The resolution before the committee seeks approval for the retention of sections 2 to 6, inclusive, of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act 1996 relating to the detention of suspected drug traffickers. As committee members are aware, section 11 of the Act requires the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to prepare a report on the operation of the provisions in question, in conjunction with the moving of a resolution to provide for their renewal. The necessary report, covering the period from 12 November 2004 to 24 November 2006, is being laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. Our focus is on the renewal of the detention provisions outlined in the Act. I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Tánaiste to discuss the matter with members.
The Government's top policing priority continues to be the targeting of organised crime, including drug trafficking and the gun culture with which it is associated. Under section 20 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Tánaiste has determined that this will be the top Government policing priority for 2007 and that targeted action against drug traffickers will continue to be pursued through the use of specialist units and targeted operations such as Operation Anvil, profiling, intelligence gathering and threat assessments in regard to individuals and groups involved in organised crime, including drug trafficking, delivery on Garda actions and performance targets outlined in the national drugs strategy, and ongoing action by the Criminal Assets Bureau pursuant to the proceeds of crime legislation. Drug law enforcement is a key feature and one of the specific pillar headings of the Government's drug policy framework, the national drugs strategy 2001 to 2008.
Before elaborating on the various sections of the Act under discussion, I would like to set out the background against which the renewal of these necessary provisions is being proposed by the Government. The first point to make in our consideration of drug trafficking concerns the global context in which such activity takes place. Any debate on the issues of drug misuse and drug trafficking should take account of the nature and scale of the problem. The 2006 annual report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the total number of drug users in world is now some 200 million, equivalent to approximately 5% of the global population between the ages of 15 and 64 years. The number of opiate abusers is estimated at some 16 million, of whom 11 million are heroin abusers. Some 13 million are cocaine users. This problem is by no means unique to Ireland. These statistics are provided, not as a basis for a defeatist attitude to the issue but merely to highlight the extent of the drugs problem internationally. It is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest and most destructive social problems faced by all societies. We must take responsibility for what happens in our own jurisdiction and constantly strive to ensure the measures and policies we have in place to address the issues involved are flexible enough to be able to respond to that complex global problem.
The Government remains firmly convinced that the most appropriate means of tackling the problem is through the national drugs strategy and will remain resolutely committed to this approach. The strategy addresses the problem under pillar headings of education and prevention, supply reduction, treatment and rehabilitation, and research. It is firmly founded on the principle that drug misuse needs to be addressed in an integrated manner across these headings through a co-operative approach involving the statutory, community and voluntary treatment sectors. All the structures we have put in place under the strategy in addressing the issues involved such as the interdepartmental group on the national drugs strategy, the national drugs strategy team, the national advisory committee on drugs and local and regional task forces reflect this partnership approach. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, under the stewardship of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is the lead Department in co-ordinating the implementation of the national drugs strategy. My Department's remit in this area, while not exclusive, primarily covers the area of drug supply reduction and drug law enforcement.
Before examining the need to continue to provide strong powers of detention for the Garda Síochána under drug trafficking legislation, I take the opportunity to set out the structures and range of measures and strategies which the Garda has in place in tackling such criminal activity. In terms of its broad strategic response in tackling drug trafficking, the Garda's approach involves the following: identifying, targeting and dismantling national and international drug trafficking networks; conducting intelligence driven operations focusing on all aspects of the illicit drugs trade, including commodity, logistics, distribution and financing; working on an ongoing basis in co-operation with Customs and Excise, the Naval Service and the Air Corps in intelligence sharing and joint operations; working in partnership with statutory, community and voluntary groups; and working with other national and international law enforcement agencies on joint actions designed to reduce the availability of drugs and the proceeds derived from the drugs trade.
Given its nature, tackling drug trafficking demands local, national and international responses and is primarily intelligence led. The Garda addresses the drugs problem on different levels. At a local level, Garda divisional drug units operate in divisions throughout the country with their primary focus being local dealers and users. Garda national drugs unit personnel provide assistance and expertise for local units. At national level, units such as the Garda national drugs unit, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation all have specific roles in reducing drug supply and the confiscation of material benefits which accrue from drug trafficking. Other units such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the National Immigration Bureau and the National Criminal Intelligence Unit also all indirectly support drug law enforcement. The Garda also continues to liaise effectively on an ongoing basis with other national enforcement services, such as the Customs and Excise, with which there is a formal memorandum of understanding and protocols in place to facilitate joint working, and with other bodies such as the Naval Service and the Air Corps.
Since 2005, with the establishment of the organised crime unit, in conjunction with the Garda national drugs unit and local gardaí, Operations Anvil and Oak have targeted criminal gangs involved in the trafficking of drugs and such gangs' related criminal activities which, as we all know, can often be of a very violent nature. In addition, the Garda has undertaken a number of other specific operations focusing on criminal organisations involved in distribution of illicit drugs within the Dublin region. These included Operation Plaza, conducted in March and April, and Operation Marigold, a targeted initiative conducted between April and September against individuals distributing heroin in the Dublin metropolitan region.
