Dáil debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Topical Issue Debate

Crime Prevention

6:50 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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The reason I raise this issue is the surge in crime along the motorway network. We have seen a shocking increase in crime, particularly in the number of burglaries carried out by mobile criminals driving high speed cars. The recent official figures indicate that Kildare ranks in third place in terms of the number of burglaries per county, while my county, County Laois, ranks in sixth place out of the 26 counties.

The map produced last weekend shows clearly that communities adjacent to motorways in these counties are hardest hit. The significant shortage of gardaí on the ground does not help matters. We have a serious shortage of gardaí in terms of trying to deal with this problem. The shortage is not just in the overall number of gardaí but in the number of gardaí in rural areas or on the beat. People in rural areas are being terrorised. I have come across several who have been burgled a number of times in the past couple of years. In areas around Camross, Borris-in-Ossory, Monasterevin and Kildangan, I have seen farmyards turned into fortresses. I have spent a good bit of my time in rural areas and this is one of the big changes I have seen. Not only are people turning their farmyards into fortresses, they are taking more extreme measures to protect their houses and themselves. People now keep a German Shepherd or two or a Rottweiler in their yards and they tell me and others that they are keeping a shotgun in their bedrooms at night.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but we must try to get back to a situation where we make communities safer. More gardaí have been promised, but I recognise it will take time to deliver on that promise. None has materialised to date. In the Laois-Offaly division, there are far fewer gardaí than there were a year ago, following the closure of Ballinakill and Ballacolla garda stations. In the station in Monasterevin in south Kildare which services that area and the hinterland around it out to Kildangan there are only three gardaí. We need more gardaí on the ground and a more visible and active presence in rural areas. The community alert and text alert schemes do great work, but I would like to see these developed further. I would also like the Government to develop some initiatives in regard to text alerts, because they are a help in preventing and solving crime and I have seen their benefit at first hand.

I suggest cameras should be placed at junctions and slip roads along our motorways and on the M7 and M8. Cameras should also be placed at other strategic locations in co-operation with the community alert schemes in rural areas. We cannot place cameras everywhere, but they could be placed at key locations being used by mobile criminals to gain access to rural areas. If we targeted these locations with proper high quality cameras, that would be a help.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who regrets that she cannot be present due to other official commitments. She is grateful to the Deputy for raising this important matter in the House. She is aware of the concerns about rural crime, burglary in particular. She considers that burglary is a persistent and highly damaging crime, particularly in the very distressing situations where householders may be assaulted by the criminals involved.

Earlier this year, following an urgent review of the overall approach to dealing with burglary, the Minister published the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015. This legislation targets repeat burglary offenders through bail measures and provisions concerning the imposition of consecutive sentencing for repeat burglary offending. The key objective of this legislation is to target a cohort of persistent offenders who prey on law-abiding householders and clearly have no concern for the damage and distress which they inflict on others. It is hoped to have this new legislation enacted as soon as possible.

The new legislation will underpin the concerted drive which is now being made by An Garda Síochána against those involved in burglary and other property crimes, which is co-ordinated under Operation Thor. Operation Thor is a new multi-strand national anti-crime operation which will entail a broad range of activities to tackle burglars, organised crime gangs and prolific offenders, as well as working with communities to prevent crime. The Garda approach includes additional high visibility patrols and an increase in checkpoints to tackle criminal gangs using the national road network. Gardaí are also making important use of technology to target suspect vehicles, including automatic number plate recognition, as well as deploying new high powered vehicles for use by the armed regional response units. In addition, a high profile national crime prevention awareness campaign is under way as part of Operation Thor.

The full suite of policing and awareness measures is made possible by the increased investment in policing by the Government, including an allocation of €5 million to specifically support Operation Thor. This follows the investment of €34 million in Garda vehicles since 2012, with 640 new vehicles becoming available this year, as well as an investment of €1.75 million in airborne surveillance technology. In addition, the Capital Plan 2016-2021 provides for a very significant investment in new Garda technology and information systems as well as the ongoing delivery of new Garda vehicles, amounting to €205 million over the lifetime of the plan. Operation Thor is further supported by the decision of the Government to end the moratorium on Garda recruitment, with 550 new recruits having already been taken in and a further 600 to commence training next year.

