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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 2

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Asylum Seekers

Paul Murphy

Question:

73. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Justice her plans to reform the asylum process for refugees from countries other than Ukraine; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16252/22]

There is a massive sense of solidarity among ordinary people with the Ukrainian refugees, who have had no choice but to flee their country and arrive in countries such as Ireland. There is also massive support for the idea that the State must do everything possible to support those people. The question is whether the refugee process will be reformed now so all refugees coming to Ireland receive the same sort of welcome and support, regardless of which country and war they are fleeing and of the colour of their skin.

When mass displacements of people have occurred as a result of violence and conflict in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, safety and shelter for people forced to flee has largely been provided to them by their closest neighbours. Most people want to return to their homes as soon as it is safe to do so. That is human nature. Staying nearby helps them to feel closer to that goal. It is the same for the people fleeing Ukraine who are clearly strongly patriotic people. This time, however, we in Europe are their closest neighbours. We are stepping up to support them in the same way Jordan, Lebanon and other countries have for their neighbours.

The Ukrainian people want to be as close to their homes as the war will allow. For this reason, the EU has, for the first time in its history, activated the temporary protection directive. This does not replace the international protection system. Any non-EU citizen can still apply for international protection in any EU member state, including Ireland. The application will be processed under the established international and EU asylum law. However, it provides an alternative system designed to be immediately responsive to an unprecedented volume of people in need of temporary protection on Europe’s borders, in a way that supports their wish to return to their homes as soon as it is safe to do so.

People in need of international protection are generally seeking protection from the actions of state authorities in their home country. It may never be safe for them to return home. The situation in Ukraine is different. The displacement of millions of people is driven by the actions of a foreign aggressor. However, people who have fled Ukraine, or any other country, in genuine search of safety and support will find them in Ireland. Assistance will also be provided to people who were legally residing in Ukraine without a permanent residence permit to return to their home country, if it is safe for them to do so.

I can assure the Deputy that my Department continues to work to improve the international protection process and to reduce processing times, in line with the recommendations made by the expert advisory group, led by Dr. Catherine Day, and the commitments in the Government's White Paper, insofar as possible and bearing in mind that the number of people claiming international protection has increased significantly in recent months.

I welcome the processes put in place to assist Ukrainian refugees find accommodation, get a personal public services, PPS, number, access education and healthcare and avail of banking services.

They also gain permission to work in Ireland and to access translation services. The processes and hubs that have been put in place are precisely what are necessary for people who are fleeing a war situation to help them find security and safety while they deal with the trauma of their experiences and their flight to safety.

The point is that all refugees need this type of support. Discrimination on the basis of neighbourhood, which is the same language the Tánaiste used, is completely immoral. The Minister of State is saying people fleeing from Ukraine should be treated differently from people fleeing from Libya, Syria and Afghanistan on the basis of neighbourhood. That is horrendous. These people have all sorts of difficulties. There are delays in issuing temporary residence cards for international protection. Applicants are unable to get PPS numbers. They are unable to access schools and medical cards. This is without even speaking about direct provision. How is this moral? How can the Government stand over it? Surely this needs to be the end of the old system whereby we now treat all refugees in a decent and humane way.

As I set out, an alternative system has been put in place by the European Union under the temporary protection directive. This applies to everybody leaving Ukraine. They can now come to the European Union for this protection. People can come to Ireland for protection when they need it. They can apply under the international protection system in this country. Those supports are being put in place.

An end-to-end review of the relevant international protection processes by a multidisciplinary team from the Department has been completed and published. By October at the latest, the Department will carry out a review of the progress made on reducing and improving processing times. We have also introduced a regularisation scheme, as the Deputy is very much aware. With regard to the international protection system in Ireland, significant progress has been made on implementing the report by Catherine Day and other supports. In particular with regard to Ukraine, the temporary protection directive has been instigated by the European Union.

The Minister of State is saying Ukrainian refugees who come here will not have to go into direct provision. They will be given hubs, PPS numbers and education assistance. These are all the things a refugee needs. It is great. It is brilliant. It is what we need for Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, the Government will continue to say people who come from Syria, Libya or wherever else will go into direct provision. There are more than 6,000 people in direct provision now, including almost 2,000 children. It is a system that takes away people's dignity. It makes people feel worthless. Mr. Bulelani Mfaco of MASI has said it is a system with an increasing number of complaints. That people go into direct provision because they are not from our neighbourhood is a racist policy. It is racism to say this country is near us. Ukraine is 3,000 km away. Syria is 4,000 km away. Is this really the basis on which the decision is being made? No, it is a racist decision to continue with direct provision for some while for others the Government does the right thing in terms of treating people in a humane way.

The Government and the Department have introduced a number of very important reforms in the international protection system. We were the only country to introduce a bespoke protection system to be able to bring Afghans to Ireland. We now have a regularisation scheme which is the most generous regularisation scheme of any country in Europe. The Government and the Department have not been found wanting in putting the supports in place and in implementing the report of Catherine Day as quickly as possible.

