Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Europol's 2019 Drug Markets Report makes for very serious and concerning reading. It illustrates the degree, as I am sure the Taoiseach will accept, to which violence, death, intimidation, stealing and spreading fear across every community in Ireland is now a feature and a consequence of a rampant drug trade that is extremely valuable. The scale of what is revealed in the report is genuinely frightening and suggests that the State's and the Government's response to date, notwithstanding the good work of gardaí, is not at a scale or not comprehensive enough to deal with what we are currently facing and will face if this is allowed to continue into the months and years ahead.
Provincial towns are now considered most attractive, with direct access to local users and new customers, and with very little competition, apparently, for the big gangs in those provincial towns. Young people and children are being particularly exploited. The scale and severity of drug debt intimidation is clear and is much highlighted in the report, with the intimidation of communities, of families and of individuals, including children, as a result of this activity. It is something that, collectively in this House, we have to be extremely concerned about.
The report talks about three tiers: the leaders, the intermediaries and the bottom tier, which the report states involves a large number of highly disadvantaged young people, who are often addicts themselves. It is this tier which carries out the bulk of the intimidation. According to Europol, typical activities are bullying, assaulting, stealing, vandalising and spreading fear on behalf of the network.
This phenomenon is already widespread in the United Kingdom, where the term used is "county lines gangs", so they have now moved out from the big cities into the county towns and so on. It is teenagers who are recruited and who then face daily threats and intimidation from their superiors. It is extraordinary that towns across the UK previously unaffected by criminality have seen dramatic increases in violence, with an 807% increase in the number of victims of child slavery since 2014 in the UK. Some 27,000 children in the UK now identify themselves as gang members. The point is we are now beginning to see this in Ireland, no question about it, and we need to deal with it.
In that context, while I genuinely say this has to be an all-party approach, I do not think we are getting to grips with the scale of this issue. Deputy John Curran has a Bill ready, First Stage of which will be moved next week. The Bill proposes to create two new offences in regard to young people, first, to make it a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a person under the age of 18 and, second, to create a new offence of causing a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. In a spirit of co-operation, I ask the Taoiseach to agree with us to accelerate that Bill, which is straightforward in its impact, and also to meet with the other parties. We need a comprehensive approach to resourcing, rejuvenating and revitalising the partnerships that already exist in the cities and throughout the country, and to restoring resources to the RAPID programme. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach will respond to both those questions in the spirit in which they have been tabled.
First, I welcome the publication yesterday of the EMCDDA - the European drugs agency - and Europol Drug Markets Report of 2019. As the Deputy knows, the report relates to all of Europe, including Ireland. The continued disruption of the supply of all illicit drugs is part of the mission of An Garda Síochána and other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. While we seek to help people who use drugs using a health-led approach, we will continue the relentless pursuit of drug dealers using a criminal justice approach.
The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB, was established in 2015 and tackles all forms of drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs in Ireland. Since its establishment in 2015, it has had significant success. It has seized controlled substances with an estimated street value of €167 million, seized cash believed to be the proceeds of crime to a value of €10 million, and seized 108 firearms and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. In 2019 alone, the GNDOCB has been responsible for seizing controlled substances to the value of €20 million, cash believed to be the proceeds of crime of €2.4 million and 17 firearms.
There is also a lot of co-operation involving the GNDOCB and the National Crime Agency in the UK under the auspices of the cross-border joint agency task force. We are very much co-operating with law enforcement in other countries, recognising this is a cross-border crime and an international crime.
In regard to families who are being intimidated, often for drug debts, there is a drug-related intimidation reporting programme in place that has been developed by the Garda in co-operation with the National Family Support Network. It has been in place since 2013 and responds to the needs of drug users and family members experiencing drug-related intimidation, particularly in regard to drug debts. An Garda Síochána and the National Family Support Network have each concluded evaluations of the programme and have jointly agreed a number of actions to enhance the effectiveness of the programme through training, knowledge sharing and awareness raising. As the Deputy will be aware, there are now armed support units operating in every Garda region, which is a new development.
