Priority Questions

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission Issues

Niall Collins

Question:

1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the action that he will take on foot of the paramilitary funeral that took place in Dublin in early September 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39444/12]

I apologise for the Minister's absence. He is indisposed today and sends his apologies. I also join him in congratulating Deputies Collins and Mac Lochlainn on their new appointments and hope they do well in their new brief.

I remind the House that three persons are before the courts following a Garda Síochána operation undertaken in the light of events at the funeral. Deputies will appreciate the need not to say anything which could prejudice proceedings.

I repeat the remarks of the Minister for Justice and Equality following the events at this funeral. Some of the events were reprehensible and absolutely unacceptable.  Paramilitary trappings must not blind anyone to the fact that criminal terrorists want, for their own reasons, to drag the people of this island back to a dark past. The Government is determined that they will not succeed in their aim. They and their kind have been disowned by the majority of the people on this island. In treating the will of the people, North and South, with such contempt, they dishonour democracy.

I recognise fully the difficulties which confronted gardaí at the funeral. The Garda Síochána members present had, above all else, a particular responsibility to ensure the safety of the public in what was a crowded environment. Sometimes these events are deliberately orchestrated to try to provoke a reaction from the Garda with a view to generating public disorder and greater publicity for those involved. Both the Minister and the Garda Commissioner have expressed their full support for the operational decisions made by the gardaí on the ground who had to deal with this situation.

Subsequent to these events, the Garda conducted a large number of searches and arrested 17 people. Three individuals were subsequently charged before the Special Criminal Court on Saturday last. I welcome the support which Deputy Collins expressed publicly for the gardaí pursuing this matter.

An Garda Síochána has the Minister's and the Government's full support and the support of this House in its investigation of this matter. The Deputy can be assured that the Garda will continue to take every action open to it to deal with the activities of such individuals, whether they are engaging in terrorism or organised crime. Behaviour of the kind engaged in by some at the funeral was completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.

Everyone in this House agrees the images that were broadcast here and further afield were truly shocking. It was disgraceful that such a blatant display of paramilitarism would take place right here in Dublin in broad daylight. These were scenes we thankfully have not witnessed for many years, but we must be frank about this: they were nothing more than blatant criminality that has nothing to do with republicanism. People are hijacking funerals and public events for shows of force related to gangland criminal activity in Dublin. We must work together and that is what I wish to do in raising this issue. We must stamp this out and give every assistance to the Garda Síochána. I call publicly on anyone who has any assistance to offer the Garda to give it to it.

People are before the courts but we must keep uppermost in our minds the extensive reputational damage these displays may have had for the country abroad because doubtless these images were broadcast elsewhere. The Minister made a statement the day after the funeral, but does the Government have a strategy to ensure this does not happen again? Has the Minister or the Department assessed the resources, legislative or otherwise, that are available to ensure this does not take place again? Should there be controls in place for such events if a garda of a senior rank is of the opinion such scenes might recur? Should there be a licensing system to control such funerals? It might sound extreme but this issue is serious in terms of reputational damage and from a public order point of view.

I thank the Deputy for his support. The Minister takes advice from a wide range of people in terms of additional legislation or resources, especially the Garda Commissioner, and no request has been made. The resources the Garda has to deal with dissident terrorist groups are sufficient according to the Commissioner. If additional resources or legislation are required, the Minister will deal with any such requests promptly.

Must the Garda Commissioner submit that request to the Minister or can the Minister initiate that himself? It does not have to be a one-way process because this is an issue that is of huge concern to everyone both in terms of reputational damage and public order. We must consider this seriously because if this happens again, we will be back to square one.

It is not a one-way street. If the Minister sees a gap in the legislation or that additional powers are needed, he will act. As of now, he does not see any additional powers being needed, but the situation will be kept under constant review in light of recent events.

