Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with Deputies Cahill and Butler. As Members of the House are aware, the quantity of illicit drugs on our streets and in our communities is at a level we have not previously seen. They are having a devastating effect on the lives of individuals and families and on communities. These are not just words; the evidence supports them in every sense. An Garda Síochána seized as many drugs in 2017 as were seized in 2015 and 2016 combined. Members of the House who are members of policing fora, joint policing committees or drugs task forces are very familiar with the issue.
It is raised constantly and members of all parties are dealing with it.
The Central Statistics Office figures, which referred to controlled drug offences for the year July 2018 to July 2019, have seen an increase in drug-related offences of 16%, year-on-year, and we see the number of people presenting for treatment has also increased. There are currently 10,300 people on methadone treatment and, regrettably, in 2016, 736 people died a drug-related death. The figures are appalling.
Today, Dr. Johnny Connolly published a report, Building Community Resilience. While it looks at a whole range of issues around drugs, gangland and crime, it specifically made reference to the issue of children caught up in the drugs trade. It followed on from a report at the beginning of last year, when the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force published research which indicated that children as young as eight were working as drug runners and ten year olds were working as drug dealers, although many of us knew this information already. The use of minors in drugs distribution networks is appalling but occurs because, due to their age, there are fewer consequences if they are caught. The Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force report exposes the growing prevalence of coercing and exploiting children to supply drugs in our communities. Organised crime gangs appear to be targeting teenagers to handle drugs, knowing they are far less likely to attract attention. It also removes the risk of gang members getting caught with the supplies.
The promise of a lucrative lifestyle tends to prove irresistible for many teenagers. Supplying and dealing drugs in return for quick cash is easy when, in their minds, there is little or no sanction for getting caught with quantities of class A drugs. Younger generations may not necessarily be aware that a criminal conviction for drug offences can have a major impact on a person's future prospects, including when it comes to future employment and travel. We cannot assume that parents are encouraging their children to stay clear of the dangers associated with illegal drugs. Sadly, in some cases, it can be a parent or another family member who gets a child involved in drug dealing.
People regularly complain about the lack of gardaí on the streets, the easy tolerance of drug abuse and the open selling of drugs, including transactions on streets and on public transport, and people injecting drugs in plain sight. The use of cocaine is up 30% and cocaine use in Ireland is now the third highest in Europe. Europol's 2019 Drug Markets Report illustrates the degree to which violence, death, intimidation, stealing and spreading fear across every community in Ireland is now a feature and a consequence of our rampant drugs trade. The State's and the Government's response to date, notwithstanding the good work of gardaí, is not at a scale, or not comprehensive enough, to deal with what we are currently facing.
The unavoidable fact is that violence follows the drugs trade, and there would be no drugs trade without the end user. Cocaine is being consumed by all sectors of society and in every part of the country. However far removed geographically and demographically, each of those users bears some responsibility for the gangland deaths and the terror inflicted on communities by the drugs trade.
I have set out what I view to be an appalling vista for the young children involved. I want to refer specifically to the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force report, based on research undertaken by Janet Robinson and Jim Doherty. They found the average age of drug dealers under 18 was just 14, with the youngest as young as ten. When it came to drug runners, who are used to transport drugs between dealers, they had an average age of 13, with the youngest just eight. These children are being groomed, they are vulnerable and they are being taken advantage of.
It is in that context that we are bringing forward a Bill to tackle the use of children in the distribution of drugs. We are open to working with the Government and other Members on any constructive amendments they may suggest. In that regard, I welcome the Taoiseach's comment today that the Government would support the Bill. I urge the Government to work closely with us to ensure it goes through the various stages and is enacted at an early date. The Bill creates two new criminal offences. If it is passed, it will become a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a person under the age of 18. It is hoped this will make drugs purchasers less inclined to purchase from minors and, in turn, those higher up the chain less inclined to use young people in the distribution network. The Bill also creates a new offence of causing a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. It is hoped the combined effect of these two new offences will protect young people against getting involved in the drugs economy.
I refer to the provisions of the Bill, which is a straightforward and short Bill with just three sections. As I said, the main purpose is to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as amended, to create two new criminal offences. The Bill criminalises the purchase of drugs from children and the use of children in drugs distribution. Section 1 is a standard general interpretation provision for terms which will be used throughout the Bill. A child is defined as a person under the age of 18 years. Section 2 introduces two new criminal offences into the principal Act. This section makes it a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a child or to cause a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. An offence is committed under this section irrespective of the quantity of drugs involved. The section provides certain evidentiary presumptions in favour of the prosecutor. In prosecuting under this section, the prosecutor need not prove that the drug is a controlled drug. The prosecutor need not prove that the person being prosecuted knew that the child was a child. Offences under this section are hybrid offences that can be prosecuted in either the District Court or the Circuit Court. The maximum penalties in the District Court are a fine of up to €3,000 and-or imprisonment up to a maximum of 12 months. The maximum penalties if the case is tried in the Circuit Court are a jail term of up to ten years and-or a fine. Section 3 provides for the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement of the Bill.
From that point of view, the Bill is straightforward and simple. As I said, I welcome the Taoiseach's acknowledgement today in the Dáil that he is prepared to accept the Bill. He said he had some reservations and he wanted amendments, but that can be dealt with on Committee Stage. To other Members in the House who have said they will support the Bill and who had issues, I am prepared to work with them too. This is straightforward legislation that can be passed. On its own, without Garda resources, it will not be enough, but it will send a very clear message that Members of this House do not condone the use of children in the supply of drugs.
When we read the reports, it is clear the children who are involved are either dealers or runners. They are vulnerable children who are being exploited. This legislation will give the Garda additional legislative procedures to tackle some of those issues. It will make people think twice if they are buying drugs. If they are buying from a minor - a child under the age of 18 - it is a more serious, aggravated offence and, if convicted, the maximum conviction will be a sentence of up to ten years. I hope this legislation will be a wake-up call to people that it is no longer acceptable that vulnerable children would be exploited and used in this way. The legislation can be passed and enacted in a relatively short period of time. However, if it is not backed up with additional resources to the Garda drugs units, it will not have the effectiveness we desire. I appeal to the Minister of State, when responding to this debate, to make reference to the huge drugs seizures by the Garda in light of the continuing evidence that we have a growing drugs issue. Will the Minister of State confirm to the House that he will ensure the resources of the Garda increase to match the scale of the problem? I commend the Bill to the House.
I commend Deputy Curran on bringing forward this Bill. Drugs are one of the greatest challenges facing our communities today. It is not just an urban issue. Unfortunately, drugs are in every town and village in our 26 counties and they are becoming a serious issue with huge repercussions. As Deputy Curran said, in recent years, we have seen the very worrying development of the use of children for the distribution of drugs.
We are bringing forward this Bill to try to tackle this sinister development.
At the beginning of this year the Blanchardstown Local Drugs & Alcohol Task Force published research showing what many of us already knew to be the case: children as young as eight years old are working as drug runners, with ten-year-olds dealing drugs. While the research focused on our capital, there is no doubt but that this practice of drug criminals protecting themselves by using children is seen as successful and will become the modus operandiwherever drugs are dealt in this country. It is therefore important we now amend legislation to discourage and criminalise the use of children in this way. The use of minors in drug distribution networks is appealing because, due to their age, there are fewer criminal consequences if they are caught. The Bill seeks to change this and in doing so make it less attractive for those higher up the distribution chain to use young people in this manner.
The Bill creates two new criminal offences. If it is passed, it will become a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a person under 18 years of age. It is hoped this will make drug purchasers less inclined to purchase from minors and that those higher up the chain will in turn be less inclined to use young people in the distribution network. The Bill also creates a new offence of causing a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. It is hoped the combined effect of these two new offences will be to protect young people from getting involved in the drug economy.
