Private Members' Business. - Punishment of Aggravated Robbery Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It gives me great pleasure to contribute to this debate and I congratulate our spokesman, Deputy O'Donoghue, for bringing forward this measured response to a difficulty that has prevailed for some time. It is regrettable that the Government waits for this side of the House to produce legislation before it is prepared to move.

The biggest concern of the community is crime. Under that large heading there are many but drug-related crime is probably the biggest worry of all. Associated with drug related crime are the horrible syringe attacks on people who are vulnerable in the community or the workplace. A number of cases have made me shudder and I have communicated with the Minister for Justice about one sad, emotional case which caused a difficult and traumatic time for a family. It involved a garda attacked with a syringe by a prisoner whom he was escorting to court. Only when these facts are brought to our attention do we realise the impact on the victim's spouse, dependent family and wider family as well as the psychological effect on the individual. No one will deny it has a huge traumatic effect. Public servants or people working in a community may have something desired by a person wielding a syringe and will be attacked for it.

A number of issues have been brought to our attention. I received a letter from the National Taxi Drivers' Union of Ireland, which reads:

The members of the National Taxi Drivers' Union of Ireland have requested me to write to you regarding the proposed debate on the syringe Bill.

As you are probably aware the number of taxi drivers who have been attacked with syringes over the last year has increased dramatically, and to date it is still a great problem for taxi drivers and the general public.

I would therefore ask your party to consider making attacks of this nature and similar attacks on taxi drivers, but drivers, shop keepers, etc. to be a charge of attempted murder or a minimum of five years to life in prison.

Enclosed with the letter were newspaper cuttings with which, regrettably, we are all too familiar. They concern horrible attacks on people such as taxi drivers who work anti-social hours. Ireland has a friendly taxi service — the cars are open without glass screens between the driver and the passenger. Taxi drivers say they will not be able to provide a service at certain times when they would be vulnerable to attack or will have to take measures which most of us would prefer they would not take, such as introducing screens. The union sent my party this message and undoubtedly has relayed it to other parties in the House. Its members want something done now and are not prepared to wait any longer. The letter refers to bus drivers, shop keepers and others who are vulnerable to attack from people who are prepared to disregard their unconstitutional rights.

It is important that this House be seen to respond in a measured fashion. No one would object to the content of Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill and the points he made when introducing it are admirable. The Bill provides for a five year minimum sentence for a first offence, and that is acceptable. For additional and subsequent offences, there should be higher sentences — seven years for a second offence, etc.

Last week I asked the Taoiseach to give Government time to this Bill, otherwise we would have to move it in Private Member's time but he refused. We simply ask the Government to respond to one of the greatest scourges in the community, attacks on people providing worthwhile services. Not long ago I met a person who had been attacked with a syringe; he worked for a charitable organisation and would have been known to carry a certain amount of cash. He, his family and the other charitable volunteers all went through great trauma. There were medical costs and the psychological impact on the family were appalling.

We as legislators should be seen to draft the appropriate legislation to deal with issues which warrant focus and attention. In the past the Minister accepted a number of worthwhile Bills but, unfortunately, we have been put through a charade. The Bills have been sent to the standing committees and while they were being considered the Government published its own legislation. The issue of syringe attacks can be addressed by way of emergency or immediate legislation.

Not by this legislation, it will be covered in my Bill.

Perhaps not, but I ask the Minister to respond to what is required in our community and address syringe attacks. I ask the Minister as I asked the Taoiseach to put down a marker and introduce emergency legislation. Can it be introduced and how long will it take?

The Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997, was posted to all Deputies today.

I have not yet received it. Will the Minister advise when legislation will be enacted to address the escalation of the scourge of syringe attacks?

I wish to share my time with Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, Deputy Upton and Deputy Eric Byrne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have been a Member of this House for only a short time but it annoys me to see the Opposition produce a Bill on every occasion the Government signals its intention to introduce legislation. Where was Fianna Fáil for the last seven years? Effectively, there had been no Minister for Justice prior to the Minister taking office. She has tackled every problem presented to her in a comprehensive manner and introduced eight Bills in 1996. By contrast, when Fianna Fáil was last in Government only four Bills were introduced by the then Minister for Justice.

The Minister was heavily criticised for not doing enough to address law and order. It was, therefore, heartening for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to acknowledge that something was at last happening in this area. It complimented the Minister.

To threaten people with syringes is a serious offence, which will be addressed under the provisions of the Bill published today. Anybody who read the national newspapers knew of its imminent publication. Fianna Fáil has introduced its own legislation in an attempt to show up what it claims to be the inaction of the Government.

The Minister has acted and I congratulate her on the way she addressed the many problems she inherited from previous Governments. The public accepts that something has been done to deal with the drug barons and others who have attacked the State.

It will be a long time before Fianna Fáil returns to power because the public now sees what good Government is about. It is concerned with introducing legislation to tackle the problems that must be dealt with. Hitherto, nobody was dealing with criminals because of the absence of the necessary legislation.

The Minister will be seen as the most reforming Minister for Justice because she took on an overburdened system, reformed the courts and the criminal justice system and oversaw a bail referendum. The legislation published today continues her record.

Deputy Callely referred to a charade. However, the charade is Fianna Fáil because the Bill it has presented to the House is flawed. It does not cover many of the issues that need to be tackled if the problem of syringe attacks, which are increasing on a daily basis in Dublin, is to be addressed.

