Priority Questions

Crime Levels

Dara Calleary

Question:

70Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to tackle the issue of aggravated burglaries which increased by 7.9% from 2010 to 2011 and to tackle burglaries which increased by 7.7% in the same period; the resources that are being made available to Operation Fiacla; if there are any specific proposals to tackle higher then average increases in burglaries in commuter counties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22785/12]

I would like to clarify the statistics for burglaries and aggravated burglary. The most up-to-date figures from the Central Statistics Office, which has the statutory responsibility for the production of crime statistics, are for 2011. The published figures indicate that recorded burglary and related offences increased by 7.9% last year. However, the figure for aggravated burglary, which is a subset of the overall burglary figure, shows no increase during that 12-month period. It is important to acknowledge that the latest crime statistics show a decrease in most types of crime during 2011, including homicide, assault, criminal damage and drug and public order offences. Taken together, this overall decrease represents a substantial achievement for law enforcement and crime prevention in Ireland.

I share the Deputy's concern at the incidence of burglaries and other property crimes. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that An Garda Síochána is responding effectively. The Deputy will be aware, in particular, of the recent announcement by the Garda Commissioner of a range of measures aimed at tackling gangs involved in burglaries. These measures are encompassed in Operation Fiacla, which is particularly focused on identifying and targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries around the country so as to disrupt their activities and bring them before the courts. Specific burglary-related initiatives are being implemented in each Garda region in support of Operation Fiacla.

In respect of the situation in commuter counties, the available statistics indicate that the incidence of burglary is greatest in the Dublin metropolitan region and that commuter counties in the east and midlands generally have a higher incidence than other counties. This type of information is available to gardaí on a real-time basis and feeds into Operation Fiacla and other targeted policing operations, including the identification of crime trends, hot spots and the design of appropriate responses and deployment.

In addition to the concerted law enforcement efforts being pursued by An Garda Síochána, crime prevention is a key component in tackling burglary. In this regard, the Garda national crime prevention unit and crime prevention officers at divisional level provide advice, information and support to organisations, businesses and individuals aimed at reducing burglary and property crime.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

I am conscious of the deep distress which burglary can cause to householders, and the broader impact it can have in terms of fear of crime in our communities, and, therefore, I welcome the fact that the Garda Commissioner is deploying the substantial resources available to him in a targeted and strategic approach to confronting those who are engaging in this form of criminality.

I refer to Operation Fiacla, which the Minister says concentrates on mobile gangs. Are resources or particular attention being directed towards local criminals? I am particularly concerned at the increase in the commuter belt. In Meath, there were 112 burglaries in 2011, an increase of 40% on 2010, while in Kildare there were 1,687, an increase of 26%. Burglaries increased in 20 of the 28 Garda divisions in 2011. Mobile gangs are playing a part and perhaps the Minister can give me an idea of the kind of resources being invested in Operation Fiacla. Are specific initiatives been taken to deal with locally-based criminals responsible for a significant part of these figures?

I assure the Deputy that adequate resources are available to the Garda Síochána. What is happening is a targeted operation identifying criminal gangs engaged in burglary, who are using our very good road network to gain access to other parts of the country from Dublin. Deputy Calleary is correct in making reference to the increases in Meath and Kildare, the commuter areas to which I was referring. The Garda Síochána has identified certain individuals engaged in this activity. A recent operation resulted in a substantial number of arrests. I am sure Deputy Calleary understands if I do not go into further detail about the operation or make references to the individuals arrested but, arising from the operation, I expect prosecutions. At the end of the year, the targeted approach adopted by the Garda Síochána in Operation Fiacla will prove to be effective.

The Garda Commissioner is very aware of this problem but it is for him to make operational decisions as to where resources should be directed. I am aware that he believes this targeted operation aimed at identifiable individuals can be very successful and I have the greatest confidence that it will be. However, this does not mean the Garda Síochána is not keeping a watchful eye on local individuals engaged in criminality in the counties referred to by the Deputy.

