Rural crime may not be as bad as perceived says Laois TD and Minister

Conor Ganly

Reporter:

Conor Ganly

Email:

news@leinsterexpress.ie

garda rural crime

Minister Charlie Flanagan and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

Rural crime may not be as bad as people think, according to Laois TD and the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

Outlining actions taken by the Government and Gardaí in the fight against criminals, Minister Flanagan also made clear that he was aware of the impact but said that the reality is not as bad as perceived.

He was speaking to a motion put down by independent TDs on crime in rural areas.

"As a Minister who represents a large constituency which is primarily rural in nature, I am very familiar with the concerns of people living in rural Ireland.  And I know the impact that crime and the fear of crime can have on people – but I would stress that crime is not a rural phenomenon, indeed, crime rates are much lower in rural Ireland," he said.

He referenced a recent survey which said only 18% of respondents considered crime in their local area to be a very serious or serious problem.

"I do not and would not understate the concerns of individuals or communities with respect to the prevalence of crime and there are many possible factors which generate a fear of crime and which ought to be addressed.  Nonetheless, it is clear that there can be a disparity between the perception and actual occurrence of crime," said the Fine Gael Minister.

Nevertheless, he said that between  November 2015 and November 2018, there have been 168,630 targeted checkpoints and 243,277 crime prevention patrols nationwide. He said €1.76 billion has been provided to An Garda Síochána in 2019 and some 21,000 gardaí will be on the beat by 2021.

Text of speech by Minister for Justice and Equality in response to Independent TDs Private Members Motion on Rural Crime  in Dáil Éireann on January 155, 2019

A Cheann Comhairle,

I am pleased to be here this evening to discuss this motion on rural crime and I thank the Independent Deputies for providing an opportunity for the House to address these issues tonight. As a Minister who represents a large constituency which is primarily rural in nature, I am very familiar with the concerns of people living in rural Ireland.  And I know the impact that crime and the fear of crime can have on people – but I would stress that crime is not a rural phenomenon, indeed, crime rates are much lower in rural Ireland.

The Government has decided to put down a counter-motion this evening for a variety of reasons which I will outline in due course.  I am pleased to have the opportunity to highlight the scope of An Garda Síochána’s response to rural crime, which has been underpinned by the provision of significant – indeed, unprecedented - Government resources in recent years. However, I sincerely believe that all Deputies in this House are working towards a similar goal of achieving safer communities for all our citizens and so in this context I look forward to a constructive debate this evening and I look forward to listening to all contributions by Deputies.

As the House is aware, the Government is totally committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. The evidence of this commitment is not hard to find - since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 2,400 recruits have attested as Members of An Garda Síochána and been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide. This accelerated recruitment of Gardaí saw Garda numbers reach almost 14,000 by the end of 2018, with Garda numbers expected to be in the region of 21,000 by 2021. Furthermore, a total budget of €1.76 billion has been provided to An Garda Síochána in 2019, an increase of over €100 million on the 2018 allocation. This substantial investment will provide new and leading-edge technology to support our front line Gardaí in carrying out their work in both rural and urban communities.

The Programme for Government underlines the need for close engagement between An Garda Síochána and local communities and this is an essential feature of the strong community policing ethos which has long been central to policing in this jurisdiction.  As part of the overall strategy to tackle criminality, the Garda authorities pursue a range of partnership initiatives with important rural-based organisations such as the IFA, Muintir na Tire and other community organisations.  These partnerships are really valuable and I want to thank the organisations involved.

Cheann Comhairle, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I have placed a huge focus on policing.  Government recently approved my proposals on the implementation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.  These recommendations, made by a panel of well-respected experts, were made after significant consultations all around the country – and indeed internationally.  They have a core focus on a more visible Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people. 

The High Level Implementation Plan was published in December and among the recommendations to be taken forward in 2019 is the revised local policing model which will provide for more visible policing and the continued rollout of the Divisional Protective Services Units which will, of course, protect the most vulnerable in society.

In relation to the deployment of Garda resources, including personnel, to specific areas, members will appreciate that this is the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. Members will have seen that the new Commissioner has hit the ground running and he has been all over the country engaging with people in individual and community contexts.  He and Garda management constantly monitor the distribution of Garda  resources in light of crime trends and overall policing needs at local level – and this applies equally in both rural and urban areas. 

