Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Crime Data

I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for coming to the House to address this issue. In January 2018, I asked the Minister to investigate the situation relating to homicide figures. The Minister is aware that at the time the Policing Authority had serious issues with the statistics that had been provided to it. There were internal tensions between the deputy head of An Garda Síochána analysis service and senior members of An Garda Síochána management regarding the categorisation of these crimes. In March, two very brave women, Ms Lois West and Ms Laura Galligan, came before the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, where they outlined their issues. Their testimony was the best I have ever heard in these Houses. They knew their information, their data, their work and the professional standards that are required better than anyone I have ever seen. Ms West and Ms Galligan conducted an investigation into statistics from 2013 to 2017, and they also went back to 2003 as a result of that investigation. Under considerable pressure, they refused to sign off on statistical reports they could not stand over. They also told the justice committee that they felt belittled and undermined and that their professional standards had been ignored. As a result, a review has been conducted in respect of homicide figures and other statistics that had been provided to the Central Statistics Office, the CSO. I am of the view that, at the time, Garda management did not want this information coming out because it was damaging to the force's reputation.

On foot of the work of the two Garda crime analysts, has an analysis of PULSE been carried out? Is the system fit for purpose and capable of maintaining statistics? Have gardaí being trained as a result of the revelations made by those two brave women? Were investigative procedures put in place to ensure that statistics are being correctly brought together? Has the administration of PULSE to provide the statistics and other systems in the background changed since January of last year?

Last week, there was a further report from the CSO which contained crime statistics that are very worrying in the context of the increase in serious crime. The CSO has said that these statistics were provided in a new category termed "under reservation". Is this going to change, and when will it change? Will the Minister indicate if there has been any investigation into the treatment of the two women to whom I refer?

I want to know specifically if gardaí handle personal crime data on citizens of the State in the correct manner. Have gardaí ever passed on to the CSO not just crime statistics but also the names and details of the perpetrators of serious crime? Have gardaí ever passed on names or details of those who are suspected of committing serious crimes? Have they passed on the names or details of the victims of such serious crimes? Has this ever happened or is it happening currently? Has the position in this regard changed in the recent past? Have gardaí been giving personal information on victims, perpetrators or suspects to the CSO as part of the transfer of data? If that is the case, is the Minister absolutely confident to confirm that neither the Statistics Act 1993 nor the Data Protection Act 2018 have in any way been breached?

Will the Minister indicate if the acting Garda Commissioner has invoked section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act to inform the Minister of anything relating to the matter to which I refer? Has the Policing Authority been informed of any concerns in this regard? Will the Minister admit that if there were any breaches of this nature, it would be a very serious matter?

Earlier this week, the CSO published its second quarterly crime statistics release of 2018 "under reservation". As the Deputy will be aware, the CSO formally recommenced the publication of the statistics on 28 March by issuing the full-year figures for 2017. This is a vitally important development for a number of reasons but particularly for the management of criminal justice policy and Garda operations so we have regular publication of CSO crime statistics to allow for a targeted response to crime. There is a well-documented body of work ongoing in this area to ensure that the CSO can stand over the figures it releases as a true and accurate reflection of the level of criminality in our society.

We must bear in mind that issues with the consistent recording of crime data are not unique to this jurisdiction. This notwithstanding, I remain determined that a strong focus remains on the need for improvements in this area. I am satisfied that the work of An Garda Síochána, in conjunction with the CSO and the Policing Authority, will soon return the crime statistics to the higher standard expected by our national statistics agency.

The Deputy will recall that on 27 July 2017, I published the report of the CSO-Ied expert group on crime statistics. The expert group was established to specifically address six recommendations arising from the Garda Inspectorate's report on crime investigation for 2014 which directly related to the compilation of crime statistics. During the course of the group’s meetings, a number of new measures were implemented on the Garda PULSE database with the objective of improving data quality and these were outlined to the group by An Garda Síochána. Furthermore, since the establishment of the expert group, a liaison group was set up between the CSO and An Garda Síochána as a formal, high-level mechanism for consultation and communication between both organisations that will facilitate co-operation and ensure that both organisations can fulfil their respective statutory obligations for the production of crime statistics as set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, and in accordance with the procedures and requirements of the Statistics Act 1993. The group, inter alia, also oversees the implementation of the recommendations of the expert group. In addition, a revised memorandum of understanding between the CSO and An Garda Síochána was signed in 2017. The CSO has already carried out two detailed reviews of crime data quality in 2015 and 2016 and I understand that further general reviews of crime data quality are planned. The CSO’s work provides an important measure of reassurance to support ongoing work to enhance the quality of the official crime statistics.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am aware of much, if not all, of the information in the reply. To be honest, I am not trying to catch the Minister out. That is being genuine. I know the Minister is shaking his head-----