On the issue of aggravated burglaries I join with the Minister in paying tribute to the Garda Síochána for the general decrease in levels of most crimes last year as shown in the statistics. However, the number of aggravated burglaries is exactly the same in 2011 as it was in 2010, at 333 instances, approximately six a week. We all agree this is too many and people are suffering. Will Operation Fiacla include any focus on aggravated burglaries? Is it proposed to provide any extra resources in an effort to reduce this figure, in line with many of the other crime statistics?

The Deputy is correct in saying that aggravated burglaries in 2011 amounted to 333, the same figure as in 2010. The number was higher in 2009 at 368. The crime of burglary, whether ordinary or aggravated, forms part of the focus of this operation. Like Deputy Calleary, I am aware that for any individual whose home is burglarised it is an extremely traumatic event. One burglary is one burglary too many. There is no ideal number. The current Garda operation is directed at focusing on individuals known to be engaged in gangs and who concentrate on different parts of the country. On occasions a series of burglaries are committed within a particular area by one group of individuals. I hope that by the end of this year - I am conscious I am making myself a hostage to fortune in this regard - the success of this operation in 2012 will result in 2013 in a reduction in the number of burglaries. I join with the Deputy in congratulating the Garda Síochána on its outstanding success in 2011 in reducing crime across a broad range of areas.

Prisoner Releases

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

71Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he plans to expand the functions of and adequately resource the Probation Service in view of proposed early release schemes in the Irish Prison Service strategic plan. [22993/12]

The Irish Prison Service strategic plan contains a number of key objectives for the next three years, one of which includes the expansion of a pilot community return project which commenced last October in line with the recommendations of the Thornton Hall project review group. This community return programme is an incentivised scheme run in conjunction with the probation service which provides for earned temporary release under which offenders who pose no threat to the community are offered early temporary release in return for supervised community service. I can assure the Deputy that the probation service has sufficient resources available it to support the scheme at present. It has been able to manage and resource the scheme since its commencement last October and I am fully committed to ensuring this will continue. As it is, the probation service has responsibility for the supervision and management of community service orders in accordance with the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983, as amended by the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2011. This work,inter alia, involves providing assessment reports to the courts and managing the completion of the orders by offenders.

A value for money audit of the community service scheme which was carried out in 2007 to 2008 and published in October 2009, found that there was capacity from within existing resources to provide supervision services to three times as many offenders as were under their supervision at the time of the audit. I might also add that the service has been working to prioritise its workload and has been allocating resources to maximise its efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of services including community sanctions, as an effective alternative to custody. This also includes working with high risk sex offenders and young people and those for whom the service has a legislative mandate.

I am pleased to say that sanction was recently obtained to fill the vacant director post in the probation service which will be advertised in the coming weeks. The service will continue to have my full support in making greater use of community service to the benefit of prisoners and communities as an alternative to imprisonment.

I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome the scheme which, as he said, comes on foot of the pilot project. I think only four individuals ended up returning to prison under the pilot project, yet some of the commentary surrounding the recent announcement was unfortunate. I do not know if it was something that fell through the cracks but some hysteria was created around it, which was completely unwarranted. The clarification provided during the Topical Issues debate allayed many of the fears people had.

When I asked the Minister last year about the probation services, he said he had secured sanction from the Department of Finance to hire eight additional probation officers. Are those additional staff now in place and, if not, when does the Minister expect them to be in place?

The Minister said he is satisfied the probation service has the resources and staffing to deal with the scheme, but will he continue to review it? If so, how often will those reviews take place?

I can personally assure the Deputy that we will keep the staffing position under continual review. I do not have an immediate answer as to whether the ten posts have been filled. I will be happy to communicate with the Deputy in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for his comments on the business strategy we have put in place. It will be very important as we go forward over the next three years. This particular proposal was one half of the strategy. The House has previously discussed the pilot programme that was taking place and while we will have a full report following the review, the programme has proved to be successful. We have now exceeded 85 on the programme and I am advised that more than 130 have been assessed as appropriate for it. Some have completed the programme in the intervening period, so the figure is not 130 at the one time.

