Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Public Transport

Martin Kenny

Question:

117. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if she has plans to establish a transport police service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [58141/21]

I ask the Minister for Justice if she or the Government has any plans to establish a transport police service and if she will make a statement on the matter. For many years now, this has been called for by the travelling public, particularly those in urban areas where there is much antisocial behaviour on trains, the DART and the Luas, as well as at depots and stations, and people may feel threatened. It is also a major problem for staff and we know trade unions have called for this as well. Will the Minister enlighten the Dáil in this respect?

I thank Deputy Kenny for raising this matter. I fully appreciate the concerns raised by people, including members of the public and those working in public transport systems and specifically those who must deal with antisocial behaviour and criminal activity. If we are honest, we have probably all seen videos and various recordings circulating throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the past few months, of really unacceptable behaviour. People's health is being put at risk at well. It is essential that people feel safe and are safe when they take public transport or use any type of transport across the country.

As the Deputy may be aware, Garda management engages extensively with transport operators, including the National Transport Authority, Irish Rail, taking in DART and InterCity rail, and Transdev Ireland, which operates the Luas. It does so to try to provide a high-visibility presence on public transport through a co-ordinated approach. I am informed by the Garda authorities that a range of regional and local operations have been put in place to try to prevent and detect the criminal activity and antisocial behaviour on public transport we have seen more often in recent times. For example, Operation Twin Track was a community engagement and rail safety policing initiative conducted by the Garda, in partnership with other public transportation stakeholders, with the sole purpose of providing high-visibility policing of rail and light rail transport within the Dublin metropolitan region and nationwide, and to deliver crime prevention advice.

The multi-agency review was conducted to examine the effectiveness of this operation and it was agreed that An Garda Síochána will continue to proactively engage with public transportation stakeholders and providers to try to conduct further similar operations. I hope we will see that expand beyond the Dublin metropolitan region. I have been advised by the Garda authorities that each chief superintendent in Dublin has put in place a dedicated policing plan to tackle antisocial behaviour on public transport. Gardaí are conducting both overt and covert patrols of various public transport networks to address incidents of antisocial behaviour or any other offences.

A number of operations have taken place across the Dublin metropolitan region, including during the recent Hallowe'en period, involving high-visibility patrols of public transport on Dublin Bus, Luas and DART services to prevent and detect incidents of antisocial behaviour. Much work is being done already. I commend the Garda on the work that has been done.

I echo that sentiment; we must commend the Garda on the work done in respect of this. However, the reality is that many passengers feel abandoned and unsafe when they travel on our public transport systems. The National Bus and Rail Union has basically stated this type of service must be provided and spoken about taking industrial action if something is not done because it believes that many of its members are often under threat and many have received physical injuries as a result. It is the same position with the travelling public. It is over a month since The Irish Times featured a report with testimonials from many people who travelled on our bus and train systems, including the DART and Luas. They spoke about open drug dealing and people displaying threatening behaviour, leaving passengers feeling completely abandoned and isolated on the service.

Most people share my feeling that the answer to this is to have in place a proper public police service dedicated to the transport services. It should be put in place by An Garda Síochána as a unit of the Garda. Perhaps it could happen in the Dublin area as a pilot before being implemented throughout the country.

It goes without saying that whether it is people hopping on a bus to go to a local town, students going to college or somebody going to Dublin for a day out, there should not be an issue with people feeling unsafe on public transport. That is well understood within An Garda Síochána. The Garda have been proactive in recent times, with engagement not just within Dublin but in various regions. We have seen a number of charges arising specifically from Garda actions, either for public order incidents, antisocial behaviour or more serious offences.

Currently, there is no proposal to establish a specific unit. At the same time, the Garda Commissioner will always keep these matters under review. It is important to continue the work being done, which is effective. If the problem escalates or continues to disimprove, I am sure the Garda Commissioner will take that on board. Significant work is going into trying to ensure our public transport is safe. It is already yielding results and we must continue to work with the Garda and public services on rail lines and elsewhere to ensure they are supported in what they are doing. Everything is being considered at all times.

