I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The past 12 months have seen public confidence in the administration of justice in Ireland undermined in a most significant manner. Not only have we witnessed some of the most severe cutbacks in the provision of services, such as the reduction of approximately 1,600 gardaí in the Garda force, the closure of more than 139 Garda stations and more than 30 court houses and the fact that over 16% of the prison population is on temporary release at any point in time, we have also witnessed a stream of revelations and investigations which have damaged the public perception of An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
The problems which have manifested themselves in An Garda Síochána and GSOC and which were reported to the former Minister for Justice and Equality were ignored, dismissed or glossed over in order to save the embarrassment of those in senior positions who decided that not taking responsibility was a key management skill. This approach did a massive disservice to the ordinary members of An Garda Síochána and to the citizens of Ireland. As a result of this dereliction of duty, we have seen the resignation of the Garda confidential recipient, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Secretary General of the Department. We have also witnessed the establishment of an unprecedented number of commissions of investigation surrounding the Department, and there are still more commissions to be established. One would hope, then, that lessons are learned as to how to deal with issues arising in the Garda force and the Department of Justice and Equality from this date forward.
Fianna Fáil has been calling for a strengthening of the Ombudsman's powers since the maladministration of justice outlined by Sergeant Maurice McCabe was revealed. Central to the failure to address these problems was the lack of own-initiative investigations and actions which could be taken by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission as a result of the legislation setting out the powers of that commission. The fact that GSOC was restricted in its actions by either the Minister or the Garda Commissioner or by the limitations in regard to those who can make complaints to it undermined the commission's ability to carry out its statutory functions. The legislation I am bringing forward today would significantly increase the powers and independence of GSOC and would go a long way towards ensuring that future difficulties are addressed well in advance of their becoming major institutional challenges.
This Bill is simple, straightforward and precise and would enhance the work of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and help to end the cycle of superficial reform that we have witnessed so far in the justice area. If enacted, it would amend the Garda Síochána Act 2005 in order to make the Garda Commissioner responsible to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It would allow the commission to investigate complaints concerning the conduct of any member of the Garda Síochána made by another member of An Garda Síochána. It would remove the requirement for consent in order for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to reach informal resolution of complaints. It would grant the commission access to the Garda PULSE computer system and it would permit the commission to examine any practice, policy or procedure of An Garda Síochána in order to prevent subsequent abuse.
The Bill seeks to close the gap between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and rebalance that relationship. It seeks to give GSOC the powers to act independently and in a manner not in any way reliant on key figures in either the Department of Justice and Equality or An Garda Síochána. We saw the failure of the current system when members of the commission had to take to the public airwaves to air their concerns about the shortcomings of the legislation which enables them to carry out their functions. This Bill, which was published in February of this year, seeks to address the issues that arose in recent controversies and to include the Garda Commissioner, as chief of police, among the positions over which the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission will have oversight, except with regard to issues of national security. We have been seeking this for some time. Commentators from outside the world of politics have contributed to the debate, including Nuala O'Loan and Conor Brady, a former member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. We have taken their suggestions on board and presented them in this Bill. We agree that it is not logical or consistent to think that the chief of a body such as the Garda Síochána, which is subject to oversight, is not subject to the same degree of oversight. There is a disconnect and this gap needs to be closed. The Bill will close that gap.
Another issue is that of providing GSOC with access to PULSE. This would benefit its investigations greatly. There is much common ground among Deputies on providing GSOC with unfettered access to the Garda PULSE system to allow it to do its job. Currently, GSOC has access to PULSE only under the supervision of a seconded Garda superintendent, which is not in keeping with GSOC's status as an independent investigator of malpractice within An Garda Síochána. The legislation would allow serving members of An Garda Síochána to refer internal complaints to GSOC. This issue was crystallised in the whistleblower controversy, the revelations outlined by Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former Garda John Wilson and the more recent revelations about the penalty points system.
The Guerin report highlighted the fact that Sergeant Maurice McCabe was correct in his actions to highlight the failure to administer justice in the Bailieborough Garda district. To be frank, the findings were an embarrassment for the Government, which denied that there was ever any issue in the Department and defended the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, month after month. He dismissed and belittled the whistleblowers and was supported by the Taoiseach while doing this. Through this legislation, people such as Sergeant McCabe will no longer be frozen out of the system. GSOC must provide an avenue for people such as Sergeant McCabe to report misconduct.
