Private Members’ Business.

Victims’ Rights Bill 2008: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share time with Deputy Charles Flanagan.

I express my appreciation to all the groups that assist victims of crime, some of which are represented in the Visitors' Gallery. They do tremendous work behind the scenes, often generally unknown to the public, and they have supported this legislative proposal. There is a common perception that criminals have more rights than their victims. This Bill would give to the victims of crime, for the first time, comprehensive statutory rights in Irish law and make statutory provision for a victims' rights charter.

Under the Bill, the State and State agencies will be required to inform victims of crime of the appropriate and necessary services available to them and of the legal remedies they can utilise to obtain personal protection when necessary. Victims will be kept informed of progress made in the investigation of a crime reported by them; of the progress before the courts of any prosecution initiated; and of the outcome of any court proceedings relating to an alleged or convicted offender. With regard to physical or sexual violence, child trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, various new rights are afforded to victims. These include the right of the victim to furnish to the court his or her view of a bail application made by the alleged offender; to be informed of a release on bail of alleged offenders; and to be given reasonable notice of a convicted offender's escape or of early release and a proposal of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to grant early release or to make a deportation order in respect of an offender. For the first time, victims of crime will be entitled to make submissions to the parole board on a convicted offender's applications for parole and release. The board will be required to have regard to both such submission and any victim impact statement furnished to the court following conviction and it will be required to factor in the resulting information available to it in determining whether the specific offender should be granted the parole sought.

In an adversarial system of justice, the victims of crime can be too easily forgotten. For the first time in Irish law, all victims of crime will be given a voice and the recognition they deserve. They will also, for the first time, be entitled to have any violation of their rights investigated and reported upon, and as a consequence, there will be greater transparency and accountability in our criminal justice system.

Six months was spent in the preparation of the Bill. Research was undertaken of existing victims' rights legislation in various parts of the world and assistance in this regard was obtained from one of the legally qualified researchers attached to the Houses of the Oireachtas library and research service to whom I pay tribute. Specific regard was had to the State's international obligations and the entitlement of citizens of the State and victims of crime who visit the State to have extended to them the same rights and services as apply in other states and, more particularly, member states of the European Union. The legislation is influenced by international best practice as set out in the United Nations General Assembly Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power 1985 together with the annex accompanying it and, in particular, having regard to the European Council framework decision of 15 March 2001 on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings and the criticism of Ireland's record in applying standards laid down in the European framework decision, as assessed by the European Commission in its 2004 evaluation report. Particular regard was also had to the Council of Europe's recommendation of the committee of Ministers to member states on assistance to crime victims, which was adopted by the committee of Ministers on 14 June 2006.

An essential principle underpinning the legislation is an acceptance that victims of crime have civil rights that require recognition and respect in our law and an acknowledgement that, under our current law, they are neither recognised nor adequately protected and that this State does not property comply with international human rights standards in this area. Fine Gael believes such recognition and protection can be afforded to victims of crime without undermining fundamental constitutional principles, which are central to our criminal justice system and which ensure those accused and convicted of offences receive a fair trial and also have their constitutional rights properly protected.

Section 5 requires that victims of crime be treated with courtesy and compassion and their dignity and privacy be respected. The principles are subject to the proviso that their application does not infringe on the constitutional rights of an alleged or convicted offender. The entitlement of a victim to be as fully informed as possible of the rights and remedies available to him or her, of his or her role in the criminal justice process with regard to any criminal proceedings taken and of the general availability of health and social services or other appropriate assistance that may be required is recognised. It is stated that a victim has a duty to co-operate with An Garda Síochána and any other relevant law enforcement authority in the investigation of crime.

Section 7 prescribes the rights of victims to information about services and remedies available to them and imposes particular obligations on An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service Board, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal, the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Health Service Executive. Also included is an obligation to advise victims of any national or local accessible voluntary agency that provides help to victims.

Section 11 of the Bill provides that a victim's residential or home address may not be disclosed in court where a court is satisfied that such disclosure "is likely to cause prejudice to the victim's interests or harm to the victim" and "the likely prejudice or harm outweighs the evidential value of the information or any assistance it may provide in enabling the court or a jury to reach a fair determination".

Sections 12 to 16, inclusive, of the Bill provide comprehensive new provisions concerning victim impact statements. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1993, upon sentencing courts are only required to have regard to victim impact statements where an offender is convicted of a sexual offence or an offence involving violence. The Bill provides for a more comprehensive use of victim impact statements in the sentencing of offenders. In the context of all criminal prosecutions, it imposes an obligation on the prosecution authorities to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that a victim impact statement is available to the court when sentencing any offender and the court, when imposing sentence, is required to take into account the effect of the offence on the victim or victims. Where necessary, a court can not only receive a victim impact statement, but may hear evidence from a victim of the effect of a crime on him or her. In certain circumstances, the courts are obliged under the Bill to hear the oral evidence of the victim in respect of an offence where a victim impact statement has been made if the offence concerned is a sexual offence, involves violence or a threat of violence to a person or any other kind of offence that has led to the victim having ongoing fears on reasonable grounds for his or her physical safety or security or for the physical safety or security of one or more members of his or her immediate family.

For the first time, formal statutory provision is made for the surviving family members of a homicide victim to make a victim impact statement. The law in this area has to date been developed by the Judiciary. It has no statutory foundation and whether permission is given to make such statement depends on the discretion of the individual trial judge.

The Bill addresses the difficulties highlighted in the trials resulting from the tragic deaths of Robert Holohan and Siobhan Kearney. Following the conviction for murder of Siobhan Kearney's husband, the trial judge earlier this year, as he was entitled to do under the present law, declined to hear a victim impact statement presented by a bereaved family member. Consequently, the statement was delivered to a media scrum outside the courts. The Bill confers a statutory right on a member of a bereaved family of a homicide victim to make such a statement in court. If enacted, there will be no repetition of what occurred following the murder conviction of Brian Kearney. This provision, which obliges the trial judge following a homicide conviction to receive and hear a victim impact statement, implements a recommendation contained in a recently published research paper jointly commissioned by Support After Homicide and Advic, voluntary agencies that assist victims of crime. The report was written by Dr. Joanne Cooper and drew on the experiences of the immediate family members of 31 recent homicide victims.

Substantial controversy arose as a consequence of Majella Holohan, the bereaved mother of Robert Holohan, making unfounded allegations in her victim impact statement against Wayne O'Donoghue following his conviction for Robert's death. The Bill addresses the dilemma posed by such behaviour by conferring a jurisdiction on the courts to direct the media not to report such allegations. It has been suggested by some members of the Judiciary that, where a victim so behaves, the victim should be liable to imprisonment for contempt of court. Fine Gael does not believe this to be appropriate and recognises the enormous strains and pressures that impact on victims of crime, particularly where a life is lost. We welcome the fact that, shortly after publication of this Bill, the Director of Public Prosecutions publicly stated the need for such a change in our law.

Section 20 prescribes particular directions that can be given or conditions imposed by a court on the disclosure or distribution of victim impact statements. Such directions or conditions may be necessary to protect the victim's physical safety, security, emotional welfare or privacy and can be given provided they are not inconsistent with the constitutional rights of an offender. For example, secrecy may be required in respect of a victim's residential address. Moreover, where it is in the interests of justice to protect an offender from unfounded allegations as previously mentioned, the court is empowered to prevent their disclosure, dissemination or publication. In doing so, the court cannot prevent the disclosure and publication of information concerning the impact on the victim or victims of the offence for which an offender is convicted. These provisions are of importance to uphold the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Part 4 of the Bill provides for the establishment of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime on a statutory basis and for the publication of a victims' rights charter. The commission, which was established by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on a non-statutory basis in March 2005 for a period of three years, had its life extended by a recent ministerial announcement. The Bill extends its functions and renders it statutorily independent. Under the Bill, the commission will be required to promote the interests of victims, encourage good practice in the treatment of victims, devise, periodically review and, where required, update any appropriate support framework for victims, disburse funding for victim support and assistance measures and draft a victims' charter. The commission will also be required to publish an annual report detailing all services provided to victims by the State, State agencies and non-governmental organisations and highlight deficiencies in services where necessary. It will be required to review the charter, which will only be published having been first reviewed by the Houses, and publish an annual report detailing subsequent necessary changes. The commission will also be able to fund research.