In the two years since the previous renewal of the detention provisions under consideration, all of these policing operations have resulted in substantial seizure of drugs, the disruption of supply networks and the arrest of several major players in the drugs trade. For example, the Garda has made a number of very significant and high profile heroin seizures in this jurisdiction this year, including a seizure of an estimated 30 kg of the drug in Ratoath and the recent record seizure of what is believed to be more than 50 kg of heroin at an apartment complex in Clondalkin.
Internationally, the Garda national drugs unit maintains close contact with law enforcement agencies worldwide and ongoing co-operation with police services from other jurisdictions. Co-operation is achieved in several ways, including through the exchange of operational information on the activities of individual criminals and criminal organisations and through investigations and prosecutions at home and abroad. The presence of Garda liaison officers abroad facilitates co-operation with relevant enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions in regard to drugs matters and since 1994, Europol has being providing intelligence and analytical support to investigations into international drug smuggling operations.
Most of the major Garda operations against drug trafficking have a substantial international element to them, with many Irish drug traffickers now domiciled in various other European countries and practically all drugs being sourced outside the State. A good example of effective international co-operation in this regard was the recent seizure in September of approximately 50 kg of heroin, believed to be destined for Ireland, at an airport in Belgium, resulting in the subsequent arrest of five individuals in Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland. This ongoing police work, and particularly this kind of successful operation, with huge volumes of drugs being seized by the Garda, is undoubtedly significantly disrupting the supply of illegal drugs into our communities.
It should be remembered that the continued successes of both the Garda Síochána and the Customs Service is being achieved in what is often a violent and threatening working environment, with drug trafficking gangs prepared to resort to ruthless violence as a way of protecting their involvement in the drugs trade. While a full Garda investigation into the incident is currently under way, yesterday's barbaric murders in Finglas would appear to offer further stark evidence of such violence related to the drugs trade. The continued operational successes of both agencies in bringing such serious drug traffickers to justice and putting them out of business is warmly commended and I am sure members of the committee would share with me in putting our recognition of this work on the public record and congratulating the Garda Síochána for its continued success. The Government is aware that tackling drug trafficking and those who are involved in such crime presents an ongoing and difficult challenge, and is an issue on which all involved in addressing the problem must guard against any sense of complacency or allowing any lessening of urgency to emerge.
I want to touch on two other issues related to the subject of drug trafficking which I know are of particular interest to members of the committee. These are the issues of asset seizure and the application of the ten-year mandatory sentencing provisions for drug trafficking offences. First, in terms of the issue regarding huge levels of wealth being generated and openly flaunted by criminals involved in the drugs trade, the Tánaiste is on the record many times regarding this and I can once again assure the committee that the Garda will continue to vigorously pursue any such wealth accrued by identified drug trafficking criminals either through the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1994 or through the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau under the statutory remit of that agency.
The issue of the possibility that the CAB's work has become too centralised has been raised previously. To enhance the effectiveness of its strategy on a nationwide basis, an initiative has been developed by the bureau in conjunction with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, whereby one garda from every Garda division will be trained as a profiler in respect of criminal assets. A divisional criminal assets profiler has been appointed in each of the 25 Garda divisions and a full complement of divisional profilers is being maintained. The appointment of additional profilers will be kept under review.
Committee members are well aware that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has on numerous occasions expressed serious concerns about the low level of application to date by the Judiciary of the ten-year mandatory sentence provision for drug trafficking. I understand the Minister indicated recently in the Dáil that, according to figures made available to him from the Courts Service during 2005, 80 persons had been convicted under section 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as inserted by section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, of whom ten, or 12.5%, had received a sentence of ten years or more, as provided for in section 27 of the 1977 Act. This low figure remains a source of concern.
To ensure due regard is paid to the undoubted wishes of the Oireachtas that serious drug offences are severely punished, the Minister has this year sought to strengthen the mandatory and minimum provisions by way of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, of which section 84, which further amended section 27 of the 1977 Act, requires the court to take account of any previous convictions and whether the public interest in preventing drug trafficking would be served by imposing a lesser sentence. In addition, the 2006 Act provides that the ten-year minimum sentence must be imposed where the person has a previous conviction for an offence under section 15A or the new offence under section 15B, as inserted by section 82 of the 2006 Act, for the importation of drugs to the value of €30,000 or more. The Government believes these amendments reflect the sentiments of the Oireachtas and are justified by the public interest in ensuring the strongest possible response to drug crime.
The relevant provisions of the 2006 Act were commenced with effect from 1 August. As committee members will appreciate, it is too early at this stage to come to any conclusions as to their impact on sentencing for drug trafficking offences. The Government is hopeful these measures will have the desired effect.
I would now like to turn my attention to the substantive business to be dealt with this morning, namely, the resolution before the committee. Essentially, our deliberations are concerned with ensuring our legislative response in addressing drug trafficking problems provides the necessary and appropriate platform from which our law enforcement agencies can most effectively operate. We have a duty to ensure this is the case.
