Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

An Garda Síochána

Martin Kenny

Question:

84. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if a full independent investigation will be carried out into issues of 999 calls not being responded to by members of An Garda Síochána; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37159/21]

This issue regarding the 999 calls is only beginning. A consensus seems to be emerging between the Minister’s Department and senior Garda officers that somehow or other the Garda should investigate itself in respect of this matter. That is wholly inappropriate. A full independent investigation must be carried out as quickly as possible into this entire debacle. It is only beginning. Thousands of calls have yet to be examined that involved serious issues, including burglaries, assaults, etc., where people did not get an adequate response from An Garda Síochána. A full investigation must be undertaken as quickly as possible.

Any inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls is a serious issue. This falls significantly below the high standards that the public expect from the Garda and the high standards that An Garda Síochána sets for itself. I am particularly concerned that anyone experiencing domestic abuse, and, indeed, anyone in a vulnerable position who summoned the courage to seek assistance may not have received it. I welcome the apology made by the Garda Commissioner and the Commissioner has assured me that when people call 999 now, they can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help and that should always be the case.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Policing Authority was asked by the former Minister, Deputy McEntee, to oversee the review being carried by An Garda Síochána into this matter, and there have been several engagements between members of the Policing Authority and An Garda Síochána since March this year. This is in keeping with the role of the authority in providing independent oversight of policing services and reporting on and advising the Minister of the day. As the Deputy will be aware, the Commissioner met with the Policing Authority in public last month, where he gave a detailed account of these serious shortcomings and outlined what steps have been taken by Garda management to ensure it does not happen again. I understand he will meet the authority again later this month.

It is vital that the best interests of victims, and anyone whose calls were cancelled inappropriately, are the priority and focus throughout this process. The Commissioner has informed me that the Garda is contacting people whose 999 calls were cancelled to apologise and to ask if they require help from An Garda Síochána. He has briefed me several times on the matter and assured me that this work will be completed quickly, and that once that process is complete, he will give a full account to the Policing Authority. When the authority has completed its work and reported to me, I will examine its conclusions and take any action warranted on foot of its report.

I thank the Minister for her reply. It was similar to responses to parliamentary questions tabled earlier this week. Returning to the beginning, the issue is that the Garda only reported this matter to the Policing Authority when it was clear that a journalist was going to publish a story about what had happened. When it was clear that a story about this issue was going to be published and put into the public domain, then the Garda contacted the Policing Authority. Listening to the recent meeting between representatives of the authority and the Garda Commissioner, it was clear that they were frustrated because they were told in the beginning that this was a technical issue and that there was nothing to look at in this regard.

From the beginning, therefore, senior Garda officers were covering this issue up and trying to make little of it. This is the point. We cannot trust An Garda Síochána to investigate itself in respect of these matters. I state that not just regarding this situation. It is an historical problem regarding An Garda Síochána. Every time there is corruption and malpractice, the first port of call is cover-up, which is more malpractice. There is then a cover up of the cover-up. GSOC is then called in to cover up that cover-up, and that is the issue which must be dealt with. Until there is a Minister of Justice who will stand against this culture of cover-up-----

I thank the Deputy, but his time is up. I call the Minister to reply.

I will outline a few facts for the Deputy. In February, the then Minister, Deputy McEntee, asked the Policing Authority to examine these issues, to oversee the Garda review and then to report back to her. It is welcome that this issue is being examined by the independent Policing Authority. The work being done by that body consistently, every month, is exactly why we have robust, independent oversight structures in our system. It is also proper for An Garda Síochána itself to undertake the review and contact with victims. This is being undertaken as a priority and that is the way it should be. As the Deputy will be aware, at the recent public meeting between the Policing Authority and the Garda Commissioner, the chair of the authority, Mr. Bob Collins, emphasised the need for an external review of the work being undertaken by the Garda regarding the cancelled 999 calls. The Garda Commissioner welcomed this approach, which will serve to provide assurance to everyone, especially the victims of crime.

