Ramming of Garda Vehicles Bill 2015: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Minister for State for being here. I appreciate the opportunity that has been given to back bench Deputies like myself to move Private Members' Bills. This very positive reform has come about in recent years.

The purpose of this Bill is to make deliberately ramming a Garda vehicle a specific offence. It applies to a vehicle operated by a member of An Garda Síochána in the course of his or her duties. The aim is to try to reduce the shocking number of rammings. The figures I have been provided with show that from 2010 to 2013, there were 244 incidences of Garda vehicles being rammed. We have seen some very tragic cases where serious injuries and even fatalities have resulted from such incidents, and we need to stop them. We need to stamp this out. I think everybody in the House will agree with me when I say that an attack on the Garda is an attack on everyone. It is an attack on the State and the people of this country. We need to do everything possible to produce as strong a deterrent as possible to eliminate this risk. It is probably idealistic to say we could eliminate it but we certainly need to reduce the possibility of it happening.

At the moment, there is not enough of a deterrent to stop this when it happens more than once a week according to the most recent figures I have. When this is the case, Parliament and we as Members of Parliament need to act to protect members of An Garda Síochána as much as we can. That is what this Bill is about. I appreciate that there are measures in law that address these circumstances, for example, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act or the Criminal Damage Act. These measures are helpful, but as I pointed out, the figures show that they are not working and are not stopping this from happening. We need to send out a very clear and unequivocal message to perpetrators of such intolerable crime that they will not get away with it, that it is stepping well beyond a line that should never be crossed and that the full rigours of the law will meet them if they do that. This is why I want to see the ethos of this Bill move forward.

If the Bill is not enacted during this 31st Dáil, perhaps the spirit behind it might help to shape some future legislation. Ultimately, it does not matter to me whether it is this Bill or part of another one that is enacted. I just want to see the maximum level of protection extended to our gardaí in the course of their duties. They put their lives on the line day in, day out. Without them our society could descend into complete chaos. Members of An Garda Síochána have a unique role and we need to do as much as we can to protect them. I welcome the fact that the Bill will not be opposed. I want to see the State reacting on this issue.

There are other measures outside of legislative change that would also help to protect gardaí in the course of their duties. For example, in cases where Garda cars are rammed by vehicles, officers would stand a better chance of avoiding injury or worse if those vehicles were reinforced or armoured. I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, in recent times to acquire new, stronger, reinforced vehicles. With the recovering economy and public finances we have a great opportunity to catch up on the lost years of the economic crash. We can try to make this the norm when purchasing Garda vehicles into the future. We should give our gardaí the best possible chance in a vehicle by making it reinforced with armoured glass in certain cases. It will cost more, certainly, but what price can one put on a life and certainly on the lives of those who are trying to protect the citizens of this country from the perpetrators of crime? This needs to be a policy direction that we take as the norm and not the exception.

Ramming cases cause a huge number of lost hours for our gardaí. People have to take time off work because of injury acquired in such instances. Without sounding crass or putting a monetary price on this, it is actually costing the State a huge amount when a garda is injured and has to take leave from work. Of course, the human cost always comes first but, as lawmakers, we also need to consider all the facts. I recently sought figures on the exact extent of the problem and how many hours are lost. I was not able to acquire such figures but, anecdotally, from speaking with members of An Garda Síochána and liaising with those who know what is going on, I am aware that this is a problem. We have an opportunity to address it. I do not want to sound crass by talking about the economic costs but we have to talk about them too. There are huge savings to be made if we take the proper policy approach.

In order to assist gardaí in the course of their duties and reduce the number of cases in which gardaí find themselves pursuing criminals in the countryside or in urban areas, many preventative measures could be put in place to help the overall situation. I spoke in this House a number of weeks ago in respect of strategic locations in rural areas. We could create as much of a deterrent as possible in those areas by strategically locating CCTV cameras. In the case of my own constituency, I referred to the Dingle Peninsula. To get onto the Dingle Peninsula, which has a population of over 10,000 people, one needs to pass either Boolteens Bridge on the south side of the Slieve Mish Mountains, or through Curraheen or Derrymore on the north side. Those are the only ways in or out without taking a boat. There are not too many boats sailing this time of year. Surely those locations are ideal for placing a Garda camera, just to see who is coming and going. It would not be big brother or the State going mad. It would be a simple preventative measure that would help people sleep easier in their beds and give gardaí an extra chance. It would not prevent crime but would create an extra deterrent.

By creating more deterrents and by placing more cogs in the wheel, we will get to a much better place. Similarly, a number of burglaries took place on Valentia Island off south-west Kerry last year. The island has a bridge connecting it to the mainland. There is one way in and one way out. The ferry only operates a couple of times a year and it is not exactly an ideal high-speed getaway mechanism. Why not have cameras on the bridge to see who is coming and going when something occurs? Hopefully, nothing would occur if we had those measures. It is the same with the Beara Peninsula. I see my colleague, Deputy Harrington, is here. He knows the lie of the land there. Leaving Kenmare to get onto Beara from the north side, there is only one road. It is similar throughout the country. There are strategical locations that people need to pass through. The gardaí in each division would be able to identify them easily. It is not a very expensive thing to do with modern technology.

Let us use technology to our advantage. God knows the criminals have been using it to their advantage for long enough. We need to do more in that regard. It would help reduce instances in which gardaí find themselves having to pursue criminals in the countryside, including those who have committed burglaries and other offences. It would be a positive step forward.

We also need to start helping communities to help themselves. While a State-led, top-down approach is very welcome, with more visible and mobile, better-equipped gardaí and more recruits coming through, we also need a ground-up approach. At community level we need to invest more in things like the community alert schemes, with which I am very familiar from my own location at home. Individual homeowners are not currently in a position to be able to afford extra security items like security lighting, cameras in the home, electronic gates or other measures. Maybe we can look at allowing people to write off such items against tax, giving them a rebate or reducing VAT in order to make it more affordable. That would be part of the multi-cogged approach I have spoken of. I have heard other ideas from Deputies in the Chamber that we certainly could implement and that would help the overall situation.

