Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Estimates for Public Services 2012
Vote 20 - Garda Síochána (Supplementary)
Vote 22 - Courts Service (Supplementary)
I ask everyone to turn off his or her mobile phone as they can interfere with the sound recording equipment, even when in silent mode.
The meeting has been convened to consider Supplementary Estimates for Vote 20 - Garda Síochána and Vote 22 - Courts Service. I propose that the committee consider both Supplementary Estimates together. Is that agreed? Agreed. They were referred on 20 November by the Dáil to the committee with an instruction to report back to it by 29 November. Under Standing Orders, the role of the committee is to consider the Supplementary Estimates and report it has done so by way of a message to the Dáil.
I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and his officials for attending and assisting in our consideration of the Supplementary Estimates. I also thank them for the briefing materials which have been circulated to members. I propose that the following arrangements apply to the debate. The Minister will address the committee, after which each of the Opposition spokespersons will have an opportunity to respond. We can then have an open discussion. Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind members that in accordance with Standing Order 161, discussion should be confined to the items covered in the Supplementary Estimates.
I apologise for the delay. I am afraid I was engaged in dealing with other matters.
I thank the committee for making time available today to consider my request for a Supplementary Estimate for the Garda Síochána and Courts Service Votes. I am pleased that on this occasion there is no requirement for additional funding from outside the justice Vote group. In effect, therefore, this is no more than a technical rebalancing of year-end budgets between Votes within the justice Vote group. Additional sums are being sought for the Garda and Courts Service Votes of €8.5 million and €5 million, respectively, which will be funded in total, with a bit to spare, from projected savings of approximately €17 million in the case of the justice and equality Vote and in the region of €1 million in each of the prisons and Property Registration Authority Votes.
I am very pleased that the justice group of Votes has come in on budget in the current financial year, despite the many pressures on the sector. It is a tribute to management across the sector that it has been innovative and resourceful in managing resources within budget and yet delivering an excellent service. This, of course, did not happen by accident and the reform and cost containment measures implemented are having the desired impact from an organisational and budgetary perspective. As I have repeated on many occasions, there is no magic formula to address the very difficult position in the nation's finances and it is incumbent on all of us to continue to work smartly and prudently to make the best use of the resources available.
Turning to the Garda Vote, the net additional requirement of €8.5 million arises after a number of overruns under some headings have been offset by the reprioritisation of expenditure in other areas. The Commissioner, as Accounting Officer, has been aware of the pressure points within the Vote from early on in the year and taken the appropriate measures to address emerging overruns by reorganising budgets within the Vote. However, in view of the many challenges within the Garda Vote and, in particular, the very high ratio of pay and pensions to other expenditure, there is a limit to the options available.
The superannuation budget was set this time last year. As members of An Garda Síochána can exercise the option to retire on full pension on reaching 50 years of age after 30 years' service, it is difficult to forecast definitively the actual number of retirements in a particular year. As a consequence, while provision was made for approximately 375 lump sum gratuity payments in the current year, the likely number of actual payments is expected to be in the region of 470, which gives rise to a shortfall of about €8.5 million.
A significant proportion of this shortfall is being met from within the Garda Vote, with approximately €1.5 million being funded from elsewhere within the Vote group. I am very pleased that the Supplementary Estimate will allow the Commissioner to complete the purchase of 170 new vehicles for the Garda transport fleet. An additional €3 million is being assigned for the purchase of these vehicles. This means that a total of 212 new vehicles will have been acquired in 2012. This is a substantial investment in the Garda fleet, despite the difficult budgetary environment in which we find ourselves.
A further significant element of the additional €8.5 million relates to the annual cost of the dedicated digital radio system used by An Garda Síochána. The provision of this service is based on an outsourced service provision model and the annual charges arise under a contract negotiated by the Department of Finance with the service provider. Together with the provision of additional transport, this shows that the members of An Garda Síochána are well supported in terms of the resources and technology they require to carry out their many roles within the community on behalf of all of us.
