Friday, 8 May 2015
Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2014): Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2014 is to strengthen the existing 1996 Act, titled the Proceeds of Crime Act. This amending Bill proposes to reduce from seven to two years the waiting period before the Criminal Assets Bureau can apply to the High Court for the disposal and forfeiture of assets frozen under section 3 of the Act.
Deputies and the public at large will remember June 1996. It is embedded in the public mind because it was the month Veronica Guerin was assassinated. At the time she worked for the Sunday Independentnewspaper and was a distinguished campaigning journalist. Ms Guerin's untimely death and the subsequent public and political outcry led to the enactment of the Proceeds of Crime Act in October 1996 and, subsequently, to the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau.
It is widely acknowledged that this change in the law in 1996 allows the authorities to freeze the assets of those who obtain certain assets from criminal activity. It operates on the basis that those who obtain assets by criminal activity should not benefit from them.
I will set out the current scheme of the Act. Normally, the process starts with the Criminal Assets Bureau applying to the High Court under section 2 of the Act for an interim order to freeze assets without notice to the defendant. The trial of the action then takes place and if the Criminal Assets Bureau is successful an order under section 3 is made. This has the effect of freezing the assets until further order.
However, currently the assets cannot be disposed of or transferred into the Exchequer. This cannot be applied for unless an interlocutory order is in force for at least seven years. There can be no transfer of assets frozen under court order into the Exchequer. There remains a question mark over the ownership of the assets by the criminal involved in whatever activity. The Bill aims to reduce this waiting period from seven to two years. It could bring about a once-off injection of cash into the Exchequer.
That is no problem. The Bill aims to reduce the waiting period to two years. The Bill will assist the Criminal Assets Bureau in its important work of seizing the profits of crime, in particular in respect of those involved in the illegal drug business. I believe the period of seven years is too long. While I understand the legitimate reasons for that period in the original Act there is an opposing view on the matter now. I am one of those who believe that this process should be shortened from seven to two years and that is the cardinal point of this proposed legislation.
The new Bill would also make more timely the seizing of profits from the assets of crime. I have no wish to be prescriptive about it because we all have different views, but it is not a simple matter of the CAB seizing the assets, freezing them and then simply bringing them into the Exchequer.
If the legislation should proceed in that direction, one important aspect for many Deputies is the question of how that money would be spent. We all have different views about it, but I would be surprised if there was a lack of consensus in the House around the idea that this money should be used, for example, to fund policing against those who are involved in major crime. If there was a shortfall in resources then this could represent welcome funding for that area of policing.
I am pleased that the Minister of State who has taken on responsibility for the drugs strategy is present. This is an important matter for those of us who have within our constituencies, unfortunately, a serious illegal drug problem. There are many people involved in these issues in our communities. In particular, I have in mind the drugs task forces. It is important that, as Members of this House, we assist in or promote the idea that this money should also be used locally by those who are on the front line of the campaign in drugs treatment.
This particular amending legislation has been around for some time. It precedes the life of this Dáil. I commend Deputy Rabbitte - I am unsure whether he is present - who drafted the concept of the original amending legislation.
Deputy Rabbitte was the first Deputy with a portfolio in the area of drugs misuse and drugs strategy, back in the 1990s.
It is very seldom that we get an opportunity to compliment or praise the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB. I have never had the opportunity in the period I have been here. I compliment the 70-plus staff, including members of the Revenue Commissioners, members of An Garda Síochána and officials from the Department of Social Protection. They do a very difficult job very well and I have no hesitation in paying tribute to them in this debate. They have seized much revenue from those who have illegitimately accumulated large financial reserves and assets such as houses, cars and boats. That is the sort of work that the CAB does, and all parliamentarians should recognise that. If this Bill becomes law it will be of benefit to the CAB. I also wish to mention Mr. Barry Galvin, whom I have never met, and to take the opportunity of praising him for the work he did at the very beginning of the CAB. I think he resigned in 2013. He did sterling work, and all law-abiding citizens in this State should compliment him in that regard.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2014, introduced by my colleague, Deputy Eamonn Maloney, and commend him on the work he has put into this measure. Unfortunately, the Minster for Justice and Equality cannot be here today to address the House due to a prior engagement elsewhere. As Deputy Maloney has said, I am delighted to make a contribution because of my recent appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, which has a great connection with this area.
It is right to acknowledge the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau, as has already been mentioned. The bureau has been at the forefront of the fight against organised crime in this jurisdiction since its inception in 1996. The significant successes that the bureau achieves through its operations demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach we have taken to pursuing illegally gotten gains, and the bureau has served us well.
