I welcome everyone to the meeting to discuss the concerns of a number of interest groups with regard to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. I welcome the representative of Amnesty International, Ms Fiona Crowley; the director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Ms Aisling Reidy, and its senior policy officer, Ms Tanya Ward; and Ms Maria Corbett from the Children's Rights Alliance and Irish Youth Justice Alliance. The representatives of each organisation will make a presentation which will be followed by questions from committee members. I remind the representatives that whereas Members of the Oireachtas enjoy parliamentary privilege, they do not.
Criminal Justice Bill 2004: Presentations.
Ms Aisling Reidy
I am a director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties which forms part of an alliance with the Irish Youth Justice Alliance. The submission of the Irish Youth Justice Alliance, an alliance of a number of organisations, including Amnesty International, the Children's Rights Alliance, my organisation and others, will be made by Ms Maria Corbett wearing both hats, as acting CEO of the Children's Rights Alliance and on behalf of the Irish Youth Justice Alliance. In that regard, a number of concerns are raised with regard to the Criminal Justice Bill which will have an impact on juveniles and youth justice. For that reason I will not touch upon them in my submission.
As well as thanking the joint committee for the invitation to participate in this discussion, I commend it on its approach to the Bill. This is obviously not the first time it has looked at the proposals contained in the Bill. It undertook a review of the criminal justice system at the end of 2003, during which we also made a submission. Many of the concerns we expressed then remain with regard to this Bill. We understand this hearing is not part of the legislative process and that there will be a further opportunity for scrutiny of particular provisions. We welcome this.
Because of the area with which it deals, this is an important Bill. It proposes far reaching changes to the criminal justice system. When the scheme of the Bill was produced, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties did not make a submission on account of pressure on resources and because it knew the Bill had been referred to the Human Rights Commission which was making extensive submissions. Unfortunately, when the Bill was published, the commission stated it "does not reflect the recommendations made by the Commission in relation to the scheme of the Criminal Justice Bill". It regretted the fact that the Bill had been published "without considering the Commission's views on the additional heads of a Bill having referred the Bill to the Commission under section 8(b) of the Human Rights Commission Act 2000”.
Given that the Human Rights Commission is a statutory body and that it had extensive concerns that were not properly reflected in the published Bill, we decided we wanted to make an extensive submission on the Bill. We expected the well flagged amendments would be available and that we could comment on the whole Bill. However, as they are not available, we will restrict ourselves to what has been published. The submission we present today, therefore, will not be the final submission of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties on the Bill.
The Human Rights Commission has flagged some of the issues to which I would like to draw the attention of the committee.
Can we be clear that we are dealing only with what is contained within the Bill as published, not any of the 11 items referred to by the Minister? Is Ms Reidy dealing with any of those items?
Not in this submission.
The question of ASBOs, anti-social behaviour orders, will be dealt with extensively in the submission by the Irish Youth Justice Alliance. As a group, we have decided to make just one submission rather than have each organisation make an individual submission because they would substantially be the same.
In the written submission we have presented to the joint committee we have only commented on the Bill because that was all we had to hand. However, we will be happy to answer questions on issues such as electronic tagging, membership of criminal gangs and others which have been flagged. We discussed some of these issues with the committee last December when it undertook a broader review. We were of the view that we should stick with the Bill as published because until we saw the actual wording, it was hard to make specific recommendations for amendments or deletions, etc.
We welcome some sections of the Bill with which we have no problem. To start on a positive note, we have set these out at the beginning, for example, the provisions contained in sections 4 and 27. Section 4 empowers members of the Garda to take necessary steps to designate a place as a crime scene. This is an encouraging step because of the importance of securing forensic evidence at the beginning of a criminal investigation. It recognises the important role the securing of forensic evidence plays in securing successful and reliable prosecutions.
We welcome section 27 which allows a judge to prohibit publication of information on the medical condition of a witness. We also note that the European Court of Human Rights has held that it may be necessary for courts to be able to issue such orders in order to protect the privacy of witnesses. We have provided a reference to the case in question at the end of paragraph 2.8.
Apart from those two sections which we welcome as enhancing a criminal justice system based on human rights principles, several others raise concerns. While they have been flagged by the Human Rights Commission, they have not been effectively amended.
For the first time section 5(1) provides in Irish law for a search warrant to be issued by someone other than a judicial authority — in exceptional circumstances a senior garda will be allowed to issue a warrant. As the Human Rights Commission has pointed out, the issuing of search warrants already impinges on people's rights under the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. We are concerned that the section does not provide safeguards or state the reason it is necessary that search warrants should be issued without judicial oversight. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties understands that the whereabouts and timetables of judges are known to the Garda in order that it can approach a District Court judge to get a warrant. Like the Human Rights Commission, we believe no evidence or examples have been provided to justify the removal of one of the fundamental safeguards of judicial oversight.
We also draw the joint committee's attention to the police reform that took place in Slovenia, a new EU member state. When that country was putting its criminal justice system in order to join the European Union, it went through a serious process of police reform in conjunction with the Council of Europe. The Slovenians looked at how their criminal justice system which allowed for the issuing of warrants without judicial oversight and discovered that once that power is made available, it is widely used. Unfortunately, it was discovered that only 25% of searches carried out without a judicial warrant led to any evidence that could be used in a criminal prosecution.
When the Slovenians reformed their laws, it was a strict requirement that every warrant issued needed judicial oversight except in exceptional circumstances such as hot pursuit. Having introduced this law, less than 10% of searches are carried out without judicial warrant and the level of searches that produce evidence has doubled. In the time since it was passed the police force in Slovenia has been happier with the system it is operating. While there may be a tendency to assume that more powers will automatically lead to more effective prosecution and the more efficient use of powers, that has not proved to be the case in practice.
We have two concerns about section 6 which extends Garda power to seize and retain evidence, particularly in public places. During the policing operation in May 2004 a large number of people were stopped by gardaí and searched. Inoffensive items were confiscated, among them a bag of onions, with spray cans to make banners for marches. Often, when asked what power they were using, gardaí did not specify or said they were exercising power under drugs legislation which allows for the stopping and searching of individuals but there was no reasonable cause to believe the people concerned were in possession of illegal drugs. We are concerned that if the power of gardaí to stop and collect evidence in a public place is widened, it will be used in the manner it was used in May 2004 when it was used to stop and search people when there was no reasonable cause to believe they would commit a crime.
When the Minister introduced the Bill, he listed a provision that would make it an offence to be in possession of certain items, in itself unclear, with the intention of committing an offence. If it becomes an offence to have an item that is not dangerous in itself such as a spray can but the assumption is made that someone has a spray can with the intent to commit criminal damage, as opposed to making a banner for a protest, we are concerned that policing operations will use such powers if safeguards are not provided for in the Bill.
We are also concerned that while confidential material between client and lawyer is protected, there is a question about being able to seize evidence from journalists' offices or premises. It is clear that journalists' sources attract significant, if not absolute, protection under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There should be extra safeguards built into the power of gardaí to seize evidence similar to that given to lawyers and clients that recognise that it should not be permissible for gardaí to seize journalists' materials.