There is a technical adjustment required within the Vote to offset receipts from fixed charge notices arising from the operation of the Go Safe road safety camera contract against the outsourced cost of providing this service. The key objective of this road safety initiative is to reduce road deaths and bring about improvements in driver behaviour. I am pleased to say that all the evidence points to the success of this measure. It is important to note that the service provider is paid according to the level of service provided, and the number of speeding drivers detected by the service provider has no effect on the level of the payment.
While An Garda Síochána retains overall responsibility for all aspects of road traffic enforcement measures, including the scheduling of speed monitoring and survey sessions, the fact that the actual monitoring sessions are being carried out by private sector service providers has freed up significant Garda resources for other essential policing work. It can be frustrating to hear some politicians, those within the media and others nostalgically looking back on a policing model which served the State over 50 years ago. We live in a different age and policing demands are consequently also different. Criminals are mobile and dangerous and have little regard for each other or broader society. The Garda Síochána needed to react accordingly and I must compliment it on the way in which it unselfishly combats serious crime every day.
With the co-operation and agreement of the representative associations, new Garda rosters are in place which more efficiently match resources with areas and times where needs are greatest. There are many further initiatives in place to target particular types of crime and work is continuing on plans to update and modernise approaches to policing on an ongoing basis. While the financial reality does not allow for recruitment at this particular time, we still have more than 13,400 serving Garda members - supported by more than 2,000 civilian employees - and a Garda Reserve force which currently has approximately 1,000 members. The Government will not waver in its support of An Garda Síochána. The commitment of gardaí of all ranks to the reform agenda is acknowledged and there is much more which can be achieved, despite the decrease in the budgetary resources available.
A Supplementary Estimate requirement of €5 million arises in the case of the Courts Service Vote. The major element of this requirement relates to the projected shortfall of €5 million in fee income, which will give rise to a deficit in appropriations-in-aid of €4 million. The main reason for this decrease is directly related to the economic downturn and the negative impact this has had on certain activities which generate court fee income. The receipts target for court fees in 2012 was set at almost €48.5 million. The receipt level in 2011 was €45.2 million and, following the introduction of two new fee orders in August 2011 and April 2012, it was estimated that these measures would generate a further €3 million to €4 million in fees annually. Unfortunately, any gains have been undermined by a significant fall-off of up to 20% in the fee income from special exemption orders. These orders are required by the entertainment and bar sectors and the decline can be related directly to the economic downturn.
It is now projected that the outturn from court fees in 2012 will be in the region of €43.5 million, a shortfall of almost €5 million. A surplus of almost €1 million in respect of other court receipts and pension related deductions is available for offset but this still leaves a shortfall within appropriations-in-aid of €4 million. In addition, there is a requirement to provide €1 million from elsewhere in the Vote group to meet additional costs associated with the public private partnership contract entered into in respect of the Criminal Courts of Justice. The extra costs have arisen mainly due to an annual inflationary adjustment. The additional provision will ensure that the Courts Service can meet its contractual commitments in relation to the PPP and that the repayment schedule is kept on track. There are various overruns and savings which offset each other, mainly under administrative headings within the Vote, and these will be adjusted as part of the Supplementary Estimate arithmetic.
The savings to offset the overrun on the Garda and courts votes are coming from elsewhere within the justice Vote group. The prisons and Property Registration Authority Votes will have relatively small surrender balances of approximately €1 million each. The bulk of the savings and the reprioritisation of expenditure are coming from within the justice and equality Vote. It is projected that the surrender balance will be in the region of €17 million. At least €5 million is accounted for by additional receipts - appropriations-in-aid - generated from sources such as the Property Services Regulatory Authority and nationality and citizenship certificate fees. In addition, there is a saving of almost €2.5 million in capital expenditure pending a final decision on the building of new premises for the State Laboratory. There are savings of approximately €2 million in the immigration area, including direct provision accommodation costs, and €3 million in savings in respect of certain costs associated with the commissions and special inquiries subhead. There are also savings of approximately €2.8 million in respect of the Probation Service subheads and €2 million in the administrative areas of the Department.
