Joint Policing Committees: Presentation.

Mr. Michael Flahive

I welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee to discuss the draft guidelines. My responsibility in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform lies in the Garda area, including the implementation of the Garda Síochána Act, in particular the joint policing committees.

With me is Mr. Brendan Callaghan, a principal officer in the Department who chaired the working group that drew up the first draft of the guidelines that went to the Minister for approval. Beside him is Mr. Joe Allen, a principal officer in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who was involved in the same working group. Beside him is Mr. Laurence Kelly from the same Department who was also involved and, finally, Chief Superintendent Michael Feehan, who is based in Store Street Garda station and was also involved in drawing up the guidelines.

I have submitted a statement and I will touch on some of the main points. It might be helpful to have a question and answer session instead of listening to me droning on about the guidelines.

We should do all we can to foster links between the gardaí and local communities. The Garda Síochána, more than many police forces, has always had close links to the community. It is a police force of the community it serves. That is coming under strain with urbanisation and commuter belt life but that link must be fostered. There are many ways to do that. The committee discussed the Garda reserve yesterday, a provision in the Act which has a bearing on this point. Representatives in the committee have also talked about community policing, another aspect.

The establishment of joint policing committees is widely accepted to be an important step in this process. There has always been close co-operation between local authorities and the gardaí but the Garda Síochána Act places that on a statutory basis and enables a constructive dialogue at local level. The joint policing committees will be started on a pilot basis in 22 of the 114 local authority areas. It is proposed they will run for a year, with a review then of their effectiveness, before being rolled out on a national basis.

The committees will review two areas: the level and pattern of crime and disorder and anti-social behaviour in a particular area, including drug and alcohol misuse in particular, but not limited to them, and the underlying factors that give rise to those issues. That is a two-way process whereby the local authorities and representatives can put to the Garda Síochána their points of view and concerns, highlighting difficulties, to which the Garda Síochána can then respond. Equally the Garda Síochána can highlight issues it feels the local authorities can address. These could be simple matters such as public lighting or estate design.

The committee will advise both the Garda Síochána and the local authority on how best it can bear down on the problems that have been identified. The committees will also arrange and host public meetings periodically to discuss the policing of the area. A final important function is that each committee will be able to establish local policing fora to discuss problems at a neighbourhood level in consultation with the local Garda superintendent.

This will be done on a pilot basis. As soon as the Minister gets the views of this committee, it is his intention, in consultation with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to move ahead and publish the guidelines under the Act and to establish these committees. They will need secretarial support, requiring resources, and the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are each making available €300,000 for this year. Looking ahead to full roll-out next year, the costs will be factored into the Estimates to be debated this autumn.

In anticipation of the start of this, the Garda Síochána and the local authorities have been working hard behind the scenes to get ready and the two Departments have been helping in that. Next week we are holding an information seminar for the Garda Síochána and the relevant local authorities to ensure they are ready to start as soon as the guidelines are issued and the committees are established.

It has been a long-held view that we need to reconnect communities and policing. What I originally called local police liaison committees in the document I published six years ago are required; in a way they are an expansion of the SPC system, which works in areas of local government under the better local government plan. It involves a link beyond the elected member to the broader community and has worked in a number of areas. That model is a good one.

I am concerned about the structure, which looks like one from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. With policing in Dublin we want the information shared at a community focused level. An edifice is being built for Dublin where the city has one overall joint policing committee with Uncle Tom Cobley and all on it which will be a talking shop in generalities. There will be five sub-committees which may have an impact, although they are still very large. I am not sure how that will work effectively, the units are too large and membership is too broad.

The guidelines allow for attendance by Members of the Oireachtas. Will every Member of the Dáil be able to attend any forum or will attendance be restricted to the functional area? If a Dublin area issue was being discussed, would all 224 Members of the Oireachtas be able to attend? Such broad strokes were not envisaged. I have genuine concerns about the size of the committees. The gardaí are busy people who do not need another round of talk shops, they need a community focused line of feedback that will tell them the issues and priorities for the area. I hoped there would be a tight group, like the strategic policy committees, maybe within a county council area, involving people who know their area and would be able to draw up local policing plans. This would provide a follow-through rather than generalities.

