Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter which has been raised by Deputy Calleary and me. I ask the Government to consider the introduction of legislation to cover cases where the intent can be proven that a person who enters a property or a premises intended to use physical force against the occupant. I refer in particular to cases involving people living in isolated rural communities and small towns and villages and where scumbags arrive to their house, tie them to a chair with a rope or cable ties, beat them up in order to force them into giving information on the location in the house of a few pounds or the cash in a handbag, or the recently collected pension. There is a real fear in rural communities because of the number of robberies but also of the nature of the recent robberies. The time has come for the introduction of mandatory sentencing for those found guilty of committing an act of burglary and who intended to use physical force against the occupant of the house.
These are not just burglars or criminals, these people are some sort of sub-human beings. In some cases, they would tie an elderly person to a chair with cable-ties, and beat them up to get information on where there is money in the house. They should not be eligible for early release. They should serve the full sentence, which should be mandatory and reflect the scale of the crime they have perpetrated - not only on elderly or vulnerable persons living alone who may be intellectually or physically disabled, but also on the wider community which they have left in fear.
Now is the time to address this matter in order to reflect public anger. Such people in isolated rural areas are being targeted in a vicious fashion by some sort of sub-humans who need to be treated as such by the State.
I wish to thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me and Deputy O'Donovan to raise this issue. While I have the utmost respect for the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, it is disappointing that the Minister for Justice and Equality is not present. Deputy Shatter was able to leave the Seanad 30 minutes ago to make a good news announcement but he cannot be here to listen to this matter.
Deputy O'Donovan is correct in saying that there is currently huge fear in rural communities over burglaries. The Minister of State will be aware of this also. In the Sligo-Leitrim region last year burglaries increased by 30%, in Laois-Offaly by 32% and in Meath by 40%. I acknowledge that the Garda is operating Operation Fiacla to target gangs. However, there is frustration in communities because when such people are picked up, they are not afraid of the law. There is no set policy on sentencing, despite the terror such people cause.
I wish to extend our good wishes to the victims and families of those involved in the incidents in Tuam and Limerick last week. Such incidents are happening all over the country but they do not get media publicity in the way those two did. It is, however, very unusual for that kind of incident to occur during the summer. Such incidents are normally associated with the long winter nights but they are now happening in broad daylight. Gangs do not seem to have any fear of the law or of the consequences of being caught.
The issue of mandatory sentencing needs to be examined. Deputy O'Donovan is right to say that a strict sentencing procedure is required, with no remission. The kind of incidents that occurred in Galway and Limerick last week, are also happening all over the country. People of any age but particularly the elderly who have served their communities and the State, do not deserve to live in fear. They most certainly do not deserve that kind of violence to be perpetrated upon them. The full force of the law should be applied to those who perpetrate it. They also need to know that when caught they will face a minimum sentence and will not receive any remission.
In addition, gangs should be investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau given the kind of financial assets that seem to be available to them. If we hit them at every level, we might be able to give some sort of peace and security to older people in this country.
I thank Deputies Calleary and O'Donovan for bringing these important matters to the attention of the House. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business.
The Minister was appalled to hear of the recent incidents of aggravated burglary, where elderly people were terrorised in their own homes. I am sure that the House will support the Minister's wish that the unfortunate people affected by these despicable crimes will be able to recover quickly. As a number of Garda investigations are underway and some arrests have already been made, the Deputies will appreciate that it is not appropriate to comment on any of the particular cases. The Minister is, of course, concerned about the incidence of burglary in recent times but he welcomes the fact that gardaí are responding effectively.
As the Deputies will be aware, the Garda Commissioner has introduced a wide range of measures aimed at tackling gangs involved in burglaries. These measures are encompassed in Operation Fiacla, which is particularly focused on identifying and targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries around the country, and bringing them before the courts. Operation Fiacla is intelligence-driven and specific burglary initiatives have been implemented in each Garda region in support of this national operation.
Prevention is also a key issue in tackling burglary and the national crime prevention unit and crime prevention officers at divisional level provide advice, information and support to individuals, organisations and businesses to help reduce the incidence of burglary. The Garda Síochána is proactive in supporting communities and a few weeks ago the Garda Commissioner launched the national Garda Supporting Safer Communities Campaign. This important campaign highlights a range of key issues, including burglary prevention in particular. A further campaign will take place in September. In addition, the "Crime Call" television programme, which is broadcast once a month to an average of 400,000 viewers, is often used to highlight burglary prevention.
