Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The committee last met on 8 February this year. The meeting was attended by Ministers and senior officials from the Departments of Finance; Public Expenditure and Reform; Foreign Affairs and Trade; Justice and Equality; Health; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Transport, Tourism and Sport; Housing, Planning and Local Government; and Defence. Arrangements are being made for the next meeting of Cabinet committee F but a date is not yet finalised.
The role of Cabinet committee F is to keep the State’s systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to threats to national security under review and to provide high-level co-ordination between relevant Departments and agencies on related matters. At its meeting yesterday the Government endorsed the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. We have accepted all 157 key recommendations of the report, 136 in full and 21 in principle but requiring further work. The report provides a clear vision for a modern, highly professional, human-rights-based police service. The core focus is on a Garda organisation working closely and collaboratively with communities and other agencies to keep communities safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people. This is the right vision for Ireland to maintain and enhance public trust in policing, to meet current challenges and enable An Garda Síochána to tackle future challenges.
Our focus must now turn to implementation. I have established within my Department a policing reform implementation programme office which will track implementation. Together with the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, published a high-level implementation plan yesterday. The plan was prepared with the input of the implementation group on policing reform chaired by Ms Helen Ryan, who was herself a member of the commission, and has been endorsed by every Minister and Department. It sets out an ambitious but realistic four-year plan for the implementation of the recommendations. This timescale is in line with the commission’s own recommendation for the work to be complete in time for the centenary of the establishment of an Garda Síochána.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. During the last seven years we have heard intermittent statements from Government claiming to have reformed the workings of An Garda Síochána. Of course, that did not turn out to be the case. The O'Toole report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which we asked for and proposed, is comprehensive. All Members of the House and leaders of different parties co-operated with the commission's work. We need a detailed timescale and funding proposal before we can be sure that this will actually mark a significant departure in policing in Ireland and that it will have the same impact as the Patten commission had on policing in Northern Ireland.
One ongoing problem has been the need to hire people with specialist skills, especially concerning language, technology and difficult legal areas linked to white collar crime. In particular, the education and training dimension is extremely important. A radical change from the Templemore model is required to meet the future needs of An Garda Síochána. The structure and organisation of the interaction between civilian and uniformed elements is lamentable. This all needs to be accelerated. Can the Taoiseach explain what efforts are now to be taken to speed up efforts to tackle these issues, in particular the shortages of specialist skills?
Finally, I wish to raise the overall co-ordination of security matters across the Government. There is to be a new official report to the Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach. Can the Taoiseach outline the specific role of the new co-ordinator and the staffing which will be put in place to support him? Moreover, can he elaborate on what he has said about a task force within his own Department overseeing the implementation process within the Department of Justice?
Yesterday the Minister for Justice published his implementation plan for the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which the Taoiseach discussed earlier. I believe it was also discussed at Cabinet yesterday. While many of the report's proposals are very positive and must be implemented, which we support, we are concerned about the retrograde step proposed in respect of Garda oversight. We are especially concerned about the proposal to merge the Policing Authority with the Garda Inspectorate to form a new policing and community safety oversight commission, and the plan to remove some of the Policing Authority's powers. The Policing Authority has begun to show some strength and an ability to hold An Garda Síochána to account.
Its meetings are held in public and it has some real powers. It has responsibility for the recruitment of senior gardaí and its approval was required for policing plans. However, under the Minister's implementation plan, the appointment of senior gardaí would be returned to an internal Garda board and the Garda Commissioner. Ultimately, we see that as a shift in power and an element of oversight away from external bodies back to Garda headquarters.
The Taoiseach will be aware that there was agreement right across this House that we would move away from that, that we would try to have some independence in terms of oversight, and that we would challenge what was bad culture and bad practice within An Garda Síochána. While we see positive elements in the report that we would support being implemented, we have some concerns, especially about the merger of the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate into this new body. I would welcome the Taoiseach's thoughts and opinions on this issue.
I raised yesterday with the Taoiseach my strong welcome for the vast bulk of the report on the reform of policing. I have discussed it with members of the review team who explained their views, both the minority and the majority views, on the role of the internal board. I placed on record yesterday my views on that. The implementation of the report will be transformative but it would be a major mistake to hand back the appointment of senior personnel to an internal board and the Garda Commissioner. The single most important move we made was to take that away from An Garda Síochána and to have an external appointments procedure. I hope that has been reflected upon. I took heart from the Taoiseach stating yesterday that there will be a long time and much debate before these measures are put into force.
There is a national security co-ordinator to be appointed. Is that a civilian position? Is it to be somebody from within the Defence Forces or An Garda Síochána or has the Taoiseach an open mind? Will the co-ordinator be sited in the Department of the Taoiseach or in the Department of Defence, or where will he or she be sited? Will the co-ordinator have his or her own staff?
On a separate issue, did the Cabinet committee have any views on the announcement as part of the Brexit preparations in the UK that it would deploy 3,500 troops to support the British Government on Brexit? Have we any idea where they will be stationed? Will they be stationed in Ireland? They hardly will be deployed to Liverpool. Why would they want 3,500 troops to be on standby as part of Brexit? Has the Taoiseach any explanation of that?
