I welcome the opportunity to comment on this Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Bill. I drafted this before the June recess and a number of developments have taken place in the debate over security since then. I welcome the legislation and support the fight against crime, including terrorism, and improvements to the security of our people and our country.
In the modern world, one is dealing with extraordinarily sophisticated communications, financial networks and ease of transport from one jurisdiction to another. If crime is becoming globalised, we must also globalise the means of fighting it. This Bill enables us to globalise our fight against crime through co-operating with other EU members states and is to be welcomed. Before the summer there was justified concern over how crime trends were developing and since then there has been a debate on the need for EU member states to preserve their individual sovereignty in crime prosecution and prevention, which I supported. While I am ad idem with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on mutual recognition of criminal law systems, we must preserve our independence in that area. When the draft European constitution was being prepared several years ago, then Deputy John Bruton and I represented the Government on the working party that prepared some of this legislation. Ireland, the UK and some of the new accession countries were in the minority in trying to emphasise the need to preserve our independence in this area.
As has been pointed out, the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Bill gives effect to seven legal mutual assistance instruments. It builds on an existing legislative framework for mutual legal assistance. It provides for the effective co-operation between member states of the European Union and between states worldwide. This is of increasing importance in recent times. The case for mutual assistance in the provision of police activities is essential. That goes back to the days when Interpol was established and the more recent development, albeit in restricted form, of Europol. It is right that within a more unified Europe, where there is harmonisation within the legal framework, we should assist each other. Criminals do not have regard for frontiers and boundaries but often regard them as a means to escape or delay detection. If we were in doubt about how international crime is evolving, yesterday's hijacking of a private jet demonstrated it. I compliment the international police forces led by the Garda Síochána on how they dealt with the incident and I look forward to successful prosecutions.
As organised crime and terrorism become more sophisticated, it is essential that every technique and support is given to police across the Union to enable them to apprehend and bring to justice those responsible. The Bill covers diverse areas such as accessing bank accounts in all EU states, collecting and transferring evidence, setting up joint investigation teams, producing prisoners to give evidence in other European jurisdictions and most importantly in the modern world, intercepting telecommunications across national boundaries. It will cover telephone calls from mobiles and land lines, as well as e-mails and Internet connections. Although there are concerns among certain groups about the latitude allowed by this and other legislation on the retention and preservation of records for significantly longer than some would like, we need to err on the side of caution. While it may be possible to become less restrictive in the future, we are up against significant dark forces to whom we must respond strongly. Monitoring bank accounts will make it easier for member states to confiscate the assets of criminals, especially those who live outside their jurisdictions.
Much of the legislation will concern Irish citizens wanted for criminal offences who have fled the country to reside abroad. This is important. We should not tolerate what the tabloids call the "costa del crime". Wherever people hide, whether elsewhere in Europe or further afield, they should be extraditable and their assets should be retrievable. That will require an element of co-operation that did not exist heretofore. It will require an element of mutual recognition of legislative bases that is not as developed as it might be.
The Criminal Assets Bureau was enabled by legislation to put pressure on drug lords and their organisations and to take on the criminals and fight them effectively. There have been many instances of the success of the Proceeds of Crime Act whereby the ill-gotten gains of these warlords have been confiscated.
It may be necessary to look at the legislation underpinning the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Proceeds of Crime Act to see whether they need to be updated and made more rigorous in the light of experience. I would welcome contributions from the law enforcement agencies on whether tighter legislation is necessary. Even if they suggest this we do not have to adopt it but they are best placed to give us such indicators. The legislation also forced many so-called astute drug barons out of the country, some from my constituency — Deputy Finian McGrath will identify with that experience.
Unfortunately they found their way to sunnier climes in Spain and elsewhere from where they ply their trade and supply the Irish market. Maybe because they are supplying the Irish market the authorities in the Mediterranean and northern European countries take little notice of them. This is unfortunate. I, Deputy Gregory and several others visited the drug enforcement agencies in Holland and elsewhere some years ago and impressed upon them the need to prosecute vigorously the obvious activities of some of the Irish drug barons who are still at large. We need to continue that co-operation.
The legislation helps to track down these individuals and confiscate their ill-gotten gains whether here or elsewhere. This Bill will do likewise. It identifies the main forms of mutual assistance, including sensible and practical arrangements such as the provision of financial information, access to bank accounts and making that information available on request with certain safeguards. This is highly desirable. We need to be careful about the safeguards to ensure that they are as tightly drawn as possible.
I note that the Bill provides indemnity to financial institutions also, which is useful because we have seen how successfully the Criminal Assets Bureau operates by having access to the resources and assets of people who cannot be brought to justice for criminal offences but can be caught for related activities and evidence. Everybody cites the case of Al Capone who was brought to justice in the United States for tax offences rather than for the offences for which people thought he should easily have been prosecuted.
Another Criminal Assets Bureau method, the enforcement of orders for freezing property is a practical and sensible arrangement but it must apply, as far as possible, Europe-wide. We have fairly incontrovertible evidence that many of those who make millions of euro here are making many millions more in other jurisdictions in the European Union and the accession countries. While I welcome the news that Bulgaria and Romania are to accede to membership of the European Union next January, I am concerned about the obvious levels of corruption, especially police corruption, particularly in Bulgaria. There is an onus on us to ensure that abuse of legal systems is stopped. A fundamental tenet of membership of the European Union is that the rule of law prevails. There can be no abdication from, or equivocation about, that.
