A Cathaoirleach, thank you.
We have had an interesting debate on this topic over the last two days. .
To conclude, while not wanting to recap on all the issues raised by the Minister, the model proposed in the Bill does not have due regard to the existence of a national police force in this jurisdiction which is not only the police service but also the security and intelligence service, as well as the border control authority of the State. In his opposition to the Bill, the Minister voiced his concerns that the proposal to transfer key oversight functions of the Garda Síochána to a separate unelected body would not improve the democratic accountability of the Force. It is the fact that the Garda Síochána Act 2005 provides that the Garda Commissioner is accountable to the Minister for the performance of his functions and those of the Force and the Minister in turn is accountable to this House. The Commissioner, as Accounting Officer for the Force, is also liable to appear before the Public Accounts Committee. It is noteworthy that experience in the UK for example is moving away from the type of structure proposed in the Bill to systems aimed at more democratic accountability linked to elected representatives, in tandem of course, with an independent body to investigate allegations of misconduct.
The Bill also calls for enhanced Garda measures on human rights. It is indeed appropriate that we debate Garda responsibilities on human rights and the policies developed to meet these. There have been a number of developments within An Garda Síochána in recent years designed to put regard for human rights at the core of policing in Ireland. One of the functions of the Garda Síochána, under section 7 of the 2005 Act, is to vindicate the human rights of each individual. Arising from this requirement, all Garda policy is drafted in accordance with Human Rights Principles and all operational Garda Directives now make reference to the relevant human rights principles. Accordingly, the application of human rights is a core objective of the Force. This work is supported by advice from the Strategic Human Rights Committee of the Garda Síochána whose membership includes NGO experts in human rights.
The Bill seeks an enhanced role for the Joint Policing Committees. A number of Deputies brought their own personal and positive experience of working with these Committees to the fore in the debate on the Bill. The Minister awaits the outcome of the review of the JPCs which is underway and I expect that we can look forward to improved operating guidelines for their work providing, in particular, for an enhanced communication role at both local and national levels.
In presenting the Bill, some Deputies referred to whistlebolowing provisions for members of the Garda Síochána. As you will be aware, the Programme for Government contains a commitment to enhance whistlebolowing provisions. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform recently published the Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 which provides for robust protection to whistleblowing employees generally, across both the public and private sectors. Section 19 of that Bill provides for the making of regulations relating to protected disclosures by members of the Garda Síochána. This provision will provide the availability of enhanced procedures to members of the Garda Síochána who wish to raise matters of concern.
I would like to comment on two issues in the Bill. Firstly, a number of Deputies commented that certain forms of harm, including torture and rape, were not covered under section 102 of the 2005 Act. Section 102 requires the Garda Commissioner to refer to the Ombudsman Commission ‘any matter’ where it appears that the behaviour of a member ‘may have resulted in the death of, or serious harm to, a person’ and ‘serious harm’ is comprehensively defined. But it is important to understand that this is a neutral, automatic referral mechanism. In other words, the Commissioner does not have to decide whether any wrongdoing might be involved. So, for example, a death arising from a straightforward car accident would be covered under this provision. The scenarios outlined by some Deputies, concerning incidents of torture or rape, are of an entirely different order and would fall to be investigated as serious criminal allegations. In this regard, the other provisions of the Act relating to the Ombudsman Commission would be relevant.
Secondly, the Bill is seeking the extension of the time limit for making complaints to the Ombudsman Commission from six months to one year. Section 84(2) of the 2005 Act already provides that the Ombudsman Commission may extend the time limit if it considers there are good reasons for so doing, but clearly for practical reasons including the public interest in investigating incidents as soon as possible there must be a reasonable time-frame within which to make a complaint. It is also the case that proposals from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission for amendments to part 4 of the 2005 Act are under consideration and these proposals are the starting point for any revision to their oversight role.
To conclude, I would like to thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate on the Bill. I fully agree with the Minister’s acknowledgement yesterday of the genuine objectives behind the Bill, but conclude that the Bill cannot, for the reasons stated during the debate, be supported.
Thank you, a Cathaoirleach.