Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 23 November 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Reopening of Garda Stations: Discussion
I ask acting Garda Commissioner Ó Cualáin to make his complete opening statement. When we are finished with the Stepaside issue, I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to introduce his chapter at 10.30 a.m., which is the main agenda item of today's meeting.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Given the time provided, I will deal with each matter by giving a brief overview and my colleagues and I are then happy to go into more detail where possible. On the commitment in the programme for Government for the reopening of six Garda stations on a pilot basis, the Commissioner was asked by the Department of Justice and Equality to identify six stations with specific criteria to include a mix of urban and rural with a minimum of one in Dublin and a good geographical spread. Furthermore, the Department advised the stations to be considered for reopening must be in State ownership. In total, 139 stations were closed. Of these, 78 stations could potentially be reopened. Based on the criteria provided, a scoping exercise was conducted by an assistant commissioner with views taken from each regional assistant commissioner following consultation with local stakeholders. Census data was also examined, as was data on crime trends from the Garda Síochána analysis service.
Assistant Garda Commissioner John O'Driscoll provided an interim report in June with a recommendation that Stepaside Garda station be reopened. Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll was awaiting final recommendations from all regions as well as recent census and crime data before completing his report. His final report and its recommendations have been approved by me as acting Commissioner and the report was forwarded to the Department of Justice and Equality earlier this week. The six stations recommended to be reopened are, in alphabetical order, Ballinspittle, Bawnboy, Donard, Leighlinbridge, Rush and Stepaside. Those include a station closer to the Border, two in Dublin at either end of the county, one of them large and the other smaller, another in the most southerly part of west Cork, along with a spread across five of the six Garda regions, which reflects consideration given to the criteria provided to us. Following this, An Garda Síochána will liaise with the Office of Public Works to determine what remedial works need to be done at each station and the length of time and the associated costs of the works. Furthermore, an examination of the resources required will be undertaken which will examine the numbers of staff, equipment, vehicles and ICT infrastructure required to determine in what order these stations are opened and when they are opened.
I will move on to the interim audit report and financial procedures in the Garda Síochána College of February 2017. The organisation is committed to implementing all 19 recommendations in full. Recommendation 1 cannot be completed until all 18 other recommendations have been completed. Recommendation 19 can only be completed when the head of internal audit has conducted his audit of the implementation of the recommendations which he has indicated will be completed by the end of December. The Policing Authority is overseeing our implementation of the recommendations contained in the interim report. The Policing Authority has deemed that 11 of the 19 recommendations have been completed. Of the remaining six recommendations, three are on target for completion by the end of December and significant progress will be demonstrated on the remaining three which relate to procurement of food for the Garda Síochána College and the transfer of lands to State control. This clearly demonstrates the organisation's continued commitment to ensuring that there are effective financial management and control systems in place to manage finances and all administrative functions in the Garda Síochána College.
As Accounting Officer for An Garda Síochána, I can say it takes seriously its responsibility for ensuring public moneys are spent efficiently and effectively in the best interests of the community and State.
We have approximately 45 minutes left for this session and speakers have indicated in the following sequence - Deputies Alan Kelly, David Cullinane and Marc MacSharry. Can we confine it to three speakers for this particular topic? Fine. Deputies have a maximum of 15 minutes each.
I read through the transcript of when we discussed this before. It makes very interesting reading. I actually read it twice since it is quite a story. Going back through the decision-making process on this, a decision was made by the Government to, on a temporary or ad hocbasis, look at opening six stations. Is that correct?
Mr. Noel Waters:
Yes, it was a commitment in the programme of Government to the reopening of pilot stations, which is part of a bigger commitment to look at what was known as disbursement of Garda resources and Garda boundaries generally. The two ran together in tandem. It fell then to the Department. There was also a commitment in the programme for Government for this to move within two months of Government being formed. That was clear in Government policy. It then fell to the Department to put in place measures and steps to implement that.
The last time we were here, on numerous occasions, I read out the criteria that were used for the process by which stations were closed and was told that the same criteria were subsequently used for the reopening of stations.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
The criteria are the same for policing and are what we apply, all other things being equal. Once Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll had applied the criteria that were presented to the Commissioner of the day, he distilled what stations were available to the organisation to be reopened. It is then that we would have applied similar criteria that would have been applied in the closing down of stations. Footfall, for example, was an issue, as were crime rates and population when stations were closed. These were also central to reopening.
Deputy MacSharry, other Deputies and I asked if the criteria were the same on numerous occasions. Multiple witnesses said they were. To quote Deputy MacSharry
The same criteria were used to close Stepaside as to open Stepaside. We have established that Stepaside was the only one of a potential six stations to be reopened; that the criteria were the same; and the decision was based on the interim report. Is that the case?
Mr. Ó Cualáin replied: "That is correct." I have picked only one of several examples. If the Department, as opposed to An Garda Síochána, sets the criteria and the Garda stated the criteria used were the same criteria as were used to close Garda stations, are these the same criteria?