The issue is that it is not appropriate for the Garda to carry out this investigation. That is clearly the situation. Until the Minister stands up to the culture of cover-up that exists in An Garda Síochána, we are going to continue with this problem and continue to have these levels of malpractice. My understanding is that in one instance thousands of calls were cancelled by one individual. How was that person able to continue doing that?

It was only when this issue was going to come into the public domain through the publication of a story in The Sunday Times that the Garda contacted the Policing Authority. This is wrong and it stinks to the high heaven. I think the Minister knows that, and it would be prudent of her now to appoint an independent investigator to investigate this practice and to ensure that not only do we have an apology and assurance that it is going to stop, but that somebody is held to account for it. The problem in this country is that nobody is ever held to account.

I can understand the Deputy’s frustration regarding the cancellation of the 999 calls, but I do not agree with some of the statements he has made. He will be aware that this issue was initially identified within An Garda Síochána last October as part of its internal processes. An Garda Síochána wrote to the Secretary General of my Department, on 4 December 2020, to inform the Department for the first time that a number of 999 calls had been cancelled on the An Garda Síochána computer-aided dispatch system and that An Garda Síochána was carrying out a review of the reasons behind this. An Garda Síochána also notified the Policing Authority of this issue in October as part of the appropriate oversight role of the authority.

An Garda Síochána

Bríd Smith

Question:

85. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Justice if she will commission a review into the workings of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC and its limitations compared to a full commission of investigations in view of recent cases (details supplied) involving GSOC investigations and questions regarding the speed and outcome of these; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36697/21]

I ask the Minister about a review into the workings of GSOC and the limitations in that regard compared to a full investigation in view of recent cases, especially involving the killing of Mr. George Nkencho, but also concerning previous investigations completed that body. I refer to the cases of Mr. Shane O'Farrell and Mr. Terrance Wheelock. Senior officers in GSOC have complained about a lack of staff. A report in The Irish Times yesterday referred to senior Garda officers refusing to carry out investigations on behalf of GSOC as part of an industrial relations action.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. GSOC is the body specifically established, designed and equipped to investigate complaints of alleged criminality or misconduct by members of An Garda Síochána.

I assure the Deputy that GSOC has extensive powers under the provisions of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to perform this function. If GSOC believes a suspected criminal offence may have been committed by any member of An Garda Síochána, it is obliged to conduct a full criminal investigation. GSOC's designated officers have all the powers, privileges and immunities in the course of their duty as those that apply to a member of An Garda Síochána. GSOC also has the power to refer a case to the Director of Public Prosecutions following the outcome of its investigations, where this is deemed the appropriate course of action. Clearly these are powers that are not available to other forms of independent statutory inquiry, such as a commission of investigation or a tribunal of inquiry.

With regard to the specific cases the Deputy has raised, I hope she will understand I cannot comment on any ongoing investigation by GSOC or on the outcome of any previous investigations. As Minister for Justice, I have no role in any such decisions. They are matters strictly for GSOC, whose independence is a crucial part of its oversight role. It is not the case, for the reasons I have mentioned, that the investigation of these or other serious matters would have been more effectively or expeditiously achieved by means of a commission of investigation or other form of inquiry. I assure the Deputy, however, that there is ongoing engagement by my Department and GSOC to ensure its powers and facilities are commensurate with its important role, most recently in the context of implementing the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

I understand the Minister cannot comment on the George Nkencho case because it is ongoing. It is worth noting, however, that the inquest into the death of this 27-year-old man with mental health problems recently opened and evidence was given by the coroner that he was shot five times in the back by armed gardaí. Key witnesses were not questioned by GSOC for up to eight days after that event. The Minister keeps repeating that GSOC is robust and independent and has full oversight, but there is evidence, even in the heads of the Bill that have been published, that a review into the role of GSOC and its robustness and independence is needed. For example, there have been historic failures in the cases of Shane O'Farrell and Terence Wheelock. We need to know what is going to be done to address these historic failures because they are now many years old. The heads of the Bill call for stronger powers to be given to GSOC, such as to make unannounced visits to Garda stations, which indicates it does not currently have that power. It is a bit like the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, not having the power to make unannounced visits to meat factories.

