Significant new powers to investigate corruption and misconduct allegations against Garda officers are to be considered on Tuesday by the Cabinet, when it examines new proposed reforms.
The Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill includes dozens of changes, among them the merger of the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate and new powers for the Garda Ombudsman to carry out no-warning inspections and to begin investigations without a public complaint.
In addition, the heads of the Bill will include British-style oversight rules by a State-appointed lawyer of national security issues.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is to seek Cabinet approval for the drafting of the legislation, which will implement many of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland’s 2018 report.
The Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate, which both have broad but overlapping oversight functions, will be merged into the Policing and Community Safety Authority. This will oversee Garda performance and will have strengthened powers, including the power to carry out unannounced inspections of Garda stations. The power to carry out such inspections was previously requested by the Garda Inspectorate.
The recommendation to abolish the Policing Authority by the Commission on the Future of Policing led to two members issuing a minority opinion calling for its retention, amid charges that public transparency would be lost.
Independent investigations into Garda personnel for wrongdoing and corruption will be strengthened through reforms of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc). For the first time, Garda civilian staff, which number about 3,100, will come under the remit of Gsoc.
Gsoc will also be able to initiate investigations on its own, without having to wait for a public complaint, and its investigative procedures are to be overhauled to speed up inquiries.
Instead of a three-person commission, it will be led by a single ombudsman, giving Gsoc a more publicly identifiable leader. It will also be granted greater financial independence and will receive its own ring-fenced funding.
For the first time, an agency will be created to oversee sensitive national security matters. The highly secretive nature of such issues means Oireachtas committees are limited in their oversight roles and external bodies can be denied access to information.
The Bill will create an independent examiner of security legislation, based on the UK and Australian models. The examiner will likely be an experienced lawyer or judge who will have the power to review national security laws and to investigate specific issues within the national security infrastructure including within the Garda and Defence Forces.
It is understood they will also adjudicate requests for sensitive information from oversight bodies.
On a local level, Joint Policing Committees, which are made up of local councillors, will be abolished and replaced with community safety partnerships which will have a much broader remit and memberships. It is understood they will include local people, councillors, gardaí and other State representatives and will be able to make their own budget requests for community safety matters.
Separate legislation is being considered to allow these funds to come from assets seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Garda. Pilot community safety projects are to run for the next three years in Waterford, Longford and Dublin’s north inner city before a national rollout.
While much of the Bill will focus on restructuring Garda oversight mechanisms, the internal governance of the force will also be reformed.
The Garda Commissioner will assume the full powers of a chief executive, similar to the leadership of the HSE. Similarly, the commissioner will in turn be accountable to a non-executive statutory board.
The “prevention of harm” will be laid down as a statutory responsibility of the Garda in recognition of findings showing most of the force’s day-to-day work is taken up with non-crime related activity, such as dealing with mentally ill people and assisting vulnerable people.
It will also lay down, as a key principle, that prevention of harm is a “whole of government” responsibility. Departments and agencies, such as Tusla and the HSE, will have a statutory obligation to co-operate with the Garda and each other to improve public safety.