The current non-statutory victims' charter published in 1999 is nearly ten years out of date and has no mandatory status. It is an information and not a rights document and its deficiencies have been substantially criticised. The commission established in 2005 commenced a review of the charter some time ago. It is clear from the framework document of the commission of 25 April 2008 published last Thursday by the Minister that the review is not yet complete, but it is unclear why this is so. The Bill provides a statutory basis for such a review and requires the preparation of a new draft victims' rights charter through a transparent and democratic process.

The Bill provides a complaints mechanism for victims whose rights are not respected. If the rights of a victim of crime are violated, a complaint can be made to the Ombudsman established under the Ombudsman's Act 1980, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission or the Ombudsman for Children, whichever is relevant. The body is to investigate in accordance with its statutory provisions any such complaint received that falls within its remit. Any complaints received by the commission established under the Bill must be forwarded by it to the appropriate body for investigation. A victim whose rights are violated may also complain to the person who, under the Bill, is required to accord the victim particular rights. Failure to respect a victim's rights prescribed in the Bill or charter does not of itself entitle a victim to claim compensation in any civil action. Existing rights to bring any form of court action as a consequence of any negligence or wrongdoing on the part of the State or any State body remain unaffected.

The DPP's office has published its own victims' charter and has made clear its commitment to victims in its statement of general guidelines for prosecutors. However, organisations representing victims of crime and victims generally have sought a more proactive role on the part of the DPP's office in dealing with victims and their families, particularly in terms of providing information. This is highlighted in the excellent report entitled, A Better Deal: The Human Rights of Victims in the Criminal Justice System, completed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties on victims' rights. The Fine Gael Bill requires that victims be kept informed of the progress of any prosecution taken and of events that occur in the courts. Moreover, there is a specific obligation imposed on the DPP to keep victims informed of any charges laid in a case and to explain the charges. The DPP is also required to inform victims of any final decision made not to charge an alleged offender.

The European Commission's report of 2004 on the implementation of the European framework decision details practices adopted in France, Luxembourg and Spain that correspond to its right to information objectives under which those involved in the criminal process, being either the senior investigative officer or the prosecutor, are required to inform victims of their rights and of the possible steps that may be taken with regard to a prosecution. The Crown Prosecution authorities in England have put in place guidelines to ensure victims of crime are kept informed and to facilitate explanations being given to victims in circumstances where prosecutions are not taken.

The European Court of Human Rights in the case Jordanv. the United Kingdom considered the failure of the DPP in Northern Ireland to give reasons for a decision made not to prosecute as being in violation of the European Charter on Human Rights. Currently, the DPP operates a blanket policy of not giving reasons for not prosecuting. It is clear that our law in this area may now be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Recognition of this in the Fine Gael Bill envisages the giving of such reasons. They can be given within a framework which does not prejudice the possibility of a successful future prosecution or violate the constitutional rights of third parties. I welcome the fact that since publication of our Bill, the DPP has commenced a consultative process on this issue. I also welcome the recommendation of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that reasons should be given to a victim when a decision is made not to prosecute unless there are compelling reasons not to do so.

This Fine Gael Bill was published on 22 January 2008. At its launch, we called on the Government to support its passage on Second Stage and expressly stated that we would be happy on Committee Stage to take on board any constructive amendments proposed by the Government or other Opposition parties that could improve the Bill and provide to victims of crime the rights and protections to which they are entitled. I engaged in preliminary discussions subsequently with the then Government Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, proposing that the Government accept the general principles of the Bill and that Committee Stage be taken in the autumn, thereby affording to the Government a substantial period to prepare any amendments it considered necessary to ensure the Bill's proper workings. Rarely is a Bill published by a Minister that does not require amendment. The Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill currently before the Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights is the subject of more than 300 amendments tabled by the Government.

There was no conclusion to these discussions prior to the recent ministerial reshuffle. Two weeks prior to the Lisbon treaty referendum, I had detailed discussions with the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and briefed him on the extensive work undertaken in the preparation of this Bill. In the course of doing so, I specifically mentioned to him that we had particular regard to current legislation in New Zealand, which had been on the Statute Book for some years and was particularly comprehensive. I also advised him that the Bill reflected principles contained in the European Council Framework Decision previously mentioned.

Following the Bill's publication in January 2008, Fine Gael deliberately delayed the taking of Second Stage to give the Government an opportunity to consider its contents so that the needs of victims of crime would not become the subject of petty party political bickering and in the hope that a constructive bipartisan approach could be adopted. We originally intended taking Second Stage in May but postponed doing so due to the change in Government personnel. I informed the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, we were proposing to take Second Stage on Tuesday and Wednesday of the week immediately preceding the Lisbon treaty referendum. Two days after my discussion with the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, it was clear from a telephone conversation with him that the Government intended to block the progress of this Bill. As a result, Fine Gael delayed the taking of Second Stage as, in the national interest, we did not wish to have an acrimonious debate with the Government on this important Bill a week prior to the Lisbon treaty referendum with the Government engaging in conduct which would inevitably alienate Fine Gael voters.

On Sunday, 1 June 2008, the Minister's bad faith became clear with the publication in theSunday Independent of an alleged exclusive by the reporter, Jerome Reilly, outlining the Minister’s plans for “ground breaking legislation” to provide a statutory basis for the next of kin of homicide victims making victim impact statements. This “badly needed legislation”, according to the Minister’s source, as reported by Jerome Reilly, was identical to the provisions contained in the Bill published four months previously by Fine Gael and which is now before the House. From a conversation I subsequently had with Jerome Reilly, two things were clear. One, sometime late on Saturday afternoon of that weekend, he was furnished with this bogus story either by the Minister or by one of his handlers and, two, he was not informed of the existence of this Bill which was already published. The Minister’s motives for misleading a reporter in this way can only be an arrogance and overweening ego which renders him incapable of working with others to implement, with all possible speed, reforms badly needed in our criminal justice system for the benefit of victims of crime.

It is worth quoting an extract from Jerome Reilly's report. It states:

. . . sources close to Justice Minister Dermot Ahern told theSunday Independent the family of a homicide victim is almost voiceless at present. Yes, they can stand in the rain outside a Court and speak about their loved ones to the media, but they have no rights at present to voice their loss in the Court itself.

In some instances, judges at their discretion allow the next of kin to address the court but some do not. The report stated that the Minister intends introducing legislation which will place the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system.

The report continues:

By giving them a statutory right to a victim impact statement, loved ones will have a right to speak of their loss, its devastating impact on their lives and paint in what is often the missing picture at the trial — the victim of the crime. Such tragedies never have closure [the Minister's source said] but by providing for a court statement, families of loved ones might find some comfort and feel that they had some role in the court process. They will also be able to take comfort from being able to place the victim at the centre of the process [the source said].

Further on in the article it is stated that under the Minister's plan:

The statement would be given in court after a verdict is reached but, crucially, before sentence is passed. It means the statement could not influence the jury but could be taken into account by the sentencing Judge. If there is a murder conviction, a life sentence is mandatory. In cases where a manslaughter "guilty" verdict is handed down, the Judge has sentencing discretion.

