I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. It is one of many Criminal Justice Bills to have come before this House over many years. We have dealt with 60 Criminal Justice Bills since 1985. While many were to deal with circumstances in Northern Ireland, 40 were specifically aimed at creating new powers for the State. However, in spite of all those laws, headline crime has increased by 10% and the number of gardaí per head of population has fallen from one per 331 in 1985 to one per 360 today. As with every other organisation, a percentage of the members of the Garda are tied up in bureaucracy and red tape. While I welcome the legislation, the problem is not necessarily the want thereof — it is a question of Garda manpower.
The explanatory memorandum to the Bill makes interesting reading. It states the Bill is to give the Garda more power in tackling criminals. It takes into account the recommendations of the expert group appointed to consider changes in the criminal law as recommended by the steering group. All sorts of groups are dealing with this but we want action on the ground to ensure the victim comes first, not the criminal. It is very clear that law without penalty is only advice.
It is no secret that all a certain judge from my area ever did was ask people to put money in the poorbox rather than impose fines or jail sentences. Thus, they walked out of court without a sentence. Often they appeared before the court some months later only to receive the same judgment and thus preserve their clean records. We need to tighten up the law in this area. If people do not realise they must suffer for perpetrating criminal wrongs, they will simply repeat them.
Let me refer to another example. A young man who was in considerable trouble some years ago and who had a number of fines imposed on him, perhaps to the tune of £2,000, had to go to England because he could not afford to pay them. There was no way the Garda would accept his paying them on a phased basis — they wanted all or none. Some time later the man came back from England and his sister got him a job in a good factory. He was in the process of getting a loan from the credit union but the Garda apprehended him and landed him in Mountjoy. However, there was no room for him at the inn and he was sent straight back down the road with a £20 note in his pocket to cover the expenses. I raise this issue because the Minister has failed to introduce a Bill to allow for a system of attachment of earnings in respect of either social welfare payments or people's incomes. This failure means there are more people in jail than there should be. The young man in question certainly felt no pain when he did not have to pay the £2,000 fine at the time in question. His not having had to pay led to his becoming involved in crime again. His family and others were certainly not very happy with what happened.
Last week we dealt with the Land Bill in the House. In dealing with it, the question of an attachment of earnings system arose. Although it is not directly related to this Bill, the failure to address it is part of the problem. Through the Land Bill, the Government insisted on introducing draconian measures such that if a farmer does not pay his annuities, the money can be taken from his EU funds, his creamery cheque or another source. The Minister refused to accept the Fine Gael Bill in this regard or introduce an alternative one to deal with the attachment of earnings.
Another aspect of this Bill that has caused much annoyance and anger is section 30, which deals with firearms. Firearms are held in the main by sports people, who use them to enjoy their sports. They feel very aggrieved that the issue of their control of firearms should be dealt with in the Criminal Justice Bill. Many small Bills pass through this House and there is no reason this matter could not be dealt with in its own right in a separate Bill, rather than by classifying as criminal the activities of sportsmen who hold guns legally and use them solely for sports. I have no problem with the matter section 30 deals with, namely, how guns are held and the need to ensure they do not get into the hands of subversives or anybody else, but the issue of controlling guns held by sports people should not be dealt with in this Bill. I ask the Minister to consider this point even at this late stage.
The Minister has made many promises about increasing Garda strength and I am sure he means to deal with this issue but there is a serious criminal structure in the Border region, although thankfully we are finished with the activities of the Provisional IRA and such groups. People living near the Border find it virtually impossible to contact the Garda Síochána at night.
In answers to my parliamentary questions the Minister has frequently stated there is a sufficient Garda presence in the area. However, crime there has increased. On 18 October the Minister sent me a nice letter dealing with the situation and trying to explain what happens but there are serious increases in burglary and theft figures. In Cavan in 2004 there were 373 burglaries, compared with 243 in 2000, an increase of 50%; in the Monaghan district there were 249 in 2004 as against 172 in 2000, a 45% increase; in Carrickmacross the increase is thankfully only 20% from 189 to 227 in the same period but in the Bailieboro area the increase is 150% from 106 to 251; and in the Ballyconnell area the increase is from 62 in 2000 to 104 in 2004. These figures cannot be ignored.