The Bill before us, while short and succinct, proposes a very significant change to what is a core feature of the non-conviction-based model for confiscation of the proceeds of crime, as set out in the Proceeds of Crime Acts 1996 and 2005. The principle of what the Deputy proposes - that is, a reduction in the statutory freezing period contained in that legislation - is a matter that is currently under review. This work is being undertaken in the context of a broader body of work which is reviewing proceeds of crime legislation in view of a number of matters, including the experience of the Criminal Assets Bureau, relevant court judgments and developments at national and international level in the law pertaining to the proceeds of crime and related matters.
As the general thrust of Deputy Maloney's proposal is under consideration, the Government will not be opposing the Bill's reading on Second Stage. However, the House will appreciate that while the focus of this Bill is very narrow, the affected provisions are key to the confiscation model contained in the legislation and are of significant import. It is therefore considered wise not to deal with the Deputy's proposal in isolation from the broader review which is under way and which will examine the legislative scheme in its totality. I will return to this. A court, in assessing the validity of our proceeds of crime provisions, could be expected to look at those provisions in their totality, so clearly the proposal represented by this Bill cannot be looked at in isolation.
I will now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. It proposes to substitute a statutory timeframe of two years for the current seven-year statutory timeframe contained in section 4 of the Proceeds of Crime Act and referenced in section 4(a) of that Act. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996, where a court is satisfied that a property represents the proceeds of crime, it may make an interim order ex parte, followed by an interlocutory order on notice, freezing the property identified as proceeds of crime. If the respondent, who is the person in possession or control of the property, or any other person claiming ownership, is able to prove that the property does not represent proceeds of crime, then the interlocutory order may be varied or discharged as appropriate. If, at the end of the period of seven years, the respondent has not been able to prove to the satisfaction of the court that the property does not represent proceeds of crime, then a disposal order under section 4 may be made and the title to the property passes to the State. The Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Act 2005 subsequently introduced a new section 4(a), which provides for a consent disposal order. Section 4(a) allows for the seven-year period to be reduced with the consent of all parties involved.
The Minister welcomes the debate today while having due regard to the overall context and background to the proceeds of crime legislation. The House will appreciate that traditionally our approach to tackling criminal behaviour is to bring the perpetrators of crime to justice under our criminal law and to allow for the imposition of criminal sanctions and penalties on those convicted of crime. A more recent feature of our approach has been the establishment of well-developed systems for confiscation of the proceeds of crime. It is through divesting those involved in criminal conduct of their illicit gains that we seek to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises and prevent the possible future reuse of illicit funds for criminal purposes.
The non-conviction-based model for confiscation of the proceeds of crime, which is the model affected by the proposed Bill, was introduced into the Irish legal system through the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996. The proceeds of crime legislation was introduced by the State as a proportional and legitimate response, in the interests of the common good, to the serious organised crime situation that had developed at that time, particularly the growth of organised crime gangs and the emergence of gang leaders and associates who ensured that they remained at a distance from the actual commission of offences, but who had most to gain from those activities.
The Minister for Justice and Equality is of the view that it is important to emphasise in this regard that the primary purpose of the proceeds of crime legislation is not to enrich the Exchequer with expropriated property but to freeze proceeds of crime to deprive those concerned of the benefits of criminal proceeds. The provisions of the 1996 Act were considered very novel at the time of their introduction; therefore, particular attention was paid to ensuring that the provisions met with the rigorous standards of the Constitution. It is worth recalling a number of the key concepts and features of the model. While traditional conviction-based models act in personam against a convicted person, the Irish non-conviction based model acts in rem on the property that constitutes the proceeds of crime. It applies civil law rather than criminal law concepts. Therefore, with regard to matters of evidence, it is the civil law standard that applies - that is, on the balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. The regime provided by the proceeds of crime legislation is not considered punitive or criminal in nature. The respondent is not necessarily suspected of the crime from which the proceeds have derived, and the State does not need to show a link between the person in whose possession the assets are seized and the crime. The effect of the order is solely to deprive the holder of the beneficial enjoyment of the property in question.
In considering the legislative model, it is important to note that the legislation provides for a number of very important safeguards such as notice provisions, the opportunity for a respondent to seek to vary an order, the opportunity for any persons claiming ownership to be heard, provision for legal aid, provision for compensation, etc. These safeguards are vital in ensuring that the system is fair and that the model is not unduly oppressive in effect. It is also worth recalling that since its introduction, the proceeds of crime legislation has been the subject of a number of challenges with regard to the question of whether it meets the standards of fundamental rights and protections enshrined in the Constitution of Ireland and the European Convention on Human Rights.
There has been good reason for approaching with caution the seven year timeframe other than on the basis of consent to disposal. Principal concerns in this regard relate to the potential for any reduction in the statutory timeframe to give succour to an argument that the legislative scheme set out in the Proceeds of Crime Acts is penal or criminal in nature and-or that the scheme does not take due account of potential third party interests.
