Dáil Éireann - Volume 683 - 20 May, 2009
Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009: Second Stage.
Deputy Dermot Ahern Deputy Dermot Ahern
Deputy Dermot Ahern: I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009 to the House. The Bill contains a range of different measures which it is appropriate to address by way of legislation at this time to further improve the overall criminal justice system and update existing statutes in some areas where it is decided there is a need to do so.
I will first address the issue of firearms. I am determined to ensure that a gun culture is not allowed to form in this State. That determination has shaped my thinking in shaping this Bill, a substantial and important part of which is devoted to the licensing of firearms and associated issues. In total, there are 17 firearms and offensive weapons related sections which can be grouped into the following categories: public safety and control issues; technical matters; and efficiency and modernisation measures.
I will deal first with the sections which deal with matters of public safety and control. Section 28 addresses the licensing of handguns. For more than 30 years prior to 2004, all handguns were effectively banned in this jurisdiction. Following a series of judicial decisions, however, almost 2,000 handguns have been licensed in the past five years. This has come to pass without Government, Oireachtas or public policy decision and has resulted in an unacceptable new trend in the growth of handgun ownership which the House should now end. It would be disturbing if the assumption that a positive outcome for some shooting interest groups in some judicial review cases on licensing matters was somehow seen as an accretion of rights. This is  flawed logic and I want to dispel any notions that there are any inherent rights to be considered here.
I am aware that some people have a strongly held view that once they are of good character and make the necessary secure arrangements for the storage of their firearms, they should be free to have firearms of any kind licensed to them. I do not agree with this view as it would constitute an unacceptable position where our gun laws could mirror those of countries such as those of the United States. If the current position were to continue unchecked, this scenario would be realised. We cannot allow this to happen. It is my duty as Minister to call “Stop” and address the current specific issues and longer-term strategic issues at the heart of this matter.
I would never be satisfied with circumstances in which firearms were freely available or, as in some jurisdictions, a notification system were in place under which one purchases a firearm and informs the authorities afterwards. I was conscious of the remarks made by Mr. Justice Peter Charleton in the High Court last July that a reasonable person is entitled to feel alarmed at the proliferation of handguns. I am aware, too, of calls made by many Members of the Oireachtas from parties on both sides to address this matter. It was against this background that I directed my Department and the Garda Síochána to carry out an urgent and intensive review of the firearms law. Following from that review, my proposals for reform in this area include a ban on issuing new licences for handguns, although there will be limited exceptions for handguns designed for use in connection with competitions governed by International Olympic Committee regulations. As I announced at that time, those who already have licences can, when they are due for renewal, apply to have them renewed albeit under the new licensing procedure where the safety of the community will be paramount.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte Deputy Pat Rabbitte
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Am I the only one who does not have a copy of the script the Minister is reading? It would be useful to have it. It is the tradition that we ought to have it.
Deputy Noel O’Flynn Deputy Noel O’Flynn
Deputy Noel O’Flynn: We seem to have only a summary.
Deputy Dermot Ahern Deputy Dermot Ahern
Deputy Dermot Ahern: I will deal with that.
In the wake of my announcement in November last I received a number of representations, both for and against the handgun ban, but I especially note the endorsement by the chief inspector of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate who draws on her own very considerable experience of policing in the United States. She was quoted as saying that many guns used in the commission of crime in the United States are guns that have been stolen from their rightful owners. A number of handguns here have been stolen from licence holders. Those guns, by definition, are immediately in criminal hands. I stress that it is not only the possibility of licensed firearms falling into the hands of criminals which concerns me. There are other issues involved and, in particular, I regard the growth of a handgun culture as not acceptable.
The International Action Network on Small Arms reported at the time of the announcement: “Unlike the UK, which imposed the ban in response to the Dunblane school shooting in 1996, the Irish government decided to act before a major tragedy involving handguns occurs”. It is right that we take this action now rather than endure a tragedy at some point in the future when people would rightly ask us, as politicians, why we did nothing in advance to prevent it, particularly in view of the recent statement by Mr. Justice Charleton in the High Court.
I also intend, in section 29, to prohibit the form of target shooting known as practical or dynamic shooting. This type of shooting involves firearms being used in simulated combat or combat training and is anathema to most target shooters. In so far as it is akin to police and  military tactical training it is an undesirable activity not rooted in any tradition in Ireland and one which should not have any place in our society. I am informed that the majority of mainstream shooting organisations in Ireland have disassociated themselves from it, and this speaks volumes.