With regard to Ukrainians, the European Union implemented its temporary protection directive. This is why Ukrainians coming to Ireland or anywhere in the European Union have been given automatic rights on a temporary basis. When the time comes, and the war of aggression and murder by Putin comes to an end, those Ukrainians will want to, and will be able to, go home to rebuild their country.

Domestic Violence

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

74. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Justice the actions she will take to support the establishment of a women's refuge in County Carlow; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16234/22]

I will speak on this question on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Murnane O'Connor. The question relates to support for the establishment of a women's refuge in Carlow. Carlow's refuge was deemed a priority by Tusla in its emergency accommodation review in February. The review supports an inter-agency approach to the planning and delivery of accommodation for victims of domestic violence. The question relates to what has been done by the Department to provide refuges in the counties that do not have a refuge at present. When will we see results from the work?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am very much aware that Deputy Murnane O'Connor is very passionate about making sure her county and the community she works with has a refuge and accommodation for women and their families who are fleeing violence and instances of domestic abuse. A number of streams of work are under way at present. As I have outlined previously, we are working to publish in the coming weeks the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. While there is a whole-of-government approach, a key element will be the provision of domestic violence refuge accommodation.

Specifically on this issue, we are building on the recently published Tusla report the Deputy mentioned. An agreement was reached between the Department and the Department with responsibility for children that the delivery and development of services and refuge accommodation would move under the aegis of the Department of Justice. We will have responsibility for the overall strategy and the delivery of policy and refuge accommodation. In recent weeks, since that report was published, there has been engagement with the community and voluntary sector.

We have established an interdepartmental high-level group, as the Deputy has mentioned. It is bringing together the Department of Justice, the Department with responsibility for children, Tusla, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department with responsibility for housing. We are looking at the existing structure, how refuge accommodation is delivered, the type of funding available, where the challenges are and how we can improve the structure and system. As part of this I anticipate that in the coming weeks the interdepartmental group will engage not only on the 56 spaces and areas identified in the Tusla review but also on an increase to 82 spaces with two additional counties.

Our long-term vision as well as this specific focus in the short term will be set out clearly in the coming weeks when we publish the action plan and the third national strategy. All of this needs to be taken together. While it is about refuge accommodation and providing initial support, it is also about all of the other elements, including education and making sure there is a whole-of-society response. Every Department has a role to play. The response from every Department in this regard has been very good to date. I anticipate we will have a significant number of actions in the strategy that will relate not only to the justice sector but also to many other areas.

I welcome the reply of the Minister. Many issues need to be addressed. Some of them are easier than others. Domestic violence support services and places of refuge must be easily accessible. At present there is no phone line or office for help during weekends and after hours. As the Minister knows, domestic violence does not only happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Often it happens at other times of the day and night. In many cases it happens at weekends and at night. Is there a plan to establish an on-call service and wrap-around services such as those of the local authority when emergency accommodation is full? In Carlow there are two family emergency units. Due to Covid, only one is operational. It is nearly always full. There is nowhere for women fleeing violence. They often have to return to the same situation. What immediate action will be taken in Carlow to deal with these massive gaps in the services?

Initially we need to engage with the groups working on the ground in Carlow that are ready to go with progressing and opening up a new refuge and new accommodation. I said a decision had been taken to bring services to the Department. A decision was subsequently taken to establish an agency that will be responsible for the delivery of services. This agency will work very closely with the community and voluntary sector, many bodies in which are already delivering services on the ground. The work being done by the interdepartmental and inter-agency group will transfer to the agency. It will take time to establish it as we will have to put it on a statutory footing.

The agency will be responsible for the delivery of service, making sure that the required actions set out in the Tusla review are taken and addressing the gaps that exist, including in Deputy Murnane O'Connor's county. It will also be responsible for ensuring that delivery of service is uniform so that, no matter where they are in the county, people seeking help will get it and people seeking accommodation will have it made available to them, along with the ancillary supports people need. It is not just about putting a roof over people's heads but about psychological support, supporting their children and helping them move on. The agency will play a key role in that regard.

I thank the Minister. As she will be aware and has recognised, Deputy Murnane O'Connor has been deeply involved in bringing stakeholders together and has engaged with such stakeholders, including victims and the local authority. However, they have not yet received any contact from the Department. A site has been identified for refurbishment and another has been identified for purchase. Again, there has been very little progress even in assessing the sites. What is going to happen on that? Does the Minister agree that it is often important to consider child protection measures once a family arrives in accommodation? Proper facilities are absolutely vital to make sure that people are starting again rather than just getting a hostel bed. Many people seeking refuge also need help finding a job, securing childcare and so on. Will the wraparound services be provided?