I acknowledge the opportunity to introduce the Bill and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, for attending. During the week, I saw the report which showed that 1,500 staff in the Phoenix Part could be freed up for front-line duties. We need to address that and get those gardaí out onto the front line. We need to consider our approach to the Garda Reserve. Perhaps we can get more people in to do administrative duties through the reserve and thus free up trained, front-line gardaí to get out there and do the jobs they want to do. We should prioritise getting more gardaí out on the beat, visible and mobile.

I noticed figures published recently which show the rates of burglaries per 100,000 in the population. Thankfully, my own county of Kerry was one of the lowest. I was glad to see that. Listening to certain elements in the media and certain public representatives in recent months, one would think it was the wild west and that law and order had completely broken down. As public representatives, we need to be conscious that when we speak we need to be doing so with the public good in mind. We need to be conscious that it frightens people, perhaps unnecessarily, when they hear talk of crime epidemics or waves of crime. We have a responsibility to be objective and to call it as it is without overemphasising matters or frightening people. God knows there are enough things frightening people at present. When there is a problem, it needs to be discussed here but we need balance and for people to approach the issue responsibly. Those who are listening to the debate and who are most tuned in to it are the people who are most vulnerable. I have met many individuals who are living in fear. It is a horrible feeling to be afraid in one's own home. We should not be contributing to that in any way unless it is warranted.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and welcome the contributions of Members on the Bill. As I said, I want to see the issue addressed and to bring attention to what is obviously a problem, given the figures. Perhaps the Bill and the particular wording of it are not necessarily the way forward, but I want to see the issue addressed somehow. If it can be done through other legislation or if the provisions in my Bill can be incorporated into other legislation, that is fine by me. We have seen many attacks on other members of the emergency services over recent years. Recently, I tried to obtain conviction rates and sentencing information, but it is very difficult to get these figures. The Central Statistics Office does not seem to be able to produce them when required and I have not been able to get them from the Department either.

I acknowledge that there was a Bill some years ago dealing with attacks on members of the emergency services, but where it fell down was perhaps in respect of the mandatory element of sentencing. We must look at the area again and, if we cannot have mandatory sentences, let us consider increasing sentences or providing some other deterrent. Ambulance personnel, the fire brigade and various members of other services have been attacked in various ways in the course of their work, which is not acceptable. As with attacks on gardaí, these are attacks on the State and on every citizen, and that cannot be tolerated. I very much welcome the opportunity to present my Bill and I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister of State.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, who is unable to be here this afternoon, I thank Deputy Griffin for bringing this Bill before the House. It is clear that the subject matter of the Bill is one to which we can all relate. We are very conscious of the important work done by people operating in front-line duties, in particular An Garda Síochána and the difficulties and challenges its members face every day. It is imperative that gardaí are protected in carrying out their work and that the law reflects and responds to the situations in which they find themselves. There is great general concern about the protection of gardaí when serious incidents occur and great sympathy, particularly where such incidents result in injury to or the death of a member of An Garda Síochána. The spirit and intention behind Deputy Griffin's Private Member's Bill is clearly to protect gardaí in difficult front-line and emergency situations.

There are a number of offences on the Statute Book which address the activity which the Deputy wishes to criminalise, the ramming of Garda vehicles. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, as amended, provides explicit statutory protection for peace officers, including members of An Garda Síochána, in offences involving assault to or obstruction of a peace officer in the execution of his or her duty. Section 19 of the 1994 Act provides that any person who assaults a peace officer acting in the execution of his or her duty is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years. This maximum prison penalty was, in fact, increased from a five-year term under the Criminal Justice Act of 2006.

The general law relating to assault is contained in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 which deals comprehensively with a wide range of assault provisions, the more serious of which carry heavy penalties. The assault and related provisions in the 2006 Act apply to assaults on all sectors of our community, which of course also includes members of An Garda Síochána. The 2006 Act provides for penalties of up to five years for an offence of assault causing harm and for a penalty of life imprisonment for an offence of causing serious harm. The maximum period of imprisonment provided for here exceeds the ten-year term proposed in the Deputy's Bill. In addition, section 2 of the Criminal Damage Act 1991 provides for an offence where a person intends to damage property, or is reckless as to whether any property is damaged and intends by such damage to endanger the life of another, or is reckless as to whether the life of another would be endangered. This offence, which is of particular relevance in the context of an activity such as ramming a Garda vehicle, carries a penalty of up to imprisonment for life. Again, the maximum term of imprisonment applicable here significantly exceeds that proposed in the Deputy's Bill.

Deputies will agree that there is already a considerable wealth of legislation in place to enable the prosecution of those who would seek to damage Garda property or indeed to injure members of An Garda Síochána by ramming their vehicles or otherwise. However, it is clear that the Deputy's Bill arises from concern for the safety of members of An Garda Síochána, which is something we all share, and from a desire that perpetrators of crimes against gardaí should not go unpunished.

As Deputy Griffin has outlined, section 1 provides for a definition of "child" as a person under 16 years of age. It also defines "Garda vehicle" and "ramming". Section 2 provides that the legislation would apply to the deliberate ramming of a Garda vehicle or of a vehicle being operated by a member of An Garda Síochána while he or she is on duty. Section 3 provides for a penalty of a period of imprisonment of up to ten years where a person other than a child is found guilty of an offence under the Bill. Section 3 also provides that the legislation would not apply where a court was satisfied that there was no deliberate intent or that it would be unreasonable for it to be known that the vehicle was a Garda vehicle or that it was being operated by a member of the Garda Síochána while he or she was on duty.

