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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Closed-Circuit Television Systems

Martin Kenny

Question:

69. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if she will report on community CCTV programmes. [16638/22]

I want to ask the Minister about the roll-out of community CCTV programmes across the country. In many rural areas it has been an issue. In County Sligo, an elderly man was recently attacked in his home. Many people said there is a need to have preventative measures around the country, one of which is, of course, CCTV, not just in rural areas but also in many urban areas where drug dealing and other such activities are taking place in broad daylight. It is a measure that would assist gardaí in preventing such crimes from occurring. I would like the views of the Minister on how that is progressing.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he will be aware, community CCTV schemes play an important role in local communities the length and breadth of the country. They provide valuable reassurance and help people to feel safer in local areas. It is not just about making sure we can use them to detect crime and support gardaí; they play a role in helping to keep and make people feel safe. This is why it remains a priority for my Department to ensure community groups continue to be supported in developing their local CCTV schemes, while balancing this with proportionate oversight of important data protection statutory considerations. That is an important element.

Since 2017, my 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 CCTV grant scheme was extended in 2019 to cover not only new CCTV systems but to also provide funding for the extension or upgrade of existing CCTV systems that are incomplete or have become obsolete. Applicants may now also seek a once-off grant of up to €5,000 for minor maintenance costs. Support and assistance for those running CCTV schemes is available by contacting my Department at a dedicated email address available from my its website.

To date, a total of 35 locations have been approved under the community-based CCTV scheme, with a total of almost €950,000 committed to these projects. Community-based CCTV is currently governed by section 38(3)(c) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Garda Síochána (CCTV) Order 2006. This legal framework requires 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. Communities, therefore, need to take a number of steps. This is the legal basis for all community CCTV schemes, regardless of how they are funded. These key legal requirements have not changed since 2006. My Justice Plan 2022, which I published this week, commits to the publication of a new Bill that relates to Garda powers to modernise digital technology, and this will include CCTV where there need to be updates.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that some work on this has been done and progress has been made. However, we are all also aware of the difficult situations in some areas where CCTV cameras have been in place and people have been asked to take them down because they did not meet the standards required. They were installed with the very best of intentions. There have been also been difficulties around the country for years where local authorities have found it difficult to fit into a space whereby they become data controllers and have to monitor footage and all of that without any additional funding.

In vast areas of rural Ireland there could be a convergence of roads, crossroads or a bridge on a river where it would be very useful to have CCTV to monitor the movement of traffic. Communities in such areas will not be able to come up with the resources to meet 40% of the required cost of installing cameras. That needs to be recognised. The 60% grant aid is too low and needs to be reviewed. When the Minister is reviewing that, she needs to ensure that adequate funding is in place so that people can meet that criterion.

To finish my last point and touch on the Deputy's next point, the legislation needs to be updated due to the fact that the Act dates from 2005 and we have since had European GDPR legislation that supersedes the previous Act. That is why I am working to try to make sure that the digital recording Bill is brought forward as quickly as possible. I hope to be able to bring it to colleagues in a matter of weeks, and we can then progress that as quickly as possible. Part of that is the ANPR legislation around number plate recognition, which would allow gardaí, in certain circumstances, to take that type of data and information, which is extremely helpful not just in terms of road traffic incidents but also in cases where people are fleeing the scene of a crime and would be helpful to be able to upload that information.

With regard to the link between local authorities and gardaí, we are trying to set out greater clarity around the role played by each in the legislation. That is something that has prevented some communities from putting forward requests for local CCTV. At the same time, I stress that we cannot just put up cameras anywhere. There always has to be collaboration with gardaí. We all have a right to privacy and to make sure that there is not a camera outside our front door. Cameras are in place for a specific and strategic reason. That corroboration and collaboration will be set out clearly in the legislation. It is to be hoped it will encourage more people to avail of these types of scheme.

