I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill attempts to provide minimal assistance for the victims of crime. It is not perfect; it contains a number of technical errors some of which I may not have detected. I freely acknowledge that. There are also what might on the surface appear to be two serious omissions in the Bill. It does not provide for a better system of compensation for victims; neither does it provide a sanction for non-observance of the statutory rights which we are attempting to give to victims. There are reasons for these omissions with which I will deal. I would, however, ask the Minister not to waste the time of the House tonight by indulging in a long discourse about technical flaws the Civil Service managed to find in it. My intention in drafting the Bill is to attempt to persuade the Government to accept it in principle, allow it to pass Second Stage, and have it sent to the Select Committee on Legislation and Security where we can work together to iron out technical difficulties and discuss changes which will improve it. This side of the House will be amenable to accepting amendments from the Government side which will strengthen and improve this necessary and long-overdue legislation.
I deplore the attempts of Ministers in successive Governments to justify their non-acceptance of Private Member's Bills by reliance on drafting difficulties. Drafting difficulties are inevitable in Private Members' Bills, especially given that the Attorney General admitted last week when questioned before the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs that it takes at least eight years to produce a fully-fledged parliamentary draftsman. The Government has a number of these rare creatures at its disposal; even they sometimes get it wrong. I recall that on one occasion when I had to reply to a debate on a Private Members' Bill which we were not accepting I excised a large chunk of my speech dealing with technical drafting difficulties. I did so because I consider it rank hypocrisy for any Minister to seek to justify a refusal to accept a Private Members' Bill on the grounds of technical error, particularly a Bill which is designed to assist a large and growing proportion of our citizens. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Currie, will resist the temptation to act like a political woodpecker picking technical holes in this Bill.
Our country has had a troubled and violent history. This largely relates to our struggle for independence. However, we are learning that 75 years after Independence, the level of violence in Irish society is arguably greater than it has ever been. Recent Garda statistics show that robberies have increased by two thirds in the past six years. Aggravated burglaries increased by 85 per cent in the same period. Crimes categorised as offences against property with violence increased by more than 70 per cent in the past 12 years. Last year's crime statistics show that for the first time in the history of this State the number of reported indictable, crimes exceeded 100,000 or almost 300 serious crimes a day.
I deliberately adverted to the fact that this is the level of crime being reported. A large and growing proportion of even indictable crime is not being reported. Estimates for non-reported indictable crimes naturally vary, but, even taking the lowest intelligible estimate which I have, it would appear that it is quite possible, even probable, that about 120,000 indictable crimes were committed last year. On the other hand, the detection rate of reported crime has fallen to below one in three. Therefore, only about one in four indictable crimes were detected last year. It must also be borne in mind that the perpetrators of detected crimes often walk away from court unpunished because the prosecution cannot prove its case. In a criminal case guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, a difficult burden to discharge. It is, therefore, valid to ask how much indictable crime went unpunished last year. The answer is certainly more than three out of four. It may be at least four out of five, or possibly seven out of eight, and that is a startling statistic.
For every crime there is a victim and it is axiomatic that there is no such thing as victimless crime. Many crimes generally categorised as white collar crimes are committed against financial institutions such as insurance companies and banks. Today we also have to face the growing phenomenon of computer-related crime, or the use of technology to perpetrate fraud. The customers of such institutions are the public who suffer for these crimes, albeit indirectly. What I am seeking to address in this Bill, however, is the plight of individuals, particularly the young, the elderly, the vulnerable, and not just those who, through no fault of their own, become victims of crime. Under our criminal justice system it is not left to an individual crime victim to vindicate his or her rights. The State does so on their behalf. As the burden of vindicating the rights of the victim falls upon the State the victim is entitled to expect that the State will do so efficiently and sympathetically. If it fails to do that the victim becomes disillusioned with the system, and this disillusionment is not confined to the victim alone. It spreads like a virus and infects all who become aware of how the victim was treated by those charged with vindicating his or her rights. I refer to the victim's family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and all who, for whatever reason, become aware of the circumstances.
If the system operates in such a way as to cause these ripples of disillusionment, obviously it follows that the greater the number of victims, the greater will be the number of people in society who are disillusioned with the entire system of criminal justice. Widespread disillusionment with a system of criminal justice can have potentially devastating consequences in a democracy. The Irish Association for Victim Support demands that the victims of crime be treated with sympathy and respect and here the victims are shown neither sympathy nor respect. Precisely the opposite is almost invariably the case. In the interests of fairness and balance I wish to say I am not blaming the Minister for that. This did not arise as a result of a conscious decision by any politician or Government; it evolved.
We inherited our legal system from the British. Up to the early part of the 19th century in Britain the responsibility for prosecuting offenders lay generally with the person who had been harmed by the offence. The victim usually had to assemble the evidence or pay a lawyer or other official to take a case for him or her and was responsible for the presentation of the case in court and for the costs if the case failed. This burden of responsibility must have weighed very heavily, particularly on inexperienced citizens who had no legal education and, most especially, on those with slender financial resources. It resulted in the undesirable situation whereby many cases which should have been prosecuted in the public interest never saw the light of day.
There was a further problem related to the imbalance of power which lay at the heart of such a system. A victim with power or financial resources could exact disproportionate revenge against a weak or impecunious offender. On the other hand, a powerful offender could obviously intimidate a vulnerable victim. The gradual introduction of local police services during the 19th century provided an opportunity to redress this imbalance and a situation gradually evolved whereby the State took responsibility and interposed itself between the victim and the offender. However, acceptance of this responsibility by the State introduced a new imbalance of power and the accused invariably became the weaker and more vulnerable party faced with defending himself against the power, might and majesty of the State.
