily contact with constituents is vital. Shortly after the general election of 2011, I met a constituent and gained a deeper understanding of the issue before the House. The constituent had been involved as a young man in a petty criminal act and was still suffering the effects of having received a non-custodial sentence well over a decade later. He had long since realised the seriousness not only of the initial crime but also of its consequences on his everyday life.
Our criminal justice system is based on the premise that a person convicted following a fair and transparent trial pays his or her debt to society through a custodial or non-custodial sentence. The hope is that a person can move on once that debt has been repaid. In practice, however, the requirement that a citizen must disclose any conviction irrespective of how much time has elapsed or the nature of the offence constitutes a life sentence. The current practice hardly assists in rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders. Previous convictions affect, among other things, access to employment, finance, education and travel visas for thousands of citizens. The simple truth is that a person should not have to pay indefinitely for a crime that was not of a serious nature. The Bill will achieve that goal.
Examination of the Bill reveals the careful consideration that has been given to its construction. The Bill will benefit citizens who have made a mistake and will not help career criminals. It will apply to prison sentences of 12 months or less and suspended sentences of up to 24 months. Importantly, the Bill excludes more serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and other sexual offences to protect the public. Further welcome provisions safeguard vulnerable people, including children, by ensuring that it remains obligatory to declare any such convictions when applying for certain jobs. The Schedule of the Bill sets out clearly and directly the duration of the relevant time periods that must elapse before a conviction can be considered to be spent. It also differentiates clearly between the conditions that apply to custodial sentences and those that apply to sentences of a non-custodial nature. This clarity cannot be overvalued in circumstances in which the provisions of the Bill will be self-administered and there is no application process or procedure.
While there has been and will continue to be much debate on the future of the Seanad, I am encouraged to see that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, took the opportunity provided by Seanad debates to make amendments tabled by himself and by Senators. The amendments have improved the effectiveness and value of the Bill. It is certainly more generous and nuanced that any of its predecessors. The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill achieves the balance required to safeguard the public, particularly its vulnerable members, while ensuring that a citizen who has received a less serious conviction can move on with his or her life. I welcome the Bill, which I hope will become law without delay. Many honest and reformed citizens await its enactment.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to this important debate on legislation which brings Ireland into line with all of its EU partners by providing for spent convictions. The application of the Bill is tempered by careful and specific constraints which ensure that the protection of the public remains paramount at all times. The Bill does not provide for a criminal record to be simply wiped clean. It removes the requirement for a person to disclose a conviction in certain limited circumstances following the lapse of a certain period of time. In this regard, Ireland remains more stringent than certain other jurisdictions which provide for convictions to be expunged and criminal records to be destroyed entirely. In addition, the provisions of the Bill will apply only to convictions resulting in prison sentences of up to 12 months or to lesser penalties including community service orders or fines. Convictions for sexual offences and other serious crimes are outside the scope of the Bill, while no more than two convictions may become spent in respect of any individual. Crucially, anyone seeking to work with children or other vulnerable persons will not be able to avail of the provisions of the Bill. These and other restrictions which constrain the application of the legislation adequately safeguard society from any ex-offender who would seek to take advantage of its provisions with a view to committing further crimes.
The introduction of the Bill is long overdue. As far back as 2007, the Law Reform Commission made recommendations on spent convictions, and legislation has been discussed in the House on numerous occasions in the intervening years. The Law Reform Commission's recommendations were born of the idea that the purpose of the criminal justice system is not merely to punish offenders but to rehabilitate them. I take the example of a person who in a moment of youthful indiscretion at 18 years of age committed an offence resulting in conviction and a community service order. Currently, that individual would be obliged to disclose the conviction in a job interview even if the offence had taken place decades previously. This makes it extremely difficult for such a person to find a job. Research carried out by the Small Firms Association suggests that up to 87% of employers would be reluctant to hire a former offender. Thus begins the cycle of criminality. The inability to find a job can make it difficult to reintegrate into society and to cope financially which, in turn, can act as an economic incentive to re-offend.
In the absence of provisions for spent convictions, even a relatively minor offence represents a life sentence of sorts. Its implications can endure for the rest of a person's life. Instead of placing a burdensome millstone around a convicted person's neck, we must present people with a path to a place in the community, the workforce and society. Where a person demonstrates a positive change in his or her ways by remaining free of convictions for the required period, the legislation will assist with his or her rehabilitation. The introduction of the Bill represents a progressive move which brings Ireland's law into kilter with the laws of other member states. I commend the Minister on the carefully balanced and considered form of the legislation he has brought before the House.
I am delighted to come here chun cúpla focail a rá ar an mBille. I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, which I do not often do, for introducing a Bill on which a great deal of groundwork was done by the former Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, and, in Private Members' time, by Deputy Dara Calleary. Many Members regularly come across constituents who have made a simple mistake and done something stupid which they regret for life. It is time we addressed that.
I have two penalty points which I received ag teacht go dtí an Teach seo. I was coming here and did not even know I had been given points. I was in no particular rush as I was late for most things that Tuesday evening. When I returned home on Friday morning, the penalty notice had arrived to my office. I make it clear that I did not ring anybody and nobody rang me to say I could, should or would have the points removed. To be fair to gardaí and members of local authorities, I do not think they go around ringing people to tell them how to get off penalty points or rudaí mar sin.
The Garda vetting system is a shambles. There was nothing like Garda vetting when there were local gardaí who knew every family in a parish and could tell in good faith by the way a person behaved and because of the support they gave what type of family someone came from. They would often give a fellow the benefit of the doubt. We now have a centralised system from which one has to wait six months for a result. Somebody looks at a computer and provides Garda vetting about someone he or she has never heard of. It is a farce. A participant in the community employment scheme of which I am the chairman came to me in awful distress two months ago having received a letter from the Department of Social Protection. He has worked with us for three years and disclosed to us at interview that he had a conviction for drink driving. While that is a criminal offence, it does not represent a threat to society. We disclosed it also, but someone in FÁS discovered it lately and decided that it was terrible and that he could not work with us because he had a conviction. There are farcical situations such as that. In some instances, one is compelled to take on others. I am glad to see the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has arrived in the House.
We all know about employers - I am one myself - and they give people the benefit of the doubt within reason.
There are many good things in the Bill but the Garda vetting system is a farce. I am not blaming gardaí. It has been taken away from local gardaí. In the past, a call was made to the local Garda station about a person and a garda could vouch for the person. They knew the people because they had stood in their kitchens. Now it is all bureaucracy and people must wait six months for Garda vetting. It is crippling employers and community organisations and is devastating to participants. Then, they are vetted by people who have never heard of them and know nothing about them. We need to address that point because this is a case of ticking boxes and is useless.
I do not mind Garda vetting because we have to have it in child care, which I am involved in. If a man is sweeping the streets on a community employment scheme, three years later they might ask why he did not disclose that he had a conviction for drink-driving, even though he did so.