Thursday, 22 October 2015
I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. It is great to have somebody from my area to respond to it because he knows exactly what I am talking about.
The reason I raise this Commencement matter is the level of fear among people in rural Ireland about crime.At the outset, I acknowledge the work done by the Minister, her Department and the Garda in an effort to combat rural crime. In particular, I acknowledge the provision of €5.3 million for a further 260 Garda vehicles and the €60 million Garda building and refurbishment programme that has been put in place. I also acknowledge the reopening of the Garda training college in Templemore, the 550 new gardaí who will graduate this year and the 600 who will graduate next year. That is all great and shows the Minister, her Department and the Garda are serious about tackling crime. However, coming from a rural area in County Kerry, as do I, the Minister of State will be aware of the fear in people's hearts. It is not so much crime but the fear of crime that is getting to people. I have to hand some figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, from 2014. As they are somewhat older, I am aware the levels probably have reduced since 2014. These figures show 420 crimes per month were reported on farms nationwide for the first six months of 2014. Within that figure, there were 1,720 cases of farm machinery theft reported, as well as 218 vehicle thefts, 280 cases of non-aggravated burglaries, 261 thefts of diesel, 48 thefts of livestock, six thefts from persons and one case of aggravated burglary. While these are figures affecting the farming community, it does not stop there but moves throughout the community.
In the past, a grant was forthcoming from the Department of Social Protection for security locks, panic alarms and help for security for the elderly. However, the reason I brought forward this matter is while some people can afford to install electronic gates and security alarms, very many people cannot and no price can be put on a person's peace of mind. Only last Monday evening, I met a man who told me he was six months from the age of 70 and takes a shotgun to bed with him. The Minister of State should note this is an example from County Kerry. He takes the shotgun to bed with him every night but nobody should be obliged to live like that or to be obliged to live in fear that he or she will be broken into or that something will happen. If people had security alarms in place, it would give them a little peace of mind. They will not stop burglaries, because these criminals are well able to deal with burglar alarms and security alarms, but at least it might deter them. Moreover, it would give people living in houses some peace to know the alarm is in place and will go off if someone tries to enter the property and will link up with the Garda station.
I acknowledge the reason and logic behind the closure of Garda stations but as the Minister of State is aware, the actual presence of a Garda station with a garda meant a great deal to people living in rural Ireland. When that has been taken away, they believe something has been taken from them despite the possibility a Garda patrol vehicle may be patrolling the area. Nevertheless, they consider that the presence of a Garda station and the presence of a garda during the day, for however long that may have been, was a deterrent to burglars and crime of any sort. The possibility of some form of grant aid towards the cost of installing security alarms people should be considered. This could be means tested and restricted to those with an annual income of less than €45,000 or €50,000 perhaps. It would be of help and while I acknowledge not everybody still would be able to afford it, it would go some way towards helping people.
I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who regrets she cannot be present due to other official commitments. She is grateful to the Senator for raising this important matter in the Seanad today. At the outset, the Minister has asked me to state she is highly conscious of the distress which burglary and similar crime can cause to householders, as well as the broader impact the fear of crime can have in communities. In this regard, she is very much in sympathy with the Senator's intention of supporting law-abiding householders.
Earlier this year, the Minister initiated a broad and urgent review of our approach to burglary crime. An important fact arising from the Minister's review was that a large proportion of domestic burglaries are committed by a particular cohort of serial offenders. The clear view which emerged was that a new strategy to counteract these criminals should focus on two key objectives, namely, strengthening the law to get tougher on serial and repeat offenders and investing in the capacity of An Garda Síochána to enforce that law effectively. The Minister is now implementing this strategy and has introduced the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill, which is aimed at those repeat burglars who have previous convictions and are charged with multiple offences of residential burglary. The new Bill will require the District Court to provide for consecutive jail sentences where a burglar is being sentenced for multiple offences and will allow courts to refuse ball for offenders who have a previous conviction for domestic burglary coupled with two or more pending charges. This Bill, which is expected to be enacted in the next few weeks, will go a long way towards giving the courts the power to ensure that repeat burglars are kept off the streets.
