I call Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.
Rural Crime: Motion
I believe I have three minutes, a Chathaoirligh. Is that correct? I am sharing time with colleagues.
Yes. There is a very limited number of minutes and a long list.
"That Dáil Éireann:
— the fear that exists in local communities posed by the threat of crime to people and their property;
— the failure of the Government to respond to the need for extra, and more visible, Gardaí on the ground in local communities;
— the increased ability of criminal gangs to access rural areas because of the improved motorway network;
— the absence of any Garda stations in large areas of rural communities; and
— the growing intolerance of local communities to organised acts of criminal violence and burglary;
— the success of An Garda Síochána in fighting certain types of crime provided they are given political priority by the Government;
— the support that exists in local communities for an Garda Síochána and the fight against crime;
— the organized and repeated criminal activity being carried out by criminal gangs; and
— that the closure of many rural Garda stations has made many rural communities more vulnerable to criminal activity; and
— an increase of the number of Gardaí on the ground in local communities;
— the reopening of Garda stations in rural areas that are vulnerable to criminal activity and without a nearby 24 hour Garda presence;
— the increase in funding and support for Garda controlled CCTV that can be used by An Garda Síochána to detect and deter criminal activity;
— the encouragement and promotion of GPS tracking and location devices to help protect against the robbery of farming machinery and equipment;
— the amendment of our bail laws to make electronic monitoring a condition of bail, where an application for bail is made by a person who has been convicted of a serious offence in the ten years prior to the application, or where the person is alleged to have committed the offence whilst on bail for a separate offence; and
— the introduction of a mechanism whereby the cost of the legal aid granted can be recouped from a person charged and convicted of an offence if that person’s financial means substantially change."
I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of rural crime and the fear that people are exposed to in rural communities due to the threat posed by crime. Since I have been justice spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, I have been very aware and conscious of the level of fear that exists among communities, particularly but not exclusively rural communities, due to the threat posed to them by crime. The particular crime which is most prevalent and causes most fear is that of burglary or aggravated burglary. We saw recently a vicious example of it in County Offaly in respect of Richie McKelvey. However, as the House will hear from my colleagues, it is not the case that this just operates in small sections of Ireland. Unfortunately, it is common throughout the country.
We need to recognise that there is an obligation on the State, the Government and the Oireachtas to take steps in response to the threat posed by crime. We have seen before how the State can respond positively and successfully to criminal activity when there is political consensus and the Garda is adequately resourced. We saw that in respect of the Kinahan-Hutch feud, where the Garda has been very successful because of the resourcing it received. We also see it at a lower level in respect of road traffic offences, where the Garda is very effective, notwithstanding recent issues, in terms of observing whether road traffic law is obeyed.
We now need to apply the same enthusiasm and diligence to the issue of burglary and those crimes which are in the middle and do not get as much public attention but which require just as much State support. The motion before the House this evening seeks to do a number of things. We have a number of proposals that we would like the Government to take on board. First and foremost, we believe it is essential that we get more gardaí on our streets. The presence of gardaí on streets acts as a great form of confidence to people in communities, particularly rural communities.
Second, I think that we can agree the decision made by the Government in 2013 to close rural Garda stations was a mistake. The saving that was achieved was minimal but the effect it has had on the confidence of people and local communities has been great. They are living in great fear, particularly when they believe, and they are correct in this regard, that they do not have access to a live, active Garda station unless there is one which could be about 30 or 40 miles away.
We also need to get more innovative in fighting crime. Criminals are using technology and we need to use technology to fight it. The best example of that is CCTV. The Government has rolled out a scheme for local communities. We need to have a system of CCTV schemes operated by the Garda so that it can use the footage gained by CCTV cameras to fight and detect crime.
We also need to look at the bail laws. I have stated previously that 13% of the people who committed crimes in 2016 committed them while out on bail. I can give further examples but I do not want to given the time. However, something needs to be done about it. We will bring forward legislation next week or the week after setting out our proposals to amend the Bail Act.
I second the motion. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, the motion is a response to the many burglaries and aggravated burglaries throughout the country and, in particular, the heinous crime carried out on Richie McKelvey at his place of residence. I send our best wishes to him and congratulate the extended community in Coolderry, including the IFA, those involved in the community alert programme, Muintir na Tíre, and everyone who helped to ensure that this issue was brought front and centre as it relates to the national situation. Having attended many public meetings, I know that there is a lot of anger, frustration and, most important, fear. In response, I welcome the establishment of a task force in Laois-Offaly. It is long overdue but it is welcome, especially when one considers that in Offaly there is now only 140 gardaí while in 2010, before the recruitment process began, there was 148. That needs to be noted and acted on. There is a pressing need for improved Garda resources in terms of equipment and Garda numbers and, as my colleague said, the reopening of Garda stations. The onus and responsibility to provide security is on the State and this is the first line of that defence. It is incumbent on the Government to act accordingly.
As has been said, we want to assist industry and farming communities with the electronic monitoring of their equipment so that it can be traced.
We want to help communities with a more productive method of allowing CCTV, especially off motorways and at the main junctions but also in communities. The onerous methodology that exists at present is proving the need for this. There are associated costs that local communities cannot bear. I hope that under the CLÁR scheme, for example, an effort will be made to accommodate the provision of such facilities in communities to help them.
Repeat offenders on bail should be electronically tagged and monitored, and not allowed to run rampant, as they are doing. Legal aid for repeat offenders should be questioned.
I heard late last night that the Minister paid a visit to my constituency. He visited the Garda station in Newcastle West, which is in need of refurbishment works, as he knows. Had I known he was there, I would have come along. I would have pointed out to him that the relatively new Garda station down the road in Abbeyfeale is open for only a small number of hours per day. This station was opened in late 2006 by the then Minister, Michael McDowell. There is a glaring need for that purpose-built Garda station to be open much more to serve the local community in Abbeyfeale.
On the other side of County Limerick, the Bruff district has not had a permanent superintendent for a long period. We have had many fine superintendents passing through the place. Currently, there is a very good acting superintendent. I ask the Minister to direct his efforts towards securing a permanent superintendent for the Bruff district.
There are two other points I want to make. Limerick suffered a catastrophic loss in its number of gardaí during the years of the moratorium. We are still well behind the curve in catching up. We have fared very poorly in terms of the recruitment allocation from Templemore.
My last point is on the provision of CCTV. The scheme administered by the Department is a joke. People who apply are not being awarded grant aid towards the provision of CCTV. The application process is completely complicated and convoluted, as the Minister well knows. We are running a pilot scheme in Limerick throughout our joint policing committee, of which I am a member. It is quite successful. In conjunction with the local authority and the gardaí, we are rolling out the scheme right across the county. I ask the Minister and his Department to partner up with the joint policing committee in Limerick and roll out the scheme in more communities across the county and the rest of the country.
The issue of rural crime is real but this Government consistently plays down the problem, telling us the figures are actually going down rather than up. What is going down is the reporting of crime, not the crime rate itself. I commend my colleague for bringing this motion to the House. It has three key objectives. The first is to help gardaí. Two aspects of this are increasing Garda numbers and reopening stations. We need to do this. The second objective is helping communities to help themselves. This comes in the guise of increasing resources to produce CCTV footage, not by putting cameras everywhere but by putting them in key locations where gardaí can obtain information to help find criminals when they carry out crimes.
On the tracking of machinery and parts, we know farms, in particular, are being targeted because they have valuable machinery, plant, livestock and diesel. Sophisticated gangs are targeting farmyards.
We need to address the deficiencies in our legal system. With regard to bail laws, we need to tackle the re-offending by people who are on bail. It must not be allowed to happen. It is reasonable to bring in electronic monitoring to reduce re-offending in this regard.
If people who get legal aid and who are subsequently convicted come into money later, the State should be reimbursed. This is a reasonable suggestion that would be supported across this House. It would let people know that we take crime seriously and are not soft on criminals.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this motion brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. Crime is a serious issue in all communities, both rural and urban, as the Minister is well aware. I attended a public meeting last Thursday night in Rathcoffey, which is one of many rural communities in my constituency. It was attended by 120 people. The two main issues that arose at the meeting were additional resources on the ground and the bail laws. There is a massive problem when people caught committing an offence are visible in the community within 24 hours. This is very upsetting for the victims and all who suffer as a consequence of the crime.
