Priority Questions

Garda Strength

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

53 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on proposals prepared by the Garda Commissioner in relation to the potential retirement of 1,200 gardaí before February 2012; the discussions he has had with the Garda Commissioner in relation to redeployment of gardaí to stations that have been identified in this report as potentially losing currently serving gardaí; and if he will give assurances that no Garda station will have to close as a result of these plans. [24996/11]

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

54 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of gardaí who have applied to take early retirement within the next six months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24926/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 53 and 54 together.

The latest available figures show that Garda strength stands at just over 14,100, with approximately 2,000 civilian support staff. There are also 819 members of the Garda Reserve. As of Friday, 16 September 2011, some 380 members of An Garda Síochána had left or declared their intention to leave the force in 2011. As members intending to retire must give three months' notice, we will know the final figure for this year's retirements by the end of this month. Similarly, retirements to be taken before the end of February 2012 when pension entitlements will change, should be known by the end of November. Generally, members of the Garda who have reached 50 years of age and have at least 30 years of service are eligible to retire on a full pension. Some 1,200 members of the force currently fall into this category.

While we do not know yet how many Garda members will retire this year, and while no one expects every member who is eligible to retire to do so, it clearly makes sense for the Garda Commissioner to make contingency plans for the maintenance of policing services in the context of reduced Garda numbers. We have to remember that, under plans agreed by the previous Government as part of its compliance with the terms of the EU-IMF agreement, Garda numbers are due to be reduced to 13,000 by 2014 — they were expect to be reduced to 13,500 by the end of this year. As part of this process, the Commissioner will, of course, have to examine every option for increased efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of services. An example of this is the work currently under way under the Croke Park agreement to agree new Garda rosters to better match Garda deployment with peak policing demands.

Clearly, an examination of the opening hours and in some cases the viability of Garda stations will form part of this. The issue of the closure of some Garda stations will be a question the Garda Commissioner will have to consider as an operational matter, and it is part of the process. He may also have to consider in appropriate cases whether a better policing service could be delivered to a local community by having gardaí out on patrol instead of in a station.

I look forward to receiving the Commissioner's proposals, which will be aimed at maximising the efficiency of the Garda Síochána, and prioritising the resources available to operational front-line policing services.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I accept that it was a decision of the previous Government to agree to the reduction of the targets but that was done on the basis of record investment in Garda numbers by that Government over a long number of years, and that was the reason there are 14,100 today. During the 1980s when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, was Minister for Justice, and during the 1990s when the former Deputy, Nora Owen, was Minister, Garda stations were kept open with a force that was considerably lower than even 13,000, which is where we will end up. I regret that the Minister cannot give us a guarantee that there will be no closures.

There were reports in yesterday's newspapers that in Donegal alone, 24 stations will close and Deputy McConalogue's constituents want to know what will happen to them. How can the Minister state that the closure of 24 stations in one county will make for more efficient policing? Is he expecting the gardaí in the 24 stations to spend all of their time on patrol? If they do, they will be running into each other often, not catching crime. The most important deterrent is, I agree, the availability of gardaí, but it is also the visibility of gardaí.

Has the Minister — I do not expect him to release the report because I understand that involves operational issues — met with the AGSI or the GRA on this proposal? Can he give us the broad outlines, without naming specific stations, on a county-by-county basis as to where these stations have been identified or will close? Does he intend to seek the input of, or some feedback from, the Oireachtas on the Commissioner's report?

It is extraordinarily difficult to take the Deputy's questions seriously as he was in this House supporting a Government which signed an agreement to reduce the then Garda numbers of 14,500 to 13,500.

The Minister should answer the questions. He is the one who said the criminals would celebrate.

It was also the Deputy's party which, in dealing with the Estimates and the finances for 2011, provided funding to the Department to pay the salaries of 13,500 gardaí as opposed to the 14,500 that were in place. It was the Deputy's party which entered into an agreement with the IMF and the EU to reduce dramatically by 1,000 the numbers of gardaí this year in circumstances in which they had no idea how they could achieve it, there was no scheme in place to facilitate that, and as a consequence, no planning of any nature took place.

