Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

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


6:50 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill as a first step in expanding the remit and powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. In our opinion, however, the Bill falls far short of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. This indicates that the Government's initial commitment to the necessary reform is waning. This Bill does not go far enough in securing the independence and impartiality of the GSOC from An Garda Síochána or the Minister for Justice and Equality. Fianna Fáil proposed the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2014, which was discussed in this House less than three weeks ago. Our Bill would create a stronger ombudsman's office, which would be unfettered by political interference in its investigations while guarding against the possible undermining of our national security.

The shocking revelations of the Guerin report into Sergeant Maurice McCabe's claims, which were raised by the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party with the Taoiseach, served as the impetus for the Government's decision to strengthen the powers of GSOC. The Guerin report suggested that the deficiencies identified in the investigations considered in this review, if they were widely replicated, would be a challenge to public confidence in the criminal justice system itself. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who was charged with rebuilding that public confidence when she was appointed to this portfolio in May of this year, said in response to the report that if root and branch reform is what is needed, root and branch reform is what will happen, and must happen. In that sense, we welcome the Bill brought to the House by the Minister as a first step towards a more accountable justice system.

We acknowledge that the legislative restrictions contained in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as well as the mistrust between the Garda, GSOC and the Department of Justice and Equality, have undermined GSOC's ability to carry out unfettered investigations and hold the Garda to account. This has resulted in widespread investigative failures and an acceptance of seriously questionable practices by certain members of the force. The GSOC bugging controversy further undermined public confidence in the operation of a professional and competent criminal justice system. As a result, Fianna Fáil published legislation in February, the aim of which was to reform GSOC. A couple of days ago, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality published a report on the review of An Garda Síochána Act 2005 and outlined some significant suggestions for reform. While the Minister appears to have ignored much of the committee's report in this Bill, I want to make it clear that Fianna Fáil fully endorses the report.

The Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 introduces a number of welcome reforms. It extends the general time limit for making a complaint to GSOC from six to 12 months. It gives GSOC more investigative power to use surveillance and the same power as the Garda in criminal investigations. It brings the Garda Commissioner under the oversight of GSOC, even if the consent of the Minister is required. It allows the Minister to ask GSOC to carry out an investigation in the public interest. It ensures information requested by GSOC is provided by the Garda "as soon as practicable". It allows GSOC to carry out an investigation on its own initiative and to investigate the operation and administration of An Garda Síochána. However, the legislation does not create a single Garda ombudsman, as recommended by the joint committee. It does not put GSOC's access to PULSE on a statutory basis and it does not give GSOC independence from ministerial oversight when investigating the Garda Commissioner.

Neither does it put a Garda authority on a statutory footing, give responsibility for the recruitment and appointment of senior Garda officers to the Public Appointments Service or the proposed new Garda authority, establish a new officer rank within An Garda Síochána similar to that within the London Metropolitan Police, or expand freedom of information provisions to the Garda. This is a lost opportunity following the excellent work done by the Oireachtas joint committee in researching best practice in how to build an accountability structure within the justice sector.

The report published by the committee made comprehensive suggestions on how to reform the Garda Síochána Act 2005. Many of its recommendations have been ignored. In particular, the proposals on the reform of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission should have been taken into account when drafting the Bill. I will propose a number of amendments that seek to strengthen this Bill further and which I hope the Government will consider favourably on Committee Stage.

It is important to note that a key recommendation in the committee's report called for the three GSOC commissioners to be replaced by a single Garda Síochána ombudsman. The report's recommendations were made with the aim of reforming the complaints process and expanding and improving the inspection mechanisms in place. They also relate to the formation of the proposed Garda authority, training gardaí and addressing circumstances that may lead to complaints. The report recommends a Garda authority where the candidates are selected by the PAS and approved by way of formal appointment or otherwise by the Minister. The committee also suggested a similar system for the Garda, with senior officers selected by the PAS and appointments made by the authority, which may be ratified by the Minister.