I assure the committee that a very tight rein is kept on expenditure within the justice Vote group and where, for whatever reason, expenditure does not arise in a particular year, this money will be used wisely and effectively across the sector. Alternatively, it will be surrendered to the Exchequer and put to beneficial use elsewhere. This is effectively the background to the Supplementary Estimates in question. On that note, I recommend the Supplementary Estimate for the Garda Síochána and Courts Service Votes to the committee and I will be happy to discuss any issues which members may wish to raise.
If it is acceptable, I wish to put a number of questions to the Minister. I am sure the Minister is well aware of the reports from around the country in respect of the impact of the new Garda roster on court sittings. In that context, members of the force are not attending in court to give evidence in cases where prosecutions are being brought. Cases are subsequently being thrown out or are just not proceeding, for whatever reason. It is often stated that the new Garda roster is having an impact in this regard. This matter relates to the wider administration of justice, particularly if gardaí are not appearing in court in cases where prosecutions are being brought. Will the Minister comment on that matter?
The Minister provided a ballpark figure of 13,400 in the context of the overall strength of the force. We discussed this matter with the Garda Commissioner last week and he indicated that some 1,200 serving members will be in a position to retire in the next 12 months. It must be remembered that the lead-in period in respect of training new recruits is two years and that the recruitment embargo is still in place. The Garda Commissioner also pointed out that he has been directed by the Government to reduce the number serving on the force to 13,400. What is the Minister's target number in respect of serving Garda personnel? Where do we stand in the context of lifting the embargo on recruitment and training? I ask this question in light of the two-year training period for new recruits and the number of people who might possibly retire in the next 12 months.
The Minister referred to the funding being provided for additional Garda vehicles. Such funding is welcome. We are concerned they will complain there is never sufficient funding for the upkeep of the vehicles.
We are concerned they will complain there is never have sufficient funding for the upkeep of the vehicles. We raise this matter regularly with the Minister. I refer to the cash in transit escort services provided by An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces to the banks and financial institutions. Has a critical analysis been carried out on this service to decide if a greater revenue stream could accrue to An Garda Síochána which could then be ring-fenced for the replacement of Garda vehicles?
The banks are making changes in how they deal with their customers. For example, small businesses are not permitted to bring cash lodgments to bank branches. The banks insist that businesses must use a cash collection company to deliver the cash to the bank cash centres. The banks are cutting back on their costs. Is the Government ensuring that the banks are paying their way in the provision of security escorts?
I refer to the special exemption orders. Many in the industry avail of the special exemption orders. They favour a graduated system of fees payable for these orders. They also suggest the fees should be based on square footage or turnover. Smaller and medium-sized businesses pay as much for an exemption order as the bigger outlets or function areas with greater footfall and resultant greater turnover and profits.
I will deal with the issues in the order in which they were raised by Deputy Collins. The introduction of Garda rosters is a very substantial reform of the manner in which the gardaí deal with their day-to-day duties. I wish to reiterate my thanks to the two representative bodies of the Garda Síochána, the GRA and the AGSI, who have fully co-operated in the new rostering system. It means that it is possible to put members of the Garda Síochána on the streets and available to protect the community on the days and in the hours when they are required. Until the introduction of the roster system last April, there could be as many gardaí rostered for duty in Dublin on a Monday night as on a Friday night. Gardaí are under pressure on a Friday evening compared to substantially less pressure on a Monday evening. The roster system facilitates the Garda Commissioner and those working with him to ensure that members of the force are available on the days, nights and at the times when they are needed. The manner in which the new roster operates also provides a better work-life balance experience for members of the force. I commend the members of the force for their work during the past year, including the manner in which they have adapted to the new roster. I commend the Garda representative bodies for assisting with the support and implementation of the roster system. It is often overlooked to acknowledge the extraordinary work of members of the Garda force. They have had outstanding successes this year in the areas of drug seizures, the detection of fuel laundering, raiding grow houses, tackling organised crime, addressing issues of subversion. We now know that Operation Fiacla which ran from 1 February to mid-October resulted in the extraordinary number of 2,500 individuals being arrested for burglary offences. As of mid-October, in the region of 1,400 individuals have been charged before the courts.