What has happened under my watch is that the Garda Commissioner has conducted a comprehensive review of the manner in which funding is being applied, looking at the maximum efficiencies that can be put in place to guarantee front-line services and to meet community needs. No decisions, I emphasise, have yet been made on the closure of Garda stations or, indeed, the curtailing of hours. What the Garda Commissioner is wisely doing is looking at stations right across the country to ascertain whether there are efficiencies that could be put in place which will ensure that trained gardaí are used to the best possible advantage and whether there are savings that can be made, for example, in circumstances in which it may be appropriate that stations close at 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night instead of staying open all night, in circumstances where patrol cars would still be available and where, if there is an emergency, the gardaí would be accessible on a 999 call. The stations to which the Deputy is referring are part and parcel of the review. No decision has been made to close 24 stations in County Donegal. This is alarmist talk——

Criminals will celebrate.

——from a party which was financially incapable of ordering its affairs in a manner which would have guaranteed even the moneys available this year to pay the membership of the Garda force the salaries to which they were entitled and which does not deserve credibility of any description.

The Minister is the king of alarmists.

Is this the best the Minister can do?

He is being alarmist. He wrote the book on it.

It is a tough start to a tough week for the Minister. While we do not yet have a final figure for the number of proposed retirements from the Garda, we know it will include some chief superintendents and probably superintendents. I realise that earlier this year the Minister gave permission to the Garda Commissioner to run what are known as promotion competitions in all ranks within the force. As a result of these competitions, panels were to be established from which future promotions might be made. It is my understanding that to make any promotions the Minister needs permission to break the ban on promotions within the Garda. Has he held any conversations with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on lifting the bank on promotions within the Garda and, if so, what was their outcome?

First, I will give the Deputy some statistics in which he might be interested. To date, 28 gardaí at the rank of superintendent or higher have retired or notified their intention to retire in 2011. The Government has made six appointments to superintendent or a higher level since it took office. Additional appointments at these levels will be considered when the situation becomes clearer during the coming weeks on where matters stand with regard to retirements. As I have noted, a member of the force who has completed 30 years service and is over the age of 50 years may retire. It is stated in the Garda code that a member must give the Commissioner three months' notice of his or her intention to retire. Therefore, it is not possible at this stage to know what the full picture will be as we move towards the end of this year or head into February.

With regard to the level of senior positions, after discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I obtained sanction for the filling of the six Garda posts mentioned. On 22 March the Government appointed one deputy Commissioner, one assistant Commissioner, one chief superintendent and three superintendents. While the moratorium on recruitment and promotions in the public service continues to apply to the Garda Síochána, the situation will be continually kept under review by the Garda Commissioner and further derogations will only be sought when deemed necessary, but the Deputy can be absolutely assured that when we have a clear view of the numbers who will retire, there will be discussions between me and the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on the appropriate and necessary arrangements to ensure we will have in place an appropriate number of gardaí at senior level.

At the end of November the Minister will be in a position to know the full numbers of gardaí retiring by the end of February. When does he envisage the Commissioner will be in a position to advise on potential closures or the reorganisation of the force? Will it be in the new year or before then?

As I understand it, the review the Commissioner is undertaking should be complete within the coming weeks. I expect to be engaged in a conversation with him arising from that review. Of course, there will be operational decisions for the Commissioner to make. In the context of my involvement as Minister for Justice and Equality, it is my obligation to ensure we have at senior level the appropriate and necessary number of gardaí to fulfil fully the necessary tasks that fall on the shoulders of An Garda Síochána and I have every confidence we will be in a position to do so. I remind the Deputy that in 2009 under the previous Government more than 700 members of the force retired in one year. The gardaí have not been found in any way wanting in their capacity to undertake the work in which they have been engaged since.

No one said anything about their work.

Proposed Legislation

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

55 Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he considers it necessary to amend the combined terms of section 19 and the Schedule to the Criminal Justice Act 2011 whereby all thefts, as opposed to those in the area of white collar crime, appear to be criminalised by section 4 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001; his views that a change is necessary; the options available to make that change; the way he plans to proceed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24998/11]

The main purpose of the Criminal Justice Act 2011, as I stated in the Dáil when the legislation was being enacted, is to facilitate the more effective investigation of white collar crime and to reduce associated delays. The Act is targeted at specified serious and complex offences attracting a penalty of at least five years imprisonment, including offences in the areas of banking and finance, company law, money laundering, fraud, corruption, competition, consumer protection and cyber-crime. These offences are listed in Schedule 1 to the Act. The Act also provides that further offences can be specified as relevant offences by ministerial order.

