The terms of the Fine Gael motion, containing unfounded criticism of the Government's record, make it inevitable that the House will divide on it. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity the debate provides to discuss several difficult issues which we as a society must address. The criminal justice system has a major role to play in tackling some of these issues and I will outline the substantial measures being taken in this regard. Some of the types of behaviours referred to in the motion and amendment require responses that go beyond what any criminal justice system can be expected to achieve and pose profound and complex questions for society generally.
This debate, as speakers have already mentioned, takes place in the shadow of the tragic deaths last week of Pawel Kalite and Mariusz Szwajkos. These were young men making their lives in Ireland. They were part of the growing Polish community which is most welcome here and is adding greatly to the life of our nation. I am not alone in appreciating the dignified, measured and generous response of the families of the two men, as well as representatives of the Polish community here, to the horror of what happened. They have recognised the regrettable reality that this type of incident can happen anywhere. Some members of the families have expressed the hope that these tragic deaths will lead to a debate on how to address the issue of violence, particularly by the young.
I am in the course of making a series of appointments to the National Crime Council, which advises on a wide range of issues in regard to dealing with crime. I had intended to include in the membership of the council a representative of our new communities. In the tragic circumstances of recent days, I hope the House will agree it is right that I should consult with the Polish ambassador about nominating a person from the Polish community to serve on the council as the first representative of those communities.
I intend to concentrate now on the positive, comprehensive and practical measures the Government is taking to address criminal behaviour. It is not terribly productive to bandy about a plethora of statistics, either favourable or unfavourable. The statistics cited by Deputy D'Arcy, for example, are at variance with the findings of the Central Statistics Office. As I have said before, statistics are a cold comfort to victims of crime and, in any case, every crime is a crime too many. It is important, however, that what we say is grounded in reality, which is that serious crime per head of population has decreased in the past ten years. I say this not to minimise the extent of our crime problem but because it would be wrong to understate the achievements of members of the Garda Síochána and other agencies of the criminal justice system which confront criminal behaviour on our behalf on a daily basis.
Every right-thinking person will agree that the number of deaths involving knives and similar weapons is a particular cause for concern. The number of murders involving stabbing doubled last year from 18 to 36. We already have strong penalties for offences involving knives. The Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990 and the Offensive Weapons Order 1991, which contain the criminal law on knives and offensive weapons, lay down strict prohibitions on such weapons and severe penalties for breaking those prohibitions. It is an offence, for instance, to possess any knife or any similar article in a public place without good reason or lawful authority; to trespass with such weapons; and to produce any such weapon in a manner likely to intimidate another person in the course of committing an offence or in the course of a dispute or fight. Any person found guilty of such offences is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a term of up to five years or both. A person found guilty of murder through stabbing or otherwise is liable to the highest possible penalty of a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
Nevertheless, the legislative provisions dealing with offensive weapons, and any other measures which might be taken to counteract their availability and use, are kept under constant review by my Department. At my request, the Garda Síochána is conducting a review of the provisions of the legislation in the context of the increased use of offensive weapons in assaults and murders. The purpose of the review is to identify aspects of the legislation that may require strengthening from an enforcement perspective. I understand the Commissioner is finalising that review and will make a submission to me shortly.
In the discussion about offensive weapons, there is one aspect of the problem we must confront. Items used as offensive weapons are often items with legitimate, everyday, mundane uses. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish by legal definition between knives that have a legitimate use and those the sale of which might be undesirable. Any attempt to do so would prove futile in practice as ordinary kitchen knives or tools, the sale of which could not be prohibited, can be just as lethal in the wrong hands as anything that 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.
We must get the message across that carrying knives is dangerous and wrong. One way of addressing this is to introduce a long-term education and awareness-raising programme aimed particularly at young people. As part of its policing plan for this year, the Garda has decided to launch a publicity campaign aimed at discouraging people from carrying knives. This will be in addition to taking rigorous action under the criminal law against those found carrying them. This approach follows from the policing priorities I determined for this year, which include targeting the use of knives for violent attacks.
