Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2019: Committee Stage

SECTION 1
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

I wish to give some background on the Bill for the benefit of Members were not present in 2019 when I brought it to Second Stage. The then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was in attendance, as the Acting Chairman is aware, having also been present for that debate. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, is very welcome to the House. I thank the Members present for their attendance.

In the context of assaults on emergency workers, it is useful to make reference to the Health and Safety Authority, which back in 2007 categorised violence in terms of verbal abuse, threats and physical abuse. It gave examples of verbal abuse, which includes abusive or offensive language, personally derogatory remarks, profanity or obscene comments. In the context of threats, it referred to warnings of intent to injure, harassment, physical intimidation and threats with a weapon. As regards physical assaults, these can include slapping, pinching, punching, shoving, spitting, kicking and use of a weapon. I make those remarks by way of lead-in to the body of the Bill and the proposal to introduce stronger sentencing in respect of assaults on emergency workers.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach spoke on the need to protect public health as a priority. The Bill is about our responsibility to protect those who protect us, such as nurses, doctors, paramedics, fire brigade personnel, gardaí and all others involved on the front line when we, the public, need them. The consequences of violence against emergency personnel and healthcare workers can be very serious and can result in death or life-threatening injuries, reduced work interest, job dissatisfaction, decreased retention, more leave days, more sick leave days, impaired work functioning, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and increased practice of defensive medicine. Workplace violence is also associated with higher incidence of burnout, lower patient safety and more adverse events.

Last year, there were 8,667 assaults on health staff. That is shocking. Of that number, 4,166, or 48%, of the victims were nurses and midwives, according to freedom of information figures quoted in the past week. Some 6,900 of the assaults involved direct physical attack, while 60 were sexual assaults and 1,707 were verbal. Aggression and violence against healthcare staff has become a national and international problem in recent years. These assaults can be violent and the incidence of physical and verbal abuse is also quite high.

The figures represent a significant increase on the number reported in 2019, which stood at 1,098 and was, in turn, higher than the 948 reported in 2018. The reasons given for this significant increase include the issue of hospital overcrowding due to Covid, short staffing and long waits for patients creating tension and frustration within the walls of hospitals. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the frustrations people are experiencing. However, these reasons are not excuses.

In October, an Irish nurses group called for more protection for its workforce. The issue of assaults against medical and emergency personnel is not a new one but, unfortunately, aggression and violence against personnel such as nurses has been a national and international problem in recent years. It is particularly concerning that general nurses tend to be the ones singled out for these assaults, some of which have been very serious. These nurses lose time as a result of the assaults as they have to get their injuries looked after. Shockingly, knives have been used and, in one case, even a gun was used. These incidents can be very violent. A lot of this is physical abuse but the incidence of verbal abuse is quite high as well and no one should underestimate the effect verbal abuse has on individuals.

The abuse extends to the National Ambulance Service. According to information released under the Freedom of Information Act, as of February 2020, 114 assaults on ambulance staff had been reported in the previous two years. The figures show there were 114 assaults against ambulance staff in 2018 and 2019. It has been claimed that many of these assaults go unreported. Of the assaults reported, 70 were physical, 43 were verbal and one was of a sexual nature. According to the National Ambulance Service, a survey conducted several years ago found that 68% of its staff stated they had been assaulted in the previous two years. The staff of the National Ambulance Service are trained in the management of violence and aggression.

The staff of the fire and emergency services, including the fire brigade, are also suffering assaults. They have been seeking urgent steps to offer better protection to front-line workers who are increasingly the target of violent assaults. As of September 2018, Dublin City Council figures revealed that 102 cases of assault were reported by the service’s front-line firefighters and paramedics in the five years between 2013 and the end of 2017. They, too, claim that assaults are more commonplace than reported or suggested. It is said these incidents have become so regular they are only reported when physical contact is made or an injury occurs. Some crew members have actually come to see it as an occupational hazard, but this is surely unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Front-line emergency staff deserve better, and the Bill intends to ensure they receive better protection.

There are numerous example of assaults on emergency personnel each year. In July 2018, two fire brigade paramedics were assaulted in Dublin city in two separate incidents. One of the paramedics lost two front teeth when he was punched in face, while his colleague had blood spat in his face. In October 2019, rocks were thrown at a fire engine in the south of the city. However, the issue is not confined to cities. In November 2020, crews from the Tipperary fire and rescue service came under attack from a group of youths who threw rocks and bottles, causing substantial damage and a safety threat to the crew.

Gardaí also have to endure ongoing physical attacks. Between 2016 and 2019, there was a 19% increase in assaults on members of An Garda Síochána.