The report concludes, again referring to a source "close to the Minister" as stating that "refusing a family the opportunity to have their say in Court could prolong their suffering". Of course, when the Minister, either himself or through a third party, orchestrated the publication of this story, he was unaware that Fine Gael had decided not to move a Second Stage Reading of this Bill the following week. Nothing further was heard from him on this issue until 11 a.m. on Thursday last by which time he was aware that Fine Gael had decided to move the taking of Second Stage of this Bill in the Dáil this week.

In accordance with the exclusive given to Jerome Reilly, the Minister announced at Thursday's press conference that "in the spring" — it is not clear whether this is the spring of 2009, 2010 or 2011- he would present to the Dáil a Bill to reform the victim impact statement mechanism in order to grant some status to next of kin in homicide cases. He made other announcements which essentially boiled down to continuing the current life of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime as a non-statutory body and promised the creation of a victims of crime consultative forum representing victims' interests to liaise with the commission and presumably to describe to the commission all the difficulties currently experienced by victims of crime which require redress and which are comprehensively dealt with in the Bill before the House.

The hasty last minute announcement on Thursday of the creation of a victims of crime consultative forum was simply a re-announcement of a proposal contained in An Agreed Programme for Government published in June 2007 and a repeat of the content of an interview given by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to RTE on 15 June 2007 and of the content of a speech delivered by him on 17 July 2007 to the Magill Summer School in Glenties. Interestingly, on that occasion, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated that "one of my first acts as Minister was to direct that we should move ahead as quickly as possible to get a Victims Support Agency up and running". Apparently the agency that he directed should move ahead as "quickly as possible" in June or July 2007, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has now re-announced as a promise to be implemented some time in 2009 or later. Sadly, yet again, the Government manipulated well-meaning reporters who knew nothing of the history of this issue into making bogus presentations of new ministerial initiatives, writing editorials in praise of the Minister and misleading the public into believing something meaningful was taking place for the benefit of victims of crime.

The truth is that the Bill before the Dáil contains the provisions necessary to address the difficulties currently experienced by bereaved family members following a homicide and fully meets the specifics of what the Minister promised to do in the Sunday Independent. The truth is it provides for the statutory establishment of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime with far greater powers than are vested in the current commission. The truth is that the Fine Gael legislation before the House is substantially more detailed than that promised by the Minister and provides the comprehensive rights-based law to which victims of crime are entitled.

The sad and pathetic truth is that the Minister, for reasons best known to himself, feared that his stature or importance was being in some way threatened or diminished by a major piece of legislation coming before the Dáil addressing an area that falls within his ministerial brief. The tragedy is the Minister lacked the vision and insight to realise that accepting, in principle, the Fine Gael Bill and in the autumn, as we had suggested, introducing amendments that he considered appropriate and necessary, would have increased and not diminished his stature. The truth is that for reasons of party political rivalry and personal ego, the Minister intends to block the progress of this Bill. For his own selfish reasons, therefore, he intends to prolong the suffering of families of homicide victims by refusing them the opportunity to have their say in court, something to which he feigned a commitment in the so-called "exclusive" three weekends ago in theSunday Independent.

Regrettably, on Thursday afternoon last, the Minister chose to engage in the worst type of petty and small-minded politics, behaviour which should be below the dignity of a Minister or any official attached to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Having been informed by me that some sections of the Bill reflected New Zealand legislation, the Minister arranged for journalists to be widely briefed that I had simply plagiarised a New Zealand Act and had in some way engaged in improper conduct. The Minister carried what was an intended smear into a debate with me on LMFM on Friday morning last. Subsequently, his handlers similarly briefed the Sunday newspapers.

The Minister knows that in the preparation of legislation by Government, it is best practice to examine similar legislation operating in other parts of the world and to enact into Irish law legislation working well elsewhere in a form designed to address the State's particular needs and problems. This approach is adopted not only by his Department but by every Department, by the Attorney General's office and by the Law Reform Commission. The latter has, in its multiplicity of reports, regularly surveyed legislation in existence across the world and proposed the enactment of similar appropriate legislation in this State. The Minister and his departmental handlers have been touting victims' rights legislation from New Zealand and expressing hostility to Fine Gael's Bill because it reflects some provisions in New Zealand law, as if New Zealand is some alien state with which we have nothing in common and which forms part of the axis of evil.

It is a particular personal irony that when first working on victims' rights legislation in 2001, I visited New Zealand in September of that year with members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights subsequent to its completion of Committee Stage of the Children Act 2001. We made the trip because some of the provisions contained in that Act, as piloted by the Government, replicated legislation already in existence in New Zealand which was working reasonably well. It was the committee's considered view that it would be helpful to visit New Zealand for briefings from Government officials, and we were encouraged to do so by the then Minister of State with special responsibility for children, Deputy Hanafin, who was the lead Minister on the Bill. We went there to discover how Zealand's children's laws were working in practice and to feed this information into the new administrative arrangements and children's services required to implement our new Act. Ironically, it was on this visit that I was briefed on the laws then in place in New Zealand relating to victims of crime and on new legislation being enacted by the New Zealand Parliament to update those laws.

The then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, was clear on the Government's approach to the Children Bill enacted in 2001. Speaking in the Dáil on 12 April 2000, he stated:

It took almost two and a half years to bring a new Bill before the House. There were sound reasons for that. First, we had to learn from international best practice how best to proceed. In that regard, the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, went to New Zealand to examine the situation there. He and his officials studied it in great depth and reported back to me. I was satisfied on hearing their report that amendments were required.

The amendments to which he refers were those to the original Bill as published. Prior to that, in May 1999, the then Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, described to the House in reply to a Dáil question how he spent 12 days in New Zealand being briefed on different aspects of juvenile law. He was accompanied on that visit by a principal officer from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and an assistant principal officer from the Department of Health and Children.

Curiously, it was appropriate for the Fianna Fáil-PD Government to enact legislation in 2001 based on New Zealand's laws and for a joint Oireachtas committee to visit New Zealand to be briefed on the operation of that legislation. Yet, according to the Minister, Deputy Ahern, it is plagiarism for a Fine Gael Bill to take account of some aspects of New Zealand law that are working well in an area in respect of which there is no existing Irish legislation.

The Minister should apologise.

I do not know what the Deputy is talking about.

The Minister is a disgrace.

I have, over the years, drafted and published more than 20 Private Members' Bills, four of which have been directly enacted into law, with appropriate Government amendments, and which have radically changed areas of law the Government failed to prioritise. Most of the others, within one to three years of publication, resulted in similar Government legislation being introduced and enacted. In recent years, the growing arrogance of those in the Government has resulted in the automatic blocking of almost all new legislation published by Opposition Deputies or Senators.

I have done some research on this. Between January 2002 and June 2007, 87 Private Members' Bills were published. These included 18 published by the Green Party, 23 by the Labour Party and 29 by the Fine Gael Party. Of the 87 published, only one passed beyond Second Stage, Deputy Rabbitte's Coroner's (Amendment) Bill 2005, comprising only three sections, which was enacted on 21 December 2005. It seems the Government is determined to prevent elected members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann from playing an innovative role as legislators. In so doing, it has undermined the credibility of both Houses of the Oireachtas and has made the enactment of legislation a monopoly Government power in circumstances in which the Government lacks the capacity within a reasonable timeframe to bring forward legislation in a broad range of areas.

The legislative programme published by the Government in April 2008 made no reference to the legislation the Minister promised last Thursday to bring forward some time in the future. Unless the Fine Gael Bill is accepted, there is no possibility that the Minister will enact legislation to confer extensive rights on victims of crime within a reasonable timeframe. However, rather than allowing the Bill to progress, the Minister has shown a preference to engage in gombeen politics. In a grotesque act of bad faith, he refuses to acknowledge that it reflects best legislative practice to facilitate recognition of the rights of the forgotten victims of crime. He has sought to contaminate the political landscape by attacking my personal good faith and reputation by accusing me of some form of plagiarism. In so doing, he has placed his own Department in the embarrassing position of having to reinvent the wheel every time it produces legislation to ensure no language is used which reflects legislation operational in other countries for fear of a similar charge being levelled against him or his officials.

