Leaders' Questions

The Tánaiste will agree it is crucial that the public has confidence in the members of the Garda Síochána as they are the main protectors of the State. Proper policing is crucial to any democracy and to the safety of our communities. The majority of those in the force just want to do the job they took an oath to do, and many have lost their lives carrying out their duties.

Unfortunately, there has been a series of critical reports about management in the Garda in the recent past. While there has been a lot of spin about the way the force is being reformed, there is very little evidence of whether those reforms have made any difference. This reform seems to hit stumbling block after stumbling block. The Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors have threatened to withdraw their services for four days in November as they believe their pay has been far too low and their grievances have been left aside for far too long. That has caused demoralisation among gardaí.

To add to those woes, the recent reports of how whistleblowers were allegedly treated has created yet another potential scandal.

The Tánaiste received information under the protection of disclosure legislation and has stated that she is taking it seriously. In the meantime, however, confidence in the Garda is being allowed to drift. There are allegations and counter-allegations. The Garda Commissioner has stated that she was neither privy to nor approved of any actions designed to target any garda who may have made a protected disclosure and that she would condemn any such actions. The Taoiseach told this House yesterday that a member of the Judiciary may be appointed to investigate the allegations. Today, however, Members read in newspapers that the gardaí who made the allegations may not take part in any investigation unless the Commissioner steps aside temporarily. It also has been reported that a senior garda will demand an inquiry into the dysfunctionality of the Garda Síochána because of perceived system and management failures. It is hard to see beyond the saying, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Does the Tánaiste understand the genuine concerns about the state of the Garda and the fact that they go far beyond the realm of political soundbites and headline-grabbing? Has the Tánaiste been informed by the two complainants that they will not take part in any inquiry into the allegations unless the Garda Commissioner steps aside, even temporarily? If this becomes a demand, will it be considered? Finally, has the Tánaiste been informed about the request to inquire into Garda administration as a result of dysfunctionality and will she agree to this request?

It may be helpful if I attempt to put in context the events of recent days. I agree with what the Deputy said about the importance of the role of An Garda Síochána. Its members confront many challenges, as has been discussed in this House on many occasions, and it is extremely important that nothing undermines their ability to keep our communities safe. It is right to acknowledge some of the successes the Garda has had, which are evidenced by recent events and recent crime figures. The Garda has had successes in this regard and it is the first line between the public and criminal elements. However, for all of its strengths, I and my colleagues in the current Government and that which preceded it recognised that fundamental reforms were necessary. The Deputy outlined some of the challenges that exist. To put matters in context, some of the reforms that have taken place recently include an open and independent process for the selection of the new Garda Commissioner, strengthening the role of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, an independent review mechanism and the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to An Garda Síochána. There have been various inquiries and a former President of the Circuit Court has been appointed to act as an independent oversight authority.

In addition, we also have the Protected Disclosure Act 2014. Much of the public comment this week has been based on the fact that two members of An Garda Síochána recently made disclosures. I received these last Monday. The House passed the Act in question and a fundamental protection under it is that I must protect the identity of those making disclosures. This has led to the position whereby various claims have been made publicly about what those disclosures contain and I simply cannot comment on their accuracy or otherwise. That is the reality; that is the law. While it limits what I can say in the House, I intend to follow scrupulously my legal obligations in this regard. It is vitally important that the claims people make in such disclosures are properly addressed. However, this must be done in a way that is fair, proper, just and within the rule of law. It would be a cruel irony if a system that was introduced to deal with wrongdoing were to lead us, in turn, to do wrong to people. Everyone is entitled to his or her good name unless it can be fairly and objectively shown that he or she has been involved in wrongdoing. That is why what is important is that a procedure be put in place in order that such claims can be properly assessed and that the people who are the subject of such claims will have a chance to respond to them. As the Deputy rightly stated, I have consulted the Attorney General as to how to best achieve this. There will be no delay.

I have clear obligations under the Act if I am the recipient of a protected disclosure and there would be no delay in putting in place a process to achieve it.