We are concerned about the increased power of detention. This issue has been flagged by the Human Rights Commission. While there has been a proposal to double the period of detention, there is no provision to allow a lawyer to be present during questioning throughout the extended period of detention, as the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture has recommended to the Government for over a decade, nor is there any provision for the mandatory video-taping of statements made in that detention period. If there is a justifiable need for extending detention periods for certain crimes, at least there should be safeguards in place such as video-monitoring and the power to have a lawyer present, as is the case in Northern Ireland and Britain. That would be compatible with ensuring equivalence of protection of rights in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Section 11 grants the power to the Garda to take further bodily samples without consent. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties made extensive submissions to the Law Reform Commission when it was considering the question of a DNA database — we reiterate most of those concerns — about the provision that intimate samples can be taken from people in detention without their consent. We are concerned that there are no safeguards in the Bill, although protection of bodily integrity is built into the Constitution and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The provision in the Bill specifically relates to the taking of samples from which one can extract DNA evidence. DNA evidence does not change from time to time, it is non-contaminable. It is only relevant to certain crimes, particularly those involving violence, assault and rape. Where there is a need to take DNA evidence to corroborate someone as a potential suspect or to eliminate someone from an inquiry, if the person is not willing to give that sample, there is no harm in requiring judicial supervision where a judge is told it is necessary, given the type and seriousness of the crime, that DNA should be taken. The person concerned would then have the sample taken in the presence of his or her lawyer. Even though this may involve a delay in taking the sample, because it is DNA evidence, it is not going to change. In that way, if the DNA evidence is needed later, it will be evidence that was taken under court order in the presence of a lawyer that can be relied upon in court, rather than having discussions at that stage about DNA evidence being taken without consent where the bodily integrity of a detainee may have been violated in the taking of the sample and that the evidence is, therefore, inadmissible. While we welcome the use of DNA evidence in general as a forensic tool we are concerned that the provision permitting the taking of such samples without consent, and therefore by certain use of force, is not in keeping with the human rights provisions in either the Constitution or the ECHR.
The Minister flagged the admissibility of certain witness statements some time ago and this committee considered it extensively in its last review. We have reiterated in writing some of the concerns we raised last December, namely, that this will lead to the admission of unreliable statements into court evidence and thereby unjust or unsound convictions.
There are powers to allow out of court statements to be entered into court if there is evidence or reason to believe there may be witness intimidation or a problem securing the witness at trial, namely, depositions under the Criminal Justice Act 1990 and limited use of evidence by video link. Like the Irish Human Rights Commission, we urge that those provisions be explored and used before opening up the possibility of bringing unreliable statements into court.
While there is an attempt to enter Garda statements, where the witness will not stand over his or her statements there is no provision for those statements, to be video recorded or that a lawyer should have been present while those statements were taken. If the committee is seriously considering that inadmissible statements should now be allowed as evidence, it should, as a minimum, demand that those statements be subject to video recordings, in order that anyone evaluating the credibility of that statement can watch the person making the statement on a video tape. In addition, the lawyer should be present in order that the person who made the statement is fully aware of its consequences and how it may be used later in court. Unfortunately, neither safeguard appears in the Bill.
Section 29 covers on-the-spot fines, empowering the gardaí to serve notice of a public order offence without going to court. The ICCL urges that this provision be deleted. Public order offences as defined under section 5 of the Public Order Act are notoriously vague and undefined. One of the reasons for bringing forward this provision is that many public order offences do not stand up in court. This is why we find it unacceptable that on the spot fines are introduced to secure higher rates of prosecution for these offences. This denies an individual's right of access to court and allows a garda to be judge and jury. The Human Rights Commission has also recommended that this section be deleted.
I apologise for taking so long.
Thank you. I call on Amnesty International.
Ms Fiona Crowley
Amnesty International welcomes the initiation of this review of the Irish criminal justice system. We are particularly pleased to have been invited to attend today's committee meeting because Amnesty International was not in a position to make a submission to the original public consultation process.
While we are conscious that this meeting is confined to discussion of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 we believe observations from the Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International and others on the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill 2002 and the International Criminal Court Bill 2003 should be considered. I have circulated these observations to the committee.
Amnesty International is joined by colleagues from various coalitions and we share and echo many of our submissions. My submission will set out some of Amnesty International's general concerns about criminal justice legislation which around the world may often infringe or undermine human rights. I have circulated documents to the committee which I hope will inform the committee's deliberations on the review of the Bill. These are Rights at Risk, an analysis of general measures which although they pertain to security measures are analagous to the considerations of the committee. There are comments on the International Criminal Court Bill and submissions on the jurisdiction of the Special Criminal Court in the context of the Offences Against the State Act. In my written presentation I mentioned that we submitted a document entitled, Fair Trials Manual. As it proved far too unwieldy to photocopy, the committee may strike it from the record, or I can resubmit it to the secretary of the committee.
I echo the ICCL's presentation. Amnesty International has monitored the use of criminal justice and security legislation around the world for more than 40 years. In many cases a perceived threat of increased criminal activity or membership of subversive groups, for example, following the attack on the twin towers in New York on 11 September 2001, can lead to the violation of human rights. I urge the committee to use the international human rights standards to which Ireland is a party to inform its view of this legislation. That is why I have circulated these documents so I will not discuss these rights in detail, other than to say that they are identified in the written observation.
We recognise that states have a duty to protect their people from violent criminal acts. However we are convinced that such measures need to be carefully implemented within a framework of protection for all human rights. That was the genesis and nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted to address widespread serious human rights abuses perpetrated by governments on their own citizens during the Second World War. Human rights standards are the bare minimum of standards to protect the safety of individuals from abuse of power by the state. Ireland has signed up to rights enshrined in human rights treaties, such as the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture. We are convinced that the State can address any threats posed by those engaged in criminal or subversive activity or threats from a perceived increase in terrorist activity. It can do this by upholding agreed and shared standards of basic human rights in its law enforcement.
One of Amnesty International's key demands in the context of challenging and addressing criminal activity and terrorism is that governments should ensure that all criminal justice legislation and its enforcement is subject to review by an independent monitoring body charged with monitoring compliance with international human rights standards. We are pleased that Ireland is to the fore in this by establishing the Irish Human Rights Commission with its statutory responsibility for monitoring legislation. This affords great potential to the legislature to ensure that human rights standards underpin legislation. Amnesty International endorses and echoes the views and observations of the Human Rights Commission on this Bill and the other relevant Bills. This applies in particular to search warrants, admissibility of witness statements, body samples and so on.
We will make a further submission specifically on this Bill on Committee Stage and on the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill. I will not discuss our concerns about those here except to say that we hope they reflect the fundamental principles of international human rights law. One such principle is that a detained person must be brought promptly before a judicial authority to determine the necessity for and lawfulness of detention. We are concerned that the period of 12 hours provided for in the 1984 Act appears sufficient and no satisfactory case has been made that it is not adequate.
If the committee wishes me to elaborate on any issues raised in the written submission I will be delighted to assist in its review of the Bill. We are confident international human rights will find a place in the review of the criminal justice procedure and legislation. Suffice to say, our concerns about this Bill are grave and will be made known to the Legislature in due course. We are keen to assist in the review in whatever capacity we can.