The Garda Síochána's strategic plans are large documents of generalities. Some are peculiar. For example, crime reduction is set out in a table, as in the 2001 plan, which promises to increase finds of explosives by 3% in the next three years, and traffic detections by 5%. I am taking numbers out of the air to illustrate that the plan uses notional mathematical formulae that do not focus on what is happening on the ground.

Outside Dublin, in Offaly for example, it proposes one joint policing committee for the county but each town will have its own. I support the idea of towns having their own committees, but how will they be disaggregated from the county? For example, in my county which has not yet achieved the august status of being included in these pilot schemes, it would not make sense for the county council meeting in a committee to debate policing, excluding the four towns. I doubt many of my colleagues would be interested in that because the issues will focus mainly on the larger urban areas and there needs to be some connection between them. I am not certain how that will work.

I understood that local joint policing committees could hold public fora. While later in the strategy there is reference to public fora, under subhead 13(2) there is a plea not to have too many of these, because they will be established only where resources are available and do not divert scarce resources from committees or sub-committees. That could mean there would never be such meetings. It is important to have these meetings, even from the point of view of venting concern.

There is a serious concern about policing in Enniscorthy about which there has been a public meeting, two meetings with senior gardaí and there will be a third one with the divisional commander. There were others in Bunclody after a spate of burglaries. We need a forum where the police and the local representatives can meet the people and hear first-hand their concerns. That should not be an optional extra but should be resourced and provided.

I welcome the notion of joint actions between joint policing committees, where appropriate. In terms of financial resources the devil is always in the detail and there is a classic example of this in clause 16(1) which states that the local authority will provide the secretariat for the committees and sub-committees with the necessary financial resources supplied by the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Who decides on those resources? Is that a brokering arrangement or a demand-led issue, such that the local authority presents the Departments with the bill? I cannot see the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government being keen on that.

At a meeting the Garda representative will present a report which will include general information from the committee on crime and so on. I hope the committee will have a purpose beyond the interaction of ideas or information. There should be a policy at the end which can be endorsed locally and be a part of a democratically accepted local police focus because the policing needs of each area differ from suburban estates in major cities to rural areas. The bugbear in a rural area might be boy racers causing disamenity, whereas in another area it might be a serious drug problem. It is necessary to have the focus and knowledge to deal with different situations around the country.

I welcome the delegation here. As far as the local reserves are concerned, many of the Deputy's party members are speaking behind his back saying the proposal will be scrapped if their party gets into power.

Will the Senator stick to the topic in hand please?

Some of the Vice Chairman's colleagues are also telling the gardaí on the ground that it will be scrapped if Fine Gael and Labour get into power.

I believe that was discussed at length already.

I think the Senator's nomination is assured.

Deputy Howlin is raising my temperature in this debate. I contributed to the debate in the Seanad. I am sorry the scheme is not being introduced throughout the country straightaway. I do not see why there should be a pilot scheme because the concept is good and it has the support of the Oireachtas. It should be rolled out across the country. This Government will be out of power before this becomes a reality in, for instance, Roscommon.

I urge the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to review the situation regarding the Oireachtas Members because during the debate in the Seanad I put forward a proposal to the Minister that Members be allowed to attend and contribute to all these meeting. The Minister agreed but it has been watered down in the regulations. It is ridiculous that for an area such as Tuam from which there are six Members, three must be selected. All Members in that area have a right to attend. On the day only one or two will attend because it may not interest others or they may not be available. Instead of asking the Members to select from their group, I suggest that all Members have a right to attend those fora, at their discretion.

The proposal also states that the political parties should be represented. The committee should consider the group system that operated on the former health boards, namely, that a group of four from each party could nominate a member. That at least ensures that they are not selected by a majority vote at the meetings of the council or local authority. The committee should be clear on the group systems.

The Minister committed to extending a limited privilege to the discussions at these fora. That is the first time in the history of the State that any privilege has been granted outside the Oireachtas. I welcome the inclusion of that in the Bill but I do not see it in these regulations, where it should be more refined. Someone speaking at a committee meeting in the best interests of a community may make allegations fairly and squarely about drugs being sold in a disco. If he or she is not covered by the legislation he or she will be liable to litigation. The Minister was careful about this and decided to give limited privilege to the Members. I ask the committee to check and refine that in the regulations. I have looked quickly at the regulations this morning but cannot see it.

