Tuesday, 25 February 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. O'Donoghue: ——because it has over the past two years or so been the reign of the photocopier in the Department of Justice. The Minister has presided over a legislative drought or famine relieved by oasis provided by Fianna Fáil on several occasions.
Mr. O'Donoghue: The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1995, provided for a referendum on bail. Democratic Left and the Labour Party prevented the Minister from proceeding with what she considered her proposal and when the Bill was produced in the House, it was voted down by the rainbow coalition Government. The Criminal Law (Bail) Bill, 1995, which provided for restrictions on those granted bail will, if reports emanating from various leaks are correct, be copied in the legislation the Minister proposes to bring forward on bail consequent on the bail referendum.
Mr. O'Donoghue: The Sexual Offences (Jurisdiction) Bill, 1995, was accepted by the Minister in a welter of embarrassment. She could not refuse the Opposition's request that people charged with paedophile offences committed abroad should be tried here. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (No. 2) Bill, 1995, is, perhaps, the greatest example of the Minister's adeptness at plagiarisation. She went to the Seanad with her Bill so that the reportage of evidence in incest cases could again take place following the judgment of Mr. Justice Carney. Her Bill failed abysmally to do so and all it provided for was that health board officials could go back to court to hear the evidence. Unashamedly, she lifted all the essential provisions of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (No.2) Bill, 1995, incorporated into her Bill and said to all and sundry that it was her own.
When we produced the Misuse of Drugs Bill, 1996, the Minister soon after, having lifted a poorly watered down version of Part I of the Bill, presented to the House the Drug Trafficking Bill, 1996. Perhaps the Minister's crowning glory in the photocopying stakes was the plagiarisation of the Organised Crime (Restraint and Disposal of Illicit Assets) Bill, 1996.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Bereft of an ideology, a philosophy or a policy of her own, the Minister stated when the Bill was introduced that it would effectively freeze the suspected assets of criminals and that it was law before. She wrote back in a week to say it was not law before and that it was unconstitutional. An article appeared in a Sunday newspaper to the effect that the Attorney General had advised that the Bill was unconstitutional. When we sought the advice we were told the advice of the Attorney General is never given to the Opposition.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Subsequently, it was accepted that it was not the position that it was law before and that it was unconstitutional, but that the Bill could be accepted with amendments, which it was. It represents the most innovative legislation on the criminal law book which this State has ever seen.
Mr. O'Donoghue: However, what annoys me intensely is the Minister telling the public that legislation of which she has little knowledge and about which she did nothing is her own when it belongs to Fianna Fáil. That is political opportunism and dishonesty of the worst kind.
Mr. O'Donoghue: In recent months we have heard much talk from Government backbench Deputies on the need for positive measures to be taken to tackle the ongoing crime crisis. I have watched these Deputies walk through the Níl lobby on occasions when Fianna Fáil put forward constructive anti-crime proposals. To put it straight, they talk tough but vote soft. They are lions in their constituencies but lambs in the lobbies. They are in favour of reform but not specific reform. They claim to want to do something but vote down any specific proposal. Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in relation to the issue of drugs. Labour backbench Deputies, for example, clamour on the airwaves for a crackdown on drug distribution. When a microphone is put in front of them, they talk tough but when a Bill is put in from of them, they vote soft. They are the guardians of the status quo — they say change is needed but refuse to specify what change.
On three occasions in the past 12 months, Fianna Fáil has sought to amend the criminal law to provide for a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment for persons found in possession of controlled drugs with a street value of £10,000 or more. This measure was specifically focused on those who deal in substantial quantities of controlled drugs. It was a measure designed to reflect society's abhorrence of the actions of substantial drug dealers. It was directed not at addicts or addicts who deal in a small way to feed their addictions, but at substantial importers and drug barons. On each occasion Fianna Fáil sought to provide a minimum sentence for substantial drug dealers, the perfumed poodles on the Labour backbenches——
Mr. O'Donoghue: The reason substantial drug dealers do not receive a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment is that Labour Deputies who talk tough with their constituents voted soft when the issue was put to them. They voted soft not once or twice but three times. Their reticence to support much needed criminal reform is a measure of the inability of this Government to implement hard-hitting measures against drug pushers. They voted down the Fianna Fáil proposal and put nothing in its place.
 I look forward during the debate to hearing the explanation Deputy Shortall will give to the people of Finglas for voting soft on legislation designed to curb the supply of drugs, which Deputy Upton will offer to the people of Crumlin for his failure to support the minimum ten year sentence for substantial drug dealers and which the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, who has been in the vanguard of the liberal kid-gloves approach to dealing with substantial drugs dealers, will offer the people of Dún Laoghaire in defence of her vote soft policy. We should be clear. Either we are or we are not serious about the war against drugs. We are either determined to introduce legislation to smash drug dealers or we are not. The record of Fianna Fáil on this issue leaves no doubt that the party is determined to take every step necessary to smash the vice like grip of the drug lords over our cities and towns.
Mr. O'Donoghue: In June 1996 Fianna Fáil introduced a Private Members' Bill, which is now the Proceeds of Crime Act. It did so in the face of derision and opposition from the Minister for Justice who, within five days of its publication, described it as unnecessary and unconstitutional, but then as acceptable in principle. Who or what changed the Minister's mind? It was blushes in the rainbow coalition because some Government backbenchers knew, if they did not accept the Bill, that they would soon be collecting their last boxes of Oireachtas envelopes.