The Deputy mentioned the proposed policing, security and community safety Bill, which will be subject to further consideration by the Oireachtas. It will strengthen and reform the oversight and accountability of An Garda Síochána. Some of the proposed reforms include moving to a single ombudsman model; granting a separate Vote for the ombudsman; having an expanded remit to include Garda staff; requiring all complaints other than minor service level ones to be investigated by the ombudsman; and introducing a new streamlined and simplified approach to investigating, while ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the individual's right to fair procedures and natural justice. These are just some of the reforms proposed by the recently published general scheme of the Bill. I look forward to working with the Oireachtas as it considers the Bill to strengthen policing and oversight of policing in Ireland further.

Repeating that GSOC is independent and robust just does not cut the mustard. Even the chairperson of GSOC has said it is understaffed and needs reform. According to a report, 42% of all cases initiated by GSOC have been referred back to Garda inspectors. The work it is refusing to do increased hugely during 2020. There has also been a substantial increase in the very serious cases being investigated by GSOC. My point is there have been historic failures and the Minister is not really addressing that point. There have been historic complaints and we have debated them often here in the Dáil. There will be an increase in the campaigning to have them addressed, particularly in the cases of Shane O'Farrell and Terence Wheelock. The Minister is not answering the question of what can be done about the historic failures of GSOC. If there were not failures or weaknesses, there would not be a requirement for a review, and we would not have a situation where the commissioners themselves are complaining about the lack of staffing in GSOC.

I said in my initial answer that GSOC has the power to bring criminal charges against members of An Garda Síochána following the outcome of its investigations, where GSOC deems this to be the appropriate course of action. These are powers that are not available to other forms of independent statutory inquiries such as a commission of investigation or a tribunal of inquiry. With regard to the recent report in the newspapers about the pay claim of superintendents and chief superintendents, the Workplace Relations Commission is hosting conciliation talks on this issue between the Garda associations. Efforts are ongoing to arrive at a solution that will be agreeable to all the parties involved, including Garda management and officials from both my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is responsible, under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, for the administration and management of Garda business.

An Garda Síochána

Martin Kenny

Question:

86. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice the status of the proposed new Garda station for Sligo town; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37160/21]

I raise the matter of the Garda station in Sligo town. A new Garda station has been promised for the past few decades. The station is located on a narrow street opposite the courthouse and in an old building that has been there for the past 100 or 150 years. It is one of those places that has had extensions and bits added on to it, and to go from one end of it to the other people have to go upstairs and downstairs. It is probably the most higgledy-piggledy, inappropriate Garda station in the country. Sligo needs a new Garda station as quickly as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána, including the Garda estate. As Minister for Justice, I have no direct role in these matters. The Deputy will also be aware the Office of Public Works, OPW, has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. Works on Garda accommodation are progressed by the Garda authorities, working in close co-operation with the OPW. The determination of the need for the development of a new Garda station in any location is considered by the Garda Commissioner in the context of the overall accommodation requirements arising from the ongoing expansion of the Garda workforce and the availability of capital funding as well as the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

One of the key recommendations of the commission was the introduction of a new Garda operating model, which was announced by the Commissioner in 2019. As part of this reform, the Commissioner decided not to progress a new build for Sligo Garda station, taking account of a range of factors, the most pertinent of which was the decision to create a new three-county division of Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim, with the divisional headquarters based in Letterkenny. An Garda Síochána has invested, and continues to invest, significant funding in refurbishing the current Garda station in Sligo. This includes the provision of new locker facilities and the complete upgrade of the three floors in the building, including the public office. I understand further upgrade works are under way, including the provision of a new cell block to allow for additional capacity and improved custody management facilities. The planned works also include accommodation for the scenes of crime unit. An Garda Síochána is committed to providing suitable accommodation for all its operations, including those in Sligo, and is working in conjunction with the OPW to achieve this.

