Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Questions (6, 7)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

6Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to increase Garda resources in order to effectively address the increasing levels of burglaries throughout the State. [29754/12]

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Brian Stanley

Question:

19Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to ensure that elderly residents in rural areas are protected from burglaries in view of his plans to cut back provision of Garda numbers in rural areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29759/12]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Minister for Justice)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 19 together.

While the latest recorded crime statistics show a decrease in most types of crime during 2011, I am of course concerned at the increase in certain categories of crime, notably burglaries and other property crimes. In particular, I share the widespread outrage at recent incidents of aggravated burglary where elderly people were terrorised in their own homes. Although the overall incidence of crime is generally lower in rural areas than it is in urban areas, I am very conscious of the deep distress these disturbing assaults can cause and the fear to which they give rise in rural communities. I am sure the Deputies will agree that An Garda Síochána has been relentless in its efforts to bring those involved in this type of crime to justice.

The Garda Commissioner has introduced a range of measures aimed at tackling gangs involved in burglaries. These measures are encompassed by Operation Fiacla, which is particularly focused on identifying and targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries throughout the country so as to disrupt their activities and bring them before the courts. Specific burglary-related initiatives are being implemented in each Garda region in support of Operation Fiacla. This is a co-ordinated, intelligence-led strategy designed to maximise organisational resources in order to proactively target prolific offenders.

In addition to the concerted law enforcement efforts which are being pursued by An Garda Síochána, crime prevention is a key component in tackling burglary and other property crime. In this regard, the Garda national crime prevention unit and crime prevention officers at divisional level provide advice, information and support to organisations, businesses and individuals which is aimed at reducing the incidence of burglary and property crime. In that context, the Garda continues to work closely with communities to enhance community safety through a wide range of local fora, including partnership programmes such as community alert and neighbourhood watch.

I am fully aware of the concerns that exist with regard to the incidence of certain property crimes, as well as the specific concerns felt in rural areas. I very much welcome the fact that the Garda Commissioner is deploying the substantial resources available to him in a targeted and strategic way in order to confront those who are engaging in this form of criminality.

My colleague, Deputy Colreavy, also wishes to contribute and I presume he will focus on rural Garda stations.

On Question No. 6, I wish to comment on the report on the cash-for-gold industry which has been published and which is due to be discussed by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I welcome that report and I also welcome the opportunity to discuss it. However, I do not accept the Garda Commissioner's opinion to the effect that there is no evidence to suggest a link between burglaries and the cash-for-gold industry. All of the evidence furnished to me by people who come to my constituency office and at JPC meetings I have attended indicates that cash-for-gold outlets are being used to sell stolen goods. If an analysis were carried out in respect of the location of these outlets and the number of burglaries which take place in surrounding areas, I would bet anything that a pattern would emerge. I do not, therefore, accept the Garda Commissioner's assertion in respect of this matter. I am of the view that there is actually evidence to the contrary.

This is a matter on which we must focus. I read a media report in which a number of comments were attributed to the Minister. I hope I accurately reflect what he said when he asserted that members of the Garda had visited all 124 cash-for-gold outlets throughout the country and informed them of how to contact the force. It is as if the Garda Síochána is some sort of invisible organisation which these people do not know how to contact. It is very easy to contact the force.

We must consider this issue and I am glad the committee is going to discuss it. I would like regulations similar to those which obtain in respect of pawnbrokers to be introduced in respect of the cash-for-gold industry. It is important that this should be done while we are awaiting the opportunity to discuss the report to which I refer.

Members of the force did more than inform the proprietors of or those who work in cash-for-gold outlets how to contact the Garda. I suspect that was not a great mystery to most of them.

The media report in question stated that this is what the Minister said.

One aspect of what the officers in question did was to clearly draw to the attention of individuals operating in that industry the existing laws relating to the receipt of stolen property and, in particular, the provisions of the 2001 Act. It was very important that this was done.

I cannot invent facts which, I am informed, do not currently exist. As the Deputy will have seen from the report to which he refers, the Garda Commissioner was consulted on three different occasions. He was consulted in respect of this issue by my predecessor shortly before the change of Government. We then followed up with him on it in the aftermath of the election and then again very recently in order that when the report was published it would contain the most up-to-date view from him. A direct connection of the nature to which the Deputy refers - namely, a substantial increase in the number of burglaries in areas where cash-for-gold outlets are located - has not been identified.

We must be extremely careful when discussing this matter. One of the reasons that there are so many of these outlets relates to the huge increase in the value of gold. Sadly, another reason for their existence relates to the financial difficulties by which many families are being affected. In that context, people are trading old family items in order to generate funding for themselves. Cash-for-gold outlets are as much a consequence of the economic difficulties of the State, the number of people who are unemployed and the problems with which families have unexpectedly been faced as they are of anything else. We must take care and ensure that, in this House or elsewhere, we do not criminalise people who are engaging in legitimate business activities. For many years, jewellery shops have bought and sold second-hand jewellery and the antiques trade is solely based on the sale of second-hand items. However, no one is attributing direct criminality to those who operate in these areas.