Mr. O'Donoghue: The operation of that Act today represents the single greatest threat to the illicit assets of drug traffickers and dealers. It was introduced by Fianna Fáil in the teeth of Government opposition which crumbled when it became clear the Taoiseach, whose preferred response to the crime crisis was the offer of a debate, had seriously misread the public's mood and there was a need for urgent legislation from whichever quarter it came. That will not surprise anybody now in the light of his recent announcement that Fine Gael does not have a policy on any issue, national or local.
In January 1996 Fianna Fáil introduced the Drug Trafficking Bill, which was accepted in principle by the Government and used as the prototype by the Minister when she belatedly introduced her own Bill on the same topic. We repeatedly sought to introduce legislation to provide for a ten year minimum sentence for substantial drug dealers but this was rejected by the cumulative might of what I describe as the fast fading rainbow. It is time that parties and  Deputies spelled out where they stand on this issue and moved from saying they are in favour of tough measures to stating precisely what tough measures they favour. I ask for the umpteenth time if the Minister has a policy on crime. If so, can anybody, including the Minister, state it or must we rely on the person who stands solemnly but solidly and loyally over the photocopier to tell us?
Fianna Fáil believes our citizens have a right to walk their streets, conduct their businesses and live their lives without the fear or threat of violence. We believe this is a constitutional right. In so far as the courts have recognised the hierarchy of constitutional rights, we believe the right to live without fear of attack is a superior constitutional right. It is superior to the right to liberty of persons conducting such attacks and the right of persons attempting such attacks. It is superior to the right to liberty of persons who have armed themselves in contemplation of making such attacks. Although most reasonable people accept these are superior obligations, they are not met with a superior response in terms of resources from the rainbow coalition Government. Crime appears to have a relatively low priority.
Our citizens are entitled to look to the Oireachtas and ask what it has done to protect them from such attacks. How have we sought to vindicate their right to bodily integrity, to own private property and to travel freely and without fear? The answer is that nothing has been done other than the plagiarisation of Opposition Bills. The introduction of this Bill is a partial answer to the questions people are rightly posing. It is an acknowledgement that existing legislation has proved inadequate in acting as a deterrent against the commission of a specific category of crime, robbery.
This position has not arisen as a result of any indifference or lethargy on the part of the House. Twice in the past 20 years the Oireachtas has considered the crime of robbery. In 1976 the old offence of robbery, which was contained in section 23 of the Larceny Act, 1916, was replaced by a new modern statutory offence contained in section 5 of the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, which inserted a new section 23 in the 1916 Act. This new offence was heavily modelled on section 8 of the Theft Act, 1968. It provided, as did its English counterpart, for a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. However, it failed as a deterrent. In particular, it failed to have any noticeable effect on the growing number of offences of robbery which were committed by persons using or wielding offensive weapons.
In 1993 the Oireachtas again turned its attention to this problem and enacted the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act. Section 9(1) of that Act makes it an offence for a person to have in his possession in any public place any knife or other article which has a blade or is sharply pointed. Similarly, section 9(5) states that where a person has with him in any public place any article intended by him unlawfully to cause injury  to, incapacitate or intimidate any person, either in a particular eventuality or otherwise, he shall be guilty of an offence. The 1993 Act provided for a sentence of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months for an offence under subsection (1) and a sentence not exceeding five years imprisonment for an offence under subsection (5). Unfortunately, this Act also failed to act as a deterrent.
The number of robberies committed by persons wielding offensive weapons, particularly syringes, has increased dramatically. The terror of infection, injury and death is now palpable. It is not acceptable for us to wash our hands and say there is nothing further we can do no more than it is acceptable for the Oireachtas to say it is powerless to deal with this category of crime. There are measures which can and, given the current circumstances, must be taken. The Bill is a measured response to the persistent wave of syringe robberies affecting the country. It creates an offence of aggravated robbery and, in so doing, it merely follows the Larceny Act, 1916, as amended.
Section 23(a) of that Act, which was inserted by section 6 of the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, 1976, created the modern offence of burglary. Section 23(b) of the same Act, which was inserted by section 7 of the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, 1976, created the offence of aggravated burglary. This Bill seeks to do no more in respect of the offence of robbery than the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, 1976, did in respect of the offence of burglary. It recognises that the offence of robbery can have an aggravated form and it specifies the aggravated form at which the Bill is directed as the same as that identified by the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, the carrying of a weapon of offence.
As the Bill is intended to deal with the carrying of syringes in the course of robberies, “offensive weapon” has been defined in a particularly narrow fashion. An offensive weapon, under section 3(3) of the Bill, is defined as being any syringe or needle, made or adapted for use and intended by the person in possession of it, to intimidate or cause injury or to incapacitate any person. It is a focused Bill, directed at a particular problem.
It is unnecessary to convince any Member of the House that robberies involving syringes now constitute a plague in the community. It is also unnecessary to convince Members that persons who contemplate perpetrating robberies involving syringes need to be deterred. However, a measure which will demonstrate our resolve and determination to deal with this problem and act as a deterrent is necessary. The provisions in the Bill meet both those goals.
The Bill provides for a minimum term of imprisonment of five years' for any person who commits the offence of aggravated robbery. The charge may be preferred only on the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Thus, a decision to prefer a charge of aggravated robbery will be taken after an examination of the assembled evidence. It will not be the case that  a person can be arrested for the new offence of aggravated robbery. A person suspected of committing such an offence can be arrested in respect of the existing offence of robbery and the charge of aggravated robbery may subsequently be brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Bill provides for a minimum sentence of five years imprisonment in respect of a first offence, seven in respect of a second offence and life imprisonment in respect of a third or subsequent offence. The people are entitled to voice their abhorrence of this form of crime by enacting a minimum sentence. It is a concept which exists in respect of other offences known to criminal law. The offence of murder has a mandatory minimum penalty of life imprisonment. The offence of murder, to which section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1990 applies, has a minimum penalty of 40 years' imprisonment set by statute. The offence of attempting to commit an offence to which section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1990 applies has a minimum sentence set by statute of 20 years imprisonment. Offences under the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876 have mandatory minimum penalties of a multiple of the value of the goods unlawfully imported.
