CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address the House to respond on behalf of the Government to the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2014 which has been introduced by Deputy Niall Collins. Unfortunately, due to other unavoidable commitments, Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Justice and Equality, is not in a position to attend today.
The Deputy has outlined the objectives of his Bill and I do not propose to repeat what he has already said. As the Members of this House will be aware, this Bill was published last February and a lot has happened since then with reference to strengthening the operation of our criminal justice system. This is especially the case with regard to the delivery of a quality and effective policing service in which all the people of this country can have full confidence.
In April this year the Government announced a new programme of justice reform in response to the series of issues which have come to light in relation to the Garda Síochána. These issues are familiar to Deputies and, as you all know, they are wide-ranging and serious. The term ‘systemic failure’ has been applied to the situation that has emerged. In that light we have to acknowledge, fully and honestly, that our policing system, along with the standing of the Garda organisation, has gone through a difficult and challenging period.
Given the overall circumstances that have developed, it is not going too far to say that currently we are at a pivotal juncture in Irish policing. We have to look back and thoroughly examine what went wrong. At the same time, we have to look forward and decide, here and now, what kind of police service we want for our country. The Government’s programme of justice reform provides a comprehensive and concrete platform for these two sets of actions.
We have seen from the events I have referred to that an essential element of the reform that is needed must be an enhanced system of police accountability. This is of course a matter that is referred to in the Private Members' Bill we are discussing here today.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Government’s programme of justice reform includes the establishment of a new independent policing authority. The Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform, chaired by the Taoiseach, is charged with overseeing the development of legislative proposals for the new authority. This is a project to which a very high priority has been attached and it will continue to be addressed on that basis.
The accountability of the Garda Commissioner is one of the important matters that is being addressed in the drafting of the General Scheme for the policing authority Bill. In that context, the Government has made it clear that, in relation to policing matters the Garda Commissioner will be accountable in the exercise of his or her functions to the new authority. The preparation of the General Scheme is at an advanced stage and the Minister has confirmed that she will bring it before the Government as quickly as possible.
Obviously, the Government appreciates the work undertaken by Deputy Collins in respect of the Private Members' Bill. At the same time I am sure he will understand that, apart from the urgent work under way on the policing authority, the Government has been very pro-active in bringing forward measures which cover the same ground as his Bill.
Recently, the Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 was initiated and is expected to be debated in this House in the coming weeks. This Bill is another important element of the Government’s reform programme. Its main purpose is to amend the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to expand the remit and powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. To a certain, but more limited, extent this is one of the objectives which is covered by the Deputy’s Bill.
The No. 3 Bill is concerned with a number of different areas and it is a significant measure in its own right. In particular, the Bill:
Ø includes, for the first time, inclusion of the Garda Commissioner within the investigative remit of GSOC;
Ø confers additional police powers on GSOC for criminal investigation purposes;
Ø provides greater autonomy for GSOC in examining Garda practices, policies and procedures; and
Ø enables the Garda Síochána Inspectorate to carry out inspections on its own initiative without the need for the prior approval of the Minister for Justice and Equality.
On a point of information, I should mention that Minister Fitzgerald has indicated she will further consider legislative changes with regard to GSOC within the framework of the policing authority Bill.
In addition, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 became operational on 15 July this year and it deals with Garda whistleblowers with results which are very similar to proposals in the Deputy’s Bill. The new Act has inserted a section into the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to allow members of the Garda Síochána to make “protected disclosures” to GSOC in confidence in respect of alleged Garda misconduct. The Government had committed to introducing legislation to protect whistleblowers in the Programme for Government.
I note that the Private Members' Bill contains provisions to allow GSOC to access the Garda PULSE computer system. No specific statutory amendment is needed for this purpose and I understand that it is being catered for operationally, on the basis of technical cooperation between GSOC the Garda Síochána.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality commenced a review of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 earlier this year and has held hearings with interested parties, including GSOC and the Garda Síochána, following a public consultation process. The Minister received interim recommendations from the Committee in June. A number of the Committee’s recommendations are catered for in the Government’s No. 3 Bill and the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee is continuing its review of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Minister understands that it will be bringing forward a more detailed and comprehensive report. She is looking forward to receiving this and she will consider all the recommendations made by the Joint Committee.