I reassure Deputy Ó Cuív and Deputy Murnane O'Connor that there will be engagement from the interdepartmental group soon. It is working to identify how we can improve the overall process. There will then be engagement with county councils and those already working on the ground. It is really important that Tusla remain deeply involved in this process. While the delivery of service is moving from Tusla to this new agency, Tusla will still have a very significant role and part to play. That is why it is represented on the inter-agency group. As Deputy Ó Cuív has mentioned, many women who are fleeing - and it is mainly women - come with children and support must be provided for those children. The issue of the wraparound supports and services must also be addressed. There is a body of work to be done. It is not just about looking at the physical built accommodation, the roof over people's heads. We must also consider how these people can actually get on with their lives, move on and access other accommodation, and what supports their children might need because this is obviously a very traumatic experience for children. In the third national strategy, there is a greater focus on children than there has ever been before. This is an acknowledgment that this issue has huge implications for children. I thank the Deputy for his questions.

Crime Prevention

Seán Haughey

Question:

75. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Justice the extent to which car thefts are a growing problem; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16087/22]

Táim ag tógáil na ceiste seo ar son an Teachta Haughey. To what extent is car theft a growing problem right across the country and particularly in my constituency on the north side of Cork city?

I thank the Deputy, who consistently raises issues with regard to the protection and safety of his constituency of Cork North-Central. The budget provided by Government to the Garda Commissioner has increased to unprecedented levels with more than €2 billion allocated this year, including funding for the recruitment of up to 800 additional Garda trainees and up to 400 Garda staff. This is a significant investment and demonstrates the Government's commitment to increasing the Garda workforce to enable the organisation to keep our communities safe. To this end, the Deputy will be aware that a Garda recruitment campaign closed earlier this month and I am delighted to note that there was strong interest with over 10,000 applications received.

As the Deputy may be aware, the Central Statistics Office publishes reported crime figures under reservation on a quarterly basis. These figures include the category of theft or taking of a vehicle and related offences and indicate that the lowest annual volumes of car theft in over a decade were reported nationwide during 2020 and 2021. I am informed by the Garda authorities that, following the lifting of pandemic restrictions this year, there has been a return to a more normal level of reported offences. The figures to date are akin to those from 2019 in many areas.

The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the organisation's approaches to preventing and investigating criminal activity. I am advised that local Garda management continues to monitor trends in crime, including incidents of unauthorised taking of vehicles, across divisions. I understand that, when specific crime trends or patterns are identified, local management considers additional measures outside of normal policing responses including location-specific patrols, intelligence-led operations and searches and arrests to combat known individuals involved in such crimes. As the Deputy will appreciate, these measures are best implemented on a local basis and this is an operational decision for the Garda.

I am also advised that there is ongoing co-operation between detective and uniformed units to combat the recent escalation in crimes and that both high visibility and covert patrols are proactively being conducted. Furthermore, the Garda Síochána analysis service assists with data analysis to monitor crime trends.

It needs to be acknowledged that the Garda Commissioner does have a budget of more than €2 billion at his disposal now. In addition to that, the 1,200 new trainees and staff members are most welcome and will obviously help to battle crime generally right across the country. On the specific question of car theft, approximately 10,000 vehicles are either stolen or broken into a year. The equivalent estimated figure in the UK is approximately 110,000. Cars being broken into is therefore quite a prevalent problem.

In his response, the Minister of State indicated that there had been a lull during the period of the Covid pandemic and that the figures are now returning to their pre-pandemic levels. It is unfortunate that, despite all of the investment and the record budget of more than €2 billion, we are now returning to those figures. I welcome Operation Joyrider and the "Park Smart" campaign with regard to securing vehicles but I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would give me access to the numbers.

I can tell the Deputy that there was a significant drop in the number of reported incidents of car theft nationally from 2015 to 2016 with the number of reported offences dropping by 29%. Numbers then remained quite stable until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the number of reported cases dropped by a further 21% in 2020 compared with the 2019 figure. I am informed by the Garda authorities that the number of car thefts in many areas to date in 2022 has reflected the level seen in 2019. However, it is important to note that the levels seen in these years immediately prior to the pandemic were themselves significantly lower than those seen as recently as 2015. The number of instances of the theft or taking of a vehicle or related offences in 2019 was 6,450. By 2017, this figure had dropped to 4,594. In 2018 and 2019, the figures were slightly over the 4,700 mark but the figure dropped considerably in 2020 during the pandemic when it was a little easier to identify people who were out and about and engaged in nefarious carry-on.

Gabhaim buíochas arís leis an Aire Stáit. The real motivation behind putting down this question was not just to get a picture of the number of vehicles stolen because the vast majority, something like 80%, of stolen vehicles are recovered within 48 hours. The motivation was also to get a picture of the number of vehicles that are just broken into or from which people's possessions are stolen. Whether the cars in question are parked overnight or outside of churches or cemeteries or whatever the case may be, a litany of offences are occurring right across the country. I know Deputy Haughey initially tabled this question but I again ask whether the Minister of State could give me figures specific to the Cork city division later or whenever he gets an opportunity. I would appreciate that. I would also appreciate it if any such figures including details of the number of catalytic convertors stolen from vehicles. Is it the Minister of State's intention to develop any national co-ordinated plan or strategy to combat this scourge?

