Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Community Policing and Rural Crime: Discussion (Resumed)
I remind members and witnesses that mobile phones should be switched off as they interfere with the recording equipment. Apologies have been received from Deputy Jack Chambers. To facilitate our witnesses, we will deal with private business at the end of today's meeting. The purpose of this engagement is to conclude our consideration of the issues of community policing and rural crime, with the focus today more on the latter aspect.
We are joined first by the Irish Farmers Association representatives as, I understand, they have to leave us a little early. We will then meet representatives from the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association. The IFA delegation is Mr. Richard Kennedy, deputy president, and Mr. Barry Carey, crime prevention officer. They are very welcome. We will be joined shortly, we hope, by the IFA president, Mr. Joe Healy, who is caught up in traffic. I thank the IFA for facilitating our request. I will ask the IFA representatives to make an opening statement before opening it up to members to comment or to put questions, which is the normal procedure.
Before commencing, I must draw the attention of witnesses to the situation regarding privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Kennedy to make his opening statement.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it today. As the Chairman said, our president, Joe Healy, has been held up, but we hope he will get here before we finish. I understand he had a meeting with the Tánaiste at Iveagh House this morning and that meeting was held up due to the Tánaiste having an interview on "Morning Ireland". He will try to get here as soon as he can. As the Chairman said, I am joined by Barry Carey, the IFA crime prevention officer.
The committee is aware of the real anxiety among the farming community and rural communities generally over crime in the countryside. Theft of valuables from rural homes and of livestock and machinery from farms is a major concern. Many farmers and other rural dwellers are living in fear for their personal safely and the safety of their families. That is why it is so important that this is addressed as a matter of urgency.
Farm crimes reported include instances of farm machinery being reported as stolen and vehicle theft; theft of livestock, including instances of cattle rustling; and burglaries and break-ins to farm houses. We believe there is considerable under-reporting of rural crime, in particular for the theft of machinery, fuels and other items from farmyards and lesser break-ins to the family home. The increase in the theft of agricultural equipment and livestock can be financially devastating for farmers, who, like all rural dwellers, are very vulnerable when it comes to criminality.
This vulnerability is compounded by geographic and service isolation. It is the IFA's contention that rural dwellers and farmers are not guaranteed the same level of service and security that applies in urban areas.
There is also a requirement for the more accurate reporting of crimes committed in rural areas. All vehicle crimes are recorded on the PULSE system as "Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle". The IFA has called for the separate classification of rural crimes to give a more accurate account of the problems that exist.
Earlier this year, we made a submission to the Policing Authority on the policing plan for 2019 in which we set down key priorities and made recommendations on organisational development and capacity improvement, confronting crime, roads policing, and community policing and public safety. The IFA also presented the proposals to the Commission on the Future of Policing.
Over the past year, several serious incidents have occurred on farms. The quality of crime investigations in such incidents needs to be addressed. Some alarming issues were noted across various districts, such as slow responses; boundary issues where incidents have occurred within a short distance, perhaps 1 km, of a Garda station and are passed on to a station 22 km away, as a result of which culprits and persons of interest were not apprehended; a quite apparent lack of knowledge of industry, farming and rural practices by investigating members during follow-up investigations; and no report back or incident updates to affected persons. To address these issues and to improve the quality of crime investigation, the IFA recommends that An Garda Síochána be given the necessary resources and training on the nature, structure and profile of farming, agriculture and rural life. The IFA has offered to assist in supporting the development of a module and recommends that a separate rural, farming and agricultural unit be included in recruitment training at the national Garda College.
Throughout 2017, there continued to be an increase of thefts of livestock, machinery, tools and equipment. Cross-Border crime continues to be a major part of this. Items recovered by An Garda Síochána in Ireland have come from the UK and Northern Ireland. Items stolen in Ireland have been intercepted en routeto Northern Ireland. The IFA recommends additional support in the form of a more streamlined crime reporting system, immediate sharing of intelligence, and information exchange which would increase the level of visibility and awareness, particularly where agricultural crime has been reported in Border areas. The IFA believes that greater interagency cross-Border co-operation between the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, customs on both sides of the Border, An Garda Síochána and the Police Service Northern Ireland, PSNI, would be instrumental in tackling this type of cross-Border crime.
As we approach Brexit D-Day, there is a requirement for a full review of all operational structures. Should border controls for trade and immigration be reintroduced, additional resources will be required, such as an increase in manpower, vehicles, aircraft and technological equipment, such as CCTV systems for vehicles. In addition, equipment will be required to ensure facial recognition to observe, monitor and manage all the Border crossings by An Garda Síochána, in conjunction with other agencies.
The level of sophistication of cybercrime, both here in Ireland and internationally, is of great concern to all communities. The IFA believes it is important for An Garda Síochána to be fully resourced on all aspects of the risks associated with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's payment systems, specifically, the increasing volume of farm business now carried out online.
The IFA has been proactive in the area of crime prevention in joint initiatives with An Garda Síochána, such as Crimestoppers, community text alerts and Theftstop. The IFA recommends that An Garda Síochána engage with rural communities more frequently to promote a greater awareness of crime prevention so that there would be a national and local communications plan using television, radio and print to demonstrate crime preventative measures, give updates on current crime trends and highlight successful preventions, convictions and prosecutions; and continued engagement with communities through meetings, events, rural shows.
There is a major requirement for the development of a national strategy around community visibility and supports available to local communities. The recent success of Operation Thor is proof that intense patrolling of national primary routes is vital in the fight against crime. The identification of road networks used by criminal elements and the ease with which they can travel from city to city in short periods must be curtailed. The IFA recommends the greater use of community CCTV schemes supported by the Department of Justice and Equality which would give An Garda Síochána greater coverage of specific areas. Remote visual monitoring and in-station viewing would also be effective tools in combating crime.
The lack of Garda presence or patrols in certain communities is affecting public confidence. The IFA's network of 946 branches have made it known that the lack of Garda visibility in rural Ireland is worrying. There is a need for greater patrolling of rural Ireland. Farmers need to see a greater presence of An Garda Síochána on the road. The IFA proposes the deployment of additional resources in terms of manpower, vehicles and equipment. This can be achieved by increasing the Garda Reserve to achieve greater community engagement and thereby supporting An Garda Síochána with local involvement and assistance in the overall community policing plan. In the UK, the various police constabularies have exactly the same rural crime issues as we have here in Ireland. To address this, a small but effective rural crime task force has been established within the police forces to tackle specific issues. The National Farmers Union has been actively engaged at community level in supporting this initiative by assisting the task force with intelligence and reporting of suspicious activities. I am calling for the support of the committee to establish a similar type of Garda operation to tackle rural crime in Ireland which would provide for additional Garda presence and resources in rural communities; the targeting of criminal gangs operating in rural communities; a review of sentencing for rural crimes and repeat offenders; a review of bail conditions for repeat offenders; a review of Garda divisional boundaries; and a national Garda policy on criminal lurching and trespass.
The IFA will continue to campaign for support from elected representatives and Government to protect rural dwellers and businesses. Today we are seeking further engagement from this committee on the IFA's activities on rural crime prevention, together with its support for the IFA's initiatives in this area. We look forward to a constructive discussion with the committee.
I thank Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Carey for coming in. It is important to hear from the IFA for the purpose of what this committee is trying to do. We are trying to formulate a report on community policing and rural crime.
The CCTV scheme is a relatively new scheme that has been introduced by the Department of Justice and Equality. Many local community groups I have spoken to have found it complex to apply for funding under the scheme. What is the IFA's assessment of the scheme and whether it needs to be tweaked?
Mr. Barry Carey:
Yes. The complication in the administration of the scheme has been a block in some parts of it; in other words, it has taken a long time. Certain local councils have been asked to be the administrators of the information supplied. There have been several delays in the scheme and the take-up by communities has been quite slow. Raising funds to support the process after the system had been put in place has been a block.
