Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Cross-Border Co-operation

Brendan Smith

Question:

89. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Justice the proposals there are for further co-operation with the authorities in Northern Ireland on the need to implement effective measures to deal with the scourge of illicit drugs on this island; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36818/21]

The prevalence of drugs in our society is causing havoc and devastation for individuals, families and communities. Unfortunately, this destruction is happening in every community, urban and rural, and is not confined to any particular age cohort. I am aware that drugs are travelling North-South and South-North. That supply chain needs to be smashed. We need to cut off the supply and deal with the people who are wreaking havoc on many communities and individuals, and ensure their ill-gotten gains are seized.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Tackling serious crime, including drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs, are key priorities for the Government. As he will be aware, there is strong ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. The cross-Border joint agency task force, JATF, was established under the 2015 Fresh Start agreement to bring a concerted and enhanced effort to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime. The task force is led by senior officers from An Garda Síochána, Revenue, the PSNI and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, and the National Crime Agency are also involved as needed in operational activity.

Tackling drug-related crime by disrupting criminal groups and targeting their money is among the top priorities for the JATF. At a recent virtual meeting with my Northern Ireland counterpart, justice minister Naomi Long, on 26 May, we were briefed by officers from An Garda Síochána and the PSNI who updated us on the work of the task force. They highlighted the practical value in the continuing high level of co-operation and operational activity between the agencies in tackling drug crime, as well as rural crime, financial crime, trafficking in human beings including children, excise fraud and organised immigration crime.

I can further inform the Deputy that on 10 June, the two police services announced a number of arrests and the seizure of significant quantities of controlled substances and cash, arising from the work of the JATF. It is also noteworthy that on 1 July An Garda Síochána initiated Operation Tara, an enhanced national anti-drugs operation with a strong focus on tackling street-level dealing in cities, towns and villages across the country based on intelligence and the latest crime trends.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I welcome the actions that are being taken. I know about cross-Border co-operation at a local level in my own constituency.

The Minister referred to the task force. Prior to that task force being established, I proposed legislation in the Dáil some years ago, which went to committee level, regarding the establishment of a cross-Border crime agency, on a statutory basis, consisting of officials from the different statutory agencies mentioned by the Minister. At that time, the particular focus would have been on illicit trade in drugs, drink and tobacco products. At that time, we were well aware of the scourge of illicit fuel products being brought into the country. Now, the focus would need to be on the drugs issue.

Is the Minister confident that the task force has enough resources? Does it need any legislation to underpin its work? Could consideration be given to the proposal I brought forward that a cross-Border crime agency be established, on a statutory basis, to deal with these cross-Border crimes that cause havoc in every community throughout our island?

A key aspect of co-operation is the joint agency task force, as I described. It is led by senior officers in the PSNI, An Garda Síochána and another key partner agencies. As I said, among the top priorities for the task force is drug-related crime.

As the Deputy knows, there is great cross-Border co-operation. An example of this between the two jurisdictions is an annual event called the cross-Border seminar on organised crime, which is organised by the two justice departments and the two police services and focuses on co-operation and best practice in countering organised crime that seeks to exploit the Border.

I am assured by the Garda authorities that the long-established and close working relationship with the PSNI remains central in An Garda Síochána's efforts to provide an effective policing service to the Border area and its communities.

As we are aware, paramilitary groups are still involved in drug dealing. I understand from some media reports that drugs are travelling from Dublin to east Belfast and drugs are coming from the North into our jurisdiction. Drug trafficking is not what it was ten years ago. The continuing development of new drug trafficking networks causes havoc and destruction and destroys the lives of good young people and people of all age groups. Of course, we have some biggest crime gangs in Europe in our country.

There needs to be a huge concerted and intensified effort to deal with these issues. At the most recent joint policing committee meeting we had in County Cavan, An Garda Síochána gave a very good report on the detection and seizure of drugs, which was very welcome. It shows the growing prevalence of these illicit products in our society, however.

I appeal that when the Estimates process begins, which I assume will be in the autumn, the Minister wil give consideration to providing greater resources to the different Garda drug units throughout our country. I am particularly interested in the Garda divisional drugs unit in Cavan-Monaghan getting additional resources to deal with what are, unfortunately, increasing problems. I compliment the members of An Garda Síochána and also the PSNI on their ongoing work in trying to deal with these very complex issues.