I understand that. Nobody wants cameras everywhere or for the whole country to be covered in them but there is a recognition that they have a key role to play. An Garda Síochána recognises that and so does the public. The slow and difficult roll-out of these schemes across the country has dented public confidence in the commitment of the Government to ensuring this is done.

I welcome the legislation the Minister is proposing. When the cost of up to €40,000 in this regard is considered, 60% of that sum is to be provided but the communities will have to find the other 40%, amounting to €16,000, which will be quite a lot for small communities to fund. That needs to be reviewed. More funding needs to be put in place to ensure this can be done. If more CCTV is rolled out, there will be benefits in the context of economies of scale. It would not cost communities as much as it would otherwise. If the Government were to tender for this equipment, rather than each individual community doing so, that may also lead to cost savings.

In many instances, local authorities work with communities to ensure funding is available. It is important to note that the Deputy's question relates specifically to community CCTV and there is a separate programme specifically for An Garda. In areas with high crime levels or a large number of incidents, the Garda can go through a process of setting up its own CCTV.

The Deputy referred to certain issues that have arisen recently in respect of the general data protection regulation, GDPR. There are steps communities have to undergo, working with local authorities and the Garda. Obviously, the Garda undertakes those steps as well. In general, community CCTV plays a role but it is about everything working together. It is about community text alert, communities engaging with local community gardaí and making sure there are enough gardaí on the ground. I am very pleased that more than 10,000 people have applied to the most recent recruitment campaign. It is to be hoped that they will start to go through Templemore soon. We have the new operational model that will ensure there are more focused specific teams and it is hoped they will be able to target this type of crime in rural areas and where people are concerned. There are many elements to making sure we keep people safe. Community CCTV is an important element of that and I hope that when the legislation is passed, there might be more clarity for people regarding being able to access further funding.

Prison Service

Brendan Howlin

Question:

70. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Justice if her attention has been drawn to the fact that some 70% of prisoners in Irish jails have issues with literacy; the steps she is taking to address this situation; the discussions she has had with the Ministers of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15885/22]

Is the Minister as shocked as I am - maybe I should not be shocked - to discover that some 70% of prisoners in Irish jails have literacy problems? Does she consider that an issue that must be addressed on an integrated way across government? What is she going to do about it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question. Care and rehabilitation are core aims of the Irish Prison Service. Sentences are managed to encourage and support prisoners in their efforts to reintegrate into society and live law-abiding lives on release. My Department and the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science engage with the service to ensure a range of education opportunities are available to those in custody and those who have served their sentence. This is in line with goal 3 of Justice Plan 2022, which sets out our commitment to developing and supporting policies to reduce reoffending and help safely reintegrate those who have committed crimes back into their communities.

The provision of education is an important prison-based service and key to improving outcomes for prisoners and reducing recidivism. Poor literacy skills, a history of previous educational difficulties or failure and negative educational experience often combine to create powerful barriers to engaging with prison education centres and, therefore, the curriculum offered must be broad, flexible and attractive.

Although opportunities up to third-level qualifications are available, a priority for the service is ensuring targeted supports and initiatives are in place focused on basic literacy and numeracy education, including English as a second operating language. Delivered in partnership between the Prison Service and education and training boards, ETBs, opportunities focus on providing quality-assured and student-centred education that facilitates lifelong learning. There is also emphasis on the role of non-accredited learning in enabling adults to return to learning at their own pace and equip them to explore their full potential.

The Building Bridges joint national project led by the Prison Service and SOLAS and sponsored by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is under development and will build on the well-established infrastructure in place between the ETBs and the prison. A collaborative partnership with Maynooth University, entitled Unlocking Potential, is aimed at increasing access to higher education for people with convictions. As part of this, a €100,000 scholarship fund entitled KickStart was recently announced.