As a public representative one hears about all the recent robberies of small shops in villages and out in the country. The robbers arrive in daylight, wearing balaclavas, carrying long knives and iron bars. This happened to one shop three times in three weeks. One can guess how scared is the family who own the shop.
This Bill will strengthen our laws but we must bring in the personnel to support them. We must ensure there are gardaí on the beat and burglars are conscious that gardaí are about and available, and they cannot walk over ordinary decent individuals who want to run their businesses. The Minister can imagine how a girl behind a counter feels when, in the middle of the day, people come in wearing balaclavas, carrying knives and iron bars, and remove the till. This causes problems for the shopkeepers not only through the loss of money but because of all the records kept in modern tills.
The Minister needs to recognise these events. While there may be less danger from the IRA, etc., in the Border region there is criminal activity to deal with and significant manpower is needed. I, and those who have spoken to me about this problem, appreciate there is more Garda activity as a result but what rights do people have if they must close their business? Will we give them the protection to which they are entitled? This is an extremely serious issue and Garda power must be provided to ensure it does not happen again. When burglars strike three times in three weeks one begins to have serious reservations about Garda activity.
While it may not be relevant to the Bill, when the penalty points system was introduced there was a tremendous drop in the number of traffic accidents and road deaths because it was clear more gardaí were on the beat. Unfortunately, that presence is gone and one can see what has happened recently in Donegal and Cork, and my area, where young people have lost their lives in accidents caused by speed and drink. Nobody can deny this. If there were more gardaí on the beat at different times of day much of this trouble could be controlled.
I am keen to see private companies deal with speed cameras but that is a different issue. It is necessary to make more gardaí available to go on the beat and have fewer tied up in bureaucracy. To achieve this the Minister need only bring in other civil servants or personnel to deal with some of the office work that gardaí do.
I have no problem with many of the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, for example, reclassifying saliva and mouth swabs as samples for which consent is not required. Criminals must be identified and dealt with by whatever means necessary. I encourage the Minister to bring in the measures needed to achieve that. We have seen enough of events in Donegal to know the scene of the crime must be preserved and I welcome the efforts of the Garda to make sure that criminals are brought to justice. It is interesting to watch the painstaking efforts of the gardaí at the scene to establish a link to the crime.
I often wonder why we must release people so quickly despite the heinous crimes in which they have been involved. I welcome any improvements in that process. It is also important to control the use of drugs and associated activities. I congratulate the Garda Síochána and the drugs taskforces that have been so active and made so much progress in apprehending major drug dealers. There is no doubt drugs are still freely available even in small towns and villages and we must continue the efforts to curtail them as much as possible.
This is the time of year when fireworks are seen all over the country. What is the situation in this regard? The Minister might advert to it in his closing speech. We are told that fireworks are illegal, yet gardaí are involved with family groups in organising proper fireworks displays, which I welcome. However, it is illogical that fireworks are illegal and are not supposed to be sold while at the same time, official personnel are involved in fireworks displays. Like any other illegal activity, there is a great glow to being involved in it because one is doing something that is not right. However, the situation is serious. At Hallowe'en nearly every year there are serious accidents, with children's hands or even their eyes damaged as a result of fireworks.
The situation must be clarified. The Minister said he would introduce appropriate legislation but we can no longer turn a blind eye and allow people to buy all the fireworks they want in Northern Ireland. One has only to travel along the Cavan-Clones road to see massive advertising hoardings informing one that 500 yards down the road, one can buy all the fireworks one wants. That is what happens with the free Border situation. We would be safer if we had a logical structure and knew exactly what the law is.
A near neighbour of mine was recently in Mountjoy Prison as a result of a drink-related offence. Ideally, with social workers involved, that man should have been placed in some hospital or home to cure his alcohol addiction. It cost €290 per night to keep him for three weeks in Mountjoy Prison. What most worried his family was that in prison he was among many drug addicts. We must take such matters seriously. Alcohol problems should be dealt with by the health structures and we should ensure drugs are not available in prisons. Alcohol and drugs do not mix. It was a great relief for the man and his family that thankfully, the prison system staff allowed him to move from Mountjoy Prison to Loughan House. Such situations are serious and not acceptable.