Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality back to the Seanad for this debate.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2019 is to achieve one simple goal, namely, ensuring that sufficient measures are in place to protect our nurses, gardaí, firefighters, accident and emergency personnel, ambulance personnel and Army personnel who, on a daily basis, put their lives at risk in doing their work. We live in a civilised country confident in the knowledge that in times of emergency there are services we can call on to help, whether it is the fire brigade, the ambulance or the Garda. However, emergency workers often find themselves in dangerous circumstances. They risk their lives as they work to help and save others. It is disappointing and even distressing that those we call on for help can themselves be put at risk through assault. Those working long hard hours in the emergency services repeatedly put themselves into dangerous situations for the sake of our safety and care. As a result, the onus is on us, as legislators, to protect our nurses, paramedics, gardaí, firefighters and others in front-line emergency services. The least we can do is ensure sufficient protections are in place to protect the people who may be assaulted in the course of their duties. We can do this through enhancing the laws already in place.

The facts are alarming. On a weekly basis, members of our emergency services are being targeted when performing their duties. Nurses have accounted for almost 70% of the total number of assaults on hospital staff in the past ten years according to figures released by the HSE. Between 2008 and the end of November 2018, some 10,744 staff reported assaults ranging from actual harm to near-misses and complaints. More than 7,500 of these assaults targeted nurses. In fact, by December 2018, a total of 948 incidents were reported. In 61% of cases, nurses were the victims. Doctors reported 25 assaults while other grades, including catering and housekeeping staff, reported a further 339 incidents. There have been 1,267 assaults on members of An Garda Síochána since 2012. In 2016, this figure was 259, representing an increase of almost 50% over a four-year period. Over 5,500 gardaí have now been injured in the line of duty since 2005. There were 102 cases of assault reported by firefighters and paramedics at Dublin Fire Brigade between 2013 and the end of 2017 according to figures released by Dublin City Council in 2018.

There were 47 instances of violent harassment and aggression towards paramedics in 2016 alone, while 2017 saw 53 recorded incidents, 44 physical and nine verbal. In 2018, there were 32 recorded incidents, 23 physical and nine verbal. The Bill will see the introduction of a specific mandatory prison sentence of 12 months on summary conviction in respect of an assault on a member of the emergency services. It provides that on indictment, the mandatory prison sentence is increased to two years and may extend to a period of seven years' imprisonment at the court's discretion. The Bill will also provide for the offence of ramming of an emergency vehicle, with a mandatory prison sentence of 12 months on summary conviction, which increases to two years on indictment and is extendable to ten years at the court's discretion.

We in Ireland are not alone in our concerns for the safety of emergency and front-line workers. In September 2018, the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill was signed into law in Westminster, creating a new offence of assault against an emergency worker in the exercise of their functions with a penalty that was increased from six to 12 months. In Victoria, Australia, the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018 was introduced in Parliament in June 2018, making the injuring of an emergency worker a category 1 offence and bringing it to the same level as murder and rape. In New Zealand, a Bill proposing a mandatory minimum sentence for people who assault emergency staff is being considered in Parliament at the moment. We have an opportunity today to offer protection to those who protect us. I look forward to hearing other Members' comments and hope we get agreement such that the Bill will be enacted as soon as possible.

I second the Bill and compliment Senator Gallagher, who has done so much work on this. It is sad that we have to pass this Bill. On a weekly basis, members of our emergency services are being targeted in their roles. Nurses have been to the fore when it comes to assaults on medical staff, accounting for almost 70% of total assaults on hospital staff over the past ten years. These are all HSE figures. In An Garda Síochána, there have been 1,267 assaults on members since 2012. In 2016, this figure was 259, an increase of almost 50% over four years. It is frightening that more than 5,500 gardaí have been injured in the line of duty since 2005.

The Bill introduces measures that will provide safety to members in the front-line emergency services. They include mandatory prison sentences and extending the two-year sentence to seven at the decision of the court. There is widespread agreement on how difficult the job is on the front line. The Bill should be supported to ensure we provide a safe working environment for our gardaí, nurses, paramedics, fire-fighters and other front-line emergency services. It is a crucial Bill and I am delighted to second it.

