Thursday, 9 July 2020
Estimates for Public Services 2020 (Resumed)
I move the following Revised Estimates:
Vote 27 — International Co-operation (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €549,702,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020,for certain Official Development Assistance,including certain grants, and for contributions to certain International Organisations involved in Development Assistance and for salaries and expenses in connection therewith.
Vote 28 — Foreign Affairs and Trade (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €225,860,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020,for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade,and for certain services administered by that Office, including grants and contributions to International Organisations.
The first thing I would like to do, before addressing the Revised Estimates, is to thank the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, and former Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for the work that they did in their briefs within my Department for the past number of years. Deputy McEntee made an extraordinary contribution to European affairs, positioning Ireland in a safe space in the context of the Brexit challenges that we faced and working to build solidarity across the European Union. Deputy Cannon did extraordinary with our diaspora and contributed to an ambitious development of our development assistance programmes. Both Deputies will be missed in the Department.
I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, to his new portfolio. He will do an excellent job. I also welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid and diaspora, Deputy Colm Brophy. There is a considerable amount of work to do in that area and I will refer to some of that in my contribution. I am delighted to have both those Ministers of State working with me in the Department.
I am seeking the House's approval for the Revised Estimates for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Vote 28, and international co-operation, Vote 27. The Department's spending in 2020 is allocated across six expenditure programmes which correspond to the high-level goals set out in the Department's statement of strategy 2017-2020. Five of these programmes are managed through Vote 28, the expenditure framework for foreign affairs and trade, and the remaining programme is managed through Vote 27, the framework for international co-operation.
For 2020, the overall gross Estimates of the foreign affairs and trade group of votes, Vote 27 and Vote 28, is €821 million, compared with €802 million in 2019, an overall increase of €18.9 million or 2.4%. I will focus first on Vote 27, international co-operation.
Our forefathers said that we live in each other's shadows. That truth has been brought home in recent months as we have learned to live and cope with the shadow cast by Covid-19. The virus has reminded us of our interconnectedness with others, both at home and abroad. In communities across Ireland, we have seen acts of neighbourly generosity that have helped to keep us all safe. In our global community, our actions help protect and mind each other through the health crisis and the associated economic and social strains that have followed. We know that unless we do this, there will be a recurrence of Covid-19. Unless and until the disease has been suppressed, or even better eradicated, not just at home or abroad, the risk will be sustained.
Ireland's well-regarded official international development programme is the vehicle for much of our international response to Covid-19. This is a whole-of-Government effort. Almost €838 million has been allocated, an increase of €21 million to the 2019 allocation. It is the sixth consecutive year of an increase in the allocation for international development. Approximately 70% of this allocation for international development is managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under Vote 27. Nearly €550 million has been allocated to Vote 27 this year.
The sustainable development goals provide the overarching framework for Irish Aid's work. Those goals require us to leave no one behind and, importantly, to focus on reaching the furthest behind first. The furthest behind are at the heart of what we do. The OECD peer review of Irish Aid, published in May, highlighted the priority which Ireland attaches to targeting the least developed countries, stating that we walked the talk. Importantly, the OECD recognised that this clear focus enables Ireland, as a relatively small donor, to exercise leadership and make a visible difference.
We saw the intangible outworking of that commitment to making a difference last month when Ireland was elected to the UN Security Council for two years, beginning next January. The United Nations system is a key partner for Irish Aid. It is at the heart of the global response to Covid-19. To date, Ireland has provided over €118 million in fresh, repurposed and fast-tracked funding to this global effort. We also carry the torch of multilateralism through our core membership of the European Union, through which a large volume of Irish international development assistance is channelled. Working with others allows us to leverage economies of scale. The €51 million which my Department provides contributes to Team Europe's approach. This has seen EU institutions and member states work closely together in their Covid-19 responses to mobilise over €36 billion since the pandemic was declared. This is to provide quick, effective and coherent support to regions and countries most affected by the virus. Our support to date includes engaging with the World Health Organization, which is, in particular, assisting countries with weaker health systems but we also draw on its expertise in Ireland. Irish funding to the WHO has quadruped this year to over €16 million. Given the strain on the humanitarian system and the need for the system to prepare for the onslaught of the virus, I fast tracked Irish Aid funding. This included €7 million for Palestine through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help meet the needs of 5.6 million Palestinian refugees whose vulnerabilities are multiplied in the current pandemic. This is in addition to the crises in Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan, where Ireland continues to make generous contributions.
There is, as people know, an ongoing crisis in Syria. Last week, I pledged a further €25 million to the continuing humanitarian response there. Across the Sahel belt in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, the need was considerable before Covid hit and is even greater now.
Ireland's approach to humanitarian action is an expression of our values, supported by financial investment which, in 2020, will be just over €90 million. Of course, our investment in effective humanitarian action goes well beyond money. This is why the OECD this year described Ireland as an excellent humanitarian donor.
We know the importance of working in partnership with others. Civil society organisations are essential partners in driving the change that we all want to see, whether that is through Irish NGOs working on the ground in challenging contexts or local NGOs making a difference in their home places. That is why I have budgeted €90 million in Irish Aid support for civil society and development education during 2020. Predictable funding is always important to NGOs, as changes are not achieved without effort over time, and is even more essential than ever now as civil society funding models are strained by the economic consequences of Covid-19. My officials have been working closely with civil society partners at this time to ensure that we understand their needs, and to support them in retooling in response to this crisis and others.
Ireland also plays a constructive role with partner countries, assisting them in their response to Covid-19 and many other things. In Mozambique, for example, the Irish Embassy team built on the strong relationship they, and the HSE, have developed over time with the local health authorities to help them craft an effective national response to the virus.
Work across the mission network on education has helped partners manage through the challenges of educating children at home. This includes education through radio in Sierra Leone, a story which featured on the RTÉ home school hub last month. This complements Ireland’s investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education, including with Young Scientists in Africa and Africa Code Week, which reach millions of young people every year. Irish Aid fellowships see over 100 postgraduate students come to Ireland every year. Working with third level institutions here, my officials are ensuring that the programme continues this year notwithstanding the challenges posed by Covid-19.
I am also determined that Covid will not put our investment in climate action in international development off track.
We are working closely with other Departments to ensure that this is a whole-of-government effort. In addition to investing in a range of climate funds, the relationship which Ireland has built up over recent years with small island developing states has a very strong climate focus. Last year I launched a strategy for engaging with these states. This includes a €12 million Irish trust fund at the Asian Development Bank, which is a first, and a range of other initiatives including at the United Nations. Ireland is also a member of the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, which allows immediate payment to Caribbean countries in the event of a hurricane or climate disaster. There is scope, too, for innovation in the climate space. For example, Ireland is investing in a solar-powered project in Palestine, in Gaza, in partnership with France which will ensure that a groundwater treatment facility is powered in a sustainable way. We are committing about €10 million to that project which is just inside Gaza. The Irish people can take great pride in the work of Irish Aid. As the OECD said in its recent review, it has many areas of excellence. It has found us to be the best in the world at targeting extreme poverty. This Government is committed to building on this good work and to doing more.