In order to restore that balance and protect the alleged offender a series of rights were evolved to enable defendants to properly present their cases and to protect themselves from unfair prosecution and punishment. For example, strict rules were developed on the way in which evidence could be brought. Owing to the severity of the punishment in the 19th century it was said it was better to acquit 99 guilty people than to convict one who was innocent. The victim then became regarded as an ordinary citizen with a responsibility to assist the police by providing evidence and to act as a witness when the evidence was needed as part of a prosecution case in court. No special status was granted to the victim in respect of his or her special interest in the case. In cases where evidence was not required it was not considered necessary even to provide information to the victim about, for example, the arrest of the offender or the intention to prosecute or not to prosecute as the case may be.
In attempting to protect the victim from unwanted responsibility the State, therefore, pushed him to the margins of the system where he became practically irrelevant to the procedures in the eyes of the professionals who operated the system on behalf of the State. Evidence of this first began to emerge from research studies in the early 1980s. For example, a survey of buggery victims carried out in 1982 by the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research showed that 25 per cent of victims interviewed were dissatisfied with the response they received from the police after reporting a crime. The main problems cited by those victims included a lack of contact with the police, a lack of information and a general feeling that they were regarded as unimportant. A follow-up survey carried out in 1985 in relation to victims of violent crime who had passed through the criminal justice system showed a dissatisfaction rate of 38 per cent. Many of these victims again stated that they would not even report a crime in the future. Once again, the complaints related to a lack of information and a general feeling of being accorded low status by the authorities.
It has to be said that there was no evidence in either study that victims wished to resume responsibility for decision-making in the criminal justice process. However, these and some subsequent studies showed clearly that what the victims mainly wanted was recognition of their experience and the effect it had on their lives. They concluded that the State's concern to deal with the offender while at the same time protecting his or her human rights needed to be matched by a similar concern for the victim. There should be a separate relationship between the State and the individual victim who has been harmed given that a crime has been perpetrated against him or her. The victim should not be seen as ancillary to the criminal justice process.
In the present criminal justice system the victim is largely a pawn in the contest between the prosecution and defence. He is a weapon to be used if necessary by the prosecution if and when it suits its purpose to do so. He is then peremptorily discarded. For the vast majority of victims the experience of being a State witness — usually the principal one — in a criminal trial will be entirely new. However, during the period leading up to the trial his contact with the police will be at best perfunctory. He will have no occasion to meet the State lawyers who will have the task of vindicating his rights and the State will make no effort to provide him with any advice about trial procedures or his duties or responsibilities as a witness. He will find the court room atmosphere as strange as Gulliver found the land of Lilliput when he was cast ashore there.
The reality of courtroom facilities is such that on the morning of a trial—I have witnessed this —the victim will often find himself waiting cheek by jowl with the person accused of battering, maiming or sexually assaulting him or her. He will often be subjected to searing cross-examination by the defence which will involve questioning his character, motives, bona fides and details of his recollection of the event in question and often incidents from his past life. The fact that he is still severely traumatised from his experience will count for nothing. When the ordeal is over he is told he may leave. He is not entitled to even one penny in compensation for the pain, suffering and trauma he has endured. He will have no subsequent contact with the State except perhaps through his solicitor who will be engaged in the long and rather undignified process of trying to extract the minimal compensation payable from the criminal injuries compensation tribunal. The victim will receive no counselling, sympathy or support except perhaps from the Victims Support Group, a voluntary organisation struggling financially to survive. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. These are the facts and the Minister and every Member of the House knows this. Facts do not cease to exist simply because they are ignored.
I have omitted including in the Bill a provision to allow for the payment of compensation to victims of crime for pain and suffering. I have done so because I was not entitled to impose a charge on the Exchequer in a Private Members Bill. I had included this provision in the Bill as originally drafted but the officials in the Bills Office informed me, as is their duty, that it would have to be deleted on the basis that it was out of order. However, this should not be taken to mean that I do not support the principle of the restoration of compensation for pain and suffering. On the contrary, the absence of such compensation is a blight not only on the entire criminal justice system but on our value system as a society. That is why I strongly urge the Minister to prevail upon his colleagues to restore compensation to the victims of crime for pain and suffering. The opportunity to do this exists as the Estimates for expenditure in 1996 are now being discussed. I ask the Minister to refer specifically to this point in his reply.
The present law relating to compensation for the victims of crime challenges our claim to be a Christian society. Regardless of the atrocity perpetrated on him, all a victim who is lucky enough to be working and, therefore, not in receipt of a medical card will be entitled to is a loss of wages, less social welfare payment and more medical expenses. Even in the calculation of medical expenses the State has shown itself to be a veritable scrooge.
Until last year the plight of victims was compounded by unjustifiable and unconscionable delay in payment. The unfortunate victim had to wait for years to be paid even the paltry provision the system had made for him. He was, in effect, forced to act as an unwilling lender to the Exchequer. This was brought to the attention of the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, who provided the resources to substantially reduce these delays and for that she deserves our gratitude.
If the victim is unlucky enough to be one of the large and growing army of the unemployed and consequently has a medical card then the compensation to which he is entitled from the State, regardless of his injuries, is zero. He would, of course, have a right to take a civil action against the perpetrator of the crime but we need not waste much time on that as we know what it is worth. On the other hand if somebody is injured in a road traffic accident or an industrial accident or simply falls into a pothole he will be entitled to thousands of pounds in damages for pain and suffering. I recall the case of a young man of 23 whose leg was cut by falling glass at his place of work. It left a scar which was almost invisible some months later but much to my surprise — I did not know as much then as I know now — we managed to do a deal with the insurance company and he received £4,000 net for pain and suffering.