Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill, 1997: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill is an important element in the process of law reform on which the Minister has embarked since taking office and which she has been actively pursuing in bringing forward new legislation to strengthen the law on crime and to ensure the fullest and most effective protection to society. The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Bill, 1997, will replace offences which lie at the core of criminal law with provisions more responsive to modern needs, including provisions aimed at new forms of criminal misconduct which have become manifest in recent years.

The present law on non-fatal offences against the person is contained in the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. The 1861 Act has been the subject of much criticism over the years and it has been described as a "ragbag of offences". In February 1994 the Law Reform Commission submitted a report containing recommendations for the a repeal and replacement of those provisions which deal with non-fatal offences against the person. That report was taken into account in the preparation of this Bill which will repeal the greater part of the 1861 Act and will codify in statutory form and in modern language the law dealing with non-fatal offences against the person. The Law Reform Commission is at present reviewing the law on homicide. When its report on that subject is received, it will be acted upon.

This Bill restates the law relating to various forms of assault, threats to kill or cause serious harm, poisoning, false imprisonment and abduction of children as well as providing for certain new offences. The Bill includes provision to deal with the scourge of syringe attacks as well as creating a new offence of harassment which is aimed at behaviour commonly known as "stalking". Among the other new offences provided for in the Bill are the offence of abduction out of the State of a child by a parent in a tug of love situation and the offence of endangerment where a person intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death or serious harm to another.

The first substantive section in this Bill is section 2. This section replaces the common law offences of assault and battery, usually referred to as common assault, with the new offence of assault, which combines in one offence the element of inflicting personal violence, as in battery, and the element of causing another to apprehend the immediate inflication of personal violence, as in assault. This offence will cover most minor assaults and the penalty on, summary conviction will be a fine not exceeding £1,500 or imprisonment for up to six months or both.

Section 3 deals with the more serious offence of assault causing harm. This new offence replaces the offence of assault causing actual bodily harm contained in section 47 of the 1861 Act. This section provides a maximum penalty of five years for this offence, which is the same as the existing penalty. Under the present law consent cannot be a defence to a charge of causing actual bodily harm. The Law Reform Commission recommended that such a rule is no longer appropriate and the Minister has accepted that view. Since section 3 is framed by reference to an assault and consent is a defence to simple assault, it will also be a defence where actual bodily harm is caused. We are not talking of cases of serious harm covered by the next section.

Section 4 creates the offence of causing serious harm. This offence will replace the offences of wounding or causing or inflicting grievous bodily harm in sections 18 and 20 of the 1861 Act.

Consent will not be a defence to a charge of causing serious harm, but section 22 provides that existing common law defences will continue to apply. Accordingly, the common law rules concerning bodily harm arising in the course of sports, dangerous exhibitions or medical treatments will apply, where appropriate, to exempt the action from criminal liability. The Minister has provided that a person convicted of this offence on indictment will be liable to life imprisonment, which is the present maximum penalty for the offence of causing grievous bodily harm and which is being replaced by section 4.

Section 5 updates section 16 of the 1861 Act, which makes it an offence to threaten in writing to kill or murder another. Instead, this section provides for a broader offence which covers threats by any means and extends to threats to cause serious injury as well as to threats to kill. It also provides for a maximum punishment of ten years imprisonment for this offence.

Sections 6, 7 and 8 create a range of new offences relating to criminal conduct involving syringes. Section 6 deals with syringe attacks, section 7 deals with possession offences and section 8 deals with abandoning of syringes. Section 6 provides for the following offences: injuring another by piercing the skin of that other with a syringe or threatening to do so with the intention of or where there is a likelihood of causing the other person to believe that he or she may become infected with disease; spraying or pouring or putting onto another blood or any fluid or substance resembling blood or threatening to do so with the intention of or where there is a likelihood of causing the other person to believe that he or she may become infected with disease; injuring a third person in either of these ways even where the person was not the intended target.

The Bill provides for a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment for these offences. In doing so, the Minister is conscious that the offence may result in great suffering for victims who have, for example, been wounded with a syringe and must face a long and agonising wait until he or she knows if he or she has contracted a life threatening disease.

In the same section provision is made for what is one of the most important of the syringe offences, that is, the offence of intentionally injuring another by piercing his or her skin with a syringe which contains or has on it contaminated blood or contaminated fluid. Similarly, the Bill makes it an offence to intentionally spray, pour or put on to another contaminated blood. The Bill also makes it an offence to injure a third person in this way, even where that person was not the intended target. As all of these offences could result in the infliction of life threatening injuries, the Minister is providing that this crime will be punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Section 7 deals with possession offences. It provides that a person who has in any place a syringe or any blood in a container intended to cause or threaten injury to or to intimidate another will commit an offence. Some concern has been expressed that this, provision could make innocent possession of a syringe a criminal offence. I assure people who carry syringes for legitimate purposes — for example, people who are diabetic — that the provision does not criminalise mere possession. The section criminalises possession with the intention of causing or threatening injury or of intimidating another. The maximum punishment for these offences will be seven years imprisonment.