In regard to Deputy Curran's Bill, the Government will certainly examine it in an open-minded way and in a spirit of co-operation with the Opposition - if that comes in one direction, it should go in both directions. We have some concerns about the legislation in that, the way it is written, it may actually criminalise some children in certain circumstances, but we will be happy to work that through.
The first issue is the scale of the problem as revealed by Europol. That is the bit I do not think the Government has got yet, to be honest, in particular given the fact nine Ministers of State signed a document on the reduction of resourcing of community partnerships and the whole loss of multidisciplinary impacts on the ground in certain disadvantaged communities. It is very clear from the Europol report that large numbers of disadvantaged teenagers and children are being targeted, exploited and used in this lucrative drug trade. That requires a multidisciplinary response involving the Garda but also involving education and resourcing people on the ground, in particular community leaders on the ground.
That has been lost in the past eight to nine years. That is what motivated former Ministers of State with particular experience in this area to come together to say we need to change and turn around what has happened over the past eight or nine years on the community front and to deal with this. It is a fair point that has been well made. Anyone who saw "Prime Time" last night will have seen Fr. Bryan Shortall making similar points about the need to get onto the ground in these communities to deal with this.
Deputy Curran is a former Minister of State in this area with considerable experience. His Bill is the first step to target this issue as it relates to children and young people and to create offences of using young children to deal drugs and of purchasing drugs from young children. These are straightforward provisions that we should accept. Again, we do not want the Bill to disappear somewhere in the ether. We want it fast-tracked and accelerated to start the fightback. It is the scale of the response that is the issue. There is no doubt but that the Garda is doing great work, and it is very difficult dealing with really dangerous criminals. This report tells us that the Kinahan gang is leading in Europe on this, so it is a very serious challenge to our society and our democracy. It needs a response on a scale we have not witnessed to date.
The Deputy will be aware that the Kinahan gang no longer operates from Ireland but from the United Arab Emirates. That is one example of the success the Garda has had in getting some of these gangs out of the country altogether. To answer the Deputy's question, I do not think anyone needed a Europol report to understand the scale of the problem of drug-related organised crime we face across Europe, including in Ireland. We need only look at the response we have seen in recent years. The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB, established in 2015, is an Irish equivalent of the FBI and did not exist previously. Armed support units are now available in every Garda region, which was not previously the case. There are record resources for the Garda, the budget for next year being almost €1.9 billion. The strength of the force is above 14,000 for the first time in a very long time, with 200 more joining this Friday. This is having an effect. I mentioned earlier the amount of drugs and the firearms that have been seized as well as the seizure of cash believed to be the proceeds of crime. While there have been a number of murders that have caused enormous concern in recent weeks, we should not forget the fact that homicide offences are down 40% quarter on quarter and murders down 25% year on year. This is proof positive of the success the Garda is having in tackling the most grievous form of crime, which is murder related to organised crime.
We would be very happy to engage with Deputy Curran on his Bill. The last note I saw on it indicated that it contained some flaws which may not have been intended but which may result in the criminalisation of children, and that is not part of the solution. We are, however, absolutely happy to engage with Deputy Curran on the Bill and fast-track it if it is good law. I do not think anyone would want to fast-track bad law, but if we can make good law we will.
This morning's newspapers are once again filled with horror stories of the impact of the Government's housing policy on children. Yesterday's Social Justice Ireland conference was told of toddlers' inability to walk, crawl or chew because of prolonged stays in emergency accommodation. The conference heard from one expert who said:
Time lost in the first five years of a child's development is not easily recovered. It requires wraparound supports, including physical and speech therapies, counselling services and dieticians.
At the launch of its annual report this morning, Respond said just 8% of families in its hub units were able to exit homelessness into social housing last year. This is the lived reality of Fine Gael's failed housing policy, which continues to survive only at the behest of Deputy Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil. Rebuilding Ireland is now in its fourth year, and what have been the results? Homelessness is up 67%, with more than 10,000 people officially homeless, according to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Child homelessness is up a shocking 81%, and tonight more than 4,000 children will sleep in hotels, hubs and hostels. Some will spend their fourth year in emergency accommodation this Christmastime. As we know, rents are up a staggering 39%, and new rents across the State are almost €5,000 more expensive this year than they were when this Government took office. In Dublin city they are €7,500 per year more expensive than in 2016. As we all know, house prices are up over 20%, resulting in a whole generation of young people locked out of home ownership.