Section 31 brings under tighter control the importation of firearms and ammunition by specifying that such importation may only be made by a registered firearms dealer on foot of an importation licence having being granted by my Department. As well as assuring greater control, this measure also anticipates the EU weapons directive.
In Irish law firearms are already divided into two categories, those being non-restricted and restricted. The Bill proposes a measure to increase the sophistication of our ability to categorise firearms. It introduces the concept of a prohibited firearm, and section 25 proposes that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should have the residual powers to be able to declare certain firearms and ammunition to be prohibited. I will, in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, keep the situation on firearms licensing under review in the interests of public safety. This residual power will, in particular, allow me to address any issues which arise threatening the safety of the community. It is important to stress that my proposals will not impinge adversely on the activities of the vast majority of licensed firearms holders in this country. I recognise that those firearms holders pursue their legitimate interests in a law abiding way and I am anxious to have a well regulated sector in which those interests can be successfully pursued, in co-operation with the relevant authorities.
Section 35 regulates the sale and use of realistic imitation firearms, including devices known as airsoft. These items are practically indistinguishable from real firearms and have on occasion been used to intimidate, to rob and in anti-social behaviour. There is also a very real possibility of a tragic incident occurring should armed members of the Garda Síochána be called out in response to reports of a person carrying or brandishing one of these realistic imitation firearms. I will be making their possession in a public place a serious offence. The relevant associations have been involved in an ongoing dialogue with my Department and these proposals to regulate and control airsoft activities should come as no surprise. Some of the measures in this section were requested by those who play airsoft in order to protect their activity from irresponsible and casual purchasers.
I turn now to my proposals to limit knife crime. There are two sections relating to knives and bladed or sharply-pointed weapons. Although the number of murders — the most serious crime committed involving knives — fell from 37 to 15 last year there is no room for complacency. The overall number of crimes committed using knives is a matter of great concern to me.
In any discussion about offensive weapons, there is one aspect of the problem we must confront. Items used as offensive weapons are often items which are in legitimate, everyday, mundane usage. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish by legal definition between knives which have a legitimate use and those the sale of which might be undesirable. Even if this was to be attempted it would prove futile in practice as quite ordinary kitchen knives or tools, the sale of which could not be prohibited, could be just as lethal in the wrong hands as anything which might be prohibited and are all too often the weapons used to cause death or serious injury. That is why the law must concentrate on the circumstances in which these items are in a person’s possession.
Last year I requested the Garda Commissioner to conduct a review of the provisions of the existing legislation, in the context of the increased use of offensive weapons in assaults and  murders. The purpose of the review was to identify aspects of the legislation that may require strengthening from an enforcement perspective. I also asked him to look at international trends.
There are two sections contained in this Bill on the control of weapons arising from these fatal stabbings. I propose, in section 34, to increase the maximum prison sentence for possessing a knife in a public place from one year to five years and, in section 36, to extend the power of search without warrant in circumstances where a member of An Garda Síochána has reasonable grounds to suspect a person is carrying any article for unlawful purposes. I also intend to create a new firearms and offensive weapons order to deal with the issue of samurai swords.
A number of the sections — sections 23, 24, 30, 32, 33, 37, 38 and 39 - are purely technical amendments which themselves are of no great policy significance. These technical amendments, along with the efficiency and modernisation measures contained in sections 26, 27 and 28, will permit the transformation to a comprehensive and efficient firearms licensing regime, including making the changes necessary for the implementation of the final outstanding sections of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 to be commenced.
Section 26 provides for the changeover from the current one year system where all licences expire on 31 July to a new three-year system with phased expiry so that the work involved in applying the new regime can be spread out over a 12 month period. Section 28 provides for the outsourced collection of the over 230,000 firearms certificate fees and will free up a significant amount of Garda time as a result.
The new three-year licence for firearms is a big and a welcome step forward in terms of efficiency and customer service. With this step-change comes logical improvements in how we license firearms including secure storage, taking up references from applicants and acquiring consent to make medical inquiries where that may be necessary.