Section 8 deals with the serious problem caused by people who, perhaps intentionally or otherwise, leave or abandon syringes in places so that they injure or are likely to injure, cause a threat to or frighten others. This is particularly abhorrent behaviour and the people who engage in it may do so to get a sadistic pleasure out of the wounding of an unsuspecting garda or prison officer or, indeed, a member of the public who, for example, sits down in a café or cinema or on a bus or train and finds too late that a syringe has been left on his or her seat. It is important, therefore, to ensure that the prescribed punishment fully fits the seriousness of the conduct involved. In this respect the Minister accepted a suggestion in the other House to increase the maximum penalty for this offence to seven years imprisonment.

I would draw the attention of this House to the fact that the Minister is also providing for the more serious offence of intentionaly placing a contaminated syringe in such a way that it injures another. Such behaviour is very near to attempted murder and the Minister had no hesitation in providing that it will be punishable by the highest possible penalty, which is life imprisonment.

Section 10 provides for the very important new offence of harassment, which is aimed at what is commonly called "stalking". We are all aware of high profile cases of stalking, but of course such behaviour is not necessarily peculiar to people in the spotlight. It can unfortunately occur in everyday life when a person, usually a woman, becomes the object of the stalker's affection — perhaps "obsession" is a better word — and that person is subjected to sustained harassment and intimidation in a perverted attempt by the stalker to gain the attention or affection of the unfortunate person concerned. This harassment can have a profoundly detrimental effect on the life of the victim. The Bill provides that a person will be guilty of this offence if he or she, by any means, harasses another by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her. Provision is being made for a definition of what constitutes harassment, the basic element of which is that the offender intentionally or recklessly seriously interferes with the peace and privacy of another person or causes them alarm, distress or harm and his or her acts are such that a reasonable person would realise that they would have such an effect.

The penalty provision for this offence in the Bill as published was five years. However, given the very serious detrimental effects stalking can have on the life of the victim, given that the harassment can extend over many years, that in most cases the woman victim will live with a growing fear of personal violence from the stalker and given that some cases have resulted in personal violence, the Minister took on board a suggestion during the passage of this Bill through the other House to increase the maximum penalty and, accordingly, provided for a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment. Because this behaviour can be such a serious and distressing interference with the person's privacy, provision is also made to empower the court, in addition to imposing a penalty and even where it decides not to convict, to order the stalker not to communicate in any way with the victim for such period as may be specified by the court or to approach within a specified distance of the victim's residence or place of employment. Breach of such an order will be an offence and the maximum penalty here also will be seven years.

Section 11 provides for a particular type of harassment, associated with demands for payment of a debt. The Minister is making it an offence, punishable by a fine of £1,500, for a person to subject a debtor to demands which, by reason of their frequency, causes the person or his or her family alarm, distress or humiliation.

Section 12 replaces the offence of administering poison with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy contained in the 1861 Act with a new offence of poisoning. The offence can incur a three year sentence. If the poisoning results in serious harm or death, more serious charges would, of course, lie.

Sections 13 and 14 deal with endangerment offences. Section 13 provides for a general endangerment offence where a person either intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death or serious harm. This offence is punishable by a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. While we have many endangerment offences in our law dealing with specific behaviour, such as dangerous driving and dangerous parking, a general endangerment offence of this nature is new. The essence of the offence is the creation of a dangerous situation which may result in death or serious injury. The actual causing of death or injury is not necessary. Where death or serious harm results, other more serious charges would arise.

Section 14 deals with the specific offence of endangering traffic. The offence relates to traffic on land and water and is intended to replace sections 32 and 33 of the 1861 Act, which are endangerment offences related to railways. This section creates an offence where any person intentionally puts a dangerous obstruction in a railway, street, road, etc., or interferes with any device for the control or direction of traffic or throws anything at any conveyance being aware that injury to the person or damage to property may be caused or is reckless in that regard. The Minister is proposing to make this offence punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. This conduct can have very serious results. We have all, I imagine, heard of instances where objects are thrown from motorway bridges at moving traffic with disastrous consequences.

Section 15 gives statutory expression to the common law offence of false imprisonment but also extends the offence to cover cases where the false imprisonment is brought about by deception, causing the victim to believe that he or she is under legal compulsion to consent. As this is obviously a very serious offence, it will be punishable, as at present, by up to life imprisonment.

Section 16 creates a new offence of abduction of a child by his or her parent or guardian. Ireland has, of course, already ratified and put into law the provisions of the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction and the Council of Europe Convention on recognition and enforcement of child custody decisions. However, the Minister is now proposing that we go one step further and make it an offence for a parent to abduct a child out of the jurisdiction in defiance of a court order or without the other parent's consent or to arrange to have a child so abducted. If the child is not taken out of the country, the Minister felt it better not to involve the criminal law, but to leave the matter to be dealt with in the usual custody proceedings. The Minister proposes that this offence should be punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.