Mr. Kennedy mentioned the lack of Garda visibility in rural areas. He has probably not read the disclosures tribunal report, but in it Mr. Justice Charleton refers to the lack of Garda visibility in urban areas; therefore, it is an issue throughout the country. From the IFA's point of view, would Mr. Kennedy prefer to see Garda stations being retained or does he want to see more Garda mobile units? I suppose it is not feasible for gardaí to walk country roads in the same way as we expect to see them walk city streets.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
We would like to see more Garda patrol cars throughout the countryside. The drop-off in the level of patrolling and visibility in the past few years is amazing. When I was involved in Macra na Feirme, I used to dodge my way around villages in coming home at night because there were so many gardaí around. Now I can drive thousands of kilometres without meeting a garda and know which is worse. Things have got so bad that I would much prefer to meet them. We are looking for increased visibility, which is imperative. I take the Deputy's point that there is a need for more gardaí, whether in urban or rural areas, but we certainly need greater visibility of patrol cars in rural areas. In the past gardaí lived in the community and had local knowledge, but that is no longer the case. What we need is a greater Garda presence, perhaps at community events. It is amazing that when such events are now held, gardaí nearly have to be paid to attend. That is moving in the wrong direction; we need to move in the other direction. Wherever people gather, gardaí need to intermingle. It is wonderful to see the success of community gardaí in urban areas.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
Like everything else, there is a new Commissioner. As such, we hope there will be a new culture and that the position will improve. I hope also that there will be more gardaí and if they go out into the countryside, people will be very willing to meet them and give them information, but they will have to be visible.
Obviously, policymakers need evidence in order to be able to make decisions in changing laws. Has the IFA carried out any research into the incidence of crime in rural areas because the crime statistics can be inaccurate or misleading?
It might be worthwhile if the delegates had the resources required to carry out research. Sometimes policymakers can be driven by impirical evidence, but if we had the evidence, a much stronger case could be made. It is a matter for the IFA, but that is my assessment. In protecting farmyard machinery, a number of years ago the IFA had a project whereby it tried to get farmers to stamp their farmyard machinery. Is the project ongoing or what is being done in that regard?
Mr. Barry Carey:
The project was called TheftStop and it is still in operation. It is primarily a property marking scheme under which people log onto the IFA's website and are given a unique number. They use a stencil and specific paint that cannot be painted over. Overt marking is the theme of the scheme. Someone living in County Offaly has a specific OY registration plate number. He or she uses spray paint and a marking kit to itemise each piece of equipment. The information is uploaded to ensure a record is kept of it, in addition to having a gate sign indicating that every piece of equipment on the farm has been marked. It was and is a great deterrent. Eighteen months ago a national property recovery day was held. An Garda Síochána had recovered more than 500 items which it put on public display. We sent almost 4,000 text messages to members in various counties who had been affected by crime. Such schemes have worked in people recovering their property, but we need to engage more. We are constantly looking at modernisation. The main point is that criminals are looking for items that they can get rid of, either online or at marts, car boot sales, etc. If an item has been marked, they do not want it. That is the scheme with which we have been engaged.
Mr. Barry Carey:
We have a mantra when we are in communities. I am engaged in every county in giving advice at public meetings, etc. on crime prevention. We encourage people not to buy certain items. If someone knows that an item is worth €500 and he or she can buy it for €50, it did not fall off the back of a lorry. A market is being created in that regard. The IFA's mantra is that if we buy something cheaply, we are encouraging this activity.
I thank the delegates for coming before the committee. One of the first issues about which Mr. Kennedy spoke was of a crime incident which had happened approximately 1 km from a Garda station but gardaí from a Garda station 22 km away ended up dealing with it. Did he seek an explanation from An Garda Síochána as to the reason for this?
Mr. Barry Carey:
It is a divisional boundaries issue. There are boundaries in a rural town. If the nearest Garda station is 22 km away, it will state the investigation of the particular crime will fall to it. It has happened in the past few months and on a regular basis that Garda cars almost pass another Garda station on the way to investigate an incident. If it is a serious road accident, that eliminates the particular process, but for normal investigations it keeps to the boundaries. A detective unit will investigate incidents in its division. I believe a new system is coming on-stream, similar to the Uber or taxi schemes, under which the Garda car nearest to an incident will attend. Currently, boundaries are in issue in every division, particularly if an incident occurs close to the border of the next division. It is, so to speak, a burning problem.
Mr. Barry Carey:
Recently, there was a helicopter in the sky and armed support units on patrol looking for a particular group. Members of the local community saw individuals on the road who were suspected of having been involved in the incident. They telephoned the Garda station, only to be told that it was not happening in its area. They were asked, "What helicopter? What car?" However, within half an hour, they received a call back from the station and were asked where the culprits had gone to. The vehicles had been found quite close to the scene of the incident.
That became a boundary issue when one side of the system was investigating with air support and armed units but the local Garda station did know anything about it.
There is the idea that if a person buys stolen property, then he or she is stealing from himself or herself. Is there much emphasis on that from the IFA to its members? It is obvious stolen cattle cannot be sold unless a buyer is found.
Mr. Kennedy talked about the lack of visibility and presence of An Garda Síochána and, as Deputy O'Callaghan said, that is not confined to the countryside. I was robbed 25 times in one year on the streets in Dublin when I was working with Dublin City Council. We had exactly 25 robberies and none of what was robbed was recovered. There is every bit as much crime in the city, if not more. There is going to be an increase in Garda numbers and that will help. At the same time, however, has the IFA looked at the idea of more communication between members of the organisation in respect of the movements of people who might be suspected of being potential criminals? I am not talking about vigilante groups, with which I strongly disagree.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I agree with Deputy Wallace about vigilante groups. We do not want to go there. The IFA is very involved in text and community alert systems around the country. All of our members are involved in those community activities and we have close co-operation with An Garda Síochána. It is part of the community and it is not just ourselves. In any community, farmers and ordinary people who live in the community are part of text alert or community alert groups and there is ongoing surveillance of suspicious movements.
If the IFA was told by An Garda Síochána that there was not enough funding available to increase Garda numbers and that the numbers of gardaí working in communities was going to change, given those existing numbers what would be the IFA's number one request to An Garda Síochána?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I would want a patrol car. That is critical. All gardaí should have access to a patrol car so they can drive around. Bicycles are no good and neither is staying in the village. To be honest, I do not think that the countryside can be policed unless the number of gardaí is increased. For every batch of gardaí coming out of the Garda College in Templemore, probably only half of that number will be an increase. The other half will be replacing people who have retired. It is critically important that if we ring the Garda station in the local town that we are not told they cannot go out because they have no car. That is happening all of the time.
We had two members of An Garda Síochána in here last week and we also had someone from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. One strong theme that emerged was that funding for An Garda Síochána is a political choice. Given what Mr. Kennedy has said about the lack of numbers, and I do not disagree with him, does he think that the IFA should use more influence? It is the most influential and strongest organisation on this island in respect of its ability to lobby Government. Has the IFA looked at putting pressure on the Government? It is not An Garda Síochána that decides what numbers it has in communities. It is down to the funding allotted to An Garda Síochána by the Government. How much has the IFA pressured the Government into increasing the presence of An Garda Síochána in communities?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
We lobby on an ongoing basis at local and national level. Much of this crime, and in particular violent crime in the community, does not just affect the people attacked. It affects all the people who fear crime and makes them uncomfortable in their own homes. We highlight that to our politicians regularly at Government level. It is encouraging to see an increase in numbers but it still needs to go up. Resources need to be given to An Garda Síochána. We understand that and we have spoken with An Garda Síochána on numerous occasions. To be fair, we have a good relationship with An Garda Síochána. We are trying to get it to work with what resources it has to the maximum of its ability and we also work on this issue with the Government. We do work on it and will continue to do so.
My apologies for missing the first part of the presentation. This area may have been covered but, as Deputy Wallace said, we had a presentation last week from members of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. Many farms straddle the Border and some farmland crosses the Border, as do a range of other businesses. Has there been any collaborative work with the Ulster Farmers Union, UFU? Some farmers there did bring pressure to bear on the PSNI and An Garda Síochána to work collaboratively.
