Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014: Second Stage

 

6:30 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The 2013 Garda annual report which I recently laid before the Oireachtas is a document worth reflecting on and bringing to the attention of every Member of this House. It highlights, for example, how Operation Fiacla has led to a 7% reduction in burglaries; that the reduction in road deaths between 2005 and 2013 still remains more than 50%; with Garda targets for compliance with speed limits, wearing of seat belts and drink driving enforcement all met in 2013; in 2013 also, 260 organised crime gangs were targeted; 157 grow houses were detected; and there were 21,000 referrals to youth diversion programmes.

I recently visited gardaí in Limerick, as Deputy Niall Collins will be well aware, who reported to me on the exceptionally high rate of detection of murders, leading to successful prosecutions in recent years, which I believe is well acknowledged by the people of Limerick. I refer to these successes of policing because I believe it vitally important that we, and in particular us as Members of Dáil Éireann, should not forget the ongoing and valued contribution the Garda Síochána and its members have made for over 90 years in terms of keeping our communities safe and preserving the security of our State when it was threatened, a contribution delivered in the face of ever-present threats and a contribution delivered, tragically, at the cost of the lives of some members of the force.

I want to express my thanks to the men and women of An Garda Síochána for all of that, which is neither to minimise nor ignore the serious failures on penalty points, in crime investigation, which we saw outlined in the Guerin report, for example, and in responding to whistleblowers. In some cases what we have learned about the behaviour of members of An Garda Síochána has struck at the heart of our shared understanding of what justice itself is. For we live in a Republic of laws where there is not, and never can be, one law for some but not others, where all citizens are, and should always be, treated equally. That is what we expect, and I am sure every Member here will agree with me that is what we are entitled to expect.

We have had too much controversy as of late. We have seen confidence in policing eroded as a result of these controversies. The vast majority of men and women joined An Garda Síochána with the sincerest of aspirations to provide the highest levels of service to the public. I have no doubt about that. They are disappointed at the failures that have been uncovered and the controversies that have raged.

A commonly-shared determination and desire within an Garda Síochána and among communities across this country is to see reform happen, to see a break from the past, and to move on from these controversies to a new period of confidence. I want to see confidence trumping controversy. I want to see confidence restored in the work of An Garda Síochána. I want to see the organisation, structures, practices and systems put in place to support the men and women of An Garda Síochána to effectively deliver the best possible policing and security services for our communities and our country.

As I said when I took office, I want to see a sea change in the performance, administration and oversight of justice and policing in this State. I accept, and I believe, that this will involve confronting deficiencies and failures. It will involve examining, openly, transparently and vigorously, where there are operational practices that are simply not up to standard. This will be done because, ultimately, I want to move from the concept of a police force to delivery of a police service that is fit and ready to meet the realities, the requirements and the expectations of 21st century policing.

Achieving this requires acknowledgement of the real situation, reforms and resources.

The budget announced last week began to address the question of resources with funding for new Garda vehicles; the 300 gardaí who have recently entered or will shortly enter Garda College in Templemore; the civilianisation of the immigration functions which will free up 150 gardaí for frontline policing duties. We are undertaking a process of reform. As a member of the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform, chaired by An Taoiseach and more particularly as the responsible line Minister, I am leading the implementation of a comprehensive programme of justice reform. The Bill marks an important element of these reforms.

Before turning to deal specifically with the Bill, I wish to update Deputies briefly on the other important elements of the justice reform programme. The preparation of the scheme of a Bill to provide for the establishment of the independent new policing authority is being progressed and will be submitted to Government as quickly as possible. That is A list legislation. The only reason it was not on the A list was that the heads of the Bill had not gone through Cabinet. The Taoiseach and Government had given a commitment that the Bill for the establishment of the policing authority would come through this term and that is still the intention. The Public Appointments Service has sought expressions of interest for the position of chairperson of the policing authority who, when appointed, will assist in the appointment of the Garda Commissioner as well as in preparations for the establishment of the authority. The Public Appointments Service is also managing the first open competition to appoint a new Garda Commissioner. I expect the new Commissioner to be appointed as soon as possible. The independent review mechanism, consisting of a panel of counsel, is examining a range of complaints, some alleging Garda misconduct or problems with investigating misconduct or problems with investigations throughout the criminal justice system. As soon as I have the analysis of the independent review mechanism I will of course put that in the public domain.