The Prison Service is also engaged with Dublin City University to conduct an audit of literacy and numeracy across the prisoner population with a view to informing future development within the services.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but it focused entirely on the in-prison service, as though everybody looks at the situation in their own silo. It is shocking that so many people who have clearly been failed by the education system end up in prison. What is going to be done about that in a joined-up way? I recall a former prison governor indicating that the vast bulk of the inmates in that prison were drawn from an identifiable number of postcodes. Does the Minister of State consider he has a responsibility to reduce the numbers that end up in prison? Does he regard the focus on literacy and numeracy in education as a critical component in that regard or is it nothing to do with the Department of Justice but entirely a matter for the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science?

It is critical that the Department of Justice works with the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It is doing so. I agree with the Deputy regarding the concerns. While in opposition, I raised the fact that if all the inmates who cannot read or write were taken out, the number of prisons would be substantially reduced.

It is 70% of prisoners.

That statistic proves that. We now have a hardcore statistic in that regard. It is a matter of which I am very aware, as is the Minister, Deputy McEntee. That is why there is this level of collaboration with the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to try to address this issue. Obviously, education is primarily a matter for those Departments but we in the Department of Justice have an important role in that regard. As Minister of State with responsibility for youth justice, I have that role in particular. That is why education is a very important part of the youth justice strategy we launched last year. Keeping those kids in school, particularly through the transitional phase when they move from primary school into secondary school at 13 or 14 years of age, is key. Some kids can get into serious difficulty at that stage. It is certainly a matter of which I am very conscious, as is the Minister, Deputy McEntee.

I am grateful for the reply of the Minister of State and the focus to which he referred, but his initial response to me and the House focused entirely on the in-prison education system. What I hoped would be focused on, which he indicated he was focused on it while in opposition, is preventing people ending up in prison in the first place. A collaborative effort between the Departments of Justice and Education is needed to deal with that. What sort of resources and what level of priority are going into that prevention phase of the work? It is like health education in the Department of Health - it is never regarded as a great priority. In health, they treat the disease rather than prevent it. It would be a really important part of the work of the Minister of State if we could have a co-ordinated and well-resourced strategy to stop people ending up in prison in the first place.

I am in full agreement with the Deputy on this. That prevention piece is critical. One of the things I have been doing since lockdown ended is visiting youth diversion projects, initially mostly in Dublin, but subsequently widening that circle across the country. With the funding for youth diversion projects we received in the budget in October, we will now be able fund the new role of family support workers, as well as additional youth workers. They are not only working with the families to try to strengthen the environment at home, but working with schools as well. I have been very impressed with the level of engagement of youth diversion projects, including youth workers, family support workers and juvenile liaison officers, with local schools. I want that strengthened and I have had several conversations with the Minister for Education in respect of that piece and, in particular, the issue of reduced class timetables, which puts vulnerable children very much at risk. She is aware of that and has been working on it and putting many policies in place. It is certainly a matter of which I am very aware. My initial response to the Deputy's question was written very much from the perspective of the Department of Justice but, as Minister of State with responsibility for youth justice, I am acutely aware of this issue. I know the Deputy has long been a crusader on it.

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Martin Kenny

Question:

71. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if she will report on the roll-out of additional domestic violence refuge spaces. [16639/22]

I request a report from the Minister on the roll-out of additional domestic violence refuge spaces throughout the country. It is some time now since Ashling Murphy, unfortunately, was killed. That was a significant time in Ireland when people re-examined and looked again at this issue of violence against women everywhere throughout the country and in all its aspects, both in the home and in public spaces. We have to do everything we can to prevent violence against women but we also have to provide services for people who, unfortunately, are in danger or are at risk. I know the Minister has taken on responsibility for that role and I would like to gain an understanding of how much progress she has made. There are no domestic violence refuges at the moment in the county I live in or the surrounding counties.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is my goal that everyone who needs a refuge space will get one. It is an ambitious one but I am deeply committed to working with everyone in this Chamber, our partners in the sector and my Government colleagues to try to achieve that. We have prioritised tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in all of its forms, ensuring people, particularly women and vulnerable people, feel safe and are safe in our communities. That means ensuring we address this issue in a number of ways, and providing refuges and accommodation is a very important element of that work.

