Thursday, 19 May 2022
Garda Síochána (Compensation) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to this legislation because it is at least 15 years since I first raised the necessity for it in the House. Many moons have gone by since, as they say, but the necessity remained constant. My concern arises from meeting members of An Garda Síochána over the years, many of whom had ongoing and outstanding issues in this regard and were concerned that there seemed to be no resolution. I thank in particular the current Minister for bringing forward the current legislation, resolving any outstanding matters and setting up structures to give protection to An Garda Síochána that any police force needs and expects for many reasons.
We live in an increasingly violent society and members of the police in every country are coming under greater pressure. They are in danger of attack, of losing limbs and of being incapacitated in a serious way, and this needs to be compensated for. We have waited a long time for the legislation to come into being but that does not remove in any way the necessity for its existence.
Let us consider the reason for the Bill. The membership of An Garda Síochána have families, responsibilities, mortgages and ongoing and preset calls on their salaries. As they have no control over that, when something happens that prevents them from working or reduces the degree to which they can work, there is a need to recognise it. There is also a need to put in place legislation to cater for this. There is a need for the protection of those people in the public sector whose well-being and sometimes their lives, as we have seen, have been in danger from their efforts in the workplace. This legislation is therefore in response to ever-increasing demands. I hope it will make a serious impact.
I have said already we live in an increasingly violent society. Every town and city in this country is subject to the ravages of drugs. To deal with that, the police force must be able to interact with people on a regular basis and they should not have to put their lives or limbs at risk when intervening. That is the way it has been and it is the way it continues. In order to tackle that aspect of crime - the drugs problem - there is a need for a clear indication on the part of the State that it will support the forces of law and order that carry out such work on its behalf.
For example, one can scarcely walk in any direction in the evening or at night in this city without being accosted by people under the influence of drugs. It is a sad event and it should not happen but it does. The members of the public who are concerned about this bring it to our attention on a regular basis. We must also recognise that the members of An Garda Síochána who are expected to interact with people and prevent incidents are at risk as well. The police force itself is at risk. In any country where this happens, special measures have had to be taken. I hope that with this legislation, we ensure members of An Garda Síochána injured in any way during the course of carrying out their functions get recompense quickly. It is important. Once the legislation passes its provisions should come into operation quickly and do the job for which they are intended.
Going further, the ever-increasing problem of drugs and drug violence can be seen by everybody. It is committed against women by men and women. It is committed by young and old. It used to be a pleasure to walk in the streets anywhere in the capital city but now one is accosted by people either promoting their drugs or looking for new supplies of drugs. That cannot continue and it must be challenged. Our society is at risk as a result of this activity and it cannot be properly challenged unless we properly pay gardaí and prevent incidents where members of An Garda Síochána, our police force, are accosted, endangered or injured.
In another branch of the Defence Forces, there is a position I cannot and will never understand. A member injured in the course of duty may find his or her pension reconstructed in such a way as for the State to take back any award that the member may have received because of injury. That is an appalling process but it has operated here for years in another branch of the Defence Forces, which I will deal with in due course again. This is an attempt by the State to second-guess the Judiciary, which would have made an award ten, 15 or 20 years ago, for example. The idea is that the award should not have been made at all, or otherwise why would the State recall it and bring it back to the system, thereby penalising the person concerned? It is an absolute disgrace but I will say more about it at a different time.
There has been a delay with this legislation, which has been unacceptable. Better late than never. I hope sincerely that it will proceed with full speed through the different Stages of the House and will ensure An Garda Síochána can be alert to the fact that somebody, somewhere, cares about this, and that the Houses of the Oireachtas cares, as should be the case. It should tilt the situation in favour of those who are trying to enforce the law.
I refer again to the drugs problem, which everybody knows is getting worse because there is an adequate supply of drugs. If the supply was not there, we would not see such a problem. There are those who say we must have methadone, and I agree with such treatment. The purpose of it, however, is to wean the potential drug addict away from drugs and reduce dependency gradually. I am afraid it does not work in all cases and we are spending money trying to do something that cannot be done. It merely perpetuates the hunger for a particular drug. There are those who say there are some minor drugs and who believe that everybody should have the right to use them for personal use. Every one of them, however, is a gateway drug. All the experts will eventually tell us that, when challenged. Nevertheless, we might continue trying to convince ourselves that it is not true and they are good for people because they relieve anxiety. They will but they will give one hell of a headache further down the road. That is a fact. Medical experts tell us unequivocally that gateway drugs have hallucinogenic effects and side-effects, with a person's health in danger at a later stage. We must take account of that advice and, as a result, we must make the work of An Garda Síochána easier. In our legislation, we must indicate clearly that helping out drug barons is not part of our agenda. We are helping them out if we are ensuring there is a ready supply of drugs on the street and it should not be that way. There is no compelling reason for that. Trying to countenance something like that at any level is wrong and would be detrimental to our society.
