I welcome the publication of this Bill and the debate which will take place over the coming weeks. Imprisonment must be one of the most detrimental events to take place in someone’s life and its effects can be long-lasting, not only for the period of imprisonment. In some cases, it can lead people down a path of no return. While it is important imprisonment is there as a deterrent, I welcome the Minister’s proposal in this Bill that the minimum number of people will be sent to prison for non-payment of fines.
I accept many of the useful observations published by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. One of the main points is that sending people to prison for non-payment of fines is a great strain on the system and it also costs the taxpayer. Imprisonment should be seen as a last resource, especially for repeat offenders. One of the innovations of this Bill is the instalment option which allows people to pay by instalment over a period of 12 months. This will allow a more manageable and equitable system and should also result in greater numbers of people paying their fines. I know of people who have had fines of €250 and who looked for the opportunity to pay by instalments, so I am glad to see this will be allowed in the future.
Section 6(5) has a stipulation that an administration fee of up to 10% should be imposed, with the Minister to set the exact percentage. This will be an additional charge to be levied and is reasonable because there would be an administrative fee if the fine was to be paid in instalments, whether in a post office or otherwise, with the proceeds of some of this going to the benefit of communities and charities. The figure of 10%, however, needs to be looked at and perhaps a lower figure would be more reasonable, especially when one considers that those who wish to pay in instalments would be doing so by necessity because they do not have the money to pay the lump sum in one go.
I also welcome the community service orders and the attachment of earnings provision. The attachment of earnings is practised by the Department of Social Protection in regard to overpayment of welfare payments and in family law situations to allow people to comply with maintenance orders. Section 15 has a stipulation which only permits attachment orders to be applied to persons in employment and in receipt of private pensions. While social welfare payments are at a basic level, we need to look at that area if there are high levels of social welfare payments going to an individual which may give him or her the means to pay something by way of instalment.
Community service orders have much potential. As I stated, very often the proceeds derived from fines ultimately finance the community through official programmes, services or schemes of local or central government or, in some instances, charitable organisations. If a person fails to pay a fine through instalments or otherwise, his or her debt could be paid through restorative community work, of which there is a good variety of options that all benefit communities.
Other functions of the Bill are worth mentioning as they demonstrate a number of positives, such as the innovative use of IT by the Irish Courts Service in making the instalment payment option possible. The provision for the sharing of data between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Irish Courts Service is vital in the interconnected society in which we live. Up to a few years ago, overpayments were being caused in the Department of Social Protection because various schemes were on two different IT systems. Some of the overpayments occurred because of this IT oversight or because of genuine human error. Others, however, were as a result of unscrupulous individuals who knew the system very well and knew how to defraud or, more significantly, defraud their fellow citizens.
I welcome this Bill as it aims to reduce the number of people imprisoned for non-payment of fines by utilising better IT and introducing more manageable recovery systems. I reiterate my concerns regarding the administration fee for paying by instalments and hope the Minister will be mindful of this when setting the percentage.