Mr. Noel Waters:
If I may, before the acting Garda Commissioner comes in, it is important to make the point that the criteria that were approved by the Government, and the Government was very conscious of this, were with regard to the Commissioner's statutory role in respect of the use of Garda resources. It was open to the Commissioner, very clearly, to decide that he - or she at the time - would use different criteria. These were not mandatory on the Commissioner of the day to use. It was entirely open to the Commissioner. If the Government wanted to go another way, it could have used the powers in the Garda Act to direct the Commissioner to do something. It did not go that way.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
I do not have the precise date but 30 June is the date that the then Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality wrote to the Commissioner. It would have been some time shortly after that I would have been given the task. I know that in September I wrote to all the regional assistant commissioners requesting that they approach it in a particular manner and that they submit recommendations in terms of stations from their respective regions. It was, therefore, some date in between.
I accept the assistant commissioner does not have all the details with him. I request that he write to the committee stating on what date he was asked to do the report and provide the correspondence that shows he was asked to do it. He might also provide the documentation to which he just referred.
As part of the process, on numerous occasions witnesses described this as a bottom-up approach - I can quote these references if Mr. O'Driscoll wishes - and that basically the most important component of the process was that everybody from the rank and file, which was the term used in the relevant passages, all the way up was consulted on making the decisions on reopening Garda stations under the criteria defined by the Department and subsequently under the criteria defined by An Garda Síochána. Is that correct?
No, I did not say the assistant commissioner said it. The only reason I am interrupting is that we are short of time. I do not do so to be rude but purely because we are caught for time. I do not believe Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll has appeared before the committee previously, at least not before me. Basically, all I am asking him to do is confirm that once he commenced his work, he took a bottom-up approach to gathering all the data and information to make the decisions he made.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
There were a number of approaches. First of all, we had the criteria which I set out to the regional assistant commissioners. It was not a question of asking them whether they agreed or not in terms of reopening stations. It was a question of stating to them or informing them that it was in the plan for Government that six stations would be reopened. I sought views from the regional assistant commissioners. I also met the analysts and Mr. Seán Murphy in relation to the Office of Public Works aspect of it and the availability of stations. The immediate and most confining aspect of deciding what stations might be reopened was the fact that a lot of the stations that had been closed were already sold and no longer available. This reduced the number of stations that were available quite considerably. When one comes to Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy's region, albeit that he was not there at the time, there were only four stations left that could be reopened. In other regions, there was also a small number of stations.
I understand. To quote Mr. Joseph Nugent who appeared at a recent meeting:
The most important input in this process is from local Garda management. That formed a central plank-----
I presume local Garda management was the central plank.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
The fist interim report was in March. At that time, I set out detail relating to the stations that were then available, having established through the OPW, as I stated, the considerable number of stations that were no longer available. They are set out in the final report and will be available. On page 4 of the report, I set out in detail all of the stations that were no longer available. I also set out in detail the stations in respect of each region that are available or were available and I informed each of the regional assistant commissioners of the stations that they could choose from.
Mr. Pat Leahy:
That was on 26 September 2016. It came to all the chief superintendents in the region. I was one of them at the time and had responsibility for the north inner city - DMR north central. That correspondence requested a report by 8 October 2016, which was 12 days later. On 28 September 2016, I replied with a nil return from Dublin's north inner city and I stipulated that Fitzgibbon Street Garda station had been closed under a separate programme and, therefore, did not qualify. I am quite prepared to pursue that separately, if necessary.
On 29 September 2016, the chief superintendent of DMR south, Chief Superintendent McPartlin, reported a nil return. On 6 October, the chief superintendent of DMR west, Lorraine Wheatley, recommended the opening of Cabra Garda station to 24 hours, that is, extended hours for the station. On 24 October 2016, Chief Superintendent Gerry Russell from DMR east recommended the reopening of Stepaside Garda station on reduced opening hours, namely, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. On 1 November 2016, Assistant Commissioner Jack Nolan took responsibility for the process, again for a short while. On 15 November 2016, the chief superintendent of DMR south, Frank Clerkin, recommended a nil return for the south central division. On 18 November 2016, the chief superintendent for DMR north, Barry O'Brien, recommended the reopening of Rush Garda station, indicating that Lusk Garda station should have been closed initially.
Based on the information that came back from the chief superintendents, three out of six divisions had a nil return. One Garda station - Stepaside - was the only one requested for reopening in line with the criteria that were set out. The reopening of Rush Garda station was recommended but on the basis that Lusk Garda station would close because the indication was it should have been closed in the first tranche of the process. Cabra Garda station was recommended for extended hours.
I thank Assistant Commissioner Leahy. I only have three or four minutes but I will get to the punchlines. I apologise to all the witnesses for cutting in but, as they will have seen, the Chairman is being very diligent today. We know the second interim report recommended the reopening of Stepaside Garda station. Given Assistant Commissioner Leahy's role and his previous role and in light of the information he has provided to the committee, does he agree that Stepaside Garda station was the largest priority for reopening in the Dublin region?
Mr. Pat Leahy:
I will get to that. On the recommendation I made, it was recommended that the following stations be reopened subject to considerations.
In respect of Stepaside Garda station, a consideration was the significant impact on personnel levels available for front-line policing duties. I have articulated that it would have had a significant impact. Furthermore, the additional resources required to reopen Stepaside Garda station could not be extracted from current divisional strength. Simply, at that point we would not have had the resources required. If we had had a turn-key arrangement, we would not have been able to open it. In terms of my priorities across the region in personnel allocation, it would not have been my number one priority. Currently, it would not be my number one priority. At this point I have other priorities across the region in the allocation of personnel.