I welcome this proposal and, like others, have concerns about its practicalities rather than the concept. The sooner it is rolled out the better. I am concerned that a town like Tuam will have a committee, which is to be welcomed, yet the Dublin City Council area will also have a single committee. While it will have five sub-committees, each of these will cover a far greater population than that of Tuam. I would have preferred a committee for each Garda district but some of the districts overlap with different local authority areas and so on. Neither structure is an ideal solution.

In my area several policing fora collapsed because the Department was not willing to provide basic funding for stationery. When they amalgamated in the south-west inner city and Rialto they asked for money also to pay for halls, which was not forthcoming. Several policing fora in the south-west inner city and Rialto collapsed because the Department was not willing to provide basic funding for stationery and to pay for the lease of halls. We must tap into the expertise already in place in Dublin and bring it to the fore to show it can work.

Several proposals were made to the Minister regarding community CCTV in Dublin. Will such a project come into effect if the pilot project is established? Will the Oireachtas have a role in the mid-2007 evaluation of the project?

The Deputy might be the Minister by then.

I might be and, if so, I will give all Members the opportunity to make submissions on the scheme. The quicker the scheme is rolled out the better so that communities can play as much a role as they are willing to play to have the best policing.

Mr. Flahive

I will begin with Deputy Howlin's comments. I came at this unashamedly from a policing perspective rather than a local authority one. It was very much a concern of ours that we did not bureaucratically overburden the Garda with attending meetings. We wanted this to be balanced with a sufficiently broad range of meetings, connecting the right people. We did not want senior police officers neglecting their core policing duties because they had to attend community meetings. It is a tricky balance to achieve. This did inform the analysis and breakdown between committees, sub-committees and local policing fora.

The main aim of the pilot project is to see if it will work. We would like to think we have the balance right. However, we do not claim omniscience in this and it may well need substantial tweaking. This model has emerged from detailed discussions between the Garda, local authorities and the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If the evaluation of the pilot scheme reveals the balance is not quite right, we would have no difficulty in acknowledging that and seeking to address it. It is a genuine pilot and evaluation process.

Deputy Howlin referred to crime targets. The Garda Síochána Act provides for the Minister to set performance targets for the Garda.

Such a process was introduced in Britain. If a police area has not reached its monthly quota for one month, they try to make the numbers. Senior gardaí have told me it is a daft notion and not good policing. The plan contains references to an increase in explosive finds. How does one know explosive finds will be increased by 4%? It is a mechanical way of looking at it. The same goes for health targets — the aim is to improve the status of health by 2%. It does not suit some services to have that mechanistic approach. I apologise for the aside but I am prejudiced against such an approach.

Mr. Flahive

I fully understand Deputy Howlin's point. The Minister in introducing performance targets will not be setting down arbitrary, irrational or performance-distorting targets. They will not be plucked out of the air. We will do our best to learn from the experience in England which has a long history of micro-managed performance targets.

As regards the issue of whether the local policing fora should be pitched at more of a neighbourhood level, we did learn from experience. One concern was that if we moved immediately to local policing fora at a neighbourhood level, it would involve a sudden and dramatic demand on Garda resources which could be problematical. We are starting off in a sensible way at local authority level. There is the potential to move on, depending on the evaluation of the pilot project.

The pilot scheme will take up resources. For this year a modest amount of €600,000 is set aside. In the autumn, it will be an issue when deciding the Estimates as to how much should be set aside for next year, anticipating a nationwide roll-out.

On the question of limited privilege raised by Senator Leyden, he is correct that it is in the Act, not the regulations, under section 36(6).

Mr. Joe Allen

The genesis of the local government policing committees was in the Garda Síochána Act. The provision exists for an Oireachtas Member to be represented on a committee. The guidelines have sought to give substantial representation to Oireachtas Members. A Member is entitled to attend a meeting for his or her constituency as if at a local authority meeting. The guidelines envisage that most matters at a meeting should not come to a vote. However, if a vote were called on the membership of the committee, an Oireachtas Member would have a vote.

Will Mr. Allen clarify that as Senators do not have constituencies?