I thank the Deputy very much. I will certainly get figures on the number of car thefts in north Cork city for the Deputy. With regard to tackling the issue of the theft of catalytic convertors, we are very conscious of the impact such thefts from car owners have. It seems to be a particularly prevalent issue for the owners of specific types of hybrid vehicles. Perhaps such cars are a little bit vulnerable to having their catalytic convertors stolen. Such thefts are, of course, related to the current high market price of the metal palladium. I assure the Deputy that a very robust and co-ordinated approach is taken in addressing all types of theft in this country and particularly the theft of vehicles. I will get those specific figures for the Deputy.

Closed-Circuit Television Systems

Joe Carey

Question:

76. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Justice if she will prioritise the enactment of legislation around CCTV schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16063/22]

Will the Minister for Justice prioritise the enactment of legislation on CCTV schemes and make a statement on the matter?

I tabled this question in the absence of legislation to enable local authorities to erect CCTV cameras as a tool to combat illegal dumping. This is an issue that has been raised with me on numerous occasions by councillors and local authority officials in Clare. It needs to be resolved.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I am acutely conscious that the roll-out of community CCTV schemes across the country has benefited many communities, helping people to feel safer in their local areas. It ensures people are safe and supports the Garda in its work. It also supports local authorities, particularly in trying to address illegal dumping. A number of Bills are being progressed to try to ensure we have the most robust programmes in place. We have encouraged local authorities to establish these schemes and to work closely with the Garda.

The Garda Síochána (digital recording) Bill updates the technology including body-worn cameras, automatic number plate recognition and CCTV. I anticipate this legislation will be enacted by the Oireachtas this year. As part of the proposed Bill, it is intended to repeal section 38 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and to replace it with new CCTV provisions. This will deliver on the programme for Government commitment to enhance the use of CCTV to help prevent crime and prosecute those involved in criminal activity.

I have secured Government agreement for the general scheme of the Garda Síochána (digital recording) Bill. The general scheme was sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting, which is continuing. I hope to enact this legislation as a priority later this year.

As the Deputy may be aware, a number of issues have arisen relating to GDPR, legislation which was introduced at a European level and which supersedes the 2005 Act. It is important to have new legislation to iron out any of the issues that have arisen between local authorities and the Garda.

The issue relating to illegal dumping is covered in a second Bill, the Circular Economy Bill, which is being progressed by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and which was published last Friday. This legislation will support local authorities to put in place CCTV schemes specifically targeting those involved in illegal dumping.

I welcome the progress that has been made on the legislation that has been drafted. I look forward to that legislation coming through the House. It is incredible that local authorities cannot put up cameras and that the footage they secure cannot be used to successfully bring these people to justice. This issue was communicated to local authorities by the Data Protection Commissioner, which was unwelcome. In some areas, local authorities were forced to take down cameras. This is ridiculous and I look forward to legislation being enacted. When does the Minister expect this legislation to be enacted?

I hope my legislation will be enacted this year. That will ensure that the GDPR issues are addressed. It will set out in a clearer way the role An Garda Síochána and the local authorities have in community CCTV. In some areas there has been a reluctance to take on these schemes because of the uncertainty in the local authorities and An Garda Síochána. The Circular Economy Bill was published last Friday and it may take a little longer to move through the Houses. We need to ensure we get the right balance. While CCTV has a really important role to play in supporting the Garda in its role in helping to identify and deter criminals, it is important to ensure that we keep our communities not just safe but also clean. Obviously, illegal dumping in towns and villages as well as in our rural communities is very detrimental environmentally, particularly to various species of animal wildlife and it also impacts our rivers. There are a number of benefits to community CCTV and that is why these Bills are being progressed as a matter of priority.

Gangland Crime

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

77. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Justice if she will provide a detailed update on the progress made on implementing the recommendations of the scoping report into community safety and well-being in Drogheda; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16068/22]

Following the appalling murder of Keane Mulready-Woods in Drogheda in January 2020, the Government responded immediately with additional 30 gardaí for Drogheda. Under Chief Superintendent Christy Mangan, enormous progress has been made in bringing people to justice. At the same time, a report was commissioned to improve community well-being through action and investment in areas of poverty and particularly where drug abuse is prevalent in our town. I ask the Minister to give an update on the 73 recommendations contained in that report.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I acknowledge his contribution and commitment to the implementation of this strategy. I also acknowledge the community in Drogheda. As the Deputy will be aware, the implementation of the recommendations of the report are key actions in my Department's justice plan, which was published this week.

I am grateful to the former director of the Probation Service, Mr. Vivian Geiran, who made over 70 recommendations in his scoping report on short- and long-term responses to challenges the community in Drogheda faces. While some issues have been ongoing for some time, this obviously came to a head with the murder of Keane Mulready-Woods. These include measures relating to crime prevention, youth services, drug addiction, education, infrastructure, community development and much more. This requires a whole-of-society response, involving Government, State agencies and the local community. The recommendations highlight the need for improved inter-agency co-operation in the administration and delivery of State services in Drogheda, as well as the need to provide additional resources and services in certain areas.