I am disappointed that no consideration is being given to establishing a dedicated transport police service. Most other countries across Europe and many places throughout the world have that in place and it works very well. We also know millions of euro are being spent every year on private security firms doing this kind of work and they only deal with aspects of the issue. They do not deal with the broad range that An Garda Síochána could deal with because of its remit.

We are now at a stage where we are encouraging more people to use public transport because of global warming, our carbon footprint and all of that. Nevertheless, people feel unsafe in doing that. The Government should consider this very seriously and put in place a pilot programme in Dublin city on the DART, Luas and certain other areas. If that could be done, people would regain confidence in using these public services without fear. It would also give some sense of hope and confidence to the people who work in these services. A week ago, a man who works in the transport service in Dublin told me horrific stories about some of his colleagues receiving threats and abuse. It is long past time we took the bull by the horns and established a pilot programme for this. It would not cost much money. We need additional Garda resources for all kinds of things. We all understand that. In this particular instance, it is clearly something that should be delivered as soon as possible.

What is clear is that the Garda is very aware of the concerns. The sole objective in carrying out the work it has done and the engagement with the services is to ensure people travelling on public transport and those providing the service are safe. There has been engagement and pilot programmes in Dublin and this will reach to the regions. There is also engagement between the control centres to ensure we have access to good-quality closed-circuit television. There have been discussions with Irish Rail to ensure we can expand this service. There are many things already happening to try to tackle this matter. Again, if the matter is not tackled sufficiently and problems persist, the Garda Commissioner reserves the right to explore this further.

It is a commitment from me as Minister for Justice and the Government that we will continue to increase the Garda presence. We have seen a particular focus at the weekends at public transport stations, not just in Dublin but across the country. That is on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when we know incident rates are higher. The more gardaí we have on the ground, the more patrolling can be done. In that regard, we have committed to 800 additional gardaí for next year with 400 civilian staff and in itself, with their redeployment, that will allow more gardaí on the ground. There is a great deal happening and we are very aware of this matter. It is always kept under review.

Prison Service

Brendan Howlin

Question:

118. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Justice the number of incidents of Covid-19 in Irish prisons; the impact of Covid-19 infections on the Irish Prison Service and the Courts Service to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57611/21]

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy Howlin. What is the number of Covid-19 cases in our Prison Service? What has been the impact on the service and the Courts Service? I would like an update on that.

The Irish Prison Service has undertaken excellent work during this pandemic to prevent the spread of Covid-19. A wide range of measures was introduced to address the risks facing the service. The service is fortunate to have an executive clinical lead and a head of infection control in place. The excellent work of its teams is guided by the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and is consistent with prison specific guidance of the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

At the outset, the management of the service recognised the importance of planning for future outbreaks and this has stood up to a prolonged challenge which none of us could have anticipated. I am advised that as of 23 November 2021, which was this week, a total of 277 positive cases of Covid-19 had been identified among the prisoner population since March 2020. Some 112 of these cases were committed to custody positive for Covid-19; they already had Covid before they were committed to custody. It is also important to note that for the greater part of last year, there were no cases in our prison. As virus numbers have escalated, we have seen that what happens in the community inevitably happening in our prisons, in the same way the virus comes into various care settings and other places.

I commend the Irish Prison Service and its staff, all of whom are working tirelessly to control infection while continuing to provide a range of rehabilitative support services for people in their care. They work closely with my Department and other relevant agencies, including the Courts Service, in this context. The Courts Service has also worked with absolute determination to address the challenges presented by the pandemic. A robust safety management programme and multiple operational adaptations, including through greater use of technology, have enabled the ongoing provision of the courts. The pandemic has impacted on the ability of the courts to operate in their normal function. However, a detailed management plan, similar to that in place in the prisons, is also in place in the courts and there is constant engagement between the director general of the Irish Prison Service and the CEO of the Courts Service.