By contrast, the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997, should be enacted because it covers issues which Fianna Fáil wants the Government to address but which are not covered by its Bill. It is mainly restricted to attacks involving robbery and does not cover other attacks on gardaí and prison officers. It deals only with the use of syringes and does not deal, for example, with the threat presented by a container of blood. It does not deal with wounding with a syringe, contaminated or otherwise, or with putting blood, contaminated or otherwise, on a person. The putting of contaminated blood on a person can be compared with attempted murder. Finally, the Bill does not provide against persons abandoning syringes in places like Garda cars and coffee shops, thus creating a danger for others.

The Minister could not accept the Bill in this state. Nevertheless, it is important that we address this issue. The number of syringe attacks in my constituency has increased from less than one per day in 1995 to more than three per day last year. This is linked to the drugs problem, an international problem which the Government is tackling by putting increasingly effective measures in place. However, drug addicts have seen that using a syringe has a powerful impact on their victims. In addition, sentencing was not in place and was unfortunately not taken as seriously under the justice system as it needed to be. The Government's Bill takes it seriously and this will make a difference.

It is important that a victim impact statement should be made mandatory for all cases before the courts. Assault by a blood filled syringe is as traumatic as being robbed at gunpoint. The unbelievable trauma generated by some of these attacks has caused people to sell businesses and has left many victims in need of counselling. I welcome the provision for severe penalties in the Government's Bill. It sends the right message to criminals but I urge the courts when sentencing to assess the impact of the syringe attack on the victim.

There is a need for this legislation. As a female Deputy I especially welcome the provisions on stalking. The Minister has addressed this problem speedily. She has provided a way in which women can now report such offences. They will not be told by the gardaí that there is nothing they can do on the basis that it would appear an offence has not been committed. Many women have been intimidated and terrorised by men who have behaved in this extraordinary and outrageous way. The Bill will go a long way towards reassuring women and I congratulate the Minister on its publication.

The Bill deals with stalking and syringe attacks. It replaces offences which lie at the core of the criminal law with provisions more responsive to modern needs. The Fianna Fáil Bill is not comprehensive and does not cover many of the issues involved. It should not be supported by the House. By contrast, the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997, which has been worked on over many months, shows the care with which it has been approached. It is not a hasty measure introduced for political reasons. It is a well thought out measure that has gone through a long process of referral to the Attorney General and all the other mechanisms to emerge in a state worthy of being passed. I congratulate the Minister on her initiative and the quality of the non-fatal offences against the person Bill.

I join Deputy Frances Fitzgerald in welcoming the initiative which the Minister for Justice has taken in the Bill published today. The Bill before the House is another of those Bills from Deputy O'Donoghue published just ahead of the Minister's announcement. It is part of a pattern of rapid Bill production in which the Deputy specialises. It is yet another of those political responses based on the principle of getting there first, whether it is a good news item to be announced in the constituency or the discovery of a problem that needs to be rectified. In other words, it is the politics of one upmanship.

Crime is too serious for this type of response. The response here is badly thought out legislation which would give rise to predictable problems subsequent to being enacted. The Minister has pointed out many of the limitations of the Bill and I do not intend to repeat them. The main reason I decided to speak on the Bill is that last night Deputy O'Donoghue sought to portray my party — and referred to me — as being soft on crime. That is nonsense. He seeks to insinuate that somehow the Labour Party is not vigorous in terms of its opposition to crime. I reject that as outrageous and ridiculous nonsense.

Many of the victims of crime are constituents of mine. It would be outrageous, to the point of being stupid, if I and other Deputies who represent the constituency were anything other than tough and absolutely vigorous in confronting crime. We have to deal with that problem day in day out. We have more experience of confronting the problems of crime — the awful affliction that drugs have visited on the city of Dublin — than Deputy O'Donoghue has in the pastoral lowlands of County Kerry where the crime level is much lower than in the city of Dublin.

The Deputy's leader comes from that area.

I find it hard to take when I hear Deputy O'Donoghue moralising about how my party should behave in regard to crime.

The Labour Party is the great moraliser.

It is nonsensical, outrageous and totally removed from the realities on the ground which we have to deal with. It is totally removed from the awful difficulties the victims of crime have to face and that we have to encounter every day in our constituency. I reject what Deputy O'Donoghue has said in relation to this problem and what he is trying to insinuate in regard to crime. The Minister has a tremendous achievement in regard to the amount of legislation she has put through the House. That achievement comes from collective decisions in the Cabinet which have been supported by my party.

Absolutely, it could not happen otherwise.

We all believe you.

This has been achieved by the Minister in the face of opportunistic and outrageous attacks from the other side of the House which have little to do with crime and much to do with the politics of availing of the cheap opportunity. The reality is that an enormous amount of comprehensive legislation has been pushed through the House by the Minister. This is in sharp contrast to what was achieved by the last Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice who was also in partnership with the Labour Party. Four Bills were pushed through in that period which was an identical length of time to the period this Minister has held office.

Under this Minister, 13 Bills have been pushed through, five or six are before the Houses and some more in preparation, not to mention the reformation in the courts and the provision of extra prison spaces. This comes about because my party in partnership with Fine Gael and Democratic Left has made that possible at the Cabinet. It is nauseating to listen to Deputy O'Donoghue who produced another of his instant Bills which have much the same value as instant soup. The Deputy specialises in instant Bills. What type of paralysis gripped Deputy O'Donoghue as an important on-the-way-up backbencher when his party was in Government and what was wrong with his Bill writing capacities in those days? Why did he not produce them? In that time only four Bills were enacted, less than 20 per cent of what the Minister has achieved in her term of office.

