Leaders' Questions

While the Tánaiste has been away, the issue of tracker mortgages has dominated debate in the House. It has added another chapter to the ever-enlarging book entitled Wrongdoing by Irish Banks. One always knows when a story is getting too hot and uncomfortable for certain institutions when their spin doctors tell them not to do interviews and to go to ground. We reached that stage of the story this morning when none of the banks would make themselves available for interviews on radio. Their silence is indicative of the fact that they know their actions are and were indefensible.

Banks are not above the law and they are not entitled to disregard proper principles of corporate governance. That is particularly true in this instance because the very same banks benefitted from the people of this country making the decision to bail them out when their previous over-speculation and reckless lending had the effect of causing a banking collapse. The news that the majority of banks in Ireland were engaged in fraudulently increasing mortgage rates for people on tracker mortgages first came into the public domain approximately seven years ago. Faith was put in the Central Bank to resolve it, but that faith, unfortunately, was misplaced. We were supposed to have a report in 2015 but all that has happened since is that some AIB customers have had their rates corrected and some in other banks have had that as well as receiving some compensation. The pace is far too slow.

This story was brought to a heightened level when the finance committee invited individuals to give their personal stories as to what had happened to them in their lives as a result of the fraudulent behaviour of the banks. We got a further example of that today on the radio when Ms Caitríona Redmond was interviewed and explained what had happened to her as a result of the banks moving her off a rate to which she was entitled. She told listeners to the radio this morning that she had to pay an extra €500 per month, which was an excessive amount of money for any person and which had a significant impact on her ability to deal with her household expenses. She also said it took from 2010 to December 2016 to get the bank to correct her rate. Like me, she has little faith in the banks' claim that they will be able to deal with this issue by June of next year.

I do not hold the Government responsible for the reckless behaviour of the banks, but it is responsible for the State's response. I am afraid that the response of the State and the Government to date has been pathetic. We were told initially by the Minister for Finance that he would name the banks, which obviously really scared them. We were then told last week by the Taoiseach that he was losing patience with the banks. Yesterday, the Minister for Finance said he will hold the banks responsible and to account. What is the Government going to do in respect of this issue? Is legislation going to be introduced and if so what will it provide for? Mention has also been made of the State playing the role of activist shareholder at meetings of banks in which it holds shares. What resolutions will it put down? Does the Tánaiste trust the banks to deliver on what they have committed to or does she share my cynicism about them?

In relation to this sorry saga, trust has to be earned by the banks. At this point, the people's trust has been deeply shattered. Like Deputy O'Callaghan, my thoughts this morning are with each family that has been impacted by this issue. While the numbers involved are in the thousands, the impact is felt at a personal level. It has been heartbreaking for countless families across the country who have suffered endlessly. Some families have lost their homes, others have suffered various terrible mental health stresses, marriages have been affected and there have been years of unnecessary pressure on people who were doing their best to invest in their own futures. What we need to do and what the Government has done is reassure those families that it is determined to find a solution for each of them.

The Minister for Finance has met with the banks and set down clear deadlines for action so that those families will, at the very least, have the money owed to them repaid and receive compensation where appropriate with the banks absolutely and totally being called to account. That is what he has been involved in over the last number of days in his meetings with the banks and the Central Bank. Deadlines are now in place by which these issues must be addressed and the Minister has made it very clear that if there is any delay, the Governor of the Central Bank has been asked to come back and report on progress by mid-December. The Minister has made it clear that if those deadlines are not met, a range of actions are open to him which he will not hesitate to take. He has outlined the potential actions, some of which Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned. They include further legislation, if that is deemed necessary, taxation initiatives, levies and so on. The Government is determined first that the priority is for the people who have been most impacted on the frontline to have a speedy resolution.

While I welcome the Tánaiste's empathy, the families need more than empathy and reassurance. They need a statement from the Government as to what it is going to do. All we have received from Government to date are statements of intent and attempts to frighten the banks, which have manifestly failed. People need to be told and, in particular, the banks must be informed as to what the Government intends to do. At present we have vague threats and indications of what steps may be taken.

In her response, the Tánaiste mentioned that legislation may be introduced, the tax code changed, or levies imposed. People need specifics. We have gone past the stage of issuing threats to the banks. Threats do not work with the banks. We must take action. It is only in this House and on the part of Government that action can be taken. Without that action, we are letting down the individuals concerned. As opposed to statements from the Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste, can we have some specifics as to what the Government intends to do? She mentioned, for instance, that legislation will be considered. What legislation is she talking about? The people are entitled to know.

