Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill, 1993: Report Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 33:
In page 6, line 5, to delete "twelve months" and substitute "three months".
—(Deputy M. McDowell).

Deputy McDowell was in possession but as he is not present we may take it that the amendment has been withdrawn.

I am opposed to the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 33a:

In page 6, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:

"11.—Where the court is satisfied that parents of juvenile offenders should be asked to account for their role in controlling their child or children, such parents may be required by the court to give account to the court for their role and the court may, if the court deems fit, direct such parents to be at home or such other place of domestic residence as the court directs with their child or children at such times or part of such times and in such circumstances as the court directs the child or children to be at home or such other place of domestic residence as the court directs.".

The purpose of this amendment, the wording of which may not be perfect, is to allow the courts to take into account the role played by parents and in narrow circumstances to tell them that they should be at home with their children. Let me explain the reasons I have tabled this amendment. It is appropriate that the House should consider the matter and decide whether the courts should have this power. It is desirable that they should have this power in certain circumstances.

One out of every three people in detention is a juvenile. I think the figure is 695 or 31 per cent — as stated in the reply to a parliamentary question tabled by me — at a cost, according to a Young Fine Gael research document on juvenile crime, of £26 million a year. One in six is under the age of 14.

The first point I wish to make about the amendment is that it refers to juvenile offenders. Parents should not be held responsible under the law for the actions of their children when they reach a certain age. I do not have in mind the child who offends once or twice but rather young juveniles who constantly offend. I am the father of four children and I realise that any child is capable of doing wrong — none of us is a saint. I am not suggesting that this provision should apply in every case where a juvenile is involved but it should apply where the juvenile is a constant offender. The court should have the right to require the parents of juveniles who are constantly offending to appear in court with the child and explain what they have been doing to control their child. Furthermore, the court should have the right to direct that that child be at home between certain hours and that the parent should be with him.

There are Members of the House who may think that is going too far, that it would be imposing a curfew. At present if a child is a constant offender the judge may grant bail on condition that, under the supervision of the probation and welfare service, he will be at home every night after, say, 9 p.m., or at such times as the probation and welfare officer recommends. If an offender has complied with the terms stipulated and if there is a disco on a particular night, the probation and welfare officer may allow the offender to attend it but stipulate he must be home by midnight. In deciding on sentencing this juvenile offender, the judge will take into account whether he kept to his bond. That is a curfew. Some judges impose a curfew on people, again, in very limited circumstances and quite properly.

One in six offenders is under the age of 14. They should be at home at certain hours of the day. Where they are constant offenders very often their parents are partly responsible. This is not always the case but there are times when the parents are a contributing factor. In fact, in some very limited circumstances, there is a suspicion that the parents are sending the children out to commit crime. Thankfully, that is not normal and I am not suggesting that the procedure I described is normally used by the court. Some parents simply do not take their responsibilities seriously. I recall an eminent clergyman telling me recently that in a block of flats where there was a drug problem somebody reported to the father of a child that the child was abusing drugs. The father's response was that he would kill him when he came in, not the response of any reasonable parent, which would be to remove the child from danger.

It is time the Legislature gave the court the opportunity to hold parents accountable in these limited circumstances, particularly in housing estates and inner city flat complexes. I do not imagine the same problem obtains in rural areas but, not being a public representative for one of those areas, I cannot say. I know that in housing estates or flat complexes there are serious problems if a couple of children or a child of one family are constantly offending, intimidating or beating up other children, robbing, breaking into houses and terrifying old people. The child is not the only one who should be before the court. If he constantly offends his parents should be asked their role in that matter. If a judge decides that a parent should be at home with the child at the times the child is ordered to be at home, what penalty should be imposed if the parent does not comply? I am suggesting this approach in the first place because there is not much point in putting parents in prison. That would take them away from the child and would not serve any purpose. There is not much point either in ordering parents to pay a big fine as, in many cases, they could not pay it. However, it should be possible for the court, in deciding at some time in the future whether those parents are responsible parents who should be left in charge of a child, to take into account as evidence the fact that those parents were not prepared, even at the direction of the court, to be at home at certain times looking after their children. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am talking about a very small number of parents. Thankfully, the vast majority of parents take their responsibilities seriously. However, the parents of children who offend time after time should have to account to the court for their role in their children's behaviour. If the child is ordered to be off the streets and at home at certain times, it should be possible for the court to direct that the parent must be home too.