Fianna Fáil fully supports the call for a commission of investigation as recommended by the Guerin report and believes this commission should be kept separate from any other commission that has been already established by the Government investigating matters relating to An Garda Síochána. The alleged malpractice in Bailieborough undermines the foundations of our criminal justice system. It also undermines the morale of all members of An Garda Síochána. In order for public confidence to be restored in An Garda Síochána it is necessary to establish fully and frankly how the situation surrounding the malpractice in Cavan was allowed to occur, continue and be covered up over such a long period of time.
The final part of our Bill would empower and enable GSOC to inquire into the policies, procedures and practices adopted by An Garda Síochána. It would allow it to review and comment on them, recommend changes to improve the policies and procedures and try to prevent complaints from arising in the first instance. This would, we hope, prevent a situation such as that in Bailieborough from arising again.
I acknowledge the fact that the new Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has published a Bill which reflects much of what is contained in the legislation that I have introduced. However, I believe our Bill goes further and would have a greater impact.
The Minister could support or amend the Fianna Fáil Bill, as drafted, in order to speed up the process of reform.
The reform of GSOC and the restoration of public confidence in that institution and An Garda Síochána are issues which are above party politics, given that much of what is proposed has been agreed to by all sides, whether in debates or the legislation as published. There is much agreement throughout the House and outside on the provisions set out in the Bill. We should process the legislation as quickly as possible and be seen to support the work of GSOC and An Garda Síochána. Since the controversy surrounding GSOC arose, the perception among the public is that GSOC is not being supported by the Government. This concern appears to be backed up by the fact that since Fine Gael and the Labour Party took office, the budget allocation to GSOC has been reduced by more than €1 million and its staff numbers have been cut. None the less, all parties are agreed on the four main provisions outlined in the Bill. Therefore, I suggest the Government take on board this legislation and vote to support it.
It must be stated that when Deputy Frances Fitzgerald was appointed Minister for Justice and Equality, there was a general sense that the reform agenda in the justice area would be dealt with in a much more urgent, sensible and approachable way. However, the fear now is that she is being held back by a Government that does not know how to reform the institutions of State without making significant blunders along the way. Overall, the Government's credibility with regard to the proper functioning of the justice system has been deeply damaged. It has undermined the administration of justice, first, by refusing to listen to whistleblowers; second, by continuing to refuse to answer questions surrounding the Taoiseach's involvement in the resignation of the former Garda Commissioner; third, by closing Garda stations, leaving rural Ireland without police protection; and, fourth, undermining the Judiciary through a series of measures to reduce its independence. The approach of the Government to resolving the current matters of concern undermining public confidence in the administration of justice is to establish commissions of investigation and not to follow through on their recommendations. We are still awaiting significant Government action on the Guerin report which called into question the significant deficiencies in Garda management and the Department of Justice and Equality. We are still awaiting the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner, despite the fact that the former Commissioner, Mr. Martin Callinan, resigned six months ago, on 25 March. We are still waiting on the Minister for Justice and Equality to appoint a new Secretary General and the Taoiseach's clarification of his involvement in the former Garda Commissioner's resignation.
Other worrying developments include the massive number of bench warrants and summonses which remain outstanding, the fact that over 600 prisoners are on temporary release at any one time and the dramatic decrease in Garda numbers from a peak of 14,500 in 2010 to approximately 12,900 today. In July the interim Garda Commissioner, Ms Noirin O'Sullivan, at a meeting of the Committee of Public accounts, stated force number levels were very close to critical level. She stated: "We are very close to the point below which we should not go." This comment on Garda numbers followed a similar warning by her predecessor, Mr. Callinan, also made to Committee of Public Accounts in 2012. At the time he set the floor in terms of minimum Garda numbers at 13,000, but Garda strength at the end of May was 12,954. I believe they have dipped further since. The recent recruitment of 100 new gardaí, while welcome, will not restore the force to the level required.
It is time to restore the pride the people had in their police force. It is time to restore their confidence in the country's justice system. It is time to act on the good will and faith people have shown to the Government in electing it to office. It is also time to pass this legislation to give GSOC the power to do the job that needs to be done. I commend the Bill to the House.