In July of last year, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who was standing in as Minister for Justice, obtained Government approval for an implementation plan for the report. The Government also committed to a special focus on Drogheda, including Departments and State agencies prioritising necessary funding applications for projects related to the Drogheda implementation plan.

There have already been some very positive actions arising from the plan. The Department of Education has provided supports to the three schools identified in the report and my Department has provided further funding to the Red Door Project to ensure the continued provision of its important services. Funding has also been committed to the Moneymore consortium to support its planning work for the proposed development of a community hub facility and to the Moneymore childcare centre to ensure the continuation of the essential meal service it provides to children. We have also secured a further €250,000 in dormant accounts funding for continued implementation of targeted crime prevention and harm reduction measures in Drogheda in 2022.

The proactive focus and innovative listening approach of the Minister and the Department of Justice are very welcome in Drogheda. She has made personal visits to meet community activists and officials from different State bodies and local government. There is credibility in the Government's response, which is working. Michael Keogh, the chairman of the implementation board, Martin O'Brien of the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board and Chief Superintendent Christy Mangan are doing fantastic work.

An issue has arisen with one of the recommendations. The Garda Commissioner has agreed to review the Garda subdistrict boundary line between Drogheda and Laytown. I acknowledge that is a reserved function of the Garda Commissioner. Would it be possible to get an update from him on the progress on that to date?

I also acknowledge the people who are working, not just those on the board but also the community members. If we are to make the progress we need, it is important that everybody comes together and works together, as has happened to date. I thank everyone for their co-operation and their collaborative approach.

Resourcing is one element. The Deputy has rightly mentioned the possible boundary change. I am aware that the Garda Commissioner has engaged with the Deputy and indicated that this is the direction he might like to take. However, it needs to be confirmed and agreed. I am sure that will happen in due course. I will, of course, ask the Garda Commissioner to update the Deputy and his colleagues as quickly as possible as soon as that decision is fully agreed.

While we have implemented a number of the recommendations, we need to continue in the same vein. Obviously, it is not just about the Department of Justice, the Garda Commissioner and his team. As the Deputy mentioned we have seen a significant increase in the Garda presence in the Louth district in recent years.

However, this is about education, health, community and the various different infrastructural projects. We are working extremely hard with the Departments to make sure that issues which have arisen can be resolved. Obviously, the resources that are needed can be provided.

I appreciate that it is not the Minister's decision. As I understand it, the Garda Commissioner has committed to that review and, as the Minister said, we will get a report from him on it.

I want to raise two other two issues. First, in regard to schools, I welcome the support of the Department of Justice in progressing the issue. There was a recommendation and a belief that three schools – St. Brigid's, St. Patrick's and St. Joseph’s national schools - would be moved from DEIS band 2 to DEIS band 1 but that is under appeal. I appreciate that this does not come under the remit of the Minister for Justice but I would appreciate any help she can give on that. She has made progress on it today in terms of an email from her office to help on that.

The second issue relates to the HSE, which carried out a review of addiction services in Louth and Meath that was finished in 2020. Guess what? It will not give me a copy of the review and will not publish it. When I make a freedom of information request, what happens? It will not even answer. The HSE will not answer a freedom of information request in respect of a review of addiction services in Louth and Meath. That is disgraceful and unacceptable. It is not the Minister's responsibility, but it is my job to make sure the review is published. I have to raise the matter here in the Dáil. What is happening is embarrassing, particularly in view of the context of the drug problem in the Louth and Meath area.

As the Deputy said, the two issues he raised relate to various other Departments. At the same time, my Department has taken responsibility for leading in the response to and the implementation of this report. We are engaging on a regular basis with the Departments of Education and Health and the HSE, to make sure that we can follow through and implement the recommendations that are set out.

In acknowledgement of the specific recommendation around the DEIS status of the schools, where further progress and work needs to happen and engagement needs to happen with the Department of Education, the fact that additional supports have been provided in the interim is an acknowledgement that these resources are needed. We will continue to engage with the Department of Education on that specific recommendation.

On health, what is really important is that we engage with the Department of Health and the HSE, and that we specifically look at the recommendations that fall under their remit, and specifically look at the needs, the requirements and the wants in this space, and then work collaboratively to make sure we can implement them as quickly as possible.