For the record, the assistant commissioner in charge of policing in Dublin is saying – I have no wish to put words in his mouth; I simply wish to be clear about it – that at the time and now, in the allocation of resources, there would have been other priorities ahead of Stepaside Garda station.
Mr. Pat Leahy:
No, in terms of reopenings, Stepaside Garda station fairly and squarely met the criteria set better than any other station. On the parameters set, it was the station to be selected. There was no other station to be selected. At the time it was closed, there were 34 personnel in the station. If it was to be reopened on the same basis, that is the number that would be required. However, in his recommendations made as part of the process, the chief superintendent recommended that it be staffed with two sergeants and 15 gardaí. That means that we would still be talking about the allocation of 17 personnel and probably some support staff if the station were to be reopened on the same basis.
I have one final question for the head of human resources, Mr. Barrett, and it relates to this exact question. When it comes to the reopening of this station, there is an obvious resources implication and the assistant commissioner has said as much. As Mr. Ó Cualáin said the last day in respect of the criteria set, it was one issue about which local Garda management must have been happy. If everything else is in place, all things being equal, the question of whether there are sufficient gardaí available to staff the station is part of the criteria. Was Mr. Barrett consulted in any way, shape or form about the resource implications in the reopening of Stepaside Garda station prior to the second interim report being sent to the Government?
For the record, the HR director has said he was not consulted in any way, shape or form. How can An Garda Síochána make a decision to reopen one Garda station, in Stepaside, on the basis of the second interim report when the assistant commissioner says it was not a priority in the allocation of personnel, while the head of HR says he was not consulted in any way, shape or form?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
This is the next phase. We have communicated with the Office of Public Works in that regard. A block of work has to happen on the stations that have been nominated in the context of the works that might be needed to bring them up to a standard that they can be reopened. All of the other issues, including personnel requirements and whether they will be open during the same hours and so on, can be considered in reaching a decision in that regard. They will not all be reopened on the same day.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
They may need some investment because of the building regulations that now apply and that did not apply when they were closed. That is a matter for the OPW to decide. Once the position is clear, the question will be providing the resources to bring them up to a standard that they can be reopened. We will then have to consider the personnel issue. The position is improving in that many recruits are coming out of the Garda College Templemore on a continuous basis. We expect to see a dividend throughout the country in a meaningful way in the next 12 months as we start to increase the net number with which we started. In effect, we are recruiting far more than we are losing to retirements on an annual basis.
I will move to the Secretary General and then call Deputy David Cullinane. The expenditure to be incurred by the OPW on buildings and staffing in 2018 will be for the Select Committee on Justice and Equality to consider as part of the Estimates process. Does Mr. Waters have a date for the Estimates meeting?
Will Mr. Waters convey the message to whoever is preparing the information note? Perhaps it is a matter for An Garda Síochána. I am unsure who comes in for the meeting on the Estimates for next year. That committee should receive a note on the potential cost in 2018. It is in the Official Report for the Dáil in response to parliamentary questions I asked. The Department and the OPW have stated no costs have been incurred to date in dealing with this issue. The remit of this committee is to audit after the fact. If expenditure is to be incurred next year, it should be discussed as part of the debate on the Estimates at the Select Committee on Justice and Equality for approval. Will Mr. Waters, please, ensure it is included in the brief for that committee?
Deputy David Cullinane is next. Deputy Catherine Murphy and others should note that we said we wanted to finish this discussion at 10.30 a.m. because we have to get on to the main business of the meeting.
You said some moment ago - you were right - that the setting of the criteria was a matter for the Government. The then Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, wrote to the Commissioner on 13 June 2016 providing her with the criteria. Is that correct?
I have the note that was given to the Committee of Public Accounts. Is it not also the case that the Commissioner was asked to inform the Minister of the stations she had selected? The letter stated a decision to reopen a particular station was a matter for the Commissioner, that the criteria provided were for guidance and that the Commissioner could decide whether to apply all, any or none of the criteria in reaching her decision. I take it that the Commissioner could have thanked the Minister for offering the criteria, but she made a decision to use different criteria.
Therefore, we are not dealing strictly with Government policy. A set of criteria was given by the Minister, but it was entirely open to the Commissioner to use different criteria, although she chose not to do so.
Mr. Leahy said a few minutes ago, in response to Teachta Alan Kelly, that he was aware of the demands and needs in policing operations in the Dublin area. I imagine he would be more aware than anyone. Is that accurate?
Mr. Leahy said a few moments ago that the reopening of Stepaside Garda station would have involved the allocation of significant additional personnel or the deployment of additional personnel. Is that correct?
Let us suppose Mr. Leahy was making a purely operational decision as the assistant commissioner with responsibility for Garda services in Dublin. Would the reopening of Stepaside Garda station be his number one priority?
It is something I would take very seriously. The process entailed a set of criteria given by the Minister to the Commissioner. That criteria were then used to select the opening of six stations. It is possible, in my view, that the whole process was set up to ensure that the outcome was to open Stepaside Garda station, but notwithstanding that, which is my personal view, it ended up that it was one of those stations that was recommended for reopening.
