I am glad to have the opportunity, on behalf of the Labour Party, to express our support for the Bill tabled by Deputy Shatter and Fine Gael. We would like a number of issues included on Committee Stage but the Labour Party has no reservation about supporting the thrust of the legislation. It is not just a perception that victims are the forgotten people of the criminal justice system. Having read Deputy Shatter's contribution last night and having examined the Bill, it is evident a great deal of work went into its preparation to tackle the deficit in which victims of crime find themselves. I am reminded of a case on my desk, unfortunately, involving a loss of life and I can testify to the difference it makes when investigating gardaí maintain contact and communication with the deceased's family.
Generally, in my experience, victims are not kept informed of progress while a crime is being investigated. Why should gardaí not be required to maintain adequate contact through identified liaison officers with victims of crime and to keep them up to date in so far as they can on the progress of the investigation? I would like a victims' compensation fund to be established where compensation could be awarded to victims of crime outside of the normal expenses against which individuals and businesses may be insured. The expenses of the fund could be met by the equivalent amount collected in fines imposed on offenders.
Only yesterday, I received an e-mail from the organisation, AdVIC, detailing its efforts to obtain a meeting with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It would like to discuss important issues, including victim impact statements, article 10 of the criminal injuries compensation tribunal, defence post mortem examination and non-statutory sentencing guidelines. The organisation has been unable to secure the ear of the Minister. I am reminded of our discovery last night during the debate on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008. The same Minister was able to set aside last Friday in a Dublin hotel to hear the views of licensed vintners, retailers and other interest groups, arising from which he dropped sections of that Bill. If he can find a day to set aside to meet the publicans of Ireland — fine, upstanding men they all are — it is remarkable that he cannot find an hour in his diary to meet representatives of the victims of crime.
I welcome recent improvements in the responsiveness of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to victims of crime. Subject to obvious constraints, I would like that channel of communication to be enhanced. The DPP has opened a sensitive debate touching on some of these issues and, provided we make haste slowly, the outcome might provide comfort for victims of crime. It could be argued about the more central role being accorded victims in the legislation that most of the entitlements could be conferred administratively but, in our adversarial system of justice, crime victims are the forgotten people. The merit of the Bill is that the recognition of victims will have a basis in statute, a right to be heard and it should bring more openness to the process.
It is not possible in my experience to overemphasise the importance of information to persons who find themselves in the role of victims. It is right that the Bill imposes obligations on State agencies such as the Garda, Courts Service, HSE and others. Victims should be advised of what assistance is available to them and how that can be accessed. The courts process can be a mystery and it can be intimidating for victims, most of whom will not have seen the inside of a courtroom in their lives but they have suffered hurt, isolation and trauma. I know some of the outstanding persons who have given voluntarily of their time to advocate the cause of victims and their efforts in the past have frequently fallen on stony soil.
If Deputy Shatter's Bill achieves no more than embarrassing the Government into action, it will have been worthwhile. However, I fail to see the need to reinvent the wheel. Why not allow this Bill proceed to Committee Stage where the Government can amend it as it sees fit? That would not obviate the necessity for a victims of crime consultative forum, which could run parallel to the progress of this legislation.
I was amazed to discover the amount of the Minister's contribution to the debate taken up detailing the supposed defects of the Fine Gael Bill and explaining the merits of his own initiative when we do not have anything tangible to go on at all yet. It is a revelation into a very interesting mindset that so much of his script is taken up with an attitude of "Mine is bigger than yours". I have read the Bill. I have not spoken to Deputy Shatter about it and I do not know how he compiled it but I find the partisan controversy created by the Minister very odd. I would love to know the author of the sentence, "Bootlegged Bills do not work", in his script. I would not like to go through our Statute Book in too much detail if that is the case. Why does the Minister have to devote his time to allegations about whether Deputy Shatter googled the Bill? The Deputy can speak for himself but I am long enough in the House to know he was drafting Private Members' Bills before we ever heard of Google or the Internet.
I am puzzled — I shadow him — as to whether this Minister will continue as he has started. He has a difficult job and it will be more difficult if he seeks to kick the Opposition every time he passes. We have a Bill for all to read and study tabled by Deputy Shatter and a speech and a press conference from the Minister responsible and a promise that next spring the buds of a new Bill will emerge. Maybe they will and there are some good things in the script. For the life of me, I do not see why we should not assent to passing Deputy Shatter's Bill onto Committee Stage where the Government could make its input in the interests of victims of crime and we could tease out the issues. The Government has the resources and the victims have the need. The former should engage on Committee Stage so that the House can produce a better Bill in the interests of the latter.