Tackling Crime: Statements.

I very much welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to hear the views of members of all parties of the House on the subject of tackling crime.

The public understandably has concerns about crime and properly makes those concerns known to us, as public representatives. Deputies in this House are well placed to know what is happening in their communities, what forms of crime are causing problems in their areas and the local conditions which can exacerbate, for example, the problems of public disorder.

I am glad that this debate is not in the form of ritualised motions and countermotions defending and attacking the record of the Government in dealing with crime.

Ritualised statements instead.

Of course, I would strongly defend the measures which the Government is taking — it is necessary for me in statements such as this to set some of those out — but I want to make it clear that neither I nor the Government make claim to some monopoly of wisdom in how to tackle the myriad of complex issues which arise in trying to tackle crime. I am more than prepared to consider any constructive suggestion made by any Member of this House and it is important that, whatever may divide us, a message goes out from this House today that all sides here are united in our determination that the problems of crime be effectively addressed.

I do not intend today to detain the House with a lengthy analysis of crime statistics. They are already on the public record. It is no consolation to someone who has been a victim of crime to point out that the chances of it happening, particularly in this jurisdiction, are low. However, in an effort to give some perspective to this debate and point to what has been achieved, there are a few figures it might be helpful for me to mention. The latest figures available from the Central Statistics Office, which now has responsibility for compiling crime statistics, cover the 12 month period ending on 30 June 2007. They show a drop in headline crime of just over 1% on the previous 12 months.

Garda figures show a detection rate of 40% for 2006 which compares favourably with rates internationally and with rates here of 36% in 2003 and 35% in 2004 and 2005. The crime rates must, of course, be seen against the background of the rises taking place in population. The crime rate per 1,000 of population dropped from 26 in 2003 to 24.5 in 2006. On recent murders, I can tell the House that since 1 August last there have been 17 murders and manslaughters. Persons have been charged in respect of 13, or 76%, of these cases, including one of the two firearms cases.

I am not at all to be taken as suggesting these crime rates are acceptable — far from it. I have stated previously that one crime is one too many. However, it would be wrong of us not to acknowledge the achievements of the Garda Síochána and other agencies in the criminal justice system. We tend to forget that week in, week out individuals are brought to justice for their crimes.

Under the Garda Síochána Act it is open to me to set policing priorities for the Garda Síochána. I am in the course of determining these priorities for 2008 and yesterday I consulted my colleagues in Government about them. My intention is to prioritise areas such as gun crime, organised crime and drugs, and public order. Before finalising these priorities I wish to hear what Deputies have to say in the course of today's debate and will take their views into account.

As much as I can as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I wish to foster a spirit of national partnership in tackling crime. Accordingly, I am giving priority to establishing a joint policing committee in each local authority area. These committees provide a forum where members of a local authority and the senior Garda officers responsible for policing the area, together with Oireachtas Members and community and voluntary interests, can consult, discuss and make recommendations on matters affecting policing of their community.

On the one hand, these committees should make policing more responsive to community needs; on the other they should make the job of the Garda in tackling particular problems easier by providing a forum for co-operation with all the interests involved. Twenty nine committees are now operating on a pilot basis. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and I are examining what lessons can be learned from the operation of the pilot committees. We intend to have committees up and running in all local authority areas as early as possible in 2008. One of the priorities I intend to establish for the Garda Síochána is full and enthusiastic participation in the work of these committees.

My primary responsibility as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is for the criminal justice system. However, in any debate about crime we must be conscious there are many matters wider than the operation of the criminal justice system that can have an effect on the crime rate. For example, in this country many people seek out and use illicit drugs. These people are the ready market that is the lifeblood of the drugs industry and the deadly violence associated with it. At the other end of the scale, while the Garda has to use the law to deal with incidents of public disorder we have to be conscious too that there is a need for facilities for young people in our communities. To put it at its most basic, it helps that when the Garda has to move young people along there is somewhere for them to go.

That said, there is one fact about crime that is so obvious at times it can be lost in the welter of analysis; those who are responsible for crime are those who commit crime. There is a basic duty on all citizens to obey the law and let their fellow citizens enjoy their lives and their property peaceably. There is a fundamental duty on the Government to vindicate these fundamental human rights. In this regard I assure the House of one thing; the Government will not be found wanting in taking whatever measures can reasonably be taken to tackle crime. In doing so, I know I will have the support of all sides of the House.

I am keenly aware from my contact with constituents and with Deputies from all sides of the House of the widespread concern about the problem of public disorder. Deputies are better placed than most to know how in some areas anti-social behaviour can make people's lives a misery. Strong provisions are already in place to combat anti-social behaviour. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 modernised the law in this regard. The Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 contains provisions to deal with alcohol abuse and its effect on public order. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2003 provides the Garda with powers to deal with late night street violence and anti-social conduct attributable to excessive drinking.

