I move amendment No. 1:
In page 6, subsection (1), lines 8 and 9, to delete paragraph (d).
I welcome the Minister for what I hope will be a constructive dialogue and all my comments on the amendments will be in that spirit. I thank the Minister for his contribution yesterday.
This amendment would delete the line "an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997". My concern, alluded to yesterday, stems from the fact that offences under that Act typically merit a £1,200 fine or a term of imprisonment of 12 months. As we noted yesterday, the Bill makes provision for a fine of €500,000 and a term of imprisonment of three years. This would be a relatively minor crime. If it was considered any of the crimes under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 was being treated too leniently, I would support the Government, but it is strange that people can be treated with leniency until the person concerned is a bus driver or road freight operator. It does not apply to other professions, including some which strike me as far more deserving of such fines, as the Minister noted yesterday. Is there not a stage at which we can rank minor offences and remove them after a period? I supported the Government on the abolition of the Thornton Hall project, but we could end up with an extremely harsh attitude towards people who committed relatively minor crimes before reforming. They might just want to be a bus driver or the operator of a truck. For society as a whole, there must be a point at which people do not carry that baggage further into their career.
I was wondering what evidence is available which suggests this provision is required, apart from pressures from the European Union. It appears there is none. I have read the Farrelly report and the Department was judged to have been right in giving a licence to a gentleman in County Louth to operate a truck. Are there many examples of bus drivers and road freight operators who had a career of involvement in petty crime and became serious criminals after they had received a licence?
On the pressure exerted by the European Union, 99% of our goods are moved by road. Many regret the fact that the rail service has deteriorated so much. Some 20 years ago rail freight would have accounted for 20% of the figure. Of the goods moved by road, 72% are moved by hired haulage operators who developed following liberalisation in 1980s. In the beginning there were 1,000 vehicles, there are now 25,000. Those involved grew by being of good repute and having sound finances while being professionally competent. They knocked on doors and were able to deliver goods better than the rail service or in-house transport fleets. It is vital that we do not obstruct new entrants to the business in Ireland. In that regard, the penalties are draconian as they elevate relatively minor offences to being major offences.
On the pressure being exerted by the European Union, there is a degree of protectionism in countries which still have large rail and waterway systems. There is a view that road haulage operations are inferior and run by the Mafia or gangsters from eastern Europe and that, therefore, they must be controlled. In Ireland we are talking about small family firms which have served the economy well without a subsidy. They have done a good job of persuading people where it counts, in the market. We would need evidence of serious crimes meriting the kind of penalties mooted before we would support that. The low scale of penalties in section 2(1)(d) offences would indicate that perhaps this is escalating unnecessarily into the bus drivers sector and road freight operators sector if it is the case that the crimes are relatively small and people have served the sentence. As Mr. Farrelly indicates in his report, and as the courts have said, people have a constitutional right to make a living. Driving a bus or truck is not exactly a threat to society if the offences are relatively small, as judged by the law, occurred a long time ago, and one has evidence of genuine regret to the Minister that the crime ever took place. Criminalising people beyond the period of the sentence into their career choice afterwards is more likely to lead people back to prison — the university of crime — or to be dependent on social welfare.
In the explanatory memorandum it is stated that the Bill has not been the subject of consultation as it primarily deals with existing provisions, but it would be interesting to hear the views of criminologists given that the courts have been hostile to attempts by previous Ministers to deny people licences. Likewise, what are the views of the Department of Social Protection on banning people from careers in which they might otherwise be able to embark, make money and contribute to society and not be held back by relatively minor offences committed a long time ago?