Garda Stations Closures

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

2. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to reduce resources for rural Garda stations; and the number of Garda stations marked for closure or reductions in opening hours over each of the next twelve months. [39446/12]

By the end of October each year, the Commissioner must, under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, submit to the Minister a policing plan for the following year. Any proposals for the closure of Garda stations must be set out in the plan. The policing plan for 2013 has not yet been submitted to the Minister. While there is little point in engaging in speculation as to what specific measures it may contain, the Minister has made it clear that he expects it will address the further rationalisation of the Garda station network.

It is important to make the point that the objective of rationalising the station network is to deploy gardaí more effectively. What is needed, and what the public want to see, is the greatest possible deployment of gardaí on operational duties. If there are too many stations, then there will be too many gardaí tied to those stations instead of being available for patrol and direct engagement with the community. Much the same argument applies to the decision taken by the Garda Commissioner this year to close the public counter in certain Dublin stations at night, when very few people call in anyway and when anyone with an emergency rings the emergency services. This has freed up gardaí for operational duties in those areas and is an improvement in the policing service.

The Garda Commissioner and his senior management will assess carefully how best to strike the right balance between the optimum number of Garda stations and the most effective deployment of gardaí on operational duties. There may be different views in this House on what the precise outcome should be, but surely no one can claim with any credibility that we must maintain every single Garda station we have had since the foundation of the State, without regard to the revolution there has been in transport, communications and technology. The policing plan for 2013 will be laid before this House in due course, and I look forward to a discussion on its objectives.

It has been an interesting time in the context of the use of terminology to replace the word "cutbacks". The Minister of State has referred to "rationalising", "smart policing" and the Commissioner submitting his plan. The Minister for Justice and Equality has told the Commissioner that he must make the best use of the resources allocated. That is the reality and the buck stops with him in this regard.

I refer to the impact of this decision. Recently, the IFA surveyed 500 rural dwellers and half of them said they were concerned about policing in their area and believed it was getting worse. A total of 11% of them had been victims of crime. There is also the issue of people feeling there is no point reporting crime in rural areas. Martin Donnellan, former assistant Garda Commissioner, wrote an article in the The Sunday Business Post recently, in which he said:

We hear a lot these days about so-called smart policing but I wonder how the closure of Garda stations and the centralisation of policing outposts fit into this concept. The force will be limited in the intelligence it can obtain if it does not have the support of the public. This support has always been closely connected to the relationship between individual gardaí and the community.

He is seriously concerned.

Could the Deputy frame a question please?

Will the Minister stop passing the buck to the Commissioner? Will he listen to the concerns of those in rural communities about the loss of the vital partnership between community gardaí and the people as they gather intelligence to combat burglaries and about the fear and terror that many elderly people face in those communities?

There is no buck passing. The Commissioner and the Minister have their jobs to do. We are living in a time of reduced resources and the Commissioner's job is to put a plan in place to ensure the best value is obtained from available resources. That may mean closing Garda stations to release gardaí to do what the Deputy wants and to patrol rural areas, in particular, where people are isolated. In some instances, the isolation can be profound. It is not about passing the buck; it is about ensuring that the best value is achieved and the best policing methods are deployed to ensure people feel safe and secure in their homes. Sometimes that involves allowing gardaí to get out of stations rather than keeping them inside.

This issue is about cutbacks and trying to dress them up and present them in a different way. The Garda Representative Association, which represents the vast majority of gardaí, is reporting that their colleagues in the UK say that the reduction in the number of police stations there has had a detrimental impact on their ability to police rural communities. The Minister represents the law and order party and presented himself, as Opposition spokesperson on justice, as a law and order spokesperson but he is ignoring the advice of a former assistant commissioner and of almost every garda on the ground and the experience they have. The impact of closing these stations will be seriously detrimental. Before the Government parties sign off and blame the Commissioner for what they are doing, will the Minister of State consider the concern this will cause? I understand 95 more Garda stations will close in the near future. The Minister needs to understand the fear and concern in rural communities and pull back from this.

No one is denying we have significantly reduced resources. It is as simple as that. The Commissioner has legal responsibility for directing and controlling the force and he has informed the Minister that it is intended, where possible, that the resources currently available in Garda stations that have been closed will remain in their own districts, subject at all time to operational requirements determined by him. It is about ensuring we achieve the best value from gardaí. The Garda in the main does a good job. Where a station is closed, it is always hoped that the gardaí assigned to it will remain in the district but that is clearly an operational issue for the Commissioner. This is not blame game; it is about ensuring our communities are safe.

