I will not be as ordered as Senator Mansergh who went through the Bill sequentially. I agree with his latter point about town councils and I am sure we will hear more on that issue.
I welcome the Minister. I agree with the Bill's two main objectives, namely, reforming the law relating to the administration and management of the Garda Síochána and providing for the establishment of an independent body, to be known as the Garda Síochána ombudsman commission. I am glad the Minister opted for a commission rather than an inspectorate which he was toying with earlier. As Senator Mansergh said, that has removed all the red herrings from the Bill.
I compliment the Minister on the painstaking work he and his officials have put into the Bill and for coming before the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights last September. I was substituting for another member of the committee on the day when the Minister outlined his thoughts and plans as they existed at that time. From what I recollect of that meeting, a considerable amount of further work has been put into improving the Bill. I appreciate that further refinements, if necessary, can be made on Committee Stage.
I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill in the Seanad. I recognise it is a major legislative measure, given that the last major enactment in this area was in 1924. The Minister's predecessors gladly allowed this cup to pass their lips. Obviously it is long overdue.
We live in the age of OTA — openness, transparency and accountability — which is now the new god. It is of paramount importance that the public has trust in the Garda Síochána and also that the process by which complaints against members are investigated is trusted. In common with most Members, I have had agreeable relationships with the local Garda and I have the height of praise for the vast majority of the force. Not only are they law abiding citizens but, by and large, they do their jobs well.
This Bill, once enacted, will be the new bible for the force. I appreciate everyone's desire, starting with the Minister who has taken this important initiative in bringing forward this comprehensive measure, to get everything right. The Minister deserves our thanks for his attempt to bring clarity to the roles and functions of both the Minister and the Garda Síochána. That operational responsibility, including financial control, should be assigned to the management of the force, is welcome. It is important that there be democratic accountability. That the Commissioner will appear before the Committee of Public Accounts is welcome. I am not sure if that is a requirement or if he will appear as Accounting Officer of the force. I appreciate the Minister and his officials spent much time in examining the police complaints models in other jurisdictions. Like other jurisdictions, the Minister reminds us that the Garda Síochána functions also as our intelligence service, a matter about which we are not used to thinking.
The Minister stated that the Human Rights Commission submission deserves particular mention. I am glad he has weighted carefully the additional points it raised in broadly welcoming the Bill. The Minister is accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and on that basis is entitled to set policing priorities. I welcome the fact that comprehensive reporting requirements will be put in place, including the plans of the Commissioner, and the assessment he or she will make. That every directive issued by the Minister will have to be approved by the Government and laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas is welcome.
As I did at the joint committee in September when the Minister appeared before it, I welcome the initiative which provides for co-operation with local authorities and the necessary arrangements for obtaining the views of the public. Joint policing committees with the Garda Síochána and local authority representation will prove invaluable. I trust this will strengthen policing at local level. I welcome the statutory basis provided for in the Bill for the appointment of volunteer members of the Garda Síochána. Many committed members of the public would appreciate, if circumstances warrant, the opportunity to play their part in such a force. I welcome the provision to provide a statutory basis for such a force.
The Minister has properly laid great stress on ensuring openness, transparency and public confidence in the investigation of complaints.
Members would agree with him on that and with his provision for an ombudsman commission to replace the existing Garda Complaints Board.
There have been too many instances of complaints against individual members of the force, which is why it does not command public confidence, although I have already paid tribute to the force. I am glad the ombudsman commission will retain ultimate control over every investigation and that its statutory powers will be the same as those applicable in Northern Ireland. In their daily policing duties, most members of the force perform in a highly admirable and commendable way. It is always a pity when a few bad apples tarnish the image of the force. There is, by and large, huge goodwill towards the Garda Síochána and the Bill will help to strengthen the public support and trust which is so necessary in our democracy.
Consultation takes place on an informal basis between the Minister and the Garda Commissioner, although I am not sure how this will continue. All sorts of arrangements are built into the Bill and I look forward to hearing more on this. There is a feeling, accurate or not, that issues in this regard have led to some of the past abuses — I am thinking of the Dowra incident, and Allihies in my area was mentioned in connection with another incident.
Senator Terry raised several questions on individual sections and I look forward to the Minister's response. I note that the Minister recently agreed in the Dáil with the Fine Gael survey which suggested that many people do not bother to report crime. I hope that will improve as a result of this measure.
The involvement of local authorities is to be welcomed, and is one of the issues to which the Minister received a positive response when he appeared last September before the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. The change will lead to greater public support. Some Members have suggested further refinement be made on Committee Stage and, if it is needed, I am sure the Minister will give it due consideration.
In many areas, meetings are already held, perhaps annually, between members of the Garda, local authorities and others to review local traffic arrangements and so on. As a result of the provisions in the Bill, gardaí will be better able to liaise with local residents' associations and public representatives. This is what the Minister had in mind and I hope it will be the result. In this way, anti-social behaviour can be dealt with in particular areas and on particular housing estates, because local councillors are very well informed. It is important, as Senator Mansergh noted, that town councils are involved. County councils would often not have the necessary insight into particular estates and areas on the fringes of towns. As a result of this measure, the issue will be better tackled and gardaí will have a better flow of information, which is the name of the game for them.
Another important issue which will be dealt with by the involvement of local authorities, councillors and, through them, local associations, is the reporting of crime. It is frightful, if it is true, that one in five crimes is not reported. With greater community involvement, which will be brought about by the provisions the Minister has built into the Bill, I foresee an improvement in this area and the overcoming of many of our difficulties.
I referred to the accountability of the Garda Commissioner, as the Accounting Officer for the force, to the Committee of Public Accounts. This will improve the image of the Garda Síochána with citizens among the wider community, particularly groups within certain housing estates. I am glad Garda appointments are covered by regulation. I welcome the Minister's decision to opt for the ombudsman model rather than another model which would have involved great waste of time, as Senator Mansergh pointed out. I also welcome that the Bill allows the ombudsman to investigate matters on his or her initiative, or when the Minister refers matters to the ombudsman.
There is concern with a number of sections which, in the minds of some, effectively turn the Minister into a chief of police. I do not believe this is the Minister's intention and I am sure he will address the point in the Houses and outside. An image remains of a former Minister acting as a kind of chief of police, which perhaps led to some incidents we would prefer had not happened. I am sure the Minister would not intend anything like that to happen on his watch.
The Garda annual report for 2002 was published at the end of December 2003, which suggests it took nearly one year to compile. This was rather inefficient and I look forward to improvement. In the age of accountability, the Minister should not regard such a delay as acceptable. Section 38 requires the Garda to publish the annual report four months after the year's end, which is a vast improvement.
Section 39 would seem to allow the Minister to avail of provisional statistics as soon as they become available. Since taking office, the Minister has made such statistics available, which is to be welcomed. While some think that certain matters were buried and that a cynical public relations exercise was involved, I do not intend to go down that road.
There is major concern that Garda crime statistics do not provide us with the full picture. By their nature, crime statistics give no indication of unreported crime. Some weeks ago, Fine Gael highlighted that as many as one in five crimes is not reported. A black hole clearly exists in the Government's crime statistics. Only when the Minister publishes his crime and victimisation survey will we discover the true extent of the breakdown of law and order.
Nonetheless, the Bill represents a great step forward in revising and, in some instances, reforming the structures of our police force. It is more than 80 years since the force was first set on a statutory footing and, therefore, the Bill is long overdue and I compliment the Minister on tackling the issue. As outlined, I have some concerns with the Bill which I hope the Minister will address. I look forward to further debate.