I will take the Minister at his word. I just want to know some information. If the Minister does not have the information that is fine and he can let it be known in the next 24 hours. I want to be absolutely certain that when An Garda Síochána gives information to the CSO, in the past and currently, it does not give personal details of victims of crime, include very serious crimes such as murder and rape. I also want to be certain that they have not given the details to the CSO of the perpetrators of said crimes or the details of potential suspects in those crimes. If it is so, that is fine. If not, then why has the Minister not been told about it? Is the Department aware of this? Was the previous Garda Commissioner aware of it? What has An Garda Síochána done about it? Has it changed in the recent past or has the practice - if it was being followed - been stopped? Have the Statistics Act 1993 or the Data Protection Act 2018 been breached?

Are there other serious legal issues as a consequence, apart from privacy and data protection? Was the Policing Authority informed? I want to know whether, since January of this year - a clean-up was supposed to happen and the Minister outlined some actions - practices like this happened and if they did, whether they have finished. I also want to know that the information of citizens of this State, whether they were perpetrators or victims of crime or suspects - I am particularly concerned about victims - was sacrosanct and protected at all times.

I assure Deputy Kelly and the House that I am determined to ensure that a strong focus remains on the need for improvements in this area. I welcome ongoing collaboration between the CSO and the Garda Síochána and, having regard to the important oversight role of the Policing Authority, I am sure that Deputy Kelly will agree it is entirely appropriate that this matter be the subject of careful examination and enquiry by the Policing Authority. If Deputy Kelly has any evidence of wrongdoing or breach of law, I ask him to put that in writing to me, and if there are any irregularities of the type that have been implied yet again by Deputy Kelly, I would be happy to ensure that an appropriate investigation takes place.

The CSO has indicated that improvements to Garda data quality have been achieved in recent times. Important information technology, IT, upgrades are being made which, together with the enhanced supervision and review processes, will facilitate greater accuracy and consistency in crime data. All this must be within the law. However it will take some time for the full effects of the Garda upgrades to be reflected in the official crime statistics. I and my Government colleagues remain committed to ensuring that An Garda Síochána has all the resources required to carry out its vital functions, including improving data quality. This will be reflected next week in the Garda budget. I am determined to ensure that improvements in this area are appropriate and are carried out and in this regard, I will continue to engage directly with Commissioner Drew Harris in achieving this goal.

General Practitioner Contracts

I am to share time with Deputy Butler. Fourmilewater Health Centre, which is located just across the border from me in County Waterford, serves the parishes of Ballymacarbry, my own parish of Newcastle in County Tipperary, The Nire and Ballinamult, Tooraneena and even further afield. It is a wonderful rural general practitioner, GP, service with 1,700 patients, 1,050 of which are private patients so this is a very viable service. Since the resignation of the former GP linked to the service, Dr. Janes, who resigned in April of this year, the service has been operating with a locum GP service and there has been significant concern about the future of the health centre. I thank Dr. Janes and his staff and the previous doctor, Bill Donovan, his good wife and his receptionist who worked there for years. They gave decades of service. In June the post of a full-time GP for Fourmilewater Health Centre was advertised with a successful applicant being offered a position in July. It is my understanding that the successful applicant accepted the position in August. However, to date contracts have not yet been signed. There is a concern that the successful applicant wants to reduce this service to a part-time service operating a morning-only service thereby bringing his patients to his current practice in Clonmel, which would be a problem for the many patients who would have to travel significant distances to Clonmel, some of whom do not have cars and could not get taxis. It is my understanding that there were four applicants for the position. What is the delay in having the contracts signed and getting the new GP in place? If the successful applicant is no longer interested in providing a full-time service at Fourmilewater Health Centre why has the Health Service Executive, HSE, not moved on to offer the position to the next in line on the panel?

