Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Adjournment Debate

Joint Policing Committees.

8:00 pm

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas den Cheann Comhairle as cead a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a ardú ar an Athló agus gabhaim buíochas den Aire Fiontar, Tradála agus Fostaíochta as bheith anseo, cé nach Aire Dlí agus Cirt, Comhionnanais agus Athchóirithe Dlí é go fóill. I regret, however, that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not here because this highlights a chronic issue that arises in the policing of our country, particularly in Fingal in north County Dublin.

I attended the joint policing committee meeting on 22 September and was surprised to find that even though there are three Garda divisions in that area, the law determines that only two Garda divisions are allowed membership of the committee. That makes a mockery of any idea of inclusivity or community involvement. When such legislation is allowed it shows a lack of connection with reality.

The Louth-Meath division, which takes up a huge part of north County Dublin, from Blakes Cross to the Dublin-Meath border, is effectively disenfranchised even though it is allowed to attend as an observer at the joint policing committee. The CSO figures for the towns disenfranchised by this measure show they include Balbriggan, which has a full-time Garda station, as well it might because it is larger than Clonmel. Skerries is in the area but has no full-time station although it is larger than Tullamore. Rush is in the same area and it is as large as Kilkenny city according to the CSO figures, while Lusk is the same size as Athlone. If towns such as Athlone, Kilkenny and Tullamore did not have full-time Garda stations there would be considerable outrage, if not civil disobedience. It seems, however, that the Government accepts that Fingal can muddle along in that way.

If one talks to gardaí dealing with this situation daily, their frustration is clear. There is a dedicated scene of crime unit in Dublin, which attends burglaries and such offences, with examiners trained in taking fingerprints and lifting fibres. In the Louth-Meath division in north County Dublin there is no such unit, no drugs task force and no task force to deal with areas where extra gardaí are needed.

A fire brigade approach is taken to Garda resources in the area. In Balbriggan, which is the size of Clonmel, there are 32 gardaí, some of whom are off sick, hardly a surprise given the pressure they are under, and one is suspended. The reality is that there are far fewer than 32. There are ten gardaí in Skerries, an area that lost its community garda because it cannot afford such a luxury. Rush has a part-time station with one sergeant and five gardaí, Lusk has one sergeant and three gardaí and Garristown has one sergeant and two gardaí. These towns are the same size as Athlone, Kilkenny and Tullamore. This is a pathetic level of policing for towns in an area of this size that is growing so fast. Since the previous census, its population has increased by the equivalent of the population of Carlow.

I ask the Minister to ensure the Government and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform fully understand that the north County Dublin area needs additional gardaí and reorganisation. The area should be part of the Dublin metropolitan area, a view shared by many gardaí in Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park. Such a measure would reflect a similar change in the United Kingdom where the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 ensured police boundaries are aligned with the 25 London boroughs. Similar changes are under way in other European countries.

Gardaí currently have different copies of by-laws in different areas because county boundaries are not aligned. I ask that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform take seriously the timebomb developing in north County Dublin as a result of the failure of Garda resources to keep pace with an increasing population.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am deputising for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who, as Deputies will be aware, is engaged in important work elsewhere. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and assure him the Tánaiste and I share his interest in joint policing committees. The genesis of the committees is the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the most significant legislation affecting the Garda Síochána since the force was established in the 1920s. It provides the legal basis for a whole range of new bodies, including the joint policing committees.

The fundamental idea behind the committees is that the policing of our society and the communities which make it up cannot take place in a vacuum in which the Garda Síochána decides how policing is to be carried out without any input of views from society and communities. Not only is it democratically desirable that the community makes such an input but policing of our increasingly complex and diverse society also requires such an input if it is to be more effective. At the same time it is important it is a two way process. While community input will make policing more effective, the Garda Síochána can also make a valuable input into the many areas of a local authority's activities which impact on policing and combating crime and anti-social behaviour.

This is the approach of the Garda Síochána Act and the joint policing committees for which it provides. The committees provide a forum in which both sides can consult, discuss and make recommendations on matters affecting the policing of the local authority area. It sets out four ways in particular in which this can be done.

First, the committee will monitor two broad areas. The first of these is the levels and patterns of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour in the area. This will include patterns and levels of misuse of alcohol and drugs, the source of all too much anti-social behaviour and crime. The second area is the broader issue of the factors underlying and contributing to crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour.

The second function of the committee, which follows directly from the first, will be to advise the local authority and the Garda Síochána on how they might best perform their functions, having regard to the need to do everything feasible to improve community safety and quality of life, and to prevent crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour within the area.

Third, the committee will arrange and host public meetings periodically on matters affecting the policing of the local authority area. Fourth, the committee will establish, in consultation with the local Garda superintendent, as it considers necessary within specific neighbourhoods of the local authority area, local policing forums to discuss and make recommendations to the committee on matters affecting the neighbourhood.

The joint policing committee must be established in accordance with guidelines issued by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, after consulting the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. In view of the innovative nature of the committees and the number which will be established, the Minister decided, following consultation with his colleagues, the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, to pilot the committees in 22 local authority areas for a limited period.

When the Minister issued the guidelines for these pilot committees in June 2006 he was anxious to strike the right balance between inclusiveness and effectiveness in the size and composition of the committees. With regard to membership of the committees by local authority members, the guidelines provide either for all local authority members to be members of a committee or for representation of each political grouping on the local authority, depending on the size of the local authority.

The guidelines for Fingal County Council provide that in Fingal there will be one joint policing committee. The membership will consist of, among others, two Garda officers nominated by the Commissioner, accompanied by such Garda officers as they deem appropriate. In addition, the guidelines provide that a non-member may be invited to attend a meeting of the committee and speak if considered appropriate by the committee or sub-committee to a particular agenda item. This will allow for gardaí other than those nominated by the Commissioner to attend meetings of the joint policing committee and discuss issues raised by members. This facility will also apply, for example, to representatives of statutory agencies where the committee or sub-committee considers that their particular expertise is required.

The pilot phase will end in mid-2007, after which there will be a time limited review of the guidelines in the light of the experience of the pilot committees. As part of that review, the provisions regarding the composition of the committees will be considered.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Will resources be considered?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Following the review, the guidelines will be amended as necessary and new guidelines issued for a full rollout of the committees.