Priority Questions

Expenditure Reviews

Dara Calleary

Question:

38 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the status of his negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in relation to the overrun on Garda costs for the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama; the measures that have been proposed to make up that overrun; if he will guarantee that no services to the public will suffer as a result of this overrun; and the way he intends to ensure that this will happen. [31363/11]

I have previously provided the House with details of the Garda costs that have arisen from the State visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama in May of this year. In that regard, Deputies will be aware that the relevant expenditure is approximately €36 million. I appreciate that this figure is substantial but I believe the visits provided this country with substantial benefits, which far outweigh the financial element involved. Additionally, unprecedented security measures had to be put in place and the safety of our visitors had to be the top priority.

Funding for the State visits was not provided for in the Garda Vote for 2011 because the visits had not been planned when the current Garda Estimates were finalised. As a result a significant unanticipated body of expenditure has arisen. I am currently engaging with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, in regard to the financial arrangements to be made in respect of the visits. These contacts are ongoing and I expect they will conclude shortly. I can assure the Deputy that an important part of the discussion is to ensure that frontline Garda services will not be adversely affected when it comes to meeting the cost of the visits.

I thank the Minister for his reply. On 19 July 2011, some three months ago, we received from the Minister an answer in regard to the breakdown of costs. It is our duty to support the Minister in his work. There is no doubt of the benefits which accrued from the visits and that the expenditure was necessary in the circumstances. It is three months on from when the Minister provided the House with a detailed breakdown. How many meetings has the Minister had with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, since then? Is he placing any specific demands on the Minister to make up the overspend from within existing Garda resources? In view of the benefit the visits had for the country, is he in a position to get an extra allocation from other Departments given the collective gain for the country?

The reason the funding for the visits has not yet been settled is that, ultimately, it will depend on the overall position in the Garda Vote in 2011. That context is necessary to take into account all the expenditure and savings on the Vote during the year. This is a process where the relevant figures do not fully emerge until late in the year. We have now reached the stage where the final Garda Vote expenditure figures for 2011 are being established. It is obviously the right time to settle the issue, once the exact position becomes clear.

As I indicated, I expect that my discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will finalise the arrangements shortly. I hope that within a short few weeks the position will be absolutely clear.

It is my obligation, of course, to ensure that we deal with the matter in as financially efficient a manner as possible. If there are some savings in some part of the Garda Vote, that will, to some extent, offset some small part of the additional expenditure incurred.

I am supportive of the Minister in his efforts with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform but Garda Síochána directive 109/11, which was issued to stations in the past few weeks, will considerably reduce the amount of Garda overtime involved in serving District and Circuit Courts and may have the impact of delaying cases because of the reduction in that overtime. Is that an indication of the kind of measure being taken or is that separate from the need to make up the overspend on the visits?

It has no relevance to the visits. It is a question of ensuring that, generally speaking, the Department tries to comply with the overall financial envelope provided in circumstances where the Deputy's colleagues in government substantially underfunded a number of the Votes within the Department of Justice and Equality thus giving rise to particular difficulties. We are trying to ensure resources are used as carefully and as efficiently as is possible as we go through the year.

Garda Stations

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

39 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the timeline associated either with making decisions on the closures or on the actual closures of Garda stations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31294/11]

Dara Calleary

Question:

41 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of eligible gardaí who have indicated, by 30 September 2011, that they will be retiring before February 2012; the options examined by the review of the Garda Commissioner in relation to potential closure of Garda stations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31364/11]

The Ceann Comhairle has allowed Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh to substitute for Deputy Jonathan O'Brien in regard to Question No. 39.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 39 and 41 together.

Members of the Garda Síochána who have reached 50 years of age and have at least 30 years service are eligible to retire on full pension. There are some 900 members of the force currently in this category.

It is estimated that the total number of departures from the force in 2011 will be approximately 500 but we do not yet know how many Garda members will retire before 29 February next year. So far, approximately 40 members have indicated to the Commissioner that they intend to retire between the beginning of January and the end of February next but members have until the end of November to give the required three months notice of an intention to retire by then.