Today the Social Democrats announced they will table a motion of no confidence in the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, next week. They have said enough is enough, and I wholeheartedly agree. Sinn Féin will fully support the motion, and I urge all Opposition Deputies, including those in Fianna Fáil, to do likewise. It is no longer credible for parties to attack the Government's housing policy and record while propping up that very same Government. It is time for Deputy Micheál Martin to declare whether he is on the side of homeless children or the side of Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Importantly, next week's votes will also be the first for the four newly elected by-election Deputies when they enter Dáil Éireann. The electorate therefore has a very clear choice to make this Friday: will voters vote for candidates who will continue to support this failing Government and its housing policy or will they too say enough is enough and vote no confidence in Deputy Eoghan Murphy and Rebuilding Ireland?
In light of the growing evidence, as in the newspapers this morning, does the Taoiseach still have confidence in Rebuilding Ireland and in his Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government?
Deputy Ó Broin mentioned a number of reports published by NGOs in recent weeks. Quite a few NGOs working in the housing and homelessness sector have published their annual reports in recent weeks. These reports are very useful and help add to our understanding of homelessness and the impact it has on those who experience it. The Deputy mentioned the Respond report, for example. One thing that report points out is that the average stay in a family hub is six months. Yes, for various reasons some families may end up in emergency accommodation for a prolonged period, and I accept that six months is six months too long, but this is very different from the narrative that suggests that the majority of people in homelessness are growing up in or spending years in homelessness.
Respond's report says the average is six months. It also points out that 16% of people, with a little support, are able to return to the family homes from which they came, and that should be seen as a positive.
Deputy Ó Broin asked about the results of Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's housing plan. I draw his attention to the extent to which things have changed since Rebuilding Ireland was published. In the year before it was published and implementation began, and before the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, became Minister, family homelessness increased by 60%, a huge increase. In the past year, thankfully, we have seen a negligible or no increase in family homelessness. I think the figure for the past year is 0.17%. No increase in family homelessness for one year is not something to be proud of and not something I am bragging about, and I do not want anyone to misrepresent what I am saying. However, before Rebuilding Ireland was published and before we started implementing it, family homelessness was going up by 60%. It has levelled off in the past year. That is the difference it has made. It has only started, though. It is a five-year plan, not a two-year plan. We have got to the point at which the figure has levelled off. We now need to see reductions in the coming months and years.
Deputy Ó Broin talked about growing evidence. There is now growing evidence of housing supply being delivered, with 50,000 houses and apartments built since I became Taoiseach, including 20,000 in the past year, which represents a 22% increase on last year, according to the CSO. There has been an 80% increase in the number of apartments built. More social housing is being provided than at any point in this decade, and the number of people on housing lists is going down. We are seeing progress. Yes, it was a slow start - of course it was going to be a slow start. One cannot rebuild a construction sector overnight. However, the plan, which was published two years ago and has now been implemented for two years, is showing results and we now need to build on them. One thing that will not make a difference, I guarantee the Deputy, is a motion of no confidence and a general election in Christmas week or the following week. That will not build any houses. It might get Sinn Féin publicity, but that is about it.
The Taoiseach has learned from his Minister how to misread figures because that very same report he quotes tells us more than half of the children who are currently homeless are spending more than one year in emergency accommodation when we combine hotels and hubs. If we take figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, it tells us more than 20% of the children in emergency accommodation have spent more than two years in it. The idea that somehow people are moved on within six months is simply misleading the House. To say that since Rebuilding Ireland was produced family homelessness has not increased simply is not true. Since it was launched child homelessness in this State has increased 81%. There are more children today sleeping in emergency accommodation than when this Government was formed. Those are the facts from the Minister's Department.
