Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill 2023

Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill 2023

I want to join with other Deputies in acknowledging and condemning the attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell of the PSNI last week. It throws into very sharp focus what we are discussing and the reality of what we ask our police forces to do on a daily basis. There are not many other jobs where you put yourself in harm’s way in the discharge of your duty during your working day, and in the case of Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell, outside of his working day. I join other Deputies in wishing Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell a full and speedy recovery.

This is an extensive Bill and the Minister has shown himself not to be adverse to extensive Bills. The Minister and I would have dealt with the Higher Education Authority Bill, which was a mammoth Bill. In this case, even the explanatory memorandum runs to 58 pages so the Minister is to be commended on it and there is a great deal of good in this Bill. Deputies across the House, while maybe speaking to things they would like to see improved, are in favour of it.

Unfortunately it is not a short period since I was a philosophy student in University College Cork. Counting back on the years I am afraid I topped a quarter of a century but I still remember the jarring effect that a quote from Max Weber had on me. We were discussing political philosophy at the time and he distilled the following idea, which dates back far before that to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. He said that the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence. You can phrase it differently and say that the state has a monopoly on the use of force or the legitimate use of force, which might be less jarring and pejorative. We would like to think of the state in much broader terms than that but it is a facet of the state, and a defining facet in how the state interacts with the citizen.

We are lucky in this democracy that we live in a country where that legitimate use of violence or force is applied in a way that is consistent, for the most part, with our values and the liberal democracy within which we live. However, it is quite an awesome responsibility of our State and it should be treated as such and with the due respect it deserves, particularly in terms of the increasing technological capacity for the State to peer into the lives of our citizens. I readily acknowledge that in this case the State is one of the most benign actors in those technologies. There has been discussion in this House in the context of the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill of some of those potential technological advances, and I would have voiced some of my concerns during that debate, particularly in respect of facial recognition technology. As the State becomes more sophisticated in terms of the technology available, the discussion in terms of the balance we choose to strike between the individual liberty and the individual privacy of the citizen and the State’s role in acting in the public interest using the tools available to it will become ever more important, challenging and difficult to negotiate.

As I have noted previously in this Dáil, we are so fortunate to live in a State where we police by consent and we have an unarmed police force. That type of policing is enabled by all of us and our opinion of our police force. It is enabled by that high regard and trust we have in our police force to act in our best interest as citizens. In order to have that trust – and maybe I am erring too much in quoting the political philosophers – we could go back to Roman times and ask quis custodiet ipsos custodes or who watches the watchmen? A central component of this Bill is making sure we have adequate and appropriate oversight of the people who police the State. The provisions in this Bill around governance, oversight and accountability mechanisms for An Garda Síochána are important in this regard, including the creation of a non-executive board of An Garda Síochána, bord an Gharda Síochána, to support the Garda Commissioner and senior Garda management, and to hold them accountable for their performance; the restructuring of the existing three-person Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, into a police ombudsman and deputy police ombudsman model with a clear and publicly identifiable head and expanded remit; and the updating and streamlining of the existing system for the handling of allegations of wrongdoing concerning An Garda Síochána members, and its extension to civilian Garda Síochána staff.

I know the joint Oireachtas committee gave this Bill detailed pre-legislative scrutiny, and scanning through the recommendations, it is clear it was anxious that these facets of the Bill were right. I will pick out three of those recommendations. The committee recommended that we evaluate the accountability structures, particularly in terms of the various bodies to which the Commissioner must be accountable and the time it will take the Commissioner to account to these different bodies. It recommended that the roles of the board of An Garda Síochána and the policing and community safety authority should be clarified under heads 11 and 104 respectively to avoid any duplication of roles. I listened carefully to the contribution of Deputy Berry on this and he is right; the Garda Síochána is not a business and it cannot be run like one. We need to make sure that if we are borrowing some tools from that world, which may increase the efficiency or oversight of An Garda Síochána, they should be appropriate to use in this context. The committee also recommended that we ensure the investigative powers of the Garda Ombudsman are fully compliant with the human rights and constitutional rights of Garda members.

It is important that regardless of however GSOC is reformed, it works for everybody involved. It has to work for members of the public and the Garda and I am not sure that is currently the case. Some of the manner in which one arrives at GSOC is a little too labyrinthine. I have spoken to our spokesperson on justice, Deputy Costello, on this and there is a need to make sure, for the Garda as well as members of the public, that GSOC works.

I want to raise another issue that Deputies have mentioned and which was brought to my attention by Fórsa representatives. This relates to the provisions in section 54 of the Bill, which is around the changing of the employment status of a number of Garda civilians from civil servants to public servants. It seems that a large majority of civil servants working in An Garda Síochána have reservations about this reclassification. I was a public servant, a teacher, which is a role I was specifically trained for.

I knew getting into it that I was going to remain a teacher for as long as I remained in that career pathway. There are people who have chosen to work in An Garda Síochána as civil servants who want to have that flexibility and to be able to move between different roles within the Civil Service. I understand the Minister has undertaken to engage with Fórsa about this, which is welcome. The people who have come to me have made their concerns known in a genuine way and I think they are legitimate concerns. I am glad the Minister has given that undertaking.

The community policing aspect of this Bill is very important and goes back to the idea and principle of policing by consent. One reason the Garda is so well regarded in Ireland is that gardaí are known to us. We know our local gardaí and our local community gardaí, if we are lucky enough to have them. My grandfather was a garda and was known to the community for the right reasons, I hope. The explanatory memorandum states that community safety may be understood as relating to improving the “safety and perception of safety in communities through collaboration between relevant Departments of State and public service bodies at national and local level and to provide for community engagement in the prevention of crime and harm.” It is quite a mouthful. It is a fair amount of Civil Service speak to describe something we understand in a far more straightforward and simple way, which is that when our gardaí are more visible and known within our communities, people feel safer and rates of crime go down. This is especially important for younger people in some of our more disadvantaged communities. The importance of the community garda in that respect cannot be understated. The best community gardaí, especially when properly resourced, help keep kids out of trouble. To put it quite simply, they help prevent them starting down a road that leads to places we do not want our young people ending up in and can have lifelong consequences because once you start down that road of getting involved in criminal activities, it is difficult and challenging to turn your life around.

The Garda is one of the public expressions of our State. The regard we hold our gardaí in is a mirror we hold up to ourselves as a society. In general, we are a kind and fair society. It is important we continue to be a kind and fair society and to police by consent, with the goodwill of the people supporting An Garda Síochána. There are some very useful provisions in this Bill that move in the right direction. I thank the Minister for bringing it forward.