Section 19 of the Act provides for the offence of withholding information. The offence will apply to a person who has information which he or she knows or believes might be of material assistance in preventing the commission of a relevant offence or in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of another person for such an offence. A person who fails without reasonable excuse to disclose such information as soon as practicable to the Garda Síochána will be guilty of an offence. The offence is punishable by an unlimited fine and imprisonment for up to five years or both.

I accept that the offence of theft under section 4 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 can be very simple and its investigation may not need the usage of the powers in the Criminal Justice Act 2011. I do not envisage that these powers will be required in simple cases prosecuted in the District Court.

Theft can also be complicated, however, and my advice from the Garda Síochána with regard to the offence of theft is that in some cases theft investigations can be very complex. There may be cases where prosecutions may involve multiple allegations of offences, which can include both theft and fraud. In those circumstances, it is appropriate that the powers under the Criminal Justice Act 2011 are available. It is in the public interest that they be available to the Garda so there is no artificial difficulty where the investigation involves multiple offences and where these powers are utilised. It was necessary to take an all-embracing approach to theft and fraud offences in the 2011 Act to ensure that the Act did not create an artificial barrier to an appropriate prosecution being taken on a future occasion.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In regard to the section 19 offence, investigations and prosecutions under this section will be subject to the exercise of discretion in the usual way by the Garda Síochána as to the appropriateness of such investigation and prosecution. In addition, an important safeguard in regard to section 19 is that a direction by the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before a prosecution under that section can proceed. This is the same situation as exists in regard to the similar offence of withholding information under section 9 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 where the power to prosecute under that provision is cautiously used.

I have no proposals to amend the 2011 Act at this time, particularly when the Act is still at such an early stage of its operation. I will, of course, keep its operation under review.

What prompted me to put down this question was an article written by the former Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, who is not somebody I would normally quote. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Shatter, saw the article. Mr. McDowell made some very relevant points, in particular that the offence will clearly apply to all thefts, which, if it is the case, would be a very unintended consequence.

The Bill generally is one which most people, myself included, support. Did the Minister consider the particular aspect of a wider application of the reporting of theft than was in fact intended? What kind of advice did he get when he was putting together the legislation? If it is a question that it applies much more broadly, then, as Mr. McDowell stated in the article, we could end up with a lot of case law which will possibly have a different result than was intended.

I am aware of the article to which the Deputy refers. It is worth stating that in regard to the section 19 offence and the Act in general, investigations and prosecutions will be subject to the exercise of discretion in the usual way by the Garda Síochána as to the appropriateness of such investigation and prosecution. In addition, an important safeguard in regard to the usage of the Act in section 19 in particular is that a direction by the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before a prosecution under that section can proceed. This is the same situation as exists in regard to the similar offence of withholding information under section 9 of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 where the power to prosecute under that provision is used only occasionally and where required.

I believe the manner in which we dealt with the provisions in this Act and the extensive application open to it in regard to serious offences is of considerable importance. In the context of dealing with illegal conduct of a criminal nature in the area of what may be either fraud or theft — there can be a crossover of the boundaries between the two — unnecessary difficulties could arise both in the conduct of an investigation and in gaining access to important documentation and information, had theft been excluded from the ambit of the Act. I am satisfied it was necessary to include it and it was the wish of the Garda Síochána that it be included.

Were this provision to be used in a wider context than was intended, with what mechanism or how quickly would the Minister revisit it?

I do not expect it to be used in a wider context. I certainly do not expect it to be a section that will be utilised in the context of a simple theft case which gives rise to a possible prosecution in the District Court.