The Blanchardstown report exposes the growing prevalence of coercing and exploiting children to supply drugs in our community. Organised crime gangs appear to be targeting teenagers to handle drugs, knowing they are far less likely to attract attention. This also removes the risk of gang members themselves getting caught with supplies. The promise of a lucrative lifestyle tends to prove irresistible for teenagers. Supplying and dealing drugs for quick cash is easy when in their minds there is little or no sanction for getting caught with quantities of class A drugs. Younger generations may not necessarily be aware that a criminal conviction for drug offences can have a major impact on a person's future prospects. We cannot assume that parents are encouraging their children to steer clear of the dangers associated with illegal drugs. Sadly, in some cases, it can be parents or family members who encourage their offspring to get involved. The drug dealer will cynically seek to use children from communities that are already marginalised. The result is that the opportunity for these children to develop productive and rewarding lives as adults is greatly reduced.
The success of this legislation, like all laws enacted, will be to ensure the resources are put in place to guarantee effective implementation. The number of gardaí working on drugs crimes is less than encouraging. The number of personnel in the drugs unit since 2015 has declined. The case is the same in the specialist organised crime unit, where numbers are static at best. In my county of Tipperary we have only six gardaí attached to the drug unit, and the inspector in charge of the unit does not even have a squad car at his disposal.
If we are serious about legislation, this legislation is extremely necessary, but the resources must be put in place for An Garda Síochána to deal with this ever-increasing scourge of drug use. The other issue we need to address is education. Education is key to showing young people the damage drug use can do and the misery it will cause.
I also compliment my colleague, Deputy Curran, for bringing forward this legislation to tackle the use of children in the distribution of drugs. As my colleague said, we are open to working with the Government and other Members on any constructive amendments they might suggest.
The scourge of drugs in modern-day life and society and its far-reaching effects on families, communities and everyday life cannot be overestimated. Susan Collins, the managing director of Addiction Response Crumlin, has said the availability and accessibility of substances have changed with the advent of technology. The drugs issue is now more complicated. More drugs are available. They are on the Internet and on street corners. Drugs can be delivered to people's homes. There are so many different ways in which drugs can be purchased. Unfortunately, this is where young people, our children, come into this. The use of minors in drug distribution networks is appealing because, due to their age, there are fewer criminal consequences if they are caught. The Bill seeks to change this and in doing so make it less attractive for those higher up the distribution chain to use young people in this manner.
The Bill creates two new criminal offences. If it is passed, it will become a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a person under the age of 18. It is hoped this will make drug purchasers less inclined to purchase from minors and that those higher up the chain will in turn be less inclined to use young people in the distribution network. The Bill also creates a new offence of causing a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. It is hoped the combined effect of these two new offences will be to protect young people from getting involved in the drug economy. The promise of a lucrative lifestyle tends to prove irresistible for these teenagers. Supplying and dealing drugs in return for quick cash is easy when in their minds there is little or no sanction for getting caught with quantities of class A drugs. Young generations may not necessarily be aware that a criminal conviction for drug offences can have a major impact on a person's future prospects, including when it comes to future employment or travel.
A study of drug dealing and organised crime in Dublin's south inner city has found that children as young as 12 years of age are being induced into gangs. I believe, however, that this is happening not only in Dublin but all over the country. As my colleague, Deputy Cahill, said, drug dealing is not just confined to cities; it is everywhere, in every town and village in the country. The report, entitled Building Community Resilience: Responding to Criminal and Anti-Social Behaviour Networks Across Dublin South Central, identified two large criminal organisations with approximately 100 members between them. It outlines responses to community-based organised crime, including increases in the number of outreach workers and community gardaí. The report was carried out by Dr. Johnny Connolly from the University of Limerick centre for crime, justice and victim studies. Speaking on "Morning Ireland" today, he said the vast majority of people in communities where gangs operate want to live safe and normal lives but are disengaging from the policing and criminal justice system due to fear and a belief that the system is not bringing solutions to their problems.
There is a growing sense that the Government is losing the battle against illegal drugs. People now regularly complain of a lack of gardaí on our streets, the easy tolerance of drug abuse, the open selling of drugs, including transactions on our streets and on public transport, and people injecting in plain sight. The use of cocaine is up 30%. Cocaine use in Ireland is now the third highest in Europe. The response to date of the State and the Government, notwithstanding the good work of gardaí, is not at a scale or comprehensive enough to deal with what we face.
As I said at the start of my contribution, the issue of drugs is getting more complicated all the time. Drugs are a reality. Because the crisis is so prevalent, nine former Ministers who have held responsibility for the national drugs strategy came together recently and called on the Taoiseach to intervene to restore confidence in the strategy. Figures published recently show that the most significant increases in recorded drug crime nationally are outside Dublin, leading to warnings that the country is undergoing a drugs boom, most of it centred on regional towns and cities. In Waterford, my constituency, possession and intent to supply offences have risen by one third in the past year, which is a very worrying trend. Recently, 30 publicans who have premises in Waterford gathered in a co-working space for a masterclass on drugs, such is the seriousness of the situation. Publicans are operating a zero-tolerance approach but, unfortunately, there is no typical drug user. That is what we have learned. An increased Garda presence on the streets and high levels of engagement between the force, the community and business owners are crucial in tackling the issue. Much good work is being done by the Garda but it is rowing against the tide as the problem continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The Minister sends his apologies - he is in the Seanad - but he would like to thank Deputy Curran, who has brought this Private Members' Bill before the House, for highlighting the serious issue of the involvement of children in criminal wrongdoing in respect of controlled drugs.
The Bill seeks to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 to criminalise the purchase of a controlled drug from a child and criminalise the act of causing a child to be in possession of a controlled drug for sale or supply. The grooming of children by those who control criminal activity and the identification of crime networks as a separate and plausible risk factor underlying criminal offending by certain children are extremely serious matters. No one could disagree with Deputy Curran's objective, and the Government will therefore not oppose the Bill today.
However, while the Minister appreciates the Deputy's good intentions, there are significant legal, policy and operational issues with the Bill as drafted. Our intention is to work with the Deputy to deal with those issues, as he suggested himself. The Bill proposes to make it an offence to purchase or acquire a controlled drug from a child. This would appear to be an offence already under existing criminal law, whereby if a person purchases or otherwise acquires a drug from a child he or she is then in possession of the drug and will have committed an offence under section 3 or section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, depending on the quantity involved. The existing offence does not require physical custody of the drug and the prosecution can prove constructive possession, for example, when drugs are purchased online but not delivered into the hands of the accused. In the new offence proposed here, additional proofs may be required which are not required to prove possession, and therefore this offence might unintentionally be more difficult to prove than the existing offence. The Bill proposes to make it an offence to cause a child to be in possession of a controlled drug for sale or supply. However, a person causing a child to be in possession in this way would have to supply the child with the drug, which is already an offence under section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. The Bill proposes that it shall not be necessary for the prosecutor to prove that the drug was a controlled drug. However, this would seem to be a fundamental element of the offence and therefore necessary to proving the guilt of the accused.
Significantly, the Bill provides that it shall not be necessary to prove that the person knew that the child was a child. This potentially gives rise to constitutional concerns. The provision would appear to be seeking to create a strict liability element to the offence, which on the face of it is problematic given case law requiring the availability of a defence of honest mistake as to age in sexual offences trials. It is also worth noting that, with regard to fines and terms of imprisonment, the penalties proposed are less severe than those currently available under section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. In this regard, the sale or supply of drugs to a minor child as already provided for in existing law would be an aggravating factor, and the sentencing judge could take this into account in the penalty imposed.
These proposals brought by Deputy Curran sit within a wider context of the grooming of children to commit various types of crime, not just drug-related crime. The Deputy will be aware of research published today by the University of Limerick in this area which the Minister is considering carefully. Other relevant research about the influence of criminal networks on children in Ireland includes the Greentown report which identifies crime networks as a separate and plausible risk factor underlying criminal offending by certain children. This report outlines how the influence of criminal networks increases the level of offending by a small number of children and entraps them in offending situations. As well as analysing how criminal networks recruit and control often vulnerable children, the Greentown project has attempted to identify the scale of the problem in the State and is now designing a bespoke form of intervention, which will be trialled on a pilot basis commencing next year. This work has been assisted by an international team of experts on crime and criminal networks, together with Irish scientific, policy and practice expertise in child protection and welfare, drugs and community development, strongly supported by key State agencies, particularly An Garda Síochána. The intervention is designed to reduce and disrupt the influence of criminal networks on children in a local area and provide supports for the positive development of the affected children.