I will now turn to Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs and Trade. The 2020 allocation for Vote 28 sees an overall increase of €13.1 million or 5.1%. The programme structure for Vote 28 corresponds with the Department’s strategy statement. It also mirrors the priorities as set out in our foreign policy document, The Global Island: Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World. It sets out the Department’s work in five priority areas, namely, supporting our people, engaging actively in the European Union, promoting our values, advancing our prosperity, and strengthening our influence. These correspond directly with expenditure programmes A to E in the revised 2020 Estimates volume.
The Vote 28 priorities for 2020 include Brexit, the passport reform programme, Northern Ireland, Ireland’s place on the UN Security Council, the expansion of the overseas mission network under the Global Ireland 2025 initiative, provision for urgent capital building and security works in our missions abroad, and continuing investment in the Department’s global ICT network. To that list I must also add the Department’s response to Covid-19, including our consular and diaspora outreach response and our role in supporting the country’s economic recovery.
My Department and our mission network around the world play a critical role in promoting and advancing Ireland’s interests through our international engagement. We are committed to implementing the Global Ireland 2025 initiative to double the scope and impact of our global footprint, as set out in the programme for Government, having due regard to available resources. Since 2018 we have opened ten new diplomatic missions to advance our own interests and to support our people. While some delays have been encountered due to the international impact of Covid, we are actively planning openings in Kyiv, Manila and Rabat in the next 12 months. The Government’s overarching ambition under this initiative is to ensure that Ireland is well positioned to secure our national interests, particularly economic interests, globally. Our expanded network will enhance Ireland’s visibility globally, extend our influence, and position us for trade and investment in new and exciting markets.
Programme A covers many key policy areas, including Northern Ireland, consular services and assistance, the emigrant support programme and passport support. Together with passport services, the provision of consular services and assistance lies at the heart of the Department’s engagement with our citizens. This was evidenced during the Covid-19 pandemic when our consular directorate, working closely with our missions, provided advice and assistance to more than 8,000 Irish citizens across all five continents, helping them to return safely home. Covid-19 added a new relevance and urgency to my Department’s travel advice, which we provide for more than 200 countries and make available on our website and the TravelWise app. We reviewed this advice regularly during the crisis, making 1,965 updates during the first half of 2020 alone. In fact, that was done only in the first two months of 2020 because the travel advice since then has been not to travel abroad.
Until the emergence of Covid-19, Irish people were travelling more often and more widely than ever, with a commensurate increase in the demand for consular assistance. In 2019, my Department provided assistance to Irish citizens in more than 1,857 serious consular cases, including 254 arrests, 287 hospitalisations and 293 deaths abroad.
The Passport Service issued 934,000 passports in 2019, the highest number ever issued in a single year. This represented an increase of over 8.6% on the previous year. At the beginning of this year, we expected to issue in excess of a million passports for the first time. However, the impact of Covid-19 on international travel has altered this expectation significantly. I now anticipate that the number of passports issued this year will be less than last year. During the crisis, Passport Office staff were redeployed to assist the processing of the Covid-19 pandemic payment, to assist with HSE contact tracing, and to staff the Department’s call centre set up to handle the consular crisis overseas. They returned to processing passport online applications on 8 June and processed more than 46,000 applications in the first three weeks of getting back to that normality. The 2020 allocation includes a capital allocation of €1 million in respect of the passport reform programme, and this year the programme will focus on the replacement of the software which operates the passport system.
Through the emigrant support programme budget of €12.6 million, the Government provides funding for non-profit organisations and projects to support our most vulnerable emigrants abroad, strengthen global Irish communities, and facilitate the development of closer and more strategic links between Ireland and the global Irish. As the scale of the impact of the pandemic on our diaspora communities became clear, the Government established a dedicated Covid-19 response fund for Irish communities abroad. It targets projects supporting our elderly and more vulnerable members of our communities, and it has new and innovative ways to provide services online. The projects are managed by our mission network and are delivered through existing community welfare organisations and charities.
This programme also deals with matters relating to Northern Ireland, North-South co-operation and British-Irish relations. In the context of the current public health emergency and the potential impact of Brexit, this area of work remains a particular focus of my Department. The New Decade, New Approach agreement in January represented a significant shared achievement of the political parties in Northern Ireland with the Irish and British Governments. It is important that we continue to work closely on a North-South and east-west basis in support of the power-sharing institutions which are so vital for politics in Northern Ireland. The Government is committed to working with the Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council to build connectivity North-South, invest in the north-west region, and explore other opportunities to work together to address shared challenges across the island of Ireland. In that regard, we are looking forward to an early meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in plenary format, bringing the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive together for the first time in over three years. We hope to do that before the end of this month.
Programme B provides the framework for the Department’s role in securing Ireland’s influence in EU outcomes through maintaining and growing strong relationships with the EU institutions and other member states. Deputies can get a copy of my speech on our priorities in working with the new German Presidency. In particular, we welcome Germany’s focus on the EU’s future relationship with the UK as a priority of the coming six months. My Department at HQ, through our permanent representation in Brussels, and through our embassy network continues to play a vital role in protecting and advancing Ireland’s core priorities in the Brexit negotiations. We also welcome the priority Germany plans to give to the rule of law in its Presidency. The rule of law is and should remain a fundamental principle that all EU member states respect, promote and implement.
Negotiations on the European Commission’s proposals for the next multi-annual financial framework package or EU budget, which includes a new recovery instrument, are intensifying. We are committed to engaging positively and in a sense of solidarity to reach agreement, while of course also seeking to achieve the best possible result for Ireland.
Programme C covers the Department’s contribution towards a more just world through the promotion and protection of human rights internationally and a more secure world based on a stable and secure rules-based international environment. The majority of current expenditure under this programme is made up of contributions to international organisations.
Programme D is entitled "Our Prosperity". The Department’s work under this programme will focus on leveraging our resources to drive job creation, exports, including cultural exports, inward investment and the tourism and education market. There will be particular focus in 2020 on assisting Irish business in the context of the UK’s exit from the EU and in the post-Covid world. The programme for Government has moved trade promotion back to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I look forward to working with the Tánaiste and his Department in utilising the mission network to support trade promotion globally.
Programme E covers the Department’s work in marshalling its human and other resources at home and abroad to maximise Ireland’s influence internationally. It includes the management and development of staff, the management and mitigation of risk, and compliance with statutory and legal obligations.
The programme also covers communication by the Department of its policies, objectives and activities to citizens at home and abroad. I look forward to people's comments and questions. I congratulate the new spokespeople in this policy area and look forward to working closely with them.
I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his reappointment as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and his new role with responsibility for defence. As Sinn Féin's spokesperson for foreign affairs and defence I look forward to rigorous and robust exchanges of views.
I begin with Brexit. Its impact will be felt not only in this State but across the island of Ireland. There is a great onus on the Government to protect the Irish protocol. The protection of the Good Friday Agreement must take priority over all issues relating to Brexit. We must ensure that the EU negotiators continue to protect Ireland's interests. The Minister has a key role in ensuring this. I assure him I will shadow his progress and performance every step of the way.
