Adjournment Debate. - Attacks on Shopkeepers.

The recent survey by RGDATA, the retail grocers association, makes chilling and grim reading. It showed that one in three shops experienced violent crime in the past two years and that one in four shops experienced more than one violent crime. Some experienced more than five annually and over 40 retailers were constant victims of gangs which attacked almost on a weekly basis.

Violent attacks on newsagents and grocery shops cost the trade an estimated £11 million in the past two years. When this is added to the £60 million lost through other crime, namely, shoplifting and fraud, and the countless man hours lost by staff injured in raids it becomes all too apparent that the Minister for Justice and the Government should address the problem as a matter of urgency.

It was very interesting to read the statement issued by Deputy Eric Byrne of Democratic Left on the problem. He stated that it was "just one more indicator of a crime-wave which an under resourced and under staffed Garda Síochána are being asked to battle with one hand behind their backs". Has it ever occurred to Deputy Byrne that his party is in Government and has one full Minister and a hybrid Minister in the Cabinet? I suggest that he direct his comments at them and the Minister for Justice.

The only response from the Minister for Justice to this extremely serious problem for members of RGDATA appears to be "shop at Supershop". I submit that this is an entirely inadequate response to a problem which is quickly getting out of control.

Recognising the seriousness of the problem Fianna Fáil introduced a perfectly constitutional Bill to restrict bail for habitual offenders and to impose stringent conditions on these offenders when admitted to bail. The Bill was defeated by a Minister for Justice and a Government which shamefully failed to publish a Bill of its own.

Fianna Fáil strongly supports the RGDATA demand for an urgent reform of the bail system which prevents criminals from re-offending while awaiting trial. We acted and the Government prevaricated. That prevarication has recently been replaced by pious platitudes and promises of things to come.

RGDATA very correctly points out that there is a need for a review of the policy of concurrent sentencing. While there is a provision in Irish criminal law that consecutive sentences be imposed on people convicted of committing crime while on bail, it is doubtful if this is being rigorously applied in courts. I sought to ascertain the true position by way of Dáil question, but obfuscation won the day again.

It is a sad reflection on our ability to beat the crime menace, when a retailer says that he has every form of security, including alarm, cameras, shutters, safes and ram bars, yet his five shops have been subjected to seven armed raids, ten needle attacks, 17 knife attacks, two shootings, 15 iron bar attacks and 20 hammer attacks.

It must be abundantly clear to everybody but the Minister and this rainbow Coalition Government that our bail laws need reform, that concurrent sentencing has to be reviewed and that there must be an immediate clampdown on the illegal sale of cigarettes on the streets which represent the market for the proceeds of violent attacks on shops. In addition, I am now calling on the Minister to set up a special Garda task force to protect newsagents and shopkeepers from thugs and villains roaming the streets. It is abundantly clear that extreme violence will drive shopkeepers and newsagents out of business and while the Minister is giving "close consideration" to the RGDATA survey, robberies and assaults are happening on a daily and nightly basis. The sheer viciousness and cowardly nature of these assaults is illustrated by the weapons being used against vulnerable people. They include sharpened chisels, hurleys, golf clubs, planks-sticks, hammers, sprays-liquids, slash hooks, and of course verbal threats. This type of assault is not confined to large cities. Our outlying rural towns are now subjected to nightly and indeed daily visitations by criminal gangs. Criminals see rural towns and villages as "soft options" together with grocery shops.

I have no difficulty in standing up in this House and repeatedly putting forward positive proposals to the Minister for Justice, even if they are ignored. However, even if the Minister, for political reasons, wishes to continue to ignore me, I earnestly request tonight that she not ignore the plea of RGDATA who, like me, represents ordinary people trying to make a living in the midst of a crime wave. This is a Government on probation intent on reoffending the Irish public. It is a Government which commits the crime of inactivity, a Government of coalition parties which go surety for each other.

I listened with great interest to Deputy O'Donoghue and I can only marvel at the extent to which law and order deteriorated during the years of Fianna Fáil rule. The Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, met representatives of RGDATA last Friday, 12 May 1995 when she received a copy of the organisation's report Violence in Shops which is based on research carried out over the past two years. At the meeting, RGDATA raised a number of important issues with the Minister, including the need to amend the current law on bail, concurrent sentencing, the pressures on prison spaces and the need to clamp down on the illegal sale of cigarettes. The Minister was appraised of the main findings of the survey. She was extremely concerned, and the Government is concerned with the findings, especially the extent to which staff working in shops have experienced violent crime and the indications that a certain level of the crime was carried out by people apparently under the influence of drugs. The meeting was extremely constructive and the Minister promised RGDATA that the report would be closely considered in framing her ongoing response to crime. The Government regards it as absolutely unacceptable that people going about their lawful business should be subjected to attack by criminals.

The Minister for Justice discussed the findings of the report with the Garda Commissioner who has confirmed that the Garda is taking strong action to address this increasing level of attacks. It reports a number of successful arrests of culprits particularly in the past few months.

Tackling crime is a Government priority, especially drug-related crime, in which a sizeable number of other crimes take root. As the House will be aware, the Minister for Justice will shortly bring comprehensive proposals on the drugs problem to the Government. These proposals have already circulated to all relevant Departments and I can assure the House that they will receive priority Government attention.

There is already a long list of legislation which the Garda use on a daily basis, including the following Acts: the Offences Against The Person Act, 1861, as amended, the Larceny Act, 1916, the Misuse of Drugs Acts, 1977 and 1984, the Criminal Justice Act, 1984, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence) Act, 1990, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994, and the Criminal Justice Act, 1994.

The Government has made it clear that the drugs problem deserves the very highest priority, not only at national but also at European and wider international levels. In this regard, the House can be assured that the Government will make drugs a major issue during the Irish Presidency.