Office of Public Works

Steven Matthews

Question:

78. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Justice if her attention has been drawn to the need to clean and carry out minor repairs to the old courthouse façade in Wicklow town (details supplied); her views on whether this work can be prioritised in the coming months to coincide with the large investment in the town square; and her views on the proposed return of court services to this building. [16082/22]

I want to ask about Wicklow town courthouse, which is currently out of use. It really does need attention and to have remedial work done to it. It is detracting from the town centre, where there has been a lot of investment. Is the Minister of State aware of the work that is needed there and can he update us on what the long-term plans are for the currently unused Wicklow town courthouse?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question in regard to the Wicklow courthouse. The National Development Plan 2021-2030, which was approved and published by the Government in October 2021, commits to the provision of further new or refurbished courthouses in cities and county towns where facilities remain substandard, including in Wicklow town. While the management of the courts, including the provision of accommodation for court sittings, is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in the exercise of its functions under the Courts Service Act 1998, I sought an update on this matter and the Courts Service has provided me with the following.

The historic courthouse in Wicklow town has been closed for a number of years for health and safety reasons due to the poor state of repair of the annex and interior. Court sittings and the court office have transferred to Bray. The Courts Service has acquired additional space adjacent to the courthouse which could facilitate the refurbishment and extension of the building to provide a county town standard courthouse. The timing of the delivery will depend on the availability of funding over the remainder of the period of the national development plan.

I understand that Wicklow County Council has asked if the courthouse could be used for some other purpose while awaiting refurbishment. The Courts Service advises me that this is, unfortunately, not feasible as it would take considerable investment to make the building safe to use for any purpose. The Courts Service has, however, agreed to allow the council to use the adjacent vacated library building, which the Courts Service owns, for community use until such time as the refurbishment project commences. In addition, the Courts Service informs me that a meeting was held with the council on 26 January at which it was agreed that the Courts Service would request the OPW to assess the building and outline the costs involved in preserving its external and aesthetic appearance. Further to this, the Courts Service has requested the OPW to carry out improvement works, such as painting the railings and doors, and other general maintenance, such as weeding. The timing of this is dependent on the OPW’s capacity in the locality. The Courts Service informs me that it is endeavouring to have these works carried out as soon as possible.

That is quite positive news and I am glad to hear it. I do not know if the Minister or the Minister of State are familiar with Wicklow town but there is a beautiful market square which has seen significant investment under the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration scheme. The Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Darragh O'Brien, were there during last summer. There is just this one southern aspect of the square which really lets it down and, unfortunately, that is the courthouse. We had a look at it and I met with the Wicklow town team. I am not looking for the courthouse to be used for an alternative purpose, although there would be plenty of community options there. I am not looking for significant refurbishment works to be done on the inside. It is a simple job just to try to clean it up, paint it and maybe give it a little uplighting. It is that fourth side of the square that is really letting it down. Should I take this up with the OPW to try to ensure that funding and works are carried out in a timely manner?

I again thank the Deputy for his question. I am familiar with Wicklow town, a very beautiful town, so I understand his concern when there is that one building standing out that needs a little bit of tender care to bring it up to at least looking the part. The Deputy should raise the matter with the OPW but he can also continue to bring it up with ourselves and we can bring it to the attention of the Courts Service. It is a matter for the Courts Service, working with the OPW, to get those improvement works carried out as soon as possible. As I said in the context of painting the railings and doors and other general maintenance, such as weeding, this is dependent on the OPW. In the first instance, the Deputy should contact the OPW. If he has any further concerns, he can raise them with us.

I thank the Minister of State. I will take that up with the OPW. This issue is incredibly important, in particular when we have dereliction and vacant buildings in our towns. To be fair, the Government has produced some really good policy documents in Our Rural Future and Town Centre First, and in many of the aspects of Housing for All. When it is the State that is the owner of the building, I am of the view that we have an extra responsibility to ensure it does not detract visually from the town and that it does not impact visually in such a way as to damage the economic benefits to the town. Going on what the Minister of State has said, and I welcome his statement, I will engage further with the OPW. I look forward to seeing that work carried out in a timely manner.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. Coming from a historic town myself, I know the importance of these public buildings and having them kept in a presentable manner. We are very proud of our historical towns and, as the Deputy has said, a lot of great work has been carried out with funding from this Government in terms of getting those towns looking as well as possible. In some ways, that means that a couple of buildings in our historic towns that are not up to scratch stand out even more. I ask the Deputy to raise the matter with the OPW. There seem to be positive indications from there.

An Garda Síochána

Joe Carey

Question:

79. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Justice when it is anticipated that the funding from the new community safety fund will be allocated; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16064/22]

I ask the Minister when it is anticipated that the funding from the new community safety fund will be allocated and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I thank Deputy Carey for raising this issue. As he is aware, budget 2022 provides for the establishment of the new community safety innovation fund, which will enable local communities to seek funding for innovative projects which will improve community safety in their areas. Community safety is about people being safe but also, as I have mentioned a number of times this evening, it is about feeling safe within their communities. This goes beyond traditional, high-visibility policing. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland report recognised that preventing crime and harm and making our communities safer does not rest with An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice alone, but requires a whole-of-government approach.

The new fund will reflect the success of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, and other agencies by using money seized from the proceeds of crime to support investment in community safety projects. The fund, which is expected to grow in the coming years, will have an initial outlay of €2 million. The fund will be open to bodies involved in community safety and will support them in addressing local needs and opportunities for innovation not provided for in other funds managed by Departments and different agencies.