I wish to make one or two important points as to where we might go from here. It is important to lay down some moral imperatives in relation to crime and draw clear distinctions between what is right and wrong. Yesterday I read with a great deal of satisfaction the column by John Waters in The Irish Times in which he referred to those concepts. It was refreshing to find they are coming back into the public domain and are being spoken about in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable. It is important that we concentrate on that and lay a moral basis for the outlawing and prevention of crime.

In addition to the law and order measures which have been introduced we need to go much further particularly in the area of estate management by local authorities. It is important that a big effort is made in this area. It is even more important when resources are provided for areas of special deprivation that they are managed well. If not we will end up throwing good money after bad, which would be a pity, and undermine the principles involved in tackling this problem.

I ask the Minister to consider funding some type of research institute in the area of criminology. We have an unlimited supply of amateur criminologists, individuals who holds forth with a tremendous degree of vigour and conviction and do not know what they are talking about. It is about time we laid the foundations to tackle the problem of crime in a systematic and scientific manner. We should collect the data, analyse it and draw conclusions that can be learned from the experience. That is how it is done in other countries. It is time we made that investment and the cost would be relatively cheap. A series of worthwhile articles has been written by Dr. Ian O'Donnell in which he suggests the cost of keeping as few as ten prisoners for a year in prison would fund such an institute. That investment would be worthwhile. That type of systematic approach has paid huge dividends in other areas such as the electronics industry, the food and agriculture industries, the environment and in medicine. I appeal to the Minister to give consideration to my suggestion.

Unlike Deputy Upton I would not get upset about the ridiculous positions adopted by Fianna Fáil in Opposition. I am looking at the Leader of the largest party in the State, Deputy Bertie Ahern, who has arrived for this debate and I have to say Fianna Fáil is an absolute disgrace. During its time in office it had no policy and did nothing about the drugs epidemic afflicting the city. I smile when I recall vividly the time he left the House with his press officer and accompanying photographers to meet people in Molesworth Street who were campaigning for and demanding drug treatment services and how he was happy to support them on that occasion.

I also met them yesterday.

Yet when the Eastern Health Board attempted to set up treatment services in my constituency the most vocal opponent was Deputy Ahern's colleague, the Fianna Fáil spokesman on Justice in the Upper House.

The Government has done more during its two years in office to deal with the drug epidemic in Dublin city than Fianna Fáil ever did. When the problem arose in the mid-1980s Deputy Ahern and others attended public meetings. It is a pity Fianna Fáil learned nothing from the people working on the ground at that time. The then Minister, John O'Connell, forced the Eastern Health Board to open the doors of the Baggot Street clinic to all drug addicts and we are still paying the price.

Fianna Fáil complains that we are robbing its ideas. Like Deputy Upton, I would like to know where these ideas were when it was in Government. It did not set up the drugs task force, community drug teams or the Criminal Assets Bureau or introduce legislation dealing with the seizure of criminal assets or the bail laws. It is difficult to listen to Deputy O'Donoghue attacking the Government and Minister when his party did nothing in office. His childish attempts to label the left wing parties as being soft on crime does not upset me as I would expect nothing else from him. When we go before the electorate in June——

——I will be happy to stand over the record of this Government.

One can only imagine the terror felt by innocent people who are robbed by people brandishing syringes. Today's newspapers report on three such cases of robbery. In the first case a German tourist was robbed of £55 at Whitechurch Cathedral in my constituency. The second robbery took place on Bunting Road, Walkinstown, which is also in my constituency. In this case an individual with a syringe boarded a bus and robbed one of the passengers of £20. In a third case two women robbed a person outside the National Irish Bank, whose ATM I often use, on the South Circular Road.

The Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left Deputies who represent the Dublin South Central constituency know the views of the electorate. We inform Ministers about what is happening and urge them to introduce legislation to address the problems. I do not attack the Minister but encourage her to move in a certain direction. She has moved in the right direction on this occasion and I congratulate her on introducing legislation today which will repeal the antiquated 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Her legislation will be of more long-term value than one of Fianna Fáil's single issue Bills which are more designed to catch the headlines than to provide solutions.

Blood filled syringes have become potent weapons in the arsenals of crooks. I am delighted the Government intends to make the use of a syringe an offence under its legislation. In my constituency vulnerable people, including small shopkeepers, garage attendants, bank users and pensioners live with the fear of being attacked by syringe wielding thugs. The use of blood filled syringes is often regarded as a drugs related problem but it is interesting to read the results of research carried out by the Garda Síochána and given to a conference in Dublin two weeks ago. At that conference the Assistant Garda Commissioner, Mr. Tom King, said that 12 per cent of crimes involving the use of syringes were committed by drug addicts.

Deputy O'Donoghue complained that his Private Members' Bills are consistently voted down by the Government. He can remedy this by giving more attention to the drafting and detail. The Deputy seems to assume that syringes are used only during robberies and completely ignores their use in other offences which may not be connected with robbery but which nonetheless are deeply upsetting for the victims.

The Bill could be regarded as applying to those who avail of needle exchange schemes which are encouraged by the State. While I welcome such schemes there must be some tightening up in this area. Given that needles can be bought across the counter in chemist shops it is probably fair to assume that many needles are acquired other than through a needle exchange scheme. There is general agreement on all sides of the House that the offensive use of syringes needs to be severely punished and this issue is addressed by the Government in its legislation.