Prison Accommodation Provision

Clare Daly

Question:

3. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the steps he will take to ensure a single cell occupancy policy in relation to Irish prisons. [39371/12]

There has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population in Ireland over recent years. The problem of prison overcrowding therefore remains a challenging issue which unfortunately cannot be resolved overnight. Given the current number of prisoners in custody - 4,248 on 13 September 2012 - the Irish Prison Service is not in a position to provide single cell accommodation to all prisoners. Single cell occupancy across the system would result in a bed capacity of less than 3,000 and would not be possible to achieve without releasing sizeable numbers of prisoners considered to represent a threat to public safety. While it would be ideal if we had the capacity to provide single cell accommodation for all prisoners, it will not be feasible to do so in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, we will continue to make efforts to improve prison accommodation and to promote the use of non-custodial options where appropriate.

It must also be borne in mind that prisoners are housed together for reasons other than lack of capacity. Family members, friends and co-accused prisoners often elect or are assigned a shared cell. Shared cell accommodation can be very beneficial from a management point of view particularly for those who are vulnerable and at risk of self-harm. There will always be a need for certain prisoners to be accommodated together.

I disagree with the Minister of State's take on the issue. Penal policy is resulting in more places being devised in prisons at an enormous cost to the State. Apart from the moral issues, it is not even a good value for money exercise and it does not address the issues of sentencing policy, drugs in prison and so on. At the end of the last year, 60% of prisoners shared cells, many of which were designed to house a single person. The Minister published the strategic plan on the Prison Service, which was welcome, but the lack of a commitment to a single cell policy is a serious omission. Ireland signed up to this through the European prison rules drawn up by the Council of Europe, yet the Government is embarking on prison building projects in Cork and Limerick, which will provide for shared cells. There are many educational and other reasons not to do this. However, the Minister of State seems to be saying it is now a conscious policy not to have a single cell policy and she is almost putting that forward as a virtue, with which most of those in the service would disagree. Will she clarify her position?

This is not being proposed as a virtue. All of us agree that the optimum is single cell occupancy but that cannot be achieved in the foreseeable future. New prisons will be built in Cork and Limerick as the Deputy rightly said, but because of overcrowding in the current prisons we will simply alleviate that with the new buildings.

I am sure this will be a great relief to people there because the accommodation is not good and it will improve the circumstances in both prisons. Nevertheless, unless the Government embarks on a massive prison-building programme or releases almost 1,000 people from the prisons, it will not be able to provide single-cell occupancy within the foreseeable future. I do not put this forward as a virtue but simply state the facts.

Briefly, if Members agree it should be done, this decision must be incorporated into policy in the future. In that sense, it is regrettable that facilities will be designed to incorporate more than one person. This means that while there is a policy to move away from slopping out, a person who shares a cell will be obliged to carry out his or her toilet duties in the presence of someone else, which simply is not humane. A point of particular worry at present is the number of women prisoners and the doubling up within units designed for one person. Such a pressure cooker actually acts to keep people in prison for longer because it takes away from the rehabilitation process, rather than addressing the issues.

Whereas I agree with the concept of single cell occupancy, I am not certain the Government should move towards a massive prison building programme that would provide it. There are other things it can do and the present Minister in particular has brought forward legislation that will ensure people are not automatically jailed on foot of particular offences. A two-pronged approach is required in that while one must ensure there is better accommodation for the prison population, one definitely must drive forward the reform issues with regard to sentencing and community-based projects.

Courts Service Issues

Niall Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to reform the Courts' structure; the timeframe for such plans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39445/12]

In July last, the Government approved the Minister's proposals to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution to provide that the Oireachtas may establish additional courts, including superior courts. As the Deputy will be aware, the current position is that Article 34 of the Constitution provides that the High Court is a court of first instance and the Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The Constitution further provides that courts of local and limited jurisdiction may be provided by law. There is no provision for the establishment of other courts.

