Before calling on the Minister, I ask Deputies to indicate whether they intend to make a statement or ask questions and whether those questions are rhetorical or to be answered. If questions are asked, it would be useful for the Minister to have a chance to answer them. I presume he is willing to answer questions. I call him to make his statement. He will not be asking questions.
Covid-19 (Justice and Equality): Statements
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I have asked my question for the day; I will not be asking any more.
I express my deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones in this horrific pandemic and wish a safe recovery to all those fighting the virus. I pay particular tribute to front-line workers throughout the sector, including gardaí and Garda staff, prison staff, courts officers and staff and immigration officers. In managing our response, my Department has a cross-functional team in place and is part of the series of cross-Government structures. In particular, we work closely with the HSE.
The 14,700 members of An Garda Síochána, including 300 student gardaí who attested early in March, play a key role in protecting public health. They have been given exceptional new and temporary powers for that purpose and, therefore, we have taken care to ensure effective oversight and close attention to our tradition of policing by consent and adhering to human rights obligations. These temporary powers are necessary and provided for by law. They are explicitly in the interests of protection of public health and applied in a proportionate way as part of a carefully graduated response. This ensures gardaí engage, explain and encourage the public to comply. They only make use of these enforcement powers as a last resort. I requested the Garda Commissioner to compile and publish a record of the use of these powers, which he is doing on a weekly basis. I requested the Policing Authority to independently assess and report regularly on the use of the powers. I have made this information publicly available on my Department’s website. Beyond this critical role supporting public health restrictions, ordinary policing operations continue, with a particular focus on cybercrime.
I acknowledge and thank gardaí for their tireless work in community engagement and outreach. This pandemic has reinforced the community role of our front-line gardaí. I am sure Deputies have seen countless examples in their community and local media of Garda members checking in on those cocooning and providing practical assistance on a 24-7 basis. The deep connection to the community has always been a defining feature of An Garda Síochána and never has this ethos been more acutely needed. I thank the Commissioner for his leadership and all gardaí for their dedication and commitment.
The women, men and children who perhaps feel most vulnerable and afraid at this time are victims of domestic abuse, those whose homes are, tragically, anything but safe in these uncertain times.
We recognised at an early stage that being asked to stay at home must bring added risk and a real sense of fear for victims of domestic abuse, and we came together with key partners to devise a new plan. This has included the setting up by the Garda of a special Operation Faoiseamh on domestic abuse; and special measures by the Courts Service and Legal Aid Board to give priority to domestic abuse and childcare cases. While not directly within my remit, I understand Tusla has put a range of practical supports in place in respect of refuge accommodation. We have also launched a public awareness campaign which has delivered a hard-hitting campaign across TV, radio, social and traditional media. I strongly urge anyone suffering domestic abuse to reach out for help. The State and front-line services in the community are standing together to support you. More information on where to find support is available at a specially designed website, www.stillhere.ie.
I wish to draw particular attention to the work being undertaken by the Irish Prison Service, IPS, which faces an exceptional challenge. A significant range of measures have been taken by the IPS to safeguard the well-being of prisoners. These measures have been guided by advice from NPHET and have also been consistent with prison-specific guidance issued by WHO and the Council of Europe. These measures include a reduction in prisoner numbers; cocooning vulnerable prisoners; a quarantining arrangement; isolation and testing of prisoners with symptoms; specially trained contact tracing teams; basic health checks on all entrants, including staff; and restrictions on access to prisons, including suspension for the moment of family visits. I want to say publicly how proud I am of the men and women of the Prison Service and pay tribute to the ongoing work of the director general, Caron McCaffrey, her senior management team and approximately 3,500 prison service staff, including the medical team.
Since the start of the crisis, the Judiciary and the Courts Service have shown considerable capacity to adapt and respond to ensure that the administration of justice continues in an effective and safe manner. Critical business has continued and new measures have been introduced, including video-link appearances from prisons for persons currently in custody; judgments issued online and some pilot remote court hearings. Last Friday, the Chief Justice, court president and Courts Service outlined the next steps being undertaken to extend court services in a gradual and responsible way, creating a pathway to opening some courts in line with the Government's roadmap.
Turning to the more than 7,700 people we provide accommodation and supports to under direct provision, I acknowledge the support provided to my Department by the HSE, in particular the National Social Inclusion Office and the NPHET subgroup on vulnerable persons. Working collaboratively has enabled us to quickly develop policy responses for the benefit of everybody here. I also acknowledge the leadership and dedicated role of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is here to assist in responding. HSE advice has evolved over time and we have evolved our responses with it. We have been assured by both it and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer that our approach to these issues is appropriate. From the outset, we recognised the need for offsite self-isolation facilities for individuals and identified four suitable premises in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Dundalk with capacity for 299 people. These self-isolation facilities have non-profit, section 39 organisations onsite providing psychosocial supports to residents and residents are being supported by HSE healthcare professionals. Since the start of the year, more than 1,550 permanent and temporary new beds have been procured in new centres. More than 600 residents have relocated to support social and physical distancing and cocooning measures in centres. We have reduced the number of people sharing a room to a maximum of three and such shared spaces constitute households in line with HSE guidance on congregated settings. We moved quickly to cocoon all residents over the age of 65 and those advised as having a serious medical illness. More generally, residents have been made aware of the need to practice social and physical distancing and good hand hygiene and coughing and sneezing etiquette. Managers have been given detailed HSE guidance on the standard and frequency of cleaning required. Personal Protective Equipment, PPE, is distributed as required and in line with Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidelines on appropriate use in residential settings.
In partnership with the HSE and Safetynet, my Department has put in place a national clinical telephone service to provide public health advice to support centre management and staff.
I am very conscious of the concerns of Deputies in respect of services provided to international protection applicants and, indeed, I have my own concerns. However, as Minister, I have worked closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to drive a programme of improvements across the State. At this time, approximately 20% of all residents are in own-door accommodation and more than half of residents have access to cooking facilities and that programme of upgrades was steadily rolling out when this pandemic hit and continues daily. The Minister of State and I were also anxious to take a longer term view and that it why we asked Dr. Catherine Day to convene an independent expert group to establish international best practice in the provision of services to international protection applicants and advise on long-term planning. That report is due later this year.
As the Chief Medical Officer has made clear many times, people should only travel where essential. The numbers arriving into Ireland are very small, the majority of whom are Irish citizens returning home. The border management unit at Dublin Airport together with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, are collecting the Irish public health passenger locator form and the system of spot checks is being rolled out on an administrative basis on behalf of health authorities, including follow-up phone calls where appropriate. The operation of this process is currently being analysed and reviewed by officials in the Department of Health, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, in the context of potential new regulations. There remains work to be done in developing these complex regulations and further consultations are required.
I can confirm today that the two-month automatic extension I announced in March for immigration permissions will be further extended for an additional two months, that is, immigration permissions due to expire between 20 May and 20 July will be extended subject to the same conditions being met. For students, this means they will be able to continue work if they so wish, but they must also re-enrol in a course of study. We can return to this matter in the course of the engagement.
Finally, myself and the Minister of State wish to sincerely thank our front-line healthcare workers, for all the work that has and which continues to be done.
I will share time equally with Deputies Murnane O'Connor and Brendan Smith. I do not intend to ask the Minister questions and expect an answer, I would prefer if he would listen to the points I make. Much of the time, when questions are asked it is hard to get the answer. If answers are required they can be provided subsequently in writing.
I also express my condolences to all the families of those who have died through this horrific pandemic. I also commend members of An Garda Síochána, the Prison Service and other civil servants working in the justice sphere on the strenuous efforts they have made to steer us through this very difficult time. Last week, I spoke of the highly negative impact the ongoing lockdown was having on the lives of our children and young people. This afternoon, I make a similar point, conscious that while Deputy Flanagan is the Minister for justice, he is also the Minister for equality. There are important issues in respect of intergenerational equality that need to be addressed in this debate.
Last week, I made the point that everyone recognised in March that it was absolutely essential that we have the lockdown to protect our intensive care units, hospitals and citizens from the surges we saw occurring in Italy and subsequently in Spain. Now, however, we are in the fortunate position where the number of cases, of deaths and people in intensive care are in decline. Up to now, all our decisions have been made on the exclusive basis of public health requirements. Public health should still predominate but I ask the Minister to bring back to the Cabinet other factors which must also be taken into consideration when deciding how we progress out of the lockdown. It is important to note that NPHET has placed great, indeed sole, emphasis on health issues but it is the Cabinet which is responsible for providing a direction for this country to lead us out of the lockdown. We cannot have a situation where executive governmental responsibility is subcontracted out to NPHET.
I am pleased that, last week, a number of other individuals spoke about the very negative social, personal, educational and economic consequences the lockdown is having on children and young people. We need to recognise the responsibility we have to ensure the impact on them is not long-term and irreversible. All our decisions must take account of the fact that children and young people have very special requirements that need to be given attention by this House.
I was very pleased to hear today that the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has produced a report stating that children are not substantially contributing to the spread of the virus in schools or homes. Let us work off that to ensure we can reinstate greater normality into their lives in the coming weeks.
I note what the Minister has stated in respect of direct provision. There are very many children in direct provision and the difficulties they are going through in the absence of being able to socialise with their friends or go to their school very much accentuates the issues of equality that can be damaged by this ongoing lockdown.
I note what the Minister has stated in respect of the direct provision centres. I have specific concerns about the one in Cahersiveen. I have asked questions by way of parliamentary questions and answers will be forthcoming to me in that area.
I want to raise another area that I believe the Minister needs to look into and expedite, that is, the area of trying to ensure that people who are involved in providing legal services to the public can do so remotely and with the benefit of modern technology. The Statutory Declarations Act is still in force. It dates from 1938. It requires, we believe, physical presence for a deponent to sign or swear an affidavit in the presence of a solicitor or a commissioner for oaths. We need to move away from that and expedite legislation to ensure that commercial documents and court documents can be sworn and signed remotely. The Minister may say we need legislation for that. I ask him to see if there is any other way around that, perhaps through practice directions of the courts and, if so, will he have discussions with the presidents of the court in respect of that?