These figures must be seen in the context of plans agreed by the previous Government as part of its compliance with the terms of the EU-IMF agreement to reduce Garda numbers to 13,500 by the end of this year and to 13,000 by 2014. However, what will ultimately determine the sustainable level of Garda numbers is the level of budgetary provision that can be made for the force and the House will be conscious that difficult decisions will have to be made right across the public sector in order to bring our public finances back into balance.

As with every other public sector organisation, therefore, the reality is that the Garda Síochána will have to manage with reduced resources. The Garda Commissioner is, therefore, quite properly reviewing all aspects of the Garda Síochána's policing model so as to ensure that Garda resources are managed and deployed in the most appropriate manner to meet existing and emerging policing requirements.

The Garda Commissioner's review will examine all aspects of current policing, including the deployment of personnel, the utilisation of modern technologies and the operation of Garda stations. While no decision has been taken, a reduction in public opening hours in some Garda stations and the closure of other Garda stations will be issues that the Garda Commissioner will need to address as part of the review. He may well need to consider whether, in appropriate cases, a better policing service could be delivered to a local community by having gardaí out on patrol rather than in a station.

I will carefully consider the outcome of the review and the Commissioner's policing plan for next year with the objective of ensuring that priority is given to the maintenance of front line services. I will also continue to discuss with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the budgetary provision to be made for the Garda Síochána for 2012 and beyond.

Ar dtús ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a dhéanamh le clann Gharda Ciarán Jones, a fuair bás agus é ag déanamh iarrachta cuidiú leis an bpobal oíche aréir. Tá a fhios agam gur luadh a bhás níos luaithe.

The Minister is aware of a major concern about the closure of Garda stations, particularly in rural areas. Predatory gangs are increasingly targeting some isolated communities and the elderly in particular. What additional resources will be focused on these communities if their Garda stations close? Will the Minister guarantee that savings made from the closure of stations will be spent on enhancing Garda activities in the areas affected? Otherwise, this cutback will affect areas that have already seen an increase in predatory attacks.

It is important that the Deputy realise that, if savings are to be affected, they will be necessary. We must reduce public expenditure in 2012 by a minimum of €3.6 billion to meet our EU-IMF requirements. In the context of my Department, I must identify savings that can result. The Garda Commissioner, as the person in charge of the Garda and making operational decisions, must identify appropriate savings. Having said this, we are anxious to ensure that front line services are maintained and that local communities are properly protected.

The substantial review that is under way is considering how to recalibrate the manner in which the Garda operates to provide the protections necessary to local communities and to ensure that those who seek to engage in unlawful behaviour and those who prey on the elderly in rural communities are given no quarter. These issues are part and parcel of the consideration of the approach to be taken. This is one of the reasons I mentioned that, in circumstances in which it may prove necessary to close some small local rural Garda stations, it is essential that appropriate Garda patrols are available to provide the necessary protections. Unfortunately, we no longer live in an environment where if savings are affected in one area, the money saved can be spent in another area.

On 20 September, the Minister told the House that he was due to receive the Commissioner's proposals on this matter. Has he received them or when does he expect to receive the Commissioner's policing plan? Given that some closures may be necessary, does the Minister envisage discussing the plan with, for example, joint policing committees or people who have on-the-ground experience as opposed to just with the Commissioner, who is slightly removed from what is occurring on the ground, to ensure an effective community response in the event of a change in the delivery of services?

I expect to receive the Commissioner's draft plan by the end of October — if not by the end of this week, then next Monday. It is a draft plan to which detailed consideration must be given. I am conscious that the Commissioner is the correct person to make operational decisions and I should not interfere with his operational judgment, but I will give careful consideration to the draft plan when it is submitted to my Department. Shortly thereafter, I would expect appropriate decisions to be made.