The most constant criticism of the legislation since its introduction has been that it penalises individuals without the individual affected being convicted of an offence or that it is penal in nature. A reduction of the period between the interlocutory order and the disposal order might render the legislation more open to challenge on the grounds that it is a penal confiscation without due process. The shorter the period before the forfeiture stage, the greater the chance that the forfeiture might be deemed penal. Also, while a period of seven years does not overcome all the relevant periods under the Statute of Limitations, it addresses the majority of them.
The period of seven years was therefore carefully selected at the time as a desirable time span during which contractual claims could be defeated. It is also significant that the current seven year statutory period fits within a scheme of protections for the person from whom assets are taken, and for third parties. Therefore it is important that consideration of any amending proposal take place within the context of a comprehensive review which would take into account whether, for example, these protections need to be adjusted. It is important that any changes to the statutory timeframe of seven years are not made in isolation which may have the effect of upsetting the overall legislative framework.
Following consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, the Minister, while sympathetic to the thinking behind Deputy Maloney's proposal, fears it is incomplete in that it only deals with the narrow issue of the statutory timeframe, outside of a comprehensive review of the legislation which would have regard to the totality of the legislative scheme.
An expert group established under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Equality has been engaged in a comprehensive review of the proceeds of crime legislation with a view to identifying possible improvements which would serve to strengthen the operation of the Criminal Assets Bureau. A number of matters are being reviewed by the group, including decreasing the amount of time which must elapse before criminal assets which have been frozen become the property of the State. When the work of the expert group concludes proposals will in due course be brought forward for inclusion in the proceeds of crime (amendment) Bill which is included in the Government's legislative programme.
The Minister has asked me to assure the House that Deputy Maloney's proposal will be considered in the context of the overall review of the proceeds of crime legislation which is under way and any emerging proposals will be contained in the proposed proceeds of crime (amendment) Bill.
I thank Deputy Maloney again for introducing the Bill. While there is agreement that the matter raised merits consideration it would be wise for such consideration to take place within a broader review of the legislation.
Fianna Fáil will support the Bill, and I compliment Deputy Maloney for bringing it to the floor of the Dáil. I apologise for any interruptions; I assure the House it was not intended to be disrespectful.
We should never forget the original 1996 Act came about after the heinous murder of Veronica Guerin, a brave journalist, when the Government was spurred into bringing forward legislation. It has served the State well in trying to combat the criminal elements doing untold damage to communities and willing to challenge the State at the very highest levels with force. The Minister of State is now responsible for combatting the nefarious drug trade. The huge proceeds these criminal elements can gain from illegal activities such as this is an indication we must consistently look at our laws, and the provisions and support given to An Garda Síochána and other arms of the State, to combat the criminal elements who are becoming more sophisticated. They are also becoming more affluent through the amount of proceeds of crime they have available to invest in their criminal empires. The Bill would assist in combatting this. Many of the major criminal gangs have huge resources available through the drugs trade, fuel laundering and tobacco smuggling. They are internationalised as they import weapons and drugs, tobacco and many other products. This trickles down to the smaller criminals. The end result is always a victim, and there are many victims of the drugs trade on a daily basis. We must address it.
I will deviate from Deputy Maloney's Bill to speak about the need for us to take a bottom-up approach to community policing. Reference was made to policing, and our commitment to community policing has weakened. This is not meant to be an overtly political point as I am speaking in general terms. The force is stretched and is under huge pressure. We must target the sophisticated criminal elements. The loss of community police throughout the country is something we will soon regret.
Last night I attended an awards ceremony for volunteers in Mayfield in Cork where I saw very healthy interaction, knowledge and mutual respect between An Garda Síochána and the community through community policing. The Minister of State is trying to combat drug abuse by criminal elements in communities, and community policing would be a big loss in this regard. Some of the community police officers were honoured last night, and I am sure this is replicated in many communities throughout the country. We must target the sophisticated criminal elements but not lose sight of the basic principle of having An Garda Síochána in our communities for the communities.
The Bill merits much consideration. Reference was made to Barry Galvin, the original legal officer to the Criminal Assets Bureau. At the time of that debate, the Seychelles were referenced as they used to advertise as a place where one could bring one's money and nobody would ever be able to trace it. A major concern at the time was that money was being channelled out of the country and huge sums were being lodged abroad and laundered back into the country to continue and fund criminal behaviour.
After the decommissioning of the IRA's terrorist campaign in the North there has been a drift of some elements into criminality at a very high level. We must not forget they were quite comfortable in confronting An Garda Síochána at a previous time and I am quite definite they would have no difficulty in confronting it in the context of their new nefarious activities. For all of these reasons the State must support An Garda Síochána. The State must defend itself and, more importantly, it must support the communities devastated because of this activity.