There has been a steady increase in reports of gardaí being assaulted while working since 2016, when 704 assaults were recorded. These assaults range from obstruction to minor assault and assault causing harm. I will give some examples. In May 2021, gardaí and ambulance personnel came under attack as they attempted to treat a 14-year-old boy who rang the ambulance service seeking help as he was injured. When the ambulance came to assist him in his moment of need, it was attacked by a mob. The ambulance crew contacted the Garda to come to its assistance and when gardaí arrived on the scene, they were also subjected to stone throwing and assault.

The Bill also relates to emergency vehicles being rammed. Unfortunately, this is a new development which has crept in and is becoming more prevalent. Unfortunately, I have several examples. In January 2020, two gardaí were injured in County Leitrim when the occupants of a stolen four-by-four vehicle attempted to ram the Garda car off the road. Both members ended up in hospital. In January 2021, a garda was taken to hospital for treatment of non-life threatening injuries after an incident in Donegal. A garda was brought to hospital after a patrol car was rammed in County Kilkenny on 26 May last year. In October 2020, a man deliberately tried to knock down a garda before ramming two garda patrol cars in the course of a high-speed pursuit. He was subsequently jailed for that incident. In west Cork, a garda was dragged 100 ft by a car during a drug search. The garda, a woman, sustained serious leg injuries among other injuries. These incidents highlight the increased dangers gardaí face in the line of duty.

More than 5,500 gardaí have been injured in the line of duty since 2005. The vast majority of these injuries, according to the GRA, are caused maliciously. The injuries sustained by gardaí include internal injuries, broken bones and cuts needing multiple stitches. Gardaí have been shot at, had their cars rammed, have been dragged along roads by cars and have been assaulted with a variety of weapons. These incidents have occurred in both urban and rural settings throughout the country. Some have resulted in life-threatening and life-changing injuries. The GRA has repeatedly called for stronger legislation to deal with people who assault gardaí and members of all the emergency services as they go about their duties.

Unfortunately, trends indicate that this problem is not confined to this country. In France, 75 firefighters were attacked for each 140,000 interventions by region in 2017. In Italy in 2020, 50% of nurses were verbally assaulted in the workplace, 11% experienced physical violence, while 50% of physicians were verbally assaulted and 4% were physically assaulted. There was a similar story in Spain where nurses and emergency workers are constantly abused.

In India, the Government made violence against emergency service workers an offence punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment following various episodes of violence and harassment against workers. In Australia, the minimum sentence for anyone convicted of assaulting an emergency worker is seven years, with a maximum sentence of 15 years for more serious assaults. In the UK, legislation provided for sentences of six months but a minimum sentence of two years was introduced in the past six months for anyone convicted of assaulting an emergency worker.

All workers have a right to be safe on their job and healthcare workers are no exception. An attack on the emergency services is an attack on us all. As legislators, we are duty-bound to protect those who protect us.

In 2018, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, indicated that there were some legal issues with the Bill as initiated, particularly as regards mandatory sentences. However, the Minister then supported the idea and the Bill passed all Stages in this House with the support of all Members present. I was grateful to all Senators for that.

The offences created under this legislation are assault on an emergency worker and ramming an emergency vehicle. It also provides that those convicted of such offences would not be entitled to parole and would have to serve their full sentence. The Minister advised that the best way to address the issues the Attorney General raised with the Bill at the time would be to provide for a presumptive minimum sentence and a presumptive maximum sentence, similar to legislation in place in the Firearms Act and Misuse of Drugs Act. We have taken those steps based on the Minister's remarks in June 2019.

The Bill essentially addresses offences on indictment. There is a view that there is ample legislation in place to deal with summary offences. The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 deals with most offences, whereas this Bill deals with serious offences.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all our emergency workers who go out day and night to protect us. When we are in need, whether that is of medical attention or when we or our property is in danger, we turn to our emergency service workers to help us out. When we call they always listen because they are always there. We do not need reminding of that but Covid-19 has shown us the lengths to which our emergency services, particularly healthcare workers, have gone to protect us. We are duty-bound to do all we can to protect those who protect us.

As I said, an attack on an emergency service worker is an attack on all. It saddened me to hear on RTÉ's "This Week" programme last Sunday, Ms Phil Ní Sheaghdha of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation speak of a colleague, a community nurse, who was called out on a house call after the lady of the house suffered injuries to her leg. It became clear that the injuries were inflicted by the husband who was quite aggressive when the nurse arrived. When the nurse said she would address the needs of the woman, the gentleman reached for a poker and held it over her head and threatened to hit her with it. In another example, a nurse was threatened with a knife and in another, a nurse was even threatened with a gun. This has gone too far, as highlighted by the fact that these offences are increasing rather than decreasing year on year. It is up to the Oireachtas to send a clear message that our emergency workers are there to be protected.

They help and benefit us all, especially in our moment of need. We are letting them down by not putting out a strong message to the public that assaults on emergency workers will not be tolerated. That matter needs to be addressed.