When we discuss overseas aid and its importance and relevance, it is important we note that Irish citizens have given to a level that we would not have previously thought possible. As the death toll from Covid-19 creeps agonisingly towards 2,000 people, we must be cognisant that our first defence against a future and perhaps more devastating pandemic is overseas aid.
As a nation which has positioned itself at the centre of the international community through our success at the UN, we must act strategically. Now is the time to build the levees, not when the flood comes. That means we must keep our commitments to achieve a target of 0.7% of GDP. The strategic use of overseas funding to help developing nations help themselves also helps us. Covid-19 has exposed vulnerabilities as well as interdependencies across international boundaries. Perhaps this is a good time to pay tribute to the international brigade of Cuban doctors and medical staff who selflessly went to Europe and further afield to assist the First and Third Worlds in the fight against this pandemic. This interconnectedness has also illuminated the vulnerabilities of the poorest members of our global community.
The World Food Programme recently published a report that states we face the threat of multiple famines as a consequence of Covid-19. A new report from Oxfam warns that more people could die every day from hunger related to the coronavirus rather than the virus itself. It also warns that by the end of the year, up to 12,000 people daily could die of hunger as a result of Covid-19. It noted that 121 million people might be pushed to the brink of starvation as a result of the social and economic fallout from the pandemic through mass unemployment, disruption to food production and supplies, and declining aid.
I am proud of the egalitarian instincts of the Irish people polled as part of an EU survey, with 92% of respondents agreeing that Ireland had a responsibility to help those in disadvantaged countries. The Minister must become a voice on the international stage that urges for cancellation or restructuring of debt for developing countries. Sixty countries spend more on servicing debts than on healthcare.
The Department has developed a series of metrics to promote gender references under specific categories of statements, an admirable target on which it should be commended. However, how many references to gender will be apologies? It could be said that mea culpa is the battle cry of this Government, based on its performance to date. From the Minister's remarks, we are being asked to support an 80% reduction in the number of organisations funded to promote the participation of women in post-conflict reconciliation. Further funding cuts of 43% under the rubric of human rights, gender equality and protection are also proposed. Where there is conflict, women must be part of the solution. Despite the effects of conflict on women, their participation in the peace building agenda has been resisted by both local male elites and, more importantly, international actors. That cannot be allowed stand.
I must ask the Minister about the response of his Government colleagues in the Green Party on learning of his proposed cut of 11% to climate change and environment under the category of resilience and economic inclusion. Perhaps, the Green Party's focus on tormenting rural Ireland is enough to occupy its members at the moment. In that category, there are proposed cuts of 26% under the heading "nutrition". I remind the Minister that malnutrition is the leading cause of death across the globe and has been described as the leading driver of disabilities. Its effects can be felt across generations, particularly in the areas of physical and cognitive development. One in nine people around the world is hungry or undernourished. A quarter of all children in the world under the age of five years suffer from stunted growth as a consequence of the effects of malnutrition. The failure to tackle malnutrition acts as a brake on the development of individuals, communities and economies around the world. Where there is evidence of malnutrition, the probability of outbreaks of armed violence increases considerably. A sustained emphasis on tackling nutrition has a multiplier effect across both the health and economy of a region. Nutrition is the missing link for sustainable growth. It is integral to the development of sustainable development goals.
I want to address Ireland’s welcome success in securing a seat on the UN Security Council and how the Government will approach this role. It is not enough for the Minister to present his approach to the Security Council as one akin to a strategy premised on pester-power. He should look at how much he annoyed the electorate and yet he and his party are here again. In my experience pester-power works much better for eight-year-olds than for governments. We must take advantage of our position on the UN Security Council as a non-aligned nation that has a celebrated history of neutrality. We must become the voice of truth to power, a voice for the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the homeless and above all for those who have no voice of their own.
What people could one describe as being more voiceless, more disadvantaged, more dispossessed, and if the Israeli Government is allowed to give full vent to its colonial impulses, more utterly and completely homeless than the Palestinian people? The Minister may possess aspirations to be the stone in the shoe of the powerful but he has certainly proven to be a boulder in the pathway of attempts by this House to introduce the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill, at least according to his own Government colleague, Deputy Neasa Hourigan.
Given that the Israeli Government under Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened the annexation of 30% of the West Bank, there is even more impetus on this Government to introduce the occupied territories Bill and to stand with the growing number of European states which are working to halt Israeli aggression towards Palestinians.
An important matter has arisen which requires clarification from the Minister. There is speculation circulating in the media that the Minister may have deliberately misled this House over the consequences of the implementation of the occupied territories Bill. It is being alleged that his claim that the occupied territories Bill was at odds with EU law and could potentially expose Ireland to fines of tens of millions of euro-----
-----regarding the occupied territories Bill. That is a question that is appropriate and this is my first exchange with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the Government’s handling or mishandling of the occupied territories Bill and comments he made in defence of the rationale for not proceeding with the Bill. He cites reference to information received from the former Attorney General as to the reason why he could not proceed with this Bill. There is evidence to show that he misinterpreted or misquoted the Attorney General, which is the point I want to make. An opportunity to clarify this should be given to the Minister.
Time precludes me from covering all that I wanted to here today I will conclude by appealing to the Minister to place human rights at the very centre of Irish foreign policy. When will this Government address the conflict in Yemen, a veritable smorgasbord of international intrigue and interference which has led to untold suffering for the Yemeni people? Will the Minister speak to the plight of the Uyghur people of China who are facing cultural and religious persecution on a daily basis?
I also wish to touch on the whole issue of passports. My colleague, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile in the Seanad, has led a campaign that the Minister will be well aware of to have a passport office opened in the North, the Six Counties, and there is evidence there to show the number of citizens in the North who have accessed passports over the last number of years. That demand is going to increase the closer we come to Brexit. The evidence shows that opening a passport office in the North would be cost-neutral. The time is right now to do that and all the evidence shows that the demand is there for it. We have grade A office space in Belfast that could be utilised for something like this. I urge the Minister again to look at this issue. There is a growing demand that needs to be met for citizens who live in the north eastern part of this island.
There are many more instances across the globe where nations and peoples are now looking to the Minister to be the catalyst that allows Ireland to be the voice that they need. If and when the Minister does so, he will have our full backing or, if and when he fails to do so, he will rightfully earn our ire. I urge the Minister not to let this moment pass. Gabhaim buíochas libh.
I will respond to the accusation that was made about me misleading the Dáil, which I do not think I have done. Let me be very clear and quote from the advice of the Attorney General on the occupied territories Bill which states that: “there is significant legal doubt that it would be permissible for the State to take the unilateral step of prohibiting the import of produce originating from illegal settlements on the grounds of public policy without being subject to EU infringement proceedings.”
This is pretty clear. It is not always sensible to take one’s lines from social media.
I can barely see my colleagues. I want to begin by congratulating the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on his reappointment at a critical time for Ireland in international affairs. He has done a very good job to date and I look forward to working with him from the Labour Party’s perspective. I also wish to congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, on his appointment. I said to him that he had been sent out to bat so often in tricky circumstances for the previous Government that he certainly deserved promotion and I look forward to working with him on international affairs.
