The first issue is in the names of Deputies Declan Breathnach and Pat Casey. I call Deputy Breathnach.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
In opening this debate I wish to acknowledge, first, the progress made in the winter gritting programme across the country over many years and especially the outdoor staff who work ungodly hours to deliver the gritting programme, which is often and mainly dictated by local authority officials and budgets. As the Minister, Deputy Ross, rightly knows, ice and snow bring a Christmas thrill but not to many motorists, cyclists or pedestrians for whom icy conditions are a time of anxiety for many people who go about their business, often in scary driving conditions. The Minister might pardon the pun but any public representative worth his or her salt would tell him that, apart from the public complaints about potholes and poor road surfaces, at this time of the year as temperatures plummet many become justifiably frustrated. Constituents call our offices complaining about there been no salting of the roads, not to mention the irate parents who often ring to say their child has just written off his or her first car.
My purpose in raising this matter in the season that is in it is to hope that winter gritting programme would be publicised more widely in terms of how it works and to make road users more aware of how it operates and to offer an exchange in terms of the ways in which the programme could be improved and expanded to be responsive and more impactful in the interests of safer driving with fewer accidents and a more co-ordinated approach and understanding of the way local authorities can respond.
The IceCast system, as I described it, is now known as the Vaisala road DSS manager – it is difficult for people to get their tongue around that. One can call it what one likes but all we need to know is that there is an effective and efficient system and that the road user who pays his or her motor tax, property tax and income tax achieves equity in reaching his or her destination in the shortest possible time on the most suitable salted route. The aim of the programme is to keep the major routes as free as possible from hazardous road conditions but with the current process, which involves weather forecasting in terms of the Vaisala system I referred to, the system is only 85% effective.
Deputy Breathnach has raised most of the issues. We have all seen practical examples, despite all the technology used now, where the system has failed road users on certain mornings. The Minister is very familiar with the N11, which we often see being gritted in the evening and late into the night. However, we have had significant rainfall overnight recently and a refreeze but at that stage it is too late to grit. The cars are on the road and the damage has been done. We have seen that happen quite a few times in recent years. While technology has brought more advances, it is about getting the grit quality right, the density of the grit and so on. All of that is improving.
In terms of the regional and local roads, different standards apply and there is a different approach to the regional roads. I recall getting a call from a constituent at 6.30 a.m. one morning to say that the long hill was completely covered in ice. That was because the road had been gritted but it rained and the surface froze over the gritting. The long hill was an ice rink that morning and by the time word got to the local authority to get the staff back out on the roads, almost two and a half hours had passed, which caused major problems.
Many national roads, including the M11, have been taken over privately in terms of providing maintenance, which is contracted. There is a different contractor on the M50 but the two roads inter-link. Is there co-operation between them to ensure all of them spread grit at the same time and with the same consistency to ensure the road user knows that the road will be cleared from one end to the other? The Minister might reply to the few points I have raised.
I thank the two Deputies for what appear to be constructive suggestions. It is extremely appropriate at this time of year that this issue should be debated and it is one that has been. It would be fair to acknowledge first that the response to emergencies to which the Deputies referred has been good in recent years. There is always room for improvement and the suggestions they made, particularly the one in Wicklow with which I am familiar, are constructive. I will certainly convey both Deputies’ suggestions to the appropriate local authorities and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, for their comments.
As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding regarding the national roads programme. The planning, design and operation of the national road network, including winter maintenance operations, is the responsibility of TII under the Roads Acts 1993-2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its current and capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of expenditure is a matter for TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act.
The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority. The selection and prioritisation of works, including winter maintenance programmes, are also a matter for each local authority.
As the Deputies will have heard previously, Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance of national, regional and local roads places significant demands on local authorities. Each local authority prepares an annual winter maintenance programme which outlines its plans for managing winter operations, including gritting.
In this context, TII operates the IceNet road weather information system, previously known as IceCast, to assist local authorities in the management and delivery of each local authority's winter maintenance activities. TII operates a network of road weather stations across the national road network, providing up to date information on road weather conditions. In addition, in conjunction with Met Éireann forecasts, the IceNet system provides weather forecasts for the national road network. This information is also used by local authorities to plan their treatment of regional and local roads.