It was possible for the then Commissioner to change the criteria. I am wondering why the then Commissioner would not have said that perhaps the view of Mr. Leahy should form part of the criteria, or that she would want to hear directly from the commanding officers on the ground, who know the demands on policing and that she should change the criteria to ensure those demands were met. If this was not a political decision, but purely based on policing, then I would want to hear directly from the commanding officers on the ground. What I am hearing from Mr. Leahy is that if he had to make that call in the here and now, independent of direction from superior officers, he would not make the decision to reopen Stepaside Garda station as there are other pressing priorities.
Mr. Pat Leahy:
No. I outlined earlier the sequence of events in terms of taking up that position. I might be able to assist here.
I am clear in saying that my priorities lie elsewhere in terms of resource allocation at this point in time. That does not prevent me, and indeed I cannot get away from the fact, that there were a number of stations closed in the Dublin metropolitan region east division, DMR East. It was significantly hit in that respect and the view was taken that into the future the chief in DMR East would get the allocation of resources and if it was decided to put some resources into Stepaside Garda station, I would have no problem with that. However, if I got a certain number of gardaí today and probably into the foreseeable future, into the first half of 2018 at least, I have more pressing needs in terms of resource allocation.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
Chairman, I wrote to each of the assistant commissioners, stating it is a decision of Government to open six stations. That is the policy of Government so that was to be implemented. Whatever the policy was, I would make sure that this was done. I wrote to the then Assistant Commissioner Nolan. The information gathering took place. Many assistant commissioners have issues about the opening hours of Garda stations. That is not something that was within my remit. I recognise that these are issues around the country. It was purely relating to which stations would reopen. Assistant Commissioner Leahy eventually responded, being the then incumbent when the response was issued. His recommendation was that Stepaside would be the first preference in terms of stations that would be reopened. Rush Garda station was the second choice, and the proviso being, something he emphasised, probably on reflection, that perhaps that Lusk was the Garda station that should have been closed.
In fairness to all the assistant commissioners around the country, and I know they all have issues about opening hours of stations, that was not part of this remit. That is an issue for day to day management and will be addressed as additional resources come on stream.
May I clarify a point, I thought I had clarified this at the very start of my questions. There is no dispute whatsoever that there was a Government decision to reopen six Garda stations. That is a fact. There is also no dispute that the Minister for Justice and Equality set up criteria that were then given to the former Commissioner. That is a fact. We also know that it was up to the former Commissioner to amend, change, disregard or even establish her own criteria, if that was her wish. We heard from Mr. Ó Cualáin that she did not do that, that she choose to accept the criteria.
I am taking from Mr. O'Driscoll's response, and I do not in any way want to misinterpret what he has said, that Mr. Leahy in his recommendation to Mr. O'Driscoll seems to have a different view from he has just told this committee today. Is Mr. O'Driscoll telling me that Mr. Leahy said that his first preference would be to open Stepaside Garda station, and then he named a second station as well? That is not what I am being told here today.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
The issue of which station will be reopened is separate from the issue of where one would like to put one's resources within the city within existing stations that are open today.
Assistant commissioner Leahy has mentioned Cabra, for example. That is an area in which there already is a station, so that is a decision that can be made on a day to day basis. In terms of the criteria, in my report I set out other criteria which I recommend and believe would be taken on board for the bigger project. This is only a pilot project involving the opening of six stations. The project given to the Policing Authority in which it is using the facility of the Garda Inspectorate is to undertake a complete examination of boundaries throughout the country and to consider the whole issue of whether there should be new stations where stations have not already been opened. The closure of some stations that have been opened on a pilot basis and other such issues can be dealt with at that juncture. I state clearly that I have grave reservations about using crime statistics, for example, as a criterion.
I do not want to be unfair to Mr. Leahy. So perhaps Mr. Leahy can clarify for me what he said earlier. My question for Mr. Leahy is that from an operational perspective, from a Garda resource perspective and from a Garda priority perspective, would his preference at this point in time be to reopen Stepaside Garda station?
Mr. Pat Leahy:
I will get to that point as well, Deputy Cullinane. This is what I wrote in my closing remarks:
In summary it is recommended that the following stations be reopened subject to the above considerations, which I have previously read out, in order of priority - Stepaside Garda station No. 1; Rush Garda station No. 2. It is further recommended that the following stations have their opening hours re-established, Dublin Airport Garda station, and Cabra Garda station.
These were the recommendations that were made based on the criteria that were set out. The question I am being asked now is, in terms of resource allocation would my priority be Stepaside Garda station? No, it would not.
Mr. Pat Leahy:
I have been asked a specific question. I have competing priorities in terms of my resource allocation and Stepaside would not be a first priority.
That is not to say that the people of Stepaside are not entitled to proper policing, and the chief out there will get his or her resources as they come on stream in the normal course of business, but in terms of the allocation of additional resources, Stepaside would not be my number one priority.
I will not put that question to Mr. Barrett and I will finish by saying the following to the Chairman. I asked at the start of this process a number of months ago when we first started to ask questions about this that we would examine process. In examining process, what we have found is that it is an entitlement of the Minister to set criteria for the Commissioner. We have now learned that it is also the prerogative of the Commissioner - in this case, it was the former Commissioner - to change the criteria and that did not happen. If the criteria had been changed, for example, to give heavy credence to the view of Mr. Leahy, it probably would have ended up with a different outcome. That concerns me. I believe that Mr. Leahy's view of having operational command in Dublin should have been front and centre and I said this at the start. The question is this. Was a decision made for purely operational purposes and purely based on the best expenditure of Garda resources or was it a political decision? That is the question we were asking. From the answers that I have heard, I have my own view.