We are well aware of the changes that have happened, that a new Garda division has been set up and there is a new headquarters in Letterkenny. That does not change the fact the building in Sligo is not fit for purpose. That has long been the case. The Minister spoke of refurbishments being carried out. It is simply a squandering of taxpayers' money to do work continually on a building that is not fit for purpose. This kind of thing goes on in many Departments, not just the Department of Justice. The cleanest and simplest thing to do is to get a site on the edge of the town and build a proper Garda station. That is what should have happened in the very beginning and it is still not too late to do that.

While I appreciate that the Minister can say it is an issue for the Garda Commissioner, the fact of the matter is the Government has control of how much funding will be provided for the building of new Garda stations around the country. The Minister needs to provide the money to ensure that a proper Garda station is put in place to service the people of Sligo and the wider region.

The Deputy knows the history of the site. As I said, An Garda Síochána has invested and continues to invest significant funding in refurbishing the Garda station in Sligo. This includes the provision of new locker facilities and the complete upgrade of the three floors in the building, including the public office. Further upgrade works are under way, including the provision of a new cell block to allow for additional capacity and improved custody management facilities. The planned works include accommodation for the scenes of crime unit.

On Garda numbers, as of 31 May, there were 302 gardaí and 45 Garda staff assigned to the Sligo-Leitrim division. This represents an increase since December 2015, when 294 gardaí and 27 Garda staff were assigned to the division.

Work has taken place on the building. A site was initially bought and that transfer did not happen.

Sometimes I think the Minister must be a civil servant's dream. She comes in here and reads out the answer and then when I ask her the next question, she reads out the same thing again. That is not answering the question. Is the Government prepared to put the funding in place to provide an adequate Garda station in Sligo town for the people of that region? It has long been said that the Garda station that is there is not fit for purpose.

The Minister mentioned that a site was purchased. There was a site purchased and there was a plan to build a Garda station. That plan needs to be reactivated by the Minister. I ask her not to come back to me reading out the same stuff she told me in the beginning. The fact is that we need to get a proper Garda station put in place in Sligo town for the people of that region and for the gardaí who work out of that station because the facilities they have are totally inappropriate. That is the reality and the Minister knows it. Rather than continuing with a rehash of the same stuff over and over, we need to get down to brass tacks and provide for people's needs.

The Deputy should listen to the answer when I am giving it to him but he is not listening to me.

It is not an answer.

The fact is that the Garda Commissioner has responsibility for Garda accommodation. We provide the budget of almost €2 billion to An Garda Síochána and it is up to the Commissioner to decide the various investments and priorities across the country.

On this Garda station, a site was bought and it was decided not to move there. Instead, the existing building is being renovated and I understand that works are proposed to develop the remainder of the station. These works are being assessed between Garda estate management, local management and the Office of Public Works. As the scope of this work has not yet been finalised, we are not in a position to provide timelines or costs but there is continuous and ongoing improvement of the building.

Data Protection

Matt Shanahan

Question:

87. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Justice the data that was contained on a memory device (details supplied); if there was video imagery contained therein; the steps that have been taken to recover the lost information; if the original information is still safely protected within her Department's hard drives; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36835/21]

My question relates to a universal serial bus, USB, data device that was lost by an official in the Department of Justice. It relates to the Kenneally abuse case in Waterford. Was there video imagery on that device? Does the Minister of State know what personal data was on it? What efforts have been made to recover it? Is the original information still safely stored within the Department?

As the Deputy will be aware, the commission of investigation, which is investigating the extent to which organisations, including State bodies and individuals, were aware of the child sexual abuse committed by an individual during the 1980s, is an independent body. The Minister and I do not have any role in the conduct of its investigation. I understand that, for its convenience, the commission is supported by the IT unit in my Department. I am informed that in May 2019, having been made aware of the loss of a USB stick containing personal data relating to the commission, my Department notified the Data Protection Commission, as required under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the Data Protection Act 2018.