The Government has taken many steps to reverse the consequences of the inactivity of previous Fianna Fáil Governments. We are picking up the tab and doing a good job. I congratulate the Minister for Justice and other Ministers, including Democratic Left Ministers, who are using their influence to direct the Government along a progressive and productive path.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. According to the Minister, there were 2,200 syringe attacks last year.

I corrected that figure last night, it is 1,200.

That means 295 attacks, or approximately 25 per cent, were dealt with by Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station in my constituency. I thank the good, efficient gardaí in that station who keep an eye on my office and surroundings, against all the odds. However, those are huge figures. More than ten attacks have been reported to that station alone since 1 January.

According to today's edition of The Irish Times, there were four hold-ups in Dublin yesterday between 6 p.m. and midnight. Most of them involved raids on shops or businesses and muggings. Syringes are filled with the attacker's blood, that of someone else or even tomato juice and their use as weapons has increased over the past six months, in particular.

Syringes are seen as effective weapons for a number of reasons, according to the Garda. They are easily obtainable. They are also small and portable and, therefore, easily concealed and disposed of. It is almost impossible to get fingerprints from a syringe as any number of people might have handled it for legitimate reasons and, unlike with guns, there is no ballistic evidence. Therefore, the Garda have very little evidence to work on.

Criminals have, unfortunately, recognised that a syringe is a far more powerful weapon because people are terrified of contracting AIDS, HIV or hepatitis. It is widely acknowledged that guns do not cause the same terror as blood filled syringes. A report in last week's Irish Independent carried a quote from the victim of a very savage attack who stated:

The first thing that struck me was that I wished it was a gun or a knife. If it was a gun they would have disposed of me fairly quickly. If I had to make a choice, I would take my chances with that. I saw the syringe as having long and lingering consequences.

A syringe attack is a horrendous ordeal with far reaching consequences for the victim and his or her family. The victim can face months or years of uncertainty and trauma waiting for test results. For example, the postmaster in Summerhill was jabbed some time ago by an attacker who was HIV positive. The postmaster still does not know whether he has the virus. The business has since closed down.

Syringes are now used more often in muggings. The perpetrator can hold the person at needle point and force him or her to hand over wallets, purses and jewellery rather than having to snatch a visible handbag or other item of personal property. Their handiness for the attacker is why there has been such a dramatic switch to the use of syringes.

This issue has been constantly highlighted by Fianna Fáil through our spokesperson, Deputy O'Donoghue, and by Deputy Eoin Ryan and others. When it appeared the Government was dragging its feet on yet another urgent criminal matter of enormous public concern, we were moved to introduce a Private Members' Bill to provide that such attacks would be a serious criminal offence attracting significant punishment. The Fianna Fáil Bill creates new offences of aggravated robbery, robbery while in possession of a syringe or needle intended to be used to intimidate, cause injury to or incapacitate any person, and attempted aggravated robbery. Unfortunately, Deputy Eric Byrne could not understand that.

The Minister for Justice has, once again, been spurred into action by the persistence and dedication of the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on justice. Today the Government published the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997, which I welcome on behalf of this side of the House. It creates a new offence of injuring a person by piercing his skin with a syringe or threatening to do so with the intention of causing the person concerned to believe he will become infected with disease as a result of the injury. The Bill also provides for a sentence of life imprisonment where the syringe contains contaminated blood or fluid. The Bill also provides for an offence of possession of a syringe or needle and gives the Garda powers of search and seizure.

All of these provisions are to be welcomed because we had reached a frightening position. The Minister rightly corrected me when she said more than one quarter of those cases occurred in the catchment area of just one Garda station in my area. I have had the unfortunate opportunity of meeting many of those who have been attacked. I feel extremely sorry for anybody who is attacked, regardless of how it is done, and hope our laws can cope with the attacks.

When almost 300 attacks have been reported to one Garda station, it is not an exaggeration to say this is an epidemic which has developed in recent months. Deputy Eric Byrne believes this has been going on for years in his area. There were other activities taking place at that time about which he and his organisation probably know more than I do. I remember marches and parades which put the fear of God into me and which were led by people closely associated with the Deputy inside and outside the House. It was not syringes they were carrying, but we will not annoy him about that because he has tried to wash himself clean of all those issues. His party has moved on from that and I hope he realises that all criminal acts are dangerous and we want them all curbed. The Minister has our support and that of the public for the moves she has made on this issue.

We need to further examine the issuing of needles. I have campaigned for a long time in favour of providing needles to drug users and supported some of the clinics which deal with them. Many people use syringes on a daily basis for perfectly legitimate and life saving reasons. However, there are too many stories of children finding needles in playgrounds and on the streets and their danger is far too great to leave unaddressed. I was in Tallaght, Clondalkin, Crumlin and Kimmage last week where one continually hears about needles being found on a daily basis. That matter must be looked at.

My local gardaí told me that a few days ago two ten year old boys found a needle with traces of blood in a laneway off the North Circular Road. Luckily they brought it to Fitzgibbon Street Garda station and all they sought for their good citizenship was a tour of the station, with which the gardaí rewarded them. Fortunately, those two boys had the foresight and sense to hand up what they had found but other children might not be so fortunate. I hope this legislation, urged on by my colleagues, particularly our spokesperson and Deputy Eoin Ryan, will prove to be very useful in time to come.

