I did not think I would get another opportunity to make a Second Stage speech but I am pleased to have the chance as I wish to make some points on the Bill before the House. The Criminal Justice Bill 2007 is the 68th item of criminal justice legislation we will have passed in approximately 20 years. I have a full list of the legislation which commenced with the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1985, which I can read if the House wishes. I was supplied with this information in response to a parliamentary question. The list was updated by two Acts passed in 2005, five Acts in 2006 and this Bill is the second one to appear in 2007.
It appears the impact of the legislation has been minimal. Much of the criminal justice legislation seems to impact more on law abiding citizens than on criminals, yet the Minister continues to churn out one law after the other. No sooner is one Bill passed than another is presented. One could well ask how long it will be before another criminal justice Bill is presented to the House. It would be a legitimate question for the House to ask who is protecting the interests of law abiding citizens. To use cricketing parlance, it appears to me the Minister is guilty of LBW — legislation before wrath. Meanwhile, the crime industry grows quicker than the tiger economy. We will soon have more judges than TDs if the annual incremental increase in judicial appointments continues.
A survey released by the ESRI this week claims Dublin is now the murder capital of Europe. Perhaps the Tánaiste will respond to this point when he sums up the debate. The ESRI figures show the rates of homicide in Dublin increased by 44.5% from the period 1990-92 to 2000-02. Last year, 26 gun murders were recorded in Ireland, most of which occurred in Dublin. This was a record figure for homicides.
On the basis of these figures, one would not believe criminals are fearful of legislation alone. A rethink of the legislative production mill approach is necessary. It is time the wrath of the Government was brought down in an organised and strategic way, not on anad hoc basis, on the heads of those who ply their criminal trade. We require more of the Rudy Giuliani approach and less of the Harry Houdini approach. We need someone who takes charge of the situation rather than an escape artist who regularly produces new stunts. It is time the criminal justice legislation was reviewed by the Law Reform Commission. We have created a criminal law industry and now vie with one another to say which of us can increase numbers of gardaí. Soon, according to a billboard advertisement paid for by the Progressive Democrats, the Minister’s party, we will have 14,000. On top of that, there is an auxiliary Garda force. There are the almost 70 laws that I mentioned, and then there is the number of judges appointed.
In 1961, there were 52 judges. In 1977, there were 63, and in 1981, the figure was 69. By 1991, we had 82. That rose to 100 in 1995, 106 the following year, and 108 in 1997. By 2002, we had 115 judges, and today we have 131 of them, as well as the PIAB. Mr. Justice Finnegan is a former President of the High Court. Although I do not know him very well, I admire everything he does. He seems not only a good judge but a decent and practical man. However, I recently read inThe Irish Independent that he had raised a need for even more judges to be appointed to the district court to tackle the modern scourge of what he termed “quality of life crimes” destroying local communities. He makes a good case for the courts in question. However, as a Legislature, we cannot carry on increasing the number of judges through endless increments.
We will soon have more judges than Deputies, and everyone thinks that we have too many of the latter. Great geniuses, including better-known journalists such as Vincent Browne, constantly tell us that we have too many Deputies, yet now we are told that to solve our problems we require even more judges. I may be wrong on all this, since I do not practise at the Bar and have no immediate experience of its operations. However, it is my role to question and raise such issues.
The Judiciary and the broader legal profession enjoy an inside track on many such matters and can make a case quietly and convincingly. Over the period in question, the Government and Opposition have increased the number of judges incrementally in response to representations. We are all very good at making a case for ourselves. It would be a great idea if there were more MEPs, and some Deputies present would prefer more Ministers. However, if we are to have more judges, surely someone should carry out an independent assessment of the numbers required in each court to administer the system efficiently.
I suggest this to the Minister. For several years I chaired the Committee of Public Accounts, and I once wrote a thesis on the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, in which I have taken a great interest over the years. The Minister may be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General is an independent officer of the Constitution who reports directly to this House and is therefore independent in the exercise of his duties. However, by law the House can confer additional powers on him. Since this is a matter of one branch of Government scrutinising the numbers in another, it would be a very good idea to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the courts system, its efficiency, administration, hours, holidays, workload and pressures, along with all the other pros and cons, afterwards reporting to the House on the optimum number of judges in each court. If his conclusion is that more are needed, so be it.
Increasing the number of judges through almost annual — sometimes twice-yearly — increments is not the best way to go about the business of the State. I cannot see how it might benefit the administration of justice. Furthermore, evidence suggests that, whereas in the main we have been served extremely well by the Judiciary, the constant increases in judges' numbers have debased the currency somewhat, as it were. That is worthy of independent examination.
Whenever I raise such issues, people get very fretful over in the Four Courts, the Law Library and everywhere else. I am not attacking judges or the law, whose practice is an important part of our civilised way of life. The role of judges is important, but they are human beings like everyone else, and they too are capable of special pleading based on self-interest. We cannot continue endlessly to increase numbers of judges and gardaí, and the amount of legislation passed, while making so little impact on headline crime. If that is the process, something is wrong, and it is time that we had an independent assessment. I suggest to the Minister that the Comptroller and Auditor General is the man to do it.
