Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. I thank Members of the Seanad for the support they have given to the Bill. It is an important measure, which has had a long gestation period. Colleagues from my party produced two Private Members' Bills to address the issue earlier this decade and, as was rightly noted by Senator O'Donovan, we then had the Bill produced by a former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am pleased that we are getting to a point where there is a reasonable possibility that the Bill will be enacted before Christmas.

It is a particularly important measure because there has been some uncertainty around this area of the law. It has given rise to court cases in this jurisdiction, as has been mentioned, and our neighbouring jurisdiction. It is important that the exact position with regard to the law is clearly set out and that the rights of a householder when faced with an attack by an intruder in the home are clearly understood.

The fact that the Bill deals with this issue only and no others is a recognition of the importance of the unique status of the dwelling house, as enshrined in the Constitution, but also the unique status of a home and a dwelling house in the minds of all of us who are fortunate enough to have a home. People want to feel safe and secure in their homes and they do not want to feel they are under threat. If they wake up late at night to a find a burglar in the home, they want to feel they can take reasonable steps to defend themselves. There are very few people who have not had that experience. I had that experience in my home many years ago when my son was very young. I think it was my wife's scream that terrorised the burglar, who was about to climb to the top of the stairs. He was so scared by my wife's reaction that he ran out the door before I could do anything. Too many people have experienced this. If the message goes out to those who want to trespass into other's homes and cause fear that people are entitled to use reasonable force, it might act as a deterrent to some.

As Minister for Justice and Equality, there is a clear point to be made. I listened to certain Senators who were clear about how they might react should they find an intruder in their homes. Senator Norris never ceases to be a cause of interest. We now know he has taken the guise of a "have a go Joe" on a number of occasions when people have attempted to burglarise his home. There is a reality, of course, when burglaries take place. Many of the people who burglarise enter the homes of people who are a great deal older and less agile than they and, as Minister, l do not want to encourage people to put themselves in harm's way. It is absolutely right that people should not be required to retreat from their homes. People should be entitled to use reasonable force in the context of the circumstances as they perceive them. Nevertheless, wisdom dictates that if a burglar is in one's home, one does not unnecessarily engage in confrontation. On some occasions one wisely retreats and telephones the Garda Síochána at the earliest opportunity. That is a safe piece of advice for many people.

Senators raised a number of issues in regard to the legislation. I want to touch on some of these issues, although we will perhaps deal with them in more detail on Committee Stage. Senators Cullinane and Brennan raised issues pertaining to the concept of reasonableness and what it means. I think reasonableness is a fairly well known and understood concept in legislative interpretations. I remind Senators that the test of reasonableness incorporates elements of necessity, imminence and proportionality, while also allowing for a rounded consideration of the facts in each case. Ultimately, in the circumstances encompassed by this Bill, it will be a matter for a court or jury to decide on a case by case basis should the issue arise. It is a question of how an individual perceives the circumstances as they arise when a burglar is in his or her home based on the level of force required according to the imminence of the threat, the necessity to resort to force and the proportionality of the force used. Each case will be judged on its individual circumstances should a prosecution arise in the context of the actions of the victim as opposed to the burglar. We must remember those who engage in burglary commit an unlawful act that warrants a prosecution. They are intruding on other people's privacy and are posing a threat to them in their homes. They should be aware of the fact that they may face consequences should they enter an individual's home. I am sure we will tease out further aspects of the matter on Committee Stage.

Senator Cullinane stated that the Bill is not a solution to all issues of criminality nor is it a solution to burglary. Nobody is suggesting it offers such a solution. A broad range of steps need to be taken in the area of crime prevention, some of which are under way, to ensure people's homes are not burglarised. A variety of issues arise in the context of the type of people who engage in burglaries. All of us who view criminal statistics will be aware that a substantial number of individuals in our prisons come from deprived backgrounds. There are many people from deprived backgrounds who do not engage in criminality or burglarise homes. Some people simply choose burglary as a professional occupation and a source of income. They act in a considered and pragmatic way with no thought for the impact their conduct will have on individuals. I outlined some of the actions being pursued by the Garda to target those who engage in burglaries, communities that are vulnerable to burglaries and times of the day and night when burglaries are likely to occur. The statistics indicate that the Garda has been successful is this approach during the course of the year.