I will speak very briefly to allow some colleagues to contribute. This is a very important topic. Like my party leader, I also pay tribute to Deputies O'Donoghue and Eoin Ryan, both of whom produced this Bill. The parliamentary party and the Front Bench wanted this Bill and, with their customary diligence, Deputies O'Donoghue and Eoin Ryan got to work on it, for which I commend them. Deputy O'Donoghue has the necessary attributes for such a tough role. He is prolific in his ideas, prodigious in output and, most of all, he is pugnacious in dealing with it in this House. He would need to be all of that. This issue is one of huge importance. Today I received telephone calls from three mothers in this city who asked me to tell the Minister she is not in the real world and does not know what is happening. Since Christmas, each of their three sons, who attend secondary schools in different parts of Dublin, were attacked in broad daylight, two in O'Connell Street and one in a street off O'Connell Street.

It is dreadful to think that we are living in an era of crime. What is occurring in Dublin today will be all over the country in the future. This problem has arisen in recent years. Those boys to whom I just referred were aged 13, 15 and 16 years. When they were approached, their attackers produced syringes and each young man gave up his watch, money or whatever he had, which is what their parents had told them to do in such situations. This is a modern crime and an horrific one. I am sure when people are threatened by someone yielding a syringe they immediately think of contagion, infection and death in that order. Nobody knows the ramifications of such an attack which can be more lethal than attacks with guns, hammers, blocks or other weapons. Fear of the unknown strikes the victim.

It is terrible that young boys cannot travel to school safely without being subjected to these attacks, 1,200 of which took place in one year. That is approximately 100 per month. This is a new type of crime in addition to the horrendous murders we hear about almost on a daily basis. Nobody is holding the Minister responsible for those murders but she presides over a system where these matters have become casual and almost acceptable when one hears about them.

There is an urgent need for this Bill and it does not deserve the derogatory remarks heaped upon it. I know of only one party that had a printing press, but the Minister's printing presses must have been working overtime last weekend to produce the Government's Bill.

The Deputy has been a Minister. She is showing her ignorance.

Opposition parties must have people to help them prepare legislation, and those people do that out of a sense of voluntary duty. Fianna Fáil is fortunate in that it has attracted many to this cause. I cannot understand the disdain expressed by the Minister last night for those professional people who have chosen to help us in the preparation of Bills and other documents. They are performing a valuable civic duty and they should be commended rather than derided.

I am glad of the opportunity to make this brief contribution to the debate and highlight the dangers posed to young people by this crime. The use of syringes in attacks, particularly on young people, is of enormous concern to parents. I say that in the knowledge of the telephone calls I received today which confirm everything Deputy O'Donoghue and others have said in that regard.

I am delighted to participate in the debate and congratulate Deputies O'Donoghue and Ryan on bringing forward this important legislation which concentrates on one issue, a fact welcomed by the public. The incidence of this type of crime has increased in the past few years. It is now at a stage where I and many of my constituents in Dublin South-West believe it is totally out of control.

A report in tonight's Evening Herald states that five attacks involving syringes occurred in different areas of the city overnight. One took place at a service station, another at a corner shop, a tourist was involved in another, a passenger on a bus was attacked by another person on the bus and the fifth attack occurred at an ATM. People using ATMs are particularly vulnerable to these attacks both during the day and at night. It is dangerous for people to withdraw money from ATMs. To be threatened or stabbed with a syringe is a terrifying experience for anybody. It takes some time for the fear to abate which only occurs when the person finds out they have not been infected.

Another important issue is the problem of discarded syringes. Parents are terrified their children will pick up one of these syringes and become infected. Members who have attended public meetings in their constituencies to discuss crime and vandalism will be aware that the problem of discarded syringes is frequently raised.

It must be sad for the people already infected with HIV to know that their infection is being used as a terrifying weapon by criminals. It is despicable for people to threaten to infect others in this way. The penalties proposed in the Bill are welcome and they should send out a message from this House that we will not accept this type of behaviour in the future and that we are serious about locking away those who threaten others with infected syringes. Such behaviour is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

The Minister should accept the Bill because it focuses on this specific crime which is of great concern to the general public. She can amend it if she wishes but it would be a good day's work on the part of this House to produce specific legislation to tackle this menace which is of great concern to parents, community leaders, teachers, etc. If the House were to pass this legislation, with whatever amendments are required on Committee Stage, it would be welcomed by the people who have spoken to me about this issue.

I welcome this initiative by Deputy O'Donoghue and congratulate him on introducing the Bill. He has introduced many Bills since becoming our party's spokesperson on Justice, a job he has undertaken with vigour and imagination. I found it distasteful to listen to many Members opposite, particularly the Minister and some backbenchers, attacking Deputy O'Donoghue on a personal basis on his role as Justice spokesperson. I never heard anybody attacking Alan Shatter for introducing Private Members' Bills. He was regarded as a good parliamentarian by Fine Gael but when that party got into Government he was put into exile. We all know what happened to poor Deputy Shatter.

It is difficult for the Minister because Deputy O'Donoghue keeps her on her toes and under pressure, but that is his job and he will continue to do it. Last night the Minister of State, Deputy Durkan, lectured us on the role of the Opposition. The role of the Opposition is to raise issues of public concern with the Government, to question it and to put it under pressure. That is what we are doing in this Bill. It is our job and we will continue to do it.

I do not have any problem with the Minister's Bill. I welcome it but I have no doubt that it is being introduced because of Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill and the fact that I raised the issue on "Morning Ireland".