The Minister has made a few technical comments and what she hopes are constructive suggestions on the Bill. I will outline these to the House. A child is defined in the Bill as any person under the age of 16 years. The Deputy is no doubt aware that for the purposes of legislation on the protection of children and the juvenile justice system generally, children are defined as being persons under 18. As such, it would be problematic to provide for different age limits within the Statute Book. To do so would be to fail to have regard to consistency in our policies and, indeed, approach to young persons. More generally and in relation to the sanction provided for, Deputy Griffin's Bill provides that a penalty of up to ten years should apply. However, the fact remains that sentencing is at the discretion of the Judiciary and that, as in all criminal justice proceedings, the specific circumstances of each case must be taken into account by the court before a sentence is decided upon. An increase in a penalty on the Statute Book does not necessarily mean that an increased penalty will be applied.

A key issue with the Bill as drafted is that it does not appear to achieve what was intended. It does not provide for an offence of ramming a Garda vehicle. Section 3 states that in any case where a person is found guilty of an offence to which section 2 applies, a period of imprisonment of up to ten years will be specified. However, section 2 does not contain an offence provision. It merely states that the Act applies where a Garda vehicle is deliberately rammed. This could be interpreted as meaning that where any offence is committed and a Garda vehicle is rammed in the process, the Act applies with a penalty of up to ten years. This could have the unintended consequence of a lower penalty being applied. For example, if an offence of recklessly damaging property with intent to endanger the life of another or an offence of causing serious harm was committed and a Garda car rammed in the process, the Act and the penalty in the Act could be applied. As such, it would be a penalty of up to ten years rather than life imprisonment as currently provided for under section 2 of the Criminal Damage Act and section 4 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act. That said, these are drafting issues which the Minister points out in an effort to be constructive and the House can have no doubt of Deputy Griffin's sincere motivation and intent in bringing forward this Bill. I very much welcome the opportunity it provides to debate important issues relating to the protection and care of members of An Garda Síochána.

That the Government is committed to An Garda Síochána can be in no doubt. Deputies are aware of the Government's recent and unprecedented allocation of €875 million in capital funding for the justice sector, with an allocation of €18 million for Garda station refurbishment, €46 million for new Garda vehicles, an additional investment of €205 million for new technology and the recruitment of 600 new gardaí in 2016. These developments demonstrate the Government's commitment to investing in 21st century policing by ensuring An Garda Síochána has the personnel, vehicles and technology to be modern, effective, mobile and responsive in preventing and tackling crime in both urban and rural communities.

The Government's response to crime is focused on two main objectives: investment in An Garda Síochána and a strengthening of the law on serious and repeat offenders. To that end and as Deputies are aware, the Minister for Justice and Equality has introduced the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill which is before the Houses. The Minister will also shortly publish a bail Bill. Both Bills will strengthen the existing law by protecting the public from crime committed by prolific offenders and improving the safety of all communities throughout the country. These are challenging times for An Garda Síochána and the Minister is determined to provide the force with all the tools necessary to meet such challenges. A further example in this regard is the recent establishment, for the first time in this jurisdiction, of a DNA database system to assist An Garda Síochána in the investigation of crime.

I thank Deputy Griffin once again on behalf of the Minister for his continued work and interest in criminal justice matters. We are all immensely grateful to An Garda Síochána for its outstanding dedication and commitment and for the important and all too frequently dangerous role its members play in our society. While it is clear that there is quite a comprehensive body of legislation in place to provide for the prosecution of this type of assault, the Minister supports the objective of the Deputy's Bill and will, therefore, not oppose the proposal.

I compliment Deputy Griffin on introducing this Bill. I am pleased to hear the Minister of State at the Department of Finance say that the Minister for Justice and Equality does not oppose the Bill. I presume the legislation can in due course move to Committee Stage where the drafting issues etc. can be teased out in further detail.

This legislation asks the Oireachtas to support the Garda Síochána in its difficult job. The job is difficult in urban and rural areas. The gardaí need to know they have the support not just of the Parliament but of the people. They put their lives on the line. Two gardaí lost their lives recently going out on what appeared initially to be routine calls. They never suspected the outcome and the tragic loss to their families and their colleagues. These were deliberate attacks on the Garda Síochána and because the gardaí are the line of defence which protects the citizen these were attacks on all of us. That is why I support the principle of the Bill and look forward to our party working on Committee Stage on the drafting of the various sections to improve the wording and I appreciate what the Minister of State said on this.

I note the Garda Síochána Inspectorate’s report, which was published recently, dealt in detail with Garda vehicles. I think it will be discussed at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. While the report did not discuss ramming of Garda cars, it made some recommendations on the Garda fleet that are worth following up. Most interesting was that while the Garda Síochána is prioritising the purchase of marked vehicles, 53% of the fleet are unmarked cars. I was surprised at that. It shows the tremendous work the gardaí do behind the scenes. We do not realise they are in front of or behind us and are not all out on motorways trying to catch us speeding. They are doing other work in difficult situations such as night time surveillance, dealing with anti-social behaviour when they have to be in unmarked cars. Some people complain about lack of Garda visibility in their area but an unmarked car might be there all night. If the car was marked people would feel more secure. There is a balance to be struck because a marked car is no good for detective work but the Garda is moving to having more marked cars. People need to feel secure and to see gardaí on the beat on the street.

Approximately ten years ago, on a Friday night in December, I was driving from Portlaoise to Carlow at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. It was pitch dark and a lorry struck my car. It was a head-on crash. The air bags filled in the car. It was the first time this had happened to me and it was a frightening experience. I thought the car was going to blow up because there is a smell like a gunshot when the airbags fill, which I had not known. My wife and I had to scamper out the other door. What I found remarkable was that within ten minutes four unmarked Garda cars were on the scene. It was a national secondary route, the N80. The cars came from Portlaoise and Athy but I understood there are far more unmarked Garda cars than I had ever appreciated. I saw it first hand. It was good that they were on the scene. That is important.