I also believe we need to protect our gardaí. The gardaí have done a commendable job. It has been very difficult for them. Sometimes people give out about the gardaí exercising too much powers. They exercise the powers we ask them to exercise. They exercise the powers that we, as legislators, give them and, to date, they have done that in a commendable way and they need our continued support. I ask the Minister to give them the protection they need in terms of personal protection equipment, PPE.
I will conclude by stating that we need to keep a very close eye on the equality consequences of this lockdown. My concern is that the lockdown, if it continues for a long period of time, will accentuate and increase inequality that already exists in our society.
I too want to give my condolences to the families that have lost loved ones to this coronavirus. When we tell people to stay at home, we must now realise and accept that not every home is safe. We might all be in the same storm but one thing is certain - we are not all in the same boat. Women's Aid has reported an increase in the number of domestic abuse calls made to the charity since the Covid-19 outbreak. Childline has also reported an increase in communications from children and young people, and charities. Gardaí have reported a 20% increase in calls related to domestic abuse. It is important that we listen to those on the front line on these issues now more than ever.
The conditions recommended for public health have put lives at risk from domestic violence, and I do not say that lightly. Admittedly, we cannot know of the damage that has been done as those living in unsafe homes lost access in terms of not going to schools or attending sports activities, whether that is through community involvement, family or work.
During the Covid-19 pandemic we have placed the necessary focus on domestic violence and the many difficulties that victims and survivors experience. One measure that was most welcome was the news that anyone fleeing an unsafe situation was not forced to abide by the distance restrictions, but we need more. We need to commit to grant allocations necessary to cover not just the cost of the Covid-19 emergency but also to take account of the loss of fundraising income and the expected surge in demand due to an increase in cases and the backlog in face-to-face and court support work once the Covid-19 emergency abates. There is always a surge in calls following holiday periods or in situations where access is not easy.
Deficiencies in investment in this area over decades have left victims completely exposed during this crisis. While we are still in restrictions, we need to support developments for the Courts Service to facilitate applications remotely for ex parte domestic violence orders.
I would appreciate a reply on whether this is something we can look at in the short term, with a view to long-term implications. Just because we have been dealing with the coronavirus does not mean other societal issues have gone away. Right here, right now, we need to acknowledge domestic violence as a major driver of homelessness and address the local housing authority requirements that prevent survivors of domestic violence accessing social housing and the inconsistency of response among different local authorities. This is all about communication. While I welcome the recent focus on domestic violence during this pandemic, we have not focused on measures to properly support those left without homes while fleeing violent situations and support any victim or survivor, male or female, in rebuilding a post-violence life. In my home area in County Carlow we have to fundraise to support our Women's Aid service. Thankfully, we sourced two-family emergency accommodation provision just before the coronavirus shut so much down. While we might spend money on advertising campaigns, we do not offer a cohesive strategy to support those leaving a violent home after we encourage them to get out. As restrictions gradually lift, we must ensure that support services remain open and that they are resourced properly and listened to when they ask for those resources. It is more important than ever that domestic violence support services and places of refuge are easily accessible and available. We, as public representatives, trying to assist constituents in these matters must be able to access help in supporting victims and survivors, from whatever Department we need. I do not mean just the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, but the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Health and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That is where we fall down. There is no communication between the different Departments and unless we all communicate and work together, this cannot be solved.
My second point relates to family law. While court orders regarding access remain in place, non-court ordered arrangements have been difficult too, because separated families trying to allow children access to both parents have received conflicting advice and have not been afforded the same guidance as those fleeing unsafe situations. The Garda is doing a terrific job under these public health restrictions, but what is the rule in this regard? We need proper guidance. Our children have sacrificed so much. Where there is a will on the part of one parent to facilitate access to another parent, perhaps in another county hundreds of miles away, we should be clear that we support them. We need to tell the children of Ireland that they matter, whether they live in a two-parent, one-parent, or separated-parent family. We must do this for them, and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure they are living their best lockdown lives.
Like my colleagues, Deputies O'Callaghan and Murnane O'Connor, I appreciate the work of the personnel in the Department of Justice and Equality, including its agencies such as the Prison Service and An Garda Síochána. I commend the work of An Garda Síochána during these difficult times. Garda personnel have been a reassuring presence in our communities, and this work demonstrates clearly the value of community policing. Visiting older or vulnerable people has been very reassuring for many individuals and families. Their work, alongside other voluntary and statutory groups, is important in ensuring that families are not left isolated or without groceries or medical supplies. I raised directly with both the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health the lacuna in the law whereby gardaí are empowered, if necessary, to restrict the movements of persons in our State, but cannot apply that power to persons resident outside our jurisdiction. This law should be amended. Similarly, there should be no tolerance at our airports and ports for people refusing to fill out passenger locator forms.
The Minister and the Minister of State may recall that I raised the absence of a refuge centre in Cavan-Monaghan with them during recent debates on justice. I also raised the matter with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. We are all well aware that the number of women's refuge spaces in our State is well below our obligations under the Istanbul Convention. In a vast region such as Cavan-Monaghan, made up of two large rural counties, we have no refuge to support women leaving situations of domestic abuse. I know of women who have had to travel to neighbouring counties such as Sligo, Meath and Louth to seek emergency accommodation. This is a tragic situation. We should be able to support these people in our own counties at a time they are very vulnerable. Towards the end of 2019, I received correspondence from Tusla, which indicated that funding would not be available for significant service developments in 2020. However, it also stated that it would continue to plan towards future developments. That followed a debate on legislation in this House in December. I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices to have the needs of Cavan and Monaghan prioritised and I sincerely hope he will do so.
We must support women through their most harrowing experience. We must ensure that adequate services are provided and that people who are suffering through domestic violence have accommodation and support services when they need them. I commend the work of local groups such as Tearmann domestic violence service in Cavan-Monaghan and Safe Ireland at national level along with other groups on their ongoing support for victims of domestic abuse. In many instances, they are providing much-needed services and accommodation on very limited budgets, services that should be provided by the State. Safe Ireland was in touch with the Department at the end of April seeking the Minister's support for a proposal it put directly to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This proposal requests access to emergency rent supplement for women and children in need of immediate relocation as a result of domestic violence for a period of three months and-or the duration of the Covid-19 national emergency. As the Minister is taking the lead on behalf of the Government on tackling domestic violence during these troubled times, I appeal to him to pursue this proposal directly with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
I understand that centres providing services are experiencing a significant increase in demand for those services due to the rise in domestic violence, which we know of through reports from An Garda Síochána and which is also evidenced internationally. I appeal to the Minister to have the provision of a refuge centre for Cavan-Monaghan given priority attention in the service plans for 2020. I previously noted how people seeking such accommodation services must travel to Louth, Meath or Sligo from parts of Cavan and Monaghan. This is not acceptable because in some instances, children are attending school in normal times and cannot go back to their normal school if they are so distant from their home, where they should be living but which they have had to leave because of violence. I again mention Tearmann domestic violence service in Cavan-Monaghan, which is very dependent on fund-raising, as are other services throughout the country. It does great work and shows great commitment and its personnel provide welcome and much-needed support for people who are very vulnerable. We need to ensure that our obligations laid out in the second national strategy and obligations under the Istanbul Convention are honoured.
Regarding problems facing residents in direct provision centres, I had detailed correspondence with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and appreciate his detailed reply to me. I would like him to ensure the commitments he made in that correspondence to follow up and to ensure that much better accommodation services are provided for people in direct provision are as much as possible during these very troubled times.
I also acknowledge the significant work done by all the services, commiserate with the many people who have lost their lives because of Covid-19 and recognise the trauma experienced by families with a loved one who has been sick. We are conscious that we are in an emergency. This is really what we are dealing with here. I propose to ask a number of questions but I do not expect the Minister to respond to them now. If he can respond to them later or in writing, that would be more than appropriate.
It was mentioned earlier by Deputy Brendan Smith-----
I have good news for Deputy Brendan Smith. I will not get a chance to respond.
I have good news about rent supplement.
Will everything else be as easy? I know it has been acknowledged in the past couple of weeks that people coming into the country, particularly through our airports, are in some cases not even filling in forms on where they are going, never mind the issue of making sure they are self-isolating. This is something that troubles many people. The vast majority of people in our communities are abiding by the regulations and doing everything they can to ensure they minimise the spread of Covid-19. However, they feel somehow cheated because people who come into the country can move around and are not receiving the same level of scrutiny as others. It has been mooted in recent days that there may be a role for An Garda Síochána in checking on people. This would be a positive step but it has not yet been formally set out how it will happen. Perhaps the Minister will explain that and set out what is planned in that regard because it worries and concerns many people, particularly the case of people who come into the country with caravans and mobile homes, travel around the country and seem to be able to do this without any regulation or guidance.
Another important issue is the good work that is being done by An Garda Síochána in policing this and making sure there is close monitoring of the restrictions. However, the absence of personal protective equipment, PPE, is concerning. Every evening on the "Six One" news, we see examples from other countries and states around Europe. The police in Italy, Spain and other countries are all wearing protective equipment, masks and gloves. We then see a clip of gardaí talking to somebody at a checkpoint in Ireland. They walk up to the window and speak to someone in a car while wearing no protective equipment. The next car comes along and the gardaí do it again. The mind boggles as to how we are telling the public to be careful and socially distant when the same rule does not seem to apply to An Garda Síochána. There have been many cases of members of the Garda who have gone into self-isolation with Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19. There are also issues around the speed at which tests for Covid-19 are coming back. There are a lot of issues around that which need to be worked out.
I know there was a recommendation that members of the Garda would not use protective equipment. Was that because it was not available? A lot of people have an issue with that. Many rank-and-file gardaí have told me of their concern that the equipment simply was not there and that is why a recommendation was made not to use it. It would be worthwhile for the Minister to clear that up.
