I thank the Chairman and committee members for giving us the opportunity to meet them. I am joined by my fellow commissioners Mr. Kieran FitzGerald and Mr. Patrick Sullivan. Since we last met the joint committee, Mr. Sullivan joined GSOC last July after a Public Appointments Service open competition.
Representatives of the commission were last before the committee on 28 February 2018. On that date the commission updated the committee on the fact that there had been no statutory changes since we had last met it in September 2016, but we were aware of the work being undertaken by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland which had been established in the interim period in May 2017. In February 2018 we also provided the committee with the business case we had submitted to the Minister for Justice and Equality. In it we sought an increase in our staff numbers to assist in the development of our usual caseload and the provision of a separate protected disclosures unit. As members will have seen in the larger submission we provided for the committee, the business case was met in full. To date, we have taken on 21 of the 42 sanctioned staff, with the remaining staff to be with us in the coming months. For the first time in its history, GSOC's number of staff is in excess of 100. As of 30 April this year, 115 people were working in GSOC.
The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published on 18 September last year. The recommendations in respect of a complaints oversight body were in keeping with the submissions made by GSOC to the commission. GSOC welcomed the proposals, in particular the recommendation made on page 49 of the report that "all complaints about the police should be routed through IOPO [the tentative name for the new body] to determine what action needs to be taken". At a briefing meeting that morning with Ms Kathleen O'Toole, the commission chair, she confirmed that "all complaints" meant from whatever source and that the Garda should not be investigating itself. It is important to note at this juncture that in our fuller submission we see the word "complaint" as meaning any allegation, from whatever source, internal or external to the Garda, including from confidential human informants or other police agencies, indicating criminal activity or serious misconduct by a member or members of An Garda Síochána.
We have included in our submission the "police oversight principles" which were adopted in November 2011 by the European Partners Against Corruption, EPAC. Key among them are that the police oversight body be sufficiently separated from the hierarchy of the police, subject to its remit, and that the police oversight body be governed and controlled by persons who are not current serving police officers. These are fundamental oversight principles adopted by the European organisation mentioned. They are in keeping with the proposals made in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland which has been endorsed by the Government.
GSOC recently made a submission to the review group on anti-fraud and anti-corruption measures which is chaired by the former Director of Public Prosecutions Mr. James Hamilton as part of that group's public consultation process. GSOC reiterated the importance of independent oversight where allegations of corruption by Garda members were concerned. We have had one meeting with the Department of Justice and Equality about the proposed new legislation and made further written submissions to it.
However, as of yet we have not seen any draft for the new complaints oversight body.
GSOC, with the other oversight bodies, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority, did raise concerns when we became aware that there was no oversight element in the implementation body set up to steer through the various recommendations made in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. Of particular concern to GSOC is the issue of matching a new remit with resources. In 2018, under the current legislative provisions, in excess of 500 cases were referred back from GSOC to the Garda for investigation. There will have to be some increase in resources for GSOC to deal with this caseload. It must also be noted that the Garda superintendents and inspectors who deal with these cases are spread throughout the country. Consideration will also have to be given to the geographic challenges. It must be remembered that there is a cost to the State under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. Gardaí are diverted from their usual policing duties to carry out these GSOC investigations and this has an effect in terms of their time and the resulting Garda costs. GSOC is conscious that if a new complaints oversight body is to succeed, these are issues that should be dealt with in advance of the new organisation being set up. The concern is that without proper planning, resulting in a delay, erosion of public trust in the new body will set in at an early stage.
GSOC is preparing a new business plan drawing on its experience and information to assist in predicting the type of organisation that will be required to meet the demands of a new legislative framework. We hope to have it completed by the middle of 2019, particularly having regard to the proposed date of 1 January 2021 for when a new legislative structure will commence.
An area of significance in the work of GSOC and of any new body is access to information. A key principle in the European Partners Against Corruption, EPAC, police oversight principles is that "The police oversight body's investigators must be provided with the full range of police powers to enable them to conduct fair, independent and effective investigations, in particular the power to obtain all the information necessary to conduct an effective investigation". As I indicated, the principles were delivered in 2011. They are in keeping with the recently adopted Venice Principles, the Principles on the Protection and Promotion of the Ombudsman Institution, adopted in Strasbourg on 15 and 16 March by the Venice Commission, the European Commission for Democracy through Law and the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters.
We have noted in our submission to the committee that paragraph 16 of the principles adopted in March reads:
The Ombudsman shall be entitled to request the co-operation of any individuals or organisations who may be able to assist in his or her investigations. The Ombudsman shall have a legally enforceable right to unrestricted access to all relevant documents, databases and materials, including those which might otherwise be legally privileged or confidential.
We have submitted the principles to the Department of Justice and Equality, to which the new legislation should have regard when dealing with the necessary powers required for fair and proportionate independent investigations.
Access to information in the Garda is a matter we raised at our first meeting with the committee in September 2016, at which we highlighted the provisions of section 66 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, which includes a statutory requirement on the Chief Constable, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Policing Board to provide documentation and information for the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
GSOC has noted in its submission to the committee that, with the public, we have become aware through the media of allegations of Garda wrongdoing. We are aware that the Garda continues to conduct criminal investigations of its own members without the knowledge or participation of GSOC. We find this troubling. This practice runs the risk of allegations of cover-up, bias or corruption when it becomes known that such investigations have been carried out internally. It runs the risk that fair and independent investigations are not seen as such by the public because they were not notified outside the organisation. Most importantly, it runs the risk of undermining public trust significantly if such internal investigations go wrong. The practice also flies in the face of the recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland that all such matters be routed through GSOC or the new oversight organisation.
In our 2016 submission to the committee we highlighted as a priority the need to establish more efficient processes to deal with service issues. We have included in our submission today the work that commenced in February 2018 between GSOC and the Garda on the local intervention initiative. Committee members will see the spread of the initiative throughout the country, with certain exceptions. GSOC has paid tribute to the work done by our former staff member Ms Pamela Howard and Inspector Greg Mekitarian of Pearse Street Garda station in Dublin in promoting and developing the pilot scheme. It is an example of the two organisations co-operatively and collaboratively using their joint experiences to provide the public with a better police service. GSOC and the Garda see this as an important process for the future. To that end, we will continue to review numbers and satisfaction levels in this area. It meets the needs of the people concerned, both gardaí and the public, to sort out issues without resorting to formal disciplinary investigations.
An issue of great concern to all in the past few years has been the handling of protected disclosures within the Garda organisation. GSOC sought and obtained an increase in its numbers for these important investigations. We have set up a separate unit with separate facilities. The last of the sanctioned investigators joined the unit in the past week. As we have reported, GSOC received 24 new protected disclosures from gardaí in 2018 and they have continued into 2019. GSOC is of the view that the continued growth in the number of protected disclosures made to it indicates one of two things – growing confidence in GSOC to treat the disclosures respectfully or a lack of confidence in An Garda Síochána to investigate such disclosures. We have noted in our submission the contrast as far back as 2017 in the numbers officially reported by the Garda. In that year there were 11 protected disclosures made to the Garda internally, while the number of protected disclosures made to GSOC in the same year was 22, double the Garda number. It seems, as new legislation for both organisations is being planned, that the issue of how protected disclosures are dealt with in the two organisations could be usefully reviewed to provide for Garda staff the best and most efficient way of dealing with the issues that have arisen through the disclosures made during the years.
I have provided, belatedly this morning, a diagram workflow which provides a representation of how the current legislation directs us to deal with complaints. As will be noted, it is a maze in terms of what is required. We hope to have produced a better diagram by the next time we appear before the committee.