I am concluding, and will call Deputy MacSharry. Essentially, Mr. Leahy has stated that he has a broad range of priorities, the reopening of the Garda stations is based on the criteria, and this was a pilot project. If it had been his task to look at his broader range of responsibilities, this issue would not have been top of his list, but Stepaside met the criteria he was working to, notwithstanding the much broader issues he has to deal with. I wanted to crystallise it because we did not get to that at the earlier meeting.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
I do have one additional paragraph that expresses reservation or qualifies the recommendation about Stepaside in relation to additional information that I have since I wrote my last report and that is the possibility that a new station could be built somewhere in that area. That is contained in this report and there is a working group. I am saying quite clearly that we should take into consideration the outcome of that working group in making the decision or in reopening Stepaside.
Mr. Ó Cualáin has already told me a few moments ago he has given the order. He has made the decision to reopen Stepaside. Does that mean that Mr. O'Driscoll's recommendation, that caveat about a new station that he gave, has been disregarded?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Because Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll recommended six stations, which included Stepaside. He did refer to some work that is being done with regard to the development of a large centre of population, a town centre that may be developed in the Cherrywood area, at some time in the future.
Did Mr. O'Driscoll not just say that it would be wise not to proceed with reopening Stepaside until the acting Commissioner has given full consideration to the work of that group? Is that what Mr. O'Driscoll said?
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
What I am saying is that we need to look at that. This is in terms of the timescale. I am aware that the Cherrywood development has a 2030 finishing date. It is likely that the reopening of Stepaside will satisfy the demand in the interim, but there is a possibility that the end result will be that Stepaside will service this increased demand until such time as, maybe, this new station is developed, if it is a feasible proposition. It is something that I brought to the notice of the Commissioner, having discussed it with Assistant Commissioner Leahy. We thought it advisable to include it and to make people aware that this is a possible solution to all the problems in that particular area.
There is a lot of work to be done. The Office of Public Works, OPW, has to look at the old building, and possible new buildings. There is quite a bit. Therefore, it is possible, at the end of looking at the working out of this decision, that the original six might not be fixed in stone when we get to the end of the process.
Apologies in advance. It will be abrupt and I will be cutting in on the witnesses because I only have ten minutes. It is nothing personal. They have been here previously and they know the story. Does Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll agree with Assistant Commissioner Leahy?
When a member makes what appears to be a conclusion, it is the member's own personal opinion. It is not the view of the Committee of Public Accounts. That is the Deputy's comment and opinion, but it is not the view of the committee.
My conclusion, and I would suggest the conclusion of any objective analysis, would be that the acting Commissioner has made the decision and assistant commissioner is saying it would not be his top priority.
What was the view of then Assistant Commissioner Nolan when Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll contacted him to consult him, as Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll stated he did? Did then Assistant Commissioner Nolan say, "I am delighted you called. The top priority is Stepaside with 17 staff and we are opening it."?
I do not have time for process. I want to know if then Assistant Commissioner Nolan said to Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll that his top priority, as one of the six for Dublin, given the criteria, was Stepaside.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
The whole process - this whole function that I am fulfilling - was handed over to then Assistant Commissioner Nolan. It was not just that then Assistant Commissioner Nolan was somebody whom I would consult. I had this function for a short period. It was handed over to then Assistant Commissioner Nolan, he retired, and it came back to me. He was very much involved. He, in fact, had charge of this and he would have been the person to make the recommendations.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
I wrote a second time to all the regional assistant commissioners asking them whether they were satisfied with what they had submitted at an earlier time. In fact, in one particular region, I got a very different answer from the one that I got on the first occasion, and the explanation for that was because all the chief superintendents and the assistant commissioner had changed and the new team had a different view from the earlier team. That was taken on board.
It is a matter of fact that the serving assistant commissioner responsible for this area in advance of it being opened is saying that we have other priorities. I ask this of the acting Commissioner. Are our priorities agile and flexible enough to adjust and adapt to the needs of assistant commissioners and front-line personnel or are we bound by decisions of predecessors or archaic advice which no longer concurs with the up-to-date front-line demands but, as a result, the acting Commissioner sticks to them? The reality is the acting Commissioner has given an order and confirmed we are opening Stepaside, despite the fact that criteria set by someone who had nothing to do with it were followed and the serving assistant commissioner, cognisant of the most up-to-date position on the ground, is saying he has other priorities.
Does Mr. Ó Cualáin not have plenipotentiary status to the extent he can engage in some leadership and state he is adjusting and changing this, that he is not opening Stepaside and that he is putting all of the resources into Cherrywood or wherever else?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Priorities change all the time. I am well aware of that and the position I hold. Crime rates go up, populations change and demands increase or decrease based on all of this. We are constantly taking account of all of this in the way we deploy our resources. I expect every assistant commissioner to keep a close eye on what their priorities are in his or her region. Assistant Commissioner Leahy has pointed to his priorities today. If he were to be given some recruits in the morning to assign, he would be assigning them to stations other than Stepaside because Stepaside is still not open. It still has not been reopened. It will take a considerable period of time to assess what needs to be done to the building. In that time, I am confident, with the increasing level of resources made available to the organisation, with the recruitment campaign in place for the past two and a half years and which continues apace, that those resources will be coming onstream to allow all of the demands to be met.