I thank the Tánaiste.

I do not believe that it is right for anyone to rush to judgment about these matters. It offends all the principles of fairness for conclusions to be drawn on the basis of claims against persons which have not been properly tested or where those who have had claims made against them have not had a chance to tell their side of the story.

I agree with the Tánaiste it is important that process is properly followed and persons are given the opportunity to account for themselves and to respond. However, it is important that we see action and that these matters are dealt with by the Tánaiste as promptly as possible. It would certainly seem to be the case that over the past number of years there has been a gradual and real erosion of the morale of gardaí and in confidence, both within the force and among the public, and there seems to be a general dissatisfaction and disgruntlement in terms of how the force is being managed.

I asked the Tánaiste previously whether, as in the reports today, the two complainants who are making serious allegations have indeed informed her that they would not be willing to participate in an investigation if the Garda Commissioner remains in place. Is that the case? Have they informed the Tánaiste of that and, if so, what is her response?

I also asked the Tánaiste about further reports today that a senior officer in the Garda will seek an inquiry in relation to Garda management and administration. Has the Tánaiste been informed of that? Is she aware of that and, if so, what action has she taken?

The Tánaiste has one minute, and I mean one minute.

I have seen the reports in the media about the points Deputy McConalogue has made but what I put on the record of the House are the facts that I have received. I received the protected disclosure notices on Monday. The Government has not yet made a decision in relation to the precise process we will follow. As I speak, it is being considered urgently. It will be done in a timely way. There has not been contact.

An Garda Síochána is, once again, at the centre of more allegations of wrongdoing - let us acknowledge these are allegations - and there is undoubtedly a crisis of confidence again in a Garda Commissioner. In fact, it is almost like Groundhog Day.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach stated that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality would appoint a judge to assess the protected disclosures she received relating to serious allegations of an orchestrated campaign to undermine and smear Garda whistleblowers. Is that still the case?

This morning, as has been said, it has been reported in several outlets that the two whistleblowers whose cases were first raised by the Irish Examiner will not co-operate with any inquiry whilst the Garda Commissioner remains in place. How, in the face of such a development, is the Tánaiste proposing to move this process forward? Will the Garda Commissioner stand aside? We all agree that these are very serious allegations and issues and that we need clarity.

This is merely part of a trend by some in An Garda Síochána who, it is alleged, have been given carte blanche by the Garda Commissioner, Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, to hound and discredit whistleblowers. Let us remember this is all on the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald's watch because she is the Garda Commissioner's boss. Ms O'Sullivan reports to the Tánaiste. Has the Tánaiste spoken to the Garda Commissioner on these matters? Has the Tánaiste received a report from her?

Clearly, the Tánaiste has questions to answer in relation to these revelations as well. Does the Tánaiste have on her desk other complaints from Garda whistleblowers alleging harassment and intimidation? Yesterday, Deputy Clare Daly stated here in the Dáil that a Garda whistleblower wrote directly to the Tánaiste on four occasions outlining the treatment he was experiencing.

Is that true and what did the Tánaiste do about it? Yesterday, the Taoiseach stated his absolute confidence in the Garda Commissioner. I ask the Tánaiste if she has absolute confidence in the Garda Commissioner because the whistleblowers clearly do not. Let me repeat the questions to which I want answers. When will the judge be appointed? Will the Commissioner stand aside? Does the Tánaiste have other whistleblower allegations on her desk? Does she have absolute confidence in the Garda Commissioner?

Deputy McDonald appears to think that the protections of the law with respect to the presumption of innocence and the requirement for due process can be applied selectively. If she decides that something is the case, we can dispense with the principle of justice and the laws of the land. I certainly will not do that as Minister for Justice and Equality. I ask the Deputy and other Members making similar calls to reflect on what their attitude would be were the Government to take the same approach to justice generally as that which they are advocating. Is an accusation now sufficient to secure a conviction? Is that what the Deputy is suggesting? I have to question Deputies who are putting information on the record of this House knowing full well that I am forbidden, by law, from responding in detail to what is being reported in the newspapers. There are very clear laws on protected disclosures. They are in place - everybody in this House was involved in passing the legislation - to protect both whistleblowers, in terms of their anonymity being preserved, and the persons against whom the allegations are being made. I cannot comment on the detail of the protected disclosures that have been made to me, but they are of the utmost seriousness.