The programme is continuing. As was stated when we announced it, it was anticipated that at any one time there would be no more than 150 on the programme, and in any one year there would be no more than 400. Whether there are 400 participants does not simply depend on the capacity of the probation service to supervise the numbers, which I am advised should not be a difficulty, but also on whether appropriate prisoners are available to participate in the programme.

There was a lot of hysteria attached to the announcement. It was portrayed in some tabloid papers as if we were about to release 1,200 prisoners into the community, as opposed to approximately 1,200 over a three-year period. All of them would have to have served a minimum of 50% of their sentences before qualifying to be assessed for the purpose of the programme.

I see the programme going forward and as I told Deputy Calleary last week, when the formal review of the pilot is complete I will happily share that information with the Deputies.

One of the criteria within the strategy for earning temporary release concerned education and training. What type of resources will be needed to ensure that prisoners can avail of additional education and training in order to earn temporary release? Will the Department be examining that matter over a three-year period or will it be done annually?

The strategy was only announced last week and we are now in the implementation phase. The pilot projects are such that in the context of community release additional conditions can be attached. For example, they may involve an individual having to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or some other group dealing with drug issues.

As the strategy details, we hope to expand and improve the overall educational facilities within our prison service. That is now part of the work that is being put in place with regard to implementing the strategy over the three-year period.

Citizenship Applications

John Halligan

Question:

72Deputy John Halligan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will clarify the way the series of measures announced in June 2011, which were aimed at providing for the speedier processing of citizenship applications by bringing about a reduction in the average processing timescale and also by dealing with the backlog of applications that had accumulated have actually impacted on the current processing timescales of these applications; the amount of this backlog that has been cleared; the number of intern positions that were made available under the internship programme; the current average processing timescale; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22783/12]

When I first came into office just over a year ago one of my first objectives was to address the length of time taken to process applications for naturalisation and to significantly reduce the number of cases on hand. At that time there were over 22,000 applications on hand and applications were taking an average time of over two years to process, and many were waiting three to four years. I regarded this as unacceptable. In June 2011, I announced a series of measures to address this issue including improved application forms, which are currently available online with an associated online residence checker, re-engineering of processes that were a barrier to achieving maximum efficiency plus streamlined and accelerated procedures for certain types of application.

Through these and other measures enormous progress has been made, notwithstanding a substantial increase in the volume of valid applications received in 2011, during which a total of 18,500 valid applications were received compared to 12,500 in 2010. In the period 9 March 2011 to 8 March this year, a total of 17,500 valid applications were determined. By contrast, in the whole of 2010, decisions were reached in just under 7,800 cases. So far this year I have made decisions on some 9,200 applications and I expect to have made a decision on a further 3,500 applications by the end of May and on approximately 12,000 applications between June and the year end. Thus, this year will see approximately 24,000 applications for citizenship dealt with, which would represent a more than threefold increase in the number of applications dealt with over 2010 levels. I think the House would agree that by any standards of reasonable measurement this represents a major achievement.

I also undertook to get to the stage by the second quarter of this year that, in the generality of cases - that is, around 70% - persons applying for a certificate of naturalisation will be given a decision on their application within six months. In this regard, a major effort has and continues to be made in reducing the time taken to process applications. It is expected that the six month timeframe for the generality of new applications received from this month onwards will be achieved.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Under the new JobBridge programme announced by the Government a total of 16 individuals have been engaged by the citizenship division of my Department to date. The primary purpose of the scheme is to provide work experience for those involved and to improve their prospects of getting back into the workforce. I am advised that the scheme is extremely successful and mutually beneficial in addressing the backlog and enabling the individuals in question to gain good experience in the workplace.