Will the Minister confirm that the savings will not be ploughed back into An Garda Síochána and that it will therefore suffer that loss on top of the loss resulting from the recruitment ban?

Have there been any plans regarding the intended use of the buildings if and when they are closed? Is it intended to sell them off or to put them to some other State use?

I remind the Deputy that this State is effectively in receivership and that under the EU-IMF agreement we have an obligation by the end of this year to reduce Garda numbers from 14,500 to 13,500. The previous Government signed up to that commitment but there was no prospect of that reduction being achieved. At best, the Garda force numbers in the context of that agreement will reduce to 14,000 by the end of this year. The obligation we have is to reduce expenditure. It must be reduced across all the different areas of the justice spend, including the Garda. We are examining how we can use reduced resources more efficiently to properly maintain front-line services and to facilitate the Garda Síochána, as the excellent force that it is, to continue to meet all its obligations, provide to the community the protection it requires, continue the effective investigation of crime and ensure the prosecution of those who have broken the law.

Proposed Legislation

Stephen S. Donnelly

Question:

40 Deputy Stephen Donnelly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality with regard to the forthcoming legislation revising the system of bankruptcy, his views on the statement in the Keane report that the automatic bankruptcy discharge period under the judicial process could be set as low as three years; the time period that he intends to set for discharge from bankruptcy or personal insolvency; his views on the total quantum or percentage of debt that will be discharged under the new bankruptcy or personal insolvency process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31293/11]

In line with a commitment in the programme for Government the personal insolvency Bill is in the course of being developed in my Department to provide for a new framework for settlement and enforcement of debt and for personal insolvency. The commitment under the EU-IMF Programme of Financial Support for Ireland is to publish the Bill in the first quarter of 2012. It is my objective to publish the measure ahead of the EU-IMF deadline, if possible. Moreover, it is intended that the heads of the Bill, which are expected to be finalised in the near future, will be forwarded to the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for its consideration.

The Deputy will be aware that in developing the Bill, account is being taken of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in its recent Report on Personal Debt Management and Debt Enforcement. That report provided an in-depth review of the personal debt regime. The economic and financial effects of certain of the new arrangements that are in contemplation are being carefully assessed to ensure that all relevant issues are addressed and their impact is fully anticipated and understood.

The Deputy will also be aware that, following the publication of recommendations in an interim report of the Law Reform Commission, I provided in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 for the reduction of the period to apply to the court for discharge from bankruptcy from 12 years to five years, subject to the same conditions that currently exist and, for the first time in Irish law, for the automatic discharge of bankruptcies on the 12th anniversary of the bankruptcy adjudication order. Those provisions were commenced with effect from 10 October 2011. A number of other mainly technical improvements to bankruptcy law contained in the Act of 2011 are already in force since 2 August 2011.

The question of a further reduction in the period for automatic discharge of a bankrupt and the period for application to the court for discharge from bankruptcy are being considered in the context of finalisation of my proposals on the personal insolvency Bill. The decision will be made having regard to the Keane report as well as the very focused discussion that continues between my Department and key stakeholders to identify the optimum new structures, at minimal cost, to bring about the reform. This necessary consultation, particularly in the context of the totally exceptional developing economic situation, is greatly assisting the development of detailed legislative proposals.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As I have said in the House previously, reform of our personal insolvency regime is not a simple task. It is a very complex area of the law and one where the consequences and implications of new policies need to be very carefully assessed. There is a delicate balance to be struck between the various legal rights of the parties involved. We must design a system which is fair to both creditors and debtors alike. Not to do so would make worse a situation that is already difficult for the parties concerned.

The reform of bankruptcy law will invariably focus on the length of the discharge period that will apply to the person adjudicated bankrupt. We debated this point in the House during the passage of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 in July. Opinions varied as to the appropriate period. There was consensus that the one-year period that applies in the UK and Northern Ireland is too short, but anything beyond five years is too long, particularly if the bankrupt person has been fully compliant and not behaved fraudulently in any way. No final decision has been taken by the Government in this regard.

