Other Questions

Traveller Community Issues

Gerry Adams

Question:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to introduce legislation to recognise Traveller ethnicity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39341/12]

During the course of the examination by a working group of the UN Human Rights Council of Ireland's report to that council, prepared under the universal periodic review procedures of the council, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, was asked, among many other matters, about the position of Travellers in Irish society. One delegation specifically recommended that Ireland should recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority while other interventions were of a more general nature. The Minister replied that serious consideration is being given to granting such recognition. The Minister is aware of the long-standing wish of many Travellers that such status be granted and that the previous Government was of the view that Travellers are not an ethnic minority. He is also aware that this is not necessarily the unanimous view of all Travellers.

The Minister is aware that dialogue between staff of his Department and representatives of Traveller organisations has taken place in the past on the issue, for example, during the course of a seminar on the third State report under the Council of Europe Convention on National Minorities. In addition, the national Traveller monitoring and advisory committee, on which sit representatives of all the national Traveller organisations as well as officials of the Department of Justice and Equality, earlier this year established a sub-group specifically to consider the issue of Traveller ethnicity. Consideration of this issue is ongoing and it is intended that the question will be before the Government for decision as soon as possible.

The issue of ethnicity is not unique to Ireland - a debate is taking place throughout Europe on ethnic travelling communities, known in eastern Europe as Gypsy communities. If we can establish their ethnicity we can defend them from the small minority who have engaged in racist comments. I was very alarmed to read recently reported comments of a District Court judge referring to some members of the Traveller community as Neanderthal men. If that is the standard we can expect from District Court judges, it is no wonder there is an environment of racism towards the Traveller community. Those of us who care about the Traveller community work with them to resolve issues and challenges. Like all friends we tell them the good news and bad news. We will tell them the full truth - warts and all - of challenges that are faced. However, there can be no space in Irish society for racism towards them as an ethnic group. The quicker we can establish that, the quicker we can defend them from that very small minority in Ireland who engage in that type of behaviour.

The matter is under consideration as outlined in the reply I gave. It is something the Minister feels is being given serious consideration.

There is not always agreement among the Traveller community on this issue. The informal consultation which has been ongoing with the Department for some time will continue. It is important not to cause additional or any friction in any community. Consideration and consultation on the issue must be ongoing.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree this has been ongoing for some time. With whom in the Traveller community is the Department consulting, when can we expect an end to these consultations and when can we expect definable action that will defend them? If we can resolve this particular issue, we can move on to working with the Traveller community to address the issues of resources and education and whatever other challenges need to be faced.

The Department is consulting a wide range of people. The Deputy will be aware that many different organisations represent the Traveller community. I am not certain when the consultation process will conclude or, following it, whether legislation will be introduced.

Travellers, as Irish citizens, are covered by all the anti-discrimination legislation enacted in this State and are named specifically in the Equal Status Act and so on. It is not that they are unprotected as we speak. As I stated earlier, the issue is under consideration.

Like Deputy Mac Lochlainn I was not aware a consultation process on the issue of Traveller ethnicity was ongoing. It is an issue that merits deep consideration and debate. We are all concerned for genuine Travellers who find themselves in difficult situations. Unfortunately, however, there is an abuse of the term "Traveller" and all that goes with it. This is happening in my constituency around the town of Rathkeale. Many people engaged in blatant criminality use it as a flag of convenience to hide behind.

Perhaps the Minister of State would ask officials to provide Deputy Mac Lochlainn and I with a briefing on the matter. There is also a need for full-scale discussion of this issue in the House. It affects not only genuine members of the Traveller community but the wider public in terms of the activities in which the people who claim to be Travellers are engaged.

As is the case with all groups in society, some people are criminals and others are not. Members of the settled community also engage in criminal activity, yet we are not all tarred with the same brush.

I understand what the Deputy says. This is a huge dilemma which we will have to address, although that will not be happening any time soon. The Deputy is correct that there is a need for a wide ranging debate on this issue in consultation with people other than the Traveller community. I will ask my officials to provide Deputies Collins and Mac Lochlainn with a briefing on the issues involved. There is a great deal happening in terms of Travellers.

Drugs Seizures

Barry Cowen

Question:

7. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the total number of drug arrests to date in 2012; the value of illegal drugs seized by the Gardaí; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39089/12]

The Minister has been informed by the Garda authorities that provisional figures for the period January to August 2012 indicate that a total 11,263 drug offences were detected and 9,743 related arrests were made. The Minister is further informed that, based on figures provided to An Garda Síochána by the Forensic Science Laboratory in relation to quantities of drugs analysed at the laboratory, drugs with an estimated value of €59.3 million were recorded as seized during the first six months of the year. It should be noted that these seizure data do not include a number of significant seizures made at the end of this period, which remain the subject of further analysis, including the largest ever inland seizure of cocaine made in the jurisdiction. These will be reflected in the Forensic Science Laboratory returns for the third quarter of the year.

