I congratulate Deputy O'Dea on bringing forward this Bill. However, I am horrified at the Government's decision not to accept it given that it adopted an enlightened approach two weeks ago and agreed to accept another Private Members' Bill. That new spirit in the Government seems to have died very quickly.
Private Members' Business. - Victim Support Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).
It has also died quickly on the other side of the House.
The arguments put forward by the Government for not accepting this Bill are insulting to the victims of crime. It said that the Bill was not comprehensive enough and there were technical flaws in it. Those reasons ring very hollow given that no Bill will solve every problem. It is a case of doing one's best when the opportunity presents itself, while in some instances it is a matter of addressing the weakest link in the chain. It is not good enough for the Government to say that this Bill is well intentioned but not comprehensive enough. We would have to wait a long time for a Bill which addressed every problem. That is something that will never happen.
It is not good enough for the Government to say that it accepts the principle of the Bill but it will not run with it. During the referendum campaign reference was made to civic and minority rights and the need for compassion. Do people not have the right to walk the streets in peace and to feel safe in their houses at night? An increasing minority of people are affected by crime. Many of them are old while others live in specific parts of the city and county. Politicians who live in cosy middle class areas may not understand the effects of crime on people. The Government's decision to reject this Bill sends a wrong signal to these people. This Bill would give some consolation to those people who do not feel safe in their homes at night, yet the Government will not accept it. It has said it is working on its own Bill which will be brought forward in the future. I am horrified at the Government's approach to this issue.
The crime problem has got out of hand in many areas. I will not refer to the recent murders, one of which took place in my constituency. Horrific crimes like these and large robberies grab the headlines but it is petty crimes such as muggings which create more fear in the community. The Bill is mainly geared towards people affected by muggings and burglaries in their homes. It is not possible to quantify the trauma caused by these types of crimes. Many people live in fear, whether or not it is real. It is very real to many of them. This is a good Bill which proposes to give victims a statutory right to counselling and to be kept informed. I am horrified that the Minister has not taken these proposals on board. The perception outside the House is that the justice system protects the wrongdoer rather than the victim. We must deal with this problem and try to eliminate this perception.
A woman living in a local authority area in my constituency where the crime problem is very serious agreed to give evidence in court about a minor robbery. Over the past eight or nine months she has been targeted by scumbags and it is fairly common for the windows of her house to be broken at weekends. This woman identified the people involved in this crime but she is now living in fear. The procedure whereby witnesses must put their hand on a suspect in an identification parade must be changed. It would be more appropriate to use two-way mirrors.
I am horrified at the Government's decision not to accept this Bill as it sends the wrong signal to those people who live in fear of crime. This uncompassionate action totally ignores the rights of minorities. Given some of the statements the Government made over the past few weeks this decision rings very hollow.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Theresa Ahearn, Paul Bradford and Eric Byrne.
,Carlow-Kilkenny): Is that agreed? Agreed.
We appreciate the efforts made by Deputy O'Dea in bringing this Bill before the House. The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, spelt out in considerable detail the reasons it is not acceptable to the Government in its present form. In view of the major problems we have with crime I would expect the Government to bring forward legislation to help deal with this very important matter. All credit is due to Deputy O'Dea for initiating this Bill as it gives us an opportunity to debate the issues. No one party is the custodian of law and order. As a previous Minister of State in the Department of Justice, I am sure Deputy O'Dea paid a great deal of attention to this matter and perhaps if he were still in Government he would be moving the Bill from the Government benches. That is history now. I congratulate him for taking the time to present this Bill.
The impression is created in some newspaper reports that serious crime is restricted to Dublin city or one or two other areas. Crime is not confined to Dublin or towns but is prevalent throughout the country. It was unheard of a few years ago that serious crimes would be committed in rural areas but unfortunately that is no longer the case. I would not attempt to allow one of my family to go out alone at night in Drogheda, which one could do quite freely not so very long ago. People are mugged and robbed and women are subject to constant attack. I welcome the main thrust of the Bill. Many of its proposals will be enshrined in a Government Bill which I hope will be brought forward sooner rather than later.
Compensation is referred to fairly extensively in the Bill. I do not think compensation will cure the problem although it will certainly help to ease the pain. A member of my own family was compensated for a very serious attack in which he was nearly killed some years ago. Although compensation is important prevention is more important. We should put the emphasis on preventing or reducing the incidence of crime rather than on compensation. The criminal injuries compensation legislation deals with this subject very extensively. I understand that £45 million has been paid out in compensation since its introduction but that there have been long delays. It is bad enough to have a family member seriously injured in an attack but it prolongs the agony to have to struggle on and wait an outrageous length of time for payment. There should be an urgent review of the scheme of compensation for personal injuries. I understand the scheme is currently under review by the Department of Justice. This is part of the Government of Renewal programme and as far as I can remember it was part of the previous Government's programme.
The expansion of services provided by the Irish Association for Victim Support is another important improvement. We should pay tribute to the work of this voluntary organisation. The amount of money which the Government subscribes to it was increased substantially from £18,000 in 1993 to £130,000 this year. This voluntary body receives no payment for its work. Bodies which work quietly behind the scenes should have their work recognised and appreciated. The growing number of victims appreciate its work.