I am not sure whether Deputy Maloney will call a vote on the Bill but we will support it in whatever way we can. I wish the Minister of State well on his appointment. I criticised the Government for not taking more decisive action in appointing a Minister of State with special responsibility for drugs, implementing the drugs strategy and bringing forward a new strategy. Debate will start on this very soon which is very welcome. If we accept the amounts of money and the value of drugs seized on a continual basis are only the tip of the iceberg, what comes into the country and hits the streets is significant. For this reason any legislation which will undermine the ability of criminals to fund their empires and their ability to launder money and bring it back into circulation as respectable money is something we will support.
I was interested to hear the Minister of State say a review will be carried out by an expert group under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Equality.
That the group is looking at that is welcome. However, as always, these gangs are becoming more sophisticated. They respond rapidly to changing environments and are internationalised. They have huge resources and can evade the clutches of states. This is not only an issue for our Criminal Assets Bureau; there needs to be a pan-European effort to address these problems, including what is happening in the Mediterranean where people are being smuggled across borders and being abandoned at sea. This is not being done by individuals but by large trafficking gangs. We see it in the area of prostitution where women are trafficked across borders. All of that is done by very sophisticated criminal gangs. Any Irish legislation or pan-European or international provisions should be welcomed. I have often said the European Union has free movement of goods, people and services, as fundamental principles of the Treaty of Rome, but there must also be protections for European citizens and those who are trafficked into Europe for exploitation. At times, we are a bit weak in that area as evidenced by what is happening on the southern borders of the European Union and the Mediterranean. All in all, I wish the Minister of State well and thank Deputy Eamonn Maloney for brining this interesting Bill to the Dáil.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo. Ba mhaith liom aitheantas a thabhairt don Teachta Eamonn Maloney don obair a dhein sé. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil sé ag leanúint ar aghaidh fiú amháin i slí amháin. I want to look at how the Bill can tackle the proceeds of criminal drug dealing. I represent a constituency, parts of which have been devastated and ravaged by drugs. If this proposal gets through the various Stages, it would be of benefit. It would provide us with a speedier way to go after those who are making their living through crime. I note what the Minister of State said about the expert group. Why do these expert groups have to take so long? What is proposed today should be included and considered. Criminals get away with things for a long time and the communities they devastate have to live with that devastation for far longer than the criminals. When we look at drugs, we see that the impact is almost immediate. It may take a while before addiction sets in for an individual but the families and communities are affected in the short-term, with problems continuing for a long time.
The seven year timeframe is far too long in dealing with the proceeds of crime. We know that criminal investigations take quite some time from the initial Garda operation to evidence gathering, building a case and due process in the courts. There could then be an appeal. In the meantime, the profit-making, dealing, intimidation and lavish lifestyles of criminals continue and the devastation they leave behind goes on for the people who are hardest hit. The Bill provides for a better sense of immediacy regarding the proceeds of crime by allowing them to be seized much more quickly. I think back to the early 1990s when Tony Gregory and other community activists and organisations tried to bring together representatives of the Revenue Commissioners, the investigative branch of the then Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Justice and the Garda drug unit. While there was an agreement in principle to the idea of the Criminal Assets Bureau, it is ironic that there was a reluctance to continue to combine their efforts into a single unit. That unit would have had the aim of examining the assets of the major drug dealers who were well known at that stage. Due to Tony's persistence a sub-committee on drugs was formed in the Oireachtas and he kept up the effort to persuade the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the then Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, as to the merits of the concept that led to the Criminal Assets Bureau, or CAB. In spite of the fact that 1995 was a particularly devastating year, it took a long time, in typical political fashion, for CAB to even be set up and for Tony's role to be acknowledged. What he was saying then and what Deputy Eamonn Maloney is saying now is "follow the money". It is really about following the money much more quickly.
It was disappointing at the time for all of those affected by drug dealing that it took the murder of a journalist to bring about the establishment of CAB. Many people had already been calling for the scrutiny of the big players but they were ignored. These big players with lavish lifestyles, flash cars, dripping in gold and with spectacular sun tans were being seen going to collect their social protection money. Calls were made for an explanation of wealth known to be acquired through criminality. All of this was going on long before it received national attention through the murder of Veronica Guerin. It is very sad that it took the murder of a journalist and not the murders of other people in the areas affected and the deaths from drugs to give an impetus to the area.