With respect to increasing supply, the Government is 30% shy of the overall targets for Rebuilding Ireland and its investment in social housing is only half what is required. This plan is not working. The Government is not meeting the needs of people who require social and affordable housing. The motion that will be tabled next week will send a clear signal to the Government that the plan is not working, that the people do not support, and that we want change. That is why everybody on the Opposition benches, including Fianna Fáil, has to make it clear are they on the side of those people in need of social and affordable housing or on the side of a Taoiseach whose head is so firmly buried in the sand he cannot even read reports correctly.
I know the Deputy is a fan of statistics and I guess I am too, and I imagine we could exchange statistics until the night is long. The Respond report to which he referred, however, does not state what he said. It shows more than half of people spend less than one year in homelessness and those in family hubs, on average, six months. That is why we want to make sure we have more family hubs and fewer people in hotels and in bed and breakfast accommodation. Rebuilding Ireland is a five-year plan and it was always intended to be that.
It was never going to be the case that a five-year plan would show all results in two years. As I said, in the year before Rebuilding Building Ireland was launched, family homelessness increased by 60%, and in the year gone by, it has increased by 0.17%. We are seeing family homelessness level off. We will see improvements in the years to come. We are seeing housing supply increase dramatically. Some 20,000 homes were built in the past year, a 22% increase on the year before that.
We are seeing house prices levelling off and falling in Dublin, which is no small thing. Some 15,000 young people, individuals and couples were assisted by the help-to-buy scheme to buy their first home. Some 2,500 people have got low-interest mortgage through the Rebuilding Ireland Home loan plan. Those are the types of results we have seen in the past two years. We need to build on them further, but what we do not need is will-o'-the-wisp paper-thin housing policies from the Opposition that we all know will not work.
There have been seven murders in north Dublin in recent months. Four of these killings were of men aged 22 or 23, including the latest murder. One of the 22 year olds was shot in the head by a gunman as he was pushing his baby son in a buggy. Some of these young men were not believed to have been involved in gangs, except that they owed them money.
Alongside the murders, there has been a succession of attempted murders as well as well-documented evidence of intimidation and severe violence carried out by criminals involved in drug selling. There have been other high-profile murders in other parts of the city and in Meath and Louth. Seven killings in one year is an extraordinary level of violence on the northside of Dublin. If there was this level of killings elsewhere, I genuinely believe there would have been a swifter reaction.
There is a serious problem with how some of these killings are now reported. It is repeatedly reported that people are being murdered in a gangland area. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House today and to all of us that no part of this country is controlled by gangs, that we do not have gangland areas or no-go areas for the Garda in maintaining peace and order in this land? We cannot have a situation where murders are somehow diminished because the term "gang" or "gangland" is attributed to the incident. We must not be allowed to become so used to violence that we are undermined in our determination to take absolute and robust action to stop criminal murders.
Specifically, we need a ministerial task force for Dublin's Northside Partnership area with the same level of commitment as was given to the north inner city ministerial task force, chaired by Mr. Mulvey. Such a task force needs to engage with all stakeholders and all members of the community, including political parties, community organisations and activists, businesses and so on. Crucially, it is essential that it looks beyond just a policing solution and also focuses on issues of employment, educational disadvantage and all the other factors that have in the past created fertile ground for criminals setting up networks or expanding their violent activities.
My question is very direct and simple. Will the Government undertake to establish such a ministerial task force for north Dublin? Does the Taoiseach accept what has happened in this specific area, and I do not want to hear statistics about crime or things being diminished, demands a co-ordinated and specific response from Government?
I agree with the Deputy in his assertion and comment that we should not use the term "gangland" to refer to any part of our country or any part of our capital city. There are places where crimes occur and those crimes may involve gangs, but it is pejorative to suggest that entire area is therefore gangland. I know large parts of my constituency, including Blanchardstown, where I grew up, is often referred to as gangland. It is no such place. It is a decent place with a decent community and decent families, and just because crimes or murders may occur there does not make them gangland. The same applies to Darndale, Coolock, the north-east inner city and other parts of the country. The same also applies to referring to criminals using the terms of comic book heroes, which glamorises them and should not be done either by us or by people in the media. Deputy Coppinger or somebody else also made that case very strongly yesterday. We as politicians and the media need to mindful of those sorts of terms.