The authority would operate as the head, with the ombudsman and the Garda Inspectorate operating as the arms. The authority would be concerned with appointing senior gardaí; adding input to policy, strategy and planning, including budgets; managing the effectiveness of the complaints procedures through operating a helpline and referring matters to the ombudsman; and overseeing inspections of the administration, presentation and efficiency of the Garda. The ombudsman should be primarily concerned with serious complaints and systemic problems, supported by the inspectorate in cases where there is no specific complaint against a named or identifiable individual.

The committee recommended an expanded role for both the ombudsman and the inspectorate under the auspices of the Garda authority. Importantly, the committee's report stated that all gardaí up to and including the Commissioner should be accountable to the ombudsman. The ombudsman should be empowered to investigate any section of the Garda. It is the committee's view that the role of the Garda Inspectorate should be expanded, resulting in a body similar to the one that operates in Northern Ireland. The committee suggested that the Garda Inspectorate be transformed into a criminal justice inspectorate, tasked with a wider scope to inspect other aspects of the criminal justice system apart from the Garda, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, the Courts Service, the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Chief State Solicitor's office. The Minister must outline to the House a response to these recommendations and state why she has decided to include so few in this legislation.

As I outlined during the debate on Fianna Fáil's Bill, the past year has seen a significant undermining of public confidence in the administration of justice as a result of mismanagement at Government and senior garda level. We witnessed some of the most severe cutbacks in the provision of services, such as the reduction in the size of the force by approximately 1,600 gardaí, the closure of more than 139 Garda stations and 30 courthouses, and more than 16% of the prison population on temporary release at any one time. We also witnessed a stream of revelations and investigations that damaged the public perception of the Garda, the Department of Justice and Equality and GSOC. While we welcome the recommencement of Garda recruitment and the extra allocation of 200 gardaí in the budget, this level of recruitment is insufficient to ensure the numbers in the force remain at or above the 13,000 figure. We are also still waiting on the establishment of the commission of investigation following the publication of the Guerin report.

This week, we again read of further difficulties arising with Garda rosters. It has been reported that Garda management is concerned that the rosters are causing a chronic personnel shortage that is disrupting the investigation of crime and terrorism. This is worrying, especially after we were promised that these rosters would result in a 25% increase in the number of gardaí working at certain times of the day. If we are getting basic issues like rosters wrong, how do we expect people to believe that we will get the systemic issues right? It has been stated that the rosters have resulted in squads such as the Garda national drug unit, the organised crime unit and the national bureau of criminal investigation being without adequate numbers of personnel at crucial times to make arrests or question suspects. Now we hear that further changes to the rosters are being sought, but that representatives of rank and file gardaí are resisting. Overall, it seems that the situation is deteriorating at a cost to the ordinary citizen, who simply wants an effective, professional and courteous police service. These problems must not be ignored by the Minister.

The problems that manifested in the Garda and GSOC and were reported to the former Minister for Justice and Equality were ignored, dismissed or glossed over to save the embarrassment of those in senior positions who decided that not taking responsibility was a key management skill. We would like to restate the fact that this approach was a massive disservice to the ordinary members of the Garda Síochána and the citizens of Ireland. The Department of Justice and Equality under Fine Gael has been dysfunctional and disastrous. The resignations of the Garda confidential recipient, the Garda Commissioner, the former Minister for Justice and Equality and the Secretary General of the Department indicate that something is wrong in the Government's policy approach. We have also witnessed the establishment of an unprecedented number of commissions of investigation surrounding the Department, with still more to be established. One hopes that lessons will be learned about how to deal with issues arising in the Garda and the Department from this date onward.

Fianna Fáil has been calling for a strengthening of the ombudsman's powers since the maladministration of justice outlined by Sergeant McCabe was revealed. Central to these problems not being addressed has been the lack of own-initiative investigations and actions that can be taken by GSOC as a result of the legislation that sets out its powers. That GSOC is restricted in its actions by the Minister or the former Garda Commissioner or by the fact that only a limited number of people can make complaints to GSOC fundamentally undermines its ability to carry out its statutory functions. The legislation I tabled in the House would have significantly increased the powers and independence of GSOC and gone a long way towards ensuring future difficulties were addressed well in advance of their becoming major institutional challenges.