The 1993 Criminal Justice Act ensures that the criminal justice system is oriented to the victim of crime in a number of ways. I think that area should be looked at but I understand that it also may be under review. The 1993 Act extends the powers of criminal courts to award compensation in all cases where the victim is caused personal injury or loss. It also empowers the courts to apply compensation rather than a fine.
There has been a great deal of progress and further progress will be made by this Government whose commitment is enshrined in the Programme for Government. It takes time and a great deal of money to come to grips with the types of criminals we have. Criminals are sophisticated and well organised, in many cases organised thugs of the worst order. The police have great difficulty in dealing with them because of their sophisticated methods of carrying out crime.
I congratulate Deputy O'Dea for his efforts in introducing a Bill that is a step in the right direction.
Violent crime has become endemic not only in urban areas such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick but in rural areas, and those close to urban centres are bearing the brunt of the criminal overspill from cities. The violent crimes with which we are now familiar were rare enough ten years ago to warrant a newspaper headline. The brutal murder of three people in Dublin last week will be forgotten except by the families and friends of the deceased. Most of the victims of crime survive but they are often scarred mentally and physically. The support available for victims is generally provided by voluntary organisations such as the Irish Association for Victim Support which is sadly under funded, under staffed and under resourced. It has to cope with the explosion in demand for its services throughout the year and in the summer period it has to deal with very sad cases where tourists have been mugged and robbed.
While I welcome Deputy O'Dea's Bill, I do not agree with all its provisions. It provides an opportunity to focus on the needs and rights of victims who, unfortunately, to a large extent have been ignored in the current debate on increasing crime levels. There are two aspects to the treatment of crime victims, the court procedures they are forced to endure and the issue of compensation, not only for physical injuries but for the pain and suffering inflicted by the offender. The programme negotiated between Democratic Left, Fine Gael and Labour committed the Government to introducing a charter of rights for victims of crime. I look forward to the early publication and implementation of that charter. Deputy O'Dea's Bill touches on many of the issues that need to be addressed in such a charter, but its provisions have not been properly thought through.
The deficiencies in the Bill should not mean that the issue of victim support is put on the long finger and in this regard I hope the commitments in paragraph 119 of the Government's programme are implemented without delay. The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, addressed some of the improvements in support services for crime victims, all of which are very welcome but do not go far enough. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal, in particular, has proven to be a blunt and under-resourced instrument with which to address victims' needs. In this regard it is appropriate to quote the proverb that "justice delayed is justice denied". Justice for the victims of crime is extremely slow. Waiting times are excessive and compensation, when finally awarded, is often paltry. Victims are put through a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure before receiving compensation under the scheme and even then they can expect to receive only out-of-pocket expenses.
The removal some years ago of the so-called pain and suffering clause dealt a shattering blow to the rights of crime victims. Every day innocent members of the public fall foul of criminals. They are mugged, attacked, harassed or intimidated and the effects can be severe and long lasting. Many people carry the physical scars of their ordeal for the remainder of their lives and others try to come to terms with the emotional and psychological consequences.
The time has come to introduce a comprehensive and unbureaucratic system of compensation which would ensure that all crime victims receive compensation not only for out-of-pocket expenses but also for the considerable trauma they suffer. I hope the current review of the criminal injuries scheme will result in a restoration of the pain and suffering clause and that a restitution fund, as promised in the Government's programme, will be established without delay. I will continue to press these matters until they are addressed by the House.
While Deputy O'Dea's Bill is extremely well intentioned, it addresses many of the issues superficially and this is understandable in Bills proposed by Opposition parties. Many of the issues have been already dealt with in legislation and this is particularly true in the case of victims of sexual offences whose rights and needs have been comprehensively addressed.
The Bill focuses mainly on court procedure and related matters and I am concerned about the potential implications of some of its provisions. Under section 2 (a) a victim of crime would have the right to be consulted by the prosecution regarding pre-trial procedures. If victims make a written request they would also have full access to the investigating member of the Garda Síochána. In some respects this goes too far but in others it does not go far enough. Without a written request there would not be a right of access but with such a request there would be unlimited rights that could place additional strains on the already over stretched Garda Síochána.
I am also concerned about the provision that states victims must be informed when the perpetrator has completed his or her sentence. While I appreciate the intention behind such a proposal, it could have unforeseen consequences for both victims and offenders. If the Government contemplates introducing similar proposals in the future I hope they are thoroughly examined before being implemented and that appropriate safeguards are introduced. At present the State prosecutes suspected perpetrators on behalf of society and it is its duty to ensure that the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted, while protecting individual citizens and vindicating the rights of victims. The concept of the State as prosecutor is central to our criminal justice system. If the proposals in Deputy O'Dea's Bill were accepted in their entirety, to some extent the victim would become the prosecuting agent. Unless carefully handled, such a shift in emphasis could prejudice the right of alleged offenders — a term I use advisedly — as we retain the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
I congratulate Deputy O'Dea on raising this matter and presenting us with an opportunity to debate an issue that is often considered incidental to the broader crime problem. While I disagree with many of the provisions in the Bill, it provides a valuable starting point for a discussion on the issue and I hope the Government will respond by introducing its proposals in the near future.
