Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Community Development: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:? notes the importance of initiatives taken in many areas by local authorities, voluntary organisations and business groupings to improve the quality of life in
? notes in particular the existence of initiatives like that adopted in the UK by the Association of Town Centre Management (purpleflag.org.uk), whereby
town centres and city districts seek to achieve certain indicators to ensure that an area is safe for people to walk at night and constitutes a pleasant place to be,
with good levels of cleanliness and security generally;
? notes that it is envisaged that a similar initiative will also be piloted in Ireland and encourages the Government to support the wider use of such initiatives in
order to make our town centres and city districts more attractive for residents, visitors and tourists;
? notes that initiatives like these, together with strong levels of community policing and provision of community services can contribute immensely to improving the
quality of life for local communities. In light of the restructuring of the Garda Station and District network throughout the country, notes the increased resources that have been made available for Garda transport and asks that adequate provisions are made to ensure the continuation of an efficient and effective policing service to all communities including to elderly people living in remote locations;? notes that Neighbour Watch and Community Alert schemes should be initiated in rural areas where they are currently absent and that lapsed schemes should
be assisted to re-establish themselves through interventions from the Gardai;
? notes the need to preserve Garda numbers at a level sufficient to provide the most effective and efficient policing service to all communities across the
country, and the need for a full engagement with local communities in the delivery of that service;
? notes the commitment of An Garda Síochána to community policing and proactive engagement through Community Alert, Neighbourhood Watch,
business associations and other groups;
? notes the forum provided by Joint Policing Committees for engagement between An Garda Síochána, local authorities and communities on local policing issues;
? notes the considerable efforts underway to tackle crime through such operations as Operation Fiacla, introduced last year to tackle burglary around the country
and which resulted in the arrest of 3,538 persons and 1,924 persons charged between April and December 2012;
? notes the very limited powers of local authorities under Irish law to compel any actions on private lands, even where gross negligence or nuisance is alleged, and
notes that in England, by contrast, legislation gives councils power in particular to enter on private lands and to compel action on private lands; and calls on the
Government to consider the implications of giving powers of intervention to local authorities where poor management, negligence or nuisance is alleged to
have arisen on private lands;
? welcomes the adoption, by public services including local authorities, of initiatives which provide support to businesses, to ensure greatly improved
communities for tourists and residents alike; and
? calls on the Government to support the development of initiatives to improve the quality of life.
I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs to the House and look forward to an interaction with him on this issue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion this evening. The quality of life for all our citizens in all communities is a very important issue. This motion aims to ensure the Government remains steadfast in its efforts to support the front-line services and the development of initiatives that improve the quality of life for communities in urban and rural areas. It also addresses how community policing plays a vital role in making communities safe and secure. I commend the efforts of the Government so far to protect frontline services across the public sector. I particularly welcome the efforts of the Minister for Justice and Equality efforts to keep the thin blue line from becoming thinner when he confirmed there was no possibility of the force losing 1,500 gardaí this year, as was reported in some quarters.
My colleagues will speak on other matters pertaining to this motion but I will focus on the protection and support of community initiatives. These initiatives give people on the ground a voice and platform to raise their concerns and have them listened to. A well-resourced Garda presence is the backbone of every healthy and vibrant town or community. In October 2012, 170 new vehicles were purchased by an Garda Síochána costing ¤3 million. This is a substantial investment in the Garda fleet and will include mostly patrol cars as well as some unmarked cars and vans. It is a welcome investment and I hope this addition to the fleet will be spread out evenly across the country.
Rural Ireland faces many difficulties. Some of them have been well represented by organisations such as Irish Rural Link which questions the Garda's ability to carry out their role in rural communities as they have done for many years. These difficulties have led to a rise in the number of crimes in rural Ireland. We now see the theft from isolated houses of things like valuable metals, oil and diesel. There may be a perception among some criminals that rural Ireland is a soft touch. We need to work immediately on killing that perception and ensuring that people living in isolated areas in rural Ireland can feel safe in their homes. A great way of doing this is catching the criminal red-handed. I am glad to say that in my own area of Carrick-on-Suir, a spate of recent home heating oil thefts has been curbed by the local gardaí and a conviction for one of those apprehended has been achieved. There is nothing like a headline in a newspaper for deterring criminals from carrying out activities.
