Contribution to the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill 2015: Second Stage

November 27th, 2015 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. First, I compliment the Minister for Justice and Equality. Since assuming office, she has taken a number of initiatives to support the Garda and to strengthen the law to get tougher on criminals. The combination of policing reforms and legislative changes are testament to the determination of the Minister and this Government to tackle crime and protect our communities. We have a number of initiatives and the key objective for this Government has been to invest in more gardaí, which is happening, and put in more resources like vehicles, and that is also happening. We also want to strengthen the laws and get tougher on serious and repeat offenders.
I know the Minister is determined to ensure our policing strategies and resources are available to deal with the changes in criminal behaviour. This is important because in many ways, we are dealing with a different type of criminal today. We have criminal gangs that are highly mobile and are using our improved road infrastructure to target rural communities in hit and grab-type robberies. Some criminals charged with regard to cases in Clare recently have come from Dublin, as it takes approximately two and quarter hours to travel from Dublin to south-east Clare, so criminals can return to Dublin very quickly. Advancements in technology is generating an increase in cybercrime and the use of drugs continues to generate violence and criminal activity right across this country.
I have tremendous admiration for the Garda and the work it does in our communities. We have to invest in the services and in gardaí, giving them modern tools necessary to do their jobs. That is extremely important. I am speaking in particular about new technology, with the Garda Inspectorate report from 2014 recommending investment in technology and information technology. We had similar reports in 2007 and 2010, when Fianna Fáil was in government, but they were left unheeded. Not a single euro was put into IT and infrastructure at the time.
Deputy Pat Breen: ] Now we have put it into the capital plan. More than €600 million is being spent on that. It is very important to ensure the Garda has the necessary, modern equipment to deal with the modern criminal.
Ensuring we have a strong, visible Garda presence in communities is the most effective way of reducing crime. In that context, the lifting of the ban on new gardaí is a significant development. Now that we have a yearly stream of gardaí passing out of Templemore and 1,150 gardaí are being recruited, this will boost the numbers on our streets. I heard the previous speaker speak about the lack of gardaí. Who closed Templemore but Fianna Fáil in 2009? We have opened Templemore. The Fianna Fáil election manifesto refers to the recruitment of 500 gardaí. We are recruiting 600 next year. Again, I heard comments from Deputy Troy about the closure of Garda stations and many other Opposition Members are scaremongering about the impact of rural policing. It is far more effective to have gardaí freed up and more mobile, because criminals are using the motorways to carry out the smash and grab robberies, particularly in rural areas.
Since 2012, €34 million has been invested in Garda vehicles. I remind our friends in opposition in Fianna Fáil that when they were in government in the three years from 2008 to 2010, they spent a miserly €4.8 million on vehicles. That speaks volumes. This year 640 new vehicles are coming on stream. That is very important. Many of those are high-speed cars - Volvos, BMWs, SUVs - and it is very important for gardaí to be equipped and to be in safe vehicles when they are pursuing criminals.
Let us be practical. One cannot have a garda at every corner of the street. The presence of a garda or Garda station is no guarantee that crimes will not be committed. We have a Garda station in Sixmilebridge in County Clare and there was a serious robbery the other night in the business of a colleague of mine where €30,000 or €40,000 was stolen. Some years ago, there was a murder in Tipperary and there was a Garda station there. The presence of a Garda station does not mean crimes will not be committed. Many of these rural Garda stations are manned for only a few hours and these criminals know the movements of the gardaí when the station is open. That is the reality.
Figures from the Garda Síochána analysis service indicate that 75% of burglaries are committed by 25% of burglars. That is an important statistic in its own right. It is frustrating for gardaí when they spend considerable time solving these crimes only to find when the perpetrators come before the courts that repeat offenders can still be granted bail, resulting in them being able to continue their crime spree while out on bail. That is a problem which is being dealt with now in the bail Bill and it is very important. The new bail Bill will improve the operation of the bail system. Courts will have to give reasons for bail decisions and the District Court will have the power to refuse bail where there is an appeal against a sentence of imprisonment. At the moment, the District Court cannot refuse bail when such an appeal is lodged. These changes are very important in dealing with the faults in the previous legislation. The provisions of the bail Bill coupled with the proposals contained in this Bill, the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Bill, provide real deterrents for repeat offenders. The District Court will now be able to impose consecutive jail sentences where a burglar is being sentenced for multiple offences. That sends a clear message that this Government and this Minister for Justice and Equality are serious on crime. The majority of burglaries are committed by the same offenders. The courts will also be able to refuse bail for offenders who have previous convictions for domestic burglary or who have two or more pending charges.
As I mentioned earlier, it is evident that criminal gangs are using speed and our improved road infrastructure to carry out smash and grab robberies in our rural communities. They also have local information on these cases. While recent CSO figures issued for the second quarter of 2015 show that there has been a drop in the number of burglaries and related offences, in my county we were hit with a spate of robberies during the year. In part of one week in August there was a series of burglaries throughout east Clare, in Cratloe, Sixmilebridge, Broadford, Mountshannon and Whitegate. There have been similar problems in large urban areas like Ennis and in west Clare. Just last week Sixmilebridge was targeted. A consignment of cigarettes was delivered the day before. It is important to point out that they were delivered the day before. The shopkeeper had his Christmas stock in place. The burglars were well prepared. They cut the alarm and telephone and used cutting equipment to get in and out of the shop. The entire robbery was carried out in about 20 minutes and it was just a passing motorist who reported the incident to the Garda. These guys know what they are doing and we need to be ready for this type of criminality, which is now taking over in Ireland.