Last summer, I also decided to introduce citizenship ceremonies for the first time since the foundation of the State. This allows candidates for citizenship make their declaration of fidelity to the Irish nation and loyalty to the State and receive their certificate of naturalisation in a meaningful and dignified manner which befits the importance and solemnity of the occasion. To date, 47 such ceremonies have been held at which almost 11,000 candidates have become Irish citizens under the new procedures. These ceremonies are an unqualified success.

The nature of the naturalisation process is such that for a broad range of reasons some cases will take longer than others to process. It is a statutory requirement that,inter alia, applicants for naturalisation be of good character. In some instances that can be established relatively quickly and in other cases completing the necessary checks can take a considerable period of time. The primary aim over the past year has been to reduce the large volume of cases on hand as swiftly as possible and this has been achieved in the generality of cases. I am also confident that significant inroads will also be made with the remaining cases by year end. In such a fast moving environment where large volumes of cases are processed quickly, the calculation of averages for processing times has little meaning and the priority of the immigration service has been to deal with the cases on hand rather than divert resources to other activities.

I welcome the initiative the Minister has put in place. Like many other Deputies and councillors to whom I have spoken, I can sometimes be inundated with representations in this respect from people who have been on the waiting list for one, two or three years. It is a traumatic time for many people who have to leave their country of origin for reasons that, in some cases, are a matter of life and death, or because of political or religious persecution and for economic reasons where, because of the severity of quality of the life, they need to leave. I have always felt that-----

A question, please, Deputy.

Yes, I am just coming to it. I accept that citizenship is a serious issue but having dealt with the local police force from where the person concerned has come, Interpol, if necessary, local communities and so on, I have often wondered why it took such a long time to process an application for citizenship. I wish to ask the Minister two questions which I do not believe he answered. Has the backlog of applications been dealt with? I accept the Minister's stance, that increasingly more people are coming into this country and submitting applications for citizenship. How many people have been employed to deal with the backlog and with the current number of applications?

We are still addressing some parts of the backlog. The nature of the naturalisation process is such that for a broad range of reasons some cases take longer than others to process. A substantial number of cases that had accumulated have now been dealt with. There are some cases that give rise to particular security issues that have to be addressed and because of the nature of those cases or the countries of origin of individuals, it can take longer to have those applications processed than I wish were the case.

I know there are some cases on which the Deputy made representations and in which he expressed interest. I believe I am right in saying that, from having a look at them, most of them are applications that were made from September 2011 onwards. The position is that a substantial amount of the backlog has been dealt with and we are shortly going to be in an position where in the average case that gives rise to no particular major issues of security it will be determined within six months of the application being made. Some applications made some years ago had not been processed or dealt with when I came in to office. It is likely it could well take another three to four months to resolve and make decisions on this special group of cases. By the time we get to the end of this year unless something exceptionally unusual or difficult occurs the vast majority of applicants will find if they apply and properly fill in the forms a decision will be made within six months of receipt of the application.

I am reasonably happy with the answer the Minister has given and I look forward to a review of it in six months. Once again I compliment the Minister on introducing this initiative.

Proposed Legislation

Dara Calleary

Question:

73Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will consider the introduction of specific legislative provisions to ensure that the manslaughter of a member of An Garda Síochána, or any member of the security forces or emergency personnel, whilst in the course of duty attracts a specific mandatory sentence; the work he has done on this matter since taking up office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22786/12]

The Deputy is rightly concerned about attacks on the members of the Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and emergency personnel in the course of their work. I share that concern and I want to make it clear that I utterly condemn any such attacks. I will have no hesitation of any nature in taking whatever action, including legislative reform, that might be necessary to protect gardaí, Defence Force personnel and other emergency workers against criminal attack.

There are a number of important provisions already in law which seek to ensure that gardaí and other relevant personnel are protected.

Where a person is convicted of the murder of a member of an Garda Síochána acting in the course of his or her duty under section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 1990 the court is required by section 4 of that Act to specify 40 years as the minimum period of imprisonment to be served by the convicted person. Where the offence is one of attempted murder under section 3 the minimum term of imprisonment to be served is 20 years.