In Kildare at present, we probably suffer more than most. Kildare is a commuter county on the outskirts of Dublin. It has one garda for every 650 people. Most other counties have perhaps one garda for every 400 people. While we are waiting on resources to come through, perhaps the Garda Commissioner could rebalance resources to help counties such as County Kildare, which is suffering drastically, has very low Garda numbers, is under-resourced and is a target for crime. We need to see the imbalance addressed as a matter of urgency to help people living in both urban and rural communities.
I had the opportunity to meet the Minister and discuss the difficulties in the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division. I highlighted through parliamentary questions in this House and in other debates that, since 2010, our division suffered one of the most severe reductions in Garda numbers. There was a reduction of 28% in Garda numbers in County Monaghan and 20% in County Cavan. I appeal to the Minister again to use his good offices to ensure we get a decent allocation when the next recruits are being assigned to various Garda stations. We lost nine Garda stations in the period in question.
The Cavan-Monaghan Garda division has a land border with counties in another jurisdiction, namely, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh. There are additional policing pressures on the Garda because of the land border with another jurisdiction. As the Minister is well aware, policing is very light north of the Border, to put it mildly. There are criminals who regard it as very easy to get out of our jurisdiction and into another. We have a huge problem with rural crime and the targeting of the farming community. I appeal to the Minister to ensure Garda numbers are restored substantially in the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division because crime in both counties is on the increase, unfortunately.
No level of crime is acceptable. Trying to tackle it is a difficult job. We have to argue our case with the Commissioner. One cannot go to the table unless one has one's facts and figures. Certainly in Meath, the figures stand out and tell their own story. The Meath chief superintendent, Mr. Fergus Healy, spoke at a public meeting of concerned citizens in Trim last month. I have echoed his words to the Minister before. He stated Meath has the lowest proportion of gardaí per capita in the country, with one garda for every 661 persons. In sharp contrast, Sligo-Leitrim has one garda for every 327. The deployment of an additional 22 gardaí in Meath this year is welcome. I welcomed it publicly but the reality is that for the chief superintendent to use them, he is only standing still. There is now no scope for him even to start to tackle the deficiencies in rural areas, such as Oldcastle, Longwood and Enfield, because the big towns are immediately soaking up the resources. We need action of the kind Deputy Frank O'Rourke talked about in rebalancing the force.
The Garda will tell one that when a small cohort of known criminals is behind bars, the crime rate can drop by as much as 50%. Is it any wonder we have a problem when one in eight is out on bail or re-offending? The figures show us that eight people die every year as a result of people out on bail committing crime. There were 84 cases in the past ten years. All one has to do is read any local newspaper or listen to any provincial radio station to realise this. Headlines in my constituency in recent weeks have referred to kidnap terror, thieves targeting car pools on the motorway, the theft of 14 cattle and a local judge calling for politicians to support the establishment of a special drugs court. That is only a snapshot.
Our role is to offer solutions. I propose, along with others, that the €4 million the Minister has allocated for the community CCTV scheme be rolled out through the Garda Síochána, with the Garda Síochána and others concerned to be data controllers in respect of the local authority.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, for tabling this motion and for sharing his time with us. My party is very conscious of rural crime and is willing to do something about it. As usual, we are willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, unlike other parties in this Chamber. It is proven that a Garda presence reduces crime and gives locals a sense of security. On the Minister's desk at present, there are applications for the reopening of Garda stations in Ballinspittle and Adrigole in west Cork. I ask him to consider them because we really need to have the stations opened.
As my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, outlined, there is a crisis in Cavan and Monaghan when it comes to rural crime
I spoke to the Minister in respect of this issue last week. As I informed him, 16 homes within an eight-mile radius of Cootehill were broken into. The Garda station there operates on restricted hours. The Minister is aware that the force has been stripped of its resources in recent years. The number of sergeants in the district has almost halved. The Government announced a new Garda station for Bailieborough two years ago but not as much as a brick has been laid in order to provide such a resource to allow the force to do its job. Visibility is crucial in order for communities to have comfort and security.
I thank Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. We need boots on the ground. The extra allocation of gardaí is welcome. In Mayo, we need to take account of the presence of the international airport and to allow extra gardaí to be stationed there. We need to upgrade Swinford Garda station to a 24-hour facility. It is in the middle of the county in east Mayo where there is no 24-hour station.
In the context of CCTV, I agree that we need community schemes but we also need to invest in mobile CCTV vans that can move between areas and operate in partnership with local authorities in the context of litter prevention. We must get serious about repeat offenders. Why is it that when certain people are released from prison, there is a spike in the number of burglaries? There is a constant pattern in this regard that we must address. We need a sense of ownership of this issue, particularly at this time of year. As a rural Deputy, the Minister has a better understanding of this issue than most of his predecessors.
In the aftermath of a number of serious crimes, it is important that those who engage in rampant criminality are sent a strong, clear message that attacks on older and vulnerable people - or any person - will not be tolerated and will attract serious punishment. The reopening of rural Garda stations is essential in terms of delivering a more effective policing service. As a member of my local community alert group, I compliment local communities on fighting back, becoming more aware and working with gardaí to be their eyes and ears on the ground and reporting suspicious activity to them. In a recently solved case in my home town, an elderly gentleman had his house broken into when he was out and about in the town. His life savings were taken. Thankfully, through the excellent work of the Garda, the culprits were apprehended. Unfortunately, because he did not know how much cash he had in the house, we do not know whether he got all of it back.
In light of the number of Fianna Fáil Deputies who want to contribute to this debate, it could go on for a full day. Members are trying to get their points across in a minute or a minute and a half. That shows the level of frustration and fear that exists across the country, not just in rural areas but also in urban ones. In bringing forward this motion, we want to highlight the issue. We want to send a powerful message that this is one of the top issues. All of the Deputies who will contribute to this debate operate in their communities and their constituents are telling them about their experiences and their fears. Every part of the country has been affected by a spate of burglaries and we need the Government to tune in to this crisis.
Deputy O'Callaghan facilitated a meeting last week and it could have gone on for hours as people outlined their genuine experiences. Young people, old people and everyone else experiences fear because of crime in communities. A clear and strong message must go out to the effect that this is a real crisis that is facing communities.
I welcome the opportunity to support the motion. Local gardaí have been lost from many areas. Their children grew up in the communities and they held the trust of the community and were respected but we have lost that. Currently, there is approximately one squad car covering a 40-mile radius. Let us be honest, that will not solve the problem.
The bail laws and issues relating to sentencing need to be sorted out. Community groups are willing to help but one can be called a vigilante if one tries to solve a problem. Trackers might be a help but criminals are able to blow them up by crossing wires. We need to make sure that we look at every angle to deal with the issue.
I have said openly - and I repeat now - that people should be able to protect themselves from the scumbags who come into their areas. I am aware of people who lock the front door, the door going up the stairs and their bedroom doors. I have mooted the use of Tasers and sprays and people have given out about it but when a poll was carried out by the Irish Independent 81% of people said we need to do something about it. Teachtaí Dála are messengers to the House. We must ensure that people are helped and that they do not live in fear in their homes.
We must examine the position regarding legal aid. What is going on is crazy. The criminals are laughing at the State and their victims and are running riot in rural areas. That cannot be allowed to happen. We must do whatever is necessary to allow the use of CCTV and introduce whatever other legislative measures are needed. In America, there is a new drone system that can fly at night. It can be used in a particular parish or other specified area to cover everything. The system has night vision. Whatever measures or funding need to be introduced we must do it as we cannot allow the people of this country, especially the elderly, to be victims and to live in their homes in fear while these scumbags are going around the country.