On the question of how this legislation will impact on the shooting sports community, there has been an unprecedented level of consultation with shooting groups during the development of the Bill. Consultations have been intensive and productive. My predecessor established the firearms consultative panel comprising of the shooting interest groups, the Garda Síochána and members of my Department to assist with the introduction of the firearms licensing regime provided for under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and this panel has met on a regular basis for the past 18 months.
My Department also held a firearms conference in May 2008 with over 100 delegates from shooting interest groups, Departments and An Garda Síochána in attendance. In February 2009 my Department — in conjunction with Countryside Alliance Ireland, as sponsor — held a further seminar focused on forthcoming legislation regulating shooting clubs and ranges. As a result of this inclusion and active participation, the proposals in the Bill will not come as a surprise to the legitimate and responsible hunters and target shooters of the country. I believe that the contents of the Bill will be accepted and even welcomed by many of them.
Section 27 allows the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána or the Minister to issue guidelines on the practical application of the Firearms Acts. I understand that the Garda Commissioner, as head of the licensing authority, proposes to introduce guidelines which will be publicly available. These guidelines will attempt to address one of the main criticisms of the current licensing system, namely a lack of uniformity in the application of the Firearms Acts and the processing of applications.
In addition to these guidelines, the Garda Síochána established a firearms policy unit in 2008. This has helped to ensure that the Commissioner’s policies on firearms licensing are clearly understood and standardised throughout the force and has also been invaluable in resolving problems and complaints regarding applications.
 I should give notice to the House that I may consider further minor amendments on Committee Stage to clarify certain matters relating to range certification and to clarify that restricted firearms may only be held by a named person on the certificate. I am also considering extending the requirement for tax clearance certification to dealers in realistic imitation firearms. There will also be a minor typographical amendment to section 31 on Committee Stage.
The firearms legislation stretches back more than 80 years and across five main Acts and has been criticised by commentators from the legal profession as being difficult to interpret. The Law Reform Commission has scheduled a restatement of the Firearms Act that will help to alleviate this problem.
Part 1 of the Bill contains the standard preliminary features of all legislative proposals, including the Short Title, the interpretation section and the provision that the Exchequer will bear the costs of administering the Bill when enacted.
On the substantive provisions, Part 2 contains amendments to the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003, as amended by the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005. The European Arrest Warrant Act gave effect to the EU framework decision on the European arrest warrant, EAW, and replaced extradition arrangements between member states with a system of surrender based on arrest warrants issued by their judicial authorities. The amendments proposed in this Part are necessary to deal with issues that have arisen in the administration and implementation of the Act. As the House will be aware, the Act has been in operation for more than five years and there is a better understanding here and across all member states of how the EAW system works. The proposed amendments are timely and will enhance the operation of the EAW system while safeguarding the rights of persons whose surrender is sought on foot of such warrants.
Section 4 amends section 2 of the European Arrest Warrant Act by inserting a number of definitions used in the substantive sections of the Bill. It also deletes the definition of “facsimile copy”. This is consequential on an amendment to section 12 of the Act, which concerns transmission of documents and which I shall deal with later.
Section 5 deletes sections 4(2) and 4(3) of the 2003 Act. These subsections were inserted at the time to accommodate declarations made by Austria, Italy and France pursuant to Article 32 of the framework decision that requests for surrender sent to those states for offences committed before the dates specified in the declarations would be dealt with under the old extradition arrangements rather than the EAW system. An unintended effect of the subsections is that Ireland cannot accept EAWs from these countries relating to acts committed before the dates specified in the declarations. This section is being amended to remedy that situation.
Section 6 amends section 10 of the Act by deleting the word “duly”, which can be interpreted as meaning that the validity of a European arrest warrant could be inquired into by an Irish court. This goes against the principle of mutual recognition on which the EAW system is based. Section 10 is also amended by the deletion of text that limits the scope of EAWs where a custodial sentence has been imposed and the person has fled from the issuing state. This is not a formal requirement of the framework decision and is being deleted to simplify the procedure in such cases.
Section 7 amends subsection 11(1A) of the Act and clarifies that there is no requirement for domestic arrest warrants to recite each of the offences in respect of which surrender is sought. It is sufficient for an arrest warrant to have been issued by a judicial authority in the issuing state for just one of the offences to which the EAW relates.
 Section 8 contains a number of amendments to section 12 of the Act, which deals with the transmission of documents. It provides that EAWs and any other documents required may be transmitted by any means capable of producing a written record under conditions allowing the central authority in the state to establish its authenticity. It is intended to allow for the use of modern means of telecommunication, including e-mail.