As he has done today, the Minister sat in this House last Thursday smiling and sneering as if he had achieved some sort of political coup. The truth is he has exhibited the intellectual capacity for which Homer Simpson has become famous. It is my hope, although I know it is in vain, that the Minister's colleagues in Government will reconsider the approach he proposes to take to this Bill by tomorrow night and that Second Stage will be agreed. The Government expects Fine Gael bipartisanship in helping it resolve the difficulties created by its abysmal failure properly to explain and campaign for the Lisbon treaty. The Government should not take Fine Gael for granted. While we fully support the Lisbon treaty, we will not be railroaded into a bipartisanship commitment once again to stand alongside an arrogant, out of touch and incompetent Government. In the interests of victims of crime, an issue of major public concern, the Government should apply a bipartisan approach to the enactment of this Bill and stop playing foolish, dishonest and irrelevant party political games.


Hear, hear.

Following publication of this Bill by Deputy Shatter in January last, it received strong support from victim support groups such as AdVIC, Rape Crisis Network Ireland and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Further approbation came from the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Conor Lenihan, who observed on "Prime Time" on 22 May that Deputy Shatter has the best record of any Deputy in having successfully introduced Private Members' Bills into legislation and that the Government was "looking very carefully at his Bill because we believe it has a lot of merit in it".

The only criticism of the Bill came from the egotistical Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern. Having been shown up in the Dáil last Thursday for his contempt of the critical motion on the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998, he threw a public tantrum and claimed that Deputy Shatter's Victims' Rights Bill was legislation by Google. This was an ill-informed and ill-judged comment from a small-minded, partisan Minister whose arrogance and conceit are unequalled in this House.

One would expect that after almost 20 years in ministerial office, he would have realised that much of our legislative programme, particularly in the justice area, relies heavily on experience and practice in countries which share a common law tradition. The Minister's unworthy comments have drawn laughter and derision as well as annoyance and frustration from Members in this House and victims' campaigners and families in the wider community. The new Minister has demonstrated the vacuum in his knowledge of legal systems, jurisprudence and the workings of his own Parliamentary Counsel. To suggest that reflection on other legal systems in making new law or recommendations is somehow erroneous and flawed shows how out of touch he is.

Even more damaging was an attempt by his spin doctors to implicate officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who were reported as leading the charge against the Fine Gael Bill. Who are these officials? I challenge the Minister to name them. The truth is they are hired hands the Minister has brought in to foster and promote the nakedly opportune manner of his behaviour since his appointment to his new portfolio. He and his merchants of spin got to work to save his skin in the heat of an embarrassing situation. The Minister's predecessors sought and received co-operation on an all-party basis from this party and others on justice measures, while he has shown by his disgraceful antics that if he wants co-operation he will have to earn it.

The Law Reform Commission in every report it publishes, invests significant effort in examining the legal systems in other common law countries. Judges of the High and Supreme Courts invest significant effort in considering the arguments of judges in other common law countries. The keynote speaker at the public consultation on the third programme for law reform was none other than Judge Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court who spoke about how we in Ireland should approach law reform in this country, based on his experience as chairman of the Australian law reform commission. Our legal systems, as the Minister is well aware, are inextricably linked and are based on learning from each other and developing laws in tandem with emerging principles in similar states.

There is a simple reason for this, that is, we are a small country. In the same way we open our markets and business we open our minds to the other systems where they do things better, more successfully and more efficiently. The Minister's Department officials know this well and he might have consulted them before he threw this public wobbly. If the Minister had asked his officials, they could have told him that many Bills of his own Government have significant links with international precedents. The Immigration Bill 2008, published earlier this year by his predecessor, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is directly informed by the Immigration Bill 2007 published in the New Zealand Parliament. The e-Commerce Act is exactly similar to Australian e-commerce legislation. Most company law Acts here come directly from UK company law. In fact when the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 was first published it was such a close copy of its sister UK 1988 Act that large chunks of it had to be redrafted for it to make sense in the Irish context. This is perfectly normal. It makes common sense to learn from the developments and approaches in other common law countries particularly for a small jurisdiction such as ours. This is evidenced by the frequency with which lawyers, judges, law reform commissions, legal academics and even the Government's statutory draftsmen have referred to principles of law in other jurisdictions.

This is the first time criticism of this kind has been levelled at Irish legislation. Not only is it illogical, it is utter nonsense and it says more about the person making the allegations and their competence than anything else. We are witnessing a Minister and a Government who refuse to accept that the source of legislation can be from a forum other than Government. This long overdue legislation will not be on the Statute Book, as the Minister said, for at least 18 months.

This legislation is about victims. It is about ensuring that victims and their families can be given centre stage in our legislation. The sensible approach is to accept the Bill this evening, carry out improvements, deal with amendments in the normal way, have an all-party committee dealing with the issue and the Bill, as amended, could become law by October. The Bill, as amended if necessary, would improve the position of the vulnerable men, women and children who have already been significantly hurt by crime. The Minister's careless attitude and delaying tactic is another example of how the Government puts narrow partisan political interests ahead of victims and their families. He now has an opportunity to accept this Fine Gael legislation and to deal with any difficulties he may have on Committee Stage. He should put victims and their families and improvements in the criminal justice system before his own ego.

We cannot allow applause from the Public Gallery.

The Government and I can agree fully with the sentiments expressed in regard to the needs of victims of crime, innocent people who, through no fault of their own, have suffered hurt, isolation and unbearable trauma, all because something completely outside their control happened. We, as a society, must help them cope and, where possible, overcome this. The impact of their experience can be immense and life-changing. It behoves us to champion their needs.

To that end the Government is advancing the initiative I announced last Thursday. I did not realise the Fine Gael Party was going to bring forward its Bill. Such a Bill is never put down until Friday, as it was on this occasion when it was indicated to the Chief Whip on Friday. I got Government consent on Tuesday of last week to the most far-reaching and radical set of proposals for victims of crime since the foundation of the State, which I announced on Thursday. I intend to bring forward my Bill. Deputy Shatter can put a spin on it by saying it could be any spring, the reality is that it will be next spring. The proposals which I have announced go far beyond the scope of the Fine Gael Bill are ones which I believe will work. They will be in line with Bunreacht na hÉireann and will do far more for victims and their families — and that, after all, is what this is all about.

While I agree with the sentiments behind the Bill, there are major problems with this latest Fine Gael effort, as presented. There are practical problems at its core which could undermine what it seeks to create. These major defects leave the Government with no option but to oppose the Bill. A more comprehensive, radical and executable legislative and administrative response is needed for victims and their families. The justice for victims initiative is that response. It is the next phase in our national response to the needs of the victims of crime.

I am glad to see there are representatives in the Public Gallery from the groups that work with victims of crime. All of us in this House unite with them in their objective, which is to promote and improve the position of victims of crime in the criminal justice system. We are committed to this. I am personally committed to it because during my time as a solicitor I was acutely aware of the difficulties victims put up with in regard to offences committed against their families.

We are implementing improvements to support their work and through the new arrangements I am implementing, including the establishment of a victims of crime consultative forum, we are providing them with an avenue for putting forward their views.

It is appropriate for me to avail of this opportunity to thank those volunteers at local level who work tirelessly and largely unrecognised to provide a service to the victims of crime. Their sense of responsibility and support to the community deserves the praise, admiration and support of society in general and the Government and this House in particular.