I agree with the Deputy. As we both know, a huge amount of work is going on in counties Cavan and Monaghan. I am assured by the Garda Commissioner, however, that the distribution of resources among the various Garda divisions is kept under constant review in light of emerging crime trends and operational needs.

As of the end of May this year, 389 Garda members and 58 Garda staff were assigned to the Cavan-Monaghan division. These figures represent increases of 22% and 53%, respectively, compared to the end of 2015 when 318 Garda members and 38 staff were assigned to the division.

Deputy Smith and I both know we have a very long border with Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right when he said paramilitary groups are involved in this type of activity. There have been successes and we will continue to provide the resources to An Garda Síochána. At the end of the day, however, the Commissioner makes the decisions on how these resources are distributed on an operational basis.

Question No. 90 replied to with Written Answers.

The next question appears to be No. 91 in the name of Deputy Durkan.

Visa Applications

Bernard Durkan

Question:

91. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice the extent to which improvements can be made in the processing of visas for employment here and the processing of applications for naturalisation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36757/21]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent of the time taken to process applications for visas, whether they be work visas or immigration requirements, in the immigration section of the Department, given the importance of the need to facilitate the economic recovery that will follow the pandemic.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this very important issue. The pandemic has created significant challenges for visa processing. Applications are made to Irish embassies and missions worldwide, each with different public health measures in place. This has caused difficulties for individuals and families but the Government has had sound public health reasons for discouraging, and at times prohibiting, non-essential travel. Nevertheless, my Department continues to process visas for essential workers and decisions on employment visas have issued since 25 September 2020. There are currently no significant delays in processing employment visas and my Department's Dublin office is processing employment visas within ten working days. Some 7,780 employment applications have been processed globally since the beginning of April 2020, with almost 34,000 visas processed across all categories. The granting of an employment permit by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is a separate process, with no bearing on whether a visa will subsequently be granted. These are two distinct applications with different checks and due diligence procedures in place in each Department.

Similarly, I appreciate how important the granting of naturalisation is to those who have to apply for it. My Department has continued to adapt and process applications throughout the pandemic. Processing rates, however, have been negatively impacted by the necessary health and safety-related restrictions and from a High Court case in 2019, which was subsequently successfully appealed. As a result, regrettably, there are just over 24,600 applications currently on hand at various stages of processing. Since opening the statutory declaration system in January, we have invited 6,500 applicants to complete the final steps prior to the granting of a certificate of naturalisation. Almost 3,900 people have received their certificates so far. Approximately 900 more will receive them in the coming weeks. Additional staff are being assigned to the administrative team and a number of digitisation measures have also been introduced to increase efficiency.

I appreciate the magnitude of the task. Nonetheless, the size of the task ahead should not become a dominant factor or feature. It should be possible at this stage to make preparations, which would have to be made in any event. There is likely to be an upsurge in economic activity in the aftermath of the pandemic, which will result in applications for work permits and visas from abroad. These applicants must meet the skill requirements in this jurisdiction at a time when it is felt that the processing of the applications is a major issue insofar as filling the positions is concerned.

I wish to further ask the Minister about asylum seekers. I fully appreciate the size of the backlog. Notwithstanding all that, however, there is now an acceptance of the fact there is a backlog that will be there for some considerable time. How quickly can we overhaul that?

We introduced the new statutory declaratory process last January to address the backlog of applications. A number of amendments were needed to be able to carry this out. In the normal course of events, people would make their declarations in the presence of the relevant Ministers at that time at a set location. Because that could not be done, however, this new statutory declaration process was brought in.

As I said, 6,500 applicants have been invited to complete the final steps prior to the granting of the certificate of naturalisation, and 3,900 people have received their certificates so far. Almost 1,000 people are due to receive their certificates very soon. We are, therefore, using this process to try to clear off that backlog as quickly as possible with regard to citizenship. We hope that in the near future, we will be able to get back to in-person granting of citizenship as quickly as possible, which is a hugely emotional and important day for people who become citizens of this country. It is something we can all be very proud of being part of.

By way of supplementary or further inquiries, two issues arise. The first issue is the extent to which a positive outcome can be expected with regard to applications for work-related visas. How quickly, for instance, can the employer here expect a positive decision given that all other requirements are met?

