6. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the status of the roll-out of community-based CCTV schemes nationwide. [47678/19]
Vol. 989 No. 5
6. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the status of the roll-out of community-based CCTV schemes nationwide. [47678/19]
I ask the Minister the status of the roll-out of community-based CCTV schemes nationwide. There was a specific commitment in the confidence and supply agreement and the programme for Government whereby Fine Gael committed to invest in CCTV. Despite committing to and promising €1 million per annum, we have not seen the colour of that. We need much more investment and a much more proactive approach from Government.
It is not a matter of investment. It is a matter of ensuring that the regulatory framework is known to people and can be deployed as such. The legal framework requires that any proposed community CCTV scheme must meet a number of conditions: it must be approved by the local joint policing committee, it must have the prior support of the relevant local authority, which must also act as data controller, and it must have the authorisation of the Garda Commissioner. This is the legal basis for all CCTV schemes, regardless of how they are funded, and these key legal requirements have not changed since 2006. The option to establish a community CCTV scheme is available to groups anywhere in the country that meet these legal requirements.
My Department does not maintain a register of all community-based CCTV schemes nationwide, which would be beyond its remit. However, I can confirm to the Deputy that, since 2017, my Department has administered a grant aid scheme supporting groups wishing to establish a community-based CCTV system in their area. To date, 22 applications have been approved under the scheme, involving approved grants of more than €566,000.
Eligible groups, including community groups and local authorities nationwide, can apply for grant aid of up to 60% of the total capital cost of a proposed scheme, up to a maximum of €40,000. As the Deputy may be aware, earlier this year, I expanded the grant aid scheme to cover not only new CCTV systems but also to allow funding applications for extension or upgrade of existing community CCTV systems, some of which are outdated or obsolete. Applicants can now seek a once-off grant of up to €5,000 for minor maintenance costs.
The scheme is very much open for applications from interested parties and groups. All fully completed applications received before the end of this year will be considered. I am also pleased to announce that I have recently approved extension of the grant aid scheme for a further year into 2020.
The Minister announced that a total of €566,000 has been approved, but the fact is he committed to €1 million per year. The problem is not that community groups do not know the regulations involved. The problem is that they know the regulations all too well and they know the difficulties with them. It is not possible for some communities to get together to put in an application because, for example, they might be too big or might not have somebody driving it forward. Moreover, it is not based on crime statistics or on need. There is huge difficulty.
Another difficulty, of course, is the idea that the local authority is the data controller when this is for the purpose of fighting crime. The local authority is not a crime fighter and it really should be the Garda Síochána that has full control of the images, as it does in one particular scheme I know of, which was not funded under this programme but works very well. Nobody has access to that except very senior gardaí in the station.
Much more needs to be done on this. It cannot be dependent on one or two communities that have the wherewithal and the ability to fund the remainder of the scheme to get this up and running. It must based on where schemes are needed and on the crime figures. That is the basis on which CCTV should be provided.
I am not sure what the Deputy has put forward in terms of alternatives. I can say, however, that the requirement for local authorities to act as data controller for the schemes is a statutory one set out in the Garda Síochána CCTV order of 2006. It is a legal requirement for any proposed scheme that the relevant local authority act as data controller. This is the law. It has not changed.
I would further note, however, that the power to establish the criteria for CCTV schemes is now a matter for the Policing Authority by order made with the approval of Government. The statutory framework does not place an obligation on local authorities to take part in community CCTV. However, if a local authority decides it is not prepared to act as data controller for community CCTV, this prevents the community scheme from operating in its functional area. In effect, the current legislative structure is an enabling one that empowers local communities and local authorities to establish a system to which gardaí have appropriate access, provided they meet the statutory requirements.
I am not sure if Deputy Byrne is proposing that we disregard the statutory requirements, which include the fact the local authority is prepared to assume responsibility as data controller. By contrast, Garda CCTV is set up by the Garda and is a different scheme under different regulations and a different framework. That is set at locations that have been chosen and prioritised by the Garda, whereas the community groups are in locations chosen and prioritised by local communities, and that is the essence of the scheme.
The Minister is rapidly acquiring the nickname "Sir Humphrey". He has given us every reason something cannot be done and every reason to pass the buck from the Department to local authorities and community groups by saying I want to disapply statutes, which of course I do not. I want the Minister to give a helping hand to those communities that he promised to fund but has not funded. He has funded only a fraction of what the Government committed to do, which is wrong.
