Commencement Matters

Garda Deployment

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate on anti-social behaviour in the Beaumont area. I am always reluctant to discuss matters of anti-social behaviour in a public forum because it does not necessarily lead to a good outcome and can stigmatise an area if not done sensitively, but the issues at hand have got to such a degree that I feel my hand has been forced.

There is an estate called Collinswood, and in that estate is a laneway that leads to the main Beaumont Road. In that laneway, a number of incidents have happened, including multiple muggings, and there is a general sense of danger and intimidation. A number of individuals have been intimidated in the wider estate and a gang seems to be going around the place causing havoc.

After a public meeting that I organised, a number of other people from around the area have contacted me. One told me that her son had been the subject of a 45-minute mugging in August. There was the well-publicised case of a 13 year old boy who was assaulted and had his bike taken from him just outside Beaumont Hospital. Another individual contacted me to say that his wife, when intervening alongside their daughter in a mugging in the same area, had her shoulder broken.

There seems to have been an escalation in anti-social behaviour in and around the Beaumont area in recent months. I have met senior Garda management, which is familiar with the issues and is trying in whatever way it can to respond to them. I have no issue with the response or determination of the Garda to sort out the problem, but the question inevitably comes back to the resources the Garda in that area has, be it at Raheny Garda station, Clontarf Garda station or Santry Garda station. A point raised by a resident is that Santry Garda station closes at 7.30 p.m. A large amount of Government time, energy and resources have been put into the reopening of Stepaside Garda station. I do not know what kind of criminality or anti-social behaviour is happening in Stepaside to warrant that amount of resources and political attention, but the area I am discussing, which I live near and which I am trying to represent to the best of my ability, is in need of special attention to root out this problem and ensure that people can live quiet lives without a sense of intimidation hanging over them and the area in which they live. It is a proud and good area with decent people who are just trying to live their lives.

If it were not for the seriousness of the issues and the fact that they are being raised time and again, I would not necessarily be standing here and talking about them, as I am often reluctant to go public with an issue and name a particular district. I want the Minister of State to respond positively to what I am outlining and commit to providing more resources so that gardaí can patrol the area better and give a sense of security to people living locally, allowing them to go about their daily business without the threat of intimidation or assault hanging over them.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who sends his apologies for not being here, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As he will appreciate, the allocation of Garda resources, including personnel, is a matter for the Garda Commissioner and his management team. The Minister has no direct role in this matter.

The Minister is informed by the Garda Commissioner that in regard to the deployment of Garda personnel a distribution model is used which takes into account all relevant factors, including population, crime trends and the policing needs of individual Garda divisions, including the DMR north division, with a view to providing an effective and responsive police service. This may include directing resources at areas designated as hot spots for anti-social behaviour. The area referenced by the Senator forms part of the DMR north division and the Minister is informed by the Garda Commissioner that the Garda strength in this division as of 31 October 2018, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 698. There are also 40 Garda reserves and 48 civilians attached to the division. In addition, where appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported by a number of national Garda units, such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the armed support units, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. Working with communities to tackle public disorder and reduce anti-social behaviour remains the key priority for An Garda Síochána. This approach includes a strong focus on quality of life issues and collaboration with local authorities to help address the causes of anti-social behaviour.

The Minister emphasises that joint policing committees have an important role in facilitating consultation, co-operation and synergy on policing and crime issues between An Garda Síochána, local authorities and elected public representatives. The active and constructive engagement by elected representatives on the committees is very important. Garda visibility is also important in tackling anti-social behaviour in our communities and this Government remains committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country to maintain and strengthen community engagement, to provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. Since the reopening of the Garda college in September 2014, just under 2,400 recruits have attested and been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide, including 78 to the DMR north division. Taking account of projected retirements, Garda numbers will reach approximately 14,000 by the end of this year. This focus and investment in personnel is critical. The moratorium on recruitment introduced in 2010 resulted in a significant reduction in the strength of An Garda Síochána and the organisation is now being rebuilt. The Minister is providing the Garda Commissioner with the resources to deploy increasing numbers of Garda to every Garda division, including the DMR north division, to increase Garda visibility and to protect our communities from the type of anti-social behaviour referred to by the Senator.