I understand from TII that the system has been continuously improved and upgraded since the road weather information system was first developed in the 1990s. In the period since the severe weather episodes in 2010 the number of weather stations has increased from 60 to 100 and about 75 of those stations now have cameras installed with infra-red lighting capability.
Each year, in advance of the winter season, TII convenes an annual winter maintenance conference, attended by all local authorities. After that, decisions on delivery of winter maintenance activities, including the prioritisation of routes for salting, and where necessary snow ploughing, are operational matters made by local authorities.
Local authorities will make the call-out decision having considered the forecast, prevailing road conditions and local information provided by the relevant roads engineers and inspectors.
I thank the Minister for his response. Technology is playing a major part in making further improvements. However, it would improve matters if additional weather stations across the network to those to which the Minister referred, were installed, particularly in my council area.
I look forward to the installation of two additional stations, one on the N53 at Deerpark and one on the N2 at Funshog near Ardee. I understand that a further two weather stations are required on the R166 and R173, which needs to be funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We talked about thermal domains. They need to be changed to more accurately forecast temperatures, especially on local roads. Most of these thermal domains are on main roads which already have a gritting programme.
While technology is fine, the Minister mentioned local knowledge. I firmly believe that An Garda Síochána and the post service could provide an excellent service for the issues Deputy Casey mentioned. Where black ice occurs and rainfall dilutes the salt, there should be a link to the director of services responsible on a particular night to ensure that, where these black spots arise again, there is a programme to get out onto those roads.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He acknowledged that this is a positive engagement, not a criticism, as we hit the winter season. It concerns all road users that the roads are gritted as much as possible. The area that is always left in abeyance is the local roads. We all know that some of our local roads are the most dangerous roads. There is no clear policy across local authorities of how to manage and grit local roads. Some local authorities put boxes of ice on dangerous hills or corners. Other councils do not bother. There are many inconsistences across the nation with local and regional roads. I would like to see if we can move forward to make it standard for a certain level of facilities to be provided on all local roads. Deputy Breathnach mentioned the hard work that council staff do at all hours of the morning in very tough conditions. I wish to put that on the record too.
Much of what the Deputies are saying depends on who makes the decisions about when to treat roads and which roads to treat after the data have been made available to them. That is taken by the local authority duty engineer. Decisions on the delivery of winter maintenance activities, including salting and, where necessary, snowploughing, are made by the local authorities. Local authorities are responsible for providing engineering staff, operational staff, drivers, helpers and yard staff, plant including trucks, demountable salt spreaders and snow blades, and managing the drawdown of road salt. Winter treatment of the motorway network is the responsibility of the relevant public private partnership, PPP, operator or motorway contractor. In addition to providing the Vaisala road weather information system, RWIS, the role of Transport Infrastructure Ireland is to co-ordinate the annual winter operations programme. The authority provides support, back-up and funding to the local authorities each year in advance of the winter season. The authority convenes an annual winter maintenance conference, attended by duty engineers. Although I am satisfied with the way this has operated in the past, I am sure it can be improved and I will bring the references which Deputy Casey made to the N11 and which Deputy Breathnach made to the R166 and R173 to TII and the local authorities for attention and ask them. I cannot tell them what to do but I will refer the Deputies' remarks to them and ask them to respond accordingly.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this very serious issue. I want to read a statement from Olwen Rowe from Wexford, the sister of Kenneth Rowe, who took his own life. Kenneth was a good friend to two of my sons. The statement reads:
Families and friends live many nightmares when a loved one dies by suicide. When there is no warning, the shock and the pain are immense, beyond words.
But sometimes, there are warning signs and there's the unthinkable nightmare of seeing your loved one decline, seeing their distress, and repeatedly trying to access professional support for them, but hitting wall after wall. You watch your loved one fighting for their life without the professional help they desperately need. You try to believe the experts [who] say that you are over-reacting but you are terrified you’ll get the call, or the Gardaí will come to your door, and then that day comes, and your world falls apart.
Kenneth was 32. He was independent, private and self-reliant but when he hit a crisis, he knew he needed help. With the support of Kenneth’s GP and others, Kenneth tried to get help. My parents spent countless days and nights sitting with Kenneth as he battled his anguish, wrapping him in the light of their love. They worked tirelessly to get him the care he needed.