I heard on the radio this morning about an accident when a car that was being chased hit another car. There were two Garda cars passing from one division or Garda district to another but one was not sure where the Garda car in pursuit was. I understand that it is standard procedure in most other European countries that the person in the station can see where the car is on the road. It is some form of global positioning system, GPS, monitoring system. We would support any improvement that can be made in that area.

The Garda Inspectorate’s report mentioned too that gardaí should all be trained in Garda driving. We all think we know how to drive and have passed our driving test but to be a Garda driver requires extra skill in difficult situations. The gardaí have to overtake on the left and right, which we do not normally do. I support the Garda Síochána and Deputy Griffin’s Bill and look forward to discussing it on Committee Stage with whoever is here after the election.

It gives me pleasure to support Deputy Griffin’s Bill to make it an offence to ram a patrol car. We live in a changing society. Decades past, the gardaí were respected and their authority was not questioned. That sadly has changed and criminals ignore the authority of a garda and will do anything they can to avoid arrest. More Garda activity now takes place in patrol cars. There are more patrol cars in urban and rural areas, marked and unmarked. They do quite a good job of enforcing the law. Unfortunately, criminal gangs have become more mobile. If detected carrying out a crime they will do what they can to evade arrest and if that means ramming a Garda car many will not think twice about it. The most horrific injuries suffered by gardaí in recent years have come as a result of criminals ramming patrol cars. Many of these were life-changing injuries and unfortunately some gardaí have been killed.

The Minister of State spoke about the difficulty of setting a defined sentence for ramming patrol cars but it should be benchmarked against attempted murder because that is the risk. Many criminals now drive Jeeps or high-powered, high velocity, heavy vehicles, many with what could euphemistically be described as protection barriers. They are killers. They have the potential to wipe people out in a patrol car that has very little or no protection, like any car that we might drive.

The offence Deputy Griffin is trying to introduce is appropriate. I accept that there is legislation to provide for offences such as this. None of us going to work has to face the prospect of being deliberately rammed but we need to take a belt and braces approach to the existing legislation to deter criminals from thinking they will get away with ramming a patrol car. There is a greater sentence for the murder of a garda and this offence should be benchmarked as something similar to attempted murder.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill and look forward to the Government assimilating it, in whatever way is appropriate, into the Statute Book in order to protect the members of the Garda Síochána.

I too congratulate Deputy Griffin on the Bill and am very much of the view that it must become law. The Minister has outlined areas that could be enhanced in the drafting process. The Bill is essentially a statement that a direct attack on a garda is not the same as a direct attack on an individual citizen, given that an attack on a garda is an attack on us all, and a special law and penalty must apply when people commit such a crime intentionally and in full knowledge of what they are doing. It is very important that there be a strong statement in law and from the Oireachtas that such an intent to strike at a garda is not allowed and that the harshest penalties will be applied. When people attack members of the police force who are there to protect us all, they are attacking society.

The Minister of State's commitment to the Garda Síochána is very welcome, particularly the money that is being invested in it. The Minister of State's statement outlined that €18 million will be provided for the refurbishment of Garda stations, and it is essential. I recently visited Donnybrook Garda station in my constituency to report a minor crime, and it is badly in need of refurbishment. There is the question of how we present the Garda Síochána to the people. Some of our Garda Síochána buildings are not in a fit state and do not present the gardaí well. If we do not present the Garda Síochána well to the public, there will be less respect. It is essential that the buildings get the basic maintenance of cleaning. It is also essential that the infrastructure be put in place so gardaí can do their work appropriately.

The Minister has also committed to providing €205 million for new technology, which is essential. When I reported a minor crime, it took a long time for the garda, who had to take a written statement. Everything was done in writing. The video recording equipment was not digital but used tapes. With gardaí spending so much time working with outdated technology, it is welcome that so much money is to be invested. I hope it is spent well and quickly. There is a relationship between how we protect and how we resource the Garda. The two go hand in hand, as Deputy Griffin said in his opening statement. While we did not always have the funding we wanted, now that the economy is recovering, albeit still fragile, and people are back at work, it is great that the money is there to invest in vital areas such as the first line of defence, namely, the Garda Síochána, and helping them to do their work. It is a fantastic initiative by Deputy Griffin. It is fantastic that the Government is not opposing the Bill but supports it. We should have a positive statement from the Oireachtas that we will make it law.

Like my colleagues, I commend Deputy Griffin on bringing the Bill before us and the Minister of State's response on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald. If we were to go through the names of the 88 members of the Garda Síochána who have died in the service of the State, quite a number of them died in road traffic accidents. This is because they are the front line and put their lives on the line to protect the State and the individuals in it. From Henry Phelan in November 1922 to Tony Golden in October this year, the 88 members served the State with distinction and made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their communities and the country.

Deputy Griffin's Bill is worth debating and examining from the aspect of the Department of Justice and Equality regarding what Deputy Eoghan Murphy referred to as isolating the intent of a criminal or individual attempting to evade prosecution for deliberately ramming a vehicle in the knowledge that his or her actions might result in the death of a person, whether a garda or, through an accident, another individual, as has happened in the past. Deputy Griffin presented statistics on the number of vehicles affected and the knock-on effect of the loss of the vehicle to the Garda Síochána on a temporary or permanent basis and the loss of garda hours through the victim's injury or permanent incapacitation, which can result from such vehicle collisions.