The House will recall that in June, as part of an ongoing intelligence-led operation targeting organised crime, the Garda national drugs unit, working with colleagues from the Revenue customs service, seized in excess of an estimated 400 kg of cocaine following searches carried out in west Dublin and Kildare and arrested a number of key players involved in the drugs trade.

The House can be assured that An Garda Síochána continues to tackle drug crime proactively in the jurisdiction. In tackling the illicit drug trade, the Garda national drugs unit, working closely with dedicated divisional and district drug units and other national units, including the organised crime unit as well as the Criminal Assets Bureau, targets persons involved in the illicit sale and supply of drugs. Specific strategies have been put in place by An Garda Síochána to address the sale, supply, importation and distribution of illegal drugs, and this approach continues to result in significant drug seizures and the related arrests of those involved in drug trafficking and other forms of criminality.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In this past week alone a number of further operations undertaken have given rise to significant success. Last weekend, we saw significant Garda operations carried out in Galway and Enniscorthy targeted at cannabis growing houses. A further such operation was carried out in Roscommon yesterday. On Monday, as part of an intelligence-led operation by the Garda national drugs unit and the Waterford divisional drugs unit, in conjunction with the Revenue customs service, a further significant seizure of synthetic drugs with an estimated value of €800,000 was made in Waterford.

The Minister wishes to assure the Deputy that drug law enforcement remains a key priority area for An Garda Síochána and the Government as part of its overall comprehensive approach in tackling the problem of drug misuse under our National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016.

We are all agreed that the scourge of the illegal drugs trade needs to be met head-on. The issue of the resourcing of the drugs squad is one for ongoing debate. It also feeds into the issue of the resourcing of An Garda Síochána, be it in respect of a rural or urban Garda stations or replacement of decommissioned vehicles. It must be reiterated, and the Minister of State alluded to this in her reply to Deputy Catherine Murphy, that at the end of the day the buck stops with the Minister. The view is sometimes allowed to float out that these are decisions of the Garda Commissioner. However, as pointed out by the Minister of State, the policing plan is ultimately the property of the Minister for Justice and Equality. The Minister of the day can amend or approve that plan just as the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, can accept or reject the Health Service Executive plan. The buck will stop with the Minister. All these decisions in terms of closing rural Garda stations or not providing gardaí with replacement cars are ultimately decisions of the Minister of the day.

I have a specific question for the Minister of State in regard to illegal drug seizures. Prescription drug dealing is the latest scourge affecting Dublin in particular. We know that in the first three months of this year some 314,000 illegal prescription drugs were seized by An Garda Síochána. Can the Minister of State provide an update in that regard? The update which she provided in respect of the period up to the end of August did not provide a breakdown in respect of prescription drug dealing, which is an issue of huge concern. Also, are any additional strategies to address this issue being explored or prepared for roll-out?

I do not have the information sought by the Deputy. If it is available, I will have it forwarded to him.

The implementation of actions of the national drugs strategy will continue to be overseen by the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall. Deputy Niall Collins's supplementary question highlights more than anything else the interconnectiveness in regard to drugs between health and policing. The Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, has been involved in precisely the area the Deputy has highlighted. There must be more accountability in terms of prescriptions. The notion of legal prescribed drugs is a bigger scourge in some areas than the illegal drugs. We will have to ensure that a focus is very much kept on this area. I will try to get the information the Deputy is seeking.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission Issues

Michael Moynihan

Question:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the progress that has been made under Operation Fiachla; the amount spent to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39084/12]

The Minister is informed by the Garda authorities that Operation Fiacla is running for 12 months initially, with effect from February 2012. The operation is the subject of regular monitoring and review by senior Garda management and is focused on identifying and targeting gangs involved in burglaries around the country so as to disrupt their activities and bring them before the courts.

Operation Fiacla is intelligence driven and specific burglary initiatives have been implemented in each Garda region to target suspect offenders. These initiatives optimise the use of existing structures and local Garda management ensure that all personnel are fully briefed on the initiative, with divisional crime management teams playing a key co-ordination and implementation role. The Minister is further informed that more than 1,700 persons have been arrested and that almost 1,000 persons have been charged to date as part of the operation, reflecting the substantial efforts being made to tackle this problem by the Garda.