There is also an issue about what happens and how all of this works in Garda stations. People who enter Garda stations at present are taken into a small room for an interview and there are no precautions and nothing is set out as to how they can socially distance. They may be a number of hours in the room and may have to be accompanied by a solicitor. Nothing has been done in respect of that. The procedures in that regard are the treatment of persons in custody regulations. That issue of how that can that be worked out and improved upon must be looked at.
There is also the issue of the Courts Service. The Minister mentioned in his statement what is happening with the Courts Service. Last Friday, there was a statement that there would be an improvement in that respect. It is clear that significant issues exist there. There is a considerable backlog of people waiting to have fairly minor situations sorted out and repeatedly being put off. It is causing great distress to people and modern technology should be used where possible. It clearly is possible in many cases, because we know that modern technology is used between the Prison Service and the Courts Service. It can be deployed to resolve many of these issues and that needs to be done with the utmost speed.
Everyone in this House recognises that the direct provision model for asylum seekers we traditionally have had in Ireland for the past number of years has had huge problems that we must deal with. I believe there is a process to try to deal with them. We all recognise there are issues and that some people in direct provision are facing serious problems. Cahirsiveen has been mentioned and is one example. Approximately a quarter of the people in that direct provision centre have tested positive for Covid-19. It is a real issue that needs to be dealt with.
There are other issues in other places around the country that need to be dealt with. It can be done. I use the example of Cahirsiveen. There have been offers made to use holiday cottages which are not being used at all at the moment. They are empty and no one is going to the villages in which those holiday cottages are. There is also empty student accommodation that could be used in some cases. Taking such an approach could thin out the numbers and ensure that the correct levels of social distancing can be employed, particularly in direct provision settings.
I acknowledge that direct provision is a very difficult area and that many people in the Department are doing their best. However, there are gaps in some places that need to be filled. I also acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to whom I have spoken on many occasions in recent weeks on many of these issues and I am aware that work is being done. In some cases, however, a little more imagination could be used and some of the existing guidelines and rules need to be stretched a little more to ensure we can resolve these issues. Many of the people in those situations feel imprisoned and that is the problem. It sometimes is a communication problem. Those people are being told that, because of Covid-19, they must self-isolate and must be controlled. That is what they are trying to get away from and those are the very reasons they came to this country in the first place.
There are issues that need to be dealt with. There is an opportunity for the Minister to do that, to stretch the guidelines a little bit and use other forms of accommodation, outside the existing models of direct provision. I acknowledge that many such people, approximately 20% or 25%, are in own-door accommodation at present but to go further down that road in this emergency situation would resolve a lot of the existing issues and I implore the Minister to do that.
The issues that we raise about justice, as has been said by others, come into the area of equality.
This is particularly so in the case of domestic violence, and the problems relating to it have to be worked upon. Important voluntary work is being done by many of the domestic violence agencies but they are under major stress at the moment and do not have the ability to raise funds. The Minister and his Department, or some section of the Government, need to come in and assist them with funding to ensure they can continue to do their good work.
I hope to take less than two minutes in order to allow the Minister the same time to give a response. I understand that his officials are extremely busy dealing with some of the outworkings of the coronavirus crisis, but I want to use this opportunity, which is the first opportunity of the new Dáil to put questions to him, to raise the case of Shane O'Farrell, who was a young man from my home town. I did not know Shane very well but I have got-----
The issue the Deputy is raising is hugely important but it is not relevant to the business we are discussing.
I have already spoken to the Minister and told him-----
I do not care who the Deputy has spoken to.
-----that I would raise this issue.
Excuse me, Deputy, we are having a debate on Covid-19 issues. The Shane O'Farrell issue is hugely important and deserves attention, but I am afraid it is not in the context of a debate on Covid-19 that we can get into it.
The title of the debate is Questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality, and my question is one for the Minister. If we were to go through the Official Report of every debate we have had in these past weeks, we would see, on numerous occasions, instances where Deputies strayed-----
With the greatest of respect to the Deputy, I am here a little bit longer than he is and I know how we conduct our debates. If he wants to go ahead, he can do so, but it is not kosher. With respect to Shane O'Farrell, he deserves more consideration than can be given in the two minutes available to the Deputy.
With due respect to the Ceann Comhairle, and I take his point on board, I spoke to Shane's mother today and on several other occasions, and one of the commitments I made was that at the very first opportunity I had to put questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality, regardless of who he or she might be, I would raise her son's case. As many Members know only too well, Shane was killed in 2011, at just 23 years of age, by a man who was a known criminal, who had breached several bail conditions at the time and who had 42 previous convictions across three different states.
Since his death, Shane's family have sought justice. Through their efforts, whole-scale failures in the handling of this case by numerous statutory agencies, including An Garda, the prosecution team, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Courts Service, have been exposed. The questions that have been raised are so numerous and of such significance that many people, including myself, believe they can only be properly dealt with through a public inquiry. That public inquiry has yet to be delivered, but a scoping exercise is currently being undertaken by the respected former judge, Gerard Haughton. Will the Minister give an indication as to when he expects that exercise to be completed and whether he foresees a public inquiry taking place thereafter?
I have another question on a different issue. Will the Minister comment in respect of the apparent failure of his Department to heed the request in 2008 by the Attorney General, a senior counsel and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to publish a report that was compiled by the Courts Service for his Department? The family concerned had to fight for more than two years to receive that report, in February of this year, despite having gone through freedom of information procedures and all the rest. The Minister will understand that it is things like this that create the view among people in my town that there is a resistance within his Department to the type of public inquiry that is warranted in the case I mentioned. I ask, with the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence, for a short response, if possible.
Before I start, I welcome Gerry Adams's just result in court in relation to the sorry story of the British policy of internment in Ireland.
We will live with the Covid-19 virus for a long time, but the viruses that many of us have been living with for far longer are drugs and organised crime. Last Saturday, I saw for myself the horrific results of this pandemic when I received a call to say that in Muirhevnamore in Dundalk, approximately 1 km from my home, a young man was lying dead at the back of two houses that have been synonymous with drug use and dealing.
At the scene, people in the community wanted to know who had died. They were saddened, but not shocked. They were angry. No one was in any doubt about who was responsible.
I spoke to gardaí. The view in the community was that the death could be linked to one of the most prolific drug dealers in the area, someone many would hold responsible for a number of deaths in the past year in this part of Dundalk. The following day, gardaí found €2,000 worth of cocaine in the same estate following the search of a man. Follow-up searches yielded another €30,000. Three people are being questioned after gardaí intercepted three cars in Drogheda and seized over €1.1 million worth of cocaine and prescription drugs as well as more than €500,000 in cash.
I welcome the vigilance of gardaí but it has been clear for a long time that they are operating on the back foot and within a failing system. They constantly speak of being under-resourced. Drug dealing, addiction and drug debt extortion and violence are everywhere. Every village and town is affected, but working-class areas like Muirhevnamore, which is a great community with great people, pay the biggest price.
It now looks like a Government will be formed. Many are committed to not having Sinn Féin be a part of it, but this point is too important to ignore. Whoever is in government needs to ensure the drug pandemic is taken seriously and the issue needs to be brought to the Cabinet table. This crosses not only the Department of Justice and Equality, but also the Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs and Housing, Planning and Local Government. We need multi-agency plans and operations at every local authority level. We cannot have a continued systemic failure of communities because that is what we have been dealing with.
I accept that Covid-19 creates logistical difficulties. We need a plan for now and a plan for afterwards. We are also dealing with the fact that there are insufficient supports. The family addiction support network is still working, but is operating solely via volunteerism and just €7,500 in funding from an under-resourced drugs task force. This is never going to work. We welcome the natural justice of the Criminal Assets Bureau, but we have yet to see its impact on the El Chapos and narcos in Dundalk. I want to know whether there are any plans to remedy this.
Many Garda operations lead to serious drug dealing charges, but there are often delays, bail is opposed and the community watches as these guys are back in action. We need to make sure we have processing and resourcing in place to ensure people get to court and a conclusion is reached.
We have a youth justice system which is not fit for purpose. Dealers are recruiting children and many players or capos are now 14 or 15 years of age. It takes too long to get them into the system, and no differentiation is made between milder anti-social behaviour and others who are cogs in organised crime machines. What solution does the Minister have for this? We can continue with the way we are operating and never fix the problem or we can make a real attempt to deal with it. I ask the Minister to reply to me in writing.
I want to take this opportunity to highlight the issue of domestic violence and ask three simple questions of the Minister. I will give some background. I refer to the expansion of the safe intervention units by gardaí, such as the one in Dún Laoghaire, for intervening safely in case of domestic abuse and coercive control; access to the courts for victims of domestic abuse; and the question of abuse and coercive control playing out through family law proceedings more generally, including the manipulation of court processes such as access to play therapy and so on.
As a Parliament we all recognise, as Deputy Murnane O'Connor has done today, the importance of domestic abuse supports for victims at this time. Many people are in their least safe place when they are at home. Children, women and men around our country are stuck in very difficult situations. Some have become more financially dependent on their abusers because of the loss of work. Some are simply unable to physically leave in a way they may have been able to do. Some have become more isolated from friends and family, and their abusers are using that isolation to further remove them from their friends and family and make their situation much more difficult. Some depended on the release of work, education, friends and simply getting outside to escape abuse at home.
As a Parliament, we cannot highlight enough the unacceptability of abuse in the home. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on the success, I think, of the video and TV campaign to highlight the impact and that shows how difficult it can be for some people in our community. It highlighted the significance of neighbours, friends and family being vigilant, that they step in and raise concerns and not be afraid or leave it to other people.