That is why the Government has been active in promoting and developing the supports for victims of crime. That is why we are bringing forward more radical and far-reaching proposals than those advanced by my colleagues on the benches opposite.

Addressing crime victims' issues is An Agreed Programme for Government commitment and a priority for me, as Minister. I made it a priority immediately I went into the Department some weeks ago. That is what the justice for victims initiative, which I announced on Thursday, is all about. It goes much further than anything provided in the Fine Gael Bill.

At the core of the initiative are legislative proposals to be contained in a new ground breaking Bill addressing justice for victims of crime. These proposals will reform the victim impact statement mechanism in order to grant victim status to next of kin in homicide cases, introduce new mechanisms to deal with an acquittal where compelling new evidence of guilt emerges after the acquittal, enable cases to be reopened where an acquittal arises from an error in law by the judge, provide for new prosecutions where there is evidence the original acquittal was tainted by interference with the trial process, including intimidation of witnesses, and introduce measures to restrict unjustified and vexatious imputations at trial against the character of a deceased or incapacitated victim or witness. None of the proposals I have indicated I am bringing forward is contained in the Bill before the House.

On my instruction, work on the drafting of this Bill has commenced in my Department. It is my intention to have it presented to the Oireachtas in the spring. A key principle will underpin the Bill, namely, the need to secure a balance, which is absolutely necessary under our Constitution, in the criminal process that recognises the position of the victim, while at the same time not interfering with the presumption of innocence to which the accused is entitled.

The Bill will provide mechanisms in cases where an acquittal arises that will allow those cases to be reopened in exceptional circumstances, subject to appropriate safeguards. The circumstances where cases may be reopened may arise from an error in the interpretation of the law by the judge, or where compelling evidence of guilt emerges post-acquittal, or where evidence emerges that the acquittal was tainted by interference with the trial process. Again none of those issues is indicated in Deputy Shatter's Bill. That is the reason the Government's Bill will progress this issue much further.

The Bill will also reform the law on victim impact statements and will, in particular, extend the range of persons entitled to make a victim impact statement to the court on the effect of the crime on them. Currently, only the direct victims of sexual crimes or crimes involving violence or the threat of violence are entitled to make such statements. The most obvious deficiency in the current law is that the next of kin of a deceased victim is allowed to make a statement only at the discretion of the court. The effect of my Bill will be that those most directly affected by the offence — not just the direct victim — will be entitled to make such a statement. In cases of homicide, that would most likely be the next of kin of the deceased victim.

That is in the Bill before the House tonight also.

My Bill will also include measures to restrict unjustified and vexatious imputations at trial against the character of a deceased or incapacitated victim or witness. It will also provide additional protection for victims at pre-trial stage. I believe the courts should have stronger powers, for example, to order an accused to refrain from contact with the victim, his or her family and other parties in the period leading up to the trial. Those measures are based on the recommendations in the 2007 report of the balance in the criminal law review group — the Hogan report. I suggest to Members of the House, and to some of the people in the Gallery whom I know have victims at the core of their interests, to examine the Hogan report, which is excellent. When I first came to the Department and examined the issue, that report was one of the reasons I decided not just to examine the issue of victim impact statements, but to go further to produce the most radical criminal law proposals ever to be brought before the Oireachtas in examining double jeopardy. Those measures will go a long way towards redressing such imbalances as may exist by enabling victims to feel they are fairly treated by the criminal justice system at a difficult time in their lives, while at the same time not interfering with the essential fairness of the trial process to which the accused is constitutionally entitled.

In addition to the legislative proposals, the justice for victims initiative will also contain an administrative package to include the establishment of a new executive office of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to support crime victims, focusing on the co-ordination of delivery of services; a reconstituted Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime — with a role to distribute funding to groups working with crime victims, as well as to provide general oversight of services and to promote awareness; and a victims of crime consultative forum, representing victims' interests, through which they will be able to liaise and feed into policy with the commission.

The proposals flow from the framework document, Recommendations for Future Structures and Services to Victims of Crime, prepared by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime, which I published last week. The portent of my press conference was to indicate what I intended to do from a policy point of view to assist victims. The framework document examines the current supports that are available to victims and outlines how they might be strengthened and co-ordinated to ensure that victims receive adequate assistance in the aftermath of crime. I believe the framework document to be well-considered and I have accepted the recommendations of the commission. The commission's main role will continue to be the distribution of funding to groups working with crime victims, but it will also have an important role in contributing to strategy on victims of crime and promoting awareness of the services available to victims of crime. I will also set up a victims of crime consultative forum, which will represent victims' interests and which will engage with the commission. It is the Government's position that any major additional changes to the law in this area should await the outcome of the third programme of the Law Reform Commission, LRC, which includes a commitment to examine the victim and the criminal justice system. That project will involve a general review of the interaction between victims of crime and the criminal justice system.

I acknowledge that on a first reading the Fine Gael Bill appears reasonable. The Bill was originally introduced in 2002. It is just the 2002 Bill with the 2002 struck out and replaced with 2008——

The Minister knows that is complete nonsense. If there was sincerity in anything he has said, he would support the Bill.

——with additions relating to the setting up of a statutory authority. The Bill has been resurrected six years later with the additional provision for a commission for the support of victims of crime, which has been reproduced from the Fianna Fáil manifesto and our agreed programme for Government.

The Minister was in Government for five years since 2002 and did absolutely nothing.

That is the only addition the Deputy has made to the so-called Bill. The truth is that the Bill appears reasonable because it is, in essence, a replication of New Zealand's Victims' Rights Act 2002. Virtually every section, line by line and word by word, is a replication of the New Zealand Act.

The Minister did not put that in his script because he knows it is not true but if it had been, would that matter?

The only two sections Deputy Shatter did not reproduce are the second section that outlines that the New Zealand Act is subject to royal assent——

The Minister did nothing at all.

Deputy Shatter, the Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

——and section 6, which states that when passed the New Zealand Act will be binding on the crown.

The Minister is filling his caricature that I outlined previously in my speech.

They are the only two sections Deputy Shatter did not include in his Bill. The truth is that, in effect, the Bill is a replication of the New Zealand Victims' Rights Act. I urge Members of the House to examine the contents of that Act. In New Zealand, the legislation is credited with having improved the position of crime victims in that jurisdiction and I have no doubt it is appropriate to the circumstances there. However, the legislation before the House must——

Does the Minister think victims in Ireland are different?

——demonstrably be appropriate to this jurisdiction.

Is there any logic in that?

One cannot just import legislation from another jurisdiction, which is part of a different legislative, never mind social and cultural framework——

That is a sad and pathetic criticism.

——no matter how appropriate that legislation may be in that jurisdiction. There is no such thing as a single transferable Act between jurisdictions and Deputy Shatter should know that better than most.

So the Department is not going to engage in any comparative legal studies from now on.

The Minister should be allowed to speak. Deputy Shatter had his turn.

A report from December 2007 in New Zealand called for a review of the 2002 Act after six years. That is the very same Act Deputy Shatter has reproduced today.

The Minister introduced no legislation.

A parliamentary committee of the legislature in New Zealand has asked for that legislation to be reviewed.

We are now living in De Valera's island again. We will not look outside our shores and we will do it all ourselves.

Lest one think that other jurisdictions are more committed to the rights of victims than we are, I draw attention to the fact that the New Zealand legislation does not create enforceable rights of victims. Where Fine Gael has deviated in the Bill from the New Zealand legislation, it has hardly been radical or far-reaching.

That gives the lie to the Minister's criticism of the Bill.

It has substituted the word "shall" for "should" in sections 5 and 6 of the Bill.

The Minister cannot have it both ways.

The Minister is contradicting himself all the time.

Section 5 provides that any person who deals with a victim shall treat the victim with courtesy, compassion and respect for dignity and privacy. Section 6 provides that a victim shall have access to services that are responsive to needs in so far as resources are available. The equivalent provisions in the New Zealand legislation use the word "should".

