I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to address the joint committee on the very serious issue of rural crime. I know that members are well aware of the real anxiety among the farming community and rural communities generally about crime in the countryside. The theft of valuables from rural homes and livestock and machinery from farms is a major concern. It must be recognised that many farmers and other rural dwellers are living in real fear of their personal safety and that of their families. That is why it is so important that the issue be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I am joined by Mr. Jer Bergin, national treasurer, who has responsibility within the organisation for dealing with the issue of rural crime and Mr. Colin Connolly who has recently taken up the newly created staff position of rural crime prevention executive.
According to CSO figures, more than 2,500 farm crimes were reported in the first six months of 2014. They include 1,720 instances of farm machinery being reported as stolen and 218 cases of vehicle theft. There is also a serious problem with the theft of livestock, with 48 cases reported, including instances of cattle rustling. There were 280 burglaries or break-ins to farm houses. We do not have separate figures for burglaries at the homes and businesses of other rural dwellers. I stress that these are reported figures. We believe there is considerable under-reporting of rural crime, in particular, the theft of machinery, fuels and other items from farmyards and lesser break-ins to family homes.
The theft of agricultural equipment and livestock can be financially devastating for farmers who, like all rural dwellers, are very vulnerable when it comes to criminality. This vulnerability is compounded by geographic and service isolation. It is the IFA's contention that rural dwellers and farmers are not guaranteed the same level of service and security provided in urban areas. Many areas have seen the effects of cutbacks and closures of local services, including post offices and other vital institutions, as well as Garda stations and the presence of Garda members.
In response to the concerns of its members, the IFA has taken a lead role in addressing these challenges and we are working with An Garda Síochána and other agencies to support rural crime prevention. The IFA has partnered An Garda Síochána in developing the TheftStop crime prevention initiative, a new, practical, simple and cost-effective theft prevention system now available nationwide. Following successful pilot schemes in counties Tipperary and Donegal last year, the initiative is being rolled out nationwide on a county by county basis. All rural dwellers are invited to join TheftStop by registering at TheftStop.ie. It has been designed to deter criminals and recover stolen items by ensuring machinery and other equipment are clearly marked with a unique ID, with the details registered on TheftStop's nationwide database. I thank An Garda Síochána for its co-operation in this initiative and, in particular, assistant commissioner Jack Nolan for his continued commitment. I encourage all country dwellers, farmers in particular, to become part of the initiative by registering today.
The IFA has welcomed publication of the Sentencing Council Bill 2015 by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. It must lead to longer jail terms for burglars, in particular, for repeat offenders who continue to target family homes and businesses. The issue of bail also deserves close examination. There is clearly a serious problem with the level of crime being committed by people released on bail. Law abiding citizens deserve to be better protected.
The IFA has been campaigning for increased policing hours and the presence of mobile units in rural areas by An Garda Síochána to reduce crime and, in general, provide for a safer, more secure rural environment. I welcome the addition of 200 new vehicles to the Garda fleet and the commitment to continued Garda recruitment. Last August the IFA launched a policy charter for rural Ireland to support the 440,000 families and businesses in the countryside. It proposed the following measures to address members’ concerns about rural security. The seniors alert scheme which provides financial support for the use of personal pendant alarms by elderly people should be extended to cover the installation of house alarms and there should be full enforcement by local authorities and An Garda Síochána of the legislation to curb metal theft. It was enacted in 2014 and requires all scrap metal dealers to keep proper records and seek proof of identity from those supplying such materials. A key element of Government support for rural areas is delivery on its commitment to provide a high-quality rural fibre broadband network across the country to support homes and businesses.
The IFA has taken a lead role in terms of action on rural crime and been proactive in identifying solutions to the problem. As a clear indication of its commitment we have appointed a rural crime prevention executive, Mr. Connolly, to assist the organisation in this task. We have established a reward fund of €10,000 with An Garda Síochána and Crimestoppers to combat livestock theft and developed a community-based text alert initiative in which IFA branch officers play a key role in crime prevention. Building on our community text service, we are exploring the development, with An Garda Síochána, of a full nationwide text alert service that would lead to safer and more secure rural communities. We are engaging with local communities on the issue of CCTV installation in local villages at locations where it would assist crime prevention and detection.
The IFA will continue to campaign for support from elected representatives and the Government to protect rural dwellers and businesses. Today I am looking for further engagement from the committee on the IFA's activities in rural crime prevention, together with its support for the IFA's initiatives in this regard. We look forward to a constructive discussion with it.