Such a fund, I hope, will ensure that the best proposals to improve community safety get the funding they need and will encourage the development of innovative ways in which to improve community safety by those people who understand local community safety needs best. Additionally, it will allow best practice initiatives on community safety to be shared as new proposals get developed.

Justice Plan 2022 commits to opening a call for funding proposals. This call will issue shortly, seeking applications for community safety projects and similar initiatives from bodies involved in community safety, such as the new local community safety partnership pilots, of which three are in place in north inner-city Dublin, Waterford and Longford. We also have the Drogheda implementation board and similar entities nationwide.

Applications will be assessed against stated criteria outlined in the call for proposals to ensure funding is allocated to encourage the development of innovative ways in which to improve community safety from those people who understand local community safety needs best. The overall criteria and how this will be applied has been agreed so I hope we will be able to open the call in a matter of weeks and ask communities to seek funding.

I congratulate the Minister on her initiative to set up the fund. It is important that communities can engage in it and make applications. I know three pilots have been set up in Longford, Waterford and north inner-city Dublin. Local community safety partnerships are to be set up throughout Ireland on the back of the pilot schemes. Will the Minister explain the pathway for communities to come forward and make applications? Is it limited to the partnership committees that are to be set up? Will the Minister give clarity in that regard?

I congratulate the Garda in Clare and Chief Superintendent Sean Colleran for their work, particularly over the weekend when €700,000 worth of drugs were found and seized in Ardnacrusha. I look forward to cash and other assets of those criminals being brought into this fund.

I join the Deputy in thanking members of the Garda in Clare and other counties for the work they do in seizing these types of criminal assets from criminal gangs. It has been raised time and time again by the Deputy and many of our colleagues that it would be important to communities to see the assets going directly back into communities which are negatively impacted by these gangs. The fund will be available to all communities.

I anticipate and hope in coming years when we go beyond the three pilots and every county and area has a community safety partnership that it is not just about the structures, but about bringing together the Garda, local communities, education, Tusla and local services. When they set out a plan and identify what they want for their area, I anticipate there will be a fund to tap into to develop new programmes. The fund is not meant to replace existing streams but to identify new ways to support communities. The fund is open to everybody for now and I anticipate in years to come each community partnership will be able to apply directly to the fund.

Criminal gangs and their activities in drugs and organised crime are a blight on society and are having an impact throughout Ireland around the larger cities and spilling over into rural Ireland. I welcome the establishment of this fund. The Minister is right that communities need to see this money spent in their communities in order that they can feel safe. When will the pilot projects conclude? When does the Minister envisage that the partnerships will be established in County Clare and other counties?

The intention is that the pilots will run for two years. That is to allow the communities to come together to set up community safety partnerships, to put a plan in place and embed that plan. That is well under way.

I visited Longford recently, where they are on target to have a plan in place. They have engaged with members of the community, from Comhairle na nÓg to the local women's support network to education, schools and everybody else.

A huge amount of work is under way to ensure the three pilots are up and running, have their plans in place and that there is time to see the plans implemented and bedded in. Once the pilots are finished, we hope to expand the initiative into all other counties. While it might take time for the pilots to run their course, it is important in relation to this fund that all communities have opportunities to access this type of money and to come up with or identify innovative ways to keep their community safe prior to the community safety partnerships being progressed.

An Garda Síochána

Dara Calleary

Question:

80. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice the way that policing in rural areas is being strengthened; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16201/22]

Tá mé ag iarraidh a fháil amach cad é plean an Rialtais le haghaidh cúrsaí póilíneachta faoin tuath. I want to discuss rural policing plans as we move out of the pandemic towards much more activity in areas that have not seen such for two years. I also want to address what seems a theme of the evening, namely, the fears in rural communities around policing at this stage.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important matter of policing in rural areas and how it is being strengthened. The Government is committed to ensuring that there is strong, visible community policing across rural and urban Ireland. Under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána, including Garda operations aimed at preventing and detecting crime. As Minister of State, I have no direct role in these matters.

This year’s winter phase of Operation Thor was launched by the Garda in October 2021 and is designed to tackle burglaries and associated criminal activities, which often increase in the darker winter months, through targeted enforcement and crime prevention activity and information. This annual focus from Operation Thor has proved highly successful in tackling property-related crime since its inception in November 2015. In 2015, there were in excess of 18,800 residential burglaries reported. By contrast, in 2021 there were just over 6,000 residential burglaries reported, a reduction of over 66% or approximately 13,000 fewer burglaries. While the Covid-19 pandemic was clearly a factor in the reduction, with people more likely to be present in their homes throughout the day, there has been a marked and consistent downward trend in such offences since the introduction of this Garda focus through Operation Thor.

The budget provided by Government to the Garda Commissioner continues to increase to unprecedented levels, with an allocation of more than €2 billion for 2022, including funding for recruitment of up to 800 additional Garda trainees and up to 400 Garda staff. I am glad to confirm that over 10,000 applications have been received, which shows a commitment to public service and a belief in An Garda Síochána.