The provision covers those Oireachtas Members resident in an area. There is no barrier to any Oireachtas Member attending a committee but it was not envisaged that he or she would have a vote at a meeting.

Mr. Allen

The legislation allows for an Oireachtas Member to be a member of a committee. The guidelines provide for a certain number of Oireachtas Members to be members of a committee. In addition to this, Oireachtas Members for an area are entitled to attend a local policing meeting. An Oireachtas Member who is not a member of a committee cannot vote on committee business. Senators already register their interests with a particular local authority which covers them.

There is some chance of getting agreement between Oireachtas Members who will and will not be on a committee.

We will deal with that.

Mr. Flahive

Perhaps I might pick up on a few points raised by Deputy Ó Snodaigh, in particular the question of CCTV. The Act provides a statutory basis for local community CCTV schemes and lays down that each scheme must be approved by the Garda Commissioner. It also provides that the local authority, before it can approve a scheme, must consult the local joint policing committee. One must have a joint policing committee in place if one wishes to have a community CCTV scheme in an area.

Parallel thereto, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been preparing the ground for the start of community CCTV schemes and we engaged the company Pobal to organise it. It invited applications from around the country and received a fair number. It gave funding to certain local groups to help prepare them for their substantive application and finally selected some 13 local schemes to proceed in 11 locations.

Regarding Dublin, I emphasise that this is the first tranche of applications and by no means the end of the story. Pobal will be going to the country later this year with a new set of invitations to local communities, so there will be the opportunity for everyone to apply again, or apply for the first time if that is the case.

So the original applicants that did not secure funding will have to reapply.

Mr. Flahive

It is perfectly open to them to reapply. If they did not quite meet all the criteria the first time, they could certainly engage with Pobal to determine where they did not quite make it and how they might improve their application.

In selecting those local authorities for the pilot, there were two criteria. One criterion was to ensure as far as possible a reasonable mix between city, town, borough and county councils. The second was to ensure, where we know that a successful application for a local CCTV system is ready to roll, that we have a joint policing committee in place in the area. It will not simply be in place to deal with CCTV but for its full purpose. However, it will also serve to enable the CCTV to start. That is an important aspect.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh also mentioned local expertise. There is provision for community representation. When we reach the stage of selected local policing fora, that will be an opportunity to pick up on local knowledge. Regarding the evaluation, which Deputy Ó Snodaigh also raised, I invite Mr. Callaghan to say a few words on exactly how things might work.

Can Mr. Callaghan also say how the current pilots were selected?

Mr. Flahive


Mr. Brendan Callaghan

On community CCTV systems, in addition to funding 13 operational projects, Pobal granted money for a pre-development phase for a further series, several of which are in Dublin. On the evaluation, the intention is that pilot committees will be established almost immediately for about a year. The pilot will come to an end towards the middle of 2007.

Our current thinking is that from perhaps the beginning of next year, we will start an evaluation process. We envisage it as having both an independent element and the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, together with the local authorities that are involved. To some extent, evaluation will take place in parallel with the pilot. When the pilot ceases, there will also be a short evaluation.

We are very conscious that we do not want to lose the initiative whereby a pilot stops and nothing takes its place. Current thinking is that perhaps the pilots will continue even after the end of the pilot phase. The evaluation will determine what must be changed in the guidelines and operation. The pilots will be rolled out throughout the country thereafter.

Some of the pilots were chosen because there is a provision in the Act——

The Minister's constituency is directly involved.

Mr. Callaghan

It would be hard to have a pilot that did not involve the largest city in the country.

Wicklow was obviously included because it was contiguous with the largest city. Offaly was there because the Minister for Finance is not involved.

Mr. Callaghan

It would be difficult to pick a part of the country that did not have a Minister. I will be open and say that the process was not conducted very scientifically. Along with Dublin, which as the largest city we could not avoid, we tried to pick a smaller city, Galway, a county that is fairly urbanised, Wicklow, and one that is fairly rural, Offaly. Beyond that, no great scientific expertise was involved.

That is swallowable.

Mr. Flahive

I hope I have covered the main points so far and if I have not, I will be glad to answer in the next wave of questions.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh's last point was what role this committee of the Oireachtas will have in the review process.