We must come down on one side or the other and we are either for or against it. There are those who maintain we should continue as we are, half-heartedly, like Lanna Machree's dog, going a bit of the way with one and a bit with the other, going nowhere in particular. We must be clear about this. In order to be fair to An Garda Síochána, we must interrupt the supply of drugs in a meaningful way. In this regard, I compliment the activities of the past couple of months, when international police forces and governments have come together and made a fair attempt in a short space of time at cutting off supply and preventing growth or expansion in drug barons' industry.
To those who say we will never succeed and that it is not a possibility in any event, this is simply not true. It is necessary to do the work that has to be done as quickly as possible to ensure we prevent, as well as accost in whatever way possible, whenever possible and at every opportunity.
This is important legislation. I hope it will deal adequately with the issue involved, which is the ongoing disquiet among members of the Garda at the delay involved in introducing the legislation. This disquiet is obvious. If something has been going on for ten, 15 or 20 years and it is still on the agenda but not operable there is something wrong. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into this type of situation. The reason I believe we have been lulled into it is that concentration was elsewhere. We have done everything else. We now have to deal with the issues of the police force and the job it has to do in very difficult and life-threatening circumstances on a regular basis. I pay tribute to those members of the force who paid the ultimate price of their lives in carrying out their ordinary work.
Any family with a member in the Garda Síochána will appreciate the fact that everyone, whether they are parents, sons, daughters or whatever they may be, has a private life. They have a rightful expectation to be properly protected and, in the event of protection not being enough, compensated. I do not want to detain the House any longer than necessary other than to say that I welcome the legislation. I hope it goes through the House as quickly as possible. I compliment the Minister and the Department for bringing it forward. I hope it will be part and parcel of what appears to be international awareness of the necessity to tackle the various issues I have referred to, particularly the drugs issue.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Durkan, for an interesting speech on the Bill and many other aspects of law and order throughout the country. On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, I thank everyone for their broad support for this important Bill and for their contributions over recent days. As the Minister mentioned in her opening remarks on Tuesday, the current Garda compensation scheme has been in operation since the 1940s. It is important that we update the processes and key actors to make it more efficient and effective by utilising systems that are already in place for personal injuries actions more generally.
The Bill provides a new and more streamlined system for Garda compensation claims, which will reduce the time it takes to get from injury to initial application to award, while also reducing the costs of administering the scheme. It is important to note that the Bill maintains the parameters of the right to compensation under the old legislation. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan questioned whether the intention of the Bill is to reduce awards but I assure the Deputy this is not the case. Instead, it makes a number of key process changes, with clear timeframes for each stage to ensure a swift resolution of claims to reduce the administrative costs of the scheme and not the awards.
The Bill provides more time for applicants to make an application, extending the time period from three months for initial application to six months and this can be extended where necessary. Significantly, it provides members of An Garda Síochána with quicker avenues for resolution of their claims in the event of an injury arising out of a malicious incident and it allows for independent review at various stages of the process where the determination made is a refusal. This means that applicants will no longer have to take judicial review proceedings, which are expensive and time consuming.
The use of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, for assessing the award of Garda compensation ensures an independent assessment for members who need to avail of the scheme as a result of suffering an injury arising out of a malicious incident. The PIAB is expert at what it does and it will lead to greater consistency in awards as the PIAB will be guided by the personal injuries guidelines in its assessments. This was acknowledged by a number of Deputies in their contributions on the Bill.
It is hoped that the Bill will allow for the majority of cases to be resolved without the need for court proceedings. This will reduce the legal costs associated with these claims over time. The option to proceed to a lower court rather than the necessity to bring each claim before the High Court will mean a lower level of costs associated with some of the claims that do proceed to court. We can all agree that this an important change as there are cases at present where the legal costs are much greater than the awards themselves.