Deputy S. Ardagh took the Chair.
The next speaker is Ms Maria Corbett from the Children's Rights Alliance and the Irish Youth Justice Alliance.
Ms Maria Corbett
We appreciate the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee on the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. I am acting chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, a coalition of 79 non-governmental organisations working with children and young people. We are working towards the full implementation in Ireland of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Ireland in 1992. I am also speaking as a representative of the Irish Youth Justice Alliance. This is a new coalition that focusses on reforming youth justice. It comprises the Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, along with leading legal practitioners, child law advocates and other professionals in the field.
Three proposals of concern relating to young people in the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, outlined on Second Stage on 15 February 2005, are anti-social behaviour orders, an amendment to the Garda diversion programme and the introduction of electronic tagging. I have submitted articles from the UK on anti-social behaviour orders to the committee which give clear examples and good information. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, indicated on Second Stage that he intends to introduce provisions whereby the Garda will be able to apply to the courts by way of civil procedure for anti-social behaviour orders which will prohibit persons from behaving in an offending way. Although the order will be a civil order, breach of it will be a criminal offence punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both. An article in theIrish Independent, the day after the Second Stage debate noted that these anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, will apply to children as young as ten years of age.
The Irish Youth Justice Alliance is strongly opposed to the introduction of ASBOs. We base our criticism on the experience of the introduction of these orders in the UK. They were introduced in England and Wales in 1999 and were recently introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland amid considerable controversy. Despite the argument that the orders are applicable to adults and children, overwhelming evidence from the UK shows children are the usual focus of these orders. ASBOs are inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights as they involve the imposition of penal sanctions for breach of an order made in civil proceedings. The conditions set down by ASBOs involve a disproportionate interference with personal and private rights and civil liberties. ASBOs are also contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly articles 3 and 40. They are also contrary to international standards of youth justice, which require the diversion of young people from offending behaviour and the criminal justice system. ASBOs run contrary to the spirit and letter of the Children Act 2001, which sets out to divert young people from offending behaviour and custody. They also run contrary to Government policy as laid out in the national children's strategy. ASBOs pose significant challenges to young people, who are already marginalised and disadvantaged, as well as to the agencies with responsibility for their welfare including the health service executive and the probation and welfare service.
ASBOs are to apply to children aged ten years and upwards. However, the Children Act provides to increase the age of criminal responsibility from seven years to 12 years. I am concerned as to why ASBOs should apply to children as young as ten years. No case has been made for the introduction of these orders. Has anti-social behaviour reached a level to justify the introduction of such a draconian measure? It is a response to non-criminal behaviour which criminalises young people. No case has been made to prove other attempts to tackle anti-social behaviour have failed. We do not believe other preventative measures to work with children, their families and communities in a positive and constructive manner have been exhausted and failed.
Numerous sections of the Children Act have yet to be implemented, including a range of eight community sanctions to challenge anti-social behaviour. A key issue for implementation of the Children Act is resourcing. The resources needed must be provided through the probation and welfare service. However, in the 2005 budget, 8% of the budget was cut. Additional resources need to be channelled into social services and the health executive. There are also issues as to what causes anti-social behaviour. Often it is associated with alcohol consumption. Much more can be done to reduce young people's consumption of alcohol.
As the courts have complete discretion as to the nature and breadth of the conditions attached to ASBOs, they can be so wide-ranging as to set the defendant to fail, in particular a young one. In the UK, ASBOs have been used to prohibit young people from using certain language or words. For example, a child was prohibited from using the word "grass". They have also been used to prohibit young people from wearing certain clothes, including hoodies and baseball caps. Children have been ordered to stay away from public places such as shopping centres and parks. That provision is already contained in the Children Act. Young people can also be prohibited from meeting named individuals. Examples of orders that have been served on children in the UK, include a 17 year old who was banned from sitting on the top deck of a bus and ten year old twins who, two days before Christmas, were prohibited from looking into the windows of other people's flats. One can see the range of conditions placed on young people under these orders.
In England and Wales, breaches of ASBOs have occurred in a third of cases, with half of these ending up in custody. Children are now detained for behaviour that would often not be imprisonable in itself. In the UK, the introduction of ASBOs has been twinned with the rise in the number of children in detention. In early 2004, approximately 25 young people went into detention on the basis of a breach of an ASBO. One year later the figure has doubled. In the UK, the breach of an ASBO on indictment carries a maximum penalty of five year's imprisonment. It is important to emphasise that the Children Act is based on the principle that the detention of children is to be a measure of last resort.
The process of naming and shaming by publicising the name, address and picture of the young person are conditions of the ASBO. Such publicising to the media and the public is seen as central to their effectiveness in so far as it assists the policing of the order. There have been examples of the photograph of a child and the conditions of his or her ASBO appearing on the front page of a newspaper. This runs contrary to statutory and international provisions which recognise the child's right to have his or her privacy fully respected at all stages of proceedings. We believe that ASBOs encourage net-widening and involve the labelling and criminalisation of young people and fail to employ positive approaches and supports to young people to keep away from criminal behaviour.
Section 31 amends section 48 of the Children Act. The amendment is to allow the Director of Public Prosecutions in criminal proceedings to inform the courts at the time of sentencing, if the offender was previously admitted to the Garda diversion programme. The alliance believes that this proposal must be deleted as it represents a fundamental change to the Children Act and will serve to undermine the Garda diversion programme. The programme operates under the principle of restorative justice, with 87% of participants reaching 18 years of age without re-offending. On what basis has a decision been taken to interfere with what is considered a successful programme that avoids labelling and stigmatising children?
The Bill also includes proposals for electronic tagging. It is unclear whether it will be applicable to children as well as adults. The argument made for electronic tagging is that it provides an alternative to prison, reducing prison numbers and budgets and reoffending. The Penal Reform Trust has noted that international evidence shows that those most often placed on electronic tagging programmes are low risk offenders who would not necessarily be sent to prison and who are already at low risk of reoffending. For example, less than 6% of adults convicted of public order offences receive a custodial sentence. Electronic tagging, therefore, offers no alternative to prison for those unlikely to receive prison sentences initially, will not reduce prisoner numbers and, rather than reduce the incidence of reoffending, simply allow for monitoring a group unlikely to reoffend.
I re-emphasise that anti-social behaviour orders are contrary to our international obligations, particularly under the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, and also international best practice. We deem them unnecessary, with electronic tagging. What is needed is full implementation of the Children which will require adequate resourcing of the probation and welfare service and relevant social services. The latter have a duty to provide care and support for children and young people in our communities and we should look to them to tackle the issue of anti-social behaviour.
I thank the joint committee for the time it has allowed us to make a presentation. On behalf of my colleagues, I would welcome another opportunity to appear before it as the Criminal Justice Bill proceeds, perhaps when we have the wording of the proposed amendments.
Ms Corbett and the other representatives may wish to respond to questions asked by committee members.