The vast majority of offences have maximum sentences set by the Oireachtas. There is no reason to believe that, by imposing a maximum sentence in respect of those offences, the Oireachtas has in any way transgressed the separation of powers postulated by the Constitution. It is clear that there is no constitutional prohibition to minimum sentences being set in accordance with law but what is less clear is whether there is sufficient political will in the House to enact the legislation which we are entitled, as of right, to enact. It is clear that there is no academic or legislative reason syringe robberies should not be punished by a minimum sentence. Is there the political will to enact such legislation?
It is interesting that while there is reference in the rushed press release from the Minister for Justice this evening to the offence outlined, it does not appear to suggest that there will be minimum or mandatory sentencing. If the Minister proceeds in that manner, she will fail in the objective we have set for her in this legislation.
If we are not to enact legislation to provide for minimum sentencing in the case of syringe attacks, what must occur before we will do so? Do we have to await the death of some unfortunate person going about their everyday business? Do we have to wait until people who have suffered by this outrageous method of assault contract a serious illness or is the present position acceptable in the eyes of the Government? If it is the belief of the Government that the present level of syringe robberies represents an unacceptable level of crime and violence, it should clearly say so and let the people know where it stands. Will we have minimum or mandatory sentencing in respect of syringe attacks?
The offence created by section 3 of the Bill is  similar in nature and in wording to the new offence of possession of prohibited implements provided for in section 28 of the Larceny Act, 1916 by virtue of the Larceny Act, 1990. It deals with the possession of syringes by persons when not at the place of their abode. It would not impose a blanket prohibition. It would make it an offence to possess a syringe in such circumstances without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. In so doing it follows precisely on the wording of section 28 of the Larceny Act, 1990. A person suspected of committing an offence under section 3 may be arrested in respect of the offence created by section 9(1) of the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act, 1990 and would, if charged, be liable to a period of two years imprisonment rather than the 12 months specified in that Act.
The offence created by section 4 is similar in wording to the offence created by section 27 (a) of the Firearms Act, 1964, as amended and extended. It is an offence commonly used in respect of persons unlawfully found in possession of firearms. The inference referred to in the wording of the section may be drawn from the surrounding circumstances. A person suspected of committing this offence may also be arrested in respect of an offence under section 9 (1) of the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act, 1990. It is an intermediate offence between that created by section 9 (1) of the 1990 Act and section 9 (5) of the same Act. Its intended purpose is to deter people from carrying a syringe for a criminal purpose.
Fianna Fáil has no objection to introducing legislation of this nature. When the Minister took office we promised that where legislation was needed and she introduced it we would support it. We also promised that where legislation was necessary and she did not introduce it we would introduce it. This is a promise we have kept. The great preponderance of criminal justice legislation enacted by the House during the past two years first saw the light of day as a Fianna Fáil Private Members' Bill.
I acknowledge and pay tribute to the Minister's willingness to follow the lead we have set. This legislation would benefit society. It should not be voted down on the basis simply that the idea emanated from Fianna Fáil. It should not be voted down for political reasons or because the Cabinet panicked and rushed the Minister for Justice into bringing forward a non-fatal offences against the person Bill which she says will be published tomorrow.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Nobody is fooled by the Minister for Justice, on the evening Fianna Fáil introduces its Punishment of Aggravated Robbery  Bill, 1997, announcing the introduction of similar legislation.
Mr. O'Donoghue: It is clear that the Tánaiste wagged his finger again in the direction of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and advised them that they were beginning to imperil the survival of the rainbow coalition following the general election.
When Deputy Michael Lowry said in the House that he was under surveillance I said to myself that this could not be but I should have known better. I should have known that all members of the Government have been under surveillance for some considerable period by the electorate. I have discussed those Government Deputies who talk tough and vote soft. It is unclear exactly what they stand for but it is very clear to the electorate who have the rainbow coalition and its members have been under surveillance for some considerable period what they oppose. They oppose minimum sentences for substantial drug dealers. It remains to be seen whether they oppose minimum sentences for syringe robbers. We know a little about what they do not oppose. They do not oppose photocopying.
Dr. Woods: I welcome this important Bill which is timely and I call on the Government to support it. We want to find solutions to the crime problems with which we are confronted on a daily basis on the streets and action should be taken as early as possible. There is a duty on all Members to place legislation on the Statute Book at the earliest opportunity to tackle effectively the scourge of syringe robberies which day in and day out cast a menacing shadow over the lives of innocent people, particularly in Dublin city. I am sure the Minister has a good idea of how prevalent the problem is. A total of 2,200 incidents were recorded last year.
Dr. Woods: As the Minister knows, no matter what the actual figure is, this is but the tip of the iceberg. People are being threatened with syringes to take money from them. Drugs are also being taken from doctors' surgeries in the same way. Action has to be taken. The people want us to tackle this new form of crime urgently and effectively. For that reason I congratulate Deputy O'Donoghue for taking the trouble to bring forward this important legislation.
