Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Energy Prices

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this issue.

Energy costs are rising which is really putting pressure on households and businesses. We have all heard reports of the numerous price hikes that energy providers have inflicted on customers all over the country in the last couple of months. At this stage, people who are living alone and those who are struggling financially are desperately trying to figure out how they will meet their energy bills over this winter.

I wish to raise a specific issue that was brought to my attention yesterday by three different constituents, all of whom have the same energy provider. I am seriously concerned about practices related to fixed price contracts with energy providers, the legality of which must be questioned. One small business owner in Thurles contacted me yesterday about a fixed price contract with an electricity provider. At this time of year, the electricity bill for two months of usage would normally be around €1,200 or €1,300 including VAT. The most recent bill shows energy usage amounting to €1,035, excluding VAT. However, the energy provider has included an additional market charge on the bill of €975 for the two months. This small business owner who is trying to manage overheads has received an electricity bill before VAT which is almost double what it would normally be because of a market charge that the energy provider has suddenly added to the bill.

Many business owners and families opt for fixed price contracts so that they have certainty regarding the bills coming through the door, as long as their consumption does not change dramatically. There are pros and cons to fixed charges but to be landed with an additional market charge out of the blue that effectively doubles an energy bill obliterates any certainty on bimonthly bills for those who opt to avail of fixed price contracts. How can an energy provider that has committed to a fixed price contract double the cost of electricity for its customers overnight? I cannot understand it. The provider may point to some small print on bills but the onus is on us to ensure that we protect those who enter into fixed price contracts. They suffered the negative consequences of such contracts when energy costs were lower in recent years but now, when energy costs are rising due to issues outside of our control, they also suffer. I cannot understand how providers can do this to their customers. An increase of 100% for someone on a fixed price contract makes a mockery of the very concept of fixed price contracting. How can an energy provider do this? Is it legal? Surely customers should be made aware when they enter into fixed price contracts that in the event of increases in the cost of electricity, there is scope for significant increases in their bills. Three people contacted me yesterday about this and while the additional charges were not as high as in the case to which I referred, they were all in the region of 70% to 80%. How is this happening? Is it legal? If it is legal, I would like it to be explained fully.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this important topic.

The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the continuing upward trend in international gas prices where we are a price taker. In Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020. This feeds directly through to retail electricity prices, as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas. This increase was cited by many suppliers as one of the main reasons they increased their prices recently. The wholesale cost of generating electricity makes up approximately 40% of the final retail price.

The Government is acutely aware of the impact on households of increasing energy costs and its primary response is to utilise the tax and social welfare systems to counter the rising cost of living, of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers. To address this directly, budget 2022 increased the weekly rate of fuel allowance by 5%. Increases to the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment have also been announced.

The position of successive Governments for almost 20 years has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices and to support competition to drive down prices.

Operating within an overall EU framework, responsibility for the regulation of electricity and gas markets is solely a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, the independent energy regulator. The CRU was assigned responsibility for the regulation of the electricity and gas retail markets under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and subsequent legislation. The CRU, the independent energy regulator, has a wide range of economic, customer protection and safety responsibilities in both energy and water. In line with long-standing policy on deregulating price setting, the CRU ended its regulation of retail prices in the electricity market in 2011 and in the gas market in 2014. Given that prices are no longer regulated, they are set by all suppliers as entirely commercial and operational matters by them. Each such company has its own different approach to pricing decisions over time, in accordance with factors such as their overall company strategic direction and developments in their cost base. Data from approved price comparison sites show that consumers can make significant savings by switching energy suppliers. Accordingly, one of the main thrusts of Government policy on energy costs is focused on the competitive market. Government policy has supported competition to drive down prices.

Based on CRU data, active customers who switched supplier or renegotiated with their current supplier every year for the last four years could have saved €704 on gas, €1,097 on electricity or €1,696 on their dual-fuel costs. A recent CRU survey found that more than half of electricity and gas consumers have switched supplier at least once. As part of its statutory role, the CRU also has consumer protection functions and monitors energy retail markets to ensure that competition continues to develop for the benefit of the consumer.