The intent of this question was to seek a genuine update. It was not a "gotcha" question or anything like that. The Prison Service has done a remarkable job since the start of this pandemic in keeping the virus out of our prisons. In this fourth wave, we know the virus is everywhere and it is important that we do not forget about our prison community, both workers and prisoners, many of whom are living in very cramped conditions. Before the pandemic, concerns were expressed about a number of our prisons in regard to prisoners' quarters and the conditions in which they are held. When the pandemic first hit, there was greater concern that prisons would be more vulnerable to the spread of infection. As I said, the Prison Service has done a great job in keeping it at bay, as best as possible.

Is the Minister aware of any hospitalisation among prisoners due to Covid-19? Will she reaffirm her confidence that, throughout this wave and beyond, the Prison Service is robust enough to keep the virus at bay insofar as it has done so already?

I have absolute confidence in the management and all the staff and teams working in our prisons. At every stage, they have tried to protect not only themselves but the prisoner population. As I said, for the most part of last year, there were no cases. As virus cases have increased in number, we have, as the Deputy noted, seen what is happening in the community being reflected in prisons. We have also seen a high uptake of vaccines in prisons, as there has been in the community, and this has protected very many people.

There has been an understanding in recent times that we cannot keep people under 24-hour lockdown. When we were in level 5 lockdown, the lockdown in prisons was also very severe. It meant there were no in-person visits and many educational programmes ceased. There has been a move away from that because there is an awareness that we must live with Covid-19. Physical visits resumed in September. Obviously, all of these measures are kept under continuous review to ensure we keep people safe and also respect the human rights of prisoners. I have every confidence the system will do its best in this regard. The Deputy mentioned hospitalisation which I will come back to in my final response.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am happy to receive a response on hospitalisation in an email or in writing. It is a credit to the Prison Service, which is doing an unbelievably difficult job in very difficult circumstances. Many Members of this House have not forgotten our prisoners and prison workers during this pandemic. When issues come up, we will raise them.

There have been hospitalisations in prisons in the same way that we have seen hospitalisations across the country due to Covid-19. Unfortunately, the Prison Service has not escaped that. The first death in custody was recorded in recent times and I know that was extremely distressing and upsetting for everybody working in the Prison Services. It was, however, the first death, which again shows the effort and focus there have been on keeping people safe, protecting them and ensuring as many people as possible, if not all, are vaccinated and that, where restrictions on people's ability to interact and go about their daily lives are necessary, they are limited.

We are providing as much support as possible to the Prison Service and the Courts Service. The Deputy also asked how the pandemic had impacted on the work of the latter. The services are continuing to engage with each other to put the right measures in place. The Department is working with both the Courts Service and the Prison Service. We have provided additional funding so they can amend and adapt their services, particularly when it comes to technology. As this pandemic continues and we learn to live with Covid-19, we will continue to provide supports, where necessary.

An Garda Síochána

Martin Kenny

Question:

119. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice the supports or assistance she or her Department gave to the holding of a conference (details supplied). [57838/21]

What supports or assistance did the Department give to the holding of the Garda Representative Association, GRA, conference in 2020? As we know, the event took place during the pandemic when practically nothing was happening anywhere in the country. I have a letter to the Minister from Jim Mulligan, the former president of the GRA, in which he expressed concerns that unofficial lobbying had been done by some members of the GRA's central executive committee to have a conference take place. By everyone's standards, this was unnecessary at the time and put people at risk. In late November, the Department's attitude was that the conference could not and should not happen, but it changed its mind in that regard. There are serious concerns that a lot of lobbying was done, both in respect of the Minister and others, to make this happen when it was totally inappropriate.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of Garda business, including the redeployment of gardaí and its staff. It also includes management of human resources and industrial relations matters and I do not play role a role in these matters. I want to be clear about what happened. The event did not take place in-person. That was very clear. My Department's role was to allow for the event to take place. This event had to take place by the end of May 2020 and to regulations had to be introduced to allow it to take place at a later date.