I compliment Senator Gallagher on bringing this forward. Some of the statistics he has given are very revealing. Considering the way society has developed in terms of respect for human life in general but particularly for those who are trying to protect the public, I think they need enhanced protections at the moment. I have in mind a particular case a number of years ago. Garda Robert McCallion was serving in the force in Donegal. He was rammed by somebody who was subsequently caught and charged. I know the family very well and they had another member in the force, Garda John McCallion, who was a community liaison officer and who died recently as well from natural causes. In the case of Garda Robert McCallion, what was heartbreaking for the family in the subsequent court case was that the jury deciding on the sentence was instructed by the judge not to take into account the fact that the victim was in a Garda uniform; they were to regard him as a member of the public rather than a member of the Garda. I do not want to make any comment on the judgment. All I am saying is that there is need for further protections for our emergency services in this society in 2019. Our party will be very supportive of this Bill.

I welcome the Minister and the Bill we are debating. I understand entirely the intention behind it and commend Senator Gallagher and his colleagues. The spirit of the Bill is clear and worthwhile, particularly given the many instances in which emergency service workers have found themselves on the front line, vulnerable, dealing with situations that put them in the way of unnecessary harm, threat and danger. By their very nature, emergency service workers are all too willing to step into the bearna baoil and put themselves front and centre for the protection and welfare of their fellow citizens. We must acknowledge and commend that reality in tonight's debate.

I have some political issues in that I believe when emergency services find themselves in these vulnerable positions, more often than not it is because we have not adequately addressed or invested in the issues for which support is needed. We know of many cases in which people in the healthcare sector have to deal with those who are vulnerable and have mental health and addiction issues. This is in no way to take away from the core premise of the Bill. Many times, they should not have to find themselves in those threatening or precarious situations, but they do. I would contest at this early stage in the debate that we have not invested to deal in the right way with a lot of the societal realities that exist and that present very real threats to our emergency service professionals. That said, of course there are other instances in which members of An Garda Síochána or people who work in our hospitals have found themselves under threat from thugs, people who are just out to wreck and ruin. They should face the full rigours of the law.

I am of a view that in accepting the amendments to the Judicial Council Bill, we as legislators have delivered on the concept of sentencing guidelines similar to those of other jurisdictions, something that has long been sought by groups representing victims of crime in all of its many forms. It is my opinion that this was a landmark moment for the Irish justice system.

I expect ultimately that the vast majority of criminal justice cases in the State will see a judge having to take into account sentencing guidelines for the offence in the future, making it a very significant move. Far too often, we have seen victims feeling severely wronged as the perpetrators of crime have been faced with inadequate and inappropriate sentencing. Everybody agrees that the severity of a sentence must match that of the crime. There are currently too many instances where this is not happening. While the vast majority of judges balance the considerations well, the sentencing guidelines will tackle the issue of unsuitable sentences being handed down. The public deserve to know that offenders will receive a sentence that fits the crime and that heinous crimes will be met by stiff sentences. They deserve to know that there is a basis for calculating a sentence.

We have indicated in the past in other debates, as the Minister will know, that we are opposed to mandatory sentencing on that basis. We believe judges should have the flexibility to deal with crimes as they present themselves. I said to my colleagues in Fianna Fáil who have moved this Bill tonight, that that is not to dilute or take away from what they are trying to do here. It is to enable, empower and allow our judges to be free and able to deliver the type of sentencing that is warranted to perpetrators of crime such as those referenced in tonight's debate, in each individual case. We will not be opposing this Bill and may engage with colleagues as to how we can refine it at later Stages, to take some of our concerns into consideration as we move forward. I do not doubt for one moment the intention behind Senator Gallagher's moving of this Bill. We want to ensure that it is as good as it can be and we will work with colleagues and with the Minister and his officials to that end.