I propose to deal with six issues, pose six questions and then to give the Minister some time at the end to respond to them, if that is acceptable to the Chair and to the Minister.
This is a very broad Estimate covering many areas and we will tease them out in detail when we have a chance to read the Minister’s script.
First, I will deal with the Minister’s commitment to deal with our citizens impacted by Covid-19 abroad. In the early part of the crisis we dealt largely with repatriations. That was a very worthwhile and elaborate scheme that brought many thousands of people back to Ireland and I commend the Minister for that. We now need to have real concrete supports for individual citizens all over the world in desperate hardship. I heard in the Minister’s contribution about the support of organisations but there are individuals who have no income, are out of work and cannot pay their rent. Is there an overall picture that the Minister can present to us on that and how he intends to address it?
My second question is on Northern Ireland. I was interested in the comments of the new Taoiseach on the specific Northern Ireland facility that he is establishing in expanding his own Department to have a Northern Ireland office there. I ask how specifically that will interact with the Minister's Department and where responsibility for Northern Ireland policy will lie. Heretofore the Minister has been the lead in this policy.
I congratulate the Department and everybody involved in securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council for next year. It is no mean feat to defeat Canada. I pay special tribute to Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason for her sterling work in that regard. The Minister said that our policy in regard to that seat will be anchored in human rights. In that context, while we do not have an extradition treaty with the People's Republic of China, since last year we have had an extradition agreement with Hong Kong, in respect of which the Minister signed Statutory Instrument 395/2019. My third question for the Minister is as follows. In the light of the national security law now being imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing and the decision yesterday of Australia to suspend its extradition arrangement with Hong Kong, does the Government intend to suspend the agreement of last year as a clear signal of Ireland's opposition to the imposition of that security law?
My fourth question relates to the issues in Yemen. It is an area of urgent monumental concern. My own judgment is that it is the most shocking crisis currently facing the globe. Can Ireland, the Minister and we as a Parliament lead on this issue? What role will we take to highlight the ongoing shocking suffering that is being endured by the people of Yemen right now?
My fifth question is in regard to Palestine. When we raise the issue of Palestine we are constantly reminded of the two-state solution that is the anchor of all our policy. A two-state solution can only work when there is a willingness for the creation of two acceptable and sustainable entities, two acceptable and sustainable states, supported by Israel and by Palestine. It is clear that the ongoing illegal annexation of more and more Palestinian territory by Israel is making that two-state solution increasingly distant and unviable. In those circumstances, what is our other plan? We cannot simply state that this is our plan if it is being actively undermined. What action will Ireland undertake to defend that core mission?
My final question relates to Brexit, which, although I have left until last is very high on our priority list. We have enjoyed strong cross-party support in regard to our approach to Brexit to date. There are real challenges coming on stream now. What specific plans does the Minister have to ensure there is continued close co-operation across all political parties as we reach the crucial climax of the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union?
There are only two minutes and 35 seconds remaining but I will try to deal with all of the Deputy's questions. On Brexit, I intend to maintain close co-operation with Opposition parties to continue the stakeholders structure that we have had and that has worked very successfully. We hope to have another stakeholders' meeting before the end of this month. I will keep the Deputy and all other Deputies who are interested in progress informed as best I can during the Brexit process. It is not party political in terms of how we handle the challenges of Brexit between now and the end of the year, which is hugely important.
On the Middle East peace process, I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution being the only viable solution for a successfully negotiated peace outcome for Palestinians and Israelis. We are actively working to protect a two-state solution. At UN level and within the EU, I have been very vocal on this issue and will continue to be. In the programme for Government we have made it clear that we want to recognise the state of Palestine in the context of a negotiated peace solution recognising two states, but we have also stated that we would move to recognise the state of Palestine if we felt it assisted in the process of protecting a two-state solution or, indeed, protecting Palestinian land. That speaks for itself. There are a number of policy tools that are available to us here. There is a new Israeli Government and I want to engage with it. I also want to engage with our partners across the EU to provide a deterrent for a new Israeli Government to move ahead with annexation which has been suggested and spoken of by the Israeli Prime Minister on multiple occasions.
On Yemen, I agree with the Deputy that there is an extraordinary humanitarian crisis there. We have committed approximately €28 million to Yemen thus far in terms of humanitarian supports, including €5 million this year thus far. It is the politics of Yemen and the interventions that countries like Ireland and others make in international fora that will hopefully bring about a lasting peace in that country that is being torn apart.
On the Security Council, we will be soon able to access the papers linked to the Security Council and we will then become an associate member. On 1 January 2021, we will take up our seat in the council. I will come back to the Deputy on the questions I have not had time to answer today.
I echo the comments of other Deputies in congratulating the Minister on his reappointment. I also welcome the new junior Ministers to their roles.
I would like first to focus on the comments on the occupied territories Bill and significant legal doubt. In my view, that is not sufficient grounds for the Bill not to be passed by this House. We could pass it and refer it to the Supreme Court or it could be referred to the European Court of Justice to avoid any doubt in relation to it. We need effective action on that. I have three questions for the Minister. Given that the Government does not propose to proceed with the occupied territories Bill, what effective action does it propose to take to ensure that the annexation does not go ahead? It is a very worrying situation.
On the global pandemic and Covid-19, there is no doubt about the importance of interdependency in this world. We live on an island but it is abundantly clear that what happens halfway across the world can intimately affect every aspect of life here. It is clear that underinvestment in public health systems across the world has knock-on effects for all of us. Earlier, Deputy Brady referenced cuts to the gender programmes. That is very worrying. From my experience of meeting human rights defenders, trade unionists and women's groups in Colombia, I am aware of how central a role women's organisations play in holding their communities together and standing up for peace and against violence. The proposed cuts are regrettable.
My second question is on overseas development aid. The Minister will be aware that for more than 40 years, successive Governments have committed to the 0.7% target, yet we still have a distance to go to achieve that. Given the increasing level of hunger around the world, with 820 million people going hungry every day, which is exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, does the Minister agree that the commitment in the programme for Government to reach 0.7% by 2030 is far too late and that we need to reach it much quicker?
My final question is specifically around the global response to Covid-19 on the health front. As we know, with increased urbanisation and intensification of farming, we are at ever increasing risk globally of virus transmission from animals to humans. We know that there are thousands of viruses with that potential. What we need on a global scale is more research, early warning systems, prevention, hygiene, and global co-operation with regard to vaccines and drugs.
We need to improve public health capacity in less developed countries and global health messaging. Guano farmers, for example, earn less than $1 per bucket of bat droppings that they collect. Entering dark caves is difficult work. If the farmers were given support for more sustainable, safer work, it would be good for them and everyone else because it would reduce risk and exposure to viruses that bats carry.
There is a strong imperative for us to invest much more in the global response both to the current pandemic and to the prevention of further pandemics. Does the Minister agree we need to put many more resources into a global response to Covid-19 and to prevent future pandemics?