Government policy on drugs and alcohol is set out in the national drug strategy which is entitled Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - a health response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017 - 2025. The strategy reflects a change in attitudes to substance misuse and promotes a more compassionate and humane approach to people who use drugs, with addiction treated first and foremost as a public health issue and is underpinned by the key values of compassion, respect, equality and inclusion. Children living in communities with higher prevalence of problem substance use are at increased risk of developing problems themselves. For some children, there are early identifiable behaviour patterns that indicate possible problems with substances later in life. The new youth justice strategy, which I am leading, will align with the objectives of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures and the next iteration of the national policy framework for children and young adults. It will address a wide range of issues connected with the involvement of young people with the justice system and the steps that can be taken by all agencies, working with community partners, to help to keep young people out of trouble. These include the Probation Service and its community-based initiatives, the bail supervision scheme developed by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other community-based initiatives and Garda youth diversion projects that my Department funds that work with harder to engage young people. The Greentown initiative was already mentioned, as was the youth version of the joint agency response to crime, YJARC, which seeks to intensively manage the most prolific young offenders.
The prosecution of any new offences involving incitement or coercion of children would not be straightforward and there are likely to be difficulties with the workability of such law in practice. Therefore, proposals for new legislation in this area, such as those proposed by Deputy Curran in his Bill, must be considered with the utmost care, taking cognisance of the views of prosecutors, law enforcement and other experienced professionals working in the area when framing any such proposals. Irrespective of what changes we might make to the law, the fact remains that attempting to deal with the exploitation of children for any criminal purpose requires a carefully considered approach, involving consideration of prosecutorial, operational and other service delivery issues, as well the strict letter of the law. The Department of Justice and Equality will be considering the most appropriate approach to countering the grooming of children for criminal activity via engagement with An Garda Síochána, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
While there are significant legal, policy and operational issues with the proposed Bill, as drafted, the Minister considers that the intention behind the Bill has merit. The Minister will be happy to have his officials to engage with the Deputy to talk through and tease out these issues to assist the Deputy with his engagement with the Oireachtas legal advice and drafting services, in order to ensure that these difficulties can be addressed prior to the Bill progressing to Committee Stage. It has been mentioned here that there is no typical drug user and that the gardaí have been very successful recently. We all join in thanking them and wishing them well in their work. The number of seizures by An Garda Síochána is well up on other years which indicates that there may be an underlying problem in that when there is no money available in the community and society, a lot of funding then goes to the purchase of illegal drugs. Reports indicate that people who use drugs as a leisure activity may be people who should know better. They are fuelling the so-called drugs trade. It is not just people with drug addiction that are the issue. Many people in society use these controlled substances and have the money to spend on them. Cocaine has been mentioned as a significant issue and I agree with the Deputy who mentioned that. This is not a simple issue but the use of children is deplorable. We are very aware of it. Much work has been done in the Greentown study and by YJARC. I thank Deputy Curran for bringing forward this matter for debate. It is an important issue that we should all work together on to counteract the negativity involved.
I will share time with my colleagues, Deputies Ó Caoláin and Ward.
I welcome the Bill, which is an important amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act. It addresses a gap in the current legislation regarding those who are exploiting children as drugs couriers and in other illegal drug-related activities. We need to urgently plug this gap in current legislation and criminalise this growing form of child abuse and child exploitation. It should be without question an offence for someone to groom children for the purpose of selling or carrying drugs. Vulnerable children are being groomed in a way that is no different from those who groom children for sexual exploitation. Using children as drugs couriers is just another form of child abuse. These abusers are destroying young lives and robbing them of their future. Gangs are increasingly using children as couriers to avoid the risks of being caught in possession of drugs themselves. They believe that children are less likely than adults to be stopped and searched by police or suspected of having drugs on them and so can operate beneath the radar of An Garda Síochána. These abusers know that children will be attracted by the false glamour and material wealth of drug dealers and are more vulnerable to being exploited. Children are also bullied and threatened into acting as drugs couriers. They often fear the retribution of the drugs gangs and the threat to their families more than they fear the consequences of their actions if caught by the Garda.
I want to speak about an issue in my home city of Limerick. In a recent drugs seizure in the city, crack cocaine was among the drugs seized. Crack cocaine is being sold openly in Limerick, mixed with heroin. The drug is devastating. It has destroyed communities across the world. It is extremely addictive and is regarded as the most addictive form of cocaine. There really is a special place in hell for anyone who sells, distributes or benefit from profits from the sale of crack cocaine. I am contacted almost daily by constituents who have concerns regarding drug use, addiction services, mental health supports, or the crime and intimidation associated with the drugs trade. They often feel that nothing is being done to address their real concerns. From my own work and talking to community workers who have told me about it, I know that low level drug dealing is rife in areas of Limerick. Whereas in the past this activity was undertaken by a limited number of drugs dealers, drugs pushers currently use a network of people, often children, in the sale and supply chain. For drug dealers, children are a cheap, expendable, easily controlled resource to be used, abused and discarded when their usefulness runs out.
They do not see them as children or if they do, they do not seem to care. They only care about the profits they make from selling drugs, regardless of how many young lives they destroy in the process. We need not only to strengthen the laws in this area, but to give those at the coalface of the problem the tools to defeat the drugs scourge in their local communities.
It is an indictment of the priorities of the current and previous Governments that the funding for drug and alcohol task forces was cut each year between 2008 and 2014. I speak as a director of the Mid-West Regional Drugs and Alcohol Forum, of which I have been member for a number of years. Despite the escalation of the drugs crisis, funding for such groups has effectively been frozen since 2014. This lack of proper funding has severely affected the delivery of services for communities, and has led to the loss of expertise, as well as experienced and irreplaceable personnel. Additionally, alcohol has been added to the remit of drugs task forces and forums, without any extra funding or resources being allocated. That is not sustainable. We need to restore funding to 2008 levels, at a minimum. As Deputy Curran noted, former Ministers of State who oversaw the national drugs strategy recently warned that delivery of the plan was "in danger of collapse" as powers are being centralised under the HSE. The current Minister must heed this warning and ensure the task forces are once again made responsible for drafting and implementing local strategies to combat the drugs crisis in their own areas.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Ireland's approach to drugs both publicly and politically and how that it is reflected in policy. I have worked in addiction centres across Dublin for many years, including in my area of Clondalkin, where I worked for the Clondalkin Addiction Support Programme. I have years of real-life experience working with people across the spectrum of addiction, from those living chaotic lives to those who have abstained for years and everyone in between. One of my most challenging but rewarding roles was working with a group of under-18s in the Inchicore area who had fallen through the cracks of society. These young men had been excluded from schools and youth clubs and were very vulnerable. Anyone who has worked with under-18s knows that a person would be rebuked - that is the polite term - for calling them vulnerable but that is exactly what they are. They are very vulnerable.
Drug use and drug selling by young people from disadvantaged areas is not a new phenomenon. However, speaking as a director of the Clondalkin drug and alcohol task force, there has been a spike in such activity over the last 18 months. Young people are being targeted by older, experienced drug dealers to sell and deliver drugs. Children are being groomed by unscrupulous drug dealers and are attracted by the flashy cars, the new runners, the few bob in their pockets and the status of being considered a so-called somebody. We need to examine the underlying issues to know what makes this lifestyle attractive to them. Poverty and lack of opportunities are always top of the list in my conversations, not only with the young people in question, but also with the services needed to support them. As legislators, we need to look at the causes and effects. We need to be proactive rather than reactive and target these young people before they end up in the hands of drug dealers.