I will refer to three specific issues. We have an excellent unit in Dún Laoghaire concerned with safe intervention for people suffering abuse. Is that something the Minister might consider discussing with the Garda regarding a more general roll out? The issue of access to courts given the impact of Covid-19 restrictions was raised earlier. How can access be facilitated on an ex parte basis? A more general issue has come up repeatedly which is relevant today and also of continued relevance in future, namely, how people in abusive situations can have their situations made much worse through family law proceedings where abusers have the opportunity to consent, not consent, or to withdraw consent to constructive interventions such as play therapy for children. It is incredibly important that we do not allow an abusive relationship and an abusive domestic situation be perpetuated through our court processes and let that abuse be facilitated any longer.
I am afraid I forgot to say I am sharing time with Deputy Heydon. My apologies.
I am raising the issue of insolvency. Amendments will be needed to the personal insolvency legislation to deal with the issues that will arise as the result of the impact of Covid-19. The response to this unprecedented pandemic has seen significant changes to national policies in the areas of health and business. It will also be necessary for us to take significant action being mindful of what is going to be significant economic and financial fallout for people from the inevitable recession that will unfortunately be caused by this pandemic.
In particular, I would like the Minister to give details on changes that are being considered or that may be covered by amendments to the relevant Act in the coming months. I am mindful that a new Government may be in place, but I am sure work is ongoing in the Minister's Department. Specifically, what steps are being taken concerning the removal of barriers to insolvency and the appeals process to the courts of a rejected personal insolvency agreement? Is consideration being given to those two areas?
The answer to Deputy Heydon's question is "Yes". I assure him and the House that my Department is engaged in work for two sets of legislative change regarding personal insolvency. We are considering specific formal or procedural statutory requirements which are often difficult or impracticable in the context of compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. There are a small number of requirements under the personal insolvency Acts, subject to Government formation. I am conscious in this regard of this House, but also of the Upper House. The intention, in any event, is to bring forward these changes for urgent Government approval very shortly.
The House will also be aware that my officials are already working to complete the major statutory review of the personal insolvency Acts. There was a period of public consultation and that has now been completed. It is important now that such a review also include the latest developments, with particular reference to the significant economic adverse impact of Covid-19. We are in May and I expect the report will be available by September. We are also engaged in consultations with the Department of Finance, but I am happy to keep Deputy Heydon informed.
Regarding the queries from Deputy Carroll MacNeill, I acknowledge the work she has done and continues to do to assist the regulatory framework concerning domestic violence in the context of the impact of Covid-19.
I want to acknowledge what Deputy Murnane-O'Connor has also stated in that regard. I spoke to gardaí on this issue yesterday. It seems from feedback that I have received that this is one issue where there has been an increase in criminal activity. It should be a concern to all of us. It certainly is a priority to me. That is why I acknowledge what the Garda has done in respect of Operation Faoiseamh in order to ensure that those victims of domestic abuse, including coercive control, will continue to receive high priority on the part of the State. In this regard, I acknowledge pro-activity and training on the part of the Garda. Parallel to the activities under the Covid regime, we also have the ongoing roll-out of the divisional protective services units throughout the country. The aim and objective, certainly on the previous occasions we had Justice questions, was to have these units up and running throughout the State by the end of the spring of this year and I understand that the Garda is actively engaging. Even in the small number of districts where there is not a formal divisional protective unit, gardaí are trained. Gardaí are responding in a most robust way. In this regard, let me assure Deputy Murnane O'Connor that the courts are open.
I listened to what Deputy Carroll MacNeill stated in respect of a Dún Laoghaire project. I would be happy to convey the views of the Deputy to the Garda Commissioner in that regard but I am anxious to assure the House and indeed the public that the courts are available to deal with these issues and also issues of a more general family law nature that have been raised earlier in respect of emergency orders, protective orders, barring orders and indeed the issues that arise on a daily basis, sadly, within the District Court regime. There was, it was said, an element of confusion in respect of standing court orders and access, particularly outside of the travel area. I want to assure the Deputies that the court orders still very much stand, the restrictive travel regime does not apply in respect of court orders and in the event of there being a dispute between the parties, as well as the Court Services being available and the family legal services networks being available, court offices are open.
As well as the courts, I want also to advise of the importance of the family mediation services in this area. I will reply to Deputy Murnane O'Connor and Deputy Carroll MacNeill in detail on the points raised.
I would be anxious to meet Deputy Martin Kenny on some of the important points raised by him. I cannot respond to the Deputy now. They may come up in later questions. I am concerned about what the Deputy said about gardaí and PPE.
I am sharing time with Deputy O'Gorman. I am happy to take any answers that might be in correspondence afterwards.
Like others, I want to raise the issue of direct provision. We have been talking about the importance of equality in this session and something we will be judged on is how more vulnerable groups were treated during this pandemic. I look at the infection rates among those living in direct provision and they are significantly higher than those among the general population. That is quite worrying. The scenes in Cahersiveen show exactly the problems there are for many of the people living in direct provision. The reality is that direct provision has been with us for quite a long time, these problems that we are seeing were predictable and the slow pace of reform or the lack of any movement to reform has made these problems inevitable.
We have to accept that we are where we are, but the Chief Medical Officer stated clearly that sharing bedrooms with non-family members does not allow for social distancing. It seems the HSE has a new definition of household, which allows us to sidestep some of these public health concerns within direct provision centres. The significantly higher infection rate for those living in direct provision compared to the general population is the inevitable result of that kind of sidestepping. It is important that we look at those in direct provision and do what we can as quickly as possible. Creative solutions were suggested earlier today by other Deputies. We need to embrace those.
I also want to look at the issue of anti-social and criminal behaviour. I appreciate that the Garda now has new responsibilities in enforcing the Covid-19 legislation but as the Minister has said, ordinary policing work goes on. A balance must be struck. I am particularly thinking of places within my own constituency. The issue of anti-social behaviour, violence and criminal behaviour was raised on numerous doorsteps in and around Bluebell while I was canvassing during the election. Some constituents have commented that this has become significantly worse during the lockdown. This is now the only kind of activity taking place out on the streets. It is not just a perception caused by quiet streets. There has been an escalation in violence and criminality. There have been gunshots fired in the area in recent weeks. This has left residents very concerned and worried.
Some good stuff is being done on the ground. Constituents have spoken to me about the good work being done by youth services in the area, which is helping to divert children and young people. Unfortunately, as we have spoken about before, many of these services are under strain due to restrictions. A lot of good work is also being done on a cross-party basis by local councillors. I thank my colleague, Councillor Sophie Nicoullaud, who is doing great work with the other local councillors, policing forums and community groups.
There is a lack of policing in this area and we need a stronger police response. Moreover, it must be a creative police response. A lot of issues arise along the bike path by the canal. Providing bikes to members of the Garda would enable much more effective policing of that stretch and would be a lot cheaper than the high-tech resources the Garda gets in other areas. There have also been calls for increased use of motorbike patrols to help patrol some of the estates in the area. This does not seem to be happening. It would be very beneficial to adopt some of these creative responses to help address the rising criminality and violence within this community, which is leaving many residents quite scared.
I also want to briefly touch on another issue which is quite important, given that many of us are working from home and given the roll-out of the Covid-19 tracing application as part of easing the lockdown. Later this month, we will mark the two-year anniversary of the general data protection regulation, GDPR. Part of that regulation requires us to provide our Data Protection Commission with all the resources it needs to investigate and prosecute any breaches of the GDPR. Earlier this month a report in The New York Times discussed the weakness of our regulator and its importance arising from its dealings with the big tech companies here in Ireland. Our Data Protection Commission regulator is the single most important data protection commissioner in the European Union. The report in the The New York Times quoted a report by Brave, a privacy-focused browser company, which examined the situation. This report found that there are 21 tech specialists working in the Data Protection Commission. That is not nearly enough to hold big tech to account.
It is important the State shows we are serious about tackling these issues and supporting the rights of citizens regarding privacy and GDPR, and that we give the full resources the Data Protection Commissioner needs to prosecute her specialist role.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Does the Minister agree the Covid-19 crisis has further illustrated the fundamental problems that arise from the communal residential nature of direct provision as it is implemented in Ireland? In light of the potential of future waves of Covid-19 or variants of the virus, we need to move to accommodation centres that are based on own-door accommodation. With regard to Cahersiveen, as far as I am aware, there is currently public health guidance about the Skellig Accommodation Centre. This requires that residents self-isolate for at least 14 days after the last diagnosis of Covid-19. Does the Minister believe that once the public health guidance is lifted the Department should cease to use the Skellig Accommodation Centre as emergency accommodation in light of the unsuitability of the building, the wider site and of the breakdown in trust between management and residents?
Similar to Deputy Murnane O'Connor and other Deputies who spoke earlier, I am concerned about the capacity of our domestic violence services to cope with the expected surge in demand for their services. Having spoken with Safe Ireland and Sonas, I am aware that that surge has already begun. In light of the somewhat fragmented nature of responsibility for domestic violence services across a number of Departments and agencies, can the Minister reassure the front-line service providers in the domestic violence sector that they will have the extra resources necessary to offer help to women and children who are fleeing abuse? Like the Minister, I recognise the work of the staff of the Irish Prison Service in ensuring that there have been no outbreaks of Covid-19 in prisons or places of detention. Is the Minister satisfied that people who are classified as vulnerable due to their age or an underlying condition who have been cocooning within our prisons have had access to at least one hour of exercise every day and at least two hours of meaningful human contact?
I am aware of situations where undocumented workers were afraid to seek medical advice despite the fact that they were suffering from Covid-like symptoms, because they were afraid that their status would be shared with immigration officials. I know the Minister for Health provided some clarifications in that area. Does the Minister agree that a scheme for the wider recognition of undocumented workers in this country would not only have the benefit of taking these workers out of the black economy but, perhaps as importantly, would lessen an ongoing public health risk created if sick people are afraid to seek medical advice?
I thank the Deputy. Are the Deputies hoping the Minister might respond in the 26 seconds left?