If those organisations joined up more in awareness-raising campaigns or working collaboratively to make the policing response happen more effectively, is that something the IFA would see as a positive thing? That was something we stressed to both organisations last week. Mr. Kennedy is right. My experience of policing in an urban context in the North is similar to the problems the IFA has flagged. I refer to divisional differences and even differences within the branches within the PSNI. They do not talk to each other to tackle problems as they appear. Has the IFA explored that kind of work with its colleagues in the UFU? In the context we are looking at, not the least of which with the onset of Brexit is the hardening of any differences in policing styles along the Border, which none of us wants to see, what would the views of the IFA on that be?
Mr. Barry Carey:
A meeting is planned for early in 2019 between the UFU and IFA. I was speaking with a senior Garda officer recently and he asked if we would have cross-Border co-operation between the UFU, the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. There is an ongoing scheme where a Garda superintendent at the Border is engaging with his counterpart in the PSNI. What they are doing involves the latest technology and property marking. It is a dual-community group. Communities on both sides of the Border work together to create property marking unique to the locality. That reduces the opportunity for theft by organised crime.
I have been in contact with members in Ulster Farmers Union, UFU, and a meeting is scheduled in early January.
Does the witness think that this is something we should be supporting and calling for in order to strengthen it? I would always argue that there should be more cross-Border work. There should not be a Border at all, but while it is there this approach makes sense. The uncertainty presented by Brexit, for farming and rural communities, goes beyond the issue of policing and community safety into every aspect of people's lives. There has been a sharp focus on it, so there should be a collaborative approach. Perhaps the meeting with the UFU should be held earlier than January 2019, given the situation at the moment. If there is any way we can bolster that work or assist with facilitating the collaborative approach, the witnesses should let us know.
Mr. Barry Carey:
The national police chiefs from the UK come together to discuss best practice. I attended a conference on rural crime in July. They face exactly the same problems, with exactly the same type of crime, but it is treated as organised crime. The National Farmers Union said that NFU Mutual, the insurance company, paid out just under €50 million last year due to rural crime. Some 15 to 18 months ago a rural crime taskforce was established. It is a small group of dedicated constables and officers, working in specific areas, and it worked. They took up the role of community police and crime prevention officers, and were out giving advice. They worked on inter-agency activities, and worked specific weekends when criminal activity was going on.
Mr. Barry Carey:
Yes, I am referring to actions taken in the UK. We have been looking at best practices in other locations, such as the United States, which could be applied here without huge cost. Best practice might involve the latest technologies in property marking. We have been looking at this to see what we can bring to the communities and IFA members. Instead of using lots of manpower to search for elderly members of the community with dementia or Alzheimer's who have gone missing drones are used. They are also used in the rural crime taskforce to scan the countryside when specific activities were going on. This was a cheap and very effective operation used to support members on the ground.
We should probably expect provision for this type of resource in the near future to be requested based on the study on best practices. It sounds good. Without telling a granny how to suck eggs, there should be a dedicated unit developed to look at this on a cross-Border basis, involving both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, given the bespoke arrangement that will be necessary. I will follow that with interest.
I do not have many questions to ask but I thank the witnesses for coming in today. This is a huge problem in rural communities. Elderly people can be terrorised simply by a feeling that someone has committed crime in their area. That fear actually applies to everyone, not just the elderly. It is frightening, and I imagine that even the idea of someone coming onto a person's farm to steal things can be quite scary. I imagine there is a constant anxiety and fear that those responsible will return, that they will take more and that there will be violence. There is a lot involved in this. Fear in the community can be heightened because of these crimes.
Have violent crimes increased in the last few years? Have the witnesses see more violent crimes as well as robberies in that time?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
Undoubtedly there has been an increase in violence and the severity of the violence. There is no question about that, and that is why we are so worried. We are glad to have the opportunity to discuss it today. It is getting worse because the perpetrators are getting away scot free in the vast majority of cases. Not only are the individuals themselves scared and hurt - quite recently we have had a number of big incidents in north Dublin - but fear is generated in the community. A point about urban crime was made but, while sympathetic to all victims of crime, in an isolated place where a person has no neighbours for 5 km or 6 km such crimes have very serious outcomes. There is no doubt that some people have moved to their nearest town or moved into a nursing home because of that fear.
The idea of the taskforce is fantastic but it is probably a huge ask. I agree with Deputy Wallace that the witnesses have power and influence here. They are listened to. They should focus on putting pressure on those in power because I believe those people will hear what they have to say when they speak on behalf of people who are living in rural communities to highlight the fear and anxiety within the farming community and the community in general. If the witnesses had a clear strategy to apply pressure the Government will listen to them and take on board what they are saying. The witnesses should not underestimate their influence here. They should exert that pressure and know that it definitely works. I thank them again for their presentation today.
I do not have many questions but I want to acknowledge that the contributions of the witnesses are an important part of our deliberations which have been going on for a couple of weeks. I was struck by the contrast between the account we were given at the start of today's meeting and the account we received from An Garda Síochána last week, which painted a very different picture. An Garda Síochána was at pains to say that from its perspective crime rates had fallen, that it was far safer to live in a rural community than in a city, based on crime figures, and that while burglaries are probably the most common rural crime, people are better off living in the countryside. Could the witnesses comment on that viewpoint?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I totally disagree with that, and the IFA would totally disagree with that as well. We are not here to bash An Garda Síochána - we never do that - but there is no question that rural areas have been abandoned. An Garda Síochána is practically not there. I cannot stress enough that that viewpoint is not reflective of the reality of the situation.
That is not the case. There is a serious situation out there. Hopefully with the increased resources we will make people feel safe living in the countryside but myself, Mr. Carey and all of our officers go around the countryside and we constantly hear of people who would be slow to open their doors to visitors because they are afraid. I want to leave the committee under no illusions because this is a serious issue. We all hope that matters will improve, that resources will be put in and that they will be used in the best possible way. That is all we can do and we will lobby for that but I cannot stress the seriousness of this issue enough.
In case I did not explain it properly the Garda was not denying that there is a problem in any way and I did not want to give that impression. The Garda was also very clear that there is a sense of abandonment and that the feeling of many citizens, regardless of where they live, is that there are not enough gardaí on the beat or that we do not see them. That message rings out loud and clear from every area. We were grappling with how the Garda should better use its resources in the new era with fewer resources, closed Garda stations and with a lot more happening on social media. I do not deny what Mr. Kennedy is saying about many people in rural areas living in fear and that happens in Dublin as well but the point that the Garda was trying to make was to ask what the basis for that fear was - whether it was based on fear itself or on a rise in crime. The Garda said that there has actually been a reduction in crime in rural areas so while it is the case that people in rural areas are in fear we should not be whipping that up or making it worse than it already is. Could the reason for that fear be linked to other forms of isolation which would lead one to believe that if the problem is just fear and isolation then good neighbours, more interaction and more community spirit is a way of addressing that fear? If it is more crime and violence then more gardaí are the solution. The Garda was saying that overall one is safer living in a rural area with the type of crime that does occur.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I can tell the Deputy that there is no doubt in my mind and I am sure there is no doubt in the minds of the vast majority of our members that it is more unsafe to live in rural Ireland now than it was ten or 15 years ago and it has not improved. We can go through the figures but the bottom line is that people have given up reporting crime in many instances. I do not want to make it any worse than it is either and I am all for a constructive approach to improve the situation but I do not want to hear that it is improving. The attacks have become more violent and there is no question about that.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
People are able to get away with it. They are able to come and go as they like and there are not enough prosecutions. There is no question about that. Hopefully we can improve on that but I do not want to leave the committee under any illusions that matters have improved because they have not. We all agree that there are limited resources but that will increase. We need to use those resources in the best way possible and we need the Garda to be present in the communities. There are probably some communities in Ireland that would not have seen a garda for five years.