Although the Government has invested an unprecedented €875 million in Garda infrastructure, as the Minister of State helpfully outlined, the other side of it is the investment in high speed pursuit vehicles to enable gardaí to keep up with criminals who are usually in vehicles that are superior to the standard two litre diesel Garda vehicle. The other side is something Deputy Harrington referenced, which is that a proportion of criminals use Jeeps and similar larger vehicles with bull bars which, in a ramming incident, can cause catastrophic damage to the vehicle.

The Minister of State has outlined a number of pieces of law on the Statute Book and he is right about the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act 1997 and other provisions. However, I agree with the thrust of the Bill, which is to mark this particular crime out as a severe crime that warrants a punitive sentence up to and including the revision of bail laws which we are considering. The Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill, which allows for consecutive sentences for individuals who are caught and prosecuted while another case is pending against them, within two years, clearly marks such a person out for special attention, as does Deputy Griffin's Bill. An individual who commits such a crime should be severely punished. While life imprisonment for attempted murder or the like is a very clear message, criminals may receive parole or slightly shorter sentences due to circumstances which the particular judge on the day takes into consideration and which do not get into the newspapers. We are aghast when an individual receives a shorter sentence than we think is justified. This is by no means an attack on the Judiciary, only a fact. Unfortunately, people who receive a sentence of ten, 15 or 20 years do not serve the full term.

The Garda Commissioner and the Minister have done much work regarding the resources allocated to the Garda Síochána. Recruitment was started this year with 550 new gardaí recruited, and 600 will be recruited next year, in an attempt to rebuild the numbers of gardaí on the beat and available to serve in our communities. It is essential if we are to give people peace of mind. Deputy Sean Fleming referenced the fact that most Garda vehicles are unmarked and he spoke of one road traffic collision on a secondary route when five unmarked vehicles showed up.

This proves that gardaí are there even if one does not see them. In rural areas, the closure of Garda stations has led to a significant amount of concern. As some of my colleagues who are based in constituencies with large rural areas can attest, the perception of a non-availability of gardaí is a driver of fear, which often fuels itself. Despite this, a significant seven-year survey of crime in general by a professor at the University of Michigan with Irish connections showed that the crime levels were directly linked with unemployment as opposed to issues such as the number of gardaí or stations. According to the Central Statistics Office, 75% of burglaries occur in the Dublin region.

Let us get back to the Bill, please.

I will. My point is that Garda vehicles and their availability play an important role in the duties of gardaí. Whether they are marked or unmarked, their presence is essential for policing and protecting all of us as citizens as well as the authorities within the State.

In the context of the ramming of vehicles, I wish to make a further point about other people on the front line, for example, the fire brigade services, ambulance crews etc. This has been debated in the Chamber previously and discussed by the general public when vehicles or individuals were attacked while attending a scene. In this light, perhaps incorporating the Bill's provisions in other legislation should be considered during the next Dáil.

My final point is for the drafters of Government legislation. Ten or 15 Acts govern the sentencing of individuals in cases of offences against the person. I wrote "plain English" while listening to the Minister of State's reference to incorporating this Bill's provisions in a number of similar Acts. It would not be impossible for the next Government to amend such legislation appropriately instead of adding yet another Act to the Statute Book. If one wants to reduce legal costs, as a rule-----

The Deputy's time is up.

I will finish on this note. If one wants to reduce the cost of legal services and ensure that people can interpret legislation, putting everything in one Act makes it easier to interpret and, therefore, reduces the cost to the consumer. I commend Deputy Griffin on introducing this Bill.

I apologise for not being present when it was my turn to be called.

We support the motivations behind the Bill. In Donegal, we lost two fine officers, Gary McLoughlin and Robbie McCallion, in 2009. Killed in the line of duty, they were the victims of reckless drivers. It was devastating for our communities and, most of all, their families. It was a sad time in Donegal, so I sympathise with the motivation behind the Bill. What we disagree with is mandatory sentencing. Unfortunately, it has not proven a good approach to law, as I will explain. The Bill seeks to introduce a mandatory scale of sentencing of up to ten years for the Judiciary to apply in the specific case of ramming a Garda vehicle. However, the current law provides for up to ten years' imprisonment for dangerous driving in addition to substantial fines. Given the circumstances of the case, it is for the Judiciary to impose a suitable sentence.

Related to the Bill is the wider issue of mandatory sentencing. Calls for mandatory sentencing feed into public distrust in a dangerous way that works to undermine and subvert the rule of law. The reality of mandatory sentencing is that it uses up scarce resources in terms of time and money when judges, in the interests of justice, must wrestle with ill-conceived laws. Such an approach would increase the number of trials and subsequent delays in the criminal justice system when people accused of offences that carry mandatory sentences pleaded not guilty.

Mandatory sentences contribute significantly to the cost of imprisonment. Such costs result in either more taxes on citizens or significant tax takes being diverted from hospitals and schools to fund the results of ill-conceived political projects. According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, for every $1 million spent on California's mandatory sentencing laws, 60 serious crimes are prevented. However, that same $1 million would prevent 160 serious crimes if spent on training and assistance for families at risk or 258 serious crimes if spent on encouraging children to graduate from high school.

If the intent of the Bill is to assist the Garda in carrying out its duties more effectively, I recommend that we consult the recent report of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate. It outlined that issues with vehicles continued to be a source of frustration for many gardaí, including vehicle allocation and concerns over whether some vehicles were fit for purpose. The ability to acquire vehicles is also constrained due to the requirement of adhering to the procurement process while attempting to purchase vehicles on the open market at a time when most vehicle stocks are depleted. Under the current budgetary process, the Garda is tied to an annual plan that does not adequately support a long-term vision. In cases where Garda cars are rammed, what are needed to protect gardaí are better, stronger and more powerful vehicles deployed in areas that are more likely to suffer such incidents.