I regret that I do not have much time to deal with the issues raised. I would be happy to prepare a note for Deputy Costello regarding the Data Protection Commissioner and demonstrate in real terms the increase in budget, staff, and other resources such as the headquarters, having regard to the point which the Deputy rightly makes about the importance of our Data Protection Commissioner. I would be happy to engage further about anti-social behaviour. I take issue with Deputy O'Gorman's statement that there is a fundamental breach of trust between management and residents in any direct provision centre but I acknowledge there is an issue. I assure the Deputy and the House that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I are engaged in this daily as a priority. I would be pleased to give a further update to Deputy O'Gorman, following from at least two updates we have given in the past two weeks. It is an important and challenging issue that the Government is proceeding to address in a progressive way.
I propose to make a few points and to ask a few questions. If the Minister can answer them in the time allocated, I would be grateful. If not, I would be happy to receive a written reply.
I wish to raise four issues: the status of undocumented workers, the enforcement of regulations by An Garda Síochána, direct provision and the status of the Garda task force.
Regarding undocumented workers, the Minister will be in receipt of a letter issued by the CEOs of the civil society organisations calling for the regularisation of undocumented children, young people and workers. I will quote from a letter I received, and which the Minister himself will have received. It states:
Undocumented workers have stepped up and continue to work providing essential services in this crisis. They are working in sectors where Ireland needs workers right now – in elder care, healthcare, retail, cleaning, food processing, agriculture and fishing.
There is broad based support for the regularisation of undocumented people – from the public, business, civil society, and across all major political parties in Ireland.
Could the Minister confirm whether the Government will commit to regularising the legal status of those undocumented persons currently carrying out essential front-line services, as care workers in particular?
The second issue concerns the operational status of An Garda Síochána. I acknowledge the reference the Minister made in his statement to the Policing Authority report, but it is worth quoting from the report, which states:
In the previous set of figures released by An Garda Síochána, for the period 8 to 25 April, there were 760 such incidents. This means an additional 412 incidents have been recorded or confirmed in the past week (a 54% increase). It is noted that some of these incidents may have occurred prior to the 26th April but were not included in previous totals due to not being validated
The report set out the issues in respect of the policing of Covid. It further states:
Approximately 22% of the offences relate to public order, while a further 16% relate to simple drug possession. General road offences was the third most frequent offence classification, accounting for approximately 10%. However, when all types of road offences are combined, they account for almost 32%.
In tandem with that, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties submitted a detailed letter to the Garda Commissioner setting out issues and queries regarding the implementation by the Garda of the regulations introduced on 7 April. Those regulations amend the 1947 regulations. The 1947 regulations, for instance, have powers of enforcement that can be invoked that include the power of entry onto private premises where the regulations are being breached. For instance, the holding of a party on a private property is an offence under the regulations on the part of the guests because they have left their homes without a reasonable excuse, and on the part of the host because he or she is hosting the unauthorised event.
Is the Minister satisfied that the statistics put forward by the Garda Commissioner show there is a low level of use of those enforcement powers and that there is a need then to ensure that we return to normal policing as quickly as possible? Inherent within that, as we move to the next phase on 18 May, in terms of the normalisation of society, as it were, and as we move through the phases beyond that, we must have regard to the regulations in the 1947 Act. Is it the Minister's intention to relax or lift those regulations or what does he propose to do in respect of them? We are fast approaching 18 May but at this point, we do not have sight of his intentions in respect of the powers of the Garda. It would be very useful for us to have some perspective from him.
Similar to other Deputies, I also seek assurances from the Minister that the Garda has access to the requisite PPE now and will have as we move through those phases. Further, has consideration been given by the Government or by him to priority testing and results for An Garda Síochána in respect of Covid-19?
My third point relates to direct provision. I share the concerns of other Deputies with regard to Cahersiveen. It is important that the Minister speak to the Cahersiveen issue specifically. It would be worthwhile. The Minister made no specific reference to it in his speech but I would like to hear from him in that respect. In his speech, the Minister said that 7,700 people are being supported under direct provision at present. On social and physical distancing supports and cocooning measures, he said "More than 600 residents have relocated to support social and physical distancing and cocooning measures in centres." There are 7,700 people in direct provision and, according to the Minister's speech, 600 people have been moved into safer accommodation. Will the Minister give us his perspective on the next phase? How far along are the Minister and his Department with regard to ensuring the safety of those who reside in direct provision centres?
Will a Garda task force be set up for County Louth and for Drogheda in particular? Points regarding policing in this specific region have been raised by other speakers. Following on from that, what is the status of the Garda task force for Dublin's north inner city?
If I have time to come back in, I would be grateful for the opportunity, but I doubt I will.
In respect of the task force, as a long-standing Member of the House, Deputy Sherlock will be aware that these are operational issues for An Garda Síochána. I assure the Deputy and the House that, from my personal knowledge and my discussions and meetings with the Commissioner and his Garda team, every effort is being made on the part of An Garda Síochána to deal with the serious criminal issue in Drogheda. That will continue until such time as the small number responsible are brought to justice.
With regard to Deputy Sherlock's earlier point in respect of undocumented persons, my message is clear: anybody who regards himself or herself as undocumented need have no fear in seeking medical attention during the current Covid emergency. It is important that everybody in the State benefit from appropriate medical treatment.
Deputy Sherlock mentioned the role of the Policing Authority and other human rights-based organisations with regard to the Garda restrictions. Again I stress that the Government considers these restrictions necessary having regard to the public health emergency. They are provided for by law passed in this House. I assure Deputy Sherlock that the operational guidelines with which An Garda Síochána is engaging are grounded in human rights obligations and a strict code of ethics. I am very pleased that the Garda Commissioner reports to my Department weekly and that the Policing Authority, in response to a request from me, is engaging with the Garda Inspectorate, GSOC, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and NGOs including those mentioned by Deputy Sherlock. I have asked that the authority report on these issues and that there be a clear focus on the application of the emergency powers by An Garda Síochána and on any particular impact that may be felt by groups in society that might regard themselves as being in some way vulnerable.
I wish to assure the Deputy of clear accountability and transparency in this regard.
The duration of the regulations is subject to ongoing consideration by the Government in line with the advice of the public health experts. I want to be clear that the Government makes the decisions; NPHET and other public health groups give advice. Of course, I would be happy to keep the Deputy and the House fully informed of any changes under consideration. As of now, the regulations are firmly in place.
I wish to ask a series of questions on one topic and would like those to be responded to. I will leave some time. I would be happy to take replies to two other subsequent questions in writing.
The Travelodge hotel in Swords is one of a number in that hotel chain that houses asylum seekers as well as other guests, including airline staff. On 7 March, a guest returned from Bergamo in Italy, which at the time was the European epicentre of the pandemic. That person was hospitalised and diagnosed with Covid-19. The remaining members of the guest's travel party remained in the hotel with instructions to self-isolate and stayed until 22 March. However, on 18 and 19 March, a group of 70 asylum seekers who had been resident in that hotel for the entire time where there was a confirmed infection was at short notice split up into two separate groups and moved to two centres. No testing was done, but I know the test criteria were different then. One of those centres was the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen in Kerry, which went on to have a cluster. People felt very scared about that, as has been well articulated since.
On 6 April, I wrote to the Minister's office seeking clarity as to why such a wholesale moving of people had happened at a time when the public health advice was for people to stay at home and urging people not to go to holiday homes. Despite this, these people were moved from one side of the country to the other, particularly those who went to Kerry. The Department's reply was that the decision to move people had been taken for their own health and safety, yet subsequent information which came into the public domain suggests that either the Department was not informed about the confirmed case in the Swords hotel from which the 70 asylum seekers were moved or the Department was informed and decided to move them anyway. I ask the Minister to address that particular point. On what date was the Department informed? Was it before 18 March?
With confirmed cases in Cahersiveen now, there is limited scope to self-isolate. What are the plans for that facility now? Obviously, moving to an own hall door is the preferred option. In the immediate aftermath of the 70 asylum seekers being moved from the Travelodge hotel in Swords, can the Minister confirm that another 30 to 40 asylum seekers were moved into that hotel in Swords? If so, what sanitation arrangements were put in place in advance of that? I have been told that within a week of their being moved, a number of staff in that hotel tested positive for Covid-19. Is the Swords hotel still being used for direct provision? Have there been more confirmed cases?
I ask the Minister about different advice from the HSE. In his earlier statement, he said that three people sharing a room was in line with HSE guidance. We heard a briefing from the Chief Medical Officer a few days ago and when asked that particular question he said that he would not have viewed three non-family members sharing a room as recommended. Is there a difference of opinion with that advice? I ask the Minister to address these issues.
I would be happy to receive a written reply to my remaining questions.
A human rights impact assessment has been sought. Is the Minister open to putting that in place? On the Courts Service, the Bar Council suggested that some ordinary crimes could be tried by non-jury courts on consent. Has that been discussed with the Department? Is the Minister involved in discussions on putting mandatory arrangements in place at airports to ensure compliance by passengers in terms of providing notification of the location at which they will be staying? If so, I ask the Minister to outline those details.
On direct provision, I am conscious that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is present and I am anxious to facilitate his contribution in respect of Cahersiveen. The premises there was offered to my Department last September and assessed by senior officials at the time. In early March, during the early stages of the pandemic, it was deemed appropriate to move residents there from several Dublin hotels, all of which were being used on a temporary basis, including the hotel mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy. Those premises were not being used exclusively by the Department and it was our considered opinion that there was a potential public health risk. As such, it was decided to move the residents to Cahersiveen. I wish to be clear that no resident was awaiting a test or test results at the time of the transfer. Neither I nor anybody else in the Department of Justice and Equality was aware of any guest at any of the source hotels having or being suspected of having the virus at the time the move was planned or implemented. I am happy to provide further detail in writing for the Deputy. She has raised the issue on several occasions and we have been in correspondence with her. I am happy to engage on any specific issue on which she seeks a reply.
I ask the Minister of State to add to my comments with particular reference to Cahersiveen.