Senator Cullinane pointed out that we need more gardaí. It is always refreshing when somebody from Sinn Féin speaks out to call for more gardaí and expresses support for the force. It is an important indicator of how we have developed politically on this island. I welcome that; I do not want the Senator to view the remark as sarcastic. There was a time when Sinn Féin appeared to be a genetic opposition to anything relating to the Garda Síochána, but the world has changed and it is a very good thing.

In the context of Garda numbers, however, to use the refrain I have had to repeat on a variety of occasions since my appointment as Minister, the numbers in the Garda will decline. There is an obligation to meet our financial commitments under the EU-IMF agreement. A plan has been set out for a reduction in Garda numbers over a period of years and that remains the position. There will be a reduction in the number of gardaí through natural retirements. The objective of the EU-IMF agreement and the plan to implement it was set by the previous Government. It provided that Garda numbers would be reduced to 13,500 by 31 December this year. When that agreement was signed we had approximately 14,500 gardaí. It might be of interest to Senators that the numbers will certainly not go down to 13,500 this year. On 31 October last, the total personnel strength of the force was 14,099.

The issue of community gardaí is close to the hearts of many Senators and express reference was made to it during the debate by one of my colleagues in the House. There are 1,128 community gardaí, which is more than 8% of the force. The number has increased by 689 from the end of 2005, when there was a total of 439 community gardaí. Of course, all gardaí have a role to play in community policing. The Garda Síochána Inspectorate in its third report expressed the view that community policing is a fundamental policing philosophy that is based on strong foundations in Ireland.

I agree that, where possible, it is desirable that gardaí live within the communities they are policing. However, we cannot compel members of the Garda to live within particular communities and, unfortunately, in the current financial situation we cannot provide new incentives for them to do so. Certainly, there is a substantial benefit in gardaí knowing their communities, participating in community events, living within their communities and, indeed, having information available to them about communities. The Garda Síochána national model of community policing is about renewing, reinvigorating and restructuring the community policing function within the Garda to deliver a number of objectives, namely, a consistent national structure to the community policing function; more co-ordinated and efficient Garda service to the community; and the spread of good practice and quality service in community policing on a national basis. This is something I will encourage, as Minister. These are essentially operational matters for the Garda Commissioner but they are matters of considerable importance.

Reference was made to the closing of Garda stations. There is an extraordinary number of Garda stations in this country. Before we announced closures, none of which has yet been implemented, there were 703 Garda stations. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland there were 140 police stations there, if memory serves. Today it has 83 police stations, whereas we have 703. Northern Ireland is now reviewing its policing structure with the possibility of eliminating at least another 30 police stations. We have too many Garda stations. They are there for historical reasons. They have been in place since before all the modern developments in the areas of transport, technology and the new systems that are available, such as PULSE, which provide substantial assistance to gardaí in carrying out their duties.

My concern is to have the maximum number of gardaí available for operational duty. We must maximise that number as the numbers of gardaí reduce, as unfortunately they must in the coming years. What we do not need is members of the force sitting behind desks engaged in administrative functions that are not required. We also do not need a force that is spread out. As regards the closure of 31 stations that was announced, four of them are in Dublin and the rest are rural Garda stations which are, by and large, staffed by a single member of the Garda force. Some of these stations are open for only two or three hours per day and some of them do not even open every day. The operational assessment of the Garda Commissioner was that these stations were of no operational benefit, members of the force were being tied down to desk duties that were not required and would be better deployed in policing in the interests of the communities they serve and that the single officer station did not offer anything of major value to the patrolling of local communities.

We need a more modernised structure and a force that uses all the modern technology in a manner that ensures maximum community policing and maximum efficiency in responding to calls when emergencies arise. In fact, when there are emergencies in a community it is the emergency call number that is generally utilised rather than a telephone call to the local station. By and large, when gardaí come to people's assistance they are deployed from the larger stations unless it is an event that occurs practically next door to the single person station.

There is a need to consolidate Garda stations. Eight of the stations we officially declared closed, which brings the total number to 39, had been surreptitiously closed over the years, allegedly for refurbishment but never to reopen. The greatest curiosity is that one of them has been unofficially closed since 1986, but nobody ever announced its closure although everybody in the local community knew it was closed. Some stations that had also been closed for "refurbishment" during the 1990s are included in the eight I mentioned. We were very careful not to announce we were closing 39 stations for fear somebody would say one of the stations had been closed for 20 years.