As the Deputy is aware and has mentioned, I am currently leading work on a new whole-of-government strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This new plan will have a particular focus and emphasis on prevention and ensuring victims are better supported. It is my intention to publish the final strategy and accompanying action plan as soon as possible in the coming weeks.

The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and I also commissioned an independent audit of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across Government. On foot of this, it has been agreed that my Department will assume that responsibility, as the Deputy has mentioned, for services for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence as well as the policy responsibility and overall cross-departmental or Government co-ordination of implementation. A detailed plan setting out how this will work is in preparation and will be outlined as part of the strategy launch.

On the specific issue of refuge spaces, in February, the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and I published the review by Tusla. We set out in Tusla's report the focus on the accommodation for victims of domestic violence. It highlighted the gaps that exist in the coverage, the inadequate provision of services for safe accommodation, including refuges, and what we need to do to meet that population need. It recommended an approach to address this with the immediate, medium and the long-term action required and it has a list of priority areas where additional services would address much of the most immediate initial need.

While the review says a minimum of between 50 and 60 new refuge places are needed as a priority, we did a further analysis and identified 82 refuge spaces where this would have the most impact if prioritised, that is, additional to the spaces set out in the report but also including a number of other areas. I have asked my Department, in addition to those areas, to include as part of that a number of other counties, including the county represented by the Deputy. I will return to the Deputy with a further response as to where we are at in this work.

I thank the Minister very much for her response. We understand this is an issue that is not just about the spaces, the bed and the roof over a person's head, or a family in many cases. It is more than just a woman who has to find refuge because it is often also her children. It is also about the services around them and ensuring there is both adequate space for them to recover from the trauma they have gone through and somewhere for them to move on to. There is all of that together with issues for local authorities and housing, Tusla and social services. It is an across-the-board issue.

We are also dealing with another issue. I have been on the phone already today talking about people coming from Ukraine and trying to find spaces for them because they are also in an emergency situation. We also have people in Ireland who are homeless and we have a homelessness crisis. We have all of these factors bearing down on us but we cannot, at the same time, lose sight of the issue in question because it is one that affects so many people every day.

I did not get from the Minister an indication of what progress has been made. I understand what plans have been made and that the review has been done. I also know the needs are being identified, but what concrete progress has been made to provide spaces and services?

I set out in my initial answer to highlight, as the Deputy has said, how complex the area is and that it is not just about refuge spaces. There are many other elements to it and the strategy is a very significant part of that. I appreciate the accommodation piece is very significant. I assure the Deputy and others that while we are dealing with a great crisis in Ukraine, we are certainly not taking our eyes off this. It is a very significant priority for me and will continue to be so.

The locations we have identified, from the 82 to the additional counties, have been chosen on the basis of required proximity to a refuge as well as the need for the spaces per head of population. They represent areas where there is the most significant underprovision.

We now have a high-level interdepartmental group looking at the current system for the provision of refuge spaces and identifying the changes that can be made to the system to try to deliver the additional spaces in the short term, which is the 82 plus the initial counties. It is also looking at the lifetime of the next strategy, which will be in a number of years and beyond that, which will be more like a ten-year plan, and which will bring us to the Istanbul Convention.

My intention is that the timelines for delivery of these places would be set out in those three phases. They will be outlined in the third national strategy, and the detail as to how that is going to be done will be set out in the strategy. The progress we are making will all become clear when we publish the strategy in a matter of weeks. We are doing this work through the interdepartmental group that is bringing together my Department, Tusla, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We have already engaged with a number of groups that are developing new plans themselves and we are trying to iron out where the problems are and how we can improve the overall system and process. We have had a number of meetings and it is going very well.