Some people might be happy with that as well. It is not necessarily the case that everybody is clamouring to see them but Garda visibility is a huge issue. It is interesting for the committee to hear the contrast between what the IFA is saying and what the Garda was saying. It feeds into Deputy O'Callaghan's point on research, figures and numbers and while we have all been a bit sceptical of Garda numbers over the past while for obvious reasons - and Mr. Kennedy is right that some people do not bother reporting - at the same time the scientific or research basis for decision making has to be there as well. In that context the types of crimes that happen are important. Mr. Kennedy has stressed violence but burglaries are obviously a huge issue as well. Does Mr. Kennedy want to order the types of crime?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
Mr. Carey might address that but I just want to make it clear that the IFA is maintaining contact with the Garda more than we did in the past because we see that there is an increase in resources and the Garda admit that and we are working closely with them to try to improve the situation.
Mr. Barry Carey:
We have looked for the reclassification of various crimes on PULSE. If everything is put into the one melting pot, when it comes out it does not reflect the location of crimes. It might tell us what county it is in but it will not tell us that it is in a rural area. If it happens in an urban town then it is not in a rural area. The capabilities are not in the system to classify a crime that occurred in a rural area as a rural crime. For example, there has been a spate of Toyota Land Cruisers stolen in the north Dublin, Meath and Louth area over the last period of time. It has happened in other parts of the country as well but not in the same intensity. That is unlawful taking of a vehicle. If we look at where they are taken from it is a rural crime and if that was categorised as a rural crime with the locations given, it could be seen that there is a problem in a specific area and the additional resources that are required could be put into that specific area. That would give a far more accurate annual statistic of where the problems are arising.
I was listening to the debate there and I live in the countryside and the city and the element of isolation definitely is a big factor. If one lives in a house on its own with no other house for several hundred metres I agree that there is no doubt that it is safer to live within a short distance of ten houses or more. My mother had an experience a couple of years ago where people came around the house and looked in the kitchen window. She was there on her own and they were complete strangers. They went away again but the impact was traumatic. There is merit in the saying that there is safety in numbers and it means something. Isolation leaves people very vulnerable.
I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak. I welcome Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Carey here and even though I was not physically here when they started talking I was listening to them on the monitor in my office and I agree with everything they have said. There has been an increase in rural crime and where I come from we all agree that the closure of Garda stations, lack of squad cars and the lack of visibility of and availability of the local gardaí has led to this. That is fine where we have it and it is not fine where we do not have it but I will go back to my home place of Kilgarvan. Even though there was only one garda in the local station for many years there was a lot of activity there and people knew that the Garda were around. There is no problem with me mentioning that the name of the last garda who was there was Garda Tom McDonnell and he was in our parish for about 40 years. People did not know when he would arrive because he was in his own car and he was around the place calling to people. He interacted with people and he had his own sources of information.
He knew everything that was going on in the parish. That is all lost to us now.
A place like Sneem, half an hour from Kenmare, is an hour and a quarter away from Killarney. If the Garda car in Kenmare is out, people in Sneem will have to ring Killarney if something happens. The phone is helping criminals. The fellow in Kenmare knows which way the Garda car has gone and he can ring the fellow who is near to Sneem or wherever else. Sneem is a sitting duck, as is Lauragh, which is 16 miles from the town of Kenmare where the Garda station was, and 32 miles from Castletownbere. If the Garda car in Kenmare is in use on a task, the road back to Castletownbere is wide open.
What we need to get across is how an elderly person is affected when his or her home is broken into and ransacked. In the case of two fine gentleman living very near to where Deputy O'Callaghan's father came from, their house was broken into on a Sunday while they were at mass. They were always confident and still work hard but their confidence is totally shattered because none of those who broke into their house has been found. The house of two other gentlemen living close by was also broken into lately. They will not stay in their own home at night. They have to go down the road to their niece's house, which is crowded, but their confidence is gone and they will not stay in their house any more. We all hear about the increase in Garda numbers but we worry that these gardaí will be directed to urban areas. I met a man the other day who said he got home heating oil and he asked if he should lock the tank. We decided that if people are going to take his oil, they will do so. He is resigned to having his heating oil stolen and he will be lucky if it is not stolen before Christmas.
Sentences and penalties are wrong too. Criminals are not being penalised and I know Mr. Kennedy will agree with me. Many of the those who are apprehended have done it before. They may be out on bail and it is no bother since they will get free legal aid. These fellows should be just locked up and the key thrown away if they are serial offenders. I have made that point in the Chamber. They have such an effect on elderly people and the community around them.
I am thankful to the Irish Farmers Association for sending these two gentlemen here today. I do not agree with Deputy Daly that we are whipping up fear or anything like that. We do not have to do that. People in rural areas are suffering because of the reduction in the number of gardaí available in rural places. We are looking for an extra car in Kenmare but that is not good enough. In Kilgarvan, Sneem and Lauragh, there was a garda with his own car. That is no longer the case and the criminals know too well where everyone is and they are ready to pounce when they know the gardaí on duty have gone in another direction.
I did not accuse anybody of whipping up fear. I said that we had to be careful not to do that. I recognise that feelings of fear and isolation are real. That is obvious but we should not add to them. We should deal with this issue accurately in all its reality. I was not accusing the IFA, the Garda or anybody else of whipping up fear.
The representatives of the IFA have another engagement and representatives of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association are waiting outside. I will ask a couple of final questions before releasing the witnesses to go on their way. They drew attention to the different issues with classification of rural crimes. Mr. Barry Carey got that message across very strongly. They also shone a light on the interesting issue of boundaries and I thank them for that. This is information the witnesses would glean from those they represent. As it has not always filtered its way through in terms of our elected experience, it was helpful that the witnesses raised it. On the cross-Border issue, the witnesses referred to the departments of agriculture, customs, and the two police services, An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, respectively. On the issue of text alert, which plays an important part in rural Ireland's response to a perceived threat or an incident, is there a cross-Border link-up? The witnesses referred to the various agencies. At a community level, we have text alert on this side of the Border and there is a corresponding system North of the Border. Is there a link between these systems and has the IFA explored that issue in its engagement with the Ulster Farmers Union? Will Mr. Carey comment on that?
Mr. Barry Carey:
There is a scheme between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI, which involves members of the IFA and communities in the Border areas coming together and texting alerts. I am told there is a pilot scheme between rural and urban Border communities to alert them of crime, for example, cattle rustling or vehicle thefts in the area. Apparently, it is working and it may roll out across other areas. It is a small project now but it is being looked at.
Mr. Kennedy reflected in his opening address that there had been a significant recovery of goods North of the Border which had been stolen South of the Border. There was a further incident of that in the past fortnight. Stolen goods, including farm equipment and other trade equipment, are trafficked. One would expect texting to be complementary to the respective police services' awareness and their ability to intervene to either prevent or apprehend, as the case might be. This is very important because trafficking of goods is a particular crime focused on the Border counties and communities. Would Mr. Carey like to comment?
Mr. Barry Carey:
We have greatly encouraged our membership to be involved in community engagement and support for the police forces and to give information as quickly as possible. We have a pilot scheme in a WhatsApp group in an area that has experienced certain levels of violent crime, vehicle theft and trespass. This approach has worked very well and An Garda Síochána is getting real-time information about events. The text alert in communities has been quite good but we must refocus on it and encourage more members to become more involved with online, real-time reporting. This approach has worked very well.
I concur with Mr. Carey and echo what he said. The full potential of this approach has not yet been properly realised. I represent a significant rural constituency. In fact, from the far west of County Cavan to County Monaghan's closest point to the Irish Sea, it is probably one of the largest, if not the largest, geographic constituencies in the country. I recognise the issue of fear. I am conscious and aware of it from people who have contacted me and spoken of this reality in their daily lives.
It is very distressing.
I totally concur with Mr. Kennedy on visibility, which is extremely important. Prevention is the first and foremost wish and hope of everybody where these crimes are concerned. Detection is also vital. In regard to high-specification vehicle theft, Mr. Carey singled out specific areas in response to Deputy Daly. We need to avoid putting limited resources into one given area, which at the end of the day might only displace the activities we want to prevent people from becoming involved in. A significant increase in resourcing is a part of the answer to all of this.
