Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ceisteanna (3)

John Lahart

Ceist:

3. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he has considered establishing a transport security unit to tackle widespread and dangerous antisocial behaviour on public transport and at public transport hubs. [48418/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

If a hallmark of a decent, dynamic and effective public transport system is its ability to carry all the passengers who seek to use it, then of equal importance is that such passengers, especially those who abandon their cars in favour of public transport, must be safe and secure, particularly as we move to the welcome 24-hour bus services in Dublin. Recent figures show that the incidence of antisocial behaviour across the public transport system is escalating. We have raised this matter since before the 2016 general election. What progress has the Minister made in providing security services across our public transport fleet in the aftermath of our raising the matter on a number of occasions in the Chamber?

I thank the Deputy for his question on a very serious and worrying matter that has increasingly come to the fore in recent times. I am glad to have the chance to clarify the facts surrounding this issue and to detail the ways in which it is being addressed.

The safety and security of public transport passengers and staff, including arrangements to deal with antisocial behaviour, are important matters that, first and foremost, must be managed by every public transport company, in conjunction with An Garda Síochána where appropriate.

While the vast majority of public transport passenger journeys occur without incident, I am of course concerned to ensure that the necessary arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of all passengers and staff.

Following representations from the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, in respect of this matter, my Department wrote to the three CIÉ companies, seeking their views both on the issue of antisocial behaviour and about ensuring the safety of passengers and staff. In their responses, all three companies stressed their strong and close working relationships with An Garda Síochána.

I also wrote to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to seek his views on how we could best address the issue of antisocial behaviour on our public transport system. It is important to note that the allocation of all Garda resources, including the manner in which Garda personnel are deployed, is solely a decision for the Garda Commissioner and his management team.

Last week, I received a response from the Minister for Justice and Equality outlining the recommendations of a report that he had received from An Garda Síochána on the issue of antisocial behaviour.

The letter advised that An Garda Síochána does not propose to establish a specialist or dedicated unit of the force to police the rail network and further stated that effective local community policing efforts can meet the policing needs of the rail network and its stakeholders.

The report by An Garda Síochána proposes that the Railway Safety Advisory Council, RSAC, will advise the Garda as to the priority rail locations, where the Garda Bureau of Community Engagement will facilitate meetings with local Garda management to ensure that an appropriate policing response is delivered.

Among the proposed strategies to be put in place by An Garda Síochána are: regular liaison with the RSAC; identification of priority hot spots; facilitation of local Garda management meetings with stakeholders; assignment of local community-policing gardaí; crime-prevention advice to transport service providers; and increased liaison at the planning phase of key events, such as concerts, sporting occasions and public meetings.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Minister for Justice and Equality has been advised by An Garda Síochána that the Garda superintendent of community engagement and public safety and the RSAC will keep the above actions under review and subject to an annual meeting.

I understand that An Garda Síochána met the RSAC to discuss the issue of antisocial behaviour on our public transport network and that further engagement and initiatives are planned. Following that engagement, I note and welcome the recent deployment of gardaí to public transport locations and to DART, Luas and commuter rail services under Operation Twintrack.

I thank the Minister for the response. It is not unexpected. Our position on this side of the House has been consistent. People who use public transport need to know that they can travel safely, whether on a bus, a DART, a Luas or an intercity train. A number of measures have been brought in by transport companies, including text alerts. The number of commuters who have used the text alert indicates an alarming rise in antisocial behaviour, ranging from menacing low-grade behaviour on buses to attacks and assaults on drivers and staff. Other jurisdictions have dedicated transport police so that passengers who take the train or anybody who is intent on carrying out any kind of antisocial behaviour knows that there is a possibility that an officer or member of transport police will show up at some stage on a route, whether on a tram or a train. We know that the Luas has security but they do not have the powers to search, detain and arrest. There has been a gradual creep across the public transport system. In my constituency, a stone was thrown through the window of a bus and bus services were withdrawn. The answer from the Garda Commissioner is not robust enough. What is the Minister's view on ensuring the safety of passengers?

I will make my views clear. I will do everything that I can to facilitate a solution to the difficulties which the Deputy quite rightly underlines and to see that staff and passengers are properly protected. I have given an update on what I have done. I will facilitate anything the Garda Commissioner and Minister for Justice and Equality feel is necessary in any way that I can. It is a matter of the operations of the Garda and I must respect and support decisions made by the Garda Commissioner. I will not second-guess him or interfere with his decisions. He has decided that he will not introduce a dedicated unit, for all sorts of reasons that he has given. I have received a letter from the Minister for Justice and Equality about the measures which he is prepared to and is going to take to safeguard Irish citizens and the staff of all transport companies. I will make that letter available to Deputy Lahart.

Does the Minister, as is the case with his counterparts in other jurisdictions, have the ability to investigate the possibility of a dedicated transport police corps not under the Garda Síochána's remit - just like the airport police - but with exactly the same powers as the force? Two new bus routes will operate in Dublin on a 24-hour basis, which is very welcome. My constituents are already asking how we can guarantee the security and safety of commuters who use that service. Newspaper letters and columns are full of stories about people disembarking trams or buses because they feel unsafe, there is intimidation or there are verbal assaults. We have heard of incidents involving staff too. Is there even a memorandum of understanding between the Garda and Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to include that gardaí on the beat would include hopping on and hopping off buses, trams, the DART and trains as part of their normal beat duty? Could the Minister establish such a memorandum of understanding?

I will not answer that question immediately but I will consider it. The views of the gardaí would have to be taken into account, as to whether they feel it is appropriate. Irish Rail has done a fair amount to address the problem, which it recognises. I welcome that Dermot O'Leary of the NBRU has been constantly pointing this out and representing staff and passengers in a laudable way. The company's annual spending on security rose from €4.1 million in 2017 to €4.5 million in 2018. Security patrols by Iarnród Éireann have been doubled. A central monitoring facility for CCTV has been established across the DART network.

CCTV is now available on the vast majority of trains, there is a new text alert service, and a communication plan has been put in place. As the Deputy will know, Iarnród Éireann is introducing customer service officers on board all intercity routes. While the primary focus of these roles is customer service, they will ensure that customers can alert personnel on board to any issues and allow for security or Garda resources to be sought, as required.

I am not taking my eye off the ball on this issue. It is a serious problem and it will be continually addressed. Apart from Iarnród Éireann, the numbers are actually coming down in the other State companies.