As I indicated to the committee yesterday, I want to see the kind of cultural change that people have been saying - Deputy McConalogue referred to it earlier - is necessary within An Garda Síochána. I have initiated the biggest reforms in the history of An Garda Síochána by establishing the Policing Authority and expanding the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I cannot comment on the details of the disclosures but they are of the utmost seriousness and should be treated accordingly. That is how I am treating them. I am the Minister charged with defending the principles of justice that are fundamental to our society and the Deputy should not ask me to set aside those principles in this or any other case. There is a clear procedure outlined as to how allegations - protected disclosures - should be dealt with.

On the Deputy's question regarding the Garda Commissioner, I want to be very clear about one thing, namely, that no findings of wrongdoing of any kind have been made against the Garda Commissioner. In those circumstances, I am of the view that she is entitled to our full confidence.

The law is designed to do many things, including, as the Tánaiste outlined, protecting whistleblowers and others. What it is not designed to provide is a get-out clause for her not to answer perfectly reasonable and legal questions that have been put to her. I asked whether there are other allegations on her desk. A simple "Yes" or "No" will suffice. I asked her if it is true that a whistleblower wrote to her four times setting out their experiences and inquired as to what she did about it. None of that is precluded under the whistleblower legislation. I have put it to the Tánaiste - this is a matter that has been widely reported - that the two whistleblowers who made the latest series of allegations have stated clearly that they will not co-operate with any process unless the Commissioner stands aside. The Tánaiste has stated her confidence in the Commissioner but the whistleblowers clearly do not have any confidence in her. I ask the Tánaiste again how she proposes to move the process forward. When will the judge be appointed? Will the Commissioner stand aside? Has the Tánaiste entertained that idea? Crucially, what is on her desk? How did she respond to the individual who has written to her four times during her term as Minister for Justice and Equality?

Let me be very clear - no, I do not have any other protected disclosures. Clearly, a small number of protected disclosures have been made, both to GSOC and to myself, and these are in the public realm. Details relating to disclosures are published, for example, in the annual report of GSOC. Therefore, the relevant figures are publicly available. There is nothing that is there that-----

On a point of order-----

The Deputy should allow the Tánaiste to continue.

On a point of order-----

A point of order cannot be raised during Leaders' Questions.

The Tánaiste will be aware-----

A point of order cannot be raised. If the Deputy checks Standing Order 71, she will note that it is not possible to raise a point of order during Leaders' Questions.

I just do not want the Tánaiste to inadvertently mislead the House. The Tánaiste will be aware that there was a report last Tuesday evening on "Prime Time" which said that-----

I am sorry, Deputy McDonald.

-----correspondence from a whistleblower landed on the Tánaiste's desk.

The Deputy has explained her position.

No, I have asked if the Tánaiste has-----

The Tánaiste, without interruption.

-----other correspondence in respect of it.

The Tánaiste has 30 seconds left.

I have said there are no other protected disclosures on my desk.

That is not what the Minister was asked.

It was what I was asked. I am replying to the question. On the media reports, which the Deputy quoted, I am setting in place a procedure. I got these reports on Monday and I have to consider the legal options and the various pathways through which I can investigate this issue. That is precisely what I have done. It will be done in a very timely way and as soon as possible.

On the Deputy's question about correspondence from whistleblowers, I cannot discuss the details of individual contact with whistleblowers or correspondence that I received from them. Let me be absolutely clear, I am fully pursuing any such disclosures and following up any issues that are brought to my attention. I have followed up any issues that were brought to my attention. Why would I not follow them up? I want to see the highest standards in An Garda Síochána. I want to see the organisation dealing professionally and effectively with any whistleblower concerns brought to it. It is my goal and that of the Government to make sure the highest standards prevail. Why would I not be following them up? I have been following them up and pursuing them. There are very detailed, complex and serious investigations being undertaken with regard to the particular cases that have been raised with me.