Could we be provided with that correspondence as well?
The issue of direct provision has taken up a significant amount of my time, that of the Minister and that of the Department in recent years. Many improvements have been made. A significant number of people are now in own-door or self-catering accommodation. We have been moving in that direction but it is very difficult, as colleagues are aware.
There are 69 residents, including nine children, in the premises in Cahersiveen. The accommodation has 56 bedrooms and capacity for 150 residents. The residents are a mix of single people and small-sized families. All single residents have been offered their own bedroom. All bedrooms in the centre are en suite. Some of the residents have declined this offer and indicated they wish to self-isolate with their room-mate as a family unit. We continue to encourage those residents to accept the offer of their own room. No one is being detained at the centre. The centre management has confirmed that the main entrance door is on a thumb lock and residents may leave freely if they so wish. However, the current guidance from the HSE is that residents should self-isolate. The centre staff remind the residents of that public health advice. The whole issue of isolation and staying in our homes and within a certain distance is very difficult for us all.
I have no doubt that a significant amount of effort has been put into resolving the issue. The key issue is that the Minister just told me the Department of Justice and Equality did not know that somebody in the hotel had tested positive, but the HSE must have known that. Did it not tell the Department? Is that what happened?
I cannot account for the HSE but I can say that we found out about it from the Deputy's office.
There have been calls for many years to close direct provision but many improvements have been made. What happens now is that when people arrive in the country and look for international protection, as a State we are obliged to offer them accommodation, heat, food, a bed, education and so on. That is what people get. Many people move through each centre. There are over 1,000 people now in centres who have status to remain and we are struggling to find accommodation for them. It is a very challenging area for everybody. We have been working extremely hard, with the assistance of lots of colleagues here. Many colleagues came under pressure when direct provision centres were opened in their areas. Some of these newer centres have a very high standard, with own-door self-catering accommodation and that is what we want to move towards, more and more. When many people arrived at one time last year, there was a huge spike in numbers, which put a lot of pressure on the accommodation. We were very anxious that people would not be homeless on the streets. That did not happen. There was one instance where a few people were not accommodated but we worked might and main to ensure everybody had a bed, food, shelter, heat, education and so on. We worked to process their applications quickly and move them out of the system, so that if they are allowed to stay here they can get on with their lives. That is what we all want.
I extend my condolences to the families and friends who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 during the past week. I offer my support to those who are battling illnesses and I wish them well during this period. I also thank all front-line workers for their continuing heroic efforts in the battle against Covid-19. I particularly thank the gardaí for their efforts during the crisis. In my constituency of Louth and east Meath, and my home town of Dundalk, the presence of the gardaí has been welcomed. The manner in which they are dealing with this crisis also needs to be praised. They have taken an appropriate approach which has been welcomed by many people.
As the Minister knows, the Dealgan House Nursing Home in Dundalk has one of the highest fatality rates in the country due to Covid-19. Many families of those who have passed away want me to raise several issues with the Minister. They are seeking answers to questions-----
I am afraid I am going to have to interrupt the Deputy. I do not like interrupting any Member but is the point the Deputy is raising not more relevant to the Minister for Health than to the Minister for Justice and Equality?
If the Ceann Comhairle would give me time, he will understand why I am asking this.
Alright, go on.
I hope he will give me an extra minute for that please. If over 20 people were killed on a building site, the Health and Safety Authority would be involved. It is likely that the Garda and various other State agencies would also be involved. The point I am making is that in those situations there is a clear protocol in place, but in the situation of the Dealgan House Nursing Home there was no such protocol for families. That is what is most stressful for these families. This is not a blame game. The families simply want answers so that this does not happen to anyone else in the future. Several family members have contacted me and have asked me to ask the Minister these questions directly. It is quite clear that we need a public inquiry into why this happened in Dealgan House. Will the Minister bring this to the Cabinet and impress on his colleagues the need for a public inquiry? What happened in Dealgan House must not be allowed to happen anywhere again. The older generation must be protected every bit as much as other citizens. They have a right to be treated much better than they have been in the past few months. I repeat that I am asking the Minister to urge his Cabinet colleagues to accept that a public inquiry is needed.
We have heard in recent months about the difficulty front-line workers have had in obtaining PPE. Can the Minister update this House on the PPE for gardaí working on the front line? Is there sufficient PPE gear for vital front-line staff?
During recent months, several posts in An Garda Síochána have been filled by serving members of the PSNI. The most notable of these appointments is the appointment of Paula Hilman as assistant commissioner and Stephen McCauley to the rank of superintendent. Paula Hilman was previously a detective chief superintendent in the PSNI while Stephen McCauley was a detective chief inspector in the PSNI. Can the Minister state whether the appointments were made through an open selection competition and whether serving officers from other jurisdictions applied and were considered for these roles?
Will he indicate if serving members of An Garda Síochána applied for the roles?
I note that the appointments were made possible by an agreement between the Government and its UK counterpart. Is the Minister aware of any member of An Garda Síochána who has applied for a senior role in the PSNI? Can he confirm that this agreement will still stand in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
Over the past year or so, members of the armed response unit have been deployed in the north east, mainly as a response to the gang feud in Drogheda. I welcome and support the deployment but I wish to raise the concerns felt by those living close to the Border in towns such as Dundalk. I am particularly concerned that the armed response unit only appears to have been deployed in Drogheda to deal with the gang feud. There is no doubt that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, dangerous criminals will try to take advantage of the situation, particularly with smuggling and serious crime. Will the resources of the armed response unit be deployed in the same manner as they are being deployed to deal with the gang feud in Drogheda? I fear that Dundalk and surrounding areas will be vulnerable to cross-Border crime if we do not get our share of resources.
I have raised the Dromad Garda station with the Minister on many occasions. Will he indicate when the station will reopen? I had hoped it would have happened by now. Is there any particular reason the station has not yet reopened? I understand there are currently seven vacancies for Garda sergeants in the Dundalk area. Is this correct and, if so, why? I am disappointed the positions remain unfilled and am interested to hear why.
During the lockdown, I have received a greater than normal number of requests from fathers who are experiencing difficulties seeing their children who are cared for by their mothers. In one case, a father whose son lives with his mother has been unable to see his son for over seven weeks. He completely understands the reasons for the lockdown and supports it but he is missing valuable time with his son and worries about the long-term effect it might have on their relationship. Will the Minister indicate when such fathers will be in a position to see their children once more given the current restrictions?
Since the lockdown was introduced, domestic violence has increased, as have calls to women's refuges. What measures are being put in place by the Department of Justice and Equality to address this very important issue?
I ask the Minister to deal with the Covid-19 related questions.
I will and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the guidance. Deputy Fitzpatrick raised a number of non-Covid-19 related matters, on which I am happy to give him an early reply, with particular reference to the armed support unit and Garda stations and resources in the Louth area.
On Covid, Deputy Kenny raised the matter of PPE being deployed to Garda members. This is a matter of importance. I reject Deputy Kenny's remarks about the lack of PPE for Garda members. I will give the House a sense of the volume. Approximately 2 million pairs of disposable gloves, more than 200,000 face masks and 50,000 l of hand sanitiser in refillable plastic bottles have been distributed. The types of PPE supplies are administered by gardaí on a regular basis. Garda divisions and specialist units are provided with PPE weekly from central stores. These are distributed to each Garda station to ensure that the Garda has adequate supplies to meet operational requirements. That is of great importance.
On the matter that Deputy Fitzpatrick has raised in respect of recent senior appointments in An Garda Síochána, the competition for the appointments was conducted by the Policing Authority in accordance with legislation. I welcome the appointments. The Government had a role in the ultimate appointments in accordance with the Garda legislation. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I would not be privy to the personalities involved in the interview process or those who applied or did not apply but I would say to Deputy Fitzpatrick that the process was entirely in accordance with the legislation as passed by this House.
On the matter of domestic violence and domestic abuse, I want to acknowledge what Deputy Fitzpatrick has said. I agree with him. This is a matter of concern and I repeat what I said earlier in respect of observations made by Deputy Murnane O'Connor that the Garda is very much treating this issue as a priority. The courts are available and open. Access to family law centres-----
I am sorry but as there are only 20 seconds remaining, I ask the Minister to, please, urge the Cabinet to have a public inquiry into the Dealgan House nursing home. Will he, please, answer that question?
I want to join Deputy Fitzpatrick in offering my condolences to those who passed away in that particular nursing home. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I do not have a direct role but, of course, I would be happy to convey the views of Deputy Fitzpatrick to my Cabinet colleagues, and I will.
My apologies to Solidarity-People Before Profit. I should have called its members for the last slot.
I noticed but I did not say anything.
I call Deputy Bríd Smith.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry and I will make a statement within which there will be a few questions the answers to which I am happy to take in writing.
We have been raising the question of the treatment of residents in direct provision for a month now and I want to repeat that I believe this Government has failed miserably to protect the rights of our most vulnerable during this Covid-19 crisis. I believe that any examination post Covid will show this to be true. We have gone from 62 cases in nine clusters to 149 in ten clusters. Those figures may have increased. I note in his contribution the Minister did not update us on the figures in direct provision.
The inactions in the case of direct provision are abuses of the human rights of people who are seeking protection from war, famine and persecution. We have gone over this previously. Direct provision has been here for 20 years and it has been used almost as a way of deterring people from coming here because of the isolation, humiliation and abuse that they suffer. The Minister said in his contribution that Dr. Catherine Day will produce a report later this year. That will be welcome but I am afraid it will not deal with the urgency of how we deal with Covid-19 in the meantime. We have had multiple warnings, as well as reports and studies that have documented the inadequacy of the direct provision system and although the Minister said that 20% of residents are now in own-door accommodation, that still leaves approximately 6,000 residents living in the direct provision system. What was abusive and inhumane in ordinary times may be shown to be dangerous and possibly even lethal in these pandemic times.