Irish society should no longer tolerate attacks on innocent law abiding citizens by syringe wielding thugs. Citizens, who are innocent victims, are fearful of infection from syringes used in attacks. This measure provides for an offence of aggravated robbery, attempted robbery and the possession of a syringe with intent to cause injury or death and for severe sentences.
Recently a girl was attacked at a banklink machine by a person wielding a syringe with red fluid. That is the way money is demanded today and one does not know if the fluid in those syringes is infectious. Prison officers, members of the Garda Síochána and hospital staff are confronted in that manner, one of the most frequent attacks experienced by doctors in their surgeries. A survey of general practitioners revealed confrontations, which involve the threat and menace of the use of lethal weapons, are the most frequent cause of concern.
We must crack down on this new form of crime as a matter of urgency. The use of syringes in attacks is hideous and it is difficult to believe offenders use infected blood in that way. That crime which is so demeaning to the offender and threatening and menacing to the victim is undermining our civilisation. It indicates the extraordinary depth to which we have descended in crime and lawlessness in our cities and it must be tackled as a matter of urgency.
As Deputy O'Donoghue's work on this Bill is valuable and necessary, the Government should accept it and, if necessary, table amendments on Committee Stage. I plead with it not to prevaricate on this issue and delay the introduction of this new offence. These attacks are widespread. All Members have a duty to take action and support the measure put forward by Deputy O'Donoghue.
It is difficult to ensure immediate action is taken to deal with crime, lawlessness and vandalism. At meetings in my constituency people express fear and tell me how they live in danger of being attacked by people abusing drugs. Notwithstanding this legislation and the valuable work being done by both sides of the House, especially during the past year, that is the reality. People are still afraid to walk the streets at night. The fear of crime is widespread and people, particularly the elderly, are afraid in their homes at night, and that is a realistic fear. In the past it was often said that such fear was more in the mind as there was only an occasional outbreak of crime, but it is widespread now.
 We must deal in the first instance with the problem of drug abuse and work to tackle that problem is well directed. Officials in the health boards, members of the Garda Síochána, teachers and local communities have formed project teams to tackle the problem of drug abuse. That work is helping to reduce the level of crime. However, while acknowledging those good developments, people are still afraid to walk the streets. Women and older people, in particular, are afraid to go out at night unless they are accompanied by a number of friends. We must tackle the problem of crime to ensure people will no longer live in fear.
People want to see more gardaí on the streets. As a member of a select committee of the House, I and other parliamentarians from the European Union attended a meeting in London last week to discuss pensions and I was struck by the presence of the police on the street in that city. The police are more visible on the streets in other countries than they are here. We must work to reduce the level of crime here to ensure that people feel safe to walk the streets during the day or at night. Attacks are no longer confined to the late hours of night when few people walk the streets.
The level of crime is a problem and crimes of violence are increasing. There may have been a slight decrease in the number of crimes committed but more than 100,000 crimes are committed each year. We all want to see that figure reduced. Crimes of burglary, aggravated robbery, violence and assault are increasing. Attacks with the use of syringes are one form of assault and aggravated robbery which is increasing and they must be tackled. Rather than dealing with this problem at some date in the future having considered the possibilities, we must take action now.
Deputy O'Donoghue in introducing this valuable measure has given us the opportunity to air this issue and exert pressure to introduce the type change we want, a new offence not currently provided for. It is extraordinary that so many of these crimes have been committed in recent times and there is no law relating to this offence on the Statute Book. I appeal to the Minister to join Deputy O'Donoghue in voting support for this Bill tomorrow night, not to delay its introduction and to welcome contributions, like this, from the Opposition.
Irrespective of whether the Government intends to put forward its proposals on this matter, both sides of the House must support plans to tackle crime immediately. This legislation sets out measures to tackle aggravated robbery — a new crime involving the use of syringes. One never knows if the fluid in them is infectious. One can imagine the fear one would experience if attacked by a person using a syringe. A needle was held to the stomach of the girl who was recently attacked at a cash dispenser and she was forced to hand over the money she had withdrawn from the machine. We can all imagine how we would feel if our skin was pierced by a syringe  and the fluid in it was injected into our systems. It could take years before we would know the outcome of such an attack.
Mrs. Owen: While commending Deputy O'Donoghue on having produced this Bill, I must express concern that he is becoming ever more confused. On the one hand, he produces Bills which he urges the Government to take on board, yet if and when the Government takes on his mostly very flawed Bills, amends them and implements their provisions, he is critical of it for doing so. As Deputy O'Donoghue becomes ever more embedded in Opposition, he does not know where to turn to find a big stick with which to beat me and, presumably, my successor who will undoubtedly come from this side of the House. I hope Deputy O'Donoghue will take a little rest now and again and not overly exert himself.
Equally, I do not want to be offensive to anybody outside this House. I know that Deputy O'Donoghue receives assistance — as anybody would in Opposition — from barristers or solicitors in preparing some of his Bills. The Deputy claims he has produced a prolific range of Bills. While his party, in Opposition, is very good at producing these types of Bills, it did not during its occupancy of the Department of Justice have such legislation implemented. It is fair to say Fianna Fáil awaited the comfortable position of being in Opposition before introducing such Bills in the full knowledge that it did not matter whether their content was good, bad or indifferent because it would never have to implement them.
All of Deputy O'Donoghue's published Bills, in the aggregate, would hardly comprise one complete, decent one. I do not say that in any offensive way. Even those Bills of his whose titles I accepted required total amendment because preparatory work had been inadequate, to say the least.