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
— all criminality and reaffirms its strong commitment to upholding law and order; and
— recent violent burglaries and wishes to see the perpetrators of such crimes brought to justice;
— that in rural locations there is a particular fear and concern about burglaries; that community policing plays a key part in responding to crime by taking into account and responding to local conditions and needs; and
— the crucial importance of front line policing, noting that the Government has provided for the recruitment of 4,000 civilians by 2021 so that Gardaí can undertake core policing roles;
— that the closure of the Garda College by a previous Government in 2010 has left a legacy in terms of policing numbers and strongly reaffirms the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to ensure a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and deter crime;
— the positive partnerships with community and farming organisations and An Garda Síochána that help enhance safety measures in rural properties;
— the importance of rural dwellers knowing the Eircode for their property which can help An Garda Síochána to locate addresses in an emergency;
— the value of special operations to target organised crime, in particular Operation Thor which has resulted in more than 92,040 targeted checkpoints nationwide and in the region of 6,130 arrests connected to offences including burglary, handling stolen property, possession of firearms, and drug offences;
— that since Operation Thor was launched in November 2015, burglary figures have been going down – by 30 per cent in quarter four of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015;
— the importance of people resisting the temptation to highlight the existence of checkpoints on social media, having regard to the fact that such information may be useful to criminals; and
— the constitutional right to criminal legal aid on foot of a means test where serious legal charges are brought;
— the policing advice that Garda patrols are particularly effective in crime prevention and detection;
— that since the Garda College was re-opened in September 2014, 1,400 new recruits have attested;
— that 200 further new recruits are scheduled to attest next month, bringing Garda numbers up to 13,500 by the end of the year;
— the successful operations carried out by An Garda Síochána nationwide and the recovery of machinery, farm equipment and other stolen property and the importance of marking property with an Eircode to assist the Garda to retrieve stolen property; and
— that on foot of a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, at the request of the Policing Authority, is carrying out a review of the dispersal and use of resources available to An Garda Síochána in the delivery of policing services to local communities;
welcomes and supports:
— the Government’s plans to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 Reserve members and 4,000 civilians;
— the introduction of 720 new Garda vehicles since the start of 2015;
— the 3,700 community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes nationwide;
— the Garda text alert scheme as an effective means for gardaí to communicate crime prevention information to local communities, noting that the scheme is now offered in every Garda division and with 164,000 subscribers and counting and in the order of three million text messages sent annually;
— the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 2017, strengthening the laws on bail and amending provisions on electronic monitoring to facilitate the targeted use of those provisions in bail cases where they will be most effective;
— the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 which targets repeat burglars who have previous convictions and who are charged with multiple offences of residential burglary;
— the significant financial supports provided to An Garda Síochána by this Government to tackle rural crime;
— the provision of €100 million in Garda overtime in budget 2018 to ensure a strong policing presence throughout the country;
— the provision of some €330 million, including €205 million under the capital investment plan 2016 – 2021, being invested in Garda ICT infrastructure over the period 2016 to 2021, to enable them to carry out their work in the most efficient manner;
— the provision of €46 million in funding for Garda vehicles as part of the capital investment plan 2016 – 2021; and
— the actions taken by the Garda Commissioner to tackle rural crime, noting in particular, the creation of new task forces;
— people to participate in the Garda text alert scheme and the community and neighbourhood watch scheme;
— the public to mark all equipment machinery with an Eircode to assist with the return of stolen property;
— communities to avail of community CCTV schemes, noting the €1 million funding announced earlier this year; and
— qualifying persons to register for the seniors alert scheme; and reaffirms the unwavering support of this House for members of An Garda Síochána and the life-threatening work they do every day on behalf of the Irish people and the unique role of gardaí as guardians of the peace.
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan and his colleagues for providing an opportunity to address the topic of rural crime in this House. I acknowledge the importance of public safety. This is a priority for all Deputies, particularly those with largely rural constituencies. I know Deputy O'Callaghan is an active Dublin Deputy but he has family roots in Kerry in particular. I have carefully considered the motion put forward in his name and those of his colleagues and I have decided that an amendment is appropriate because I cannot support the motion. The amendment approved by Government today is lengthy and detailed and captures the breath of priority we rightly apportion to preserving the safety of communities throughout the State.
I am of the firm belief that all Deputies in this House are striving to achieve the same goal, namely, the elimination of all forms of crime that affect communities. I have listened to the various contributions here tonight and I have taken notes on the positive aspects of what has been said. I look forward to hearing further contributions in the course of the debate before its conclusion. I know the debate will be constructive and I hope there will not be any attempts at political point scoring or the rewriting of history. The reality is that a wide range of Government supports are in place; there are high levels of resourcing; and there are a number of schemes that I hope Deputies will encourage members of the public and local communities to participate in.
As a Minister who has represented a largely rural constituency for almost three decades, I assure the House that I am very much aware of the impact incidents of rural crime have on families and the communities in which they work and reside. Over the years, I have known many victims of crime in both urban and rural settings. Such incidents that are often horrific and vicious in nature cannot be tolerated in society - indeed, we do not tolerate them. They are subject to robust laws and robust policing and the Government will continue to dedicate significant resources to support An Garda Síochána in tackling gangs, including mobile criminal gangs, who specifically target rural areas. The House remains committed to a vigorous and comprehensive response to burglary, theft and other property related crime. This response is adaptable to changing circumstances including changes in the modus operandi of the criminal gangs who would target citizens. I am conscious that there have been many references to criminal gangs. I reassure the House that such gangs are relentlessly targeted by An Garda Síochána which continue to monitor the activities of criminal gangs who seek to target all areas of the country. An Garda Síochána is experiencing considerable success in targeting those gangs and implementing strong policing measures to disrupt and dismantle their networks, some to very good effect in recent times.
The House will appreciate that the deployment of Garda resources, including personnel, to specific areas is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. In taking these decisions, the Commissioner is privy to intelligence that no one in this House can second-guess. The Garda Commissioner assures me that Garda management constantly monitors the distribution of these resources in light of criminal trends and overall policing needs at local level. This applies equally in urban and rural settings.
As the Deputies will be aware, with the implementation of Operation Thor, An Garda Síochána has already mounted a highly effective and determined drive against criminals who seek to prey on vulnerable householders. The scale of Garda activity against burglary and property-related crime under Operation Thor has led to concentrated Garda activity resulting to date in over 92,000 targeted checkpoints and 71,700 crime prevention patrols throughout the country. This concentrated policing activity on the part of the Garda has produced in the region of 6,130 arrests and 6,920 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, include handling stolen property, possession of firearms and many drugs offences. Significant resources have been provided to An Garda Síochána, including an overtime allocation of €100 million announced in budget 2018, to support large-scale policing operations, including Operation Thor.
I note that Operation Thor has now entered the winter phase, which will run from 29 October to 1 April next. In addition, Operation Thor has targeted mobile criminal gangs engaged in burglary and related crimes. It is encouraging to note that since the launch of the operation in November 2015 burglary figures have shown a significant downward trend. Deputies will be aware that Central Statistics Office official recorded crime statistics for 2016 show a decrease in burglary offences of 30% when compared to the previous 12-month period in 2015. This reflects the success of the concerted Garda drive against crime being implemented under Operation Thor. It should also be noted that crime prevention officers actively engage with community groups to promote the safer communities campaign and advise residents on a regular basis of ways to increase their personal safety and the security of their property.
Deputy O'Callaghan and others referenced the need for legislative response. As part of the concerted strategy to combat burglary, the Government has made it a priority to secure the enactment of specific legislation to target prolific burglars in the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015. The provisions are now available to gardaí to support prosecutions arising from Operation Thor. Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014 introduced the DNA database. This provides gardaí with links of investigation or hits between people and unsolved crimes, including burglaries. It is anticipated that this will further assist in improving detection rates for burglary over the coming months.