To deal with the question raised by Deputy Collins, it is crucial that members of the force attend court sittings when cases are heard. Nothing in the rosters impedes the attendance at courts when cases are heard. I am not personally aware of any substantial number of instances where this has occurred. If Deputy Collins wishes to bring any examples to my attention, I will be happy to communicate them to the Garda Commissioner. The rosters do not act as an obstacle to a member of the force attending for a court hearing when this is necessary. Two committees, one chaired by the President of the Circuit Court and the second chaired by the President of the District Court have worked to ensure a co-ordinated approach for dealing with criminal matters at court level. The State is in straitened financial circumstances and it is desirable that a limit is imposed on unnecessary expenditure. I say this as the Minister for Justice and Equality but in circumstances in which I would not in any shape or form want to interfere in any way with the independence of the courts or of the Judiciary. However, it would be helpful if when, for example, cases are adjourned that they would be adjourned to dates on which members are on duty but that is not always possible in the court system. The rights of defendants have to be protected and there is nothing in the roster system which would prevent a member of the force attending a court when required to do so for the purpose of a prosecution proceeding or a matter before the court being dealt with on an interim basis.
Deputy Collins raised the issue of members of the force who are eligible for retirement. I am familiar with the hearings of the committee with the Garda Commissioner and the representative bodies. It is always the case that there are more members in the force eligible for retirement than the number who actually retire. A member may retire on full pension having achieved 30 years' service. In the region of 1,200 members of the force are eligible to retire but there is no indication that the majority would wish to or intend to retire. The force has many experienced members who enjoy their job and are committed to it. They have substantial expertise and they are of an age when they can continue to remain in the force for a number of years. There is no indication that those who are eligible to retire are all planning to retire suddenly. The Garda Commissioner would have addressed that issue with the committee when he was here.
Deputy Collins raised the issue of Garda numbers and the situation with regard to recruitment. As the Deputy may be aware - I am sorry to return to this - the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government entered into the EU-IMF-ECB agreement which required substantial annual reductions in public expenditure. Certain assurances were given that the numbers in the Garda force would be reduced to at least a figure of 13,000. It was not impossible, based on the agreement, that the force would be reduced below that figure. In fact, the current number in the force is 13,440 gardaí. When I first came into Government there were in excess of 14,500 gardaí. We are now under the eagle eye of the troika and we must bring down public expenditure. I am very conscious of the desirability of a return to recruitment as early as possible. We are not in a position to make that decision at this time. I am not revealing any State secrets about the budgetary arithmetic but there will either be in the region of €3.5 billion in reductions and fund-raising efforts for 2013. The borrowings for 2013 will be €3.5 billion less than in 2012. Based on figures that are publicly available for some time, I anticipate that next year I will have a spend of some €62 million less than I had in 2012.
For 2012 I had some €100 million less than was available to the Minister in 2011. Given the financial difficulties we must confront, we are not in a position at this time to commence a recruitment campaign. I hope and I am sure we will be in that position, but I do not want to put a date on it because I cannot predict with certainty what it will be. The last graduation within the Garda force was in March or April 2011. Therefore, we still have a force with relatively young members, in addition to older members, thus providing an appropriate balance.
We were happy to purchase the additional vehicles. Approximately €3 million was charged for escort services provided in 2011. This revenue is accounted for in the appropriations-in-aid in the 2012 account. I do not have the figure for 2012. We will have the final figure in that regard in the new year.
I am conscious of the question as to whether we can obtain a greater revenue stream than we have. This is always a matter we examine constructively. I am conscious of the condition of the economy and that, in the context of protecting funds of financial institutions, there will be an impact on the institutions' finances if we charge them more. The State is providing finances to keep the financial institutions functioning and we are anxious that they engage in lending, not only to those who are seeking to purchase homes but also to small and medium-sized enterprises. I will not head down the route of increasing costs unnecessarily, as this could cause a disadvantage in another area. The Deputy may assume that we always review charges to determine whether there is capacity to increase them to provide a revenue stream that would be beneficial.
