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[Oireachtas] Assaults on Emergency Workers Bill 2012: Second Stage. (05 Oct 2012)

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(Speaker Continuing) Deputy Catherine Murphy: There are a few other elements that must be considered at the same time. We lack a civic culture because we have neglecting the building and consolidation of communities. People respond well when they are enabled more or less to dictate the behaviour in their areas. We also neglect the fact that there are inadequate protections in our public services. I recall talking to a few gardaí in the context of my local annual joint policing committee meeting. They said they would have serious concerns if they were asked to respond to a violent situation on their own because they know that they would not have the back up they needed to protect them. There is not much point, therefore, in having good legislation if it is likely a garda will be sent out to a call without adequate cover and will be assaulted. That was said in Kildare, which has the lowest ratio of gardaí to population in the State and I have made the argument several times that if the same cover was provided in the rest of the country, we would have 4,800 fewer gardaí. Nobody would regard that as an acceptable level of cover, yet it is considered to be in an area with an expanding population and an increasing crime rate.
 
In addition to legislation, we must examine the supports given to emergency workers whom we ask to go out and protect us. I am a little concerned there could be a difference in the definition of a "front-line worker" between the 1994 Act and this legislation. That needs to be addressed on Committee Stage. If the legislation is accepted, there cannot be ambiguity about who we are trying to protect in the Bill. The legislation deals with cases of serious harm and, clearly, the courts will determine the charge and so on. I am sure the judge, where there is a mental health issue, will recognise that as a mitigating factor in the case. That will provide protection to the accused.
 
It is unfortunate that the Bill should be necessary but it is clear that there is a growing problem, according to the most recent statistics, with assaults taking place every day. Many of the attacks result from the abuse of drugs or alcohol and unless we go to the core of that problem, we will be unable to provide the protection emergency workers have a right to and deserve. The GRA estimates two gardaí are assaulted every day and it has complained about the time it takes to prosecute these cases, which is another issue that must be considered.
 
I refer to the HSE cutbacks. The number of people attending accident and emergency departments as a result of assaults is conducive to gang style behaviour in the departments, particularly at weekends. No hospital, for example, can meet the nine-hour target for treating people and this means many people are being left in a small space. That issue also needs to be considered.
 
We had a good debate on the Private Members' motion tabled by the Technical Group and sponsored by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Significant statistics were mentioned. For example, the abuse of alcohol and alcohol-related problems cost €3.7 billion annually. If the Government has the money to deal with the problems and provide better services, it must attack the origins of our problems in a much more cohesive and comprehensive way. Treating alcohol-related injuries and diseases costs the health care system an estimated €1.2 billion or 8.5% of the annual budget. Each night, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol-related reasons while 10% of all inpatient hospital costs, 7% of GP costs and up to 30% of accident and emergency department costs are alcohol-related. There is a long list, which shows how the €3.7 billion is calculated. The harm done to people working on our behalf as front-line responders is a personal cost, which cannot be quantified. We need to deal with this issue in a more comprehensive way. If the Bill is agreed and judges have the opportunity to impose a five-year mandatory sentence, which will cost €70,000 annually for each individual imprisoned, I wonder whether that is the best use of funds. This gets to the heart of the problem. Is it a cost effective way of dealing with it?
 
The other issue mentioned earlier is what happens at Hallowe'en. It has become an evil time. I acknowledge the night is a celebration of an element of evil in a fun way. However, it is now a night people do not want go out and which has been taken over in some locations by groups. It is a night dreaded by the ambulance and fire services staff. On the night, significant damage is done to property and we must some find way to turn that around. In the US on Hallowe'en night, every street is decorated and it is a fun time. The great irony is that the festival, which is celebrated in an entirely different way in another culture, originated in Ireland. We must look at what can be done that prevents entire communities being handed over to people to whom they should not be handed over. People are often afraid to take on some of the elements who do that.
 
The ambulance service, the GRA and the unions all argue that there should be a mandatory minimum sentence for these offences. I am not a fan of mandatory sentencing but I will not oppose the Bill because of the particular groups affected. They go out to protect us and they have a right to protection under the law..........

 
Deputy Eamonn Maloney: Others have alluded to the fact that when one goes into a hospital at 10 o'clock at night, the first to meet one are security staff in safety vests etc. I am not saying this applies to all hospitals - it does not - but it certainly applies to all of the large ones and I am only familiar with the city ones. From what I have been told by those involved in the nurses' union, it is a nationwide problem. We must acknowledge that. I repeat that all of us, including myself, despite the gap of more than 12 years, should take note of this matter and try to get to the root of it.
 