Mr. Barry Carey:
To clarify, when I outlined the statistics on crimes committed in specific areas I was referring to the PULSE system and recording crime. If we know there are crimes in specific areas, rather than applying full-time resources we can identify the areas in which crime occurs and which have been identified as vulnerable by criminal elements. We can, therefore, put the resources into these areas. I am referring to active patrolling and investigations in these specific areas, rather than full-time resources.
In regard to high-profile vehicles and the cross-Border issues we have mentioned concerning Brexit and theft, I note the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, recently recovered several vehicles which were stolen in the Republic. Gangs are organised between North and South and vehicles stolen in the Republic are being moved North of the Border. Other issues are ongoing in that regard. To clarify, I do not recommend shoving all the resources into one location, but rather identifying where incidents occur through accurate reporting.
I will make a comment that I do not wish to go into further. I then have a last question. I hope and pray that the vista Mr. Kennedy spelled out in the section of his opening address titled "Brexit Preparedness" never ever presents. I take it that the outline of this scenario is addressed to more than this committee to emphasise that we need to make damn sure that is not the reality. This applies not only to Border communities but to the island of Ireland, full stop.
My last question concerns mandatory sentencing. Does the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, have a view on mandatory sentencing for first offences, repeat offenders, or recidivism where burglary is concerned?
Mr. Barry Carey:
I do not know whether it is the official view of the IFA, but I would call for all of the issues around sentencing for rural crimes and repeat offenders to be examined. It appears from media reporting and various incidents that the same people are walking out the prison door. We have called for people who reoffend while on bail to be sent back to jail. That should be the norm but there is sometimes a revolving door. It does not give communities great confidence that the system is working when repeat offenders go before the system, for whatever reason come out the other side and are back in the community in a very short period or almost immediately.
I thank the witnesses very much for their responses. On behalf of the committee, I thank the Mr. Richard Kennedy and Mr. Barry Carey of the IFA for being with us this morning. I also record my thanks to Ms Elaine Farrell, who is in the Visitors Gallery, and I extend our regrets that the IFA president, Mr. Joe Healy, was not able to join us this morning. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Carey certainly represented the organisation very well. We will suspend for a couple of minutes to facilitate the arrival of representatives of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA. We will have a group photograph taken with our guests before they leave and with the ICSA representatives before they come in, just in case I lose any of them during the rest of the morning.
I welcome the representatives of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, Mr. Seamus Sherlock, rural development chairperson, and Ms Laura Starnes, operations manager. They are very welcome and I thank them for their patience. Our earlier sessions ran on longer than expected. I will invite them to make their opening statement before opening up for members to put their comments and questions, but first I must remind everyone of privilege.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also remind all those present to ensure that their phones are switched off.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address this meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. We welcome the opportunity to engage with the committee on the topic of community policing and rural crime. There is no doubt that many in rural communities are living in fear of violent assault and crime and that many more are frustrated by the level of property theft in isolated rural locations. There is a sense that the Garda is under-resourced, which is leaving rural communities vulnerable, and, worse, that criminals are operating with impunity. Criminals are rarely caught because the resources to investigate are too scarce. When they are caught, the justice system seems to bend over backwards to be lenient.
Last year, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, in conjunction with Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, published a series of reports on crime relating to agriculture. The reports were authored by Dr. Kathleen Moore-Walsh and Louise Walsh of WIT. The reports were based on a survey of 861 farmers across Ireland in late 2016 and they make for stark reading. The first report found that: 66% had experienced some form of crime which impacted them or their farms; 41% of respondents had been the victim of a crime more than once; and that while theft, vandalism and criminal damage were the most prevalent types of crime, 5% experienced criminal assault, which was 76 cases.
The second report quantified the average value of theft of property from farms at €1,818 and that incidents of vandalism and criminal damage cost farmers €360 on average. This report also highlighted the fact that a significant level of crime relating to agriculture is not reported to insurance companies, with 94 incidents of theft and 348 incidents of vandalism, criminal damage or trespass going unreported. This reflects that fact that the cost of claiming against one's insurance is perceived as not being worth it due to fears of higher insurance premiums in the future.
The third report showed that farmers were also reluctant to report crime to the Garda. Some 45% of respondents did not report instances of crime to the Garda. The reasons can be summed as a sense of hopelessness that anything will be done. The level of recovery of stolen assets was 8% among the respondents.
The ICSA-WIT reports show that rural crime is very much underestimated in official figures from An Garda Síochána. They also very much indicate that criminal activity is widespread and that the impact is felt by many in rural Ireland. Farmers are especially vulnerable.
While we are all aware of the terrifying ordeals of individuals attacked in their own homes or on their properties, there is a lot less awareness that farmers are regularly intimidated by trespassers on their land. The ICSA regularly hears from members about uninvited individuals coming onto their land with lurchers or with the apparent intention of shooting birds or lamping foxes. Many feel that this is just a front to size up a farm and its assets.
I do not want to over-dramatise matters but most country people will tell you they are living in fear of someone driving onto their property or of being attacked in their homes in the middle of the night. There is no doubt that people feel that the Garda has inadequate resources. The problem is not so much the closure of Garda stations but the time it takes to get a squad car out when something goes wrong. The feeling among many is that it is better to call a neighbour than to call the Garda when one feels threatened.
Many farmers are spending money trying to make their premises more secure but solutions are not cheap for individual farm families. A number of communities have come together to install CCTV cameras. There is a scheme to grant aid this kind of initiative but so far uptake has been low. That communities have to do a great deal of fundraising to provide matching funds and the an ongoing cost is a real problem.
The ICSA encourages farmers to mark their vehicles and farm machinery. There are ways of doing this so that a stolen vehicle can be identified. The markings are not obvious to thieves when they are stealing vehicles or machinery. However, there is no substitute for having gardaí on the ground. We need local communities to be on first-name terms with gardaí. The ICSA is concerned that restrictions on Garda overtime are impacting on the force's ability to fight crime and be on the case rapidly. We want a greater Garda presence in rural areas and we want officers to have the ability to respond to calls for help as fast as possible.
The ICSA is also concerned that criminals who continuously reoffend get treated too lightly by the criminal justice system. All too often, we see crime committed by individuals who should be in jail. We want to see stiffer sentencing for repeat offenders. The purpose of the criminal justice system should also be about protecting innocent people in their homes.
The one message I want to get across loud and clear, it is that rural crime continues to be a major issue. The ICSA reports show that we should not assume that Garda figures on crime tell the whole story. People in rural Ireland are living in fear and it is time to prioritise the fight against crime, to deliver enough resources to the Garda and to crack down on reoffending.
I thank Mr. Sherlock. I will open the meeting to questions but I should explain that the Minister for Justice is taking questions in the Dáil and some members may have to leave, as some have done already. Hopefully, they will be able to return.
I thank Mr. Sherlock for his presentation and for attending. He says that more often than not it makes more sense to ring a neighbour than to ring a garda. I can see where he is coming from in that regard.
Do our guests believe that communities need more communication among their members, more community spirit and to work together more? From my experience, strong communities that engage will fight the challenges of crime more than anything the Garda can do. One is never going to get the Garda numbers one would like. Of course, there should be a greater Garda presence in the countryside. However, as was stated in the earlier session, the amount of funding given to An Garda Síochána is on foot of a political decision. In the absence of sufficient State funding for policing, should greater effort be put into building stronger communities? There would be less isolation in rural areas if there were more communication between people. In northern Italy, there is far more community spirit. Older people in that region spend a great deal of time together. They come together to, for example, talk or have coffee and they know each other better. In Ireland, there is more isolation. Can we do more to address isolation? Every rural organisation has the potential to have an impact in this regard.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
The ICSA holds meetings all over rural Ireland. Each county has an executive with four representatives. These executives hold annual meetings. I have been to every county to address meetings. We have always encouraged communities to come together. I deal with many older people in rural areas. I always make sure that they have their closest neighbours’ telephone numbers. They must ring the Garda when there is a problem but they should also ring their neighbours. It might take the Garda up to 40 minutes to get to some rural parts. Forty minutes would be a horrendous time for any elderly person, terrified that he or she will be beaten up.
