On behalf of the Government, I express appreciation and thanks to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, and especially to its Chairman, Deputy Ó Caoláin, for its work on this comprehensive report. I have taken very careful note of the recommendations.
I am aware that the committee held numerous hearings as outlined by Deputy Ó Caoláin and during its deliberations considered a wide range of opinion when examining how a modem police service should be structured to address crime most effectively and engage actively with communities. The report emphasises the importance of community policing and the building of trust and strong relationships between gardaí and people in the community.
This is also a key focus of the reforms recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the implementation of which is under way. In December 2018, the Government endorsed the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, accepting all 157 recommendations. At that time a four-year high level implementation plan was also published with progress being overseen by a dedicated programme office in the Department of the Taoiseach. There is a considerable amount of work to be done, including drafting new policing legislation which will ensure that the broader concept of community safety will be embedded in statute. Key to this is policing in partnership with communities, and with other Departments and agencies which provide essential services and supports to communities and individuals at risk. The recommendations contained in this report from the Oireachtas joint committee, along with those of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, are key in charting the way forward for An Garda Síochána, and for criminal justice policy, into the future. The House will appreciate that, with the limited amount of time available to me today, I will not be able to address each recommendation contained in the report, although I am grateful for the opportunity to address the important issues raised by the committee.
Recommendations 1, 2 and 3 relate to community policing and advocate for a more visible Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people, exactly the issues outlined by Deputy Adams in respect of his constituency of County Louth. District or local policing is described in the future of policing report as the backbone of police work. I am sure we all in this House agree with that. In this model, all police service personnel should be considered community police. All personnel will be part of a single district policing team working to keep communities safe, and all should see their overarching collective function as solving problems affecting community safety in their district. Garda management is developing a new model of community policing based on delivering localised policing services to meet the differing needs of communities. Most importantly, local front-line policing will be placed at the core of our police service, ensuring that gardaí are more active, visible and available in communities, along the lines suggested by Deputy Funchion whose constituency neighbours mine. Their profiles are broadly similar, they are large constituencies with rural areas, urban areas of significance in the towns of Portlaoise, Tullamore in mine and Kilkenny and Carlow in Deputy Funchion's.
Since February of this year, An Garda Síochána has been piloting the new local policing model in four divisions, Mayo, Galway, Cork and the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, south. The model has been designed to deliver more visible front-line policing and to ensure that Garda resources are deployed to best effect. The new model will also provide for a dedicated community engagement hub to also ensure stronger co-ordination of resources and operations across Garda divisions which will have a positive impact on how front-line policing services are delivered. To support the roll-out of this new model, Garda members and staff have been assigned to their new roles, including the redeployment of approximately 40 gardaí to front-line policing duties across the four pilot divisions. An Garda Síochána is engaging at local level with community groups, business and local representatives via the joint policing committees to help communities understand the new model and to embed it effectively. I am glad Deputy Adams has acknowledged the important role of the joint policing committee and I agree with what he had to say.
The committee raises the important issue of visibility of police in communities. The recommendations in the report reflect those from the future of policing report which prioritises the civilianisation of certain roles and redeployment of gardaí to front-line roles. Work on these priorities is progressing and I am informed that in the first three months of 2019, 75 gardaí were redeployed to front-line policing duties. This builds on the approximately 260 gardaí redeployed to front-line policing duties at the end of 2018. Since the beginning of 2017, some 480 civilian posts have also been sanctioned to support the delivery of reform of An Garda Síochána. The bulk of these posts have been used to address critical skills gaps in the organisation, with a proportion sanctioned to facilitate the redeployment of gardaí to policing duties. The allocation for An Garda Síochána in budget 2019 fully reflects the Government's continuing support for the Commissioner in delivering a modern, effective and visible policing for our communities. In that context it is positive that the number of sworn Garda members is now in excess of 14,000, with 200 more gardaí having attested on 7 June. A further 200 will attest before the end of this year. The budget also provided for an increase in the permitted number of sergeants in An Garda Síochána of 110, and an increase in the number of inspectors by 81 which will provide greater support to front-line uniformed personnel.
A Garda recruitment campaign is under way which will ensure that An Garda Síochána remains on target to reach the target of 15,000 sworn Garda members by 2021. I also very much welcome the strong focus the committee has placed on the multi-agency approach to tackling crime and ensuring community safety in recommendations 7 to 11. This is also a core focus of the future of policing recommendations which envisage a Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people. As we are all aware, significant Garda time is spent trying to protect the most vulnerable in society, the elderly, those with substance addictions, with mental health conditions or persons who are homeless. When something goes wrong, An Garda Síochána is usually the first port of call, often times outside of regular business hours. In their separate reports both the Oireachtas committee and the commission recognise the role played by An Garda Síochána in protecting the most vulnerable in our society. I entirely agree that there is a shared responsibility to supporting and maintaining community safety.