The issue the Government faces is that confidence in the Garda is at a very low ebb following all that has happened, particularly in respect of former Sergeant McCabe. People are glad to see the end of that but their confidence is badly shaken. It has been clear that what people want to see is a force, the organisational structure of which ordinary people can understand and the members of which they can see and have contact with in their communities.
While much of the material in the report is quite positive, I get the feeling from the Taoiseach's statement that he will undo all the work that we did in government on the Policing Authority modelled on what happens in neighbouring jurisdictions and learning from the Patten report and the changes in the PSNI. At one fell swoop, for some unexplained reason, the Taoiseach has decided to hand back the business of promotion, which is a very deep issue in the force. Understandably, in a force of 15,000 members where there are regular and routine promotional opportunities, members need to have confidence that those promotional opportunities are based on merit and not on some kind of old boys' act. Will the Taoiseach reflect seriously on what I presume is a tentative decision at this point to hand back to the Commissioner the job of promotion of members? That is potentially a very poor decision which will wreck much of what is good in the report. In terms of how the Garda members themselves, especially at lower ranks, and the public perceive it, the decision is something that should be reflected on and thought about.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí as a gcuid ceisteanna. On the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, there is an implementation plan with a timescale, as it should have, in terms of funding and resourcing. That is something that has to be dealt with during the annual Estimates round but there certainly is funding in place for 2019 to do that.
I note that the Garda Commissioner has taken a decision to recruit differently next year, actually slowing recruitment a little. Instead of recruiting 800 next year as planned, we will recruit 600 new gardaí instead but many more civilians as part of the civilianisation process. It is an innovation in the public service the acknowledgement that simply recruiting does not necessarily solve problems and that recruiting correctly is what can help to solve them. It is an interesting example, perhaps, for other parts of the public service to follow, not to cut numbers but to slow recruitment and do it correctly.
In terms of my Department, I have set up a number of small units within the Department of the Taoiseach to oversee the implementation of a small number of key Government strategies: policing reform, Sláintecare and, of course, Brexit planning. It will follow the model of the Action Plan for Jobs, which does not involve my Department doing the work of other Departments for them but makes sure that they do not correct their own homework. The role of the units within my Department will be to ensure that these strategies and plans are implemented over the next couple of years.
I disagree with Deputy Burton. I do not believe that confidence in the Garda is at a low ebb. Notwithstanding the recent scandals, the public continues to have strong confidence in and high regard for the Garda. Members of the public respect the Garda. They admire gardaí for their work. The public has enormous confidence in the men and women who serve in An Garda Síochána.
On the role of the Policing Authority, I am conscious of some concern that the proposal risks diluting the current level of external scrutiny. Following detailed considerations of the concerns, I am satisfied that the proposals are a coherent response to a system of external oversight that is complex and confused and acts to the detriment of accountability on the part of individuals and the Garda organisation itself. Taken as a whole, the suite of proposals will ensure that the complimentary objectives of strong internal governance in line with best practice and effective external oversight of policing are achieved.
The Government is also satisfied that it is appropriate that the Garda Commissioner and the Garda Síochána board be given responsibility for senior appointments, subject to normal public service recruitment and promotion standards being applied. The Government accepts the commission's view that the Commissioner must be empowered to act as the CEO of An Garda Síochána, and making appointments is clearly within the remit of the board and CEO of any large organisation.
I am conscious of the experience and expertise of those who serve on the existing oversight bodies and the Department of Justice and Equality. We will consult them as we develop the new legislation and we will listen to the views of others in the Oireachtas and what people have to say.
It is not anticipated that the new framework would be in place until 1 January 2021 and we will use the intervening period to tease this out. The existing oversight bodies will continue their important work during that period - for at least two years - in accordance with their statutory remit.
I was asked about the strategic threat analysis centre, STAC, which will be headed by the national security co-ordinator. There are ten principles underpinning the recommendations contained in the O'Toole commission report. The second principle is that: "Policing and national security are not the responsibility of the police alone." The commission recommends changes to take account of the changing nature of threats to the country, including the increased threat from international terrorism and cyber attacks on Government institutions, infrastructure and companies, the increased importance of international co-operation and intelligence sharing, and the important role that other Government agencies have in protecting the security of the State. It makes several recommendations in this area, including the establishment of a permanent structure in the form of a centre for intelligence collation and analysis known as the strategic threat analysis centre, STAC, which would be headed by a national security co-ordinator, and an independent examiner of terrorist and serious crime legislation. It is our intention to have the first national security co-ordinator appointed in the first quarter of 2019 and to establish the STAC with a small staff.
The national security co-ordinator will report to me through the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach and have a co-ordinating role. Several bodies collect intelligence, namely, the Garda and Army intelligence sections and the cybersecurity centre in University College Dublin. The strategic threat analysis centre is not designed to take over that work but, rather, to co-ordinate it better nationally and internationally.
The next 13 questions are being taken together. I am conscious that they relate to the European Council meeting, on which we will hear statements for two and a half hours when Question Time concludes. I expect these questions to be dealt with within 15 minutes.