Has the Deputy any idea how long it takes to prepare legislation? He should ask some of his colleagues who were in Government. The Deputy was never a Minister.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Deputy Ryan, without interruption.

I barely had my breakfast digested when the Minister told us she intended to introduce a Bill to deal with this matter.

The Deputy should ask his colleagues about this, although they are so long out of office they have probably forgotten.

The Minister should not heckle.

There is a serious problem of syringe attacks around this city.

People have given many examples and I heard of one in recent days of a teacher who was attacked in the classroom by a person with a syringe who robbed her handbag and said that if she told anybody he would come back. She sat in shock and a few minutes later the person ran back into the room to see if she was using the telephone. That teacher, who is under great stress and mental pressure because of this attack, has not taught since. In my constituency people have been attacked in video shops. In a tragic case last summer a youth who had taken a holiday job in a petrol station was attacked and jabbed with a needle. He is a very bright young person, but since the attack he has fallen back in his studies and suffers great mental trauma. There is nothing more terrifying than an attack with a syringe — it strikes terror into people's hearts — and gardaí, prison officers and the general public are under threat of such attacks.

Because of our stand, the Government has taken the initiative on this issue. Deputy Upton criticised Fianna Fáil for having no ideas. Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left blame Fianna Fáil for everything, but they must break out of that.

If the cap fits——

The Minister has taken on board many of our ideas. We will not be dissuaded in putting them forward. Deputy Upton said the Labour Party is very strong on crime, but while the Minister was absent from a Cabinet meeting his colleagues dropped a plan for a new prison. That proves the extent of their commitment to crime.

The prison is built and is now open.

Deputy Upton has a brass neck to say the Labour Party is strong on crime. That party is not, never has been and never will be strong on crime.

Deputy Ryan should go down and see the prison.

If Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill acted as a catalyst for the Government Bill, it is a job well done. That is what Opposition is about. Deputy O'Donoghue listened to the views of the public; they want action and a co-ordinated approach to this issue. The Minister has produced a Bill and I congratulate her on listening to Deputy O'Donoghue——

If the Deputy thinks a Bill can be produced in four days, he knows nothing about it. It cannot be done.

——considering his Bill and deciding to follow his lead.

On a point of information, Fianna Fáil is not saying the Minister drafted a Bill in four days, but until Deputy Eoin Ryan raised this matter on "Morning Ireland", the Minister had no intention of drafting a Bill.

That is not true.

The first responsibility of a Government is to protect its citizens in their homes, on the streets and in their places of work. It is the right of citizens to live their lives without fear of violence or threat of violence. By any yardstick, the Government has failed in all those responsibilities. As a Deputy who shares a constituency with the Minister, it is difficult to make a speech without personalising matters, but the Government, particularly the Minister in her role as office holder, has miserably failed the people, particularly the constituency of north County Dublin.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue on the wonderful work he did in preparing the Punishment of Aggravated Robbery Bill. As a result of his drive and work, many improvements have been made in recent legislation; they were not made by the Minister.

Lest anybody thinks the problem of needles is experienced only in inner cities or major cities, it is evident in my constituency of Dublin North, where crime is the greatest issue of concern. In housing estates where over the years shrubberies and plantations had been developed in open spaces, they have had to be cut down to curb drinking and the use of needles in these areas. Since then, the people have some peace of mind.

During the Christmas period people were attacked and horrendous crimes were committed in Portmarnock. In recent weeks in Malahide houses were broken into. The position has become so bad that thugs ignore burglar alarms, take car keys from houses and drive away. On one occasion they went to the bedroom of a couple to demand the keys of the car and on another occasion they found the keys in the hall and drove away. That happened in the area where the Minister lives.

In Swords cars are stolen from outside homes. On one occasion a car was stolen at about 10.30 p.m., driven down town and crashed into another car which went on fire. Thank God nobody was killed. What is the Government doing about crime in our area? There has been a spate of robberies in houses where couples work during the day, with robbers entering houses through the roofs. On one side of my home a vacant house was burned to the ground and on the other side, the house was broken into, to the great distress of my neighbours. The Minister then tells us crime is under control. In reply to a question I put down, she said crime figures are reducing in the area. Little she knows, but much she will find out when she knocks on the doors.

In the parish of Donabate last weekend the home of a quiet, inoffensive man, who never did a wrong turn in his life, was broken into and he was attacked and robbed of a small sum of money. The community in Balbriggan has to take on the problem of drugs. The people in the area are terrified by threats to use blood-filled needles and of being infected by them.

In bringing forward this Bill on behalf of our party, Deputy O'Donoghue has, as on other occasions, spurred the Minister to action. It is unfortunate that we have to depend on the Opposition to produce legislation for the Government to take action. The Taoiseach stated a week ago that the Bill would be ready in the summer, but Deputy O'Donoghue's action has brought it forward.

It will be passed by the summer.

I support the Minister's Bill, but Deputy O'Donoghue deserves support for producing his Bill. He does not deserve the personal abuse he gets from the Minister.

I have never engaged in personal abuse of Deputy O'Donoghue. It is the other way round.

The Minister is being ungracious.

There is only one way to deal with a crime problem and that is the right way. It must be thoroughly examined in all its manifestations, and proposals brought forward must be comprehensive and well thought out. The Minister has published the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997 which will repeal the greater part of the Offences against the Person Act, 1861 and restate in modern statutory form the law relating to the main non-fatal offences against the person.