In regard to the cost of the operation, it is understood that a separate dedicated budget has not been established for this initiative and it would necessitate a disproportionate amount of Garda time and resources to calculate this. However, every effort is being made by Garda management, under the remit of the respective regional policing plans prepared under Operation Fiacla, for duty associated with these initiatives to be conducted as part of routine, rostered, policing activities.

The Minister is conscious of the deep distress burglary can cause to householders and to the broader impact it can have in terms of fear of crime in our communities and, therefore, he very much welcomes the fact that the Garda Commissioner is deploying the substantial resources available to him in a targeted approach to confront those engaged in this form of criminality. The Minister expects that the successes of Operation Fiacla will be reflected in future crime statistics published by the Central Statistics Office in regard to burglaries.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree, as we all would, that some of the recent high profile aggravated burglaries in rural Ireland have been particularly shocking. They were perpetrated against elderly citizens, old people living alone in their twilight years. There was one in Wicklow recently and a particularly vicious one in Pallasgreen in County Limerick, where elderly people were tied up, beaten up and held captive in their own homes. Operation Fiacla is a good initiative and I am anxious to elicit what types of results it is yielding.

I take this opportunity to refer to the agenda of the closure of rural Garda stations. The issue is about having a police presence in rural Ireland. If the Minister and the Government are to continue to pursue the agenda of closing rural Garda stations, the effectiveness of these types of operations will be diluted. While recognising that many rural Garda stations operate on a very limited part-time basis, they provide a police presence and such a presence is a deterrent. We are aware of the mobile nature of the gangs who commit these types of crimes. For example, in the case of many of the crimes that were carried out in County Limerick, the offenders came up to the county from the Minister of State's city of Cork. That was the intelligence the Garda Síochána could reveal to us.

Another issue is the non-replacement of Garda vehicles. These people are mobile, yet we have a crazy situation where the Garda Síochána are not equipped with the necessary vehicles to combat this crime. I have said on record that in some parts of Ireland the Garda is unfortunately operating like a glorified Neighbourhood Watch scheme. The Garda is not resourced adequately to deal with these people who are sophisticated and mobile. The upholding of law and crime prevention is the second most important issue after the economy and jobs. We would probably all agree on that point.

Can the Minister of State advise how many arrests have been made under Operation Fiacla to date if she has that information available? Did she say there is a dedicated budget for this? How much is that budget and how long is it envisaged it will remain in place? Will it roll over into next year and the following year? Can some of that budget be expended on capital items such as vehicle replacement?

The people who carry out these burglaries, particularly on elderly people, are reprehensible. It is the most cowardly act anyone could commit. That needs to be said. To date, 1,700 people have been arrested and 1,000 people have already been charged.

As I stated, the Commissioner feels it would take a disproportionate amount of Garda time to calculate the resources in the dedicated budget. That is being done but I do not have that information here. I assume that it will be in the Commissioner's plan to be presented to the Minister by the end of October. There is a dedicated budget and the Deputy will note from the figures I presented that clearly Operation Fiacla is working. He will agree that we cannot have a garda on every lane or every street corner. We all know that. The issue is about people being conscious and aware of the different types of information that are available, such as the texting service the Garda is very interested in putting forward in terms of suspicious vehicles being seen in different areas. It is all about that, but clearly the operation the Commissioner has put in place has managed to deter many people whose intent was not honourable.

Electronic Tagging

Brendan Griffin

Question:

9. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the position regarding the progress made in relation to the electronic tagging of sex offenders; if he will consider post release electronically tagging those convicted of drug trafficking and organised criminality; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39243/12]

The electronic monitoring of an offender after he or she has completed a custodial sentence is not currently provided for in our law. The programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce a series of post-imprisonment restraint orders for violent and sexual offenders to include electronic monitoring and other restrictions, which may be imposed at the time of sentencing. The Sex Offenders Act 2001 introduced the sex offenders' register, post release supervision orders for sex offenders and civil orders restricting sex offenders in certain ways.

The Department of Justice and Equality has been conducting a wide-ranging examination of the law on sexual offences and a review of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 formed an integral part of that examination. Arising from the review, the Minister expects to seek Government approval for legislative proposals, including a number of amendments to the 2001 Act, later this year. Legislative proposals being considered include measures for the electronic monitoring of sex offenders in specific circumstances and changes with regard to civil sex offender orders to make it easier to apply to a court for such an order.

Apart from the post-release orders applicable to sex offenders, the law provides for a range of orders that may apply, post-release, to persons convicted of other offences. These include the registration requirement for drug trafficking offenders, Part 9 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, the monitoring and protection of persons orders under section 26 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 and post-release orders, in the case of serious offences, as provided for in section 14 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009.