I compliment our interlocutors on making such a good presentation. We have been given a detailed measure of their opinions on many aspects of the Bill. I hope to study the papers supplied to us. The presentation will prove very useful, particularly on Committee Stage in investigating further the issues raised in the Bill.
As I said on Second Stage, we are discussing what is at this stage less than half a Bill. Someone spoke of the 9/11 Bill because the Minister referred to nine points which are included in the Bill but there are eleven which are not. I want to see the details of these eleven points before I commit myself. While I am very much in favour of electronic tagging, I want to see proper safeguards. As I do not know what the Minister has in mind until he produces his amending framework, at this stage I can only deal with what is included in the Bill.
The issue of search warrants concerns me. Some members of the Garda Síochána tell me that there can be problems, for example, at 1 a.m. in finding a judge to issue a necessary warrant. In such an emergency the criminal or issue being tracked can disappear before daylight. Do the representatives believe there is a procedure which could be put in place involving the use of modern technology? I would like to see judicial intervention with regard to search warrants. Would the representatives be satisfied if, for example, a superintendent were to email or fax a judge to issue a warrant and seek retrospective validation of the order the following morning? Could a process involving the use of modern technology be put in place to address an urgent need during the middle of the night or the weekend and at the same time allow for judicial intervention with retrospective validation?
I welcome the representatives. For the first time I notice that there is a gender imbalance on the female side. Perhaps in many ways this is a welcome development.
Not all of us noticed.
I notice in the submission by Amnesty International that it has problems with virtually all the legislation being brought forward — the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill 2002 which is being finalised this morning and the International Criminal Court Bill 2003. Clearly, there has been a shift from safeguarding international rights to infringements or sailing close to the wind in terms of the powers being granted.
There are so many aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago in the middle of what were called the Troubles when there seemed to be an internal as well as an external threat to security and law and order. It is strange there has been a shift given that we have been involved in the peace process for the past seven or eight years, part of which has involved the dismantling of the apparatus of the Special Criminal Court and so on. The Amnesty International documentation states the Special Criminal Court should be dismantled but in fact we are giving increased powers to another special criminal court as part of the provisions with which we will deal today in the terrorist offences legislation.
On the search warrant proposals, I do not know how many other jurisdictions have this power. In practice, is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform confirming the reality? Some time ago I tabled a question to him on the number of cases in which search warrants had been sought and granted. It transpires that approximately 99.7% of all search warrants sought in court with judicial monitoring are granted. In effect, we do not have third party examination of search warrants. I suppose the Garda would ask the reason a garda would go the trouble of going to court to get a search warrant if he or she could simply go to a superintendent. What about safeguards with regard to the judicial inspection and monitoring of search warrants, or is anything happening in that area?
We have been seeking the video recording of interviews for a long time. The scheme for the video and audio recording of interrogations in Garda stations is still at pilot stage. What about seeking to make this mandatory in criminal justice legislation? Surely that is the only way we could provide for the safeguards required, especially now that we are moving towards a position where there will be 24-hour detention solely for the purpose of questioning.
Ms Corbett has said the section dealing with on-the-spot fines should be abolished entirely. It seems strange that gardaí have total power in that they are the investigating police officers, prosecutor, judge, jury and sanctioner. This might lead to a prosecution if someone does not participate or go along with their initial opinion.
On the taking of samples, the representatives have mentioned that it is desirable that the consent element be retained but that it should be done in the presence of a lawyer. What about it being done in the presence of a medical supervisor? Is that necessary?
On the other matters mentioned by Ms Corbett of the Children's Rights Alliance, we obviously do not know the details. Perhaps, when we receive them, we could seek another submission rather than consider something that is speculative.
I have problems with most sections of the Bill which have been dealt with to some extent by my colleagues. I wish to deal specifically with the section relating to public order offences. It has been clearly stated that under the current system, it is difficult to see any exact definition of what is such an offence. It can vary from District Court to District Court and many decisions are appealed to the Circuit Court and overturned. There is no consensus on what is such an offence. I know that in certain circumstances gardaí consider young lads coming off a bus singing and celebrating after winning a match at 11.30 p.m. as committing a public order offence. Other gardaí consider it a boost to the game in which they are interested. There is no consistency.
What worries me most is that it is mainly young people who will be affected. They may still be living at home as students or have just begun working. They might find it far easier to pay the fine, even though they genuinely believe they are innocent of any crime. It is very dangerous to put young people in such a situation. We cannot allow this to happen.
The other point is that, irrespective of how this matter is dealt with, there will be a criminal record. A record of any kind for young people who have pleaded guilty just for the sake of keeping out of trouble or to save embarrassment to themselves and their parents through having their name appear in the local newspaper is absolutely unacceptable. At this stage I cannot see how this provision can be implemented. It is a serious infringement of the rights of young people and will give them a totally wrong attitude towards law enforcement, the rule of law and justice. We have to deal with it seriously as the Bill progresses.
I welcome and commend the groups. It is refreshing to hear civil liberties and civil rights voices, particularly in recent days, when all respect for human rights standards, the law and due process appears to have gone out the window. What are the views of the representatives on this? Particularly in recent days, we have seen trial by media and politicians. Would the representatives share my concerns that, overall, recently in Ireland human rights standards have dropped immensely, in particular regarding this Bill?
My second question relates to anti-social behaviour. One representative asked the question of whether it had reached that level. Speaking as a backbench Deputy involved in community groups, the answer is that it has. What is happening is absolutely appalling. People must be conscious of this. In the past three days in my constituency office I have dealt with five cases, one of women being bullied by children. The second case was of staff at shops and off-licences being bullied and threatened because they would not serve drink to underage children. I am dealing with a gang assault on an elderly man. I am also dealing with the intimidation of a family by young people.
There is a major crisis to which we must face up. I agree with the representatives that the way to deal with it is not necessarily through this legislation. Other ways of dealing with the problem under the Children Act 2001 were mentioned, including eight community sanctions. I would like to know what provisions can be made to deal with these issues in order that we can go out and tell women, the elderly and others in our community that they will be safe.
My final question relates to electronic tagging. I agree with the representatives that there are low-risk offenders. I do not believe in tagging those in that category and spending a great deal of money. If they are low-risk, the way forward is for them to be made the subject of community service orders, giving them something sensible to do rather than lounging around at home with an electronic tag around their legs. They could render valuable service to the community by doing something more constructive.
I, too, welcome the members of Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International and the Irish Youth Justice Alliance. They have made an impressive submission that has reawakened in us the need to re-examine the Criminal Justice Bill. As a committee, we have left it to one side for a certain period because of other commitments since we first met the interest groups which expressed their concerns regarding this revision of the criminal justice system.
I will direct most of my questions to Ms Corbett since they concern the ASBOs that she mentioned. Deputy McGrath has touched on what I wish to mention. The second point in the submission refers to no serious case having been made regarding anti-social behaviour having reached such a scale that we need to address it in the way proposed in the Bill. The representatives have called it a "draconian response".