People need a helping hand. We must consider whether placing the burden on local authorities, which are not charged with fighting crime, and community groups that are struggling to do lots of other things represents the best value for money. Let us be honest: some community groups are better placed than others to apply for grants such as this. That is a fact. Fair play to them, and I admire them, but there are other areas which could benefit from this scheme. All we ask is that the Minister, who effectively administers the scheme in terms of providing 60% of the funding for it, make it as easy as possible for towns and villages to get involved. We ask him to assume his responsibility and not simply pass the buck to local authorities and accuse me of trying to break the law in some way, which is the most ridiculous answer a Minister has ever given to the House.
By way of explanation to Deputy Thomas Byrne, who has difficulty listening, if he is aware of any groups that wish to avail of the scheme, first, further details are available to download from my Department's website; second, support and guidance is available to help interested groups through a dedicated email address in my Department; and third, if he would like to bring any specific issue to my attention-----
-----my door is always open, as he should know. My officials are available to help in any way the Deputy feels would be appropriate, but within the legal framework. I emphasise again that grant funding will only be considered where the application meets the legal requirements for CCTV. In other words, I refer to systems that have been approved by the local joint policing committee, meetings of which I am sure Deputy Thomas Byrne is a regular attender in Meath-----
-----and of which I am sure he is aware, or the relevant local authority. I assume the Deputy has been a member of Meath County Council.
In fact, he has a direct familial link in that area - again, importance by way of assistance. The systems must also have received the authorisation of the Garda Commissioner. I do not believe this is an issue of mirth-----
The Minister's answer is.
-----but I would be very keen to assist any local groups that Deputy Byrne believes would like to avail of assistance from the Department of Justice and Equality. I would be keen to ensure that any community group, provided it meets the legal requirements, may be assisted under what is an attractive grant aid scheme.
I remind all Deputies and Ministers of the time. We want to reach as many questions as possible.
7. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if the low uptake of legal advice under section 26(3) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 (details supplied) has been investigated; the number of applications made in this regard each year since the enactment of the Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47799/19]
This question concerns the take-up of the provisions whereby legal advice is available to people making allegations, or the Director of Public Prosecutions prosecuting on their behalf, of rape offences, aggravated sexual assault, defilement of children or incest. It appears there is a very poor take-up in this regard. What is the Minister's Department doing to find out what the story is?
I am acutely aware of the particular difficulties victims of sexual offences encounter during the investigation and prosecution process.
This question concerns section 26(3A) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, as amended, which provides for legal advice to be made available, free of contribution and without any means or merits criteria, to complainants in prosecutions for rape and certain sexual assault cases.
However, only a small number of people avail of the advice service, as opposed to the legal aid service, each year. The number of applications have been as follows: five in 2013, eight in 2014, two in 2015, six in 2016, four in 2017, one in 2018, and two so far this year.
I am aware that the provisions in the current legal aid legislation in respect of both legal advice and legal aid during prosecutions, though well intended, are somewhat limited.
A victim may be asked to make decisions at various points during the investigation or the trial with far-reaching consequences while they are very vulnerable. In many cases they will be emotionally traumatised, upset or in a very fragile and difficult position.
The low demand for the advice service may reflect a low awareness of its availability or the fact that it is only available once a prosecution has actually been commenced. It is not available to a person who may be reporting an alleged offence to An Garda Síochána or where a decision not to prosecute the alleged offence is taken.
The service is advertised on the Legal Aid Board website and is on the Garda Síochána website, among other places. There is no automatic referral to the service, and the complainant must apply to a law centre for the service. Applications may also be made online.
I have asked an expert group, chaired by Professor Tom O'Malley of National University of Ireland Galway to examine this matter carefully and to bring forward recommendations that will help protect vulnerable witnesses and help ensure they can deliver the best possible evidence in a court situation. That group is due to publish its report before the end of this year.
The Minister gave a good outline in his response as to what is available but said very little about why people are not availing of the service. As Minister, his responsibility is to see why it has not been taken up. It is a very worthwhile service. In 2005, Amnesty International stated, "In practice this provision has not been used, and victims are generally unaware of its existence." It is a failing in itself on the part of his Department, the Garda and the prosecution services that victims are unaware that this is available to them. Yes, it is very limited in that it is only available when the case has proceeded to prosecution, but I think something like 80 or 90 cases are prosecuted every year. Nonetheless the uptake is still extremely small. It is very worrying, particularly for victims, when the prosecution for the case is actually a witness rather than a party to the case. That can be very traumatic for the victims.