Due to the public health guidelines introduced in response to Covid-19, the annual delegate conference of the GRA could not be held in the usual in-person format. As a result, the GRA communicated directly with my Department in the course of 2020 on the possibility of holding the conference later in the year, and exploring the scope for regulatory changes to support this. Following this and consultation with the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority, the Garda Síochána (Associations) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 were signed on 8 December in accordance with section 122 of the Garda Síochána Act. These regulations provided that the conference need not take place in person and, subsequent to this, I understand the annual delegate conference proceeded as a virtual event on 29 December 2020. Simply put, the organisation contacted my Department asking that we make provision for it to hold the conference virtually. I think the initial date was 20 January. A specific date was provided and a request to delay it was submitted. The conference eventually took place on 29 December. That is what happened. Obviously, my Department is available to support the Garda representative organisations if they wish to hold their annual delegate conferences throughout the year.

The issues here go beyond the conference. All of us understand that there are issues with the Garda Representative Association, particularly in its governance.

Individual members of An Garda Síochána to whom I have spoken are concerned at the way things are run and operated. We know there were difficulties in the past in that regard. On 15 December 2020, the Minister received a letter from Jim Mulligan, the former president of the GRA, regarding concerns he had about unauthorised lobbying of politicians and Government Departments by people claiming to represent the GRA. He said that details had been concealed from him and the rest of the central executive in contravention of the GRA legal framework. He also raised many other issues, including issues around financial irregularities. While I understand the Minister wanting to keep the matter at arm's length, this is a statutory organisation coming under the Department of Justice's remit. It is set up in that way, as are all the representative organisations of An Garda Síochána. There is a lot of public money going into the organisation, along with all of the fees. This is, in effect, a trade union. The individual members are paying fees and, from the reports we are getting, they are not getting good value for their money. There are a lot of issues that need to be dealt with. The Minister needs to take a hand in ensuring that ordinary members of An Garda Síochána are properly and appropriately represented.

I will state clearly that I was not lobbied on this matter. There was a very clear process. The GRA engaged with my Department throughout last year to try to ensure this conference could be held. The work that was done between my Department and the Attorney General was simply to allow for this conference to take place. As the Deputy will appreciate, the association is independent in its management and administration, as is the Garda Commissioner with regard to the management and administration of An Garda Síochána. I play absolutely no role in that, nor do I want to intervene in the organisation with regard to the manner in which it conducts itself.

There is a misconception that funding is given through my Department. We do not provide funding to the association in question. It is provided with some subvention for certain expenses from the Garda Vote. I hope the Deputy will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer for that Vote and that, as Minister, I have no role. The GRA is an independent organisation. As the Deputy mentioned, it has fantastic members and is a fantastic group of people, to whom I have spoken and whose conference I attended virtually this week. My role is simply to support it in the work it does. How it conducts itself in the work it does is very much a matter for the body itself.

I understand the Minister's reluctance to get involved. It is probably appropriate on one level but, as she said, ordinary members of An Garda Síochána do magnificent work and deserve to be properly represented. We all agree on that. In January 2018, or perhaps before that, the management consultancy firm, Ampersand, made a number of recommendations in respect of a whole range of issues that needed to be dealt with. That was more than three years ago. In its research into what was going on and in the work it did, Ampersand found a wide range of issues that needed to be dealt with. It is my understanding that few, if any, of its recommendations have been implemented. That reflects poorly on how the organisation is run and means the majority of ordinary rank-and-file gardaí are not getting the kind of response they need.

Among the issues that have been raised, there is talk of cliques, in-fighting and all sorts of carry-on that is really not appropriate. We need proper accountability and management. There are also issues with regard to financial irregularities that need to be dealt with. While I understand the Minister wants to keep herself at arm's length, a conversation with the Garda Commissioner who, as the Minister said, has direct responsibility is required to ensure that gardaí are properly represented.

The Ampersand report was very welcome. It made a number of recommendations. I believe it was welcomed by the organisation, the Garda Commissioner and everybody else who has seen it. My understanding is that the timeline for its implementation runs to 2025, so there is obviously some way to go. The Commissioner has taken a personal interest in this matter and has recently received an update on how the recommendations are being implemented. It is not that I simply do not want to intervene but that I do not believe I should and that it is not my role to do so. This is an independent association. It has its own elected representatives and members. It is important that I, as Minister, do not interfere in the organisation. My role is to support it through the provision of financial support, policy and legislation and to engage with it on matters that are important to it. That is the work I do. The internal mechanisms are very much a matter for the association.