Adjournment Matters

Universal Social Charge Payments

I welcome the Minister. This is not particularly a motion but simply a question for the Minister that is not for today or tomorrow but is long-term in nature.

We all acknowledge and recognise the very significant funding is brought into the State's coffers by the universal social charge. Reflecting back on its introduction, we are also aware that it replaced the health and income levies. The USC was also an emergency tax and probably could have been appropriately called a national recovery levy or tax. Such was the state of the nation's finances at the time of its introduction that most reasonable political groupings and parties, and everybody interested in the future of the country, while not welcoming the introduction of the tax or levy could appreciate the necessity for same.

I hope, through the Minister's stewardship and internal and external factors, the state of the nation's finances are slowly but surely beginning to improve. We hope, with projected growth patterns and economic patterns into the future, that the State's coffers will not just improve but will have a more stable and sustainable future. With that in my mind, my question for him is three-pronged. Will he look at the universal social charge anew? Will he recognise, at least, that some of the circumstances which required its introduction may no longer apply and, thus, show a little flexibility in that regard? Does he hope to remove the levy in the medium to long term?

My next question is not part of my official Adjournment motion but one that I formulated as I was talking and thinking. We have income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. When looking at the long-term future of pensions and social welfare in this country one realises that we will, in the very near future, reach a situation where every citizen of the State will have some degree of social insurance cover. That means every citizen will be paying into a social insurance fund. From the perspectives of administrative simplicity, a case could be made to further streamline all the charges, levies and taxes paid by every tax paying citizen of the State and to roll them into one, rather than have between two and four charges at present. My question is not for today or tomorrow but for the future.

I would like to hear the Minister's views on two things. The first is the long-term possibility of reshaping or, hopefully, removing the universal social charge. I apologise for not tabling my second question as part of my formal motion. It relates to the various layers of taxes and levies in this country. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and the Minister for Finance have made the very obvious and important comment that we must be in a position to present ourselves internationally as an economy with a tax that is fair, as low as possible and well administered. The fewer levies, charges and taxes which apply in that regard the better and the more streamlining we can put in place, the better as well. I thank the Minister for listening to me and look forward to hearing his observations.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

The situation is that the universal social charge, known as USC, was introduced by the previous Government in budget 2011 to replace the income levy and the health levy. It was a necessary measure to widen the tax base, remove poverty traps and raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit. It is a more sustainable charge than those it replaced. It was never intended by my predecessor that the USC would be a temporary measure. The legislation under which it was introduced did not include any sunset clauses or place time limits on the charge. It was designed and incorporated into the Irish taxation system as part of its permanent structure. The €4 billion in revenues collected from the USC play a vital part in meeting the many expenditure demands placed on the Exchequer. The USC is applied at a low rate on a wide base which insures that while most people have to pay USC on their earnings the amount is lower as a proportion of their income as would be the case if the revenue from the charge was delivered through the income tax system.

The Senator should be aware that the universal social charge cannot be avoided by using tax reliefs which are mostly used by the higher earners to reduce their tax burden. In fact, by increasing the USC rates applicable to higher incomes in the budget, it has allowed me to cap the benefits that individuals get from the tax changes introduced in budget 2015. As I outlined on budget day, the progressivity of the income tax system will be copperfastened by giving greater importance to USC at higher incomes in order that the capacity of higher earners to shelter their income through tax breaks is significantly curtailed.

As resources have allowed, the Government has taken steps to remove the lowest paid members of society from the USC. In budget 2012 I increased the entry point to the USC from €4,004 to €10,036 per annum. It is estimated that this removed almost 330,000 individuals from the charge. In budget 2015 I have extended this exemption threshold to €12,012 from 1 January next onward. This will exempt a further 80,000 individuals from the charge. In addition, I have reduced the two lower rates at which the USC is payable from 2% and 4% to 1.5% and 3.5%, respectively. Furthermore, I have also extended the threshold before which the 7% rate becomes payable to €17,576 in order that those on the minimum wage will only be liable to a maximum 3.5% rate of USC.