In addition to new recruits, the roll-out of the new Garda operating model will support the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing across the country. My Department has for many years provided funding for the employment and associated costs of the national community alert programme, including the employment of regional development officers. In 2021, my Department committed in the region of €150,000 to local communities for the text alert scheme administered by Muintir na Tíre.

I think this might be the tenth year of Operation Thor. Can the Minister of State give an indication of the changes made to the operational detail of Operation Thor over that period to account for new trends?

Of the new gardaí, how many are being positioned in rural counties or rural areas? I acknowledge the operation of An Garda Síochána is a matter for the Commissioner but I am concerned by the new operational model which, for instance, combines Longford, Roscommon and my native county of Mayo into one unit in terms of local division management. That, going from Blacksod to Mullingar, is a huge area. It has taken some management out of it. Will the Minister of State give assurances that the model will not result in a reduction in policing?

I acknowledge the huge work put in by An Garda Síochána in the Tom Niland case, which is before the courts. Massive effort was put in by gardaí, led by Superintendent Mandy Gaynor. Even though it was in Sligo, it was just down the road from my area and highlighted the concerns in rural areas about the need for greater visibility of enforcement on the ground. Will the Minister of State respond to that?

In relation to the new model for An Garda Síochána, all aspects of its implementation are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. The Mayo division was selected by the Garda authorities as one of the four pilot divisions for the new operating model. The new model is designed to provide four functional areas in each division, namely, business services, performance assurance, community engagement and crime.

Castlebar Garda station is the location for the business service functional area, which provides business support for Mayo, Roscommon and Longford. To date, following the pilot, 17 of the 19 divisions have now commenced a phased implementation of business services. In 2022, the implementation of the business service functional area will continue across the divisions and the phased implementation of the performance assurance functional area will commence in divisions that have fully implemented the business services functional area.

On the number of gardaí being assigned to the Mayo division, again the Garda Commissioner is solely responsible for the distribution of members of An Garda Síochána throughout the State and remains independent in that role under legislation.

Community engagement is key and it must be more than just phrases on a ministerial brief. I acknowledge Joe Doherty, based in Ballina, who has just retired as a superintendent in the Mayo division. Community engagement was essential to his form of policing. I thank him for his service. A prior discussion focused on the community safety partnerships. I am concerned. I am a fan of the joint policing committees. They work and involve rural communities, through their local elected representatives, be they councillors or Members of the Oireachtas, having a say about policing issues in their areas. It is about the connection. I need assurance that that connection will not be lost in these new community safety partnerships. The joint policing committees, especially in large counties such as mine, have worked well. They worked well too when they were under the town council structure, keeping an eye on the towns. I am concerned that the move to these new community safety partnerships will take away another part of the supports for rural communities in respect of their day-to-day policing.

Regarding the new community safety partnerships, I think they will prove to be the complete opposite and will greatly strengthen the role in this regard in rural communities. They will do so by strengthening the pace of engagement with An Garda Síochána, the various representative organisations and the local authorities to ensure that there is not just accountability and transparency, but also an effectiveness in respect of getting results on the ground and the changes required.

Regarding An Garda Síochána and the Garda Commissioner being independent, it is not simply a phrase; it is the law. Neither the Department of Justice nor Ministers can interfere with how the Garda Commissioner engages in that level of operation and in the distribution of An Garda Síochána resources, as he sees the need for that to be done. I assure the Deputy that the steps being taken in respect of the record funding for An Garda Síochána, the increase in the number of gardaí that will now be trained and the increase in the number of Garda civilian staff, which will release gardaí from administrative duties and get them back to front-line work, will help to strengthen the role of An Garda Síochána and make people safer in urban and rural areas.

Closed-Circuit Television Systems

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

81. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Justice the up-to-date position on community CCTV for populated centres in Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16228/22]

Having a CCTV system operating in so many communities is giving great peace of mind to people and providing great comfort, where it is working well, such as in Macroom. It is not available in every community, however. It is not in Ballincollig or Millstreet, for example. Questions have arisen concerning data protection in respect of CCTV systems as well. I wish to try to get a handle on how these data protection questions are going to be addressed to allow CCTV systems to become available to other communities wishing to install the technology. Residents in Lisheen Fields in Ballincollig, for example, recently captured footage of attempted break-ins and car thefts on the cameras on their houses and cars. There is a keen appetite to have the security of such a CCTV system installed in many other areas.

I agree with the Deputy. CCTV systems are very important in local communities. The legislation to which the Deputy referred, the general scheme of the Garda Síochána (digital recording) Bill 2021, has been approved by the Government and was published in April 2021. We are ensuring that it will be brought before the Houses this term and the aim is to complete the Bill's passage through the Oireachtas later this year. It will address many of the GDPR issues which have arisen since the introduction of legislation through the EU in recent years.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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