We can see what CAB has done but it is under-resourced and still unable to tackle a lot of the big fish, many of whom live outside the State. These people are often unobtainable and CAB cannot go after them. What has been called for in many areas very much affected by drugs is a form of mini-CAB. This would be CAB-type agencies working at local and regional level to go after those who are seen in their communities to be making money through crime, particularly drug crime, and getting away with it. The big players are off in Spain, Portugal, the USA and Holland. There is a need for the Criminal Assets Bureau to work with the community policing forum and community gardaí on this issue. As such, the Bill could make a significant difference by reducing the waiting time before CAB can apply to the High Court for the disposal and forfeit of assets.
The USA does not appear to have the same rigmarole and red tape which we have. The RICO Act of 1970 came 26 years before our Proceeds of Crime Act. We are looking at those people who have livelihoods that are not in keeping with their known earnings. The Bill gets to the heart of that in a speedier way. In the USA, assets are dealt with at the time of prosecution. If the courts deem it proved that proceeds of crime have been built up over many years by people active in criminality, the US Marshals Service can act quickly and robustly to seize assets. Apart from drugs, where there are massive amounts of money to be made, another aspect of this issue is prostitution, particularly where women and girls have been trafficked. We know this is going on and that millions of euro, possibly billions of euro, are being made. Criminals have been allowed to get away with this for a long time.
I looked at the note from the Library and Research Service and was struck by a couple of things. In the reports from 2007 to 2011, CAB took in relatively little money compared with what we know was made through drug dealing and prostitution, in particular. Between 2005 and 2011, CAB did not cost the State any money, but it merely paid for itself. I was also struck by the lack of up-to-date reporting. The latest comprehensive data are from 2011, with a summary update from the Garda Síochána's annual report in 2012. There is an obvious point to be made here about CAB being under-resourced. We have seen what it can do and there should be support to advance its work. I believe completely in the right to a fair trial, fair procedures and due process but it takes too long in the courts for this work to be completed. It is incumbent on us to do all we can to ensure that crime is not profitable for criminals.
Most especially, we see profits from drug crime. I was struck by what the Minister of State said in this regard. He said the primary purpose of the proceeds of crime legislation was not to enrich the Exchequer with expropriated property but to freeze the proceeds of crime to deprive those concerned of their benefit. The Minister of State knows from his work in the inner city that community workers have been calling for the proceeds of crime to go back to the communities that were hardest hit by the crime. In particular, the proceeds should go to those communities where drug crime is most prevalent. It should be provided to those organisations, schools, youth projects and community projects that are working hard on prevention. The Minister of State said that the seven year period was selected very carefully at the time the legislation was drafted as a desirable time span but we must talk about the damage being done in that seven years in the communities where crime is rampant. We saw in a spectacular court case involving a particular individual how long it took to seize his assets.
Importantly, the Bill contributes by ensuring that drug dealing and crime are not seen in communities as a way of life and a way to make a living.
We see that in areas that are hardest hit during the recession, because their projects, community programmes and youth projects were hardest hit. We see in parts of Dublin Central that crime and drug dealing is a profitable way of life. I hope the expert group will take on board all aspects of the matter - not only this important Bill, but all the other factors affecting the communities that have been hardest hit by crime and drug dealing.
I was delighted to hear the name of the late Deputy Tony Gregory being mentioned, because he was the first Deputy to speak on the floor of this House about the abuse of drugs and its consequences for communities, particularly in the Dublin area. We should remember that.
I support Deputy Maloney's initiative. Currently, when CAB seizes assets, there is a waiting period of up to seven years before it can use, dispose of or dispense those moneys, and this Bill from Deputy Maloney will change all of that. The waiting period will be significantly reduced and it will allow, therefore, for much quicker disposal of assets. That will certainly augment the work of the CAB. It will also support communities in terms of accessing funding for the various projects to do with drug treatment and drug prevention in the city communities, and it will help the sometimes difficult and dangerous work of the gardaí in the drug squad. It will help immeasurably the work of the drugs task forces and it will be a signal to the drugs task forces when they meet in communities that their ideas, criticisms and hard work are being echoed in this Chamber and are not simply being ignored.
As Deputy Maloney stated earlier, this Bill will reduce the waiting period for funds to be useable and allow for funding to be used creatively. I urge, if that is the case, that projects at community level, particularly those projects working with the youth clubs and groups that engage young people and give them alternatives to a drug culture, will have first call on that money. A drug culture is ever-present in many communities, waiting to lure young people as lifelong customers by all sorts of means. That is the drug barons' wish. We must challenge them at every turn, whether here, in communities or at various other forums at which we can raise these issues. I am delighted to support Deputy Maloney's Bill.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. I am delighted that he has this portfolio, because over perhaps two decades on the city council, this was one of the issues about which he spoke passionately and knowledgeably at a time when these matters were not raised frequently at the city council. He has a clear record. I am delighted that he now has responsibility in this areas, and I know he will discharge that responsibility supremely.