Years of underinvestment in our communities by successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Governments, including in the local drug task forces, has left many areas bankrupt of the resources needed to tackle these issues. For example, Clondalkin and Lucan do not have a specific programme for drug users who are under 18, although such a service will be provided this year as part of the Clondalkin drug and alcohol task force's strategic plan. This is not due to new moneys or funding but because the current task force budget, which has been cut year on year, has been restructured. In order to introduce a new service, a previously funded service will have to lose out. These are the kind of arduous decisions task forces across this country have to make. The failure to properly fund the local drug and alcohol task forces demonstrates the Government's indifference to the damage and devastation drugs cause to families and communities. The crisis facing communities across Ireland because of the illicit drug trade manifests itself in many parts of Dublin Mid-West. There is open drug dealing, children are being used as drug mules and couriers and there has been an increase in intimidation due to alleged drug debts or increased personal debts. Enormous pressure is being put, yet again, on our under-resourced community organisations.
This legislation may have unintended consequences. For example, what would happen to a child who sold drugs to another child? While children are vulnerable, so too are drug users. It would more productive to direct drug users into treatment and rehabilitation programmes rather than the judicial services. I welcome this Bill and will be interested to see how it can be improved on Committee Stage. In this trio of child, drug user and drug dealer, only one group is not vulnerable, and that is the dealer who puts drugs into the child's hands. Those who engage in grooming vulnerable children to sell and deliver drugs must be prosecuted to the highest degree.
I support tonight's Bill and commend those who moved it. Drug abuse and addiction have greatly increased recently, due in no small part to the use of children to transport, store, and sell drugs. It may come as a shock to people that we must consider, let alone explicitly legislate for, the fact that children of a very young age are directly involved in the supply and sale of drugs. We must also rid ourselves of any notion that drug abuse and drug addiction are issues facing urban areas alone. Sadly, it is widely accepted that drugs and drug abuse are a feature of nearly every town and townland across this State. In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, services for treatment of drug addiction, such as the Cavan Drug Awareness, CDA, Trust, are under threat of closure due to their perilous financial situation. Such organisations provide an essential service to people with drug and alcohol addiction issues across counties Cavan and Monaghan, including very young people and those who started on this road when they were children themselves.
Only a few weeks ago, the CDA Trust had still not received funding for the final quarter of this year. This resulted in it operating off a bank overdraft, with the associated high interest costs, which were unnecessary. Two years ago, the new national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - A health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025, called for increased planning and co-operation in this area. However, communities are being excluded from a role in key decision-making, breaking a commitment given by the Government in that same strategy. This is a very serious matter. If the Government expects agencies involved in helping those with substance addiction to plan for the future and co-operate successfully with other related bodies, it must provide for those agencies to function efficiently and effectively and not to be obliged to limp on day by day under the real threat of closure.
In October, I raised the case of Cavan Drug Awareness Trust directly with the Minister of State through a Topical Issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, told me that €190,000 was to be invested in support services for young people with substance abuse problems in Cavan-Monaghan. While I welcome such a commitment, who is to deliver those addiction services for this overwhelmingly young cohort of people if the threat to the CDA Trust remains? Rather than making vague promises of future funding, the Government should ensure the future of the CDA Trust and its staff, who have the requisite experience and knowledge particular to that region. Otherwise, through what means and to whom would the funding be given?
The national drugs strategy can be delivered successfully through existing structures. First, the Department of the Taoiseach should take responsibility for oversight of the new strategy. Second, the Taoiseach should convene a national forum of all national drugs strategy stakeholders to set out clearly what is expected of them in their roles implementing the strategy in line with the principles therein. Third, a community development plan should be put in place at the core of the national drugs strategy. The bottom line is that the drug and alcohol task forces must be allowed to do as the national drugs strategy promised, which is to co-ordinate an interagency approach to the implementation of the strategy, in the context of the needs of their respective regions and areas.
I can say that not only with regard to the Cavan-Monaghan issue and the CDA Trust's future. It has formally put us all on notice that it will cease operation at the end of the coming year if there is no increase in funding. The North Eastern Drug and Alcohol Task Force, which is the overarching body across the region of Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath, has echoed the CDA position only a short number of weeks ago in the audiovisual room in Leinster House. There is a serious problem here. While I welcome the Minister of State's indication of support for the Bill, it is critically important that this Government takes a real hold of this issue because what I see in my community across my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is an unravelling of good work done at a community level. There needs to be a realisation of this and an intervention at the highest level to arrest that decline.
On behalf of the Labour Party I support the Bill and welcome the initiative by Deputy Curran in respect of this matter. I share the sentiment expressed by the Minister of State about the existing offence. He said that the existing offence does not require physical custody of the drug and the prosecution can prove constructive possession, for example, when drugs are purchased online but not delivered into the hands of the accused. In the proposed offence, additional proofs may be required, which are not required to prove possession, and, therefore, this offence might unintentionally be more difficult to prove than the existing offence. I am sure Deputy Curran will clarify that at a further stage in the proceedings. It is a legitimate issue to be raised.
Through popular culture and various television dramas, we are now seeing the articulation or expression of the exploitation of children, be it the passing of the burner phones or children acting as mules or lookouts. It is a reflection of the reality on the ground. We are faced with the vista of children being exploited in this way, with impunity, by these malevolent forces in our society. I share the views expressed by previous speakers about the need to ensure that children are not exploited and that there should be a penalty for the exploitation of a child. On that basis, we support the legislation.
I am glad we are having this debate today. Numerous Deputies have spoken about this issue. Today's report on the south inner city was a critique of the inner dynamics of criminal gangs and how their insidious behaviour affects communities. The picture is pretty bleak. Children as young as ten or 12 are exploited and involved in the drugs industry. There is still light, as the author of the report said, with regard to going from antisocial to pro-social behaviour, which is very important.
I am quite outspoken on this issue. There are two vacuums that create this situation. One of them involves socioeconomic reasons while the other one manifests itself in the criminal justice system and State policy on drug use. Children being caught in the drugs trade by unscrupulous individuals is not new. I know of instances in Dublin Mid-West where children as young as 12 are selling crack cocaine, heroin and all sorts of illicit drugs. This is deeply depressing. Children are selling illicit drugs to adults and are being put in harm's way through that. Through the lure of money and the apprenticeship of glamour, the souls of these children are being taken away by unscrupulous individuals. The level of manipulation and the grotesque violence that come with it constitute an affront to society. This is nothing new.
There is an alternative economy in working-class communities - a black economy - where people do extremely well out of drug dealing. They make vast amounts, which trickle down to the middle layer. It is a bit like the capitalist economy. There are the main ones who make all the money and usually do not live in the area and then there is middle management and a floor of factory workers and people beneath them who do all the work and must take all the slack. The collateral damage of that is communities being destroyed by drugs. There is no way of getting around it. There is no glamour involved in drugs yet people still take them.
As Deputy Curran said, the demand for drugs has never been so great so something is obviously wrong here. We have powers under the Misuse of Drugs Act under which if people use drugs, they will receive custodial sentences sometimes. Obviously, that is not working. We must look at something very different because if it is about demand and supply, there is huge demand out there. All sorts of people use drugs. There are probably people in this Chamber who have used drugs. I have used drugs in the past and I have said that publicly. Other people have used drugs so this goes on and we need a rational and grown-up debate about why people turn to drugs for all sorts of complicated reasons. Using the criminal justice system as a bulwark against people is simply not going to work. We must look at something very different when it comes to how we treat people who use drugs and how they supply drugs. We need to look at regulating all drugs. Probably a lot of people will disagree with me on that but I would look at a policy that is very different because once that vacuum exists, people will fill it. They will be extremely unscrupulous and once that vacuum exists, this is what will happen.
I attended the launch of Dr. Johnny Connolly's report this morning in Dublin South Central and I recommend it. It makes for very interesting reading and reflects many communities around Ireland where this is a problem. The Bill is welcome and if it gets past Second Stage, we will probably table amendments to it. The fact that children as young as 12 are becoming involved in drug distribution networks is very frightening. It is particularly frightening for the communities affected by it.
The one thing I would like to focus on concerns the socio-economic issues in this report. Dr. Connolly illustrates very well that areas with higher deprivation ratings - E and F - such as Cherry Orchard, Ballyfermot and parts of Crumlin and the south inner city have the highest number of children involved in the distribution networks. As has been said, they are often controlled by some nasty people who wield a lot of power to intimidate not just these children and their families but the entire community.
