I join other speakers in congratulating the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on his decision to allow a Nigerian student to return to Ireland. I hope he will be equally enlightened when he reviews the case of a Nigerian family of three living in Millstreet, County Cork. The family would have been on the same aeroplane to Nigeria as the student had it not been for a last minute reprieve by the courts to allow another appeal to the Minister. I hope the Minister's latest decision is an indication of a more compassionate approach in this area.
The Fine Gael Party welcomes the Garda Síochána Bill 2004, especially the new emphasis on community policing. As Deputy Jim O'Keeffe said, our only problem is that the Bill does not go far enough in providing new and independent structures to ensure the Garda force which has served the nation well since the foundation of the State will continue to do so. Society is changing rapidly and gardaí require training, structures and resources to meet the demands of challenging times. This is not to say the fundamentals must change. As Deputy Costello pointed out in the course of his contribution, every member of the Garda must know that his or her primary duty is to protect and help members of the public with unfailing patience, courtesy and good humour.
As the founding party of the State, Fine Gael against all the odds established an unarmed police force whose members were rooted in and servants of the community. Without maintaining the basic principle implied in the force's establishment, it matters little how many gardaí are deployed on the streets. Without community co-operation, policing will not work, which is why cracks are beginning to show in certain areas of Garda work. Originally, gardaí were part and parcel of their communities. They lived locally and their children went to school and grew up in the community, which is why the State had a community Garda force long before the term was included in law enforcement and crime prevention terminology. Times have changed and most gardaí want and are entitled to live outside the communities they serve.
Work practices have changed and shift work and round-the-clock cover are required in most areas. It is in this context that I wish to concentrate in my contribution on community policing. I welcome the emphasis on community policing in the Bill and am confident the report being prepared by Deputy Costello for the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights will provide a sound basis for community policing in future. I suspect, however, that old attitudes will prevail. At a recent meeting of the joint committee, the Garda Commissioner said he could not properly deploy gardaí if a dedicated community police force were established. The attitude is similar to the one adopted by the Government in the area of education.
It is generally accepted that money provided for pre-school and primary school services is well spent. That intervention must take place when it is most necessary and effective is not only true from a social point of view, but in the context of the long-term benefits to the economy and taxpayers. Useful, efficient community policing will have the same beneficial effect on crime prevention. It will prevent problems from developing, thereby cutting back on the requirement to invest resources in remedial education, crime detection, court services, probation services and prisons. Given the Government's promise to provide a dedicated traffic corps, why can it not provide a dedicated community policing corps as part of the proposed restructuring of the Garda force?
The nature of Garda training will become increasingly significant and specialisation will form an essential element of it. Special training is required for gardaí providing immigration services. I have brought to the attention of the Minister previously the numerous complaints made about the treatment by immigration officers at airports and ports of immigrants, asylum seekers and tourists mistaken for asylum seekers or immigrants. The complaints have never been properly investigated because of the complexity of the complaints procedure. This is because immigration officers at our ports and airports are members of the Garda Síochána.
The Government must have recognised the need for a traffic corps given its promise to provide one in the lead up to two general elections. The training requirements for a member of a traffic corps, a community police officer or a garda investigating information technology offences or financial fraud must have completely different emphases. It has been suggested that Garda training should include attendance at a university or other third level institution at which personnel could specialise in one or two aspects of the profession. Such attendance would also have the advantage of broadening a recruit's horizons from an educational point of view.
Without dedicated corps, the objectives of the Bill will not be achieved, especially in the area of community policing. Community policing has been the poor relation in Garda structures and is not seen by many gardaí as real police work. The Garda authorities do not give it the priority it deserves and until now the Minister has failed to ring-fence resources for this most important function. To an extent, it is easy to understand why. From a career or political perspective, the results of reform in this area will only become apparent in the long term and the benefits will not be felt during the terms in office of the serving Minister or Garda Commissioner.
The facts demonstrate that community policing is working in only a few areas and any success is due solely to the few dedicated gardaí on the ground who are committed to the concept. Recently, a retired Garda sergeant formerly in charge of community policing in the Bray-Shankill-Greystones area made a submission to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. He said that during his tenure and since, the powers that be have provided only lip-service to community policing which is underfunded, under-resourced and constitutes the Cinderella of Garda services. There are no proper structures in place and the committed people involved lack a career path. Community policing survives solely at the whim of various district officers.
Community policing officers are classed as occupying dead-end jobs and have been told so when seeking promotion. The retired garda painted a picture of a completely under-resourced unit that lacked personnel and could not provide cover for more than eight hours per day. The unit had no access to staff to replace officers who were sick or on leave. Community gardaí were constantly taken off community policing duty if there were shortages in other units. The submission was not isolated. A serving garda in Cork described to the joint committee her complete frustration at the inept manner in which community policing has been run. Instead of appointing suitably trained gardaí, the Garda authorities seek to fill vacancies by asking gardaí if they will take jobs in the short term. As outlined by the former Garda sergeant to whom I referred, the problem is that a community policing appointment is considered to be a dead-end position.