In addition to the criminal law, we have a range of initiatives in place to get at the root causes of this type of behaviour. The Garda juvenile diversion programme has proven to be highly successful in diverting young persons away from crime by offering guidance and support to juveniles and their families. The Garda youth diversion projects are community-based, multi-agency crime prevention initiatives which seek to divert young people from becoming involved, or further involved, in anti-social and-or criminal behaviour. By doing so, the projects also contribute to improving the quality of life within communities and enhancing Garda-community relations. The Government is committed to doubling the number of projects to 168. I recently approved the establishment of an additional 12 projects, bringing the current total to 93 throughout the country.

CCTV schemes are a strong deterrent in fighting crime and anti-social behaviour as well as giving communities greater peace of mind. More broadly, a number of reforms have taken place in recent years to bring about a more effective youth justice system and these have been enshrined in legislation in the Children Act 2001, as amended. The Act is based on the principles of diversion from crime and anti-social behaviour, restorative justice, the expanded use of community-based sanctions and measures by the courts, and the use of detention only as a last resort.

Recent measures have reformed our entire approach to youth justice. The Irish youth justice service, an executive office of my Department which is co-located in the Office of the Minister for Children, now has responsibility for developing youth justice policy and operating the children detention schools.

The Government is committed to addressing the problem of anti-social behaviour. Ultimately, offenders have to pay a price for this type of behaviour. I have therefore asked my Department to look at the question of what the programme for Government refers to as community payback. This involves those who have transgressed providing real services for the communities they have damaged. It is the case that community service orders already mean some offenders make reparation to society generally, but we now want to examine the possibility of making a more direct connection between the offence and reparation to the community against whom the offence has been committed.

There is no doubt developments which have taken place in regard to gun crime are deeply disturbing. Members of the gangs involved set no value on human life. We have had a series of killings relating to feuds within gangs or rows over the drugs trade. It is small consolation that the problem is not unique to this country. At a meeting a few weeks ago with the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, I had the opportunity to discuss the problem of gun crime and the courageous and determined efforts she is making to grapple with the serious problems of gang and gun violence in the United Kingdom.

The reprehensible gun attack on Garda Paul Sherlock last week provided evidence of the depths to which these gangs will stoop. I know Members on all sides of the House have already expressed their revulsion at what happened, but let us pledge again our full support for members of the Garda Síochána in bringing the perpetrators to justice. That incident was a stark reminder of the dangers facing members of the Garda Síochána as they go about their daily task of protecting us all.

The House will be aware the Government recently appointed Deputy Commissioner Fachtna Murphy to replace Commissioner Noel Conroy when he retires next month. As well as paying tribute to the work of the Garda Síochána generally, I believe all Members of the House will join me in acknowledging the service which Noel Conroy has given to the Garda Síochána and thereby to the community. He will continue to give that service for some weeks ahead but the Government took the view it was desirable for his successor to be in place some months ahead of his formal appointment so he could assess the nature of the position he is undertaking. We can also have confidence, on the basis of his performance to date, that Deputy Commissioner Murphy will provide outstanding leadership to the Garda Síochána at a time of great challenge.

I have said previously the fight against the activities of gangs is going to be long and has to be relentless. The House is aware Operation Anvil has been specifically directed against the activities of these gangs, particularly in Dublin. Figures which I received from the Garda Commissioner recently show that from its beginning in May 2005 to 9 September last, 768 firearms have been recovered, 37,437 searches for drugs have taken place and over 70,000 checkpoints established. I suggest to the House that these figures make clear the unrelenting nature of the activity being undertaken by the Garda Síochána to deal with these problems.

This House has enacted a wide range of measures to deal with the activities of gangs. Many of the measures contained in the recent Criminal Justice Act will inevitably take a while to have full effect and they should be given time to do so. As legislators we must always stand ready to make any further changes to our criminal laws that prove necessary. In that regard, for example, I will bring proposals before this House for the creation of a DNA database. I would welcome the views of Members on what direction we should take in that regard.

It is easy to sound tough on crime. What is needed is to be tough on crime. To do that we must ensure those agencies charged with tackling crime are provided with the resources they need. There is no use willing an end unless we provide the means. I am anxious to put on record what the Government has done in this regard.

The current programme for Government re-affirms the commitment to a Garda strength of 15,000, with a target date of 2010, and commits us to increasing the strength of the force further to 16,000 by 2012. Recruitment to the Garda Reserve will also continue as a priority. The Garda budget now stands at €1.44 billion compared with just over €0.9 billion five years ago. Garda overtime this year will amount to approximately €140 million compared with €66 million five years ago.