In addition, the time taken to process applications is an issue, as is the degree to which the employer can expect a satisfactory outcome. My last point relates to the necessity of the process. The process is necessary in order for employers to fill their various positions. They expect and depend on the alacrity with which the Department can respond to their continuing in the business they are in.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment determines whether to issue an employment permit based on a labour market needs test. This decides whether employment opportunities that arise in Ireland should be offered to suitably skilled Irish and other EEA nationals before being offered to non-EEA nationals where no suitable candidate emerges from within the EEA system to fill that vacancy. Immigration checks done by the Department of Justice are a separate part of the process for entry to Ireland and an examination of the visa application will include checks on qualifications and experience for a role, for example. Visa officers must ensure visa applications for entry into Ireland are fully in order, including aspects such as the qualifications, skills and previous experience being claimed by applicants. There are about 5,500 applications for employment visas received per year on average. We expect to get back to the normal processing times quite soon. Perhaps some communications work must be carried out if some employers feel that once they get the employment permit that the job is almost done as within the Department of Justice and the visa application, subsequent checks must be done on employment qualifications in addition to other background checks on the applicant.

Deputy Bríd Smith has informed the Chair she will take a written answer to Question No. 92.

Question No. 92 replied to with Written Answers.

Closed-Circuit Television Systems

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

93. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Justice her plans for the expansion of Garda CCTV in County Carlow to deter criminal activity; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36767/21]

My question is about resources for County Carlow and the plans for the expansion of the CCTV in Carlow to deter criminal activity.

The roll-out of community CCTV schemes across the country has benefitted many communities, helping people to feel safer in their local areas. It is a priority of mine to ensure that community groups continue to be supported in their valued contributions to their local CCTV schemes while ensuring sufficient, proportionate oversight of statutory data protection considerations.

Since 2017, the Department has administered a grant aid scheme supporting groups wishing to establish a community-based CCTV system in their area. Eligible groups, including community groups and local authorities nationwide, can apply for grant aid of up to 60% of the total capital cost of a proposed CCTV system, up to a maximum total of €40,000. The scheme was extended in 2019 to cover not only new CCTV systems but also to allow funding applications for extension or upgrade of existing community CCTV systems which are incomplete or obsolete. Applicants can now also seek a once-off grant of up to €5,000 for minor maintenance costs. The scheme is open for applications from all counties. A total of 34 schemes have been funded to date with commitments of almost €940,000 made to these schemes across ten counties and I can confirm that funding continues to be available for 2021.

If the Deputy is aware of groups in County Carlow wishing to avail of the grant aid scheme, further details are available to download from the Department's website, and support and guidance is available to help interested groups through a dedicated email address. The Deputy will be aware that community-based CCTV is governed by the Garda Síochána Act 2005, section 38(3)(c), and the Garda Síochána (CCTV) Order 2006, SI 289 of 2006. This legal framework sets out a number of safeguards, requiring that any proposed community CCTV scheme must: be approved by the local joint policing committee; have the prior support of the relevant local authority, which must also act as data controller; and have the authorisation of the Garda Commissioner.

I thank the Minister of State. I compliment community groups for the excellent work they do. My question related to the extension of CCTV from An Garda Síochána on approach roads coming into Carlow. As the Minister of State will know, Carlow is very well situated. We are close to Dublin and to everywhere and we have a great location. That was the question I wanted answered in particular. When we talk about resources, I want to speak about Carlow Garda station and the work the gardaí there do in the context of staffing and resources. We are short on staff. We have one inspector who has not been replaced. We have four sergeants who have not been replaced and likewise some Garda members. It is so important that the CCTV is there as well but resources for staffing play a huge part in this, in connection with the CCTV. The two should be incorporated together. I understand about the community groups and welcome the work they do. There is great work being done in Carlow, Tullow and other areas.

On the matter of funding being provided to Carlow, since the establishment of the grant aid scheme in 2017, the Department has provided funding to one community CCTV scheme in County Carlow, namely, the scheme at St. Mullin's.

The Deputy's question was in relation to additional Garda CCTV cameras being provided in Carlow. I understand there are currently 14 CCTV cameras in Carlow town centre and three cameras situated in the town park as part of the Garda CCTV system. It is important to note this is a Garda CCTV system and is not part of the community CCTV scheme, as I am sure the Deputy is aware, for which the Department provides grant aid. Any amendments to the Garda CCTV system are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner and are not connected to the community CCTV scheme.