Section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 provides for the offence of assault of a member of an Garda Síochána, a prison officer, a member of the Defence Forces or certain emergency and medical personnel. The penalty for the offence is a maximum of seven years imprisonment.

The maximum penalty for manslaughter is life imprisonment in accordance with section 5 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

The position on mandatory sentences is that the Law Reform Commission was asked by the previous Attorney General to look at the issue of such sentencing. This was done at the instigation of the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The commission recently published a consultation document on mandatory sentences and invited submissions from interested parties. One of the preliminary recommendations of the consultation paper is against the extension of the presumptive minimum mandatory sentence regime that currently applies to certain offences such as drug trafficking. Obviously the commission will have to consider any submissions made to it on this subject before making a final recommendation. I would not like to prejudge the outcome of its deliberations. I look forward to receiving and examining the recommendations of the commission in its final report on this subject.

Since we last had Question Time the incident with regard to the transfer of the killer of Garda Gary McLoughlin occurred and I compliment the Minister on how he responded to it very quickly and commissioned a report. Mr. Michael Donnellan of the Irish Prison Service came before the committee. However, it brings into focus the issue of the original sentence in the case and in the case of the killer of the late Garda Robbie McCallion. These gardaí were killed on duty while protecting their communities but because of the charges brought in one case the judge had to direct the jury it could not take into account the fact it involved a serving garda. It is a huge problem and disappointment for their families and colleagues that although the gardaí were doing their job protecting communities, and would otherwise not have been in the position they were on those evenings, no special focus was given to the individuals who killed them.

I am conscious of the work of the Law Reform Commission and the Minister's personal commitment about this but we must send out a message. The Minister stated the sentence for the murder of a garda is 40 years. I might be young but I can remember a time when it was a capital offence. These two guys are perceived as having got away relatively lightly and we also had the issue of the transfer of Martin McDermott. This is very difficult for the families of the gardaí, both of which I have spoken to, and for their colleagues. I am sure the Minister agrees the Oireachtas must send out a very strong statement about protecting not only gardaí but security forces and emergency personnel. I hope the Minister acts on the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission.

I share the Deputy's concern. It is important that we provide maximum protection to members of the force. Should a member of the force die or be seriously injured in the course of carrying out their duties there should be appropriate legal mechanisms to bring people before the courts and sentence them. On the issue of manslaughter, it is open to the courts to impose a life sentence. As the Deputy is aware, the courts must independently determine what is the appropriate sentence in an individual case, based on the background circumstances.

I await with interest the recommendations from the Law Reform Commission. I assume the final report will address issues relating to members of An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and other emergency personnel who suffer injury during the course of their duties in circumstances in which individuals are engaged in criminality, but I do not wish to prejudge its outcome. It is worth noting that at the recent Garda Representative Association, GRA, conference there was a call for the imposition of a five year sentence on those individuals who might injure a garda in the course of carrying out their duties. It appears the fact that the law already provides for the possibility of a seven year sentence to be imposed by the courts if a garda is injured in the course of their duty was missed by those who made that call. There is an already existing offence of assault on a member of An Garda Síochána which, in appropriate circumstances, can result in the courts imposing a seven year sentence.

Sexual Offences

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

74Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to ensure there are dedicated specialised officers for complainants in sexual violence and abuse cases in view of the recent rise in sexual offences. [22994/12]

The Deputy may have in mind the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures for 2010 which recorded a substantial increase. However, the CSO has cautioned that care should be taken in the interpretation of these statistics as the increase in that year was largely due to a review of all cases involving sexual offences reported to the Garda. The CSO indicates that the number of sexual offences recorded fell by 13.5% during 2011. The review of cases was undertaken in the context of the introduction of the Garda Síochána policy on the investigation of sexual crime, crimes against children and child welfare, which was introduced in April 2010.