In section 17, the Minister is providing for the separate offence of abduction of a child by other persons. This section replaces sections 55 and 56 of the 1861 Act which deal, respectively, with the abduction of a girl under 16 years and the stealing of a child. The new abduction offence will be punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.

Sections 18, 19 and 20 give statutory expression to what are understood to be the existing rules governing the use of force in public or private defence. The existing law in this respect is governed by the common law and the Criminal Damage Act 1991.

Section 21 amends section 6(2) of the Criminal Damage Act, 1991, so that the test in respect of damaging property is the same as the test set out in section 18, namely, that the conduct of the defendant must be reasonable, given the circumstances he or she believed to exist. Section 22 preserves defences available under the common law or statute law in relation to acts which might otherwise attract criminal sanctions under the Bill.

Section 23 provides that a minor who has attained the age of 16 can give effective consent to surgical, medical or dental treatment which, without consent, would be a trespass. At present the effectiveness of a consent by a minor to medical treatment is dependent on whether the minor understands the purpose and implications of the treatment. The purpose of this provision is to bring an element of greater certainty in the case of older minors.

Section 24 abolished the common law rule in respect of immunity of teachers from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils. The provision will serve to reinforce the Department of Education's policy on the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools. The use of force by teachers, following the enactment of the Bill, will be governed, as in the case of other people, by the rules set out in sections 18 and 19.

The House will appreciate that the Bill is a very comprehensive proposal and, as already stated, it deals with a wide range of offences which are central to our criminal law. It is in keeping with the Minister's strong commitment to update and modernise our criminal law that I present the Bill to the House. I believe that, when enacted, it will provide an effective and modern legal instrument to deal with attacks upon the person. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Bill. It was introduced in the Dáil by Deputies O'Donoghue and Eoin Ryan, who deemed it a necessary measure. The Minister has made a number of minor changes and I do not know whether they will prove to be for the better.

We have reached the stage where the syringe has become more dangerous than the gun. I would rather look down the barrel of a gun than face a person wielding a syringe or needle. As I know from experience, one can suffer gunshot wounds, but at least one will eventually be restored to health. However, a person attacked with a syringe will face serious difficulties for the remainder of their life and may die in agony. There should be positive sentencing in respect of this offence and anyone who attempts it a second time should be imprisoned for life. It should not be left to the discretion of a judge to make decisions in this regard because a person who uses a syringe as a weapon sets out to destroy people.

Syringes are popular weapons because they are easy to carry. Free syringes were introduced to try to stop the spread of AIDS, hepatitis, etc., because it was believed that these problems could be brought under control through the use of clean needles. Unfortunately, they are being used for more sinister purposes. A person who attempts to use a syringe on a taxi driver, a garda or a prison warden — it is important that these people are protected by the law because they provide valuable services to the community — should be imprisoned for life on their first offence. Heavy sentences should be imposed in respect of these types of offences.

During his contribution, the Minister of State indicated that "spraying or pouring or putting onto another blood or any fluid or substance resembling blood would be an offence". This provision should be strengthened. If a person produces a syringe, regardless of its contents, they intend to use it as a dangerous weapon. It might contain tomato juice or the blood of an animal, but it could also contain a dangerous substance resembling a clear liquid. It should be enough for someone to produce a syringe for it to be an offence. Why should they carry a syringe in the first instance? Only those who suffer from medical conditions such as diabetes, for which they require the use of a syringe, should be permitted to carry one. It should be an offence for others to carry a syringe.

The situation regarding harassment and stalking is becoming serious. Will the Minister of State clarify what he meant when he stated that section 11 provides for a particular type of harassment associated with demands for payment of a debt? I worked as a rate collector and I am aware of the difficulties involved in that area. One of the best ways to obtain money is to call on customers as often as possible. If one does not do so, it is likely that one will not obtain outstanding amounts. It would be wrong if genuine business people were prohibited from calling on clients at the end of the week when there is a likelihood that they could obtain money. People should not be allowed to use this provision as an excuse for not paying their debts.

I am aware that section 11 is designed to curb the activities of moneylenders, who often send individuals to the houses of people who owe money threatening to cause damage or beat them up. I do not know whether we will ever come to grips with this problem, but that is another day's work. There are many cases of people being beaten up in Dublin where charges were never brought against those responsible. I hope that this provision can be amended so that honest business people who sell goods on credit will not be prohibited from collecting moneys owed.

People who do not want to pay their debts are capable of using the law to their own ends. In that context, one need only consider the compensation culture and the way people set up accidents and use the law to obtain easy money. If it can be proven that an accident took place, questions are not often asked about how it occurred. We must be careful that the law is not abused. I fear honest business persons will be prevented from collecting accounts that are due.

Sections 13 and 14 deal with endangerment offences. Section 13 provides for a general endangerment offence where a person either intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death or serious harm. Will the Minister explain what is involved? Does this apply where youngsters engage in horseplay on a street corner and one of them gets injured? That may not be intended but it could be treated as such.