The area of bail law has attracted the attention of Deputies opposite. As part of the Government's response to crime, one of our major objectives is to focus on the key area of strengthening the law to get tougher on serious and repeat offenders. In that context, the new Criminal Justice Act 2017, enacted in June, fulfils a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The Act specifically provides that the courts must have regard to persistent serious offending by an applicant seeking bail. Among its key provisions, the Act expands the factors that a court may take into account in refusing bail to include the extent to which previous convictions for serious offences indicate persistent serious offending as well as the likelihood of any danger to a person or the community that could be caused by the release of the accused on bail. Where bail is granted, the Act increases the range of conditions that may be attached to include prohibiting contact by the accused with the victim or the victim's family and the imposition of curfews in communities. The Act also provides a Garda power of arrest without warrant where a condition of bail is breached and it is necessary to arrest the person immediately to prevent harm to the victim or a witness. Section 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2017 amends the existing provisions for the electronic monitoring of persons on bail to facilitate the focused and targeted use of monitoring in cases where it is most likely to be effective. The Act provides that electronic monitoring may be imposed as a bail condition if the prosecution applies to the court for such a condition.
To facilitate the implementation of these provisions, my Department is currently chairing a working group comprising officials from the Department of Justice and Equality, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The group has been tasked with examining a range of issues surrounding the implementation of electronic monitoring in an Irish context. I expect the report to come to me before the end of the year. In recent times I have had talks with the New Zealand Police Commissioner and I observed the operation of electronic monitoring devices. It is clear that targeted use can be effective but that these devices by no means represent a magic bullet and that multiple responses are required.
The programme for Government commits to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country to maintain and strengthen community engagement, to provide reassurance to citizens and deter crime. The budget will support the continuation of the high level of investment in the Garda workforce and ensure that the overall vision of a workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains firmly on-track. A further 800 new Garda recruits will enter the Garda College and an additional 500 civilians will also be recruited to fill critical skills gaps throughout the organisation and to facilitate the redeployment of gardaí from technical and administrative duties to front-line operational duties. In addition, there are plans to strengthen the Garda Reserve with new reservists expected to commence training early in 2018.
We must all remain vigilant in the fight against all forms of criminality in our communities. I assure Deputies that the Garda Commissioner and I remain in ongoing contact to counter new and emerging crime trends. Operation Thor has proved successful to date and the Government remains committed to ensuring that An Garda Síochána will have the necessary resources to tackle crime in our communities.
Later, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee, and my constituency colleague, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, will address the House on other measures raised, including CCTV, the highly successful community text alert programme, and criminal legal aid, as well as further actions being taken by An Garda Síochána in the fight against rural crime. I urge communities to avail of the range of schemes in place and to work with local gardaí and their local joint policing committee to ensure we win the fight against crime and criminality in our communities.
Next we will hear from the Sinn Féin Members. Deputies Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Brian Stanley, Martin Kenny and Pat Buckley will share 15 minutes.
I gather I have to move an amendment.
You cannot do that, Deputy. You have to wait until the other amendment is disposed of.
I am still getting used to the procedures. We will be supporting the motion although we have tabled an amendment that we believe improves it.
There is no question but that the issue of rural crime has been significant in recent months and probably for longer. I am aware of several horrific attacks in which people have been terrorised in respect of their property, health, and welfare and safety. This is a cause of great concern.
This has been contributed to by the reduction in cover over many years in the number of gardaí and Garda stations in rural areas. Specifically – this point is addressed in the amendment – a key factor is the proportion of dedicated community gardaí. The number has fallen significantly since 2010 and there is no sign of the position improving. Community gardaí play an important role especially in the co-ordination of community alerts as well as in developing knowledge of the community, the people of the community and improving the local intelligence of the gardaí. We believe they have a significant role to play.
We call for greater powers and scope to be given to the joint policing committees as well as increasing their numbers. As things stand, the county or city-wide joint policing committees are simply policy bodies. A more localised model would allow people to give specific feedback on issues that are happening in their communities. I am aware that some areas operate community policing forums. I believe this should be formalised. There is a role for them in this regard.
We have some reservations in respect of the use of electronic tags without judicial discretion, as proposed in the motion. This does not leave discretion to the judge and the manner in which the motion is worded suggests a person could be tagged without necessarily having been convicted of a prior offence, but merely alleged to have committed an offence. That is a difficulty. I am concerned that the widespread use of electronic tagging would create difficulties. I believe there is a possibility that it would be chosen as an option or alternative form of justice or punishment as opposed to non-custodial or custodial sentences as a form of halfway house.
We need to be conscious of this aspect.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust and Irish Council of Civil Liberties have argued that the unjustified and excessive use of pre-trial detention and electronic tagging impacts on the right to liberty and presumption of innocence. Any proposal to introduce electronic tagging should take into account the safeguards recommended by the Council of Europe, including that it should be proportionate and take account of the impact it would have on families and third parties. In particular, attention should be paid to regulating the use of data collected in the framework of electronic monitoring. In many circumstances, these monitoring systems are operated by private companies, which gives rise to data protection and other issues.
While Sinn Féin has some reservations about the widespread use of electronic tagging, we recognise nonetheless the value of the motion and its intent. It also makes a number of recommendations that would be useful in tackling rural crime.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, while we agree with the thrust of the motion, questions arise about some of its elements. Needless to say, rural crime is causing great concern and constant fear. Crimes are being committed on farms and businesses and against ordinary householders. It is not an exaggeration to state that unfortunately many people are living in fear in their homes. This is the first issue to be addressed.
As the Minister will be aware from our constituency, many people in the midlands, including counties Laois, Offaly and south County Kildare, are living in fear. This is horrendous and must change. More gardaí must be deployed to rural areas and all of us, whether members of the Government or Opposition or citizens, must wake up to the need to deal with rural crime. That the problem is widespread and a major issue in County Laois is evident in the local press, which features weekly reports on extensive crime being carried out across my constituency. Unfortunately, some crimes are not reported in the media because they are not reported to the Garda in the first instance.
A couple of weeks ago, the Minister claimed the number of burglaries in County Laois had declined. That statement is incorrect as the figure has increased by 60%. The most recent meeting of the joint policing committee, of which I am member, heard that 67 burglaries were reported in the third quarter of 2016 and the figure for the third quarter of 2017 soared to 106. I make this point to emphasise the need for further work to be done in this area. The 106 burglaries were committed in the period of July, August and September when it is still bright in the evening. If we extrapolate this figure to the entire year, we would have 424 burglaries in the county. It is safe to assume - it is a well known fact - that the number of burglaries tends to increase in the winter months.
Serious crime affects all parts of County Laois. Recently, in an unfortunate incident in Stradbally, 1 km of copper cable belonging to a company providing a service in the community was stolen and telephone wire was stolen in the Tinnahinch area. A stolen jeep being pursued by gardaí crashed in Clonaslee and people would have been killed if anyone had been on the street at the time. In another incident, shots were fired at gardaí by the occupants of a stolen car in Monasterevin. Countless burglaries have also taken place. The list goes on. The Garda is making some inroads, however, including a recent drugs find valued at approximately €1 million. This significant discovery shows the value of having the drugs squad up and running again, as Sinn Féin demanded at the joint policing committee for several years.
Behind all of these statistics, there are victims. The vulnerability experienced by people in rural areas after being burgled cannot be overstated. The invasion of privacy causes anxiety and fear which are impacting on people.
Specialist Garda units are needed. The superintendent in Laois-Offaly reported to us that one such unit is being re-established in the region. This unit will be highly effective because it will target travelling criminals who move at night from property to property as they target people. We need more specialist units. We have to get back to basics because one cannot beat community gardaí. While I acknowledge that we cannot have a garda at every crossroads, gardaí need to get to know people in their locality and people need to get to know the local gardaí. Close co-operation is needed.
I have seen the benefits of closed circuit television in Borris-in-Ossory and other areas. These systems have helped to solve serious crimes and significant criminals have been put out of business as a result of their effectiveness. The Data Protection Commissioner has raised questions regarding the increased use of CCTV systems. Someone should tell the commissioner to relax a little.