Dr. Connolly also discussed in his report the under-reporting to the Garda from within these communities. He interviewed people and much of the reason for that under-reporting is down to a disbelief that anything will change or happen. I honestly believe that stems from the idea that people in these communities feel trapped into a certain level of expectation, that they can only go so far and nothing will change. These people feel contained in those communities and that nothing will change for them.
The report of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, published yesterday morning, showed that 140,000 children are living in cold because of fuel poverty. That reiterates the message to people in these communities. Those 140,000 children are not confined to rural areas or old houses as they are scattered throughout this country, and that illustrates a tale of two countries because some of the poorest parts of our city in the Dublin South-Central constituency are beside some of the most affluent parts of the city. It was in the poorest of local areas that drugs projects, family resource projects and youth projects were cut during the austerity years, in particular. The young people affected are the children of austerity. I remember well when the then Minister for Finance said he had to pick the low-hanging fruit first, by which he meant the facilities, supports and employees in those areas. The projects that were lost were able to intervene and offer a community network. They acted as the veins that tied those communities together. Austerity meant that elements like that were not able to mushroom, grow and influence children who fell outside the acceptable norms in society.
The clear messages that need to be heard are those that Dr. Connolly mentioned in his report. The response to this problem must be driven, in the first instance, by the human rights of the communities affected, the families and people who live in those communities and their rights to live peaceful, decent and safe lives. He also referred to the human rights of the children who are being abused by their handlers by making them peddle drugs, the need for balance in the care and response to those communities and the adoption of a restorative approach.
If we are to accept those recommendations, things that are currently happening to drugs projects and youth services in those areas must stop. For example, the withdrawal of funding and the HSE from the drugs community project in the canal community, which is an area that is among the worst affected, is not acceptable. The HSE needs to engage with community leaders, activists and workers; otherwise, we are not going to find a restorative and holistic approach to how communities affected by this scourge can grow, develop, and be safe.
I acknowledge Deputy Curran not only for his work on this Bill but for his work on drugs generally, going back to the time of his drugs strategy when he was a junior Minister in a Fianna Fáil-led Government.
I was at the launch of the national drugs strategy, entitled Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. There were many positives in that strategy, the cover of which stated it was a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland. The cover mentioned family, children and friends, healing, community and recovery. Strong speeches were made at that launch by the Taoiseach and the Minister of State with responsibility for communities and the national drugs strategy, Deputy Catherine Byrne. The vision in that strategy mentioned a healthier, safer Ireland in which harm was reduced and those affected were empowered. The values underpinning the strategy included compassion, respect, equity and, of course, partnership.
There were five goals in that strategy and it was good that well-being was among them because we are not only concerned with good physical health. Other goals aimed to minimise harm and promote rehabilitation and recovery, reduce access to the drugs markets and support the participation of individuals, families and communities. There were performance indicators attached those goals to measure the overall effectiveness of the strategy and key bodies were to report to the Minister. There was to be a national oversight committee and a standing sub-committee to drive implementation.
There was widespread support for that strategy from all of the projects, communities and organisations concerned. It is all there, but the question lies in its implementation and, if there had been effective implementation, we would probably not be having this debate tonight.
I have concerns about the Bill because I do not believe it gets to the root of why drug dealing goes on and why children are involved. Children and teenagers sell drugs either through fear and intimidation, to which I will return shortly, or because they see dealing as a viable and lucrative career choice. These children have role models who are doing well out of dealing, have designer clothes and watches, cars, extensions on their houses, and holidays. Why would those children not sell drugs when the alternatives are not viable? The alternatives are a job that, if one is lucky enough, pays minimum wage, or hanging around doing nothing. I will qualify that by saying that positive work is going on in the north inner city through the programme implementation board under the chairmanship of Michael Stone. However, it is going to take years before the long neglect of the north inner city is reversed. Good work is going on and there is a more positive atmosphere in spite of the many challenges involved.
Some of the progressive initiatives are to do with education and work because we know how important it is for young people to stay in school and, for those who can and want to, to progress to further education. It is also important that there are alternatives for those who do not want to pursue further education to follow up on apprenticeships, etc., and we are seeing movement on that. There are also youth projects, for example the career LEAP project, which works with firms and businesses in the area to provide apprenticeships, mentoring, work experience and jobs with a future.
There are other positives, including the inclusion hub, the progress on case management and stabilisation beds, etc. All of those are important but the invaluable work has to be undertaken on prevention, education and awareness for those people who end up taking drugs, those who end up dealing as a career choice and those who are forced into dealing. Unfortunately, we could walk from here tonight to the north or south inner city and buy any drug, including weed, tablets, crack cocaine and heroin. That is the reality of life in those areas.
One of the terms of reference for the standing sub-committee under the drugs strategy was to develop, implement and monitor responses to drug-related intimidation as a matter of priority but the lack of implementation of the strategy has led to this Bill being before the House tonight.
It is hard to describe the fear that is experienced by people I know in the constituency I represent. Dealers are bursting into homes, sometimes mistakenly, but other times into the homes of family, friends and partners of an addict who owes money, or a dealer who is not paying up. It is the fear that drives some of those family members to do things that they would never do and get involved in criminality such as burning out somebody's car, attacking somebody's house, robbing people, committing physical assault and even murder to pay a drug debt, either one's own or the debt of a family member whose life is at stake if the debt is not paid, or who may have to move out of Dublin or Ireland to avoid being murdered. The family will be left to pay and I am not sure that reality will be helped by the Bill because where is the evidence coming from? If fear drives some children into dealing, fear will keep them dealing. Support is needed to address that fear.
There are also children and young people who are members of families with a history of criminality. We want to break that cycle but I am not sure this Bill will do that, despite the very best of intentions. The answer is to ensure the Government's commitment in the national drugs strategy is implemented and that the policy structures of the strategy and the structure of the task forces are re-empowered and resourced to do the work.
There are many outstanding issues when it comes to drugs. There have been five drug-related deaths in the north inner city in recent weeks. A report from the Health Research Board, HRB, is due out but that will be about drug-related deaths that occurred two years ago. As a result of legislation relating to coroners, we are not getting up-to-date information.
It is opportune that Dr. Connolly's report came out today and, while it relates to the south inner city, he has many years' experience of the north inner city. We know about the findings that highlighted the reluctance of residents to report crime either through fear of reprisal or because they believe that little or nothing was going to be done about it. He suggested certain actions, including the inter-agency approach to what he calls career criminals, using a carrot-and-stick approach like the joint agency response to crime, JARC, and intensive outreach to young people involved in dealing, with trained youth workers using restorative practices and, to summarise, a whole system approach. Dr. Connolly called his report, Building Community Resilience, and emphasised strengthening and resourcing community policing and seriously listening to what young people are experiencing on the ground.
That brings me to the community policing forum that he was involved in setting up, supporting and evaluating. The north inner city forum was in existence for 20 years and was a conduit and liaison for the community in the area. The community found in the forum a safe place to discuss drug debt, intimidation and antisocial behaviour and the conduit it provided was to the gardaí or the local authority, and it was all to do with drugs.
Unfortunately, the HSE was the funding stream for the community policing forum. The Department of Justice and Equality is the funding stream for the Cabra community policing forum and the HSE no longer sees this as relevant to its health focused programmes.
The CPF did invaluable work over many years in supporting individuals and communities making a real difference, unlike the joint policing committees, JPCs. I have experience of all them. The JPCs are talking shops. We have PowerPoint presentations of statistics. Public representatives can ask questions but they can ask them anyway by picking up the phone or emailing. I have sat in JPCs where there might be one or two public representatives, five or six gardaí and five or six people from the local authority in attendance whereas the community policing forum is for the community. The community of the North inner city is now deprived of that CPF and its lack is obvious. People will not go to gardaí but they would go to the CPF co-ordinator because they trusted that person with the information. The residents want it back. It was central to the community partnership model. It seems that model is being undermined. We are back to a top-down approach, that the statutory side knows what is best for the community, and not a bottom-up approach from the community.