I am delighted that it is Deputy Maloney who is doing this, because he is another person who has spoken in his community, sometimes at very difficult times, about the need to counter the drug barons and their nefarious actions.
I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, for the opportunity of speaking on this important piece of legislation. I welcome the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2014 and I strongly commend Deputy Eamonn Maloney for bringing it before the House. It is a relevant and topical piece of legislation, but is also sensible and practical. Like my colleague, Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, the first person I thought of when I saw Deputy Maloney's Bill coming through was the late Deputy Tony Gregory. I note that a number of colleagues have mentioned Tony, who was one of those who influenced me to get involved in politics when I worked in the north inner city and also when I was principal of a school.
The Bill is relevant today because there are very wealthy people making a lot of money out of organised crime. In the past 12 months there have been 12 deaths on the streets of Dublin and around the country, yet there have been no prosecutions. That shows how serious the issue is. Sometimes we do not even bat an eyelid when there is another gangland killing on our streets. That is unacceptable. Even in the past few days, the reports of a person being shot on the streets of Belfast at 9 o'clock in the morning have sent a shiver through every spine. We should never, ever be silent on this issue.
That brings me to the issue, related to discussion of the Bill, of guns in society. We need to examine this and to be vigilant. The Bill is important in that it targets those senior criminals who are making the money, but then it is important that the money is distributed to the people who have suffered as a consequence of these bully-boy antics. Many communities have been intimidated. Recently, I attended a number of meetings in my constituency about the fact that whole streets were being intimidated by a certain gang. One gang leader, together with around 20 or 30 young men, was spreading fear up and down those streets and the families were so intimidated they would not even dream of going near the Garda. They were telephoning local TDs such as myself and asking them to intervene and talk to the senior gardaí. We need to focus on that, because there is a significant element of society that is being marginalised and left out there on its own. When making these points, it is important that we say to those in middle Ireland who think drug-taking is acceptable in some way that they must accept responsibility as well, because the drug dealers will follow the market. If there is a market in the affluent Ireland for cocaine, the drug dealers will move into it and make money on the back of it. That needs to be said.
At present, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which I am a member, is doing a lot of valuable work, under Deputy David Stanton, on gangland crime in the community. We have held a lot of hearings. We have heard presentations from all the different voluntary groups, drugs groups, parents' groups and victims of crime, and we will be producing a comprehensive report. I hope the Minister will support the recommendations when that report is issued in either the summer or the autumn.
The Bill amends section 4 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996 by changing the period of freezing of assets from seven years to two years, and I warmly welcome that. It also amends section 4A of the Proceeds of Crime Act. This is the substance of the legislation.
When talking about crime and the proceeds of crime, as I mentioned earlier, we also need to think about the issue of firearms. There is significant a public safety concern among broader society about the availability of firearms, both legal and illegal. According to recent research done by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, there are around 150,000 unregistered firearms. I am not talking about the responsible gun owners and the sensible people. I am talking about unregistered firearms. It is important to mention the threat to broader society. Between 2005 and 2008, 31 handguns were stolen and 1,236 other civilian firearms were stolen. Of the 1,236 firearms, only 373 were recovered. We need to be focused, and responsible gun owners need to be vigilant.
They need to be careful. We need strong regulation and commonsense when dealing with this issue because we have enough guns in the broader society, a fact which must be recognised.
It is very important that we ensure the money recouped as a result of the Proceeds of Crime Act is put into services on the ground. We have many excellent projects in disadvantaged communities, such as preschool services, football clubs, children's clubs and other groups that are making a very valuable contribution to society. These groups regularly get in touch with us looking for funds and some of the requests are not for a lot of money. This week, a group of young adults with Down's syndrome got in touch with me. They are doing a course in Trinity College Dublin and needed €1,000 to finish it. I have been in touch with the Minister about it but it is an example of what can be done with a small amount of money. This Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill could enable us to do a lot of work. We need to target children in particular. We need to deal with the issues of poverty and housing and with the issue of early education disadvantage. One has to get in early to save many of the children in these circumstances.
Many families in disadvantaged communities, where poverty levels are high, are not involved in any criminal activity. We should look at them as examples of good practice and of how some families can do an excellent job against the odds. We have a duty not to forget those families. One also has to target the 15% or 20% of very dysfunctional families that need supports and help but many others, whom I call the "silent majority", get up in the morning and send their children to school against the odds. They walk past gang leaders and drug addicts, they step over needles and syringes and yet they manage to survive because they are such incredible people. Society must ensure we never forget them and we need the resources from the proceeds of crime to be spent on these communities, particularly in the area of early education. If we can get to these children between the ages of two and four, before they start primary school, we can have a massive impact on their lives. If we invest in early education, preschool education and primary education there will be results and that has been proved recently in the valuable work done by many DEIS schools.