Unfortunately, I am not overly impressed with the Minister of State's response. An Garda Síochána says it needs more resources and that this requires political decision but when one raises the issue with political masters they say it is an issue for the Garda Commissioner. The assistant Garda commissioner said that Stepaside Garda station was not a priority yet the Government is proceeding to reopen it.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to impress on the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, the seriousness of what is happening in this area in terms of the number of muggings and assaults on young people, leaving them traumatised. I recently sat in the kitchen of the home of one young man traumatised by the ordeal he had to endure, which was a 45 minute assault. It is appalling that the Minister of State's response is that it is a matter for the Garda Commissioner to decide where policing resources are allocated. I suggest that greater emphasis needs to be put on policing in the north Dublin area, with less obsession on the reopening of Stepaside Garda station.

Regarding the division, it is a matter for the chief superintendent of the division to determine the optimum distribution of duties among the personnel available to him or her having regard to the profile of the area and specific needs. Community policing is at the heart of An Garda Síochána and it has a proud record of engagement with communities to address their concerns and successfully tackle the type of anti-social behaviour referred to by the Senator. There are a range of strong legislative provisions available to An Garda Síochána to combat anti-social behaviour, including provisions under the current Criminal Justice (Public Order) Acts, the Criminal Damage Act and the Intoxicating Liquor Acts. There are also the incremental provisions contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2006 which provide for warnings and civil proceedings in regard to anti-social behaviour by adults. Part 13 of the Act provides for warnings, good behaviour contracts and civil proceedings in relation to anti-social behaviour by children.

Over the last few years, unprecedented resources have been made available to the Garda Commissioner, which provide him with the resources to increase Garda visibility in our communities and to support all Garda activity, including tackling anti-social behaviour.

I understand Senator Byrne is caught in traffic so we will move on to the third Commencement matter. It will be up to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, if he wants to address Senator Byrne's matter should she arrive before we conclude this business.

We will move on.

Social and Affordable Housing Eligibility

I thank the Minister of State for being here, although I am disappointed that neither the Minister nor the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government could be here to address this issue. While I understand and respect the fact that all Government Ministers and Ministers of State are busy, the situation with regard to housing is at crisis point and deserves a response from the responsible Minister or Minister of State. That said, I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality for taking this Commencement matter today.

I wish to discuss whether there will be a change to the income threshold for qualification for a place on the housing list in Carlow. This is a very serious issue locally because genuine people who should qualify for social housing are being excluded at present. A family came to me recently seeking my help. They were earning between €350 and €400 per week and were in receipt of family income supplement, FIS. When people qualify for FIS, it means that they are not earning enough and need assistance in meeting their household needs. Despite this, the family was told that they did not qualify for registration on the housing list in Carlow. It is unacceptable that people who are working, trying to make ends meet and who qualify for FIS do not qualify for inclusion on the housing list.

I have consistently raised this issue and have been told that it is being examined. There are people in Carlow and in other counties in the low cap zone who are in limbo because they do not qualify for social housing under the current social housing income thresholds but they do not earn enough to be able to afford a mortgage. They need answers. They are not being included in the social housing waiting lists or on the emergency lists. Those lists are incomplete because these people are crying out for help but are not receiving it.

The most recent summary assessment of social housing needs published in September shows that the number of households in Carlow qualifying for social housing support from the local authority was just 499 which is not a true reflection of the situation on the ground, as evidenced by the number of people coming to my clinics. Seven years have passed since the last review. The social housing assessment regulation in 2011 set the maximum net income limits for each local authority in different bands, according to the area, with incomes being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. I understand that a new assessment was due to be done in the summer. There is now an urgent need to finalise this and to increase the income limits for social housing in Carlow and several other counties. There are no millionaires out there looking for help. These are real families who are working hard but are not getting a break. We need to give them a break.

Carlow currently has one of the lowest income thresholds in the entire country. The maximum net income threshold for a single person is €25,000, for a childless couple it is €26,250 and for one adult and one child it is €25,625. The threshold for two adults with one child it is €26,875, while for two adults with more than one child it is €27,500. This compares to a limit of €38,000 in Kildare for two adults with one child and €39,000 for two adults with more than one child. Not only is it unrealistic to have such a marked difference between two counties, the limits themselves are far too low for working adults. These limits provide an incentive to decline opportunities to increase household income. The aim of social welfare is to help people to get on their feet, not to force them onto their knees in order qualify for assistance. There is a difference of almost €11,000 in the income threshold between Kildare and Carlow, while the difference between Carlow and Kilkenny is €6,500. This is inexcusable and is putting enormous pressure on families in Carlow. The Government is well aware that unless a person is on the local authority housing list, he or she will not qualify for rent allowance or for the housing assistance payment, HAP. It is extraordinary that in the midst of a housing crisis, the Government is denying families who are under intense financial pressure access to the rent allowance and the HAP schemes. This Government must ensure that the income threshold in Carlow is increased and is brought in line with the thresholds in neighbouring counties. It must also allow families to earn a second income or to avail of promotion or overtime opportunities in order to better their living standards. We are condemning people by not allowing them to go onto our social housing waiting lists. We are not giving them a chance. What action is being taken by the Department and when will the review of social housing income thresholds be completed? We really need to help these people.