The case the Deputy made on special exemption orders has featured for a long time. It even featured during the Celtic tiger years when various licence-holders, be they owners of public houses or those holding dance hall licences, sought a variety of extensions. We are examining the legislation on alcohol in general, but, in the context of turnover, square footage and providing a variety of fee structures, I would be very cautious. On some occasions, a premises with considerable square footage might have fewer people attending it than a more popular venue with smaller square footage. The attendance can be variable. With the economic downturn, there have been substantially fewer applications for exemption orders.
There is, of course, a conflict of interest in this area. As Minister for Justice and Equality, it suits me if public houses and premises with dance hall licences that are running various events in this city, Cork, Galway and elsewhere seek special exemption orders because of the fund-raising assistance it provides. On the other hand, an issue arises in that venues are open longer and later and providing even more alcohol. There is a problem with young people binge-drinking. An issue arises as to the extent to which we should be encouraging the seeking of more special exemption orders, excessive drinking and more young people to get themselves into trouble as a result of excessive drinking. From the perspective of revenue raising, it is regrettable that in the economic downturn businesses that were doing well are seeking fewer exemption orders. However, it is desirable that young people do not drink excessively, bearing in mind it is possible to have a good time and socialise without doing so. It may well be that the issuing of fewer special exemption orders is not attributable solely to economic issues but to young people spending less money on alcohol. If that is the case, it is good.
The first issue I would like the Minister to respond to concerns over-expenditure of €8.5 million on retirement lump sums. As the Minister knows, this matter arose recently when he amended the Defence Vote. He had under-projected the number of Defence Forces members who would take early retirement. An issue seems to arise regarding planning for budgets and anticipating the numbers of members who will retire early. This is related to the debate on An Garda Síochána, in which there has been a loss of experience in a range of areas. This is constantly reported to us as elected Members. Similarly, there was an under-projection regarding Garda vehicles. We acknowledge that an insurance issue arises after a vehicle has been driven 300,000 km. When this mileage is reached, a vehicle must be replaced. One presumes there is a log of the mileage clocked by all vehicles. Planning seems to pose a problem. Will the Minister reassure us that this will not arise next year?
The Minister enjoys good provocation and a good exchange and realises the reference to looking back nostalgically at a policing model that served the State well for over 50 years will elicit a response. I am sure he has anticipated it.
The former assistant Garda Commissioner wrote an article in The Sunday Business Post criticising the smart policing model. The Minister should bear in mind the views of the Garda Representative Association and the Irish Farmers Association. The word "nostalgia" is just not appropriate. There are legitimate criticisms of the changes being made. Will the Minister give us a little more detail on the national digital radio service? Why does a budgetary issue arise in that respect? What are we spending on consultancy services and outsourcing? Does it represent value for money and result in benefits?
It would be good to have a breakdown of the rents paid by the Courts Service. I do not anticipate that the Minister can provide the relevant information now.
The Courts Service has a range of properties and I do not have the rent figures for all of them. We will provide the Deputy with the information.
With regard to early retirement, there is as much planning as can be done. It is genuinely impossible to predict how many members of the force will retire in any one year. There has been considerable variance year in, year out. All that can be done and all any Minister responsible for justice has done is estimate the approximate amount needed and deal with unanticipated retirements as they arise. The Deputy will recall that at the end of February there was an incentivised retirement scheme and that those who retired were not affected by wage or pension changes. Some members of the force might not have retired had there not been such a scheme making it advantageous to retire by the end of last February. This would have had an impact on the figures. There is no such scheme in place. The Deputy will have found that the Garda Commissioner is not in a position to state definitively how many members will retire in a particular year.
With regard to Garda vehicles, there is a planning issue.