Fourmilewater Health Centre is in a very fortunate position whereby it is deemed to be viable and received significant interest from GPs, which is rare in the current circumstances. If the doctor selected is no longer interested in providing a full-time service, which the HSE informs me it is committed to providing, why is there a delay in moving forward by selecting a new candidate? As there is no GP service in Clonmel or Dungarvan that will have the capacity to take on 1,700 patients, a full-time service in Fouremilewater is vital.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for the time to speak on this issue. The Fourmilewater Health Centre is located near Ballymacarbry, County Waterford, close to Clonmel. It is a rural practice which provides essential medical care to the local community in Waterford and south Tipperary, and has over 1,700 patients. The previous GP at Ballymacarbry Fourmilewater Health Centre was on sick leave in October 2017 and subsequently resigned his list. The vacancy for the GP position was advertised in June of this year. The staff at the practice have consistently worked with HSE officials to source a locum until a permanent replacement was identified. This has been done on a piecemeal basis for the past 12 months in order to give the patients continuity for this vital service. It is an extremely rural area. This was and continues to be an additional workload for all the staff located at the centre.

Bearing in mind that the practice has been without the appointment of a full-time GP since October 2017 and even though the position of a full-time GP was advertised in June, the practice is still waiting for that appointment to be made. I understand there were several applicants to the position and a panel has been created. Interviews were held in July and we still await confirmation of the appointment today. It is causing huge uncertainty and distress to many patients and to staff members, who have worked tirelessly to keep the health centre open and operating until a replacement can be identified.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, who unfortunately cannot be here. The Government is committed to enhancing primary care services in Ireland and to engaging with GP representatives on necessary service improvements and contractual reforms that will enable GPs to better meet the needs of their patients, while promoting general practice as a viable and rewarding career for both existing doctors and future medical graduates.

Agreement on the delivery of these much-needed measures and reforms has the potential to facilitate a substantial increase in the resourcing of general practice on a multi-annual basis. The goal is to develop a contractual framework that has a population health focus, providing in particular for health promotion, disease prevention and for the structured care of chronic conditions, while ensuring patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP services. The Government is aware of workforce issues facing general practice, including the influence of demographic factors and in recent years has implemented a number of measures to improve recruitment and retention in general practice.

GP training places have been increased from 120 in 2009 to 193 places in 2018, an increase of around 60% over this nine-year period. As stated in the programme for Government, the intention is to continue to achieve annual increases in the number of training places available. The number of GPs on the specialist register continues to increase, and has risen from 2,270 in 2010 to 3,700 as of September 2018. The number of GPs holding General Medical Services, GMS, contracts has also risen from 2,098 in 2008 to 2,508 as of October 2018. Entry provisions to the GMS scheme have been changed to accommodate more flexible GMS contracts and the retirement age for GPs has been extended to 72. An enhanced support package for rural practices has been introduced with improved qualifying criteria and an increased financial allowance of €20,000 per annum.

The HSE is fully committed to continuing to provide full GP services from the Ballymacarbry Health Centre. Following the retirement of the previous GP in Fourmilewater in July, the HSE made arrangements for a locum full-time GP to be put in place. GP services in this practice continue to be maintained and the existing practice staff members have remained in their respective roles.

The HSE has advised that a recruitment campaign has been run to fill the current general practitioner, GP, vacancy. That process is now in its final stages and the HSE is seeking to agree a start date for the replacement GP.

I reiterate the Government's commitment to ensure that patients throughout the country will continue to have access to GP services and to reaching an agreement with GP representatives on necessary service improvements and contractual reforms. I will come back on some of the questions raised by both Deputies.

With no disrespect to the Minister of State, it is typical for her to come in and read out a reply on behalf of the Minister which is useless, toothless and fruitless. We are worried. Some 1,700 patients and their families are very worried. I pay tribute to the staff and the nurses who have kept the centre going, including the person who comes in to my own parish on a locum basis, Ann-Maria Byrne. The people concerned do not want this kind of report on statistics about GPs and such. They want a service. Four GPs applied for it. If this doctor wants to subsume the practice into Clonmel, it should not be allowed. It is 12 miles away, there are no taxis and many people do not have cars. The HSE must move on. He is having meetings and negotiations with the HSE. The date for signing a contract has been passed a few times and they missed it. We want clarity and certainty, and we want the patients of Ballymacarbry, Newcastle, Tooraneena, Ballinamult and beyond to have the service they are entitled to. We want the staff to have some future. It is an excellent, top-class facility with a top-class service. All we want is a GP appointment that will not diminish the service and subsume it into a bigger practice in Clonmel. Most GPs in Clonmel cannot take one patient, never mind 1,700. We need clarity, honesty and the people to be reassured that they will have a GP service.

It was evident months ago that the practice was losing its full-time GP. The patients and I are asking why the recruitment process is taking so long. Full-time services were always provided in the Fourmilewater Health Centre. They must continue to be provided for in this rural area. I cannot stress enough how rural the area is. The Minister of State can understand, with 1,700 patients coming here every day of the week, that they are very concerned. They are genuine concerns. There is a genuine fear that this service will be downgraded to a two or three day service. The Minister of State mentioned general practice. We all know that rural general practice is in decline and in crisis. We cannot allow this practice to be lost. We will have to fight tooth and nail for it.

We would like the answer.

I just have a short answer, if that is okay.

A direct answer will do for us.

I can only reply with the answer I gave the Deputies. I have taken notes. I do not know whether I made a mistake or not, since according to this there is a full time practice but I may have heard that it has been reduced to a half-time practice. Did I hear that right?

It is a full-time practice but the concern is that it might be reduced to a part-time practice.

It has 1,700 patients.

I have taken notes and listened to the concerns of both Deputies. I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Harris. Unfortunately, he has had to go to something else. I will raise the serious concerns that both Deputies have if this service is moved out and goes to another area. Many people will have to be facilitated in even just trying to get to a place from where they are. I am not familiar with the site in question but I am familiar with Clonmel.

The Minister of State is welcome to come and see it.

I will ask the Minister to reply to both Deputies, if that is okay.

I thank the Minister of State.

Legislative Measures

It is totally unfair that the Minister is not here and that he sent the Minister of State to answer on something he said to me in the Dáil last week for which there was no basis. I have sympathy for Deputy Byrne in her predicament as a Minister of State. I am shocked that the Minister did not, as was arranged by the reform committee at the beginning of this Dáil, come in here and put the Dáil before whatever other commitment he has this evening.

I raised the issue, as did my colleague, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, of bilingual signage or labels on alcohol products. There was a proposed amendment to achieve this. In reply, the Minister said:

Nonetheless, in addition to the practical concern I am conscious that we must in a public health Bill ensure that information on the label is clear and effective. It must be the paramount objective. A study was commissioned from Amárach Research in August 2015 to provide recommendations on how to best communicate critical information through labelling on the risk relating to alcohol consumption. There must be an evidence base to this and we must ensure this is an effective way of communicating. The research indicates that the inclusion of the information in another language on labels served to confuse the message being relayed.

In reply to a further point he made, he went on to say "it would still be less effective. I am in the business of evidence-based policies and evidence-based politics." It might surprise some people to know that my primary degree was in physics, chemistry and mathematics, fairly rigorous disciplines, and evidence is evidence. It is not hearsay and not throwaway remarks. I have the Amárach research, all 206 pages of it. I do not know whether the Minister read it. There are three references to focus groups on attitudes of individuals towards Irish labelling on tobacco. There are only three throwaway remarks. That is not evidence but people's view of a thing. There were people many centuries ago who believed the Earth was flat, and if one had a focus group at that time, one might have found that 80% believed the Earth was flat. The evidence that has come forward since is that they were wrong and their view was incorrect and that the Earth is more round than flat. A few people in a focus group expressing a throwaway remark is not evidence.

When one goes through this 206 page report, one will find that they never tried a bilingual label in the research they did. They never said to look at one then the other and got the reactions. At no stage did they actually analyse this question. When one looks at all the chapters and details, this issue was not one on which they did evidence-based research. Their conclusions are largely to the contrary. They cite the Canadian example as being one of best practice. As the Minister of State knows, everything federal in Canada has to be bilingual. The report tells us that bilingual is best and I am shocked that the Minister did not come in here to say sorry and that he made a flippant remark. What he said was serious. He was putting through a Bill and trying to persuade this side of the House that it would be dangerous to public health to have bilingual labels. He claimed to have evidence of this. It is clear now that he did not.

I apologise for the Minister not being able to attend. I understand the frustration of Deputies that we do not have the Minister here to answer some of these questions. I will read the remarks that have been given to me and maybe come back on one or two of the issues that Deputy Ó Cuív has raised. In his remarks to the Dáil last week, the Minister for Health stated that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will ensure that the information on the label is clear and effective. It must be a paramount objective. He made it clear that he could not accept the amendment on including the Irish language on labels for "practical reasons arising from the EU's standstill period".

The advice from the Department of Health is that a requirement to have the Irish language on labels would have to be notified at EU level and it would have delayed the Bill. The Minister acknowledged the importance of the Irish language in his remarks to the Dáil and agreed to include the warnings in the Irish language on notices in licensed premises and on websites that sell alcohol. The same space restrictions that apply to labels on alcohol products do not apply to notices or websites. Providing for the Irish language on notices in licensed premises and on websites that sell alcohol will ensure that consumers are provided with the relevant health information in Irish at the place of purchase. Both the Minister and I recognise the importance of our native language and, therefore, want to ensure that it is given due recognition within the public health alcohol framework. On that basis, the Department has already been in contact with the HSE and it has confirmed that the website referred to on labels, namely, www.askaboutalcohol.ie, will include all the relevant health information in the Irish language.

In 2015, the Department of Health commissioned Amárach Research to do primary research to further inform health labelling of alcohol products to ensure the clarity and efficacy of message. The purpose of the research was to identify people's perceptions as to the most effective information to be included on the labels so as to ensure that the Department would be provided with the most reliable data and that the most suitable health warnings would be chosen. The findings of the research were, and will be, taken into account to ensure the most effective messaging. The research examined existing labelling systems on products including food, medicine, tobacco and alcohol employing a mixed mode approach which included focus groups and a nationally representative face-to-face group. Deputy Ó Cuív said only three people were involved.

No, I did not say that.

I thought he said there were three focus groups.

No, three references.

I am sorry. The research states: "As a further note of caution, the inclusion of messaging in the Irish language served to confuse the message." With this legislation, we are moving from a situation where there is currently no health information required on the product to requiring six pieces of information to be included on the label. This is a new approach that will bring with it administrative burdens and costs on business. If the additional requirement is added that the information must be in two languages, that would require a larger area of the label to be used. I will respond to the Deputy's other points in due course.

As I said, there are three references, one was that the information on the back of cigarette packages was hampered in such a small space due to the length of the sentence in the bilingual approach. That was a view expressed. It is not scientific analysis of the effect because bilingual labels were never tried. Others viewed the inclusion of the messages in the Irish language as irrelevant. That is their opinion, not evidence. Some respondents suggested jovially that the information on cigarette packages was only really useful as an education tool promoting the Irish language. A person referred to as "May, Limerick" said: "I just look at them and think, oh, that is how you might say that in Irish..." That is a quote from the report.

The third one relates to tobacco being a very different product from alcohol. Although no scientific study was carried out, or there was no evidence-based study, as the Minister said, it was said as a further notion of caution the inclusion of messages in the Irish language served to confuse the message. That was the opinion, not evidence, of whoever wrote the report. The Minister never asked for the company to examine the issue of effectiveness. It is not in the report and no scientific analysis of it has been done. It is a clear case of a claim being made, which happens frequently in the House, but where there is no basis to it.

One would think in a bilingual State that people would have rights to services in the two languages. Another point is that on a previous occasion, the Minister accused me of being condescending. I stand over what I said, which is that it is hard for those who do not speak the Irish language on a daily basis, people who have not raised their children with Irish as the home language, and those who do not have grandchildren who have Irish as a home language to understand the influence of the visibility of the language in terms of encouraging people to use it. One sentence in the report is key. It states that Canada is best in the class, and Canada is bilingual, so the report undermines the Minister's argument totally and fully supports my argument. That is evidence if one wants evidence.

I understand Deputy Ó Cuív's passion for the Irish language. He is an Irish speaker but, unfortunately, I am not. I understand from the Minister, Deputy Harris, that he did not accept the amendment on including the Irish language on the label for practical reasons arising from the EU standards.

That is disputed.

Anybody who spoke in the Chamber during the course of the debate on the Bill, and on Committee Stage, made it very clear that we need the Bill to be passed in order to deal with the problems we have with alcohol in this country. To continue delaying the Bill would be regrettable for most people who, unfortunately, find themselves addicted to alcohol and those who die from it on a daily basis.

It has already taken more than 1,000 days for the Bill to get to where it is now. The groundbreaking legislation which we will see involves health warning and information before the purchase of alcohol in shops and at other points of sale such as airports.

I am taken aback by what Deputy Ó Cuív said about three references made in the Amárach report. I will raise them with the Minister. I have made a note of the points the Deputy made.

I will provide the Minister of State with a copy of the details.

I will ask the Minister to speak directly to the Deputy because I have not read the report and I cannot comment on it.

Obviously, the Minister did not read it either.

I do not know whether that is the case. I will ask the Minister to respond to the Deputy.

It was either that or he told a big porky.

There are no porkies here, nor any allegations.