Wednesday, 5 October 2005
Social Welfare Benefits.
I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Costello, and the Ceann Comhairle for giving me an opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment.
The rise of anti-social behaviour in our towns and villages, manifesting itself as vandalism and hooliganism, is a national issue but it is being ignored by the Government. Taking the specific example of Kilrush in County Clare, it has been subject in recent weeks to a spate of vandalism attacks on cars, houses and one bus. These include arson attacks, the smashing of windscreens and the damaging of car bodyworks. The result is that elderly people now fear for their safety and worry about their property. They are afraid to go out at night. Parents are fearful when their children are out. People's livelihoods are affected and the town's reputation as a maritime and heritage centre, attractive for tourism and new business, is affected. It is hard enough for any town in Ireland, let alone a town on the west coast, to attract industry and tourism without having its reputation tarnished for an excessively long time due to lack of action at a national level.
Kilrush has a population of 2,700 and is earmarked for decentralisation. Despite, the Government's mishandling of that process, Kilrush is oversubscribed. However, its rightful place as the capital of west County Clare is unfairly affected.
There has been some success by local gardaí in making arrests on this specific issue but this will not be the end of the matter. This issue has been allowed to fester, as have countless similar ones in other towns and villages, where small groups, usually of juveniles, run riot at night and cause thousands of euro of damage. This must be stopped.
I am calling on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, to draw up a strategic plan to tackle such problems, using the resources of a special Garda unit to assist local efforts in dealing with the ongoing and escalating acts of vandalism and anti-social behaviour in Kilrush. Special operations such as Operation Anvil, targeting drugs and crime sprees in Dublin and Limerick, have met with success. What is needed in Kilrush is a similar operation but on a reduced scale where Garda expertise in tackling an entrenched problem is brought to bear. A special but temporary operation that was, in the words of the Minister, focused, sustained, targeted and relentless would augment the existing Garda presence in Kilrush of 27 members.
In reply to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform informed me the special needs of towns like Kilrush are being taken into account when plans are drawn up to distribute and manage the 2,000 extra gardaí to be recruited to tackle areas with crime problems. I welcome the appointment of a new superintendent in the area. I hope during his stay he will have success in dealing with these problems. However, the people of Clare are tired of the Government replacing action with the drawing up of plans and consideration of approaches. It simply is not good enough.
In many towns there is an emerging crime culture with career criminals in the making. An urgent response is required now if these problems are not to mushroom out of control and cost taxpayers millions of euro in the future. A mix of overt and covert operations on a small scale would yield huge results. I ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deal with this problem and take into account what has happened. The relative cost of such special efforts would be small in contrast to the long-term cost of such vandalism going unchecked and the ultimate bill of sending offenders to prison for lengthy periods.
The State has a duty to intervene early in such cases on both monetary and social grounds. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has been advised repeatedly by experts in the area that moneys spent on Youthreach and similar intervention schemes pay enormous dividends. This contrasts with massive cost overruns when buying sites for prisons, let alone building such prisons and housing the prisoners.
Many of these problems have emerged from housing estates which the State has decided to abandon. From the beginning, it failed to provide adequate planning, neglected community facilities and dropped the word "playground" from its vocabulary. When teenagers in such estates begin to go out of control, there is an even greater responsibility on the State to provide enlightened intervention schemes before another generation is lost to society as useful citizens. I call on the Minister to make a special effort in towns like Kilrush to sort out the anti-social problems that have people living in fear.
I thank Deputy Pat Breen for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am aware of his interest in this subject. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who is unable to be present. I assure the Deputy that the Minister and I share his concerns and those of the residents of Kilrush in this matter.
Strong provisions are already in place to combat vandalism and anti-social behaviour. The primary basis for the law regarding public order offences is the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, which modernised the law in this regard. Furthermore, because of the Minister's concerns about the abuse of alcohol and its contribution to public order offending and broader social problems, he brought forward tough new provisions to deal with alcohol abuse and its effect on public order in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003. One of the Act's provisions is to broaden the application of the temporary closure order penalty, which was originally introduced to combat under age drinking, to cover also convictions for a series of offences, such as a licensee supplying intoxicating liquor to drunken persons and permitting disorderly conduct on the licensed premises.