I thank my colleague, Senator O'Mahony, for stepping in for me, as I was engaged with my nominating body. I welcome the Minister to the House and I commend Senator Gallagher on what is a very important piece of legislation. I am delighted that the Government is not opposing it, in a similar manner in which we did not oppose and worked with Senator Ó Céidigh when he brought his perjury Bill to the House, which I was delighted to see pass through this House unopposed. The Government worked constructively with Senator Ó Céidigh to ensure that the Bill was improved. The apparatus of the Minister's office, his officials, the Attorney General and all other stakeholders worked to see that this Bill was something that this House as a whole and collective body could be very proud of. We can see any reason why the same "meithealship" cannot prevail with Senator Gallagher's Bill as we all fully agree with its principle and motivation. We have all seen the people at the front line of our emergency services throughout this country putting their lives on the line to help people in search and rescue as well as search and recovery missions who deal with intricate, difficult and challenging terrain that can be extremely volatile as to people's health and safety, and lives. Where thugs exacerbate and compound these challenges by deliberately going out to harm these people and make their front-line job more difficult is totally reprehensible. Every citizen in this country with any kind of moral fibre within their conscience would have an issue with that. As legislators we are all on the one hymn sheet when it comes to this issue. There is precedent for what Senator Gallagher is trying to achieve. If a garda is murdered in the line of duty, for example, this is a capital offence, and my understanding is that a life sentence is the immediate consequence of that and there are no mitigating circumstances where that can be evaporated in anyway. The principle that the Senator wishes to achieve here is already recognised by the State. We should look to further expanding what the Senator is trying to achieve with this Bill in that people who provide essential services such as those driving buses, trains, on the Luas and taxi drivers, who ensure that people get home safely at night, could all be considered as part of what the Senator is seeking to do here. They are providing front-line essential services to assist the general public in going about their lives on a daily basis in a safe, secure and comfortable manner.

As an Oireachtas, we need to embrace the principle of what we are trying to achieve in this Bill. I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is of the same mind. We all want to see a safe, secure, unintimidating environment. Putting the law in place is one thing. Another, however, to is ensure that the resources are channelled to make the law effective. That is where the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has really shone. We have seen the Garda numbers coming from Templemore in recent times and what Commissioner Harris has achieved by putting people onto the front line as we deal with very difficult situations.

We saw the petrol bombing of a home in Drogheda again last night. This is reprehensible behaviour. An Garda Síochána and this Government will in no way shirk in their response to this situation. We will take these people on, will defeat them, ensure that they are brought to justice, and we will ensure that the people of Drogheda will be able to walk around their town day and night in a safe and secure environment. This will be achieved, not just in Drogheda but in every street, town, city and village in this country.

I am looking forward at 6 p.m. this evening to a very fruitful and informative engagement with Commissioner Harris who will be attending the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality to give us an update on the work he is doing.

We all have a responsibility in this House to work together. We have demonstrated this in many cases over the last three years and as I already referenced in Senator Ó Céidigh's Bill today. I would like to see that type of co-operation extended to the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, where the Minister and I and other Members have spent nearly 150 hours non-stop in this Chamber dealing with all sorts of scenarios, primarily of a filibustering nature, where walk-through votes are called, with two to one majorities.

We are here to talk about Senator Gallagher's Bill and it is one of the better Bills that I have seen come through this House and I commend him for it. We on this side of the House will do anything we can to enhance it and bring it to fruition, where someday, hopefully in the not too distant future, President Higgins will sign it and it will become the law of the land.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and all of the Senators who made a contribution, and in particular, the sponsor Senator Gallagher.

It is clear that the subject matter of the Bill is one to which we can all relate. We are very conscious of the important work done by people operating in front-line duties and the difficulties and challenges which they face on a daily and nightly basis. It is, of course, imperative that members of the emergency services, be they the Garda Síochána, prison officers, the fire brigade, ambulance personnel, the Defence Forces and persons providing medical services are protected in carrying out their work and that the law reflects and responds to the situations in which they find themselves, oftentimes situations of challenge, and more often than not situations of emergency.

I know that there is great deal of concern about the need to protect members of our emergency services and medical personnel when serious incidents occur, and there is great sympathy, particularly where such incidents result in injury to such persons or to innocent members of the public.

The spirit and intention behind the Senators' Bill is clear, namely, to protect members of our emergency services and persons providing medical services in difficult front-line and emergency situations.