Mrs. Owen: Obviously Deputy O'Donoghue is as concerned as all of us at the increasing incidence of criminal attacks by people using syringes. I have already given a commitment to bring forward new proposals to amend and significantly strengthen the law to ensure there is no weakness  in the legislative framework for dealing with such attacks. Every time I announce the heads of a Bill there is an immediate rush by Opposition parties to take up their quills and hastily produce Private Members' Bills that can be published in advance of my more carefully drafted ones. There is sufficient evidence to illustrate that point.
In advance of becoming a member of the Cabinet approximately two years ago, I too would probably have manifested some ignorance at the manner in which Bills are produced. If Deputy O'Donoghue thinks that I or any other Minister for Justice can take a Private Members' Bill, bad and all as is this one, photocopy it, take it to Government, have it approved and its provisions implemented, frankly he is talking through his Kerry hat. When Deputy O'Donoghue's time comes for possession of a ministerial portfolio, if ever, he will begin to understand that procedure.
Dealing with criminal assets is not a race or a political game. Were I to treat this process as such we would end up with sloppy, ineffective legislation. Crime is too serious a problem with which to play political games. The problem of syringe attacks is very serious. The electorate expects us to examine our crime problems seriously and conscientiously and to introduce comprehensive, well thought out legislation, which is precisely what I am doing.
During my contribution I will point out the shortcomings of Deputy O'Donoghue's short but hastily produced Bill. I do not do so to be little his efforts but rather to emphasise that one must take time and get criminal legislation right.
Perhaps the Opposition parties have been inspired to produce Bills because of my record in this respect. Since taking up office as Minister for Justice I have introduced no fewer than 13 Bills, most of which have been passed. Others are in the course of passage through these Houses. Many of these Bills are very substantive. Among these are the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996 which allows for seven-day detention and questioning of drug traffickers and restricts the right to silence in such cases; the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995 which introduced important changes to improve the overall functioning of our courts, including the appointing of additional judges to the Supreme Court, High Court and Circuit and District Courts; and the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill expected to be enacted soon which is intended to achieve savings in costs and Garda time through changes in procedure in criminal cases. The Criminal Law Bill, now before the Seanad, will simplify procedures of arrest and eliminate outdated concepts of misdemeanours and felonies. In addition I signed the commencement order for the Criminal Justice Act, 1994 inherited by me without such commencement order, thus implementing its anti money laundering provisions in addition to bringing in regulations under that Act to deal with the seizure of imports and exports of cash associated with drug trafficking.
 I agreed to accept and substantially amend a number of Private Members' Bills and contributed fully to the Criminal Assets Bureau Act, 1996, and the Disclosure of Certain Information for Taxation and Other Purposes Act, 1996, introduced by the Minister for Finance.
I am at present working on a full range of legislative reform proposals, in particular that required to enable the new courts service to be established. This is being dealt with as a matter of priority and will be published as soon as possible. The Government has brought the heads of a Bill to establish the courts service — sketched in the third report of the Working Group on a Courts Commission — to the Select Committee on Legislation and Security for examination and discussion.
In addition, legislation is being prepared on bail following the successful outcome of the November referendum. Among Bills I hope to introduce in coming months is a Licensing (Drugs) Bill to deal with drug abuse in dance halls, public houses and unlicensed outdoor premises, one Deputy O'Donoghue overlooked. There is also a Bill to enable Ireland to ratify the Europol Convention and a Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill.
I have mentioned only some of my legislative achievements since taking office. Lest there remain any doubt as to my capacity to produce legislation I might point to an interesting statistic given recently in response to a parliamentary question — I and my Department produced eight Bills in 1996 alone whereas the comparative figure for 1993 was four. I ask Deputy O'Donoghue to look back on the performance of my predecessors, all Fianna Fáil, and be careful that, in criticising me, he is not unwittingly criticising his former colleagues, such as Commissioner Flynn, Deputies Gerry Collins and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the last of whom has now embarked on a new career.
Today the Government approved for publication tomorrow the text of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill, 1997 which provides for a range of new offences to deal with criminal conduct involving syringes and, most importantly, for a range of penalties to reflect the seriousness of these offences. Deputies will be afforded an opportunity to fully examine and debate its provisions. Later I will furnish the House with some information on these proposals. Members will appreciate I could not possibly accept the well-intentioned but clearly inadequate provisions of this Bill.
If good intentions constituted the only criteria for effective legislation I would not hesitate to accept this Bill. I have no doubt that Deputy O'Donoghue and all other Members of this House are unanimous in their total abhorrence of this type of crime. We share a sense of sadness at seeing our society invaded by this mindless viciousness and are all equally determined to ensure that our law is given the requisite teeth to tackle it. However, I must part company with Deputy O'Donoghue in terms of the extent and  sharpness of the requisite teeth. This is not a problem which lends itself to a quick “fill the gap” solution; that just will not do. Increasingly our citizens are being threatened, in fear of their lives, by drug-crazed or other opportunist criminals.
While the gardaí endeavour to protect the community, increasingly they find themselves threatened in the most mindless and vindictive way. I can tell this House that the gardaí are well aware that the favourite pastime of the criminal is to leave a syringe positioned, perhaps in a squad car, in such a way that some unsuspecting garda may have his or her life threatened as he or she performs the most basic of tasks. Similarly, prison officers know only too well the insidious threat that an easily concealed syringe can cause while they are going about their duties and particularly in their efforts to treat prisoners with the humanity and respect human beings deserve.
