I thank the Chairman and the committee for accommodating me with a later start time than usual. I was keen to fulfil an invitation to launch the national crime victims helpline to raise awareness of the important statutory right that victims have under the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017. I was pleased to convey the good wishes of the committee to those present.
I welcome this opportunity to meet the committee on this extensive list of topics. The breadth of matters the committee has indicated it wishes to discuss reflects the wide range of matters that come under the ambit of the Minister for Justice and Equality and the many different issues on which I and my officials are working. Members will be familiar with many of these as we have discussed them previously. In order to make full use of the reduced time available to us I will not address all the matters referred to in the letter of invitation. I will, however, briefly provide some context for some of the matters we are about to discuss.
One of the matters to which the Chairman referred is one which he has pursued in particular, namely, the Crowley report into the tragic and needless death of Aidan McAnespie. I know the Chairman has a longstanding interest in the matter and that he is very familiar with the McAnespie family. I would be happy to update the committee on the issues surrounding the family's desire to have the Crowley report published in full. As members are aware, this matter is not straightforward.
The committee has indicated a wish to discuss Garda oversight and accountability. Garda reform, including in respect of the architecture and operation of oversight, has been a major focus of this Government. An element already delivered in this regard is the Policing Authority. It is a sign of the success of the authority that in its short time in existence it has, as intended, already become a central part of the policing landscape. Its establishment is one of the most significant policing reforms delivered since the foundation of the State. As in all democratic countries, it provides independent oversight of policing. Given that its mission is to drive excellent policing, I welcome its publication of the policing priorities and policing plan for 2018, as well as its role in the development of the new code of ethics that is being firmly embedded within An Garda Síochána.
The committee wishes to discuss homicide statistics. This issue highlights some of the areas where improvements are required in the Garda organisation, including data management. The Policing Authority is playing an important role in scrutinising how An Garda Síochána resolves these issues and records data and this scrutiny is necessary and welcome.
We also have the Commission on the Future of Policing, which is conducting a root and branch review of policing in Ireland. I look forward to receiving an extensive report in September which I expect will map out an ambitious future for An Garda Síochána for the coming decades. The commission’s remit is to examine all aspects of policing in Ireland, including the full range of bodies that have a role in providing oversight and accountability for Garda activities, namely, the Policing Authority, the Garda Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, my Department and the Government.
It is in that context and in the context of the opportunity that will present for reshaping and enhancing the oversight organisations that we have to look at proposals for new powers and changed roles in the future.
On penal policy, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the recommendations and conclusions of the committee's report on penal policy and sentencing. As the committee is aware through its long-standing interest in this subject and the extensive consultation it has undertaken on this and previous reports, a large amount of progressive reform and modernisation of the prison system has taken place in recent years. Many of the committee's recommendations are linked with and complementary to the current reform programme of penal policy which is being implemented, as set out in the report of the penal policy review group, PPRG. The report emphasises rehabilitation, reduced reliance on imprisonment as a sanction and an increased focus on alternatives. The implementation and oversight group for the penal policy review group report, under the chairmanship of Dr. Mary Rogan, has presented five reports to me, all of which have been published on the Department's website. The implementation of the PPRG recommendations constitutes the broad reform programme of penal policy currently being undertaken. The committee's report is comprehensive, detailed and has many implications for the services involved. It will take some time to examine the report in detail to ascertain how we might progress from here. I am happy to continue engagement with the committee. I am very open to discussing these recommendations in more detail and I look forward to doing so.
The final issue in the committee's letter that I intend briefly addressing is the matter of Ireland’s participation in the recast EU reception conditions directive, which pertains to the procedures to allow asylum seekers to work. The Government responded to last year's Supreme Court judgment by deciding to opt in to the recast directive, which will result in a wide range of reforms in the protection system. This opt-in will allow for effective labour market access for protection applicants who have not received a first instance decision within a designated period. I am confident the decision to opt into the directive is a positive development for the entire protection system, including applicants, their families and communities while they await a final decision on their application.
In addition to labour market access, the directive also includes important provisions relating to children's rights, health, education and material reception conditions for applicants, which include housing, food, clothing and a daily expenses allowance. In the period between the Supreme Court ruling coming into effect and the application of the directive, I introduced a temporary scheme allowing access to self-employment for protection applicants, and a number of people have successfully taken advantage of the scheme. In the intervening months, protection applicants have been treated in the same way as other third country nationals and have been allowed to apply for a work permit, as administered by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The full application of the directive will allow for much fuller access to the labour market. It is unfortunate that there has been misinformation which has sought to present the interim arrangements as permanent.
I thank the committee for engaging in this process and I look forward, over the next weeks, to being in a position to announce the consequences of the application of the opt-in in Ireland. There has been close engagement with the European Commission over recent months with regard to our compliance with the terms of the directive. My intention is that the new labour market access arrangements will be in place by the end of the month. Given that a further Government decision will be required before then, there is a limit to the extent to which I can give precise details of the proposed arrangements. However, the committee will be aware of the terms of the directive with which we will comply. As such, what is being proposed should be clear in general terms. I thank the Chairman for inviting me today. I look forward to the committee's discussions and I thank it for its input.