My amendment is in layman's terms and I am not suggesting it should be included, word for word, in the Bill. I want to make it clear that we are talking about children and parents in domestic residences. I am not talking about putting a parent into what might be called a home or reformatory. I mention "offenders" but it would also apply to an "offender".

Will the House objectively consider my point? This matter is worthy of consideration by the Legislature and it is time it was considered.

This is an interesting amendment. Hardly a Deputy disagrees with Deputy Mitchell on the important role of parents of young offenders. Although I endorse much of what Deputy Mitchell said, we must look at this in a much wider context. In reply to a question last week the Minister said she would be bringing in the juvenile justice Bill. However, these matters cannot be dealt with by way of that Bill alone. The Departments of Health, Education and Social Welfare have a role to play.

We can all give examples of total lack of parental responsibility. Because of lack of control young people are out at all hours of the night. On returning very late, around 4 a.m., from a function I drove through my own locality and came across eight different groups of young people. They were no more than 16 or 17 years of age; some as young as 13 or 14. At that hour of the morning those young children should have been at home. Somebody had responsibility for them but that responsibility was not being faced up to.

The reason I mention that matter is because, as everybody acknowledged in their contributions, society is changing and people are experiencing new problems and difficulties. There is the problem of drugs, which we are endeavouring to tackle; the problem of deserted parents, single parents and widowed parents. Great pressure is put on these people in carrying out their responsibilities as parents. It has been acknowledged that the vast majority of parents go about their duties and face up to their responsibilities. Nevertheless, problems arise with young people becoming involved in crime. Probation officers and gardaí say that it is the same people who are committing crime, but no progress is made in this regard.

The Minister should consider this matter before accepting the amendment. We are not dealing with the problem in the proper way. There are other aspects to be considered, such as health, education and social welfare. There is much criticism that we are not assisting people in the social welfare area. We hear about the one million people on the poverty line, and there is no doubt that many sections of our community live in poverty. Even though a massive amount of money — almost £4 billion this year — is paid out in social welfare, it is not achieving the desired result. I believe that the problem is related to education.

In regard to Deputy Mitchell's amendment, the Minister should consider this matter in a broader sense and perhaps incorporate the provision in a juvenile justice Bill. This is a very complex area and there are no easy solutions to the problem. It must be considered in the context of health, education, social welfare and justice. There are many young people committing crime today and the elderly are intimidated and terrorised by them. I do not believe that this amendment would address the problem.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): I support this amendment. It has been said here that we are introducing a form of internment. Deputy Mitchell has made it quite clear that this provision would apply only to a minority of parents. It is geared towards protecting society from young people who run wild, causing havoc, distress and suffering. There is no question that every parent will be told to be at home at 11 p.m. every night. Parents carry out a difficult role at a time when there are so many temptations for young people. In cases where parents make no effort to look after their children, where the Garda know they are neglecting their children and as a result the children are causing havoc, we are not going overboard with this provision. Some people exaggerate and give the impression that we are trying to ensure that all parents are in the home at 11 p.m. However, it is only in exceptional cases that parents neglect their duties and in those circumstances we must protect society. I see nothing wrong with a judge ordering a parent, whom the Garda know is never at home at night, to be at home with their children by 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.

It has been stated that the Garda are people of common sense and that they will not bring parents before a court if they are doing their job properly. This provision would be implemented only in certain cases where children clearly need guidance. This matter should be treated seriously and not in an exaggerated way, with stories of internment and so on.

(Laoighis-Offaly): In my last job I frequently dealt with young people who were in trouble with the law. It was often remarked among the staff in the organisation in which I worked that nowadays one needs a licence to do everything except be a parent. Parenthood is probably one job for which people need most training. I welcome the discussion on the role of parents in dealing with young people who find themselves in trouble with the law. I do not agree that this amendment will meet the problem because provisions made in law should be capable of being implemented, but this provision would be unworkable in practice. Deputies Browne and Mitchell said that the provision would be implemented only in exceptional cases where, for example, parents may be in the pub late at night, neglecting their children. It is in cases such as this that it would be most difficult to enforce the law, because to put under a curfew people who are not in the habit of carrying out their parental responsibilities will not force them to do so. In addition, probation officers, gardaí and others who are already very busy would be obliged to enforce the curfew on the parent of the offender.