The north east inner city project is one in which I am involved, one I know well, and one about which we often talk during Taoiseach's Questions. There have been some very positive outcomes from that, and while it has not yet, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has pointed out to me on a number of occasions, resulted in a decrease in crime in the area, it has resulted in many good outcomes. It was a unique approach, one that required many resources, both personnel and financial. I am not sure if we are in position to replicate that in many other areas. There have been calls for a similar approach to be taken in Coolock and Darndale. There have also been calls for a similar approach to be taken in Ballymun, in the Inchicore-Kilmainham area, in Tipperary town, and in other places.
While I am certainly open to considering how we might do that, when we do something unique, targeted and well-resourced in one area, because of the fact that it is unique targeted and well-resourced in one area, when we try to do that in five, six, seven, ten or 12, by definition and common sense, it is a diminished approach. We need to look at it in the round to see if there are a certain number of areas we can identity in the country that are areas of significant disadvantage and significant crime, target those, assess them on an objective basis, and perhaps take five or six and have a special approach to them and do it in that way rather than one thing after another being called for and us not being able to put the personnel and the resources behind it, if that makes any sense.
I welcome the Taoiseach's openness to consider it. When the original north inner city task force was established, it was to see how we could have an integrated template to make a substantial permanent difference in a particular community, but it was not understood then that it was going to be a once-off initiative. I pointed out yesterday there are seven areas in this city where unemployment is north of 30%. We need to have specific, bespoke, integrated solutions for these areas so that we simply are not talking about general figures for our unemployment being 5% and all is well. We need to drill down.
I ask the Taoiseach specifically about the number of gardaí, because it is an issue that is coming up again and again. People want to see the visible presence of gardaí in our communities, and community policing is a critical focus of the reform agenda.
Why was this year's intake to Templemore Garda college reduced from the Government target of 800 to 600? Why did the Government reduce next year's target to 700 in the recent budget?
I am coming to the answer to the Deputy's question. There are now 14,200 gardaí in An Garda Síochána, which is more than it has had for a very long time, as well as 2,900 Garda staff. I am confident that we will meet our target of 21,000 by 2021. A decision has been made in consultation with the Garda Commissioner, and taking into account the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, to recruit more civilian staff. By doing so, we have been able to move about 500 gardaí who were largely doing administrative-based desk jobs into front-line policing. That is what people want. Instead of the previous approach of taking on more gardaí without reforming the Garda organisation, we are bringing more civilians into the Garda staff, thus freeing up hundreds of gardaí for front-line policing operations. Approximately 500 gardaí have already been freed up in this way. We are ensuring that there are more gardaí on the streets, in vehicles, on bikes and in communities where people want to see them, both by recruiting more gardaí and by reforming the Garda. I support the Commissioner's work on this. Bringing in more civilians will free up gardaí to move into front-line duties, and restructuring the Garda regional structures will result in fewer chiefs and more everyday policemen.
There has been some debate in this House recently on the proposed liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminal at Shannon, which would use fracked gas imported from the US. I want to talk about the proposed LNG facility which would store imported fracked gas from the US at Cork Harbour. The US-based company Next Decade wants to import the fracked gas, and signed a memorandum of understanding on this with the Port of Cork in 2017. Next Decade plans to frack gas at the Rio Grande in south Texas near the Mexican border from 2023 onward, liquefy it and export it to Cork through the Texas port of Brownsville. Earlier this month, a Sunday newspaper reported that Next Decade intends to submit a planning application before the end of this year.