Many of those who spoke earlier illustrated their personal experiences in their constituencies. All of us know exactly what has happened in the past 15 to 20 years. We know what is the root cause of it. A previous speaker, Deputy Browne, referred to the famous national event, Arthur's Day. They should - although Guinnesses is unlikely to do so - rename it the national drug day because alcohol is the national drug.
 
It amazes me - it must be a generational issue - that every speaker I heard, either in here or on the monitor, used the same terminology that they use in Britain, that is, alcohol and drugs. Alcohol is a drug. It is the most popular one. It does exactly what it is supposed to do - it changes one's mood. I know all about it because I am a user occasionally. We seem unable to get our heads around the fact that alcohol is a gateway drug. We talk repeatedly about the problem among young people and their drinking habits. Some young people have a drinking habit but it is not as big as the adults' problem. All the emphasis is on youth drinking and the abuse of drink by young people, but grown-ups abuse it much more.
 
For those of us who left this House on that famous night of Arthur's Day and had to walk and use public transport, it was not a pleasant experience. I have been in a few dodgy places in my time but the atmosphere two minutes from this door was quite frightening for many who would not be used to it. I saw many tourists not heading into watering holes, but trying to get away from where they were, and that is fairly bad.
 
Interestingly, Deputy Browne referred to reading about the Guinnesses and Arthur Guinness. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think Arthur Guinness spent much time drinking. He was a puritan. However, he did not mind selling the stuff, especially to the poor of Ireland and he made a fortune, as did his family. He was too clever by far. I think he enjoyed other things, which I will not go into, but he was not a man to get drunk. He looked after his bank account.
 
Although I do not want to keep on about my issue with Arthur's Day, can anyone think of another country in Europe where the state and society would allow someone to celebrate the national drug? There would be uproar in Britain if any of the leading brands of lagers tried that, and even more uproar if it happened in mainland Europe, but we do it. We celebrate it. In the case of this city, I was amazed that morning to see that the local authority allowed the company to put up displays on the ESB poles as one goes round St. Stephen's Green. No doubt Guinness paid the local authority for that. I heard an earlier speaker state there was no excuse for those who drink and it is a choice they must make, but what choice is it for kids who might be running around St. Stephen's Green on Arthur's Day when they see this promotion of the national drug? Does anyone wonder why kids get drunk? We should not because we know exactly why. We must size up to this and make up our minds about it.
 
Just like in any other jurisdiction, and particularly Britain because there has been more research done there, as the use, abuse and consumption of alcohol and any other drug increases, so does antisocial behaviour. They co-relate. It is indisputable, and some of the experts in this country - there are some good ones - will tell one exactly that. I am not in favour of prohibition. I enjoy my few pints but I do not want to buy the stuff at 10 o'clock in the morning. Why would anyone want to buy alcohol at 10 a.m.? There is something seriously wrong. If one went to any other jurisdiction in Europe, they would baulk at the idea that one can ring up one's local from the couch and it can deliver beer to one at 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night. We wonder why we have a problem. One wonders why nurses and doctors are being attacked in hospitals. We know why they are being attacked but we do not want to do anything about it.
 
We will get a choice to do something when the new alcohol Bill comes in. As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I am not one of the optimists. If the history of this House in dealing with the national drug is anything to go by, nothing will be done. We heard this morning that we should separate drugs, that alcohol is not too bad although it gives one a sore head, but then people turn around and ask, "What about the assaults on gardaí?" As legislators, we must make up our minds that either we will do something about it or it will get worse and someone, although probably not Deputy Calleary, will be back here in ten years' time proposing what he has proposed this morning. That is what will happen because an increase in consumption leads to an increase in assaults.
 
All one need do is speak to front line staff. It is they who should be here speaking about this, not Deputy Calleary or me, because they will tell us the realities of it. I am not sure whether that would have a - pardon the pun - sobering effect on backbenchers but we will get an opportunity to face up to this issue when the alcohol Bill arrives. That will be an interesting debate, and an interesting vote as well.
 
Assaults on Emergency Workers Bill 2012: Second Stage
Dáil Éireann Debate Vol. 773 No. 11
Friday, 5 October 2012
Item Type:Dail Debates
Source:Oireachtas
Date:5 October 2012
EndNote:View
Related URLs:
Subjects:T Demographic characteristics > Substance or health care worker
A Substance use, abuse, and dependence > Substance related societal (social) problems > Public intoxication
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland
B Substances > Alcohol
MM-MO Crime and law > Crime and violence > Substance related violence
G Health and disease > Substance use disorder > Alcohol use > Alcohol intoxication
MM-MO Crime and law > Public order offence

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