I, too, thank Deputy O'Dea for giving us an opportunity to debate this matter. As crime has become a major social and indeed political problem in the past few weeks, this is an opportunite time to discuss the Deputy's proposal. However, on almost a daily basis since the Dáil resumed following the summer recess the Opposition has put crime at the top of its political hit list. People could be forgiven for believing that crime was almost nonexistent until the advent of the rainbow coalition Government in December 1994. It must be recognised that while there has been an increase in the level of crime in the past few months, all political parties and Governments in the past decade or so have not given the problem as much attention as it deserved. However, I am confident that under the leadership of the Minister, Deputy Owen, the Department of Justice and all involved in the fight against crime will tackle the problem with renewed vigour.
Deputy O'Dea asked us to support this Bill which would afford certain rights and assistance to the victims of crime. While that is laudable, it is important to note the Government's concerns about the legislation, as outlined by the Minister of State, Deputy Currie. I am consoled by the fact that the Minister and the Government are totally committed to introducing a charter for victims of crime. While it may be necessary because of technical difficulties to oppose this Bill, it is important to do something constructive and positive to deal with the problems faced by victims of crime. I am confident that the introduction by the Government, hopefully in the very near future, of a charter to protect such victims will be a positive move in that direction.
While attempting to deal with the problems faced by the ever increasing number of victims, from a political and security level we must also deal with the primary problem by attacking crime at its most basic level. Deputy Eric Byrne, who represents an urban constituency, said the problem of rural crime should not be ignored. Recent dramatic criminal incidents in our cities, which have received coverage on television and in other media, would lead one to believe that this is simply an urgen problem. However, as a representative for a rural constituency I have to say — and I am sure that my views are shared by most of my colleagues from rural areas — that there is literally no townland or parish which has not experienced a growing number of criminal activities against people and their property. We are hearing more and more complaints about it from constituents who continually tell us that it is not being tackled sufficiently strongly by the Government. All rural representatives would make a heartfelt plea to the Minister for Justice and her Government colleagues to give urgent priority to tackling crime in rural areas.
New attempts to tackle rural crime should include methods applied earlier this century such as gardaí on the beat who are in touch with people in parishes and villages. That approach was much more effective than gardaí driving around at night in squad cars, passing people but not talking to them. Future policy could perhaps be best addressed by taking on board some of the methods of the past.
I would like to see not simply a strengthening of numbers of rural Garda stations but also a return to gardaí on the beat in smaller towns and villages. Gardaí who dealt with the problem at local level knew the community and its people. They got better information and were thus better equipped to deal with crime than we appear to be now.
Law and order is a priority for this Government. The Bill introduced by Deputy O'Dea gives us a valuable opportunity to debate the other side of the picture — victims of crime. Deputy O'Dea deserves to be congratulated on introducing this Bill to the House and I respect his genuine concern and motives in doing so. It should not matter whether a Bill on such an important issue is introduced by Government or Opposition. If the Bill presented is such that its intent can be delivered, then it should be supported.
I regret we cannot support the Bill, not because we disagree with its intent. From all the contributions there is a genuine swell of support for the motives and intent behind it. Unfortunately, it has been pointed out that because of technicalities and the fact that there is too much space for broad interpretation, the intent of the Bill as it is now presented cannot be delivered. I hope that Deputy O'Dea and his party will take our voting position not as opposing the Bill but rather ensuring that a Bill that will provide such support for victims can be delivered in reality.
We must always have genuine sympathy and support for victims of crime. It is very distressing to read stories in our weekly newspapers about elderly people living alone being broken into, tied up, gagged and left in a deplorable condition. Two weeks ago a lovely old lady in Clonmel was walking home after doing her shopping when she was attacked by a gang of youths in a car. They knocked her to the ground and stole her handbag leaving her with many injuries.
We must have sympathy for such victims of crime but, unfortunately, we are speaking not only about victims of crime but also people who see themselves as potential victims. Many have had the awful experience of such torture but many more live in constant fear of being the next victim.
Since many elderly people in our rural communities live alone in isolated areas, the intent of the local authorities now is to try to move them into centres of population. Money provided for special small houses is giving the elderly great comfort and serenity in their final years. They are living in a community where they know they are being cared for and where they can, at least, live with some degree of security knowing they have neighbours close by.
However, no matter how close someone is to their neighbours they can still become victims of a break-in. That is why it would be worthwhile and profitable to spend some of our resources to provide alarms or telephones connected to the Garda station as in times of stress or fear the elderly should have help at the press of a button. Special houses for the elderly living alone should be equipped with such alarm systems. I have raised this issue on a number of occasions and it is something that we should consider seriously.
If elderly people have a son or daughter living with them their social welfare contributions are penalised. That prevents some elderly people from having a family member living with them. It would be a great service to the community if such people could live with their elderly parents. The elderly would feel more secure having a family member live with them. We are proud of the contribution made by voluntary groups, whether community alert or the neighbourhood watch scheme. They receive valuable support from the gardaí.