What is needed is action to ensure that the people who have suffered most - those families who have been so impacted by this scandalous behaviour - get redress. That is what the Government is focusing on over the next number of months to ensure there is a speedy response for these families. That is the action which has clearly been taken. What we have now is a deadline for dealing with these issues. The banks will continue to be under pressure to provide accurate information on the numbers and how they intend to deal with this. The action that has been taken is to ensure and insist that the Governor of the Central Bank prepares a report on the progress between now and early December, which is only a number of weeks away, on the action by the banks. That supervisory and monitoring role will provide a report to Government in early December. Depending on the outcome of the report and the actions of the banks, the Minister has indicated the actions he may feel are necessary to strengthen the powers of either the Central Bank or the Minister and he has made it very clear that, as a shareholder, he will take action if these results are not forthcoming by December.

The leniency of the sentence handed down in a high profile sexual offences case earlier this week has, rightfully, disgusted and angered people. The abuser groomed a young girl, bombarding her with thousands of text messages, many of which were sexually explicit. He then sexually abused her when she was only 16 years old.

I refer the Deputy to Standing Orders: "Decisions or judgments of a duly constituted court cannot be subjected to review or discussion in the House as the House is not a judicial body".

I am aware of that. The testimony of the victim was heartbreaking.

The Deputy will have to take the Standing Order into consideration in her contribution.

I have taken it into consideration. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The Deputy cannot proceed - the Standing Order is very clear.

Victims of such crime are robbed of their confidence and their dignity.

The Deputy will have to be general.

They are left physically, emotionally and mentally sick and their childhoods are taken yet so often, despite the horrific nature of these crimes, perpetrators receive very, very light sentences. This infuriates not just victims and their families but the general public. It sends very dangerous messages to victims of crime generally but specifically to victims of sexual violence. These are not unique or isolated cases, as the Tánaiste knows. There is a real problem with the sentences handed down to perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse, in particular, and we must face up to that. Inconsistency, leniency and light sentences are common practice. The House should make no mistake. A recent high profile case has brought the Judiciary into disrepute. The public does not trust our justice system to deliver punishments that fit these crimes. It is as simple as that.

The Deputy can be general about policy but not refer to a specific case. I have to warn her.

I have been general.

The same will apply to the Tánaiste.

I have taken the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's advice and I have spoken in general.

The Deputy should get a new script.

People have, therefore, have had enough of light sentences for these crimes and there is a real and immediate challenge. As legislators, we must respond rationally and effectively to what is a very grave deficiency within our criminal justice system and the Government must lead that response. We need to build public confidence. We need a mechanism to deliver consistency and accountability in sentencing. The sentencing council model should be introduced in this jurisdiction. This would involve a full range of stakeholders and the wider public in the process of establishing sentencing guidelines for the Judiciary. Members of the Judiciary, of course, would still remain central to the process. The sentencing guidelines issued would ensure the Judiciary must stick to the range provided for the category of offence before them. This would reassure the public of the appropriateness of sentences for serious crime. It would also ensure consistency and accountability across the courts system. Does the Tánaiste accept that there is a serious problem in respect of sentencing, specifically in respect of sexual crime and abuse? What does the Government propose to do about this? Will the Government give serious consideration to adopting the sentencing council model as I have outlined?

We can refer to general policy but not to a specific case. I remind the House as a whole that there is a long-standing ruling that members of Judiciary are independent by virtue of the Constitution and they may neither be criticised nor have their rulings referred to in the House.

I thank Deputy McDonald. There is a long history in this country and, indeed, elsewhere of difficulty in securing convictions in respect of sexual offences. There is also a long history here and elsewhere of a belief that the sentencing does not reflect the seriousness of the crime. I am on record again and again as saying that I do not believe that enough attention has been paid to victims in our legal system and I reiterate that this afternoon. We need a sea change in attitudes to victims across the criminal justice system. That is why the Government introduced victims of crime legislation in line with an EU directive, which, thankfully, is leading the way in that change. I believe as that change takes hold, some of the issues to which the Deputy referred will be dealt with more robustly and more appropriately within our system.

As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle said, sentencing is a matter for the Judiciary. We respect the separation of powers in this country. The sentencing regime for sexual crimes has been greatly strengthened in recent years. For example, as the Deputy will be aware, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which I introduced last year, has much stronger sanctions in respect of online grooming. The Act introduces a specific offence relating to the use of information and communications technology to facilitate the sexual exploitation of a child. It was extremely important that the House passed the legislation because there are new forms of interaction with young children on the Internet, which makes them extremely vulnerable to sexual grooming and sexual exploitation. There is a huge educational job as well for all of us to do. The reality is our criminal law is strong in respect of the sanctions and penalties judges can hand down but in each case, it is a matter for the Judiciary and it is not open to Ministers or any other Member to intervene in any way regarding how a particular case is conducted or in the outcome of such proceedings. I hope I have made it clear that, from the Government's point of view, we take these sexual violence offences extremely seriously and we have introduced stronger legislation.