We understand. In effect, the criteria were flawed. Assistant Commissioner Leahy said that may well be the case. I ask him to go a bit further. Were the criteria flawed, in terms of the demands and priorities of An Garda Síochána and the resources?
On that basis, and on the basis the Commissioner's predecessor could have ignored the criteria but chose not to, will the Commissioner not at this stage revisit it, lift the phone to the Secretary General of the Department and say they need to look at this again, state he has listened to his assistant commissioner, who has priorities, and that he wants to meet those priorities? As I asked earlier, could the Commissioner not have the leadership to say nothing has been done yet other than a few reports, and this plan needs to be adjusted in the interest of the delivery of the optimum level of resources in the community in Dublin?
Is there anything to stop the Commissioner saying he thinks this needs to be adjusted, despite the fact it has taken time, because it may be the case, to display the level of agility needed as a modern police force, that this needs to be adjusted, and that he will ask the Secretary General to speak to the Minister and ask him to have another look at this, and that perhaps Stepaside is not the right one and perhaps it is Rush, a second one in Cabra or 20 different things?
No. Could you, if you wanted to, contact Mr. Waters to in turn contact the Minister to state you would like to have another look at this because you are not happy with the criteria your predecessor chose to follow, and that Mr. Leahy, as assistant commissioner, has said he has different priorities?
On the basis of what we are hearing today from the Commissioner's colleagues, before he opens Stepaside he should do just that, regarding the criteria set by another party that he or his predecessor could have questioned, changed or ignored, and go back and say he needs criteria that adequately address the needs and priorities of Assistant Commissioner Leahy, the man on the front line.
We have heard clear evidence today about that not equalling priorities. It may have equalled the criteria, but it does not equal the priorities, as we have clearly established from Assistant Commissioner Leahy. It is not a box ticking exercise. It is about delivering for the people.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
On policing priorities, at any given time of course I listen to the local assistant commissioner. At this point in time, there is no station open in Stepaside. At some future date, based on another piece of work that needs to be done with other agencies, we will have to start to plan to ensure that happens in a way that it is resourced, and that Assistant Commissioner Leahy, in the context of his remit across the full Dublin Metropolitan Region area, including Rush, which is another station in his area, are given proper consideration in the allocation of resources over the coming 12 to 24 months.
I am now on 11 minutes, notwithstanding the interruptions of yourself and Deputy Cullinane. As others received 17 minutes we are counting down. Tell me when I have three minutes left, if you would not mind.
Does Assistant Commissioner Leahy agree with my questioning? Does he not feel that at this stage, if Garda management is in a position to say it has implemented nothing yet and if it has the opportunity to adjust the criteria and change its implementation plans to match priorities, would that not make better sense for the taxpayer and for the assistant commissioner in doing his job?
Mr. Pat Leahy:
You were not posing your questions to me, you were posing them to the Commissioner. If you were posing them to me, maybe I would have agreed or disagreed with you.
In terms of the allocation of resources across the city, I have already said it would not be a priority for me today. I cannot get away from the fact, and the Commissioner is right when he said, there is a process that will be undergone from now until probably mid or late January, or in 2018, to determine what it will take to reopen these stations and whether or not, in the short, medium or long term, it will be feasible to put people into Stepaside. I do not want the people of Stepaside to think they are not getting their due regard in terms of policing up there. If it were a thing that Stepaside opened at some stage in 2018 or 2019, and I will not say when, and was being used as an outpost for community policing in advance of some other station being built or otherwise, then I would not see it as being a bad use of resources, but if I were given additional resources today and asked whether they would go to Stepaside, no they would not.
The criteria is fantastical.
My questions concern taxpayers' resources, which is not unrelated. It was mentioned on the last occasion in the context of Stepaside. Some 101 gardaí walked out earlier this week in Sligo. Mr. Michael Reilly, of the acting Commissioner's own good offices, condemned the station in October 2016. No remedial works have been carried out since. The debacle with the new Garda station continues. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, said to me last night: "I am the Minister for Justice and Equality. It is not my responsibility to get a site for the station. Talk to the local authority and the chamber of commerce." This was despite the fact that his colleagues have announced sites. That aside, do Garda management appreciate that Sligo Garda station, in line with the report produced, has been condemned? It is not fit for use.
Mr. John Barrett:
I had the opportunity of visiting Sligo for a considerable amount of time this week. It is commendable that this committee faces the challenge of making best use of public funds. What is being done in Sligo now is that the remedial works on the station have been planned and committed. Matters are out to tender, with tenders to be back on 6 December for considerable remedial works. We had discussions with the Garda Representative Association, GRA, on Friday 17 November which were focused on ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number and making certain that the works in the station were focused on bringing the cells in the Sligo station back into functioning order. The lockers and member facilities are to be improved dramatically. Congestion in the station will be addressed and alleviated. The focus is on ensuring that the scarce resources available are targeted to make the greatest impact.