Mr. Flahive

I am sure that neither the Minister nor I would have any difficulty in appearing before the committee again. If the point of this discussion has been for the Minister to place the draft guidelines before the committee and gain its valuable advice and insight on how they might work, once the evaluation has taken place and consideration has been given to any changes that might be necessary, it will make eminent sense for the committee to be consulted again.

The reason I raised it was not to delay the evaluation. If we have an election next year, one does not want the evaluation of a pilot scheme delayed until the committee has been put in place in September or October. It is good the witnesses said the evaluation starts in January or February. At least the committee can play some sort of role in advance of an election, perhaps in June 2007.

I thank Mr. Flahive and his colleagues for attending.

Generally, we all welcome this. Its genesis lay partly in this committee, which was very much engaged in this part of the legislation when it was introduced last year. In that regard, I have one or two queries. Section 5(4) on page 11 states that matters to be considered by the committee might include certain issues, including traffic, vandalism, anti-social behaviour, under-age drinking, casual trading, litter and so on. We would certainly agree on all those.

My recollection of discussions on this section of the Act was very clearly that issues regarding the local causes of crime, specifically anti-social behaviour and public order offences, were key aspects of the joint policing committees. In other words, I clearly recall members of all parties saying that often the real cause of crime in an area could be directly related to a decision by a member of a local authority on housing placement, for example. Someone who is known to be an absolute troublemaker and will cause serious problems in a neighbourhood is suddenly allotted a house in a street. Everyone, including local councillors and Deputies, will say it was a major mistake with potential to destroy a street.

I can think of examples that happened in Limerick over the last few months that would bear that out. I wonder why it was not included specifically among the issues. Deputy Howlin mentioned a heavy emphasis on the part of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and I wonder whether the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform got in on the act in section 5(4), with its strong focus on policing.

The second issue regarding that section also concerns our discussions of last year. Often, local councillors will say that the reason that they have problems is that there are no local facilities or play areas and problems with lighting. However, the problem could be caused by the action or inaction of a local authority, specifically its environment department. That should be specifically mentioned at 5.4. I do not know whether any amendments are anticipated at this stage or whether it is planned to wait until after the pilot period is completed, but I definitely believe those two should be included.

As regards the persons who will be representing the community and voluntary sectors, will the Department indicate the manner in which these representatives will be chosen by the local authorities? Mention is made of certain issues which cannot be discussed by the local policing committee, which I have seen a reference to, somewhere. It says, "shall not consider matters" if they relate to the endangerment of security of individuals, etc., or involve information received by the Garda in confidence. All that is correct. One of the things that cannot be discussed is where matters relate to an individual. I can easily see why that should be there and I am certain that there could be legal reasons. Meetings I have attended would be very similar to the joint policing committees, that is informal gatherings of councillors and gardaí, say, in a community hall where someone says, in effect: "There is a big problem here, namely Peter Power, who lives in this area and you must deal with this guy".

The chief superintendent might bear this out that often such meetings could centre around one or two individuals. I understand why this might be in there, but I would suggest that sometimes real individuals may have to be discussed and local representatives can provide valuable intelligence to the Garda in that respect.

The introduction of the joint policing committees is a tremendous initiative with great potential. It is interesting that this is the first piece of local government that I have seen in the last five years and it has come from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Having said that, I find these particular guidelines very unsatisfactory. If one contrives for something not to work one puts too many bodies on a committee. One allows them to meet too infrequently, say, twice a year. In this way much of the potential that could be achieved is nullified.

To be more specific, in selecting 27 areas — the Department made it 22 — for a pilot scheme out of a total of 114 is a huge proportion. I suggest that this is halved or rolled out to everybody. Also, the membership is far too large. I say this as someone who has served on committees of varying sizes, as most people here have, within local government. Undoubtedly, the ones that are tighter are far more effective, as Deputy Howlin said. I suggest that if the Department is convinced that it wants big numbers — I see no reason for this — that it should look at a range for its pilot scheme. If it wants to run with some of them at 25 or 26, which is what is outlined here, some should also be run at 18 and at 12. The ideal number in my view is a maximum of 12 people, to be effective.