While the management of investigations and police resources is a matter for the Garda authorities, I can inform the Deputy that the aim of this comprehensive policy is to combine professionalism with sensitivity and compassion in the investigation of sexual crimes. The policy results from a review of Garda work practices and methodologies for the investigation of sexual abuse cases and sets out detailed standards, procedures and practices to be followed in all such cases. I am informed by the Garda authorities that as part of initial training all members of An Garda Síochána receive sufficient training to prepare them for the investigation of complaints of sexual violence, with appropriate training in interview techniques being provided to all members. In addition, a sexual crime management unit has been established, which assists gardaí in the investigation of such crime, promotes best investigative practice and monitors a sample of investigations to ensure they are receiving appropriate attention.

In the specific context of crimes against children the Garda Commissioner has established a strategic committee within An Garda Síochána, chaired by the assistant commissioner in charge of national support services, to liaise with the Health Service Executive, HSE's, national director of children and family services. Furthermore, a countrywide network of interview suites has been put in place for use when interviewing children under 14 years of age against whom a sexual and-or violent offence is alleged to have been committed. The interview process is a joint Garda-HSE one. Gardaí and social workers have undergone joint training, organised by the Garda authorities, in the specialised interviewing skills necessary for interviewing such victims and there is an ongoing close working relationship between the Garda authorities and the HSE on child protection matters.

I am aware that the figures for 2010 are skewed somewhat because of the historical cases being investigated by the Garda. However, in 2006 there were approximately 1,400 reports of sexual assault. That figure rose to just under 2,500 in 2010. There was a decrease last year of approximately 13%, but given that the figure was particularly high in 2010, that decrease must be considered with some caution. I tabled this question because of the ongoing closure of some Garda stations. There there will be further such closures this year. My concern is that people in rural areas who are the victims of sexual assault will find it more difficult to report such cases. For instance, if they are obliged to travel further, will provision be made to ensure a female Garda will be on duty at all times within the Garda station to which they will travel? I acknowledge this will be difficult to do, given the breakdown of the force but this must be considered in light of the closures that are taking place.

In response to the Deputy, it might be of interest to note the sexual crime management unit, which operates within the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, is the unit with national responsibility for the monitoring of the implementation of Garda policies in respect of sexual crimes. This management unit is responsible for reviewing selected sexual crime investigations to ensure a consistent high standard of investigation throughout the State. The unit, which comprises 23 personnel, is headed by a detective superintendent and includes a detective inspector, four detective sergeants, 14 detective gardaí and three support staff. Additionally, in each Garda division, a Garda inspector has been appointed to monitor the implementation of the Garda Síochána policy to ensure the proper investigation of such crimes and uniform implementation of policy at district and divisional level. Further monitoring mechanisms are in place for local and senior Garda management to ensure such investigations are conducted professionally and expeditiously, with weekly reports produced by the PULSE IT system on the status of all investigations of sexual crime and child welfare incidents coming to the attention of the Garda Síochána, which assists the Garda management in ensuring the investigation of such crimes is conducted professionally and in a timely manner.

That said, the system now in place also ensures that in no part of the country are there any gaps in the context of necessary expertise required to investigate such crimes or in dealings with the victims of such crimes. Moreover, no recent changes that have been made, the Deputy made reference to the closure of stations, in any way substantially have an impact on the system that has been put in place in the context of implementing the Garda policy in this regard.

Deputy O'Brien, briefly.

I will be brief. The Minister stated earlier that all members now have been trained in the interview and investigative processes. Does such training include providing the additional information on the available supports for victims? Such information is just as important as being trained in how to investigate and deal with victims.

The correct answer is that it does, in the context of putting victims in contact with victim support groups, where necessary. In addition, there now is close liaison between the Garda Síochána and the HSE in dealing with crimes of sexual violence. It would be fair to state a far more sophisticated and sensitive approach now has been adopted than may have been the case a number of years ago, when people did not have today's insight as to the impact on victims of such appalling crimes.