Senator Norris raised the matter of Fitzgibbon Street Garda station. I assure him it has not been closed by stealth. I am advised that it has been closed for refurbishment and the gardaí at that station have been redeployed to Mountjoy. The Office of Public Works, OPW, has responsibility for carrying out refurbishment works. Those works are planned but I do not have an exact date for when they will occur. However, in view of Senator Norris's description of his gung-ho activities, it might be in the national interest that we get the work done in that Garda station with some speed to ensure there are gardaí in close proximity to the Senator's home not only to protect him from burglars but also on occasion to protect him from his own enthusiasm.

Senator Bacik might be surprised to discover that her reference to the National Women's Council was not completely alien to this debate. She probably slipped that reference in expecting the Cathaoirleach to call her to order. However, there is an interesting relevance to this. Senators should be aware of the fact that there is less in the financial envelopes available to Departments in 2012. The Department of Justice and Equality is not immune to that. There has been a reduction of approximately €100 million in the funding available to the Department of Justice and Equality for 2012 compared with 2011.

We have had to provide funding across a broad range of areas. A large element of this is Garda payroll. Some 90% of the funding in the justice sector that applies to the Garda is simply payroll funding and 10% is what I would describe as discretionary funding that can be used by the Garda for the services it delivers. That is funding that has to be fully provided.

The Criminal Assets Bureau, which performs a very important function, has had to be protected in terms of funding. It has received a very slight increase in 2012 over and above what was available for 2011 because of the very comprehensive work in which it has engaged in targeting gains which have benefited the criminal fraternity and trying to ensure that they are recovered from them by the State.

When we come to other areas which related to crime, the level of funding available to me for grants to a broad range of organisations is also reduced. Within that area we are dealing with not just the National Women's Council, we are dealing with groups like Women's Aid which provides protection for women who have been the victims of domestic violence. We are also dealing with groups like Advic and other victims organisations which provide direct counselling to the victims of crime and direct assistance to the victims of crime when accompanying them to court proceedings.

There are a variety of other very important groups in the youth justice area. There is a whole range of diversion programmes to keep young people engaged in criminality out of the courts system and places of detention where it is deemed in the interests of the community and themselves. We can send them into diversion programmes where they are engaged by professional groups, which are non-governmental but funded through the Department of Justice and Equality and whose work is supervised. This is done in the hope that these young people will not turn to a life of crime, where their difficulties are addressed at an early stage and their activity focus turns away from the type of activities which got them into trouble.

As Minister for Justice and Equality I took a very principled decision. Instead of evenly reducing the financial allocations across the board regardless of what function any group or organisation engaged in, I took the decision that we would give preference when it came to funding to groups that provided services as opposed to groups that engaged in advocacy and research. I recognise the importance of advocacy and research.

I also recognise the work of the National Women's Council over the years which continues to do very important work. I was a male supporter for many years of much of the work it did. A lot of the work it does is advocacy and research. Albeit important, at a time of huge financial difficulty it would be quite bizarre for me to provide less money to Women's Aid to provide protection for women who are the victims of violence or the Rape Crisis Centre which provides a service, and provide more money to the National Women's Council which could then use the money to criticise us for not providing the money required to the Rape Crisis Centre and Women's Aid.

We are not discussing the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Bill now.

I may have provoked that.

Organisations such as Women's Aid, Advic and the Rape Crisis Centre are all engaged in providing assistance to individuals, many of whom are women, who are the victims of crime. Domestic violence does not only give someone an entitlement to seek a domestic protection order in the courts, be it a barring order or safety order, it is an assault. It is a criminal offence to physically assault a woman. Clearly if someone is the victim of rape it is a criminal offence.

These organisations provide very crucial services to victims and when it comes to the very difficult financial circumstances in which we find ourselves and having to make really difficult choices, the choice we have made is to give preferential treatment to organisations providing services as opposed to those who are primarily engaged in advocacy and research. Unfortunately that will remain the position for some time.

I conclude by again thanking Senators for their contribution to the debate. I hope those who have contributed will forgive me if I have omitted some issue they have raised with me or I have not made express reference to them. I very much welcome the substantial support for this measure. I welcome and thank Senators for their co-operation in making it possible for us not only to take Second Stage today but to take the Remaining Stages, I hope, of the Bill before the Christmas vacation. It is in the public interest that it becomes law as soon as possible. The Bill has been too long delayed in the gestation phase.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Friday, 9 December 2011.