These are the working poor. They qualify for nothing but pay out for everything. We want to help everybody. This is about everybody who needs to be on the housing list but is not able to get onto it.

I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is unfortunately not available and has asked me to send his apologies personally. I will make him aware of the debate and of what the Senator has said.

On 1 April 2011 the social housing assessment regulations introduced a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. This included the introduction of maximum net income limits for each housing authority in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to the standard household means policy. Before the new system was introduced there was considerable inconsistency in the approaches taken across local authorities. Some authorities had income limits for social housing and some had none. How income was assessed against limits also varied widely, with different arrangements in place in various housing authorities. The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band, which were introduced in 2011, were based on an assessment of income needed to provide for a household’s basic need, plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country.

The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities. This increase has largely had the welcome side effect of future-proofing the income bands so that they still very much cater for those who find that they must spend a very high proportion of their income on rent in order to afford to pay for their housing needs from their own resources. The maximum bands apply to single adult households and can be adjusted by housing authorities to take account of additional household members. These allowances are 5% for each additional adult household member, up to a maximum of 10%, that is, two additional adults, and 2.5% for each additional child, again up to a maximum of 10%, that is, four children.

There are currently three income bands applicable across the country and Carlow County Council is in band 3, along with 15 of the other 30 local authorities. This reflects the fact that the cost of rental and housing accommodation in the county is, relatively speaking, lower than in higher band counties such as, for example, those in the greater Dublin area. The income threshold for a household of two adults and two children in County Carlow is €27,500 net income per annum with higher limits applying to larger households up to a maximum of three adults and four children.

It is important to note that under the household means policy, which applies in all housing authorities, the thresholds for social housing assessment are based on net income. This is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. Therefore, the €27,500 figure I referred to as the income threshold for a household of two adults and two children in Carlow is the net income figure after tax, PRSI and USC. The household means policy also provides for a range of income disregards and, in addition, housing authorities have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature.

I can confirm to the Senator that as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of the income eligibility limits for social housing supports is under way. It is unfortunately not possible to give a definitive timeline at this stage for the completion of the review as it will also have to take into account the impact of other parallel initiatives being brought forward on affordability and cost rental. In that context it should be noted that, in terms of the cohort of people that are just over the income eligibility thresholds for social housing support, the Government is responding to the needs of such households through a number of initiatives including a new affordable housing scheme and a cost rental scheme. In addition, earlier this year a new local authority mortgage scheme for first time buyers, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, was introduced.

I thank the Minister of State. In fairness, it is a concern that it has been seven years since we have had a review. At our last housing meeting we got an assessment of the price to rent a house in Carlow, which was €700 a month. That is totally wrong. It is €1,000 per month if not €1,100. The figures are totally wrong. The biggest issue here is that when people apply to go on the local authority housing list their overtime, maintenance payments and family income supplement are taken into consideration. That limits the number of people who can qualify. There is no real appeal mechanism. Perhaps we need to look at that.

Mortgages with local authorities are only based on earned income. One has to be earning an income to qualify for a mortgage. That is another bracket. People on family income supplement do not qualify to go on the housing list and people cannot get a mortgage. This is urgent. The figures the local authorities and the Government are giving are totally wrong. We need to help these people. These are the people who cannot save, cannot afford a mortgage and cannot go on the housing list.

I thank the Senator again and recognise her deep interest in the research that has been carried out into this matter. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to respond in writing to her quite soon on the points she has raised.

She has shown her passion for this issue.

If the Minister of State is prepared to wait for Senator Byrne, who is on her way, we will take Senator Ó Donnghaile's matter next.

Presidential Elections

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Cannon. He has four minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. I will not need four minutes. The question I have submitted is very straightforward.

That is good. It is nice to see that kind of approach as we come up to Christmas.