As the law stands, a specific offence in regard to assault of a peace officer or person providing medical services is covered in section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. General assault offences are provided for in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 and criminal damage offences are provided for in the Criminal Damage Act 1991. The offences contained in these statutes would address both the offence of assaulting a peace officer or a person providing medical services causing harm or serious harm and the offence of ramming an emergency services vehicles as would, in the relevant circumstances, homicide offences.

In that regard, I remind Senators of the following provisions which are of particular relevance. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 provides for explicit statutory offences where peace officers or persons providing medical services are assaulted or obstructed in the execution of their duty. Section 19(1) of that Act provides that any person who assaults a peace officer in the execution of his or her duty or a person providing medical services at a hospital is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years. This maximum penalty was increased from a five-year term to a seven-year term by the Criminal Justice Act 2006. A peace officer is defined in the Act as meaning a member of the Garda Síochána, a prison officer, a member of the fire brigade, ambulance personnel or a member of the Defence Forces.

The general law relating to assault is contained in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, which deals comprehensively with a wide range of assault provisions, the more serious of which carry heavy penalties. Let us not forget that the assault and related provisions in that Act apply to assaults on all sectors of our community, which also includes peace officers and persons providing medical services. That Act provides for penalties of up to five years for an offence of assault causing harm and a penalty of up to life imprisonment for an offence of assault causing serious harm.

The Road Traffic Acts provide for a range of offences. Section 53 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 provides for an offence of dangerous driving with penalties of up to ten years or €20,000 where death or serious bodily harm result.

The Office of the Attorney General has examined the Bill and advised that the proposed offences contained in it require clarification in that the conduct described as "ramming" another vehicle would appear to be already covered under existing road traffic legislation and that the provision in regard to assaults on members of the emergency services appears to be already covered by the existing section 19(1) but using the terminology of the assault offences contained in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. In addition, section 2 of the Criminal Damage Act 1991 provides for an offence where a person intends to damage property or is reckless as to whether any property is damaged and intends by such damage to endanger the life of another or is reckless as to whether the life of another would be endangered. This offence, which is particularly relevant in the context of an activity such as ramming an emergency vehicle, carries a penalty of imprisonment for life.

I believe Senators will agree there is already a considerable wealth of legislation in place to enable the prosecution of those who would assault causing harm or serious harm to or damage with intent to endanger the life of any citizen. That said, I know the Senators' Bill arises from concern for the safety of front-line personnel and first responders.

As the Senators have outlined, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 with the introduction of mandatory minimum prison sentences in respect of assault of a peace officer and of a new offence of ramming an emergency services vehicle. Section 2 provides for the introduction of the offence of ramming an emergency services vehicle. It provides for a mandatory minimum penalty of 12 months on summary conviction and two years on conviction on indictment. Section 3 provides for the introduction of a mandatory prison sentence of 12 months on summary conviction and two years on conviction on indictment for assault causing harm or causing serious harm to a peace officer or to a person providing medical services.

I turn to the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. As Senators are aware, the traditional approach to sentencing is for the Oireachtas to lay down the maximum penalty and for a court, having considered all the circumstances of the case, to impose an appropriate penalty up to the maximum applying and also making sure of the application at all times of the principle of proportionality. There are some exceptions to this such as a mandatory sentence for murder and presumptive minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking and firearms offences. In the latter case, the relevant legislative provisions set down a minimum sentence to be imposed unless the court is satisfied there are exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence or to the person convicted of the offence which would make such a sentence unjust in all the circumstances. Such sentences were specifically introduced because of the impact those types of offences have on society in general and communities in particular. In that regard and in the context of this Bill, I should mention the mandatory minimum provisions provided for in this Bill do not contain those important components. There is no provision for the court, when considering whether the sentence would be unjust, to have regard to matters such as whether the public interest would be served by a lesser sentence.