It was like watching a train hurtle towards an abyss and begging for help from the experts only to be told we were exaggerating, we were overprotective, he’d be fine, it was Christmas and there were no appointments, he should get back to work, work stress was normal, he should drink less coffee and get more exercise, he should take the increasing number, and doses of medication he was being prescribed, all without any ongoing support.
Kenneth was failed by both public and private mental health services in this country. It is difficult now to meaningfully engage with those who were asked to provide care for Kenneth, to see why these health systems failed him: whether it was individual failure, shortage in resources, lack of expertise, lack of compassion, lack of understanding.
We heard University Hospital Waterford was under pressure for beds, that patients were being admitted and kept in chairs. Can you imagine how awful it is, hoping a family member would be admitted for psychiatric care and being terrified of whether or not that service would be fit for purpose? Whether the hell that he was living through, as he tried to get on with his daily life was better than the hell of being admitted to an overstretched mental health facility?
Kenneth was sent home from Waterford Hospital 3 times in 5 days. Imagine our despair that in spite of an urgent referral from Waterford to Summerhill Community Mental Health Services, Kenneth’s appointment was for six weeks later. The wait was impossible. We were told Kenneth couldn’t access mental health services in another public hospital. As Kenneth’s crisis deepened we attempted to access private mental health services at St. Patrick’s in Dublin. This was another disaster, another failure. There was nowhere else to turn.
Kenneth fought so hard to stay alive for everyone and everything he loved. But he didn’t make it. He ended his life 19 days before his appointment at Summerhill.
The Taoiseach gave the opening speech at the Pieta House “Darkness Into Light” event. Yet his Government has failed to give adequate funding to mental health services. Suicide rates in Wexford are a lot higher than the national average; yet no emergency mental health services exist in Wexford. Charities like Pieta House and the Samaritans do good work; but their supports cannot replace the complex psychological and psychiatric care that should be provided by HSE mental health services.
The Deputy will have a further two minutes in his supplementary.
I will just finish. It continues:
In the middle of our grieving and the unspeakable pain, it is hard not to feel anger and rage about a health system that is inadequate, underfunded and criminally absent in some parts of this country. It feels like no one, who can actually make a difference, cares.
I call the Minister of State. Deputy Wallace will have another minute.
Kenneth gave so generously of his time and resources that he always gave the impression of having plenty, even when he was struggling to make ends meet. He has left little by way of material goods, but his legacy is immense - the many acts of kindness he wove into the fabric of his life, his unremitting intolerance for bullshit-----
We are moving on to the next issue. The Deputy cannot take advantage.
his courage to stand up for the people he loved, for people who needed support during difficult times, his honourable commitment to doing his work well.
Would that we had a future with him. He didn’t want to die.
Deputy Wallace must have some consideration. He will get no second intervention.
I thank Deputy Wallace for raising this very important issue. It was a very powerful and sad letter to hear, about Kenneth Rowe's story. He was a young man, aged 32. I accept that and offer my deepest sympathy to the family. We have to deal with the issue. I do not doubt the Deputy's sincerity and integrity about the issues he raised.
I can assure him that tackling suicide is a priority for the Government. Under the care of my Department, a cross sectoral steering group was established to assist the National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, in implementing Connecting for Life - Ireland’s national strategy to reduce suicide. This is a six year strategy running from 2015 to 2020. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is part of the HSE and was specifically established to co-ordinate suicide prevention efforts around the country and to implement Connecting for Life. To support NOSP, funding was increased from €3.7 million in 2010 to the current level of €12 million. An additional €275 million was provided in 2015 for additional resource officers for suicide prevention and for priority actions under Connecting for Life.
Wexford’s local Connecting for Life plan was launched in January 2016 and is aligned to the national strategy. As suicide affects each person in the community, this local plan is a collaboration by individuals and statutory and non-statutory bodies in the communities throughout Wexford. It has built on work already begun in Wexford since the initial countrywide plan was launched in 2004. The work of NOSP has helped to reduce the number of suicides in Ireland from 495 in 2010 to 392 in 2017. It must be noted that the 2017 figures are provisional and by their nature are subject to change and so should be interpreted with caution at this time.
