Thursday, 4 February 2021
Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Deputies for the support they have expressed for this important Bill. The contributions to the points that have been raised have been very useful and I am grateful for the consideration they have given to it. While this is a relatively short and technical Bill, the importance of this area should not be underestimated. These crimes are not victimless, we all pay for them.
Many Deputies raised questions on enforcement resources. I fully agree that legislation cannot be effective unless there are resources to back it up. Tackling economic crime and white-collar crime is a priority for this Government, and for An Garda Síochána. Deputies will be will be aware that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, published the findings of the Hamilton review group on 3 December 2020. As she pointed out, these crimes damage our economy. They breed cynicism in our society and our threat to our international reputation.
The Department is leading a cross-government initiative to tackle these crimes and to ensure that all agencies have the resources they need. I note in particular that the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, GNECB, is critical and competitions are currently under way to strengthen the staffing levels. Deputy Connolly, in particular, raised this matter. This investment in the GNECB will see the number of officers rise from 46 to 112, and there will also be a significant investment in ICT.
As Deputies mentioned, measures led by the Tánaiste to overhaul the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, are also advancing with support of my Department. Several Deputies understandably raised the issue of delayed transposition of this directive. It is important to note that the vast majority of the requirements of the directive are already in place within Part 6 of the Act. This is a harmonisation measure rather than a set of completely new provisions. However, there were complex legal issues to consider particularly in respect of extraterritorial and corporate liability that required input from the Attorney General.
The Bill was published at the beginning of January 2020, but was delayed given the dissolution of the Dáil and, indeed, the other pressing matters that have been before the Oireachtas since then concerning Covid. We do take the obligations of EU membership very seriously. Since being appointed as Minister of State I have taken ownership of addressing transpositions that are overdue. To that end, the Criminal Justice (Mutual Recognition of Decision on Supervision Measures) Act 2020 was enacted in November. We completed all Stages of the Money Laundering (Terrorist Financing) Bill and are on Committee Stage in the Seanad. We have completed Seanad Stages of the Bill before the House today and hope to have enacted in over the coming weeks. We have also published the counterfeiting Bill and have two particularly important Bills on the priority list due for publication by Easter, one on prisoner transfer and the other on people smuggling. Therefore, while I take the point raised by Deputies, we are making very substantial progress despite being in a situation with parliamentary time is scarce due to Covid-19. I have a standing instruction to the Whip's office that we are ready to take any slot that we can to keep legislation moving as quickly as possible.
Deputy Daly and others asked about the commencement of the Bill once it has been enacted. We intend to do this as soon as possible after signature, and we do not anticipate any delay arising. Deputies Howlin and Catherine Murphy asked regarding the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO, and how it will co-operate with Irish authorities. We expect that the EPPO will be designated as a competent authority into participating member states, and will make requests either itself or via national authorities under the applicable mutual legal assistance provisions under the European arrest warrant under freezing and confiscation provisions and so on. On a practical level, it will work with the gardaí and the Director of State Prosecution in investigating and prosecuting cross-border crimes. The directive envisages other measures like working together to develop strategic priorities and on staff exchanges and training provisions.
I note Deputy Howlin's comments regarding the importance of ensuring that Ireland's common law tradition is respected after Brexit. I think this is a real issue and one that will become more and more pressing over time. As the Deputy's colleague, Senator Bacik, pointed out in the Seanad, there are very positive features of both common law and civil law systems, and it is not a case of one being superior over the other. There is much to be learned and shared between the systems. However, we will need to prioritise and resource our engagement on these issues to ensure the integrity of our system is respected.
I note also Deputy Howlin mentioned his Private Member's Bill on the proceeds of crime. This is being given very serious consideration by the Department and the view of the Attorney General has been requested. A different approach has been taken in this and other recent Bills in the terms of dual criminality. This reflects the evolution of international norms. I look forward to engaging further with the Deputy on this as the legal side of it is fully considered.
Deputies mentioned the figure €477 million. This figure originates from the Commission staff working paper impact assessment which accompanied the original protection of the European Union’s financial interests, PIF, proposal. To state the obvious, it is very difficult to estimate fraud totals. If we knew about every case, then it would be much easier to prevent. The Commission based its estimate on an analysis of illegal activities, affecting public funds across the Union as a whole, and to our knowledge, did not approach this estimate on a country-by-country basis. However, the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, publishes an annual report each year on the protection of the EU's financial interests, "The Fight against Fraud". The 31st report, published in September, showed that in 2019 detected fraud related financial amounts declined from the previous year. Some 939 fraudulent irregularities were reported for a financial value of roughly less than half that of 2018, confirming an overall declining trend over the last five years. Detected non-fraudulent irregularities remained stable, but declined in value 88%. The annexes of this report provide figures by country in different categories. While it is evident that different countries adopt different standards for reporting, the share of the total in respect of Ireland is very low in respect of revenue and expenditure.
We intend to keep the focus on tackling that.
In respect of Deputy Naughten's amendment on pet theft, I thank the Members for their contributions. As I mentioned in my opening contribution, this is a very important issue for me and one I previously introduced as a Private Members' Bill. On one level it is correct to say that existing offences already apply to this crime and carry very heavy penalties. The Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 provides for a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment in the case of offences of theft and the handling of stolen property, while a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment is provided for the offence of possession of stolen property. Where trespass on property is involved, it becomes burglary and attracts a penalty of up to 14 years. The message needs to be got out that there are already tough penalties available.