The basic flaw in Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill is that it fails to understand the nature and extent of the problem. His 'cops and robbers' approach is too one-dimensional for this problem because it assumes that robbery is always the only motive. In this type of attack, robbery may or may not be the motive. There may be no motive other than hopelessness, hate, aggression, revenge or, dare I say it in a world where such a concept is rarely admitted, evil. We need a clearly thought out and comprehensive approach if we are to ensure that the law protects the innocent from the dangerous people who resort to these activities. What is required is the most careful and thorough examination of the problem. That is not manifest in the Bill.
Let us look at what the Bill does or, more appropriately, does not do. What it does not even attempt to do is tackle the range of criminal conduct in which use of a syringe may arise. The Deputy instead limits himself in the main to robbery related offences. Three offences are created, the offence of aggravated robbery or the threat of such robbery, possession of a syringe and possession of a syringe with intent to commit aggravated robbery.
The first of these offences is contained in section 3. Subsections (1) and (2) create the offence of aggravated robbery. The structure of this provision would create interesting possibilities for defence lawyers because the element of intent is not a constituent of the offence but rather part of the definition of offensive weapon. However, leaving aside such legal oddities and the litigation problems they would present, the basic problem with this section is that it is far too limited and applies only where robbery is a motive. Robbery is often present in offences of this kind but as I already indicated, this phenomenon of attacks often goes far beyond simple robbery. The criminal who uses a syringe to evade arrest by a member of the Garda Síochána or to engineer an escape from a prison officer need not fear Deputy O'Donoghue's new offences. Safe  also are those who abandon or place syringes where they are likely to injure or present a threat.
It is much to the Deputy's credit that he does not have a criminal mind; if he had he would have been more creative and understood how criminals exploit all the possibilities which the fear evoked by a syringe can present. A more street-wise look at this problem would show that one does not even have to have a syringe to evoke these fears, a blood filled container would do. Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill does nothing to criminalise behaviour where the fear of contaminated blood is exploited.
Similarly and amazingly, the Deputy does not seek to establish an offence of actually wounding a person with a syringe or putting blood onto them. I am rather surprised the Deputy would not see that those who threaten people with a syringe would also not be shy about using it. I consider the absence of an offence of wounding a serious omission from this Bill but a still more serious omission exists. Unfortunately those who use syringes or blood to threaten others may be armed with a most deadly weapon. If the syringe is contaminated and it is used to wound a person or if contaminated blood is used in an attack and is put on the person of the victim, then the behaviour is tantamount to attempted murder and I consider that no legislation aimed at dealing with this problem can be complete unless it recognises this reality and seeks to ensure that the law is clear on how serious a crime this is and that this behaviour is punishable by the maximum criminal sanction, life imprisonment. However, Deputy O'Donoghue' Bill is devoid of any provision of this nature.
Mrs. Owen: Looking again at what Deputy O'Donoghue provides in section 3, I am somewhat surprised at his approach to penalties. Clearly he does not trust the Judiciary to weigh up the circumstances of each case and ensure the punishment fits the crime. The Deputy provides for a minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment. Does he intend that a judge would have no discretion when a person is guilty of aggravated robbery no matter what the circumstances of the individual case but to impose a five year sentence? Would he not accept that a judge could impose a lesser sentence where, for example, the offender has undertaken a drug treatment programme where there are clear signs of rehabilitation or the potential thereof? It is because no two cases are ever identical that the law, with the exception of murder, has always provided for maximum rather than minimum penalties.
Mrs. Owen: More intriguing still is Deputy O'Donoghue's provision that punishment should be “not greater” than life imprisonment. This is puzzling. Is the Deputy not aware that we no longer have the death penalty on our Statute Book, or should we read this to mean that he intends to bring it back? This is a clear indication of the haste and lack of care with which the Bill was thrown together.
As I have said already, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill, 1997 which, along with dealing with the general law of assault, serious assault, etc., contains my comprehensive proposals to deal with criminal conduct involving syringes, has been approved by Government and is in the printers as I speak. While, unfortunately, Deputies do not yet have the text of my Bill I would like to give the House an idea of what it contains. However, I will first clear up a misconception which might exist. I suspect it is in Deputy O'Donoghue's best interests to brief people behind the scenes that this is the first time a law has been introduced to deal with syringes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mrs. Owen: The Government's legislation will be more specific. A law currently exists to criminalise the use of syringes in attacks against people. Existing law provides a number of possibilities to bring charges against persons who engage in this type of behaviour.
Mrs. Owen: That is not to say I am satisfied that existing law is adequate and I am changing it for that reason. Because of the increasing incidence of this type of crime I carried out a review of existing law by reference to the types of incidents which were increasingly happening in our society. The figures were misquoted in a recent Evening Herald article so, because Deputy Woods raised the matter and in the interest of clarity, I will put them on the record of the House. In 1995 there were 497 syringe attacks and 17 attacks with needles. In 1996 that rose to 1,228 syringe attacks and 24 attacks with needles. The problem is growing and the Government's legislation is needed.
In order to cater for the range of criminal conduct which we are now experiencing I have provided three sections in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill to deal with syringe and related attacks. I have covered all the issues Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill fails to cover, such as injuring another by piercing the skin of that other with a syringe or threatening to do so with the intention of causing the other person to believe that he or she may become infected with disease, and spraying or pouring or putting onto another person blood or any fluid or substance resembling blood or threatening to do so with the intention  of causing the other person to believe that he or she may become infected with disease.
One has to bear in mind that a person who suffers such an attack, which we all abhor, may be put through extreme mental torture, particularly if that person is wounded with a syringe and must spend a period of anguish while waiting to find out if he or she has been contaminated with a life threatening disease. I propose to make that offence punishable by a maximum of ten years' imprisonment. Both of these offences, of piercing and pouring blood on somebody, are tantamount to attempted murder and this crime will be punishable by life imprisonment.