Has the Minister compared that to the United Nations declaration and the European framework treaty?

That is the only change Fine Gael made.

The Minister thinks victims should not be treated with respect.

Most important, the "original" sections of the Fine Gael scheme do not even require legislation in Ireland. It is the Government's aim — through the Garda Síochána, in particular, and also through the national crime victims helpline, which is supported and promoted as a first port of call for victims of crime by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime — that victims of crime should have access to the services they need. The helpline is one of the many NGOs supported by the commission, which provides support and assistance for all victims of crime. The services that victims can expect from the criminal justice system are detailed in the victims' charter, which is now being revised by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. In saying that, I wish to make it clear that I am completely open to any proposals that have the effect of furthering these aims and even though New Zealand has had victims legislation going back to 1987, it appears that there are still issues that need to be addressed there, as indicated by the Justice and Electoral Committee's report of its inquiry into victims' rights in 2007. The conclusion was that the Act, which is replicated in the Bill before the House, should be reviewed six years on. The committee has called for a review and change of some of the sections Fine Gael has replicated in its Bill. That illustrates the complexity of the topic.

It is so complex that even though Fianna Fáil has been in government for 11 years it has not enacted legislation.

In a recent speech on 19 April, my counterpart, the Justice and Police Minister, Annette King, said,

This year, a victims' charter will be developed to build awareness of the standard of service that victims can expect from government agencies. The victims' charter will be a significant step in ensuring that victims of crime are aware of their rights under the Victims Rights Act.

We in this country have had a victims' charter since 1995. We are a step ahead of New Zealand in that respect——

This Bill provides for a statutory victims of crime charter.

——with a revision of the earlier charter being carried out in 1999, which provides a written framework of entitlements against which crime victims can measure the level and standard of treatment received in their dealings across all sections of the criminal justice system. The fact New Zealand is now turning its attention to a victims' charter shows that each jurisdiction must choose its own route according to its circumstances and that legislating in this area is not necessarily the most effective or only way to proceed.

The Bill provides for a statutory victims of crime commission. The Minister cannot have it both ways.

It is better to provide flexible structures which can be responsive to the needs of victims of crime and to bring real substantive improvements to the law, which is what we are doing.

The Government is not doing anything.

Moving on from the unsatisfactory genesis of this Bill, the Government has serious difficulties with the provisions of the Bill, as presented. The Bill goes beyond the requirements of the European framework decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings, which it purports to be transposing into Irish legislation. Ireland is already compliant with the framework decision, by virtue of our administrative and legislative arrangements. Our compliance in this regard has been so reported to the EU Commission.

The Commission did not take that view. The Minister took that view about it himself.

The framework decision identified a number of rights for victims as follows: the right of the individual to be treated with respect for his or her dignity; the right to provide and receive information; the right to understand and be understood; the right to be protected at various stages of the proceedings; and the right to have allowances made for the disadvantage of living in a different member state from the one in which the crime was committed.

There are serious practical and technical difficulties with some of the provisions of the Fine Gael-New Zealand Bill before us. The requirement not to accept a lesser plea without informing the victim and explaining his or her reasons would seriously encroach on the independence of the DPP. Similarly, placing a requirement on the DPP to consult with the victim on the grant of bail, in cases of serious sexual and violent assault, and the requirement to inform the court of the victim's views would impact on the DPP's independence and may have constitutional implications.

The sections relating to victim impact statements purport to provide for their more comprehensive use. Section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 provides that a court must take into account the effect of a crime on a victim and allows it, where necessary, to receive evidence or submissions about the effect of that crime in the case of serious violent and sexual offences. A victim is also allowed to give oral evidence in the matter. The reform I announced last week will address the long-standing criticism of the existing statutory provisions, namely, that they should not be restricted to the direct victim only but should apply to other categories of persons affected by the crime such as, in the case of a homicide, the immediate family members of the deceased victim.

Those provisions are in the Bill.

In order to avoid any possibility of inappropriate statements the amended provisions will empower the court to prohibit the broadcasting or publication of all or part of such a statement.

The Minister is plagiarising the Bill.

The Deputy did not include any of the Hogan proposals. He is way behind. This proposal will implement one of the main recommendations of the Hogan report on balance in the criminal law regarding victim impact statements.

That provision has been in the Bill since January.

I spent the first weekend after my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform reading the Hogan report. I would strongly suggest to Members and those outside the House with an interest in the matter to read that report.

Why did the Minister not tell theSunday Independent journalist that what he is now promising was already contained in the Fine Gael Bill?

We are proposing to put into law the Hogan report proposals on victims.

Why did he deceive theSunday Independent readers?

I ask Deputy Shatter to allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

As I understand it, the provisions put forward by the Deputies, particularly under section 16(2) of their Bill, place no restrictions on the type of offences involved in the case where written evidence or submissions on the impact of the crime on the victim are to be heard in court. I am concerned that the obligation being placed on both the DPP and the Garda Síochána to prepare victim impact statements in the sentencing of offenders generally is too broad and would slow down the prosecution process.

There are a range of other issues which need to be fully examined and researched before expanding and consolidating the use of victim impact statements within a statutory framework. Victim impact statements fulfil a number of roles relating to the sentencing process and the important aspect of victims having their say. More extensive changes, beyond the justice for victims initiative regarding the victim impact statement provisions should await the deliberations of the Law Reform Commission.

Section 8 of the Bill obliges the agencies of the criminal justice system to provide information to all victims and not just to those who ask for it, which is the requirement under the European framework decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings. This would place an onerous obligation on the Garda and DPP to keep victims informed at all stages of the criminal process, which would be unworkable and would have significant resource implications. To be workable, the Bill would need to differentiate between serious offences and minor offences, which it does not do.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that the level of detail set out in section 8 dealing with the information to be given to victims is appropriate to legislation. Almost all of the provisions are contained in the victims' charter and in view of the constant need to improve, develop and enhance the level of detail involved, this area is a primary candidate for listing outside of primary legislation. The requirement that all victims of all offences, including victims of anti-social behaviour offences, be informed of every aspect of the investigation and prosecution of an offence, including explanation of a decision not to prosecute, goes far beyond the requirements of the European framework decision. I accept fully that victims have a legitimate expectation to be informed about services available and about the progression of a case. To that end, I am asking the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime to explore with the agencies involved how the needs of victims in regard to information might best be met.

The requirement to give reasonable prior notice of the intention of the parole board to review the case of a convicted offender for parole and to make submissions to the parole board is already available to those victims who ask for this and, as I said above, the issue of the victim impact statement being available at the parole stage, as recommended by Dr. Hogan, will be addressed in the Government Bill. In addition, the book of evidence is now available to the parole board. The requirement to be given reasonable notice of a convicted offender's escape or early release is also already available to those victims of serious offences who ask for it.

A significant part of the Private Members' Bill relates to the provision for a statutory Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. The sections outlining the tasks of the commission are useful as a checklist and I have no difficulty with them in principle. However, on taking office I was presented with the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime framework document, which I have just published. It is my intention to implement these recommendations immediately in their entirety. They do not seek the establishment of a statutory agency. However, in light of the recent OECD report, Towards an Integrated Public Service, I do not want at this stage to establish a statutory office but rather to meet this function through an executive office within my Department, which will also have the role of providing the secretariat. Despite its stated policy on the proliferation of statutory State bodies, Fine Gael is calling on us to establish yet another statutory authority and yet people such as Deputy Varadkar and others are abusing the Government over statutory agencies.

The commission already exists. It was set up in 2005.