The Tánaiste has exceeded her time. Deputy Wallace on behalf of Independents4Change has three minutes. Three minutes is three minutes.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. To answer Deputy McDonald's question, these are the four letters-----

Did Deputy Wallace say he will answer Deputy McDonald?

Did the Deputy say he will answer Deputy McDonald?

Nicky Keogh wrote to the Minister four times and she replied once. When he told the Minister about the harassment and that he could not have been suffering without the Commissioner's knowledge, the Minister wrote back to him to say she was looking for an urgent report from the Garda Commissioner. That was May this year. The Minister says she follows things up quickly. May was a long time ago. For over two years Deputy Clare Daly and I have been telling the Minister about huge problems that are not being addressed. It is over two years. How in God's name can the Minister say she is dealing with these matters? She talks about a rush to judgment but it has been two years. She says the claim is not properly tested. The Minister has the transcript from the O'Higgins report hearing in her office. Is there not enough information in it? Was it not properly tested? What about the role the Commissioner played in trying to undermine the credibility of Maurice McCabe? Is there not enough in that for the Minister? She is talking about people disposing of the laws of the land. God bless us. How bad is it if any of what arrived on the Minister's desk last Monday is true? I am not easily shocked. I have spent my life living in the real world and I know how bad things can be out there. I have not seen the like of it. It is horrific and mind-numbing.

Deputy Clare Daly and I met the two senior gardaí who made the protected disclosures. We have not breached the protected disclosures. We sat down and listened to them face to face. I will not talk about it anymore.

The Minister is talking about another inquiry and another judge.

The Tánaiste talks about the new broom she has brought in. Nothing has changed, Minister, nothing. We marked her cards for her on her legislation on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and the Policing Authority. We had Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring and Josephine Feehily stressing the lack of authority they have in legislation to do their jobs properly.

The Garda is in turmoil. There is a split in it with two camps. The Garda Commissioner has promoted a ring around her. It is corrosive. She is doing so much damage to An Garda Síochána that there are many good gardaí shocked at how she is operating. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality cannot leave her in position.

The Deputy is over his time.

The idea there would be an investigation while she is in place is nuts.

The Deputy has made a number of comments. I will repeat what I said. I believe - the Deputy may not - that due process is important. I believe the law should be used carefully in these circumstances. I do not believe in making a decision before the evidence has been heard. What we have is a body of allegations which have been brought forward. I have said to the House that I believe they are serious and ought to be investigated. I will ensure that happens and that there is follow-up, depending on the outcome and output from that investigation. Of course I will. That is my job and that is what I will do.

Quite a number of things have changed. For the first time we have independent oversight in the Policing Authority. The public, at public meetings, can see An Garda Síochána being accountable to the new Policing Authority, chaired by Josephine Feehily and a very competent and serious board totally committed to its task. That is different. That is a change. GSOC has been given new powers. I am perfectly prepared to meet both chairs to discuss if further changes are necessary to the legislation.

Deputy Wallace has made a number of points about investigations going on over a period of time. Yes, investigations do take time. There are procedures to be followed. On the disclosures made some time ago and what has been happening, without commenting in any way on the disclosures or who has made them, I can tell the House that I am extremely concerned about matters which have been raised about policing in Athlone. By the way, I wrote to Deputy Mick Wallace but have not received a reply.

I have sought and received a number of reports from the Garda authorities about this matter. These indicate that a series of investigations have taken place into the complex issues involved, including criminal investigations, disciplinary investigations and investigations by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Not all of these are yet completed. I am monitoring the situation closely and expect further reports from An Garda Síochána about these matters. As I have already said, should the present investigations not succeed in fully addressing matters of public concern which have arisen, and I am referring to the investigations under way, not the more recent protected disclosures which only arrived on Monday and which I am currently considering, I will have no hesitation in establishing some other form of inquiry.