As part of its statutory functions, including under SI 630/2011, the CRU carries out various market monitoring and reporting functions in association with its responsibility to ensure that the market operates competitively for the benefit of the consumer. Under that statutory instrument the CRU may take actions that it considers necessary to ensure that final customers benefit from competition in the supply of electricity and gas.

Measures introduced by the CRU include a stipulation that electricity suppliers provide customers with an estimated annual bill, highlighting the yearly average electricity bill for a particular electricity supplier rather than just the discounted offers. Additionally, suppliers must issue a written notification on an annual basis to prompt consumers who have been on the same tariff or a non-discounted tariff for more than three years to consider switching.

I thank the Minister of State. The reason most of these people were tempted into fixed-price contracts was following promises of reduced costs to them. While I accept what the Minister of State has outlined that much of the increase in electricity costs is outside of our control, it is not all outside of our control and we have made decisions that have impacted on energy price increases. Consumers in my constituency entered into a fixed-price contract. Such a contract is very simple, it means that a person is on that price for better or worse. Because of market trends, the company has added a market charge, which in one case is an increase of 100% in electricity costs. Where are the consumer's rights in this regard? People switched because they were told they would save and they have made savings in recent years but, unfortunately, the saving has disappeared overnight. For these consumers, a 12-month saving is gone in a two-month period. Have electricity suppliers that have offered fixed-price contracts to consumers the remit to put an additional market charge on them? Where are the consumer rights in this regard? Customers signed a contract believing they would have stable prices for the duration of the contract, but the electricity supplier has completely changed the ground rules and has imposed a significant price increase on them. Can suppliers impose a massive increase under the cloak of an additional market change on consumers in fixed-price contracts?

Price regulation ended many years ago. Suppliers must compete with each other on price and set their own prices accordingly, as one would expect in a liberalised market. The independent regulator, the CRU, has functions in regard to these matters, including consumer protection and monitoring the market more generally. I will undertake to refer the query Deputy Cahill has raised today with the CRU. I would be surprised if the Deputy has not done that already himself. If he has, I am interested to hear what it has said in response to him. The CRU has the responsibility to ensure consumer protection in this area and to ensure that consumers are protected and that energy suppliers live up to what they state on the tin, so to speak.

Deputy Cahill raised the high energy costs for businesses. I wish to highlight a scheme that is available for businesses from funding from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, through Enterprise Ireland. It is worth €10 million and can be used by businesses to improve their energy efficiency. It is totally undersubscribed at the moment. It is a very good scheme. I ask Members of the House to make sure that businesses in their respective constituencies are aware of this scheme because it will help identify where they can create energy efficiency and, accordingly, bring down their overall costs. I will undertake to refer the matter raised by Deputy Cahill to the CRU and I will report back to him.

Third Level Fees

The current set-up in respect of SUSI applications in cases where parents have gone through or are going through marital separation is that they must provide proof of separation. That is set out in A15 of the application process, which provides for the necessity to provide evidence of separation. It states:

Please provide one of the following as proof of separation or divorce:

Separation agreement;

Divorce decree;

Court Ordered Maintenance Arrangement;

Decree of dissolution for a civil partnership.

Evidence from the Department of Social Employment Affairs & Protection confirming receipt of Deserted Wife's Allowance or a One-Parent Family Payment;

If there is no legal agreement, a letter from your solicitor, in which your solicitor confirms separation and/or that legal proceedings are pending...

There are other criteria that a person has to meet as well. We have a very good relationship with SUSI, which I deal with on a daily basis. I can confirm the professionalism of the people we deal with in SUSI. However, what I see is clear evidence that there is a problem. Where there is a family separation and applicants clearly meet the thresholds of the proof set out in A15, having furnished the documents, in a statistically significant number of cases where the application for the grant is refused, the subsequent SUSI appeal fails because SUSI upholds the decision to refuse on the basis that the A15 provisions are not being met. When we subsequently guide the applicant through the student grant appeals board, in most cases the decision to refuse is overturned by the board. There is an issue regarding how the assessors assess the separation elements of a SUSI application. It is our view that they are not adequately taking into account the proof that applicants provide.