All of us appreciate and value the independence of the Judiciary, the separation of powers and the necessity for an independent Judiciary. The Tánaiste will notice that I have not advanced an argument in respect of mandatory sentences for that very reason. It is our job, however, to reflect truthfully the level of public disquiet that arises in high profile or other cases, particularly of sexual violence. It is our job, as legislators, to decide upon a framework within which the Judiciary might independently operate and that is the proposition I am putting to the Tánaiste. We are largely in agreement and I do not for a moment gainsay her concern for victims. I absolutely acknowledge and appreciate that. I equally acknowledge changes in the law but I have advanced an argument in favour of a sentencing council. In 2015, my colleague, Senator Pádraig MacLochlainn, and, in 2017, my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, introduced sentencing council Bills. I am trying to win the Tánaiste over to the merits of that approach, not to mandatory sentencing but to guidelines that would have the dual advantage of, one the one hand, affording guidance, not direction, to the Bench, but also a mechanism that would massively enhance public confidence, which has been dented, in the sentencing policy of the State.

Clearly, in court the issues in each case have to be examined but I take the view, as does the Deputy, that consistency of sentencing is an important issue. The approach we have taken is to publish the Judicial Council Bill 2017, under which a sentencing information committee will be established to collate information on sentences imposed by the courts and to disseminate information among judges and persons other than judges. That will be a valuable tool for the Judiciary and for the public's understanding of sentencing regimes and how they work. A report of the working group on the strategic review of penal policy was published in June 2014 following excellent work. It was a broad ranging report on this policy but they examined the issue of developing sentencing guidelines. However, the majority of the group took the view that the primary role of developing such guidelines is the responsibility of the Judiciary and does not lie in bringing forward detailed statutory-based guidelines.

One has to wonder what it is about the banks in Ireland that allows them to behave so disgracefully so often. From Ansbacher to the DIRT inquiry, we saw the banks do serious harm, and then they brought our country to its knees with reckless lending. Now, just a few years later, we have another scandal. While posting billions of euros in profits, they have systematically defrauded tens of thousands of our people. Yesterday, we heard from the Minister for Finance on the scandal. As Miriam Lord wryly noted in a newspaper this morning, "he has demanded two more reports from the Central Bank to join all the other ones and he should be in a position to be very definitive about something one way or another in about six months' time". The Minister refused to outline any potential sanctions that might actually be imposed on the banks. More than two years have passed since the Central Bank began its investigation. Some 20,000 customers have been definitely impacted, and possibly 30,000. We know that 23 families have had their homes repossessed and another 79 were dragged through the courts for repossession of buy-to-let properties. The human toll is not limited to these cases. During some of the toughest years of our economy, people were faced with scandalous overcharging of tens of thousands of euro. The scale of human misery involved is immense, yet the Minister for Finance cannot tell us what sanctions these banks might face.

Several things seem abundantly clear to us. First, under the 2013 Act that we introduced, the Central Bank has the power to direct banks to pay redress. Therefore, it should be doing so now for all post-2013 cases. Second, it must set out a speedy system of external oversight to identify any customer not yet known to have been defrauded. Third, it seems clear to anyone watching that this was cartel-like behaviour, with each of the banks perpetrating the same fraud. It is simply not good enough to be told that the Central Bank is liaising with or had meetings with the Garda. The Tánaiste must tell the House what the Government intends to do to pursue any criminal activity and ensure that it is fully investigated. We have to see some personal accountability. Finally, in this country, individuals - real people - as well as systems and culture must be held to account. It will not be good enough to reach the end of this latest banking scandal and say that everyone has received compensation so business should return to normal. The people have endured too much for this case to close in that manner.

I think everyone in the House agrees with the Deputy's description of what has happened. He, more than most in the House-----

He was in government for five years.