Last week I tabled a question to the Minister for Justice on the contribution made by such community groups and I was delighted to hear that 326,000 homes are in the scheme.
I thank Deputy O'Dea for raising such an important issue and allowing us to debate it. It is a job well done because it will lead to a positive response from the Minister.
I wish to share my time with Deputy O'Donnell. This is important legislation brought forward by the Opposition. I congratulate Deputy O'Dea on the time and effort he has put into this Bill and for recognising the importance of the issue.
The Bill provides statutory rights for the victims of crime and nothing could be more important that that when so many people are affected by crime. It provides a right to be consulted by the prosecution, free legal advice, counselling and victim impact reports, among other things. It also provides that a victim of crime will be entitled to information. Victims want to know if their case is being pursued and Deputy O'Dea suggests that the victim should be told whether a person is charged following investigation of the crime. He also suggests that victims of crime are told whether a person is in custody or on bail. It is important to know because many offences are committed by those on bail. The Bill states that the victim shall be informed of the impending release of the criminal. That can be a serious issue for victims because there is a danger of bumping into the criminal again and being attacked or robbed. I know of and deal with cases where the same perpetrator breaks into a house, shop, public house and so on over and over again. The gardaí know the perpetrator from the style of operation but may not get evidence for some time.
People could take precautions if they know when a person is due for release.
This is excellent legislation and the Deputy went to great lengths to deal with the rights of victims. The Minister said she would not argue with the detail of the Bill as some of it could be altered. Essentially everyone agrees with the principle of the Bill. Why not accept it, discuss the detail on Committee Stage and make adjustments where appropriate? The principle of the Bill is debated on Second Stage and one decides whether one agrees with it. It is difficult to see how anyone could vote against the principle of this Bill but that will happen if one votes against it.
Deputy Bradford asked why Fianna Fáil puts crime at the top of the list. The reality is crime is at the top of the list. There will be over 100,000 indictable crimes this year which amounts to almost 300 crimes per day. At the beginning of this year I said that the huge increase in drug abuse at the end of last year would put this issue above party politics. Most of the crime in Dublin and approximately 80 per cent of all crime is drug related. Drug abuse is rampant and that is borne out by the large quantities of drugs seized. That is why Deputy O'Donoghue called this the year of the criminal. It is difficult to understand that the Government does not accept the provisions of the Bill. It does not accept the right of victims to be consulted about the prosecution of an offence. Although the Government accepts the principle of the Bill it will vote against it. It will not allow free legal advice for the victims of crime or entitlement to free psychological counselling. The Government does not say it will allow it in certain circumstances or have special provision for it which can be controlled. It will reject this legislation out of hand.
Section 7 seeks to extend the time limit for an application under the Criminal Injuries Tribunal from three to six months. Three months is too short. Last week I met a man who opened his door at night and was hit with a hammer about the head and face. His house was robbed. He was taken to hospital and the Garda were called. He has been informed that because he failed to lodge his application within the time limit specified he is not entitled to compensation despite the fact that the dates and times are recorded both in the Garda station and hospital. This is unacceptable.
Deputy O'Dea is suggesting in this Bill that the time limit should be extended to meet the needs of ordinary, decent people who are mugged while out shopping or whose homes are invaded. If they fail to lodge their application within three months, no one on this or the other side of the House should say "tough luck", that they are not prepared in principle to help them.
The Government does not agree with Deputy O'Dea, however. All the Minister for Justice is prepared to say is that the Department is reviewing the scheme of compensation for personal injuries criminally inflicted. There is no sense of urgency in tackling the problems of victims. The reality is that compensation is only payable in respect of medical expenses and loss of earnings. It is not payable in respect of pain and suffering. This matter will have to be reviewed. There are ways by which the costs involved can be contained. Without such a provision the scheme is unsuitable. In rejecting the Bill the Government is compounding the sense of injury by excluding the victim from the proceedings and by denying access to the necessary psychological counselling.
The crime problem, especially in the cities, is getting out of hand. More and more ordinary law abiding citizens are affected by random violence, theft and muggings while much of the drug related crime is indiscriminate. There are many unseen costs. For example, people lose their no claims bonus when their car is stolen and damaged. Losses are also incurred by the innocent victims of house break-ins and pedestrians who lose their handbag or wallet. Under the scheme any medical expenses incurred in respect of severe physical injuries are covered, but what happens the person who has to struggle around on crutches for weeks and months? In such circumstances no compensation is payable.
Women and the elderly in particular are afraid to walk the streets and the Government is unable to ensure their safety as crime fuelled by drug addiction continues to soar. In circumstances where it cannot handle the crime wave it must at least support the innocent victims of crime and accord them the dignity and respect they deserve. There is a price to be paid, but we must ensure that the innocent victims do not foot the bill. The Government is being shortsighted in rejecting this important and valuable legislation. That is a matter of regret.