There is a need for strategic thinking on the resources we invest in addressing crime. It is certainly a very serious issue for many people, and evidence shows that certain well-organised criminals do not give twopence for the law and will circumvent it at every opportunity. We need the resources to deal with that, but when we create them, we are entitled to expect accountability in how they are spent. We are entitled to expect from judges and the Garda that, if they are paid to do a job, they do it. We do not have endless resources to create ever more judges at the drop of a hat, and it is time the question received some examination.
I will make one further point before resuming my seat. It concerns the question raised by Gay Byrne and others of whether it is not time to consider legalising drugs. I welcome the issue being raised, since there is too little democratic debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas and Ireland generally on important questions. Often we make up our minds on issues, one that regularly springs to mind being Irish neutrality. We take a great view of it without properly debating or understanding the principles on which it is allegedly based. There should not be any sacred cows, and it is important that Mr. Byrne has raised such questions and that people have the opportunity to make points for and against the argument.
I do not think Gay Byrne thought out what he said, however, or that those who supported him gave much consideration to the matter. If we decide not to have any criminal sanction regarding drugs, does that mean that one will be able to turn up at a pharmacy and request sleeping tablets, or simply buy them on the street corner? Might one do the same with tablets for heart treatment? There must be some regulation of when and how drugs are used to protect the public. If one is not talking about prescription drugs but about legalising heroin, cocaine and marijuana, one would have to ask oneself what they are. We would need standards, and the drugs would have to be packaged and controlled in some form to meet those criteria.
New and more extreme drugs are emerging. Do we simply say that one should be able to purchase whatever one wishes on the street without having to go to an appointed pharmacist? Have we not learnt enough from those drugs that we have legalised, tobacco and alcohol? We have to hold the line somewhere, and if we fail to do it on cocaine, heroin and marijuana, when will we do so? Will it be when the drugs have become ever more extreme? What are the implications for those who drive lorries, fly aeroplanes or practise as doctors, judges and legislators for a living? Should we all be able to have whatever we want, whenever we want it? People may ask why there should be a law against this, but there is such a law because this House passed it. That is what we are elected to do. The electorate chooses 166 Members of this Chamber because they do want a jungle, they want law and order. They want rules by which we can all live, following proper debate and consideration. This House has taken a considered view of the matter and has made laws accordingly.
I welcome the debate during which many points have been made. Mr. Gay Byrne made his points out of frustration, concern and a genuine wish to find another way of dealing with this major problem in society. We should stand back a little, however, and ask ourselves what are the real implications of decriminalising hard drugs or legalising the use of drugs generally. It would take a lot to convince me of that step, although I am prepared to listen to the debate. In the European Parliament at present a major debate is going on about what vodka is composed of, how one can brand something as vodka, and whether or not one can include vanilla in it. The reality is that we may have to define marijuana. Some people say, for example, that marijuana should be legalised for medical purposes. I would not have the slightest problem with marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anything else that is described as a medicine, being used in a prescribed form to treat somebody if such treatment is shown to work. If such drugs are properly prescribed, controlled and used for medical reasons, it does not amount to drug abuse. If, however, we legislated to make marijuana available on prescription because it assists people, we would then have to define it. What is grown in a back garden might be totally different from what is prescribed by a doctor. It may have different qualities and may adversely affect a patient's condition.
We should be careful not to get carried away by arguments that do not fit. We must insist on law and order. This House is not simply a nuisance, we are in the business of making laws to try to create a society in which people can live in harmony and prosperity. That must be done by accepting rules we all understand and are accountable for, and which cannot be overridden by bullies. That is how we should approach this particular issue.
I ask the Minister to consider what I have said about judges. If we need 20 or 30 more judges — even one judge for every 20,000 people, which is more than the number of TDs — then so be it. We should have no more incremental appointments of three, five or six judges, however. The Minister is not the only one who is at it, we all are. We should have no more of this. Let us get an assessment by the Comptroller and Auditor General of how many judges we need, how they perform their tasks, their hours of work and the pressures they are under. We would then know whether we need more or fewer judges and could act comprehensively, rather than in a piecemeal manner. The Minister should take the same legislative approach.
In his heart, the Minister thinks that by passing all this legislation he will hammer the criminals. The harder he hammers them the better, as far as I am concerned. The problem is, however, that every law we pass also affects law-abiding people, so checks and balances are required. That is why we are here, in addition to the Judiciary and the President. The Minister should ask the Law Reform Commission to examine the relevant legislation that has been passed over the last 20 years and tell us whether some of it may need to be amended or otherwise modernised perhaps by the inclusion of a sunset clause. Legislation should not adversely affect the interests of law-abiding people who go about their business without breaking any law. The Minister can hammer criminals as hard as he likes, but we should not pass legislation that criminals will ignore and which will have an adverse effect on people who would not break the law in a month of Sundays.