The NOSP efforts in suicide prevention include training programmes such as safeTALK and ASIST. In addition, the Little Things campaign focuses on measures we can all do to protect our own mental health and to support the people we care about. Children and adolescents who present with suicidal ideation in Wexford, depending on their presentation, may be referred to a number of services, including a school counsellor; teen counselling services in the Ferns Diocesan Youth Service, FYDS; the HSE child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, in Wexford; the HSE primary care community psychology services and the HSE self-harm intervention programme, SHIP. In addition, the report of the national task force on youth mental health contains a number of recommendations on youth mental health that have been incorporated into the service plans of lead agencies and priorities for 2018 and 2019. Additionally, the Pathfinder project, which will be the first of its kind, will bring together officials from a number of relevant Departments to form a unit focused on youth mental health. This work will include the implementation of the recommendations of the national task force on youth mental health.
I accept the Deputy's point that nothing will bring back Kenneth Rowe, the lovely young man about whom he spoke, or take away the sadness in his sister's heart. We must develop mental health services that will help young people, in particular young men like Kenneth.
I do not wish to personalise this or to blame any one Minister for the problem. I had a pint with Kenneth Rowe a few weeks before he died. He is gone and he need not be. I note the services mentioned by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. The people of Wexford are of the view that there are not adequate services available to them. Young people are dying because the help they need is not available to them. In the last month, a 13 year old boy and a 15 year old girl committed suicide in Wexford. Wexford has the highest rate of suicide in the country. There is a serious problem there. Kenneth's sister believes that the Government has failed to adequately fund mental health services in Wexford. I am sorry to have to say it, but that is the truth. This Government and its predecessor failed to hit the mark in terms of mental health service provision.
People in Wexford are constantly ringing and texting me asking why nothing is changing, what the Government is doing to address this issue and if the Government cares. As I said, I do not blame any one individual for the lack of service provision but I believe that this Government and its predecessor failed the people of Wexford in terms of that provision. Neither Government served them well. That is the truth. Something has to give. I am pleading with the Minister of State to take action.
I agree we need to take action in regard to this particular issue. The Deputy's reference to a 13 year old and a 15 year old having recently committed suicide makes the other situation he highlighted even worse. The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the HSE, will continue to enhance the policies and services to reduce the incidence of suicide in Ireland.
I have looked at the statistics for Wexford. The Deputy is right in what he said. According to the three year moving average rate of suicide per 100,000 population by county of residents deceased between 2004 to 2017, the national average was 8.8%. In Wexford, its is 11.1%. I accept what the Deputy says. I do not propose to make false promises but I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, and ask that consideration be given to Wexford in the context of any services development into the future. We must take action. Suicide is a serious problem. We cannot afford to lose young people like Kenneth Rowe. As I said, I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, in the hope that he will take action in the next few months.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, for coming to the House to address this issue. He is one of the few Cabinet Ministers that turns up for Topical Issue matters on a consistent basis.
I am sure the Minister will accuse me of whining and whinging if I start off in a particular vein but I have a duty as a public representative to raise issues on behalf of my constituents. We become much more exercised about traffic at Christmas time but this Topical Issue is about traffic congestion all year round and specific issues that the Minister might consider addressing.
At Christmas time, people like to be relaxed but at any given time of the day there is intense traffic and pedestrian movement to and from the city or major shopping centres such as Dundrum shopping centre in the Minister's constituency, The Square in my constituency or in Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown centres as people attempt to do their Christmas shopping and enjoy the festive spirit. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a car or on a bus that is not moving, aggravated by weather conditions. One of the principles behind what was previously known as Operation Freeflow but is now known as Operation Open City is that all road works and so on are curtailed or undertaken during less busy commuting hours. At the entrance to my estate on Scholarstown Road, an area which the Minister previously represented, there is a roundabout at which major works are being carried out. This roundabout is 200 yd. from the M50 and thus there are never ending tailbacks. This work is due to continue until 17 December which means there is no Operation Open City in this area. I would like the Minister to whom I can appeal under Operation Open City to take action in this regard, particularly at this time of the year.
