Thursday, 16 April 2015
Topical Issue Debate
I welcome the opportunity to raise this extremely important topic in the Dáil. I mean no offence to the Minister of State, but I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice and Equality who was in the Chamber only half an hour ago has left.
When I saw her on the monitor, I believed that she would be present to listen to my concerns.
Recent years have seen an erosion of the Garda's manpower and resources. Compared with four years ago, there are 1,600 fewer gardaí and 139 stations have closed. In Granard in my constituency, a senior position has remained unfilled for a long time, creating a lack of leadership for stations. Some Garda cars have 300,000 km or 400,000 km on their clocks. I compliment the Garda on the job it is doing in difficult conditions.
I raise this topic in the context of recent bouts of anti-social behaviour in my home town of Mullingar. For the most part, Mullingar is a safe, quiet and well-policed town. We benefit from CCTV, which acts as a deterrent and has helped to solve many crimes. Recently, the town was awarded the internationally recognised purple flag for its level of safety and the manner in which its gardaí respond to incidents.
Unfortunately, the past few months have witnessed a series of substantial anti-social incidents. On the night of St. Patrick's Day, a full street had to be closed. Gardaí were quick to intervene, but three of them were assaulted with one requiring hospital treatment. A number of members of the public were also assaulted. This was the third time that anti-social behaviour emanated from the venue in question. There was a further incident on Easter Monday night, albeit not to the same magnitude, thankfully.
This anti-social behaviour stems from one licensed premises. In recent days, the Garda has secured a temporary closure order against that public house and a number of the individuals involved have been brought before the courts. However, these measures are not strong enough if people can bring a street to a halt and cause serious anxiety among residents and visitors. Businesses that conduct themselves properly have had to close their doors because of the level of anti-social behaviour. All that the legislation enables the Garda to do is to give a slap on the wrist, close the venue's doors for five days and hope that, when they reopen, all will be resolved.
Will the Minister of State inform the Minister that we need stronger and more robust legislation to ensure that there are serious consequences for the sections of our communities that believe they can flagrantly break the law, namely, they might lose their licences and their premises might be closed down? We must send a strong and clear message to the effect that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. It is not fair on the people living next door. If it not fair on the businesses that are conducting their business appropriately. The reputational damage that such behaviour can do to a town like Mullingar is not fair. At a minimum, will the Minister of State commit to considering legislation so that we might resolve issues such as this? I am sure that similar incidents occur in other provincial towns. When the next batch of Garda recruits graduates from Templemore, Mullingar Garda station should be given priority for additional resources so that people in its community know that this type of behaviour is not tolerated.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of personnel among the Garda regions, divisions and districts. Garda management keeps this distribution under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities so as to ensure that the best possible use is made of resources.
The Deputy will be aware that the Government is committed to resourcing An Garda Síochána. Restarting recruitment was a key priority and we started to deliver on this last September with the first recruitment of new gardaí since 2009. From September 2014 to the end of this year, the number of new recruits entering Templemore will total 550.
I assure the Deputy that the Minister is in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner regarding the overall response to the problem of antisocial behaviour. A key priority for the Garda is to tackle public disorder and anti-social behaviour by working with communities to reduce this type of behaviour and to enhance community safety. This approach includes a strong focus on quality-of-life issues and collaboration with local authorities to help address the causes of antisocial behaviour.
A range of strong legislative provisions is in place. These include measures under the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Acts and the Intoxicating Liquor Acts. The Garda has powers to deal with anti-social conduct that is attributable to excessive drinking, including through exclusion orders in respect of premises and closure orders in respect of licensed premises and catering outlets. The Deputy alluded to one such premises in Mullingar. In addition, gardaí have powers to seize alcohol to forestall public disorder or damage to property or where a person is under age. Where anti-social behaviour is directed at property, the Criminal Damage Act 1991 provides for a range of offences and penalties, including imprisonment for a term of up to ten years upon conviction.
The existing provisions provide the Garda with a wide range of powers to deal with offences associated with anti-social behaviour, including juvenile and adult cautions, fixed-charge penalty notices and the bringing of prosecutions. There are also provisions under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 for civil proceedings in respect of anti-social behaviour by adults and specific provisions dealing with anti-social behaviour by children. These provisions set out an incremental procedure for addressing anti-social behaviour.
In engaging with the Garda Commissioner on these issues, the Minister has asked her whether there are further legislative options we might consider that would be of assistance to the Garda. We are actively considering legislative measures.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The most positive aspect that I can take from it is that the Minister has engaged with the Garda Commissioner to determine whether there are further legislative options that we can consider. There are further options. Every section of our community has rights. No one disputes that, but every section also has responsibilities. A particular section of Mullingar's community is not being appropriately responsible to wider society in its actions. A level of anti-social behaviour has materialised at a licensed premises in recent months and we do not want that one premises to cause reputational damage to our whole town.
I compliment gardaí on intervening as quickly as they did, but they are stretched to their limits. I met the superintendent and asked whether additional resources were needed, to which the response was that all stations needed additional resources because of the reductions in recent years. The superintendent would not say "No" to additional resources. Gardaí also need robust legislation that enables them to enter licensed premises, apply closure orders and go to court to ensure that such premises never reopen, thereby sending a clear message to their wider communities that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated.
I hope that through the engagement between the Minister, the Department and the Garda Commissioner, we can bring forward proposals to ensure that when behaviour such as I have outlined occurs, the licensed premises in question will no longer continue in operation.
I am trying to read between the lines of what the Deputy is saying. It seems to me he is touching on rather dangerous ground if he is attempting to pit one community against another. We must be very careful as to how we describe issues within communities. If we set out to address anti-social behaviour purely as a policing issue, then we miss the point almost entirely. As I said in my reply, An Garda Síochána and other agencies are constantly working on strategies to empower communities. Where anti-social behaviour occurs, it is clear evidence that there already has been a failure right across the board.
I had a meeting this morning with representatives of YoungBallymun to discuss the advancement of the area-based child poverty, ABC, initiative, with which the Deputy will be familiar from his work as party spokesperson on children. The whole point of that programme is to empower parents and communities to look more profoundly at the issues that affect them, including issues around parenting and advancements in education. If the only response from parliamentarians to anti-social behaviour is a legislative or policing one, that is to miss the point. Of course we must be strong in defending our streets and towns against anti-social behaviour, but working out the reason that behaviour is happening is often the more difficult question to answer. That is why policy makers often shirk from answering it. We need to investigate more deeply why these incidents take place. In my own constituency there are instances of endemic anti-social behaviour. We can put 100, 200 or 300 gardaí out patrolling estates and they may deter some people from engaging in such behaviour, but the incentive to engage in it is still there. We must ask ourselves why that is the case. Why are young men and women from certain backgrounds and in certain areas not getting enough empowerment from mainstream society? Why are they seeking empowerment through these types of activities?
I take the Deputy's points very seriously. I am sure he is anxious, as am I, to hear what the Garda Commissioner has to say in response to the approaches the Minister has made to her. However, I would caution anybody against moving potentially onto dangerous ground by pitting one community against another.