I ask the Minister to consider the use of restorative justice, which has been an effective tool in other countries. Judge Mary Martin was, I understand, involved in a pilot restorative justice project in County Tipperary. Under this model, the perpetrator pays full compensation to the victim over several years. He or she should repay every penny, even if it takes 30 or 40 years to do so. Restorative justice would save the State money because fewer people would be sent to prison and reoffending rates would decline. Another important aspect of restorative justice programmes is that they provide justice to victims and, most important, they force perpetrators to make good the crime they committed and the damage they have done to the victim. I ask the Minister to consider extending the use of restorative justice. I say this constructively because the concept is absent from our justice system. I would also like greater use of the community alert scheme and more co-operation with the Garda.
I support the motion. My constituency of Sligo-Leitrim is rural and sparsely populated. Many people living in rural areas, particularly in isolated farmhouses, are fearful of strangers arriving. This is a widespread phenomenon. It is important to note, however, that rural areas are generally safe places to live. The House should not send out a message that this is solely a bad news story. When incidents occur, they cause widespread fear because a robbery or burglary of a person in a rural parish affects the entire parish and even surrounding parishes because everyone feels vulnerable. Great efforts are made to bring the community together to do something about rural crime. Text alert schemes are up and running in many rural communities, including my local community. This is a response from people who, unfortunately, feel let down because Garda resources are not adequate to provide the type of monitoring and protection they need.
Growing up in the 1980s, I drove an old banger of a car. If I had a bald tyre, I used to be afraid of meeting a garda stopping cars at a crossroads. I could travel the length and breadth of the country today and seldom meet a garda stopping cars at a crossroads. If we still had gardaí performing this role, many of the criminals who travel into rural areas would realise someone was likely to be watching and they would be stopped. This issue needs to be rectified immediately.
The Minister was not especially forthcoming when I raised another issue with him previously. My house was robbed twice and both times the thieves were after cash and jewellery. They broke a window during the day, entered the house, rooted through drawers and took whatever they could. The Garda told me that the thieves bring gold jewellery to cash for gold shops which pay cash instantly. It is scandalous that these shops are not regulated. Burglars do not steal gold rings and watches to wear them but to trade them for cash. Cash for gold shops should be regulated, including the goods they buy. It would not be difficult to find a means of doing this. This is a genuine suggestion to take a step that would reassure people that the Government was taking action. Moreover, it would not cost anything.
Community policing should be at the forefront of tackling rural crime. I commend gardaí, the foot soldiers who we know and meet daily, because they do most of the work when they are left to it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of gardaí are tied up in barracks doing paperwork, filling forms and ticking boxes when they should be out doing their work. More community policing is needed and greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring we protect rural Ireland.
My party supports the thrust of the motion. We have tabled an amendment to it and I hope that the Deputies in the House will support that.
Rural crime is on the increase. It is not a fantasy, but a fact. In a recent article dated 15 November 2017, I read that rural people stated that they wanted more resources put into community policing, stiffer sentences for repeat offenders and closer consultation between local authorities and An Garda Síochána.
Only last week, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, met the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, president, Mr. Kent. They were discussing the national agricultural crime survey, which revealed alarmingly that 45% of agricrime goes unreported for a variety of reasons. The article included the following quote:
These include little faith that the Gardaí have adequate resources to recover goods or catch the perpetrators and a sense that the justice system is not penalising these criminals sufficiently. We need to see these issues addressed urgently.
A Deputy mentioned earlier the horrific story of a 50 year old man living on his own who was burgled by four men who assaulted him before locking him into his own shed. Imagine the mental trauma that this man suffered. Imagine the mental scaring for all victims of rural crime. The mental trauma of any crime, in particular, rural crime, is sure to last a lot longer than any bruising or scars.
In an article, dated 7 November 2017, headlined, "Poll: Are Gardai under-resourced in the fight against rural crime?", the results were frightening. Some 88% of those surveyed responded, "Yes". These rural crimes are not exclusive to the farming community. Rural crime is in our villages and towns. It is in my own constituency of east Cork because we are not immune to these crimes either.
Sinn Féin has tabled an amendment to the motion which calls for greater powers and scope for joint policing committees as well as an increase in numbers which will ensure greater co-operation between communities and the Garda, and also to reinvest in the policing model, reverse the fall in the numbers of gardaí who assist the communities and play a crucial role assisting the community alert schemes. I would appeal to all Deputies to support our amendment.
I now call on the Rural Independent Group - Deputies Michael Collins, Mattie McGrath and Danny Healy-Rae.
I am pleased to be able to speak on this important motion and I am glad to see it coming before the Dáil tonight. Coming from a rural area in Cork South-West, I know too well the fear and worry of rural crime in our communities, and especially for isolated people living alone who may be elderly and vulnerable.
Last week, I spoke about the Government's failure to rural-proof its action. The prolonged closures of rural Garda stations around the country are without doubt the biggest contributor to the fear that exists around this issue. A number of Garda stations in my own constituency, including Ballygurteen, Goleen, Adrigole and Ballinspittle, have faced closure. I might add that the people of Ballinspittle are working tirelessly together as a community to unite to reopen their Garda station. They are urgently awaiting a decision to overturn the closure in that busy town.
I know full well, but for the communities such as Kilbrittain and the Garda station retention committee group that was set up in west Cork, we would have faced further closures of Garda stations in west Cork. Thankfully, we worked hard, and closely together, throughout west Cork and prevented that. If it had happened, it would have led to further crime in rural parts of west Cork.
To tackle rural crime, more resources must be allocated to groups such as Muintir na Tíre so that they can further allocate funding to communities or groups around the country. A scheme needs to be put in place where the elderly can apply for a grant for their homes for sensor lights and CCTV to protect their properties. This scheme should be similar to the successful one for personal alarms that many elderly wear around their neck or wrist, and also the successful text alert systems that are run by Muintir na Tíre that alert communities of crimes or suspicious activity in their neighbourhood.
Immediate funding needs to be put in place to erect CCTV in all rural towns and villages. This is in many of these towns already. One of which I can mention is Schull, as I was involved in the community alert group there. A large number of CCTV have been erected in this popular tourist village and as a result, there has been a significant drop in crime levels.
Schemes such as the Garda youth awards are great initiatives led by the Garda to commend our young people for the good that they do and their vigilance in their communities. Some 99% of our young people are good natured and need to be acknowledged for this.
We are lucky to have a strong number of community alert groups in my own constituency in west Cork which work closely with the Garda to prevent crime. At a recent divisional meeting in Bantry, a large number of people met the local superintendent and other members of the Garda Síochána and Muintir na Tíre. This meeting discussed all possible preventions of rural crime and it was encouraging to see so many taking an interest in this. It is vital that action is taken to allow these groups put in place these prevention measures and stop rural crime altogether around west Cork and the country.
I compliment Deputy O'Callaghan and his Fianna Fáil colleagues for putting down the motion on this issue.
It is a huge issue and we are playing catch-up all the time after all the cuts over the recent years. Morale in An Garda Síochána - I am speaking for Tipperary - is on the floor because it does not have the necessary resources. It is the same for every officer who goes out there every day and night, and God knows what they are going to meet and the work they do throughout the country.
I take serious issue with the Department of Justice and Equality trying to get us to do work on the cheap in the communities. I am chairman of the second community alert group ever set up in the country in 1986. I support community alert and I strongly believe that no police force in the world can survive without the support of the public.
We need the support from An Garda Síochána, at the top. When people are going to work in the morning, not all checkpoints out on the roads should be with the Garda's ordinary white cars. We need undercover covert security to take on the marauding gangs that are terrorising our people. I attended a big community alert meeting of 200 people in New Inn, between Cashel and Cahir, last night and I compliment the organisers. I compliment the new superintendent and the gardaí who attended.
However, I am very concerned we in Tipperary are not getting our fair share of numbers of new recruits the Minister referred to. The Minister also mentioned €100 million in overtime in budget 2018. Funding in overtime has fallen back from our division - I ask the Minister to tell me by how much in his response - in the past number of years while gardaí are out there on their own at checkpoints. I have information that I am afraid to put on the record of the Dáil about the scarcity of numbers in Garda stations in some parts of Tipperary. Why have we only six in a unit in Clonmel while Kilkenny, a town equivalent in size, can have 12? There is something badly wrong. We have not got our recruits. I ask the Minister to ask the Chief Superintendent Catherine Kehoe to account for what is happening in Tipperary. Officers' lives are being put in danger because they have no one to back them up. They have no support on radio. There is no one there to answer. We had a situation last Saturday in my own, Cahir, where there was one member working covering a whole district. It is not acceptable. It is desperately bad management, not by the gardaí on the ground but by the very senior managers in Tipperary.
