Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Again, I am pleased to have the opportunity to continue with the Bill. Last time, I finished talking about section 7 of the Bill which refers to investigations of matters related to the Garda Commissioner by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Deputy Wallace noted that it would be a very rare and serious event if the Garda Commissioner were to be investigated. I said that if it were to happen, I would expect that the Garda Commissioner of the day would step aside during the investigation.

It might be useful to include that in the legislation.

Section 7(3) states, "If the Minister refuses to consent to an investigation by the Ombudsman Commission of any matter under subsection (1), he or she shall inform the Commission of his or her reasons for the refusal." It would be a rare event that would lead a Minister to refuse the commission an investigation or else the Garda Ombudsman Commission would be investigating something that would be seen to be trivial. These are extraordinarily serious matters. What happens if the Minister refuses? Does the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, stand down having made that type of mistake? Should we insert in the legislation that it should go beyond the Minister and that the Cabinet should issue such a refusal because we are talking about very serious issues? The legislation states that in such an event the Commissioner may have committed an offence or behaved in a manner that would constitute serious misconduct. There is scope for tightening up that section and treating it much more seriously than it is currently being treated.

Reading this Act I was going back and forth to the Principal Act and other Acts. When we are dealing with such legislation, particularly legislation updating an area that was consolidated, so to speak, in 2005, we should consider looking at a consolidated Bill because it can be difficult to follow all the changes, amendments to sub-sections and so on. That happens with much of our legislation and I have been told - the Minister dealing with the enterprise sector is present - that it costs business a great deal of money to have solicitors, barristers and others refer to multiple Acts. I am aware the Law Reform Commission has recommended that we consolidate much more of our legislation to make it less expensive and less onerous on business in terms of the legality of the issues contained therein.

The Oireachtas committee recommended that the Garda authority would have the power to refer matters to the GSOC, and I note that is the case in the other Bill. I also welcome the fact that the inspectorate can initiate investigations on its own volition. The Minister can also ask both the inspectorate and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to initiate investigations and inquiries but in the Oireachtas committee we tried to refer certain issues to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and were unable to do so because the justice committee does not deal with the GSOC. That comes under a different parliamentary oversight committee. An issue arises in that regard because GSOC is dealing with policing matters. The justice committee deals with policing matters yet the justice committee cannot oversee what GSOC is doing. The Members of the Oireachtas might examine that. I am not casting aspersions on the oversight committee but we might need to examine that to see if there is something we should change to streamline that entire area. My point is that parliamentary committees might come across issues that need to be investigated or examined and perhaps a parliamentary committee should be given the authority to refer matters either to the inspectorate or to GSOC, or at least bring it to their attention, because such committees often come across issues that are quite important.

In terms of GSOC carrying out an inquiry, subsection (3) of section 10 requires GSOC to provide a report to the Minister regarding the examination and to supply a copy of the report to the Garda Commissioner, and the Minister is required to lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I suggest the Oireachtas committees should be given the reports at that time also. I do not see any reason that should not be done. That would be important.

I raise an issue I have raised previously and which was emphasised on numerous occasions when we visited Scotland and Northern Ireland. We will now have the Garda Inspectorate, the Ombudsman Commission, the Garda authority, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister, and the parliamentary committee but it was stressed to us the importance of all these bodies having a good, professional working relationship, which would be written into a code of conduct. In other words, they would consciously go out of their way to ensure that they have good working relationships. The people we met in Scotland and Northern Ireland emphasised that that was the one aspect that made the whole system work. We have five bodies here now, namely, three oversight bodies, the Garda Inspectorate, the ombudsman and the authority when it is established. They must have professional working relationships. I am not saying they should be in each other's pockets or be too cosy. They cannot be, but there must be mutual respect and understanding and protocols put in place so that they can all do their job to the best of their ability.

I said previously that I felt the ombudsman should be the one person in charge. I note the legislation references the chair of the ombudsman commission but why not call that person the "Garda Ombudsman"? The other people could be called the "Deputy Ombudsman" or something like that because that gives the office personality, drive and identity, which it has been lacking until now. That is no reflection on the people involved but until the recent controversies arose, most citizens did not know what GSOC was about. Everyone knows about it now but until those issues arose I do not believe the citizens knew what GSOC was all about.