I appreciate what the Minister has said, that the strategy will be published in a matter of weeks, but we still do not know how to provide, for instance, for a woman who may be in crisis in County Leitrim tonight who has no service in that county or in any of the counties around her. That is the reality today. Is the State proposing to build or buy or look at existing Government-owned facilities that can be renovated or used to provide refuge spaces? What is the plan to provide those spaces and the services around them? I know the Minister has mentioned spaces that may be adjacent to existing services. That is all well and good, but there are no services at all in some counties. That is a key problem that needs to be examined.

This is a very significant problem in the larger urban areas in particular. As we know, accommodation is practically non-existent and many of the voluntary organisations that have done so much in this regard - charities, basically, that go out rattling a bucket to get a few bob to do it - depend on finding bed and breakfast accommodation. They cannot get these facilities any more because they are gone. We have another crisis that has overshadowed all of that, so that needs to be recognised.

We are looking at everything and we have an opportunity essentially to start from scratch, but taking on board the fantastic work that has already been done by so many community and voluntary groups and organisations. Working with Tusla, we have an opportunity to look at the structure and system, see where it works and where it does not, how we can improve it, where we need to step in as a Government, how we do that, and how we ensure we have it done in a planned way so that, when we are developing new refuge accommodation, we have all the ancillary supports and resources people need and the spaces are fit for purpose. Many of the refuges are in old buildings that are not necessarily built for this purpose.

We have to look at how we can improve and expand on the existing refuge accommodation but also how we also start from scratch. A great deal of work has been done in many counties and areas by councils, community groups, local representatives and many others. We will link in with those people and groups through this interdepartmental group to see how we get this process moving again. I appreciate people want to know immediately what it is going to look like in each area, especially where there is no accommodation at the moment, and that will be made clear in a matter of weeks.

What is also important is that we will have funding allocated, not just for this year but beyond that. We need to ensure that funding because it is going to take a number of years to build this accommodation. The Tusla report set out three years for the initial 56 spaces, which we are now expanding to 82, with additional counties being covered. A great deal of work is in train and I reassure the Deputy that this is a priority.

Drug Dealing

Richard O'Donoghue

Question:

72. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Justice if the latest information available to her Department confirms that drug use throughout the State is at an all-time high; the steps being taken by her Department to address the deepening crisis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16675/22]

The latest information available to the Minister's Department confirms that drug use throughout the State is at an all-time high. What steps are being taken by the Department to address the deepening crisis, and will the Minister make a statement on the matter? I am shocked to see the extent of the use of drugs in Ireland in all sectors of communities, young, old, male and female. There are no boundaries.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The Government is acutely aware of the sustained and significant damage drug dealing has on communities. Organised criminal activity, including drug dealing, represents a serious threat to community safety and to individuals.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department of Health leads on Government policy in the area of drugs, and this policy is guided by the national drugs and alcohol strategy: Reducing Harm,Supporting Recovery: A health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025.

This strategy represents a whole-of-government response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland. Implementation is led by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan, and encompasses actions for all stakeholders, including An Garda Síochána and my Department.

The Government’s strategic approach is health-led, to try to reduce demand while balancing this with reducing access to illegal drugs. It also aims to reduce the numbers criminalised for the possession of drugs for personal use, diverting these people to health and diversion treatments to address their habits and behaviours. While the strategy aims to support the most vulnerable people who use drugs, it is also matched with strong enforcement measures across government to tackle the supply of illegal drugs. I share the Garda Commissioner’s and the Deputy's concern about the prevalence of illegal drug use, and I am glad sustained action by An Garda Síochána to tackle this continued apace throughout the pandemic, resulting in increased convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs as well as volumes of firearms, ammunition and cash that inevitably accompany this very serious organised criminal activity.