I share the view that we have a problem with our patterns of drinking in this country. It is clear that this problem is adding to public disorder. This was the background to my establishment of the Government alcohol advisory group at the beginning of the year. I have asked the group to examine urgently key aspects of the law governing the sale and consumption of alcohol, including those directed towards combating excessive and under-age alcohol consumption. Issues of particular concern to me are the increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licences and how alcohol products are sold in such outlets, including below-cost selling and special promotions. I have asked the group to report to me by the end of this month. After Easter, I intend to bring forward urgent proposals for changes in the law which, with the support of both Houses, I hope will be enacted and implemented before the summer recess.
In parallel with this, work will continue on the drafting of a comprehensive sale of alcohol Bill, which is already included in the Government's legislation programme for 2008 and which will modernise and streamline the law in this area. On my appointment, I was not prepared to wait for the comprehensive consolidating Bill of 2008 for the purpose of introducing reforms. The problem is so urgent that it requires immediate legislation. We will not be able to tackle all the issues in the legislation that is to be enacted before the summer, but we need to make a start at it.
The policing priorities I have set for the Garda Síochána in 2008 reflect the Government's focus on addressing the important areas of policing and crime prevention and detection. They are supported by the continuing provision of substantial resources to the Garda. The priorities I have set include targeting the use of knives in violent attacks and combating public disorder, in co-operation with other agencies and the community in general. I have placed a particular emphasis on alcohol-related behaviour. The Garda will tackle the use of offensive weapons, including illegal firearms. The Garda Commissioner took into account the priorities I have set, which provide clear objectives for the Garda, when he drew up his policing plan for 2008. His plan maps out the key objectives and actions required for the effective policing of our towns, cities and neighbourhoods and the ongoing modernisation and development of the force.
As part of this work, the Commissioner has asked each assistant commissioner to prepare and implement a public order strategy for increasing enforcement and detection and reducing the recorded incidence of public disorder and anti-social behaviour. The strategies will include the preparation and monitoring of operational plans for identified public disorder hotspots, including licensed premises, dancing venues, late night food outlets, public transportation hubs, taxi ranks and accident and emergency units of city hospitals, particularly at times which have been identified as high risk for such incidents, especially Thursday to Sunday nights and bank holiday weekends. There will be additional high visibility uniform patrols by members of the Garda on beat, mobile and mountain bike duties.
There will be increased enforcement by the Garda Síochána of existing legislation, including the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 relating to behaviour warnings and civil and behaviour orders for adults and juveniles. The Garda will liaise with the licensees of off-licences, including convenience stores, with particular emphasis on the sale and supply of alcohol to people under the age of 18. It will use its power to apply for closure and exclusion orders against licensees when offences contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Acts are detected. The Garda is liaising with other relevant agencies and Departments to ensure a multi-agency approach to this cross-society problem. It is the responsibility of everyone to prevent and assist Garda investigations arising from such incidents.
Over the past few years, there has been a substantial increase in investment in the Garda Síochána. The force's overall budget stands at over €1.6 billion this year, which is an all-time record high and an increase of 11% on the 2007 figure. The Garda's budget over recent years has been used to make a significant investment in equipment and modern technology. I was delighted to attend the recent launch of a new helicopter for the Garda air support unit. The purchase of the helicopter represents a large investment in the Garda's air support capability, which is an essential aspect of modern policing. The major ongoing programme of investment in the Garda fleet is aimed at improving and expanding the fleet of vehicles available to the force. Over 1,700 new vehicles, or over 70% of the Garda fleet, have been acquired over the last two years. Almost €100 million has been provided in this year's budget for a range of information technology projects to support the Garda in its fight against crime. I emphasise that there is no basis for the suggestion that Operation Anvil is being wound down. The Commissioner will continue to allocate resources to the operation as appropriate. I remind the House that Garda expenditure on overtime for the first two months of this year was higher than for the same period last year.
The introduction of joint policing committees was one of the most significant innovations in the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The basic idea behind the committees was to provide a forum in which the Garda and the relevant local authority, which are the two organisations which make the most significant contribution to preventing and tackling crime in a specific area, can discuss in a structured way the matters affecting the policing of that area. The committees can make recommendations on such matters in conjunction with Members of the Oireachtas and community interests. They meet an identified need and have great potential to ensure that policing is responsive to local needs. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, called yesterday evening for the establishment of a community forum at local level. I consider local policing committees to be the point of departure for any community forum because they comprise the democratically elected representatives of the people. The Garda always tries to be accountable to, and responsible for, the people.
