I thank Senators Regan, McDonald, Quinn and Bacik for the welcome they provided in respect of the Bill. At the conclusion of my initial contribution, I stressed a number of points relating to the legislation. In the first instance, the Bill does not merely respond to the judgment handed down by the High Court in the Dillon case, it does so in a generous manner. All the Senators who contributed to the debate echoed my assertion in this regard. The Bill embraces the spirit of the judgment to which I refer and recognises that citizens have a right to communicate with each other and that a simple, uninvited approach from a person who is begging is not to be seen as a criminal offence. That would be a disproportionately unreasonable response. The Bill, therefore, clearly establishes that an offence of begging arises only in the event of the subject being harassed, obstructed or assaulted. In other words, an offence will be deemed to have been committed in circumstances where the interference by one person with the rights of another is of sufficient seriousness to merit action by the law. The Bill recognises there are several interests to be taken into account. Traders have made their concerns known. For example, Senator Quinn referred to the shop owner with 11 shops in Dublin 2 and his particular concerns. Every citizen who wishes to go about their business without undue interference also has legitimate concerns. This is especially so in circumstances where the person is operating an ATM or night safe.
On the other hand, we are obliged to ensure the person who is begging is treated in a manner that is fair and that shows understanding and sensitivity to their particular circumstances. None the less we cannot ignore the public order aspects which have been given coverage on radio shows and in other broadcast and print media. We must deal effectively with the nuisance being caused. The Bill strikes a reasonable and fair balance between all those considerations. This is demonstrated most clearly by the arrangement in section 3 whereby gardaí can direct those who are begging to desist and move on. This approach represents a serious effort by the authorities to avoid having to prosecute those who are begging and, more especially, it seeks to ensure imprisonment is a very last resort.
Turning to the other major aspect of the Bill, I have no hesitation in stating that when it comes to the pursuit of those who organise and direct begging, there is no question of taking a moderate approach. Organised begging exploits weaker people, including children. The so-called workers are often begging under duress and are not at liberty to leave. This form of begging brings hardship and in many instances severe pain. We may not know the earnings but they are substantial. Organised begging is without doubt a form of organised crime. Much headway has been made in coming to terms with this ugly phenomenon in recent times, be it in regard to extra surveillance powers or anti-trafficking laws as well as improved police co-operation, whether cross-border or international.
The proposals in the Bill are directed at another manifestation of organised crime and add to the armoury of powers available to fight this scourge. All in all, this short Bill makes a very strong and valuable contribution to dealing with begging in all its manifestations. I know Deputy Dermot Ahern, as Minister for Justice and Law Reform, was very conscious of the different proposals that were put forward by all political parties while this matter was debated in Dáil Éireann and he took some of those viewpoints on board in further work on the Bill. I am grateful for the overall comment that it is a very positive and proportionate Bill dealing with a subject in which we want to ensure we achieve the correct balance.
To deal with specific issues, Senator Lisa McDonald asked about the question of busking. I understand that those engaged in busking may argue they are not begging since they are performing or providing entertainment, which is often the case, as we know. As the Senator said, such entertainment can enhance an area and add colour to our streets. Buskers, however, are expected to behave in an acceptable manner. They must not cause obstruction or nuisance and they must comply with directions from a garda, for example, to move on where necessary. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 contains provisions on all of these issues and provides the Garda Síochána and its members with the necessary powers for enforcement. I believe the current law is adequate in this respect and that busking can add much of benefit.
Senator Quinn referred to ensuring tourists to the country are not endangered or do not have cause to be afraid. I welcome Senator Bacik's support for the Bill. She raised several issues, including initiatives to reduce reliance on imprisonment. The new Criminal Justice (Community Service)(Amendment) Bill is designed to increase use of these orders. Judges contemplating a sentence of up to six months will be required to consider whether an order might be used instead. The Fines Act 2010 will reduce use of imprisonment in lieu of non-payment of fines in order that prison becomes a last resort. The new provisions require the sentencing judge to have regard to, first, ability to pay and equality of treatment, second, payment by instalment, third, powers to seize assets, and fourth, the possibility of imposing community service orders to replace the fine. These are all designed to ensure alternatives to imprisonment. With regard to civil debt, the law has changed to ensure prison is only used where the debtor will not pay rather than where he or she cannot pay. There is renewed support for restorative justice projects in Tipperary and Tallaght, and Members may have read commentary on the value of this initiative which was first undertaken in County Tipperary.
It was asked whether Barnardos' concerns were addressed. Barnardos issued its comments in January 2009 when commenting on the general scheme. The Bill was not published until January 2010, just one year ago. I am pleased to state the Bill took account of several points raised by Barnardos. The level of fines was reduced and the concept of persistent begging, to which Barnardos objected strongly, was dropped. Barnardos recommended that begging in itself should not be criminalised and that is the position in the Bill. It also recommended that the Bill should focus on begging that is accompanied by harassment, which is the case, and section 2 establishes the offence in situations where there is harassment.
Barnardos correctly states that legislation alone will not address the problem of begging. I and Deputy Dermot Ahern, as Minister, have repeatedly stated this and the Bill is based on this notion in that it is limited to addressing begging when it presents as a public order matter. This was the theme of all the contributions by Senators today. I welcome contributions from civil society, especially from bodies such as Barnardos. We all know the great value of the work undertaken by Barnardos, not just in our capital city but in working with many people in deprived communities. I served as Minister of State with responsibility for children for one year and worked closely with Mr. Fergus Finlay and other members of Barnardos who did excellent work in many communities where there is deprivation and difficult issues with which to deal.
The Irish Human Rights Commission was also consulted. In accordance with section 8 of the relevant Act establishing the commission, a copy of the general scheme was sent to it and its comments were invited. The response was issued in December 2008 and this was received in good time to influence the drafting of the legislation. The Bill was not published until January of last year and several of the commission's comments were taken on board. It expressed concern about the concept of persistent begging, which was dropped. The level of fines was reduced and the provision on the giving of the person's address has been revised in order that section 4(5) states that a place regularly visited may now be used as an address.
The Irish Human Rights Commission saw begging in its wider societal context but the Bill has a limited focus and concentrates on the public order dimensions. In so doing, it takes an approach that will be very different from what we might have known in the past. Every effort will be made to deal with the problem without recourse to prosecutions, the courts or, more particularly, imprisonment.
One of the final issues raised by Senator Bacik concerned the right of the owner-occupier of a private place to require a person who is begging at that place to desist from begging or leave that place. While calling at houses is not an offence unless there is intimidation, under section 3(8) the owners can ask the person to move away.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for welcoming me to the House in my first visit as Minister for Justice and Law Reform. I have had many discussions in the House in the past on agriculture, food and fisheries issues, with good contributions from my friend, Senator McDonald, Senator Regan, given his great experience in the European Commission and in the cabinet of Mr. Sutherland dealing with agricultural issues, and Senator Quinn, whose knowledge, innovation, insight and foresight in the food area has always been a great pleasure to experience. I am glad to have had the opportunity to respond. I thank all Members for their very positive response to the Bill.