Yes. I was in Senator Ó Donnghaile's position a few times in the past. I often took a similar approach to see what the Minister or Minister of State would say.

I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for giving me an opportunity to address the Seanad on the important matter of voting rights. I believe it is of interest to all Members of the House. Earlier this month, the Government reviewed the progress of Bills to amend the Constitution and decided that subject to the passage of the necessary constitutional amendment Bills, two referendums will be held on the same day as the local and European elections, which are due to take place between 23 and 26 May 2019. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in consultation with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, is continuing to make progress with the work needed to inform the development of an appropriate constitutional amendment Bill for the holding of a referendum on extending the franchise at presidential elections to Irish citizens resident outside the State.

As the Senator will recall, the Government decided on 7 March 2017 to accept in principle the main recommendation in the fifth report of the Constitutional Convention that citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland, should have the right to vote at presidential elections and that a referendum would be held to amend the Constitution to give effect to this. Following this announcement, an options paper which was jointly prepared by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Housing, Planning and Local Government was published on 22 March 2017 to inform public debate on this significant policy change. The options paper set out a broad range of options that are available to give effect to the possible extension of voting rights at presidential elections. It examined the key operational issues involved, including voter registration, the methods of voting, the implications for the administration of presidential elections and the estimated costs associated with an extended franchise. The options paper considered seven possible options for the extension of the franchise. It considered whether it should be extended to all citizens resident outside the State, to citizens who have a period of time living in the State, to citizens who have left the State within a defined period of time, to citizens who were previously on the register of electors, to citizens who hold valid Irish passports, to citizens born on the island of Ireland or to citizens who have lived in Ireland for at least one year.

The options paper provided a focus for discussions at a dedicated session on voting rights that was held at the second Global Irish Civic Forum on 5 May 2017. When the participants at the forum considered the seven options, their almost unanimous view was that the franchise should be extended to all citizens resident outside the State. In addition, there was a strong view that an extension of the franchise should not be restricted by time, prior residence in the State or previous registration in the State. Against this background, the next step will involve bringing proposals to the Government early in the new year on the question of to whom, in particular, the vote should be extended. Ultimately, this will inform the drafting of the constitutional amendment Bill. When the Bill has been published in the Dáil, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will need to establish a referendum commission, which will need to have enough time to carry out its functions. Previous commissions have recommended that a period of approximately 16 weeks is appropriate to enable the statutory functions involved to be undertaken satisfactorily. In this regard, it should be noted that a referendum commission cannot be established until a constitutional amendment Bill has been initiated. In broad terms, this means the Bill should be drafted and published approximately four months prior to the holding of the referendum, with a good proportion of that period being between the passage of the Bill and polling day.

Gabhaim buíochas arís leis an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State for the timely and useful update. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge his role. I travelled to London recently to meet a number of groups and organisations that are representatives of the Irish diaspora in Britain.

They all acknowledged the Minister of State's leadership role on issues pertaining to them, but not least on this important referendum. The timeline is clear in respect of the outline of what the next steps should be. If the Minister of State does not mind I will home in on his last paragraph, which means that in broad terms the Bill should be drafted and published some four months prior to the holding of the referendum. That would be very early in the new year, possibly January or early February. How confident is the Minister of State that this would happen or is still on course to happen? I often come into the House to criticise the Government but I cannot criticise the Government in its diligent approach to this. The Government has been steadfast on it. As we get tantalisingly close to this referendum, we need to ensure we see it over the line with regard to the processes that are required. I will finish with that question. Go raibh maith agat.

I thank the Senator for taking the time to engage with our diaspora groups in the UK. I have been making the point as best I can to all of our diaspora groups around the world that they need to become very actively involved in this campaign in the run up to the referendum next May. I am very confident that the necessary legislation will be in place during the timelines I referred to.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I welcome back to the House the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton.

Garda Deployment

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. I rise today to discuss areas of justice. I am looking for a greater Garda presence in the east Limerick area. Recently I made a submission to the Castletroy development plan in which I looked for a full-time Garda station in that region. The area is expanding. At the time the chief superintendent said that due to lack of resources it would not be warranted to put in a full-time Garda station. However, the area is growing and expanding and there are many part-time stations in different parts of the region.