I would like to comment on a couple of issues. The Minister and I have previously engaged in this Chamber on the cost of congestion to the city annually, which is currently €300 million and is expected to increase by 2030 to approximately €2 billion annually.
Dublin Chamber discovered that one of the matters that frequently cheeses off commuters and deters them from using public transport is the reality that bus journey times are uncompetitive with car journey times.
I travel in a number of ways, be it walking, cycling, driving the car and occasionally on the bus. The bus lanes are not policed adequately. Does the Minister, the NTA or the councils have any plans for this? I realise that it uses up many Garda resources but if they were policed, the benefit would be twofold. A number of bus lanes do not operate on a 24-hour basis but when they are operational, cars simply fill up the space. That habit has been allowed to form because there is a lack of observational police control over it. However, if they were properly policed, many more people would have confidence in using the bus to commute to and from town or other areas. This is one matter in which the Minister could take a particular interest. There are others. We could try to facilitate a number of park-and-ride facilities on the outskirts of the city and in the suburbs by using existing car parks that are not used during office hours.
These are just a few ideas for the Minister and I welcome his feedback on them.
I thank the Deputy for his constructive suggestions. Congestion is a gift that keeps on giving. It must be wonderful to be a transport spokesperson or spokesperson on Dublin in the Opposition and wonder what to have a go at on a given day. One could talk about congestion every day until kingdom come and one would still find problems. We admit that it is not optimal. There are problems with congestion and it is easy to tackle it from the Opposition. The Government is not ashamed of the strong measures it has taken to relieve congestion. It is a little odd that when we do something right at Christmas, the complaint becomes, "Why not do it all year round?" rather than, "Well done, it is working at Christmas". It is a short and sharp attempt to tackle the traffic challenge around Christmas. Thankfully, it is successful even if there still is congestion. The Deputy acknowledges it and I am grateful to him for that.
It is a matter of Garda enforcement. While we welcome what the gardaí are doing, it would be difficult for them to do it all year round. I guess that is because of resources. I do not know because Garda enforcement is not in my portfolio. However, the Garda makes an extra special effort with extra manpower on the city traffic flow and it tackles that with some success, but I assume those resources must be deployed elsewhere or are not available during the rest of the year. I congratulate the Garda on what it has been doing around Christmas. I share the Deputy's aspiration that we could have perfection or near perfection all the time, but we will not get that in respect of the traffic flow and congestion in Dublin for some time to come. That does not mean we are not tackling it; we are doing that constructively.
Operation Open City aims to help people get about their day's business, and enjoy the seasonal festivities, by facilitating the movement of public transport in Dublin and minimising traffic disruption to the general public through high visibility and enforcement activity. The operation is led each year by An Garda Síochána. A number of different agencies are involved in supporting the work of the Garda such as the National Transport Authority, NTA, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, the Dublin local authorities, transport providers and the business community. However, the issue of congestion in our cities, while it may become more acute over the Christmas period, is a challenge all year round. As can be seen from Operation Open City each Christmas, that challenge requires a multi-agency response. I assure the Deputy that such an approach is being adopted in Dublin city and the wider greater Dublin area.
The NTA, Dublin City Council and TII, in conjunction with public transport operators, are progressing various measures to ensure efficient functioning of transport within the city centre. These measures can be found in the NTA's transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, as well as the 2015 Dublin city centre transport study which was prepared by the city council and the NTA. Not surprisingly, a key thrust of both is to significantly improve public transport infrastructure and services, as well cycling and walking facilities in the city. A number of recently completed projects have served to improve both capacity and quality of service. These include the opening of Luas cross city last year, the reopening of the Phoenix Park tunnel for commuter trains to and from Kildare at the end of 2016, the introduction earlier this year of ten minute DART services, investment in cycle routes and public bike sharing schemes and the renewal and expansion of the PSO bus fleets.
This week, new timetables came into operation across the commuter rail network, which provide for extended services throughout the day. Next year, the PSO bus fleet in the city will increase by approximately 70 and the fleet has expanded by 17% in the past couple of years. The Luas green line capacity enhancement project will continue in 2019 with the delivery of extended trams expected toward the end of the year.