I have dealt with the issue of somebody carrying blood in a container or possessing a syringe. I have ensured the Garda will have the necessary powers to stop, question and search any person suspected of carrying a syringe. I have also given the Garda power to seize any syringe. These sections were missing from Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill. I will provide the Garda with important powers of arrest without warrant in circumstances where the suspect does not co-operate with the Garda.
There are also other conditions which will be dealt with when the Bill is debated but all of the issues Deputy O'Donoghue failed to cover in his legislation are in the Government's Bill. I am satisfied the proposals I will put forward in the Bill tomorrow are capable of providing an effective law to deal with the criminal use of syringes. I did not need Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill to be published.
Mrs. Owen: The House will appreciate that the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill will deal with the problem in a much more thorough and comprehensive way. In view of all the flaws  I have outlined in Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill, I cannot accept it.
Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Durkan): Everybody will agree that with the passage of time and the increased sophistication of criminal methods, there is an ongoing need to update legislation. Criminal law has to be amended and extended to meet the threat, and nobody is more conscious of that than the Minister for Justice. Looking at Deputy O'Donoghue on the monitor, I might have been watching a play on television, such was the grief and hurt he portrayed in presenting this Bill. This is clearly the political opportunism for which he is famous. He borrows his phrases from the Listowel Writers' Week and more power to him; there are some very inspiring people there. However, this is the serious business of Parliament. Attempting to politicise the debate is to reverse what should be done to update the law.
Mr. Durkan: The Deputy's party failed miserably to produce a single Bill to deal with the increase in crime that was clear to everyone but themselves. It was scarcely a week in Opposition when it showed offended dignity in the House at the level of crime. It pretended it knew nothing about it and crime had been invented within the previous couple of weeks, attempting to claim the new Minister for Justice was responsible for the crime increase.
The people are not fools and do not believe that nonsense. They know the hysteria generated on the Opposition benches is generated because they are aware of their own inadequacies in that area and are trying to cover up for themselves. The Opposition was a disgrace when in Government. It did nothing to counter the serious crime problem. Now, for reasons of political expediency, it has the gall to pretend it is concerned.
The Opposition would do themselves more justice if they apologised for their inadequacies and sought inspiration from the Government to resolve the problems they could not solve. If they did so they would admit the truth but they do not propose to do so.
Crime has been escalating for five to seven years. The legislation the Minister is to publish tomorrow will deal with that problem. The number of crimes against the individual has increased dramatically in the last ten years and citizens feel vulnerable. My nephew was attacked twice with a syringe while standing at a bus stop in the city centre.
The Minister has the legislation to deal with the situation well in hand. She should be given full support in the House because this is a threat to society, the supremacy of the legislature and those who run the State.
Mr. Briscoe: The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 1995, was copied by the Government, while it accepted the Sexual Offences Jurisdiction Bill. The Criminal Law (Bail) Bill, 1995, is being copied at present, while the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (No. 2) Bill, 1995, was taken from the Bill presented by Fianna Fáil in the Seanad. Part I of the Misuse of Drugs Bill, 1996, has been copied, while the Pornography Bill and this Bill are in the process of being copied.
Mr. Briscoe: The Minister is interested in the progress of Operation Dóchas. The inner city is the area worst affected by drug addiction and syringe  attacks. Two weeks ago The Star reported that Garda patrol units face cutbacks and that Garda numbers have been drastically reduced in the notorious drugs blackspot in Kilmainham, where vigilantes and dealers have inflicted horrific beatings. It went on to report that rank and file gardaí in the district, which covers Fatima Mansions, Dolphin House and Basin Street, were to consider industrial action amidst claims that regular patrol units had been cut by 50 per cent, with anti-drugs vigilantes proving more successful than the under-resourced gardaí in the district. The report went on to state that heroin dealers had returned to Fatima Mansions and when a reporter from the paper visited the complex they were openly dealing.
Deputy Eric Byrne and I attended a meeting yesterday afternoon at Dolphin House and were told that the problem in the locality was as bad as ever. Something is very wrong and the Minister should contact the Assistant Commissioner, Tom King. While he is determined and is doing his best, he must be given the necessary resources, otherwise he cannot do the job.
I urge the Minister to enact the legislation allowing Garda inspectors to process cases in court, rather than taking gardaí off the streets to do so or expending large sums of money on overtime which could be better spent on recruiting more gardaí. The message we hear daily is that we need more gardaí on the beat.
Mr. Briscoe: Delays in the office of the DPP in processing prosecutions is another area of frustration for the gardaí. For example, the process of ascertaining the purity of drugs found on individuals delays their prosecution.
There is also public frustration at what is perceived to be the reluctance of the Judiciary to implement the spirit of legislation passed by this House. This makes it necessary for the House to pass laws providing for minimum sentences which the Judiciary seems to dislike. It often appears that members of the Judiciary act as if they are removed from the suffering endured by victims of crime.
In addition to rectifying this problem, we must provide more prison spaces. Those convicted of non violent crimes should be sent to open prisons where remission would be automatically cancelled if they absconded. This would leave more prison spaces available to deal with the kind of criminal who some months ago threatened to attack a person with a syringe and robbed him outside the Bank of Ireland branch on Westmoreland Street. The victim was given enough money  by the robber to commute home to Celbridge and warned not to report the incident to the Garda. He was threatened and intimidated.
