Private Members' Business Motion; Seanad Éireann;Initiatives to improve the quality of life in local communities-Opening Remarks by Minister of State Dinny McGinley on behalf of Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence

Check Against Delivery

I am grateful for the opportunity to address this House today. I am speaking today on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who is unable to be here due to other business. The Minister has also consulted with his colleague the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in preparing for this motion as certain aspects of the issues raised come within the remit of his Department.

At the outset I want to convey the Minister’s thanks to the Senators for proposing this motion.  It touches on a wide range of important and interlinking issues which have an influence on the quality of life in our local communities. At the heart of the motion is an exhortation to co-operative action and a pooling of energy and resources for the common good. At times like these, when we as a society are struggling to deal with the interrelated difficulties arising from the economic situation, it is especially important to make the most of our combined efforts.  We need to develop appropriate strategies to support effective collaboration between state, business and community interests.

Thankfully there are already many examples, in different parts of the country, of organisations such as An Garda Síochána and local authorities working in partnership with a range of local stakeholders to improve the environment for doing business, for socialising and the enjoyment of civic amenities. The Minister fully supports effective communication between the Gardaí and business and community interests. In this regard he is aware of the very effective engagement between An Garda Síochána and the Dublin Business
Policing Forum, for example, as well as similar liaison between Gardaí, local authorities, Chambers of Commerce, business associations and various voluntary groups throughout the country.

Local authorities have also been very active in support of enterprise and business and some indeed have been creative in identifying opportunities to support the business community.   This is demonstrated by the publication during 2012 of the County and City Managers’ Association’s Analysis of Local Authority Support to Enterprise and Business and the local government sectoral strategy for economic development – Supporting Economic Recovery and Jobs – Locally.   These have and will continue to form an important basis for all authorities to develop local strategies to support the Action Plan for Jobs, and to step up their game in their contribution to national recovery.  Furthermore the Action Programme for Effective Local Government – "Putting People First" outlines a clearer and enhanced role for local government in economic development. 

The principle of collaboration is also a key feature of the role of Joint Policing Committees, which are established in each local authority area and the Minister is happy to see that the motion acknowledges their importance.  The Programme for Government makes a commitment to build on existing community policing partnerships and forums to enhance trust between local communities and their Gardaí. In the spirit of that commitment, the Minister initiated a review of the operation of the Joint Policing Committees during 2011.  The Minister published a discussion document in November to broaden the consultation process and to open the matter for wider consultation.  He would very much welcome the views of Senators and all other elected representatives on the role and functioning of the JPCs as part of the present review process.  The review process will also need to take into account the broader developments with respect to local government reform which are underway and the implications of this reform for the operation of JPCs.

I have referred to a range of approaches to help improve the environment for business, social and community activities. Of course it is important that we continue to seek improvements and in this regard the Minister is aware of the Purple Flag initiative which has been established in a various parts of Britain and Northern Ireland.  The Minister understands that plans are in train to introduce the initiative in this jurisdiction with Dublin City centre and Ennis taking a leading role and accreditation also being sought in Newbridge and Dundalk.  The Minister is informed that the Garda authorities are actively engaging with relevant stakeholders involved in this and other similar initiatives around the country.  No doubt Senators will share the Minister’s interest in the continuing development of such initiatives to help contribute to crime reduction, the management of the night time economy and community safety generally. 

The Minister is conscious that many of the issues which this type of programme is seeking to deal with stem from concerns about public disorder and anti-social behaviour on our streets, particularly at night time.  While concerns about crime are fully understandable they should be seen in the context of a fall in most categories of recorded crime, including homicide, public order and assault over the past year.

Notwithstanding incidences of some entirely unacceptable violent behaviour on our streets, it is important that we do not create the impression that Irish urban centres are more affected by public order problems than those in other countries. Public order problems, particularly at night, can be associated with any major city or town the world over and, unfortunately, Irish towns and cities are no exception.  The Gardaí are using the strong powers available to them to deal with public disorder. In addition Gardaí implement a range of strategies such as the Garda Youth Diversion Projects to encourage some of those who may become involved in anti-social behaviour to channel their energies in a more constructive fashion.

However, dealing with anti-social behaviour is not simply about policing. We know that much of the violence is fuelled by people drinking to excess and taking illegal drugs. This problem is not simply a matter of law and order. This is an issue which requires action by parents, by educators and by those who sell alcohol, not only in public houses, but right across the retail sector.

