Second Stage Speech by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality
Tuesday, 27 May 2014
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014 which has been introduced by Deputy Wallace.
The tabling of the Bill comes as debate continues on the various matters addressed in the report to Government by Mr Sean Guerin and other recent issues of concern.
We discussed these matters most recently two weeks ago in the course of the statements on the Guerin Report.
Earlier this month I attended the annual Garda Memorial Day in the Dubhlinn Gardens at Dublin Castle to honour the memory of members who have been killed in the line of duty. I again wish to acknowledge the substantial contribution of the Garda Síochána and its members, notably in preserving the security of the State.
It is essential that members of the public have full confidence in how the Gardaí carry out their functions; which include exercising very extensive powers and responsibilities.
However… currently… and regrettably… this confidence has been undermined.
As Minister for Justice, it is my objective to both restore confidence in the work of an Garda Síochána; and to fully support the men and women of an Garda Síochána in fulfilling their duties to keep our communities and country safe.
The Guerin report contains deeply disturbing findings.
The Government immediately announced its intention to establish a Commission of Investigation to examine specific items identified for further investigation by Mr Guerin.
The Government has also initiated a comprehensive programme of reform to address the wider systemic failings which have emerged from the report.
The spectrum of issues that must be addressed is complex and deep-rooted, ranging from high-level issues such as oversight, change management and the role of whistle-blowers; to local administration and internal communication; to matters of basic policing, performance and human resources.
This is not about change for its own sake.
It requires comprehensive and sustained corrective action… to address all the relevant matters.
Otherwise we will not achieve the objective of providing this country with the police force that it needs, operating to the highest professional standards, ready to meet current and emerging challenges.
Specifically, as I advised the House two weeks ago:
· Future appointments to the position of Garda Commissioner will be by way of open competition;
· The Garda Inspectorate is to carry out a comprehensive inquiry into serious crime investigation, management, operational and procedural issues arising from the findings of the report by Mr Guerin, taking into account the implementation of recommendations already made by the Inspectorate in earlier reports and also work currently under way by the Inspectorate;
· An independent expert review of the performance, management and administration of the Department of Justice will be undertaken; and
· Amendments to the Protected Disclosures Bill will be enacted to enable a Garda whistleblower to report their concerns to GSOC.
Furthermore, with specific respect to GSOC, I can confirm to the House that a new Bill will be introduced at an early date to strengthen the remit and powers of the Ombudsman Commission. Some of the measures that are being considered here are bringing the Garda Commissioner within the scope of the complaints that can be dealt with by GSOC, the capacity of GSOC to initiate reviews of Garda practice and procedure without reference to the Minister for Justice and Equality, and the police powers it can exercise when conducting investigations.
The Government’s programme of reform also involves the establishment of an Independent Garda Authority.
The Government has signalled that the new body is intended to be in operation by the end of the year. This development will bring about the most fundamental change in governance arrangements for the Garda Síochána since its foundation.
As Deputies will appreciate such a significant reform requires equally significant deliberation and consideration.
A new Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform, chaired by the Taoiseach, has been established to oversee the development of the proposals for the independent Garda authority and other associated reforms of the policing and justice systems. As part of its activities the Cabinet Committee has initiated a public consultation process, inviting views on a range of issues, including the new authority and matters relating to GSOC.
In addition, the members of this House will appreciate that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is undertaking work along similar lines. Very recently it has commenced hearing submissions from interested parties, including GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Representative Associations. I understand that further hearings are planned for tomorrow.
I strongly support the need for the full engagement of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas in this programme of deliberations.
The Government supports the underlying principles behind the Bill introduced by Deputy Wallace.
This Bill provides an early opportunity to reflect on some of the key questions involved in establishing the Authority, for example, matters relating to the composition of the board
Without wishing to express any definitive opinion on the question of the membership of the oversight body to be established in respect of the Garda Síochána, I must admit that I would have concerns that office holders whose functions could involve the scrutiny of policing activities should also have a significant role in directing the Garda Síochána, as proposed in Deputy Wallace’s Bill.
While I appreciate the sentiment behind the approach the Deputy has adopted in his Bill, the potential for conflicts of jurisdiction is obvious and I do not think that some of the individual office-holders named in the Deputy’s Bill should be placed in a position where such conflicts could arise.
The members of this House will appreciate that An Garda Síochána is also the security and intelligence service for the State. This is a further issue I believe that has to be the focus of particular attention. It goes without saying that it is a vital area for the country and for everyone in it.
Under the Deputy’s Bill the functions of the proposed policing board would extend to the security field. This is one of a number of specific topics that is currently being addressed by the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform. Pending the consideration of its conclusions by the Government I do not propose to express a view on the approach that should be adopted with regard to security matters. However, I would emphasise that it is a very important matter that requires detailed examination with reference to any new Garda oversight legislation.
As I have indicated, the Government has made an absolute commitment to bring forward legislation as a matter of urgency to establish a new independent Garda authority.
That is why the Government has decided that it will not oppose the Bill at Second Stage, as it is broadly aimed at the same objective. However, it is critical that, in what will be the most important development in the governance and oversight of the Garda Síochána in its history, we get this right. We need to consider very carefully what approach should be taken in relation to the composition and appointment of the authority, its powers and functions, its relationship with the Minister for Justice and Government and more generally its accountability. These are serious issues that require the most serious deliberation and this is a process that is well under way, under the guidance of the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform, which is chaired by the Taoiseach.
We are treating these issues, therefore, with the seriousness and the urgency they deserve. This will see the introduction of two Bills, one to enhance the powers and remit of GSOC and one to establish the independent Garda authority. I very much look forward to debating these proposals with Deputies.