I was struck by a number of things while reading all the replies to various Deputies who put questions about direct provision. First, the Minister has a constant refrain that this is a health issue, it is the responsibility of the HSE, the social inclusion unit or the management of the centres. It is always somebody else but not the Minister for Justice and Equality. It is a bit like the way we deal with the nursing homes. We contracted out the provision of the care of our most vulnerable to private for-profit companies and then when it goes wrong we say, "It is not our responsibility, nothing to do with us".
That is not true at all. That is not right. We did not say that.
Somebody in the Minister's Department decided to send applicants from overcrowded conditions to remote hotels, some of them still overcrowded, where they could not socially isolate and where they share bathrooms and shower facilities, communal kitchen and shared meals. Somebody thought it was okay to pack a bus with 120 residents and send them down to Kerry from a centre in Dublin when the centre in Dublin had Covid-19 cases. Testing began on 14 April for residents in Cahersiveen. Four tested positive but it was not until 28 April that a dedicated medically qualified person was appointed to the Skellig centre. During all this time, the Minister and his Department were content to issue statements that everything was being done to ensure the health and safety of residents at all stages.
There is a huge disconnect between that reassurance and the reality on the ground. The Government is happy to contract out the responsibility to a private for-profit company called Remcoll Capital - a company with no medical experience, no expertise in public health, and which up until this week had one cleaner with no public health experience cleaning 15 rooms in which Covid-19 infected people were living. Remcoll is not unique, because this system of direct provision is costing the State more than €70 million a year, a significant part of which goes to boost the profits of private companies. We are constantly getting information about the lack of proper condition and poor treatment and nutrition available in direct provision centres. Guidance in an email or on a website is not enough. There has to be enforcement of the conditions in these centres. Where is the enforcement in Cahersiveen and other centres? The Minister is not absolved of the responsibility for the conditions in these centres unless he enforces their proper adherence.
First, where did the letter given to the residents in Cahersiveen this week emanate from? Second, will the Minister be forcing another lockdown on those residents if they are told they are not doing enough to socially isolate? Third, will he allow them to move out into centres where they will feel safe? At the end of the day, the only way to deal with this inhumane system is to grant asylum to all the direct provision residents. He should grant it to them immediately.
I will later post a series of photographs on Twitter. I am sure the Minister has heard of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"; wait until he sees the seven billboards outside Cahersiveen that will condemn him and his Department. I hope he will feel ashamed about it. The social solidarity of the people of Cahersiveen is next to none.
I too want to ask the Minister questions about the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen. First, I wish to make some brief points about the direct provision system in this Covid-19 crisis in general. There are 7,700 residents in direct provision. As of last Friday - the latest information we have is five days old - 149 of those people had the disease, while there were ten clusters, ten people had been hospitalised, and only 1,600 had been tested. Some 1,700 asylum seekers were sharing rooms with non-family members. In one example in Meath, there were 23 men in seven rooms. The norm is to share washing, food and laundry space. There is talk of congregated settings. What can one do in a hospital or a nursing home? There are alternatives, however, in this situation. The caretaker Government could amend the housing assistance payment legislation to include asylum seekers. God knows there are enough vacant properties available now with the downturn in tourism and the slump in Airbnb bookings. Instead, the Government made a different choice and took a different road. Dr. Eamonn Faller, an infectious disease expert in Cork University Hospital, described it well when writing this week. He nailed it. He said that the Government "maintained the status quo in the knowledge that the current situation of outbreaks and public health endangerment was inevitable". In other words, the Minister and his Government chose to maintain the inhumane direct provision system, and put the maintenance of that system above the health, safety and even the lives of the residents who are forced to live within it. Fiona Finn, chief executive of the migrant group Nasc, nailed it as well when she commented on the material distributed to the Skellig Star hotel by the HSE public health office the other day. She said: "To suggest that the residents are in any way responsible for the continued spread of the virus of the centre is reprehensible and the worst form of victim blaming". I echo that sentiment.
I want to ask the Minister briefly about two issues. He and the Minister of State when replying to the Irish Refugee Council CEO yesterday denied that residents in that centre are being barred from leaving and stated that the door was effectively left on the latch.
The door is on the latch. It is also true that gates that were previously locked are now unlocked but is the Minister aware that there is a "Stop" sign on every door out of that centre along with the words "Do not leave - not an exit" and that people, including women, who attempt to go out the doors are told that if they do, action may be taken against them, which the residents interpret as a threat of an increased chance of deportation? I am asking the Minister to comment on that situation, which was reported to me by a resident of the place just before I came in here. Those residents are to be held to a far higher standard than the rest of the population when it comes to quarantine conditions.
As for the cleaning regime in the hotel, Deputy Bríd Smith said that up until very recently, there was one cleaner for 15 rooms. The correspondence from the Minister yesterday talked of vacuuming, cleaning, detergent sprays and bleach yet why is it that in a hotel where 25 people have had this disease, there is no deep-clean disinfecting of that building up to the highest possible medical standard? Is it because that would involve closing the place? Why does the Minister not do that or make sure that is done?
I acknowledge the serious challenge that is direct provision in particular in the context of the current public health situation but I assure all Deputies that improvements are being carried out on a daily basis to ensure the comforts of all of those involved. There are actually 69 residents in Cahersiveen. There is capacity for 150. Anybody who has tested positive was given the opportunity to move to one of the specially designated centres of which there are four, particulars of which I mentioned earlier. Deputy Bríd Smith's comments were repeated by Deputy Barry. We are being accused in the first instance of contracting out or in some way blaming health for guidance yet on the other hand, we are told that we have do not have health expertise. I make no apologies in this House or anywhere else for saying we follow the advice of public health and the HSE. That is what we are doing because we acknowledge they are the ones who provide the expertise but we will continue to provide improved facilities in Cahersiveen and all of the centres. I would be happy to include Deputy Barry in the ongoing process of information of which both Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae are apprised
I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about Cahersiveen to the Minister and Minister of State because the first I knew of this, like all the other elected representatives, was on the Monday before the asylum seekers came to Cahersiveen. The Government did open this direct provision centre in Cahersiveen. When it was proved wrong in many other parts of the country last year, it admitted it was wrong and that there should be proper consultation before that happened in any other part of the country. It did this without proper consultation. We have come to know that the HSE, which is responsible for health, did not approve of bringing the refugees to Cahersiveen but nevertheless the Government brought these unfortunate people from a hotel in Dublin where there had been cases of coronavirus. People were not tested before they came to Cahersiveen. It is now believed that at least 24 people, between refugees and people working at the centre, have presented with the virus. Some of the workers have also contracted the virus. For many days when people presented with the virus in the centre, more were in and out of the centre and around the town.
At that stage, locals started to worry about their own health and avoided the town of Cahersiveen. Many of them are still doing so because they want to protect their own health. They know that the virus has been, or still is, in the hotel. They are not sure if it is still there or not. We have seen the refugees hanging out of windows so they can be seen through a locked gate.
There was no locked gate.
The gate was locked that night and we now know why. The management wanted to stop reporters going in there and thought that they could block the reporters at the other doors if that gate was locked.
That is not true.
It is clear that the refugees want to leave Cahersiveen. It is clear that the people of Cahersiveen, the locals of the Iveragh Peninsula, want the centre closed down now. It is now evident that the Skellig Star Hotel is not suitable. The asylum seekers were packed in on top of each other in the first place, with three or so to a room. That is not acceptable. They were told to self-isolate but there is no compulsion on the residents to stay in the hotel and they are out around the town. It is not suitable. The back or side of the premises is not enough for men, women and children for 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
I am asking both the Minister and the Minister of State, on behalf of the refugees and the people of Cahersiveen, to close down the centre now. We have seen, in every other instance, that one has to get change-of-use planning permission. The hotel was built as a hotel in the first place but is now being used much differently. Why was change-of-use planning permission not sought? The Government did not seek that permission.
I want to give the Minister and the Minister of State the chance to answer. Will they close the centre now or not? They have a minute to answer.
I will hand over to Deputy Stanton but I will say to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae that we will continue to work hard with local management, stakeholders, non-governmental organisations and, in particular, with the HSE and public health to ensure that every possible support continues to be given to the residents in Cahersiveen and other centres in this time of difficulty and challenge.
I inquired today about the health of people in direct provision centres who have contracted this virus, as have many citizens of Ireland, and I am told that none of them is very seriously ill. I wanted to report that good news. Some people have symptoms only and others have no symptoms. Anybody who has been tested has been moved to an isolating facility.
The HSE has confirmed to us that there should be no movement into or out of the centre at this time unless directed by public health. Residents have been asked by the HSE to remain in the centre while it continues to monitor the situation. That is the public health advice that we have.
I have a number of specific questions for the Minister. I thank him for being proactive. He has answered and been factual every time I have contacted him. I appreciate that.
That will continue.
There are things that I want to ask. The Kerry Dáil representatives had a two hour and 35 minute meeting this week and were told by the management and owners of the premises in question that they were given six days' notice that they were to make a direct provision centre available to the Department. Is that good practice? Is it proper that a direct provision centre would open in Cahersiveen, or anywhere else, without consultation with the people and with local representatives, be they county councillors or Dáil representatives? Is that right? Does the Minister think that is good practice? I do not think it is. There should have been consultation. The people should have been made aware that this was happening. I, as a public representative, was told on a Monday morning that the asylum seekers were coming on the Wednesday. When they came to Kenmare, I was told on a Tuesday that they were coming on the Wednesday. I do not think that is right.
I am seeking confirmation on the record of the Dáil today. Is it true that people were brought from a Travelodge hotel in Dublin, where there was infection, down the country in a bus, stopping at service stations along the way, all the way to Kerry? These are people who had been exposed to the virus in Dublin. Is that true or is it false? If it is true, it is an awful indictment of the Department of Justice and Equality and it is very wrong. The people in Cahersiveen who I have represented since I went into Kerry County Council in 1999, who I have stood with and who have stood with me, are extremely upset over what has happened. They genuinely are. They have nothing in the world against people seeking asylum in this country but they do not agree with the whole idea of people living in a hotel setting. If these people were to be put into houses in different areas, integrated properly and allowed to live in our communities, we would warmly welcome that. However, if a place is not right, one cannot make it right.
