Thursday, 16 October 2014
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this very important issue and the Minister for Justice and Equality for being here to hear about it. Anti-social behaviour in Dublin city centre is an obvious problem, particularly around O'Connell Street, which is our premier street in the city centre along with Grafton Street. Tourists coming from abroad are getting a very bad impression. I am particularly concerned about the amount of drug taking and the negative impact of that on businesses in the city centre. Some constituents have contacted me to say they are scared going around different parts of the city centre. They are being approached and there is an element of aggressive begging, as mentioned recently in an edition of "Prime Time". Some Dubliners do not feel safe in the city centre. The problem here seems to be worse than in some other capital cities. Obviously, the Garda does a lot of hard work on the ground. Community policing has become the new norm in many areas and a lot of good work is done. However, we need to ensure that there is dedicated policing for our city centre streets to target drug dealing in particular. People want to see more Garda patrols not just in the city centre but around different parts of the city. Obviously, I welcome the fact that there will be more gardaí on the beat to do that. That is a good result.
New York City, which had a major problem over the past number of decades, has cleaned up its streets and has been successful in a number of strategies it adopted to target outdoor drug dealing. It also has the stop-and-frisk policy. I am not saying that we need to adopt all these strategies, but could we look to other cities which have been successful in cutting down on the element of anti-social behaviour that can take place in all cities?
One proposal I made to the gardaí at Store Street Garda station was that a Garda shed or booth should be available on O'Connell Street to ensure more of a Garda presence. Certainly, one should see a Garda within a certain distance in major cities. Having visited Paris, I know there are always mobile police units around which are available to respond to various crimes that may be committed. Has the Minister looked at this measure?
I am glad to see the Minister for Health here. We know that the budget for local drugs task forces has been retained in the most recent budget. This is good, but more could be done for people who find themselves in difficulty, particularly those who are addicted to drugs and who use crime to feed their habit. I do not remember the situation being as bad five or even ten years ago. The situation has escalated and this issue needs to be examined. I know zero tolerance has had a bad name because of other Governments which abused the word, but a zero-tolerance approach is needed in the city centre to ensure that people feel safe, encourage more tourists into the city centre and ensure that businesses do well.
I am grateful to the Deputy for raising this important matter for debate. I am, of course, very much aware of the concerns about crime and anti-social behaviour in the city centre and the potential impact for all who live in, work in and visit our capital city. Of course we want our capital city and its thoroughfares to be safe and secure places for the residents of Dublin and our visitors. As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the deployment of Garda resources. However, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I am committed to supporting An Garda Síochána in providing a strong, visible policing presence in communities right across the country in order to help reduce crime. This includes Dublin city centre.
There is a Garda plan in place which is called the Dublin City Centre Policing Plan. I welcome this important plan. The Deputy spoke about zero tolerance. The vision expressed in the plan is to create a safe city to live, work, visit and enjoy, with Garda operations following the principle that no offence or behaviour will go unnoticed or unchallenged. In implementing the plan, the Garda approach includes dedicated high-visibility, uniformed patrols in key commercial and public thoroughfares. That is what we want to see, and we want to see more of it. A number of targeted city centre policing operations are in place. Operation Pier concentrates on the south quays, an area about which many people speak, and the Temple Bar area while Operation Spire is focused on O'Connell Street and the north inner city. There is also a specific public order unit which operates on a reactive basis as the need arises. Gardaí have also conducted a number of targeted operations in respect of the effects of begging in the area, particularly aggressive begging, which is very upsetting for people and which I am sure has been mentioned to the Deputy as well.
Gardaí have increased their activity in targeting the supply of illegal drugs in the area, with increased numbers of drug seizures and searches. According to the provisional statistics from the Garda Síochána Analysis Service for the first nine months of the year, the total number of drug searches has increased by 5% in the North Central (Store Street) division and by 24% in the South Central (Pearse Street) division. I also wish to acknowledge the work of An Garda Síochána, including work with the entertainment and night-time sector, in seeking to address problems of disorder associated with the abuse of alcohol. This remains a very serious issue in our society generally. Huge Garda resources must be deployed to support this effort, with a dedicated public order patrol van assigned to the city centre every Friday and Saturday night.