The Minister mentioned that the O'Malley report will deal with this, and that is welcome, but the problem with that is that Professor O'Malley was initially supposed to report at the end of 2018, and now it is being said he will do so in 2019 or 2020. Such a long delay is very worrying.
I would be happy to take serious note of any point raised by Deputy Pringle or any other Deputy if there is a scheme of further information that might be applied in certain circumstances. The legal advice, the legal aid service, is available right throughout the country. The Legal Aid Board provides legal aid and advice primarily through the network of law centres and the solicitors employed by the board. There are 30 full-time and 12 part-time law centres. The practice is that if the case is being heard in the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin, as most rape and serious sexual assault cases are, a Dublin law centre will provide the representation.
Legal advice and support are not the only form of advice and support that can be of help. An Garda Síochána has set up specialised units tasked with improving service to victims of domestic and sexual violence, improving the investigation of domestic and sexual violence incidents and identifying and managing risk. These divisional protective services units have been rolled out on a phased basis across 13 divisions to date. The units will significantly improve services to victims, including children.
I thank the Minister again, but the problem is that this is governed by the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. It is 2019 and this is only being reviewed now to see why there is a poor take-up. That is very problematic. Perhaps the role we can play is to ask why these provisions are not being reviewed now. We are not in a position to bring the actual information to the Minister, but his Department is obviously not in the position of going out and looking for the information either. That is worrying because these provisions are put in place to make it easier for victims and to assist the prosecution of these very serious crimes. As part of that we must have a review as to how these provisions are working and what we need to do to change them. While this information service is very limited, quite a number of cases are going to court and going through the whole prosecution service without the service being availed of, and we should be asking why.
I reject the Deputy's assertion that the law in this area is so outdated as to be less than relevant.
I did not say that.
I point, for example, to the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, which has extended the circumstances under which legal aid and advice may be proper to alleged victims and complainants, and to the Victims of Crime Act 2017, which has created a number of statutory rights for victims of crime, including the rights to receive comprehensive, timely advice, and to access appropriate information in the criminal justice system and victims' role in it. However, I go back to what I said in my initial reply.
We are currently finalising a revised updated victims' charter, for which the legal aid board provided updated material explaining the advice service to victims of rape and explaining the circumstances, process, practice and procedure in respect of sexual assault cases where those cases are going to court. The Deputy's comments will feed into the national review that is being undertaken under the chairmanship of Professor Tom O'Malley, the report of which I expect to have before the end of the year. I would be happy to share the contents and recommendations with Deputies, and I am sure it will be the subject of debate in the House.
8. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the way in which he plans to respond to the report by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality calling for reform of the family law system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47616/19]
Earlier this year, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality had extensive hearings about the family law system in this country. It published a report in October that contained a number of recommendations on how the family law system could be transformed and improved. The recommendations had wide positive reception from a variety of different groups. What is the Minister's proposal in respect of that report? Will he be prepared to implement any of the recommendations?
I ask the Minister to be mindful of the time. We are trying to get five more questions in.
I will do it within the time provided. I welcome the recent publication of this very comprehensive report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, of which the Deputy is a member and which is chaired by Deputy Ó Caoláin. I acknowledge the importance of the committee's work and congratulate the committee on the important level of public engagement that has taken place in the context of the report. My Department is particularly focused on the reform of the family law system in Ireland. Collaborative work at a cross-functional level is taking place in my Department, examining the policy, legislation and governance aspects of the modernisation of the family law system in Ireland. That modernisation includes the introduction of a new family court Bill and the development of a dedicated family court system. In addition, a task force comprising senior officials from my Department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service has been formed to seek agreement on core questions of policy and cost.
The proposals being developed are very much in line with the recommendations made by the committee in its report. For example, work is at an advanced stage on the general scheme of the proposed family court Bill to enable the creation of a new dedicated family court within the existing court structures. Central to the proposed legislation is the idea that family courts will have new procedures aimed at less adversarial resolution of disputes and will have appropriate facilities and case management arrangements. I believe that this approach is very much in line with some of the key recommendations of the committee in its report. The report's recommendations are timely with regard to initiatives that I have at an advanced stage.