I presume that if a parent disobeyed a court order to be at home with their children at a certain time, there would be the possibility of the parent being criminalised. That would compound the problem. I stress that I am not arguing in support of parental irresponsibility. What I am arguing is that we should consider the practicalities and reality of life on the ground where these problems arise. This provision is not the instrument with which to deal with such problems. For example, under this amendment a person could be directed to be at home with their child, but home may mean different things to different people. Home may be a flat, a house, a caravan, or, in the case of a separated couple, the father's residence or the mother's residence. In these circumstances where will the parents be directed to stay? In some cases there may be overcrowding or violence in the home. All these circumstances need to be addressed before we direct parents to remain in the home. Such a direction might do more harm than good, causing further trouble and thereby increasing the workload of the Garda and the judicial services.

Let us take the example of parents who are not neglecting their responsibilities but, despite all their best efforts, are unable to control their children. In some cases the Garda, social workers and probation officers can verify that in spite of the best efforts of parents their children are still unruly. I dealt with a case in my constituency last year where a 13 year old child was consistently beating up both parents. How can one ask those parents to impose a curfew on their child?

I agree with Deputy Wallace that this issue should be dealt with in a juvenile justice Bill and not in a criminal justice Bill which proposes a fairly blunt way of dealing with this problem. I do not think these provisions are capable of being put into effect. In addition, the Garda will be further tied-up bringing proceedings against families who are already in trouble with the law. There is a need for a number of measures to deal with this problem, some of which should take account of the responsibility of parents to do their best to control their children and others which should offer residential options. I would very much welcome a strengthening of the probation and welfare services, the liaison scheme and the community policing system. We look for value in all areas of public expenditure, but the work carried out by people in these areas is very much undervalued at present.

It is very easy to call for measures which, on the one hand, appear to be strong but which, on the other, neglect the low key interventions made by the Garda, social workers and probation officers on a day-to-day basis to prevent many of these problems. I would much prefer this issue to be dealt with by way of a juvenile justice Bill. I am confident that the Minister will introduce such a Bill at the earliest possible opportunity. Like other Departments, her Department has been very productive in bringing forward legislation since the formation of the Government. I am sure she will address the problem of juvenile crime at the earliest possible opportunity. I will be happy to comment at that stage on any proposed measures to deal with this problem.

Deputy Mitchell should be complimented on focusing our attention on the level of crime committed by young people. Many of the provisions in the Bill deal with the activities in which many young children, particularly those who live in urban areas, are engaged. Like Deputy Wallace, all of us have encountered gangs of juveniles and young children hanging around street corners late at night. The reality is that very often these gangs are up to no good. I do not think any of us can say that parents should not be responsible for the activities of their children. Parents bring their children into the world and they are responsible for their development, rearing, feeding and education. In our Constitution we have given the family a central role in our society. Parents should not take lightly their moral and spiritual duties to their children.

The dilemma we are faced with here is finding the correct way to ensure that parents take their reponsibilities seriously. We should provide support for parents who have unruly children. Many parents who do not take their responsibilities to their children seriously are usually beset by many social problems — for example, they may live in disadvantaged communities. We cannot separate one issue from the other and simply say that parents should be responsible for the activities of their children. We also have to look at the support services required by families.

I have a difficulty with the proposal that parents can be directed by the courts. It is one thing for a court to issue a direction to a young person who has been accused of an offence, but it is another thing to say that parents can be directed by a court to be at home or at such other places of domestic residence at certain times. Under our present law, parents are not responsible for criminal offences committed by their children. If parents are not prepared to abide by a direction from a court, presumably they will be in breach of the direction, will have committed an offence, will be subject to further action by the Garda and will be brought before the court. This is not a practical or feasible way of dealing with the problem. I do not think this provision could be implemented.

Section 10 dealt with the wilful interruption of the free passage of any person or vehicle in a public place. This presupposes there will be some interference and that it must be done in an orderly fashion. If we go down the same road in regard to this provision we will create more problems than we can solve. We have to look at the problem in a broader context and consider the supports needed by families. Families in disadvantaged areas have been neglected to a huge degree. The only children who attend playschools are the children of parents who can afford to pay for them. This means that most children in disadvantaged areas do not get any kind of education until they enter primary school at four or five years of age. However, by this time some of these children may already have been roaming around the streets with their older brothers and sisters. Under the Constitution the State has an obligation to provide education for children. This education is not being provided for children in disadvantaged communities and the better-off communities are able to provide it themselves. This issue needs to be addressed.

The home-school liaison scheme was the first step in providing support for families. The level of social services in most disadvantaged areas is inadequate and needs to be considerably improved. We should consider the direction in which we wish to go in our society. In this connection, I agree that the Minister should look at the problem of juvenile justice. The amendment refers only to children. Under the 1908 Act, youngsters up to the age of 12 are defined as children, 12-14 year olds are defined as young persons and older children are defined as juveniles. Therefore, juvenile justice would only deal directly with the older age group but I presume the Minister proposes to cover younger age groups also when she introduces the new juvenile justice Bill.