Burglaries and Crimes against the Elderly

The Minister and the Garda Commissioner are acutely aware of the concerns which exist about the incidence of burglaries, and also the corrosive effect which the fear of crime can have on community morale.  In particular, we are all concerned about the impact on elderly and more vulnerable people.  In response to this situation, Operation Fiacla was set up by the Garda Commissioner and is particularly focused on identifying and targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries around the country.  Specific burglary related initiatives have also been implemented in each Garda Region to target suspect offenders. In the period from April 2012 to the end of December 2012 Operation Fiacla resulted in 3,538 persons being arrested and 1,924 persons being charged, showing that the Garda Commissioner is effectively deploying the substantial resources available to confront those engaged in this form of criminality. Furthermore, the latest quarterly figures for burglary suggest that Operation Fiacla is having an impact, when compared with the quarterly figures prior to its introduction.

On behalf of the Minister I can assure this House that An Garda Síochána is taking all available measures to respond to this type of crime, and especially to the shocking incidents of aggravated burglary which we have seen recently.  While clearly any statistical improvements are no consolation to those who have had to endure dreadful experiences at the hands of burglars, it is only fair to the Gardaí to mention that the most recent crime figures show that the number of aggravated burglaries had fallen compared with the previous 12 months.


Community Policing and Partnership Programmes

Similarly, the Minister concurs with the sentiment expressed in the motion that community based initiatives are very much strengthened by the deployment of strong and effective community policing.  Community policing is at the heart of policing in Ireland. This point has been consistently emphasised by the Garda Commissioner and Commissioner's Annual Policing Plan for 2013 highlights the importance of An Garda Síochána working with communities to tackle behaviour that affects the public’s quality of life.

The Garda National Model of Community Policing aims at building upon and enhancing good community policing practice. It recognises the need for dedicated community police officers, of which there are more than 1,000 countrywide.  It is also worth emphasising, as the National Model does, that all Gardaí have a role to play in community policing.

This enhanced community policing service is monitored closely by the Commissioner and his senior management team. The National Model plays a key part in responding to crime by taking into account and responding to local conditions and needs.  In this regard the Gardaí continue to work closely with all communities to enhance community safety through a wide range of local fora such as Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch. The Minister is pleased that the motion acknowledges the important work that has been done under these programmes over the years and that it underlines the need to sustain and build on this partnership approach into the future. 

The Department of Justice and Equality, along with the HSE, has for many years supported the work of the Community Alert programme, which was set up in 1985 by Muintir na Tíre in association with the Garda authorities.  This programme has since developed into a national movement comprising over 1,300 local groups which work with the Gardaí to promote crime prevention and improve the security of older and vulnerable persons in the community. 

Community Alert harnesses, in a modern context, the qualities of neighbourliness and mutual support which have long been characteristic of community life in Ireland. This can also be said of the Neighbourhood Watch programme which operates with the close support of the Gardaí throughout the community.  The Minster, in association with the Garda Commissioner, will shortly launch a new Garda publication containing advice for those wishing to set up a Community Alert or Neighbourhood Watch group in their area, and the support which their local community Gardaí will provide. These new Guidelines take account of societal changes which have occurred since the initial schemes were established and provide a step by step ‘how to’ guide on establishing future schemes. They also enhance both individual and community participation in crime prevention.  I would also like to acknowledge at this point the excellent range of crime prevention advice which is available from the Gardaí, in print or on-line, or direct from community policing officers and which contains practical advice that all can take to protect themselves from crime.

Garda Resources
Of course, there are changes to the way policing is being managed and the Minister appreciates that people have concerns about these, concerns which are reflected in today’s motion. The overall objective is to ensure that, at all times, the best possible policing service is provided to the public and communities right across the country. In this regard the appropriate deployment of Garda resources has been enhanced by new Garda rostering arrangements which were introduced last year. As a result, Gardaí can be on duty at the times of the day when they are most needed.

Some critics have complained that the closure of some Garda stations will save only small amounts of money, but this misses the key point.  This particular issue is about smart policing and the most efficient and effective deployment of Garda resources. There have been significant advances in modern policing, transport and technology and the work of the Garda Síochána and the station network must reflect this current situation and not the situation in 1922.  The Commissioner, in his Policing Plan for 2013, has announced the closure of 100 stations. Even after these closures, there will still be 564 stations throughout the country which is comparably more than in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

The Garda Síochána now has a class-leading police computer system, a state-of-the-art digital radio system and a transport fleet which is currently receiving significant investment. An additional investment of €3m in the Garda fleet towards the end of 2012 has resulted in over 170 new vehicles being purchased.  These vehicles are currently entering into service.  A further €5m has been made available for the purchase and fit-out of new Garda vehicles in 2013.  The Minister is very conscious of the importance of transport for the Garda Síochána, as called for in today’s motion.  On this basis, and despite the very serious economic difficulties, he has sought and secured extra finance to enable the Force to acquire a substantial number of new vehicles. 