Everyone in this House will probably recognise, although they may not appreciate it as much as the Minister or I, the stress associated with family law cases. People go to court and it is a stressful event. When people go to court in family law cases, it is enormously stressful, and it has long-term impacts. The decisions of the court stay with people until the end of their lives, especially when children are involved. It is imperative to have a system in place that ensures that there is respect for and recognition of the fact that these are extremely stressful and traumatic experiences for people who are before the courts. I welcome that the Minister says that a family court Bill will be produced. We need to look on a more basic level at the services available to people who are before the courts. It is completely inappropriate that people who are involved in stressful litigation in the courts have to talk to their lawyers in a corridor because they do not have appropriate consultation rooms. We would not allow that for any other service in the State. We need to invest more in the family law courts and those processes. What proposals does the Minister have for Hammond Lane, where we are supposed to have a family law court?
The development of sensible, comprehensive and sensitive family law procedures, particularly for vulnerable families, will be central to the new system. I will be proposing to Government within coming weeks that these procedures should encompass access to appropriate information and advice regarding the law and the important matter of alternative dispute resolution services such as mediation. This reflects the thinking underlying the committee's recommendations. The report also references the need for improved court structures and facilities. In this regard the Government is already committed to building a new family law centre and children's court complex in Dublin 7. The Government's infrastructure and capital investment plan provides for the development of these at the Hammond Lane site in a central Dublin location. Deputy O'Callaghan will be aware that under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts, including the provision of accommodation, is a matter for the Courts Service. However, I am very keen that progress be reported on this new centre. Some €80 million in capital funding has been made available for this important priority project.
I welcome what the Minister says but I think that we need to do something with Hammond Lane. Ms Angela Denning, who is the Accounting Officer for the Courts Service, was before the Committee of Public Accounts last week. From what she said, we understand that Hammond Lane is being used as a site depot for other builders who are doing work in the vicinity of Smithfield. We need Government commitment to develop this site so that we can have full, proper family law courts there. We need to look at judges. We need greater training for judges who are dealing with family law cases. More importantly, we need more judges to deal with these issues. Most of these cases are before the District Court and Circuit Court. When one sees citizens in Phoenix House, one can see that the facilities there at present are completely unacceptable. We need to modernise our family law courts. As we mentioned in our report, ultimately, a court-imposed solution on a family is no substitute for an agreed, mediated settlement between the family. We should be trying to ensure that they stay away from adversarial processes and that we can have a mediated settlement to resolve disputes.
I want to see the Hammond Lane project started and completed at the earliest opportunity. I met people from the Courts Service about this last week. Deputy O'Callaghan will understand that there are a number of interested parties, including the Office of Public Works, the National Development Finance Agency, the Courts Service and my own Department. I am keen to ensure that we see progress here.
By way of general reply to the question, I acknowledge that I have only touched on some of recommendations contained in the committee's report, given the limited time available to me. I confirm that I am committed to the principle that families need to be at the centre of the redesigned family law system. I am keen to ensure that, over coming weeks, we will see progress on the general scheme of a new Bill in that area. Once again, I thank the committee for its report, which comes at a very timely moment in my consideration of these urgent and important matters.
9. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of persons who have been made wards of court since the passing of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47764/19]
Is ceist dhíreach agus shimplí í seo i ndáiríre. How many persons have been made a ward of court since the passing of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015?
The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 was signed into law on 30 December 2015 but has not yet been fully commenced. As Deputy Connolly will be aware, the High Court has jurisdiction in wards of court matters. Management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions under the Courts Service Act 1998. To be of assistance, I have had enquiries made and can inform the Deputy that the number of wards of court declared during the period 2016 to 2019 is as follows. In 2016, there were 290. In 2017, there were 325. In 2018, there were 327. In 2019, to date, there have been 316.
The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 provides a modern statutory framework to support decision-making by adults with capacity difficulties.
It provides for the establishment of new administrative processes and support measures, including the setting up of the decision support service, DSS, within the Mental Health Commission, a body under the Department of Health.
Some provisions of the Act were commenced in October 2016 and progress has been made on preparing for the establishment of the DSS and commencement of the remainder of the Act. A high-level steering group comprising senior officials from the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Health, the Mental Health Commission and the Courts Service, together with the Director of the DSS, is overseeing the establishment and commissioning of the DSS and this work is ongoing. The Director of the DSS is working towards being operational and ready for the commencement of the main provisions of the Act. This lead-in timeframe ensures that the necessary staff resources, processes, IT system, expert panels, codes of practice and regulations will be in place so that the service will have the capacity to be up and running effectively. There are many complex strands to this work, including involvement of multiple organisations, and the situation is being kept under ongoing review as the preparatory work on implementation moves forward.