The joint policing committees monitor two broad areas — the levels and patterns of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour, particularly patterns and levels of misuse of alcohol and drugs, and the broader issue of the factors underlying and contributing to crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. Based on such monitoring, the committees advise local authorities and the Garda on how they might best perform their functions and improve the safety and quality of life of communities. Each committee can reach out to the local community by arranging and hosting public meetings on matters affecting the policing of the local authority area. While it is right that a great deal of media attention focuses on serious forms of crime, such as gangland crime and homicide, we must not forget that the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of the people we serve are much more likely to be directly affected by crimes which might be classified as less serious, but can have serious adverse affects on the quality of life in our communities. Such adverse affects are especially prominent when the offences in question are persistent.
I have made it clear since I was appointed as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that I value partnership in tackling crime. The joint policing committees are the cornerstone of that approach. They represent a forum in each community where issues can be addressed. I issued the guidelines under which the committees operate after consulting the relevant Ministers. As the committees are a new and innovative development, the Ministers decided that before the committees were established in all local authority areas, they should be established on a pilot basis for a limited period in a variety of locations throughout the country. A consultation seminar last November gave an opportunity to those involved in the committees which are up and running to discuss their experiences to date. The deliberations were useful.
I intend to establish a joint policing committee in each local authority area as soon as possible, probably towards the middle of this year. This will require issuing a new set of guidelines. Work is under way on revising the current guidelines to incorporate the experience gained in the pilot phase. Respect is being given to the suggestions made at the November seminar in the preparation of the new guidelines. My Department, through the Garda, and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will provide financial assistance for the committees. It is intended that the support will focus on the training and development of committee members, help to meet the travel expenses of community and voluntary sector representatives on the committees and support the staffing of the committees in the larger local authority areas.
Community policing is built on the recognition that an effective way of addressing local problems of crime and anti-social behaviour is for agencies to work in an integrated way, based on the informal social mechanisms which already exist in communities. In that way, it enlists the potential that exists among the public to contribute to preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. Such an approach involves partnership between the Garda, the community and other relevant agencies. The Garda Síochána is committed to providing a visible presence at local level throughout the State. Community policing is an important mechanism to that end. The Garda has been convinced of the value of community policing for some time. It has been considering how to increase further its profile and effectiveness within the organisation. The Garda Commissioner has established a working group to develop a comprehensive model of community policing. Submissions were invited from the public and voluntary and statutory agencies last year, to be considered in developing the new model. The final report of the working group is under consideration by the Garda authorities.
The Garda is involved in important partnerships such as the community alert programme and neighbourhood watch. There have been significant developments in these areas. While high levels of investment are essential, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Garda Síochána's most important resource is its people. The force needs to build strong relationships on the ground by maintaining a visible presence. The Garda mountain bike unit, which was introduced on a pilot basis in 2001 in Tallaght and Raheny Garda districts, is a good example of such an initiative. The unit has expanded nationwide since then — 359 mountain bikes are now in use in the force. The unit has been successful in tackling anti-social and disorderly behaviour in local parks and estates. It works well in conjunction with other units. Its success can be attributed to its commitment, its ability to respond quickly and effectively and its capacity to provide a highly visible presence. The mountain bike unit has made a significant and positive contribution to a more proactive approach to tackling crime. Garda management has received a positive response from communities where such units are in operation. Community gardaí use mountain bikes whilst patrolling their respective allocated areas. The bikes are a major asset to the unit as they provide an excellent off-road mode of transport. They allow members to patrol parks and green areas in an effective manner. They facilitate ease of access throughout estates, laneways, footbridges, pedestrianised areas, shopping centres and other areas. I am pleased the Commissioner is significantly expanding the mountain bike unit. He will shortly have a new contract in place for the purchase of an additional 130 bikes, a 36% increase on present provision, at a purchase cost of over €100,000. He has included an option within that contract for the purchase of a further 130 bicycles.
The Government has made very substantial progress in the area of youth justice. There has been a very significant increase in investment in the area and a structural approach is now in place for tackling youth offending. I should also mention the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime, which is part of the programme for this Government as well as that of the principal Opposition party, and cares for the victims of crime. It ensures they are respected within the criminal justice system at every possible stage.