We have always looked for community policing. It is not that long ago that every community had a garda. Everyone knew the garda by name and they were never really off duty even if they were training the local soccer or hurling team. They were always keeping one eye on the community. They knew who should be in the community and, more importantly, they knew who should not.
Everybody has a camera on his or her phone. It is not easy to write down a registration plate of a suspicious car or van. Taking a picture of it is easier and could be invaluable to the Garda if something happened in a community. It is all about communities.
It is not about knocking the Garda. In fairness, many rural gardaí do tremendous work. The problem is, however, that they are being pulled left, right and centre. Many rural gardaí are spending too much time sitting behind a desk. They will say that themselves. They want to be out patrolling and looking after our elderly and most vulnerable. However, they are spending significant amounts of time on a computer behind a desk. They are asked to go to court sittings, inquests, etc. These should be cut out to allow the gardaí do the job for which they signed up.
Ms Laura Starnes:
The single best thing that happened to my community in Laois was developing and fundraising for our community alert group and community CCTV. All that work that went into getting that system up and running brought the 157 families in our community together. We met regularly at fundraisers and meetings. However, there is an issue with the new scheme available to fund community CCTV. There are three groups in Laois which have carried out some fundraising but they are held up because of a delay in authorisation for the schemes’ funding. That is a shame because one gets a community together but then it has to hang back waiting for funding to be authorised.
Mr. Sherlock believes that sentencing should be increased. However, if one looks at international research in that area, increasing sentences does not reduce criminal behaviour. Research shows the majority of people engaged in crime are people who have fallen through the cracks. We need to be spending more in making sure people do not fall through the cracks rather than, as Deputy Danny Healy-Rae stated, locking them up and throwing away the key. Does the ICSA believe that putting more resources into making sure people do not fall through the cracks will help prevent crime in rural and urban areas?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
We agree it would. However, in fairness, it is disheartening for a member of a rural community who has been burgled to learn that the person who committed it may have 60 previous convictions. Many elderly people living alone in rural areas are absolutely petrified. Our parents and grandparents worked very hard in tough times to keep this country going. It is an indictment that they are now living in absolute fear. Many of these people will not sleep if the dog barks at night. That is no way to treat our elderly and vulnerable people.
Local authorities in Ireland get 20% less funding than the average local authority in Europe to carry out their work. We have done away with local government and are left with underfunded and weak local administration. Local authorities in European states, such as the comuniin Italy, deal with issues like rural crime. If Irish local authorities were much stronger, could it help in improving how our communities manage to get by?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
Anything that will help is positive. Local authorities should be more involved. This is a real community problem and it is community that will solve it. We appreciate that crime is not just a rural problem; everybody needs to work on this together. I attended a meeting in west Clare not that long ago at which I met men in their late 60s and early 70s. All they wanted to talk about was crime. They were facing going home down a dark boreen, not sure whether they would make it to the house. That is a shocking way to live but it is a sad fact of rural life. Many of these men and women feel forgotten.
That is what they are saying. They feel that nobody cares about them because they are no longer an asset to their communities. That is very wrong; they are a huge asset. As far as I am concerned, they are the men and women who built this country.
It is correct to say that we have to call the Garda but people's neighbours will be there quickly. I am a farmer and I have often got up at 3 a.m. because one of my neighbour's cows was calving. I would just jump out of bed and go over and give him a hand. I know that 99.9% of people in rural Ireland would not mind jumping out of bed if an elderly or vulnerable neighbour living alone was afraid that someone was outside. We are not for one minute suggesting that people should take the law into their own hands but we cannot stand by and allow our most vulnerable people to suffer in silence.
I thank our guests for attending. Their insights are incredibly useful to us in the context of the project on which we are working. In fairness to the ICMSA and the IFA, they could not spell it out any stronger in terms of the fear people are feeling. There is no question about it and nobody doubts that the fear is totally real. The question with which we must grapple is how to deal with it. In some ways, what seems to be coming out of this discussion is that this is as much an indictment of how we treat older citizens and about the erosion of community in towns and, more especially, rural areas. It is all about community policing and we probably need to join the dots on that.
The WIT study is really interesting. It is very important to have facts to inform whatever actions we take. In terms of the responses to the survey, for 66% of people the issue was burglary and that type of crime. There was quite a big drop when it came to issues like assault and obviously, we do not want that gap to narrow. In terms of the survey, to what degree was it the case that people who had been impacted upon by crime were more inclined to respond? Is that why the percentages are so high? The fact that the percentages were so high may have been because those who had been victims of crime were more enthused and more likely to complete the survey. In that context, I would like a bit more detail on the study.
Ms Laura Starnes:
It was the case that people who had been victims of crime were very keen to respond. It was an online survey, a crime survey among farmers. Farmers would generally not be too crazy about going online to complete surveys but they did engage with it. We were very happy with the amount of respondents we got. Thankfully, as the Deputy said, there seems to be a much lower incidence of crimes such as assault. However, it is these types of crimes that cause a huge amount of fear in communities. If someone in a county is assaulted in his or her own home, that will have a widespread effect on the entire area. There may not be as many instances of such crime, but it causes a much greater fear factor in the local community.
Yes, and we have to deal with that collectively. In terms of how we deal with the crime, it is interesting to note that both groups referred to mandatory sentencing. Generally, we would not be in favour of that on the basis of the evidence that it does not tend to work. That does not mean that crime is not serious, however. Do the witnesses have any views on restorative justice? Have they analysed that? In the context of their analysis of who is committing these so-called agricultural crimes, is it mostly gangs? Is it groups of people working collectively and targeting with a particular market in mind? Is that type of gang crime - with a small "g" - much more likely in rural than urban areas? What analysis has been done on that to date? In terms of restorative justice, is there a perception among people that if a tractor is stolen, the owner can get the money back through insurance or whatever and that those stealing it are not doing any real harm? Is it the case that the people committing these crimes do not realise the devastating effect their actions can have, even in terms of the financial viability of a family farm? It is a bit like fellas stealing from the boss and thinking that is not a real crime because losses can be recouped through insurance. If the perpetrators were forced to meet their victims and deal with the effects of what they have done, that might have more of an impact on their behaviour than a mandatory prison sentence.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
The quick answer is that in the farming community we do not believe that they actually care about the harm they are doing. In some instances, a gang of criminals will drive onto a farm in a van, approach the farmer and tell him to get out of the way while they are taking whatever they want. That sort of behaviour is unthinkable. These are bully boys - shouting and roaring. We are talking about vulnerable people. The criminals always seem to know where to go, to farmers who are getting on a bit in age or living alone or living with, for example, elderly sisters. They are vulnerable people who have no hope of defending themselves. The gangs are coming in and raping the place. People know that they can no longer leave the gate open but we are now at the stage in rural Ireland where farmers have to lock up everything if they have to go down to their fields to cut a bit of hay or check their cattle. I know farmers who have come up out of their fields to find guys siphoning the diesel out of their tanks. They say, "Grandad, stay out of the way; we will be another five minutes". Those farmers will never sleep soundly again. I cannot imagine the mental effect that must have on people who are getting on in age. They are living in beautiful locations in rural Ireland but they are completely alone. I can see the fear in their eyes.
To put is simply, we would hold a lot of meetings in rural Ireland and rural crime would not be on the agenda at all but it always comes up. Someone will put up his or her hand and ask what can be done about the crime. It always ends up on the agenda. I have rarely attended a meeting in rural Ireland in the past 18 months at which rural crime has not been discussed. It is being discussed because it is so widespread, although people might not want to acknowledge that. To be honest, it is not all about stealing either. Illegal dumping is also a huge problem and that is a crime as far as we are concerned. Farmers will ring us and tell us that eight or ten black bags have been chucked over the hedge, that the cattle have opened them up and the rubbish is blowing all over the fields. That can do damage to livestock and to machinery. It also involves trespass.
