I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, to the House and I welcome the publication of the Bill. It is an important one with the potential to combat the scourge of burglary. As the courts have said, burglary is a serious act of aggression and attack on the personal rights of the citizen. It is a traumatic event for a person to endure and it often has repercussions and consequences long after the crime has been committed.
As a society we need to ask questions of our communities, political system, education system, economic system and the behaviour of people towards one another, all of which are factors in the persistence of burglary. Certainly, there have been some horrific cases in the not-too-distant past.
Looking at the crime statistics over the last dozen years for my own county of Galway, it is clear that the incidence of burglary has fluctuated around the 1,000 per year mark. It is a similar picture for the western region which, for the purpose of compiling statistics on crime, comprises Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Longford and Clare. Last month, An Garda Síochána in Galway noted that the 2015 rate of burglaries is down 7% on the 2014 rate.
One burglary is one too many, but the issue is unfortunately being used to stoke fears and to fill column inches, web pages and current affairs programmes. While burglaries are a serious problem which we must tackle, the picture of complete lawlessness that some are working hard to create is not an accurate one.
Crime is being tackled through a mix of resources and legislative changes. By the end of 2015, the Government will have spent over €34 million since 2012 on Garda vehicles. In 2015 alone, the investment has brought 640 new Garda vehicles to communities across the country. Funding has also been provided for new specialised vehicles to support front-line gardaí responding to crimes, including burglaries by highly mobile gangs. The reopening of Templemore Garda College by the Minister for Justice and Equality, the recruitment of 550 new gardaí in 2014 and the recruitment of 600 more as highlighted in budget 2016 are welcome.
An additional allocation of €5 million has been made for the anti-crime and burglary plan, Operation Thor. The plan involves the use of high-powered vehicles by regional armed-response units, increased use of checkpoints and additional patrols with the particular aim of combating highly mobile gangs using motorways and national roads for burglaries. It also includes crime awareness and prevention and enhanced support for victims.
On top of this welcome investment are legislative changes which are a necessary component of tackling burglaries. Issues such as bail, the type and length of custodial sentences and legal aid are regularly raised by constituents. They are complex issues which require a thorough examination because of the competing rights of the different people concerned. Legal aid is important for the fair and transparent administration of justice, which is not to say that there are not abuses of the system. Rather, it is a recognition that the right to legal representation is a crucial one. However, I note that it aggrieves many that there are multiple repeat offenders who get free legal aid on every occasion. Whether there needs to be a system whereby some moneys can be taken from social welfare for repeat offenders might be something to consider.
The issue of bail is also raised regularly but it is associated with the fundamental element of our criminal justice system which is the presumption of innocence. I welcome the publication of the general scheme of the new bail Bill which will consolidate the law around bail.
It is clear that changes to this area are being considered carefully and thoroughly. In this respect, I am encouraged that the Minister initiated a review of the criminal justice system’s response to the problem of domestic burglaries. The Bill seeks to address the two problems identified. The first is the problem of repeat offenders. Garda statistics show that three quarters of burglaries are being committed by one quarter of burglars. The same few are causing trauma for the householders affected by this category of crime. Section 1 of the Bill will address this by ensuring that previous relevant offences are taken into account and that bail should be refused in cases of repeat and serial offenders. The review identified the problem of relatively short custodial sentences and the running of sentences concurrently. As a result and to act as a greater deterrent, section 2 inserts a new section 54A into the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001. Under defined conditions, persons committing burglary offences will be given consecutive custodial sentences.
The home is the place where one should feel most safe and secure. This ideal is enshrined in our Constitution and held dearly. I am confident that the Bill and the extra resources for Gardaí which I have highlighted will reinforce this ideal and support it by reducing the number of burglaries in Galway and other areas nationally. I welcome the publication of the Bill.