Mr. Briscoe: Some pseudo liberal members of coalition Governments blocked legislation and described as draconian laws which we needed years ago. The Minister is aware of how difficult it can be at times to deal with her coalition partners, particularly certain wings in parts of that coalition.
Mr. N. Ahern: It is instructive to note the Minister's reaction on the news today to the publication of Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill. This must be the most reactive Government. The Minister said she had been working on her Bill for many months and then referred to the case of the abducted children in Somalia which her sister was involved in resolving.
Mr. N. Ahern: The Minister should be more tolerant of those of us who have not been Ministers. Incidents on the streets involving syringes are terrifying and many of them are not reported. It is not always wealthy people who are robbed. Frequently teenagers are robbed of their £5 or £10. People are absolutely terrified that this is being allowed happen. We must ask where the  syringes are coming from and the reason for their availability. I think the State may be handing them out at drug centres or perhaps they are being stolen from hospitals.
I agree with the necessity for the Bill, whether introduced by Deputy O'Donoghue or the Minister. There is a huge problem that we have to tackle. If people are breaking into casualty departments and stealing syringes or if they are handed out at drug centres we need to close that loophole. Somebody said it is as bad as being attacked with a gun or a knife but it is worse. If one is attacked with a knife or some other type of weapon, the wound is visible and one has an idea how long it will take to heal. The physical wound caused by a syringe may be small, but the fear, the trauma and the psychological effect can last for many months.
The political matter may be between Deputy O'Donoghue and the Minister but it seems as if the Minister has only just produced the Bill. Given the personalised slagging which took place earlier between Deputy O'Donoghue, the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, and the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue must be getting to the Minister.
Mr. N. Ahern: Deputy Durkan slagged Deputy O'Donoghue's passion and commitment. What is wrong with that since the Deputy is serious and trying to portray the reality? One does not have to be a laughing hyena all the time. If the Deputy is showing commitment, why should he be slagged and jeered?
Mr. Lenihan: The Government has been engaged in extraordinary profligacy during the past few months. The State has not witnessed anything like it since the latter days of Mr. Haughey's administration in 1981. This morning I attended a primary school in my constituency in  one of the most deprived districts in the city where the pupil-teacher ratio is 33:1 for the children of fifth class. The teacher was able to say with confidence and certainty that a number of persons in that class would soon graduate to becoming hardened criminals. Given the squalor in some parts of the city and the Government's caving in day in day out to well-heeled lobbies, and the histrionics of the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, one has to appeal through the Minister to the Taoiseach to dissolve the Dáil soon in the interests of everybody.
I congratulate our spokesperson on bringing forward 11 Bills since we had the misfortune to find ourselves on this side of the House in November 1994. That is not a bad tribute to the quality of official Fianna Fáil thinking on this subject. I avail of this opportunity, as the Dáil draws to a close, to congratulate our spokesperson on the volume of work he has done. I congratulate also Deputy O'Dea on bringing forward a measure on criminal injuries compensation, a subject close to my heart.
The Minister made a number of criticisms of the Bill. There is a need in legislation of this type to draw a balance. We have to measure out carefully the respective rights of suspects and the investigating authorities and the precise functions of the courts. That must be spelled out clearly in legislation. The Minister will agree we do not have the enormous resources which she has at her disposal, in terms of parliamentary draftsmanship and legal assistance. Our spokesperson has to put together on a voluntary basis a support group of advisers who direct and advise him on these matters. The quality of Fianna Fáil thinking on this subject has been of a high order. I accept the Minister's point that we would have to examine any legislation in this area with great care and have regard to the report prepared by the Law Reform Commission.
The Bill has been introduced for an additional reason which relates to the heroin problem in this city. We have an enormous heroin problem in Dublin and the phenomenon of syringe attacks is simply a symptom of the problem.
I get depressed when I hear official announcements applauding a great cannabis seizure here or there. As a controlled drug under our legislative code, cannabis must be seized. The real problem, however, is the huge quantity of heroin available in the city. Some progress has been made but in terms of seizures the public want much more progress and dramatic action. There are constraints on any Minister and any police force but this is a subject of enormous public concern.
The district where I visited a primary school has upwards of 200 juvenile heroin abusers in one parish. That is a disaster. That problem is being addressed by the Government in various ways but so far as it falls within the Minister's remit there are two aspects to it. The question is whether all that can be done is being done in terms of gathering  the necessary information and arranging the necessary seizures. I am under no illusion that that costs money, but it is an investment the people want made by our investigative authorities. The other aspect concerns the actual enforcement of the legislation on the ground. I regret to say to the Minister — this is not something I would ever wish to contribute to as a Deputy — there is a lack of public confidence in the reaction time of the investigative authorities in the affected areas. I appreciate it is difficult to transmit a directive from headquarters to ground level. That is a problem and public confidence has to be won. I suggest a confidential hotline in relation to drugs information which would be widely advertised in these districts.
Mr. Lenihan: I am aware of that but perhaps it could be advertised extensively. It is important that information is conveyed in a clear manner to the residents that such a facility is in existence. Often such information may be circulated through the news media which may not be read or studied in the districts concerned.
On the issue of prisons policy, unless there is an effective deterrent and the prison building programme is expedited and every option is examined — if necessary, certain options associated with the private sector — with a view to ensuring that as many people as possible meet the mandate of the courts and that court sentences are implemented, there will be lack of public confidence in the entire system and a feeling of despair about whether the system is operating in a practical way. I congratulate our spokesperson for bringing forward the Bill as it affords us an opportunity to put those concerns to the Minister. The public will indict not only the Minister but the whole political establishment if a clear response is not devised.
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