Those who have been resettled in County Clare under the rural resettlement scheme were surveyed recently. The findings show that they feel 100 per cent safer in the country. This is not the case in the capital city, Limerick, Waterford, Cork, Galway and the other major centres of population. We will provide the Government with every support in tackling this problem, but the victims of crime must also receive our support. By refusing to accept the Bill the Government is rejecting this principle.
I welcome the opportunity to express the support of the Progressive Democrats for the principle behind the Bill and I commend Deputy O'Dea on its introduction. The victims of crime have been walked on by the State. This Bill proposes a series of measures to enhance the status of the victim as he or she interfaces with the criminal justice system. From the date allegations are made to the date of trial State procedures should be inclusive of the victim.
Recent cases have produced a steady procession of despairing victims of child abuse, for example, whom the justice system has failed because of the inexplicable and as yet unexplained decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute. Many of these people have contacted my office because I have raised this issue in the Dáil and taken a personal interest in maladministration in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the prosecution service in general and they have no one else to turn to. For these people the wheels of justice have not yet begun to turn as no prosecution has been taken in respect of the crimes from which they have suffered.
In the recent Drogheda hospital case, for example, the Garda to whom two separate complaints were made in March and June 1994 of sexual abuse by a hospital consultant failed to report the allegations to the health board, despite the fact that the consultant in question was still working within the hospital with full access to patients. It was only when the complainant notified the health board a full year later, in March 1995, that the hospital took any action. The consultant was on voluntary leave pending an internal inquiry and eventually retired in October this year. This has been confirmed in a letter to me from the Minister for Justice yesterday.
In seeking to explain the failure of the Garda to report the allegations to the health board immediately as demanded by the guildelines the Minister stated:
Before deciding whether the health board should be notified of such a complaint the Garda took into account a variety of factors, in particular the reliability of the complainant and the need to ensure that the position and character of the subject of the complaint was not damaged unjustly.
In that sentence there is a clear bias against the complainant in favour of the abuser. This bias permeates the criminal justice system. No prosecution has been taken in that case by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
As the Acting Chairman is aware as a member of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security, we constantly find ourselves dealing with matters of great injustice rather than justice. It has become clear that the State is not adequately vindicating the constitutional rights of victims. This Bill simply seeks to elevate the status of the victims of crime. Measures are necessary to balance the rights of the accused and the equal rights of the victim in criminal prosecutions.
There is nothing relevant to the position of victims of crime in the Constitution except, possibly. Article 40.3.2 by which the State guarantees, by its laws, to protect, as best it may, from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name and property rights of every citizen. With a little imagination this could be construed as conferring an obligation on the State to assist the victims of crime.
Irish law on the rights of accused persons is highly evolved. The rights of victims are always ignored by the civil liberties lobby, which constantly champions the rights of the accused. Courts have not been asked to consider the role of victims in the criminal process. This is because victims are not parties to disputes before courts which are between the State, or the people, and defendants. The victim of the offence is relegated to the status of witness and is not officially recognised as having any interest in the outcome of the proceedings. This ignores the reality that victims have more at stake in the outcome of a criminal trial than any other person with the exception of the accused.
Prosecutions may be brought in the interests of the common good and in the name of the people but it is the victim who gives his or her time and emotional energy to the prosecuting authorities to help secure a conviction. Often victims, having crossed the threshold of the court, are asked to place their reputations on the line. They are expected to wait, often for months, for the trial to be heard. The reasons for the delay will probably not be explained to them. If prosecutions are dropped, they may not be informed of it. When the trial is finally heard, victims are expected to open themselves to examination and cross-examination. They are expected to take the risk that their lives may be exposed in the press, often in the most intimate aspects, when sexual abuse is concerned. They are expected to lay their experiences of crime before strangers who are more often than not indifferent to their subjective pain. They are expected to go through this experience alone.
The only social policy response to the victims of crime has been the efforts of a voluntary organisation, the Irish Association for Victim Support, which constantly seeks more funding and has to beg the Government for this on a yearly basis.
Having gone through the trauma of court, victims go home without being paid any compensation apart from being given out-of-pocket expenses and they must pick up the pieces of their lives as best they can. We have constantly and consistently called for the establishment of a criminal injuries compensation tribunal on a statutory basis and the reinstatement of compensation for pain and suffering. This could be funded from the seized assets of criminals.
Legislation provides for this but it is not being used. What is the value of the assets seized by the State from criminals?
Last year we went through the big charade of enacting monumental legislation which would at last allow the State to seize assets garnered by criminals in the pursuit of crime but this has not happened. Even if the offender receives a jail sentence, the victim will still be well advised to be careful. The abuse of parole and temporary release is such that the offender may be back on the streets within months. If he is, the victim will be the last person to hear about it.
In 1993, 3,564 orders were made for full temporary release. Thousands of offenders are being released and victims are not being told about this. There is a totally unaccountable procedure for releasing convicted criminals. When I recently asked the Minister how many of them had reoffended, I was told there were no figures for this and that it would take far too much time and would be much too troublesome for the Department to find out this information.
The State recently compensated a woman who was raped by an offender on temporary release. If the State was willing and felt obliged to pay compensation to this woman, surely this is a precedent and an acceptance of the principle of the Bill that victims of crime are entitled to compensation, to be given a higher status in the criminal justice system and to be consulted whether a prosecution is dropped, is not forthcoming or goes ahead.