Of course legislation on its own is not enough and the Minister is in ongoing contact with the Commissioner to ensure the available Garda resources are used as effectively as possible. The Minister is prioritising the allocation of resources to enable the Commissioner to enhance the Garda operational response, in particular through the 550 new recruits being taken in to the Garda College this year, with a further 600 new recruits to commence training next year. Thus far, 295 new gardaí have been attested as members of An Garda Síochána and are now working in communities nationwide. This probably is the most tangible way the Government can demonstrate its commitment to providing people with the reassurance that comes from a visible and determined police force. The Minister also is ensuring that An Garda Síochána has the necessary vehicles and technology to respond to the highly mobile gangs behind much burglary offending. Having secured additional funding, she now anticipates that a total of 630 new Garda vehicles will have come on stream during 2015. Furthermore, the capital plan for 2016-21 provides €205 million for the ongoing delivery of new Garda vehicles, as well as investment in new technology and information systems. Such measures are of course additional to the extensive community policing and crime prevention measures which are implemented by An Garda Síochána countrywide. These include the work of Garda crime prevention officers and support for more than 3,900 community alert and neighbourhood watch groups, as well as the successful Garda text alert scheme, which is available in every Garda division and now has more than 130,000 subscribers.
In the context of the extensive investment under way and taking into account the Minister's ongoing discussions with the Commissioner and the heads of the other justice agencies, she is of the view that a generalised grant scheme for domestic alarms would not be the best use of the available resources to help protect communities from burglary crime. Instead, a focus is to be placed on working with communities and organisations to engage the community in preventing crime. To this end, the Minister recently has announced a doubling in the funding for both the community alert and the Crimestoppers schemes. Crime prevention measures at the level of individual households and businesses are extremely important, of course, and excellent advice is available from the Garda on the range of steps that can be taken to protect property. In terms of determining how best to allocate resources, however, the Minister considers that greater impact will be achieved for everyone in the community through the measures she is putting in place. The Minister hopes the Senator nevertheless will accept the increased resources which now are coming on stream represent a significant investment by the Government in enhanced policing and community safety in all areas.
I thank the Minister of State and of course accept it would be a huge cost on the Exchequer. I also acknowledge the Garda crime prevention officers and the support of the community alert and neighbourhood watch groups. Moreover, I agree they are fantastic and are doing great work. It is just that people still live in fear. One can almost taste the fear in people as they speak and this fear is being whipped up a lot because the minute people hear there has been a burglary down the road or whatever, they think they will be next and it will happen to them. I am disappointed this proposal has not been perceived to be an option.I also accept that in economic terms we are in the early stages of recovery and as such funding may not be readily available. However, I hope this proposal would not be ruled out completely and that it might be an option at some stage. While I am aware that relief on the expense can be claimed under the refurbishment plan this option is only available to people paying tax, such that people who do not pay tax are unable to obtain any relief. I had hoped that the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, was going respond to the effect that the proposal would be examined and, perhaps, discussed with the Minister for Finance. However, I accept his response.
I thank Senator Moloney for her remarks. In regard to County Kerry, generally speaking there is great co-operation there between the Garda Síochána and the local community. Given the current reduced number of gardaí in the force, everybody must become the eyes and ears of An Garda Síochána. Irrespective of Garda numbers it is impossible to prevent people carrying out burglaries if that is what they want to do. A classic example in this regard is the burglary of the home of the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, while there was a Garda stationed at his front door. If people want to rob houses they will do so. One cannot have a garda at every crossroads in the country. As such, everybody must be vigilant. If I am out late at night and I see a suspicious vehicle I report it to the local Garda station. People who are suspicious of the activities of other persons or who see a person in a place where he or she not be are duty bound to report that to their local Garda station.
Members of An Garda Síochána are engaging with and providing advice to community groups on these issues, which is a very good approach. If we want to prevent rural crime and burglaries we have to work closely with An Garda Síochána. I understand, although I do not have the statistics with me, that while the level of rural crime has increased in some counties it has decreased in others. I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter and I will pass on her views to the Minister.