The changes announced in the budget will ensure that all those currently paying income tax and USC will see reductions in their tax bills in 2015. These changes will also improve the progressivity of our income tax system, with the top 1% of income earners now paying 21% of all income tax and USC revenues collected. In contrast, the bottom 76% of income earners will pay 20% of the total. As a Government, we recognise that the income tax burden can act as a disincentive to work and to the creation of jobs and that changes to reduce the burden can have a positive impact. We repeatedly stated that when the public finances had been repaired sufficiently, we would reduce the personal taxation burden. The changes announced in budget 2015, targeting low and middle income earners, represent the first step in this process. My Department estimates that a consistent series of reforms, along the lines announced in budget 2015, and delivered over a three-year period, could boost employment by as much as 15,000 jobs when the full impact of the changes has taken effect in the economy. That is why we will continue the process in next year's budget, while ensuring we have a tax system which is progressive and which rewards employment.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply, which speaks for itself. As stated, a levy, charge or tax which is generating in excess of €4 billion each year can certainly not be made to just disappear overnight. The streamlining and effective administration of our taxation system is extremely important. It is possible to have a progressive taxation system without, of necessity, having a multiplicity of taxes, charges and levies. I appreciate what the Minister said with regard to the fact that the Government's decisions on income tax and the USC have led to a significant - and welcome - number of people no longer being obliged to pay them. If we had a singular income tax system, this could also have been achieved by the use of a number of bands. Will the Minister consider introducing such a system in the future, perhaps by way of recommendations from a new commission on taxation? Such a commission could examine the position with regard to the multiplicity of PRSI charges and levies, the USC and income tax. Would it be possible to introduce a singular taxation structure? From an administrative point of view, such a structure would certainly give rise to significant savings. Perhaps the Minister might reflect on this matter, particularly as there is an undue amount of complexity within the current system.

I understand what the Senator is saying. When drafting this year's budget, I discovered that the USC is far more flexible than income tax. By using the USC rather than income tax, it was possible to put in place direct relief in respect of different tranches of income and various categories of people. If we were relying on income tax alone, for example, it would not have been possible to give back anything to people earning under approximately €16,000 because these individuals do not pay income tax. However, it was possible to deliver for them because they pay the USC. A reduction in income tax rates would have had a very disproportionate benefit for high income earners. However, it was possible to cap the rate benefits at the gross income amount of €70,000 and then increase the USC by one point. Of course, this was compensated for by a reduction in the higher rate of income tax from 41% to 40%. On a net basis, nobody's combined rate of USC and income tax increased. The benefits were capped in order that a person who earns €80,000 obtained the same benefit as someone who earns €70,000. The position was the same in respect of those who earn €200,000 per annum.

One often hears about astronomical salaries of €500,000. If we had proceeded on the basis of cutting the income tax rate only by 1%, then this would have worked out at 1% on €500,000 minus €70,000, which is €430,000. As the Senator will realise, the amount involved would be €4,300. It would not be sustainable socially or in the interests of equality and fairness for people on huge salaries to receive relief in the amount of thousands of euro, while those on low incomes only received a small amount of such relief. That is why I capped the rate benefits. The point I am making is that in designing the budget to be fair, the USC is a far more flexible instrument than income tax. There are other models of income tax and many of the eastern European countries that are new to democracy have introduced flat rates of such tax. There are advantages in this regard because rates can be pitched quite low and everything is taxed from the first €1 onward. It would probably be very difficult for us to move into that space because tax becomes bedded in, allowances are made available, etc.

I see the USC as a permanent feature of the personal taxation system. In terms of providing relief - and I hope that is what we will be doing - people will pay less personal tax. The Government has three strategies. The first of these is to widen the tax base by eliminating tax breaks, including those which apply widely to the building industry and many of which I removed in 2011. There are also corporate tax breaks, such as the double Irish and so on, which we are addressing. We hope that our actions in this regard will have a net benefit to the Exchequer. The second strategy involves widening the tax base by means of the property tax, which has already been successfully introduced, and by charging for services such as those relating to water. In the past, such services were paid for exclusively by the taxpayer and, in the main, from personal income tax. This was achieved by transferring money from central funds to the local authorities. As the economy grows there will be buoyancy of taxation. In conjunction with our controlling expenditure, this buoyancy can assist us in reducing the amount people pay by means of personal tax.

The Senator also referred to pensions and PRSI. He appears to be angling towards asking whether it would be possible to convert the USC into a form of PRSI in order to support pensions. That is a matter which would be worth debating. However, it is not something that will happen during the lifetime of the Government.

Deaths of Irish Citizens Abroad

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, and thank him for coming before the House to deal with this matter which calls on the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to bring pressure on the German authorities to have an inquiry reopened into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Matthew Fitzpatrick from Portumna, County Galway, in Mannheim, Germany, on 11 December 2010. Mr. Fitzpatrick was a successful computer engineer and was aged 34 years when he was found dead in his apartment in Mannheim two weeks before Christmas in 2010. He had intended to come home to Portumna in order to spend the holidays with his family. The autopsy conducted by the German authorities indicated that Matthew had died by self-inflicted strangulation.