The Commissioner has publicly spoken about issues like Garda stations and he has highlighted that his priority is a policing model that will provide the best outcomes for communities.  Late last year, the Commissioner announced that he will be seeking to recruit 600 additional Gardaí next year and he will be redeploying 500 experienced officers to frontline duties.  I believe that the injection of this large number of experienced officers into the field, along with the new recruits, will be really beneficial in terms of protecting community safety.

Ceann Comhairle, as recognised in the Private Members Motion before us this evening, An Garda Síochána have responded to the type of threats that communities face through a robust and determined drive against criminals who seek to prey on vulnerable householders with the implementation of special operations such as Operation Thor.

Between  November 2015 and November 2018, we have seen over 168,630 targeted checkpoints and 243,277 crime prevention patrols nationwide. This concentrated policing activity has produced in the region of 8,837 arrests and 10,143 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, have included handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs offences nationwide.  The message to criminal gangs is abundantly clear: those who commit crime will be pursued by An Garda Síochána and they will face the courts and the full rigours of the law.

On 20 December 2018, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) published the latest crime statistics for Q3 2018.  Regrettably, a rise in robberies was recorded, while there was a welcome decrease in burglary and theft-related offences which were down 6.4% and 3.2% respectively.  I am concerned about the rise in robbery and this is an issue that will be receiving Garda attention.    The focus on the recruitment of new Gardaí and increased resourcing of An Garda Síochána, which I have already outlined, reflect this Government’s commitment to support Gardaí in the fight against crime.

I would like to refer to what is an ongoing commentary regarding the prevailing fear of crime in certain communities.  It is interesting to note that the latest Public Attitudes Survey published by An Garda Síochána for Q3 2018 indicates that 71% of people perceived national crime to be either a very serious or serious problem.  However, only 18% of respondents considered crime in their local area to be a very serious or serious problem.   I do not and would not understate the concerns of individuals or communities with respect to the prevalence of crime and there are many possible factors which generate a fear of crime and which ought to be addressed.  Nonetheless, it is clear that there can be a disparity between the perception and actual occurrence of crime.  And, in this context, I would appeal to Members and to commentators to be measured and factual in their comments on crime.

Legislation

As part of a concerted strategy to combat burglary, this Government has made it a priority to secure the enactment of specific legislation targeting prolific burglars in the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015. These provisions are now available to Gardaí to support prosecutions arising from Operation Thor.  Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act introduced the DNA database, which is a major advance and will make a big difference in assisting An Garda Síochána  with detection of burglary now and into the future. 

I know many Deputies have concerns regarding trespass and the criminal law.  I would assure members that all legislative provisions in relation to trespass remain under constant review.  While I am advised that the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 and the Prohibition of Forcible Entry and Occupation Act 1971 are sufficiently robust, I would be happy to engage with Deputies further on these matters.

Bail Law

Another area of concern for many has been the operation of our bail laws.  These laws have very recently been significantly strengthened by this Government. The Criminal Justice Act 2017 expanded the factors a court may take into account when refusing bail. These factors include previous convictions for serious offences that indicate persistent serious offending and the likelihood of any danger to a person or the community that the release of the accused on bail could cause.

The Act places a greater emphasis on the rights and the safety of victims, and of the public, in bail decisions, while continuing to safeguard the rights of the accused.

The Act provides increased guidance for the courts and greater transparency in the bail process including requiring judges to give reasons for granting or refusing bail.

A Cheann Comhairle, while we must all remain vigilant in the fight against all forms of criminality in our communities, I would like to assure the Deputies that the Garda Commissioner and I remain in ongoing contact in relation to countering new and emerging crime trends. The ongoing recruitment and redeployment of Gardaí, our energetic and community-focussed Garda Commissioner, the recent legislative improvements and the huge budgets allocated to An Garda Síochána should give confidence to Members of the House that everything possible is being done to fight crime in this country.

I look forward to a constructive debate this evening and I hope to be able to address as many issues raised as possible, if not tonight then no doubt at a later stage. 