I am aware of that and many other Deputies have asked questions and got those replies. The Minister has given me the numbers and I thank him for that. He might just clarify them. In that period of time over 1,000 people were made wards of court. Is that right? I did not quite get the figures.
Over 1,000 people have been made wards of court since the Oireachtas decided that this was not the right way to proceed. That legislation followed a long campaign. We have had numerous reports from the Committee on Public Accounts and from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality prior to my time and a review from the National Safeguarding Committee amongst many other reports putting us on notice that the system is not fit for purpose, it is outdated and that it is not in keeping with our obligations. Last night we talked about the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the empowerment and enabling model. The Minister is very familiar with that. Any further delay is detrimental to this.
I am very conscious of the point raised by the Deputy and I am also very conscious of her interest and that of others in this House in this area of law over several years. I am very keen to see progress on the implementation of the legislation as enacted. The commencement of Part 8 of the Act, which provides for a legislative framework for advanced healthcare directives, is a matter for the Minister for Health. My Department will continue to work closely with the Mental Health Commission and the director of the DSS to deliver the full implementation of the Act. When the Act is fully commenced, the law will be changed from the current all or nothing status approach to a flexible functional definition, whereby capacity is assessed only in relation to the matter in question and only at the time in question. I would be happy to provide the table provided to me to Deputy Connolly now but she is right the figures do amount to in excess of 1,000 wards of court during the period 2016-19. I would be very keen to facilitate the continued ongoing working of all the parties to ensure the implementation happens as quickly as possible.
I appreciate the goodwill and welcome the setting up of a high level steering group. The Minister however would have to say that it is unacceptable if we have decided that this is not the way to go and we have passed the legislation that over 1,000 people have been made wards of court in that time. He might clarify when it is expected the Act will be in full operation. There will be a further transition period when all the existing wards of court transfer out of that system. It is unacceptable that there will be a further delay. Will it be a few years before the Act is fully operational? Will we have 2,000 or 3,000 further applications and decisions made to make people wards of court when it is entirely unnecessary and more importantly totally out of keeping with the Act in its spirit and in the letter of the law?
I am sure the Deputy will agree that it is necessary that all the appropriate administrative processes and support measures including the setting up of the DSS within the Mental Health Commission are put in place before the substantive provisions of the 2015 Act can be brought into operation. Indeed the substantive provisions will be commenced when the director of the DSS is ready to roll out the new decision-making support options. The commencement of Part 8 of the 2015 Act which provides for a legislative framework for advanced healthcare directives is a matter for the Minister for Health. The commencement provisions provide for the establishment by the Minister for Health of a multidisciplinary group to make recommendations to the director of the DSS on codes of practice on advanced health care directives. In anticipation of the completion of that process the Minister for Health commenced the remainder of section 91 in December of last year. The key preparations are being put in place under the oversight of the steering group to allow for further commencement orders for the provisions of the 2015 Act to be made when the director of the DSS is in a position to roll out the new decision-making support options.
10. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the operations in place by An Garda Síochána to deal with the issue of public and on-street drug dealing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47675/19]
The Minister is aware that on-street drug dealing and drug dealing in public places has increased in recent years. That is evidenced by the increased prosecutions and seizures by the gardaí. Those who are members of joint policing committees are well aware that this issue is constantly debated. In light of this increasing problem can the Minister inform the House what particular operations have been undertaken to address this issue?
I share the Deputy's concern about the destructive impact which anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing can have on communities and the importance of tackling such behaviour effectively, both for the communities and for those involved in drug taking which leads to so many drug-related deaths in our communities.
Government policy is guided by the national drugs strategy "Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - a health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025". This represents a whole-of-government evidence-informed response to the scourge of drug and alcohol use in Ireland. Implementation of the strategy is led by my colleague, the Minister for Health, although obviously it includes a wide range of actions for all stakeholders, including my Department and An Garda Síochána. The strategy recognises the need for a balanced health-led approach, reducing demand, while also reducing access to illegal drugs and the Deputy will be aware of the Government's initiative aimed at reducing the number of people criminalised for the possession of drugs for personal use. While this move will support the vulnerable people who use drugs, it is essential to continue the relentless pursuit of drug dealers and I intend to develop an increasingly punitive approach to those who seek to involve children in drug related crime. My officials are currently examining policy approaches to tackle this issue, including the potential to develop legislative proposals in this area, taking account of international best practice.