Since December 2006, approval has been given for the recruitment of 600 civilian staff and 300 have been assigned already, releasing some gardaí for operational duties. The Garda fleet is undergoing extensive modernisation. Last year, €24.7 million was used to purchase 1,378 vehicles for the force.

I am determined that gardaí will have access to state-of-the-art technology in carrying out their duties. In implementing the new national digital radio system over the next two years, over 17,000 radios will be provided for members of the force in Garda cars and other locations. A major incident computer system will automate many of the functions currently being performed manually when a major incident occurs. We are also proceeding with an automated number plate recognition system, an automated fingerprint identification system and an automated ballistic identification system. CCTV systems will be put in place in all major county towns.

There have been major reforms of the Garda Síochána, including the appointment of a Garda Inspectorate, and the advisory group on Garda management and leadership development. As part of the enhanced programme of civilianisation, a new civilian head of administration at deputy commissioner level has been appointed. All of these changes are designed to support and equip the Garda in dealing with the complex challenges it faces.

It is important too that other agencies involved in criminal justice are properly resourced. We have been working to achieve this through supporting a prison building programme to ensure that when people are convicted, they will serve their sentences. There has also been a substantial investment in the courts infrastructure.

Last year, for the first time, my predecessor set priorities for the Garda Síochána under the provisions of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. As mentioned earlier, I am at present finalising the priorities I will provide to the Garda Commissioner for 2008. In the time remaining I want to inform the House, in the context of taking into account its views, of some of the priorities I have in mind. Of their nature, these will build on the priorities which have already been set for this year.

A major priority of the Garda Síochána is tackling gun crime, organised crime and drug trafficking. It does this through the use of specialist units and targeted operations such as Operation Anvil. The priorities will emphasise the importance of profiling, intelligence gathering and threat assessments in regard to the individuals and groups involved in this type of crime. I intend to include in the priorities a specific reference to enhanced liaison arrangements between Garda divisions and the Criminal Assets Bureau in the pursuit of those engaged in drug dealing at all levels. As matters stand, profilers trained by CAB are now present in every Garda division. The message should be clear — drug dealing by anybody on whatever scale is unacceptable and will be pursued. In addition, I propose to set a priority relating to enhanced activities by the drugs units and the force in focusing on locations throughout the country where the presence of drug dealing and the consumption of illicit drugs is likely.

Another priority will be in the area of public order, with which I have dealt at some length already. The Garda will be asked to co-operate with other agencies and the community generally in combating the problems of public disorder. It will be asked to pay particular attention to alcohol-related misdemeanours, including under age drinking. It will do this partly through using the new legal mechanisms being made available, including anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, and behaviour warnings.

On the subject of ASBOs, I want to respond to some inaccurate conclusions which have been drawn from the fact no ASBOs have yet been applied for by gardaí. The regime, which was introduced just last spring, involves a series of procedures including behaviour warnings and, in the case of children, good behaviour contracts. In setting up the regime, the intention was that these warnings or good behaviour contracts would themselves address the problem behaviour. It is only if they fail that an ASBO will be applied. In any case, it inevitably takes time to reach the stage where an ASBO itself might be sought. Some hundreds of warning notices have already been issued. Where these do not succeed in altering a person's behaviour, they will culminate in ASBOs being sought by the Garda from the courts.

The priorities will also seek to increase significantly the proportion of gardaí on operational duty. This will be facilitated by increased civilian support. An increase in the level of high-visibility patrols will be specified and this will be linked to the development during 2008 of a Garda charter which will set out targeted response times and levels of service.

I propose that a number of priorities will be included relating to the following: the expansion of the juvenile liaison scheme and the increase of the number of Garda youth diversion projects; the monitoring of sex offenders; the combating of homophobic and race crimes; co-operating with the newly established domestic violence executive agency, COSC, in curbing the problem of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence; the targeting of the use of knives in violent attacks; and the taking of measures to deal with human trafficking. Other priorities will cover areas such as road traffic law enforcement and immigration, which are not directly related to this debate but which fall within the operational province of the Garda Síochána. I want to make it clear that the overall priority of the Garda in dealing with crime is the enforcement of the criminal law. No significance should be read into the non-inclusion of particular types of crime in the priorities. However, we must be conscious that setting too many priorities carries with it the danger in reality of setting none.

In the time available, I have only been able to set out some of the issues that arise in regard to crime. We need to bear in mind that some of the crimes which receive most public attention because of their seriousness are not the types of crime which impinge most on the daily lives of people. This is why, day in, day out, resources must continue to be deployed to deal with crime in all its manifestations. Our criminal justice system exists to serve all the people and to keep them and their property safe.

I look forward to a constructive debate. I congratulate Deputy Charles Flanagan and Deputy Pat Rabbitte on their appointment as spokespersons. No doubt, they will hold me to account in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead. I look forward to taking the points of view of all Deputies contributing to this debate fully into account.