I know there are different circumstances in every case. Whenever an individual comes before a court, special circumstances will relate to the case and I have no doubt that judges take these into account when sentencing. That said, our job, as legislators, is to set out what we feel should be the minimum and maximum sentences for offences, while at all times allowing the courts the flexibility to adjudicate and deliver whatever sentence they see fit based on the evidence presented, as is only right. However, it is imperative that we grasp the nettle and send a message out that we are here to protect our emergency workers. The law of the land needs to speak very clearly as to what anyone who strays over that line without good reason, if there every could be such a reason, can expect.

Cuirim fáilte ar ais arís roimh an Aire Stáit. Aontaím leis an mBille seo go ginearálta agus cuirim fáilte roimhe. Ag an am céanna, bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an Seanadóir Gallagher, a ndéanaim comhghairdeas leis ar ábhar an Bhille, nuair a bhí sé ag labhairt faoin bhfadhb atá ann agus faoi na figiúirí. Chuir sé sin an-imní orm. Aontaím leis maidir leis an bhfadhb atá ann agus maidir leis an méid atá le déanamh againn. Aontaím freisin leis an iarAire, an Teachta Flanagan, áfach. Dúirt sé go bhfuil fadhbanna ann le híos-phíonbhreitheanna éigeantacha a chur in áit. Aontaím go bhfuil sé sin an-deacair ar fad agus go ndéanfadh sé deacrachtaí dúinn mar Oireachtas.

I congratulate Senator Gallagher on the Bill. There is definitely a place for a very strong statement from the Oireachtas in respect of this kind of behaviour. To be perfectly honest, I have severe misgivings about the notion of minimum mandatory sentences in general, particularly in light of the fact that in the past seven days we discussed the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021, which dealt with the Ellis decision from the Supreme Court. That decision specifically criticised decisions of the Oireachtas to put in place mandatory minimum sentences in relation to second offences. In that regard, I do not want there to be any confusion about my view of the subject of the Bill or the notion that we should in any way tolerate, endorse of condone the kind of behaviour Senator Gallagher has outlined in considerable detail. The notion that anybody going about his or her duty as an emergency worker and doing nothing but good for society and helping the people who need to be helped could come under attack, whether physical or verbal and whether resulting in physical, visible injury or not, is abhorrent. I did not think we saw as much of this here as is seen in other areas of the island. It is something I associate with more divided communities than I would with this jurisdiction. However, from the figures the Senator has outlined, it is obvious that there is a problem.

Given that this is Committee Stage, I look forward to looking at this Bill with a more focused eye and at how it might be amended to address some of the issues I am raising. The context in which an assault on an emergency worker is carried out is clearly an aggravating factor in any subsequent sentencing. It is therefore entirely appropriate for the Oireachtas to make it clear that this is a specific aggravating factor in the case of ambulance workers, members of the fire brigade responding to an emergency, members of An Garda Síochána or - and this is something I had not thought about - nurses, doctors and orderlies in hospitals. These are people who reach out to help people. If such people are being made the victims of assault or other abuse, it is absolutely appropriate that we, as a legislature, make a very clear statement that this should be an aggravating factor in sentencing and that, when a person comes before a court and is convicted of an offence in which there is a factual matrix that involves that kind of behaviour towards an emergency services worker, the tariff of sentence that person is facing should be increased.

In broad terms, I have a difficulty with the notion that we should set that figure for the court and direct that a judge must adhere to a particular minimum tariff. Every situation and every case is different. That is in no way an attempt to tolerate that behaviour but, broadly, I have a difficulty with the application of broad brushstrokes involving mandatory sentences. However, I congratulate Senator Gallagher on bringing forward this Bill as regards its subject matter and what it is hoped to achieve. I hope we can work on it to make it a little bit more flexible.

I thank my colleague, Senator Gallagher, for bringing this Bill to the House. I know he has been working on it for a number of years and that it has been amended and improved a number of times.

I will speak to the section. Throughout the past year and a half of the pandemic, we have found a new appreciation for and understanding of the invaluable work our front-line workers do and how much we rely on them. Where would we have been for the last year and a half were it not for our front-line health workers, those working in the ambulance corps, paramedics, nurses, doctors and An Garda Síochána? They can be attacked by somebody simply for doing their job. They are a distinct group and need to be recognised as such.

We have learned a lot more about the work those individuals do. We have become hyperfocused on our front-line staff over the last year and a half. That has been a good thing. It is one of the good things we will take away from this pandemic whenever we get to the far side of it. We now appreciate just how important those workers are. That probably prompts some reflection when we think of the high salaries we pay to people working in other sectors and how valuable they are when compared with front-line workers, who are the most valuable workers in the country. Gardaí keep us safe and nurses, doctors and paramedics look after us in our time of need. When you are on your deathbed or are injured or sick, they are the ones who are there to care for you. We would not have a functioning country or society without those front-line health workers.

