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Defence Forces (Evidence) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 987 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jack Chambers: Information on Jack Chambers Zoom on Jack Chambers]  It is wrong when Bills to ensure that our serving men and women receive a fair and correct rate of pay are relegated to the list of other legislation. The Minister of State needs to move on the working time directive. Numerous other items of legislation have been promised and proposed in recent years but this is the first defence Bill introduced in years and the first in the lifetime of this Dáil. This is regrettable and requires further explanation.

I welcome and will support this modernising Bill, which mirrors what is already in place in the criminal justice system with regard to DNA samples being taken and used by An Garda Síochána. While we support the proposals, it should be noted that this is lengthy and complex legislation which needs to be examined. From my engagement with the members of the Defence Forces, there was an expectation that the Bill would include measures to professionalise the military police corps and codify who could serve in particular roles. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline whether he will propose amendments in respect of the military police in order that the Bill will not simply deal with evidence but will update other matters. There was an expectation in the defence community that the Minister of State was going to expand the legislative remit of the military police corps, such as in the context of overseas missions. I seek further information on this and perhaps the Minister of State will update the House on whether there was ever a proposal to update the legislation in this regard.

Generally, there is a feeling that the military police corps is below strength and under-resourced. The provisions of this Bill will not change that. In recent days, I heard that a number of people have left the military police to join a multinational that is paying them multiples of what their former colleagues are paid. The exodus from this part of the Defence Forces is ongoing and the Bill will do little to address it. The Minister of State could have broadened the Bill to include modernising the corps.

In the main, the changes proposed will ultimately allow the military police to better carry out their work. The military police already have close working ties with a range of agencies involved in crime detection, including the Office of the State Pathologist, the Garda National Technical Bureau and the Forensic Science Ireland. The Bill will ensure even greater co-operation between these agencies and the Defence Forces, which is to be welcomed.

The Bill will also enable the creation of a DNA database system to hold samples taken and this will be managed by Forensic Science Ireland. This is a modern and useful tool in crime detection used in investigating serious crime in a broad range of areas. Fianna Fáil published legislation in 2010 to set up a DNA database. The database has helped in more than 750 cases since its establishment, and so should be welcomed. It is also extremely useful in exonerating innocent individuals and for the purposes of identifying missing or unknown persons. When the legislation to set up the existing database was being debated, Fianna Fáil pointed out the need for similar provisions to apply to the military police. That was many years ago.

Fianna Fáil is studying in detail the process of taking samples in order to ensure this is done in a proper and safe manner. The Bill states that nothing in it authorises the taking of a sample in a cruel, inhuman or degrading manner. There are also references to non-intimate samples being extracted using reasonable force. Perhaps the Minister of State will provide more information on what this means and the legislative effect of what is proposed in this regard. The legislation states that samples can only be authorised where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting involvement in an offence. This is an important safeguard and it is appropriate that it is in the Bill.

As per the existing DNA database, I note the strict rules governing the destruction of samples where proceedings have not been initiated against an individual or where a person is acquitted of an offence or has his or her conviction quashed. As already stated, the Bill has been promised for the past half decade. A great deal has changed in the past five years but one thing that is unchanged is the need for more activity regarding the pace of reform in the Department under the leadership of the Minister of State. Why have we waited so long for the Bill after the heads were published? The Minister of State clearly does not have an active legislative role because no other Bills relating to his area of responsibility have been forthcoming. If we are to progress reform in the Defence Forces, a Bill such as this should have been passed in the previous Dáil or, if not, early in the term of this Dáil. Had this been done, we would now be discussing the working time directive and the defence (amendment) Bill, the purpose of which would be to improve matters for our service personnel overseas. There is also legislation to update the legal framework of the Red Cross. This is on the list of other legislation and probably will not be dealt with in the lifetime of this Dáil. These are matters on which the Minister of State can comment.

For people in the defence community, the fact we are now discussing the first item of defence legislation introduced in the lifetime of this Dáil does not give much hope for an implementation plan in other areas of the Defence Forces, such as in the context of the findings of the pay commission. Much import has been attached to the work of the high-level working group involving the Department and the Department of the Taoiseach in that regard. If the pace of change is the same as that relating to the legislative programme, it will not give much hope to those who badly need improvements in pay and allowances.

We support the legislation but we would like to see the Minister of State in the House more with other Bills relating to his portfolio. Perhaps he will inform us when he intends to bring the next such Bill before the Dáil.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Seán Crowe Zoom on Seán Crowe I will begin by thanking the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for the work it has done on the Bill. Its digest is very useful for Opposition Deputies. It is a resource and facility we tend not to talk up but it is very useful.

There is a danger that many of the concerns I intend to express will lead to repetition because they are similar to those raised by Deputy Jack Chambers. I refer, for example, to the fact that the Minister of State, in his wisdom, has decided to prioritise this Bill over others that we believe are more important because of the crisis in the Defence Forces, particularly as it relates to the retention of personnel. If I were in the position of the Minister of State, this Bill might not necessarily have been my priority.

The Bill makes provision for members of the military police to take and use DNA samples. It also provides for the establishment, management and oversight of a DNA military police DNA database system operated by Forensic Science Ireland. It largely mirrors the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, with necessary adjustments to accommodate the specific military context. That Act provided for the establishment of a DNA database for use by An Garda Síochána and replaced the arrangements for the taking of samples for forensic testing.

As Sinn Féin did with the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, we support the spirit of the Defence Forces (Evidence) Bill 2019. We will not oppose it on Second Stage but, like all legislation, it needs detailed and robust examination on Committee Stage. It is possible that we will table amendments to strengthen the Bill. I will be interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say at the end of Second Stage.

The Bill also provides for: the collection of intimate and non-intimate samples; the establishment and content of a military police DNA database; and the retention of data. A central issue in the establishment of a DNA database involves the challenge of striking a balance between the rights of the individual to privacy, bodily integrity and the privilege against self-incrimination with wider societal interests in preventing disorder and crime. The use of DNA evidence also raises concerns about the laws of evidence, particularly the admissibility of such evidence and the value or weight that may be attached to it once admitted. There is also concern about the chain of evidence and where the evidence is taken abroad.

Sinn Féin believes the lawful and effective collection and use of forensic evidence from crime scenes, victims and suspects can be crucial for obtaining sound convictions that are not based on confession evidence alone, a practice that has led to widespread abuse of the right to due process.

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