Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House.
In welcoming the Bill, it would be appropriate to compliment the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, for bringing much innovation to his Department since assuming office a little under three years ago. This is another commitment in the programme for Government that is being delivered.
As has been said, it is a straightforward piece of legislation to provide for the introduction of a system of attachment of earnings as a means of collecting unpaid fines with the intention of substantially reducing the numbers being committed to prison for non-payment of fines. It is quite obvious that many in this country decide they will not pay a fine imposed on them because they know that even if they are given a custodial sentence for non-payment, they are likely to serve little, if any, time. Senator Cummins mentioned that those who get a short custodial sentence are back home later that night, and sometimes before the gardaí who brought them there in the first place, and I see it happen in my town on a regular basis. This is happening because of a shortage of space in the prison system. However, it came as a big surprise to me that 8,300 persons went to prison last year for non-payment of fines at a cost to the State of over €2 million.
This is a compassionate piece of legislation in that it takes into account that many of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law may have limited means at their disposal. With this in mind, the Bill repeals Part 3 of the Fines Act 2010 to provide for a new payment and recovery system. The key features of that are that it takes into account the level of a person's income when a fine is being imposed and when a person is fined, he or she can opt to pay in instalments over a 12-month period with an administration fee of 10%. Where a person fails to pay a fine, the court can make an attachment order or recovery order. I welcome that when either of these options is not feasible the court can make a community service order, which can also kick-in when fines are not paid in full.
It is also appropriate that we introduce a new offence of failure to comply with an attachment order which will attract on conviction a fine of up to €2,500 or 12 months in prison. There must be suitable deterrents to discourage one from failing to comply with attachment orders.
The Bill provides for the collection of fines from wages, salaries and occupational pensions, but in my view, there is a deficiency in the Bill in that there is no provision to collect fines through the social welfare system. We all will be aware that in some instances there are significant incomes going into some homes through the social welfare system. Over the weekend there were newspaper accounts of where in some situations there was in excess of €75,000 being paid to some families. Given that every person has a PPS number, surely it should be administratively possible to use the attachment order. All that would be required is for the court to communicate the name, PPS number and the amount of the attachment order to the Department of Social Protection. In my view, this discriminatory element in the Bill should be addressed.
Like Senator Quinn, I have concerns about the administrative costs that will be incurred, particularly by small businesses, in collecting the attachment orders. I wonder whether it would be possible for an employer to receive some small recompense for the administration costs associated with collecting moneys for the State, and I ask the Minister to look at that.
I am pleased to support the Bill. In my view, it is a fair system. It will reduce significantly the costs incurred by the State by keeping those concerned out of prison. It will reduce Garda time spent on trivial enough matters and free up the police force for policing duties in the community. Most importantly, it ensures that only in cases of serious crime will persons be deprived of their freedom.
I compliment the Minister and wish him well in his efforts to modernise much outdated legislation in this country. Today is a good start and I compliment the Minister on his efforts.