I will wait, however, for due process to take its place and continue. I will not act precipitously, either regarding that investigation or, indeed, the recent protected disclosures. I will follow the letter of the law. I will follow the legislation, passed in this House, where people have a right to confidentiality and due process. I would not be doing my job as Minister for Justice and Equality if I did not follow due process and the law laid down regarding protected disclosures, a law which we have all agreed should be followed. We are the first Government, as has been spoken about for many years, which has brought in a law to deal with the issue of protected disclosures.

It must not be working then. The Tánaiste spoke about returning letters. I wrote to her a year ago, giving her evidence about the massaging of crime figures in the same place.

Why is the man on the promotion list?

Why is the fellow at No. 14 on the promotion list? Let the Minister tell me.

Another guy was reported by the whistleblower down there and he got promotion. However, the people who stood by that man in that station did not get promotion. The Commissioner said in a statement yesterday that she wishes to reiterate that "any employees in An Garda Síochána who bring forward any concerns or issues they might have will be taken seriously and the matters examined." My God, people cannot believe what this woman is saying. What she says in public and what she does privately are 100% different.

The Minister could say she does not have enough evidence and wants due process. Was the O'Higgins report not enough for the Minister in the first place? Forgetting what was put on her desk last week, was that not enough for her? The dogs on the street can see that there was a deliberate effort on the part of the Commissioner to undermine the credibility of Maurice McCabe.

I ask the Deputy to conclude.

How in God's name can the Minister leave her in position after that?

I have to abide by the regulations.

As long as the Minister leaves the Commissioner in position, there will be allegations coming in against her. It will only get worse. The Minister would be better off making a decisive decision now.

I did receive a letter from the Deputy, to which I replied. I have the letter here. In my response to the Deputy, I asked him to give me some important detail on protected disclosures, which I would need if I were to follow up the points he made. He did not respond to me.

I did not get it.

It was sent to the Deputy here in Dáil Éireann.

(Interruptions).

I did not get a reply from the Deputy with the information I asked the Deputy for. I will send my request to the Deputy again.

On the point the Deputy made about the classification of crime, it is clearly a concern. As I explained to the justice committee yesterday, I have been working. The CSO has been examining these issues. I met the CSO. I invited its representatives to meet me. It is an independent body. Two years ago the Garda Inspectorate brought out and commented on the Garda statistics. There is a process in place and there are improvements in the reports this year in regard to the crime figures and their accuracy, as the CSO has said. There is work to be done. Every international police force has an issue with crime reporting. There are concerns about it. The circumstances are improving and the CSO is overseeing it.

Yesterday Simon Communities Ireland published a report showing that only 20% of the very limited supply of houses available in the rental market could be afforded by those on rent supplement. This cohort of people has absolutely no other way of securing a home given the huge housing waiting list. Therefore, the reality is that the housing and homelessness crisis is worsening. These families find themselves completely priced out of the market. So many families on low, middle and even good incomes are increasingly finding themselves priced out of the housing market. Based on what I am currently seeing, this is primarily in the rental sector.

According to the Locked Out of the Market survey conducted by Simon Communities Ireland, there were 518 houses available to rent across ten locations around Ireland, including Dublin, Cork and Limerick cities and commuter towns in their hinterlands. My area, in north Kildare, was one of the areas included. Of the 518 houses, only eight were within the rent supplement scheme or housing assistance payment scheme limits. Many others were unsuitable for family accommodation. In essence, there are virtually no affordable properties available.

I am seeing heightened panic among those who are contacting my constituency office. In the past couple of weeks, I talked to a couple who are due a baby within weeks and learned they are frantic to get somewhere to live. They are living separately at present. Both are working and their joint income is reasonable. They and others are telling me that when they go to a viewing, they find themselves in a bidding war. One couple told me in recent weeks that when they left a property that was advertised for €1,300 per month, the bidding war brought the value up to €1,800 per month. That is the cause of the desperation. In another case, the landlord told a couple with one child, both working, that the rent was to be put up by €300 per month to €1,500 per month. They cannot afford it. It is not sustainable but they cannot do anything and cannot rock the boat.