I am further informed that, in keeping with the usual policy, my Department's data protection officer investigated the circumstances surrounding the missing USB stick, and the outcome of that investigation was subsequently notified to the Data Protection Commission. I understand the investigation found that despite a thorough search of both premises, the missing USB stick was not located. An Post indicated that no USB stick was identified in its recovery or reclaim unit.

The USB stick in question was an Integral Courier USB key with hardware encryption. The encryption used with this device is advanced encryption standard, AES, 256-bit, which is ISO 27001 compliant, a leading international standard for information security. The data contained on the USB stick had been uploaded to the commission’s secure system prior to the stick being mislaid so the information itself was not lost. As the data contained on the USB stick continued to be available to the commission and the missing USB stick was fully encrypted to industry standard, the risk to individuals whose personal data was on the USB stick was evaluated, as required by data protection legislation, and found to be low.

The country is still grappling with the effects of a cyberattack and, therefore, I do not know how it can be said that encryption on a stick is adequate. It is also regrettable that the Department did not liaise with the victims in the Kenneally case who had to read about this loss of data in the national press without having been consulted. That is an oversight that should not happen again. What engagement is going on? I understand that the work of the commission of investigation is possibly outside of the Minister of State's purview but the plaintiffs in this case have experienced a large degree of frustration at the lack of information they have been able to get from the Department. This echoes what they have received from An Garda Síochána and from others who were involved in this overall investigation.

I regret the upset and anger caused by this breach. In particular, I regret that those concerned found out through the media, as the Deputy rightly outlined. To avoid this and as a courtesy, those concerned should have been notified of the loss at the time that it occurred. I understand that the then Minister, Deputy McEntee, met victims and their legal representatives in April of this year to apologise to them in person for the data breach and to acknowledge that those affected should have been notified at that time. She advised that the breach was extremely low risk. It is important to state that.

As the Deputy may know, Mr. Justice Barry Hickson has stepped down as the sole member of the commission, with effect from 30 June. Mr. Justice White became the sole member of the commission on 1 July. I am confident that work can progress on seeing justice done and that the work of the commission can progress as quickly as possible.

I want to remind the House about the scale of this investigation. The Kenneally case will turn out to be one of the most prolific paedophile cases in the country. The convictions were secured on sample charges. Five individuals have come forward but I am sure many people who have been impacted have decided not to come forward. The State has a duty of care with respect to ensuring that as wide an investigation as can happen will happen. There are significant components to this investigation, not least the influence of a well-known political family, the potential influence of church seniors, the influence of gardaí and the robustness and effectiveness of the investigation that was taken in terms of search and seize.

I remind the Minister of State that this case came about in 2012 but the abuse goes back to the mid-1980s. The gentlemen involved, who are now grown men, want some vindication of their position. They want to ensure that nothing like this can recur. Unfortunately, we have seen with national swim coaches and boy scout organisations in recent weeks that this is an ongoing problem. It has to be rooted out and I ask that the Department make all efforts to ensure that the commission of investigation can get up and running with Mr. Justice White as quickly as possible.

I understand the frustration with the delays to the commission, partly due to the Covid-19 crisis. These frustrations have been discussed previously with the former Minister, Deputy McEntee, and myself. The commission has undertaken considerable preparatory work and is endeavouring to advance its work in areas where separate criminal proceedings will not be jeopardised. The Deputy will be aware that the terms of reference were drafted with the probability of further criminal trials in mind and an awareness that this was likely to cause delay.

However, it is important that all individuals who make claims of abuse get the opportunity for their case to be heard. I do not want to jeopardise other criminal proceedings. The working pattern of any commission of investigation is a matter for the commission itself and it would not be appropriate for me or the Minister to advise the commission as to how it should conduct its work. I fully understand how important this work is and that it is important it progresses. There are restrictions within which the commission operates. I can only continue to urge all victims and survivors to engage with the commission and, in particular, Mr. Justice White, who I know is committed to exploring all avenues to advance the work of this commission.