I do not know how many times I have to say it but people do not seem to want to hear . The reason I have opposed as Minister the introduction of the occupied territories Bill is I have clear legal advice from the previous Attorney General, which I believe to be very credible, that we cannot enforce or implement it. People just do not want to accept that, as if to say the legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General is not valid because there is some other legal advice from somebody else somewhere that says otherwise. As a Minister, I have to respect and act on the legal advice the Government has available to it. It is the State's legal advice. This is not some kind of strategic opposition from me to legislation.
It is a legal position. I can understand the frustrations over the occupied territories Bill but I have on many occasions explained why we cannot do it. People do not want to accept that for political reasons.
I am making the point. The Deputy had his say and I am having mine.
On the other issues the Deputy raised in respect of annexation and the Middle East peace process, I have been very vocal at UN level, at EU level and domestically about Ireland's absolute support for a two-state solution. Ireland's leadership within the EU seeks to ensure that the EU provides the necessary deterrent to a new Israeli Government to proposals to annex lands that are not Israeli lands but Palestinian lands. We will continue to advocate for that. The language in the programme for Government is clear on that and my actions and my statements, both publicly and privately, are absolutely consistent with what is stated in the programme for Government.
On the comments that two party spokespersons made about cuts to gender action, they are not a reflection of the truth. There are no cuts per se. We have increased funding in terms of the overall spend on development of assistance. Budgets are either increasing or static. There is a commitment to growth in the programme for Government. All three issues have been mainstreamed throughout the Irish aid programme, which means we build gender action, climate action and work on food systems and nutrition into everything we do in development aid. A total of 77% of Irish aid targets gender inequality. I ask Deputies, therefore, to read the aid programme for what we are doing on all budget lines rather than trying to pick one or two to give an inaccurate impression.
Climate funding has increased significantly over the past three years, while the increase in the green climate fund through the finance Vote, also in 2020, needs to be taken into account. As for debt forgiveness, Ireland, through the Department of Finance and my Department, has worked with the World Bank and the Paris club to encourage countries to facilitate either debt flexibility in respect of repayments or debt forgiveness.
I congratulate the Minister on retaining his portfolio and gaining another. We have worked well together in the past and I wish him the best of luck in the future. Dealing with Brexit will be an arduous task. I also congratulate Deputy Brophy on his appointment as Minister of State and wish him all the best. I have a very large family spread throughout the world and I hope he will not have to engage with any of them.
I appreciate the increase in the Revised Estimates, not least where it pertains to Covid-19. I thank the Minister and his Department for their assistance, especially to constituents of Wexford who needed representation during Covid. I ask him to pass on our thanks to the departmental staff, who were very helpful. All matters were relatively easily sorted out and people got home.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that, for the latter part of 2020, he will deal with Brexit, which will be upon us soon, in five months' time. That brings me to the question of how the Department will deal with probably impartial trade following Brexit in respect of fishermen and the issues that will arise once UK waters are no longer accessible to EU fisherman and, in particular, Irish fishermen, who probably access UK waters more than any of the other EU member states. Currently, 60% of the mackerel we fish, as well as 40% of the prawns caught by Irish trawlers, are fished in UK waters. These goods are the mainstay of the sector but the waters are soon to be outside the EU and off limits to Irish trawlers. Put simply, 30% of what is trawled by Irish fishermen will be wiped out post Brexit. Significant changes to existing arrangements would be devastating from the Irish fishing industry.
Some mixed signals have come from all sides of the Brexit argument about how it will be managed. The EU has a legally binding commitment under Article 148 of the withdrawal agreement to discuss fishing access and trade together. The UK has set out its negotiating position to insist that fisheries will not be part of any trade deal, whereas the EU wants to tie any post-Brexit trade agreement to a deal on fisheries. Under the heading "Marine", the programme for Government states: "We will [e]nsure protection of the interests of the Irish Fishing industry by insisting that a Fisheries Agreement with the UK is concluded as an integral part of an overall EU Free Trade Agreement with the UK." If the Minister can do so, he might clarify which of the two positions reflects the current circumstances.
Another matter that is of major concern for fishermen nationally, and one I have at first hand heard discussed in my constituency when dealing with fishermen in Wexford town, Kilmore, Duncannon and other areas, is the likely increase in activity in the fishing grounds and waters surrounding Ireland post Brexit. Fishermen expect a significant increase in the number of UK vehicles re-registering for EU ownership. I am glad this is recognised in the programme for Government, which states: "We will [r]ecognise that the critical issue in these negotiations for the Irish industry is continued access to UK waters and quota share and the danger of displacement of the EU fleet into Irish territorial waters." While it is important the Government recognises the critical factors, it is also very important to understand and have knowledge of what action it will take. Will the Minister tell us what steps are being prepared to prevent displacement or an increase in the number of vessels that re-register to the EU post Brexit?
The Covid crisis hit the fishing industry very hard. While supports were welcome, they were very poor in comparison with what other EU countries offered to their fishing industries.
With Brexit only months away, the fishing sector will be one of the worst affected. Currently, 14% of Irish fish exports go to the UK. These will be in great jeopardy after Brexit and the cost of doing business in the sector will increase exponentially. It is imperative that supports be granted now as they are needed now. Cash flow, or what might have been very tight cash flow, has been eroded because of Covid. In the programme for Government, on pages 70 and 105, it is stated that the Government will seek EU contingency supports and market disturbance funding for the fisheries sector to mitigate against the impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit. The Minister might be able to enlighten us on what the supports will entail and when they will be made available to the sector. This is a complex issue because it will involve the Departments responsible for agriculture, trade and foreign affairs. Will the Minister do his best to address some of those issues?
I thank the Deputy for her compliments on the work of the Department's consular division during the Covid crisis. We are not finished yet because the virus is still accelerating in many parts of the world, including where Irish citizens live. This is the case in Latin America, South America, the United States itself and across Africa. I expect our consular division will continue to be very busy supporting Irish citizens who want to come home.
On fishing, the Deputy has raised a series of issues. No one should assume the outcome yet. It cannot be said yet that we will be locked out of UK waters or that 30% of the stock we access will be wiped out. We do not know whether any of that is true yet. We are in a negotiation. The important point in this negotiation is that fisheries are part of the broader trade negotiation to ensure the EU uses the leverage it has to get the best possible outcome for its fishing interests, including Irish fishing interests. My job, therefore, is to ensure the task force led by Mr. Michel Barnier will continue to focus on a good outcome from a fisheries perspective to try to protect the two key areas, namely, access to UK waters to catch fish and quota share. With regard to mackerel, for example, many of the stocks caught off Scotland spawn off Ireland. The reality is that we should be catching fish where it makes sense to catch them from sustainability and conservation perspectives, in addition to a profitability perspective. What we do not want are distortions of fishing that force fishermen to catch fish too early or in the wrong place in response to the restrictions in a post-Covid environment. This is a complex negotiation but an important one for counties such as Donegal, Galway and Kerry, in addition to west Cork, Wexford, Howth and all the other constituencies and counties that rely greatly on the fishing industry. It is central to our prioritisation in terms of the Brexit outcome.
