I wish to share my time with Deputies O'Sullivan, Rabbitte and Wall.
That Dáil Éireann:
–recognising the escalating impact of crime on our citizens and recognising, in particular, the continuing and unacceptably high level of murder, gangland shootings, intimidation, drug dealing, joy-riding and public disorder afflicting both urban and rural communities;
–believing that crime is demoralising people, terrifying our elderly and destroying the lives of many young people and that to tackle crime we need an efficient and effective police force operating in and with the full confidence, support and co-operation of the population it serves;
–acknowledging that the Garda Síochána has served us well since the foundation of the State, that its bravery, particularly in standing up to the threat posed by the IRA and other paramilitaries, must never be forgotten but believing that, like every other organisation, the Garda has to change and evolve, in accordance with principles of accountability and modernisation;
–aware that at present the Garda operates under legislation dating back to 1925 and that since society and the demands of policing, have changed radically in the past 75 years, it is therefore time the law governing the Garda changed as well;
–affirming that an essential part of that change is the forging of a new relationship between the Garda Síochána and the communities it serves so that those communities are involved in deciding policing priorities in consultation and real partnership with the Garda;
–convinced that policing works best when it is based on partnership between local people and the local gardaí and aiming therefore to give ownership of our policing strategy back to the community;
–conscious of the danger that, in the absence of such close liaison, paramilitaries and vigilantes are in a position to organise in recognition of the unmet need of local communities and to take the law into their own hands;
–noting also the need for a new system for investigating complaints levelled against the Garda;
–bearing in mind the comprehensive package of recommendations proposed by the Patten Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, many of which are of direct relevance and applicability in this jurisdiction;
condemns the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for his inaction in the area of systematic reform of policing, both at legislative and administrative level; calls upon the Minister to introduce a legislative package of reform, including at least the following three elements so as radically to reform policing in Ireland–
(f2>a)the establishment of a new Garda Authority, to set the priorities for fighting crime at national level, to make the key decisions relating to policing more open and accountable, to be responsible for senior appointments in the Garda Síochána and to receive and consider reports from the Garda Commissioner on operational decisions,
(f2>b)the establishment of county policing liaison committees, to agree a county or city policing plan, with regular meetings between the committee and local gardaí to monitor progress and address the concerns of local communities, and
(f2>c)the abolition of the Garda Complaints Board, the role and functioning of which is widely agreed to be unsatisfactory, and its replacement with a Garda Ombudsman to be responsible for investigating complaints against the Garda, such an officer to be provided with his own staff and to be responsible for a new, independent system for ensuring Garda accountability; and
calls also for a significant increase in Garda resources and personnel so as adequately to equip the force to meet the challenges which it faces. It goes without saying that confidence in effective, efficient and accountable policing is a critical component of any normal democratic society where the rule of law prevails. The police force in democratic society is a bulwark against crime and disorder and a sustenance for the people. While nobody likes to come to the attention of the police force, we like to know it is there and that we can turn to it with absolute confidence in times of crisis or trouble.
This country has been exceptionally lucky with its police force. There is a general recognition that the members of the Garda Síochána have served us very well since the foundation of the State and that they have shown particular courage in standing up to paramilitary organisations and organised crime. In doing that they have paid a very high price. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous officers like Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and Detective Garda Seamus Quaid of my home town in Wexford, a near neighbour of my own, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our democracy and our laws.
We were very fortunate that the political figures who presided over the formation of our pol ice force and those who led it in the early days displayed wisdom and judgment. Their decision to have a generally unarmed police force, despite the great disorder in which the State was born, was wise and courageous. The first Commissioner, Michael Staines, set the standard and the force was to consistently meet that standard in subsequent decades when he said: "An Garda Síochána will succeed, not by force of arms or numbers, but by the moral authority as servants of the people".
As with every other organisation or institution, however, and it is coincidental that I am making this contribution directly after a contribution on judicial accountability and the need to have the wind of change blow through the judicial system, the Garda Síochána also has to change and evolve in accordance with the principles of accountability and modernisation.
The gardaí operate under a body of legislation, some of which goes back as far as 1925, but the nature of society and the demands on policing have changed enormously in that period. It is therefore an appropriate time for a radical overhaul of the structures governing the Garda Síochána.
Policing in Northern Ireland is currently going through a major and dramatic transformation and while the problems of policing in a politically divided society are somewhat different than those we face in this jurisdiction, there are many lessons we can learn from the Patten report and the process of change now going on there.
I notice that the Government's response to the Labour Party motion is basically to attack it because it reflects many of the proposals of Patten. I find that disturbing on so many fronts. I say in passing – and it is an issue I intend to raise at the next meeting of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights – this is the second occasion on which a Fianna Fáil headed statement has been issued in the name of the chairman of that committee. Chairpersons should not use their office to propose partisan views of a political nature. That is not the way it normally operates. The only meaningful objection to the proposals is that they are reflective of proposals we are advocating take place in Northern Ireland. That is a lame attack on the proposals we are putting forward.
