This Bill represents a very important reform for our country in terms of justice. For the first time ever we will have a new policing authority, which will be independent and will oversee the structures and performance of An Garda. I concur completely with the Minister’s observation that the establishment of the new policing authority is “the most far reaching reform of An Garda Síochána since the foundation of the State”.
An Garda Síochána was established in 1922 but for several decades there was no external scrutiny of the force. The Garda Complaints Board set up in 1984 was the first attempt at providing for external scrutiny. However, it was not until the Garda Síochána Act 2005 that we saw the establishment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Síochána Inspectorate. The intervening decade has provided the time to reflect the institutions tasked with the external scrutiny of An Garda.
It must be remembered that the relationship between the police service, the public it serves and the Government is not an issue that is unique to Ireland.
These matters are challenges for all democratic states and it is healthy for a democracy to conduct periodic reviews of the relationship to identify what works well and, perhaps more importantly, what is not working.
Within this Bill, I believe, are measures which will restore confidence in An Garda Síochána and draw a line under misdeeds by a very small number of the force which involved issues such as penalty points, investigations into crimes and the recording of telephone calls. Significant work has been invested in the preparation of the Bill. It is important to note that the Bill draws on the comprehensive report of the independent review group of the Department of Justice and Equality in areas of relevance to the Garda. It also adopts some of the recommendations made by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in October last in that committee’s review of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
The powers to be ascribed to the new authority are substantial. The authority will, for example, appoint Garda superintendents and assistant commissioners and, conversely, will have the power to remove such personnel for reasons related to policing services. The authority will also have a number of important roles in conjunction with the Minister for Justice and Equality, including the ratification of the annual policing plan and the three-year Garda strategy, as well as determining the priorities for the policing service.
Part 5 of the Bill is of considerable importance. These sections deal with accountability and set out in no uncertain terms the obligations concerning the communications of the parties involved, such as the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Garda Commissioner and the head of the authority. Setting out obligations in such minute detail may be viewed as unnecessary by some, but I believe it is essential if the new policing authority is to operate effectively and if we are to avoid the miscommunication and confusion of the past.
Another interesting section of the Bill is section 29, through which the new authority will take responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of joint policing committees, JPCs. I served on the joint policing committee for County Galway and I am currently a member of the JPC for Galway city. In my view, the JPCs are undervalued in how they provide a forum for issues of public concern to be raised. The committee meetings are regularly monitored by media and provide an excellent platform for consultation and co-operation on policing matters at community level.
Like others, I acknowledge the increase in resources for An Garda Síochána, in terms of both Garda numbers, with the reopening of Templemore and the hiring of Garda recruits, and investment in Garda vehicles. Obviously, that was most necessary to maintain the force and retain proper vehicles to allow the force to police effectively. I note there is much concern, particularly in rural areas, about the visibility of the Garda. It is imperative that the force be out and about. Vehicles are seen as a deterrent to crime.
This Bill setting up the new independent policing authority should not be viewed in isolation. It forms part of a number of important, but often overlooked, measures that the Government has passed. These include the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, which provides a framework for whistleblowers to raise issues of importance or concern. This has relevance for An Garda Síochána, but also for civil society, business and other areas. Another important reform is the Freedom of Information Act 2014, which brought An Garda Síochána under the remit of the freedom of information legislation for the first time. Freedom of information legislation is widely acknowledged as being essential for transparency and openness.
These reforms and the far-reaching reforms contained in this Bill provide an opportunity for change that will enhance the police service and assist members in their important work but also provide for greater transparency and accountability, which are measures I would hope everyone in the House and outside support. I commend the Minister for her work on this important landmark Bill.