The Minister's current priority is measures relating to sex offenders. When these have been finalised, consideration will be given to what new measures may be appropriate to violent offenders. I should add the Minister announced yesterday that he has established a working group to conduct a strategic review of penal policy. Electronic monitoring will be examined in that context.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is fitting that we are having this discussion on the day the wording of the referendum on children's rights was published. The electronic tagging of sex offenders after their release would protect all members of our community as well as children. I previously raised this matter in September of last year and I was assured by the Minister that progress was under way. I am anxious to see that sex offenders are electronically tagged after their release. It would act as a deterrent to re-offending but I also acknowledge that the measure is not a complete solution to the problem. While electronic tagging gives information about the location of an individual, it does not provide information on activities in which the person is engaging. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to tackling this area but I would like to see it happening as quickly as possible. My understanding of research is that there is, effectively, no sex offenders register in Ireland. Although offenders are monitored, subject to notification requirements, by the sex offenders management and intelligence unit at the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, there is no proper national database for the Garda Síochána and the courts to access. We must examine this point.

We must also consider the seven day clause. At present, any person on the move has seven days to register. In the UK, the figure is three days and we should consider reducing it from seven days. In that period, a person could have travelled around the world and be back without the Garda Síochána being aware.

The Minister tells me that all the issues raised will be considered in the review of the 2001 Act. The seven day clause, which applies to sex offenders signing on and notifying the Garda Síochána of a change of address when they are released from prison, will also be considered. The area is sensitive and the Minister is aware of the public concern.

Starting with the people with the highest risk of reoffending, we must implement this as quickly as possible. People involved in organised crime and subversive groups should also be considered for this treatment. It will help the State in fighting those crimes. The measure should be broadened beyond sex offenders.

I am not certain that it can be done except at the time of sentencing. I am not ruling it out. I am not sure it can be done in the case of someone who has completed a sentence.

Garda Transport Provision

Pearse Doherty

Question:

10. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of Garda vehicles allocated to each Garda station in the State; the number of requests for additional vehicles that have been made and the number of these requests fulfilled during each of the past four years. [39346/12]

The allocation of Garda resources, including transport, is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. In turn, at Garda divisional level, the allocation of Garda vehicles is a matter for the chief superintendent who may make and revise arrangements for the deployment of vehicles throughout the division in response to policing demands. This flexibility in allocating and re-allocating vehicles among stations, so as to best match the allocation of resources with policing priorities, is crucial to the efficient management of the Garda fleet, particularly at a time of budgetary constraints. As a consequence, it is not practical to provide a station by station list of permanent allocations of Garda vehicles.

On 31 August 2012, the Garda vehicle fleet consisted of 2,480 vehicles. Even with the significant budgetary constraints that apply, 159 new Garda vehicles were brought into service in 2011 and a further 42 new vehicles were brought into service in the early part of 2012. A new contract for the provision of Garda transport has recently been concluded, under which a number of new vehicles have been ordered. The provision of additional Garda vehicles will be pursued in the context of the Garda Síochána's operational requirements and in the light of available resources.

We return to the subject of the Garda Commissioner operating within his resources. It is a bit like a farmer who asks his neighbour to feed cattle but only gives enough feed for half of the cattle to be fed. One cannot blame the neighbour if some of the cattle starve. It is up to the Minister to provide resources because the buck stops with him.

I have read many reports. Every Deputy and Senator can provide a report from Garda Síochána members on the ground about the impact of vehicles. I am sure the Minister of State has heard stories about gardaí going to petrol stations and fuel cards being refused. There are also stories of gardaí not being able to respond to crime because of the limit on the fuel allowance and mileage. There is a major crisis and, at some point, the voices of the rank and file Garda members and public representatives across the country must be heard. The Government cannot continue to lay responsibility at the door of the Garda Commissioner. When will this stop happening? When will the Minister say that the budget has been provided, that it is not sufficient and that the Minister will try to do something about it?

I am not certain that, in the current circumstances, it will happen any time soon. We are living in straitened times. The Garda fleet stands at 2,480 cars, which represents an increase of 10% in vehicle numbers since 2007. The number of Garda cars that have been retired from the service is 174 but we must consider that 159 new vehicles will come on stream, meaning the decrease is not so great. As a result of the reduction in the number of Garda stations, there is an increased reliance on Garda vehicles. There has not been a significant reduction in the fleet.