The Office of the Attorney General has also examined the provisions of the Private Members' Bill and has advised that the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of the Bill, particularly in respect of the summary offences, are "constitutionally frail". The sentencing provisions in the Bill are described as "minimum terms of imprisonment". In the case of summary conviction, the "minimum term" is 12 months. However, 12 months' imprisonment is, in fact, the maximum penalty that can be imposed on a single offence in the District Court. This provision is, therefore, problematic in that there is no discretion left to the sentencing judge to apply the sentencing principles as part of the trial process which must be conducted according to due course of law as required by Article 38.1 of the Constitution, with the specific circumstances of each case taken into account by the court before a sentence is handed down and decided upon. Perhaps consideration could be given to the introduction of a presumptive minimum sentence rather than a mandatory minimum sentence which would allow for judicial discretion to sentence proportionately in individual specific cases.

I draw the attention of Senators to the fact that the penalties provided for in the Bill are less than those provided for in both the Criminal Damage Act and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act. Prosecution under either Act can attract a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in respect of a serious breach.

I thank the Senators who proposed the Bill and those who participated in the debate. It is clear that much work has gone into its preparation. I value that work and the interest shown in criminal justice matters. We are all immensely grateful to members of the emergency services and our medical personnel for their outstanding dedication and commitment and for the important and all too frequently dangerous work they do day and night to protect us and the public interest. As I have outlined, there is already a comprehensive body of legislation in place to enable prosecution of the type of assault or damage provided for in the Bill. However, I want to support the policy objective of the Senators' Bill and I will, therefore, not oppose the proposal.

It will be important to engage in further discussion on how best to give effect to the principles underlying the Bill and in this regard I was particularly struck by the contribution of Senator Ó Donnghaile. There are issues we need to consider before deciding that this is the final article. I refer in particular to issues regarding the sentencing provisions which, in my view, require amendment before they could be placed on the Statute Book. I will seek to work with the Senators who proposed the Bill and other Members of the Seanad in that regard. I should also add that, as the Bill creates a criminal offence, the issue of a money message will need to be addressed in due course.

I thank Senators for introducing a debate on this important topic. I assure them that should the Bill proceed to the next Stage, I would be happy to engage with its proposers. I look forward to hearing submissions from Senators who participated in the debate and perhaps some of those who are not present this afternoon.

I welcome members of the Munster Agricultural Society to the Chamber. I welcome Mr. Gerard Murphy, Ms Betty Daunt, Mr. Robert Harkin, the current chairman, and his wife, Kay, Mr. Albert De Cogan, vice chairman, and his wife, Jennifer, Mr. Billy Nicholson and his wife, Olga. The society does tremendous work. It was doing that work long before my time and will probably continue to do it long after my job is finished. The society is my nominating body and also that of Senator Lombard. It is a good achievement that both of us got elected to the Seanad. The society's representatives are really welcome. Mr. Gerard Murphy is a central cog in the operation, and that should be acknowledged. Obviously, the chairman, Mr. Harkin, should be as well. We will be meeting Senator Lombard later. I just want to formally welcome the delegation to Leinster House and to the Seanad.

I, too, extend a welcome to our guests in the Gallery. I hope they enjoy their evening in Leinster House.

Getting back to the business at hand, I thank Senator Murnane O'Connor, who seconded the Bill, for her support. I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate for the support they have shown in respect of the legislation. I acknowledge the Minister's comments, which were quite comprehensive. Senator Murnane O'Connor put her finger on it when she stated that it is sad and depressing that we have to discuss this legislation at all. It is sad that people do not have more respect for those who protect us.

When drafting the Bill, I gathered statistics from various emergency worker sources. I compliment all those to whom I have spoken for the information they provided. Unfortunately, they are all of the one mind in that they feel the statistics provided would make a strong case in support of more firm sentencing for people who assault emergency workers. I fully appreciate that the Bill is not the final draft in any shape or form, but it is a genuine attempt to address the concerns of those emergency workers who we, as a society, are fortunate to have and who put their lives at risk on occasion. Unfortunately, as Senator O'Mahony outlined, this sometimes has devastating consequences in that they lose their own lives.

There is an onus on us to put in place firm protections and send out a strong message to the effect that we will not tolerate anyone who assaults an emergency worker in the course of his or her duty and that there will be major repercussions for those who cross the line in this regard. That is a key message in behind the Bill.

I look forward to working with all my colleagues and the Minister and his staff to make this Bill as secure as we possibly can in the ambition we all have to put in place firm protections for those who protect us.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

On Tuesday next.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 2 July 2019.