The Garda is very active. The latest provisional statistics collated by the Garda Síochána Analysis Service for the first nine months of the year show a positive trend. It is important that I put this on the record, because we do hear about a lot of particular incidents, but public order offences are down 7% in the South Central (Pearse Street) Garda division and down 19% in the North Central (Store Street) division. There is a very active police presence, which is having a deterrent effect.
I will be the first to say that we should not rely solely on statistics, but neither should we allow high-profile reports of individual incidents to cast our city in an unfairly negative light. We need a fair discussion about this.
What is most important is the first hand, day-to-day experiences of shoppers, visitors residents and workers, who should feel safe in the city centre at all hours. I acknowledge that challenges remain to be addressed but I am confident that the ongoing efforts of the Garda and others will make a positive difference.
Our commitment to policing was very clearly demonstrated in the budget 2015 announcement on increased expenditure in the justice sector. This week I also announced that the Garda college in Templemore would take in 200 new recruits, which means that we will have 300 new recruits in 2015. A further 75 gardaí will be freed from their current airport duties because this work is being civilianised, and 75 gardaí who work on border and visa issues will also be freed up. This will provide a total of 450 gardaí who can contribute to the active policing of our communities. The budget also provides funding for the purchase and fit-out of more than 400 new vehicles which will offer a more visible Garda presence in all areas, including Dublin city centre.
The anti-social activities that the Deputy described are not simply policing issues. The context for finding solutions must involve Dublin city management, drug treatment centres and the business community. Tackling homelessness will have to be a part of the solution. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, has allocated an additional €10.5 million to deal with homelessness. I commend Dublin City Council on the leadership it has shown in working with the Garda and facilitating the Dublin city joint policing committee, which includes a range of stakeholders whom I intend to meet at an early opportunity to investigate how I can further support these ongoing efforts to deal with the issues outlined by the Deputy.
I thank the Minister for her response and welcome the new Garda recruits, who are badly needed. Gardaí on patrol are experiencing considerable pressure and low morale at times. Can some of the new recruits be deployed to city centre type activities? The Garda Reserve should also be more visible. I ask the Minister to comment on the increased use of the reserve. People want to see gardaí on the beat, especially on our main streets, because it helps them feel safer and more confident. Businesses are suffering a negative impact from the number of people who are either begging or are drug addicts. These people need extra services. The poverty problem is an important part of the reason people go begging.
In regard to sentencing, there are people walking our streets who have received 100 or more convictions. The revolving door is a big problem in this regard, particularly where people persistently commit offences and are still walking the streets. Would the Minister consider anti-social behaviour orders as a measure to target certain people and stop them engaging in anti-social behaviour? Rehabilitation services for drug addicts need more money. As the Minister for Health has a lot on his hands, the Government should consider appointing a Minister specifically to deal with drugs and alcohol because these are key areas.
I ask the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for her assurance that she will investigate solutions to the issues arising for policing and improving the quality of the environment in the city centre, which we have to face every day.
I take note of the Deputy's comments. The context for finding solutions must encompass a co-ordinated approach from State agencies involved in social housing, health and drug treatment services, as well as through partnership with business, community and voluntary groups. I support the multi-agency approach to tackling this issue.
I agree with the Deputy that we must ensure the city centre is a safe place for residents, workers and visitors. I intend to meet shortly senior gardaí and members of the Dublin city joint policing committee and its associated stakeholder groups with a view to identifying how I can further support and strengthen these ongoing efforts to enhance the policing and public safety of the city centre area. The centre of our capital city is important not just for those of us who live there but also for the many people who travel there to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time. It is also important from a tourism perspective. I share the Deputy's general concern that we must make every effort to promote a safe and welcoming environment in the city centre. I have discussed the matter with the acting Garda Commissioner on a number of occasions. I raised it most recently when I met her earlier today to discuss other issues. The number of gardaí who should be deployed to the city centre is an operational issue but clearly there are big demands in that area and I am sure the Garda will make the best decisions in deploying the new recruits. It is important we send the message that Dublin city centre can be safe and secure.