I take this opportunity to mention also two initiatives that come within the remit of the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, namely, the senior alert scheme under which grant assistance is available for personal monitored alarms for older persons of limited means and the recently announced funding under the rural development programme 2014-20 to support the provision of CCTV in rural areas. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, is also mindful of the interest in community CCTV schemes, particularly in rural communities, and has recently instigated a review of their effectiveness in conjunction with the Garda authorities. The outcome of that review will inform future decisions on the continuation of the scheme. The Minister has asked me to emphasise that while she agrees that we must do all we can to protect people from crime the measures outlined represent the best deployment of Government resources to support community safety. The Minister is working closely with the Garda Commissioner on finalisation of details for an enhanced operational response to burglaries and related crimes and expects to be in a position to make further announcements in this regard shortly.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, to the House. However, I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, is not here to respond to this matter. I appreciate I am lucky that a Minister of the experience and expertise of Deputy Deenihan is here and will be well able to answer any questions I have in relation to this matter. Given, coincidentally, the theme of this matter is similar to that of the previous one I am sure much of the Minister's response to it will be a repeat of his earlier reply.
I am specifically interested in hearing from the Minister whether the Government is considering reintroducing the community-based CCTV scheme which commenced under a previous Government in 2005 and ended in 2008 or 2009 but proved to be hugely successful. The aim of this initiative was to support local communities, increase public safety and reduce the risk of anti-social and criminal activity. I have seen this initiative in action, via the community-funded CCTV scheme in Manorhamilton, County Leitrim, which has been in operation since 2008. As a member of the police committee in County Leitrim I attended a meeting at which Garda from the Sligo and Leitrim divisions reiterated their strong support for the CCTV scheme. They also outlined, as had already been outlined to me by the Manorhamilton community group, that the effectiveness of the community CCTV scheme was unparalleled. As a result of that scheme, which is closely monitored, the Garda had apprehended many culprits. In one particular instance, a person in respect of whom the Garda were in pursuit was picked up on the CCTV system. There are three roads leading out of Manorhamilton, any which one of which the alleged suspect could have taken, but because of the existence of the cameras the Garda were able to focus on the road he did take and he was apprehended. That is only one of many examples in this regard.
I am, therefore, strongly of the view - I have discussed this bilaterally with the Minister - that this initiative should be reintroduced. The Minister referred in his previous reply to a reduction in rural crime. However, as he and everybody else here will be well aware, perception can sometimes overrule reality. Media attention focused on stories about rural crime puts the fear of God into people such that they believe there are criminals outside their doors waiting to steal from them and goodness knows what else. This does not in any way under-estimate the horrific nature of some of these crimes, the most recent being that carried out in Tipperary, the thugs responsible for which were finally apprehended. As far as I am concerned they will not spend long enough in prison: they should never be released. However, that is another issue.
I believe the community CCTV scheme was effective. The problem is that towns and villages do not have the resources to implement such a scheme without Government support. I understand the local business community in Carrick-on-Shannon, which has been crying out for some time for a CCTV scheme, has come together to fund a CCTV scheme, which I hope will be up and running in the not too distant future. It should not be left to communities to fund their own schemes. There are areas where this will not be possible without financial aid. In light of the Minister's earlier reply regarding the comprehensive nature of the approach being taken by the Government to addressing crime, particularly rural crime, this is a no-brainer. Regardless of the financial or other difficulties being experienced, the Government needs to prioritise this issue and that highlighted earlier by my colleague Senator Moloney. It is vital the Government finds the money to address these specific issues. Like me, the Minister comes from a rural part of the country and as such he knows how fearful people are and to whom they are looking to have these issues addressed. Regardless of the colour of the Government, it is to it and the Garda Síochána that the people look for protection. It is, therefore, vital that this scheme be reintroduced as soon as possible.
Again, the Minister apologies for not being here to take this commencement matter tabled by Senator Mooney. She has asked me to thank the Senator for raising it.
CCTV systems installed for the purposes of crime prevention and as an aid to policing in areas to which the general public routinely have access, such as town centres, fall into two categories, namely, Garda CCTV systems and community-based CCTV systems. Garda CCTV systems are planned and implemented on the basis of the identified operational needs and priorities of An Garda Síochána. Accordingly, decisions in relation to the introduction or extension of such systems are a matter for the Garda Commissioner.The Garda authorities inform me that they keep the current Garda CCTV arrangements under ongoing review in the context of changing operational requirements.
As regards community based CCTV, a scheme was launched in 2005 which provided financial assistance to qualifying local organisations towards meeting the capital costs associated with the establishment of a local community CCTV system. Two rounds of funding were advertised under that scheme and a total of €3.76 million was allocated to fund 43 community schemes. The last of that funding was paid out in July 2013. The Minister is very conscious of the value that communities, especially rural communities, place on CCTV and with this in mind has instigated a review of the effectiveness of the community CCTV scheme in conjunction with the Garda authorities. The outcome of that review will inform future decisions on the continuation of the scheme.
