On many occasions during the past 18 months I have asserted that the Government has no criminal justice policy. Today I am in a position not alone to assert but to prove that is so. After 18 months of prevarication, indecision and ideological paralysis, the Government has abandoned the pretence of having a policy and is thrashing around looking for proposals to implement. Measures that were previously deemed unacceptable are now Government policy. I welcome those Government U-turns and the fact that it has belatedly moved to implement a series of Fianna Fáil policies, but I condemn utterly the months of concerted Government effort which went into repeatedly blocking necessary legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil. I condemn the lack of vision and foresight which repeatedly brought Government Deputies into the lobbies to vote down the measures they now deem necessary.
Who in this Government of accountability will accept responsibility for blocking legislation which it now accepts needs to be enacted in law? Who is accountable? Where does the buck stop? Who in the Government is responsible for the non-development and non-implementation of criminal justice policy?
Last year I published and introduced the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution (No. 1) Bill, which was designed to give judges power to refuse bail to a person if they were satisfied there was a probability that the person would commit a category of offence which is also an indictable offence. The Government voted down the Bill and denied the people the right to vote on that issue. Every day since that Bill was defeated, the courts have been compelled to release on bail heroin addicts whose addiction costs them upwards of £200 per day. Those addictions can be fed only through theft, violence and robbery. The Government took a conscious decision to vote down the Fianna Fáil Bill, but who will take responsibility for the carnage which those addicts have since caused on our streets? Will the politicians, who last Friday night accepted for the first time the need for a constitutional amendment, accept responsibility?
What I find particularly shabby about the Government's decision to hold a bail referendum is its pretence that the issue has just arisen. It is an issue which it opposed resolutely. When it was finally brought, kicking and screaming by a tide of public outrage, to the realisation that a referendum was necessary, it had not even taken the preliminary preparatory step of drafting the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment. The Taoiseach, fumbling for clarity, was reduced to announcing that the referendum would seek to deny bail where there was a danger of reoffending. That inarticulate and woolly expression of the carefully drafted Fianna Fáil proposal demonstrates the lack of consideration by the Government of the proposal.
The Taoiseach now asserts as Government policy the proposal he voted against in this House. He is flanked by the Minister for Justice who denigrated the proposal and said it could not be done. She was right: it could not be done because neither she nor the other members of the Government had the political will to do it. They are now compelled to accept that what they said could not be done can be done. There will be a referendum which the Government prevented last year.
In 1995 I introduced on behalf of my party the Criminal Justice (Bail) Bill which was designed to introduce a number of sensible measures within the confines of existing constitutional parameters. Among other measures, it sought to make provision for the forfeiture of bail moneys where an offence is committed on bail. The Minister for Justice, reciting her customary mantra, declared it could not be done and that there were constitutional difficulties. Where have we heard that recently? Today that proposal is Government policy. Who will accept responsibility for this reversal of policy? Who will accept responsibility for incorrectly stating this could not be done? The Government has pursued a policy of studied inactivity in regard to crime. Belatedly it has come to the realisation that legislative action is needed, but it continues to send out inherently contradictory messages.
I listened to the Taoiseach recently speak publicly of the need for tougher sentences in drug distribution cases. Within hours of this policy assertion, the Minister for Justice opposed a Fianna Fáil amendment to the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Bill, which would have had the effect of imposing a minimum sentence of ten years' imprisonment for any person found in possession of controlled drugs with a minimum street value of £10,000. Who are they trying to fool? I am not fooled, nor is the public. Issuing statements calling for tough sentences achieves nothing. Voting such measures into law is helpful, but the Government resolutely refuses to do so. There is no point in the Taoiseach calling for heavy sentences if the Minister for Justice opposes those measures when they are proposed in the Oireachtas. This is symptomatic of the disarray which exists at Government level. There is no policy, only confusion.
In the past 18 months I introduced nine separate criminal justice Private Members' Bills. The Sexual Offences (Jurisdiction) Bill was accepted by the Minister and the principal sections of the Criminal Law (Incest Proceedings) Act, 1995, were adopted from our Bill on the same topic, but every other measure was voted down. It is ironic to hear of a revolt by Labour backbenchers against the Government's inactivity on the issue of crime. Do they not realise that they, by their votes, prevented those measures from becoming law? Do they think their constituents do not realise they voted against holding a referendum on bail, that their leadership probably prevented it, that they voted against toughening bail laws, imposing a minimum ten year sentence on drug dealers found in possession of drugs with a street value of £10,000 or more and provisions which would provide trials within 90 days for serious criminal offences? That is their record and it is also the sorry record of Democratic Left. That is what the electorate will be asked to judge them on.
Less than two weeks ago I asked the Minister for Justice whether she intended to establish a special task force to combat drug trafficking. The Minister, Deputy Currie, informed me that it was not intended to establish such an agency. Why then, less than a fortnight later, is this measure the cornerstone of Government policy? Who will be made accountable for the failure to establish a task force which is now accepted by the Government as necessary? Those questions need to be answered.
We are dealing with a Government that not only failed to introduce necessary legislation and take necessary initiatives but that voted down legislation which is now acknowledged to be necessary, a Government that refused to take initiatives which are now acknowledged to be vital. The Government has acknowledged that its crime programme has been deficient, that in the past it has taken incorrect decisions on crime policy, but what concerns me most is that it appears set to repeat the policy of aloof indifference which brought about its inadequate response in the first place.
Despite having power to do so, the Government has refused to appoint the extra judges which the Oireachtas authorised it to pass in the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995. The appointment of extra judges is the only way to bring an end to the unacceptable delays in our courts, and only the Government can appoint those judges, but to date, with a few notable exceptions, it has refused to do so. At a time when delays in the Central Criminal Court often exceed two years, the Government refuses to arrange sittings of the court throughout the legal vacation. A fortnight in late September is an inadequate response to a crime crisis.
If the Government wants to know the direction in which it must travel it should examine the Private Members' Bills published by Fianna Fáil, enact the various measures it voted down since taking office and restore public confidence in its ability to adequately tackle the crime problem, but it should start by announcing who is accountable for its past failures. Should the Minister for Justice take all the blame or should it rightly be shared between her and the Leaders of the Labour Party and Democratic Left? The public knows the answer to that question and there is no need for me to add anything.