We had the highest fake figures in the drink-driving as well in Tipperary, which is something I am not proud of. Nor am I blaming the officers on the ground for that. There is something badly wrong in senior management and I want the Minister to tell me that he will meet me and an assistant commission to check this. We cannot have this situation continuing in Tipperary.
The people of Tipperary are entitled to justice and to be protected. At that meeting last night, I met a woman whose brother fled into a nursing home after being robbed seven or eight times and died a lonely sad death of a broken heart. People have been terrorised in their homes. A man, an ex-garda, spoke last night at the meeting of going over a bridge on the River Suir in Ballycahill and coming upon 30 to 40 people last week, whether they were hunting otters, fishing or whatever. When he stopped to take note, he was approached by three of them wearing balaclavas indicating a gun sign at him. That is what we are dealing with. We need more RSU. We need more special forces to deal with the marauding thugs.
We have seen so many incidents in Tipperary. We should not be forcing communities to pay 40% for their CCTV; it is too much. We should not be forcing the community alert groups to pay for the text alerts as these are all part of the battle. We must fund them fully. It is costing too much, especially with so much crime. We cannot keep the money paid to groups and they are getting demoralised. Serious action needs to be taken regarding my division. The Garda station in Clonmel is a Dickensian kip and the sooner that is sorted out the better.
The closure of so many Garda stations in 2013 was a serious mistake. These stations dated back to the foundation of the State and they gave confidence to the elderly and all who lived in rural parishes.
A common request I receive is a request for public lighting. People are afraid in dimly lit streets, crossroads and various places. It is a continuous request to have public lighting so that one could see if there was anyone passing or going by in the dark of night.
I will highlight both sides of Kenmare Bay, 33 or 35 miles long on the southern side and nearly 50 miles long on the northern side. There is no garda stationed in Sneem and if there is a robbery or an accident, it takes 40 minutes if a Garda car has to come from Kenmare and an hour if it has to come from Killarney.
If a person needs help in places like Ballinskelligs, Portmagee, Waterville or Kilgarvan, there is no Garda station. They are all closed. It costs more, we are told, to keep them closed that it did to keep them open. Both sides of Kenmare bay are very exposed to all sorts of theft, to the importation of drugs and all of the kind of villainy that takes place when places are not being properly policed. Six homes were broken into in mid-summer in the Glenflesk area, in Headfort and in Muckross and several more in Kenmare. A serious robbery took place in recent days in Killarney. A commercial property was unable to open for a day and a half because so much damage was done to the premises, with cabling and other materials taken out.
People need to be more careful themselves. They should not be putting details of their whereabouts on Facebook, particularly if they have left their homes or gone on holidays. In doing so, they are exposing themselves to these crime boys. As the saying goes, when the cat is out, the mouse can dance.
I concur with Deputy Mattie McGrath on the need for more help for the community alert and text alert groups who are doing great work for their communities. Were it not for such groups, many elderly people would be stranded and lost in their homes. I thank them for their tremendous work. We hear that Stepaside is to reopen. I am asking that the Garda stations in rural parishes like Kilgarvan, Sneem, Waterville, Ballinskelligs, Portmagee are also reopened.
We must ramp up our response to rural crime. The national statistics which show a reduction in burglaries and related offences do not reflect the situation on the ground in rural Ireland. People in rural Ireland are not reporting crime because they know that An Garda Síochána does not have the personnel to respond in a timely manner. I have heard that gardaí have responded to reports of crime two or three days after the event. Furthermore, the high cost of insurance and the potential increase in insurance premiums if they make a claim means that people are ignoring crime or putting up with it and moving on with their lives. That is why the statistics are showing a drop crime levels. The people of these communities feel isolated and forgotten. It is only a matter of time before we begin to see serious incidents of vigilantism occurring around the country. This is not an exaggeration. We must act urgently to put deterrents in place to immediately halt these criminal gangs in their cake walk around the country.
This motion calls for a tougher response to repeat offenders in communities nationwide, including electronic monitoring being made a condition of bail for repeat offenders. Tougher amendments to current legislation are required to tackle the level of organised crime which is so damaging to communities all over the country. We have seen the success of An Garda Síochána in fighting certain types of crime, provided they are given political priority by the Government. It is time for the Government to prioritise rural crime.
I also want to discuss the failure by the Government to honour the commitment in the programme for Government to erect CCTV cameras at all major junctions on our motorways. To be clear, I am not talking about the community based CCTV grant aided scheme which was launched last April. I am talking about the roll out of a CCTV based crime fighting system on our motorways, which are being used by criminal gangs to get in and out of the communities that they are terrorising. We have two motorways going through my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, the M9 and the M7. Organised gangs are coming from Dublin and other urban areas, including Limerick in particular, targeting businesses and robbing them. What is the status of this commitment in the programme for Government? What is the timescale for the erection of these cameras? In a little village in north Kilkenny called Urlingford, a gang came down from Dublin. They came off the motorway, robbed a premises and were back on the motorway within 20 minutes. This is what CCTV cameras will stop. Vigilantism will happen, especially in the context of incidents like the one that took place in Offaly last week. The Sunday newspapers last weekend reported that people are going to bed armed with whatever they have including hurleys, billhooks, slashers and knives. This is what is happening and there will be serious consequences. If An Garda Síochána and the Government are not going to protect the people, they will fight back themselves and the only way to do that is to protect themselves through their own means. I am asking the Minister to take all of this on board, particularly the issue of the CCTV cameras on the motorways.
A lot has been said already on rural crime and I am not going to repeat points already made. There is an understanding that rural people are very vulnerable. I recently attended a number of meetings in relation to the text alert scheme. I must say that the text alert committees are doing great work, of that there is no question. They should be supported in every way possible. There was much discussion at those meetings about CCTV cameras and the fact that local groups can apply for funding for same. However, the funding available is €40,000 which is not sufficient to put these cameras up. This point was made very strongly at the meetings that I attended. These local groups are voluntary and do not have any way of raising substantial funds. They collect a few euro every year just to pay for the running costs of the text alert system. The €40,000 grant is not sufficient. A number of years ago funding was available for the provision of CCTV cameras in towns. The grant was in the region of €100,000 per town which went some way towards dealing with the issue. The running cost of these cameras is approximately €5,000 per annum, which is also beyond the capacity of these local voluntary groups.
My final point is on the people that are carrying out these robberies and in particular, non-national people. We had a case recently where people who were in the country for two days robbed an elderly person. Thankfully, due to CCTV cameras, they were apprehended and sentenced. When those two people get out of jail they should be on a boat out of this country. The same goes for many of those people who come in here, commit crime and murder or very serious crimes. They should be sent out of the country as soon as they get out of jail.
Crime and the fear of crime is changing the very nature of our society. One knows there is a problem when one calls to a rural home and one is greeted from a window because people are fearful of opening their front door. This cannot be allowed to continue and solutions are available. Garda numbers must be increased and the force must be properly resourced. Strategic rural Garda stations must be reopened and community garda numbers must also be increased. The text alert scheme needs the full backing of An Garda Síochána. Organised mobile gangs must be monitored and hamstrung. CCTV has a part to play and cameras must be installed at all important junctions around the country. Home owners and property owners must be encouraged to use technology to protect their possessions and trespass laws need to be strengthened. Most importantly, the career criminal must be brought under control. Bail for repeat offenders should be refused in most cases and we need legislation to support this. Career criminals must be tagged and their movements monitored if they refuse to obey the rule of law. Fines imposed on career criminals must be taken from their sources of income. Sentencing must reflect society's wish that it acts as a proper deterrent from future criminal activity. There is an opportunity now to bring the scourge of rural crime under control but this opportunity will not last forever. This Dáil must show the political will to bring about real change. If we do not do it now, it could very well be too late. As legislators, we will rightly be judged harshly if we do not show unity and leadership to resolve this problem.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very timely debate.