I warmly welcome the debate and commend Deputy Eamonn Maloney again on bringing the Bill before the House. I am delighted that there seems to be cross-party support for the legislation. I can see the late Tony Gregory looking down on us with a wry smile at a cross-party group of Deputies supporting something about which he cared very passionately. I welcome the legislation and I will strongly support it.
I am delighted to be here to support strongly the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2014. It is typical of Deputy Maloney. In his time in this House he has brought forward a number of thoughtful and necessary pieces of legislation over a range of fields and none is more valuable than the proposed amendment of the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996, whereby section 4 will be amended by substituting "2 years" for "7 years" to significantly bring down the period of time within which the illegally acquired assets of criminals will be able to be taken back by the communities from which they were stolen in the first place.
This is another important piece of legislation and it reminds us of the rise of drug-fuelled crime in the period from the 1980s to the mid-1990s which led to the terrible assassination of Veronica Guerin and the virtual collapse of law and order in many areas of our cities. This Bill brings us back to that era and the helplessness that many communities felt. I was one of the people who did not regard "Love/Hate" as a valuable contribution to drama because, like many of the citizens in this city, I lived through the situations depicted in that drama. It is very painful for communities to see, even in a dramatic form, the visualisation of the kind of suffering of those times when, in a period of five or six months, five or six people would be assassinated and where the iron grip of major drug gangsters was able to intimidate communities.
In the early 1990s, the party to which I belonged was involved in Government and we took a valuable step in establishing the Criminal Assets Bureau and giving it powers, which have been sustained by the Supreme Court, to ensure that the viciously ill-gotten gains that destroyed communities in this and other cities would be brought back to the community. From its establishment in late 1996 to the end of 2011, the Criminal Assets Bureau successfully froze some €70 million worth of assets. It has 70 staff from the Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection, backed up by the Chief State Solicitor. It has done a very good job over the years and the money returned to the Exchequer, even in the period of the last Government under the 2005 Act, has been very valuable. In 2008, for example, over €6 million alone was returned and €1.5 million was returned in 2009. The figure for 2010 was €3.1 million and it was €2.7 million in 2011.
In economics, we sometimes debate the hypothecation of taxes. In the recent UK general election there was a major discussion of the value of specifically hypothecating taxes for particular purposes. Most of us would agree that the proceeds of ill-gotten gains from major crime should be returned to communities. In that context, one of the most appalling things about this Government's record has been the way drug task forces have had their expenditure slashed by 70%.
I will follow that up with the Minister as it is his new area of responsibility. I was in correspondence with him recently about some of the anti-drugs structures in our own constituency. The cuts in this area were fairly vicious and must be restored. When people are doing a good job in taking on young people whose lives have been interrupted and whose family life, education and community activity have been totally devastated by drug-fuelled crime and they come to a community body for support, such as Kilbarrack coast community programme in Dublin Bay North, it is important we back them up to the hilt and give them whatever support is necessary. This should comprise finance and the enforcement of rules relating to community employment so that we can take on such people as support workers in the anti-drugs campaign.
I look forward to the initiative taken by my colleague, Deputy Maloney, which will ensure the funds recovered will be seen on the ground helping communities through community and sport development.
I recall several years ago when Deputy Rabbitte was the leader of the Labour Party, a Bill was introduced whereby An Garda Síochána would be given powers in the court system to indicate the directors of major drugs organisations, as had been done with terrorist organisations. Unfortunately, Deputy Rabbitte decided he could not support such a measure where these gangsters could be pointed out and identified. I lost my job as Labour Party Whip at the time for supporting that Bill because I believed it was critical this House and An Garda Síochána took the strongest possible measures against these gangsters at every turn. That is what this Bill will do. My colleague, Deputy Conaghan, eloquently put forward a strong case in this regard, as he did in our many years together on Dublin City Council. We must take the strongest possible measures against these vicious criminals and unravel their grip on communities. We must step in as early as possible to ensure they do not get a grip on young children, teenagers or young people and embroil them in criminality.
This legislation is another important step forward. I assume the Minister of State will give it his full support and we will see it in action in the future as another major deterrent to this type of crime. I commend Deputy Maloney for introducing this legislation and hope the Minister of State will implement it quickly.
Deputy Maloney will appreciate my earlier point about the Government’s ongoing review of this area and that it does not intend to oppose the Bill. I commend the Deputy for introducing this Bill. It is typical of the work he has done in this House, focusing attention on issues of this nature. He has been working diligently in this area for many years, even before he was elected to this House.