This is the kind of profile we are seeing.

We in the Social Democrats launched our alternative budget today and we focused heavily on initiatives designed to bring significant numbers of units back into use. There are 200,000 vacant properties in the country. Initiatives such as the vacant housing initiative that was announced need to be accelerated, and this is one of the proposals in our document. Will the Tánaiste examine it? The problem is accelerating. We need to examine where houses are available that can be brought into use, for example, by way of the fair deal scheme. Will the Tánaiste ensure a fresh look is taken at the short-term aspect of the problem, given that it is out of control?

I recognise, as does the Government, the seriousness of the housing situation, and that is why it is a priority and will be over the coming years. I recognise what the Deputy said about there being short-term and long-term issues, and that the short-term situation, particularly regarding renting in our urban centres, is at crisis point. This is why the programme the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, announced has short-term and long-term initiatives. The Deputy is familiar with the issues. The Minister has set a target of delivering 40,000 social housing units supported by an investment of €5.35 billion. There is an accelerated housing assistance payment, HAP, of €12,000 in 2016 and €15,000 in 2017 and various other developments such as the dedicated housing delivery office and housing procurement unit.

All these are intended to ensure the housing supply comes on stream as quickly as possible. We do not want people to continue to have to move into hotels. There is a very clear target that by mid-2017 people will not be in that circumstance and that hotels will be used as emergency accommodation only in the most limited circumstances. One of the keys to the Deputy's point is that rapid-build housing is essential and it needs to be delivered very quickly. The Deputy knows the targets that have been set for it. Everybody in the House recognises that it must be a priority area and funding must be, and is being, made available.

The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, is very clear on the short-term as well as the long-term needs and that every help must be given to the families the Deputy described who find themselves in this situation. There is a strong programme and I have been at meetings where leaders from local authorities are doing everything possible to ensure there is a fast-track approach to refurbishing any housing stock in their areas that is suitable for allocation and ensuring the turnaround is quicker than it has been. Everybody recognises that we cannot have properties boarded up that could provide homes for families. It is a priority for local authorities.

There are points at which one can see something is coming to a crux. We are at such a point. While all the initiatives in the programme are welcome, many of them are medium term. The Tánaiste's constituency is next door to mine and they have the same profiles. She sees the same problems as I do. It has reached a new level. The Simon Communities survey demonstrated it in hard facts. There must be solutions that are accelerated now that can be delivered in months. There are houses available that people cannot use given that there is an impediment to using them if they might not qualify for the fair deal scheme.

The Housing Agency is driving an initiative to bring vacant houses back into use. We are reaching the point at which we will not even be able to accommodate people in hotels. Will the Government consider pursuing short-term initiatives that can be realised within months?

Certainly, I agree with the Deputy. For example, she mentioned housing becoming available in respect of the fair deal scheme. That is certainly an initiative that can be looked at by the Departments of Health and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. I take the Deputy's point that if there are other short-term measures which can be identified and which would make a difference to the current and emerging crisis, then as many actions as possible should be taken in the short term to deal with the rental crisis we are experiencing.

I must tell the Deputy, however, that I see people moving out of hotels, as I am sure she does. I have certainly seen people moving into housing and that is to be welcomed. There is a very clear target that, by the middle of next year, families will not be in that situation. The urgency is understood by the Government. It is understood by the Minister Deputy Coveney. As I said, the initiative he is taking is for the short as well as the medium and longer terms.

The Deputy may have other suggestions. She spoke about a particular one, and people are moving more quickly into nursing homes now. If that means there is a housing supply available or that those houses will be available to rent - obviously there will be many complex issues in terms of ownership, families and so on - the matter will be pursued by the Ministers for Health and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.