I thank the Minister of State. I highlighted this today for a reason. It is great to see the Minister and Ministers of State all present. They know of the work An Garda Síochána does. I can only speak for County Carlow where we have gardaí who are doing their work and doing their best. When CCTV is requested - and it must be addressed here by the Minister and Ministers of State - all resources come through central government funding and we must be clear on that today. Carlow Garda station is short on gardaí. To make it worse, they have been looking for wheelchair accessibility for years as the station is not accessible. Waterford is now the headquarters. The station in Leighlinbridge was closed down in 2013 and I was told it would reopen in 2016, 2017 and 2018. It is in the programme for Government. The building is owned by the Office of Public Works, OPW. For me to get funding and resources I have to come in here and address the Minister and Ministers of State because it is funding that will come from central government. It is about all Departments and all areas working together to deliver for the people of County Carlow and that is so important to me. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Deputy. As I said, these are matters for the Garda Commissioner as they are operational matters. To update the Deputy, as of 31 May 2021 there were 337 gardaí assigned to the Kilkenny-Carlow division. This represents an increase of almost 19% since December 2015 when there were 284 Garda staff members assigned to the division. A detailed breakdown of the Garda workforce is available on the Department's website. As the Deputy will know, An Garda Síochána has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion for 2021. This level of funding is enabling sustained, ongoing Garda recruitment. As a result, the number of Garda members is now approximately 14,500 and there are over 3,000 Garda staff nationwide. Taken together, this increase in the number of Garda members and staff is delivering a significant growth in operational policing hours nationwide.

An Garda Síochána

Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

94. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice the number of community Gardaí in the Clonakilty, Bandon and Bantry Garda districts of County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36795/21]

I am looking for details on the number of community gardaí in the Bantry, Bandon and Clonakilty districts.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. The resources provided by Government to An Garda Síochána have reached unprecedented levels, with an allocation of €1.88 billion in 2020 and of €1.952 billion in 2021. This has enabled sustained ongoing recruitment into the organisation. As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the general management and administration of the Garda organisation under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. This includes the deployment of members of An Garda Síochána throughout the State. Neither I nor the Minister have any role in these independent functions. However, I am assured Garda management keeps this distribution of resources under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends, to ensure their optimum use.

I further understand it is a matter for the divisional chief superintendent to determine the optimum distribution of duties among the personnel available to him or her, having regard to the profile of each area in the division and its specific needs.

As I have set out in my earlier responses on Garda resources, the official categorisation as a community garda is simply a reference to those officers who are exclusively assigned to a particular community engagement task. In this regard I am informed by the Garda authorities that, as of 31 May 2021, there is currently one designated community garda in each of the Garda districts of Clonakilty, Bandon and Bantry. However, it is important to note that community policing is at the heart of An Garda Síochána and all gardaí have a role to play in community policing in carrying out their duties. This has never been more evident than in the work carried out by all members of the Garda as we have tackled the Covid-19 pandemic. I extend thanks for the effort and determination of the Garda Síochána right across this country, including my county of Wexford, and for its commitment to protecting our communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As of 31 May 2021, a total of 305 Garda members were assigned to the west Cork division, an increase of 10.5% since December 2015, when 276 Garda members were assigned to the division. These members are supported by 37 Garda staff, an increase of almost 61% on December 2015.

I must echo the Minister of State's sentiments on the unbelievable work that An Garda Síochána has done through the pandemic. However, I come back to the crux of this matter, which is the real shortage of community gardaí in the west Cork division. The number for all of west Cork is four community gardaí and if we go to north Cork, there are seven community gardaí. If we go to Cork city, however, there are 40 community gardaí, so there is a major imbalance.

The Minister of State indicates it is down to the chief superintendent to decide how many community gardaí are in a district but the chief superintendent must pull from front-line resources in order to fill such positions, so this is a resourcing issue. The new model of policing coming down the line will see the west and north areas combined, and north Cork will include east Cork areas such as Youghal and Cobh. There will be a huge area served by 11 community gardaí compared with 40 in the city. It is a major imbalance. There are 310,000 people living in the county and 210,000 people living in the city. That imbalance must be addressed.