I listened to Deputy Curran and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, earlier. We know the statistics with regard to the worsening problem. The Bill will punish those who do not care about a jail sentence because to many people a jail sentence is a sign of status. The answer is to work with young people, get to the reason they are involved in dealing and, importantly, what it will take to get them to stop and think about their actions. That comes back to prevention, education, the youth diversion projects, sports, arts and the Greentown Project, which we have discussed. It is a long time coming but I believe that is the targeted approach we need.
Many years ago we had the young people's facilities and services fund, which I was involved in as chair in the north inner city. That was targeted at those most at risk when it comes to drugs. We need a young people's facilities and services fund targeted at those who are getting into this criminal behaviour. It is about working with them to get them out of what they are doing and supporting them, especially those who are under intimidation and threat if they continue dealing.
We had a programme in the north inner city, which the programme implementation board, PIB, supported, in two of the local second level schools. The evaluation was good because we had trained outside facilitators coming in who understood the issues. An overall programme for schools is not taking into account that some of our young people are living with this every day. Young people in other communities are not.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which proposes to criminalise the purchase of a controlled drug from a child and criminalise the act of causing a child to be in possession of a controlled drug for sale or supply, and to provide for related matters.
As we are well aware, the misuse of illicit drugs has reached a level in this country we have not seen before. It is affecting people from all walks of life - from the vulnerable to the well-off. Illegal drugs have managed to get a hold in our cities as well as our towns and villages in increasing levels, which are affecting all communities as well as our schools. I repeat for the Minister that it is affecting our schools, which is a very serious issue and one that has been overlooked and not managed very well in schools throughout our country.
We hear stories from all over the world that drug dealers are using children under the age of 18 to distribute and sell illegal drugs, but we do not need to look abroad to see that. It is happening on our own streets.
I would like to see harsher penalties imposed on people who use and manipulate children into dealing drugs. This amendment Bill states that offences under this section are hybrid offences that can be prosecuted in either the District Court or the Circuit Court. The maximum penalties in the District Court are a fine of up to €3,000 and-or imprisonment of up to a maximum of 12 months. The maximum penalties if the case is tried in the Circuit Court is a jail term of up to ten years and-or a fine. I believe the District Court penalties are too lenient. A real deterrent must be put in place to stop these people from dragging children into a lifestyle surrounded by addiction and crime.
According to the Ireland Drug Report 2018, cannabis is the most popular illegal drug in Ireland. Those figures do not distinguish between recreational users and people who use cannabis for medical purposes. Vera Twomey, Yvonne Cahalane and other families in Ireland had to endure terrible hardships to get life-changing medicine for their children. It is a disgrace that they had to go to the lengths they did to get medicinal cannabis for their children. We should introduce medicinal cannabis safely into our country that would only be available through a pharmacy and under strict regulations. Medicinal cannabis has been legalised in more than ten European countries, Canada and Australia and 30 states in the US. We need to step up to the plate and stop innocent children who have rare conditions suffering more than they already do.
I commend the stellar work that An Garda Síochána is doing in taking illegal drugs off our streets. Almost weekly we hear of high-profile drug seizures. It is my understanding that if a child is over the age of criminal responsibility and that leads to the child being charged and brought before the Courts Service, penalties are usually minimal and not a deterrent. We need to examine ways to deter young people from being talked into going down this path. That is the road we need to travel at this stage.
I am happy to contribute to the debate on this Bill. I commend Deputy John Curran on his work in advancing it. The Bill seeks to criminalise the purchase of a controlled drug from a child and to criminalise the act of causing a child to be in possession of a controlled drug for sale or supply. It is appalling to think that there are people of such brutality and lack of conscience who would seek to use a child as a conduit to sell and profit from the sale of drugs. It is a shocking thought. Where have we come as a society when such practices are now commonplace? The value of a child's life has become degraded in this State, thankfully, not for all but certainly for a dangerous and criminal element who could not care less about a child's welfare. It is shocking. As Deputy Curran said on First Stage of the Bill, while it will not solve our drug problem, it will offer a small degree of protection to young people, na daoine oige, in a vulnerable position who are being targeted and whose future is selfishly and needlessly being taken from them.
We need measures such as this Bill, but we also need many more community gardaí. That is why I am talking to the Minister. Community gardaí have built up and generated relationships of trust within local communities and families and they can steer children away from being associated with such brutal criminality. In my area, in towns such as Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and Cahir, the community gardaí do sterling work. They sit in people's kitchens and listen to them. They are respected by people. However, all that has been taken away because the Garda is starved of resources. In terms of numbers, gardaí have been taken off those jobs. Towns like Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir in my constituency are being decimated as a result of open drug dealing. That is common knowledge.
I made a passionate plea about the lack of gardaí to the new Commissioner recently at a JPC meeting. Much has been spoken about the JPCs being talking shops. They are talking shops. Clonmel needs an additional 30 gardaí. We had the passing out of 200 new gardaí in Templemore last Friday week and we did not get even one. It is shocking that the Commissioner dismissed us like that. The Minister said it was not his job, as did the Taoiseach, but it is dangerous not to have a sufficient number of gardaí on the streets. We do not have the number of gardaí required to tackle crime in the Clonmel or Carrick-on-Suir district. It is shocking that not a single garda was provided from the last tranche of graduates from Templemore. Ten gardaí have left the district - two sergeants and eight gardaí. That is sad. Two have resigned, which is very sad. They did not have the resources or the tools of the trade. The Minister will want to pass responsibility for that to the Commissioner.
Go raibh maith agat. We are not giving the gardaí the tools of the trade. Drug use is increasing but the fear of being caught is decreasing. That is my point.
Deputy Curran is doing an excellent job. He knows much more about this problem. I served in the Dáil with him in 2007 when he spoke about issues in Dublin city. We did not know what he was talking about at the time. We know now because the problem is in every town, village, townland and community in the country. I had a meeting last Sunday night in the Hotel Minella with the proprietor, John Allen, Michael O'Loughlin, Peter Murchin and a number of other public representatives to see what we could do to stop the prolific use of drugs by people in suits, like myself, who are in good jobs. They call it recreational use yet it is causing devastation and putting families through torture. In the past 18 months in south Tipperary, at least ten people have died because they owed small drug debts.
They went abroad and their families were terrorised. Then they came back and they were terrorised and they took their own lives. Yet, we do not have a mental health bed in Tipperary. The issues are staggering and we have to deal with them.
The amount of cocaine and other drugs being used nightly in the pubs and clubs is unbelievable. Our schools are doing their best but the whole thing is of epidemic proportions. Something has to be done and this is tosach maith, a good start.
They will be using these children as mules. That is well known. There are small children of seven or eight years of age going around dropping and delivering. It is pure shocking. In the towns of Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, everyone knows who is doing this - they know the people. They pass the information on to the Garda but it does not have the resources to address it. We have six gardaí in the drugs squad for the whole country of Tipperary, which is 120 miles long. There used to be 15 or 20 gardaí in the unit and they did a great job, but six cannot do anything - they are powerless.
We have protected communities. We see what is going on in Drogheda, Mullingar and Dublin. There are significant Garda resources in place and I commend the members of the Garda on the brave work they do, but they are being threatened and intimidated.
I see what is going on in my native county of Tipperary and if it is not dealt with soon, it will be out of control completely. These gangs are terrorising people and operating with impunity because we do not have the resources to deal with them and put them away. The Bill is an effort by Deputy Curran to deal with that. It is a sad state of affairs that the schools and everywhere else are being destroyed because of this. It affects future generations. I have grandchildren, thankfully, as do many other people here. The Minister for Justice and Equality probably has grandchildren too. We do not want this or need this. We need to sit up and listen to what is happening. We are being flooded with them. There are gangs in Clonmel terrorising the people. Not a day goes by in my office without a parent or grandparent coming in to talk about what is going on or what happened to their Jimmy, Mary or Tommy. They press things on families when they are deceased at their own hands because of the pressure, and then they pass it on to the parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately, many of these gangs have protected status, which was bestowed on them in this House a couple of years ago. It is a farce, nothing short of a farce. They are an ethnic group and they can do what they like to whom they like when they like and where they like above the law. It is a disgrace and a farce.