Section 14 deals with the specific offence of endangering traffic. In some areas around Dublin where there are overhead bridges, individuals throw stones and other missiles at cars and trains. There is no doubt that activity must be curbed. The offence relates to traffic on land and water. If an individual digs up a road to provide a service to people on the other side and a person is injured as a result of those works, could the individual be prosecuted under this section even though he may have protected the works as well as possible? That is not clear. We have the best of intentions when debating legislation but we often find when the Bill is passed that we could have been more clearcut about what was intended.

A sentence of seven years should be the minimum for any individual who throws a missile from a bridge because one does not know how many people will be injured. It is particularly dangerous in regard to traffic on roads. If a car is hit by a missile, the driver could lose control of the car and there could be a pile up. This could result in many deaths or injuries because one does not know the volume of traffic on the road at the time. Many of the bridges are protected by grills and the answer to the problem might to be put one on every bridge so that it would be impossible for people to throw anything from them. While this may be a deterrent, I have not heard of any of the villains who commit those offences being caught or prosecuted. They are not caught throwing missiles at trains even though it should be easy to do so.

Sections 18, 19 and 20 give statutory expression to what are understood to be the existing rules governing the use of force in public or private defence. If a person is defending himself or herself from an attack and comes out of it better than the attacker, it would be wrong if that person were punishable by law. There was a case in Galway where an old man would have been beaten to death were it not for the fact that he had a loaded gun and was able to injure one of the intruders. Most people thought he was right to do so in the circumstances — it was him or them. Could one be charged with an offence under this section? Self-preservation is the first law of nature. It would be wrong if the law dictated that an individual who is attacked walking along a street at night would be charged if the attacker came out second best. People should be allowed to defend themselves.

Section 24 abolishes the common law rule in respect of immunity for teachers. We need to be careful. What constitutes the use of force by a teacher? Perhaps too much control has been taken out of schools and if that continues we will have a situation similar to that in America where state policemen patrol playgrounds with loaded guns. There must be a form of positive control in schools. We should not return to the days of corporal punishment but teachers should have some way to control rowdy students. If they do not, the most docile boy in the class will become a cowboy if he sees the others getting away with rowdy behaviour.

I welcome the Bill. I hope the Government will act and enough prison places will be provided to take people who use syringes, in particular, off the street.

I welcome the Bill which is an important step in the Minister's fight against crime. It updates the 1861 Act which does not relate effectively to modern day criminal activity. It addresses the modern phenomenon of the use of weapons to attack, intimidate or cause serious injury. Modern manifestations of crime are totally different to those of 1861. People are extremely intimidated by thugs walking the streets. They should be allowed to go about their daily business without the threat of violence. I agree with previous speakers that the threat of the use of a syringe is the most frightening one that a person could face. Society should not tolerate people who threaten others in such a fashion. The Minister proposes a sentence of ten years imprisonment for such crimes. That should be the minimum sentence.

I do not have a problem with any form of sentencing for people who commit such dastardly offences. It must be emphasised to the criminal fraternity that attacks with syringes are regarded by society to be as lethal as attacks with any other weapon and are punished severely. We trust the courts will respond to the views of both Houses by ensuring the sentencing policies outlined by the Minister are fully implemented. There should be very little leniency shown towards someone who intimidates people with a syringe, especially if they injure someone.

It is a criminal offence to be in possession of a gun. It should also be considered a criminal offence to be in possession of a blood filled syringe. A syringe filled with contaminated blood or fluid is also a weapon of death and is comparable to a gun. The only difference is that a syringe attack will cause a slow lingering death over a number of years. I do not see why the possession of a syringe is less threatening than the possession of a gun. I would go along with the view that that area should be examined.

I welcome sections 6 to 8 which create a range of new offences involving syringes. I agree that a person should receive the maximum of ten years imprisonment for injuring another person by piercing the skin of another person, or threatening to do so, with a contaminated syringe causing the injured person to believe he or she may be infected with a disease. I also welcome the maximum sentence of ten years for spraying, pouring or contaminating another blood sample or any fluid or substance resembling blood or threatening to do so. This is important as the threat of infection is also an offence. To injure a third person in either of these ways where the person is not intended to be a target is an offence. These are very comprehensive proposals.

I also welcome the other sections which make it a criminal offence to intentionally place a contaminated syringe in such a way that it injures another person. As the Minister said, such behaviour is close to attempted murder and she has introduced the highest penalty of life imprisonment.

In relation to moneylending the Minister has imposed a fine of £1,500 for a person to subject a debtor to demands which by reason of their frequency causes a person or his family alarm, distress or humiliation. The parasites involved in illegal moneylending must be rooted out of society. These moneylenders cause extreme stress throughout the country, especially in larger cities. They cause extreme stress to families and they prey on their vulnerability and need for cash. These debtors are trapped in a situation where they continually find it difficult to repay debts at exorbitant interest rates. These interest rates are also illegal. Even where a person has a legal debt there are legal means to recover that debt. It should be illegal to subject people, either their family or themselves, to any type of harassment.