The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2003 has also been enacted, the main purpose of which is to provide the Garda Síochána with additional powers to deal with late night street violence and anti-social conduct attributable to excessive drinking. It does this by providing for the closure of premises such as pubs, off licences, late night clubs and food premises where there is disorder or noise on or close to the premises, as well as the making of exclusion orders on individuals convicted of a range of public order offences, in addition to any penalty they might receive under the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994.
The Minister takes great satisfaction in the Government's decision last October to approve the recruitment of 2,000 additional gardaí to increase the strength of the force to 14,000. Clearly, the additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as is envisaged in the programme for Government. In particular, the programme identifies areas with a significant drugs problem and a large number of public order offences, while it will also be possible to address other priorities such as the need to increase significantly the number of gardaí allocated to traffic law enforcement duties. One promise the Minister has already made is that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties but will be put directly into frontline, operational, high-visibility policing.
The Minister is pleased to state that the Garda Síochána is now better resourced than at any time in its history. The Garda budget is now at an historic high of over €1.1 billion, representing an increase of 85% in the provision since 1997 when the provision stood at just €600 million.
The Minister was pleased to note a reduction in assault causing harm in 2004 compared with 2003. This trend has continued in 2005 with a 12% reduction in assaults causing harm in the second quarter compared with the same period last year.
The Minister believes the courts can give valuable support and protection to our communities in tackling anti-social behaviour. In this regard he is finalising legislative proposals to provide for anti-social behaviour orders. The Minister also intends, subject to Government approval, to introduce these proposals as Committee Stage amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004. Anti-social behaviour orders are not a radical new legal concept. It is a deeply rooted principle of our law that persons should be able to apply to the courts for protection against behaviour which interferes with their basic rights. As a principle, it is very similar to the existing power of the courts to bind over a person to keep the peace and be of good behaviour.
The Minister's proposal will allow the Garda to apply to the courts by way of civil procedure for an anti-social behaviour order which will prohibit the person who is the subject of the order from behaving in an anti-social way. The orders will be civil orders and the question of an offence will arise only if the person in question wilfully defies the order and continues to engage in the anti-social behaviour which is the subject of the order. The Minister believes that anti-social behaviour orders used in the most glaring cases will be of real value in curbing this type of behaviour.
I also draw the Deputy's attention to section 29 of the Bill which provides for a fixed penalty procedure for lesser public order offences. This procedure will apply to certain offences under the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 dealing with intoxication and disorderly conduct in a public place.
The Minister attaches great importance to the development of a real partnership between the Garda Síochána and local authorities on matters affecting policing. His intention and that of the Oireachtas, as set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, is that joint policing committees and local policing fora established under them will provide arenas where the Garda Síochána and local authorities can co-operate and work together to address local policing and other issues.
The Act provides that the committees will be mandated to keep under review the levels and patterns of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour in the local authority area, including the patterns and levels of misuse of alcohol and drugs and the factors underlying and contributing to those levels of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour. Local policing fora will discuss and make recommendations concerning these matters as they affect their specific neighbourhoods. These are significant innovations which will strengthen policing at local level and create strong partnerships. They will ensure that the new committees and their structures will provide permanent fora to address the issue of anti-social behaviour.
I have referred to legislation which the Minister has already introduced to combat the abuse of alcohol and the public order problems to which it gives rise. In addition, the Minister has recently published the general scheme of the proposed intoxicating liquor bill, which will carry forward this work. The main purpose of the proposed Bill is to streamline and modernise our liquor licensing laws.
With regard to Kilrush, the Minister has been informed by the Garda authorities that a special operation is in place there to assist local gardaí in their efforts to prevent and detect acts of criminality in the locality. Resources from throughout the Clare division have been and will continue to be utilised in this operation. Within the past week, one individual has been charged with four acts of criminal damage to cars in the town and is in custody. The Minister is further informed that one additional sergeant and two additional gardaí were recently deployed to Kilrush to augment resources. The present special operation will be continually reviewed and additional resources will be deployed if the necessity arises.
This Government is strongly committed to the reduction and prevention of crime through strong and effective crime prevention methods. However, I cannot stress enough that while legislative measures can help to curtail the problem of anti-social behaviour, they cannot be viewed as the only solution. All those with an interest in this area must play their role in helping to address the problems of vandalism and anti-social behaviour in society.