We must clearly recognise that there is that very common, familiar and unfortunate experience where bullying by young people is experienced by adults and elderly people. Its nature includes name-calling, eggs being thrown at houses, balls being continuously kicked at the window of a house, "flashing" and trousers being dropped in view of elderly people and other young children. People feel helpless and powerless in such a situation. Gardaí will also respond in such a way since they believe they are not equipped to deal with the problem; yet it impinges greatly in people's everyday lives.
The representatives represent young people and have their interests at heart, as do we. How do we address this issue? It is happening because no one is taking action. As a legislator, I have no problem in saying this but we have to deal with it. I would be grateful for the representatives' guidance and advice as to how we can best deal with this problem. It represents the "silent" disturbance of people's lives and we are failing to address it.
I am interested in knowing how familiar the representatives are with the mediation process. Case conferencing works very well with young people, in particular. Often their peer group can assist in the area of mediation and the restorative justice thrust of dealing with anti-social behaviour. I am anxious to know what is happening, if the representatives are aware of it and whether they would be prepared to promote it in addressing the issues we are raising.
I thank Deputy Hoctor. We have heard the submissions of the organisations and also the concerns that members of the committee have expressed. We have not got time for people to respond in detail to the questions that have arisen and some of them deserve a response. I will ask the delegates to respond, first of all, to those items they believe deserve real emphasis and are of particular importance. As regards the other questions, I should be obliged if they would respond in writing to the committee. These responses will be circulated to all of the committee's members who can reflect on them. At this stage I would like them to confine their responses to brief points that need particular emphasis.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about other potential ways to tackle anti-social behaviour and I acknowledge the concerns expressed as regards difficulties in communities. I will put this in a note to the committee, but at this stage, I would emphasise that the Children Act is key legislation in this area. Not only does it put criminal justice issues in place, it triggers the involvement of the health board.
As conferencing was mentioned earlier, it should be noted that there are three distinct types, family welfare, Garda and family conferences. We greatly advocate the use of conferences and would like to see further use of this provision. One of the key sections in the Children Act has not yet been implemented. This is where a court can indicate, prior to a case being brought, that a child is in need of support because of a difficulty that exists and the health board will intervene. The process whereby a difficulty exists within the community and the health board can be accessed to intervene is greatly needed.
Family welfare and Garda conferencing offer an opportunity to bring the relevant people together, the young people, their parents, social services, the Garda and perhaps a victim or someone who has a valid interest in the proceedings under discussion. As regards the sanctions I mentioned, there are ten community sanctions, eight of which have yet to be implemented. These include day centre and probation orders which focus on intensive supervision, training and residential supervision and a suitable person or mentor order. Perhaps I will put this in much greater detail in a note to the committee. There are many provisions in the Children Act that could be implemented to tackle the issue of anti-social behaviour. We would like to see full implementation of the Children Act and resourcing of the Act before we even begin the debate on anti-social behaviour.
It would be very helpful if Ms Corbett responds in particular to the matters of concern to members of the committee.
I will do that. I thank the Chairman.
I will respond briefly to two points raised. Deputy Costello mentioned that Amnesty International appears to have problems with all Irish legislation. Our role is to point out to the Government that certain measures conflict with its binding international human rights obligations. We would be only too delighted if our concern was not warranted as regards certain legislation. It is not just Amnesty International. The Irish Human Rights Commission has also made observations on the two Bills I discussed today. Our concerns about the Terrorist Offences Bill range more widely across Europe and go to the heart of the Framework Decision of the European Council, which initiated this measure.
We welcome the International Criminal Court Bill 2003 and compliment Ireland on being to the fore in ratifying the Rome statute and incorporating it into domestic legislation. Our submission focuses on how this could be complemented, elaborated on and expanded and we are asking for this Bill to be progressed as a matter of urgency.
However, I have an overarching point I would be very pleased if the committee could bear in mind. In terms of international human rights standards, in all but a few instances, the right to life, freedom from torture and so on, the rights are subject to limitation. However, where the State proposes to restrict or limit such rights it must demonstrate that such restriction is necessary. It must also demonstrate that such restriction is proportionate to the legitimate aim of investigating and prosecuting crime. In other words, the measure used must be convincingly demonstrated to be the least restrictive course necessary.
On Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's point as regards search warrants, the Human Rights Commission made a submission to the Government in respect of what it saw as less restrictive measures that could serve that aim. Those observations were made on foot of the scheme of the Bill and were not, unfortunately, reflected in the proposed legislation. Again, while the concerns the Deputy raises, anecdotally, about the difficulties of securing warrants are pertinent, it is up to Government to convincingly and cogently demonstrate to us and to civic society that the specific measures proposed in this Bill are necessary and it has not done so.
I thank Ms Corbett. Perhaps Ms Ward would like to comment and then Ms Reidy could wind up.
Ms Tanya Ward
To respond to one of Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's points, on the search warrants, we believe there has not been any concrete research into the issuing of search warrants. If one of these fundamental safeguards of the criminal justice system is to be removed, there should be concrete research into the problems. There is much anecdotal evidence about difficulties in contacting judges, the Garda always knowing the whereabouts of a District Court judge etc. We believe it is very important to have that research, first of all. In hot pursuit the gardaí do not need it and there could also be inadmissibility issues later on in those cases. We know that will be a problem in the future.
There are further concerns that limit the accessibility of judges. It has to be a judge from the particular area in which a search is being carried out. It is now more limited and more confined.
The responsibility still rests on the State to organise the system to ensure that it complies with standards. As Ms Crowley from Amnesty International pointed out, the Human Rights Commission's recommendation 2.3 suggested discussing with the president of the District Court how judges can be made more available, that is the organising of judges, as well as faxing and issues such as that. Certainly, that should have been considered, but at the moment it seems the Minister has not taken it on board.
The ICCL intends to make further submissions on the Criminal Justice Bill, particularly when amendments become available. We understand from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that they are not available at present and members of the committee do not have them, either.
Of all the issues raised there is one important thread running though the Criminal Justice Bill which is that many of the measures brought in go directly against a number of other Government policies which are either in place already or are being explored. I am glad there is an element of concern among individual members of the committee in this regard. The Children Act, as extensively highlighted by Ms Corbett, is an example. There is also the current youth justice project, which is examining, interdepartmentally, how the juvenile justice system may be enhanced.
These anti-social behaviour orders, ASBO, run counter to such initiatives and completely undermine the time and commitment devoted to that project. Also this committee has asked for submissions on community policing. Community groups have recommended effective community policing structures. The Lord Mayor's commission and some of the Oireachtas committees have examined this area. Measures such as ASBOs will undermine the capacity of the Garda to act in a community way. Community policing is one way of exploring how to deal with the scourge of anti-social behaviour. This is better addressed in policing terms rather than criminalising or creating individual crimes, for particular individuals, saying in effect, "If you do this you will be committing a crime", whereas if anyone else does it, it will not be considered a criminal act. If the Government opts for ASBOs it will undermine the work already being done in terms of enhancing community policing.