The publication of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate’s crime inspection report is expected in the near future. The report will deal with crime recording and investigation, and will also deal with the concerns which I referred to the inspectorate. After submission of the report by Mr. Seán Guerin SC, I asked the Garda Inspectorate to examine that report, considering the operational issues raised there. Work is being finalised on the establishment of a commission of investigation into matters identified in the Guerin report. I have already said in the House that this was delayed in order to see the outcome of the independent review mechanism and if further cases were going to be referred for a commission. The Fennelly Commission of Investigation is working. We have received the report of Mr. Justice Cooke’s inquiry and the Haddington Road review will come through in mid-November. The Protected Disclosures Act 2014 has amended the Garda legislation to allow Garda members to make “protected disclosures” to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, in confidence in respect of alleged Garda misconduct. The recently enacted Freedom of Information Act 2014 extends to the Garda Síochána.

In presenting the justice reform programme, I have also stressed my priority objective of strengthening the role and remit of GSOC. This Bill seeks to deliver on this commitment. The primary functions of GSOC are concerned with dealing with complaints against Garda members and examining Garda practices and procedures. However, since its establishment in the Garda Síochána Act 2005 - I acknowledge that was a reforming Act - certain restrictions have existed on the extent to which the GSOC functions can be exercised. The preparation of the Bill has been informed by a public consultation process completed earlier this year, the Farmleigh consultation seminar, which was attended by some 100 participants, representing key stakeholders, and direct contacts with GSOC. Representatives of the Deputies opposite attended in Farmleigh and had an input to it.

The preparation of the Bill has also been informed by the valuable work carried out by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which Deputies present, the justice spokespersons, are members. The joint committee has recently produced a report containing extensive recommendations following its comprehensive review of the current Garda Síochána legislation. This followed a series of hearings and visits to other jurisdictions. I am grateful to the committee for the report and I am happy to say that this Bill addresses some of its recommendations. As I have stated in this House, very careful consideration is being given to the report with reference to the preparation of the scheme for the policing authority.

For the most part, the Bill amends the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which is the primary statute governing the Garda Síochána. Some of the amendments involved are technical in nature and I will deal with them more specifically as the Bill progresses. Amendments are also being made to the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993 and the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 to permit GSOC to exercise certain additional police powers.

I now turn to the specific content of the Bill. Sections 1 to 3 are standard provisions containing definitions and technical amendments arising from later provisions in the Bill. Section 4 extends the general time limit at section 84(1) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 for making a complaint to GSOC from six to 12 months. This does not alter the current position under which it is open to GSOC to extend the time limit if it considers that there are good reasons for doing so. Deputies will be aware that the issue of time limits was covered in the report of the Oireachtas joint committee.

Section 5 has to be read in conjunction with sections 12 and 13. It substitutes a new definition of ‘‘enactment’’ in section 98(5) of the 2005 Act, as amended, to remove the current prohibitions on GSOC exercising police powers under the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993 and the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009. In that context, section 12 amends the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993 to enable GSOC to undertake the interception of communications for the purposes of a criminal investigation by GSOC under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The approach adopted is that a GSOC investigating officer will have the powers that would be available to the Garda Síochána in the same circumstances. In addition, the conditions and safeguards contained in the 1993 Act will operate where interception is sought by GSOC. Similarly, section 13 provides for amendments to the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 to enable GSOC to carry out surveillance where it is necessary in connection with a criminal investigation concerning an arrestable offence. In this context, GSOC will be in the same position as the Garda Síochána for the purposes of conducting such an investigation.

Section 6 amends section 102 of the 2005 Act to broaden the scope for the Minister to refer a matter to GSOC and to allow GSOC to investigate that matter even if the identity of the member of the Garda Síochána is not known at the time of the investigation or where the investigation may also involve a person who is not a member of the Garda Síochána. These are issues which were identified in the report of Judge Cooke as ones which could usefully be clarified and I have undertaken that this would be done.

Section 7 inserts a new section 102B into the 2005 Act which brings the Garda Commissioner within the scope of GSOC investigations for the first time. This is also an area that was addressed in the report of the Oireachtas joint committee. The preparation of the new section was the subject of particular attention, and in particular the question of whether the consent of the Minister should be required where GSOC proposes to undertake an investigation on its own initiative into alleged misconduct on the part of the Garda Commissioner.