In regard to the use of CCTV, Garda CCTV systems are planned and implemented on the basis of the identified operational needs and priorities and decisions in regard to these systems are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. Some community based CCTV systems have been implemented in previous years and in this regard the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has recently made an announcement regarding piloting the provision of CCTV in rural areas, to be funded from the Rural Development Programme 2014 to 2020. In addition, having regard to the value that communities place on CCTV, the Minister for Justice and Equality has instigated a review of the effectiveness of the community CCTV scheme in conjunction with the Garda authorities. This review process is ongoing.

On behalf of the Minister, I have outlined the determined strategy she is pursuing to confront and disrupt those who attempt to prey on law abiding householders. All of these measures, including new legislation and targeted Garda operations, will support a robust response to criminals, enhance public safety and provide communities with the reassurance of a visible and determined police force.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the measures outlined by the Minister that are to be taken. There is certainly a need for extra vehicles and it is welcome that 550 new recruits have started their training. It is important that these measures continu on a rolling basis until we get numbers up, but that alone will not bring about a solution.

The other part of policing is legislation. The legislation being brought forward on repeat offenders is obviously a positive move. We have seen the statistics and a relatively small cohort is creating most of the mayhem and havoc, terrorising people in their homes. I emphasise that we can recruit as many gardaí as we like, but unless they are out on the ground it is no use. I know there are specialist units working behind desks doing research or whatever and I understand the logic of that. However, the absence of gardaí on the ground in many counties is a huge problem.

The third strand concerns partnership with the community. Several community groups have already raised essential funding to erect cameras. Under the pilot scheme, one group in south County Laois has been given €50,000 to erect cameras. That group is located adjacent to a motorway as well. I am appealing for a more modest funding scheme for a number of groups that are adjacent to the motorway. There are a lot of groups which, if they got €10,000 funding, would be able to put up specialist cameras in conjunction with the gardaí. That certainly would be of great benefit.

I am asking that a scheme of grants be put in place for community alert schemes located adjacent to motorways, to help catch the criminals, to prevent crime and to strengthen partnership with local communities. That will be a missing piece of the jigsaw if we do not get it right. I understand the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot be here, but I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, to bring back to her my suggestion of a scheme of modest grants for community alert schemes operating adjacent to the motorway corridors in Laois, Kildare and other such counties.

7:00 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I will mention those points to the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald at the earliest opportunity. I am familiar with many of the points the Deputy has raised. Just last night I attended the Louth IFA meeting in the Ballymascanlon House Hotel in north County Louth to discuss these very issues. Reference was, in fact, made by a senior IFA representative to the south County Laois pilot scheme, funded by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. I hope that will be an effective measure for the community in south County Laois and elsewhere. It is certainly something that should be given wider consideration. Let us assess the efficacy of that measure when we are in a position to do so. Any measures that can give reassurance to members of the community in rural Ireland should be given serious consideration.

As I mentioned, the issue of community CCTV is under review. I have already set out the comprehensive strategy the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner is implementing to confront those who engage in burglary and similar crimes at the expense of law-abiding citizens, who form the majority of the population. Operation Thor has been given great prominence and I hope it will be successful. Furthermore, An Garda Síochána is working with communities and partners across the country such as the IFA and utility companies to target other crime trends. These include metal theft and the theft of machinery from dwellings, farms and business premises. In addition, there is long-standing support from An Garda Síochána for the many community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes the Deputy outlined. These groups are key partners in working with the Garda. The very successful text alert scheme which the gardaí operate involves more than 700 groups and 130,000 subscribers. I know how effective those schemes are in my own county of Louth.

The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, does wish to underline her determination to continue to oppose criminals who violate people's homes and property. She will continue to support An Garda Síochána, as we all will in this House, through both improved legislation and the allocation of increased resources which the Government is now providing to combat crime across the country.