The close connections between the gardaí and the community are key to policing by consent. The community garda really promotes this. It is very important that as gardaí in those roles move on, they are replaced as quickly as possible. We have been very fortunate across the west Cork Garda division to have had Garda James O'Mahony working so closely with young people right around the area. He established the Garda youth awards to promote connections between younger people and to recognise the huge efforts of many younger people. He is now retiring and he is possibly the oldest garda in the country. It is very important that roles like this are backfilled quickly to ensure the connection between people and the Garda is maintained, nurtured and promoted. I wish Garda O'Mahony every success in his retirement. As we move to a county area, this becomes a more challenging role, so it is very important that the roles are quickly filled in order to maintain those connections.

I thank Deputies O'Sullivan and Moynihan for their commitment in supporting An Garda Síochána and highlighting its efforts and needs.

The Garda Commissioner and the local chief superintendent determine the number of gardaí in an area and whether they should be designated as community gardaí but all gardaí have a role in community policing. It is at the heart of what they do. A number of pilot projects have been established around local community safety partnerships and we expect they will be rolled out right across the country over the coming years. They are somewhat similar to the structures under the old RAPID system and the existing local community development committee, LCDC, system. There will be a greater input from the Garda Síochána working with other community groups, including the local authorities, the HSE and Tusla, where needed, so they can all work together to ensure appropriate community policing and supports across all the areas in Ireland.

At four community gardaí, west Cork has the lowest number of such gardaí in the entire country. Driving from Kinsale in the east of the constituency to the Dursey Sound in the west takes approximately two and a half hours. It is a huge geographical area. I appreciate, as the Minister of State indicates, that the chief superintendent has the responsibility in this but it is a resourcing matter. If the chief superintendent must put gardaí into the community garda division, he or she will have to take them from the drugs or detective unit or those gardaí on the front line. It is a resourcing matter.

The new overall policing model that is being rolled out nationally has committed to the resourcing of community gardaí. I would love the Department and the Minister of State to look at west Cork's numbers in this regard. I thank the Minister of State.

As we move to a larger county model, these gardaí will be more and more stretched. It is very important that roles would be backfilled as quickly as they become vacant. We would almost need a number of gardaí to replace the work of Garda O'Mahony. The deep-rooted connection to the community, working with younger people, is something that would be lost very quickly if gardaí did not maintain it. We must ensure those resources are available so gardaí can work proactively. I encourage the Minister of State, in every way possible, and especially now we are moving to a countywide Garda set-up in Cork, to ensure they have the required resources.

The last budget provided the largest ever amount of funding for An Garda Síochána. There is a commitment to the recruitment of additional gardaí to be distributed across the country as they graduate. There is a commitment under the 2021 budget for 620 new gardaí this year, although due to the pandemic it will be difficult to meet that number. The target is now 450 to be spread over four intakes and the first intake has already commenced. I hope we can make up the difference next year and the gardaí, once they graduate, will be distributed across the country.

The chief superintendent makes the designation as to whether somebody should be a community garda on the basis of prioritisation and needs in a particular area. We will continue our commitment to the recruitment of additional gardaí so we can have the resources necessary right across this country.

An Garda Síochána

Kieran O'Donnell

Question:

95. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Justice if she will report on the progress being made on the implementation of A Policing Service for the Future plan with reference to County Limerick; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36514/21]

I raise the question of the implementation of the plan, A Policing Service for the Future, in Limerick city and county. It is a matter I have raised in the past both with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris before the justice committee and at joint policing committees as well. My concern is about the redeployment of gardaí from non-front line duties like court or patrol duties to front-line community policing. It is where gardaí would be better deployed and they do a fantastic job on the ground. Will the Minister give an update on the advancement of the redeployment programme, which is a priority under the plan?

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. As he is aware, in December 2018 the Government published A Policing Service for the Future, which is a detailed four-year plan to implement the landmark report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The plan was developed in co-operation with stakeholders from across the public service including, in particular, An Garda Síochána.

The policing reform implementation programme office is based in the Department of the Taoiseach and works closely with my Department to monitor progress by all stakeholders on the actions contained in A Policing Service for the Future. This supports the work of the implementation group on policing reform and keeps the high-level steering board on policing reform and the Government apprised of the progress being made.

While progress on some actions has been impacted by the many demands on An Garda Síochána during the Covid-19 pandemic, a key milestone in the plan was reached in April with the publication by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, of the general scheme of the policing, security and community safety Bill. The Bill provides for wide-ranging and coherent reform of policing by improving the performance and accountability of our policing and security services, and supporting the human rights of all people throughout Ireland to be and feel safe in their communities. A key and novel aspect of the Bill is the establishment of local community safety partnerships, to support a whole-of-Government approach to keeping communities safe and which will build upon and replace the existing joint policing committees.