In order to build public trust in the judicial function, my party and I propose that the State introduces a sentencing council that would provide sentencing guidelines to the Judiciary. Similar councils are in place in England, Wales and Scotland and comprise a good model. This would ensure that sentences handed out for criminal offences in courts are consistent and accountable. A key strength of the sentencing council model is that it involves a range of key stakeholders, such as victim support groups, academics, senior police officers, senior parole officers and the wider public in the process of establishing sentencing guidelines for the Judiciary. As members of the Judiciary would be the majority members of the sentencing council and a senior member of the Judiciary would chair it, they would still be central to the process. However, the sentencing guidelines issued would ensure that the Judiciary stuck to the range provided for the category of offence before it. For example, if we engaged with the public and people involved in the criminal justice system on the question of what the appropriate range of sentences for ramming Garda vehicles was, we could provide a range of sentencing options to judges that would have to be applied in every case. One could achieve the desired level of accountability without there being mandatory sentencing.

Under the council's sentencing guidelines, the Judiciary would also have to indicate clearly why it had sentenced an offender within that range, taking into consideration the impact on the victim and the blameworthiness of the offender. This would ensure consistency and accountability across the court system and the State. Our proposed sentencing council would develop sentencing guidelines, monitor their use and assess their impact on sentencing practice.

It may also be required to consider the impact of policy and legislative proposals on sentencing, when requested by the Government to do so; promote awareness among the public of the realities of sentencing; publish information on sentencing practice in our court system; consider the impact of sentencing decisions on victims; monitor the application of the guidelines, better to predict the effect of them; and play a greater part in promoting understanding of, and increasing public confidence in, sentencing and the criminal justice system.

Sinn Féin understands the motivation behind Deputy Griffin's Bill, but we need to say to the men and women of the Garda Síochána, who are at the front-line dealing with very dangerous criminals and protecting our communities, that we have robust laws and will give them robust resources to deal with that. This Bill is not the proper approach to take and, therefore, we cannot support it. Careful deliberation, consultation and work with the Garda to ensure they receive the resources needed to apply existing laws is needed.

I congratulate Deputy Griffin on having his Bill debated in the House. For a long period, many of us have been looking for reform of the Dáil so that more backbenchers would have their Bills discussed on the floor of the Dáil. Many of us have published Bills during the past five years, most of which have not been debated in the House. I was lucky to have a Bill I proposed incorporated into legislation by the former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar. It is important to signal that backbenchers and other Members have a role to play in proposing legislation. Deputy Griffin has put much time, effort and research into the Bill to get it as far as the Dáil. The Bill was chosen by a lottery system and everyone knows the chances of winning the lottery are quite small. It is like that today. The Deputy has won the lottery - it may only be the Dáil lottery but some of us who are in that lottery system fail to have our balls drawn out, excuse the expression.

I will make a number of comments on the Bill. There should be a minimum sentence for ramming Garda vehicles. We all talk about an upper limit of, for example, ten years but a mandatory minimum sentence for ramming a Garda vehicle might deter criminals. When one examines the situation, most of those involved in criminal activity are repeat offenders and they are not deterred from ramming Garda cars. They have no understanding of the importance of human life. Many of them are on a high, whether from drugs or alcohol, have long criminal records and have no concern for the lives of others on the road, whether it is the life of an ordinary citizen or a garda.

The Garda car is now the Garda office. In most rural areas, where Garda stations have been closed down, the Garda car is a garda's office. We are in the process of recruiting an additional 600 gardaí, which I welcome. The last Fianna Fáil Administration closed down Templemore and this administration has opened it back up again. An additional 600 gardaí will be recruited for 2016 and the Garda vehicle will be their office so we need to provide that office with more protection. Those of us who work in an office would not like someone to come to our office and cause us bodily harm. There is protection for that. The reality of the situation is that most gardaí regard their Garda patrol car, whether marked or unmarked, as their office. Perhaps the Minister of State will consider a minimum sentence for ramming a Garda vehicle.

I welcome the addition of 600 gardaí but I ask the Minister of State to correspond with the Commissioner on this issue. Kildare is one of the most deprived areas in the country in terms of Garda numbers. I am being very parochial. As I have said, most gardaí work from patrol cars.

I welcome Deputy Griffin's Bill. We must protect gardaí who are doing their duty and protecting us against the criminal element, whether first-time or repeat offenders. We need to put in place strong legislation with a strong commitment to make sure there is a huge deterrent to ramming a Garda vehicle. As Deputy Farrell said, we should also consider including the vehicles of the fire and ambulance services in this legislation.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an reachtaíocht seo agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta Brendan Griffin as ucht a chuid oibre ag ullmhú an Bhille seo. Is post an-dainséarach é a bheith i do gharda agus cuideoidh an reachtaíocht seo le cúrsaí sábháilteachta sa Gharda Síochána.

I welcome Deputy Griffin's initiative in producing and publishing the Bill. It is timely because the Government has invested a great deal in the Garda Síochána in recent years in difficult circumstances. It has reopened Templemore and budgeted for an extra 600 gardaí to be recruited in 2016 in addition to the 500 recruited in 2014. It is great to see the Minister's initiative in reopening Templemore and putting gardaí back on the beat. There have been increases in the Garda fleet. There has been €34 million spent on new Garda vehicles since 2012 and an additional €5.3 million will be spent on 260 new Garda cars to assist the gardaí in its pursuit of mobile gangs. That is in addition to the 370 cars that have been added so far this year. There is a commitment on the part of the Government in respect of resources for the Garda, its fleet of vehicles, officer numbers and other initiatives on the establishment of the policing authorities, the planned bail laws and the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill that was introduced recently.

Marked Garda cars are very visible so there can be no excuse that they cannot be seen or known. They are marked to be seen, to act as a deterrent and to denote to everyone that they are different from ordinary cars. That is the important point - no one can say they did not realise it was a Garda car. They are marked differently. Those that are marked are marked differently for that reason. The Deputy has highlighted that and the Bill provides for unmarked cars to be treated differently because unmarked cars and the gardaí who use them are more covert in their operations.