In respect of preserving numbers in An Garda Síochána, the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, openly admitted to the Oireachtas that he does not want Garda numbers to drop below 13,000. The Garda Representative Association says that any cuts to front-line services would be "reckless endangerment". The Government is very cognisant of this which is why I welcome the statement by the Minister for Justice, Defence and Equality about maintaining as many gardaí as possible in rural and urban Ireland.
A number of initiatives have been put in place over many years, particularly in the past number of years. I have been involved in these in my community. Neighbourhood Watch has been set up in many locations across the country, while Community Alert has been set up in rural areas. These two initiatives have been supported by the gardaí and Muintir na Tíre has also had an input into them. They aim to improve community safety, prevent crime, develop Garda and community links, increase public confidence in An Garda Síochána, foster a caring environment for older and vulnerable people and reduce antisocial behaviour, including graffiti and harassment. These schemes have worked in rural Ireland but there is a need to re-energise these organisations. As in any walk of life, organisations set up many years ago tend to fall away.
I will be brief as I know that the Minister of State is under pressure because he has to attend another event, at least he indicated to me that he was. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy McGinley, for his response to this motion. This debate and motion provided an opportunity for us within the Labour group and our colleagues in Fine Gael to bring forward several issues of concern to us and to get clarity on how the Government is addressing these issues. I feel confident that as a result of the response from the Minister of State we will see positive responses.
At a time when crime in rural Ireland is becoming a major issue, however, I ask that resources be provided to local communities to upgrade these organisations and give them a fresh start. Another initiative in place in both cities and rural areas is the joint policing committees which were established under An Garda Síochána Act 2005 and set up in 2006 in 114 local authorities throughout the State. They have their own distinct perspective and input in every local authority area. The Garda has adopted a proactive approach in developing and maintaining links with the key stakeholders. The participants include the chairperson of the local authority, a Garda-nominated officer, local authority members, Members of the Oireachtas for the area and community and voluntary sector representatives. The relevance of the joint policing committees cannot be overestimated. They work closely with the communities they represent and bring forward many initiatives which help both to stem crime and create community involvement.
There is no point in saying otherwise but the current crime figures in rural Ireland suggest we are in a difficult place. An initiative introduced some years ago, Operation Fiacla, was established in response to an increase of 40% in burglaries in some parts of the country. At the time the GRA pointed out this increase and the need for resources for gardaí in rural areas. The operation was very successful, with 3,500 suspects arrested for crimes throughout the State of whom, to date, 1,400 have been charged. I call for further resources to be supplied for a new operation that would ensure that elderly people in isolated areas can feel safe in their communities and not be afraid to answer their front doors. I understand Garda numbers and districts have been realigned across the country but there are gardaí in rural Ireland. I would like to see these officers working on a day-to-day basis with the communities where they are based, through organisations such as Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch. Even in a time of Government cutbacks it cannot be the case that people living in rural Ireland must go to bed with the fear of being attacked, their house being broken into or their heating oil or various other items being stolen at will. This motion, although it commends the Government for the work done to date, calls for further action and for an initiative or operation throughout the country that will meet head-on the issue of burglaries and robberies in rural Ireland.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to the House. I know he will be very familiar with the issues we raise today because he is a Minister of State who is conscientious about his local community and understands these problems and concerns. I second the motion proposed by my colleague, Senator Landy. However, for the record, I am not at all impressed that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has decided, not for the first time, not to come to the House to take this motion. There have been numerous examples of justice-related Private Members' motions-----
With respect, I wish to put the matter on the record. It applies also to the Adjournment debate where the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has delegated other Ministers and does so on an ongoing basis. I am uncomfortable with that. I would prefer if the Minister attended to hear our concerns directly.