When imposing sentences judges are not limited to considering the monetary value of a pet. The emotional distress to the victim caused by the offence is absolutely relevant and can be, and I believe is, taken into account where appropriate. However, I would accept that the offence is very broad. I have committed to examining the options here. I met with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, before Christmas. Contact is continuing at an official level.
It is important to note that we are not simply looking at a legislative change. We are willing to consider such changes, and it may be the case that they are needed. However, they certainly will not be the only step in tackling this very serious and emotionally damaging issue.
The Garda Síochána takes this issue very seriously. Before Christmas, gardaí seized 32 dogs and four horses in the Baldoyle area of north Dublin as part of the ongoing investigations into illegal puppy farms and related criminal activity. On examination, six of the dogs were found to be pregnant. This kind of targeted enforcement is generally intelligence led and gardaí have stated that information from the public has been critical in investigations that are leading to seizures. If any members of the public have any information on suspected dog theft I would strongly urge them to contact An Garda Síochána.
Gardaí have also disseminated information through the national crime prevention officer network on keeping animals secure and preventing those forms of theft. The Garda national crime prevention unit's advice on pet safety, which is in line with the advice from animal welfare groups along with insurance companies about keeping animals safe, can be viewed on the Garda website. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has also published new regulations in the past year covering the advertising for sale of animals under the Animal Health and Welfare (Sale or Supply of Pet Animals) Regulations of 2019.
In practical terms the most important message that we all need to communicate may well be about microchipping. Every dog must be microchipped by the time it reaches 12 weeks of age or earlier if it is sold or moved from its place of birth and the microchip must be registered with an authorised database. Microchipping of all dogs protects the animals' welfare and assists with speedy identification of lost or stolen dogs and their owners.
It is an offence to keep a dog over 12 weeks that has not been chipped. It is an offence to sell such a dog. Microchips can be easily checked at veterinary practices and by An Garda Síochána. They are by far the most effective means of tracking and identifying dogs. I urge anyone considering buying a puppy to ask to see the pup in its home environment with its mother. One should never buy a puppy from someone who offers to meet away from the puppy's home. Ask for evidence that the seller or supplier of the dog is registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or, if they are a dog breeding establishment, with their local authority and ask to see the certificate of registration of the microchip. It should never be the case that one is buying a dog informally from someone one does not know without any paperwork or checking that the dog is microchipped.
As I noted in my opening contribution, Deputies will appreciate that this Bill is particularly time sensitive. We are hoping to enact and commence it in the coming weeks. If we do not we risk being referred to the Court of Justice and having a heavy fine imposed. I recognise Deputy Naughten's genuine interest in the issue of pet theft and the damage that does to families whose pet has been stolen. It is a horrific crime to perpetuate against families and against the pets. However, on the basis of the urgency of this Bill I cannot agree to delay it any further as stated in the amendment but I am very happy to work with Deputy Naughten and any Deputy to advance proposals which may include legislative change, if needed, over the coming months to target and challenge any of those criminals who are targeting pets and inflicting that level of emotional damage on families.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I welcome the chance to speak on this Bill. As outlined by my colleagues in Sinn Féin who spoke previously, I, too, am supporting this legislation. I also commend my fellow Wexford man, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on bringing forward this Bill. The Bill is welcome because it seeks to tackle aspects of white collar crime, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and specific offences against the EU's financial interests and, therefore, Ireland's interests. We know that these types of crime embezzle millions of euro of taxpayers' money each year. I am sure all of us have heard and are aware of the double Irish and the treble Dutch, along with laundering of money across the European Union by well-organised criminal gangs, so the importance of tackling this problem cannot be overstated.
There has been debate and discussion on this Bill as it made its way through the Seanad. I have read the contributions so far to the Second Stage debate here in the Dáil so I will not cover old ground. However, I understand that an amendment has been tabled on this Stage regarding animal theft. As this is an issue of great concern by pet owners in Wexford, I would appreciate a little time to speak on it.
The theft of pets is on the increase. Arguably, it is fast becoming a lucrative source of finance for the criminal fraternity who are also connected to illegal puppy farms. On the other hand, it is a very distressing crime for pet owners and that needs to be dealt with. I appreciate the intent behind the amendment. The amendment states that pets are much more than property. I certainly agree with that position especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when animals have played a huge role in providing essential comfort and support to many families and isolated citizens. We need to be careful not to delay the passing of this Bill as this amendment would do.
In the interim, there are other things the Minister of State could do to prevent animal theft. First, microchipping must be promoted and every local authority should have a scanner to assist in reconnecting families with their lost or stolen pets. Second, existing laws to protect pets must be implemented. Since 1 February 2020 we have regulations on the sale and supply of pets. Despite animal welfare organisations reporting hundreds of illegal advertisements the Government has confirmed to Sinn Féin that it has yet to bring forward an infringement case. If we are to have confidence in any changes in law to protect against this crime, existing laws need to be better enforced.
The Government also needs to put resources in place to collate all the data on dog breeders, sellers and microchip numbers to create an accessible central database. The creation of such a database would not only tackle the illegal sale of animals online but would also make it much harder for unscrupulous dog breeders to operate. There is much more that the Government can do in tackling this distressing crime, although it may not be through this specific Bill, which is very important to curtail white collar crime.