Section 10 substitutes section 14 of the Act. The current text of section 14 was intended to give effect to part of Article 9(3) of the framework decision on the EAW, which provides, in general terms, that an alert in the Schengen Information System, SIS, will be equivalent to a European arrest warrant. The SIS is one of the elements of the Schengen acquis to which Ireland opted to participate. It consists of a database allowing designated authorities in participating states to have access to information on persons and property for specified purposes. However, to date, the technical, administrative and legal infrastructure necessary to participate in the system have not been in place and section 14 has, therefore, had no practical effect. The original system is in the process of being upgraded on foot of a Council decision in June 2007 to establish a second generation of the system. The new section 14 anticipates Ireland’s participation in the upgraded system and provides for arrest on foot of an alert for arrest and surrender entered in the system. The section sets out the procedure to be followed following such an arrest and provides that a person will be released if a European arrest warrant is not received within the time specified by the High Court.
Section 11 amends section 15 of the Act, which deals with consent to surrender. Subsection (c) restricts the grounds of appeal to the Supreme Court to cases certified by either the High Court or the Attorney General as involving a point of law of exceptional public importance. This is an important restriction in order to prevent the lodging of frivolous or vexatious appeals, the only purpose of which is to delay surrender.
Subsection (e) clarifies that where a person has either lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court against an order for his or her surrender or has made a complaint under Article 40.4.2º of the Constitution, a habeas corpus application, he or she will not be surrendered while the appeal or complaint is pending.
Subsection (f) provides that, where surrender does not take place within the period specified, the High Court may remand a person for a further period in order to enable the surrender to take place, unless it considers that it would be unjust or oppressive to do so.
Subsection (g) inserts a new text at section 15(9), which provides that the High Court may remand a person in custody or on bail, pending the hearing of an appeal to the Supreme Court. The provision for the withdrawal of consent to surrender in the original section 15(9) has been removed. I am satisfied that this is appropriate, having regard to the requirements of the section that the High Court must be satisfied that consent is both voluntary and informed and that the person has had an opportunity to receive legal advice before consenting.
Section 12 amends section 16 of the Act, which deals with contested applications for surrender. Subsections (d) to (f), inclusive, insert provisions that bar the surrender of a person while an appeal to the Supreme Court or a habeas corpus application is pending, limit the right of appeal and provide for the extension of the period of remand where necessary in order for surrender to take place. Subsection (g) enables the High Court to remand a person in custody or on bail where an appeal to the Supreme Court has been lodged. All of these amendments are similar to the amendments that I have just described regarding section 15.
Section 13 amends section 18 of the Act to provide that postponement of proceedings will be “until the final determination of those proceedings”, as the existing wording of the section does not reflect all possible outcomes of proceedings.
 Section 14 amends section 29 of the Act, which sets out the procedure for dealing with two or more EAWs received in respect of the same person from different issuing states. This does not, however, cover the situation where two or more warrants are received from different judicial authorities in the same member state. The amended section allows numerous warrants to be received in respect of a person, whatever the source.
Section 15 amends section 33 of the Act, which deals with the issue of EAWs by an Irish court. It allows a court to issue a European arrest warrant once satisfied that a domestic warrant is in existence for the person and that the Garda Síochána believes that the person is not in the State. It also makes it clear that such a warrant can be issued where a person has been or is liable to be sentenced to imprisonment or detention. This is in accordance with the framework decision and other provisions of the Act that provide for execution of EAWs where the penalty is detention.
Section 16 amends section 34 of the Act and provides that a European arrest warrant issued in the State may, rather than shall, be transmitted by the central authority, thus providing for transmission of warrants via the SIS.
Section 17 deletes section 40 of the principal Act, which was intended to apply as a bar to surrender in a narrow set of circumstances where delay in proceedings was an issue. As the question of delay is a matter more appropriately dealt with by the courts in the issuing state, the provision has been removed.
Section 18 amends section 45 of the Act, as amended, and inserts three new sections. Subsection 18(a) substitutes section 45. This is a technical amendment to correct duplication in the numbering of the subsections. Subsection 18(b) inserts new sections 45A, 45B and 45C into the Act. They deal with identification procedures, transfers of persons to the state from which surrendered and technical flaws in applications for surrender, respectively.