No matter who we listen to in this debate, we hear very clear and graphic examples of how crime, particularly in rural areas, is having a detrimental impact on people's lives. Earlier this evening, I spoke with a businessperson who owns a medium-size business in Glasson outside Athlone. In the past few weeks, his business, which is providing employment for 22 people, was ransacked at 2 a.m. one morning. He complimented the gardaí on the work they have done since he was burgled, but this was his fourth time to be burgled in three years. The business is on the outskirts of an extremely large town and while he complimented the gardaí, the fact is they are under such pressure that they are not able to carry out the monitoring that needs to be carried out every night of the week.
No matter who one speaks to, whether it is a farmer or another person who has been burgled in rural Ireland, the point is made that sanctions are too lenient. It seems the law is coming down on the side of the people carrying out the crime, not the people affected by the crime. A number of years ago I posed a parliamentary question about the number of times someone can avail of free legal aid. There does not seem to be any cap or restriction in terms of the number of times someone can avail of free legal aid. Taxpayers' money is being spent representing repeat offenders, which is very wrong and needs to be tackled.
Our citizens across rural Ireland are living in fear. Whether one picks up a local newspaper like the Westmeath Examiner, Westmeath Topic, Westmeath Independent or the Longford Leader, or listens in to Midlands 103 FM - I am sure it is the same for the Minister of State in her constituency - week after week, there is another example of a crime committed, another example of a family left shaking, and another example of how the State is failing in its duty to protect elderly people in their homes and protect businesses that are supplying much-needed employment in our communities. The time for promises is over; the time for delivery is now. We need to see a huge increase in the number of gardaí policing our streets so we can keep people safe in their homes.
There has been an extremely valuable discussion tonight on what is a very important issue. l grew up and continue to live in a rural community in County Meath and I represent for the most part a rural community, so I know well the many issues and challenges people face. It is important that when we are having this debate, we do not add to people's fears, and I am not suggesting this is happening here tonight.
Earlier, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, outlined a wide range of the Government measures in place to combat crime and Deputy Corcoran Kennedy will elaborate on a number of specific measures. I first wish to respond to some of the issues raised. With regard to legal aid and the general scheme of the criminal justice (legal aid) Bill 2017, there are a number of lawyers on the benches opposite and I know they must be well aware that the criminal legal aid scheme is in place to protect constitutional rights. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that an accused person who faces serious charges and who cannot afford to pay for legal representation has a constitutional right to legal aid. This right is reinforced in the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that is not to suggest the operation of the legal aid system cannot be improved.
In this respect, the Department of Justice and Equality is currently preparing a draft general scheme of a criminal justice (legal aid) Bill 2017. The key purpose of the draft legislation, subject to Government approval, is to transfer the administration of the criminal legal aid scheme from the Department to the Legal Aid Board, with the purpose of ensuring that best practice financial management and control are exercised and to give effect to Government programme commitments on criminal legal aid. Commitments in the general scheme include the introduction of a contribution system, the introduction of more rigorous and effective means testing and provision for increased sanctions for false declarations. Under consideration as part of these measures is the manner and extent to which the cost of legal aid granted can be recovered from a person who has received criminal legal aid, having regard to the assessment of that person’s means.
With regard to Garda stations, Garda management is of the clear view that crime prevention and detection is not best done by a garda alone in a rural station in a remote location. Regular patrols, intelligence gathering, special targeted task forces, working through joint policing committees, community CCTV and having gardaí work with communities through schemes such as the text alert scheme are what is effective. Increasing Garda numbers is also effective, and I agree with many Members that Garda numbers have to increase. This has become possible and is happening because of the work of the current Government. This year alone, funding has been provided for 800 Garda recruits and 500 civilians, and I, like others, believe my own county of Meath should get its fair share of those recruits when this happens. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy has spoken about some of these schemes and I urge Members to encourage wide take-up and participation in these schemes. Further, I am sure the Minister, Deputy Ring, would wish me to highlight the seniors alert scheme and encourage take-up of that scheme. Many of these schemes have been taken up in my own county of Meath, where they have been well received among local communities who work with the crime prevention officer, who creates that link with the community and who, in County Meath, was very clear that crime figures are actually down, which is something people need to know.
With further reference to Garda stations, the Government is open to the expert advice of gardaí on policing matters. As Deputies will be aware, the programme for Government commits to a pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations, both urban and rural, to determine possible positive impacts that such openings will have on criminal activity, with special emphasis on burglaries, theft and public order. In light of this, the Government approved the issuing by the Tánaiste, in her then capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality, of a letter on 30 June 2016 to the Garda Commissioner requesting the Commissioner to identify for reopening six former Garda stations. At its meeting on 13 June 2017, the Government noted the Garda Commissioner’s interim report in this regard, which analysed population and crime trends and the availability of stations for possible reuse. The report contained a recommendation that the former Stepaside station in County Dublin be reopened on a pilot basis. The report also indicated that, subject to further analysis, the Commissioner is likely to recommend in the final report the inclusion of the former stations at Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, and Donard, County Wicklow, in the pilot scheme. If a second station is to be reopened in Dublin, the report indicates that the Commissioner is likely, subject to further analysis, to recommend that the former station at Rush, County Dublin, be included in the pilot scheme.
I thank all the Deputies for their contributions on this very important issue. All Garda activities, including community policing, will undoubtedly benefit from the financial resources provided in recent budgets. As well as that, resources coming on stream through the Garda recruitment programme, and the Government’s commitment to substantially increase Garda numbers, will ensure that An Garda Síochána has the capacity to address the needs of communities throughout the country, now and into the future. The Government will continue to offer unwavering support to An Garda Síochána in its fight against crime. I remind Deputies of the work of the Policing Authority and the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, and encourage Members to contribute to their work.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on a matter that is a priority for me, as, indeed, it is a priority for the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Government. Under Topical Issues on 18 October in this House, I raised the spate of burglaries being carried out across the counties of Laois and Offaly. Since then, we have had the terrible crime perpetrated on Offaly man, Richie McKelvey, and I send him good wishes and acknowledge his bravery and that of his sister, who has been to the fore in publicly highlighting the vulnerability of rural dwellers to criminal gangs.
The message I have received from public meetings organised in Cloghan, Coolderry and Banagher is that rural dwellers will not tolerate being targets for criminals. They are anxious but they recognise that individual and community co-operation with An Garda Síochána is crucial in order to prevent and to solve crime. Indeed, the type of criminality we have seen in both rural and urban areas is something we will not tolerate as a society. We need to get that strong message out from the House this evening. The people understand that policing is something we all rely on to keep our society functioning properly. As someone who has been a victim of robbery myself, I acknowledge the brilliant members of An Garda Síochána who provide calm reassurance to victims and make every effort to solve the crime.
In order for us to prevent and combat this type of activity, we must all agree that co-operation between our communities, local authorities and members of An Garda Síochána is essential. I acknowledge the community text alert groups that are being established, many as a result of local burglaries. However, I advise local communities not to wait to have such an experience, but to establish one as a preventative measure as there are financial supports available to these invaluable local groups as an important measure in support of crime prevention in rural communities.
Many communities in my own home county of Offaly are active in using the system for crime prevention and I commend the excellent work of the people involved in helping to safeguard our local communities.
I know as well as anyone the positive impact that text alert groups are having on rural communities and I am aware of the work being done by groups in Offaly and Laois in tandem with the hard work of local gardaí. An important tool for the fight against crime in rural communities is the programme for Government's commitment to supporting and prioritising community crime prevention, including text alerts. The Garda text alert scheme provides an additional and effective means for gardaí to communicate crime prevention information to local communities. Since it was launched in September 2013, it has grown quickly, with a total of 164,000 subscribers and in the order of 3 million text messages sent annually. Every Garda division, rural and urban, now offers the text alert service and An Garda Síochána has published guidelines to assist in the establishment and operation of local groups.