I have one very important request to make of the Minister, and I do so on behalf of the people in Kerry. Will he please go on Radio Kerry for a question and answer session? I was on Radio Kerry yesterday and the presenter, Jerry O'Sullivan, said to me that the station has repeatedly asked the Minister to come onto the programme but he has not been available. I am not saying the Minister did or did not say he would go on, because I am not entitled to say that, but I am respectfully asking him to do so now. He owes it to the people in Kerry, and the people in Cahersiveen and the Iveragh Peninsula, to allow them to hear the presenter ask him questions on the record so that he can give clear answers.
I want him to answer several questions here today and I will allow him plenty of time to do so. Did he know about the Travelodge Hotel infection, if that is, in fact, true? Does he think it is right that people should be given six days' notice to open a centre? Does he think it right that public representatives are not consulted and that there is no consultation in the greater area to let people know that a premises is going to be changed from an active hotel to a direct provision centre? If the people are not happy in the centre, will the Minister confirm today that he will close it down? I am asking him that question straight. I have asked it of him before and we all know he said "No" to me. I am asking him on the record of the Dáil if he will confirm today that he is going to close down the centre, either very soon or in the very short term, because it is simply not working?
I am going to continue to deal with this issue, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, officials in my Department and local stakeholders. Indeed, I have spoken to local residents in the area and I am very happy - in fact, I regard it as my duty and obligation - to keep in regular contact with Deputies from the area. I commit towards doing that. I will not comment in any great detail about the level of consultation. We are dealing with a public health emergency. What I will say to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is exactly what I said to Deputy Catherine Murphy earlier. We did not have any knowledge of the health condition in respect of Covid of anybody being transferred to Cahersiveen or any other area. It was only after their arrival that this news came to light.
There have been ongoing discussions between my Department and the ownership of the hotel in Cahersiveen as to the suitability or otherwise of the premises. My priority, and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is to make sure every effort is made to ensure those persons who are in residence in Cahersiveen have every support in this time of difficulty. Everybody who tested positive in Cahersiveen was removed within a very short time. There is no one in the Skellig Star Hotel now who is positive. There are 69 residents, including some children, and special efforts are being made to improve matters for the children, with particular reference to recreation, education, toys and other essentials in this time of difficulty.
The Minister's time is up.
I will say in conclusion, having regard to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's interests, I would be very happy to engage with him, and with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, by way of telephone conversation tomorrow or at any stage, as I have been doing with the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, and other Members for the area.
Will the Minister agree to do an interview with Radio Kerry?
I am more responsible to this House.
He is also responsible to the people of Kerry.
I am sure the Deputies will tell Radio Kerry what happened.
I respectfully ask the Minister to agree to it. It would be much appreciated by everybody in Kerry.
Deputy McNamara is sharing time with Deputy Catherine Connolly.
Could the Minister respond to my questions within the five minutes allocated to me? Deputy Connolly also has five minutes. As the Minister knows, on 27 March the House gave extraordinary powers to the Minister for Health to introduce regulations. For almost two weeks, people adhered to the medical recommendations without any regulations. They were introduced on 7 April. The Minister was reported in the media as being one of those in favour of them. I am not asking him to comment on that, as it would be inappropriate for him to comment on what happened at Cabinet.
The regulations required people to stay in their homes unless they had a reasonable excuse to be out of them. One of the excuses was to carry out essential services or go to an essential retail outlet. That gives a huge amount of power to individual members of An Garda Síochána and is a very difficult position to put those individual members in. It is a power I would not feel comfortable having. I would not want to determine whether it is reasonable that somebody I meet should be out of his or her home. How long does the Minister think it is feasible to continue with these penal provisions? There are penal provisions in the regulations which are quite unusual, but which may be necessary or were necessary at a certain time.
As a matter of the rule of law, people have to know what the law is so that they can organise and regulate their behaviour in accordance with the law. The law very clearly stated that hardware stores could open. I heard numerous Ministers, who are the highest Government officials in the land, say that hardware stores would be allowed to open from a certain date when the law already stated that hardware stores were allowed to open. That begs questions about the rule of law. If we do not know what the law is, how can we adhere to it? If Ministers are saying that hardware stores can open from a certain date and the law is stating that they are allowed to open as we speak, that creates confusion. Confusion about what is and is not lawful can never be good in a democracy.
Broadcasters are saying, with regard to people aged over 70, that they must stay in their homes or may now leave their homes, when there was nothing whatsoever in the law about that. There were medical recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET, and I encourage everybody to adhere to them, but I would not tell people that they must do something because people then think they are doing something unlawful. By leaving their homes, people aged over 70 may have been doing something unwise or unhealthy, but they were not doing anything unlawful. For the sake of the rule of law in this democracy, we need clarity. Does the Minister agree with me or does he think it is okay to have such confusion about what is and is not lawful?
I agree with the Deputy that these are exceptional powers in emergency circumstances. Having said that, the regulations are clear in that they require people to remain in their residences unless they have a reasonable excuse to leave them. A reasonable excuse, as the Deputy will be aware, includes going to work in an essential service, going to the shops for essential goods, going to the doctor and taking exercise. People were allowed to exercise within 2 km of their homes, which recently increased to 5 km. There is a strict prohibition on the gathering of persons for any purposes other than a purpose related to reasons for leaving a residence.
Of course I acknowledge the serious situation and the extensive powers that have been given under the emergency legislation. That is why I was very keen to ensure that there was transparency and balance. There are reports on a weekly basis from the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority is publishing reports on a regular basis and is engaging with human rights organisations.
The Garda at all times is mindful to ensure that it continues to deploy human rights at the core of its operations and its code of ethics. The arrangements are temporary. I am not in a position to say when they will be limited, but it will be on the advice of the public health experts given to the Government.
I appreciate the Minister is answering the question, but I am conscious that Deputy Connolly afforded me time.
I thank the Minister for his work regarding direct provision. I have, however, to place on record that it has been reactive. I know it has been difficult because the situation before Covid-19 was inhumane in the first place. I was at the meeting in Oughterard and I know the complexity the Department was facing. It was an inhumane situation, however, and Covid-19 has now brought that into acute focus. We simply have to find a new way.
Is the Minister aware that direct provision was never once mentioned in any of the NPHET meetings? I went through all of the meeting minutes available for February, March and April and not once was direct provision mentioned. Is the Minister aware of that?
I am certainly aware that direct provision has been very much the focus of attention at, for example, the vulnerable persons sub-group of NPHET.
I take it from that that the Minister is aware that direct provision did not feature once in the minutes of the NPHET committee, not even once. The Minister can tell me if I am wrong and I will be corrected, but that tells me then that it was not given priority at all by NPHET. Everything has been reactionary, every single step. I thank the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for their efforts, but it has all been reactive through pressure and through the suffering of people.
I welcome the clarification that the Policing Authority is monitoring the legislation. That is absolutely essential. I also welcome that the Minister is getting regular reports from the Garda Commissioner. Is the Minister satisfied that the recording of incidents on PULSE and CAD are up to speed and appropriate? I say that in the context of looking at the two interim reports from the Policing Authority and those reports remind us that the human rights in question are "being willingly...sacrificed by members of the public in order to protect life and human safety but they [human rights] remain the foundation of contemporary society and its legal framework". I was one of those Teachtaí who most reluctantly gave my support to the legislation on the basis that we would have absolutely frank disclosure regarding all aspects of that legislation. I am afraid that has not happened concerning nursing homes, etc. That is not for discussion here, however, so I welcome what the Minister said regarding the Policing Authority.
I also want to quote where the Policing Authority report stated that it must be ensured that there is a "constant readiness to return to previous policing [activity]". In other words, this legislation is so draconian and unusual that it has to go and we must be ready to let it go as soon as possible. In that context, I am going to ask a question about direct provision centres. When I said they were ignored, I wrote to the HSE and I did not go public. I went through a series of emails and shared my concerns about direct provision. Can the Minister believe that after numerous emails I was told it was a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality, when I was sharing my concerns in respect of health? I thank the Minister for answering me.
We then got a briefing document on 2 April where we were told that community healthcare organisations, CHOs, were assessing all centres where people were living in congregated settings. Were those assessments carried out for the nine CHOs? When were the assessments carried out and what were the results?
I will have to get that information for the Deputy. Regarding the emergency powers conferred on the Garda Síochána by this House, however, as far as the Garda is concerned, the operational engagement on its part is to engage with members of the public, to inform members of the public, to encourage members of the public and, as a last resort, to rely on the Covid-19-related regulations made by the Minister for Health.
It is clear from the reports published by the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority that it is only in a small number of cases that, despite being in receipt of a number of warnings, some individuals have not been in a position to comply.
There is a huge level of compliance on the part of the Irish people with the public health emergency laws and I trust that will continue.
My question is specifically in relation to the community health organisations on 2 April. It is now 13 May. Were those assessments carried out, as we were told on 2 April? If so, what was the result and what were the issues? I am particularly conscious I have read an opinion by senior counsel and junior counsel for the Irish Refugee Council and they point out the positive obligations on the State to take appropriate action to protect people's health in many settings but particularly in this. From reading that, we are utterly failing to do that and we discriminated against that vulnerable sector. In that context, I am trying to get some information. Were the assessments carried out? If so, what are the results? What are the issues?
Can the Minister deal with that briefly?
I would be happy to document that to the Deputy in respect of all the CHO areas.
The Minister will write to the Deputy.
I may have to get some of that information from the HSE because it is not something that is immediately within my remit but I would be happy to accommodate the Deputy insofar as I can because I believe it is a valid concern.
This is from the Minister, issuing on 2 April. This is not from the Department of Health.
We will update it.