The position of the assistant commissioner for the northern region has been that priority be given to works on the station, which is the very point the Deputy raised and which has caused some tension. There is a proposal that he and the chief superintendent would decamp to an alternative station at a cost of €750,000. The cost of fixing the station is €1.25 million, and he has quite properly, in my view, decided that a policy of the greatest good to the greatest number should apply and so the station is to be fixed. My colleague, Mr. Seán Murphy, has outlined with the OPW a programme of work which would see the entire ground floor of the Sligo station, including the refurbishment of the cells, back in use by 30 September 2018.
I would like to commend the Deputy for his constant commitment to seeking an appropriate site. I understand that there is potential, working with the local authority, of gaining a 14 acre site at the Summerhill College roundabout. It is ideal, given the confluence of roads, from an access-egress perspective. The matter has been close to the Deputy's heart. There is a requirement to consider the needs of the region for an appropriate station. There are people working in that station at the minute. I believe this matter has been amplified to suit certain agendas. Mr. Reilly's report is not the only one in existence. There is also an OPW report, which Mr. Murphy will deal with in a moment. There is a commitment to dealing with the remedial issues. It is a very real and time-bound commitment. It is costed and makes the best use of taxpayers' funds. There is a longer-term requirement, independent of that, to ensure that Sligo has the station that it needs and that the region is serviced appropriately. Work is continuing in parallel, with Assistant Commissioner Barry O'Brien leading on it. There are many areas where there is an absolute commonality of approach between the Garda associations, the civilian trade unions and Garda management on this. There is an issue, but I believe that there are a certain amount of other contaminants involved which lead to the unfortunate events of last Monday.
Mr. Seán Murphy:
We have received a report from the OPW on the condition of Sligo Garda station, and contrary to the report of Mr. Reilly which the Deputy referred to, the OPW does not accept that the building is unsafe and does not agree that the building is unfit for occupation. That is not to say that remedial and upgrade works are not required in Sligo Garda station. They are undoubtedly required, and we have tabled proposals with Garda managment. We want to have an inclusive process with the associations and agree those proposals to remediate the station along the lines that Mr. Barrett has mentioned.
Those committee members who have indicated now who had not indicated at the outset are Deputies Catherine Murphy and Peter Burke. This session will stop at 11 o'clock, and we will turn then to chapter 12 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report.
I will be as quick as I can. I remember reading Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll's report. Page 11 jumped out at me. It says that it would be much easier to look at the task of reopening six stations if the Garda were not confined to the criteria. I am paraphrasing what was written. Does the assistant commissioner recall that?
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
I cannot remember the exact phrase. I now have the final version of the report here, but I believe I meant that it would be easier if I was not confined to the stations that were now available to reopen and if other Garda stations had not been sold. Assistant commissioners around the country did recommend the reopening of stations initially, and I then discovered that they were among the stations that had been sold, so I had to go back to them to tell them that we could only look at the stations that remain in State ownership, unfortunately. That is the case in west Cork, for example. These are the stations that remained in State ownership. It was the recommendation of the local chief superintendent and the assistant commissioner in the southern region that the particular station in west Cork be reopened.
This morning we heard that it is not just a question of opening a building. There are resource implications once the building is open. If one asks a question about resourcing one would be told quickly that the Minster has no function in that and that it is the function of the Garda Commissioner. The criteria that was set here pretty much determined the resource allocation for the stations that were going to be opened. Does the acting Commissioner believe that was an infringement on his role, and why would he not have objected to that criteria on the basis that the Minister and Government have no function in that area?
The acting Commissioner had the function of allocating the resources. We are told that all the time.
It is a big problem. In my area, which is also Deputy Cassells's area, there is the lowest ratio of gardaí to population. I call the policing plan that is published every year a work of fiction because although there is the idea that criteria change all time, it does not consider demographic shifts or crime rates. Here we are considering not only the opening of stations but criteria that determine where resources will be allocated.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
I contend that, given the absolutely fluid situation when it comes to demographics and population trends, etc., the broader work that Government asked for on the station reopenings on a pilot basis, and the further work that the Inspectorate with the Authority is carrying out on boundaries, will be critically important and will inform future decision making on resource allocation. That will ensure a fair allocation across the country and that we continue to keep an eye on that. It would be useful to have an up-to-date scientific basis for that.
The census of population is a pretty solid basis. It was in the gift of the acting Commissioner to question the criteria and say this is not the basis we should be going on. He has accepted that he could have done that. Why was it not done?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
It was not my decision at the time this was given to the Commissioner. It was my predecessor who issued the instructions to Assistant Commissioner O'Driscoll to examine the matter based on the criteria we are given. That was based on a decision of Government. The criteria were there to be considered if we wished to. I accept they could have been-----
When one wants to find the desired outcome of an action and there is an investigation or inquiry going on one reads the terms of reference. The terms of reference in this case were so specific that it was hard to see a situation other than Stepaside standing out to be reopened. It was a predetermined outcome. The report shows that it met the criteria that were set.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
The criteria were very precise. Given its size at least one station was to be reopened in County Dublin, including Dublin city, and in the event that we considered more than one station suitable for reopening in Dublin at least one, mainly urban and at least one mainly suburban should be reopened. There were only four stations left in State ownership that were available.
The criteria were written for an outcome. That is how it looks to me. It is not to say that if it was considered on an even keel, without criteria, it might not have made the cut but there were very determined criteria. When I read that report I said it was written for that outcome.