-----knows the issues which we as a Government have had to deal with over the past number of years in relation to the banking situation in this country. Tough and difficult action had to be taken and every family in this country has paid the price for the reckless behaviour of our banks in the past. The Deputy knows the range of initiatives which have been taken to ensure that there the situation was changed, but the emergence of the details and the horror of the situation has brought home to us once again the extreme importance of regulation and monitoring as well as the role of the Central Bank and the need for that role to be robust in the extreme. The Deputy spoke about the Central Bank having the power to ensure redress. That is precisely what the Minister has said will happen by the end of December. The second report will identify other families and individuals who may have been impacted. The Governor and the Minister have made it absolutely clear that they expect the banks to move immediately on redress, and we are talking about weeks and not months.

The Deputy spoke about whether there was fraud. The determination of whether fraud has taken place, criminal proceedings should be brought or a cartel has operated are matters for the independent statutory bodies, namely, the Central Bank, An Garda Síochána and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Central Bank has well-established arrangements to liaise with An Garda Síochána where there is any suspicion of criminal investigation. I suppose one could say that they are at the middle point of their probe and we have to await its results. None of us here wants to jeopardise any potential enforcement actions or prosecutions in these matters. We do not decide on the bringing of criminal prosecutions at a political level; that is a decision for the relevant authorities. The Minister is determined that there will be a thorough and rigorous examination of the issues in terms of what has happened to people, which is why he asked the Governor of the Central Bank to do the further report on the broader issue of how this could have happened and the cultural factors that led to it. That report will be available early in the new year.

The Tánaiste is absolutely right that the people of this nation put the banks back on their feet by their hard work and forbearance over the past five years. In that context, what we have now discovered is an act of gross betrayal. Given the Ansbacher accounts, the DIRT inquiry, everything else that has happened and what the banks have gone through, and the enormous amount of taxpayers' money that was pumped into the banks to have a functioning banking system, one would imagine that they would have a moral responsibility. That comes to the net point I want the Tánaiste to address. We can talk about culture, changing systems and failure of systems, but will individuals who caused this dreadful harm be held accountable? Will the Tánaiste set out for the House the investigations she is talking about to ensure that individuals will be investigated where there is any evidence of collusion or fraud?

I repeat that we are in the middle of a process of determining the total scale of the issues which have come to our attention and, again, I commend those who had the courage of their convictions and shone a light on this issue. The personal stories have shone a light on this in a way nothing else could. If the Central Bank is not satisfied with the progress that has been made by December, it has within its own powers-----

It talked last week about moral suasion.

It is a combination. If there has been fraud, it has to be dealt with in the normal way. Any individual who suspects fraud can report it to An Garda Síochána and the Garda has to make an assessment. In line with proper procedures, it has to be examined and the evidence brought forth if there is to be a criminal prosecution. Make no mistake but there is no question of any sort of a cover-up if criminal activity is proven. The Government is hugely concerned about these actions. One would have thought the banks would have learned their lesson, that people would not have been treated in the way that they have been treated and that the banks would have been more customer-focused and sensitive to the extraordinary harm being caused to families.

I have raised the issue of serious public disorder and anti-social and criminal behaviour in districts of Dublin Bay North with the Minister for Justice and Equality several times since June. I was responding to great distress of constituents who sent me photographs and video recordings of cars being burnt out in broad daylight. I was told of appalling anti-social and criminal behaviour as up to five and six vehicles were recklessly driven around estates and then set on fire in nightly episodes often lasting until 6 a.m. This outrageous behaviour is incredibly dangerous, as homes were effectively blockaded by abandoned and burning vehicles and the lives of families and local children were put at risk.

Unfortunately, the initial response of An Garda Síochána in mid-summer was very slow due to what is widely perceived as a lack of resources, especially in community policing. Following urgent requests from community leaders, development bodies and local public representatives, a policing plan was finally implemented and resulted in a reduction in this crime. However, it persists, with several incidents each week. Communities are fearful that the forthcoming Hallowe'en festival will be used by alleged miscreants and ringleaders to set off another orgy of vandalism and burning of vehicles, with all the associated drink and drug-fuelled mayhem.

This sets a terrible example for children and teenagers in communities whose citizens have striven hard to create safe and secure neighbourhoods. This appalling anti-social behaviour is part of a general increase in such behaviour across Dublin Bay North and other constituencies. My office often receives reports of intimidation of families and households, widespread vandalism of public facilities, including DART and Irish Rail stations, unauthorised and dangerous use of quad vehicles and scrambler motorcycles in public parks, burglaries, a plague of graffiti and other nuisances. What action is the Minister for Justice and Equality taking to address this problem?