I read an article today in the Irish Examinerabout a man called Vincent O'Brien. It stated: "Cork city coroner Myra Cullinane was told yesterday that a spoon, a dirty needle, and other drug paraphernalia were found next to Vincent O’Brien’s unconscious body in a toilet cubicle in Dunnes Stores on North Main Street, Cork, on 2 December." That is the reality of drug crime. There are very few crimes and little criminal activity that are not related in some way to the drug situation and the demand for drugs. Prostitution was mentioned earlier. I am quite sure if one goes down to low-level crime - if it can be termed that - such as burglaries, robberies and muggings, one will find they are connected in some way with the drug situation.
If any citizen feels they can engage in drug-taking at a recreational level, be they middle class, students or whatever, and not think they have fuelled a gang, as well as a situation that resulted in the death of somebody like Vincent O'Brien, then they are deluding themselves. The gangs that reap windfalls of money as a result depend on middle class drug-takers to fuel what they do. Drugs are in every city, town and village. Middle class people have a better way of hiding it while working class communities are generally devastated by it. We all have a collective responsibility for the deaths of people like Vincent O'Brien, as well as for the children born with drug dependency and for the young people who find themselves imprisoned for long stretches or dead as a result of their involvement in the drugs trade. I have seen where young people, who feel locked out of the mainstream economy and society, find somewhere else to get empowerment. The drugs trade is there willing and able to take them on and give them that sense of empowerment. They find it glamorous, lucrative and empowering.
Many of the issues raised today are valid. There is a need to see reinvestment in areas which have been devastated as a result of drugs and from the proceeds from this crime culture and criminal activity. We have much work to do, notwithstanding the Deputy’s legislation and the Government’s ongoing review of this area. This is an issue about which we have to think differently. Generations have been stolen, families have been devastated and people have been afflicted by drugs. It is difficult, trying and monumentally hard to overcome drug addiction. It is difficult to contemplate how hard it is for some addicted to drugs to get clean and on the better path. We have not helped in our public discourse, be it in the political or media sphere. We have denigrated those who have this affliction, calling them names and describing them as a subspecies, and believing it would be better if they were just moved on.
Deputy Maloney’s Bill focuses on those at the top of society living the high life from the proceeds of crime. There is much goodwill in this House which will allow us to move on this. The message must go out that if, as private citizens, we think there is no connection between a drag on a joint or a pill taken in a nightclub and the death of someone like Vincent O'Brien, then we are lying to ourselves. We have to constantly and consistently spread that message in society because Vincent O'Brien's death is the fault of each and every one of us. We must take it on the chin and take responsibility for it to ensure we do not have another case like it. If Deputy Maloney's legislation can bring us some somewhere along the way, then it will be considered in the wider review the Government is undertaking.
We have had good contributions from Members. The one outstanding feature of this debate is that we are all at one in our concern about the communities ravaged by the misuse of drugs.
We, as parliamentarians, are also at one in expressing our solidarity for the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB. I cannot speak highly enough of CAB given the difficult work it has done over the past 19 years. It is up to us, as Members of this House, not only to offer solidarity in terms of praise for its work but also to ensure it has the necessary financial resources which may come to the Exchequer in a more limited period of time, based on the assumption there might be this change from seven to two years. From the contributions of all the Deputies, it is clear we want whatever assets are available to the Exchequer to be allocated to complement the work of CAB or to do the very valuable and essential work, as outlined by Deputy Broughan, in particular, that is carried out by task forces within the community.
I want to raise two other issues. I fully support, as I am sure do all Members, the necessary review of the legislation because it has been in force 19 years and the entire drug trade and the practices have changed utterly in that time. The classes of drugs that were available in the early 1990s are completely different from the substances that are now being used by people. That is why the review is so essential.
In addition, an important aspect that did not apply so much in the early 1990s was the nature of the personnel now involved in these drug gangs. Most of us could write down the principal people involved in the gangs from one end of this country to the other. They are not that numerous and most of us know who they are. The aim of those people is to make a great deal of money and, in the course of doing that, to make many communities miserable. If we can make their lives miserable and if this small Bill can, in any way, make their lives miserable and take as many of their assets acquired through criminal activity from them, we will have done a good day's work. That is the function of Deputies in this House.
The presence of paramilitaries among drug gangs has been widespread since the mid-1990s. Deputy Kelleher made a sharp contribution in that respect. They operate not only in this city but all over the country, including in the Border counties. They have their claws in the drug trade. People who were formerly what could be described as "freedom fighters" can now work full-time selling these substances, or protecting people who sell it. That is the reality. If we can, in any way, diminish their influence, that is what we should do.
I thank the Acting Chairman, the Minister of State and Deputies Broughan and Conaghan and others who made very good contributions. All of us look forward to the review and we will have additional opinions to express when it is completed.
As this is a Private Members' Bill, it must under Standing Orders 82A and 118 be referred to a select or special committee. The relevant committee for this Bill is the Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.