Turning specifically to Limerick, the Deputy will be aware that Limerick is one of the first five divisions chosen by Garda management for the implementation of the new Garda operating model. This new structure was identified by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland as a core action necessary to streamline and strengthen administration and to provide a more visible, responsive policing service tailored to the local needs of communities nationwide. The Deputy will also be interested to know that a crisis intervention team is to be piloted in the Limerick Garda division, again following a recommendation from the commission. This pilot project is being developed to support appropriate mental health interventions and is being designed by local management in close collaboration with colleagues in the HSE.

I thank the Minister for that update. I am aware of the operating model and the other crisis intervention measures. This is a specific issue. We need as many gardaí, and very much community gardaí, on the ground as possible. Under the future of policing strategy, the redeployment of gardaí from tasks such as courthouse duties in Mulgrave Street and at other courthouses in Limerick city to front-line duties is a priority. I ask the Minister to take it up with the Garda Commissioner, within her overall review brief, in order that this particular issue would be advanced. It is a proactive measure. It would take time but the public and the ordinary person in Limerick likes to see, and is reassured by seeing, their community gardaí walking the beat, either in the city centre or in the suburbs, the towns and villages. One of the elements of that is the redeployment of gardaí from non-front line duties to specific community front-line duties.

I acknowledge that the Deputy has pursued this issue for a considerable time now. I am informed by the Garda authorities that as of 31 May last, 797 Garda members have been reassigned to operational roles and their previous roles assigned to Garda civilian staff. This includes 51 so far this year, and I am informed that the targeted number of garda reassignments for this year stands at 400. I am further informed that there will be a focus this year on the reassignment potential from the public office roles in Garda stations, the dispatch function in the regional control rooms and the provision of administrative support to the divisional protective services units throughout the State.

I very much welcome that. I ask that the Minister would follow up on the specific issue of court duties. The in-house security duties at the courts in Dublin are carried out by private security firms. That is not the case in places like Limerick. While the gardaí carry out a phenomenal role in the courts, for me and for many people the gardaí provide an exponentially better function to the public by community policing in Limerick. While I welcome the other measures, which are very important, I am referring to one specific feature. I ask that the Minister would follow up on this with the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, and provide me with an update when a response comes to the Minister.

I agree with the Deputy that there are certain duties, such as security in the Courts Service, that could be carried out by a private company rather than using the valuable time of gardaí. As of 31 May there were 81 Garda staff assigned to the Limerick division. This represents an increase of more than 58% since December 2015 when there were 51 Garda staff members assigned to the division. An Garda Síochána has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion for 2021. This level of funding is enabling sustained, ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff. As a result, Garda numbers are approximately 14,500 Garda members, and more than 3,000 Garda staff nationwide. I will raise with the Garda Commissioner the matter raised by the Deputy.

Question No. 96 replied to with Written Answers.

An Garda Síochána

Mark Ward

Question:

97. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Justice her views on the report by the Mental Health Commission (details supplied) that states the highest number of applications to involuntarily detain persons that came from An Garda Síochána; the training that is in place; the interaction her Department has had with the Department of Health on this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36578/21]

Question No. 97 is in the name of Deputy Mark Ward and Deputy Martin Kenny has been nominated.

I thank the Acting Chairman. This issue is around the high number of people who were involuntarily detained by An Garda Síochána, people who would have had mental health issues and who have ended up in a mental health institution. This issue has had an impact in many parts of the State. Of course, we understand that many of these people may have had psychotic episodes due to drug addiction also. Gardaí are often in a very difficult position, and are often asked to do intervene by families who have found no other option for these individuals. I fully respect that when gardaí are having to deal with such situations it is because all the other services have failed that person before he or she has come to that position.

I am aware of the annual report of the Mental Health Commission and the use of section 12 of the Mental Health Act by An Garda Síochána. As the Deputy will understand, the proportion of applications for involuntary detention reflects the unfortunate reality that gardaí often encounter persons with severe mental health issues and will be called upon by members of the public, or indeed family members, where a person is experiencing high levels of distress. Very often, members of An Garda Síochána are the first available front-line service to whom people will turn in such situations.