Community policing gardaí complain at the lack of training for the specialised work they undertake with juveniles, Travellers and, more and more, in the context of general integration. In another submission to the joint committee, a garda said senior gardaí gave little credence to the concept of community policing and prioritised what they described as "real police work". All community gardaí in Cork are called on to perform regular policing duties as well as their community policing functions. Community gardaí may be given to understand their work is unimportant, part-time and secondary. However, they perform cash escort duties, post office duties and duties at concerts and matches. Community gardaí are required to submit details of their attendances at court and the number of drunk-driving and other summonses they issue. In effect, they undertake a role similar to that of a garda working in a regular Garda unit and are reprimanded if they are perceived to be inactive in the areas in which they have responsibility. To add insult to injury, one of the submissions includes the comment of a senior member of the Garda Síochána to a group of community gardaí to the effect that community policy is an unaffordable luxury.
Despite the good work done by the current Garda management in other areas, it clearly either does not appreciate the role of properly trained and resourced community gardaí or simply does not have the resources to fund such a force. We are all to blame for this to some extent. The statistics which indicate the achievements of the Government, Minister and Garda Commissioner during their period of office are all important. However, we should focus on the statistical improvements that could be achieved over time by a properly resourced community police force.
The sentiments in this Bill are correct. However, without at least a separate division, reporting to an assistant commissioner and with its own resources and budget, the Minister's good intentions will remain aspirational. The provision in Part 5 for the establishment of a Garda Síochána inspectorate represents a useful tool for the Minister in the future. Had such a power been available to Ministers in the past, community policing might not be in its current deplorable state. However, notwithstanding this new power, it is clear that unless community policing is a separate corps with its own budget, one of the central planks of the legislation will be unworkable.
Another element of the Bill which could sit comfortably within the community policing division is the establishment of a volunteer force. A well-trained and committed community police force could direct and assist in the training of a volunteer force. In suitable circumstances this concept could be extended to include a part-time element, through which the talents of retired gardaí, civil servants, social workers and other highly qualified personnel could be utilised to back up community gardaí. I am confident there are many such people prepared to participate as volunteers. Such a force must be under the jurisdiction of the Garda and proper training must be provided. The Minister has included safeguards in the legislation in this regard.
Apart from making provision for a community volunteer force, the main function of this Bill in regard to community policing is the establishment of local structures or the modification of existing structures at local authority level. I do not envy the Minister's task in this respect and I agree that local authorities represent the best way forward. However, there must also be a substantial input from other organisations, especially community groups. Anyone familiar with local government knows the improvements to local governance that were introduced in recent years have largely failed.
One must judge the success of local government on the general public's perception of the new bodies. Perhaps 10% of the population has a concept of the function of county development boards and even fewer understand the concept of expanded area committees. In general, the electorate is totally confused, bemused and over-taxed because of the plethora of agencies in existence. In most cases, the primary objective of such bodies is to build an empire and ensure their own survival.
There are no defined areas at sub-county level or suburban divisions through which all organisations can work together. For example, different local areas are defined for the purposes of the operation of the HSE, the Leader programme, ADM, enterprise boards, Garda divisions and even the local area served by a number of Garda stations. The education system is structured through the differing areas of responsibility of VECs and community and private schools. Likewise, county councils perform their functions according to various definitions of housing areas, roads areas and so on.
None of the areas defined by these various bodies is compatible with any other. To ensure the development of successful community policing, educational, health and other agencies must work together in a specifically defined local area to deal with the various problems that arise. In this context, the Minister should work with his counterpart in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to instruct county and city councils to clearly designate sub-county and suburban areas in which all agencies must focus their work. In this way, all bodies working with State money and resources can organise and pool their activity to the best benefit of the community. It is within such defined boundaries that community policy will work most effectively.
I have advocated the creation of such divisions for a considerable time. They are not unlike the divisional district councils which the Progressive Democrats Party proposed some years ago. That party envisaged a corresponding abolition of the county councils. However, it is possible to have effective district councils operating within the existing county and city council structures. A new framework must be devised if intentions regarding the provision of community policing are to be realised.
Whatever area divisions the Minister decides to use, it is important that all agencies co-operate closely. Flexibility is crucial in those counties such as Cork, for example, where there are different layers of local government including county council, city council and other administrative divisions. The system devised by the Minister must be capable of being adapted by county and city councils. The designation of defined areas or districts on which all agencies can focus is the preferable solution.
The Bill suggests that members will be appointed to the police committees in accordance with the proportional strength of their parties at local government level. The legislation does not make clear whether, apart from the Garda representation, it is the Minister or members of the committee who will have the power to co-opt or appoint members from other agencies. Once the committees have been established, it should be the members and chairman, perhaps in consultation with an outside body, which appoints other members from the community, as in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt, judging from submissions to the committee, that a strong involvement by community groups is necessary. There are other issues that I do not have time to cover. However, generally speaking, Fine Gael welcomes the Bill. We will table amendments on Committee and Report Stages which reflect our policy as well as the submissions made to the joint committee. The amendments should not be seen as a basic criticism of the Bill, but rather as constructive proposals for what is worthwhile legislation.