Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá áthas orm bheith in ann labhairt ar an mBille seo inniu. Gan dabht, aontaíonn muid ar fad leis an bprionsabal nár chóir na príosúin a úsáid ach amháin sa chás is measa ó thaobh an chóras coiriúlachta. Labhair muid faoi sin tráthnóna inné sa Teach seo. I ndáiríre, níor cheart daoine nach n-iocann fíneálacha a chur i bpríosún.
This Act came into being in 2010 and three years later we are amending it. Why has it only ever been partially commenced? Surely, there is a better way to legislate than this. That aside, I welcome the Bill which strives to modernise the courts' fine system in Ireland and offers an important alternative to imprisonment. If effective, the Bill will ensure there are fewer prisoners in our jails serving short sentences for non-payment of fines. The differences between imprisoning people versus imposing community service on them are striking. The Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, informs us that there were 8,304 committals to prison for fines default in 2012 which is a very significant number. What is even more striking is that more than 85% of persons imprisoned for non-payment of fines returned to prison within four years. Unfortunately, this highlights that some people prefer to serve time in prison than to pay a fine. For those who have already spent some time in prison, being sentenced to a day or, in some cases, a couple of hours in prison, is no deterrent when it comes to the non-payment of fines. The system in its current form is not working and needs reform.
I wish to avail of the opportunity to speak briefly about the great work undertaken by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in its report on penal reform in March 2013. I fully supported all the recommendations contained in the report and look forward to working towards implementing them with my party colleagues. The first two recommendations of the report were a reduction in prison numbers via a decarceration strategy which would reduce the prison population by one third over a ten-year period and, second, that all sentences of less than six months, in respect of non-violent offences, should be commuted and replaced with community service orders.
In 2012, 272 people were jailed for non-payment of television licence fees, according to the Irish Prison Service. This is a prime example of where community service can be used as an alternative. We do not want a situation where people, particularly elderly people, are facing prison sentences for non-payment of television licences. I cannot let the occasion pass without stating again my support for Margaretta D'Arcy who has found herself imprisoned and is in the Dóchas Centre located in Mountjoy Prison at present, ostensibly for highlighting lapses in our international policy regarding flights by military planes into Shannon Airport. I hope the Minister will intervene with a view to a conclusion on that issue and to raise the issue to which Margaretta D'Arcy has drawn attention.
I welcome section 5 of the Bill which ensures that the court will impose a fine based on a person's ability to pay and take into consideration the impact of payment on a person's dependants. However, in the first instance, the system should take into account a person's ability to pay a fine. There was huge anger at the way the property tax was introduced, the methods put in place and the mechanisms given to the Revenue Commissioners to delve into people's accounts to pay that tax. The issue was not the fact that the tax had to be paid but that it did not take into consideration the ability of people to pay in many situations. They find that the property tax has been taken out of their bank accounts and they are short in other areas of their life, be that to pay the mortgage, keep food on the table and so on. The ability to pay clause is absolutely essential.
I would like the Minister to clarify whether there is a possibility that debt may be recovered via repossession of the family home. The Minister of State might speak on that. This may be something on which I will submit amendments on Committee Stage.
Section 6(2) makes a change to the Fines Act 2010 with which I do not agree. I would appeal to the Minister to retain the 24-month period as opposed to changing it to 12 months. This makes sense, as I said previously, given the current financial climate.
There is also a suggestion from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and other NGOs that a flat administration fee or a cap be put on fines as opposed to the 10% charge which is set out in the Bill. I would like to hear the Minister's reasoning behind this 10% charge. This also may be something I will seek to amend on Committee Stage.
With regard to section 6(6), it is regrettable there is no instalment option for fines of less than €100. For many individuals and families today, €100 is a significant amount of money.
Regarding section 8, the Irish Penal Reform Trust recommended that consideration be given to setting out a maximum level or proportion of receivers' fees where property is seized, and I agree with this. I would also concur with the concerns raised by Senator Quinn. I will discuss with my party colleagues the issue of giving powers to persons to enter the home to seize the goods of somebody who has been seen not to be in payment of the fine. There may be questions which we will certainly discuss and, maybe, come back to on Committee Stage also. In terms of section 11, it is worth querying where there is a failure to recover assets if community service or attachment will be an option pursued as opposed to imprisonment.
In conclusion, I reiterate my support for this Bill and commend the Minister for bringing it forward. The Bill is a step in the right direction. However, I have concerns around some aspects of it as I indicated throughout my speech and I will be submitting amendments on Committee Stage to strengthen the Bill where needed.