Operation Thor is a very important operation that was launched by the Commissioner recently. It is targeting these mobile burglars and it is making an impact. We have extra high-visibility patrols, checkpoints, high-powered vehicles - the regional response unit have Audi Q7s and BMW X5s - there is the high-profile crime prevention awareness campaign in place and there is enhanced support for victims of crime. The last is very important. Many victims of crime to whom I have spoken have suffered a lot afterwards, because the entering of a person’s private home invades one’s privacy and has an effect on people.
What is important is that 61,000 more man hours are now available for front-line gardaí. We also need to use new technologies to give access to critical information to gardaí at the front line. It is about gardaí working with communities. Any bit of information at all is important, because most of these guys have sussed out houses and businesses before they carry out the crime. It is very important that communities are aware of strange people around and report any incidents, numbers of cars and vans and so on in order that the Garda has that information when investigating a crime. The Minister has committed to investing €205 million in new systems and technology for the Garda, which is very welcome. This includes a new computer-aided dispatch system, mobile technology, investigations management systems and extending the roll-out of automated number plate recognition.
Like many other countries, we have become a tech-savvy nation. The digital revolution has seen mobile technology use soar, with 59% of the population using smartphones in 2014. People are spending twice as much time online compared with ten years ago. The availability of smartphones and tablets means that more are now accessing online information on the go and we should be using this technology in the battle against crime. That is why there is merit in looking at what police forces in other jurisdictions are doing as we try to improve police methods. The Metropolitan Police Service in the UK, for example, is providing 15,000 to 20,000 tablets to front-line officers after they successfully trialled 500 mini iPads across London.
[Deputy Pat Breen: ] They have been using the devices to take electronic statements, embed images and get people to sign with a fingerprint, and they are able to load all of this information onto the system instantly. The benefit for the officers is that they spend less time on administration in their offices. Now that the Government is making significant investment in mobile technology, I would hope that this type of technology will be chosen in the future to allow gardaí to access vital information that is needed on the move.
The text alert initiative, which other Deputies have spoken about, is effective in the battle against crime. I would like to see this initiative extended to all areas in time. I believe that social media could be further utilised to support the Garda Síochána. I have occasionally seen social media being used in this way. People can warn their neighbours when they notice suspicious vehicles or anything else in their area.
Crime, as I said, increased as a result of the moratorium that was introduced by the previous Government. It did not increase due to the closure of Garda stations, because I have seen statistics for the western division, where 41 Garda stations were closed, which show that there was actually an 8% reduction in crime. Crime has increased in urban areas. In my county of Clare, there was a reduction in crime of 20%. The Fianna Fáil Deputies who spoke here earlier on the Bill may remember the policy of zero tolerance which was introduced by a former Minister. Crime peaked when Fianna Fáil was in office in 2008. Then, when the moratorium came, and the closure of Templemore, it increased further.
We look at what this Government has done in this short period of time. For instance, the Garda air support unit was established by a Fine Gael Government. When the public finances were booming in the Celtic tiger period, not a single euro was invested in that unit. This Government has now invested €1.7 million to upgrade the surveillance equipment in the air support unit, and that includes night-time flying. The air support unit is extremely important in tackling crime. Being able to survey what is happening from the air and being mobile is what it is all about, and this is why we believe that equipping the Garda with more police cars, having them more mobile and out there on the beat, is the best way to deal with crime. This has been proven in other countries as well.
A previous speaker mentioned the policing authority, which constitutes an important reform. It is, I suppose, the core of our reform plans in this Government. Chaired by Ms Josephine Feehily, it is an important part of the reform of the Garda Síochána. I suppose it is the most far-reaching reform since the foundation of the State. It is a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. While security remains the remit of the Minister, the policing authority has extensive functions. It will oversee the performance of the Garda Síochána in relation to policing matters. It will nominate persons for appointments to top positions. It will have an independent chairperson plus eight members, and they will have the power to speak to the Commissioner as well. Having that policing authority in place is something that we in this Government can be proud of.
There is a lot more I could say on this. It is so important that we commend the Minister on the work she has done in a short period of time. We talk about the bail laws and our prisons. As Deputies will be aware, there is not a problem with space in the prisons. Most of the prisons are operating at only 89% capacity at present. It is important, while the Judiciary is independent of us, that sentences fit the crimes that have been committed, as we saw recently in a high-profile case.
A lot has been done in a short period by this Government in transforming the Garda Síochána. We have reopened Templemore and brought new gardaí on board. We have provided the necessary resources to modernise the Garda Síochána. Having a criminal justice system that works is extremely important and having tough sanctions on criminals is important as well. It will not deter criminals but it certainly will bring down the level of criminality in this country. This is why it is important that we have this legislation. I support the bail legislation. I support this Bill. It is an important aspect of the effort to reduce the number of burglaries, particularly by targeting repeat offenders, as many Deputies mentioned today. As my time is just up, I commend the Bill to the House and I commend the Minister on the excellent work she has done in this short period of time.