Section 45A provides for identification procedures. A key requirement under the European Arrest Warrant Act is that the court must be satisfied that the person before it is the person named in the European arrest warrant it is considering. I understand fingerprints, palm prints and photographs of a requested person are often sent by requesting states to assist with identification. The Garda Síochána has no power to take similar material from the arrested person for comparison with the material received. This new section addresses that situation.
The section authorises the Garda Síochána to photograph, fingerprint and palm print persons arrested under the Act for the purpose of verifying the person’s identity. Reasonable force may be used to take this material, subject to the appropriate authorisation and the other safeguards specified which are in line with similar provisions in criminal justice legislation. The section also creates an offence of obstructing a garda in the execution of powers under this section. It also provides for the admissibility in evidence of identification material sent with a European arrest warrant to Ireland.
Section 45B provides a mechanism for the transfer, after trial, of persons who have been surrendered to Ireland on foot of a European arrest warrant to the state which surrendered them in order to serve the sentence imposed by the Irish court. The background to this is that under Article 5.3 of the framework decision on the European Arrest Warrant, where a person whose surrender is sought is a national or resident of the executing state, surrender may be subject to the condition that the person is returned, after the trial, to the executing state to serve any sentence imposed.
 We had not previously legislated to give effect to this provision of the framework decision and, while this has not caused any problems to date, I am of the opinion that it is important that we have this procedure in place. The procedure set out in the section is similar to that in the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act. It is a fundamental requirement of the section that the person consent to the transfer.
Section 45C is a new section and provides that applications for surrender will not be refused due to minor or technical defects in the European arrest warrant. It goes against the principle of mutual recognition that requests for surrender from our European partners should be refused on purely technical grounds. An important safeguard for the requested person is that the section will not be applied where the court considers its application could lead to an injustice.
Section 22 amends section 27 of the Extradition Act 1965 which deals with provisional arrest. I have already dealt with arrest without warrant on foot of an alert under the SIS system This amendment reflects the fact that there are countries participating in SIS where the European arrest warrant does not apply. It is a requirement of states participating in the system that an alert for extradition entered on the system be treated as a request for provisional arrest for extradition. The section also provides for definitions of certain terms related to the Schengen information system.
Part 3 of the Bill contains a number of provisions relating to Ireland’s participation in the Schengen Convention. The convention is an agreement among certain European states which allows for the abolition of border controls among the participating states. It also includes provisions on common policy on visa matters, the harmonisation of external border controls and cross-border police and judicial co-operation.
Ireland has successfully applied to participate in the measures that relate to police co-operation, mutual assistance in criminal matters, extradition, drugs co-operation and the Schengen information system. The information system is an electronic alert system which facilitates the exchange of information between police and customs authorities within the Schengen system.
The relevant articles of the convention will come into effect in Ireland only after a range of technical and legislative measures have been put in place. The Bill provides for a number of these measures and defines the principal Schengen terms. Specifically, it contains a provision enabling the Garda and customs officers to exchange information with other Schengen member states and a provision designating the data protection commissioner as the supervisory authority for data held in the Schengen information system.
Part 5 deals with a range of miscellaneous matters which have been identified as requiring amendment for a variety of reasons. Section 40, for example, amends the Summary Jurisdiction Act 1857 to allow a District Court a longer period of time to state a case following a request to do so. Section 41 also provides for a change to the Summary Jurisdiction Act 1857. It sets out the procedures to be followed in serving relevant documents to other parties involved in an appeal by way of case stated.
Section 42 amends the Criminal Justice Act 1984 to allow for staff of the Garda Technical Bureau to certify that material being referred to in court is the work of the bureau, rather than requiring oral testimony to be given regarding such material in every case. I should put the House on notice that in light of advice provided on this section by advisory counsel, I may propose a modification to this section on Committee Stage to set out the various functions of the work of the Garda technical bureau which will be covered by the provision. I also intend, on Committee Stage, to propose the repeal of section 4(6) of the 1984 Act to eliminate a  possible inconsistency which has been identified with regulations dealing with the treatment of persons in custody in Garda stations.
Section 43 amends sections 5 and 9 of the Bail Act 1997. These amendments are of a technical nature. Section 5 deals with the payment into court of bail money. The amendment clarifies that, for instance, in cases where the person who has been granted bail is remanded in custody until the bail money is raised, payment of the money to be given to the prison governor may be regarded as payment into court. This avoids the need to hold the person until the court is again sitting and also avoids having to bring the person to the court in order to pay the money.