The Garda Commissioner is confident that the implementation of the restructuring proposals contained in the 2013 Policing Plan will not lead to any diminution in the service provided by An Garda Síochána. The Minster will remain in dialogue with his colleague the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the issue of Garda resources, but what is vital now is that the still significant resources of the Force are used with maximum efficiency and to the greatest effect.  That is why the reforms being introduced by the Garda Commissioner are essential and should be supported by all members of the House.

Community Development

The motion also touches on broader issues in relation to community development.  In this regard, on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I would like to call attention to a number of programmes, beginning with the National Regeneration Programme which targets the country’s most disadvantaged communities.  Regeneration seeks to rebuild these communities by addressing not just the physical environment in which they live but also by investing in the social and economic life of the areas in question. 

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government currently supports an ambitious programme of regeneration projects, including large scale projects in areas such as Ballymun and Limerick, and smaller scale projects at particular locations around the country. The holistic, multi-agency approach which characterises these projects ensures that regeneration is sustainable, beyond just the initial construction phases, and generates long-term advantages.

The on-going importance of the National Regeneration Programme cannot be underestimated, not just from a social policy perspective but also in terms of the job creation and economic renewal.  The value placed on the national regeneration programme is explicitly recognised in the Programme for Government and despite the current Exchequer constraints, funding for regeneration continues to be prioritised within the overall social housing programme.

A key objective of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the facilitation of integrated development at local level; to foster vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communities and to support the Community and Voluntary Sector in its contribution to an active, democratic and pluralist society.

In the pursuit of that objective, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government funds a range of programmes and initiatives to support communities including the Local and Community Development Programme (LCDP) and the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013 (RDP). 

Also of particular relevance to today’s motion is the Seniors Alert Scheme, which provides important support for elderly people.  Under this scheme funding of €2.35m has now been allocated by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2013 for the purchase and installation of socially monitored alarms.  The Scheme successfully supports independent living for people over 65.  The involvement of local voluntary and community organisations consolidates the on-going contact by those groups with older people and helps to highlight their home safety needs. The scheme provides an additional measure of support to many people who may also benefit from the work of Community Alert, Neighbourhood Watch and Community Gardaí.


Local Authority Powers to compel action in relation to private lands

Both the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government note the issues which are raised in the motion in relation to powers to enter and compel actions on private lands.

I understand that local authorities have some powers to enter lands and private property or compel actions on private lands, for instance under the Housing Acts 1966 to 2009, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, the Litter Pollution Act 1997-2009 and the Waste Management Act 1996-2011.

The Action Programme for Effective Local Government – Putting People First, promotes the allocation of additional powers to local authorities.    Reforms in relation to local authority structures, governance, finance and operational arrangements set out in this Action Programme will place local government in a stronger position to take on additional functions.  However, such additional functions would have to be compatible with the role of local government generally and be matters that local authorities are well positioned to perform effectively.

Clearly, the legal and other implications of this particular suggestion will need to be considered further, as the motion suggests.

Conclusion

The wide ranging motion we are debating today touches on many vital issues that affect the quality of community life.

To summarise, in relation to the policing aspects of the motion, it is the Government's intention to ensure that frontline services are maintained at the highest level possible through the most efficient use of resources.  The Commissioner has the Minister’s full support in this regard and he is confident that everyone in the Garda Síochána will continue to deliver an effective police service to all of our communities.

The Government also remains committed to optimising the engagement between public bodies, in particular the Gardaí, local authorities, and business and community stakeholders to help address the range of issues which are encompassed in today’s motion.  In relation to local community supports, a key principle is to enable communities themselves to identify and address social and economic issues in their own areas.  Greater effectiveness and efficiencies in the delivery of local services is a priority and enhancing the role of local government in local and community development is central to this.

On the Minister’s behalf, I greatly welcome the initiative of Senators in bringing forward this motion, and I am very pleased to listen to your valued contributions to this debate, which I will of course share with the Ministers. 

23 January 2013

ENDS