Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Community Safety and Preventing Crime: Statements
I too commend the work of the Garda, especially during the first lockdown when we could see the involvement of the Garda, local authorities, sporting clubs and individuals. It really showed the best of us, as Deputy Eoghan Murphy said, and people's better nature. I share some of Deputy Murphy's concerns about making sure we appeal to our better nature. I believe that people are willing to listen with regard to how we should conduct ourselves during this pandemic. We could see this halfway through the current lockdown.
On the collection of statistics and the deployment of resources, it is disappointing that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, still publishes crime statistics with a disclaimer that the data should be viewed as statistics "under reservation”. While similar issues exist in other jurisdictions, we must try to find a consistent way to record information on the PULSE system. The CSO first suspended the publication of recorded crime statistics in 2014 following a Garda Inspectorate report identifying quality issues in relation to the recording of data on the PULSE system. The PULSE system is the only source of recorded crime data available to the CSO to produce these statistics. If we ask about crime statistics at a joint policing committee meeting, we will be referred to the CSO. It is important, therefore, that we can rely on this source of information. Although we are assured that the relationship between the CSO and the Garda is a good one, surely this issue should have been resolved long ago.
To ensure effective community policing around the country, it is imperative that Garda resources are allocated objectively. We need to think logically about where we are spending funds and take a long-term view of supporting community policing. Predictive trends in population growth come as no surprise to any of us. The information is readily available but unfortunately rarely used.
Over the years, I have seen policing plans being copied and pasted and have been very critical of that. I have looked at them before and after a census of the population and they have rarely taken note of those changes. Too often, we seem to end up chasing population trends and struggling to provide communities with the various resources they need for growing populations, rather than anticipating the increases years in advance. That could be said of many different services. The same is true of the allocation of gardaí and Garda resources, which are ultimately a matter for the Garda Commissioner under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. When we fail to provide communities with adequate policing resources, we put the Garda under immense pressure and communities are underserved as a result. One ends up with reactive rather than proactive policing, one does not get the visibility needed and that stores problems up for the future.
A 2006 UN analysis reported that the ideal policing ratio was 1:333. Our national figures are very good, with a ratio of one garda per 264 people but that is only nationally. The current ratio of garda staffing resources to population in divisions around the country is greatly unbalanced from county to county. The deficit in service provision is particularly pronounced in certain divisions, primarily clustered in the greater Dublin commuter belt and south Leinster area. These areas have had consistently high population growth, not just in the last decade but over several decades and continuously from the 1970s onwards. However, there is no evidence that these long-standing population trends are taken into account when allocating Garda resources, including staffing and other resources. The top five most under-resourced Garda divisions are in the Minister's area of Meath, of which she will be aware, Kildare, Kilkenny-Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford. Meath, with a population of 195,000, had 336 gardaí in August 2020, which is one garda per 580 people. The recommended ratio from that 2006 UN report is 1:333. Meath has the highest ratio of population to gardaí, while Kildare has the second highest with a population of 222,000 and 418 gardaí, a ratio of 1:532.
Every time we do a census of the population, advertisements go out in advance to say we need people to fill in this form. I know the next census has been deferred for a year but I encourage people to fill in the form because we need to plan our services. The problem is that we do not plan our services in line with population growth. It is a postcode lottery in so many areas. I am sure the Minister recognises this. There has been little enough change over the last seven years. In some areas the top five or bottom five have shifted around a little bit but there is relatively little change.
We cannot provide community policing if we do not have the gardaí to do it. I have come across scenarios where there is a safety at work issue, where gardaí have gone out on a call on their own because there was no one there to support them. It is a dangerous thing for members of the Garda to have to do in some environments. I am surprised that that has not been raised by the Garda representative associations, particularly in areas where the ratios are very high. I have raised this consistently with successive Garda Commissioners. I was assured that they knew this was an issue and that the intake from Templemore would be disproportionately deployed to areas where there is such a deficiency. I am not saying that is the only metric that should be used because it most definitely is not. We also need to look at the crime statistics and those statistics have to be reliable. We need people to report crime. We also need to consider the population and look at the type of policing we can provide. The type of policing provided very much depends on the ratio of gardaí to population.
For years we were hearing about problems in Limerick. The whole city and county ended up getting a deplorable reputation because of a very small number of people who were holding the city hostage. The same happened in Drogheda in the past year and we saw what happened in Dublin central as well, although I accept that there is a difference in that regard. These are situations where a problem emerges and one has to react to that problem instead of catching it in a proactive way. The way we gather statistics, both on crime and on the deployment of gardaí in response to the likes of the census, is absolutely critical if we do not want to find ourselves being reactive to problems. We must be proactive on the basis of planning our services. I was told by an assistant Garda commissioner that any division will try to hold onto what it has and growing areas will always be at a huge disadvantage if that is the approach. There needs to be a fundamental change in how we collect statistics, how reliable they are and how we deploy members of the Garda and the resources that go along with them.