As the committee will be aware, sections 31 and 32 of the Garda Síochána Bill, as passed by the Seanad, provide for the establishment at local authority level of joint policing committees comprised of elected representatives and gardaí. The definition of a "local authority" includes county, city and town councils. It is intended that these joint policing committees or JPCs would provide a forum whereby gardaí and local authorities can co-operate and work together to address local policing and other issues. The intention is to make those committees real workable institutions whereby local representatives and the communities they represent would deal with the gardaí on matters of local concern.
By way of background to this concept, I point out to Members of the Dáil in particular that when the Bill was initiated in the Seanad it was initiated with a slightly different model in mind, which arose from discussions during the drafting of a Bill between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The latter seemed to favour a model along the lines of the county development board approach to local policing committees. That Department had in mind a system whereby economic and other interests would be dealt with on a county basis. It did not envisage town councils and the lower sector of local government being represented in this model. Rather than have a lengthy debate prior to publication and wrangle within Departments on this subject, I decided to publish the Bill on that basis. However, it was always my view that it was likely that when it reached the Oireachtas there would be a much stronger constituency, if I can use that term, for direct involvement of locally elected public representatives rather than, and I do not want to use this term dismissively "a qausi-automonous non-governmental organisation approach" — known in Britain ten years ago as quangos — to it. I wanted to have something which was directly accountable to local authorities.
The background to that approach arose, among other things, from discussions I had with Deputy Rabbitte shortly after my appointment as Minister. He was anxious that there should be a direct role for elected public representatives at local level rather than their being sidelined to make provision for other interests at local level to have their say. It did not come as a surprise to me and it was a matter of some relief that the overwhelming consensus in Seanad Éireann, and I believe the position is the same in Dáil Éireann, was that the primacy of elected public representatives in this process should be reinstated and respected. The Bill was amended substantially in that direction as it went through Seanad Éireann
I stress that these committees will not be one-way avenues for local public representatives to give out about Garda inadequacies. They are being put in place as a partnership arrangement. They also deal with issues such as estate management, planning, traffic, street lighting, public order issues, drinking in public spaces and licensing issues.
Sometimes there is a tendency — and I have to admit it, as an elected politician — to regard the environment in which public order and law and order issues arise, as quite separate from the policing issue. The tendency is to say that policing and crime prevention are the responsibility of the Garda Síochána. That is a false distinction, however, and it is an unhelpful way of dealing with issues.
For instance, Dublin City Council is the landlord of a considerable number of estates in the city. Many issues concerning the lay-out of those estates and their facilities deal with matters that are essential to the maintenance of public order in areas where social housing is more dominant than in others. In fairness to Dublin City Council, it has taken a constructive approach, particularly under the current Lord Mayor. Although Dublin City Council has not attempted to do so, it would not be good enough for a city council to ask the Garda Síochána: "Will you maintain law and order because that's not our department?" That is not a fair way of doing business. Decisions are made every day concerning youth facilities, the lay-out of estates, maintenance, public lighting, by-laws on drinking in public places and a thousand such matters, where the local authority should have a central role in determining the quality of life in the community and the background context for law and order issues for the Garda Síochána.
What I have in mind is a two-way street in which, primarily, the Garda Síochána and local authority members will interact to ensure that they co-operate to bring about an adequate level of policing methods and a proper climate for policing in the areas where they are involved. The key matter is that by deciding on local strategies to deal with particular difficulties, the local community would become actively involved and have a stake in the solution. Therefore, it would have a better chance of being successful.
The committees will not have power to direct the Garda Síochána, while the latter will not have power to direct a local authority to carry out a task in a particular way. However, it is of interest that the Bill creates for the first time a duty for local authorities, in exercising their powers, to have regard to law and order issues, including policing, in their functional areas.
I envisage that this will be a partnership approach. If a proposal is agreed to at one meeting, the members will be entitled to question progress on it at another meeting. In this way, all members will be accountable. Likewise, the committees will be required to report to the local authority, the Minister and the Garda Commissioner. Therefore, where progress is not being made, or is being hindered, it could be highlighted by the committee or by any interested party represented on the committee, and the required action could be taken at a higher level. Overall, these joint policing committees are a significant innovation, which will strengthen policing at local level.
I want to deal with the question of how this will translate into different policing resource dispositions. Operational matters are the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. Prior to the introduction of the new statutory structure, the Commissioner and I are determined that increased emphasis should be put into focusing the attention of the Garda Síochána on front line policing duties.
Recently the Government established a working party and I hope for early progress in civilianisation making a quantum leap forward in the latter part of this year. This is in order to free up the potential of Garda resources so that gardaí will be available for all the calls on those resources, not least in providing high visibility policing. The Commissioner is a champion of that policy emphasis and I fully support him in that regard.
There is a perception that, in the past, some areas of law enforcement, such as road traffic matters and community policing, were residual. It was thought that when other issues required resources, traffic and community policing were effectively at the end of the queue. We must counter that perception by giving community policing a central role in planning how things are done. It is of great importance and no professional policeman or woman would dispute that fact. Therefore, community gardaí will not be taken away from a particular district to fulfil other duties when and if the need requires it. The same applies to road traffic matters.
I will be happy to answer any questions that members of the committee may wish to ask.