Asylum Applications

Thomas Pringle

Question:

88. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Justice the steps her Department is taking to improve processing times for applications for asylum, leave to remain and associated permissions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37158/21]

This question relates to the delays that are inherent in the processing of applications from asylum seekers in the State. The situation was outlined perfectly by the Irish Refugee Council when it stated, "Four and half years since the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 and the introduction of a single application procedure in 2017, the Irish system remains fraught with administrative delays and substantial backlog."

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. For people in the international protection process, the Government's objective is to have decisions made on their applications, including permission to remain, as soon as possible. This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here in Ireland with a sense of safety and security.

I am conscious of the difficulties and trauma encountered by people who seek international protection and I am glad that, throughout the pandemic, my Department's international protection office, IPO, has remained open to allow people the opportunity to do so in line with our international obligations. The provision of the facility to allow people claim international protection is considered an essential service at all times, including during Covid-19. Staff have worked both on-site and remotely since the pandemic began to ensure the protection process continues to operate and I am grateful to them for their dedication throughout this period. I visited the IPO last week to see first-hand the work that is being done and had an opportunity to speak with some staff and customers.

Physical attendance in the office has been strictly limited in line with public health guidance. Ensuring the safety of applicants, legal representatives and staff has resulted in additional logistical challenges that have limited the processing of applications and efforts to improve processing times, including the target set to make first-instance decisions in the vast majority of cases within nine months. Despite these challenges, 2,276 applications for international protection were processed to completion last year, which was just under 67% of the total achieved in 2019.

My Department's main focus now is to get its processing system functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible, while adhering to all measures in place to combat the spread of Covid-19. My Department is committed to implementing the key recommendations in the expert advisory group report to reduce processing times of both first-instance decisions and appeals to six months, as outlined in the White Paper to end direct provision and establish a new international protection support service.

What the Minister of State said sounds very good but, unfortunately, that is all it does. The Department has outlined that it wants to process applications within nine months. What the Minister of State failed to mention in his reply is that the median processing time for all cases processed to completion by the international protection office in quarter 1 2021 was 22.2 months. It took 16.1 months for prioritised cases. That means refugees who have to appeal an initial decision could be waiting for approximately three and a half years from the date of application for protection until approval that they can reunify with their families. That is the reality of the situation.

Some 1,655 applicants were awaiting a decision on appeal as of February 2021. In March 2021, 2,646 individuals were waiting between 12 and 24 months for first-instance decisions and 1,345 were waiting more than 24 months. That is the reality. It is not all down to the pandemic, although it provides a convenient excuse.

The Deputy is correct in the statistics he provides. There were significant delays even pre-Covid. Covid has exacerbated the situation in a period when there was an intention to reduce the time for processing applications. However, processes are being put in place to ensure that we can meet the requirements that are set out both in the White Paper and our internal requirements to process these applications as quickly as possible. I made a visit last week to the IPO to see exactly how the processes were working in the real world, if you like, in those offices. I have taken a hands-on approach to ensure we can get those timelines down as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the real world is not in the IPO. The real world is that experienced by the asylum seekers who must live under the system in this State. That is appalling. For people to have to spend as long as they have spent trying to get their cases heard is wrong. It is important that we put the words of the people concerned on the record. One said, "I came to Ireland to seek to protection, my problems are not listen[ed to] for 22 months". Another said, "I am so depressed and frustrated since I don't have a legal stay here and have never had any interview since 2019 up to date." That is the reality of the situation with which people are living under the system.

I urge the Minister of State to take on board the report launched yesterday by the Refugee Council, Hanging on a Thread. The report makes recommendations as to how the processing of applications can be improved. I ask him to take those recommendations on board and implement them to speed up and streamline the process because it needs it badly.

I will give serious consideration to that report and how we can speed up the process. There is nothing in what the Deputy has said with which I can disagree. There have been long delays for a considerable time. We need to clear that backlog and get down to a quick, speedy and effective system for these people, many, if not all, of whom have been through serious traumatic experiences in their lives. The delays are unacceptable. The Department is putting processes in place to ensure that these decisions can be made as quickly as possible. We must get the timelines down to the clear, set targets. The Department will be held accountable for those targets and I intend to ensure those targets are met over the coming period.