I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
For some time there has been a clear call from many quarters to ensure that the forces of the State were better coordinated so as to combat crime. The Labour Party, in a recently published policy document on combating the drugs and crime issue, proposed the establishment of a special agency with specific powers to take decisive actions against the professional criminals and the drug barons. The three parties in Government, Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left, separately and collectively, are fully in favour of this measure.
I am aware that other parties and some Independent Deputies are also in support of measures along these lines being implemented by the Oireachtas. For too long, many people, whose families or community were ravaged by the havoc caused by drug abuse, perceived that known or suspected criminals enjoyed a lifestyle which was not based on any real job or business. They, and their own families appeared to enjoy the rich proceeds of crime and drug dealing with apparent impunity from the law. They appeared to be untouchable. This Bill will end that.
From now on, the families, friends and partners of criminals will not be able to hide behind their own names while at the same time enjoying the proceeds, the property, the assets and the money which the criminals obtain illegally. All such assets will be capable of confiscation, if they can be proven to be connected, directly or indirectly, to criminal activity. This new measure will confront, defeat and impoverish the criminal drug barons.
The purpose of this Bill is to set up on a statutory basis the special unit to target criminal assets which the Government announced on 2 July 1996. The unit will be known as the Criminal Assets Bureau. It will be headed by a Garda Chief Superintendent and its objective will be to track and target the assets of criminals or suspected criminals. As Deputies will see, the bureau will comprise Garda, Revenue and Social Welfare officials working as a team in pursuit of criminal assets and the identification, seizure, or taxation of those assets as appropriate.
The bureau is being set up following a detailed review by a special working group consisting of officials from the Departments of Justice, Finance, Social Welfare, the Revenue Commissioners and senior Garda officers. I wish to express the Government's appreciation for the speed and efficiency of that group of officials in clearing the way and putting in place the necessary arrangements to allow it proceed with the establishment of this bureau, and to all concerned in the Revenue and in the Attorney General's office for the expeditious drafting of the legislation.
The working group recommended that pending the enactment of a Bill, the bureau should commence operations as soon as possible and that the head of the unit should be appointed without delay. The Bill dealing with the disclosure and exchange of information between Revenue, Garda and Social Welfare officials, which the House has agreed to pass today, will enable the team of officials to become operational without waiting for the passage of this Bill. The two Bills can be viewed together as important parts of the overall package.
The Government is anxious that the legal obstacles to the co-operation between existing agencies should be immediately removed so that the operational framework of the bureau should be put in place now. All three agencies are committed to the success of the bureau and to a concerted effort to deliver on the Government's anti-crime measures. There has been no lack of commitment in the past but the difficulties which have arisen from different agencies tackling the problem within their own functional remit and in accordance with existing legislation have become apparent.
The criminal activities of major criminals are multi-faceted and our response to these require new ways of directing the resources of the State and new structures through which the dedicated and determined efforts of the Garda, Revenue and Department of Social Welfare can be channelled most effectively. The challenge of finding new structures for more effective team working between Departments and agencies is a broader issue which is being tackled as part of the Strategic Management Initiative. We have a model here which is capable of being replicated where a concerted response is required from the State.
The setting up of a statutory bureau is a clear manifestation of the Government's determination to defeat the crime bosses. The establishment of the bureau, as I have said, is entirely in accordance with the SMI approach of ensuring effective and efficient management by having a clear statutory delineation of responsibility and accountability. This is especially so when dealing with cross-departmental issues where various statutory powers are being exercised. The essence of the bureau is that each of the three agencies will bring their own powers and expertise to the bureau and, by means of section 8 of the Bill, will exercise these powers in a mutually supportive and concerned manner.
The Government wants to give the Houses a full opportunity to discuss and debate this important initiative and to explore fully how best this statutory bureau can be made most effective in discharging its role. In the meantime, the bureau can go ahead on an operational basis. Indeed, the experience gained from the bureau's operation on the ground may be help inform and shape the final statutory provisions that the Houses will pass. It is the Government's intention that Committee Stage be taken as soon as possible by the relevant committee and passed by both Houses early in the new session.
Before going into details on the sections, it will be helpful to the House if I sketch out the operational arrangements for the bureau as recommended by the working group. The bureau will be an operational body of 30 staff or more made up of gardaí and expert civil servants from the Revenue Commissioners, including the Customs and Excise Service, and the Department of Social Welfare and any other specialists recruited as necessary. The chief bureau officer will be a Garda Chief Superintendent who will be appointed and take up duty in the near future. He will proceed to organise the personnel and other resources to enable the bureau to become a reality in the next few weeks. The management of the personnel, the determination of priorities, co-ordination activities and direction of operations will be the responsibility of the chief of the bureau. Arrangements will be put in place to secure the safety and security of the bureau and its personnel.
There will also be a legal officer appointed to the bureau who will report directly to the chief bureau officer. The legal officer will be responsible for providing legal expertise to the bureau. The appointee's role will be to participate fully in the work of the bureau in formulating strategies not just to ensure that the criminal assets are successfully tracked and targeted but, equally importantly, to process matters for prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions so that legal action to deprive the persons in question of the criminal assets, or to deny them the benefit of these assets, will produce the results desired.