We currently have the same approximate number of vehicles as the Garda had at the height of the Celtic tiger in 2007. There is this perception that there has been a collapse in the numbers. There are certainly some further vehicles that will be taken out of commission in 2013. While I cannot reveal budgetary discussions, I can assure Deputies that there will be funding available to purchase Garda cars in 2013. This funding should meet the needs in 2013. That is due to the careful budgetary process that has been undertaken and these arrangements will become known in the not-too-distant future. Deputies will be quite happy with these arrangements.
I welcome constructive criticism. Constructive criticism of the way any of us go about our business and constructive suggestions as to how to do things differently or better are always welcome. However, in the context of the myriad of changes which have been effected in the Garda force over the past 18 months, the force has been remarkably successful. I do not take any praise for that. It is for the Garda Commissioner who deals with operational matters and all those in the force for the focused and smart approach now taken to policing. This has resulted in crime figures being down in every category, except burglary and theft, which the force has been focusing on since last February. The outcomes of this will probably take another 12 months to work their way through the system. Over the past several days, 110 people were arrested in cannabis grow houses across the country with cannabis seized valued at approximately €3 million. The co-ordinated efforts the Garda has engaged in dealing with drugs and organised and subversive crime shows we have an outstanding force which deserves praise.
The Garda representative bodies are entitled to voice any concerns they have. I just wish that on occasion they would publicly acknowledge the excellence of their own members. I believe they have a role in doing that. Members of the general public often ask me why the Garda representative bodies do not publicly talk about the excellent achievements of the Garda Síochána while at the same time raising concerns they have for their membership. There is a need for a rebalancing of that. My experience is that the morale of the force is very high. Unfortunately, there is a tendency on the part of the Garda representative bodies to always allege Garda morale is low when that is not the case. It does deserve to be the case because of the enormous successes the force has achieved.
The Deputy had a question about consultancy services. I can provide a note to him detailing what consultancy services have been used and their cost.
I am glad the Minister is open to some constructive criticism.
Is it possible that not enough gardaí give enough notice when they decide to retire which is leading to confusion for the Commissioner and the Department of Justice and Equality?
I welcome the announcement of 212 new Garda vehicles as there is a public perception that gardaí are driving around in bangers and cars not up to scratch while the criminals are ahead of them with more powerful cars. There is much public annoyance about the Go-Safe road camera contract because it is seen as a money game and numbers racket. The Minister, however, stated the number of speeding drivers detected by the service provider has no effect on the level of the payment, a point the public do not know about.
Regarding politicians looking back nostalgically on old-fashioned policing, we all know we live in the modern age and we have the "Love/Hate" scenarios in real life and very violent criminals. There is nothing wrong with good community policing in any community, however. I know from my constituency that there are more gardaí on the beat regularly which is old-fashioned policing. Any senior or retired garda will tell one that the garda on the beat is involved in the prevention of the crime. I know they cannot deal with the heavies and the "Love/Hate" brigade on their own. However, communities love the idea of gardaí walking the streets, be it 3 p.m. or 10 p.m. There is nothing wrong with good old-fashioned policing.
I totally agree with Deputy Finian McGrath on community policing. It is part and parcel of what is being done by the force. It has a significant role in crime prevention, community relations and gardaí knowing how to divert young people who may be creating minor difficulties from going on to creating major difficulties or a life of crime.
On the retirement issue, the legal position as I understand it - if I am wrong I will communicate with the Deputy - is that a member of the force can give three months' notice in advance. There are occasions when members seek to retire with less notice and the Commissioner tends to agree to that. However, we cannot have a rule that notice should be a year in advance because people's circumstances and health change and one has to give some degree of latitude. It is in consideration of the members of the force that there is some degree of flexibility. It is important to retain that flexibility but it is an issue that can be addressed at the end of the year.
The specific role of the Go-Safe vans is to discourage people from speeding and save lives. This is why one can identify on the Internet where they are situated. There has been a substantial reduction on road deaths over the past four years, to which the vans make a contribution.
The Courts Service software is being put in place. I do not have a final date as to when it will be up and running. There is legislation that provides for attachment of earnings regarding fines and the software is being geared to cater for this. I hope to see it up and running in 2013.