In September, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, announced that an additional €100,000 would be made available to text alert groups registered with An Garda Síochána to provide modest financial assistance with the running costs that they incurred each year. The text alert rebate scheme will be administered by Muintir na Tíre. Even though the cost of running a text alert group is quite modest, it is appropriate that the new rebate scheme provide some contribution towards the costs incurred by community groups that are working with local gardaí to prevent crime and improve public safety.
Gardaí continue to pursue a range of measures to support elderly and more vulnerable people in the community, working closely with Community Alert, Neighbourhood Watch and other community groups. Another policing initiative tackling rural crime is Theft Stop, a partnership between the Garda, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and Crimestoppers. Theft Stop is designed to deter criminals from taking and selling farm equipment by ensuring it is clearly marked with a unique ID and then registered on a nationwide database. The clearly visible serial number should act as a deterrent to criminals. Details and serial numbers of stolen equipment can be viewed by would-be buyers online at www.theftstop.ie. I encourage all owners of farming equipment to visit the website and act quickly to help prevent the theft of these expensive items. Furthermore, I also encourage members of the public to mark machinery and other similar items with their own unique Eircodes. This will expedite the retrieval, identification and return of any recovered stolen property to them and act as a further deterrent against theft.
Deputies will be aware that the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government is to support investment in CCTV systems at key locations along the road network and in urban centres. This commitment is met by, among other measures, the community CCTV grant aid scheme announced by the Department of Justice and Equality in April. This scheme will supplement the existing network of CCTV systems in operation in the State. For example, there are 35 Garda CCTV schemes, comprising in excess of 500 cameras. There are also some 45 community-based CCTV schemes established under the previous grant aid scheme in operation, providing the Garda with access to 367 cameras. The Garda deploys its own CCTV technology and works with other bodies, such as the National Roads Authority, port authorities, local authorities and private car park operators to access data from their automatic number plate recognition systems as well as CCTV systems operating on the motorway network.
This is all underpinned by significant Government investment under the capital plan of €205 million in additional funding for Garda ICT and €46 million to provide the Garda with high-powered vehicles, marked and unmarked patrol cars, and motorcycles to ensure that the Garda can be mobile, visible and responsive on the roads and in the community in order to prevent and tackle crime.
I want to acknowledge the work of the midlands Muintir na Tíre development office, which works closely with the Garda, and the IFA in respect of its scheme.
I am sorry, but I have given the Deputy an extra minute.
I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, for tabling this motion. I also thank the Minister of State as well as Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, who gave a comprehensive report. Listening to it was enlightening for the simple reason that she and I share a boundary at the bridge in Portumna. She referred to the good work and investment that have been seen under the programme for Government. Last night, I attended a divisional meeting in Loughrea that received a briefing from the chief superintendent, Mr. Tom Curley. One of the matters that we discussed related to the need for more CCTV cameras, which is called for in this motion. People pass through provinces when they leave the Deputy's constituency and enter mine. The bridge at Portumna is one site, with the M6 another point that needs more cameras. The M17 M18 motorway - the Tuam to Gort bypass - recently opened. It needs more CCTV cameras. The motorway network is opening up the country making it easier for people to travel. They can enter through the bridge at Portumna, travel to Nenagh or Limerick or go straight to Gort, Tuam and Mayo.
Regrettably, there has not been a significant uptake of the €1 million funding that was announced. I understand that there are only six applications currently. We must encourage more people to make applications. We also need to allay some of the data protection fears, though, as they might be holding some community groups back from applying for funding.
We need to encourage and support our chief superintendents. They know where more cameras are required throughout the motorway network. They know where crimes are happening. I will not lay everything out here, as we do not want criminals to know everything that is being discussed.
Deputy Corcoran Kennedy referred to the programme for Government, Neighbourhood Watch, Muintir na Tíre, text alerts and the fabulous work being done on that front. At last night's meeting in Loughrea, however, the text alert schemes in Laurencetown and Kilconerin stated that they were considering closing. They are small communities and must go door to door asking for €10 at each once per year. The Kilconerin group sent out one text alert a few weeks ago and it cost €236. It went to 460 households. It costs €600 to €700 to run the group's community text alert scheme annually. It is seeking to reduce the text alert charge, which was 33 cent, to 7 cent. As a small group, it worries about not being able to raise funds. An invaluable service that works in tandem with the Garda could be lost.
In the Galway division, 108 community text alert groups have been established, but they are working on a shoestring contribution of €150. That might not be going far enough. There are only six applications for the €1 million. After some of it has been spent on CCTV cameras, I suggest that whatever is left is divvied up between the other community text alert groups so that they can be sustained for another year. This would be a real investment in and endorsement of rural communities.
Some of my colleagues have joined us. I got leeway as I was only supposed to have 90 seconds but I had a good opportunity to speak for longer than would otherwise have been the case. I compliment Deputy O'Callaghan on this motion.
How long do I have?
There are five and a half minutes left in the Fianna Fáil slot, so the Deputies can decide among themselves.
This is an important and complex debate because there are different types of rural crime and different areas suffer in different ways. According to the statistics, more isolated rural areas are less prone to crime than those that are more adjacent to urbanised areas and, generally, burglary rates tend to be less in rural areas than urban ones. However, it is a scary experience no matter where it happens and it is one that we must address. We can prevent it.
High-tech crime is a factor, with organised groups travelling down motorways and so on. Technology plays a large part in eliminating that crime, but what is generally not realised is that there are other parts of the country where most of the crime emanates from within 10 miles or 20 miles of where it takes place. A major mistake has been made where such local break-ins are concerned.
The biggest deterrent to local break-ins is a garda resident in the community. Putting people into patrol cars and having them drive around an area now and again is no substitute for the intelligence gathered by somebody living in the community. Time and again we have seen that having a good garda who is resident in a community has a major effect. In more recent times, we have noticed that even when one is lucky enough to have a resident garda, he or she is brought into the main centres of population, away from communities. We are denied the one thing that creates security, facilitates information and intelligence gathering and prevents crimes in communities, particularly those in which certain young people might be tempted not to stay on the straight and narrow. Community gardaí create security for people and get rid of much of the fear factor.
In light of the time constraints, I will be very brief. I again emphasise the need for more community gardaí and an increased police presence. I know all about opening barracks, but it is important that gardaí are based in communities. We do not need patrol cars operating with only one objective in mind, namely, to ensure that the objectives relating to initiatives created by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross - which are important - are met. The Garda has lost focus in rural Ireland. One way to deal with crime in rural areas is to have activity on the roads. A Garda car on the road in deters many people. However, such activity has stopped because nobody wants to drive on the roads at night.
The motion is timely. Action is needed, especially for people in rural Ireland. Organised crime is a major issue. Robberies are no longer hit and miss. Criminals can now carry out pre-emptive strikes where they need priority robberies to take place. I ask that the Minister seriously consider reintroducing community gardaí.
I wish to conclude by thanking every Deputy who contributed to this debate. The fact that so many Deputies have spoken indicates what a serious problem this is throughout the country. However, it also indicates that there is great resolve within the House and recognition that if we can provide leadership, we can fight back against rural crime, which is causing so much fear in our communities.
I thank the Ministers of State for their contributions. Unfortunately, I have not yet had an opportunity to consider the amendment put forward by the Government. I propose to call a vote on the motion and I will consider the amendment with my colleagues. We can make a decision on the matter when it comes to a vote on Thursday. I also thank Sinn Féin and Independent Deputies who contributed to the debate. Sinn Féin has put down an amendment which I have not had an opportunity to consider. We will consider it and make a decision on Thursday.
The Minister is correct in stating that Operation Thor has been a success. We know that and have said so previously. However, just because it is a success does not mean that we should not try to continue to think of other measures to ensure that crime is reduced. The Minister referred to the fact that the number of burglary offences was down 30% in 2016 when compared with 2015. Listening to the anecdotal evidence Deputies have provided, I have concerns about the accuracy of those recorded crime figures. We need to recognise that Deputies have a great insight into what is happening in their communities. There is fear and resolve among communities. People want something to be done and the action starts in this House.
In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 23 November 2017.