I wish the Bill a quick passage through the House. There is a great deal going on in this area. It is important that we examine and debate this Bill, and that we get it right. It is about GSOC and the surveillance powers GSOC will get.

Regarding State security, the Commissioner will report directly to the Minister. That was a recommendation we made. There is mention in the Bill of GSOC and State security but do we need some form of parliamentary oversight in respect of State security? I know it is a delicate issue but in other Parliaments that is the case. We would have to be very careful and responsible about it but it is something we should discuss. Where is the parliamentary oversight on the security side of the Garda, the authority, GSOC and so on. Where is the parliamentary oversight of that? That is important, and we might need to tease out that in the committees and elsewhere to determine if there is some way of having parliamentary oversight of it. I know that security and secrecy is very important but without that there may be a cloud hanging over that area.

I understand Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick and Sean Kyne are sharing time. Deputy Fitzpatrick is the first name before me.

The Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 seeks to expand the power of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, which is responsible for receiving and dealing with complaints made by members of the public concerning the conduct of members of the Garda Síochána, including surveillance powers for their criminal investigations, and allows GSOC to investigate the Garda Commissioner with the consent of the Minister for Justice and Equality. It also provides for GSOC to instigate the examination of Garda practices and procedures and for the Garda Inspectorate to initiate inspections without the prior approval of the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The objective of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, as an independent statutory body, is to ensure the resources available to the Garda Síochána are used to achieve and maintain the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness and that it operates an administration as measured by reference to the best standard of comparable police services. In this context, GSOC will be in the same position as the Garda Síochána for the purpose of conducting a criminal investigation.

The Bill broadens the scope for the Minister to refer a matter to GSOC to include any matter that gives rise to concern that a member of An Garda Síochána may have committed an offence or behaved in a manner that may justify disciplinary procedures. It also directs the Garda Commissioner to ensure information requested by GSOC for the purposes of an investigation is provided as soon as practicable.

GSOC and its operations have been the subject of scrutiny and the body itself has pointed to its limitations under current legislation. Its relationship with An Garda Síochána has been the subject of media commentary and Oireachtas debate, with the Cooke report describing an atmosphere of frustration and tension in the relationship between GSOC personnel and the senior ranks of An Garda Síochána. Both organisations have stated they are working to improve the relationship. In 2013 GSOC received 2,027 complaints from members of the public, which was very close to the number received in the previous year, 2,089. The number of allegations of misconduct by gardaí in these complaints was 5,299. In addition, the Garda Commissioner referred 41 incidents to GSOC, eight of which involved fatalities. The four most common allegations in complaints made to GSOC in 2013 were abuse of authority, 34%; neglect of duty, 37%; non-fatal offences, 13%; and discourtesy, 11%.

I would like to raise awareness of the difficulties in my constituency. Areas such as Dundalk, Carlingford, Omeath, Dromad, Hackballscross and Blackrock are all under pressure from the ever-increasing risk of crime. Although crime figures have not risen compared to those for 2013, which in no small part is due to the work of local gardaí and the local community, I urge the Minister to increase the resources available to the Garda and local community groups. In my home town, Dundalk, we have a major drugs problem that is causing great distress to the local community. With additional resources, we could combat and eventually eradicate this serious problem. In my area there has been a reduction in personnel of 30 and a decrease of nine in the number of patrol cars. If we can work to increase resources, we will see a substantial reduction in the crime figures. I cannot praise the local community highly enough for its work in combating crime. A meeting in the Mullaghbuoy Community Centre in Cooley, organised by the local community, discussed how to reduce crime in the area, including raising awareness of the dangers posed by drugs and how to deal with drug pushers. Initiatives such as this, with the great work done by An Garda Síochána, are helping to reduce crime in the local community. These initiatives, with the commitment to increase the resources available, will help to combat crime in the community. I look forward to working with the Minister on these matters.

The question is often asked who polices the police, who governs the country or who judges the Judiciary. The same question faces every state and the answer, however varied, goes to the heart of democracy and the doctrine of the separation of powers which features in every legitimate democratic country. In its handbook on policy, accountability, oversight and integrity, the United Nations has set out the features it believes need to be present in any successful police oversight system. These features - independence, transparency and community support - are integral. Transparency is vital in that justice not only needs to be done it also needs to be seen to be done. Just like the police service, the system of oversight needs to be open and accessible. "Community support" is another term for confidence. A successful police service must have the confidence of the public and the same applies to the oversight authority, GSOC.

The Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill will further expand the remit and powers of GSOC. It is worth remembering that GSOC is the independent body responsible for receiving and dealing with complaints from members of the public about the conduct of members of An Garda Síochána. It is a three-person commission with the support of a support staff of approximately 80 and a budget of €8 million. GSOC clearly has the confidence of the public, given the number of complaints, some 2,027, made by the public in 2013.

The Bill will make An Garda Síochána more accountable to GSOC but also to the public. Through the new section 102B to be added to the 2005 Act, the Bill will bring the Garda Commissioner within the remit of GSOC for the first time. Such a provision will ensure increased accountability at all levels. The independence of GSOC is strengthened with the new section 102(5A) which will amend section 102 of the 2005 Act and enable the commission to initiate its own investigations into Garda practices and procedures. GSOC will be able to use these powers without recourse to the Minister for Justice and Equality, as is currently the case. Aside from this, the Garda Inspectorate will receive similar powers to initiate its own inspections or inquiries without the need to acquire the consent of the Minister. These measures will increase public confidence in An Garda Síochána and GSOC.

It is not enough, however, for the public to have confidence in GSOC; mutual confidence must also be present between the two organisations. The Cooke report on the alleged surveillance of GSOC offices clearly referenced a lack of confidence between the organisations and used the phrase "atmosphere of frustration and tension". It is encouraging that both groups are committed to encouraging improving the relationship. The Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill will assist the process. Provisions such as section 103A will direct the Garda Commissioner to provide necessary information for GSOC as soon as practicable, while section 13 of the Bill which amends section 4 of the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 sets out the circumstances in which a judge will authorise surveillance, which is a positive measure.

The Bill should be viewed as part of a broader programme. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has stated the broader programme aims to reform the administration and oversight of policing and justice in Ireland. I compliment her on her perseverance in this extensive task.

As 2014 draws to a close, after an international competitive process we have a new Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan. I congratulate her and wish her well in her role. We also have a chairperson designate, Josephine Feehily, formerly of the Revenue Commissioners, for the soon-to-be established policing authority which will play a central role in implementing reforms that increase transparency and the accountability of An Garda Síochána.

If there is a "Reeling in the Years" programme on the events of 2014, it will go down as a year in which there was a loss of confidence in and concern about many elements of the justice system. We have seen the loss of a Minister, the retirement of a Garda Commissioner and issues concerning GSOC and whistleblowers. This Bill and the establishment of the policing authority will restore necessary confidence in An Garda Síochána and its overseers. It is important there be a reliable body such as GSOC, that people have trust and confidence that it can act as an oversight body for An Garda Síochána. Without this, the confidence of the public is lost and the trust it will have in the police force will be lost. It is welcome that the Garda Commissioner has been brought within the remit of GSOC. I also welcome the extension of GSOC's powers of investigation into complaints of suspected criminal behaviour and which provide greater autonomy for GSOC in examining practices, policies and procedures in An Garda Síochána.

I welcome the publication of the Bill, on which the Minister has done a lot of work. She is continuing her work on the issues raised during 2014 in the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána.

While some parts of the Bill are welcome, I question some parts of it. In the past few years public confidence has been eroded in certain procedures in An Garda Síochána. We need a new vision and a new way forward to bring the people back to recognising the great work 99.9% of the members of An Garda Síochána do. It is grand bringing forward Bills in the Dáil, but the reality is that in rural parts of Ireland Garda stations have been closed. Several gardaí have contacted me and told me that while there may be gardaí in a station, the sad reality is that they do not have vehicles to travel the highways and byways. This problem has become worse and in towns such as Carrick-on-Shannon gardaí are down to using two vehicles. I have mentioned how we can talk about the law all we want but without the facilities and vehicles required to tackle crime, there is no point talking about it.

I welcome what GSOC is doing and the new Commissioner whom I wish the best of luck. I thought someone from outside would have brought more confidence to people looking in and gardaí, but now that the Commissioner is in place, we wish her the best of luck.

Debate adjourned.