The Minister started by saying it must be wonderful to be in opposition and raising traffic congestion, which is the gift that keeps on giving. It does not give me any pleasure to do it because it is a problem on which he does not appear to be making an impact. I have not seen a significant Garda presence on the street. However, let us keep the focus on positive matters. Did the Minister call the representatives of all the agencies to his Department, because if I was in his position I would do this a month or two months before the Christmas period, and have a discussion with them, push them hard on the measures they could take and ask them if they look at international experience? It would be a logical first step for a Minister with responsibility for transport to hear from them at first hand and also to offer some suggestions.
Perhaps the Minister would abandon the script for his response to the next issue, which is the bus lanes. This could benefit people all year round. If they are policed adequately, particularly the important ones, and if people are penalised when they drive in a bus lane, they will learn a habit that will continue over the rest of the year. It is not about penalising them for being in a bus lane but because the bus simply cannot proceed when there are cars in the bus lane. The buses are held up and do not meet their timetables so the public is less inclined to take public transport. This would be a real public transport initiative.
There is another issue. On the next occasion the Minister meets the representatives of Luas and Dublin Bus could he ask them why all vehicles must start at a terminus? I have raised this with Dublin Bus. In Dundrum and Sandyford in the Minister's constituency, is there some technical or logistical reason that Luas cannot dispatch the occasional empty tram at peak times that passes a few stops and starts at Dundrum and is able to pick up everybody on the platform instead of starting every Luas at the terminus? It is similar with buses. Many people in different areas complain that if a bus was allowed to start boarding passengers four or five stops into the route, it could absorb the capacity and there would not be the problem of packed buses passing people queuing at bus stops.
These are two or three simple solutions.
It is difficult to respond without being too detailed, which is not in my brief. I do not decide on bus routes, individual corridors or the like and it would be absolutely wrong if I did. The first thing that would happen is I would have to consider various people's constituencies and I would be accused of political favouritism. I do not get involved in that type of detail. However, I meet representatives of the NTA, Luas, Dublin Bus and the other bodies the Deputies mentioned regularly and I express the type of concerns he expressed regularly. They are aware of that. I refer the concerns he expressed, which probably reflect my own, to them from time to time.
It is unfair to suggest they are not doing an adequate job in relieving congestion. Congestion will not be resolved in the short term. One will not wave a magic wand and sort it out overnight. We are taking extraordinary measures which are part of a long-term programme that will relieve the problems.
Bus transport is the main component of the solution. Sustainable transport is very important and bus transport is the largest ingredient of that. We have invested huge sums of money in bus transport to achieve the same objectives that Deputy Lahart and I would like to achieve. I do not think the Deputy and I differ on issues such as BusConnects. Perhaps we might have some differences on the detail of certain routes, but on the whole this is a very concerted and expensive plan, although money well spent, on getting people to more places in a shorter time. It will involve building more bus corridors, to which the Deputy referred. This is important because the buses will cut the journey times, which hopefully will automatically take the cars off the road.
With other projects that I do not have time to list-----
We are tackling this on a long-term and a short-term basis. Traffic congestion will not be sorted overnight, but it will be relieved greatly by the projects on which we have embarked.
Closed-Circuit Television Systems Provision
I welcome the opportunity to address this issue. I am disappointed the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is not in the Chamber to take the Topical Issue matter. Perhaps there is a reason for that. I will address it with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is designated in the Minister's place.
There is a very frustrating situation currently where community groups have been awarded grants for community CCTV but they are not in a position to draw down the grants. Mullaghmore, Woodenbridge and Mountmellick community alerts in Laois are all shackled at the moment. Those groups have raised thousands of euro towards a CCTV scheme through voluntary efforts but they are in a situation where they cannot put their plans into action because of a dispute over who is the data controller. I have raised the issue previously in the Chamber, and I raised it at the Laois local joint policing committee, JPC, of which I am a member. The policing committee asked me to raise the issue with the Minister, and I have spoken to him about it. I am trying to get greater clarity on it but we do not seem to be getting any closer to a solution. We need to push on to solve it and crack this nut.
I raised the matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, on September 25 and he told me he was anxious to sit down with the remaining handful of local authorities with a view to dealing with the issue. At that stage 26 out of 31 local authorities had agreed to be data controllers. Some people in local government believe the role should be taken on by the Garda, and I will return to this point shortly, but information that has since come to light shows that the responsibility is with the local authorities.