The recommendations in the Patten report that have proved most controversial – those relating to badges, emblems, oaths and politically contentious matters – amount to no less than ten out of a total of some 175. Many of the Patten report recommendations set out best practices for policing that would be applicable in any modern society, and I predict that many of them will be reflected in reforms in police forces throughout the western world. We should not be afraid to borrow from the Patten report and I am already on record as saying that in preparing our proposals we want debated in this House, we studied the Patten report very carefully and drew from its conclusions.
There is a desire among members of the public, and among members of the Garda, for radical change. There is some worrying evidence that the confidence the force traditionally enjoyed is not as strong as it once was. People are concerned about what they perceive to be the lower visibility of the Garda on their streets and in their communities, the closure of Garda stations, especially in rural areas, and the continuing problems of crime and vandalism that those of us who are spokespersons now hear about on a daily basis. All of those concerns, as our motion states, demoralise people, terrify the elderly and destroy the lives of so many young people.
As virtually every Member of this House will be able to attest, there is probably no other issue that so concerns local communities as crime. Despite the claims made by the Minister about the reduction in crime levels, that is not reflected in the experience of life on the ground where people see for themselves the continuing and unacceptable level of murder, gangland shootings and beatings, intimidation, drug dealing, joy-riding and public disorder, which was again discussed on the national airwaves this morning when one taxi driver described the mayhem of the last weekend which apparently is a regular occurrence in this city.
There is evidence that a considerable amount of crime is going unreported and rather than an overall reduction in crime, that may account for the improved figures. Statistics produced by the Central Statistics Office suggest that crime is considerably higher than the official figures relate. Statistics produced by the CSO in November 1999, based on the findings of the national household survey, show that about 12% of households, one in eight, are affected by crime each year. One household in 30 has been burgled. More than 5% of households with a motor vehicle had either the vehicle stolen or something stolen from the vehicle. Almost 5% of households suffered vandalism in the previous year. Exposure to crime was highest in Dublin where close to one-fifth of all homes surveyed had been victims of crime. The survey found that approximately one in every 100 persons aged 18 or over had been a victim of non-violent theft. Violent thefts and assaults affected about one in every 200 adults. Young adults were found to be most at risk, with more than 3% claiming they had been a victim of assault or theft.
There is also strong evidence in the survey to support the suggestion that such crime is not reported. While 95% of all car thefts were reported, less than 40% of cases of vandalism were reported to the gardaí.
This is all a long way from the picture presented by the Minister for zero tolerance who painted a picture of crime levels in the new century returning to the level of the 1950s. When we take into account that much of this crime is concentrated in particular areas, we have to acknowledge that as a society we are failing to provide adequate protection to the majority of law abid ing citizens against the unacceptable activities of a criminal minority.
Among the reasons for not reporting is a belief, again concentrated in some areas, that it is simply not worthwhile, that it will take the Garda too long to respond and that, when they respond, nothing will be done. That may be entirely unfair to the Garda, who are working under incredible difficulties with limited resources, but it is a real perception that we will ignore at our peril. That perception is being exploited by unscrupulous individuals, many of whom are members of or associated with the republican movement, who offer communities what they claim are simple solutions to the crime problem. These solutions involve violent assaults on people or shooting those alleged to be involved in crime. There is no due process in these kangaroo courts; no right to silence, no right to legal representation and no right of appeal. We have seen the appalling toll these sorts of activities have inflicted in Northern Ireland.
In my constituency within recent weeks, a person of exemplary character was brutally shot in both legs before members of his own family in the kitchen of his home. Apparently, the man was not the intended victim of the assault. Such events came as a shock to the community in Wexford.
If we do not want to allow the situation to deteriorate even further, we must work to restore full public confidence in the Garda Síochána and provide the resources they need to be effective. The Labour Party believes the only way in which we can defeat crime and vandalism is through a partnership between the community and the Garda Síochána. The community cannot combat crime on its own. Without the support, commitment and confidence of the people, gardaí face an almost impossible task. Labour is determined to forge a new relationship between gardaí and the communities they serve. Communities must be involved in deciding policing priorities and made to feel part of the policing process. We will then have real partnership in terms of fighting crime.
There are other issues that must be addressed, not least the question of resources and whether existing personnel are being used in the best possible way. Figures are produced from time to time to suggest that Ireland does quite well in regard to the number of gardaí per head of population, but these require close examination. According to the Garda website, there are 11,230 members of the force. However, in the Garda report for 1999, the most recent to be made available, the cumulative figure for each of the six Garda divisions comes to only 9,791. The balance is, presumably, accounted for by those serving at headquarters and in specialist units.