Mr. John O'Driscoll:
There are precise criteria also for the Policing Authority and the Inspectorate. That is the bigger project, involving substantial historical changes in our design and where boundaries are drawn. The criteria given to the Policing Authority provide that this is to take into account, where it states, "[T]he changing environments in rural, developing urban and suburban areas, the views of local communities; the allocation of Garda resources and their deployment at the local policing level, including the use of the Garda Reserve, Garda facilities and Garda equipment; and relevant recommendations made in previous Inspectorate reports". We do include in our report other criteria that we believe should be taken on board, including the mobility project, areas where there are gatherings of people other than where they reside, such as Dublin Port, Dublin Airport, colleges, holiday resorts and so on and mobile Garda stations. These can all be taken on board in the bigger project.
This is only a pilot project involving six stations. I know from listening to the debate on rural crime a couple of nights ago there were recommendations that maybe all the stations that were closed should be reopened. This is only a pilot. Maybe under an another programme for Government all the stations will be reopened.
It is only a pilot but it happens to be one that very nicely dovetails with the desired outcome for a particular Deputy in the programme for Government. Many of us are concluding that it was a political decision.
The last time the acting Commissioner made a presentation here on this I asked specifically whether the gardaí were ready to go into Stepaside station and were the resources available for them there. On that occasion I was told that the acting Commissioner would not have recommended it unless they were but listening to the oral evidence now I understand that it is not a priority. Would it be fair to say, objectively, that An Garda Síochána has resiled from the position that Stepaside Garda station is ready to be reopened?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Stepaside station is not ready to be opened and we do not know when it can be reopened based on the physical condition of the building and what works need to be done. However, for all the stations approved for the next stage, when the Office of Public Works, OPW, will come in and work on each of the buildings, that will dictate the pace that moves at. From the day those six stations closed, the overall human resource requirement is under 50 gardaí. Some are very small rural stations which require only one or two, or one sergeant and four gardaí. They are spread across five of our six regions. On that basis, it would be within the gift of the local assistant commissioner with the chief superintendents on the basis of an improving resource allocation-----
I want to be clear on this. The resources are not committed for 2018 for the stations recommended for reopening, such as Stepaside. The assistant commissioner is effectively saying that all these stations will go into a pool with competing interests for budgetary requirements and the priorities of An Garda Síochána.
The point I want absolute clarity on is that all the requirements for the reopening of these Garda stations go into the pot of competing interests in An Garda Síochána in the negotiations for future budgets. They compete with other priorities in An Garda Síochána.
I do not dispute that point but I am getting a big confused. I really would like clarity on that point, in other words, this is not a fait accompli. It is not certain that the recommendation to open these stations will be one of the competing interests in budgetary negotiations.
As with all budgetary negotiations, there will be competing interests and it will be considered within the terms of the priorities of An Garda Síochána and other competing priorities. That is what I am hearing.
Mr. Noel Waters:
On a point of clarification, there is a budget of €400 million for the entire Garda capital projects over the next four years. That includes all capital projects. Any costs that would arise would come from that and €400 million is a very substantial budget. It includes information and communications technology, as well as major divisional headquarters.
That matter was discussed an hour ago. I will conclude this section. When we get to deal with our normal work programme this afternoon, we can discuss these issues.
I have listened to today's debate as Chairman. In the acting Commissioner's opening statement, he has hinged everything on the phrase "based on the criteria provided". He also spoke about a report and recommendations, saying he recommended the reopening of six stations. In alphabetical order, they are Ballinspittle, Bawnboy, Donard, Leighlinbridge, Rush and Stepaside. The members of the Committee of Public Accounts may wish to consider what I have to say as Chairman. Our function as a committee is to ensure good value for money for the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda Vote. Our priority should be the same as that in the Garda Síochána in ensuring the force has the resources it requires, gets the best value for money and can deal with crime in urban and rural areas. Crime rates may increase or decrease along with populations. As far as the Committee of Public Accounts is concerned, policing priorities should take precedence in the achievement of those results. The allocation of resources should be based on policing priorities.
It is the job of the Committee of Public Accounts to call out where we think political promises or commitments may not gel with what we would consider the best use of taxpayer resources in the management and operation of the Garda Síochána. I want to get agreement from the committee today. The Secretary General has stated this matter is for 2018 and the stations will not open before Christmas. There will be a debate on the Estimate for the Garda Síochána Vote, and we are informed that will happen next Wednesday, 29 November. I would like this committee to agree to write to the justice committee in the morning, highlighting that it is the view of the Committee of Public Accounts that when it discusses the Estimate, it should deal with policing priorities and best value for money. That should be its role. It will be our role to examine the spending afterwards. Our view will be that policing priorities should take precedence over any political promise when it comes to dealing with crime in Ireland.
Our committee will be drafting a report on this matter and we will discuss it in due course. Our role is to ensure best value for money for resources and this should be based on policing priorities. We can come back to it. Is it agreed that such a letter should go to the justice committee before its Estimates meeting next week?
It is 2018 expenditure that is in question. It is very clear from what we heard today that there is a recommendation for six Garda stations to be reopened. There is a mountain of work to be done before those six stations will be open, manned and up and running.
We have established the review process might lead to a position where all six stations might not eventually be reopened, as is the current recommendation. It is a matter to be watched in future. We have concluded this session and we will go on to discuss chapter 12. There will be a change in witnesses before dealing with that.