I raised the issue again in the Chamber with the Minister for Justice and Equality on 29 November during questions to the Minister. The Minister replied with greater clarity and he set it out very clearly that 28 out of 31 local authorities across the State had taken on the job of data controller for local CCTV schemes. Three local authorities, however, are refusing, including Laois County Council. The Minister also stated that "the Data Protection Commissioner does not have any concerns about the legislative basis for CCTV." The Data Protection Commissioner is happy with it. The Minister also stated the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner was currently conducting an audit of the practice, operation and governance of CCTV, that he expected findings from this process to be of assistance to all concerned and, in particular, to local authorities and that his Department was engaging on an ongoing basis with the Local Government Management Agency and the County and City Management Association. In reply to another question the Minister clearly stated that "the legal requirement for local authorities to act as data controller for the purpose of community CCTV schemes has been in place since 2006." That is in black and white. It is useful that the Minister nailed that information in the Dáil Chamber when I asked that question but we are no further on. There are meetings in Laois on issue - I am sure it affects other counties - to try to get a solution.
What has happened since the commitment was given in September that the Minister would sit down with the handful of remaining local authorities? Has he sat down with the remaining local authorities? Have his officials sat down with the local authority chief executive officers to see why they are holding this up?
On 29 November it was stated that the Department officials were again meeting with the CEOs of the local authorities. Has there been progress as a result of that? The Data Protection Commissioner does not have any concerns about the legislation and that the data controller would be the local authorities.
The community alert groups, such as those in Mullaghmore, Woodenbridge and Mountmellick, are all shackled despite having raised thousands of euro. They cannot move ahead to implement the scheme. It is very disappointing because Laois has a motorway running through it and people there are particularly vulnerable. There is concern about the issue in all those neighbourhoods.
People are trying to work with the Garda and there is good co-operation with gardaí. We have a good joint policing committee in the county, and a good superintendent and assistant superintendent who work with the local communities to help out in every way they can.
The Minister sends his apologies for not being present this evening. I thank Deputy Stanley for raising this very important issue and I recognise his serious interest in the matter. The Minister and I have heard from many groups of their desire for CCTV in their local areas and we know the sense of security that it can bring to many communities. Responding to this demand, the Government has made significant funding available to assist groups wishing to establish community CCTV in their areas. The grant aid scheme administered by the Department of Justice and Equality is intended to run for three years, with €1 million available each year.
The Deputy will appreciate that there are a number of legal requirements around establishment of CCTV. CCTV systems installed for the purposes of crime prevention and as aids to policing in areas to which the general public routinely have access, such as town centres, fall into two distinct but complementary categories, namely, Garda CCTV systems and community-based CCTV systems. Neither type of CCTV system may be established without authorisation by the Garda Commissioner under section 38 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, among other requirements. Community CCTV is governed by section 38(3)(c) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Garda Síochána (CCTV) Order 2006. This legal framework requires that any proposed community CCTV scheme must: be approved by the local joint policing committee; have the authorisation of the Garda Commissioner; and have the prior support of the relevant local authority, which must also act as data controller. I emphasise that this is the legal basis for all community CCTV schemes, regardless of whether or not grant funding is sought from the Department to assist in their establishment.
In accordance with this legal framework, the vast majority of local authorities have previously undertaken to act as data controllers in the context of specific community CCTV schemes. This has been the case either in the course of the current grant aid scheme administered by the Department of Justice and Equality, during the previous grant aid scheme operated by Pobal on behalf of the Department, or in connection with schemes funded independently by local authorities. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has informed me that, based on his Department’s engagement with the Local Government Management Agency, the number of local authorities that have undertaken the role of data controller for these purposes amounts to 28 out of the 31 local authorities nationwide, as Deputy Stanley already said. I am pleased to inform the Deputy, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has, on 29 November of this year, issued a guidance on data protection and community CCTV. The guidance, which is available on the Data Protection Commission website, confirms that there is a legal basis for community based CCTV and that the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, does not introduce new barriers in that regard. In particular, the Data Protection Commissioner's guidance states:
Data protection legislation does not stand in the way of the roll-out of Community based CCTV schemes that have been authorised by the Garda Commissioner. Once the local authority in the administrative area concerned is willing to take on and deliver on its responsibilities as a data controller for the schemes concerned, there is no legal impediment under data protection legislation to the scheme commencing.