In terms of trespass, there are also fellows coming in at night, lamping foxes or chasing hares with hounds. They are leaving gates open and letting stock out onto the roads, which is a huge problem. They are damaging property. We have all heard of the high-profile case in north Dublin where a farmer went out and asked a group of people to leave and he was allegedly knocked out for his sins. We know of a lot of guys who see the lamps going around their fields at night but they are afraid to go out because they are living alone and they do not know who they are facing. As far as we are concerned, that is every bit as much a crime as breaking into a house. Gardaí might say, "That's only trespass" but it is a lot more to the farmer. He could have ewes in lamb or cows in calf and anyone who knows farming knows that lights at night can terrify stock. Cattle could run through barbed wire fences and get cut up. God forbid, if gates are opened up, cattle could go out onto a main road and kill someone. These are the issues facing already struggling and hardship stricken farmers in rural Ireland. These are the calls I am getting on a weekly basis.
It is really important that Mr. Sherlock raised these issues here. Farmers have some unusual allies or friends in the form of animal welfare activists who have sided with them as they try to deal with this appalling activity. They would make the point that gardaí actually have considerable powers to deal with these issues, even from an animal welfare point of view but they do not really treat such incidents as crimes. There is not enough education in this area and that is something that we raised with An Garda Síochána last week. It is serious because of the importance of animals to the farming community but also in terms of the powers that are available that are not being used by gardaí. Mr. Sherlock has made his point very strongly.
I have a final question before I go to the Dáil Chamber. Unfortunately, this meeting is clashing with Priority Questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality. Has there been much work done on the success or otherwise of CCTV? It is said that if one has an alarm on one's house, one is less likely to be burgled. Does CCTV have the same deterrent effect or does it do more than that? Is it a help in securing prosecutions or is it just a deterrent?
Ms Laura Starnes:
The answer to both parts of the question is "Yes". In our particular community alert area, a lot of robberies were happening and the gang involved came through the area. The Garda was able to trace their movements, which led to a prosecution. The sense of security that a CCTV community alert group brings to an area cannot be overemphasised. It also helps An Garda Síochána when it comes to investigating crime. It will help with regard to what gardaí might consider a minor issue but which is significant to a farmer, particularly in terms of trespass. If there is one message that we want to impart, it is the importance of sorting out that scheme. It is so difficult at the moment. Two applications are required and it costs a community up to €2,500 just to apply to the scheme.
It is so slow. We have the county councils clashing with An Garda Síochána as to who is responsible for it. There is an awful lot of money that needs to go into this, but it is so important and so successful, and the more of these we have throughout the country, the better it will be for the residents of the country and for crime in general. I hope community CCTV gets rectified soon so that we can get on and get the systems up and running.
That has been very practical. We were looking for practical suggestions. In terms of social media, given the Internet and the phone age, do the witnesses provide education for rural communities in that regard? I refer to older people using devices. The Garda made the point that it must communicate a lot more in that way now.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
As I said, we hold meetings regularly in rural areas. The Deputy is correct that the older generation is shy about talking about iPhones and suchlike but we encourage them all we can. We have meetings in every county and we encourage people to bring those who are more vulnerable, for example, those living in a more remote area. We go to a lot of marts where cattle are being sold. Most members of the ICSA are at markets every week. We pinpoint who the vulnerable people are, but at the end of the day we are a farm organisation.
We know many gardaí in rural areas and they do a tremendous job. They probably work many hours that they do not get paid for because they stay going to follow up on something. I compliment the gardaí on the ground, but there are not enough of them and they do not have sufficient resources. We encourage every rural dweller to have their neighbours' numbers on their phone. At the end of day one's neighbours will get there faster in 99% of cases than the Garda. Two people standing together are better than somebody vulnerable locked in a house. From talking to old people we have worked with, they are very happy and they can sleep at night.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. They have given a very clear and precise picture of what it is like for people who live in rural Ireland. I live in the city myself but my cousins are farmers who live on an island, so they are a little more protected from rural crime than others. Fear is a huge factor. Deputy Wallace spoke about people looking in the window of his mother's home. People coming onto land and looking in the kitchen window inspire fear. If Deputy Wallace's mother told people in the town about her experience, then the fear would spread. Even if nothing happens, there is huge anxiety. All of a sudden people close their doors, which breaks down a community. People are terrified. They might connect with each other on phones or by text message but they are more isolated.
From listening to the two presentations, it appears that the situation is getting worse and there is not much support. The IFA said earlier that more people are not reporting because nothing is done. I refer to burglaries where farming equipment is taken. The impact of such incidents is significant. If a farmer, elderly or not, feels threatened, God only knows what could happen. If he is fearful, he might react to something that may not be the reality. It sounds like there is a huge problem.
Reference was made to the rural crime task force model in England. I wish to focus on preventative models. Do the witnesses think there is some way of creating a suitable model? Ms Starnes gave an example of what happens in Laois. Does she think the model works to prevent crime? If not, is there a strategy to ensure prevention and to create a feeling of safety within a community whereby people feel safe?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
Deputy Wallace mentioned community. We get communities to come together. Every rural dweller must be conscious of his or her security. Unfortunately, we are now at a stage where gates have to be locked all the time, even if one is only going to the local shop - if there is a local shop anymore. People are literally locking themselves in, especially farmers. I often have to ring farmers to ask them to come out and open the gate for me. They are locked in. Every farmer now has to have a proper shed with a proper steel door to store all their valuables.
I have spoken to many farmers who on getting home realise that somebody was in the yard because something has been moved. In some cases nothing has been stolen but it has a negative effect on people when they think somebody was walking around their yard. People remember where they left a pitchfork, for example. They tell me that someone has been in the yard. If a man living alone had a cow calving, he might think twice about getting up at 3 a.m. Many farmers say they would not and would take a chance on the cow being all right because they would not like to go out in case someone was outside.
Ms Starnes will speak in due course about CCTV, but for us as an organisation it is all about community and working with the local community police. We have no choice at this time. Many people feel they are on their own and they have to do the best they can. It is a question of survival for many older people. Many people say to me that they hope they can see their days out without being attacked. That is very sad and it affects me very much when I drive home from meetings having heard vulnerable people say, for example, that they are 72 and they hope they see their lives out without being beaten up or attacked. That is so sad for men and women who have worked so hard. Some people lived abroad and came back to this country. Many of them have family but the family have moved away. The local post offices are gone, as is the Garda station. In some rural areas it could be 15 or 20 miles to the nearest petrol station. I do not say we can bring all that back at once but that is where we are leaving vulnerable people who find themselves left behind. Infrastructure and everything else is moving away, but people are still living in rural areas. It comes down to communities. Ms Starnes will speak about CCTV.
Ms Laura Starnes:
I want to go back to what Senator Black referred to, namely, the models they have in the UK. A system called CESAR seems to be a fantastic system that is used in the UK and across Europe. It is a marking system that also acts as a deterrent. If, for example, something goes missing in Northern Ireland, it can easily be traced right across Europe as common scanners for the system are held by the police. The system has recently been introduced here. We have done a bit of work on it in that we have negotiated a deal with the company to apply discounts for our members so that it is more affordable for them to mark their vehicles. An Garda Síochána has welcomed the introduction of CESAR, but it requires extra resources, for example, additional technology for the Garda so the members have a scanner to read it. The system provides a deterrent and it has a tracker which it is hoped means people can recover items. The system is commonplace in the UK and across Europe but it is not something that we used here. I do not think we need to reinvent the wheel. The CESAR system works very well in the UK and it would assist here if we could have it.
I want to ask another question about the robberies involving farming equipment, which creates unbelievable chaos within a community. There is obviously a market for the equipment. Who is buying it? Is it other farmers? It is shocking to think that there is so much farming equipment being robbed and, if that is the case, somebody must be buying it. Is there something the ICSA could do along with the IFA to encourage people not to buy such items?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
Reports lead us to believe that a lot of stolen goods leave the country.