Section 9 is concerned with the estreatment of recognisances and the forfeiture of money into court. The amendments aim to improve the drafting, by amalgamating subsections (1) and (2), and subsection (12) now makes clear that the order for committal to prison for non-payment of an estreated amount may be made in respect of the surety as well as against the person who was granted the bail.
I may wish to amend section 9 on Committee Stage, to further address a technical aspect, to clarify that in the case of a child who fails to comply with an estreatment order, the non-compliance will be dealt with in accordance with section 110 of the Children Act. That section provides that a child may not be imprisoned for non-payment of a fine, but may instead be subject to the sanctions listed in that section, including community based sanctions.
Section 44 amends section 15 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001, by inserting an additional offence. It is proposed that a person commits an offence if he or she is in possession without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, of any article made or adapted for use in the course of or in connection with the commission of a number of offences under the 2001 Act, including theft and burglary. An example would be the possession, even in a person's home, of devices to attach to ATMs. A defence regarding the new offence is provided for.
Section 45, the final section of the Bill, proposes a minor technical amendment to the 2001 Act. I am also considering an amendment on Committee Stage that would further clarify the operation of section 99 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 regarding suspended sentences.
The Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009 will complete the process of reform regarding firearms legislation, which began with the Criminal Justice Act 2006. I am also taking the opportunity to introduce some further necessary changes to ban the widespread licensing of handguns and the development of undesirable shooting practices. This Bill will improve, in practical terms, the operation of the European arrest warrant system.
It also gives powers to the Garda Síochána and the staff of the Revenue Commissioners to exchange information with other states who are party to SIS. Some of the other changes envisaged in this Bill are technical in nature but it is nonetheless important for the criminal justice system that they are legislated for and that the proposed technical amendments are dealt with to the satisfaction of the House.
I apologise for the confusion regarding the distribution of my script. I understand there was a problem with the photocopier, but copies are now available.
Deputy Charles Flanagan Deputy Charles Flanagan
Deputy Charles Flanagan: This is part of the Government’s package to reduce crime, with particular reference to gun and knife crime. It is in line with what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated last year, namely, that one of the main priorities set for the Garda Síochána was to target gun crime in 2009 through a range of measures. I assume the Bill constitutes these. It was listed as one of the five priority bills in the legislative programme for summer 2008. We now have it. I am not sure of the extent to  which that would halt the vicious cycle of crime and gangland murder in particular in this city, in Limerick and other parts of the country.
The Bill changes the licensing system and goes as far as to state that no new licences will be issued for handguns, with very limited exceptions, such as for use by those involved in Olympic sports only. A new three year licensing system is to be introduced for firearms. Existing handgun licences will be subject to the new rigorous licensing procedures where their renewal is sought. I welcome the amendments to the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003, which have been identified as being necessary to improve the operation of the legislation and to deal with issues that have come to light in the administration of the European arrest warrant, EAW, system. We discussed those in committee. I do not see any difficulty with those changes.
The Minister has proposed a number of modest amendments to the Bail Act 1997, one of which will clarify that any money paid under recognisance to a prison governor, for example, or any other designated person, shall be deemed to be a payment into court. There are real problems with bail and if this is the extent of the Minister’s reform then we cannot expect a resolution to many of the problems relating to the bail regime, which in spite of the legislation that followed the referendum approximately 13 years ago, is still one of the most lax in the western world. In conjunction with the Courts Service and the Garda Síochána, we have still not set about ensuring there is a minimum time lapse between the arrest, charging and cautioning of an individual and that individual being brought to court. That is where the bail problem lies, namely, the inordinate and lengthy delay between a person’s arrest and coming to trial. As a result, thousands of crimes, some of them very serious, are being committed by persons granted bail by the courts. I do not accept what the Minister has said on numerous occasions, that bail is exclusively a matter for the courts. We, as legislators, have a role to play in setting out the terms and conditions under which persons may be granted bail by the courts.
The Bill also includes permission to exchange information through the Schengen information system, SIS, when it is operational. There will be cost implications in that regard to which the Minister has not adverted. Perhaps our participation in the Schengen information system may have to be paused in the same way as Thornton Hall and a range of other issues have been abandoned in recent times.