I have spoken at length about the maladministration in our prosecution service, which means that gardaí can tell people in the street that no prosecutions are forthcoming but cannot tell them the reasons for this. Correspondence is not replied to by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions or, if it is replied to, it is only to the effect that the case cannot be discussed.
The victim has no status but is, I believe, the most important person in the criminal justice system. Victims are the unsung heroes of the criminal process. I would not deny the right of an accused person to be tried by due course of law but the time has come for victims to be given parity of esteem and it is a matter of justice that this happens. Without the evidence of victims, there could often not be prosecutions.
Information is vital. From the time a crime is reported, procedures must include the victim. Every garda station should have leaflets setting out how a criminal prosecution is conducted and giving the names and addresses of support agencies and the DPP's office should have an information section. I recently contacted the Crown Prosecution Service to see how its service worked. It issues an information pack, provides a freephone service and engages with the public. This is accountability. It produces an annual report showing the level and type of prosecutions.
After two years of pestering the Taoiseach, we were recently eventually told that a review of the DPP's office is taking place and this is not before time. It is high time this office was scrutinised from top to bottom and fully accountable procedures are put in place.
The justice system is loaded against victims. It beggars belief and is morally curious that an accused child abuser can successfully challenge, by way of judicial review in the High Court, a decision of the DPP to prosecute while at the same time no such review is permitted to the victim. How can this be fair and how can it be justified by the Taoiseach, and the Minister, who espouses support for a charter for victims of crime?
There is also a need to review the procedures which apply in appeal hearings, such as we witnessed in the appeal of the man convicted in the X case, when, on appeal, the sentence was reduced from 14 to four years. There was outrage about this but nothing has happened to change it. It is essential that the DPP should have a role in defending original court sentences at appeal hearings. There has been a procession of such cases over the past two years.
Kelly Fitzgerald died a horrible death from criminal neglect at the hands of her parents. Plea bargaining meant that her parents were charged with the lesser offence of wilful neglect rather than assault causing grievous bodily harm. In this case the victim is dead and who will champion her cause? Will it be the Minister for Health, the Minister for Justice or the North-Western Health Board? I do not see any of them doing so.
The health board was alerted that she was at risk. The Minister has not yet published the report of the group established to investigate the role of the health board in dealing with the family of Kelly Fitzgerald. Could her parents be released from jail and united with their remaining children without that crucial report being published? I think it is possible. The House should know what happened in the context of the health board's handling of the case. Nobody else will speak up for Kelly Fitzgerald because she is dead.
A spate of recent cases have had one common factor, which is the decision of the DPP not to prosecute. Nearly every newspaper report of cases of clerical abuse has as a final line that a file was sent to the DPP and a decision was made not to prosecute. A decision was taken not to prosecute the Cork GP who violated his women patients. The same happened in the Drogheda hospital case. There have been many cases where the DPP decided not to prosecute without giving any explanation and very lax procedures were put in place for the subsequent monitoring of these abusers.
Some victims are famous and some are faceless. Victims have fared badly in the justice system and there is a wholly unknown number whose cases were not prosecuted and for whom justice was not available. I do not see how the Minister can oppose this Bill. When she took up office, she committed herself to championing the victims of crime. Soon after she became Minister she met the association which was advocating a charter for victims. This is all window dressing if a Bill like this can be voted down.
Victims are a silent lobby but they are finding their voices by having the courage to say it to the press or to TDs that they are not going to put up with their unequal status in the criminal justice system. Perhaps the victims who have been wholly dissatisfied with the criminal justice system should march to the Dáil like farmers, vintners and others.
Last week the Government accepted a Private Members' Bill to enable child abusers who offend abroad to be brought to justice here. It is ironic that it accepted a Bill to protect children outside this State while accepting the systems and procedures which militate against people being brought to justice for the abuse of children in the State.
I join other Deputies who have congratulated Deputy O'Dea on introducing this Bill. As Members will be aware, the Government accepts that the Deputy acted from the best of motives in bringing forward his proposals, but because of serious defects in the Bill I regret that we must oppose it. When a Bill is not accepted the conclusion is drawn that the Minister lacks understanding of the motivation behind the Bill or lacks the will to take action. I have an obligation as Minister for Justice to ensure that all legislation I accept or put on the Statute Book stands the test of time. I am not infallible, however, and I cannot guarantee that some member of the public will not take legislation to court, but I strongly object to the inference that because I do not accept a Bill put down by the Opposition, I am lacking in compassion for the victims of crime.
Deputy O'Dea, who for a number of years was Minister of State at the Department of Justice, knows well that because of the way Opposition Bills are prepared they are often fraught with difficulties and not always the best way to get the kind of action needed. In his statement to the House last week the Minister of State, Deputy Currie, outlined in some detail the problems that arise in the context of this Bill. A number of these were also referred to by the Minister of State, Deputy Burton, last night. I do not propose to cover that ground again but I wish to make it clear that the Government is satisfied that, even if the Bill were substantially amended, it could not be accepted. That is because many of the provisions are unrealistic or unworkable in practical terms. I accept they have been put forward with the best motivation given that Deputy O'Dea is a lawyer, but nonetheless it is my responsibility to point out the flaws. However, I will take into account the points made when making my own proposals to deal with the issue.