There are other marked vehicles that come under attack, for example. On bonfire night, in particular, there seems to be an increasing number of attacks on ambulances and fire brigade vehicles. I do not know if it is mainly minors who are involved in this type of behaviour but it is equally as despicable as those vehicles are responding to calls from members of the public. The penalties applicable under existing legislation include imprisonment and disqualification from driving. Is there a mandatory sentence or a guide for judges on disqualification from driving?

This Bill will copper-fasten and further highlight the crime of ramming Garda cars and I support its contents. I acknowledge that anybody who rams a Garda car is, by definition, a dangerous driver. If they have no regard for peacekeepers, they certainly have no regard for the ordinary citizens on our streets - our families, children and friends. That must be highlighted by further deterring and highlighting the law on ramming Garda cars. This Bill will achieve that and act as a further deterrent to those people and be a life saver for gardaí and all citizens.

It will make our roads safer. The putting in place of a mandatory sentence of the level provided for in this Bill will surely act as a deterrent to the ramming of Garda vehicles, thereby saving the lives of gardaí and other people on our roads.

I commend Deputy Griffin on the introduction of this Bill and welcome the Minister of State's statement that the Government does not propose to oppose it, although it is likely Committee Stage will be taken by a future Government. It is important every provision possible is put in place to ensure the safety of our peacekeeping forces, including the members of An Garda Síochána who are, in general, unarmed and do a difficult job on our roads and in maintaining peace. I welcome the provisions of this Bill in that regard, which it is hoped will act as a deterrent to those people who might act against our Garda Síochána.

I again thank Deputy Griffin on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality for bringing forth this Bill. It is clear from Deputies' interventions that we are agreed on the need to ensure and, where possible, strengthen the protection of the Garda Síochána in the line of duty. Gardaí frequently find themselves in situations which most of us would not even wish to contemplate. On a daily basis, the Garda Síochána deliberately and voluntarily embrace danger so that we can be safe. This selfless dedication to their vocation deserves not only our recognition and thanks but our practical support.

Those who would cause injury to, or attempt to cause injury to, a fellow citizen deserve to be called to account before the courts. Those who would cause injury to a member of the Garda Síochána in the course of his or her duty must also be brought to book and punishment must be swift and proportionate. As I outlined earlier, the Oireachtas has already legislated in relation to assault of a general nature by way of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Persons Act 1997, which provides for proportionate penalties of up to ten years for assault causing harm and life imprisonment for assault causing serious harm. The Oireachtas has also recognised the special position of peace officers, including members of the Garda Síochána, by way of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, which makes specific provision for assault of a peace officer acting in the execution of his or her duty. The heinous nature of such an assault is recognised by the severity of the penalty of up to seven years imprisonment. The Criminal Damage Act 1991 makes express provision for criminal activity such as the deliberate ramming of a Garda vehicle, which recklessly endangers life, with a penalty in this regard of up to life in prison.

As Deputies will appreciate, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has not been slow in bringing forward legislation in the criminal justice area with a view to enhancing Garda powers and protection and, in doing so, has sought to build on and strengthen existing criminal legislation with a view to ensuring that the perpetrators of crime in our society do not go unpunished. The Minister is supporting the legislative measures which she has brought forward with practical ones. In particular, the increased investment in new Garda vehicles will provide the Garda Síochána with additional high powered vehicles, marked and unmarked patrol cars, cars for surveillance and covert operations, motorcycles for high visibility road policing and vehicles for public order policing, all of which will result in more visible and responsive patrolling of motorways and rural communities, increased surveillance of criminal gangs and enhanced night-time public order policing.

I would like to respond to some of the issues raised during this debate, including the need for refurbishment of Donnybrook Garda station, which was raised by Deputy Eoghan Murphy. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works I will ask my officials to discuss this issue with the Garda housing unit. The Garda station refurbishment programme launched by the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner in Athlone recently provides for an ambitious programme of upgrade and refurbishment of significant Garda stations and the construction of new Garda stations in large centres where they are required. It is only right and proper that our gardaí have facilities that are fit for them to work in and that the public has easy access to such facilities and can expect to visit their gardaí in modern and safe buildings.

The issue of rural crime and burglaries in general was also raised during this debate. This is an issue of which the Minister is very aware. Burglary is a persistent and highly damaging crime. As I mentioned, earlier this year, following an urgent review of the overall approach to dealing with burglaries the Minister published the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015. This legislation targets repeat burglary offenders through bail measures and provisions concerning the imposition of consecutive sentencing for repeat burglary offending. The key objective of this legislation is to target a cohort of persistent offenders who prey on law abiding households and clearly have no concern for the damage and distress which they inflict on others. It is hoped to have this new legislation enacted as soon as possible. When enacted, this legislation will underpin the concerted drive which is now being made by An Garda Síochána against those involved in burglary and other property crimes, which is co-ordinated under Operation Thor. This is a new multi-strand, national anti-crime operation which will entail a broad range of activities to tackle burglars, organised crime gangs and prolific offenders, as well as working with our communities to prevent crime. The Garda approach includes additional high visibility patrols and an increase in checkpoints to tackle criminal gangs using the national road network, of which we have all, I am sure, evidence in our own communities.

In regard to the point raised by Deputy Fleming in relation to the recently published Garda Inspectorate report, I can assure Deputies that the reform agenda currently under way in the justice sector is aimed at modernising the Garda Síochána and ensuring that its resources are used to best effect. In regard to how consideration of the report is to be progressed, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, intends to send that report to all of those to whom recommendations are directed and will request them to respond within a reasonably short timeframe, having regard to the size and scope of the report.

