CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Speech by Minister for Justice and Equality in response to Independent TDs Private Members Motion on Rural Crime
15 January 2019
A Cheann Comhairle,
I am pleased to be here this evening to discuss this motion on rural crime and I thank the Independent Deputies for providing an opportunity for the House to address these issues tonight. As a Minister who represents a large constituency which is primarily rural in nature, I am very familiar with the concerns of people living in rural Ireland. And I know the impact that crime and the fear of crime can have on people – but I would stress that crime is not a rural phenomenon, indeed, crime rates are much lower in rural Ireland.
The Government has decided to put down a counter-motion this evening for a variety of reasons which I will outline in due course. I am pleased to have the opportunity to highlight the scope of An Garda Síochána’s response to rural crime, which has been underpinned by the provision of significant – indeed, unprecedented - Government resources in recent years. However, I sincerely believe that all Deputies in this House are working towards a similar goal of achieving safer communities for all our citizens and so in this context I look forward to a constructive debate this evening and I look forward to listening to all contributions by Deputies.
As the House is aware, the Government is totally committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. The evidence of this commitment is not hard to find - since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 2,400 recruits have attested as Members of An Garda Síochána and been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide. This accelerated recruitment of Gardaí saw Garda numbers reach almost 14,000 by the end of 2018, with Garda numbers expected to be in the region of 21,000 by 2021. Furthermore, a total budget of €1.76 billion has been provided to An Garda Síochána in 2019, an increase of over €100 million on the 2018 allocation. This substantial investment will provide new and leading edge technology to support our front line Gardaí in carrying out their work in both rural and urban communities.
The Programme for Government underlines the need for close engagement between An Garda Síochána and local communities and this is an essential feature of the strong community policing ethos which has long been central to policing in this jurisdiction. As part of the overall strategy to tackle criminality, the Garda authorities pursue a range of partnership initiatives with important rural-based organisations such as the IFA, Muintir na Tire and other community organisations. These partnerships are really valuable and I want to thank the organisations involved.
Cheann Comhairle, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I have placed a huge focus on policing. Government recently approved my proposals on the implementation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. These recommendations, made by a panel of well-respected experts, were made after significant consultations all around the country – and indeed internationally. They have a core focus on a more visible Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people.
The High Level Implementation Plan was published in December and among the recommendations to be taken forward in 2019 is the revised local policing model which will provide for more visible policing and the continued rollout of the Divisional Protective Services Units which will of course protect the most vulnerable in society.
In relation to the deployment of Garda resources, including personnel, to specific areas, members will appreciate that this is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. Members will have seen that the new Commissioner has hit the ground running and he has been all over the country engaging with people in individual and community contexts. He and Garda management constantly monitor the distribution of Garda resources in light of crime trends and overall policing needs at local level – and this applies equally in both rural and urban areas. The Commissioner has publicly spoken about issues like Garda stations and he has highlighted that his priority is a policing model that will provide the best outcomes for communities. Late last year, the Commissioner announced that he will be seeking to recruit 600 additional Gardaí next year and he will be redeploying 500 experienced officers to frontline duties. I believe that the injection of this large number of experienced officers into the field, along with the new recruits, will be really beneficial in terms of protecting community safety.
Ceann Comhairle, as recognised in the Private Members Motion before us this evening, An Garda Síochána have responded to the type of threats that communities face through a robust and determined drive against criminals who seek to prey on vulnerable householders with the implementation of special operations such as Operation Thor.
Between November 2015 and November 2018, we have seen over 168,630 targeted checkpoints and 243,277 crime prevention patrols nationwide. This concentrated policing activity has produced in the region of 8,837 arrests and 10,143 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, have included handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs offences nationwide. The message to criminal gangs is abundantly clear: those who commit crime will be pursued by An Garda Síochána and they will face the courts and the full rigours of the law. .
On 20 December 2018, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) published the latest crime statistics for Q3 2018. Regrettably, a rise in robberies was recorded, while there was a welcome decrease in burglary and theft-related offences which were down 6.4% and 3.2% respectively. I am concerned about the rise in robbery and this is an issue that will be receiving Garda attention. The focus on the recruitment of new Gardaí and increased resourcing of An Garda Síochána, which I have already outlined, reflect this Government’s commitment to support Gardaí in the fight against crime.
I would like to refer to what is an ongoing commentary regarding the prevailing fear of crime in certain communities. It is interesting to note that the latest Public Attitudes Survey published by An Garda Síochána for Q3 2018 indicates that 71% of people perceived national crime to be either a very serious or serious problem. However only 18% of respondents considered crime in their local area to be a very serious or serious problem. I do not and would not understate the concerns of individuals or communities with respect to the prevalence of crime and there are many possible factors which generate a fear of crime and which ought to be addressed. Nonetheless, it is clear that there can be a disparity between the perception and actual occurrence of crime. And, in this context, I would appeal to Members and to commentators to be measured and factual in their comments on crime.
As part of a concerted strategy to combat burglary, this Government has made it a priority to secure the enactment of specific legislation targeting prolific burglars in the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015. These provisions are now available to Gardaí to support prosecutions arising from Operation Thor. Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act introduced the DNA database, which is a major advance and will make a big difference in assisting An Garda Síochána with detection of burglary now and into the future.
I know many Deputies have concerns regarding trespass and the criminal law. I would assure members that all legislative provisions in relation to trespass remain under constant review. While I am advised that the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 and the Prohibition of Forcible Entry and Occupation Act 1971 are sufficiently robust, I would be happy to engage with Deputies further on these matters.
Another area of concern for many has been the operation of our bail laws. These laws have very recently been significantly strengthened by this Government. The Criminal Justice Act 2017 expanded the factors a court may take into account when refusing bail. These factors include previous convictions for serious offences that indicate persistent serious offending and the likelihood of any danger to a person or the community that the release of the accused on bail could cause.
The Act places a greater emphasis on the rights and the safety of victims, and of the public, in bail decisions, while continuing to safeguard the rights of the accused.
The Act provides increased guidance for the courts and greater transparency in the bail process including requiring judges to give reasons for granting or refusing bail.
A Cheann Comhairle, while we must all remain vigilant in the fight against all forms of criminality in our communities, I would like to assure the Deputies that the Garda Commissioner and I remain in ongoing contact in relation to countering new and emerging crime trends. The ongoing recruitment and redeployment of Gardaí, our energetic and community-focussed Garda Commissioner, the recent legislative improvements and the huge budgets allocated to An Garda Síochána should give confidence to Members of the House that everything possible is being done to fight crime in this country.
I look forward to a constructive debate this evening and I hope to be able to address as many issues raised as possible, if not tonight then no doubt at a later stage.
I want, however, to be clear. The counter motion that I am supporting this evening is a clear statement of this Government’s commitment, in terms of actions taken and actions to be taken, to supporting and protecting communities across this country.