The Minister made a long statement on stalking. I am pleased stalking, which is an abominable offence, has been legislated for in this Bill. The Bill is another contribution to the Minister's ongoing fight to reduce crime and to deal with the pests who are destroying our society. While we welcome the decline in crime in 1996 we must ensure that the incidence of crime drops still further. Even though there is a downturn in some crimes the level of serious crime has increased. While many of the Minister's Bills over the past 18 months will counteract the situation in the long term, we must be vigilant when it comes to a problem society wants tackled. I believe this Government has contributed substantially to this end but we cannot be complacent. I look forward to a comprehensive programme of more legislation and prison spaces to ensure that the fight against crime continues. For that reason I see this Bill as part of the ongoing programme and I welcome it.

I welcome this important Bill. The Fianna Fáil Party has produced 13 Bills. On 25 February 1997, Deputy O'Donoghue produced the Punishment of Aggravated Robbery Bill which is only one of 13 Bills produced by the Fianna Fáil Party. On 26 February the Minister introduced this Bill and I am glad she was able to incorporate many good aspects of our Bill into it. I think it is an important Bill because of some of the issues outlined in it and I would like to comment on one or two.

Section 1 (1) defines a member of the family as any person cohabiting with another person. That means anyone living in sin becomes a member of the family. I know it is unfashionable to say this but I find this very objectionable. The family is constantly being redefined all the time by trendy liberals but I find this objectionable and unnecessary and I am sad to see it incorporated in the Bill.

Section 2(1) includes the phrase "without lawful excuse". This is a good section. Section 2(2)(a) refers to the "application of heat, light, electric current, noise or any other form of energy". It is a pity this cannot apply to parts of the Six Counties; white noise was used in Castlereagh torture centre. People are still being tortured there but I do not know if white noise is still being used.

Section 2(3) states "No such offence is committed...if the defendant does not know or believe that it is in fact unacceptable to the other person". I have often passed the RDS when a pop concert was held there and the noise was deafening. Many sick and old people living nearby find this unacceptable. If these people make it known to the promoters of these concerts that the noise is unacceptable and an infringement of their privacy, will it become an offence and can they have action taken against the promoters? I am in favour of pop concerts as long as they are held at locations such as the Phoenix Park. However, many people find them objectionable. We take it for granted that noise can be foisted upon us. This is not right. We do not accept other forms of noxious stimuli, such as the application of heat, light or electric current, yet we allow noise to affect many people.

Section 4(1) states "A person who intentionally or recklessly causes serious harm". I have no difficulty with the phrase "intentionally causes harm". However, there is a big difference in the concept of "intentionally or recklessly". Is it necessary to include the word "recklessly"? Is this not too strong or too fluid?

Talking about fluids, subsection 6(2)(a) could include additional words. It states that "A person who sprays, pours or puts onto another blood or any fluid or substances resembling blood". This is good but it would read better if it "stated sprays, pours or puts onto another blood, or substances resembling blood, or any other contaminated fluid". This could include urine, semen or anything which could be throw at people or injected using syringes. Those words should be included in the Bill.

Section 8 is a good section and deals with the placing or abandoning of a syringe in a manner which threatens or frightens a person. However, if a person leaves a syringe in their home it must be shown that it was placed there in a threatening manner. I agree with the Minister that syringe attacks need to be controlled. There were 353 such attacks in 1994, 514 in 1995 and 1,152 in 1996. A syringe has become a deadly weapon. I have seen cases where people have been injected by syringes and have gone through hell for months until they discovered what they had or had not contracted.

Section 10 refers to harassment by any means including by use of a telephone. This is a good section. However, section 10(1) includes the phrase "harasses another by persistently following". The word "persistently" needs to be clarified. A smart barrister could get around this by claiming that five or six times did not constitute "persistently". I accept a word such as this has to be included but the intention is good and I commend the section. It is important because people are being harassed by telephone calls.

Section 11 is peculiar. I accept the intent and I concur with it. However, subsection 11(1)(a) states "the demands by reason of their frequency are calculated to subject the debtor or a member of the family of the debtor to alarm, distress or humiliation". I was recently sent a VHI bill which included a demand for something I had forgotten to pay. I unintentionally allowed this to continue and eventually received a reminder almost every week. Would this constitute an offence under the Bill? This needs to be spelled out more clearly. Poor people get into debt and receive reminders. There is nothing wrong with a reminder. However, the phrase "the demands by reason of their frequency" is unclear. Does this mean once a week, a month, every three or four months? How often?

I have frequently sent a bill to someone who owes me money. If I continue to send this bill every couple of months that will be all right but if I increase the frequency to every week will I be accused of harassing this person, or causing them alarm, distress or humiliation? I would like to cause them alarm, distress or humiliation because they are not paying their bill. This is a serious matter which needs clarification.