Throughout the guidelines I see county managers. I look at my own county and the suggestion is that we will have five. A county manager will be a member of each of those. I believe that is daft. I do not know whether the Department is aware, but I am amazed at the increasing number of complaints I get across the country as regards non-performing managers. An oft-quoted sentiment is that they are never in their offices, as they are serving on other committees and matters such as that. There is a real need to focus there. Better local government has not brought the cream to the top in a uniform way and this needs to be looked at. Local governments are being buttressed at the moment because of the enormous cash transfers they are getting. If that dried up, with management potential and expertise being challenged, there would be a very serious situation within local government. So that needs to be looked at.

I see town committees, for example, where the town clerk is not a member but the county manager is. That does not make a great deal of sense. I know the Minister has made a commitment to having people from the community involved, but I oppose that. I do not know how one might go about selecting people — looking at community representatives in my county.

There is a community forum.

There is, absolutely, and I do not see a need for it because public representatives alone have a mandate from the community. I could never see why this needed to be replicated. That is my personal opinion. The Minister is taking a somewhat different approach. Perhaps there should be involvement at director of services level. Directors of services now have involvement at area committee level, with responsibility for areas. Surely if somebody from the county council is to be put on, it should be the director of services with responsibility for the area concerned, so that there is some continuity of contact between that person, councillors and indeed, the Garda.

I note that nobody can appoint a substitute except officials. Nobody, including officials, should be able to appoint substitutes. The last thing one wants on these committees is different people turning up on different occasions, not having been present to know the background to particular discussions. Two meetings per annum is far too little. I suggest there should be a minimum of four and a maximum, perhaps, of six.

Where the chair has the right to hold a special meeting, he or she has to have Garda approval. In the case of a joint policing committee, where accountability is involved, the chair should have sole discretion for calling meetings and the Garda should not have a veto. That would be to defeat part of the purpose of establishing the committees. On 5.4, I agree fully with what Deputy Peter Power has said. As regards "the matters to be considered" referred to in that paragraph, "may" should be inserted instead of "might", along with "inter alia”, so that these along with other matters can be discussed.

There is a list of things that cannot be discussed at meetings, including individuals. That is wrong. From my experience of havingad hoc meetings with the Garda, one of the matters that needed to be discussed was anti-social behaviour in areas. The people concerned have to be identified, or drug pushers. I recall specifically having a number of meetings with the gardaí, who were quite effective in our area, where serous anti-social problems were taking place in an estate involving four people. We had to talk about the four people. One cannot deal with such matters otherwise if the meeting is to be effective.

That brings me to another point. Holding these meetings in public will remove much of their effectiveness. Any meetings we had were held in private. If one looks at local government and area committees that operate "in committee" while others operate in public, the area committees are far more productive, as every councillor can testify. This is because they are more workmanlike, no one is playing to the press gallery and people are actually dealing seriously with the issues on the table. These meetings will be minuted and the minutes will be publicly available afterwards. That perhaps is the way to get a conduit to the public.

All members, not just Members of the Oireachtas, as under paragraph 8.2, should be facilitated, when meetings are being arranged. The regulations should specify that. I have mentioned the media. The secretariat should be a designated person from the local authority. This role should not vary so that the same person attends all the meetings. Finally, as regards the circulation of minutes of meetings to all councillors in the country, every one of them now has a computer. This information should be on the web and available to them in that way. We should use the e-technology we have and not put unnecessary work on people as regards the delivery of this information. There is much to be revisited, to be honest. If the Department moves the way it is going, it will nullify a very good idea. That would be a real pity. I ask the witnesses to look again at those issues with a view to ensuring the effectiveness of committees.

I welcome the officials and the chief superintendent. I apologise for leaving the room for a few minutes, as I was called to another meeting. I would like clarification on the issue of Oireachtas Members. I firmly believe that all of us should have the same opportunity to attend. Even if it involves cumbersome numbers, as Deputy Howlin pointed out, we should have the opportunity to attend if we wish.

I was vehemently opposed to the permanent presence of community groups on the joint policing committees. I would not deny the importance of community input, but issues will change and problems will arise as time goes on. While a residents' committee delegation may be necessary for a joint policing committee at one stage, it may not be needed again. The joint policing committee should have the discretion to avail of the input of community groups without their having a permanent presence on that committee. It is absolutely essential that confidentiality rules the process if the committees are to operate effectively.