This does not tally with the facts. On the one hand, the Government will close another 95 Garda stations but will increase mobility and will be smart with policing. At the same time, the Government is reducing the number of vehicles that can get out there and respond. The GRA has been quoted recently as saying that, since 2009, some 560 cars have been lost to front-line units. In Cork city, Garda and detective units, including the specialist drugs unit, have lost eight cars in recent weeks. A jeep was lost because management was forced to paint it white and use it as a patrol car for poorly resourced stations. I have a lot of respect for the Minister of State, who is a capable representative. She knows what is happening on the ground and she knows stories of gardaí leaving the force through early retirement and telephoning the local radio station to talk about the loss of morale and confidence. What are we going to do to turn it around?

It is the same as the rest of the country. It is becoming a cliché but we must all do more with less. There have been retirements from the Garda Síochána and early retirement presents a problem. Nevertheless, the figures speak for themselves. Detection figures are on the increase and the rural-based Operation Fiacla has been very successful. It is dependent on Garda vehicles. There are two sides to the coin.

While we do not have the resources we would like, we are doing exceptionally well with the limited resources available.

The Minister of State has given a very detailed, comprehensive answer on this issue. If I understood her correctly, she stated there is a new contract and an extra fleet of cars coming on-stream. Will she elaborate a little on this?

The Minister of State's position that operational detail is a matter for chief superintendents and superintendents is reasonable. Accepting that, and in commending the superintendents, is she prepared to state in the House that towns and villages of average size will have a squad car? There should be a directive such that a town with a rural hinterland, as all small towns have, would at least have a car. I am thinking of specific towns in my constituency.

The Garda Síochána fleet consisted of 2,480 vehicles. Even with the significant budgetary constraints that apply, 159 new Garda vehicles were brought into service in 2011, and a further 42 were brought into service in the early part of 2012. I can confirm that a new contract for the provision of Garda transport has recently been concluded. Under that contract, a number of new vehicles have been ordered.

All Deputies like to protect their own areas but they could not possibly interfere with an operational matter in respect of which the superintendent or chief superintendent must make a decision on where resources are to be deployed. However, I very much take the Deputy's point.

Alcohol Sales Legislation

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

11. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his proposals in relation to future arrangements for the display and sale of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets; the current status of his proposals and the date on which they will be published; if he has decided to implement section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 or implement a statutory code of practice under section 17 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39078/12]

The report of the steering group on a national substance misuse strategy, which was published earlier this year, contains a broad range of recommendations that seek to address the negative consequences of alcohol misuse and alcohol-related harm in this country. The Department of Health is currently developing an action plan for submission to the Government in response to the report's recommendations. Future arrangements for the display and sale of alcohol in mixed-trading premises such as supermarkets and convenience stores will be considered by the Government in the context of that action plan.

I do not have to tell the Minister of State about the huge impact and cost associated with the misuse of alcohol and its promotion and mis-selling in mixed units. Last July, the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, told me he would not go ahead with the voluntary code of practice and that he would introduce a mandatory system for multiples and other outlets. Why does the Minister of State not just implement section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, which would entail strict mandatory guidelines?

I met representatives of the National Off-Licence Association some months ago. They made very responsible and good proposals on a new national responsible trading certificate for retailers and they made proposals to end price and quantity promotion of alcohol. Considerable quantities of alcohol are being promoted as loss leaders in multiples. The representatives were prepared to discuss the identification of each unit of alcohol, which practice, as the Minister of State knows, Ministers of State such as Deputies Joe Costello and Róisín Shortall have advocated. Is it not time to utilise existing legislation, as I have mentioned in my question? Should we not move towards a much more responsible process for the sale of alcohol? Small operators, the National Off-Licence Association and others would be happy to implement this if we gave the lead.

During the period leading up to the enactment of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, bodies representing the mixed-trading sector proposed the implementation of a code of practice as an alternative to section 9 of the Act, which makes statutory provision for structural separation. The then Minister agreed to postpone the implementation of the statutory provision in favour of an agreed code of practice, subject to compliance with stated conditions. In particular, it was made clear that deferring the implementation of the statutory provision was conditional on independent verification of compliance with the code and that the code was achieving the objective of structural separation.

The Deputy will know that clearly has not worked. It was not enforced in any way. The current difficulty, which is not insurmountable, is that there are now two very clear departmental perspectives. As the Deputy will know, Minister of State Deputy Róisín Shortall has a very clear view and pathway in regard to how we should deal with the alcohol issue. I admit that I agree with this entirely, as do many. The Department of Justice and Equality has an opinion on the issue also, although it is not so much a separate one. It is a question of bringing the two perspectives together. There may be a way of doing something in the shorter term through the implementation of section 9. I will relate this to the Minister because it may represent a way of putting a short-term solution in place. If we needed any convincing, the events of the past few months should tell us that we need to do something about the sale of alcohol and consider who it is sold to and its effects.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.