I am very pleased to accept the Chairman's invitation to be here this morning to have an opportunity to hear his views and those of members of the committee on the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. I am joined by senior officials from the Department of Justice and Equality: Ms Anne Barry, Mr. John O'Callaghan, and Ms Mary McKenna. We are also joined by Ms Niamh Callan.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the great level of commitment, experience and expertise the chairperson of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, Ms Kathleen O'Toole, and members of the commission brought to the major task of undertaking a fundamental review of all aspects of policing in Ireland. I know the chairperson had an opportunity of exchanging views with the committee a few weeks ago. The committee will have seen that the report addresses in a comprehensive way the wide-ranging terms of reference agreed by the Government, which had the active input of Deputies and Senators, and presents a new framework for policing to meet not only the current challenges, with which we are all familiar, but new and complex challenges that will undoubtedly emerge in the future. I am pleased to note the broad welcome that the report has received, including from members of this committee.
The report demonstrates the value of bringing people together, all of whom come from diverse backgrounds, to look at an area of public policy afresh, particularly an area that has been as contested as policing has been over recent years. It is clear the report is the richer for the diverse expertise of the members in policing, human rights, victims' rights, business, governance and right across public affairs. It is also clear that the report is the richer for the wide-ranging consultation process undertaken by the commission. It held extensive public meetings, visiting all regions of the country, and it also engaged with a wide range of interested stakeholders, including the workforce of An Garda Síochána at all levels, members of this committee, other Members of the Oireachtas, and practitioners in the area of policing and academia, not only within the confines of this jurisdiction but also abroad.
The commission has completed its task and passed the baton, so to speak, to the Government, the Oireachtas and An Garda Síochána to implement its transformation programme for the policing sector. It is important that we move quickly. Members will be aware that, on the publication of the report, I made a commitment to revert to Government by the end of the year with my substantive response and a high-level implementation plan. With this in mind, the report is receiving detailed consideration within my Department and across Government at present in consultation with the relevant bodies. I welcome the opportunity this morning to hear the views of the members of the committee on the report as an important input to that ongoing process of consideration. I know that they met the chair of commission and a number of her colleagues last month. I understand they had a very useful exchange exploring various aspects of the report and clarifying how some of the recommendations might work in practice, especially those that may come before this committee in the form of legislative proposals, which will happen next year.
I also set out my intention in September to move quickly on setting up the implementation structures recommended by the commission to drive forward a transformation programme. Much work has already been done in that regard.
As I stated when the report was published, it provides a new blueprint for the transformation of policing in Ireland. At its core is a new and expanded definition of policing as a multidisciplinary, cross-agency effort in partnership with communities and built on the foundation of protecting human rights. Of particular note is the emphasis on understanding policing as including not only the prevention and detection of crime, which all present expect, but also the prevention of harm and protection of people at risk, be they people experiencing mental health challenges, homelessness or drug addiction. The assessment of the commission that 80% of Garda time may be concerned with harm prevention has given many people considerable pause for thought.
Grappling with this reality and designing and planning our services to support front-line gardaí in their work will require a whole-of-Government commitment to policing and community safety. I am heartened that the report highlights some good examples of inter-agency co-operation on the ground. These can be built on, but if we are to bring about the transformation envisaged by the report, such co-operation must become embedded in the system in order that it is sustainable over the longer term and not reliant on the dedication of individual public servants. The enthusiasm for and support of the report by my Government colleagues and their senior officials, many of whom do not consider themselves as having any significant role in regard to policing, has been striking. It is clear that there is a strong desire to take on board and work with this expanded definition of policing and community safety.
The report makes many more innovative proposals among its 50 key recommendations, but in the time available to me this morning, I wish to deal in a little more detail with a small number of the commission’s recommendations that have attracted most attention to date.
On national security, the commission was tasked with considering the dual role of the Garda as the State policing and security service. Although it recognises advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement, the commission concludes that, in the current circumstances, it is not convinced of the value of creating a separate security agency, and I share that view. However, it identifies a need to enhance and modernise the skills and resources available to An Garda Síochána in the security and intelligence area. It also recommends the establishment of a structure to bring agencies together to improve the co-ordination of threat assessments and to provide better and more comprehensive information to Government. This proposal does not aim to take over the functions of the Garda, Defence Forces or other agencies which have clear lines of command and accountability set out in law for their activities. Rather, the proposed strategic threat analysis centre, STAC, is intended to collate or synthesise intelligence inputs from the bodies and agencies which will be seconded to it to generate threat analyses. The commission also considered the issue of the oversight of national security and makes recommendations to enhance the current arrangements in this area, including the establishment of an independent examiner who would have a function in carrying out ongoing reviews of how security legislation is being used.
It is important that I refer to the commission’s package of recommendations aimed at ensuring a well-managed police service with robust and independent external oversight. These recommendations have been the subject of most public commentary on the report to date, some of which appears to be based on a misunderstanding or misreading of the report and, in particular, a sense that public scrutiny of policing would disappear. It is clear from the report that public scrutiny, which is perhaps the strongest tool at the disposal of the Policing Authority, would continue under the commission’s proposals. I understand that the chair of the commission and her colleagues emphasised this point in their recent engagement with this committee.
It is important to recall the rationale behind the commission’s proposals. The commission’s strong view is that our existing oversight arrangements are confused and lacking in clarity, with overlapping responsibilities between the various bodies. This view is shared by some of the oversight bodies and by the independent effectiveness and renewal group established in regard to my Department. The commission also views the lack of distinction between the roles of some of the oversight bodies and the responsibilities of An Garda Síochána for its management and governance as problematic. Its overall view is that our arrangements act to the detriment of a clear and effective mode of accountability for policing and sometimes lead to responsibility lying elsewhere or nowhere.
