The Garda Commissioner has strongly criticised the proposed new Policing and Security Bill, which he says grants powers to the Garda Ombudsman that are disproportionate, unconstitutional and would not withstand a challenge in court.

Drew Harris said the bill would introduce "a wide range of oversight bodies" with clashing and conflicting remits that would see the commissioner spend more time reporting to these bodies than "overseeing policing and security matters and the leadership and direction" of the force.

The bill, he said, would also outsource key areas of control from the commissioner to different oversight bodies and will not create an accountable, trusted and effective police service.

Commissioner Harris told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that An Garda Síochána is seeking to ensure the bill more accurately reflects the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing so that gardaí can continue to keep people safe.

The Policing and Security Bill aims to make the safety of communities a "whole of government" responsibility, enhance the internal governance of the Garda and strengthen independent external oversight.

Commissioner Harris said the bill would also effectively "outsource" key control areas such as "budget, discipline, standards and policing operations" from the commissioner to different oversight bodies, which he said would lead to "micromanagement" and the "erosion of operational independence".

He is particularly concerned about proposed new legal powers to be given to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) to investigate all garda staff, including civilians.

Investigations, he said, "could run for years" and "without any obligation" on GSOC to inform a garda what they were being investigated for, whether criminal or misconduct.

The commissioner may also be unaware of investigations related to serious matters, he added.

Mr Harris said there would not be sufficient "judicial oversight" of these investigations or "any mechanism for garda personnel" to complain to an independent body about how these were being conducted.

As well as being "incredibly stressful", the commissioner said, this would appear to be "a flagrant breach of human rights".

"These powers are disproportionate, unconstitutional and will not withstand an expensive and time consuming test in the courts."

Commissioner Harris has met the Minister for Justice and department officials and outlined his concerns.

He described the discussions as productive and insisted that An Garda Síochána supports accountability, oversight and the independent investigation of public complaints.

He agreed with the view of the Commission on the Future of Policing that garda oversight bodies should be streamlined and should not micromanage or impinge on the "operational independence" of the commissioner.

"As it stands", he said, the bill does not deliver "a transparent, accountable, trusted and effective policing service for the future".

Commissioner's concerns 'overstated' - ICCL

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has said it believes the Garda Commissioner's concerns are "overstated".

The council, which also made a submission to the Oireachtas Justice Committee, said it strongly welcomes the provisions for reformed police oversight mechanisms in the bill which it said are proportionate and not inconsistent with the constitution.

It said it supports the new powers proposed for GSOC which it believed will provide for the effective, fair, and impartial handling of serious complaints on garda behaviour while providing for more procedural safeguards and oversight of the ombudsman.

It also supports the provisions in relation to searches of garda premises whereby a designated officer can search a premises, such as a station or an office, without a warrant.

The ICCL called on the Government to provide for wholly unannounced visits to garda stations and other places where people are deprived of liberty, unconnected to a "planned inspection".

This, the council said, is an important safeguard against abuse and a requirement under the United Nations Convention against Torture (OPCAT) which the Government must ratify and implement as a matter of urgency.

The ICCL recommended that all prosecutorial powers from be removed from gardaí as both victims and accused people have the right for their case to be prosecuted by an impartial legal professional.

It said the Garda Code of Ethics should expressly include human rights standards and that a breach of the code should be a disciplinary offence.

It also said the force's Anti-Corruption Unit is of no relevance to the external oversight mechanisms provided for in the bill and that corruption allegations must be independently investigated by an independent office.

This evening's committee meeting was the first of two sessions as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill 2021.

Policing Authority criticises policing and security bill

The Policing Authority has described the proposed policing and security bill as "a significant step back" on oversight.

Its chairman Bob Collins says the authority is concerned about returning responsibility to An Garda Síochána for determining the policing plan which it says is a significant shift of policy and practice and weakens oversight.

Mr Collins says termination of the authority's role in appointments is a major change of direction and it is not clear why these steps are being taken.

The authority also says it is worried that this bill will convey the wrong messages about policing and will be seen as a backward step.