Fine Gael claims there are too many of them and yet it is calling for another one. The bottom line is that from a victim's perspective it does not matter whether a commission is established on a statutory basis, as long as the service is delivered. In putting these structures in place, I am honouring the commitment given in the programme for Government. The strengthening of the administrative structures through these recommendations will provide a general basis for consolidating progress and moving forward to address the concerns identified by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime such as inconsistent levels of service provision to victims of crime across the country.

The establishment of a new victims office, along with a reconstituted commission and victims' of crime consultative forum will bring renewed energy, drive and direction to the whole area of supporting victims of crime. Along with the Bill that I will bring forward next year, this package of administrative measures is a more sustainable, focussed and flexible way to proceed than through the wide-ranging and unworkable measures contained in the Victims' Rights Bill 2008. The measures I have announced affirm my personal determination to ensure that victims of crime receive a high standard of service from the agencies within the criminal justice system and from the NGOs providing support for victims of crime, funded by the Commission for the support of victims of crime.

I urge the House to reject the Bill. The initiative I have announced, for which I received Government consent last week, indicates that we are going much further than this Bill. If necessary, I can produce a comparison between the two Bills. The Bill before us is the replication of an outdated Bill from New Zealand virtually word for word and line for line just localised for Irish circumstances.

New Zealand is not North Korea or Albania.

It is on the other side of the world. It is a different jurisdiction. I regard my role as a legislator as a solemn role given to me by the people. This is not a classroom where Members cog homework.

The Minister is pathetic.

This is a sovereign Parliament where we determine our own legislation. We do not cog it from other jurisdictions as Fine Gael has done.

The Minister is not fit for the office he has been given. He is a disgrace.

I call Deputy O'Shea.

The Children Act copied legislation from New Zealand. The Minister is an absolute disgrace.

It is lazy legislation.

We would be better off with New Zealand legislationsimpliciter than no legislation at all.

It is lazy legislation, which is out of date already according to the those in New Zealand.

The Minister is a total disgrace. What makes it even more pathetic is that he does not realise it. He does not realise how pathetic he sounds.

Táim ag iarraidh mo chuid ama a roinnt leis na Teachtaí Ó Snodaigh agus Rabbitte. Molaim na Teachtaí Shatter agus O'Flanagan as ucht an Bille caoithiúil seo, An Bille um Chearta Íosparteach 2008, a thógaint os comhair na Dála. Tá athas orm seans a fháil labhairt sa díospóireacht ar an Dara Chéim den Bhille.

This Bill is timely and I compliment Deputies Flanagan and Shatter on bringing it before the House. Last year, I came across a case in my constituency where a woman had been physically assaulted by a stranger with serious consequences for her. It took a long time to get the case to court, where the defendant was convicted and a prison sentence imposed. Subsequently, there was an appeal, but to the best of my recollection the victim had no idea this appeal was taking place. The appeal did not relate to the conviction but to the severity of the sentence. As a result, the defendant, on payment of €2,000, could have the sentence suspended for 18 months. The outcome of the appeal was worse for the victim, who went through very considerable trauma.

The issues that arose in that instances were keeping the victim informed and sentencing. Many people have grave concerns about sentencing. I will not go into recent cases but it is an issue. As a democrat and a legislator I have a major concern because the level of sentencing in some high profile cases undermines people's confidence in the judicial or legal system. We are failing in many instances.

I have listened to the acrimony in the House, but the genesis of this Bill does not matter at the end of the day. Either it is fit for purpose or it is not. It does not matter where it came from. There should be a greater spirit of co-operation here in solving a major problem in society. All this agro does not enhance the view of people who are aware of it and in terms of how committed this Legislature is to making proper provision for many of the issues.

As I said, the Bill is timely. In many ways it is in line with the Labour Party's position. My party holds the view that victims and their needs should be at the heart of the justice system. The rights of victims to information, advice and other appropriate assistance should be met effectively and efficiently. That is covered in this Bill. I read the explanatory memorandum and was impressed with it — I am not a legal person. The Minister raised legal issues and made a statement last week, aspects of which were very welcome. Has the Minister looked at how to get to where we want to be? We want legislation that addresses the problems in this area to go through the Oireachtas and be signed into law by the President. The Minister talked about publishing a Bill in the spring. However, given the Government's record on producing legislation, one would have to be less than confident that this will happen.

Does it matter from where legislation comes? It does not. It may offend the Government's pride that legislation comes from the Opposition benches, but the real issue is to provide for victims and the Bill is a very large forward step in looking after the rights of victims. The agro is wasteful, with people endeavouring to score points off one another. We are here to serve the people. A basic right is security and the State has a responsibility to provide for it. There are too many victims who, rightly, feel they have not been properly treated by the system. We will not rectify all that is wrong overnight, but until we have legislation and we begin to implement and develop it, we are going nowhere.

We must get away from the criminal justice system treating victims of crime as just another potential witness. The Labour Party's position is that the Garda should maintain adequate contact through identified liaison officers with victims of crime and report progress on investigations and prosecutions. There is nothing between the Minister and the proposers of the Fine Gael Bill on these issues. I do not see that much difference here except that there are questions about the genesis of the legislation. It came from another jurisdiction where some aspects of law are quite different. However, let us start getting around these issues rather than arguing about them. It serves no useful purpose for the Government to oppose the Bill. What does it achieve? If the Government, at an early stage, presents superior legislation, as long as we are meeting the needs of victims of crime, as this Bill seeks to do, that is all that matters. That is what we are paid for and why we are elected. Tonight's bickering backwards and forwards does not edify this institution. Let us get on with the job, do what we are elected to do and dispense with the altercations across the floor. Altercations serve no purpose, least of all for the people who elected us.

The Labour Party believes a victims' fund should be established to award compensation to victims of crime outside the loss and expense individuals and businesses are normally insured against. The expenses of the fund would be met by fines paid by offenders. There is much in the Bill that is attractive, pertinent and needs to be brought forward and put into legislation. If there are major additions to what is there, or basic problems, that is fine, but the Minister should not stop it because what is proposed is not repugnant to the interests of victims. That is not where we are — far from it.

The Minister acknowledged where the proposals of this Bill came from and was complimentary about it. However, I return to the point that democracy is not something that maintains itself but must be looked after. In this country, and in many western economies, people are less inclined to cast their vote. They are not coming forward to vote in the numbers they did in the past.

For some time, I have formed the view that we must be clearly seen to be doing what we should be doing in the House and addressing the problems that exist, which do not get any easier. For example, the economy is now in recession. We need to spend much less time hopping off one another in here and get down to dealing with those issues that are really important to the people. In many ways, we saw elements of this in the recent referendum campaign. I firmly believe there was a considerable anti-politician element in the "No" vote and we must work to remedy this.

Much has happened to the reputation of politicians given what has emerged in tribunals and so on. We have an obligation to resurrect the good name of the whole profession of politics. As we know, the vast majority of people in politics and in these Houses are of fine calibre and they come here to look after the interests and concerns of the people who elect them. We need to be clearly seen to address the issues which are important.

I again ask the Government to reconsider its opposition to the Fine Gael Bill because, as I said, it serves no useful purpose. Fine Gael and the two Deputies involved should be complimented on the Bill. They brought it to us and no one can in any way say it is not pertinent and urgent, or that it is not important that these issues are addressed.

The Minister is to bring in his Bill in the spring, if it happens then. However, it is incumbent on the Minister to keep this House, particularly the justice spokespersons, well informed as to what is happening so we all know exactly the position of the Bill and when we can look forward to having a large measure of agreement to get it through the House.