Section 12 refers to poisoning. The imprisonment terms mentioned in this section are not severe enough. Any person who sets out to poison another person is guilty of an offence. However, I believe the imprisonment terms set out in the Bill are not strong enough because no one knows the effect the poison will have on the victim. From administering drugs to people I know that tolerances differ. If I poison someone with the intention of hurting them, I may kill them. The imprisonment terms should be increased. Poisoning someone is a serious offence because one is dealing with uncertainty. It is not like hitting someone with a stick. It is putting a substance into another's body the effect of which one cannot be sure, except that it will damage them in some way. Since the extent of the damage is not clear, it is open to abuse and the punishment should be increased.

Section 13 refers to endangerment and also includes the phrase "intentionally or recklessly". Would the Minister clarify whether this section refers to activities such as motor racing, stock car racing or horse racing? I hope not. Section 13(1) also refers to someone who "engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death or serious harm to another". I presume consensual sports would be excluded. One can interpret that term as widely as one likes, but I wonder what exactly this section covers.

Section 14 is also a good section as are some of the other sections. Would the Minister clarify section 18? Section 18(3) states that

For the purposes of this section an act involves a "crime" or is "criminal" although the person committing it, if charged with an offence in respect of it, would be acquitted on the ground that—

(d) he or she was in a state of intoxication.

Does that mean it would be an offence on my part if I were intoxicated when I committed a crime? If so, it should not be in the Bill. For too long we have tolerated serious offences by saying a person had a few drinks and did not mean to commit the crime. That is no defence. Perhaps I am reading this incorrectly, and, if so, the Minister of State might clarify it. I would find it hard to believe that because someone is intoxicated he or she is not responsible for their actions, unless they become intoxicated involuntarily. Otherwise, people should be responsible for their actions because they caused themselves to be in that state by their own hand.

Section 23 refers to the consent of minors and the age of 16 years concerns me. It may be all right but was it 18 years previously? Does this section cover surgical, medical or dental treatment? Is it intended that a minor could have an abortion without the consent of her parents? It is intended that abortion be brought into this country because the Review Group on the Constitution recommended it. Its report stated we would have to legislate for abortion. Does this section reflect that? Sometimes there is sleight of hand in the way matters are brought in.

The Minister of State paid very little attention to sections 18 and 19, and these were also neglected in explanatory materials. However, in general, this is a good Bill and I have no problem with it. The public will welcome it, though there are parts of it that need to be tightened up.

I worry about too much legislation being introduced in some areas. Many people are now advocating zero tolerance but I often visit prisons, and the people I see there are usually poor, although one may see the odd rich embezzler. I worry accordingly about right-wing legislation, because the poor suffer from and bear the brunt of such laws in the Four Courts and the prisons. That is my concern about strong legislation, though it is necessary. This is only part of the fight against crime and prevention is always better than cure. The Bill is reasonable and I do not oppose it, but I seek clarification of my points.

The aim of our criminal legislation is to make the law more responsive to the needs of society and to ensure that that legislation is sufficiently comprehensive to give the fullest possible protection to all citizens. In that sense this Bill is welcome because it updates legislation dating back to 1861. In doing so, we are following the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission which were published in 1994.

The Bill codifies the law and updates language that would now be outdated. It introduces measures to deal with new offences such as syringe attacks. The provision in respect of such conduct is comprehensive and well drafted. The possession of a syringe or container of blood with intent to threaten or injure also includes the placing or abandoning of a syringe, the actual injuries inflicted and the threat to so injure. The throwing or placing of blood is also included.

I also welcome the increased powers of the Garda in dealing with such issues and the penalties for such offences are sufficient. The legislation is well thought out. The definition of "blood" includes something which may not be blood but which another person believes to be blood and which is sufficient to cause fear in that person. I worry about the incentive there is for the Garda to deal with these matters and to seize syringes. We must appreciate the work the Garda does in tackling crime in very dangerous conditions.

I welcome the provisions of the Bill on harassment. Section 10 makes it an offence to telephone, harass or permanently follow, watch, pester, beset or communicate with another person, thereby causing alarm, distress or harm to that person. That section will be a huge relief to a large number of women. I have had the unwelcome experience on different occasions of being watched and followed. On another occasion I was written to incessantly. It is a frightening experience. Members may know what it is like to walk down a street at night and hear footsteps behind one.

There are women after me all the time.

It puts the fear of God into one. That is a particularly frightening experience for a woman because there is the added fear of not being physically able to address what might happen next unless one has a black belt in judo. It takes a lot to frighten me but I have been frightened on such occasions. It was never good enough for the law to say that no offence was committed and for the matter to be left at that. If our laws are to address what is wrong in our society, they must deal with people's fear that they are not safe on our streets. I am delighted we have created the offence of harassment in this Bill. It is a progressive provision which I welcome.