The Bill also makes provision for the certification of evidence on the part of certain staff of the Garda technical bureau so that it may not be necessary to appear in court to confirm orally the status of particular pieces of evidence in all cases. I welcome that.
The provisions on handguns are perhaps the most controversial element of the Bill. The Minister repeated what he said on numerous occasions, that we now have a handgun culture. I am not so sure that we do, but the Minister says we have and he is basing his legislative changes on this handgun culture.
In July 2008, The Irish Times reported on comments made by Mr. Justice Peter Charleton. I read his comments. He is one of a number of judges to deal with the matter of handguns. He said that reasonable people are “entitled to feel alarmed” about the large increase in the number of guns licensed in Ireland. He stated that there is “a pressing need” for drawing together into a clear law the multiple “piecemeal” rules on the control of firearms here, and the increasing numbers of weapons licensed for personal use, 1,600 in 2007. He went on to say that this was “exactly the opposite” to what happened in Britain where handguns had been banned in line with the recommendations of the Dunblane inquiry. I am not so sure that the actions that followed the Dunblane inquiry in Britain had the effect of reducing gangland crime, gun murders or activities involving handguns across the water. If the Minister has evidence to the contrary, which I am sure his officials can supply, I would be happy to hear from him as to  the success of the recommendations of the Dunblane inquiry, upon which some of these legislative measures are based.
I accept that the statistics appear to warrant some concern. In 2007, the number of incidents involving a firearm amounted to 1,188, compared to 1,250 in 2006, and 1,259 in 2005. The number of murders involving a firearm was 21 in 2008, some 18 in 2007, some 27 in 2006, and 23 in 2005. The number of stolen firearms is a matter of some dispute. A total of 27 handguns have been reported stolen since 2005 and 30% of those were recovered. The figures in this regard in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Garda Síochána and the Central Statistics Office differ. The Minister should clarify matters by informing the House of the situation regarding stolen handguns or whether there is any evidence to suggest that stolen handguns have been used in recent atrocities or robberies with violence. The Minister probably has the data for 2008 on the number of incidents involving firearms and the number of firearms stolen. The statistics should help not only to form Government opinion but public opinion as to the handgun culture referred to by the Minister.
I agree that the safety and security of firearms is paramount. There is a significant duty of care and a heavy burden to be imposed on anybody licensed to carry a firearm. I include a farmer with a shotgun to an extent not that much less than a person licensed to carry a handgun. A simple regulation which the Minister could have imposed, and which I urge him to consider, is that all firearms, irrespective of their class, must be housed in a safe at all times when not in use. Safe and secure storage appliances can be purchased for a couple of hundred euro. All firearms and ammunition should be stored in a safe by the licensee when not in use.
There is a concern at the number of firearms that are licensed. The total number of licensed firearms in the State is approximately 233,000. It is interesting to note that between 2004 and 2006 the number of firearms issued remained static at approximately 220,000 but between 2007 and 2008 the numbers jumped to 233,000. That might not seem like a large percentage but it is an additional 12,000 firearms in the State in a three-year period. I note the Minister’s comments on what Mr. Justice Charleton said. The judge referred to the increase in the number of firearms since 1972 when there was a ban on firearms because of the Northern situation. The reality is that pre-1972 there were far more guns licensed than is the case today.
I am concerned also at the major inconsistencies that currently exist on the granting of handgun licences in particular. Those inconsistencies emerged through parliamentary questions tabled in the main by my colleague, Deputy Deasy. It is apparent that some Garda districts granted no licences for handguns while others in more sparsely populated areas have been much more liberal, issuing between 50 and 100 licences per year. The Minister has stated that there are now approximately 1,800 handguns licensed, which was not as a result of a considered or deliberate public policy decision. The reason for the variation was that each superintendent in each district could make an independent decision on the certification of a handgun. There were no guidelines available to the superintendent.
I am pleased the Bill makes provision for strict guidelines for the issuing of firearm certificates. However, I am not sure if I accept the Minister’s thesis that we have a handgun culture in this country. The consumerism of the Celtic tiger era gave rise to a phenomenon of the “deckland man” purchasing hot tubs for relaxation, as David McWiliams put it, but I am not sure if we can then say that there was a hot tub culture just because 1,000 hot tubs were purchased in a given area. I do not believe that we have a hot tub culture, no more than I accept we have a handgun culture. That is not to say there is no problem, but it is not alarming as the Minister appears to suggest. It suits his hard man image, but the Minister will be judged by his results.