Legal Aid Service

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

56 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on discussions his officials have had with the Law Society in relation to fees for the criminal legal aid system; the contingency plans in the event of withdrawal of services by participating barristers and solicitors in the scheme; if he will provide information on any other matter pertaining to this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24997/11]

As the Deputy will be aware, the context for many of the difficult decisions — I am sorry I must again remind him of this — which have had to be taken is the obligation to meet the commitments in the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 and to meet our obligations to contain public expenditure, as agreed with the IMF and the European Union and as agreed by the previous Government. Expenditure on criminal legal aid totalled €56 million in 2010 and the plan includes a specific commitment to reduce expenditure to yield savings of €5 million in 2011 and €10 million in a full year. These targets were agreed by the previous Government prior to the December 2010 budget announcement. This has meant some hard decisions and regrettably, to try to achieve the targeted reduction of €5 million in the current year, it has been necessary to introduce further reductions to the fees and rates paid under the criminal legal aid scheme. Therefore, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, I introduced an order with effect from 13 July 2011 imposing a reduction of 10% in the fees payable in the District Court. The fees payable in the Circuit and higher courts also will be decreased by 10% and the order necessary to effect the reduction is being drafted and will come into force within a number of weeks.

I am aware of the impact on the legal profession of these most recent reductions coming on top of previous cuts and have been concerned to ensure that legal representation can continue to be provided to those who require it. While I am aware of recent media reports, I can state categorically that no practitioner has contacted either me or my Department to threaten the withdrawal of services. I personally met representatives of the Law Society in July and more recently a meeting was arranged with officials. I understand that, while articulating the deep concern among practitioners regarding the level of the cuts and the financial implications for firms and their employees, the delegation did not suggest to my officials that they intended to withdraw their services. Indeed, they indicated they wish to consult more closely with my Department and to assist in the ongoing efforts to reduce costs by contributing to the work of the task force I have established which at present is examining the structures and systems of the courts with a view to achieving potential cost savings in the medium to long term. A further meeting was held earlier this week in this regard. I greatly appreciate this positive engagement and hope that in consequence, important cost saving reforms will follow.

I welcome the engagement that has been announced and note the Minister outlined the membership of that task force and when he expects a report. He sometimes reminds me of a disc jockey from the 1980s who continually plays the same record, thereby keeping happy the fan base. There have been reports from an organisation called the Criminal Law Practitioners Association, which appears to have a large representation of criminal lawyers, to the effect they intend to withdraw their services. The association has nothing to do with the Law Society and these reports have been circulated widely throughout the media. Has the Department engaged either with the Law Society or with the aforementioned association on an informal basis to ascertain what will happen in the event of the withdrawal of services by a large number of criminal law practitioners? What contingency services will be available to those who seek to avail of the service in the event of such a withdrawal of services, which no Member would support? In addition, does the Minister intend to introduce the criminal justice legal aid Bill prepared by the former Minister, Dermot Ahern, or has he carried out work in this regard?

It is amazing how many Bills were being prepared by the former Minister that never saw the light of day and on which I have discovered minimal work was done. There will be a Bill brought forward in regard to the area of legal aid. I do not anticipate that it will be published until the new year because of the other demands made on my Department.

The group that the Deputy makes reference to that received some publicity during the summer months, as far as I am aware, has not been in contact with my Department. There are two representative bodies of the legal profession, the Law Society and the Bar Council. We are always willing to engage with them on issues of concern when they arise. I do not anticipate that lawyers, as officers of the court, in the straitened financial circumstances in which the State finds itself will withdraw services. They will, I am sure, do their duty by their clients and will clearly acknowledge and accept that right across all sectors there have been reductions in income.

In this context, it is worth noting that the figures on the amount of expenditure incurred by the State, between counsel instructed by the DPP and counsel instructed in criminal legal aid matters, give rise to an interesting disparity. For example, in 2010 the DPP's fees to counsel came to a total of €14 million and the criminal aid fees paid to counsel were €18,000,369.

Whilst I said in the context of the EU and IMF agreement it was envisaged that there would be a reduction of €5 million in expenditure in the criminal legal aid area from €56 million to €51 million, for reasons that remain a considerable mystery to me the former Minister, Dermot Ahern, in the context of the justice Estimate and budget that went through in December 2010, only provided for €47 million funding in circumstances in which €56 million was the outturn for 2010. Effectively, there was a shortfall of €9 million left by the previous Government on the funding available this year for criminal legal aid.

The Minister keeps throwing out those little grenades. He had no difficulty in finding €30 million in his Department for the Garda overtime for the visits of the Queen and President Obama, and we have yet to see from where he found it. If he wants to look for money, he is able to find it.