I note that this committee specifically recommended for commendation a project in Nenagh considering restorative justice for those in the community. Ms Corbett has pointed out that the Children Act is very much based around restorative justice models, conferencing etc. Where this committee has already seen something in practice that works and is beneficial, it seems to be that it would be ill-advised, particularly without evidence to the contrary, to undermine projects that have been proven to work. Unfortunately, much of what is on offer under the Criminal Justice Bill is part of this populist quick-fix approach. Such initiatives are attractive on the surface, but when one looks at how they operate, they are not effective. We hope members of the committee and every Member of the Oireachtas will determine for themselves whether these measures work or are necessary. Ms Crowley has already set out the standards required as regards human rights.
I thank the committee for giving me another opportunity to address it on this issue and I wish it well in its deliberations. I thank the committee for affording us another opportunity to address it on this issue and wish it well in its deliberations.
The committee always welcomes Ms Reidy as the director of the ICCL and we look forward to her submission on community policing. I thank Ms Maria Corbett, chief executive officer of the Children's Rights Alliance and the Irish Youth Justice Alliance, Ms Fiona Crowley, legal officer of Amnesty International and Ms Tanya Ward, the policy and research officer of the ICCL for sharing their views on the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. We look forward to working closely with members of the delegation into the future.
I welcome the representatives of the National Association of Regional Games Councils, NARGC, Mr. Des Crofton, director, and Mr. Michael O'Keeffe, chairman, and remind them that they do not enjoy parliamentary privilege, as do committee members. The witnesses might begin by introducing themselves before making their presentation.
Mr. Michael O’Keeffe
As chairman of the National Association of Regional Games Councils, I thank the committee for affording us the opportunity to make a submission. Every person who takes part in shooting would agree that amendments are required to the legislation on firearms. Any such amendments must be simple and proportionate in regard to the intended objective. In this context, we support much of what the Minister proposes to do in his amendment to section 4 of the Firearms Act 1925, as set out in section 30 of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, but have also some serious concerns. However, we are of the opinion that a sensible and satisfactory outcome is achievable for the benefit of all, provided that the legislators adopt an inclusive approach.
The director of the NARGC, Mr. Des Crofton, will outline the rationale behind our submission. After this, we will be happy to answer any questions members may have.
Mr. Des Crofton
While members may have concerns regarding a broad range of aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, my mandate, as befitting the function of my association, is to focus on section 30 and on other aspects of the proposals to amend the firearms legislation. We will not stray any further than that in our submission.
At the outset, the NARGC wishes to record its objection to the inclusion of amendments to section 4 of the Firearms Act 1925 and other amendments regarding the legal use and ownership of firearms in a Bill dealing with issues of criminality. It is extremely offensive to members of our organisation and to all lawful shooting persons that our sporting activity should be regulated in legislation concerned with criminal activities. That no other lawful activity is included in the provisions of the Bill perpetuates the misinformed notion that there is some link between legal and criminal possession of firearms.
It is to be regretted that the relevant provision has been brought forward without any consultation with representative organisations. The Minister has indicated his intentions to introduce further unspecified amendments to the Firearms Act 1925 on Committee Stage. As Mr. O'Keeffe observed, the shooting community supports many of the proposed changes to the firearms legislation. However, there are other areas in which we have concerns.
Section 30 of the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which amends section 4 of the Firearms Act 1925, will effectively give authority to superintendents of the Garda Síochána to satisfy themselves as regards the secure storage of firearms. The NARGC unequivocally supports this measure. The current situation whereby superintendents may not impose blanket conditions that are not provided for in the legislation recently gave rise to a court challenge in regard to gun safes. The High Court and Supreme Court found it unlawful for superintendents to apply such blanket conditions. We have no difficulty with the amendment's proposal to give such authority to superintendents.
The NARGC considers the firearms legislation to be adequate. It was enacted in 1925 and has served the country well for 80 years. The three principles enshrined in the Act governing the legal possession and use of firearms, are to be found in the firearms legislative regimes in almost every other European and common law country. These three principles are that a person has and can demonstrate an acceptable reason for possession of a firearm, that he or she can be permitted to have and use the firearm without danger to public order or safety and that he or she is not a person who is declared by the Act to be disentitled. This last refers to those who may not have a firearm under any circumstances.
However, some aspects of the legislation are inadequate in regard to international best practice. One of these is the absence of an appeals procedure and we welcome that the Minister intends to address this issue in the forthcoming legislation. Second, and of equal or greater importance, is the absence of guidelines as to how the legislation should be administered and implemented. Every other jurisdiction has written guidelines and there has been a spate of challenges to the manner in which the Irish legislation has been administered in recent years. The courts have upheld all these challenges. It is an indication of the deficiency and inconsistency in the administration of the firearms legislation that in all these cases the Garda Síochána misinterpreted the provisions of the Firearms Act 1925.
In this context, the importance of published guidelines cannot be over emphasised. Current Garda policy in regard to the administration of firearms licensing is carried out by way of an internal and secret Garda directive. It is inevitable that legal challenges will arise in such a situation. The provision of written guidelines would assist both the Garda, those affected by the licensing regime and the public. It is quite extraordinary that even a member of the public who does not take part in shooting cannot discover the administrative regime for firearms licensing. Requests to the Garda for such information are refused on the basis of the secrecy of internal directives.
It is important to emphasise the distinction between legislation and administration. The NARGC believes the existing legislative provisions are quite adequate but that the administration of the code is deficient. The existing application form seeks an inadequate level of information concerning the applicant and does not address the issue of mental illness or incapacity, for example. This is an issue Mr. Justice Robert Barr examined in the sixth module of the Barr tribunal. I understand the report of that tribunal will support the NARGC's view that, at the least, a question should be included on the application form as to whether the applicant has ever been treated for mental illness or depression. A positive response would perhaps generate a request from the licensing authority for permission to consult the applicant's medical practitioner. This is the standard approach in other jurisdictions. We support such a system and are conscious that if something goes wrong, everybody who holds a firearm certificate will suffer. That is not in our interests.
There is a fundamental lack of openness and transparency in the administrative code. For example, a firearms licence application has been held by the High Court and Supreme Court to be an administrative rather a Garda operational matter. As an administrative matter, it is to be dealt with in the same manner as a driving or any other licence. However, there are inordinate and inexplicable delays in processing firearm licence applications and an epidemic of lost applications throughout the country. Furthermore, there is often no explanation for the refusal of an application despite that the Circuit Court has already held that superintendents of the Garda Síochána must give written reasons for refusals of licences. Chapter 40 of the Garda code demands that written reasons be given and goes so far as to stipulate that these reasons should be adequate to allow the applicant to know the threshold he or she must reach in order to persuade the superintendent of his or her eligibility.
There is no accountability within the licensing code and it is pointless making a complaint to Garda headquarters or to the Minister about an inadequacy in the system. As I have already observed, there is no comprehensive set of publicly available guidelines regarding the manner in which the licensing code is administered. There is also a lack of necessary centralisation of statistical information in the licensing system. This is evident in the inability of the Garda Síochána to provide any statistical information on such matters as the number of firearms licences revoked in any given year.
There is no evidence of the investment of adequate resources to support the administration of the code. For example, there are difficulties in renewing firearms licenses, which must be done on 1 August each year. I have often called to the local Garda station to pay my renewal fee and submit my declaration only to be told that I must return on another occasion because the one garda who deals with the process is not on duty. Inquiries as to when this garda will be available are often met with non-committal responses. Another example of the system's deficiency is when people discover their garda station closed despite small advertisements in the local newspaper indicating it will be open at a specified time for the purpose of licence renewals. This is a common occurrence and not a figment of the imagination on the part of those I represent.