Millions of people have marched to demand action on climate change, and this Friday, school students will strike again. Only yesterday, the UN's annual report on climate change found no sign that carbon emissions will peak soon. The Government, under pressure, agreed to ban fracking in Ireland. Will it now allow fracked gas in through the back door? Fracking is more harmful for the climate than the burning of coal. The methane emitted from fracking is second only to carbon in the damage it does to our environment. Yet, the Government has not closed the door on using fracked gas at Shannon or Cork. The Taoiseach even held that door open when he said that fracked gas could be part of the answer to Ireland's energy security needs. The Taoiseach knows that if these projects go ahead, the State will be locked into the use of fossil fuels for another 40 years. He also knows that substantial use of fossil fuels in the EU's energy system for even another 15 years is incompatible with the commitments given under the Paris Agreement. The Government faces one way on peat but seems to face another way on fracked gas. Why is that? Why does the Government not state clearly that fracked gas will not be allowed to be part of the Irish State's energy mix?
Have the Taoiseach, the Government, any Ministers or Government Departments been lobbied on this issue by Next Decade, the Port of Cork, or any of the corporate entities involved in the Shannon project? Have any conversations or correspondence taken place between the Taoiseach, the Government, any Ministers or Government Departments and either the US Chamber of Commerce or the US Embassy on this issue?
I have not personally been lobbied on this matter but I cannot answer for every Minister in the entire Civil Service. I do not think the Deputy expects me to do so; his question is more of a rhetorical one. I wish to state very clearly that lobbying is not a crime. It is part of what happens in a democracy. Politicians, Ministers, and those in Opposition are constantly lobbied by all sorts of interest groups, including commercial interest groups, trade unions and NGOs. We listen to what they have to say and then we come to a decision as to what we believe is in the best interest of the public. That is how democracy works and how it should work. The lobbying legislation which we and the Labour Party introduced as part of the previous Government ensures transparency and that such bodies must declare any lobbying they carry out. It would be entirely normal for lobbying to have taken place on this matter. In a democracy, one would expect commercial interests to lobby the Government just as unions, NGOs, and individual members of the public do. Governments can then come to a decision as to what they believe is in the best interest of the public.
I am aware of the project in Cork, though I do not know much about it. While it is not a Government project, as Deputy Barry rightly pointed out, the Port of Cork is a State-owned enterprise. We will continue to use gas for the next few decades. It is part of the transition to net-zero emissions in 2050 and the vast majority of climate scientists accept that we will need to continue to use gas as a transition fuel during that period, as it is a much cleaner fuel than coal or oil. I would prefer to use our own natural gas from the Corrib gas field, if we can find more, as well as biogas. Gas Networks Ireland has very interesting plans to develop its network for biogas as an alternative.
The Government banned fracking in Ireland, through a Private Members' Bill introduced by my colleague, Deputy McLoughlin. I am not sure whether we are in a position to ban the import of fracked gas from other jurisdictions. I will have to check that out, but it may not be possible under international trade law and European law. Fracked gas may already be coming into Ireland through the UK pipeline, but I am not 100% sure whether or not that is the case. I do not think the quote on fracked gas the Deputy attributed to me is a direct quote, but may be a paraphrase.
The Government banned onshore fracking under pressure from not only Deputies in this House but the wider movement in society. Unfortunately, the Government did not back amendments from left-wing Deputies to ban offshore fracking, which should be done as well. The Government has indicated support for the project in Shannon, but said it will not proceed, pending an energy review. Will all work related to the importation of fracked gas be frozen while this energy review takes place? If Next Decade submits a planning application for a floating storage regassification unit at Whitegate in Cork Harbour while this review is taking place, will the application be processed or frozen? The Taoiseach should be able to answer that because it is a Government review. Unless it changes course, the Government will walk into a storm on this issue. More than 2,000 people have already signed a "Not Here, Not Anywhere" petition against fracked gas in Cork Harbour. If a planning application goes ahead, it could and should be a signal for that campaign to move from cyberspace to the streets.
Certainly not. To answer the Deputy's question, we live in a democracy and have an independent planning process. If an application is made, it must go to Cork City Council or Cork County Council or directly to An Bord Pleanála. In a democracy, people have the right to object. An oral hearing will take place and a planning decision will be made. That is how things work in a democracy. It is not about protests, riots and all those things. Rather, it is about people engaging in a proper democratic process.
On the importation of fracked gas, it is something I need to check out. I do not know whether it is possible to ban the importation of fracked gas into Ireland but it is something we will examine.