We have been told by the Garda authorities that in effect, 5.1 gardaí are required to maintain each Garda position. This is due to a three shift system, holidays, sick leave, etc. While there may be 11,230 gardaí on paper, the operational level of the force, at any given point, may be as low as 2,500. The huge western region, which stretches from Mayo to Limerick, has, on paper, 1,068 Garda personnel, but when the effective ratio is applied, the level of policing in this region could be as low as 210. A number of colleagues and I spoke to senior Garda officials during the week and discovered that, because of the foot and mouth disease crisis, only a skeleton staff of gardaí is operating in certain towns and rural areas. We accept that this is necessary but there are real consequences for many local areas as a result.
There is also the question of how existing resources within the Garda are used. From dealings I have had with the Garda, I know that many members of the force are conscious of the limitations of the existing structures. Gardaí have expressed concern at the inadequacies of the training they receive. A survey highlighted at the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors last April found that almost half those questioned said they had experienced bullying in the workplace. At the same conference the acting president of the AGSI, expressed concern that gardaí were in danger of losing the common touch and that this could jeopardise the close relationship between the force and the public. There have been increasing calls among members of the force to allow trade unions to be organised and to grant limited rights to strike. There is a compelling case for allowing the representative bodies to acquire trade union status.
It is against this background of disquiet within the force and public concerns over crime and policing that we produced our proposals for a package of radical reforms to transform the relationship between the Garda and the community. There is no more urgent issue than this and nothing deserves a more considered debate than the proposals we wish to place before the House.
There are three key elements in the Labour Party proposals. The first of these involves the establishment of a new Garda authority. The role of the new authority would be to set priorities for fighting crime at national level, to make key decisions relating to making policing more open and accountable, to be responsible for senior appointments in the Garda Síochána and to receive and consider reports from the Garda Commissioner on operational decisions. We envisage that there would be approximately 15 members of the authority who would be appointed by the Government, following consideration by the appropriate Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. These five members would be selected from a range of bodies, including those involved in public administration and business, trade unions, voluntary organisations, community groups, the legal profession and seconded representatives of various ranks from the Garda organisations. While the authority would have overall responsibility for policing strategy, the Commissioner would retain full operational responsibility for the exercise of his or her functions and the activities of Garda officers and civilian staff under his or her direction or control.
Our second key proposal is the establishment of county policing liaison committees, the function of which would be to agree a county or city policing plan, with regular meetings between these committees and local gardaí to monitor progress and address issues of real concern to people in each community. We envisage that there would be regular meetings between county policing committees and senior Garda officers in each district at which reports could be presented, strategies discussed and answers given. This simply mirrors proposals I put forward, as Minister for the Environment, for strategic policy groups to consider every other area of local administration. Those proposals have been taken up by my successor and the groups have been put in place.
The county policing committees would reflect community concerns and priorities to the force. They would act purely as liaison bodies and would have no operational function. However, they will give the force new ways of identifying the needs of communities and greatly enforce the community dimension of policing which is currently being eroded.
The third main pillar of our proposals is the establishment of a Garda ombudsman. It is widely acknowledged that there is a strong case for the abolition of the Garda Complaints Board, the role and functioning of which is unsatisfactory. The members of the Garda Síochána and those who have cause to make complaints find it unsatisfactory and, from comments the Minister has made, it appears he and his Department are at least proposing to put forward radical reforms in this area. It is not good enough to try to tinker with the Garda Síochána (Complaints) Act which has been found to be unsatisfactory and virtually unworkable.
One of the major innovations in policing in Northern Ireland has been the appointment of an independent ombudsman. I have had the opportunity to speak with her and discovered that her office has an effective role in giving a speedy response to local need. This model will be replicated elsewhere. I beg the Minister not to dismiss the concept of an independent ombudsman by stating that just because one has been appointed in Northern Ireland does not mean there is a need for one here. The Northern Ireland model is eminently suitable for implementation in this jurisdiction.
I have only been able to touch on some of the details of the main proposals outlined in the document, Policing Change, which I had the honour to publish on behalf of the Labour Party a few months ago. My party is seeking the broadest possible debate on these issues and I hope the Minister will address our proposals and not merely dismiss them because they emanate from this side of the House. It is not a question of pro posing change simply for the sake of change. The aim of these proposals is to better equip the Garda to combat crime and to renew the relationship between the people and its members.
The new structures we are proposing will help restore public confidence in the Garda and open the way for improved co-operation between the police and the public, which is the only way to effectively combat crime and vandalism. As already stated, I hope the Government will resist its normal instinct to oppose these proposals, which we offer in good faith, simply because they are being put forward from this side of the House and will consider them on their merits.