There is a serious problem with quad bikes, which are being stolen weekly. Apparently, many of them are leaving the country. At any meeting we go to, we advise members not to purchase equipment from anywhere unless it is a reputable source. Much of this is being put into containers and shipped out of the country. There may be bits and pieces at the odd car boot sale. This comes back to the marking system and it is now easier to mark equipment so it can be scanned to prove it is owned by a certain person. It is that simple. We encourage our members to mark their equipment. It probably will not stop it being stolen but there is a better chance of getting it back. Gardaí regularly tell me they find stuff that nobody has reported as stolen so they cannot give it back. Even on the news we often see the Garda displaying a couple of hundred items, including smaller stuff like drills rather than farm machinery, and the owner cannot be found. The problem is some farmers are not marking the equipment and others are not even admitting it was stolen. Many farmers tell me a chainsaw might have been five or six years old and they would have a new one bought in the time they took to report it stolen. It is not the point, as this feeds into the system as far as we are concerned. These guys are not going around stealing for the sake of it. They are stealing because there is a market for the equipment.
With regard to the witnesses and the Irish Farmers Association, and I am sure the other organisations are very concerned by this, would it be worth it to have everybody working together possibly to formulate a proposal or strategy that could be given to the Minister for Justice and Equality, for example? It would outline what the groups are seeking, for example. Has that happened and, if not, would it be an idea for the groups to come together to formulate that strategy? It is clearly a major problem.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
We have met the Minister for Justice and Equality on a number of occasions and we even gave him a copy of our Waterford report. In fairness to the Minister, he knows exactly where we are coming from. We have been beating this drum for a good while and I know other farm organisations have done the same. The Minister is well aware of what is happening in rural Ireland.
Many ordinary rural gardaí have told me they are at a low ebb because they spend too much of the day sitting on a chair behind a desk. I am repeating myself but it is not what they signed up for. Those men and women joined the force to serve and protect, and it is what they want to do. We should do everything in our power to free them and give them better resources to work with the community, which must play a big part in this. We cannot expect a garda to sit outside everyone's house at night to protect us, and the community comes first. I have always made it quite simple. The people of rural Ireland should stand with their brothers and their families, shoulder to shoulder, and we will work with the Garda to try to bring down crime rates. We will never get rid of it but we can try to bring down the rates.
Ms Starnes mentioned Muintir na Tíre, which is one of the groups that has come before us, along with Foróige, in the first session just a fortnight ago. They both made very cogent contributions. I have a couple of questions. In our engagement with the IFA earlier, a number of points were raised and I wonder about the experience of the witnesses. Is the reporting something they are conscious of?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
Yes, unfortunately. If farmers lose a small item, such as a chainsaw, for example, they would not bother the Garda. They are also worried about insurance and think what they get back today in one hand would be taken from them tenfold over the next few years with insurance hikes. Insurance is a serious problem in rural Ireland and people wonder if they will be able to afford insurance if they make a claim. If a tractor or machine is stolen, the farmer must make a claim. Even in our report we have details of how people are willing to take a hit of up to €1,800 before making a claim because their premium could double. Under-reporting is a big problem. Many people think gardaí are overstretched as it is, but we are adamant that every crime should be reported. Gardaí cannot solve a crime if they do not realise it has happened. Every crime reported helps build on cases for gardaí. I am adamant in every media opportunity that every crime should be reported.
It is a very important message. We should decouple the insurance reporting from reporting to the Garda. The first is a decision but the other should happen in any case. If it does not, statistics would not reflect the honest picture. It is a very important point. I hope IFA and ICSA encourage their membership to do this in their meetings and engagements in every county. They should use influence not only in their own sphere but within the rest of the community. It is also important in the making of a case for additional resources. Statistics from An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, representatives of which came before us last week, indicate a 17% reduction in burglaries. Can we have confidence in that figure? We cannot do so if it is the case that people are not reporting crime that they should.
Ms Laura Starnes:
From the report, we understand there is a lack of confidence in An Garda Síochána. Essentially, there are not enough of them, they will not come quickly enough, the value of the item is too small or people cannot remember exactly what day it was taken. There are a number of strong reasons for under-reporting.
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
There is a perception in the farming community that if the crime is reported, the individuals might come back. We would argue that it is not the case. At every meeting I attend, I argue that every single crime should be reported. People must do their bit. As Senator Black implied, even if it is only a chainsaw, the farmer must replace the equipment. We will not get into the price of beef cattle now but for beef or sheep farmers, a new chainsaw would cost the equivalent of the profit on a good few cattle. The knock-on effect is huge. We have farmers who are really struggling to replace quad bikes. The Chairman is correct and we are asking everybody in rural Ireland to get together and, more important, report every single crime.
We developed our knowledge of the IFA when its representatives came before us a short time ago, and it has a cross-Border working relationship with the Ulster Farmers Union. Do the witnesses have a corresponding relationship with Ulster farmers or another organisation North of the Border? I ask this in the context of greater cross-Border and cross-community encouragement. There is evidence of trafficking of stolen goods South of the Border going North of the Border and it could well be the other way about also, although I am not aware of it. It is far from being anecdotal evidence. The South to North traffic is certainly documented, and there was a recent significant find North of the Border. I quite rightly commended both police services on the co-operative nature of their work and the fact that they are having successes. Does the ICSA have a similar relationship North of the Border where it can reflect on these matters?
I went to a meeting hosted by the local division of An Garda Síochána in my constituency where there was a presentation introducing the CESAR marking procedure and the equipment being employed. I have seen it in operation and I know how it works. Does Mr. Sherlock have an idea of the uptake? Is the ICSA encouraging farmers to use this company and mark and register their property? In my view it is a no-brainer. Any valuable equipment on a farm or in the farmyard should have the coded number impressed on it. Is this system being embraced or is there resistance to it? Will Mr. Sherlock tell us what he knows to be the case?
Mr. Seamus Sherlock:
There is an uptake. I must compliment Ms Starnes on her work on this initiative. Our members benefit and get a discount by having their property marked and registered. At every meeting of the ICSA it is now the done thing to discuss the issue of security. We will be holding meetings where representatives of that company will attend and give demonstrations of CESAR. My colleague, Ms Starnes, will comment further.
Ms Laura Starnes:
It is a very simple, cost-effective way of providing some security. One does not need to bring the item to the Garda Síochána. If one gives the item a belt of the hammer to impress the code and then take a picture of it, one can prove the items belongs to the individual. One should also keep the serial numbers and so on.
I think we need to give more publicity to security, that a company has come up with a big idea that everyone wants to follow and that, whatever kind of branding is around it, the marking of equipment acts as a deterrent. People throughout the country need to be encouraged to take up this system of security. This is not confined to areas where crime levels are high. It is simply a no-brainer that when one buys a new piece of equipment, one marks it. It is about promoting and reinforcing the need to mark and register items. We all need to be singing off the same hymn sheet.
In terms of the system, we need to pick the best system for our circumstances, but the system must be connected across Europe. When jeeps, quads and trailers are taken, they are brought up North and sent to Holland within hours. It is then a matter of getting the goods returned. We all need to be saying the same thing, that one must mark one's property. Ideally, the mark would be registered with a system where the Garda has the technology to be able to assist in the tracing of the stolen article.
That was the message I intended concluding with, but Mr. Sherlock has stolen my lines. It is important. We cannot always be saying that the Garda must do this and that. We all have a part to play, not only in rural areas but throughout the country, if we are to support prevention in the first instance, see a significant reduction in crime at the very least, and be assured that the statistics are an honest reflection of the facts.
On behalf of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, I thank Foróige, Muintir na Tíre, An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, the Irish Farmers Association and the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association for their respective contributions during the three weeks of hearings on this issue. The information was most valuable in the work that now lies ahead. The committee will prepare a report with recommendations. We hope to have it ready for publication by the end of November 2018. We will probably be in touch to invite the witnesses for a brief launch of that report in the audiovisual room at that time.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the representatives of the ICSA, Mr. Seamus Sherlock and Ms Laura Starnes for joining us today to address this very important matter.
We will suspend the sitting to allow the witnesses to withdraw. We will then discuss housekeeping matters in private session.