Humanitarian aid is a must for countries that genuinely need it. Our churches have for decades given generously to countries that struggle, and most of all to children who are suffering beyond belief. I remind everyone of the humanitarian crisis evident in Yemen, a country with 24 million people. Some 80% of the population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. More than 12 million are children living in what has been described as hell. Countries such as Ireland, which has the means to support countries such as Yemen, should be doing everything they can to prevent Yemen from becoming extinct, which looks very likely to happen. In the next few months, Yemen will run out of wheat, rice and fresh water. It has no healthcare system so people are dying constantly from starvation and illness, in addition to fighting an epidemic of cholera and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UN declared this as the worst humanitarian crisis in the past 100 years. Ireland should at least try to support charities that are sending food to Yemen. Children there are eating cooked leaves as their meals. They need food and water filters to have a chance of living. What are we doing as a country to prevent this humanitarian crisis, the worst in the past 100 years?
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were outstanding in assisting my office to help some of my constituents from Cork South-West to return home to Ireland, but now a number of these people would like to return to their lives in their adopted countries, where they have applied for residency or citizenship. Owing to their having returned to Ireland, however, they might have lost their chance to acquire residency status or citizenship. One young man in my constituency - one of many - is stuck in this predicament. He was living in Canada and came home to Ireland because of the Government's advice, but he may now lose his chance of residency. What can the Minister's office do to support such young people?
What about those who have retired here in Ireland who may not be Irish but who have settled into our communities and contributed so much? They have sufficient means to live, they have homes here and they have full medical insurance, and they now call Ireland home. These people are on a stamp 0 visa, which means they cannot apply for citizenship. Surely Ireland would welcome these people and be proud to honour them with citizenship of our beautiful country. Does the Minister believe the process can be modified and does he believe that what I propose will materialise in the foreseeable future?
I am happy to speak briefly on this important issue. Ireland's reputation as a leader in international co-operation is historic and globally recognised. Indeed, if international assistance is counted as a vital part of international co-operation, our reputation as a leader predates even this Republic given the medical and educational work carried out by the vast network of members in the Irish missionary tradition. That work continues to this very day. It is a testament to our generosity that Ireland, through its international development agency, Irish Aid, has allocated almost €838 million for official development assistance, representing an increase of just under €21 million on the 2019 budget allocation. As I understand it, this is the sixth consecutive year allocations for overseas development aid have increased. As a compassionate and generous people, we will continue to offer whatever assistance we can to the most deprived as part of our commitment to international development and effective co-operation. It is rightly said to be the one area in which we unequivocally punch above our weight.
I acknowledge the enormous amount of assistance offered by the Minister's Department and office to those stranded abroad during the Covid-19 crisis. We see that some states are now reverting to a closed border arrangement. That will require ongoing international co-operation.
Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aire. I wish him and his Minister of State well. I thank him and his office for their help on various issues, many of which arose during the Covid crisis. There are still issues arising and his office is working on them at present. There is a sad tragedy requiring a lady to go to a family funeral abroad.
On Votes 27 and 28, I see there has been an increase in funding for overseas development aid for the sixth consecutive year. I have concerns over the increase in funding for the World Health Organization, WHO. We gave it a huge increase. I have many concerns about the WHO. I acknowledge the works of our visionaries and missionaries abroad over the centuries and I support them. We now have a place on the UN Security Council. Is it costing us? Are we buying the support of these people? Are we recognised as the truly independent and neutral country that we should be?
I also have major concerns about the Middle East because of the slaughter and persecution of Christians and some members of Muslim sects, or minority Muslim groups. We are not saying one tittle about it or intervening, and there is no debate in our Parliament about it either. We have rumpuses about every single thing, and rightly so. All lives matter to me. We had all the demonstrations associated with Black Lives Matter. All lives matter to me, unborn and born, from the womb to the tomb, but the slaughter in the Middle East is going on and we are not doing anything about it.
The Minister has retained his position in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We need to debate such matters.
Deputy Michael Collins mentioned what is happening in Yemen and this is happening in other places as well. When it suits us, the WHO or the United Nations to turn a blind eye, we do so but that is not acceptable.
Perhaps not. I will speak for a while and give the Minister a chance to answer.
I congratulate the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on retaining his portfolio. I also congratulate our new Minister of State, Deputy Brophy. Seeing as more congratulations are in order, I will get them out of the way at the beginning. I congratulate those involved in Ireland's success in securing a seat at the United Nations Security Council for the next two years. I am pleased to see that the Revised Estimates increase our resources for civil society and human rights defenders at the United Nations. We will certainly raise issues of concern around human rights; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues; gender equality; and women's political participation in post-conflict reconciliation and disarmament. At the end of Ireland's term, we all want to be able to point to our role in ensuring positive outcomes, especially in the area of human rights.
One section in the Revised Estimates refers to advancing Ireland's interests in negotiations of European Union legislation and other decisions. I was watching to the Minister's contribution on the big screen downstairs and he specifically mentioned the German Presidency and its priorities. He also mentioned working with the European Commission on negotiating the multi-annual financial framework. This makes my point, as the Minister did not mention the European Parliament. Like me, he is a former member of the European Parliament. I acknowledge and applaud the work of the previous Government in engaging with MEPs and briefing them very often on big-ticket items. However, we need a change in our mindset, or we certainly need a tweak. Very often the European Parliament is seen to be of lesser importance. The Minister served as an MEP and he knows that the legislative framework is like a three-legged stool comprising the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. He knows that any strong rapporteur leading for the European Parliament - I see myself as having been one of them - can have a real influence on the detail and minutiae of European legislation. It is not the headline stuff or the big-ticket items like the figures for the Common Agricultural Policy or the European Social Fund but rather the detail on how the budget is spend, whether it is the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Social Fund or the microfinance fund we discussed this week. This is often what makes a significant difference for citizens. I request greater co-operation where it is possible, although MEPs must be open to it. There should be greater co-operation between Irish institutions and Irish MEPs in the real work of the European Parliament, including amending and improving legislation.
In the context of North-South co-operation, I refer to a programme that was put in place under the peace and reconciliation heading. I have no interest in this because I was not a member but an important initiative was set up where members of local authorities, North and South, could meet informally in a series of structured events to discuss common objectives. In 2013, our current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, stated at the Merriman School that in the North and South there are two societies that are growing apart but there is nothing inevitable about this. He said there are many areas where a community of interests is clear and where the opportunities for action are at hand. In that context, I want the Minister to reconsider the discontinued initiative I mentioned. It had a focus on building personal relationships in matters of common interest bit by bit and step by step. The Minister and I know that those kinds of relationships are often far more secure and long-lasting.
I have a question that was already posed by Deputy Howlin but the Minister did not have time to answer it. Perhaps he can do so now. I refer to our extradition treaty with Hong Kong. As Deputy Howlin mentioned, Australia has revoked its treaty with Hong Kong. I know this is a delicate matter, and I am not asking for anything definitive, but I would like to hear the Minister's views, as every one of us in the House knows the situation in Hong Kong is slowly deteriorating.