The Minister understands and thanks Deputy Griffin for his sincere motives in bringing forth this Bill and for the opportunity it provides us as a House to reassert and send out a message of support to members of An Garda Síochána as they go about their daily business on behalf of all of our communities. The Minister in supporting the underlying objective of this Bill does not intend to oppose it.

I thank all Members who contributed to this debate, which I think has been helpful in highlighting the problems in this area and what we can do to extend further protection to members of An Garda Síochána. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, for coming to the House to deal with the Bill. I welcome that the Government is not opposing the Bill.

As I said earlier, what I am interested in is the achievement of the ultimate goal of this legislation. I am open to any amendments or technical changes that would make this stronger legislation and thus better law and thereby extend the maximum level of protection to An Garda Síochána. I am open to whatever needs to be done to ensure that is achieved. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the Department of Justice and Equality since her appointment as Minister with responsibility for that Department. She has been a proactive and reforming Minister and has shown great mettle in her Department. I commend her for her work on the legislation on burglaries, bail and tagging, which is an issue I have been raising for a number of years. I believe we need to utilise technology to the best possible advantage of this State. There is a role in this regard for electronic tagging and it should be pursued.

I thank Deputy Sean Fleming for his contribution. I was not aware that 53% of Garda vehicles are unmarked. While I am sure each of those vehicles is needed it is important the percentage of Garda vehicles that are unmarked is reduced. I know that the process of expansion of the fleet has commenced and I acknowledge the great work that is being done in that regard and the unprecedented investment in this area. As I said, what we need now is for all Garda vehicles, in terms of there being high power and high speed capabilities, to be the norm rather than the exception. Deputy Fleming's proposal in relation to GPS monitoring and driver-training is helpful and needs to be considered in the future. I acknowledge that a Bill brought forward by Fianna Fáil proposed the putting in place of CCTV surveillance on our motorway network, similar to that proposed by me in this Bill in relation to strategic rural locations. This proposal, if pursued, could have a positive impact in this area.

I thank Deputy Harrington for his contribution. The Deputy spoke about an issue that is at the very heart of this Bill, namely, the lack of respect for members of An Garda Síochána that has crept in slowly over time. This trend of loss of respect needs to be reversed. We should never allow a situation whereby a police force is beyond question but equally we should never allow a situation whereby gardaí in the course of their duty are spat at or verbally or physically abused.

That is central to what I am trying to prevent because the criminals who perpetrate the crime I am trying to clamp down on do not think twice about what they do, and that is the nub of the problem. They have a general lack of respect for An Garda Síochána and the uniform and that needs to change. Deputy Harrington equates this crime to attempted murder. He is right and there can be no soft line on this.

I thank Deputy Eoghan Murphy for his contribution. He referred in particular to the opportunity that will arise with the improving economy and the recovery in public finances to better resource gardaí. There will be a great opportunity and it is about prioritising expenditure. We have significant catching up to do but a great start has been made and we need to keep that going. As the Deputy said, an attack on a garda is an attack on us all. Gardaí are on the front line. They are vulnerable and they put themselves between the criminals and communities and individuals, and therefore they need additional protection. They need to be treated differently in the eyes of the law because they are doing a special job.

Unfortunately, as Deputy Farrell pointed out, 88 members of the force have lost their lives in the course of their duties protecting citizens since 1922. That is an incredible number when one considers that even in the House today, the highest number of Members to participate in a division was approximately 60. Gardaí do an amazing and remarkable job and everybody in the House needs to give them 100% support. Deputy Farrell, like many others, referred to the need for high-powered vehicles to give gardaí the best opportunity. He also referred to attacks on other emergency services personnel, to which I also referred in my opening contribution. Perhaps the spirit of this law could be incorporated into laws that protect these personnel. Deputy Kyne referred to difficulties the emergency service personnel face on bonfire night. Unfortunately, attacking emergency personnel is not seen in enough people's eyes as a line that should not be crossed. People should be in no doubt that this is unacceptable. This is so far past the line that it cannot be seen anymore. Such attacks should not happen, but unfortunately they do.

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn for his contribution and for his research on the issue. I am open to differing views on this legislation. We agree on much more than we disagree and I welcome his comments on establishing a sentencing council and doing things differently. Perhaps that needs to be explored but my fear is that, in a criminal's mind, it is an option to ram a Garda vehicle when he is trying to evade arrest by gardaí and it is not the exception. We need to make every effort to expunge that mindset. I call on Sinn Féin not to oppose the Bill. There will be an opportunity, on a later Stage one hopes, to make a contribution on what can be done to strengthen this law to make it the best possible to protect gardaí. If we could take an all-party approach to this, it would send out a strong message. The Deputy's input is welcome and would be welcome again on a later Stage.

Deputy Lawlor referred to the developing trend of patrol cars being used as offices by members. A number of my good friends have joined the force and they spend a great deal of time out and about in the patrol car. Given the hours they spend in it, they are more vulnerable and this legislation is trying to address this issue and increase protection for them. The Deputy also acknowledged that criminals do not see a deterrent for their behaviour, and that needs to be tackled.

Deputy Kyne referred to the number of new Garda vehicles that have been brought into service. It is a move in the right direction and we need to keep going that way. The Deputy referred to high-powered vehicles in particular, and I welcome his comments. We need to balance the scales and give gardaí the best opportunity. As the Deputy said, if they do not think twice about attacking a peacekeeper, children or other vulnerable people will not come into their thoughts. We cannot tolerate that and, therefore, we cannot take a soft approach. There is no excuse for that behaviour and, as a Parliament, we need to come down heavy on it.

I thank all those who contributed. The Bill is trying to extend more protections to gardaí, which will mean more protection for citizens. As a Parliament, we could all work together on this to bring forward the best possible law and perhaps extend it to cover emergency services personnel. I hope it will progress.

Question put and agreed to.