I thank the Minister for his response and I do acknowledge that drug addiction is being appropriately dealt with through a health-led response. My particular question, however, is about the scourge of on-street and public drug dealing. It is not just a Dublin issue. My colleagues inform me it is happening around the country. It is undermining communities and businesses. We have heard examples of businesses which have felt threatened and intimidated because there is drug-dealing going on in front of their premises and they have relocated. In light of the issues around public and on-street drug dealing we cannot allow that become the norm and the public face of our towns and cities. I acknowledge that the operations of An Garda Síochána is a matter for the Garda Commissioner but the Commissioner also has to be mindful of Government policy and in that regard deal specifically with public and on-street drug dealing. Can the Minister advise what particular operations will be in place?
The House will appreciate that my responsibility is within the criminal justice area. I remind the House of the work of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, a body that is having significant success in disrupting drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs in Ireland as well as organised crime groups.
Since its establishment in March 2015, the bureau, which now has 105 gardaí attached to it, has been responsible for the seizure of controlled substances with an estimated street value of approximately €167 million, with substances to a value of €20 million seized this year alone. Deputy Curran is correct that cutting off the supply of drugs to dealers in this way results in a reduction of instances of public and on-street drug dealing. I share the Deputy's concern in this regard. In the same period, the bureau has been responsible for the seizure of cash, believed to be the proceeds of crime, to a value of €10 million, as well as 108 firearms and over 3,000 rounds of ammunition. I am informed that there are several policing operations in place nationwide which aim to tackle the sale of drugs and organised crime in appropriate areas, including the areas referred to by Deputy Curran.
I thank the Minister. I did not refer directly to any specific areas because I do not wish to attach stigma to particular areas. Many of the areas in question would be known generally.
I acknowledge that the intelligence-led operations by An Garda Síochána and the National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau have achieved significant successes against gangland crime and in seizing guns and drugs. I am specifically raising operations to thwart and put an end to the very public face of on-street drug dealing. This problem has grown and become the norm in certain areas. People are fearful, feel intimidated and are avoiding parts or our cities and towns. The problem has disrupted businesses, a number of which have relocated as a result of it. The Minister will remember Operation Pier, which operated out of Pearse Street, and dealt in particular with street dealing in the Aston Quay area. An Garda Síochána, through the Garda Commissioner, needs to mount a number of targeted operations to thwart that type of on-street drug dealing.
I mentioned the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau and its importance. I will not repeat my comments in that regard but I will add that the divisional drugs units, to which more than 220 Garda personnel are currently assigned, are also tackling drug-related crime on a local basis throughout the country, supported, as needed, by the national bureau. Targeted intelligence-led operations addressing on-street drug dealing are planned in particular areas, cities and towns. I acknowledge what Deputy Curran said about naming specific areas.
The House will appreciate that the Garda continue to make significant efforts to deal with this issue. In doing so, it has the support of the Government in the form of record levels of investment, including a budget this year of €1.76 billion, which will increase further to €1.882 billion next year. This will support sustained recruitment of Garda members, which I expect will translate to further successes by the Garda organisation in dealing with the problem of drugs and organised crime.
I thank Deputy Curran for raising this issue. He is one of the Deputies who consistently do so and I will be happy to continue to engage with him, agreeing, as I do, that this is an area of the criminal law that needs a sustained and relentless focus on the part of An Garda Síochána and criminal justice agencies.
11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will extend the right to work to all asylum seekers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47834/19]
18. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of asylum seekers who would be eligible to work under the programme available to them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47833/19]
Until May 2017, the Government operated a complete ban on the right of asylum seekers to look for employment and contribute to our society. That ban was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2017. The limited right to work the Government introduced as a result of the Supreme Court case has left the vast majority of asylum seekers either without the right to employment or facing so many obstacles to securing employment that it is effectively of no use to them. Does the Minister recognise that fact? Does he agree that we would solve many problems and much hardship if he gave a right to work to all asylum seekers?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 18 together.