I know Deputies share the real concern about the need to improve the position of victims of crime. We are all aware that this is an area which requires support. It has received special attention from legislators and others in recent years, including Deputy O'Dea's colleague. Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. I am sure I do not need to remind the House of the significant body of legislation that has been enacted in this area. The allocation of the Vote for my Department to the Irish Association for Victim Support has been increased from £18,000 in 1993 to £130,000 in 1995. I will introduce a charter for victims of crime in accordance with the Government's policy which will have greater effect than would this legislation.
I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate, particularly my colleagues on the Fianna Fáil benches. I also thank Deputy O'Donnell and her party for their support. The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, referred to a number of what he described as technical defects in the legislation. His central objection seemed to be that no sanction is written into the legislation. I gave considerable thought to the idea of whether sanction should be included. I concluded that it would be better to leave this thorny issue unresolved and, in the event that the Government accepted the Bill in principle, the wisdom of the Select Committee on Security and Legislation and Department of Justice officials could be brought to bear on that topic.
I concluded that a criminal sanction for non-compliance with the terms of the legislation on the part of the Garda would be inappropriate. I wrestled with the notion of whether a civil sanction would be appropriate and decided it would not. I am fortified in that by legal opinion, the bulk of which is that it is sufficient to put on a statutory basis rights such as these, and there is much precedent for that. In any event there are in-built sanctions in the legislation — for example, responsibilities to keep the victim informed devolve from the Garda and if the gardaí do not obey the law that would be a matter of internal Garda discipline. There is also the consideration that if that fact became known to the trial judge it might prejudice the trial. Consequently the Garda, who naturally wish to secure a conviction as a reward for the time and effort invested, would have a powerful incentive to obey such requirement.
The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, expressed concern about the use of the word "consulted" in section 2. I still believe that is the best word to use but I would be disposed to replace it with "informed" if the parliamentary draftsman believes it would be better. The Minister also referred to the word "all" in section 2. On reflection, that may be a little inflexible and could be replaced with a word such as "relevant". These are not serious objections.
The second central objection advanced by Deputy Currie relates to section 3. He said that if the victim was away and the information could not be communicated to him, the prosecution might be prejudiced. The gardaí would know where the victim is because they would have received a written request for the information, which would obviously contain an address. The Garda, having received that request, could call to, `phone or fax the victim.
If he cannot be contacted in that way the Garda could post the information to the victim's address. If the victim absents himself or does not look at the information, that is not a matter for the Garda; it would have fulfilled its obligation. Such an objection is pathetic. The Minister of State, Deputy Burton, asked last night if it would be realistic to expect a victim to write to the Garda enumerating all the things to which they are entitled under section 3. The Garda could prepare a standard application form which would enumerate these matters and ask the victim to tick off whichever is relevant.
The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, gave the game away when he said that under the Garda's code of practice a victim is contacted regularly in the course of an investigation to be reassured on progress and informed about key information. That is a cynical, misleading statement which unmasks the Government's attitude of victims of crime. I showed that statement to a number of crime victims, gardaí, some of whom are of senior rank, and journalists who write about crime — that is a matter about which the Minister will hear more in the future — and they genuinely believed it was a bad joke. They could not believe that such a misleading statement could be advanced as an alibi for inaction on such a serious matter. Does the Minister or the Ministers of State expect us to believe that on every occasion a crime is committed the gardaí phone and write to the victim to keep them informed of progress? If the Minister does not believe that, as she indicated, why did she send the Minister of State into the House to make such a statement?
I am constantly approached by people who meet the perpetrators of crime, who have come out of prison after serving only a fraction of their sentence. If there is a code of practice whereby these people are informed of progress, there is no need for that provision. It must be a figment of their imagination or they must be a figment of my imagination.
The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Currie, also expressed concern about the provision for free legal advice. He said I did not spell out properly how it would apply. My intention was that it would apply through the law centres. People could attend the law centres to get advice and that could be covered by a one line amendment to the Bill. That is not a serious objection.
He also objected to the provisions on counselling. He said I did not spell them out and I did not give the Government an indication of how I wanted it done. I wrote the Bill for the Government; I am hardly expected to write the regulations as well. It is not a serious objection to the Bill that a member of the Opposition did not write the regulations. The Government has an army of advisers, civil servants, parliamentary draftsmen and spin doctors to provide that sort of thing for them.
The Deputy would know that, having been there himself.
The Government has failed to respond to my call to compensate the victims of crime for pain and suffering. The only response was to point toA Government of Renewal which promised to “review” procedures for compensation of victims. A year has passed since that commitment was made and more than 100,000 reported indictable offences have been committed in that period. What about the victims of those crimes? What about the 300 or 400 people who will be victims of indictable crime today, tomorrow and every other day? The Government tells us the review is ongoing. However, the hundreds of thousands of citizens, with whose protection the Government is charged, who become victims in the meantime are being abandoned to their fate.