Turning now to the debate, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has asked me to respond to some of the queries raised by Deputies. Deputy Daly questioned whether the time limit of 30 days for the Garda Commissioner to submit an application to the PIAB was sufficient. As the application form to the Commissioner will contain all the information needed for an application to the PIAB, it will be a simple administrative step to submit this and 30 days is sufficient in this regard.
Some Deputies questioned whether the PIAB would create delays rather than reduce them. This is not the case. As we all know, the PIAB is a very efficient outfit. For example, the average time for processing claims over the five-year period between 2016 and 2020 was 7.7 months. This will be a significant improvement on current waiting times before the High Court. It is also hoped that the introduction of the new personal injuries guidelines and the requirement for the PIAB and the courts to have regard to them in assessing injury claims will bring greater consistency to award levels across the personal injury environment, which will, hopefully, increase the acceptance of PIAB awards.
In relation to insurance premiums, the Government is committed to reforming the insurance sector but cannot set the price of insurance. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, have met the CEOs of the main firms to discuss the Government's expectation that insurers will commence reflecting the savings arising from lower injury awards to consumers and businesses, in line with previous commitments from the industry. These engagements were positive, with insurers indicating that consistent implementation of the guidelines should result in lower premiums.
Deputies O'Reilly and O'Donoghue noted that malicious incidents can occur due to a lack of resources. I would like to point out that Government investment into An Garda Síochána has reached unprecedented levels, with budget 2022 providing for €2.062 billion. The significant level of funding provided over recent years is enabling sustained ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff. The Government is on track to meet its commitment of 15,000 sworn members of An Garda Síochána and 4,000 staff. Budget 2022 includes funding for the recruitment of up to an additional 800 gardaí next year and the recruitment of up to an additional 400 Garda staff.
Deputy Ó Murchú raised the issue of insurance reform more generally. As the Deputy is aware, on 1 March 2022 the Government published the second implementation report on the action plan for insurance reform. The report shows that implementation of the plan is on track, with approximately 80% of actions now being delivered with the remaining initiated.
Principal actions delivered to date include the establishment of the Office to Promote Competition in the Insurance Market and the Insurance Fraud Coordination Office. Legislation to strengthen the laws on perjury has been enacted and we have seen a milestone reform with the commencement of the personal injuries guidelines.
Good progress is being made under our action plan. Central Statistics Office data shows that the average cost of claims for motor insurance policies is down 20%, while data from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, shows that average award levels have decreased by approximately 42%. However, there is more to do and, in 2022, the focus is on remaining actions, including legislative reform in the areas of occupier's liability, completing the reform of the PIAB and competition enforcement.
Deputies Howlin, Catherine Murphy and Martin Browne asked about psychological injuries. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, assures the Deputies that, yes, claims may be made for psychological as well as physical injuries under the Bill. The personal injury guidelines, which came into effect in April 2021, provide detail on the level of awards relevant to injuries of a psychological nature.
Deputy Howlin also queried whether Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, officers may make claims under the Bill. Bureau officers, as well as Chief State Solicitor's office staff working on CAB matters are covered, as are reserves, trainees and former members.
Deputy Berry asked about the compensation scheme in place for prison officers and whether the Bill would apply to them. I point out that this scheme has been designed and developed for An Garda Síochána and, while there may well be merit in extending it or having a similar scheme for other roles, the implications and operation of any such scheme would have to be thought through carefully.
As Deputy Durkan mentioned, this scheme is a long time in development and we need to get on with it and put it in place for gardaí and their family members as soon as possible. The Minister will of course keep the operation of this scheme, and other schemes of this nature, under review in the future.
On the extension of the scheme to civilian members, which was raised by many Deputies, I understand from the Minister that this issue is being examined by her Department. Consultations have indicated that there are complexities with the extension arising from the fact that civilian staff of An Garda Síochána are civil servants and the interaction with the existing civil servant occupational schemes that already apply to them is not straightforward. The Minister is trying to work through these issues and has indicated that she does not wish to delay the passage of the Bill. The urgent need for reform in this area has been acknowledged by many Deputies so I think we can agree that this Bill should be progressed to enactment as soon as possible.
Once again, on behalf of the Minister, I thank the Deputies for their contributions on this Bill.