Much presumption takes place about initiatives on local government. Officials should not presume that councillors will beau fait with the regulations, or the powers in the regulations, the skills needed, how the Garda ranks operate, Garda duties and so on. Training will be essential for councillors and I welcome the fact that a seminar will take place soon to inform the parties involved. However, it should not begin and end there. Ongoing training of elected members will be needed so that they may contribute to their full potential.

This is one of the most exciting, revolutionary initiatives in the history of local government and we welcome that. We have all had our input and we hope to hear in the future from the officials about the pilot schemes. Training is absolutely essential for this to work properly.

I welcome the joint policing committees under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. There are many constructive proposals and sensible options. My major concern relates to the community and voluntary sector. From my experience as a city councillor on Dublin City Council since 1999 and working with groups on the drugs issue, many people are involved in that issue at a community level. They would have a major input to make at a policing committee. I am not talking about potential politicians, but non-political people who genuinely care about their local community and about anti-social behaviour. They are working on the streets and estates where heroin and cocaine are being pushed and people are being shot. I feel such people should be on our committees. That is the reality if we want an effective policing system.

In the Dublin City Council area, the proposal is to take 13 councillors, six Members of the Oireachtas and two people who represent the community and voluntary sector in the city. I disagree with my colleagues because I would like to see a stronger voice for the community and voluntary sector. There are many quality people in that sector. The drugs issue is just one example. There are other people who work with women's groups, who deal with dysfunctional families, people with disabilities and so on. We should expand the voluntary and community sector and make sure that the committees are inclusive. If we are talking about accountability, we need to have that sector. Many people in the Department and in the Garda would know whom I am talking about. These are credible people, active citizens with a strong record who would give their time to their local community. It is time to wake up. There should be more than two representatives from the community and voluntary sector on the committee. I urge people to think about this.

Deputies, Senators and councillors are representatives of the community. We have a mandate. There is a very broad electorate for county council elections, which includes new communities. The emphasis should be on elected representatives on the committee. I am happy that Oireachtas Members are included for a change, because we are not allowed to be on many other forums.

I do not see the need to have a pilot scheme of the type outlined. A pilot scheme is run to find out how procedures work and so on, but I do not see how that cannot be done nationwide. Any body that wants to opt in, be it a town council, county council or area committee, should be allowed to do so. I can understand why some pilot schemes are restricted, but not when it comes to something that contains democratic structures brought in by the Oireachtas. How much time will elapse before there are more committees? South Dublin County Council is not included in the pilot schemes. People have been talking about these committees for years. The Minister mentioned a few years ago that they would come on stream, but it does not look like we will see them soon. How limited is the period of the pilot scheme? How long will the evaluation take?

If there are to be only a couple of meetings of the pilot committees, I cannot see how the pilot scheme can be evaluated. In the North of Ireland, there were 12 meetings of the local committee, six of them public and six private. A gentleman from one of those committees came here last year and provided a submission to this committee. There is a need for monthly meetings and the process should be up and running as quickly as possible. I do not see why a council cannot opt into the pilot scheme now. The pilot scheme is about reviewing procedures and structures, not about running it in particular areas.

Mr. Flahive

I will try to deal with the points raised. I know this committee will submit its views after it has concluded its deliberations, but we will bring back to the Minister the views we have heard today. Nothing will be lost. We will convey the committee's views to the Minister.

I am not sure if I have any easy answer to convince Senator Walsh. It is a case of listening to what he has had to say. I understand his point that the committees should be more focused, should have smaller membership and should meet more often. The danger with this broader approach is that it will lose focus and will not be as effective as it should be, which is a point we will note carefully. I also touched on the point that this is the beginning of a pilot process. If there is that kind of structural defect in the proposed arrangements, it should become apparent in the evaluation. Perhaps experience will show that some adjustment is needed.

There is undoubtedly a tension between having small, tightly-focused groups which, by their nature, might be more efficient and effective, and the undoubted desire that exists generally to participate in these policing committees. It is a very popular idea, which has been enthusiastically welcomed by the various parties, local authorities and the Garda Síochána. There is a tension between wanting to have as many people as possible participate and not doing that in a cumbersome way. I note Senator Jim Walsh's view that we have not got the balance quite right in these draft guidelines. We shall see as we progress whether the balance is right.