Gabhaim buíochas as an deis labhartha agus gabhaim buíochas leis an dTeachta Brian O'Shea as ucht a chuid ama a roinnt liom. Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo. Is tábhachtach an rud é go bhfuil sé os ár gcomhair anois. Is fíor annamh a chloiseann éinne mise ag tacú le nó ag moladh Bille dlí agus cirt a thagann ó Fhine Gael, ach tarlaíonn rudaí ait anois agus arís. Sa chás seo, is Bille maith é agus tuigim go ndéanann sé iarracht tabhairt faoi cheist atá ag feitheamh le blianta ar an Rialtas chun ruda a dhéanamh faoi. Bliain in ndiaidh bliana, dúirt Rialtais éagsúla go dtabharfadh siad faoi an cheist seo, ach ní dhearna siad beart de réir a mbriathar go dtí gur fhoilsigh Fine Gael a Bille. Go tobann ansin labhair an tAire agus dúirt sé go raibh sé réidh chun a Bhille fhéin a chur os ár gcomhair.

Aontaím le cuid mhór de na moltaí sa Bhille seo. Dar ndóigh, d'fhéadfadh sé a bheith níos foirfe. Sin an jab atá againne agus ag an Rialtas, feabhas a chur air. Sin an fáth gur cóir ligint don Bhille dul chomh fada le Céim an Choiste, ionas gur féidir linn Bille níos foirfe a dhéanamh de ionas gur féidir linn uilig tacú leis. Táimid uilig sa Teach aontaithe go bhfhuil gá le reachtaíocht cheart a thugann cosaint le cearta íobartaigh. Seo tús le sin. Tar éis na reachtaíochta a chur i bhfeidhm, b'fhiú filleadh ar rudaí eile. Ar a laghad, ba chóir don Rialtas tús a chur leis an phróiseas, agus an cheist seo a thapú. Go minic tapaíonn an Rialtas ceisteann eile, conas ceartanna a bhaint uainn agus conas dlithe a dhéanamh níos láidre. Is buntaist é an Bille seo don todhchaí agus ba chóir don Rialtas a léiriú go bhfhuil siad sásta bheith níos tógtha leis an cheist seo ná mar atá siad. Léirigh an méid a bhí le rá ag an tAire nach bhfuil meas aige ar iarrachtaí an bhFreasúra chur chuige cheart a dhéanamh ar cheisteanna móra mar seo. Níor dhein sé aon mhaitheas san slí a bhí sé ag caitheamh anuas ar an mBille. Is cuma an ón Nua-Shéalainn, Ceanada nó pé áit ón ar dtagann na bun-smaointí más féidir costaint a thabhairt do íobartaigh. Ba cheart dúinn tabhairt faoi na cosaintí agus iad a mhúnlú dúinn féin. Sin an fáth a bhíonn Céim an Choiste ann.

The Government should show some maturity, although there is faint hope of that, especially given the reaction today of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his antics last Thursday with his non-appearance, appearance and reappearance on the Offences Against the State Act motion. He apparently did that to upstage this Bill by holding a press conference outlining his own half-baked proposals on the legislation he was promising for spring of next year. When we reach spring of next year it will probably then be the spring of the following year or the year after that. That said, I cannot let the opportunity pass to deplore the failure of Fine Gael to oppose the continuing renewal of the Offences Against the State Act on that occasion.

It is essential in considering the Victims' Rights Bill that we not only recognise but also legislate for the implementation of rights for victims of crime. The first priority must be crime prevention and community safety in all its aspects. If we get it right, and I do not believe we have done so in any shape or form, far fewer people will become victims of crime or will become criminals, which should not be forgotten. However, the reality is that we are surrounded by crime in our communities, particularly violent crimes against people.

Again today, in my constituency, there was another shooting where a woman was shot in the shoulder. This kind of crime is all too prevalent at present and has many victims, in this case not only the woman but her family, the witnesses and the community as a whole. Crimes in that area in particular are a result of the drugs trade and a feud between warring drugs gangs.

Not enough has been done to protect the victims or the witnesses to these crimes. Very few witnesses come forward because they do not have faith in the system or faith that the State will protect them and their families in the event of them coming forward. It is the same with some of the victims of crime, who are too afraid to explain the full horror of what has happened to them. I appeal again to the Government to look properly at this issue and use the opportunity to try to progress this Bill through Committee Stage.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a Bill of Rights forum was established and it examined the issue of the rights of victims and witnesses to fair treatment. That forum's final report made two key recommendations, the first of which states:

Everyone who is a victim of or witness to a crime or a human rights violation is entitled to support and assistance in the criminal and civil justice system to enable him or her to give the best possible evidence, free from intimidation and harassment and from fear of victimisation. In particular, a victim of sexual crime, child abuse and/or domestic violence has the right to be treated with respect and sensitivity by appropriately trained justice officials.

There are many practical steps which can be taken, both inside and outside the courts, to assist victims and witnesses. Such people have already gone through a traumatic time through being victims or witnesses to a crime and the delays in the court system often compound this. The fact of a spotlight being on the cases often makes people anxious and the court cases themselves vividly reawaken the memories of what befell them. That can be traumatic and the State must ensure such people have the required supports so they can give proper evidence in court, without fear of intimidation.

The other recommendation of the forum was that:

Following any conviction in a trial for a serious offence and prior to sentence being delivered, a victim has the right to make a statement orally or in writing in open court indicating the impact of the crime on himself or herself and to close relatives and associates.

Principal issues raised in criminal justice and victim's working groups of the forum included the following:

victims' rights include the right: to be treated with courtesy, respect, fairness and dignity; to be heard; to receive accurate and timely information; to privacy and protection; to support, reparation and compensation; to an effective and efficient investigation of the crime; and to timely processing of criminal or other appropriate proceedings following the arrest of the accused.

it was noted that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland have also seen the development of information and restorative statutory and nonstatutory processes in which it is important to secure victims' rights.

In all of this, it is vitally important to protect the rights of accused persons who are innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, this Bill and every other Bill will have to be tested on that score but at least we have a Bill in front of us to examine. The Minister unveiled a series of proposals and promised legislation at his press conference last Thursday. His half-baked proposals prompted the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to state that "The changes that the Minister has proposed would diminish the rights of accused people without improving——

The Deputy should read the Hogan report. They are not half-baked.

I am simply quoting what another organisation has said. If the Minister was not so busy chatting to his colleague, he might have heard the context in which I was speaking.

I did hear it and the proposals are not half-baked.

Which organisation was I quoting?

They are not half-baked.

The Minister does not have a clue because he did not have the manners to sit and listen. The organisation which commented on the Minister's proposals was the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. I will quote the council again, if the Minister so wishes:

The changes the Minister has proposed will diminish the rights of accused people without improving life for victims of crime. It is a fallacy that taking liberties from accused persons can enhance the lives of victims. If the Government is genuinely interested in advancing the situation of victims then it must adopt a rights-based approach, including a statutory charter for victims of crime.

We owe it to the victims of crime that the State takes the required steps to protect them, to encourage them to rebuild their lives, to have faith in the justice system, to put them at ease when dealing with the justice system, the Garda Síochána and the courts and to keep them informed.

Sa lá atá inniu ann, ba cheart go mbeadh fhois ag gach duine faoi cad atá ag tarlú i ngach stad den chóras — níl aon leithscéal i leith seo — agus sna chúirteanna. Tá grupaí eile ag tabhairt tacaíochta don Bhille, agus ba chóir dúinn éisteacht leo agus an spreagadh a thabhairt chun déileála i gceart leis an cheist seo. Ba cheart dúinn an Bille seo a chur chuig coiste chun déileála le haon athraithe, nó píosaí briese a chur leis, gan fanacht leis an Rialtais.

Iarraim ar an tAire díriú ar seo agus gan é a dhiúltiú, an Bhille a thabhairt os comhair choiste agus tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille, agus é a athrú nó cur leis ag Céim an Choiste ionnnas go mbeidh Bille foirfe againn ag deireadh an próiseais, seachas fanacht le Bille an Aire an bhliain seo chugainn.