The legal officer will therefore have a pro-active and central role, working in conjunction with, and reporting directly to, the chief of the bureau. The legal officer will also perform such other functions as decided by the chief bureau officer from time to time. The Government has in mind the appointment of a particular individual who has the expertise, the ability and the dedication to ensure the bureau meets with success in its endeavours.
The Garda, Revenue and Social Welfare personnel will bring to the bureau their own powers under the relevant criminal, taxes and social welfare legislation. The assignment of non-Garda staff to the bureau will be on a voluntary basis.
I will give a brief resumé of the principal content of particular sections. Sections 1, 2 and 3 deal with the interpretation of the Bill and provide for the statutory establishment of the bureau. Section 4 sets out the objectives of the bureau which are: to identify the assets of persons which derive or are suspected to derive directly or indirectly, from criminal activity, to take whatever action is necessary under the law to deprive criminals or suspected criminals of their assets or to deny them, in whole or in part, the benefit of those assets; and to carry out investigations and the preparatory work for legal proceedings in pursuit of the above objectives.
The mandate of the bureau will be pro-active and interventionist. Under the functions assigned to it by section 5 the remit of the bureau involves confiscating, freezing or seizing criminal assets, ensuring that criminal proceeds are subjected to tax and investigating and determining claims for benefit or assistance under the Social Welfare Acts by criminals or suspected criminals. Section 5 also makes it clear that nothing in the Act will interfere with the powers and duties of the Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners or the Minister for Social Welfare. Thus the Garda, Revenue Commissioners and Social Welfare officials in the bureau will retain their ordinary powers and responsibilities. Being a member of the bureau will not therefore prevent a Garda officer from exercising his general law enforcement powers.
Section 6 allows the Minister for Justice, by order after consultation with the Minister for Finance, to confer such additional functions on the bureau as the Minister sees fit. It is important to have this power to ensure that the bureau can respond to new situations or circumstances that may emerge in the conduct of its operations. Given the nature of the enemy to society with which we are dealing, we should equip ourselves with the necessary powers to respond speedily and flexibly.
Section 7 provides for the appointment of the chief of the bureau, to be known as the chief bureau officer. The chief officer will be appointed by the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána from amongst the officers of the Garda of the rank of chief superintendent. The chief of the bureau will carry on, manage and control the administration and business of the bureau. Provision is also made for an acting chief to be appointed by the Commissioner in the event of the illness or absence of the chief officer.
Section 8 provides for the powers and duties of the officers of the Garda, Revenue and Social Welfare who will be the bureau officers. Each will have their own powers as a Garda, Revenue or Social Welfare officer. The powers will be exercised in the name of the bureau under the direction of the chief bureau officer. Section 8 enables the bureau officers to assist each other and, where necessary for the purposes of such assistance, to share powers as appropriate when co-operating in this manner. Provision is made to ensure that information, documents or material obtained by officers or officers assisting each other may be admitted in evidence. The bureau officers will be able to share information with each other and to disclose this information or material to their "parent" authorities. It is important for the effectiveness of the bureau to maintain these links especially in the case of the Garda, as such information on the activities of criminals or suspected criminals will be of material use to the Garda authorities generally in discharging their responsibilities for combating crime.
Section 9 provides for the appointment of other staff of the bureau and for the appointment of the legal officer, to whom I referred earlier. Section 10 provides for anonymity for bureau officers when, for example, making tax assessments, visiting premises or residences, conducting investigations, and giving evidence in court and appeal proceedings.
Section 11 makes it an offence to delay, obstruct, impede, interfere with or resist a bureau officer in the exercise or performance of his or her powers or duties. Section 12 makes it an offences to threaten or menace a bureau officer or member of staff or other families. Section 13 makes it an offences to commit an assault. Substantial penalties are provided for in the case of all these offences.
Section 14 sets out the arrangements for the transfer of staff to the bureau and the application of compensation arrangements under the Garda Síochána compensation schemes.
Section 15 authorises the Minister for Justice to provide the bureau with its own budget. It will be important to enable the bureau to be resourced to whatever level is necessary to discharge its functions. Section 16 provides for all tax collected by virtue of the bureau's operation to be paid to the account of the Revenue Commissioners and accounted for to the Collector-General. There are already provisions in the other relevant legislation as regards the disposal of the funds that may arise from other actions, such as confiscation, that may be taken by the bureau.
Section 17 requires the bureau to provide a report each year to the Commissioner and the Minister for Justice on its activities and for this to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Justice may also require the bureau to furnish information at other times on the general operations of the bureau.
Section 18 is the usual standard expenses clause in all Bills and section 19 recites the short title of the Bill.
This Bill is a forceful measure which will deliver a coherent and focused response to organised crime. We owe it to the memory of the late Veronica Guerin to make sure the Bill succeeds in its objectives and defeats the drug barons. I am sure the House will want to go into some details on the provisions of the Bill on Committee Stage. I will welcome a comprehensive and detailed Committee Stage debate drawing on expertise, both professional and political at constituency level. The Government's objective is to ensure that not only will a statutory established bureau operate as quickly as possible but that it is one which will be properly equipped legally to do the task we all wish it well in implementing. I commend the Bill to the House.