The guidance covers a number of other issues also - for example, confirming that local authorities are not required, as a result of their role as data controller, to monitor CCTV live feeds on a continuous basis. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is confident that this and other clarifications in the note will be of significant assistance to local authorities in how they carry out their role in relation to community CCTV.
The Data Protection Commissioner is also currently conducting an audit of issues, including the practice, operation and governance of CCTV. Again, it is to be expected that the more detailed findings of that process will be of assistance to all concerned and, in particular, to local authorities. The Deputy may also be aware that the Department of Justice and Equality is engaging on an ongoing basis with the Local Government Management Agency and the County and City Management Association to clarify any queries arising.
A Programme for a Partnership Government commits to supporting investment in CCTV systems and, as I said, the Department of Justice and Equality is administering a grant aid scheme to assist groups in the establishment of community-based CCTV systems in their local areas. Eligible groups can apply for grant aid of up to 60% of the total capital cost of a proposed CCTV scheme, up to a maximum total of €40,000. I am informed that to date there have been 27 applications to the scheme, with 20 applications approved for grants totalling more than €500,000. A further four applications to the scheme are currently being assessed and considered. The remaining three applications have been returned to the applicants concerned to enable them to supply the information necessary to qualify for grant aid.
I thank the Minister of State. His reply brings further clarity to the situation. In respect of section 38(3)(c) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Minister of State restated that the local authority must act as the data controller. That is clear and has been established. He also said that he has received feedback from the Data Protection Commissioner who confirmed that there is no issue with local authorities doing this in respect of the new GDPR regulations. We are removing the roadblocks. I want to be fair to the CEOs of the local authorities. Perhaps it is an issue of resources, finance or IT staff, particularly for the smaller local authorities. Let us consider where the situation seems to be stuck at the moment. The Data Protection Commissioner is okay. The law is sound and we are clear on that in black and white. The Minister of State has provided further information regarding data protection. What happens next? How far is that advanced with the CEOs of local authorities around the country, including the three that are still refusing to do it? Perhaps they have good reason. Is it a question of resources or staff?
I have corresponded again with the CEO of Laois County Council and I have forwarded the most recent reply to the CEO that was given to me by the Minister in the Chamber. The existing schemes that are not part of the grant scheme in Shanahoe and Borris-in-Ossory, Co. Laois, have been of enormous benefit in recent years in helping the Garda and the local community to prevent and solve crime. I know that at first hand. There is a real benefit. The Minister of State might be able to tell me first where those discussions are at with the CEOs of the three county councils. I also request that he relays to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that there is one roadblock in the way. If it is resources and staff that the county councils need, it needs to be sorted.
I reiterate that it is a long-standing statutory requirement that any proposal for a community CCTV scheme must, among other legal requirements, have the prior support of the relevant local authority. That is a must. It must also act as data controller. This requirement is set out in the Garda Síochána (CCTV) Order 2006 and applies to all community CCTV schemes, regardless of how they are funded. The Minister has indicated that he considers it important that communities are able to make decisions to enhance their own sense of security. Community CCTV schemes are one way in which communities choose to do this. With Garda approval and local authority co-operation, communities can play a real role in making themselves feel safer and be safer. We are confident that the guidance issued recently by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner regarding data protection and CCTV will be very helpful to all concerned, as the Deputy has outlined, and particularly to local authorities as they carry out their role. The Minister has asked me to put on record his thanks to local authorities that have supported such schemes and to assure them that his officials are doing all they can to further streamline and simplify the process. Officials in the Department of Justice and Equality are available to provide initial guidance on the application process for grant aid and I encourage the Deputy and other colleagues to join the Minister and me in encouraging interested groups to take advantage of the scheme. I will bring back the request that the Deputy has made to the Department and the Minister. Only three local authorities have not signed up to this. They probably have their own reasons. I assure the Deputy that the Minster and his officials will do all they can to find out what those reasons are and to streamline the situation so that these schemes can be put in place.