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.