The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau is having significant success in disrupting drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs by organised crime groups. I am advised by the Garda authorities that, in 2021, the bureau seized almost €64 million worth of illicit drugs and more than €5.6 million in cash, a significant increase from 2019 when more than €21 million, still a significant amount, worth of illicit drugs and in excess of €2.5 million in cash was seized. The bureau’s work is supported by divisional drugs units nationwide and by all gardaí working in local communities. The bureau also works closely and productively with international law enforcement partners, which is important. Gardaí continue to work closely with local authorities, the HSE, NGOs, community groups and other State agencies to tackle the problems of drug addiction and abuse. It is an ongoing issue and it requires sustained ongoing support from An Garda Síochána.

The Minister says in Justice Plan 2022 that she wants to make a real difference in people's lives. More gardaí on the beat would make a real difference in rural communities. Does the Minister realise the Garda station in Newcastle West closed down three years ago to move to a temporary station? The divisional headquarters takes in the greater proportion of County Limerick, but the new Garda station has not even been commenced. Askeaton Garda station is only open for administrative use. How can we be serious about a Garda division in our area and for Newcastle West, given its population and that of the surrounding district? We do not even have a Garda headquarters. It was closed down three years ago to build a state-of-the-art new Garda station that has not yet commenced. How can I take it seriously that the Minister and the Department want to help me tackle drug crime in County Limerick, if they have not even given me the divisional Garda station? It has not even been commenced three years after closing down the old Garda station.

First, in terms of Garda numbers, there has been an increase across every county in the country, and Limerick is no different. The number of members of all ranks assigned to the Limerick division is 596, which is a 7.6% increase since 2015. As well as that, the number of Garda staff has increased from 51 to 78, which is an increase of 52%. That obviously allows more gardaí to be out on the beat. Yes, it is important to have that physical building. We have a capital plan that I am working on at present with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Garda Commissioner. However, it is not just about buildings but making sure we have gardaí out on the ground. It is also about making sure we have the right policies and legislation in place.

The Deputy mentioned the justice plan. In view of organised crime, its connection with drugs and the people who are now being dragged into this, there are a number of actions in that plan. There is a plan to criminalise those who groom younger people. This is legislation I brought forward last year and we are working on it at present. We have a plan to make sure there are life sentences for those who attempt murder but are not successful. There are a number of other legislative measures and policy reforms to try to deal with the substance of this, separate to the police numbers, the equipment, the supports and the resources the Garda has as well.

Some 596 gardaí were allocated to Limerick. Of those, 92 were superintendents, detectives and sergeants. There are 7,596 uniformed gardaí in the country out of 8,539, if one removes the detectives from that. Will the Minister explain why Dublin, with a population of 1.4 million, takes 44% of the new recruits? When there is a population of more than 5 million in Ireland, that is not proportionate for the area. How does the Minister expect us to police our counties when 44% of gardaí are deployed in Dublin? Going by population, outside that 1.4 million, that leaves 3.6 million people with 56% of the gardaí deployed. Even though some of the Garda stations might cover districts of more than 40 square miles, most of the gardaí are deployed to Dublin.

The Deputy will appreciate that the deployment of gardaí and resources and how they are deployed are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. As Minister for Justice, I must make sure the resources are available and that gardaí are coming out of Templemore. As I mentioned earlier, more than 10,000 people have applied to the recent Garda recruitment campaign. That is very welcome. The more of them who come out on the beat as quickly as possible, the more they can be spread throughout the country and not just into areas of high density and high population, given the Deputy's reference to Dublin.

We can do a number of things to try to deal with not just the issue of drugs but also so much that is connected to it, such as criminality, gangs, younger people being dragged into that and the impact it has on our communities. Another way we are trying to deal with that is the community safety partnership, which is being rolled out in three pilot areas. That will come with a fund, money that is coming specifically from seizures of drugs and other things by the Garda. This funding will be available to communities to be able to implement schemes in their towns and villages to try to keep them safe. It is about the Garda working with all the State agencies and working with communities to make sure the supports and resources that suit their needs are there. What people need in Limerick might be different from what people need in Meath and different again from what people need in other counties.

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