Joint Policing Committee
First Stage: 15 Oct 2014
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2014101500025?opendocument
Wednesday, 15 October 2014
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to the House. It is always welcome to have debates on justice matters, particularly on policing, particularly the day after the budget when there has been a welcome announcement of increased funding for the Department of Justice and Equality Vote of €140 million since budget day last year, including a 68% increase in capital funding.
I commend Senator Martin Conway and his Fine Gael colleagues on tabling the motion which is specifically about joint policing committees. In tabling the amendments, Fianna Fáil, in particular, has broadened the ambit of the debate to cover policing more generally. The Sinn Féin amendment more directly addresses the issue of joint policing committees. I do not think there is a significant amount of difference between all of us on the amendments or the motion and we tend to have constructive debates on justice in this House and in the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on which Senators Conway, O'Donovan and I serve. We should approach the motion in a constructive manner because this is not an issue on which it is appropriate to conduct an adversarial debate as there is much common ground in the amendments and in the motion.
In regard to the more general issues of policing raised in the amendments, the Fianna Fáil amendment recognises that our prisons are over capacity and that more than 600 prisoners are on temporary release. I would point out that in recent years we have witnessed a real drop in the numbers of persons in our prisons which is a welcome development. In the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality we produced a report on penal reform which called for reductions in the numbers of people imprisoned. We have seen the development of a very successful community return programme which has had positive outcomes in terms of lowering recidivism rates. We are seeing real progress being made in the prison system to reduce the use of prison and to ensure that people are getting better rehabilitation. We also see a reduction in crime figures. I am aware the Fianna Fáil amendment highlights certain increases but it should also acknowledge general decreases in crime rates.
In terms of what the Fianna Fáil amendment calls on the Government to do, the announcement made in the Budget Statement yesterday answers many of the issues raised. We are all delighted to welcome not only the increase in capital funding but the fact that recruitment has commenced in the Garda Síochána. We have seen that 100 recruits commenced training in September and that there will be an intake of 200 more recruits to Templemore next year. That is really positive. Another positive is the investment in the Garda fleet with €10 million secured for more than the much-needed 400 new Garda vehicles. It has become quite fashionable to refer to the "Love/Hate" programme in the context of the budget, but I was struck by a comment of one of the gardaí in the programme about the quality of the car he was being forced to drive in pursuit of one of Nidge's gang. I am sure the announcement in the budget will resolve the issue of inadequate vehicles being used by the Garda in this scenario.
Apart from resourcing, it is important to note other reforms that have been made in terms of policing more generally. Certainly at the start of the year there was a major focus on identified weaknesses in our policing system and problems with the Garda Síochána Act 2005, which itself was a reforming Act introduced by a previous Government. We have seen in the months since those issues emerged, in particular through the Guerin report, how these weaknesses and problems in policing can be resolved. I have welcomed in the House already the announcement that we will have a new policing authority. This is a significant reform. An independent policing authority has been Labour Party policy for some time and is in keeping with the model of policing in Northern Ireland. It is very welcome that a new commissioner will be recruited through a new process.
Within the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, as the Minister is well aware, we conducted our own review of the reforms that are needed to the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and that report on the reforms that we published last week following extensive hearings makes a series of recommendation that will enhance and improve the conduct of policing in Ireland, in particular the oversight of policing. We made recommendations on reforming the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission which are really important, in particular the proposal that we have a single Garda ombudsman instead of a three person model as at present and that the Garda Síochána ombudsman would have the power to conduct investigations on his or her own initiative and indeed that all members of the force, including the commissioner, would become accountable to the new Garda Síochána ombudsman.
We also made other important recommendations that did not receive the same publicity. Anyone reading the Guerin report would have been really struck by the problems he identified with the inadequate supervision of probationer gardaí. Our recommendations on that topic, namely, that adequate supervision of the activity of probationer gardaí be made a requirement, is a really important recommendation as indeed is the one that we would see improved training and resourcing of gardaí. Now that we see recruitment of the Garda being recommenced it is a very good time to implement these recommendations to consider, for example, allowing the establishment of an officer rank, as in the Metropolitan Police in London, where there is direct entry to the police for graduates. There are a number of important proposals. We have recommended opening up the Garda Síochána to Freedom of Information requests. These are the more general recommendations.
Turning to Senator Conway's specific theme of joint policing committees, I very much welcome the outcome of the review process, which has led, as we know, to new guidelines being published by the Minister in August of this year on the operation of joint policing committees. All of us who have been involved in joint policing committees, JPCs, will be aware of how effective they are in terms of maintaining a link between the community and the police. There has undoubtedly been duplication. If one goes to a local neighbourhood watch meeting, the community Garda is present and often a couple of people from the community gardaí. In Portobello, where I live, we have excellent relations with the community garda but one does feel there can be duplication and too much focus on relatively minor incidents where one has such a large number of JPCs as we had under the previous system in accordance with the 2008 guidelines.
I welcome the rationalisation of JPCs and the fact that the JPCs will operate to tightened up procedures under the new guidelines. I welcome the increased focus on community policing. That is an important aspect of Senator Conway's motion, namely, that we would see community policing being given the status it deserves. For far too long, not just in the Garda Síochána, but in police forces generally, community policing was seen as the lowest level of policing that was somehow less important than other sorts of policing. I am glad to say that we have 876 dedicated community gardaí deployed nationwide. It is important that we would have a community policing ethos, informing all levels of the Garda service. It is of major importance that it would be seen as a job that can lead to promotion in the Garda. All of us will have examples, as I have, of excellent local community garda work, not just in terms of detection and investigation of offences committed, but crime prevention as well.
It is very useful that we have this opportunity to focus on this very specific aspect of policing. We all agree on the need for reform of JPCs to make them more effective. We all approve and appreciate the work that they do and I think that is what unites us on both sides of the House. Many of the points made in the Fianna Fáil amendment in particular on a more general sense about policing are in fact in train and are being dealt with. We all recognise the need for reforms, for increased recruitment and so on, but these are measures that ongoing. I commend the Minister for her work on this.