Burglary is a criminal offence which carries serious penalties. The Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 provides for sentences of up to 14 years imprisonment for burglary and, in regard to aggravated burglary, up to life imprisonment. In addition, section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 provides, subject to certain criteria, that if a person who has been sentenced to a term of at least five years for a specified offence, including aggravated burglary, commits another specified offence within seven years of the first conviction, the court must impose a sentence of at least three-quarters of the maximum sentence - unless it would be disproportionate in all the circumstances of the case. Where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, the court must specify a sentence of at least ten years. The Deputies will appreciate that the maximum sentences provided for in the legislation cannot in any way be considered inconsequential, and reflect the seriousness of such offences.
In so far as the question of mandatory sentencing generally is concerned, the Deputies will be aware that there is currently a mandatory life sentence for murder and there are certain offences which are subject to a presumptive minimum mandatory sentences regime. The previous Attorney General asked the Law Reform Commission to examine the issue of mandatory sentencing. The LRC published a consultation paper on this issue last January. As is the normal practice, the LRC has invited submissions from interested parties before it prepares its final report. The Minister will examine and consider the LRC's recommendations as soon as the final report is available.
The Government will do everything it can to support the Garda Síochána in its work and provide resources as public finances permit. The Minister is confident that gardaí will continue to provide a robust response to those who engage in crimes aimed at vulnerable people, and will bring them to justice.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I do not believe in a yellow card system whereby mandatory sentencing would only kick in after the first crime, particularly when it is of an aggravated nature such as assaulting an old person in their own home. The mandatory system needs to kick in from the start. Part of the reason we are in the current position, is that State-sponsored do-gooders and civil libertarians have diluted the role of the criminal justice system. They have done so to the point where ordinary people feel the criminal justice system is just that - justice for the criminal. Victims are thus left in isolated rural areas, waiting for the next time some criminal walks in their gate. We saw a high profile case in County Mayo where a person at his wits end, was driven to doing something he will probably regret for the rest of his life, but the man had no alternative.
There should be no remission for these type of people who need to be exorcised from society. There should be no early release for them and no yellow card system. There should be mandatory sentences. Such people should not repay their debt to society by having gym membership, menus and satellite TVs in prison. They need to repay their debt to society in the strongest possible terms. The criminal justice system should revert to a situation where it provides justice for victims, not criminals.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The robust response he spoke about has been undermined, particular in rural areas, by a number of cuts the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has made. There has been a severe cut in the community alert scheme and we do not have the resources to launch new community alert schemes or expand existing ones. Second, as a result of the substantial cuts to the senior alert scheme, which provides enormous security to older people in their homes by providing them with a pendant which alerts someone when an incident arises in the house, this scheme cannot be expanded. Perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to discuss the possibility of spending unspent money in the rural development fund and, perhaps, within the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, on those two schemes which support community initiatives to protect older people in their homes.
My final comment is specifically a justice issue. The €79 million in the Garda Siochána budget this year is impacting on overtime and on the availability of patrol cars. Patrol cars are being withdrawn from rural areas, which is also undermining the robust response of which the Minister of State speaks in terms of the Garda Síochána's ability to deal with this issue. I ask that the Ministers, Deputy Shatter and Deputy Hogan and, perhaps, the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, meet to consider whether there are funds available within the community section of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and within the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, that could allow for some expansion of the community and senior alert schemes, particularly at a time when the figures in respect of burglaries are increasing.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, I again thank the Deputies for raising these important matters and for this useful exchange of views.
I reiterate the Minister's revulsion at the recent burglary attacks on the homes of elderly people. The Minister is very conscious of the deep distress which such crimes cause, in particular to more vulnerable members of our communities. The sentences which exist in law reflect the seriousness with which these offences are regarded. I have already mentioned some aspects of the targeted operational response being pursued by the Garda to address burglaries. It should also be mentioned that underlying much of the Garda approach to crime prevention is a firm commitment to the principles of community policing which forms part of the ethos of the force. At local level, Garda district and divisional offices configure policing responses in a manner appropriate to local circumstances and the needs of local communities.
The gardaí continue to engage in a range of local partnership programmes such as neighbourhood watch and community alert, which provide an important support, particularly to the elderly and other vulnerable people. In regard to concerns about the closure of Garda stations, the Garda Commissioner reviewed all aspects of An Garda Síochána's policing model and all divisional offices were asked to assess the level of activity in each Garda station in their area. It must be stressed that the key objective of station closures is a more efficient and effective deployment of resources rather than a securing of modest cash savings. In this context, the Commissioner concluded that Garda resources could be more effectively used if particular stations did not have to be staffed and maintained. Despite constraints in public finances, substantial Garda resources remain in place. These must be seen in the context of the programme of real reform which is being delivered in An Garda Síochána in the context of the Croke Park agreement.
The Government has confidence in the Garda Commissioner and members of the force to continue to deliver on this reform so as to provide effective front line policing.