The Government’s reform programme is not confined to legislative measures. In other areas substantial progress has been made and the current momentum is being sustained:
Ø Last month, the open competition for the recruitment of the next Garda Commissioner was announced. An appointment from this competition is expected in late November / early December.
Ø An Independent Review Mechanism has been established to review complaints alleging Garda misconduct or inadequacies in the investigation of such allegations. A panel consisting of Senior and Junior Counsel was established, and the aim is to have the majority of cases reviewed within a period of up to 12 weeks.
Ø The Fennelly Commission of Investigation into the operation of telephone recording systems in certain Garda stations and related matters is up and running since June and is due to report to the Government by the end of this year.
Ø The Garda Síochána Inspectorate’s crime inspection report is imminent. This report will cover a wide spectrum of policing activity including the recording, investigation and prosecution of crimes. The report will also deal with a number of concerns raised in the report submitted to the Government by Mr. Seán Guerin SC following his review of certain Garda actions.
Ø The Government has committed to establishing a Commission of Investigation into matters arising from the Guerin report. The terms of reference of the Commission, including the timeframe, and the appointment of a member, are under consideration and will be finalised shortly.
Ø The Government published Judge Cooke’s inquiry into reports of unlawful surveillance of GSOC in June. Recently, GSOC published a redacted version of the report commissioned from Mr. Mark Connaughton SC into the possible disclosure of confidential information. I welcome the publication of GSOC’s report in the interest of public transparency. I might add, importantly, that the Government’s No. 3 Bill meets a number of key commitments made arising from the publication of the Cooke report. These relate specifically to ensuring that GSOC can conduct a public interest investigation without reference to a specific complaint and, also, enhancing the effectiveness of the existing statutory provisions concerning the exchange of information between the Garda Síochána and GSOC.
Ø The Minister has published the Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice and Equality in July. Since its publication, an open competition to recruit a new Secretary General to the Department has been announced and the Minister is working closely with management to implement the report’s recommendations.
Ø The Garda Síochána has been included within the scope of the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 in accordance with the commitment in the Programme for Government to extend Freedom of Information to all public bodies. The Heads of the Bill were previously extensively debated in Committee in the Oireachtas. The Bill has concluded all stages in the Dáil and has been tabled for the Seanad. It is expect that the Bill will be enacted quickly.
Ø A review under the Haddington Road Agreement will make recommendations on the use by the Garda Síochána of the resources available to it, with the objective of achieving and maintaining the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness in its operations and administration. The review encompasses all aspects of the operation and administration of the Garda Síochána. The review is expected to be completed by mid-November and will form a platform for the new Garda Commissioner to oversee a programme of comprehensive reform in the organisation
The concept of organisational culture has been referred to in many quarters over the past several months in relation to the Garda Síochána. September saw the Garda College in Templemore welcome new recruits for the first time in a number of years. What we want is for these men and women, and the further recruits that will follow them, is that they will be members of a police force that upholds the finest and most professional standards in policing.
The Government has committed itself to having in place and, as required, to changing Garda structures and systems that will provide our communities with the policing service they deserve. It is not a process that is being undertaken just for its own sake but it is directed towards ensuring that the Garda Síochána will be fully up to the task of meeting the challenges of modern policing throughout the country.
With that in mind, it is very important that the measures to be put in place in the area of policing reform are properly coordinated. This is what the comprehensive Government justice reform programme is about. As I have indicated, the programme has already produced important results and I am fully confident that it will bring about the necessary changes so that confidence in policing can be fully restored.
Bearing in mind the overall objectives of the Deputy’s Private Members' Bill, the Government does not intend to oppose it at Second Stage in this House. However, the Deputy will appreciate that since he originally introduced his Bill the Government has embarked on a very substantial programme of criminal justice reform. In that regard I wish to make it clear to the House that the Government intends to proceed fully with the programme. It will, of course, be dealt with as a major priority.