I ask that the Department engages with SUSI to conduct a look-back of a parcel of cases where there has been a refusal by SUSI and a subsequent awarding of a grant by the student grants appeals board.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of separations during the pandemic. I am finding that it is often the case with applications for SUSI grants that, where applicants provide proof of separation, they are being put through the wringer and an unnecessary burden and stress is being placed upon them. The proof of this is that, when such applications are refused, a statistically significant number of refusals are overturned by the student grants appeals board. We would like the Department to examine this matter in concert with SUSI.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I have a long written reply before me, but I will only speak to parts of it.

Section 21 of the student grant scheme sets out the person whose income is to be considered. Section 21(2) states: "Where the dependent student's parents are divorced or legally separated, or it is established to the satisfaction of the relevant awarding authority that they are separated, the reckonable income shall be that of the applicant and of the parent or parents with whom the applicant resides." In circumstances where the awarding authority is satisfied that a student's parents are separated, the student will be assessed on the income of the student and the parent with whom the student resides. The outcome of this decision is that the student, who may not have ordinarily qualified for a grant, may now qualify or may qualify for a higher rate of grant. Therefore, it is important for the integrity of the scheme that corroborative evidence be provided by the applicant.

The type of evidence required is dependent on the applicant's individual circumstances. Evidence of separation must be provided to allow SUSI to satisfy itself fully that the conditions of the exemption are met. In assessing the evidence presented, SUSI will have regard to the particular circumstances in each case and the corroborative nature of the evidence available to support the claim of separation. Ultimately, it is a matter for SUSI to determine what evidence it will accept as proof of separation. However, the scheme does not stipulate precisely how SUSI satisfies itself, which is the issue upon which the Deputy is hitting. This is to allow the applicant sufficient flexibility to provide the necessary corroborating evidence and to give SUSI flexibility in assessing these difficult cases.

As the Deputy stated, the evidence that SUSI accepts as proof of separation includes a separation agreement, a divorce decree, a court-ordered maintenance arrangement, a decree of dissolution of a civil partnership and evidence from the Department of Social Protection confirming receipt of a deserted wife's allowance or a one-parent family payment. If there is no legal agreement, acceptable evidence includes a letter from a solicitor in which the solicitor confirms that separation and-or legal proceedings are pending, a letter or document from a family mediation service, for example, the Legal Aid Board, that confirms current or past participation in family mediation, and proof of living separately, for example, utility bills for the same period. Where the applicant demonstrates by providing one or more of the above documents that his or her parents are living separately, SUSI will only include the income of the applicant and that of the parent with whom the applicant resides.

All of that said, the Deputy has raised a legitimate point. If there is a trend of the independent appeals board overturning decisions that were appealed internally in the SUSI scheme, it points to an issue. What concerns the Deputy and me, and what should concern everyone, is the delay and stress that this would cause people. If they are ultimately awarded their grants, they will still have been put through an elongated process when it is a fact that their parents are separated.

If the Deputy could furnish us with some of the details of his cases, I will ask my Department to examine them.

I thank the Minister of State for his considered and sympathetic response. It is clear that he is on top of this issue. Rather than my furnishing him with specific cases, though, I will make a request. Given that there is enough in his acknowledgement that "it is a matter for SUSI to determine what evidence it will accept as proof of separation", will he signal to his officials to liaise with SUSI on doing a simple look-back and require SUSI to furnish the number of cases? While I know that there is a statistically significant number among the overall number of cases that I deal with in my constituency office, the chances are that this is happening throughout every constituency. Therefore, I respectfully ask that the Minister of State, through his good offices, take it upon himself to ask his officials to engage with SUSI and seek a look-back or review - it would be a simple administrative exercise - so that the subjectivity of the assessor's decision is taken out of the equation and there is standardisation, thereby taking stress for the applicant out of the process.

I acknowledge his sympathetic and considered response. Arising from it, I am hopeful that some look-back will be taken of at least a parcel of cases where there has been a refusal by SUSI and a subsequent awarding by the appeals board.

It is a fair request and the Deputy has raised a legitimate concern. To nail it down, is he asking about appeals to the independent appeals board that have been found in favour of the applicant in circumstances where the parents were divorced or separated?

I can ask my Department to undertake that.