The Deputy may also be aware that my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, has recently made an announcement in regard to the provision of CCTV in rural areas, which is to be funded from the rural development programme 2014-2020. CCTV schemes certainly have a part to play in the detection of antisocial behaviour and criminality, but of paramount importance is a visible and responsive policing service. There is no doubt but that the Government is determined to ensure that An Garda Síochána has the resources to deliver highly mobile and responsive Garda patrols in both rural and urban communities. The Minister has secured an allocation of a further €5.3 million to An Garda Síochána for the purchase of a further 260 vehicles between now and the end of the year. This investment in a modern, effective and fit-for-purpose Garda fleet will continue under the Government's capital plan 2016-21, which provides an additional €46 million for new Garda vehicles over the lifetime of the plan. This substantial level of investment will be accompanied by the ongoing recruitment of new gardaí, with 600 to be recruited next year on top of the 550 to be recruited by the end of this year.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and wish to focus on a particular part of it. He said, "CCTV schemes certainly have a part to play in the detection of antisocial behaviour and criminality, but of paramount importance is a visible and responsive policing service". He then referred to the fact that: "the Government is determined to ensure that An Garda Síochána has the resources to deliver highly mobile and responsive Garda patrols in both rural and urban communities". I have already outlined an example of where the CCTV scheme worked in Manorhamilton, where it was a strong and effective aid to the Garda. There is no doubt among the Garda or the community that without its presence, the culprit would have got away with his crime. The problem is resources. For example, at the recent police meeting, we were informed of the figures the Minister of State has mentioned here in regard to the additional new gardaí coming on stream. Five of these will be allocated to Sligo, but none to Leitrim, which is a predominantly rural county. The reason is that the five gardaí will be on probation for some time and must go to a centre that has the facilities and structures in place to monitor their progress and help them become more effective as gardaí. However, in the context of the 550 additional gardaí this is not much help to the people of County Leitrim.
I hope that as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and as a rurally based Deputy, Deputy Deenihan will put pressure on Government colleagues to ensure that rural areas where Garda stations have been closed down will get what the Minister of State has said they will get, a visible and responsive policing service. However, I am disappointed that is not the case as far as my county is concerned.
I again thank the Senator for raising pertinent questions here. The Minister is conscious of the value communities place on CCTV and has instigated a review of the effectiveness of the community CCTV scheme in conjunction with Garda authorities. The outcome of that review will inform future decisions on the continuation of the scheme. No doubt, the Senator's contribution here is important in that context. The three Members here are from rural communities.
I know I am speaking to the converted. I am aware of occasions when private CCTVs have been a major aid to gardaí in solving crimes and have proved to be important and valuable in court cases. The more CCTV we have, the more crime will be detected and the greater the deterrent to crime. The Minister is determined to ensure that those on the front line in the fight against crime have the legislation and resources to fight it effectively. Her approach is focused on two key objectives, namely, strengthening the law to make it tougher on serious and repeat offenders, principally through the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015, which is before the Houses of the Oireachtas, and investing in the capacity of An Garda Síochána to enforce that law effectively through the significantly enhanced Garda resources the Government is making available.
The substantial level of investment by the Government in the Garda fleet and ICT, accompanied by the continued renewal of Garda personnel, with 600 new gardaí to be recruited next year over and above the 550 to be recruited by the end of this year, will ensure that the Garda has the necessary tools and manpower to tackle the scourge of highly mobile criminal gangs and to disrupt crime, particularly burglaries, across both rural and urban communities.
Due to the level of interest from representatives of all political parties in this issue, there is serious willingness and motivation to take on the problem of rural crime. This commitment and joint approach will help us combat rural crime. The process is ongoing, but I believe a kind of "war" has been declared on rural crime now. With the collaboration and co-operation of all the agencies, I believe this action will be successful. While we will always have some crime, we can better manage this challenge better now. I acknowledge the work of the Minister, but I am aware we cannot put enough resources into law and order and crime prevention. However, in the context of our current resources, the Minister is doing a very good job at getting what she can to get resources for An Garda Síochána and the justice system.