The proposed amendment would, if passed, allow for the establishment of modern court structures including a court of civil appeal and a new family court structure. This follows from the report of the working group on a court of appeal, which reported in 2009, and a commitment in the agreed programme for Government to establish separate family courts. There is, as the Deputy may be aware, an urgent need to address significant delays in the Supreme Court list and in other areas, such as family law. In future, other areas may arise such as, for example, a European patent court or an environment court. Specialist courts and judges combined with an additional court at appellate level would assist with the State's obligations under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to have legal proceedings determined within a reasonable time.

These proposals have the potential to achieve significant change to the structure of the courts, which have remained largely unchanged since 1924. Considerable work will be necessary to develop these proposals and this already has commenced in the Department. A decision on the timing of the necessary referendum will be made at a later date. As a next step, the Minister intends to engage in a public consultation process on the proposed reforms to foster a wide-ranging debate and I understand that submissions will be invited in the near future.

The issue of the reconfiguration of the courts merits further probing and investigation in this Chamber. No one can disagree with the proposal to establish a civil court of appeal. There are 36 High Court jurisdictions nationwide and most of their decisions are being appealed. As the knock-on appeals are going to the single Supreme Court, the knock-on effect is that other issues of great public importance to a wider body of people are being delayed. This obviously is an issue within the public interest and has merit. The issue I wish to probe with the Minister of State concerns the source of the decision to establish a stand-alone family court because we do not have, for example, a personal injuries court, a constitutional court or a commercial law court, albeit there are commercial sittings as a function of the High Court. While I acknowledge there is merit in addressing the sensitivities of the issues discussed in the family law courts, perhaps that can be done within the existing court structures. However, if one is to establish a stand-alone family law court or any form of stand-alone court, one must consider making a raft of judicial appointments. Similarly, one will be obliged to provide a raft of back-up services and all that goes with the establishment of a particular court, as well as the associated costs. Consequently, from where is the call for the establishment of a family law court coming? As far as I am aware, the report cited by the Minister of State only made specific mention of the court of civil appeal and did not mention the family law courts as such.

While I take on board the point made by the Deputy, for as long as I can recall, that is, for up to 25 years, I and the other two Deputies present in the Chamber - Deputy Catherine Murphy for certain - have been involved in calls for separate family courts. Moreover, there is a very good argument for this to happen. It would take additional personnel who were specially trained to adjudicate in such courts. The Deputy will be aware from his own experience that it simply is not appropriate for someone hearing, for instance, drink driving cases in the morning then to be obliged to deal with highly sensitive issues, such as family breakdown, access to children and so on. Consequently, there is a logical and reasonable argument to be made in favour of specific family courts. I support the Minister's thinking in this regard. As the Deputy is aware, the Minister himself is considered to be one of the country's leading experts on family law and I am sure he has experienced difficulties with regard to family law and how it operates in this country. While most people try to be sensitive and to do what is right, sometimes it is very difficult in difficult surroundings and sometimes people do not consider themselves to have the relevant expertise to carry out that function.

The Minister should not get me wrong, as I do not state I am opposed to the proposal. I simply am trying to probe the reason for it.

Many of the reasons being cited for its establishment that are being put into the public domain by the Minister of State or by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, essentially are logistical in nature. The Minister of State referred to a judge not being obliged to hear a drink driving case in the morning before dealing with family law in the afternoon. While logistical or infrastructural factors may be one reason, it seems to be a narrow reason. It is being suggested that the judges who are hearing the cases at present lack expertise. Has the Minister been informed of a deficiency in respect of the judges who are hearing family law cases in the family law court sittings? Has the Courts Service informed the Minister there is a deficiency of judges with such specialties?

No, that has not been stated at all. Basically it is like any expertise in that most judges who deal with family law cases on a regular basis build up a degree of knowledge and expertise in the area. I share the widely-held belief that it might not necessarily be a judge of the High Court, for instance, who must deal with it. Instead, it might require a different category of officer of the courts who would deal with family law matters. As someone I know once noted, sometimes one needs the judgment of Solomon to resolve such issues. The question and the answer to it basically pertain to having the freedom to create additional courts where the need arises, without being obliged to revert continuously to the Constitution.

I believe that is the essence of the question and what the referendum would produce. There is merit in having separate family courts and I know that the Deputy does not mean he is opposed to it.

Garda Policing Plans

Catherine Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the factors which are taken into consideration when the annual policing plan is being prepared; if population growth trends and projections across the country that have been taken into account when previous policing plans have been prepared, especially with regard to the geographical distribution of Gardaí; when he expects the next policing plan to be presented to him; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39448/12]

By the end of October each year, the Garda Commissioner is obliged under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to submit to the Minister a policing plan for the following year which sets out the proposed arrangements for the policing of the State. The approved plan is laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

When preparing the plan, the Commissioner must under the Act have regard to a number of matters, including the resources available to the Garda Síochána, the priorities for the Garda Síochána as determined by the Minister, relevant Government policy and the Garda Síochána's own strategy statement. In addition, the Act provides that the policing plan must include details of certain types of proposals, including proposals to open or close a Garda station, establish or dissolve a Garda national unit, alter certain Garda geographical boundaries, or establish or relocate certain Garda headquarters.

The policing plan for 2013 has not yet been submitted to the Minister and it would be premature to speculate at this stage what it might contain, although it is expected to contain proposals for the further rationalisation of the Garda station network.

Clearly, in drawing up arrangements for the policing of the State each year the Commissioner and his senior management team take all relevant factors into account, including population, crime levels and trends and policing priorities. The objective is to ensure that optimum use is made of Garda resources and the most effective policing service is provided to the public.

I have a copy of last year's plan and I see how it is broken down. The Garda Commissioner does not take population into consideration and there is no evidence of him doing so. For example, based on a number of comparators Kildare is the worst policed area in the country. If the whole country had the same level of gardaí as are present in Kildare, we could let 4,800 gardaí go. The level of policing in Kildare is approximately half the average in the rest of the country. For example, Kerry has nine fewer gardaí than Kildare but has 75,000 fewer people. Mayo has 15 fewer gardaí than Kildare but has 80,000 fewer people. In Sligo and Leitrim there are 11 fewer gardaí than in Kildare but 113,000 fewer people. None of those counties would be regarded as very high crime areas. The commuter belt areas that have developed in recent years have not been treated fairly.

The seven Kildare Deputies met the assistant Garda commissioner. We sought a meeting with the Commissioner and he arranged a meeting with the assistant commissioner. The assistant commissioner told us that within each region what they have they hold. Our region is the commuter belt region.

A question, please.

Moving people between regions is just not possible in that situation. Seven Deputies sought a meeting months ago with the Garda Commissioner and he has given us the deaf ear. We have been advised that the resources are not nationally based but regionally based and what we have we hold.

I call the Minister of State to reply. I will call the Deputy again.

These Garda reports are only works of fiction unless there is a real prospect of using resources where they are needed rather than where they are located at the moment.

I have reviewed the briefing material that accompanied the reply and I fully accept what the Deputy says. The commuter belt has a significant spread of population which gives rise to a particular difficulty. As I stated in my reply, the Garda Commissioner is obliged to prepare a policing plan each year and in doing so is obliged to take a number of factors into account. When the Minister receives the plan he may approve it in the form of the draft submitted or he may amend it after consulting the Commissioner. I suggest to the Deputy that the seven Deputies from Kildare might seek a meeting with the Minister before the end of October.

It is a welcome suggestion. The Minister of State said the Minister has his job to do and the Commissioner has his job to do. Our problem is that we are going around in circles making this demand with the Minister saying it is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner, the Garda Commissioner refusing to meet us and the regions insisting that what we have we hold. At the same time people's homes are being broken into and the crime rate is increasing. If there is to be pain at least it should be equally shared.

I have very little to add other than the suggestion I have already made. Such a meeting should take place before the policing plan is submitted.