I welcome the provisions regarding the extension of joint investigation teams, particularly those involving co-operation with the United States. I also welcome the co-operation between the police forces on both parts of this island. There is now a high level of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and the Garda Síochána. That is an extremely welcome development, which is long overdue. Since we last spoke on this issue we have seen action taken on criminal activity by paramilitary and criminal groups along the Border through co-operation between the Garda Síochána, the PSNI, the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau, and I want that to continue.
There has historically been, and continues to be, a high level of co-operation between the United States and Ireland. It is sensible to introduce joint investigation teams as part of our legal and policing co-operation. Organised crime is very sophisticated and terrorism, which poses a major threat to society, must be tackled with the greatest diligence and global co-operation. This is not the only way to tackle terrorism but is one that manifests itself regularly and obviously.
I note also in the Bill that witnesses can be heard through video link or teleconferencing. That was covered in other legislation and is sensible. We need in the reform of the Garda Síochána to make greater use of video-linked evidence and teleconferencing. The trial in respect of the Omagh bombing, running in Northern Ireland, is a good example of this because the victims can observe the proceedings of the court at a remote location when they choose. The videotaping of evidence was introduced to eliminate the waste of Garda time. It would be foolish not to avail of the technology, which facilitates the improvement of the prosecution and the delivery of evidence, especially when we are trying to make the best use possible of Garda time.
I have spoken before on the need for our law enforcement agencies to be provided with the best equipment and technology in their fight against terrorism and organised crime. I am pleased to see that since we last spoke here the contract for the digital system for the Garda Síochána has been placed and will be rolled out in the coming months. That is acutely important. While anecdotal information is not always the best, it is disturbing that there are times when the key people behind significant and abhorrent crimes arrive on the scene before the gardaí because they have more sophisticated communications technology.
In 1988 when I first visited Dublin's sister city, San Jose, the limousine taking us from the airport broke down and we were taken to our hotel in police cars. That was the first time I saw on-board computers being used. Given the development of ICT, with Blackberries and hand-held units, it beggars belief that on-board computer information cannot be made available to the Garda.
This legislation does much to combat drug gangs and drug crime. I have often referred to the threat drugs pose to our communities. I applaud the good work of the Garda in dealing with drug gangs, especially when we consider that so much crime evolves from direct involvement in drugs or from related activities. My constituency has suffered from the emergence of people who have become very rich at the hands of others, to put it obliquely. It must be a source of huge concern. We regularly hear reports of young lads, who are obviously no angels, being arrested with large doses of drugs in their systems, to the extent that they need to be treated for drug overdoses. It appears that cocaine is the new aspirin for many people who will do anything to manipulate those who are weaker than themselves. We need to keep on top of the problem and this legislation will help to facilitate that. I agree with Deputies who have argued that the drugs problem is not just a law and order issue. We could talk about this aspect of the matter, which is clearly important, for a long time. It is generally acknowledged that just 10% of the drugs coming into this country are detected. Terrorists and drug gangs are co-operating with each other across jurisdictions. This Bill, which enables mutual assistance between member states and allows authorities in another jurisdiction to share information on drugs coming into this country, enhances and supplements the national fight against drug gangs, as well as the existing international co-operation in the fight against organised crime.
I welcome the safeguards which are built into the legislation whereby the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not need to accede to a request if it is based on specific grounds relating to sovereignty, security and other interests of the State. As I said at the outset, I strongly support the stand taken by the Government at the Helsinki meeting of the Council of Ministers a number of weeks ago on the need for us to preserve unanimity on reaching decisions on this particular pillar of the European project. This legislation also provides that the Minister does not need to accede if there are grounds to suspect that the request was made for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing someone based on their sex, race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, political opinion or sexual orientation. These good precautions are in line with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. I will add a cautionary note by reminding the House of the hard-hitting speeches which were made in our neighbouring jurisdiction over the summer by ministers there who lectured members of religious communities about their responsibilities and about what their followers might or might not get involved in. It is not helpful to take such an approach to any particular religious community.
I am glad the Minister has taken the views of the Irish Human Rights Commission into consideration in finalising the provisions of this legislation. Civil liberties groups will always question issues in a Bill like this, and quite rightly so. Unfortunately, the loss of certain personal freedoms and the threat to human rights are among the disadvantages we sometimes encounter when we try to take action against organised crime, drug barons, prostitution, child pornography, trafficking and terrorism. Crime bosses and terrorists will always have an advantage in this regard. It is important that we err on the side of being very cautious, which might upset some human rights groups. It will probably be easier to relax the provisions of this Bill in years to come, after it has become law, rather than trying to tighten the situation after the horse has bolted. Civilised society must balance the need to fight evil with the need to show respect for personal freedoms, civil liberties and human rights. While that is not always easy, we must be vigilant. We must draw a line in terms of what is acceptable to protect the freedoms we have. We must also provide a safe and secure society for the people who live with those freedoms. Ireland has a good record of protecting the rights of individuals, even during times of trouble. We have made difficult decisions when dealing with terrorist activities on this island. We have taken a position of leadership on the international stage at the same time, in areas like human rights, development aid, conflict resolution and peacekeeping. We can provide leadership on the world stage by providing mutual assistance and offering information on how we have addressed problems like these.
This necessary legislation will be welcomed by most fair-minded people. Ireland is playing its part on the international stage by introducing it. Mutual co-operation between criminal groups which use modern technology and business activities for selfish gains must be matched by equally co-operative legislative work, which is what we are doing in this case. I welcome the legislation and thank the Minister for introducing it.