This is the appropriate forum for examining this problem which is becoming widespread in our society, where there is more and more offensive behaviour by younger children. How to deal with that problem cannot be addressed in this type of legislation. Therefore, having received our support for the fact that he has opened up the question for discussion, perhaps Deputy Mitchell should withdraw the motion at this time. Hopefully, the Minister can give the Deputy an assurance that the matter will be comprehensively addressed, in the context of the Programme for Government as it is specified therein, by the introduction of a juvenile justice Bill within the term of this Government and that the matter will be dealt with at the earliest possible date.

I would like to be associated with the compliments passed by all the Members to Deputy Mitchell for opening up a debate on a very worthwhile topic but this might not be the appropriate Bill in which to address the problem.

Many Deputies have made comments that I had intended to make. There is a juvenile justice Bill in the course of preparation in my Department and Deputies frequently ask the Taoiseach on the Order of Business when the Bill will be ready. We have the benefit of a lengthy and very fine report which was carried out by one of the Oireachtas Joint Committees in this whole area. It makes very valuable recommendations, many of which have been taken on board.

As it stands now, the Bill contains over 150 sections which have been sent by my Department to the Department of Education in the first instance because obviously the area of juvenile justice goes right across the board into the areas of education, health and social welfare in particular. Therefore, it is cumbersome legislation and we must be extremely careful to ensure that the proposals contained in the Bill, and whatever amendments that are made here when it comes to the House, are capable of being implemented. Theory is fine but the practicalities, about which most of the Deputies have been concerned, are sometimes very different.

I compliment Deputy Mitchell because it is not fashionable to raise the question of parental responsibility. For some reason, people feel that once their children have been reared to a certain age they should be entitled to do what they like. We have had long discussion in Committee on this Bill and, indeed, on another Bill in relation to placing the onus of responsibility on parents. However, in doing that we must be careful because there are parents who have good parenting skills but, despite their very best efforts, one member of the family can often stray, perhaps only for a short period of time, and the question must be asked whether those parents should be penalised. On the other hand, there are parents who have poor parenting skills through no fault of their own. This comes back to the comments made by Deputy Gallagher and Deputy Costello in regard to supporting those parents to help them with their parenting skills. There are other parents also, whom Deputy Mitchell mentioned and whom we want to identify, who are the parents of persistent young offenders and who actively encourage their children to become involved in crime.

When people outside this House talk in broad sweeping terms about parental responsibility, the more conservative elements in society very often say that this form of crime emanates from the homes of "latch key kids" where both parents work, or from very deprived areas. It probably emanates from both these areas but also from a much wider spectrum of the community. It is very difficult to define the exact area that must be identified and that is what we are attempting to do in the juvenile justice Bill. However, it is an extremely complicated process and I would not like anybody to think that it will be easy legislation to, first, prepare and, second, to get through the House.

Very often, the influence of parents is diminished somewhat by peer pressure on children at certain stages of their development, at the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary school education. I am sure parents find at that time that a boyfriend or girlfriend can have far more influence on an adolescent than a parent. This is fashionably known as the time when children have to "find themselves". I suppose we all must say, there, but for the grace of God, go I. We are all parents and any one of our children can stray or err and we must be thankful when they do not.

This is an area which I would not like to take on board in this legislation and in fairness to Deputy Mitchell he recognises that there are certain difficulties in doing that. He can be assured, however, that this matter is very close to my heart and one in which there is much interest in this House and support for taking action in this area. There will be no delays in bringing forward a juvenile justice Bill but I want to put on record that it is not uncomplicated or concise legislation as people outside this House might wish to believe.

Listening to some of the points made by Deputies Costello and Gallagher, I was reminded of a recent event in England where two young children — I think aged ten and 12 — apparently killed a three year old boy having abducted him from a shopping centre. One aspect that made a very strong impression on me at that time — when the identity of the boys who committed the crime remained unclear — was the sense of horror that gripped most parents of children of that age at the thought that their child could actually be the perpetrator of such a terrible crime.