I thank the Deputy and I will try to deal with some of the questions. I thank her for the comments about our efforts with the United Nations Security Council. I assure everybody in the House that we did not aspire to be on the United Nations Security Council again just to sit there and win the competition. We want to make a difference and use all the influence we have, including the capacity to bring people together and build bridges on a council which is quite divided and which has been unable to make key interventions and decisions at very important times. The veto has been used and abused in a way that it should not be. There are many challenges and we are putting together a very proactive agenda for our tenure, which will run over two years. We will be very active in areas like gender, disarmament, peace support, post-conflict recovery and similar topics in the context of which Ireland has credibility.
As a former member of the European Parliament, I understand the Deputy's comments and, I suspect, the frustration behind them. I will follow up on those points.
The best example of engagement between local authorities in the North and the South has been on the Derry and Donegal border. The local authorities there have worked incredibly well together and are still working to really positive effect to drive investment in the north west on both sides of the Border. It is a really good example of how cross-Border co-operation at a local government level can work in a very effective way, particularly in Border counties. I will have a look at the co-operation referred to by the Deputy to see if it is possible to design something similar to that for the future.
Unlike many foreign Ministers across the European Union, I have been quite vocal and public on the position in Hong Kong. I have released a statement on it and we have expressed serious concern for all the reasons that the Deputy understands. We have not made a decision to revoke the extradition arrangements and treaty that we have as it relates to Hong Kong and that will be a matter for the Government to decide. It is not the space we are in right now. Instead, we have had more than one interaction with the Chinese Embassy on the matter and we are working at a European Union level to try to ensure we act in a way that protects the one-country-two-systems approach that should apply to people living in Hong Kong.
I am sharing time with Deputy O'Dowd. I thank the Minister for his many interventions this afternoon and congratulate him on his deserved reappointment. I also congratulate the Ministers of State, Deputies Thomas Byrne and Brophy. I particularly congratulate the Minister on his reappointment, albeit with a gap, to the defence portfolio. It is appropriate that, following the major success of securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council, these two Departments will come under the control of one Minister, particularly in view of the importance of our history of peacekeeping in that victory. It was a major achievement by the Minister, the former Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and the entire team at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
It is something of which all of us should be extremely proud.
Every cent of the €821 million in these Estimates is money well spent. We can be extremely proud of our diplomatic network across the globe and how hard they have had to work in recent months and years on a variety of issues. A point I was glad to hear the Minister reference so many times because it is crucial is the development of the Global Ireland strategy. That is the reason it is key that the 2025 aim of doubling our diplomatic footprint remains. I was heartened to hear the talk of new missions opening soon in places such as Manila and Kiev, following on from the success of the new consulate in Los Angeles and new mission in Mumbai. However, there needs to be an increased focus on our diplomatic footprint a little closer to home, particularly in Europe. What has stood to us so well over the past couple of difficult Brexit years with the Minister at the helm is our amazing diplomatic network within the European Union. We need to be ambitious for that. The EU is our largest export market. It will continue to be so and it will continue to be a destination to which many Irish people will look to move. Ninety per cent of Irish people, according to the European Commission survey today, are in favour of maintaining the freedom of movement as part of the EU's four freedoms. That is the reason we need to be aware of our network throughout the EU. We need to boost our network. We need to look at our new offices in places like Lyon and Frankfurt and see where other examples could be had across the European Union. We must make sure that our embassies, which were kept open through the difficult years of the financial crisis across the European Union, are grown and optimised.
The Minister mentioned the structural works that will have to take place in many of the diplomatic missions across the world. We need to ensure that our embassies within the European Union, but particularly our Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels, maintains the same levels of staffing if not consistently increasing the level of both diplomatic staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as seconded staff from Departments that make their way not just to the Permanent Representation in Brussels but, increasingly, to our embassies in Berlin, Paris and other European states. We talk about new alliances. It is very easy to focus on the big European Union member states such as France and Germany, and they are vitally important, but we have to remember the other European Union member states.
A recent academic study showed that only two European Union member states had Ireland in their list of top three important partners. They are Denmark and Portugal. We may need to look at our diplomatic missions in Copenhagen and Lisbon but, equally, those in every other European Union member state. In the previous Oireachtas term we did a lot of great work in the Joint Committee on European Affairs on examining those new alliances. I hope that with the Minister's passion for the European project, in partnership with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, he will push that as we move beyond Brexit to the new challenges that face our European Union, both in dealing with the Multiannual Financial Framework and the modern challenges, including dealing with the mop-up practice from the Covid-19 global pandemic.
An area that Deputy Brendan Howlin spoke about at length previously and on which we need to increase our work and our exposure, and it feeds into the overall European Union work, is our footprint within Africa. It is heartening to hear that we will be opening up new diplomatic missions in countries such as Ghana but there is major potential for Ireland to play a positive role in the development of Africa, particularly with the Minister's expertise in human rights from his time in the European Parliament with Deputy Harkin. That is an issue on which we can stake ourselves out as a small independent country that has an extremely proud record, as other Deputies mentioned, of peacekeeping and missionary work within Africa. It is important that we can continue that work but it will require a genuine investment. I very much hope these Estimates will be put to that and that we will continue to see that Estimate going forward. The €821 million to which the Minister referred is an investment. Every euro of that goes into a huge network that provides an economic return for this small State in terms of opening up new trading partners and investment policies. It also provides a humanistic return when we think about our effort in overseas development aid and our outreach to our diaspora. Some are recent members of our diaspora. They are people who left the country in the last economic crisis to go to places such as British Columbia and Canada or Perth, in Australia, or the ancient Irish diaspora in New York, Boston, across the UK and in more bizarre places like Argentina.
I conclude by wishing the Minister and his Ministers of State well in the coming years in dealing with the immediate challenges he faces in the Department and asking him to make sure that every time we look to see what Ireland's role is in the world we do not simply say that we are a small country that has to feed in but that we are ambitious.
I commend the Minister for his outspoken statements on the extremely worrying situation in Hong Kong. I ask him to go further and continue to work with the British authorities and also the commission set up by the former governor, Lord Chris Patton.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh na hAirí Stáit nua atá in éineacht leis, na Teachtaí Byrne agus Brophy. Tá súil agam go dtiocfaidh feabhas mór ar an saol atá againn go léir de bharr an obair a bheidh á déanamh acu.
I pay tribute in particular to our foreign service. When I use the word "service" I mean it in the best possible way. We can imagine a port city on the edge of the Amazon with a population of more than 400,000 people where a small group of Europeans are trapped during the Covid emergency. It is a city that cannot be reached by road but only by air or water. The citizens are stressed and kept in a very small area, which they could only leave to go to a shop once every so often. They are concerned. They contacted me and I contacted the ambassador with responsibility for Peru, Ambassador Gleeson, who happened to be in Chile. He moved Heaven and earth to get those people home. His work, commitment and dedication in the way he rang those people, assured them and reassured them, and his work with the network the Minister and other European Ministers got involved in to make sure that all of our citizens got home safely, epitomises everything that is good about the service we provide. I commend all of our ambassadors and their staff and the Minister's staff and office also.