My main concern is Castleconnell and the greater Castleconnell area. There has been a spate of burglaries in the last month and one house was targeted two to three times. On one road alone there were some 20 burglaries, but there is no full-time Garda in the area. The region is looked after by the Garda station in Henry Street, which is right in the city centre, but there is a population of more than 20,000 outside that part of the city. The area covers Castleconnell, Castletroy, Monaleen, Annacotty, Lisnagry and down into Montpelier. It is a growing population. There is also a large student population closer to the university but the area I refer to is very residential. A lot of the residents have had to put up electronic gates, lights and other elements to deter people from breaking into their houses. I am concerned because there is no full-time Garda presence in the area and the gardaí tell me that they are working on limited resources and personnel. This is why I call for a greater Garda presence to be put into this area. It is frightening to think that these issues are ongoing and appear to be on a constant basis. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, sends his apologies. The Cabinet is still in session and he is in attendance. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

As the Senator will appreciate, the allocation of all Garda resources, including personnel, is strictly a matter for the Garda Commissioner and his management team. The Minister has no direct role in this regard. The Minister is informed by the Garda Commissioner that in regard to the deployment of Garda personnel, a distribution model is used that takes into account all relevant factors including population, crime trends and the policing needs of each individual Garda division, including the Limerick division, with a view to providing an effective and responsive police service.

The Minister is of course very much aware of the impact of crime such as burglary and theft on local communities in rural areas like east Limerick. The Minister assures the Senator that An Garda Síochána is committed to a vigorous and comprehensive response to this type of criminal activity, which ingrains fear in our local communities.

The scale of Garda activity against burglary and property-related crime under Operation Thor has led to concentrated Garda activity resulting, as of 30 November 2018, in more than 168,600 targeted checkpoints and 243,200 crime prevention patrols nationwide. This concentrated policing activity has produced in the region of 8,830 arrests and 10,143 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, include handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs offences.

The area referred to by the Senator forms part of the Limerick division and the Minister is informed by the Commissioner that the Garda strength of the Limerick division on 30 October 2018, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 580. There are also 26 Garda reserves and 54 Garda civilian staff attached to the division. In addition, when appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported by a number of Garda national units such as the national bureau of criminal investigation, the armed support units, the Garda national economic crime bureau and the Garda national drugs and organised crime bureau. The Minister is further informed by the Commissioner that since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, 2,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána, of whom 35 have been assigned to the Limerick division. Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, are expected to increase to around the 14,000 mark by year end. This focus on investment in personnel is critical. The moratorium on recruitment introduced in 2010 resulted in a significant reduction in the strength of An Garda Síochána. The Minister is now rebuilding the organisation and providing the Commissioner with the resources to increase Garda numbers and activity in order to tackle and prevent crime in all our communities, including east Limerick.

I thank the Minister of State. I neglected to say that the community gardaí are meeting the residents tonight and have been very responsive. It is a big factor that people do not see the Garda on the ground. It is pretty much a rural area. There has been a spate of burglaries. I commend the Government on the reopening of the Garda College. It is good that there are so many extra gardaí coming on stream. However, there is such a large population out there without a full-time garda deployed. The Minister of State might suggest to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that he speak to the Commissioner again about it. There was an article in a newspaper during the week stating that an extra 6,500 people are expected to be employed in that area shortly. It is expanding at a very fast rate. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could give me some commitment on that.

The Minister assures the Senator that Garda management and the Commissioner keep the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities and that the needs of all divisions, including the Limerick division, are taken into consideration in the allocation of Garda resources. He is pleased to say that budget 2018 will support the continuation of the high level of investment in the Garda workforce of recent years and ensure that the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains on track. In addition, the Government’s plan for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 is complemented by substantial increases in resources across the board for An Garda Síochána. Some €330 million, including €205 million under the capital plan, is being invested in Garda ICT infrastructure over the period 2016 to 2021. This major investment will allow An Garda Síochána to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime and will facilitate progress on important reforms arising from the Garda Inspectorate’s report on crime investigation. The capital plan 2016 to 2021 provides for an investment of €46 million in the Garda fleet to ensure that An Garda Síochána has a modern, effective and fit for purpose fleet. This is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2033 to 2015. In the period 2013 to end of 2017 almost €44 million will have been invested in the fleet with some 2,000 vehicles coming on-stream. This investment will facilitate the provision of more effective policing services and the Minister expects that the Limerick division, like all other Garda divisions, will benefit from these new resources becoming available. I will certainly bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister. I note what the Senator said and that she has a passion and deep concern for this area. I will certainly make the Minister aware of the matter.