When these boys were eventually brought to court — and I do not know what has happened to them since — as frequently happens on these occasions photographs were not permitted but there was an artist's impression of the scene showing the three magistrates and the young boys sitting in the court. One of the boys had no parent accompanying him, the other had his father with him. It struck me as a very poignant scene that one boy had no parent to sit with him while facing those accusations in such terrible circumstances. I wondered whether it was because the parents of the boy were so horrified or so completely destroyed by what had happened that they could not participate in the proceedings or, alternatively, because the child had no effective parents.

I remember looking at the artist's impression of the man who was sitting with one of the boys and thinking what a terrible experience it was for him to be in that court in such circumstances, and doubtless being mobbed by tabloid journalists anxious to make the point in some glib way that he was to some extent the father of a monster. It struck me that it is very easy to imagine, in circumstances of this kind, the various motives and explanations as to why this crime was committed. Perhaps the magistrates or the social workers now know the circumstances that give rise to this crime but it occurred to me that it is very easy to make judgments about parents, parenting skills and parents' inadequacies, judgments which may or may not be right but which could be very wrong.

While appreciating that Deputy Mitchell's proposal is to grant a power to be invoked in certain circumstances — and I know people feel there are many irresponsible parents who breach their parental obligations in relation to society and their children — we must be extremely careful that we do not end up pursuing the notion of parental responsibility further than is practicable. There has been much talk — I suppose my party has done as much as any other party — about increasing parental accountability for child crime, but the Victorians, or, to be more precise, the Edwardians did that because the Bill the Minister proposes introducing, the Juvenile Justice Bill, will set aside and replace the provisions of the Children Act, 1908, which is now very antiquated and full of inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. The reality is that they thought of such power. As I understand it the provisions of the 1908 Act were to deal with ordinary events, that, in the case of every child offender, his or her parents were to be present before the court when the child was being dealt with. In addition, there is a provision in the 1908 Act that where the court is satisfied that the crime committed by the child arose from the neglect of his or her parents, it has the power to punish the parents in respect of their neglect.

Therefore, the House will realise that what is being discussed under this amendment is not an entirely new idea. Clearly it is something that should be considered long and hard and to which there are no simple solutions. I am not suggesting that Deputy Mitchell is being simple-minded in his proposal, but what is of the utmost importance in all of these things is practicality. There is no point in assuming that our courts system, as at present constituted and as it is likely to evolve given current constraints on resources, will be in a position to effectively supervise family life for the vast majority of child offenders.

For that reason I am opposed to the concept of creating a new power of effective curfew for parents. What struck me, based on my experience, was that very few parents, if any — perhaps the Minister will have some figures on this — have been punished under the provisions of the 1908 Act. Indeed, the fines provided for under that Act probably have become minimal and its provisions effectively have become unworkable. I do not recall ever hearing of occasions when parents were rendered liable for penalties under the provisions of the 1908 Act. If the provisions of that Act have not been implemented by the courts, probably for humane reasons, it is highly unlikely that there would be much use made of the proposal advanced by Deputy Mitchell.

I would be against such a proposal. It would be better to deal with it in the context of a review of the juvenile justice system.

I am grateful to the Minister and Deputy Costello for their complimentary comments and to those Members who contributed to the debate on this amendment. In introducing this amendment I made it clear that my objective was to have the matter discussed within the context of this Bill. I do not intend to press this amendment. Lest I am accused of saying something I did not say I should point out that Deputy Michael McDowell was not present for my introduction. I did not say, or mean to imply, and I went out of my way to so indicate, that there are many parents who breach their parental responsibilities. I made it clear I was talking about a small minority of parents and in circumstances in which the child or children was or were constant offenders.

I was glad to hear the Minister say she is considering this matter in the context of the juvenile justice Bill which is probably the best vehicle for its consideration. Nonetheless, it was beneficial to have had this preliminary discussion on the matter because, for the reasons I stated, it is desirable, if we are to ask young children who are constant offenders to account for themselves, that, in certain circumstances, parents should also be asked to account for themselves.

There is a precedent — here I am relying on memory and I think it was Deputy Gallagher(Laoighis-Offaly) who raised the point — for parents not being capable of being involved in the guilt or associated with the crime or crimes carried out by their juvenile children under the Street Trading Act. Again if I recall correctly, the Select Committee on Crime, Lawlessness and Vandalism was advised that it might be a precedent to be followed. I am not suggesting that a court would take this factor into account in all circumstances. I made very clear the specific and narrow circumstances in which I proposed such provision be invoked.

I do not intend to press this amendment but we have had a very fruitful and worthwhile discussion. I am also glad that the Minister is considering the matter in the context of the juvenile justice Bill.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Debate adjourned.