The Bill restates the law relating to various forms of assault, threats to kill or cause serious harm, coercion, poisoning, false imprisonment and abduction of children and will provide for increased penalties. In line with the commitment given by the Minister, the Bill deals with syringe offences. It provides for a range of new offences to combat criminal conduct involving syringes, including offences of possession of a syringe or container of blood with intent to threaten or injure, placing or abandoning a syringe in a place in a manner which injures or is likely to injure a person, injuring a person with a syringe or threatening to do so and throwing or putting blood on another person or threatening to do so. The penalties provided will range from five years to life imprisonment.

The Bill will also provide a new offence of harassment aimed at stalking which will incur a maximum penalty of five years and will also empower the court, in addition to imposing a penalty, to order the stalker not to communicate in any way with the victim for such period as may be specified by the court or not to approach within a specified distance of the victim's residence or place of employment.

The syringe provisions are very comprehensive and address all the various ways in which syringes and blood can exploit people's fear of becoming infected with disease. The Minister's provisions will deal with threatening behaviour involving syringes or blood; injury caused by wounding with a syringe or spraying with blood; provide for the offence of piercing a person with a syringe contaminated with blood or spraying of contaminated blood on a person; criminalise possession of a syringe or blood in a container intended to cause or threaten injury; criminalise abandoning syringes in a dangerous way; provide for penalties ranging from a maximum of five years to life imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the offence; and, in relation to possession offences, give the Garda the appropriate powers of enforcement and the courts power to take a common sense approach to the application of the possession provisions.

Unlike Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill, the Minister's Bill leaves no stone unturned. As the Minister indicated last night, the Deputy's Bill is totally inadequate and I will spell out clearly its main difficulties. It does not deal with the range of possible criminal activity involving syringes or other containers of blood. It is restricted in the main to attacks involving robbery. It does not cover other attacks, for example, those on gardaí, prison officers, social workers, doctors, etc. It deals only with use of syringes, but fails to deal with threats presented by a container of blood. It does not deal with actual wounding with a syringe or with putting blood on a person. It does not provide for wounding with a contaminated syringe or putting contaminated blood on a person. As the victim could catch a fatal disease, this action can be compared with attempted murder. It does not provide against persons abandoning syringes and so creating a danger for others, for example, leaving them in squad cars, in a coffee shop or in other places where they may present a danger to unsuspecting members of the gardaí, prison staff or the public. Deputy O'Donoghue's main possession offence is also linked to robbery. It does not deal with attacks to intimidate or injure or, in relation to drugs, intimidation or threats of injury where doctors are put under threat.

I wish to share time with our spokesperson on Justice, Deputy O'Donoghue, who introduced this exceptional Punishment of Aggravated Robbery Bill.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I am sure that is satisfactory.

This Bill is indicative of the work Deputy O'Donoghue has been doing as Opposition spokesperson on Justice. He has distinguished himself in that role. This is not the first Bill he has introduced but, unfortunately, from the tone of the previous speaker it appears it will not be accepted by the Government.

I want to highlight a number of problems related to drugs in my constituency. Dún Laoghaire currently suffers from three social problems, housing, crime and drugs. That may come as a surprise to those who see Dún Laoghaire as a sophisticated, high flying urban area. Nothing is further from the truth. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would bring to the notice of the Minister for Health the problems that will arise when a GP in Dún Laoghaire retires from his practice after many years of dedicated service to the community. He prescribes physeptone and methadone to drug addicts and local pharmacies dispenses medication to approximately 80 drug addicts each week. The GP in question deals with between 240 and 400 addicts per week and will retire at the end of the month. It is crucial that the Minister for Health appoints another GP immediately.

The huge drug problem that affects the centre of Dublin also affects the Dún Laoghaire area. While a clinic must be set up to deal with the serious drug problem in Dún Laoghaire, it should not be located in a shopping centre or built up area. I support the Bill because it will address the problem in my constituency. A recent letter submitted to me stated:

I hope you will ensure that the problem is dealt with efficiently and that a crisis in the area is prevented. Panic is mounting amongst the drug addicted community. I have heard rumours that three drug dealers from the Dublin area are intending to target Dún Laoghaire at the end of March.

If I could do nothing else for my constituency I would love to rid the community of the obscenity of drug peddlers. I have some sympathy with drug addicts who are often brought into the circle because of unemployment, marriage breakdown, drink, weakness, hopelessness or helplessness. I can understand the need to help addicts who are anxious to break their habit. For that reason I want the Minister of State to bring to the attention of the Minister for Health the urgent need to appoint a new GP to deal with drug addicts in the Dún Laoghaire constituency, particularly in the centre of Dún Laoghaire.

I thank Members who contributed to this debate and particularly the kind words spoken by some. As Fianna Fáil spokesman on Justice I have called more than once for a separate offence dealing with syringes and their use in robberies. That was recently followed up by Deputy Eoin Ryan on RTÉ radio when he spoke about these offences. Before Deputy Ryan had his lunch the same day, the Minister for Justice stated that she would publish legislation dealing with this matter. We proceeded with legislation that was a long time in planning and brought a cogent, persuasive Bill before the House that would stand up in court.

The ink was hardly dry on that legislation before the Minister of Justice stated that she would bring in her own legislation. I have said more than once that the Minister's tenure in the Department of Justice has been the era of the photocopier. That is how it will go down in history if historians ever bother to deal with the trials of the rainbow coalition Government; it was the era when the photocopier reigned supreme in the Department of Justice. I have listed examples of that before and there is no need to repeat them.