His family had its suspicions and conducted its own inquiries and investigations.

A second autopsy was conducted in Dublin on 18 December 2010 when Matthew's body was repatriated by the former deputy State pathologist, Dr. Khalid Jaber. It raised several troubling questions which have convinced the Fitzpatrick family that Matthew did not die by suicide, but had been the victim of a violent assault given the range of injuries found on his body, 45 in total, some of which were defensive. The police investigators in Mannheim initially closed the case on 22 December 2010, but after much pressure from the family the investigation was reopened. In June 2014 it concluded that there was no reason to change its view on what happened to Matthew. The public prosecutor in Mannheim disregarded most of the evidence submitted by the Fitzpatrick family and several other aspects, including the autopsy conducted by the former deputy State pathologist, Dr. Jaber.

There are several very troubling aspects to this case. Recently the family requested an independent forensic radiologist to review CT scans which were taken of Matthew's body prior to the first autopsy in Germany. Unfortunately, the scans were of a low resolution and therefore it requested high resolution scans from Heidelberg where the first autopsy took place in order that the independent review could be completed. The family's lawyer submitted the request and was told yesterday that all autopsy medical information related to Matthew no longer exists. These CT scans provided specific information relating to injuries sustained by Matthew and it is deeply disturbing that the German authorities have destroyed this vital information. It is my understanding and that of the family that these records should be kept for a minimum of ten years. We believe this to be a European standard to which Germany has agreed.

There were other troubling aspects. Witnesses and the family provided information on abusive and threatening messages that Matthew received from an individual. The German authorities did not question this individual because he needed a translator. The family also provided evidence that Matthew's PC and laptop were accessed after his death. This access happened three hours after his body was found, on the following day and on three further occasions until 7 January 2011. The police stated there was no technology in the apartment and no further analysis has been done to identify who had access to Matthew's IT equipment. The family also provided evidence on text messages from Matthew's phone, but this information was not analysed or taken into account.

The witness who found Matthew's body has changed his account of the position of the body three times. The person stated that he was hanging. The family provided evidence to show that this was impossible. The witness was allowed to change his account with no analysis or cross-examination. There were thefts of equipment belonging to Matthew from the apartment, including his professional camera, personal laptop and baseball bat. This was reported to the police, but it rejected it as an issue.

There is clear evidence that the investigation conducted to date has been flawed. The family is convinced that it has provided enough evidence and proof to show that Matthew did not take his own life. The family is asking for a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and a thorough analysis to be conducted by the Minister and the Department of the evidence it is in a position to provide. The Minister could then put pressure on the German authorities to reopen the review of the circumstances leading to the death of Matthew Fitzpatrick, a young man who had a bright career and future ahead of him and who lost his life in very tragic circumstances. The family is convinced that he did not die by suicide, but that there were injuries on his body which will prove he was the victim of a severe and vicious attack.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address this matter. I look forward to his reply. I hope my request for a meeting between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the family can be acceded to.

I take the opportunity to extend my deepest condolences to the Fitzpatrick family. I fully sympathise with the family as I understand how traumatic it is for any family when a loved one dies, and for this to occur in tragic circumstances is even more distressing. I wish to inform the Senator that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the embassy in Berlin and the consular assistance section in Dublin, has provided consular assistance to the deceased's family since they were first informed of his death on 13 December 2010.

Officials in the consular section of the Department have met the deceased's family on a number of occasions, including as recently as Friday, 17 October 2014. Officials have discussed the case with the family and explained the Department's position, including providing relevant information about the German system, that may be of assistance to it. I wish to advise the Senator that the consular assistance provided by the Department included facilitating contacts with police, undertakers, lawyers and the public prosecutors offices in Germany and with the Dublin county coroner's office and an Garda Síochána in Ireland.

On 15 December 2010, a diplomatic officer from the embassy in Berlin travelled to Mannheim and met relatives of the deceased. The embassy supplied details of English speaking funeral directors in the region to assist the family in making arrangements for repatriation. It provided assistance in dealing with the mortuary, local authorities and the appointed funeral director on behalf of the family. It also supplied a list of English-speaking lawyers practising locally in order that the family could get professional legal advice on the case and the procedures involved.

On 22 March 2011, the Garda liaison officer based in the Hague and the diplomatic officer from the embassy in Berlin travelled to Mannheim to meet the police officer who led the investigation into the death. It is my understanding that a senior representative of the state prosecutor's office of Baden-Württemberg was also present at this meeting. The embassy assisted the family in communicating to the representatives of the German authorities present its concerns regarding the manner in which the police investigation had been conducted. In addition, the embassy in Berlin provided unofficial courtesy translations of extensive police notes on the man's death.