Courts Service

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

57 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the timeline on the proposed upgrade of the ICT system for the courts as well as the appointment of approved persons as receivers in order to introduce the remaining sections of the Fines Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24927/11]

As the Deputy has noted, the majority of the Fines Act 2010 has been commenced. It is important to note that section 14 of the Act, which has been commenced, places an obligation on the courts for the first time to take account of a person's financial circumstances before determining that a fine is to be imposed. This provision means that no person should be sent to prison for default solely because he or she cannot afford to pay a fine.

Implementation work is continuing on two key sections of Act. Section 15 provides for the payment of fines by instalment. There are a number of practical and technical issues required to commence this provision. As the Deputy will appreciate, the current system of payment allows only for a single payment in respect of each fine to be made within a specified period and this payment is recorded on the court's IT system, the criminal case tracking system or CCTS.

In order to allow for a fine to be paid by instalments over a year or in certain circumstances for a longer period, it is necessary for the CCTS to be substantially modified to allow for the payment of instalments and to ensure that such instalments are accurately recorded and tracked. In that regard, I met with the Courts Service management and informed it of this Government's commitment to ensuring that payment by instalments is introduced as speedily as possible.

Arising from that meeting, the Courts Service has put in place a structure to oversee the implementation of the necessary modifications. Unfortunately no such structure was put in place by the former Government. I am informed that, assuming the necessary funding is available, it will take approximately 12 months to complete the administrative and technical modifications required. I expect to receive a report, including implementation proposals, from the service by the end of next month.

Section 16 of the 2010 Act will require a judge, consequent on determining the fines be imposed, to make an order appointing an approved person, commonly referred to as a receiver, to recover the fine in the event of default. The Courts Service has engaged in some preliminary discussions with the Revenue sheriffs, who have relevant experience through their work in the recovery of outstanding tax liabilities on behalf of the State, with a view to sheriffs being nominated as approved persons and I understand this dialogue will resume in the near future. Some IT enhancements will be necessary in order to allow for the electronic transfer of recovery orders and data exchange with the receivers. I am informed this work will take approximately six months to complete. It will be done concurrently with that mentioned.

It seems likely that some minor amendments will be required to the 2010 Act to address some practical implementation issues, including the need to provide for some form of retainer payment for work undertaken in circumstances where a fine cannot be recovered. These are the timescales available to me. The Government is subject to these caveats and committed to implementing the remaining provisions of the Fines Act 2010 as speedily as possible.

The Minister referred to section 14 in saying people who were unable to pay fines should not be going to prison, but, unfortunately, he knows as well as I do that that is not the case. It is unfortunate that implementation will take so long. What is the cost of introducing this system? Section 14 requires judges to take people's financial circumstances into account. As the Minister said, nobody who is unable to pay a fine should be sent to prison. That should be the message sent.

A considerable number of outstanding fines precede the coming into force of the Act. In those circumstances fines would have been imposed, with the alternative of imprisonment if they were not paid. That creates a particular difficulty because it is important to ensure people pay the fines handed down by the courts and that the integrity of the justice system is not undermined. In the context of current circumstances where court orders have been made without fines having been paid and there is no other means of recovery, unfortunately, prison remains an option for the time being. Of course, it is an option none of us wants to see used in unnecessary circumstances. I am very anxious, therefore, that this new system be put in place. It is regrettable that during the period when the Fines Bill was before the House, prior to its enactment, it seems the former Minister made no preparations of any description to put in place the necessary IT systems or programmes and that there was no forward planning to implement its provisions. That is where I found myself when we were elected to government and there was no funding available to me.

I will answer directly the question the Deputy asked me. It is estimated that it will cost approximately €400,000 to make the IT changes required. I hope to be able to secure this funding in 2012 during Government discussions on the Estimates for the new year.

I accept what the Minister said about undermining the justice system, but it also undermines this House when we pass legislation and fail to put in place the finance to implement it. That is regrettable and should not happen again.

I share the Deputy's view. Better forward planning would have ensured, as the legislation was going through the House, the arrangements were made to identify the appropriate IT changes required. It is unfathomable that the Bill was passed in 2010 and no financial allocation was made in 2011 to facilitate this occurring.