An application for involuntary detention is never made lightly and takes full account of An Garda Síochána‘s obligation to protect the human rights and welfare of individuals and communities. The only statutory option available to gardaí responding to persons in a mental health crisis and who potentially pose a risk of harm to themselves or others is to invoke section 12 of the Mental Health Act 2001. Section 12 requires gardaí to take the person into custody in order to have them assessed by a registered medical practitioner.

Members of An Garda Síochána receive training in mental health issues as part of their recruit training and through continuous professional development training delivered throughout their career. As the Deputy may be aware, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland concluded that societal issues such as the mental health of individuals should not be the responsibility of An Garda Síochána alone, and the commission recommended the establishment of multi-agency teams that would include gardaí to respond to the needs of individuals with mental health issues. A pilot crisis intervention team is being developed in the Limerick Garda division, as the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, mentioned earlier. This pilot is being progressed in close collaboration with the HSE and it is hoped to begin the roll-out of the pilot team early next year.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I fully understand the situation in which many gardaí find themselves. It is a very difficult situation when they are dealing with a person who is having a psychotic episode and there is no option other than to take them somewhere safe, for themselves and for the rest of the community. Of course there are safeguards there. It is not the gardaí who will decide if the person will be put in. The doctor is called and an assessment is made. That is not a decision for a garda but it is the gardaí who must initially try to deal with the situation, which can be a very difficult situation. In that regard, it would be appropriate to ensure that there is the proper level of training, and that there would be interaction with other agencies.

The big problem is that many of these people, in the context of psychiatric issues, mental health problems and drug addiction, have by and large been failed by the services. They have ended up in these situations where gardaí must intervene. Collaboration is needed between the Departments of Justice and Health, and other Departments, to ensure this failure is ended.

I will add my voice to what Deputy Kenny has said. The problem is that in many of these cases the gardaí become the only agency people contact when they are dealing with somebody who is having a psychotic break. Gardaí generally lift the person and if the case is serious enough, they bring him or her to a local psychiatric unit. The person is left there and released, and then dealt with in a couple of days' time.

We need a full multiagency audit of the entire system because we are dealing with multiple issues. We are dealing with the fact that we do not have sufficient dual diagnoses to deal with people who have drug addictions. We are not carrying out early interventions which are cheaper and easier. We do not have the acute services required. It all falls back on the gardaí. We also have to consider all of those people who fall between care plans, disability and mental health services and other issues. We need to make sure that whatever services are needed are put in place as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. As part of the programme for Government commitments we have established a high-level task force on the mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system. This is a key goal within the justice plan 2021.

As Deputies know, the task force is chaired by Ms Kathleen Lynch, a former Minister of State with responsibility for primary care, mental health and disability. It met on 28 April, 19 May and 25 June. The membership comprises high level officials from my Department, the probation service, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the HSE, the Central Mental Hospital and the Departments of Health, Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and children and youth affairs. Three sub-groups have been established on diversion, the capacity of the Irish Prison Service and the Central Mental Hospital, and community issues. Deputies are correct to say that this requires a multiagency approach. An Garda Síochána also receives training on this issue.

I understand that a multiagency approach is required. We need to bring all of the services together in order to deal with this. However, when I speak to gardaí on the beat they tell me that if they took mental health issues and drug addiction issues out of the equation, almost one third of their work would be gone. That reflects the level of time and resources tied up in this area.

As I said, most of this happens because people do not get the early intervention they require. Many people go into psychiatric services for a short period of time and are then released back into the community. They go home and perhaps have a mental health nurse calling once a week. That is not enough. The level of services and the interaction between gardaí and the entire process is something that has to be taken care of. We also know that many people in our prison system are there because of mental health issues that were not dealt with early enough. That is how people end up in the prison system, which is not a good place to try to deal with those types of issues.

Work is ongoing on early intervention and the multidisciplinary approach. As I said the pilot crisis intervention team is being developed in a Limerick Garda station, along with the high-level task force to which I alluded. Gardaí are provided with training throughout their career in dealing with people who have mental health issues. All trainee gardaí are trained over two days in an internationally recognised applied suicide intervention skills training, ASIST. It is a workshop delivered in collaboration with the HSE. It is a suicide first aid programme which equips trainee gardaí with the necessary skills to discuss suicide with the person at risk and make an intervention to reduce immediate risk of suicide if necessary. Armed gardaí are also supported with the training given to all armed support units during their basic training. I am sure that this is a very detailed course and deals with hostage barricades, suicide and so on.