The Government condemned my proposal for what they called "open-ended counselling" for the victims of crime. I did not intend the counselling to be open-ended and that is not specified in the Bill. It would be confined to the victims of crime involving violence or a threat of violence as a result of which the victim has suffered either mental or physical injury.
I do not like to personalise debates in this House, but surely those who argue that ideology and "isms" have become irrelevant in politics are proved right when the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Burton, who has posed and prospered as a member of the so-called left wing of the Labour Party, quibbles in the Dáil about spending the small amount of money required to help a victim of vicious crime to be rehabilitated, particularly when that victim is often someone who was abused as a child and whose life has been shattered and destroyed as a result. It is equally ironic that this so-called woman of the left,La Passionaria of the Labour Party, could also refuse to accept a proposal to give these unfortunate victims of child sexual abuse the same, not extra, rights when seeking civil damages as someone who fell into a pothole or was involved in a traffic accident or an industrial accident several years ago.
That is not fair.
The more the Government speaks in this debate the more transparent are the excuses being offered and the more bogus the alibis.
As a lawyer, the Deputy should know they are valid points.
Is it in order to interrupt me? I allowed the Minister to speak without interruption.
The Deputy did tonight, but he does not always do so.
Deputy O'Dea, without interruption.
The Minister's hollow laughter is no answer to the points I am making. A guilty conscience is the mother of invention.
I do not have a guilty conscience. The Deputy was in the Department of Justice for a number of years, so why did he not put this Bill into law?
Let us hear the Deputy in possession without further interruption.
The Minister must listen now. I will ask for an extention of time and I will stay here as long as I like while the Minister keeps interrupting me.
The Deputy will not get it.
It is a sure sign the Minister has no answers.
I have many answers.
The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Currie, told us that new rights for the victims of sexual abuse were "being considered". The Minister of State, Deputy Burton, was more definitive and forthright as befits a person with her ideology. She told us that such rights were being "carefully considered". She also told us that the compensation scheme for victims of crime was "being reviewed". The Minister, Deputy Currie, told us that the timescale to allow victims to claim compensation was "being examined". The Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, in response to a recent parliamentary question stated that this matter was receiving "deep thought".
It is clear that the victims of crime do not occupy a high position, if indeed they occupy any position at all on the Government's scale of priorities. We are, however, wiser in one respect as a result of this debate and I thank the Minister for clarifying this point. The Government has confirmed that all it will be offering the victims of crime is a charter.
That is what they want.
There are charters for farmers, taxpayers, hospital patients, flat dwellers, etc. One could put music to that. We have as many charters as there are legendary blarney stones and they are about half as useful.
The Deputy has not spoken to the victims. Has he met them?
All legal opinion is to the effect that victims' rights must be placed on a statutory basis in order to obtain proper effect. When Marie Antoinette was informed of the plight of the starving peasants of France on the eve of the revolution, so immune was she to their condition that she uttered the immortal words, "let them eat cake". The Government is equally immune to the plight of crime victims. Its attitude to crime victims is that they do not need or deserve statutory rights so we will not give them statutory rights. Let them make do with a charter.
That is what they are looking for.
Let them eat cake. During the recent divorce referendum the Government, including Deputy Eric Byrne's party, called on the people to show sympathy for those whose marriages had broken down and rightly so. However, this debate has shown that the Government, which demanded sympathy from the people, is not prepared to show sympathy to those whose bones, bodies and lives are broken because they have become the innocent victims of the avalanche of crime which this Government has failed to contain. For too long the victims of crime have been pushed to the margins and used, abused and then ignored. They are now demanding some minimal basic rights.
The Deputy was in Government for seven years.
The response from the rainbow warriors, as this debate has shown, has consisted of a cynical minuet of hypocrisy, evasion, misrepresentation and transparent and pathetic excuses for inaction. The victims have been promised that their case will be "considered"——
If the Deputy had solved the problem when he was in Government, we would not have to deal with it now.
——"carefully considered", "reviewed", "examined" and subjected to "deep thought". The Government's excuses for inaction are transparent for their lack of concern.
The Deputy did nothing during the three years he was in the Department of Justice.
Let us not have this continuous interruption as it is more disorderly.
In less than 18 months, which is a short time in the political life span of any country, the victims of crime will appear, albeit briefly, in a different role. They will be part of the jury which will bring in the electoral verdict on the Government's performance. Can anyone doubt the verdict of the victims of crime?
They were victims when the Deputy was in Government.
We will call a vote and Deputy Eric Byrne will vote against victims despite his hollow concern, particularly in Opposition.
That is outrageous.
The bells will toll to summon Deputies to the House.
The Deputy has one minute left. Please allow him to conclude without interruption.
In 18 months or less bells will again toll for the Government, particularly for the parties of the left, who tonight will turn their backs on the victims of crime and conceal their contempt and lack of concern for victims behind a tangled web of bogus and shoddy excuses and alibis.
The Deputy is a speech writer. I have never heard such poetic verse.
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