Thursday, 10 September 2020

Ceisteanna (2)

Mick Barry

Ceist:

2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Justice if she will reverse the decision to transfer the powers to hire and promote gardaí from the Policing Authority to the Garda Commissioner in view of the recommendation from the Smithwick tribunal to remove this power from the Commissioner given its potential to discourage whistleblowing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23203/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

By agreement, Question No. 2 is being taken by Deputy Paul Murphy.

Are last week's media reports accurate in suggesting the Government is seriously planning to take the power to hire and promote senior gardaí from the Policing Authority, which was a reform designed to protect whistleblowers in particular, and give that power back to the Garda Commissioner? In light of all the scandals, can that really be the Government's plan?

The question makes reference to the Smithwick tribunal. However, the report of the Smithwick tribunal of inquiry makes no recommendation on the recruitment or promotion of members of An Garda Síochána. I believe the article in The Irish Times may have mentioned that.

The Deputy is referring to the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland on the governance of An Garda Síochána. The Government is committed to rapidly implementing the commission's report and in that context to introduce the policing and community safety Bill. Work on the development of the general scheme of this Bill is at an advanced stage in my Department. Following consultations with the Garda Commissioner and the oversight bodies, including the Policing Authority and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, which are under way at present on the detail of the proposals, I hope to bring the matter before Cabinet in the near future. I hope the Deputy will appreciate that this consultative process is under way and the question of approval or definitively stating whether something will happen will be a matter for the Government in the normal way.

It may be helpful to set out the background and the rationale to the proposals that are currently the subject of consultation and covered in the Deputy's question. As the Deputy will recall, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, chaired by Kathleen O’Toole and comprising a group of national and international experts drawn from diverse backgrounds, was established by the previous Government to undertake a fundamental examination of all aspects of policing, including all functions undertaken by An Garda Síochána and the bodies that have a role in providing oversight - the Policing Authority, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, my Department and the Government. The commission's 2018 report followed wide-ranging consultations and intensive deliberations. All the recommendations were accepted by Government, including the recommendations the Deputy mentioned. These have been included the four-year plan, A Policing Service for our Future (2019-2022), to support its implementation and under which, I am pleased to say, much has been achieved.

The policing and community safety Bill is an important element of that plan. It will, as I have said, provide a new coherent governance and oversight framework for policing. Essentially it is proposed that the inspectorate and the Policing Authority will merge into one new body. GSOC will remain but have a change of name. There will be an oversight board.

I think that means the answer is "Yes", but I ask for confirmation. Is The Irish Times accurate in stating that the Garda Commissioner would regain power to make appointments and promotions in the force under plans agreed by the coalition? That is a very serious decision that has significant implications. The report of the Smithwick tribunal found that loyalty is prized over honesty within the Garda Síochána. That is one of the reasons that in 2017, as a reform to protect whistleblowers such as Maurice McCabe, the decision to hire and promote senior gardaí was taken out of the hands of the Garda Commissioner and given to the Policing Authority. I believe it is an insufficient reform but one that goes in the right direction. Is it accurate that the Government is planning to give that power back to the Garda Commissioner? Is that because the Minister is not concerned about the treatment of whistleblowers? Does she not think whistleblowers will be discriminated against within the force by a future Garda Commissioner in the event that they are seen as being disloyal to their colleagues because they are blowing the whistle?

The Deputy asked two questions. On whistleblowers, the Protective Disclosures Act, introduced in 2014 by former colleagues of mine, provides a very clear statutory framework within which workers can raise concerns over potential wrongdoings in the workplace that come to their attention. They can do this in the full knowledge that they can avail of significant employment and other protections if they are penalised by their employer or suffer any detriment from making such disclosures. This will not change with the potential changes to the structures within An Garda Síochána. Serving or former members of An Garda Síochána may continue to communicate their concerns through making a disclosure to the Garda Commissioner or, if they do not want to do that through the Garda Commissioner or their employer, they can continue to make that complaint through GSOC, which is the statutory independent body for such investigations, or to me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, or any subsequent Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Act also requires that every public body shall establish and maintain procedures for the making of protected disclosures by workers who are or were employed by the public body for dealing with such disclosures. Those mechanisms and protections will remain in place after the changing of the structures here. I may deal with the board in my next answer. It will not change that for whistleblowers.

If the Government gets away with this, in future whistleblowers or perceived whistleblowers may be discriminated against in terms of promotion by a Garda Commissioner. The power was taken out of the hands of the Garda Commissioner and given to the Policing Authority for a very good reason. We all saw the disgraceful treatment of Maurice McCabe and others. It is an astounding counter-reform to recentralise power in the hands of the Garda Commissioner given the chilling effect that can have within the ranks. How much discussion was this subject to within the Government? Is the Green Party on board with the plan to give the power back the Garda Commissioner to allow discrimination in that sense against whistleblowers in the force? This is an explosive and outrageous decision by the Government and should be the subject of a significant public debate. Rather than just implementing recommendations, the Government is recentralising powers in the hands of the Garda Commissioner which will have very negative effects for whistleblowers in the future.

This matter has been the subject of some debate and discussion among all the agencies. It will go through the normal processes and procedures in the Dáil and there will be a chance to debate it. We are not talking about giving power to one person alone. There is a very clear oversight structure here. The role of the board will be to better support and manage An Garda Síochána. In addition to providing support, it will also be able to constructively challenge the Garda Commissioner who will be accountable for his performance and that of his team. He works with the board, which in turn will be accountable to me, as Minister with responsibility, as I would have for any public sector board. As is clearly set out in the commission's report, I will be accountable to the Oireachtas for policing and crime.

A very clear system and structure have been put in place. This has gone through significant engagement with the various authorities. The commission was established for a reason. We needed to restructure. Obviously, there had been faults and challenges within the system. We are trying to put in place a structure and system where there is very clear oversight and where we have absolute confidence in An Garda Síochána. There will be oversight at every step of the way and obviously the Oireachtas has an involvement at all stages.