However, there is a need for Government backbenchers who talk tough and vote soft on crime to understand what is happening in Dublin and what is likely to occur in every town and village unless adequate steps are taken now to prevent it. Here are some examples from an Irish Independent supplement of 18 February: “Taximan pricked after handing over money”, “Raid on a petrol station in Tallaght”, “Seven syringe attacks on Ranelagh newsagent”, “Jabbed in a video store”, “Hidden in café seat” and “Hepatitis C after the needle”. According to the Minister for Justice these are real situations involving 1,200 people last year who suffered at the hands of those wielding syringes.

It is easy for Government members to deride this legislation on the basis that it deals mainly with robbery. They should come into the real world. The legislation deals with robbery because — in the vast majority of cases — that is when syringes are used. It would be ludicrous for our Bill not to refer to robberies. The Minister for Justice and the Minister of State have advanced many reasons for not accepting this Bill. I could give 10,000 more reasons for accepting it but what would be the point in wasting one's sweetness on the desert air?

Last night I asked if this Legislature had the courage to bring in minimum, mandatory legislation in relation to attacks by people wielding syringes. I stated that legislation needed to be brought in to deal with that problem and that minimum or mandatory sentences should be imposed. I do not suggest that this legislation is minimalist but I accept it does not deal with every eventuality; no legislation could. However, it was the minimum required in the light of experience. It provided that if a person had a first offence for using a syringe or needle with intent to injure, incapacitate or intimidate, the minimum sentence the court should impose would be five years. If the person had a second conviction the minimum sentence should be seven years and after a third conviction the person should receive life imprisonment.

In a carefully choreographed press statement this morning, the Minister for Justice seemed to indicate that the Government had provided for life sentences for those who use syringes and for minimum sentencing in their legislation, making it mandatory for a court to impose stiff sentences on people wielding syringes with the intent to maim, injure or incapacitate. That is not true.

The Government legislation allows a court to impose a sentence of five years up to life or other periods of years but there is no minimum or mandatory sentencing contained in its legislation. That legislation is fatally flawed as a consequence because somebody pulled out the plug on the photocopier when the Fianna Fáil legislation was being copied. Nobody should be under the illusion that this House does not have the power to impose minimum sentences; it was done by Deputy Ray Burke in the context of capital murder and was done with other of legislation, such as the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876. It was also done by Deputy Burke in relation to attempted capital murder in section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1990. There is no valid argument in the proposition that the separation of powers postulated by the 1937 Constitution is compromised by minimum or mandatory sentencing imposed by the Oireachtas.

The only question for the people is why, when faced with such a horrific situation in society, did the Government decide that the punishment would not fit the crime? The answer is the same one tonight that we have had for the last two and a quarter years; the Government did not do the right thing by the people because it could not agree to do it. The three separate philosophies in the rainbow coalition could not reach a consensus to do the right thing and, therefore, they did the wrong thing. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Social Welfare pulled the plug when the Minister's secretary was photocopying the Fianna Fáil Bill.

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 65; Níl, 75.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Brennan, Matt.
  • Brennan, Séamus.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • Browne, John (Wexford).
  • Burke, Raphael.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Davern, Noel.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Doherty, Seán.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Flood, Chris.
  • Foley, Denis.
  • Fox, Mildred.
  • Foxe, Tom.
  • Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hilliard, Colm.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Keogh, Helen.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kirk, Séamus.
  • Kitt, Michael.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lawlor, Liam.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Leonard, Jimmy.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McCreevy, Charlie.
  • McDaid, James.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Moffatt, Tom.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Morley, P.J.
  • Nolan, M.J.
  • ÓCuiv, Éamon.
  • O'Donnell, Liz.
  • O'Donoghue, John.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • O'Keeffe, Batt.
  • O'Keeffe, Ned.
  • O'Leary, John.
  • O'Malley, Desmond.
  • O'Rourke, Mary.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Quill, Máirín.
  • Ryan, Eoin.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, D.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Theresa.
  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Barry, Peter.
  • Bell, Michael.
  • Bhamjee, Moosajee.
  • Bhreathnach, Niamh.
  • Boylan, Andrew.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Bree, Declan.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Currie, Austin.
  • Deasy, Austin.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doyle, Avril.
  • Dukes, Alan.
  • Durkan, Bernard.
  • Ferris, Michael.
  • Fitzgerald, Brian.
  • Fitzgerald, Eithne.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Flaherty, Mary.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Gallagher, Pat (Laoighis-Offaly).
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Harte, Paddy.
  • Higgins, Jim.
  • Higgins, Michael.
  • Hogan, Philip.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kavanagh, Liam.
  • Kemmy, Jim.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Broughan, Thomas.
  • Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Donal.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Connor, John.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • McGahon, Brendan.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Gay.
  • Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
  • Mulvihill, John.
  • Nealon, Ted.
  • Noonan, Michael (Limerick East).
  • O'Keeffe, Jim.
  • O'Shea, Brian.
  • Owen, Nora.
  • Pattison, Séamus.
  • Penrose, William.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, John.
  • Ryan, Seán.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Sheehan, P.J.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Spring, Dick.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Taylor, Mervyn.
  • Timmins, Godfrey.
  • Upton, Pat.
  • Walsh, Éamon.
  • Yates, Ivan.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies D. Ahern and Callely; Níl, Deputies J. Higgins and B. Fitzgerald.
Question declared lost.