I accept Senator Lydon's point on what must be proven. If it is the case that a person must be persistently followed, I would be unhappy with such a provision. It should be changed to read "frequent", as it is frightening enough for this to happen once without having to wait for, say, further telephone calls to be made before an offence is created. This has to be looked at again, as it would be a pity to hinder the intention of this legislation with unfortunate wording.

The Bill also deals with child abduction in what are wrongly called "tug of love" scenarios, where a child is taken out of the country by one spouse against the wishes or consent of the other. When marriages take place between couples of different nationalities this can happen all too easily. Recently I was involved in a case where a child was taken out of the country. One parent was Italian and the other was Irish; one parent had to spend time and money to get the child back. The reply will be that the Hague Convention is in place to deal with this, but I went to the High Court with this case and the Hague Convention is not being used properly. The Minister should inform the Department of Justice of this. The intention of the Hague Convention is that the child should return to its country of origin, where a court in that jurisdiction can deal with matters relating to him or her.

Unfortunately, our courts tend to deal with such matters themselves and go through each issue, including maintenance, access, custody and other arrangements, which costs a considerable amount of money and requires much time. It is not sufficient to say legal aid is available because in cases of child abduction time is of the essence and one cannot afford to wait for legal aid. I hope this area of law will be addressed by the Minister for Justice or by the relevant Department.

This is a welcome provision in that it might address the situation to some degree. I do not know how enforceable it will be because normally the parent abducting the child goes with the child. Is it correct that this provision would only be enforceable in circumstances where the child is brought to Ireland? The Minister of State indicated it would not be enforceable if the child was brought out of the country. Does the Hague Convention or the Child Abduction and Enforcement of Custody Orders Act, 1991, deal with it? I would welcome clarification on that matter.

Previous speakers referred to the issue of the demand for the payment of debts causing alarm to those owing them. I understand the frustration of being owed money while somebody sits back and does nothing. The root cause of this problem is our archaic debt collection system. Perhaps this is another issue for the Minister for Equality and Law Reform or the Minister for Justice, who might try to deal with a slow and inefficient system. This is perhaps not the best legislation in which to deal with this matter. The provision included in the Bill is sufficient in that it deals with intimidation by moneylenders. Such protection is needed. The frustration of those owed money must be addressed by updating the law on debt collection generally.

The Bill also addresses some of the old language used in our legal system for some time. The offence of assault and battery, which is widely misunderstood, has been clarified and updated. There are also sensible provisions clarifying the law on what is imprisonment, endangerment, the justifiable use of force and the giving of consent. Overall this is comprehensive legislation. Many other areas of law relating to attacks on the person have been addressed practically. Legal problems which have existed for decades, and in some cases for over a century, have been clarified in the legislation. I am always concerned the law is easily defined and made as practical as possible in its application, and in that respect this Bill is excellent. I welcome the Bill and urge its speedy enactment.

I thank Members for their contributions and will do my best to deal with points raised. Senator Farrell said the offence of spraying somebody with fluids, etc. should carry a greater penalty. Fluids other than blood carry the same penalty if the victim is put in jeopardy and is in fear of their life. Senator Farrell also said it should be an offence to carry a syringe. It is an offence to carry a syringe except for persons who are entitled to do so — for example, diabetics and medical practitioners. A number of Senators referred to debt collection, with which I will deal.

All Senators mentioned endangerment and dropping obstacles on motor vehicles, railway carriages, etc. Heretofore, it was not always possible to refer to an Act in court which dealt with people who stood on bridges over motorways and railway tracks and dropped obstacles with the intention of maiming people or causing them serious harm. The Bill also refers to recklessness. I assume it would be reckless for anybody to throw or to cause to be thrown a projectile, a heavy rock or piece of iron onto a public transport or a private vehicle or to roll an obstacle onto a motorway from a height, which is a common practice, as we all know.

This Bill updates the 1861 Act, which everyone believes is out of date. Senator Lydon and Senator Farrell claim to be responsible for publication of this Bill. I am sorry to disappoint them, but I wrote to the Minister for Justice pointing out the need for such legislation over a year ago. While I do not wish to claim responsibility for the inspiration which resulted in its publication, this legislation has been required for a long time. Attacks with syringes and knives and with what used to be referred to as blunt instruments have been causing much concern.

Success has 40 fathers but failure dies an orphan.

We will see.

The Law Reform Commission suggested that the construction of a dangerous building, installing a domestic heating appliance without proper ventilation, contamination of a building or a water supply are types of conduct which would come under the scope of this legislation. That is interesting because it could surreptitiously alter the individuals' rights and privacy and the right to protection and safety. That was alluded to by the Law Reform Commission.

Senator Farrell and Senator Neville referred to section 11, which covers creditors making frequent requests for payment. The Bill deals with the type of intimidation referred to by Senators. We all recognise that people in business expect to get paid for their goods and services. Over the years people have referred to laws and rules and regulations which do not exist in their attempts to collect debts. It may be a justifiable debt or it could be from a moneylender, but recognition must be given to the law of the land in the collection of debts. Reference to alleged laws, rules and regulations, or the prediction of dire consequences for a defenceless person in circumstances referred to, would not be tolerated under the Bill.