Missing Persons

Duncan Smith

Question:

98. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Justice the status of the work of her Department in relation to the identification of unidentified bodies and linking this data with the missing persons database; and the progress her Department has made in its work referenced in a reply to a Topical Issue raised by this Deputy on 4 March 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36632/21]

I would like to ask the Minister for Justice the status of the work of her Department on the identification of unidentified bodies, how this data is linked with the missing persons database and the progress her Department has made in its work referenced in the reply to my Topical Issue matter earlier this year.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the pain and trauma experienced by all families of missing persons. I am deeply conscious of how difficult life is for loved ones who simply do not know what has happened to their relative. My Department is committed to working with all relevant State bodies to help more families find their missing relatives.

As the Deputy will be aware, the national DNA database, administered by Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, has been a significant breakthrough in identifying missing and unknown persons in recent years. Since 2017, FSI has assisted in the identification of 48 sets of human remains who had been unknown up to that point. In 2020, DNA profiling and relationship testing, in partnership with the missing persons unit of An Garda Síochána, was used to help in identifying nine people. FSI and the Garda have worked in partnership over the past number of years to deliver a DNA testing facility for families of missing persons at the national missing persons day ceremony run by my Department annually, significantly enhancing the event.

I am informed that preliminary work was carried out by An Garda Síochána in 2019 to gather information on unidentified remains that may be located with individual coroners across the country. My officials have examined ways to update and take forward that work, while fully respecting the independent role of the coroners as set out in the Coroners Act 1962.

To this end, I have recently approved the following measures. My officials will write to each coroner to ask what cases of unidentified remains he or she has dealt with since 2019 and progress in this area will be monitored centrally through a new question on the annual statistics return from coroners. The results of the number of cases identified in each coronial district will be shared with the Garda missing persons unit. This will provide an overview of the current situation since 2019 across the country.

I thank the Minister. This is not a confrontational exchange. Rather, I am seeking to improve what the State is providing. What the Minister has said is good. However, I have an issue with the date of 2019. Another lot of these cases are historical and go back a few decades. We are not talking about going back to the 1900s or even the early 20th century. Cases date from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 2000s.

At the moment there are 22 unidentified bodies and over 810 people on the missing persons list. There are many more unidentified bodies in cemeteries all over the country that are not contained in any database. There is an awful lot of work to do to find the truth for these families. We need an unidentified remains unit. Great work is being done by FSI, and the Garda missing persons unit is doing its work. However, we need some expertise to join that up and it needs to be resourced by the State. It would not require huge resources, but it is needed.

I agree with the Deputy. A family who has a missing person that they cannot find wonder every day whether the person will return, even though in their heart of hearts they know the person will not. It is a very difficult time for them.

The issue of unidentified remains has received coverage in recent months following the identification of the remains of Mr. Denis Walsh in February this year. While only identified this year, Mr. Walsh's body was recovered on Inis Mór in 1996. We can only imagine the heartache that his family has gone through. I know the family and it has been a terrible time for them, in particular his elderly parents.

A lot of work is going on at the moment. The missing persons unit is assisted in this vital work by local Garda stations, gardaí and the network of family liaison officers around the country who all perform crucial roles.

A lot of work is being done. To quote Ms Clare Clarke Keane, who has sought the truth about her sister Priscilla who has been missing since 1988, when family members approach a coroner's office or cemetery it still feels like turning up at a lost property office. That is how much separation there is between what the State is doing and how families feel.

That said, I take the Minister's initial answer. We are moving forward. The work of Mr. Barry Cummins in RTÉ has been fantastic. He has made a case on behalf of the families for years.

There are not many cases, but it is important that the State does everything it can to find the truth for these families, who are going through unimaginable grief every hour of every day. I look forward to raising this matter again until we get to a stage where we feel we have a system in place that will help them.

Considerable progress has been made by FSI. The DNA testing of families has helped the agency to make matches in particular cases. To date, the remains of 53 missing persons have been identified thanks to the DNA database. Through FSI, there is a great deal of focus on this issue. We will continue working with the families. There is an annual day of commemoration, and some of the samples taken on those days has helped to make matches with cases.

I agree with the Deputy that this is a difficult issue. We will continue to support FSI and various other bodies in trying to resolve the outstanding cases as quickly as possible.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.