The Guerin report pointed out that Sergeant Maurice McCabe was correct in his actions to highlight the failure to administrate justice in the Bailieborough Garda district. These failings should have been detected well in advance of when they actually were. I hope this Bill will ensure such failings will never again be allowed to continue for so long a time without the intervention of GSOC. We need to understand their root cause. When reading the Guerin report, what is striking is the lack of accountability between ranks when failings arise. It is also clear that resources and the lack of management of same were issues. To understand fully why these failings occurred, the recommendation in the Guerin report that a commission of inquiry must be established has to be followed through.

Fianna Fáil fully supports the call for a commission of investigation, as recommended by the Guerin report, and believes this commission should be kept separate from any other commission that already has been established by the Government to investigate matters relating to An Garda Síochána. I have stated previously that the alleged malpractice in Bailieborough undermines the foundations of the criminal justice system. It also undermines the morale of all members of An Garda Síochána. In order to restore public confidence in An Garda Síochána, it is necessary to establish fully and frankly how the situation surrounding the malpractice in County Cavan was allowed to occur, continue and be covered up for such a long time. I welcome the provision in this Bill to empower and enable the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, to inquire into policies, procedures and practices adopted by An Garda Síochána and allow it to review and comment on them and to recommend changes to improve policies and procedures and to try to prevent complaints from arising in the first instance. It is important that in future cases, GSOC will not be inhibited from examining the entire picture when failings of An Garda Síochána are exposed. Such examinations hopefully would prevent a situation like that in Bailieborough from arising again.

I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has published this Bill, which reflects much of what was agreed by all parties following the McCabe revelations. However, I believe that events have moved on and that the report published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality could be incorporated into this Bill and therefore have a greater impact. I suggest to the Minister that she could support or amend the Bill by including the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee to speed up the process of reform. After all, the reform of GSOC and the restoration of public confidence in that institution, as well as in An Garda Síochána, is an issue that is above party politics when much of what is proposed has been agreed to by all sides, whether in debate or in legislation published.

There is much agreement throughout the House, as reflected in the committee report, that comprehensive change is necessary. Members should process this legislation as quickly as possible to be seen to support the work of GSOC and An Garda Síochána. I have stated previously that part of the public concern since the controversy surrounding GSOC arose is the perception that the commission is not being supported by the Government. I also have stated previously that this concern appears to be backed up by the reduction by more than €1 million in the budget allocation to GSOC and by the cut in its staff numbers in recent years. In that context, the Minister is to be congratulated on increasing the allocation to GSOC for next year by €1 million. I hope this allocation will go some way in helping GSOC deal with the most pressing issue in An Garda Síochána in the coming year.

As for the criminal justice inspectorate, I will take this opportunity to urge the Minister to introduce a new criminal justice inspectorate, as outlined by the Oireachtas joint committee. I do not believe the criminal justice system is fit for purpose at present. An inspectorate would be able to direct policymakers as to how best to allocate resources and deliver better results. If one considers the prison system, one will see that re-offending rates are extremely high. A report by the Irish Prison Service and the Central Statistics Office in 2013 showed that criminals in Ireland have a re-offending rate of 62.3% within three years. More than 80% of those who re-offended did so within 12 months of release. This is an extremely depressing figure and shows how much the criminal justice system is crying out for reform. Not only is the justice system ineffective in reforming offenders' actions, it also is very costly, as the average cost of imprisonment per prisoner was €65,000 in 2012. New ideas and a new approach is needed to reform the penal system and a criminal justice inspectorate might help in some way to create the space and the impetus to bring about such a debate and these new ideas.

Another area that must be addressed is the high cost of legal services, which continues to pose problems for the country in the context of competitiveness and access to the justice systems. The European Commission has raised concerns about these costs restricting economic growth, especially for small to medium-sized enterprises. The cost of legal services remains 12.1% above 2006 levels and according to the Commission, this contrasts markedly with the post-crisis development of other services. I still believe the Legal Services Regulation Bill will not, in its current form, result in a dramatic reduction in legal costs. The Government has been slow to further the passage of this Bill beyond Committee Stage and the Minister might outline to Members when she believes it will be passed by the House.