The quantum of debt that might be discharged in any new bankruptcy or personal insolvency arrangements has also yet to be decided. In bankruptcy, the debtor's assets are fully realised for the benefit of creditors and that responsibility falls to the official assignee or a private trustee in bankruptcy. It is not, in my view, realistic to, at this stage, attempt to set down the quantum of debt that might be agreed to be discharged in the context of a non-judicial debt settlement. That would be a matter for the parties concerned. We must be mindful that in any debt arrangement, the debtor or bankrupt must be left with sufficient income to meet reasonable living expenses. Given the complexity of the personal over-indebtedness issue generally and the economic and financial implications of any changes to the personal insolvency system, these are matters which will require careful consideration by the Government.

It is good to hear that the Minister will not only meet but introduce the Bill ahead of the IMF timeline set. Specifically with regard to mortgages, the ideal situation would be that the bankruptcy conditions contained in the new legislation would be such that it could be used as a credible threat and, therefore, the person concerned would not necessarily have to go through bankruptcy but could say to the bank that if pushed too hard the person would be declared bankrupt and that the bank should, therefore, reach a settlement.

A question please, Deputy.

The Minister mentioned five years in this context. As Minister for Justice and Equality what is his view on five years versus three years, one year or two years? When the Minister publishes the legislation and gives a recommendation on the number of years, will he also publish a comparative analysis that shows what works in other systems and why he has reached the recommendations that he has?

There are difficult decisions to be made in this particular area with regard to the number of years. It is not a matter of my personal preference. It is a decision that the Government must make.

The period for bankruptcy and extricating from bankruptcy, for example, in England was reduced to a period of one year. In other states there are different periods of years. There are a number of issues that must be considered in this context. We must ensure that bankruptcy is not used by individuals to evade debts fraudulently. There are those who owe money and those to whom money is owed and the position of both debtors and creditors, and the impact on their lives of the structure we put in place, must be considered.

We are giving careful consideration to how to proceed, both in the context of what I would describe as non-judicial means and also the judicial means of dealing with insolvency. There is a range of different options with regard to arrangements that may be entered into voluntarily with creditors and arrangements that may ultimately require adjudication in a bankruptcy context.

I do not want to pre-empt the decisions to be made by Cabinet other than to say we are moving ahead carefully in this, but we also must be aware of unintended consequences that could arise that could have a detrimental impact on taxpayers in the State generally. This is a particularly complex area in the context of the unprecedented fiscal difficulties confronting the State and the banking difficulties with which Deputy Donnelly is intimately familiar.

Will the Minister publish a comparative analysis and the rationale for whatever he does agree?

On the second piece to which he referred in his reply, when the discharge period is ended, is it the Minister's position that the full quantum of debt owed at that stage will essentially be written off?

The reason for publishing heads of Bills once the Government has given detailed consideration to the applicable principles is to afford Members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, and also Members of the House who wish to attend a meeting of that committee, time to consider them and to give their own input also into the substantive provisions that we ultimately adopt, bearing in mind not only the Keane report and the Law Reform Commission's recommendations, but the comparative approaches taken in other jurisdictions. Deputy Donnelly will have every opportunity to engage in that way and I hope that a positive contribution is made by that committee. There is no monopoly of wisdom in this area but there is an urgent need for change.

Question No. 41 answered with Question No. 39.

Departmental Bodies

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

42 Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality that leaving aside the work of the inter-departmental committee being chaired by Senator McAleese, the action he is taking to progress the issue of restorative justice for women of the Magdalene laundry system; his response to the restorative justice and reparations scheme proposed by the Justice for Magdalenes group; when the State will lead on offering an apology and establish the dedicated unit; and if he is seeking legal advice on the proposed commission for financial reparation as prepared by the JFM group. [31295/11]

The Deputy will be aware that the Government considered the circumstances of women and girls who resided in the laundries at its meeting on 14 June 2011. As a first step, the Government decided that it was essential to establish fully the true facts and circumstances relating to the Magdalene laundries and a number of actions were agreed.