I will start by commending Deputy John Curran on bringing forward this legislation. It is important legislation. I know Deputy Curran has extensive experience in this area and he speaks with authority on the matter. I also know how much work is involved in actually producing a Bill - well done to him.
I hope the Bill progresses swiftly. I note that the Government is supporting the Bill or at least not opposing it. I welcome that. The Bill will certainly be strongly be supported by all parties in the House. I hope it progresses quickly and that it will not simply be a case of the Government not opposing it but not really supporting it either. I also hope that priority is given within Fianna Fáil to the future Stages of this Bill and it will be facilitated through to its conclusion at an early stage. At this stage in the electoral cycle, the fear is that while things might get through Second Stage they may not be seen through to conclusion. Yet it is important that happens.
This issue has been growing over several years. It is something that many of us in the House have raised on several occasions. Unfortunately, from the Government perspective, the response has been quite inadequate despite what we were all seeing before our eyes in recent years. It was what can only be described as an explosion in drug use, especially use among minors, as well as recruiting runners and getting them to carry and sell stuff. The manner in which young people are recruited into the drugs trade is clear. It starts off with inviting young people to a party and providing drugs free of charge there. They are told where they can get further drugs without any charge and the suggestion of making extra money is made to them. The message is that it is easy. We see the attraction of this, especially in working-class areas where the ambitions of many young people may be quite limited for various reasons, including the impact of disadvantage and circumstances where they do not see much opportunity being provided to them either through school, training or employment. Involvement in the drugs trade is often held up as a rite of passage to adulthood and a route to developing a lucrative way of living. Of course we know it is anything but that. Yet, the early attractions are undeniable for young people. They see others around them who have the gear and spare money. They may go on to have a motorbike or car and may be influential in their local community. It all looks attractive for young people to get involved, especially where there may not be many other options open to them. That raises the whole issue of the social circumstances that predispose young people to getting involved in taking drugs and the trading of drugs.
Over recent times, we have heard the line that the response to drug misuse is health-led. That is fine and there is need for a strong health-led response. However, there is also need for criminal justice and policing responses. Sometimes I get the impression that the line about a health-led response is actually cover for inactivity in the other responses required. I am not saying as much for no reason but because the data back up the claim. We can see how when the Garda figures took a dramatic dip, there was a price to be paid. The price is that drug misuse, dealing and a host of other issues relating to anti-social activity, community crime, lawlessness and antisocial stuff increase, thus creating a seedbed for young people to get involved in drugs generally and in the dealing of drugs.
Successive Ministers, Garda Commissioners and politicians generally have been fond of saying that community policing is the centrepiece of policing. I am unsure how often I have heard that said. We must put community policing up with the other more high-profile policing. We all know that unless we get the community policing part of policing right and resource it adequately, then much of the rest it will be too late in terms of an intervention. We must deal early with youth crime and the things that we often talk about in the House, including the proliferation of quad bikes, scramblers, urban horses, petty theft, gangs, intimidation and bullying. All of these things are regarded as low-level stuff but they lead to an atmosphere and culture of lawlessness. We must have a strong community policing force to address these low-level issues and nip the problem in the bud, as it were, if we are to have a serious impact on more serious crime.
Let us consider the figures for community policing over recent years. We can see a major dip in the numbers, from a high in 2012 or 2013 of over 1,000 community police to a current strength of 700. It is a huge dip and in urban areas in particular, this is having a major impact.
Those involved in criminal groups within communities know well that the Garda ability to respond to their activities is limited. When I look across my constituency, I can see this in the different areas and Garda stations.
The number of gardaí allocated to the community Garda service is less than 10% of the overall allocation of gardaí for those stations. It is clear the Government is only paying lip-service to this principle of putting the community Garda service front and centre. Unless we support that service and ensure that adequate resources are provided for it, what starts off as minor crime and small incidents of anti-social activity will inevitably provide the circumstances and the seedbed for much more serious gangland drug-related crime, which is what we have seen happening. We are paying a price for those cuts. Equally, in the drug units, the numbers are small and thinly stretched over large areas.
I welcome the provisions of this legislation. It is discrete legislation. It addresses a particular growing issue, which has been raised with the Minister on many occasions, that is, the recruitment of minors, particularly in disadvantaged areas, into what looks like an attractive way of life but, of course, ends up as anything but. I strongly welcome this legislation, very much commend it to the House, and congratulate the Deputy on bringing it forward.
-----four minutes and four minutes.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Curran, for bringing forward the Bill. Its main purpose is to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and to create two criminal offences - the use of young children to be a runner or mule, and the purchase of drugs from a child.
It is not the first time I have stood in front of the Minister to discuss similar issues. This is a minor step and a considerable step, all in one. If we do not get a handle as to how to protect our young children in this regard, it will get out of control.
The role of children within the drugs world is becoming normalised. It is unforgivable that it has reached this stage. What has normalised as well within it is that it has become a lucrative market where children are becoming the pawns in a bigger world. They are being used for the price of a pair of runners. That is what children are paid when they are first lured into it. The better they get at it, the more they receive. Runners become tracksuits, the brand names, etc. All of sudden, they are hooked as they get older. I have gone from the 12 year old now to the 15 year old and I am nearly at the 18 year old, at which age they are nearly into dealing.
Earlier, Members referred to JPCs. I have a totally different view of their role, which I welcome. They provide an invaluable opportunity for public representatives and members of the community to attend meetings every three months when all the local chief superintendents and superintendents are present and we can convey the views of the public. Only three months ago, in Galway, a county JPC meeting took place at which drugs was a significant issue. In fairness to Chief Superintendent Curley, he listened to the public representatives and to the community, and gave us every opportunity to talk it out in detail and to air our concerns.
The main concern we had that day was the vulnerability and the exploitation young people. We talked about the invaluable role of An Garda Síochána in going into the schools and informing young people. They do this mainly around junior certificate time but it possibly needs to be done a little more often to tell them the consequences for travel and for job opportunities in the future if they are caught in possession or if they see it as an opportunity to make money. We must educate these children that they are being used as pawns in a bigger game. In some cases, young people see family members benefit well from it, which is sad.
There are opportunities in youth projects. Deputy Bríd Smith spoke about it earlier. Planet Youth is a fantastic youth initiative pilot in Galway, Roscommon and Mayo where those involved go around educating young people. They examined the Scandinavian model and saw why there was an issue with all forms of addiction, in particular, drugs, and how they could bring people on board. It started with a survey and, in four years, they were able to reduce the incidence from a high percentage to quite a low percentage. I recommend that we consider youth initiative projects as well to support our young people.
It is no coincidence that last week I was at two public meetings in my constituency of Kildare South within three days on drugs. Drugs have invaded every village, town and community throughout the country. Every day we hear stories of families and communities being ravaged by drugs. Research shows that drug crime has increased. Drug use is up by 20%. In fact, the majority of the increase has been outside Dublin. There used be a sense that drugs were a problem in working-class areas in Dublin but 90% of drug users have stable backgrounds and stable homes and, therefore, every community and class has been impacted.
I referred to two meetings. One was in Newbridge and was organised by the JPC. I want to put on record my appreciation for the work that the JPC and the Garda are doing in on this. The community gardaí are doing a good job in reaching out and connecting with schools and communities. There are just not enough of them.
At that meeting the Dublin footballer, Mr. Philly McMahon, spoke about his life experience. The message that Mr. McMahon gave was far more important than any anyone like me, the Minister, a garda or a HSE worker or supporter could give. He spoke about how his family were devastated about his brother getting caught in the trap of addiction, wanting to give up, not being able to get the help when he needed it and relapsing, and sadly, dying when he was only 32. Philly spoke about that half-time check. When he is playing a game and needs to be at the best of his form, he has that half-time check with himself. The young people who were present got a valuable message in terms of having that half-time check with oneself when one finds oneself on the road to something else.