 I am concerned that the Minister is focusing entirely on legally held firearms, which shifts the attention away from the far more serious problem caused by illegal firearms across the State. It is common knowledge that criminal gangs have easy access to dangerous firearms and there is evidence to suggest that they travel overseas to avail of top-of-the-range training facilities. I raised this with a delegation of Czech MPs who visited the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights last year. They accepted that firearms ranges were being run so liberally that it was possible for people to engage in highly sophisticated firearms training and target practice without showing any form of identification. It was widely reported that criminal gang figures from this country were engaging in such training at a cost of approximately €50 per session, and availing of the reduced air fares to travel from Dublin. They could travel to places like the Czech Republic, engage in such training, come back to this State and carry out gangland atrocities.
I ask the Minister to urge his European colleagues to deal with this issue, so that we can ensure a certain harmonisation of our laws and then criminals form this country will no longer be able to engage in such sophisticated weapons training within the EU. However, I ask him to direct his attention in the first instance towards the serious matter of illegal firearms as part of a broader effort to tackle criminality in Ireland. Every consignment of drugs that come into this country illegally usually contains a box of illegal firearms. This is the issue that should be addressed in the first instance, rather than a crackdown on legally held guns, as evidence must still be adduced to show that legally held firearms have been involved in criminal acts in the State.
We should also be in a position to account for stolen handguns and for those that have been recovered, particularly those that may have been stolen from members of the Garda Síochána or members of the Defence Forces. In reply to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister showed that the figures were quite small in terms of misplaced or stolen firearms belonging to these State organisations.
I am concerned at the Minister’s use of the Bill as a blunt instrument to focus the attention of the Government towards firearms and weaponry. In November last year, Fine Gael published the Criminal Justice (Violent Crime Prevention) Bill to tighten up loopholes around sentencing, automatic remission and penalties for possession of blades and firearms. In relation to firearms, we proposed two specific measures, one of which was the mandatory reporting of loss or theft of any firearms or ammunition. Any licensee who failed to report such a loss or theft could be subject, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to a fine; on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine or both.
The second measure was to increase substantially the penalty for possession of an unlawful firearm: on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding €50,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or both. These are tough penalties but I believe this reflects the seriousness of the matter at hand. I will discuss these amendments in more detail with the Minister on Committee Stage.
I note from previous statements that the Minister proposed to review the legislation regarding the licensing of guns on an annual basis, but there appears to be no provision in the Bill, so this could be addressed on Committee Stage also. It is worth noting and commenting on the low level of prosecution and convictions secured from incidents recorded involving firearms. In 2004, only 38% of 1,224 incidents had proceedings commenced of which 19% resulted in a conviction. In 2006, this figure had been reduced to 10.8%. I realise in some cases proceedings may be ongoing, but the low conviction rate is a cause for concern.
 Both the Minister and his predecessor are on record stating that there was no need to introduce legislation that would specifically ban samurai swords. I have raised this matter time and again with him. I am pleased he has identified the sword issue as being a particular problem, and I support his provision on this. The penalties for possession of a knife have been increased in the Bill. A person guilty of the offence can, on summary conviction, be fined up to €5,000 or imprisoned for up to 12 months. For conviction on indictment, a person can be fined and-or imprisoned for up to five years. I accept what he is doing to increase the penalties, but I am not sure if enough is being done to enforce the law sufficiently on knife crime.
While the number of murders committed involving knives declined last year, the number of offences for possession of a knife is dramatically rising. In just five years, there has been a 72% increase in offences relating to possession of offensive weapons, mainly knives, which have led to proceedings. However, only 32% of cases have led to conviction. What is the difficulty there? Is there a problem with evidence? Why is our conviction rate so low? Three out of ten knife crime offenders are under 20, so it is vital that second level students are targeted directly through their schools.
The Minister launched a knife awareness campaign this February with a budget of €200,000 and promised a series of road shows to visit schools and an nationwide advertising campaign. As part of the campaign, the Minister promised to build a presence on social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook and Twitter, in order to deliver the campaign message to his target audience. This was the new approach to tackle knife crime. This approach has failed miserably.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.
Dáil Éireann 683 Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2009: Second Stage.