Mental Health Services

I will raise a range of mental health topics, including suicide. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for including this matter in today's Topical Issue debate. International Men's Day is on Friday, giving us a chance to reflect on issues relating to men and boys. Mental health is one of these issues. While it is a significant matter that affects everyone, a focus on men's mental health is important this week. The majority of people who end their lives in Ireland are male, being as high as 80% in some years. As of September, 437 people were recorded by the CSO as dying by suicide in 2018. Of these, 327 were men or 75%, and 110 were women. These figures and comparable ones for previous years demonstrate the need for a strong strategy to address male suicide. The situation is more nuanced, as we know that the rate among middle-aged men aged between 40 and 59 has been the highest of all age cohorts.

Research has shown that economic recession and increased rates of unemployment are associated with a decline in mental health and increased rates of suicide and self-harm, not only in Ireland, but across the world. Compounding this are larger gender issues, such as reticence to seek help, higher rates of alcohol and substance misuse, and belonging to an at-risk group, such as men who are gay, transgender, Travellers, victims of domestic abuse, migrants, former prisoners and rurally isolated. The State's response must acknowledge these complexities and work to address not only mental health, but also the larger societal conditions that exacerbate them and increase suffering.

I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is committed to improving our mental services, but she can only work with what the Department is given.

Mental Health Reform points out that our national mental health budget represents only 5.1% of the total health budget, when the World Health Organization recommends 12% and Sláintecare recommends 10%. This deficiency is being felt with insufficient staff to meet current needs. When it comes to taking mental health seriously, campaigns and champions are important, but specialist healthcare will always have to do the heavy lifting. We need more therapists in the community and we need more psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and peer support workers in all HSE regions. The waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, also need to be addressed. The importance of early interventions cannot be overstated, and yet we have over 2,000 children and young people on CAMHS waiting lists. I have been working with families across Cork South-West to get help for their children, and I know most, if not all, other Deputies, are doing the same.

Another matter I have repeatedly raised is the lack of eating disorder treatment services. Tomorrow evening, RTÉ will broadcast a programme about men who live with an eating disorder, which is under-reported and is not spoken about enough. No funding was allocated under the national eating disorder treatment plan for 2020, and not one cent of the €1.6 million allocated in 2019 was spent. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has committed to making change in this area but we have to acknowledge that people are still not getting the treatment they need, as demonstrated recently by a young Cork woman who had to fundraise to get the inpatient bed she needs. There are only three inpatient beds in the entire country. All of those beds are in Dublin, yet eating disorders are the mental health conditions most associated with mortality.

The Government’s Sharing the Vision mental health strategy, launched earlier this year, will remain another hollow HSE document unless it is supported with the necessary funding. Medical and healthcare professionals and advocacy groups have repeatedly pointed out what is required to provide the proper mental healthcare for boys, men, and all who need it.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of men's mental health, particularly in the context of suicide and the fact that this Friday is International Men's Health Day. Any loss of life to suicide is a tragedy, and my deepest condolences go out to any family or individual who has lost someone to suicide or who has been affected by suicide. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, it is a complex problem and situation that individuals and families find themselves in and it means they need support in many different ways. As the Deputy has outlined, this is not just about the Department of Health; it is about so many other Departments coming together to try to tackle this issue.

International Men's Health Day is this Friday, and it is an opportunity to consider men's mental health and to look at what is being done and what more can be done to try to support men. In doing so, we need to acknowledge that most deaths by suicide are among men. This is an international phenomenon and in this respect, Ireland is unfortunately no different. This was highlighted in a joint report by the Men's Health Forum in Ireland and the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention in 2018. The report notes that men are more likely to die by suicide than women are and that the highest suicide rate is among those aged 45 to 54. As the Deputy pointed out, it is extremely high among those aged 40 to 59 as well. The report explored the specific mental health and well-being needs of at-risk and vulnerable middle-aged men. It noted the stigma attached to mental health. It is unfortunate that this stigma still exists but we have made huge strides in talking about it, exploring this issue and providing support and help. It still exists, however, and it was highlighted as a significant issue and barrier to seeking help. Middle-aged men are identified as a priority group in Connecting for Life, the national strategy to reduce suicide, and this continues to work with and support the Men's Health Forum in Ireland to implement a number of its strategic recommendations.