The Policing and Community Safety Bill being drafted in my Department recognises this too, and is placing a duty on all State agencies involved to work together to provide joined-up services to our communities. In addition, a range of actions are to be advanced by An Garda Síochána in conjunction with relevant stakeholders during 2019. These include the identification of joint operations and training opportunities and the development of a cross-agency approach to strategic planning. Specifically in relation to mental health issues, a real and serious challenge, and in respect of recommendation 11 of the committee's report, I am aware that An Garda Síochána has in place an interagency response to assist people with mental health issues. There is a memorandum of understanding between the Health Service Executive, HSE, and An Garda Síochána which sets out a procedure for gardaí in dealing with mental health incidents. This morning I had the privilege as Minister for Justice and Equality to launch the annual report of the Mental Health Commission, not directly reporting to my Department but to the Minister for Health. I felt it appropriate that I should engage actively having regard to the whole of government response which we are now seeing. I am also informed by the Commissioner that during phase one of their training in Templemore, new recruits learn about the various types of mental illness and Garda powers and procedures for dealing with a vulnerable person suffering from a mental illness.
I would like to address recommendation 17 of the committee's report regarding the provision of CCTV schemes. As Deputies will be aware, a grant aid scheme has been available through my Department for a number of years to assist groups in setting up community-based CCTV systems. While there has been some considerable public comment on this topic, it is important to note that the Data Protection Commission has recently confirmed that there is a sound legal basis for community-based CCTV, and that the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, does not introduce new obstacles or barriers in that regard. The Data Protection Commission has circulated broad guidance for data controllers on CCTV recently, which I am confident will be of interest and assistance to all stakeholders. I expect in the near future to make some adjustments to the grant aid scheme in response to feedback I have received. I must emphasise, however, that these steps concern grant funding and not the legal requirements for CCTV - the establishment and maintenance of a CCTV system is a serious matter and it is important that appropriate arrangements and safeguards are in place in all cases.
Recommendation 20 of the committee's report calls for greater cross-Border co-operation.
I acknowledge the experience that Deputy Ó Caoláin, as Cathaoirleach of the committee, brings to this aspect of policing, having regard to his constituency engagement and I acknowledge the experience of Deputies Adams and Martin Kenny on either side of him. They have knowledge that I find useful from time to time by way of feedback.
The report calls for greater inter-agency and cross-Border cooperation between Government bodies and Northern Ireland agencies. Only this afternoon, I had the privilege of meeting the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, here in Dublin, and I acknowledged the work he has done in the furtherance of close co-operation over his years as Chief Constable. By coincidence, I also met the Garda Commissioner today and again I acknowledged the importance of a joint meeting in my Department between officials from the justice Department in Northern Ireland and my Department. I look forward to progress being made on the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland, which will assist in ensuring cross-Border co-operation of an unprecedented nature.
The House will be aware that there is close and ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in respect of all aspects of policing. While focus tends to be on security co-operation in response to the ongoing threat posed by paramilitary groups, the two police services work very closely together in respect of the broader range of policing responsibilities, notably in combatting organised crime, ensuring road safety and in resource and capacity-sharing.
In November 2015, the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a series of measures, included the creation of a joint agency taskforce, in the agreement A Fresh Start, The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan. The joint agency taskforce has made strong progress in tackling cross-Border criminal activity across a range of crime areas, not just the traditional smuggling activities, but also rural and farm crimes, organised burglary and drug crime. I particularly welcome the call by Deputy Adams for those engaged in criminal activity along the Border areas to provide full and detailed information at the disposal of An Garda Síochána.
We have many examples of the extensive North-South co-operation between the police and customs services, and other law enforcement agencies, aimed at tackling crime and enhancing the safety of all communities on both sides of the Border. It is also an example of An Garda Síochána working as part of multi-disciplinary and multi-agency bodies, and delivering results in terms of tackling the scourge of cross-Border crime and ensuring communities are kept safe north and south of the Border. I am sure we will have further opportunities in the near future to discuss the changing landscape along the Border areas in the context of the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union and the challenges that will bring in ensuring adequate and proper policing.
I thank all of the members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, in particular its Chairman, Deputy Ó Caoláin, as well as the organisations which contributed to the work of the committee in compiling what I have to say is a most valuable and detailed report. As I have said, many of the recommendations happen to dovetail with the work and conclusions of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. That said, it does make an important contribution and I am sure we can revert to it from time to time in the context of implementing the recommendations. I look forward to hearing further from Deputies who wish to make a contribution because we are all on the one page on this issue, with a common goal of achieving a model policing service that works collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep our communities safe, to keep our constituents and communities safe and to prevent harm, particularly to the most vulnerable in society.