The Tánaiste, in her previous role as Minister for Justice and Equality, bears a major responsibility in this regard, having slashed Garda numbers, particularly in the area of community policing. Last year, for example, the number of gardaí in the R and J districts of Garda division DMR north stood at only 202 and 160, respectively. The J district alone has lost nearly 60 gardaí since 2010 and the economic crash, an issue discussed in the House a moment ago. The number of community gardaí was also substantially reduced during this period. When I contacted the current Minister for Justice and Equality in July, he stressed the importance of the Garda national model of community policing and indicated that new community policing teams would be introduced in each Garda district in accordance with the Garda Act 2005 and the Garda Inspectorate report of 2007. Many citizens will agree with former garda, Mr. Trevor Laffan, who wrote on thejournal.ie that "community policing no longer exists" as a result of the actions of the past two austerity Governments.

I have no doubt that the Tánaiste will refer to the plan to have 21,000 gardaí and other staff in place by 2021 and I obviously welcome this measure. However, what we need is the urgent roll-out of community policing teams in my constituency and other constituencies. Will the Government give a commitment to having community policing put back at the heart of the policing service and increasing the visibility of community gardaí?

What steps are being taken to apprehend the ringleaders involved in the appalling anti-social behaviour I have described, to caution them, to link them with juvenile liaison officers and, if necessary, to prosecute them? What is being done to identify and prosecute adults selling or transferring cars and other vehicles to children? Legislation I introduced in this area some 15 years ago on behalf of the Labour Party remains the law of the land. However, it appears that it is not being implemented because the supply of vehicles to children has not been stopped. Urgent action is needed.

We all recognise that the types of incidents and anti-social behaviour the Deputy describes are extremely disturbing for communities and create great dangers for citizens, whether in parks or on our streets. To ensure that we have the visible policing presence we need, this Government and that which preceded it have ensured the recruitment of new gardaí. The Deputy's statement that this Government or that which preceded it cut back on Garda numbers is incorrect; the opposite is the case. Budget 2018 provides for the recruitment of 800 additional gardaí and 500 civilians to fill critical skills gaps across An Garda Síochána and to ensure that gardaí move from administrative work into front-line duties in order that the very behaviour about which the Deputy spoke can be dealt with.

As far as other initiatives are concerned, deterrents must be in place and sentencing must reflect the seriousness of the crime. It was for this reason that we introduced legislation which ensures that people who are involved in, for example, robberies serve consecutive sentences. This has been a very important deterrent.

In terms of the behaviour the Deputy outlined, Garda liaison teams and community gardaí are doing excellent work in identifying and focusing on persistent offenders. These offenders must serve time in jail and we must work with communities to identify the areas and locations where persistent anti-social behaviour takes place. In cases where the Garda has done this, changes and improvements have been made. If the Deputy provides details of the area to which he referred, I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure that the matter is examined in detail.

While I note the Tánaiste's comments about the plans in place for the period up to 2021, it is a simple fact that this Government and the two previous Administrations allowed community policing to wither. Other stakeholders, specifically Dublin City Council, need to be mobilised. Dublin City Council management has a very poor estate management record for its 26,000 or 27,000 housing units. The Government and its predecessors cut resources to the council and other councils, including Fingal County Council, which covers some of the area I represent. This has made it very difficult to deliver front-line services.

One of the largest new urban districts in the country is being expanded on the border of Dublin Bay North and Dublin Fingal. On behalf of many local community bodies and representatives, I asked the previous Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to carry out an audit of social infrastructure in the area, including community, education, health, child care, recreation and commercial facilities, all of which are seriously lacking. He refused point-blank to do so. I ask that the current Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, take up this challenge. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, also faces a challenge in that many community bodies argue that new regulatory structures are making it extremely difficult to deliver the types of services that have been delivered very well in the past 20 years. Put another way, excessive bureaucracy means that we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

The Deputy must conclude.

I welcome the youth employment support scheme announced by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, especially as 700 young people aged under 25 years of age are signing on in my constituency.

The Deputy is taking advantage.

As I stated, the Hallowe'en festival often lasts for several weeks in parts of my constituency. I urge the Government to ensure that families and communities are completely safe during this period and that we have the numbers of community gardaí we need.

The Deputy is normally very orderly.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. He is very kind.

We all know the pressure our emergency services face during the Hallowe'en period. I can only agree with the Deputy that we should urge people to engage in safe behaviour and get involved in the many activities local councils across Dublin are organising to ensure we do not have the types of dangerous incidents that have resulted in many children ending up in Temple Street and Crumlin children's hospitals in recent years.

The Government has shown its intentions regarding the investment we need in infrastructure. We will shortly publish the national investment programme for infrastructure.

The model used in the north inner city, which involves bringing together communities and their representatives and developing services, must be replicated across the country.