Men's Health Week is held in June each year. Many activities highlighting and promoting positive mental health and well-being are supported by the HSE and the Department of Health. The HSE also supports men's sheds, which are a great social network for men, as social contact is vital to positive mental health. Not every man goes to his local men's shed but for those who do it is a vital support and something the Government supports.

We are all determined to reduce the incidence of suicide in Ireland. Last November, the Government extended Connecting for Life by four years to 2024. Implementation of the strategy involves a cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach, acknowledging the significant complexities involved and the strategy is overseen by the Department of Health. The National Office for Suicide Prevention was specifically established to co-ordinate suicide reduction efforts around the country and to implement Connecting for Life. I appreciate that there are a lot of strategies but all of these elements are connected and it is all being driven by the Department of Health in connection with the various other Departments. Since 2010, funding for Connecting for Life has been increased from €3.7 million to the current level of €13 million.

A key part of Connecting for Life is development of local Connecting for Life plans. These plans were developed in collaboration with the HSE, community groups, organisations and individuals who have been impacted by suicide who want to help and play their part. They are designed to reinforce social supports, follow-up care, tackle stigma at local level and support those bereaved by suicide. We have to always remember that it is not just the individuals involved but that many others are impacted by suicide.

I know we are not where we need to be in the levels of overall funding and we all appreciate that. We are at a point where €1.149 billion has been allocated to mental health and that has increased significantly in the past ten years. That will only continue to increase because we appreciate that more needs to be spent on this issue.

I thank the Minister for her response. That is welcome and I encourage her to push for the necessary resources and services to be allocated and spent. In response to a parliamentary question, I learned that the non-spend of the €1.6 million allocated to eating disorder treatment in 2019 happened because HSE and departmental officials assigned it elsewhere. When we have these allocations, which are so welcome, we cannot allow this to happen again.

Services and groups that help address the larger societal issues are important too. The State's response to domestic violence continues to be inadequate. The Istanbul Convention’s standard is one refuge space per 10,000 people but Ireland provides one space per 10,000 women, leaving us with 50% less capacity. We ignore men in that and there is very little infrastructure for men. This structural deficit compounds the stigma for male victims and survivors of domestic violence.

I agree with the Minister that the men’s shed movement has made an incredible impact in addressing isolation among men, especially in older cohorts. Any support the Government can give local sheds will have a manifold impact in mental health. Rural transport schemes are also important factors in helping people to socialise. There should be more and later running buses to provide these connections. There is also inadequate supported living and social housing available for people with mental health disabilities in many areas and it is particularly hard for single men to get social housing.

It is essential that we have more conversations to challenge the stigma around mental health to help people get the help they need. It is especially important for boys and men to talk with their families, classmates, teammates, friends and colleagues. If people do anything for International Men’s Health Day, they should have that conversation. When discussing these issues it is important to note that the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day for those who need confidential and non-judgemental support. People can use the Freephone number 116 123 and the number for the helpline of BodyWhys, the eating disorders association of Ireland, is 01-2107906.

The Deputy has highlighted the two most important issues and I agree with and support her wholeheartedly on that. This is about each and every one of us looking after our mental health. I visited my father's grave last night for the first time in a while and it is almost nine years since he died by suicide. When I visit the grave, I always think about my mental health and that of the people around me. It is important that we continue to look out for ourselves and each other and that we allow a space where people feel they can talk about it, come forward and talk to each other, particularly with those in their family, close circle and community as well as with their friends.

When people decide to take that step forward, the support must be there for them when they need it and in the way in which they need it. I appreciate that we still have to make a lot of progress on some of the issues the Deputy highlighted. The Government has increased funding and developed HSE services, including specialist services and the various different programmes.

There is still a huge stigma around issues like eating disorders, not only for boys but also girls and in particular men. There is a particular problem there. I am concerned the Deputy says funding has not been spent. That is something I will raise directly with the Minister.

Domestic violence is an issue on which I am particularly focused and determined to address in my role as Minister for Justice. Again, there is a stigma when it comes to men who are victims of domestic violence, and I am trying to address that as part of Supporting a Victim's Journey but also other areas that do not come under health, such as rural transport, isolation, people being on their own and feeling they do not have anyone to turn to or that they are not connected to anyone. Again, that goes back to Connecting for Life. It is about looking at all the Departments to see where we can join up all the dots and make sure people have these supports and, when they do come forward, they are there for them.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. There are a number of things she specifically raised that I will bring back to the Minister.