Section 11 of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act 1996 provides that each of the sections, 2 to 6, inclusive, will cease to be in operation 12 months after the date of its commencement, unless a resolution has been passed by each House of the Oireachtas resolving that it should continue in operation. The Act, including these sections, was brought into operation with effect from 9 September 1996. A number of resolutions have since been passed by each of the Houses of the Oireachtas to provide for the continued operation of these provisions. Resolutions were passed in December 2004 to provide for their continued operation up to and including 31 December this year. It is now proposed to renew them for a further two years, up to 31 December 2008.
The Minister has indicated to the Government that as it is not possible to envisage circumstances in the foreseeable future where these provisions could be allowed to lapse, he intends to place them on a permanent basis in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, on which work is under way within the Department. Members of the Oireachtas will have an opportunity to consider such proposals in the usual manner upon publication of the Bill. Pending this, it is acknowledged by the Government that the current powers of detention available to the Garda Síochána under drug trafficking legislation are strong. Therefore, it is important and appropriate that Oireachtas Members should have the opportunity to re-examine these provisions to determine if there is a need to retain them.
By way of assisting the members of the committee regarding the sections of the Bill which are the subject of this resolution, I will briefly outline their contents. Section 2 deals with powers of detention and permits the detention of persons suspected of having committed a drug trafficking offence for up to a maximum of seven days. The first 48 hours of this period may be authorised by a member of the Garda Síochána of specified rank. Thereafter, authority to detain the person must be obtained from a judge of the Circuit Court or District Court. Such authorisation may only be granted where the court is satisfied the detention is necessary for the proper investigation of the offence concerned and that the investigation is being conducted diligently and expeditiously.
Section 3 involves an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence) Act 1990 to allow for the taking of bodily samples in the case of persons detained under the drug trafficking legislation. Section 4 permits the re-arrest of a person previously detained under section 2 and subsequently released without being charged. Such a re-arrest can only be made on the authority of a judge and only in cases where new information has come to the knowledge of the Garda Síochána since the person's release. Essentially, this section is in place to safeguard a person's civil liberties as it provides that persons cannot be repeatedly arrested under the Act without judicial intervention.
Section 5 applies certain provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1984 to persons detained under section 2 of the Act. Therefore, for example, when there are no longer reasonable grounds for suspecting a person has committed an offence, he or she must be released. It also covers matters such as the provision of medical attention, access to a solicitor and destruction of records where a detained person is not prosecuted or where he or she is acquitted. Under section 6, the Minister may make regulations for the attendance of a Customs and Excise officer at or the participation of such an officer in the questioning of persons under the provisions of the Act. Work is almost complete in my Department on the drafting of these regulations.
As shown in the report on the operation of the provisions, the number of persons detained under section 2 during the relevant period was 1,467 which compares to the figure of 1,228 from the equivalent period on the previous occasion of the renewal of these provisions. A total of 842 persons were detained for a period not exceeding six hours, which is the initial period of detention permitted under section 2. Some 473 were detained for a period of between six and 24 hours, 143 for between 24 and 48 hours and nine for between 48 and 120 hours. In comparison, 12 persons were detained for between 48 and 120 hour period during the equivalent period on the previous renewal of the provisions. In the current period under question, no persons were detained for a period of 120 to 168 hours — in other words, no detentions exceeded a total of five days.
Out of the total number of 1,467 persons detained during the period in question, the number of persons released without charge was 171, or approximately 12%. The number of persons charged following detention under section 2 of the Act was 982. The Garda authorities advise that out of this total, 304 of the persons who were detained have already been convicted of drug trafficking offences during the period in question.
The report provides more detailed information in regard to the breakdown of this figure, including details on the number of cases pending before the courts. The report also points out that one application was made to the courts during the period in question for rearrest under section 4 of the Act. The Garda authorities have advised that, in respect of this case, a warrant was issued in the District Court in Limerick on 2 May 2006 and a person was rearrested and detained under section 2(2)(a) of the Act, which is for a period not exceeding six hours. The person was subsequently charged with drug offences and the case is currently before the courts. Essentially, the report shows that the shorter periods of detention continue to be extensively used by the Garda in the investigation of drug trafficking while the longer detention periods continue to be used sparingly.
The report provides additional detailed information on the section 2 detentions which involved a period exceeding 48 hours and also provides a 12-month statistical breakdown of the detention figures, as was previously suggested by the committee members. The Garda authorities consider it of the utmost importance that these provisions are retained to assist in the ongoing fight against drug trafficking, both nationally and internationally. The Government is satisfied that the necessary balance has been struck by the Garda authorities in ensuring these powers are used fully and, most importantly, only when necessary. We are convinced that such provisions greatly assist our law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking and are firmly committed to supporting the ongoing work of the Garda Síochána. Anything other than a firm endorsement of this resolution would be a most unwise course of action, as it would send the signal from the Oireachtas that we were lessening our resolve in tackling those involved in drug trafficking.
I reiterate that drug supply control measures are only one element of the Government's overall response in tackling the problem of drug misuse and that everyone in society has a role to play in this regard, as it is the demand for illegal drugs which fuels supply. However, having in place appropriate drug law enforcement measures is vital to our national drugs strategy. The passing of this resolution will allow us once again to demonstrate that we remain determined and resolute, from the law enforcement perspective, in dealing with drug traffickers. For this reason and on the basis of what I said, I strongly commend the resolution to the committee.