The central need for reform in the area of justice is to ensure the accountability and professionalism of An Garda Síochána and the establishment of an independent policing authority. This is vital to improve morale in the Garda force and in the citizens' confidence in their police service. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission also needs this Bill, which will give it more investigative powers independent of individual complaints made and which should create more effective investigations overall. I have stated previously that the Minister's time in the Department of Justice and Equality will be judged as a success or failure on the restoration of the public's confidence in the justice system. I believe this Bill to be a first step in this process. Fianna Fáil will support this Bill as a tentative first step but certainly not the end of this process.

I wish to make a number of other brief points to the Minister in the time remaining to me. As I mentioned earlier in my contribution, there recently has been a recruitment campaign into An Garda Síochána. The Public Appointments Service was charged with running the campaign for recruitment into the Garda and was charged with running the competition for the recruitment of a new Garda Commissioner and to a point, people are happy to see that. When the Minister gets an opportunity to respond, she should address the question as to what will happen with regard to the current vacancies at deputy commissioner, assistant commissioner and chief superintendent levels. Will those competitions be run by the Public Appointments Service, the new Commissioner or the chairperson-designate? I believe it will be important to have a degree of consistency in recruitment across all levels within An Garda Síochána.

I also have referred previously to the position regarding members of the Garda Reserve, who have been playing a huge role in society, and have commented in this Chamber on how their role has been undervalued. As part of the recruitment campaign into the Garda, I note that of the initial intake of 100 recruits into Templemore, the complement of those who came from the Garda Reserve was very low. As I have time, I will read out an e-mail, which is one of a number I have received from members of the Garda Reserve. I will not mention anyone's name. The person concerned gave her name, stated she was 30 years of age, was in full-time employment and has been a member of the Garda Reserve in Dublin for three years. She stated:

In my time in my station ... I have pulled a woman from the Liffey. I have saved a drug addict's life that had a syringe imbedded in his scrotum and [was] overdosing. I have been told by a 6' 4 drug addict that he is HIV positive and will rub his blood in my face. I have been subjected to abuse at protests. I have [had] objects thrown at me on more than one occasion. I have seen colleagues assaulted, both Garda and Garda Reserve. I have held people's hands when they are hopeless and waiting on an ambulance. I have comforted the family of a lady who tried to commit suicide. I have seen a drug dealer use her own child as a drugs mule. I have had gangs threaten me and my family. I have dealt with rapists and paedophiles. I have stood in the middle of Dublin at a crime scene for 7 hours with no break.

Why do I do it? It's my calling and I have a great love for the job and ALL it involves. I cannot understand why the government and the Minister for Justice would not want the hardest-working and most dedicated people working for them?

We have proven our dedication for the job and all it involves. Why take someone on that has never tried the job and may turn around when he/she sees his first rape victim or body and decides it is not for them? Financially we are a dead cert [and] we will not walk away from the job we will work in fact harder than ever before.

To most people being a guard is a job but to me and many reserves it is way more than that, most reserves work full time, I personally have given up family occasions and parties.

Joining the reserves was a stepping stone ... to joining the guards full time, I have never once backed out of a situation and at times have put my life on the line for the public's safety.

I have chatted to my sergeant about my value as a reserve and if I really contribute to my unit, his answer was frank and honest - 'I wouldn't do what you do, I'm sure you have plenty other things to do with your weekend but be in no doubt that you are very much needed and without you a guard would be uptown on his/her own'.

I am aware that the Metropolitan Police Force will only recruit from ... [other] 'specials', this shows me how much value and respect they have over there for there volunteer Police Force.

7 o’clock

That is a flavour of a number of e-mails I have received from Garda reservists, which I am sure other Members also get. This matter may not be part of this legislation but when we come to set up the independent police authority we have to give serious consideration to the situation of Garda reservists. They play a huge part in the provision of the policing function in this State. They are hugely undervalued. They are not paid. Many of them feel that the recruitment campaign undertaken did not go any way towards recognising the fact that they are playing a huge part in our police service. We will have to return to this issue in time.

When responding to this debate, will the Minister advise the status of the Government's approach to the court challenge that has been taken by the former Minister for Justice and Equality to seek to have the findings of the Guerin report quashed or annulled? I understand that case is in courts system. Will the State contest that or what is its strategy or approach to that?


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