I want, however, to be clear.  The counter-motion that I am supporting this evening is a clear statement of this Government’s commitment, in terms of actions taken and actions to be taken, to supporting and protecting communities across this country.  

Thank you.

Amendment:

 

To substitute the text after “That Dáil Éireann:” with the following:

 notes:

 - The commitment in the Programme for Government to close engagement between An Garda Síochána and local communities;

- the Government’s plan to implement the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland which has a core focus on a Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people;

- the significant financial supports provided to An Garda Síochána by this Government amounting to €1.76 billion in 2019 to ensure resources to tackle all forms of criminality, including rural crime;

- the recruitment of over 2,400 additional Gardaí since September 2014 and the commitment to recruit 600 Gardaí in 2019 and to redeploy 500 Garda officers to frontline policing duties nationwide;

- the latest CSO crime statistics for Q3 2018 which indicate a regrettable rise in robberies but a decrease in burglary, theft-related offences and damage to property incidents which were down 6.4%, 3.2% and 7.4% respectively over a 12 month period to the end of Q3 2018;

- that since Operation Thor was launched by An Garda Síochána in November 2015 burglary figures in Ireland have decreased substantially

- the successful operations carried out by An Garda Síochána nationwide and the recovery of machinery, farm equipment and other stolen property;

- That the Programme for Government commitment in relation to a Garda station pilot reopening project continues to progress and the fact that the identification of appropriate stations is a matter for the Garda Commissioner;

 recognises:

 - that there is a particular fear and concern about burglaries in rural locations;

- that Community Policing plays a key part in responding to crime by taking into account and responding to local conditions and needs;

- that a range of partnership initiatives have been established between An Garda Síochána and important rural-based organisations such as the IFA, Muintir na Tíre and other rural community organisations;

- the impact of special Garda operations to target organised crime, in particular, Operation Thor which has resulted in more than 168,630 targeted checkpoints nationwide and in the region of 8,840 arrests connected to offences including burglary; handling stolen property; possession of firearms; and drug offences;

- the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 which targets repeat burglars who have previous convictions and who are charged with multiple offences of residential burglary;

- the Criminal Justice Act 2017 has significantly strengthened Ireland’s bail laws

- the constitutional right to criminal legal aid on foot of a means test where serious legal charges are brought.

supports:

- the Government’s commitment to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime;

- the Government’s plans to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 Reserve members and 4,000 civilians;

- the unprecedented resources provided by the Government to An Garda Síochána with an allocation of €1.76 billion for 2019, an increase of over 6% over the initial allocation for 2018;

- the significant capital investment being made in An Garda Síochána, including investment of €342 million in Garda ICT infrastructure between 2016 and 2021;

- that €60 million of exchequer funding underpins the Garda Building and Refurbishment Programme, which is a 5-year programme based on agreed Garda priorities benefiting over 30 locations around the country;

- the development of 3 major new Divisional and Regional Headquarters at Galway, Wexford and Kevin Street, Dublin, each of which has entered into operational use in 2017 and 2018;

- that the Capital Plan 2016–2021 provides for an investment of €46 million the Garda fleet. This is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2013 to 2015 to ensure that the Gardaí can be mobile, visible and responsive on the roads and in the community to prevent and tackle crime;

- the 3,700 Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch Schemes nationwide;

- the Garda Text Alert Scheme as an effective means for Gardaí to communicate crime prevention information to local communities, noting that the Scheme is now offered in every Garda Division and with 164,000 subscribers and counting and in the order of 3 million text messages sent annually;

- the Minister for Justice and Equality making up to €150,000 available in 2018 to local communities who wish to apply for a rebate towards the costs associated with running their local Text Alert Scheme;

- the implementation of the recommendations contained in the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland Report, which will help maintain and enhance more visible policing and greater community engagement, address current challenges and enable An Garda Síochána to meet future challenges.

- the commitment in the Programme for Government to support investment in CCTV systems to assist in the establishment of community-based CCTV systems in local areas.

reaffirms:

- Its ongoing support An Garda Síochána and the work Gardaí do every day on behalf of the Irish people and the unique role of the Gardaí as guardians of the peace.