In the context of the Deputy's suggestion that some cash-for-gold outlets may be located in burglary blackspots, I reiterate what I said earlier in response to Deputy Mattie McGrath, namely, that part of this business is web-based in nature and involves individuals submitting items by post to cash-for-gold outlets and receiving sums of money in return by way of value. Part of the issue is consumer protection in dealing with these outlets.

The issue is more complex than people are saying. In the statistics we have, there is no indication of a huge statistical upsurge in burglary. Any burglary is something that should not happen and I am not condoning it in any way. There is not, however, a direct connectivity here. We need to be careful as to how we deal with the matter.

I am looking forward to the matter being given a further detailed examination in the joint committee. If appropriate legislation needs to be developed, I assure the Deputy it will be.

I am not sure what criteria are used in deciding whether to close Garda stations or leave them open. I imagine one criterion is the population of a district. This immediately mitigates against districts with lower populations. I imagine distance between stations is a criterion. The Minister said the current network was designed when the gardaí were on bicycles. This is true, but so were the burglars on bicycles in those days. A 100% record of crime prevention means zero crime. If I were a crime prevention officer I would not like to achieve 100% effectiveness, because that figure would be used to close my station.

In Sligo and Leitrim, a number of stations are being closed. Most of them serve people who live in fairly isolated Border areas. There is a big distance between the stations. There was no public discussion or consultation and no effort was made to reassure the population that, with the change in policing practice and reduced number of stations, their safety would still be a priority.

In order to reassure vulnerable people in isolated rural communities, can the Minister advise the House as to whether or not there will be changes in practice and what those changes will be?

No additional stations will be closed this year beyond the 39 announced at the end of 2011, eight of which had already been closed and were not functioning. A considerable number of others were open for two or three hours in the day. The busiest stations that were closed were not rural stations. They were the three Dublin stations in Dalkey, Harcourt Terrace and Whitehall. The perception of the Commissioner was, I understand, that we had a substantial number of stations in Dublin and that for operational effectiveness and to use resources wisely the closure of those stations was appropriate in the context of the large number of stations in Dublin. The closures have been a great deal greater - they were not all in isolated rural areas.

In isolated rural areas, the greatest assistance the Garda can give is not to be sitting inside the walls of a station but to be out and about, available to be called in police cars and engaging in whatever investigations are required. I would prefer to see gardaí engaged with the community rather than sitting behind a desk in a station.

It is for the Commissioner to determine, based on operational effectiveness, the stations to keep open and the appropriate stations to close.

I fully support the Minister's plans for policing in Dublin. However, it has come to my attention informally that with the closure of Harcourt Terrace there has been some difficulty in reallocating the gardaí stationed there to other parts of the city. Donnybrook Garda station, for example, has had its hours restricted and has lost its community garda. It is my understanding that if we could free up those resources we would be able, at least, to get the community garda back for Donnybrook. Could the Minister look into this matter and discover whether or not this is the case?

With the loss of resources in the city and elsewhere we will have to do much more work with JPCs. I know the Minister has been paying close attention to what they are doing but to help them to play a more important role, particularly with the loss of community gardaí, we need to put more resources into them, if possible.

I merely wish to clarify a matter. I do not suggest shops knowingly engage in criminal activity, but it is important to have regulation to protect, not only victims of burglaries but also the proprietors of the shops themselves. We do not want shops to be used unknowingly to sell stolen goods. Regulation is equally important for the owners of shops who want to carry out legitimate trade.

I am waiting for the report of the joint committee. I think it anomalous that certain information is required to be retained by pawnbrokers but not by others who trade in what can best be described as second-hand goods. The problem is that second-hand goods are traded at markets throughout the country and in a range of other locations. We could attempt to address the issue bit by bit and create other anomalies.

A particular issue, which I hope the committee will address, is that the business is often conducted in a web-based forum. We could put in place a bit of legislation that would seem useful where people actually walk into a retail or cash-for-gold outlet but would be useless, either as a law enforcement or protective measure, because of the web-based nature of the business. A great deal more work remains to be done on this issue than was done on the Private Members' Bill dealt with previously.

I am sorry if my response to Deputy Murphy's query sounds like a mantra. It is for the Garda Commissioner to determine where to allocate members arising out of the closure of Harcourt Street Garda station. I am aware of the Garda stations in Dublin to which members are, or have been, allocated. I cannot micromanage the community garda in Donnybrook. If there is a gap in that area I am sure the Commissioner will have regard to that. I am happy to follow up that matter for the Deputy with a simple query to the Commissioner and to revert to the Deputy with any information I obtain.