Following repatriation of the deceased's remains, the embassy provided unofficial translation services for a considerable amount of documentation to facilitate the family's contacts with the German authorities. In addition, the Department translated into German a number of representations made by the family, as the Mannheim police authorities had made it clear that they were unable to process communications in English.

I understand the police investigation made a determination as to the cause of death and that the Mannheim public prosecutor upheld this verdict in July 2011. Following this, the family appealed that decision to the regional public prosecutor in Karlsruhe which also upheld the verdict in September 2011. In February 2012, a second police investigation commenced and in June 2014 the office of the Mannheim public prosecutor stated that the case was closed, with no change to the finding.

I am very conscious of the plight of the family and sympathise with its great loss. However, the Department is not in a position to directly intervene in the German legal process. The Department cannot interfere or try to influence the judicial process of another state. It has consistently advised the family to take professional legal advice on the legal avenues that may be available to it in the pursuit of the case. Let me assure the Senator that the Department will continue to provide all appropriate consular assistance for the family and will continue to facilitate its dealings with the relevant German authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is welcome that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to provide all appropriate consular assistance for the family and facilitate its dealings with the German authorities. I appreciate that the Department cannot interfere in the judicial process of another state. However, given the volume of information and the facts available, I want a meeting with the Minister to take place. I want to ensure all of the facts of the case are made available to him and the Department.

I hope some progress can be made in the near future to further process this case with the German authorities. The family maintains the volume of evidence available strongly suggests Matthew Fitzpatrick did not die as a result of suicide. The family is determined to obtain justice for Matthew and they intend to continue until they get the case reviewed and until all the information that they have made available and which is in the public domain is reviewed by the German authorities. They believe much of the information they have provided has been disregarded by the German authorities. There are serious questions to be asked about the conduct of the autopsy, given the nature of the injuries found on the body during an autopsy conducted by the deputy State pathologist in Dublin after Matthew's body was repatriated. Many aspects of this case are deeply troubling. I look forward to the Minister meeting the family to discuss this urgent matter.

I thank the Senator for raising this important and tragic matter in the Seanad. The Minister has agreed to meet the family. It is simply a matter of deciding on a date at this stage. If the Senator communicates with the Minister's secretary, I imagine a date can be finalised as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate his comments.

Victim Support Services

I welcome the Minister. The European Union victims of crimes directive 2012 provides for certain rights for victims when reporting a crime. These include provision for victims to receive a written acknowledgement of their complaint from the police. The acknowledgement should state the basic elements of the crime, such as the type of crime, the time and place of occurrence and any damage or harm caused by the crime. The acknowledgement should include a file number and the time and place for reporting of the crime to serve as evidence that the crime has been reported. Furthermore, victims should be provided with information about their rights in sufficient detail to ensure they are treated in a respectful manner and to enable them to make informed decisions about their participation in proceedings. The directive requires that information enabling the victim to know the current status of any proceedings should be provided. The directive states that such information is relevant to enabling a victim to decide whether to request a review of a decision not to prosecute.

In the United Kingdom districts of Kent, Somerset, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire police constabularies are providing such an information service to victims of crime. It can be accessed by the public by logging onto TrackMyCrime.police.uk. In the participating police constabularies victims of crime are given a reference number which they can use to log in to a secure website to get information on the status of the criminal investigation relevant to them.

The Government should introduce a similar online system for victims of crime to follow the progress of Garda investigations. Victims of crime often feel left out in the cold when it comes to the Garda investigation of their cases. They have legitimate questions, such as whether someone been arrested for vandalising a car or whether the Garda has arrested the people breaking into houses in a given area. Victims can become frustrated when they struggle to contact the particular investigating garda, who may be off duty or on patrol. A dedicated website would act as a one-stop-shop information source and would be a great tool for victims. Furthermore, it could be easily updated by the relevant investigating garda.

There has been widespread public support in the United Kingdom for the TrackMyCrime.police.uk service. Diminished resources are available to the Garda. Notwithstanding recent positive announcements it remains the case that the numbers in the Garda have fallen from 14,500 in 2010 to 12,900 today. We have 139 fewer Garda stations now compared with 2011. In a sense we have an under-resourcing problem and there is also the question of how the reduced number of gardaí use the time available to them. Gardaí often spend time trying to get hold of victims to provide them with an update. It seems to me that an easy-to-use online service would fill the information deficit that victims encounter and save on valuable Garda resources also. This would be an innovative thing to do. Ireland has a track record in innovative schemes in the criminal justice area - I have in mind the Criminal Assets Bureau. If the Government could think outside the box then, in the context of transposing the victims of crime directive, we could make real progress in assisting victims of crime to get relevant information, for example, information on the filing of charges, whether a suspect has been detained or the setting of a court date. Moreover, they could obtain this information in a more timely fashion.