Senator Walsh referred to the prohibitions on certain matters being discussed, which is an area that will have to be examined. There is a difficulty with regard to allowing effective discussion. I can imagine the situation at a public meeting where local representatives suggest the real problem in a particular estate is Mr. X or Ms Y. There is a tension between that and the existence of privilege whereby deeply damaging statements could be made. I do not mean damaging simply in terms of defamation but in terms of perhaps prejudicing prosecutions. We will have to manage that tension as we progress.

Deputy Hoctor referred to training being essential, which we fully accept. As the Deputy noted, we are beginning the process next week by organising a seminar for gardaí and local authorities involved in the first tranche of local policing committees, which will be important. We accept the process cannot stop after next week's seminar and that it must be ongoing.

Deputy Hoctor also raised the issue of the right of Oireachtas Members to attend committee meetings. This matter was touched on briefly but I will ask Mr. Allen to summarise the position in that regard.

Mr. Allen

Oireachtas Members who are members of the committees will attend. In addition, as is the right of Oireachtas Members under local government regulations following the introduction of the single mandate, they can without notice attend meetings of the committees. Any Oireachtas Member can attend a meeting of the joint policing committees. However, as I explained to Senator Leyden, if there was a vote, which the guidelines do not envisage happening often, only those Oireachtas Members who are members of the committee could vote.

Mr. Flahive

Senator Tuffy referred to the desirability of moving quickly if not immediately to a nationwide roll-out of joint policing committees. I fully understand the point. It is seen as a very positive development and is welcomed throughout the country. Therefore, there is a strong incentive to roll it out as quickly as possible. I make the point that as it is a new initiative which has the potential to place demands not only on local authorities but also on the Garda Síochána, and as it is so important that we get it right, it was thought best to pilot the initiative for about a year. This was decided partly to find how well the various parts of the jigsaw fit together but also to test the viability of the model and to examine some of the points raised by Deputies and Senators at the committee to find whether we have the balance right. I fully accept there is a strong desire to press ahead as quickly as we feasibly can.

I would like clarification on Senator Leyden's point with regard to the limited privilege for members of the committee. If there is limited privilege, will a difficulty arise with members of community groups present? For example, an elected member might raise an issue which might be challenged but for limited privilege. A committee member who is a member of, say, a tidy towns committee might enter the debate only to realise that he or she did not share the same privilege as an elected member. Will Mr. Flahive clarify this point?

Mr. Flahive

While this is not provided for in the regulations, it is provided for in the Act at section 36(6), which provides that any statement made in a meeting of a joint policing committee or any sub-committee of that committee, where it is made in any form and without malice — that is an important precondition — by either a member of the committee, sub-committee or by a person attending the meeting at the request of the committee or sub-committee, is privileged for the purposes of defamation, as is any subsequent publication. The privilege extends to any member of the committee or sub-committee and also to any person attending at the request of the committee. It is quite broad and would protect anyone against defamation. As I stated, this is welcome in itself but leads to tension with regard to the kind of thing that can be said.

Mr. Flahive referred to the possibility of statements being made which could affect the prosecution of a case or which could be regarded as prejudicial. There is a real risk in holding meetings in public with the press in attendance, which is what is proposed. We must take account of what the committees will discuss. With local authority members present, there will be much discussion of anti-social behaviour, which comes back to individuals, be they named or not, and there will be a temptation to identify them. Reference might also be made to drug pushers and traffic issues. There is a real danger in this regard and the more people in attendance, the greater the danger.

Mr. Flahive

I accept there is a danger in this regard. There are two ways of handling it, either by having private meetings where there is effectively no publication or risk of publication, or by having public meetings with a prohibition on referring to named individuals, which is the model proposed here. Like everything else in the draft guidelines, this will be subject to evaluation. We had to combine different elements, namely, public meetings, the existence of privilege and the possibility that were a prohibition not in place, people would have the legal protection to make potentially damaging allegations. That is the issue we tried to address.

That concludes the discussion.

Will the committee write to the Minister in this regard?

The committee clerk will write to the Minister today to give details of the committee's considerations on the draft guidelines. The Minister has assured us he will take them into consideration.

I thank the members and officials for attending.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.50 a.m.sine die.