Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, back in this fine establishment where he started his national political career. He is always welcome in this House. My party, Fianna Fáil, supports this Bill which builds on the original Fines Act introduced by the then Minister, Mr. Dermot Ahern, in 2010. The current system imposes an unsustainable administrative burden on the prison system which sees more than 7,500 imprisoned annually for non-payment of fines, which is a ridiculous situation. This strains the capacity of the prison infrastructure which should be focused on dealing with hardened criminals. It is important that sufficient IT resources are put in place to accommodate the new flexible instalment payment process. That is a critical aspect of this Bill. If that is not put in place as soon as possible, implementation of the Bill might be dragged out.
We welcome the thrust of the Bill which draws on the 2010 Act and goes a few steps further, which is important and appropriate. We believe there should be an extension of the payment instalment period beyond the 12-month timeframe to accommodate large fines and the struggle to pay in this current economic climate. Imprisonment exacts a hefty toll on the State's finances with 7,500 imprisoned annually, which is a significant cost upon the State and a personal trauma for the individuals involved. Most of these people should not see the inside of a cell for the non-payment of a fine. The instalment method should not be punished by a punitive interest rate which is mean spirited and hits those who are least able to pay the fine hardest.
An attachment of earnings order where the fine is deducted directly from wages should be a last resort. It places an unfair administrative burden on employers and will damage the working relationship between employers and the recipient of the fine. It may have the perverse and unfair effect of undermining the employment prospects, including promotion, of the recipient within his or her firm.
Community service should be welcomed where people simply do not have the means to pay the fine. It should be used to replace the imprisonment mechanism and give communities a real practical benefit from people who have committed an offence.
Statistics show that there has been a slow but progressive increase in the prison population and a sharp increase in the daily average number of persons in custody over the past decade. This appears to show a slow increase in prison numbers, which has been exacerbated by an increase in the number of people imprisoned for minor offences but which has been held back by overcrowding. In 2009, there were 10,865 committals under sentence, which represented an increase of 35% on 2008. Of those 10,865 committals, 9,216, or 85%, were for sentences of 12 months or less, which is extraordinary. By comparison, 1,667 individuals were issued with community service orders in 2009. Prison does not act as a deterrent and has a negative impact on prisoners. Research appears to indicate that short prison sentences act neither as a deterrent nor as a means of rehabilitating offenders. An article by UCD academics, entitled Recidivism in the Republic of Ireland, concludes that offenders sentenced to prison terms of less than six months have high rates of reoffending. Utilising alternative methods to reduce the prison population and administrative burden are important in the context of tackling the pressure under which the Prison Service is operating and addressing the issue of recidivism. Imprisoning people for the non-payment of fines acts as an administrative burden and fails to be an efficient deterrent. The Bill goes a long way in that regard.
Paying fines via instalments is provided for in section 6 and it is a good provision. The provisions of the Bill would give the choice to the person fined and the court has to inform such a person of his or her options. This would apply to fines of more than €100 and fines have to be paid in full within one year. The Minister can fix an administration fee generally, not individually, to fines but this fee cannot exceed 10% of the total fine. The administrative fee should not be placed as a further burden to fine levels that inflict a further punishment on recipients. This is the duty of the courts and not the Minister. The fee should reflect a realistic costs analysis of how much the new instalment system will cost to implement.
The Bill adds the new option of an attachment of earnings order. Recovery orders and community service were provided for under section 17 of the 2010 Act but the section allowing for this has not yet been commenced. The key issue is that these alternatives are employed to avoid a jail sentence. It is ridiculous that section 17 of the 2010 Act has not come into force. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the Houses and when it is enacted I hope to see implementation sooner rather than later. Attachment of earnings orders, where the fine is deducted directly from wages, should be considered as a final effort to retrieve the fine due. It places an unfair administrative burden on employers and will damage the working relationship between employers and the recipient of the fine.
The Bill changes the system of community service to provide that failure to pay a fine can merit a court sentence of community service. This was envisaged in the Fines Act 2010, although section 18 of that Act was never commenced. The level of community service will be based on the scale of the fine and how much has been paid to date. It is an important part of rebalancing our justice system towards rehabilitation and making a contribution towards communities that we utilise community service rather than imprisonment. Increasing the use of community service delivers financial savings, diverts from the prison system offenders who would otherwise be imprisoned, and provides reparation in the form of unpaid work to the benefit of the community.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust has estimated that imprisoning fine defaulters costs the State more than €2 million per year in courts, Garda and prison Service resources compared with the costs of making the necessary upgrades to the courts IT system to process payments by instalment, estimated at €400,000. That amounts to a saving of €1.6 million per year, which is extraordinary. Hopefully, this IT system can be rolled out quickly. It is vital that the Government accelerates the IT upgrades necessary to facilitate the new payments structure.
The Bill is welcome and represents progression from the 2010 Act, which the Government I was involved in introduced, and I wish it every success. With regard to the imprisonment models of Norway, Sweden or Finland, I looked at a programme on television the other night when I happened to be in my son's house. Some 70% of those who went through the open prison community service system used in Norway, rather than the system of locking people up and throwing away the key, did not reoffend. As a member of the justice committee, I went to see an open prison in Finland where people could go back to college. They lived in an open environment and ran a coffee shop. They had their own bedrooms and there was no such thing as the iron bars closing. The sooner we can move from the old British prison system we inherited from the time of the Magna Carta, the better. There is a significant number of serious criminals involved in killing people and in gang warfare. They must be incarcerated and guarded carefully. They are not safe to be left on the street. They have no respect for law, for us as politicians, for the Government or for the Garda Síochána. They are a minority in the prison population of 7,500 but they must be securely incarcerated.
I came across a man brought from west Cork to Dublin and put into Mountjoy Prison for non-payment of a small fine. Four hours later, he was let out to return home. We must get away from a system where we incur the cost of hiring a taxi and of being accompanied on the journey by a garda in the case of a man who would not say "boo" to a goose to appear in court for an unpaid fine. I hope the Bill will be a success. Fianna Fáil will fully support it.