It is very timely that the Bill has now been brought to the Seanad for debate. While we already have public order offences and many mechanisms under the justice system and different laws to protect people, it is important to single out front-line healthcare workers, and front-line workers more generally, as a distinct group in the context of what attacks on them mean to our society. Such attacks must be treated differently. It is not that the injury would be any different if the victim were not a front-line worker, but we are saying to society and to those individuals who might be thinking of carrying out such a crime or who may have already done so that not only is it wrong, but that it has been placed in a special category, which is why the penalties should be more severe. We must send a strong message that those who commit this type of crime will pay a significant penalty for that because we take it very seriously.

I have friends working as paramedics and in the ambulance corps. I also have a friend who works in patient transfer. One of the interesting aspects of this Bill is that it would make it a criminal offence to ram an emergency vehicle. That is not something we often talk about but attacking such a vehicle when it is begin used to assist people in their time of need is an offence of a different level. Over the past year and a half, we have been talking a lot about our front-line workers and how we value them. We do value those front-line workers, but there has been a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action in terms of making changes to how we deal with them and show them, in a very meaningful way, that we value them. We have had conversations regarding a pandemic bonus or a bank holiday. I see that President Higgins is talking about a signed document and a visit to Dáil Éireann. Those are all nice things, but would it not send out a fantastic message from the Oireachtas to actually amend legislation to put them into a distinct and special category so that, if anybody chooses and decides to attack them, that person will be dealt with differently and every more seriously and that a greater penalty will be attached to the assault?

That would be a strong message to send to our front-line workers and that is what we are trying to say to them today.

I take on board what Senator Ward said about the sentencing aspect. Judges will be in a position to deal with that themselves. We give sentencing guidelines in all other areas of law as well so this would not be very different from that. It is, on balance, probably the right balance to strike.

I also think of our gardaí. I have been talking to some of them over the past year and a half and have had conversations about how they have found it, particularly given the restrictions they have had to police. These were, and still are, exceptional and extraordinary circumstances. We have asked a lot of our front-line workers this past year and a half and we continue to do so. There was a lot of responsibility and additional work placed on our front-line workers and on gardaí when they were policing the streets and roads to try to implement and work within those new laws and restrictions. It was a very difficult time for them. For the most part, thankfully, the gardaí I have spoken to have said they found the public very good to deal with, even though the public were frustrated and scared at times as it had been a difficult period. However, they also said there were difficult moments and difficult individuals they had to deal with on the roads, on certain premises, or in and around people's homes who made their job very difficult. The Garda had to deal with certain attacks. We heard about instances where individuals spat in the faces of gardaí early in the pandemic when we were all at the height of our fear about the spread of Covid-19.

That is the level of assault that comes upon front-line workers when they are doing their jobs and are there to protect the rest of us. The past year and a half has just added weight to Senator Gallagher's argument that these are a distinct and separate group of individuals in our society upon whom we rely and who are extremely valued. Every day of the week they are putting their lives on the line to care for all of us, mind all of us, and ensure our country and society continue to function. We owe it to them to have a look at the legislation in this area to see if it is sufficient and up to scratch.

Justice legislation can be slow to change. I am not saying that is a good or bad thing. When making changes to a law that could potentially impact on somebody's liberty or result in significant fines, you have to be cautious and consider all the possible consequences of those changes. That is what this debate is about. It is about looking at this legislation and deciding whether it is the right move and is sending the right message, but also whether it balances the rights of our citizens. This is the second term in which Senator Gallagher has introduced this legislation. He considered in detail the comments of the previous Minister for Justice. I gather there was broad support for the initiative but some changes were recommended and I believe all of that has been taken on board now. Working with the legal advisers here in the Oireachtas, the Bill has been drafted to a very high standard, taking into consideration all the consequences of enacting this legislation.

This is not being proposed lightly. There is a high degree of awareness about what is being proposed as regards sentencing and what it would mean for justice legislation. As I said, we owe it to our front-line workers to update our laws to reflect that this is a different and more serious offence and something we have to take seriously. There are a number of elements to the Bill that could be considered further and debated further and there will be a chance further on in the legislative process to make further changes. We all accept that the intention behind the Bill is solid and good. Most people would agree with identifying front-line workers as being separate from ordinary citizens as they daily put themselves in the face of danger to protect all of us, and that they should therefore be treated as a separate and distinct group of people. This legislation would allow us to improve, modernise and update our laws to reflect that, which is a good thing. There will be opportunities to hear from other Members of the House, other political parties, the Minister and the Department as to whether they wish to make additions or updates to any other elements of the Bill, so that at the end of the legislative process we have the best Bill we possibly can. It is important to send that message that we are intent on updating our laws. This is something we-----

We have reached the time of 5.15 p.m. so I must ask the Senator to report progress.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
Sitting suspended at 5.15 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.