This included the setting up of an inter-departmental committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the laundries, to clarify any State interaction and to produce a narrative detailing such interaction. I am pleased to say that the committee, under the independent chairmanship of Senator McAleese, has submitted an interim progress report which was considered by Cabinet this morning and arrangements are being made for its publication this afternoon. I welcome the progress that is being made and, in particular, I am pleased to tell the House that the committee is receiving full co-operation from all concerned, including the religious orders and representative groups of women who were formerly resident in the laundries and those who have been campaigning on their behalf.

The Government decision also charged both myself, as the Minister for Justice and Equality, and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, equality, mental health and older people, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, with meeting the religious congregations and the groups representing former residents of the laundries. One of the purposes of these meetings was to discuss the putting in place of a restorative and reconciliation process as well as the structure that might be utilised to facilitate such process. All of these meetings have taken place, including with representatives from the Justice for Magdalenes group. My Department recently received from them the document referred to by the Deputy and it is currently being considered. I might also add that the views of other representative groups and the religious orders are also being considered. It is important, therefore, to emphasise that we are engaged in a process which is seeking to fully establish the facts and it is too early at this stage to predict what the outcomes might be.

I am pleased with the work being undertaken and the full co-operation which has been received by the group led by Senator Martin McAleese. The dialogue in which we have engaged directly has been very constructive and I wish to commend Senator McAleese for the Trojan work of both him and his group in a very short period of time.

I wish to acknowledge the work of the Justice for Magdalenes group, the members of which have done tremendous work. They have taken up a cause that nobody else wanted to deal with for a very long time.

During the recent theatre festival I attended a play which was based in the Magdalene laundry in Seán MacDermott Street. This was an interactive production so I was there as part of the congregation. I was there for approximately one hour and I thought I would never get out of the place. I can only imagine what the women, the ladies, went through.

I acknowledge the Minister's reply to my question but it seems that many of the issues raised are at the stage of being considered rather than action being taken. These ladies have waited long enough. I do not wish to be cynical and query if the Minister is waiting until they have all died but there is that element about it.

A question, please.

There are specific aspects to my original question. I ask what is being done in the meantime. I do not believe there has been any advance with regard to the apology or the legal advice being sought by the Minister. When does the Minister expect the final report and is he committed to implementing any recommendations?

When the Deputy sees the interim report which is being published this afternoon she will note that Senator McAleese describes in great detail the progress that has been made. All of the religious congregations have co-operated with him to the extent that all of their records going back over 90 years have been made available to him and to his interdepartmental group. Substantial work is ongoing within each Department which can provide any information from its files of any description with regard to the State's contact with the Magdalene laundries going back to 1922. All this information is being compiled. This is very important work because the background, the story of the events that occurred over those years, is perhaps a little more complex when it is put in the context of the different eras and decades, than has been portrayed to date.

I very much welcome the constructive progress that has been made. The Government will not pre-empt the work of Senator McAleese's group in dealing with the religious orders, the Justice for Magdalenes group and the other groups. When that work is complete, other issues will then be addressed. In the meantime a question does not arise and I ask the Deputy to withdraw the suggestion that anyone is waiting for people to die.

This is the first Government to make specific decisions to address the very genuine worries and concerns that have been expressed by those who lived in the Magdalene laundries. We have put in place a process in which we are also moving forward on other fronts. The possibility of a restorative justice scheme operating is under active consideration between the religious congregations and the former residents. We are looking at the possibility of a repository in which all the records of the laundries are retained. In the meantime, significant progress has been made in a very short period of time by Senator McAleese's group.

I acknowledge it is this Government which has begun the work. However, an important point needs to be made about the timeframe. Many of these ladies are very elderly and it is being said in certain quarters that there seems to have been a delaying tactic. I look forward to reading the report this afternoon and no doubt there will be a need for a further priority question.

Has the Deputy a question at this point?