An Garda Síochána

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue and the Minister for being here to discuss it with me. I want to say at the outset that I am 100% aware of her role in the allocation of resources. I know what she can and cannot do. What I am asking her this morning is to give consideration to the needs of the people I represent in Swords and the surrounding area, specifically in relation to Garda resources. While I understand the Minister does not get into the details of resourcing, there are a number of issues I want to bring to her attention that I hope she might be able to bring to the attention of senior management in An Garda Síochána.

I have been contacted by a large number of people, which is what prompted me to submit the matter for the Topical Issue debate. There was a spike in people contacting me about calls made to the Garda station where they were told a car or a garda was not available to come and attend. It is not the fault of the gardaí. I visited the station recently and I know that they are absolutely flat out. Swords is a town with a population of more than 40,000. The Garda resources that are deployed there do not match the population. I was prompted to submit the question after I was contacted by a parent who had a very disturbing incident where her child was accosted just outside of a school. Her mother happened to be just behind the child. She phoned the Garda but it did not have a car to send out. That is very worrying.

The resources are an issue, as are the personnel and the accommodation in Swords Garda station. Again, I am aware of the Minister's role in this but I want to bring it to her attention. The station is heaving. There are hoardings surrounding it that have been there for several years now. I do not know what is happening with it and I do not believe the gardaí stationed there know either. If the intention is to expand the station and not just rearrange the car park, which is in the works, that is very welcome. If the intention is to move it elsewhere, that is also very welcome if there is more space. We are approximately 40 gardaí short of what would be ideal. I understand the numbers are not ideal around the country, including other areas I represent. We are not aiming for ideal, necessarily, but we are around 40 gardaí short while there has been an increase in gang activity and drug dealing, which is deeply disturbing. I understand it is in keeping with what is happening throughout the State, but it is very stark given the population and the population growth recently. It has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions.

At the joint policing committee, JPC, before the previous one, I and Councillor Ann Graves sought a task force to be established. We know a task force approach has worked in other areas. It has done good work in Coolock and elsewhere. I would like the Minister to lend her support to that this morning if she could. We believe we need a task force that involves not just the Garda but also the community. We all want the same thing in the end. We want the streets to be safe, for the Garda to be resourced and for people to feel safe in their homes. That is not the case now. I was prompted by my constituents contacting me to express their concerns about escalating crime and the need for a more visible Garda presence. I believe the task force is the way to go forward. We have seen good examples in other areas where there is a specific focus and community buy-in. I would like the Minister to lend her support to that this morning, if she could, and to use her good offices to progress that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter today. As she stated at the outset, the management or administration of the An Garda Síochána and deployment of resources is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. These decisions are made in the continued context of crime trends in a certain area and policing priorities. When issues arise, as they do, the Commissioner and his team respond to them as quickly as possible. The Deputy will appreciate that where the specific resources go and their allocation is not something I can touch on.

What I can say is the Government and I, as Minister of Justice, are committed to ensuring there is strong, visible policing in local communities. Budget 2022 reflects this commitment very clearly. It has an unprecedented allocation of more than €2 billion in Garda funding for the coming year. This funding will include provision for the recruitment of up to 800 new Garda recruits and 400 Garda staff. I appreciate it will take time for the new recruits to go through Templemore but it is a commitment to additional resources on the ground and it is hoped it will bring us to a figure of about 15,000 next year. The more Garda staff we have, the more people who are now doing desk duties can get out and about on the ground.

This increase in the number of Garda members and staff will deliver significant growth in operational policing hours nationwide and improved services to the public generally. The programme for Government and Justice Plan 2021 contain a range of priority commitments and actions to support visible policing nationwide, chief of which is the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland through the Government' s implementation plan, A Policing Service for the Future.

The roll-out of the new Garda operating model under A Policing Service for the Future will deliver increased Garda visibility in communities by facilitating a wider range of locally delivered policing services, underpinned by the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing throughout the country. Visible policing means safer communities that feel supported in daily life and that the benefits of effective Garda resources at community level can be felt by each and every one of us.