The other meeting was in Rathangan. It was organised by two small community groups, Lullymore, Barnaran, Drumsru and Cappanargid, LBDC, and Rathangan Community Alert Body, RCAB. It was about communities concerned about drugs ravaging our communities. It is not only about the vulnerable people who are led down the road to addiction, but about their families and the safety of their families. In those communities, houses have been burned down. Families have had to remortgage their houses to pay for drug crime. We need to do everything that we can as a society working together to ensure that we stop this blight on our communities.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Curran, on the Bill. He has done a significant work on drugs. It is quite shocking to think of those aged eight and ten being used as drug dealers or, essentially, drug pushers. At a time in a child's life when he or she should be thinking about Christmas, Santa and making their first communion, this is what they are being used for by scumbags who identify young children and think that people will look at innocent children and not think that they have drugs. Sometimes the children deal with money as well. The research that was carried out in Blanchardstown is an eye-opener to all of us.
The two measures Deputy Curran has proposed here in terms of the criminal offences are very much to be welcomed. As Deputy Curran said, he is very open to amendments. If we can make it all the more difficult for those who are peddling drugs and trying to get vulnerable people in, it has to help. Obviously there is an awful lot more we need to do. Money needs to be invested in rehab facilities. When people have gone down the vulnerable road of addiction and they want help, they absolutely should get it and it should be provided for them. I cannot let the evening go without mentioning Sr. Consilio, who got an award here from the Oireachtas last Thursday and who has done so much to help people in addiction, and Aubrey McCarthy in terms of his work with Tiglin. They do incredible work which needs to be helped, resourced and supported. We need good, strong legislation like the Bill my colleague, Deputy Curran, has introduced tonight. I really hope the House accepts and progresses it.
I am pleased to be here for the conclusion of this debate. I acknowledge the contribution of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, earlier when I was in the Seanad. As was mentioned earlier, I very much welcome the research published today by Dr. Johnny Connolly of the University of Limerick, UL. I wish to assure the House, as it was mentioned earlier today by Deputies Broughan, Micheál Martin and others. I would be very pleased to consider it most carefully and was very pleased to note that the research was led by Dr. Connolly, who was a very valued member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which reported last year and following which report an implementation group was set up by Government to ensure the progressed implementation of in excess of 150 recommendations in that regard. I want to confirm that my Department is developing legislation to mandate what will be a joined-up, whole-of-government approach to issues of community safety, involving all of the relevant stakeholders in harm prevention. I welcome the contribution of Deputy Shortall and others who for many years have been speaking of their own experience in constituencies, perhaps none more so than Deputy Curran himself, who held a very important role as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy and indeed represents, as he does, an urban constituency. We must all work together to ensure the involvement of all appropriate stakeholders. That will involve the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Housing, Planning and Local Government, as well as many other agencies. I share the concern of Deputies. I am particularly concerned about children being lured into criminality at an early age. My Department has long supported the University of Limerick's ground-breaking Greentown study which is informing the development of both policy and practice on an ongoing basis.
On the matter of this Bill, I recognise that the intentions of the sponsoring Deputy are entirely laudable. There is widespread agreement that the grooming of children by criminal gangs is a most serious matter. However, there are significant legal and policy issues involved here. There are also operational issues that need to be addressed in the context of the current Bill. I recognise that Deputy Curran realises this and I wish to assure him of a collaborative approach as we take matters forward. The prosecution of new offences involving children is complex and far from straightforward. There are often difficulties with the workability of such proposals in practice, especially where any likely witnesses may be children or their family members, who may be already subject to coercion by the criminal elements involved in the offences or allegations of criminality. Any new legislation in this area must be considered carefully and with the utmost diligence. In many cases, people buying from children are other children themselves. It would be most unfortunate if proposals motivated by a desire to assist children who are exploited simply contributed further to the criminalisation of other children who perhaps have been themselves both coerced and exploited by criminals and criminal gangs. There is no guarantee that those who are ultimately controlling the activities of the children involved would be targeted effectively by the provisions of the Bill. I acknowledge the youth justice strategy and the leadership of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in that regard, as well as resources that are being made available to assist communities in that strategy. I acknowledge the importance of the JPCs. I heard some criticism, I think, as I entered the House but I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that the committees are most useful opportunities for public representatives to engage in a meaningful way with the chiefs of policing communities. I want to acknowledge a recent undertaking on the part of the Garda Commissioner and his senior team to visit as many joint policing committees as possible and hear first-hand from local communities. Once that exercise is complete, which it will be in the spring, I would see a far greater role for the JPCs in the context of the new divisional model where the decision-making process will be undertaken more intensely by the chief superintendent and superintendents at divisional level rather than at national level. I see important opportunities for constructive engagement of the type mentioned by Deputy Rabbitte if the JPCs use these opportunities, and I trust they will.
As I have indicated, I appreciate that the bona fides of Deputy Curran are not in doubt but are clear. The Government will not be opposing the Bill. I want to assure Deputy Curran and his colleagues that my officials will be available to meet with him if he considers that helpful, to discuss the legal, policy and operational issues that are raised by the Bill with a view towards assisting the Deputy further in his engagement. I want to acknowledge the importance of the Oireachtas legal advice and drafting services with Private Members' Bills. I do not believe there is a Department that experiences as many Private Members' Bills as does the Department of Justice and Equality, on the civil side and on the criminal side. I want to assure Deputy Curran that notwithstanding the full agenda we have, we will regard this initiative as being important and we would be happy to engage with the Deputy at an early date to ensure issues that require to be addressed are addressed prior to the Bill progressing to Committee Stage in the Houses.
I thank the Minister for his concluding remarks, in which he quite clearly indicates he is prepared to work and develop this Bill. Two things are clear from the debate in the House today. The issue of problem drug abuse is a national one; it is not a Dublin issue any more, and we heard contributions from right around the country. This phenomenon of children being exploited, while it has been around, is a growing problem and is becoming much more apparent and obvious. There is a willingness in this House to address it. Everybody who spoke on this issue believes there has to be a legislative response. I listened and have heard some of the arguments that have been presented in terms of the problem with the legislation as presented.
The purpose of the Bill is to make it an offence to purchase or acquire drugs from a child. This would appear to be an offence under existing criminal law whereby if a person purchases or otherwise acquires a drug, he or she is then in possession of the drug. We are trying to make it an aggravated offence to buy or receive drugs from a minor. That is the principle. These children are being groomed and taken advantage of. There is a willingness in this House to offer a level of protection to those children that is not there at the moment.
I take the Minister's offer very sincerely and will engage with the officials in the Department because all the Members who contributed to this debate want to see this issue addressed in a proper manner. I would not like to say that only legislators have a role to play in this. We already have heard about the Garda. While I am aware of the separation of powers, and often we do not reflect on that here, it is important that the Judiciary and the sentences passed are in line with the thinking and the spirit of what was meant to happen. I refer specifically to section 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, which makes it an offence to possess drugs with a market value of over €13,000. Persons found guilty of that offence under this section face a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years' imprisonment. It is extremely unusual for Irish legislation to provide for mandatory minimum jail terms. The norm is that the judge has discretion in determining the appropriate sentence in all the circumstances. The decision in making a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence for the drug offence was to recognise the harm caused to society by drug trafficking. The legislation, however, under a different section provides an element of discretion to the trial judge to impose a lesser sentence if there are exceptional and specific circumstances which would justify departing from the minimum ten-year sentence. The norm should be a ten-year plus sentence. According to the figures the Minister gave me for 2018, there were 141 convictions under section 15A. One of those convicted received a ten-years plus sentence. That was not the intention of this House. While there will always be exceptional circumstances, 99 of those convicted received a sentence of five years or less. That was not the intention of the legislation. It specifies exceptional and specific circumstances. It is now the norm that people caught with significant quantities of drugs do not get the minimum mandatory sentence that this House had envisaged.
As we develop this legislation to protect young children, it is important that the Judiciary does not act just on the words we write but on the view of this House. This measure will not solve the drug problem. There will still be illegal drugs, and the work of An Garda Síochána and the joint policing committees will continue. The purpose of this legislation is solely to try to prevent vulnerable children being coerced, groomed and taken advantage of. I thank the Minister for his contribution and will gladly work with him and others to address the concerns of the Government to ensure that the legislation brought forward on Committee Stage is robust and fit for purpose.