After careful consideration I am satisfied that, taking account of the key position of the Commissioner, especially in security matters, it would be appropriate that the prior agreement of the Minister should be obtained. However, I emphasise that refusals to give such a consent should only be for very good reasons, which should be communicated to GSOC. No doubt we will tease out the detail of this on Committee Stage. In those circumstances I believe that it would only be in exceptional cases that the Minister would not consent to a proposed investigation. Accordingly, subsection (1) of the proposed section 102B enables GSOC to investigate, in the public interest and subject to the consent of the Minister, any matter that gives rise to a concern that the Garda Commissioner may have committed an offence or behaved in a manner that would constitute serious misconduct. If the Minister refuses to consent to such an investigation, he or she will be required, under subsection (3), to provide reasons to GSOC for that refusal.

Subsection (2) allows the Minister, in the public interest, to request GSOC to investigate any matter that gives rise to a concern that the Garda Commissioner may have done anything referred to in subsection (1), and GSOC is required to investigate that matter.

Subsections (4) and (5) are provisions necessary to facilitate the operation of the section. In particular, adaptations are being made to the 2005 Act to ensure GSOC will have the necessary powers to undertake an investigation involving the Commissioner.

Section 8 is consequential on the insertion of the new section 102B under section 7 and it amends section 103 of the 2005 Act which deals with keeping certain people informed about GSOC investigations. Section 9 inserts a new section 103A into the 2005 Act. It is intended to improve the flow of information from the Garda Síochána to GSOC, particularly under the protocol arrangements in place under section 108. Specifically, it imposes a statutory duty on the Garda Commissioner to ensure information to be provided by the Garda Síochána to GSOC for the purposes of an investigation will be supplied as soon as practicable. The section will give effect to this provision in a statutory way. I note that GSOC has clarified this week that information is now being supplied to it in almost 80% of cases and within a much better timeframe than was previously the case. Therefore, even in the absence of legislation, we have already seen improvements in this area.

Section 10, which replaces section 106 of the 2005 Act, will allow GSOC for the first time to carry out an examination on its own initiative of practices, policies or procedures of the Garda Síochána for the purpose of preventing or reducing complaints. I think that is quite an interesting power with a great deal of potential in it. Currently, GSOC can undertake such an examination only when it is requested by the Minister to do so. I believe the change being proposed, which was recommended by the joint committee, is a very good one. It should make a difference to the relationship between GSOC and the Garda Síochána. Some interesting work could be done under this section of the Bill. The reports will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, subject to the possible exclusion of certain matters, for example relating to national security or where the commission of an offence may be facilitated.

Just as GSOC is being given the power to initiate examinations into Garda practices independently, I believe it should be open to the Garda Síochána Inspectorate to do this in line with a further recommendation of the joint committee. Accordingly, section 11 amends section 117(2) of the 2005 Act to enable the inspectorate to conduct, on its own initiative or at the request of the Minister, inspections or inquiries in relation to any particular aspects of the operation and administration of the Garda Síochána. At present, the inspectorate can only conduct such an inspection or inquiry with the prior consent of the Minister. I think Deputies will agree that this measure will give GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate greater flexibility and more authority to initiate inquiries independently of what the Minister might consider to be appropriate for investigation. I dealt with sections 12 and 13 earlier in connection with section 5. Section 14 is procedural.

I am conscious that the changes proposed in the Bill will give rise to additional demands on the resources of GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate. I referred briefly earlier to the budget 2015 in so far as it relates to An Garda Síochána. I can confirm to the House that the budget provides for an increase of €1 million in the allocation to GSOC and an increase of €250,000 in the allocation to the inspectorate. I have consistently made it clear throughout the recent public debate on justice reform that reform must not simply be about change for its own sake. Our reforms are about providing this country with the police force it needs, operating to the highest professional standards and ready to meet existing and emerging challenges. Of course that includes oversight.

Our reforms are about ensuring the men and women of the Garda Síochána throughout the country will be fully supported by good organisational structures, practices and systems so they can deliver the best possible policing and security services for our communities and our people. The reforms are about the broader systematic failures which have been identified. I believe these failures have called into question the capacity of the Garda organisation to function properly and carry out its core tasks. Our reforms, and the work of this House in relation to them, have to be about restoring the confidence of the public in the Garda Síochána and giving organisations like GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate the tools and the independence they need to carry out their tasks so that the public can have confidence in the oversight we have in this country with regard to policing. I commend the Bill to the House.

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