I thank the Senator for tabling this important topic. It gives me the opportunity to address the Seanad on victims' rights. I reaffirm my commitment, which I have articulated on several occasions recently in other fora, to have the EU directive on victims' rights implemented in Ireland next year. This is a priority for me. It is an important directive which will have many implications for the criminal justice system and how victims are dealt with within the system.

The EU directive envisages a scenario whereby victims of crime are recognised and treated in a respectful, sensitive, tailored, professional and non-discriminatory manner in all contacts with victim support or restorative justice services or criminal justice agencies operating within the context of criminal proceedings. I imagine everyone will agree that this should be our objective. Work on the necessary legislation, the victims Bill, is proceeding in my Department and I have attended several meetings on the matter. It will go to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in the new year for initial scrutiny. Obviously, we must have it enacted by the due date of 16 November next year.

Side by side with the legislative process, criminal justice agencies are working on practices and procedures to ensure the legislation is implemented in practice because that is the most important thing. All the agencies are aware that the EU directive is coming in. A new umbrella group of victims' rights organisations have come together and is working with the relevant criminal justice agencies.

A key element of the EU victims of crime directive is the requirement for policing services, in this case, An Garda Síochána, to offer a wide range of information to victims, without unnecessary delay, from the first contact with the police. Recently, An Garda Síochána has undertaken an initiative involving two victim liaison officers. This is being piloted in Waterford city and in Dublin. On foot of the outcome of this trial, An Garda Síochána has decided to establish similar offices in each Garda division to improve the flow of information to victims of crime. This is a welcome development which can be seen throughout the country now. Members of An Garda Síochána will be tasked with keeping victims informed on their rights and providing them with information generally.

The EU victims of crime directive requires a broad range of information on the progress of the investigation and any subsequent court proceedings to be made available on request to victims of crime. I understand one British police force has developed the TrackMyCrime.police.uk initiative which is now being extended. The Senator has set out the details. This is based on the track-my-parcel system available in commercial courier and parcel delivery companies. The TrackMyCrime system has an intuitive appeal especially since it is available online. As time goes by people are becoming far more familiar with using new technologies, such as e-mail, text, tracking systems, smart phones and apps, in their interactions with commercial enterprises. A suitable TrackMyCrime facility, with the requisite security features to protect privacy, seems like one of an array of tools which An Garda Síochána might usefully consider.

It would be an implementation matter for An Garda Síochána and is linked with the question of the technology and ICT systems that are available to it. There is significant work to be done on that issue and I have a commitment to helping An Garda Síochána to upgrade its technology. I am certainly happy to ask the acting Garda Commissioner to examine the desirability and feasibility of a scheme of the kind mentioned. It would be linked with the level of technology currently available to An Garda Síochána which does need continuous improvement and upgrading.

I will ensure the need for systems to support victims will be included in any upcoming allocations I may make in respect of Garda technology. I hope that if any such system is introduced, it will complement, rather than replace, the personal contact which is implicit in the new model of the Garda victim liaison officers system, which gardaí are developing. There are also other areas where I feel useful developments could take place in support of victims. For example, in recently launching the strategic review of penal policy which I understand will be debated in the Seanad I indicated my intention to bring forward legislative proposals to the Government to place the parole board on a statutory basis in the near future. I am also looking at victim representation on that board. The issue of strengthening victims' rights is a key consideration in the preparation of legislation to strengthen the laws on domestic and sexual violence which I consider critical, particularly in the context of my objective for Ireland to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which we are doing.

I thank the Senator for tabling this important issue. It brings to the fore the whole question of victims' rights and how An Garda Síochána and other criminal justice agencies will respond to the EU directive at an operational level.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I welcome, in particular, her undertaking to ask the acting Garda Commissioner to examine the possibility and feasibility of introducing a TrackMyCrime system. I would be very much obliged to the Minister if she could provide some further feedback on the acting Commissioner's response. I agree with and welcome her comments about the need to ensure the necessary technology is in place and that there is Government support for such technology. I also agree with her on the personal dimension of victim support which should not be compromised in the context of improved technological responses. The two go hand in hand.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 November 2014.