I thank the Deputy for his questions. Article 15(2) of the EU recast reception conditions directive allows member states to decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for applicants for international protection, in accordance with national law. The European Communities (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2018, which were signed into effect on 30 June 2018, include access to the labour market for qualified international protection applicants. The regulations provide access to both employment and self-employment in all sectors and categories of employment with the exception of the Civil Service and public service, An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. There are no restrictions on the type of work or the level of income possible. Under the regulations, international protection applicants will have access to the labour market nine months from the date on which their protection application was lodged, if they have not yet received a first instance recommendation from the International Protection Office and if they have co-operated with the process. Applicants must have made reasonable efforts to establish their identity and, on commencement of employment, they must register with the Revenue Commissioners and be tax compliant. Providing access to the labour market where a person is waiting more than nine months without a first instance recommendation is in full compliance with the provisions of the directive. It recognises that, where a person does not have clarity on his or her status in the State within this period, it is reasonable to allow that person to access the labour market.
The access provided for in Ireland is broad and generous with almost no restrictions. The system as it prevails is a fair one and allows protection applicants to seek employment after a reasonable period from the time they apply for protection in the State. A balance must be struck because the intention is not to turn the asylum system into a pathway for economic migration as this would not be fair to those fleeing persecution or to those who migrate to Ireland to work using the appropriate immigration channels. However, it has always been intended to review the system to determine if it is meeting the needs of applicants for protection and their potential employers. This is an appropriate time to do so as the system has been in operation for more than a year. In that regard, a high level interdepartmental group is reviewing the implementation of the State's obligations under the EU reception conditions directive, including access to work and the direct provision of services offered to applicants while their applications are being made. I expect to receive a report within days from the interdepartmental group.
With regard to eligibility, as of 31 October 2019, there were 2,429 international protection applicants aged 16 years or over who were waiting nine months or more for a first instance recommendation on their international protection claim. All may apply for a labour market access permission, subject to meeting the eligibility criteria.
This does not make sense. We have labour shortages in a large number of areas, from the health service to special needs education, childcare and construction. I could go through a list. Despite this, thousands of people who are forced to live in fairly inhumane conditions in direct provision centres, many of them in isolated areas, want to work but cannot do so. This does not make sense for them or for society. Why should applicants be forced to wait nine months and why does this apply only in the case of a first application? It should be remembered that many of the people who get the right to asylum in this country have previously been refused in the first application. The particular case which led the Supreme Court to strike down the Department's ban on employment for asylum seekers involved a man who had been in direct provision for eight years. He was a member of what we know to be a persecuted group, the Rohingya, who subsequently got the right to stay but was forced to exist in direct provision for eight years. Rather than forcing people into the isolation, stigma and hardship of direct provision centres, why does the Department not give them the right to work and make it easy for them to contribute to and benefit society? I am glad that a review is upcoming. I hope the Minister of State will take serious steps to address the many obstacles asylum seekers face, including their inability to get driving licences and their isolation from transport services caused by the location of the direct provision centres. He should examine these issues and recognise that these are people who could and want to make a contribution to our society.
The Deputy thrives on misery. Some 3,438 labour market permissions have been granted to date. That is a huge number. I reject totally out of hand the Deputy's assertions that people are forced to live anywhere or that conditions are inhumane. That is terrible language to use for people who are coming here looking for international protection. That is not true and the Deputy should reconsider his use of that kind of language.
There are people who are working and we are on the brink of making changes to the system. We are taking this matter very seriously. It is very important for people to be able to work because if they get permission to remain here, they will be able to work here and will have built up skills. If they do not get permission to remain and have to leave the country, they will be able to bring those skills back to where they came from. Everybody wins in that regard. This is a successful scheme. We are working to improve it and we will do so.
It is inhumane to have children living in hostels or hotels, where their mothers or fathers cannot cook dinner for them, for years on end. It is inhumane for asylum seekers and people in family emergency homeless hubs. "Inhumane" is not an unreasonable word to use in this regard. A more important term again is "totally unnecessary". I hope the Minister of State will recognise, as he has failed to do so far, that those who have been given the right to work face many obstacles, including public transport difficulties and problems getting driving licences. All of these barriers mean that even those who want to get to work, and who have the right to do so, find it difficult. Many people who have been in the system for longer and whose cases are under appeal are completely denied the right to work. Why would the Government deny them the right to work rather than allowing them to make a dignified contribution to society?
We have made huge improvements to the system. I invite the Deputy to look at those improvements. More than half of the people in centres can now cook for their families and are doing so. They are living in much-improved conditions as a result of the findings in the McMahon report. I invite the Deputy to look at what has been done and to start using positive language in respect of asylum seekers and those seeking international protection rather than the negative verbiage that is coming out all of the time.