The resources in the form of licence fees should be directed at supporting the licensing system. There is a chronic need to train gardaí in the legislative provisions they are required to administer. If anybody doubts that the Garda do not know the legislation, I invite them to examine the volume of cases that have appeared before the courts, in all of which the Garda's interpretations of the legislation have been struck down.
No account is taken in considering an application for a firearms certificate of any training or proficiency course which an applicant may have attended. Moreover, any attempt to train an aspiring applicant in the safe handling of a firearm is a criminal offence. It is appalling that it should be deemed criminal to educate a person in best practice. I understand Ireland is the only country in Europe which adopts this position. We welcome that the Minister has indicated his intention to address this issue by making provisions that will allow for the training of aspiring applicants by way of further amendment to the legislation.
The purpose of section 30 is to allow the licensing authority to have regard to the issue of secure accommodation in the context of a licence application. However, there is no definition of "secure accommodation" but only a reference to "secure accommodation at the address" where the firearm is to be kept. This suggests that secure accommodation forms only part of the property in which the firearm is to be stored. If the Bill does not provide a definition of "secure accommodation", it is certain the courts will be asked to interpret the term. Superintendents around the country will have different interpretations until the courts make a determination. As it stands, they are interpreting the Act in different ways. We see a problem in terms of how a superintendent might be satisfied in the context of section 30. The general feeling is that it will take the form of an inspection of the premises, and we have a difficulty in that regard.
Shortly after the Order of Business, members of the committee will be involved in the debate on the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill. As we have NARCG's submission, perhaps Mr. Crofton would provide a synopsis in order for members to ask questions. Otherwise, we will run out of time.
As members have the submission and will probably have read it, I will summarise. The possible changes to the administrative code that our organisation would regard as desirable relates to the restructuring of the application form to take account of the deficiencies I have already outlined. It is also of vital importance that guidelines are published, setting out how the legislation is to be administered. This is not only in the interest of people who apply for licenses, but also the Garda Síochána and the general public.
The administrative code should have some provision for a mandatory liaison between shooting organisations, either at local or national level, and Garda authorities. There is no current requirement for liaison by either party, and we feel this is a serious deficiency. Lord Burns, when he considered the issues arising from the Dunblane tragedy, cited it as an important issue that could have affected what happened there. In other words, if clubs meet the local superintendent on a regular basis, hotspots can be identified and addressed in co-operation.
I will leave it at that, although there are other problems in the system I would like to see the committee address. The idea that providing a gun safe will stop the theft of a firearm is lunacy. Gun safes have already been stolen from houses with the entire contents intact inside. It will not prevent theft. Creation of a special offence with a mandatory sentence for the theft and possession of a firearm would make a significant contribution towards stemming the crime. Currently, when a criminal act with a firearm takes place, the illegal possession of the firearm invariably is taken into account and becomes a minor aspect of the matter to be dealt with. A special offence and mandatory sentence would cut it out from the main offence and require the judge to deal with it separately. That would make a very significant contribution to reducing the number of firearms being stolen.
I will not go any further on the matter at this point. Perhaps members of the committee would like to ask me some questions.
Our time is limited as we are entering into an area which requires detailed discussion and debate. I believe very strongly that there should be a separate Bill amending the Firearms Act. I take on board the point raised by my namesake Mr. O'Keeffe and Mr. Crofton that those legitimately involved in the game shooting fraternity would prefer to have their affairs dealt with in a Bill that is disassociated from criminal elements. However, even more importantly, there are so many issues that need to be teased out that we need a full amending Bill, and I will press that strongly on Second Stage and hope the Minister, despite his lack of agreement, will ultimately see sense. Let us have a separate Firearms Bill, dealing with all the various issues that need to be dealt with.
We also need to tease out quite a number of these issues, even that one dealt with in section 30 of the Bill. Let us be blunt — there is need for secure accommodation. However, the Bill is framed ambiguously. I am not sure whether we are speaking about a secure house or a secure gun safe within the house. Mr. Crofton raised further issues regarding the fact that a gun safe, which itself would be secure, can be stolen and is therefore not very secure. Apart from the creation of additional offences, what is the association's view as to how best we can deal with the question of security?
There is also the question of tourist guns. Gunmen legitimately come into this country and can leave their guns in the boot of their car but there is no obligation on them to provide security for those guns. There is a question regarding inspection by the Garda Síochána. I take the association's point about a man's home being his castle. However, if there is an issue of security, any inspection by gardaí is triggered by the application and we must tease out how the Garda Síochána is satisfied with security. There is also a need to put a reasonable time limit on application.
I have a question regarding the issue of reasons given. It does not apply to the decent people in the shooting fraternity. If gardaí have evidence or concern about an applicant who might have been a member of a subversive organisation but do not have proof that the person is a still a member, should they take such soft intelligence into account before they agree to the issue? It is a matter of concern that also needs to be teased out.
I am in favour of an appeal system. The Minister seems to indicate an appeal system to the District Court. I would have in mind an administrative panel comprised, perhaps, of a person nominated by the Minister, a chief superintendent, a representative of the medical fraternity and one from the shooting fraternity.
Regarding the issue of illness and depression, is there a danger of categorising mental illness? Should any type of illness be a factor of consideration? There is also a question of consistency. A review group should be established to examine all issues and report back within in six to nine months. This group should be set up either before a new Bill or as a condition for agreement on a new Bill covering some of the points I raised. That would be the way forward in dealing with this issue. We are speaking about upwards of 200,000 legitimate, licensed guns held by 60,000 to 70,000 people, 99.9% of whom are genuine, decent, law-abiding citizens.
I welcome Michael O'Keeffe and Des Crofton and thank them for the communication we have received in recent months on this issue. They certainly argued their case very strongly with all Members of the Oireachtas. It is an issue that comes up again and again in meetings regarding the Bill. This is essentially an amendment to the Firearms Act 1925, which the Minister is now proposing to amend again. Unfortunately this is how the Minister conducts his business, in that we seem to deal with amendments more than we deal with actual provisions. It is interesting to note that the 1925 Act was passed immediately after a civil war here and that it has stood the test of time.
The seminal point made by the association, regarding their annoyance at what the Minister is doing, is that this amendment is in the Criminal Justice Bill. There has been serious concern about infringement of civil liberties and special powers with regard to many of the provisions. I agree it is an entirely inappropriate place to insert a provision relating to the bona fide use of firearms by the sporting and shooting community. The Minister should delete the section entirely and we should deal with it in the context of the Firearms Act 1925.
Having listened to everything the representatives said it appears there is an urgent need for a review and substantial amendment of the Firearms Act 1925. That is where we should focus our attention. We should focus it also in the context of the review taking place in consultation with the representatives, the Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That is the way to do business. Law abiding citizens should be consulted by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the proposal of legislation that will affect them in terms of the conditions that will be laid down. That is the normal procedure. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will have recourse to people who have an input into it. It should not be happening at this late stage where the legislation is already in the public domain and the Minister, in a sense, might find himself in a position to back down. The consultation should have taken place long ago but the fact that it did not is no reason for him to proceed with bad legislation.