Community safety is the cornerstone of the Garda transformation programme and, indeed, has always been the primary focus of An Garda Síochána. This has been especially evident throughout the Covid-19 period, where gardaí throughout the country have consolidated their connection with local communities. They have engaged with local authorities and local organisations and have done a fantastic job in supporting us through what is still a very difficult time.

The Deputy referred to Swords. It is important to outline some of the changes that have happened there and in surrounding areas in terms of overall Garda numbers. As of 31 October, the latest date for when figures are available, Swords Garda station had a station party of 83 members of all ranks assigned, an increase of over 15% since the end of 2016 when there were only 72 members assigned.

The Coolock district, which includes Swords, Coolock and Malahide Garda stations, currently has a strength of 234 members of all ranks. This is an increase of 12.5% since the end of 2016 when there were 208 members assigned to the district. Overall, the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, north has a strength of 781 members at the end of October, an increase of 15.5% since the end of 2016. I appreciate more are needed - that is the case across the country - but those numbers will continue to increase with the additional 800 members next year.

Three pilots are being rolled out following the very successful task force in Dublin's inner city.

I will have to stop the Minister there.

I will come back to the Deputy on the response.

I join the Minister in commending the work of An Garda Síochána throughout Covid, in Swords and across the State. She is bang on; its members did a fantastic job.

I want to return to the issue. There is a difference, and Minister and I both know this, between being safe and feeling safe. I do not want anyone to panic but people do not feel safe and that is a concern to me, because obviously I am sent in here to represent them. There are two cars.

It is not sufficient that an area the size of Swords, that has housing estates stretching for miles all the way out to Donabate and surrounding areas, would have only two Garda cars available. While 83 gardaí might sound like a big number, at any given time, gardaí will have to be in court, on community duties, on sick leave, on annual leave etc. There are, therefore, not enough gardaí to meet the population need.

I emphasise to the Minister that we need a task force approach for Swords and its surrounding area, particularly given the planned expansion of Donabate. That will place even more demands onto the already stretched gardaí. All we want is a collaborative approach between local representatives, the community, the residents associations, An Garda Síochána, and the local authority, with them all pulling in the one direction. We were promised this at the joint policing committees, JPC. For some reason it has been kicked to touch. I would like the Minister to investigate that and find out what is happening with it. The willingness is certainly there from the gardaí, the local representatives, the residents associations and the community. We all want the same thing. We want not just to feel safe but to be safe. Visible policing is essential in that regard.

As the Deputy has outlined, this is about people not just being safe but feeling safe. It is about visible policing. That means not just having gardaí in stations and in cars but having gardaí on foot and on bikes and making sure people can see that visible presence in their communities. Even seeing a uniform walking about the streets gives people a sense of feeling safe. However, it is not just about gardaí. It is about making sure everyone is pulling together in health, education, various local services and community groups.

Deputy O’Reilly mentioned a task force. Three pilot programmes are being developed. These are community safety partnerships in Longford, Waterford and Dublin's inner city. It is important those partnerships and pilots are allowed to develop and that we identify how they can work best and we ensure, as we roll them out across the country, which will include Coolock and the Deputy’s own area, we have the best model possible to bring together not just the Garda but all of the legs of society, so to speak, that need to work together to make sure people are safe within their community.

On the overall Garda numbers, the Deputy will appreciate we have had challenges in the past two years, with recruits going in and out of Templemore, and we have not been able, obviously, to have the full complement. I hope, however, coming into next year, that we will be able to see those 800 recruits bringing us up to a number of 15,000. Obviously, I would like to see that number continue to increase over time.

On the capital plan and the overall spend for the justice sector, we have just agreed a figure of €270 million every year for the justice sector right out to 2025 as part of the national development plan. That is for all of the justice sector. It will include investment in buildings and refurbishments, such as doing up old stations, but it will also include opening new stations. All of this needs to be kept under consideration. Of course, I will take on board all of the issues the Deputy raised specifically. However, I am aware the Garda Commissioner is also apprised of issues that are happening on the ground as they arise and is responding accordingly.