I listened carefully to what the Opposition spokespersons and Deputy Joe Higgins had to say. Deputy Joe Higgins appears to be under the impression that, if the penalty stays the same, the Bill sends out a message to anyone trafficking in drugs with a substantial value, irrespective of their type, that we are equating soft drugs with hard drugs. That is an extraordinary conclusion to reach and is one I do not accept.
The message the Bill sends out is not that one should take soft as opposed to hard drugs, but that one should not take drugs or become involved in the sale, supply or trafficking of them. If one does, and the drugs are worth £10,000 or more, one will receive a mandatory sentence of ten years imprisonment. The Bill is clear on this and, therefore, people will not be able to say they did not know the law in this area.
I cannot accept the amendments tabled by the main spokespersons for the Opposition. I make a similar point regarding them as I made on amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7. The intention in specifying the ten years minimum penalty is to make it crystal clear that the offence is one of such gravity that the imposition of an exemplary penalty is justified.
Section 5 provides that a person convicted of the new offence will incur a penalty commensurate with the gravity of that crime. In view of the unique nature of the trade in illegal drugs and the great misery inflicted on so many people by those who deal in that deadly trade, we, as legislators, must do all we can to rid ourselves of this scourge.
I accept that a minimum sentence of ten years is undoubtedly a harsh punishment but I am satisfied that it is warranted and proportional. It should send an unequivocal message to those engaged in the illegal drugs trade and to those who might be tempted to engage in it, that we are serious about doing all we can to eradicate this blight.
The effect of Deputy Higgins's amendment would be to delete the "ten year minimum sentence". In other words, the appropriate penalty to be imposed in a particular case would be left entirely at the discretion of the courts. That is the current position under the Misuse of Drugs Acts and the courts are empowered to impose a sentence of anything up to life imprisonment. Deputy Higgins is effectively saying that we should maintain the status quo and not change the law on penalties. I feel sure Deputy Higgins knows by now, since this legislation has had a tortuous journey through the Oireachtas to say the least, that it would defeat the purpose of the section. One should not lose sight of the fact that the Bill allows the courts to depart from the requirement to impose the minimum period in exceptional and specific cases where it would otherwise be unjust in all the circumstances to impose the minimum ten year sentence.
This brings me to the point made by Deputy Howlin, who felt that some cases would be too harshly treated unless there was at least some kind of an escape clause. I have inserted into the legislation at this stage an escape clause if there are exceptional and specific cases where it would otherwise be unjust in all of the circumstances to impose the minimum ten year sentence. Relevant factors which the court may consider include: whether the person pleaded guilty, taking account of the stage at which such an intention was indicated and the circumstances surrounding the indication, and whether the person materially assisted the investigation of the offence.
In this context, the Bill attempts to make a distinction between those who are cynically involved in the drugs trade for profit and those who, because of a problem with addiction, have become caught up in it. While I emphasis that feeding a habit is no excuse for engaging in this trade, it would be futile not to recognise the part which addiction can play. Therefore, the Bill gives a court the power when imposing sentence on a person convicted of the new drug related offence to inquire whether the person was addicted to drugs at the time of the offence and, if satisfied that he or she was so addicted and that this factor was a substantial fact leading to the commission of the offence, to list the sentence for review after half of the mandatory period specified by it has expired. When the review takes place the court may, having regard to any matters it considers appropriate, suspend the remainder of the sentence on any conditions it considers fit. This provision is appropriate and just but I should make it clear that even where these mitigating circumstances arise the persons involved will still face a long period of imprisonment.
With regard to Deputy Howlin's amendment, which seeks to delete the provision that the ten year minimum sentence may only be departed from in exceptional circumstances, I believe the approach in the Bill is a better one. I acknowledge the philosophy underlying Deputy Howlin's amendment and feel he may accept that we are almost of one mind on it. The Bill allows the court to have regard to what are referred to as "exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence, or the person convicted of the offence," which would make a sentence of 10 years imprisonment unjust in all the circumstances. It seems that where it is intended that a minimum sentence must be imposed by the court where the person is guilty of possession of drugs with a value of £10,000 or more, then in departing from that the court must be satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances which warrant that. Factors such as duress or mental capacity might be relevant to this and may be taken into account by the courts. This part of the Bill strikes the right balance and in the circumstances I cannot accept the amendments.
With regard to the other arguments which were presented, for the most part I had heard them before at different stages and my position remains as it was.