This motion is timely although it had its genesis some months ago when the Labour Party Seanad group first suggested it. It was deferred over Christmas yet in the current climate it is not only topical but pertinent. Unfortunately, the need for such a motion was brought home to us yet again during the Christmas and new year period when, in rural areas in particular, elderly people in isolated areas found themselves exposed and vulnerable to unscrupulous people who take advantage of them and bring terror into their lives. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have this happen to a family member or somebody in one's own area.
However, it is not a rural issue only and applies also in large urban centres. To be fair to the Seanad, on a number of occasions we highlighted serious crime issues, attacks and assaults in Dublin city, some occurring in broad daylight and on main thoroughfares. Some of these attacks resulted in deaths. A former journalist colleague was a victim of one such attack. We cannot be complacent and say we are comfortable, that we are doing the right thing and our policy is intact, if people are unsafe in their own homes and on the main streets of our towns and cities. I brought this issue up before Christmas, noting that people were afraid to walk and do their shopping in broad daylight on the main street of Mountmellick. This is not acceptable. To be fair, considerable resources have been made available, as Senator Landy pointed out, for a new fleet of up to 200 Garda patrol cars. When will these be despatched? We were told they would be commissioned in January but I have not seen any of them on the streets of Laois-Offaly. I would like to see them out and about at the earliest possible time.
I have done some research with Garda colleagues and retired gardaí on the issue of the closure of stations. It is not about trying to retain the building per se for the sole purpose of having it in place with one garda attached to it. However, there is a problem if that garda is lost to the force or if a level of manpower is lost in that area or redeployed elsewhere, leaving entire swathes without Garda cover. One of the mistakes we made was to close the Garda Training College in Templemore - I cannot understand how we will have adequate policing into the future. The answer is not to shorten the time in which training takes places. I saw it mooted that when the college reopens the training period should be reduced from two years. That would be a mistake. We need new gardaí and new blood within the force but it is important that they are properly resourced and trained. It would be unwise to fast-track that training.
I have another suggestion for the Minister of State. Up to ten years ago members of the Defence Forces were able to transfer to other sections within the Department of Defence, such as the Prison Service or the Garda Síochána, seamlessly, without any loss of service. They had to be properly trained, of course. That is something we should explore. I am sure there are many members of the Defence Forces who might like to take up the opportunity to transfer to the Garda and this would help to shore up Garda numbers at a time when, as Senator Landy pointed out, there will not be adequate policing if we allow the number to drop much further. People are reassured by Garda presence and visibility in patrols. I welcome the announcement, made by the Minister, to be fair, that part of the new policy and strategy will be to redeploy Garda resources to ensure there is more adequate patrolling and more significant policing on the streets. One could go for weeks on end in towns in the country and not meet a garda on the beat, as traditionally one used to.
It is very important that people are reassured during the day and, more importantly, at night. It is also important that gardaí are in a position to increase their local knowledge through interfacing with the community and developing good relationships which, in turn, leads to crime prevention.
At the moment, there is no doubt that many parts of rural Ireland are soft targets for roaming gangs who know that Garda resources are stretched to the limit and that the response time is inadequate. Such gangs often set up decoys to distract the gardaí. They draw the patrol car to one area while they carry out their dirty deeds elsewhere and rain terror down on elderly people, in particular, living in isolated areas.
Like Senator Landy, I commend the work of Neighbourhood Watch and Community Alert schemes throughout the country. They serve a useful purpose as I know well from my own area - the schemes in Timahoe and Ratheniska work very well and are a source of comfort to people. I must also commend the gardaí who were involved in setting up such schemes, many of whom are now retired. However, they must be underpinned by an adequate Garda response time, sufficient Garda resources and ongoing liaison with gardaí on the ground because signage on the side of the road saying "Community Alert Area" is not enough.
I accept that we all have a collective responsibility in this area. Perhaps schemes and initiatives could be put in place that have worked well in the UK and other areas, where people come together to support the police in their work. I do not want to be alarmist but it has been mentioned to me on more than one occasion that if we do not put policies in place that restore Garda visibility and Garda patrols in our towns and villages, it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands, which I do not condone or support. We will see an upsurge in vigilantism in some parts of the country with people believing they must take the law into their own hands to protect their communities. I ask the Minister of State to take these points on board and relay them to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter.