Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Protected Disclosures

Mick Wallace

Question:

35. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he is satisfied that the system regarding protected disclosures within An Garda Síochána is functioning properly, if he has had contact with the new Garda Commissioner on this issue since their appointment and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4387/19]

The Minister has told us that he has established a panel of counsel to assess disclosures made to him by members or former members of An Garda Síochána. Is he happy with the protected disclosures system? Has he discussed same with the new Garda Commissioner?

Under the 2014 Act referred to by the Deputy, members of An Garda Síochána may communicate their concerns to the Garda Commissioner, as their employer if they so choose, or make a disclosure to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, which is statutorily independent in the conduct of its investigations. The legislation also allows that an individual employed by a public body may also make a protected disclosure to the Minister with responsibility for that body. In the case of An Garda Síochána, that is the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Garda Síochána has published a protected disclosures policy and all Garda members and civilians have been informed of this policy. A protected disclosures manager was appointed. An Garda Síochána works with Transparency International Ireland, TII, and other external providers to create an environment to ensure that whistleblowers are properly protected and supported. TII's Integrity at Work pledge was signed by the Garda Commissioner in 2017. The Garda Síochána code of ethics includes strong commitments for each individual member with regard to "speaking up and reporting wrongdoing".

The Deputy is aware that, in 2016, the then Minister requested the Policing Authority to examine and report on the policies and procedures in place in the Garda to deal with whistleblowers and whistleblowing. The authority was also asked to make any recommendation that it considered appropriate in order to ensure that the policies and procedures in place were appropriate and could provide assurance to whistleblowers that they could make complaints or allegations in a safe environment where they would be properly investigated.

GSOC was supposed to look after protected disclosures, but the Minister has now had to establish a panel. Does that mean that the workload is too much for GSOC or that there is a lack of confidence in its role in assessing protected disclosures?

Section 41(1)(b) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 reads: "significant developments that might reasonably be expected to affect adversely public confidence in the Garda Síochána". The Garda is supposed to keep the Minister informed of such circumstances. Did the Garda Commissioner advise him of the circumstances around the need to suspend Assistant Commissioner Fanning before or after that suspension, or did the Commissioner give any reason for that suspension?

I am in regular contact with the Garda Commissioner. The issues to which the Deputy referred are, as operational ones, exclusively the prerogative of the Commissioner. My Department's most up-to-date figures for protected disclosures from the Garda made under the Act since its introduction are as follows: 16 to the Garda Commissioner up to last December; 25 to GSOC up to December 2017; and 24 to the office of the Minister for Justice and Equality to date. It may be possible that the same individual has made a number of protected disclosures to more than one of the possible recipients under the Act and there is some overlap in that regard, but I am keen to ensure that the protocols, practice and procedure are working properly so that any complaint or grievance is adequately addressed. That is also the position of the Garda Commissioner. Deputy Wallace has raised these issues before. I assure him that the Garda Síochána, at every level from Commissioner down, has consistently and without exception encouraged all staff, sworn and unsworn, to disclose all and any wrongdoing. There are practices and procedures under the Act that allow for due process to be undertaken.

The Minister stated that the protected disclosure system was working well, but Mr. Nicky Keogh first complained in May 2014 and, as the Minister knows, that situation is still not resolved. Has there been a change of policy? For example, the House will be aware that Mr. Pat Murray and Mr. Aidan Glacken were the subjects of Mr. Keogh's protected disclosure. They were never suspended, yet Mr. Fanning has been. Has there been a change of policy or did the Commissioner-----

Deputy, I would refrain from mentioning names.

Okay. Has the Minister discussed with the Commissioner Mr. Fanning's suspension? Has the Minister or the Commissioner any concern about the manner in which this information was leaked to the media so quickly? It obviously came from headquarters.

The Minister to respond, if he is in a position to.

I do not have anything to say on matters relating to the media. Deputy Wallace probably knows as much about that as I do, or perhaps more. However, the policy on the part of the Garda is to ensure that there is due process and that workers, whether sworn or unsworn, in the Garda can be assured that they will be protected from any form of penalisation or threat in respect of a disclosure made.

Deputy Wallace mentioned the matter of resourcing GSOC. We will have an opportunity to return to that, but I assure the House that it is the Government's priority that GSOC be adequately and properly funded. The budget for this year is in excess of €10 million. Resources and funding are kept under continuing review so as to ensure that the body is in a position to continue to operate in an effective and efficient manner in accordance with its statutory remit. In the budget last autumn, a further €1.6 million was provided, which has resulted in an extra complement of staff for the body.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission Funding

Mick Wallace

Question:

36. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on whether funding issues may be impeding the ability of GSOC to deal with protected disclosures in an expedient and timely manner; if he has considered increasing the budget for GSOC; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4388/19]

This is a connected question. The Minister referred to due process, but I would insist that Mr. Keogh certainly has not got due process to date. Are funding issues impeding the ability of GSOC to deal with protected disclosures in an expedient and timely manner? GSOC is getting an extra €600,000 in this year's budget, but will the Minister consider giving it more money to make it more effective?

I acknowledge the concerns of Deputy Wallace and others in that regard. It is essential that we ensure that the independent complaints body, GSOC, is properly and adequately funded. Resources and funding are the matter of ongoing review. I acknowledge the provision of an extra allocation of funds.

GSOC has authority to appoint its own officers under delegated sanction. Sanction was provided in November last for an additional 42 staff members, five of whom were to be deployed to a dedicated disclosures unit. This would increase the unit's active staffing to ten full-time members. At no time has GSOC had as much access to resourcing or staffing. These additions reflect the important work undertaken by the commission and the need for it to be properly resourced in order to ensure public confidence in the independent role that it plays.

I am aware that GSOC has more money now than it did before, but will it not need even more if it is to do the job as effectively as we would like? Last December, the Minister announced that the Government had endorsed the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and agreed to accept all 157 key recommendations. According to the Department's implementation plan, the new framework will be in place by June 2021 and legislation on the establishment of new oversight bodies is to be drafted this year. Where does that stand? The Government can introduce all the legislation it likes - we agree with giving greater powers to GSOC so that it can function - but unless that is matched with extra resources, it will unfortunately remain a toothless organisation. It will need much more funding if it is to be the body we would all like it to be.

On the latter point, I am in agreement with Deputy Wallace. I would be keen to ensure that the question of resourcing on the one hand and the question of legislative update on the other are kept under review at all times. I acknowledge the Deputy's concerns in this regard.

Protection for whistleblowers rightly prioritises the privacy and confidentiality of the process, which is central to the process.

It is not right or proper that to discuss individual cases. This morning, I acknowledged names which were put before the House again by Deputy Wallace. While I do not doubt his concerns about the matter, it would be a pity if they were, in some way, to blind us to the basic principles of fairness. The reality appears to be that Deputy Wallace and other Deputies rush to judgment without having heard what others have to say about a particular case or a particular set of allegations. It is easy to make charges against people, as the Deputy and others do, when these people are not in a position to defend themselves. There is process involved under the Act. I have indicated to the House the practice and procedure regarding such complaints.

The Minister will have another opportunity to respond.

It is incumbent on us to allow the independent body, GSOC, proceed and carry out its investigations in accordance with its terms of reference.

That is contradictory. The Minister said that GSOC is a statutory independent body and that we should not rush to judgment. Why did he not wait for GSOC to investigate the protected disclosure regarding assistant commissioner Fanning before he was suspended? Why was he suspended in advance of the investigation? The Minister is the one accusing me of-----

The Deputy is long enough in the House to know that he cannot make reference to individuals who are not here.

I am sorry. I will not name anyone anymore.

The Minister said that I was the one jumping to a judgment. With what is happening, it looks to me that he does not have confidence in GSOC to do its work. I have not a clue as to what Fanning did or did not do.

The Deputy said he would refrain from naming people.

I am sorry. That was a slip of the tongue.

I am not the one making the judgment. If the Minister has faith in GSOC, why did he have to come up with this panel? Why was this individual suspended in advance of the protected disclosure being heard?

The Minister to respond.

I do not understand this.

I have every confidence in GSOC and in its work headed up by an eminent judge of the High Court. I am keen to ensure that appropriate resources are made available. I am pleased to report progress in recent times, which I am sure, having reflected on the matter, will be agreed with by the Deputy.

I am not, however, going to comment in any manner or means on a case currently before the High Court. It is grossly irresponsible of the Deputy to make reference to aspects of the particular case in the House and to expect me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to wish to enter into any debate on the matter.

International Conventions

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

37. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to ratify the Budapest convention and the Lanzarote convention; the timeline for the ratification of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4179/19]

Ireland signed the Budapest convention on cybercrime in 2001 and the Lanzarote convention, which deals with the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, in 2007. When will the Minister ratify them?

The Deputy will recall that I recently outlined the position on the ratification of these two important Council of Europe conventions when he raised the matter on 16 January. At that time, I updated the House on the significant progress made in the ratification process within the term of this administration, particularly through the introduction of legislation to give effect to the key criminal law provisions in both treaties.

On the cybercrime convention, otherwise known as the Budapest convention, the majority of the provisions in the convention are already provided for in Irish law. The most significant step towards ratification of the convention was the enactment in 2017 of the first Bill in this jurisdiction specifically dedicated to dealing with cybercrime. The Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Act 2017 gave effect to an EU directive on attacks against information systems, the main provisions of which reflect the key provisions in the convention.

This recent legislation, therefore, also gives effect to provisions in the convention relating to offences against information systems and their data, as well as search and seizure powers in respect of such data. An Garda Síochána, the organisation with primary responsibility for dealing with cybercrime, has strongly welcomed this landmark legislation as a comprehensive weapon to tackle criminality against computer systems, as well as interference with such systems or their data.

Turning to the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, also known as the Lanzarote convention, the work required for ratification is at an advanced stage. I understand from our previous debate on this matter that the Deputy’s primary concern is with the elements of the convention which deal with the criminalisation of online abuse and exploitation of children. Ireland’s laws are fully in line with the convention in this regard. This was largely achieved by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which is ground-breaking legislation. On other elements of the convention, my Department has carried out a detailed review of compliance, in consultation with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other relevant stakeholders, such as the Garda Síochána and the HSE.

The online sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children is one of the most serious issues that any country can face. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that we cannot deal with on our own. It is an international problem and needs to be dealt with through international co-operation. That was the reason why the Council of Europe came up with these two conventions. The Budapest convention, dealing with cybercrime, was signed by Ireland in 2001 and the Lanzarote convention, which deals with the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, was signed in 2007. I acknowledge that steps have been taken by the Oireachtas and the Government to put in place legislation, which will achieve the requirements of part of those conventions. However, they still have not been ratified. It should not come as a surprise to the Minister because I have raised it with him previously, and Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the child rapporteur, mentioned in his annual report as far back as 2014 that these conventions had not been ratified. I still have not received an answer as to when they will be ratified.

I would like to be in a position to report progress on both of these conventions. I acknowledge there has been a delay in bringing matters towards a finality. However, much progress has been made in the context of legislation that has been enacted in recent times such as the Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Act 2017 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. Other aspects of the Lanzarote convention do not require fresh legislation but action needs to be taken at operational level.

I agree with the Deputy that child sexual exploitation is an issue which can only be tackled by means of a cross-agency approach. I am engaged with a broad range of stakeholders, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the HSE, Tusla and An Garda Síochána. I am keen that matters will be advanced during the year. I am happy to keep the House fully informed of developments to ensure we formally ratify both of these important Council of Europe conventions.

I hope I am not being unfair but based on what the Minister said, I take it that it is hoped that the Government will ratify these conventions this year. If that is so, it is to be welcomed, notwithstanding the fact that they should have been ratified a long time ago.

We must recognise that international attention in this regard will focus on Ireland in due course. We have managed to get away with the fact that the State has not ratified these conventions. Ireland is a centre for a significant number of digital and Internet companies. We need to be conscious that we have to have in place top of the range regulation and legislation to deal with the serious issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of children online. Internet companies are incapable of doing it to the fullest extent.

Even if they were, as legislators we must ensure that the appropriate laws are in place.

While I welcome what the Minister said about it looking as though they will be ratified this year, there has been a long delay and I will hold him to the commitment that it will be done this year.

I do not wish to offer reasons or excuses to the House about the timescale involved, but I acknowledge there has not been the type of progress which many of us desired. Some of the delay arose from developments at EU level such as the 2005 EU framework decision on a tax on information systems, which was in the process of being implemented through well-advanced draft national legislation until 2010, before being replaced by an updated directive in 2013. The Deputy will appreciate that there are legislative priorities, which change over time due to competing issues in the justice and equality sector. Given that the issue has been raised again, I am keen to keep the House fully informed and, in particular, the Deputy, having regard to his interest in it.

Gambling Sector

Martin Heydon

Question:

38. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if his Department considers loot boxes and mystery boxes in video games a form of gambling or an e-commerce activity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4383/19]

The gaming industry is growing exponentially and there is much concern about the harm, in particular to young adults, from loot boxes and mystery boxes. Some $30 billion was reportedly spent on loot boxes in 2018 alone, and the gaming industry is predicted to have a value of $160 billion by 2022, 47% of which will be generated from micro-transactions such as loot boxes. It is clear that improved regulation is needed.

In the light of the Department's ongoing work on the Gambling Control Bill 2018, will the Minister of State outline the Department's view on loot boxes? Are they considered a form of gambling or an e-commerce activity?

The Deputy will be aware that I have previously addressed the issue of loot boxes and whether they constitute a gambling or e-commerce offering. A licence is required under the Betting Acts 1931 to 2015 or the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 to sell gambling products, and gaming, as defined under the latter Act, is covered in that regard. While the Minister for Justice and Equality has certain responsibilities under both Acts, the Revenue Commissioners are the responsible licensing authority. In the context of video games, if a game sought to offer an activity or items for purchase that fall under the current Irish legal definition of gambling, the manufacturer of the game would require a relevant licence. To the best of our knowledge, no manufacturer has sought such licensing by gambling regulators in Ireland or other EU member states to date.

If a game offers in-game purchases, however, that are advertised to increase the chances of success in the game but do not fall within the current Irish legal definition of gambling, such purchases are an e-commerce activity. This would fall within recourse to normal consumer law where there is dissatisfaction on the part of the customer with the purchase. However one might regard in-game purchases and how they may be marketed, it must be clear that they fall within the legal definition of a gambling activity to engage the regulatory attention of my or other Departments responsible for that regulation. This position is shared by other EU member states.

I have been made aware of so-called mystery boxes, which are items offered for purchase through Internet platforms such as YouTube. I am advised they appear to be in the nature of lucky dip-type purchases and, as such, do not come under the definition of gambling. My earlier comments, therefore, regarding the requirement for a gambling licence also apply in this instance.

Through the Department of Justice and Equality, Ireland was happy to lend its support to the recent declaration issued by the Gaming Regulators European Forum, concerning the blurring of lines between gambling and gaming. The declaration reflects concern among national authorities as to whether gaming products such as video games should be appropriately licensed if they offer gambling possibilities. The declaration was intended to indicate to the gaming industry concerns expressed by several states that certain player-to-player gaming products may, in the context of in-game purchases, fall within the category of gambling as defined under their national laws. Although the declaration does not have any legal effect, Ireland will continue to co-operate with other member states in the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and acknowledge our role in the joint declaration of European regulators. In popular games such as Overwatch where if one purchases a loot box, the box starts shaking on the screen and there are flying discs and a final reveal, and it is all designed to heighten the appeal. It is very much like watching an episode of "Winning Streak". Similarly, in the Fortnite game, which is also popular, the "Save the World" game features blind loot boxes. While Epic Games has said the system will be replaced by an X-ray system, there are currently brightly coloured piñatas that are cracked open with the potential to win in-game goodies. There will soon be X-ray llamas in order that the player will know before purchasing what they contain, which I welcome.

York St. John University and the University of York came together to conduct an extensive study of 8,500 gamers, and they found a direct link between adults who have problems with gambling and the time they spent on loot boxes, which is something we should be conscious of. They recommended a loot box restriction and that, at the least, there should be an age restriction on loot boxes in line with other types of gambling in order that they are treated as another form of gambling, which should be borne in mind.

That was one of the reasons we supported the declaration I mentioned. Parents have primary responsibility to protect their children in the purchase and use of video games, particularly those played online. The declaration to which I referred will serve to alert parents of potential issues and costs involved and encourage them to exercise greater control over purchase decisions. That the Deputy raised the matter will, I hope, highlight to parents that they need to be vigilant about these matters.

Video products are currently regulated under the Video Recordings Act 1989. Video games are exempted works for classification purposes unless they fall within the terms provided for in section 3(1)(a) or (b), which cover the grounds for the prohibition of works. Ireland is part of a pan-European game information, PEGI, system, which is a European-wide rating system for video games, and the director of the Irish Film Classification Office, IFCO, is a member of the council of the PEGI system. It is now normal practice for IFCO to view video games which are rated as 18+ to allow the director of IFCO to form an opinion of whether such games fall within the terms provided in the Video Recordings Act 1989.

I raised the issue for two reasons, namely, to try to influence our view of regulation as we amend the upcoming gambling Bills and to raise awareness among parents of their responsibility. Children aged ten, 11 and 12 play the games, often in their bedrooms without parental control and without parents being fully informed of the important elements of the game.

Countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, the Isle of Man, China, Japan and Australia have treated loot boxes and mystery boxes as a form of gambling. Regulators are investigating the matter in 15 other areas, one of which is the US Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating pay-to-win and gameplay systems. While parental control is important, and I accept that gambling problems are covered by the Department of Health, it is incumbent on the Department of Justice and Equality, as regulator, to make a start. If somebody is susceptible to problem gambling, this type of gaming is a bad way to start as a young adult. If there are ways we can restrict that and make young adults safer in their gaming, we must take every step.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter, which is important because children are possibly being groomed by using the games before progressing to gambling. He is correct that people with gambling problems or addictions are the responsibility of the health authorities because it is a health matter.

The Deputy made reference to the group that we established to review the main provisions of the Gambling Control Bill. The group gave attention to considering the structure of the proposed regulatory authority, having regard to the decision taken by the Government on 10 January 2018. It considered governance and logistical practicalities in the establishment of the regulator, as well as the future of licensing of gambling activities, including gaming arcades, machines, lotteries and casinos; combatting money laundering through gambling; improved protection of consumers and vulnerable persons; and the approach to be taken to advertising, sponsorship and the proportion of gambling activities, and match-fixing of sporting events.

The Deputy is correct that the matter is changing by the week. Every time we examine it, there is a new game, approach or way of making money and enticing people to get involved, which is why I am anxious that the gambling control authority be established as soon as possible with the flexibility to keep up with the industry.

Garda Procedures

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

39. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if An Garda Síochána has a written policy regarding the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 in respect of newborn infants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3959/19]

This question is to ask the Minister if An Garda Síochána has a written policy on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 regarding newborn babies.

All Deputies will be aware that matters of policy and procedure within An Garda Síochána are matters for the Garda Commissioner. I do not have a role in the implementation of practice and procedures. I can inform Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, however, that I am advised by the Garda Commissioner that An Garda Síochána has a specific policy regarding section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.  The relevant directive from the Garda's policy on the investigation of sexual crime, crimes against children and child welfare states:

When members encounter incidents where the removal of a child to safety must be considered, pursuant to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 (as amended), two central tenets of the Act of 1991 should be borne in mind:

That it is generally in the best interests of a child to be brought up in her or his own family, and

That the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration.

A balance must be achieved between those two issues when deciding whether or not to remove a child [to a place that might be regarded as a place of greater] safety.

Section 12 of the Act gives authority to An Garda Síochána to invoke its provisions where a member has reasonable grounds for believing that there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of the child.  For example, Tusla personnel may form an opinion, usually as a result of an interaction with a family, that there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child or children. In such circumstances, Tusla may request a member of An Garda Síochána to invoke section 12 of the 1991 Act.

While an individual garda may base his or her decision on the information provided by Tusla and its personnel, it is the garda removing the child to safety who must be satisfied that there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and-or welfare of the child concerned. I acknowledge the serious nature of this authority and An Garda Síochána works diligently at all times to adhere to the principles of the Act to protect the safety and welfare of all children.

I thank the Minister. My question relates to newborn babies, which is a very sensitive and emotive topic. No one denies that there are times when - for their safety and welfare - babies need to be removed from the care of their parents. Section 12 allows the Garda some discretion and my understanding is that it is used in a humane way. Difficulty arises when there is a court order and gardaí must forcibly remove a newborn baby. Forcibly removing a baby is not good childcare practice. It causes great distress for everybody involved, the parents, the gardaí, the hospital staff, Tusla staff and the legal people involved. We have examples of where that has happened.

I take the point that a baby's welfare and health are paramount. The court order, however, does not give any room for alternatives to be considered, for example, detaining a baby in hospital for a few more days with supervised access for the mother. The European Convention on Human Rights makes it clear that all possible alternatives to removal have to be considered and that it has to be proportionate. There have been cases where it has not been proportionate.

Moving from the general to the more detailed, as the Deputy has done in her supplementary question, I have to say that there is no specific policy applicable to newborn babies. However, the Garda policy relating to section 12 strictly follows the requirements laid down in the 1991 Act. That Act defines a child as a person under 18, and this, of course, covers newborn infants along with all other children. The removal of a newborn infant under section 12 is a rare occurrence. It is only considered in cases where there is an immediate and serious risk to the health and welfare of the child. In all cases, regardless of the age of the child, the overriding consideration for members of An Garda Síochána is the safety and welfare of the child. As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan will acknowledge, An Garda Síochána engaged the professional services of Professor Geoffrey Shannon to conduct an independent audit of the exercise by An Garda Síochána of section 12. His report was published in May 2017 and was welcomed by An Garda Síochána.

I refer to section 13 of the Child Care Act 1991. I want to return to the forcible removal of a newborn baby from its mother. I agree with the Minister that the welfare of the child is paramount. I ask him, however, to consider that there is a need for a more detailed protocol for a better partnership in those situations where there is a court order or where section 13 is applied. There must be a better protocol between Tusla, hospital staff, the parents or the guardian ad litem of the child and the Garda. I refer to there being planned guidance and direction. Perhaps there is a need to consider setting up an expert group that would consider this particular aspect of the forcible removal when there is a court order. That would definitely be for very valid reasons but this issue of forcible removal has caused great distress when it has been used. There was a particular case before Christmas. I know the Minister does not want to comment on individual cases but there was much distress caused to everybody involved. My concern is to avoid that kind of distress arising in similar situations.

I acknowledge the expertise and experience of people such as Professor Shannon. I am sure Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan will agree with me in that regard. One of the main findings of Professor Shannon's report was that the exercise of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 by members of An Garda Síochána has been necessary, proportionate and legally sound, and that it has been done without any form of discrimination. I assure the House that An Garda Síochána continues to work to ensure that all children under the age of 18, including newborn infants, are fully protected. Members of An Garda Síochána use their statutory powers appropriately with the sole aim of protecting children. I am advised by the Garda Commissioner that the directive to all members of An Garda Síochána covering the use of section 12 is in accordance with all aspects of the Child Care Act 1991.

Garda Deployment

Thomas Byrne

Question:

40. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of Garda members in the Meath division. [4167/19]

As the Deputy is aware, the manner in which the resources of the Garda Síochána are deployed is solely a matter for the Garda Commissioner and his management team. I, as Minister, have no direct role in the process. I can, however, assure Deputy Thomas Byrne that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities so as to ensure optimum use is made of resources.

I am informed by the Commissioner that as of 31 December 2018, the most recent date for which figures are readily available, the strength of the Meath division was 318. There are also 13 Garda Reserves and 30 civilians attached to the division.

It is important to note that the increased specialisation within An Garda Síochána means that the number of gardaí assigned to various divisions does not include those assigned to various specialist bureaus or units that include the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the armed support units, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, all of which are particularly active, as the Deputy will appreciate, in the Meath division. Around 200 extra gardaí were assigned to the specialist bureaus within Special Crime Operations since 2017.

Since the reopening of the Garda College in Templemore in September 2014, almost 2,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties up and down the country. Some 73 of these were assigned to the Meath division. This accelerated recruitment of officers led to Garda numbers reaching just over 14,000 by the end of 2018.

Furthermore, the Commissioner has been allocated an additional €100 million for 2019. This will bring his total budget to almost €1.8 billion.  This substantial investment will allow the accelerated recruitment programme to continue at the same time that new and leading edge technology is deployed to An Garda Síochána to support our front-line officers in carrying out their work of delivering a visible, responsive and effective police service in Meath and elsewhere.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He stated that 73 new gardaí have been assigned to the Meath division and I accept that. However, although any increase is welcome, the overall increase in the number of gardaí is approximately 29. While the Garda Commissioner may have allocated 73 gardaí to Meath, approximately 40 to 50 gardaí retired from the division. That said, we welcome the increase which was provided as part of the confidence and supply agreement. More work needs to be done, particularly in County Meath due to its population among other issues. County Westmeath has twice as many gardaí per head of population as County Meath. We have approximately one garda for every 600 residents while County Westmeath has one for every 300 residents, although the figure varies. The largest town in Ireland without a Garda station, Ratoath, is in my constituency. I urge the Minister to bring that to the attention of the Commissioner if they are discussing these matters. Other towns such as Slane and Dunboyne only have part-time Garda stations. There is justified concern about crime and Garda presence. We thank gardaí for their work, but they need more resources in my constituency and wider County Meath.

I am happy to immediately share the table I have in respect of the Meath division with the Deputy. However, Garda strength in the Meath division has recovered to levels last seen in 2008-09. In the past four years, Garda strength in Meath has recovered. There has been an increase of 15% from the low point of 277 in 2015. I do not have a figure for the number of retirees in County Meath but I am happy to acquire it for the Deputy. The Commissioner stated his intention to recruit 600 trainee gardaí and 600 Garda civilian staff this year. It is important that we make every effort to release gardaí from office or administrative duties to do the work on the street and in communities for which they were, perhaps, best trained. If the annual intake of approximately 800 continues and there are approximate 300 retirees annually, the force will be significantly strengthened. I have no reason to believe there are proportionally more retirees in Meath than elsewhere in the country but I am happy to get the figure for the Deputy.

The population of County Meath has increased rapidly compared to other counties. In addition, it started from a low base in respect of Garda numbers.

An issue of concern is that the number of Garda reservists has dropped significantly from 20 to 16 and there are now 13. Although some may have become full-time members of An Garda Síochána and I am delighted if they have, a renewed focus on the Garda Reserve may be of assistance to policing and Garda duties in my constituency.

I note the Deputy's comments on the Garda Reserve. It is somewhat disappointing that its numbers have dropped from a peak of 1,100 in 2013 to 530 in 2018. However, I acknowledge the importance of the recommendations in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing, which the Government published before Christmas. It is an elaborate and ambitious implementation plan that reviews all aspects of policing in Ireland. The commission specifically recommended that recruitment to the Garda Reserve be paused pending completion of a strategic review of the reserve with a view towards ensuring the best use is made of this valuable resource. I confirm that this year the Garda Commissioner intends to recruit a further 600 trainee gardaí along with 600 Garda civilian staff. That recruitment will allow him to redeploy a further 500 fully trained gardaí from administrative to front-line duties. I expect that County Meath will benefit in that regard.

Visa Applications

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

41. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he is satisfied with the turnaround time for visa application decisions; and his plans to designate additional resources to expedite the process. [4394/19]

My question regards the turnaround time for visa application decisions and whether the Minister plans to designate additional resources to expedite the process.

I am advised by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, of my Department that decisions on the grant or refusal of visas are made in a number of INIS visa offices overseas, the visa office in Dublin and at embassies of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which process many visa applications under delegated sanction from my Department.

The Deputy will agree there has been an increase in the number of visa applications across most categories of people wishing to come to Ireland for a variety of purposes. More than 140,000 applications were received last year, an increase of 12% on the previous year. This reflects the trend in recent years, with applications having increased by 40% since 2014 when slightly more than 100,000 applications were received. The trend is expected to continue in the coming years. Much of the growth is due to increased economic activity and greater connectivity generally. Notwithstanding that, processing times are on a par with those for the same time last year and in many cases have improved upon them.

More generally, there has been an improvement in processing times for visas in recent weeks. It is expected that this will improve further in the coming weeks and into the spring. However, processing times in visa offices may vary having regard to seasonal demands, the volume of applications received, the merits of individual applications, their complexity, available resources and whether there is a need to seek further information, investigate or inquire further. The work involved and the required checks may, therefore, take some time depending on the complexity or individual circumstances of an application.

I assure the Deputy that every effort will be made to keep processing times to a minimum. Several measures have been put in place to deal with the increased demand for visas to come to Ireland.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

This has included the assignment of additional staff to help process applications and, more generally, the streamlining of visa processes where possible. I am advised that this is making a difference such that processing times are generally within the INIS administrative target which takes into account the time required to undertake essential checks. The targets have not been adjusted to take account of the increased numbers of visa applications in certain locations. The position in this regard is being kept under review and will be monitored closely in the coming months.

I tabled a question to the Minister before Christmas regarding the delay in getting appointments. In reply, he stated that a new online system was being considered and would be developed over the coming year or so, that there would be additional staff and that offices would open on Saturdays and Sundays. Could those measures be implemented in the visa application process? It is only when contacted by people with particular difficulties that one becomes aware of the system. A case of which I am aware involved a person who applied three months before the deadline because a family issue required him to return to his country of origin. However, the decision on his visa was made almost at the last minute. Another person who had an offer of good employment and did not want to go into the black economy was trying to get his visa expedited as quickly as possible to take up that offer of employment because he wanted to be in genuine employment in which he would pay his taxes. Cases such as that bring home the inordinate delays experienced by some people and the need for a quicker response.

I do not disagree with what the Deputy stated. It is important that every effort is made to streamline the process and reallocate staff to particular locations as the demand or requirement appears to necessitate. Several measures have been put in place to deal with the increased demand, including the assignment of additional staff to cities such as New Delhi and Beijing to help process applications. More generally, a system of streamlining the visa processing where possible has been implemented. Staff have been temporarily deployed abroad to help to process visas when the need arises. I assure the Deputy that we will continue to keep the position under review. I acknowledge her information in that regard.

I acknowledge that the system is fair and transparent. My engagement with INIS has been good and I acknowledge the work it does. However, there is a need to address the significant delay in processing some applications, particularly in emergencies.

The situation on some parts of the international stage is improving. I acknowledge that there were some challenges. I assure the Deputy and the House that I will continue to monitor the situation and that we will do everything possible to ensure an efficient and effective process.

Northern Ireland

Brendan Smith

Question:

42. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the progress to date in implementing new legislative measures arising from the Fresh Start agreement and Stormont House Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4325/19]

The bombing incident in Derry was a stark reminder of the bad days on our island. The Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start agreement contain important measures to deal with paramilitarism and put an end to criminal activity.

There is also the broader issue of ensuring that legacy issues are dealt with and that we work in the interests of victims and their families. The Minister might give us an outline of what progress has been made.

The Government is fully committed to giving effect to the provisions of the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start agreement. As Deputy Smith will appreciate, the continuing political stalemate in Northern Ireland has resulted in considerable delay in making progress with the legacy framework in particular. The Government remains committed to the re-establishment of the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland and we continue to work with counterparts to that end.

In November 2017 the Government approved the drafting of the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Bill. The Bill will facilitate further co-operation by An Garda Síochána with the legacy framework in Northern Ireland, including with the proposed historical investigations unit, HIU, dealing with legacy inquests. As the Deputy will be aware, a high level of co-operation with the HIU will immediately be possible under existing mutual legal assistance arrangements. The Bill is at an advanced stage of drafting and I intend to bring this legislation to the Government in the near future to seek approval to proceed to publish.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Government signed an international agreement with the British Government in September 2015 on the establishment of the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, ICIR. The development of proposals for legislation to establish the ICIR in this jurisdiction is being progressed. In the context of giving effect to the Stormont House Agreement legacy framework, the British Government undertook a consultation process on the agreement's legacy provisions, which ended in October 2018. Irish officials are liaising with their counterparts in Northern Ireland on the outcome of this process with a view to the Governments bringing forward complementary legislative proposals to establish ICIR in our respective jurisdictions.

Under the Fresh Start agreement the Government enacted the Independent Reporting Commission Act 2017 in August 2017. This legislation, together with parallel legislation enacted in the UK, has given effect to the IRC, a cross-Border body charged with monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the executive action plan to tackle paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. I was very pleased to publish the first report of the IRC in October 2018. Progress has been made in giving effect to elements of the action plan. More work needs to be done and the re-establishment of the Executive will be critical in that regard.