I have dealt with the issue of syringes. The maximum term of life imprisonment is available for use of a contaminated syringe to attack another person. Some Senators said the penalties should be greater. They will be if a greater crime is deemed to have been committed and the Bill provides for those circumstances.

A number of Senators referred to section 18 on justifiable use of force. This would not mean an old person using force to defend themselves from an attacker would be guilty of a criminal offence. The section provides that the use of force by a person to protect themselves from an attack will not be an offence.

Senator Lydon referred to the definition of the family. I do not want to spend the evening discussing that, but I assure the Senator I agree with the section in the Bill. It is correctly worded and covers what is regarded as a family today. Changing the definition at this stage would not make any difference.

Senator Lydon also referred to section 12 on poisoning. He spoke at some length about the insidious nature of poisoning and that the same amount of poison could have different effects, especially on vulnerable people or those of a smaller frame. The same applies to physical violence. A person of smaller stature or one who has a physical problem may be more vulnerable than others. The law would apply in those circumstances as it has always applied. Unfortunately, people cannot measure the tolerances of their potential victims nor would it be a good idea for them to do so.

A number of Senators referred to the issue of harassment or stalking and its definition in the Bill. It was suggested that section 10 could be open to interpretation and Senator Lydon said it might be weakened as a result. Subsection (2) contains an important aid to interpretation by providing that a person harasses another where his or her acts are such that a reasonable person would realise that the acts would interfere with the other person's peace and privacy and cause alarm, distress or harm to them. The key term is "reasonable person". Any such person would deem that the activities of the stalker would be of a very serious nature. I agree with the concerns expressed by Senator Gallagher about a woman or a person of smaller physical stature being threatened by the persistent appearance of another person. Persistent does not necessarily mean over a number of weeks but could be on one specific occasion where the person is pursued and harassed to the extent they feel threatened and fear for their lives. There have been many instances where a person — a woman or young person, for example — found themselves likely to be overpowered and their lives in serious danger. They must be protected in those circumstances and that is what the Bill proposes to do.

Senator Lydon referred to section 23, which deals with consent by a minor to surgical, medical and dental treatment. The position is that the consent by a 16 or 17 year old to medical treatment would be sufficient if the minor understood the nature and implications of the medical treatment.

A number of Senators referred to the removal of criminal immunity for the teaching profession. The Bill proposes to remove from law the criminal immunity of teachers in respect of pupils. This proposal follows a recommendation by the Law Reform Commission on the matter. Teachers who currently use "reasonable and moderate" force are not open to a charge of assault, although such use may be against the wishes of parents and in contravention of the Department of Education's prohibition on such practice in schools. Removing the immunity merely makes teachers subject to the same rigours of the law as other citizens in regard to the use of force. Modern law and parental concern over the years has brought about a justifiable situation whereby a parent would be concerned if someone else decided to administer corporal punishment to their child. As a parent myself — and I am sure Senators agree with me — I would be unhappy that if action were to be taken, someone else had the right to administer corporal punishment to a child, be it a minor or a juvenile.

Senator Gallagher referred to the Hague Convention, and I understand her concerns. The Bill does as much as possible, since the convention is in the area of responsibility of the Minister for Equality and Law Reform. As time goes by, all our laws must be examined in the prevailing circumstances. Having dealt with cases of the kind to which Senator Gallagher referred, I found that when children were abducted out of the country, it was most important to act quickly. If the courts were able to act quickly, it saved a great deal of time and energy. Instead of having to go to a foreign jurisdication where different laws applied, it was much better and effective to resort to the courts here and deal with the case quickly. I have found that to be satisfactory so far, but there have been a number of recent cases where concern was expressed.

I thank Senators for their contributions. The purpose of the Bill is to codify and restate in modern terms the law on non-fatal offences against the person, which offences are central to criminal law and are in the main contained in the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. The modernisation of old legislation is crucial if we are to meet the challenge presented by modern criminal trends. The Minister has sought in the many Bills introduced by her since she took office to ensure the law is not left to stand still but is developed to meet the ever increasing challenges presented by the modern criminal. Modern technology and communications are such as to impose greater urgency in updating legislation, particularly where it refers to the protection of the person and the rights of the individual. The rights of the criminal are progressing at as fast a pace as those of law abiding citizens and in some cases are progressing even faster.

In addition to updating existing law, the Bill creates offences to deal with what might be called modern crimes. It includes comprehensive provisions to deal with the serious problem of syringe attacks and the serious intrusion into the peace and well-being of individuals, usually women, caused by the perversion known as stalking. The latter is a reprehensible practice which has become common in recent times. The person who harasses and stalks another person does so in the full knowledge that they are intimidating that person, whether it is by telephone calls or letters or by physical pursuit. That is the aspect of the act which causes such distress and worry to victims.

The Bill will be a strong and effective instrument in the fight against crime in its many forms and I look forward to its speedy passage through the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.