All the points made by the representatives are valid in that we do not have any statistical information on the matter. I would like to know the number of licences that have been revoked, the number stolen, the Garda secret code in regard to the matter and the reason the Garda has adopted this stand-off attitude towards the National Association of Regional Games Councils and will not interact with it in terms of the conditions in the 1925 Act. I would like information, an explanation and reasons for that.
The appeals mechanism is the one provision in the Bill that is desirable. I hope that whatever comes about the legislation will retain that provision, which would be welcome, but the proposals on training, liaison with the Garda and so on are extremely desirable.
It is relevant that a health question should be part and parcel of a condition to be ticked on an application form. That issue arose before Mr. Justice Barr in the Abbeylara case but we must be careful that we do not stigmatise people who have a mental health condition. It must be done in a careful fashion and that can be done only through consultation and coming up with the right formula.
I accept the thrust of what the Minister said. We need secure accommodation and we need to define the meaning of that secure accommodation. I do not know the actual number of firearms that are held legally in the country — perhaps the Minister will give us the figures — but I understand it is substantial. The number of firearms brought into the country every year is substantial also. Some of the representatives' colleagues have ran into difficulty with the authorities in Scotland from time to time. That matter has to be addressed also.
A separate offence of theft of firearm appears to be the mechanism with which the Minister should proceed rather than it simply being used as another factor in the judge's decision in terms of the type of penalty that will be imposed.
We have learned a great deal today on this matter from the representatives' presentation. I intend to bring forward an amendment that will delete the section entirely. I will propose, as I did on Second Stage, that the Minister revisit the Firearms Act 1925 with a view to having a more comprehensive approach to all the conditions surrounding the holding of firearms and to move away from having any element of the conditions contained in criminal justice legislation.
I welcome Mr. Crofton and Mr. O'Keeffe and thank them for a very interesting submission.
In recommending that the question "Have you been treated for depression or mental illness?" be included on the application form, did the representatives consult Mental Health Ireland as to its recommendations on the matter? Are there guidelines in place on the procedure to be followed in the event of the death of a firearms holder? If guidelines are not in place, I am sure the representatives will agree people should be aware of the procedure to be followed in such circumstances. Has a survey ever been carried out of the reason people apply for and hold firearms?
Thank you, Deputy. I welcome to the meeting Senators Glynn and Moylan.
I welcome the two gentleman, Mr. Crofton and Mr. O'Keeffe. I apologise for being late but I had to be in the Seanad for the Order of Business.
I want to make a number of observations. I preface my remarks by saying I am not the holder of a firearm or a member of a gun club but I acknowledge, from my experience, the major contribution made by gun club members to the conservation of a species of bird that would be extinct but for the actions of gun clubs. I recall working with a gentleman who used to breed pheasant and release them into the wild to ensure stocks were maintained.
I intend to touch on one point only because the other areas I wished to raise have been addressed. My colleague, Deputy Hoctor, referred to the medical question on the application form for a firearm. With certain qualifications, the question is reasonable although I strongly advise, in the event of this coming about, that the Royal College of Psychiatry be consulted. I am not talking about a person who may never have attended a psychiatrist or a psychiatric hospital or came under the care of the psychiatric services in any shape or form but a firearm in the hands of those who harbour persecutory delusions or paranoid ideation can be extremely dangerous. That is something that should be addressed and the Royal College of Psychiatry and organisations such as those referred to by Deputy Hoctor, including Mental Health Ireland, GROW and AWARE, would have a role to play in that regard.
I welcome members of the National Association of Regional Games Councils. I declare an interest in that I am a member of the association for many years and I am very much involved in the sporting activity of gun clubs. I support the association for the stand it is taking and welcome its submission to the committee. I do not want to delay the meeting but on the question of young people getting involved in this sport, I support young people getting involved in all sports as a way of taking them out of harm's way. Over the years, we brought many young people into the sport in the form of hunting and clearing areas in the control of vermin. Later on, those young people got involved in buying their own guns and so on. The representatives state in their submission that an appropriate age for young people to take up the sport would be 12 years. As someone who was shooting when I was 14, I would be of the view that the starting age should be left at 14. I say that with the greatest respect for the outstanding contribution the organisation has made to rural Ireland in many ways, particularly with regard to the preservation of wildlife. It is one point in the submission about which I am somewhat concerned. The age should be changed from 12 to 14.
I commend Senators Moylan and Glynn on the interest they have taken in the arrangement of this meeting. There will not be time for Mr. Crofton to respond to all the questions and comments. Perhaps he will briefly respond on those items relevant to this Bill.
Two issues have been raised which warrant a response. I am happy to answer all the questions but there is insufficient time. One issue is mental health and the potential stigmatisation of people. Perhaps I can allay the committee's concerns about that. The recommendations we are making in that regard are supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists of Ireland and AWARE. These organisations made submissions about this point to the Barr tribunal and Justice Barr was moved to comment that he was astounded there was unanimity from all the interested organisations, including ours, as to how this should be approached.
An analogy can be drawn with the fact that we require people of over 70 years of age, for example, to comply with certain special arrangements with regard to driving licences that do not apply to younger people. That is in the interests of public safety. That somebody has been treated for mental illness does not debar them from holding a firearm certificate. The professional advice is that most people with mental health problems are not violent, which was a surprise to me.
I disagree with Senator Moylan's comment about the age. We have invested more than €150,000 in training professional coaches. We are not proposing that people as young as 12 years of age should have regular access to firearms. However, it should be legally permissible for them to attend a recognised course run by a professionally qualified instructor and educator. It is only for the duration of that course, under that direct supervision, that they should be allowed to handle the firearm and not beyond that.
Every fairground in the country operates an air rifle range in close proximity to the general public and it is open to just about every age group. Somebody told me recently that they saw a five year old standing on an orange box firing one of the rifles. There are no fleets of ambulances ferrying people from fairgrounds to hospitals, despite the fact that air rifles have been declared by the Garda, in one of its internal secret directives, to be particularly dangerous. The logic behind that defies me.
The other important point is the soft intelligence mentioned by Deputy O'Keeffe. I do not believe this is an issue. Those reasons have been given by some superintendents already. It is open to an individual to challenge it in the courts and for a judge to make a wise decision about it. I do not see it as a major problem.
One other matter that concerns us a great deal is that the Minister intends to make legislative provision for the attaching of conditions to the grant of a firearm certificate. We have no fundamental problem with that but we have a major problem in the absence of guidelines. Without guidelines it is a blueprint for further inconsistency and abuse. I make no apology for saying that.
If any other matters come to mind, Mr. Crofton, please do not hesitate to outline them in writing to the committee. The communication will be circulated to all members to ensure it is brought to their attention.
Thank you and Mr. O'Keeffe for attending the meeting today.
The joint committee went into private session at 11.35 a.m. and adjourned at 11.46 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 March 2005.