The commission’s proposals are threefold. In the first instance, it locates responsibility for democratic accountability with the Minister of the day and his or her Department. It endorses the view of the effectiveness and renewal group, as accepted by Government, that my Department should step back from its involvement in managing An Garda Síochána and not seek to compensate for a lack of capacity in that organisation by inserting itself into day-to-day management of the Garda. Instead, my Department should focus on three key tasks in addition to securing the resources for the police, namely, providing transparent and timely communication of information required in the public interest, providing structural oversight of the police and oversight bodies, and developing policing and security policy and legislation. Of course, the commission also refers to the important role of Oireachtas committees, this one in particular, and their suggestions for how that role might operate to best effect, which gives food for thought.
Second, there are two elements to the commission’s proposals on external independent oversight. It proposes a reformed independent complaints body that would supersede the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and a new independent oversight body to be named the policing and community safety oversight commission or similar. That body would build on the good work of the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate. It would absorb the oversight functions of the authority and the inspection functions of the inspectorate, and it would have a greatly enhanced role in promoting accountability at local level and standard setting at national level. Unlike the current situation, it would concentrate solely on exercising independent external oversight and would not undertake executive functions.
Third, the commission recommends that the Garda Commissioner, in his role as chief executive officer with responsibility for a workforce of 16,000 and rising and a budget that will exceed €1.7 billion next year, should be fully empowered to run the organisation with the support of a non-executive board. Although the recommendation for such a board is novel in the policing sector, such boards are best practice in corporate governance teams across the private and public sectors. Indeed, in its submission to the commission, the Policing Authority suggested that it should be seen as akin to the non-executive board of An Garda Síochána. The commission came down in favour of separating internal governance and external oversight. It recommends that internal governance be provided by the non-executive board, while external oversight be provided by the policing and community safety oversight commission. Of relevance to this issue is the most recent report of the effectiveness and renewal group which was presented to Government in October. It strongly welcomes the recommendation by the commission for the establishment of a statutory board to strengthen the internal governance and management of the Garda Síochána.
My overriding interest and, I am sure, that of the committee is to ensure an effective, accountable police service. That requires a police service that is well managed and has robust structures and processes in place such that risks are identified at an early stage and not allowed to develop into controversies which envelop the entire organisation and serve to undermine public confidence and morale in An Garda Síochána. It also requires robust and independent external oversight.
I look forward with interest to the committee's response to the proposals in the commission's report. The Government will decide on its preferred solution shortly. Of course, given that the oversight architecture will have to be legislated for, the Oireachtas will ultimately decide the issue and this committee will have a very important and fundamental role to play in the development of that legislation.
Before outlining the work under way in regard to implementation, I wish to comment briefly on some of the other recommendations in the report. Of particular note are the innovative recommendations in regard to recruitment and the need to create a more diverse workforce in terms of socio-economic and educational background as well as gender and ethnicity. There is also a welcome focus on improving the well-being of the Garda workforce, including through improved rosters, more appropriate uniforms, and more psychological support services.
Many of the 50 key recommendations form part of the existing reform programme for An Garda Síochána, such as those relating to improved workforce planning, better deployment of personnel, increased focus on training and continuing professional development, improved data quality, and improved ICT, including mobile technology. It is fair to say the results of that programme have been mixed.
Some good work has been done, but overall there is a consensus that the pace of reform has been too slow. This concern brings me to the commission’s recommendations to ensure that its programme can be substantially implemented by 2022, which of course is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of An Garda Síochána.
I am pleased to say that the implementation group for policing reform, IGPR, has been established with an independent chair as recommended by the commission. Ms Helen Ryan, a member of the commission and former chief executive officer of Creganna Medical, has agreed to serve as chair. Her expertise will be invaluable in driving forward the implementation plan to be agreed by Government. The implementation group is supported by an implementation programme office set up in the Department of the Taoiseach. The first meeting of the IGPR took place in early November, and the group, which includes representatives of a number of Departments and An Garda Síochána, has met on four occasions since.
In addition, a high-level steering board for policing reform chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach has been established. Membership of this board includes the Secretaries General of my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Garda Commissioner and the chair of the IGPR, Ms Ryan. Secretaries General from other Departments will also be involved as required. The role of this steering board will be to support the work of the implementation group, including by acting as a clearing house for issues that cannot be resolved by the implementation group.
I am sure the Cathaoirleach will agree that the speed at which my Department and the Department of the Taoiseach have moved to set up these structures demonstrates my commitment and that of the Government to meeting the ambition in this report. The Government is deeply committed to the meaningful reform of An Garda Síochána and policing in Ireland. This is evident through the provision of in excess of €1.7 billion to An Garda Síochána for 2019, an increase of €110 million over this year's budget. In addition, the Garda capital allocation will increase to €92 million, much of it for ICT infrastructure, over the course of next year. Furthermore, dedicated funding of €10 million has been provided to my Department to support the transformation process in the justice sector, including An Garda Síochána, next year.
This is an important report that has the capacity to transform policing in this country. It is the outcome of serious deliberations over a lengthy period and its conclusions and recommendations deserve to be carefully considered. This committee, under your Chairmanship, has always shown a keen interest in policing matters and I know your commitment to improving An Garda Síochána is to the fore. This committee has much to contribute to the successful implementation of the commission’s report and I look forward not just to hearing the committee's response to it now but also to working with the committee as it is implemented over the coming years.