I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis na hoifigigh in Oifig na mBillí. I thank the Ceann Comhairle, his staff, the Bills Office, colleagues and everyone who helped my staff on this Bill. It has been amended since the last occasion.
I rise today with a certain amount of sadness at the continued plundering of our national treasures, the violation of persons and their homes and the many acts being performed outside of any regulation. I do not exaggerate when I say that people's lives and limbs are being put in danger. Those involved in this relentless trade know no boundaries. There is no point in saying there is no meaningful legislation, as there is none at all.
I thank the departmental officials, who are present, and I wish the new Minister Godspeed on her new journey and well in her office. I look forward to working with her. I had some engagement with her on this issue in recent weeks. Despite her busy schedule, she found the time. I had a briefing with the officials yesterday afternoon. While I appreciated that and respected their positions on the matter, I am disappointed that there is no support from the Government side for this effort on the part of myself and my colleagues to put in place protection for our heritage, people's health and safety and, vitally, citizens' homes. One's home is one's castle. I have been told that the crime figures are down, but I do not know where they are coming from because people's homes are being violated in the county I represent and elsewhere. Thankfully, I have not been robbed, but I have been in many houses that have been. It is a terrible intrusion on people's privacy and an attack on their persons. Some very valuable items have been stolen. Gardaí say that robbers go for two things - cash and gold or silver. They might only be in a person's home for a matter of minutes, but the destruction caused to achieve that is considerable. Legislation is necessary.
I will refer to our previous debate of two and a half years ago. I thank my many colleagues who contributed. Their comments are a matter of record. There was widespread support for the Bill as it stood at the time, even with the deficiencies in it pointed out by the then Minister, Deputy Shatter. I always stated that it was a work in progress and an effort by me as a private Member to ensure a debate and some movement towards meaningful regulations to control this significant issue. I am sure that Deputies' comments today will prove that the situation has worsened at an alarming rate in the time since. We have lost much of our valuable infrastructure and listed buildings have been plundered. I could name them.
I thank various people and organisations, including the Irish Georgian Society, gardaí and Muintir na Tíre, a letter from the president of which I might read into the record if I have time. The letter is not that long. Muintir na Tíre represents the real people of Ireland and was set up by the late Canon John Hayes many years ago in the spirit of the meitheal and to support communities and families. It is concerned.
Various forums, consultation briefings and so on have been held since our last debate, but what people need is action, which always speaks louder than words. If someone's home is broken into, not much can be done to stop cash from being stolen. Where the items stolen are of personal or sentimental value, however, for example, jewellery that belonged to spouses, grandparents or other loved ones who have died and gone to their eternal reward, we cannot allow a situation to continue in which those items can be put in envelopes and posted away in return for cash in the post a few days later. Surely this is unacceptable in any modern economy or democracy. There must be regulations. I am a great supporter of small business and am often critical of over-regulation, but there is a regulatory void in this instance. The officers of the State - gardaí, customs and Revenue officials and so on - need to be supported. They must have the tools they need to solve crimes and ensure traceability.
The previous Bill was short, with three main thrusts. First, each scrap or precious metal dealer would be obliged to register. I salute those scrap merchants, jewellers, goldsmiths and so on who are operating within the law and doing a wonderful job. They support the call for legislation, as they are not allowed to compete on a level playing field. We hear much about the black economy, which is thriving in this sphere. The model is used by other sectors of the black economy. We must oppose that economy and support taxpayers and employers, particularly small to medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, for example, owner-operated businesses that employ one or two people.
These businesses are vital to the rebuilding of our economy and can and will play a huge part in that regard. As I have said previously, if each of the 400,000 small businesses here were to employ one additional person, our unemployment levels would be depleted. However, businesses must also be regulated.
The Bill also provides that transactions in respect of the purchase of scrap or precious metal be by cheque or financial transfer through a bank and for the putting in place of a waiting period of one month, which some people have said is not long enough but that is a matter for consideration by the relevant authorities in consultation with the Garda Síochána and other agencies of the State, in respect of the disposal of scrap or precious metal stolen or unlawfully removed from any premises so that items might be located and identified by their owners. While items and property may not always be properly stamped and so on, people will be able to identify what is theirs, particularly items of sentimental value. It is important stolen items or property cannot be melted down hours after being sold on. There must be a waiting period during which time An Garda Síochána or persons from whom items have been stolen can have an opportunity to inspect and identify them.
The Bill also provides for penalties, including a fine of up to €1,000 and three months imprisonment. While penalties are a matter for the courts it is important this matter is addressed in the legislation. Every week, new areas are being targeted. As I said earlier, already the Irish Georgian Society, Irish Aviation Authority, Iarnród Éireann, the ESB and Eircom have been targeted. Those stealing the masts in the dead of night do not care whether they are to enable mobile communication between people or are linked to ground control for Irish aviation. I do not wish to engage in scaremongering but there are real fears around the consequences of communications infrastructure that is vital to airport towers and hospitals and so on being stolen. Some years ago, a mast near the hospital in Clonmel, although not servicing the hospital but transmitting RTE radio to people in County Waterford was stolen. It was replaced and the new one was stolen. It has been replaced so many times the decision has since been taken to not replace it again. Those engaged in this activity know no bounds. As I said, they will steal from hospitals, homes and anywhere else. They also steal artefacts. I was a member of Tipperary County Council at the time the Per Cent for Arts Scheme was established. Under this scheme 5% of funding is awarded to artistic features. A plebiscite is held locally in regard to what feature should be supported. Some wonderful artefacts have been created by specialist artists, many of which were a labour of love, and paid for by taxpayers' money and are now in the ownership of communities. Many of these artefacts have been unceremoniously removed in the dead of night and melted down, which is a shame when one considers the creativity and artistic work involved in making them.
The Bill also deals with listed buildings. There are many listed buildings in this country, particularly in Dublin. They are a wonderful heritage and are protected, and rightly so. However, lead from the roofs of these buildings is being stolen, leaving these houses open to all weathers. Without immediate remedial action, these houses can be damaged beyond repair. I am not an engineer but I know what happens when water gets into a building. Some years ago the Padre Pio medallion was stolen from the vestry of the Holy Cross Abbey, which is in my constituency, and is a place of worship visited by people from all over the world. Thankfully, it was recovered. As I said, these people know no bounds in terms of what they are prepared to steal. It is a lucrative trade that is not being addressed.
I received a letter from the president of Muintir na Tíre, who has made submissions to the environmental consultation process. He states in his letter that there is a need for greater and tighter controls on the disposal of items, including more checkpoints at ports, scrap yards and cash for gold outlets. He also states that he has no problem with anybody trading in this area - nor do I - so long as that trader is compliant with best practice. It must be remembered that so long as there is a market for an item particular people will bend the rules to obtain such items. This Bill seeks to ensure there will always be a trail of information that will lead to criminals being targeted.
It is regrettable that my previous Bill was opposed by the then Minister and that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has not yet signed into law the legislation dealing not with what is proposed in my Bill but environmental controls in respect of the movement of waste and other materials. Why the delay?