In terms of Ireland's record in the United Nations, 129 of the 191 nations in the United Nations supported our application to be a member of the United Nations Security Council. They did that because we are champions on issues like fighting poverty, inequality, the effects of climate change and standing up for human rights. As a country that was dominated by a foreign country for so long, we have a very important investment in foreign aid. Because of our history and affinity with oppressed people Ireland stands No. 1 in my view and deserves the full support of this Parliament in its success and the work they have done. I would like to compliment a Drogheda lady, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, who has done fantastic work in achieving that wonderful success.
There was commentary in a newspaper recently about IDA Ireland expecting a 40% drop in foreign direct investment in the years to come. In all the embassies I have been in throughout the world I have been impressed with the cohesion, commitment and professionalism, not just of our diplomats but also people from IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland and their associates who are active 24-7 in pushing the name of Ireland and the investment opportunities that can be made by investing in our country. I would not underestimate the importance of that connection, the work they do or their influence. Notwithstanding the Brexit crisis and all our concerns, the Minister has a huge task, as do his Ministers of State, but we are well up to that challenge of solving the problem of Brexit.
Ultimately, the work, commitment and passion that the Minister and his Department have shown, and all the parties in Northern Ireland, in bringing peace to our country and in trying to ensure that the Northern Executive functions well, and the North-South Ministerial Council meetings that will take place shortly, are a direct result of the input, commitment and professionalism of his Department. I commend the Estimate.
I am glad to be able to respond to several of those questions and comment on some of the broader issues that have been raised. Deputy Richmond is correct. The plans for Ireland to increase its footprint and influence across the world are not confined to activity outside of the European Union. The EU will certainly be very different in a post-Brexit world to how it was when the UK was very much a part of it and was an ally of Ireland in so many different policy areas. For some time now we have been investing in increasing our footprint and deepening relationships across the European Union. We have already opened a new consulate in Frankfurt. We have undertaken an Irish-German strategic review that looks at strengthening all aspects of that relationship, including cultural, commercial and political. We have done exactly the same thing with France and Scotland. We are looking strategically at other relationships, such as those with the Nordic and Baltic countries, which share a lot of Ireland's policy perspectives on EU debates. I wish to reassure the House that we are investing time, energy, resources and people to ensure the relationships across the European Union that we will need in a post-Brexit environment. This is appropriate and we will continue to pursue it.
I absolutely agree with Deputy Richmond's comments on Africa. Ireland has a long history in Africa. It is a credible history and not a colonial history. We have shared a lot of our wealth and a lot of our people to assist with education, nutrition, agriculture, climate resilience and knowledge. We hope to do an awful lot more in the future. We are planning to open two new embassies in west Africa. We have not yet finalised the locations. In north Africa, as I said earlier, we will open a new embassy in Morocco and we may also do so in Algeria. This will reinforce relationships there and will open up new political and commercial opportunities. I know Deputy Richmond will be very supportive of this. I take the Deputy's comments on Hong Kong on board. This is an evolving story, on which I suspect I will be answering questions for quite some time.
In response to Deputy O'Dowd, I also want to pay tribute to Ambassador Paul Gleeson. Working from Chile, he did a phenomenal job to ensure Irish people who were trapped in Peru could get home. He was not the only one. He led a team of people who did a really good piece of work over several weeks in a very complex environment. He is one of many examples of people in my Department who do an incredible job across the world. Ms Geraldine Byrne Nason is another example. I was wondering where she got her toughness. Clearly Drogheda is the link. She is quite frankly a force of nature in her work in the UN. She played a major part in our success in taking a seat on the Security Council and she will continue to have a huge influence on how Ireland uses the opportunity of Security Council membership in the ways to which many people in this House have already referred.
I refer to the North-South Ministerial Council. We have a lot of work to do to rebuild better relationships between the North and South of this island, with the Executive and particularly with unionist parties. We must also strengthen the relationship with other parties. Brexit has had a corrosive influence on relationships for the last several years. This Government will work hard to try to address some of that damage.
I wish to join others in congratulating the Minister on his reappointment to the Department. It is a very important appointment that ensures continuity, maintains experience and allows Deputy Coveney to continue the good work he has heretofore been doing with Deputy McEntee, especially regarding Brexit and relationships in Europe. Much of what I wish to ask about has already been raised so I will not repeat it all. We will need to return to the issue of Hong Kong at some point.
I refer to Vote 27, which includes official development assistance, ODA. I note from the Estimates that since 2019 there has been a small increase in funding from the Department. This step in the right direction is to be welcomed. The increase in annual contribution to the green climate fund, which helps developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is also very positive and was noted as such by Social Justice Ireland. However, even with that additional funding and funding from other Departments such as the Department of Finance and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we are still a long way short of the target of 0.7% of gross national income, GNI.
During these times of global economic uncertainty it is hugely important for developing nations to have reliable assistance funding. We must take our place in the world and seek to protect vulnerable communities globally as well as at home. This applies especially to those most at risk from climate change. Our assistance to the nations that need our help is life-saving. It can eradicate poverty and hunger through agricultural programmes. It can assist democracy and protect the marginalised and vulnerable through education and gender equality programmes. Investment in infrastructure helps to provide for basic needs like clean water, sewage systems and reliable power supplies. Resources are also invested in healthcare and medicine, leading to improvements in life expectancy and quality of life. This is absolutely life-changing for millions of people throughout the world.
Our programme for Government reinforces our commitment to fulfilling our ODA ambitions. The OECD Development Assistance Committee and Social Justice Ireland have both recommended outlining a strategy for increasing our ODA budget to meet our international target. Can the Minister commit to setting out such a strategy? As part of that strategy, will he commit to the establishment of clear communication processes to inform Members of the Oireachtas and the public on the value and the benefit to Ireland of meeting its United Nations target of 0.7% of GNI? I am not just referring to what this assistance can provide on the ground, but also to its contribution to our global standing and its help in furthering our influence on global policies on equality, climate change and the implementation of the sustainable development goals. I also call on the Minister to ensure, as I know he will, that all Irish aid is spent in a manner that upholds the United Nations sustainable development goals. I thank the Minister.
I thank the Deputy. I will need some time to answer his question. Deputy Brady asked the same question earlier and I did not get a chance to get back to him. Deputy Harkin and others also mentioned the commitment to 0.7% of GNI and how we can get there.
As the Deputy knows, the programme for Government includes a commitment to getting to 0.7% by 2030. We have also committed to ensuring that we do not allow the actual spend to fall below 2019 levels of expenditure at any point between now and 2030. We will use a three-year averaging system to make sure that does not happen on a sustained basis. In other words, if something was to happen to the Irish economy as a result of Covid-19, Brexit, both of these concerns together or something else that we have not anticipated, we will still be very strongly committed to maintaining actual levels of expenditure as well as attempting to reach 0.7% of GNI. If our economy shrinks we will look like we are making significant progress in percentage terms by just maintaining actual spend. We want to maintain the actual amount we spend, which is now €838 million in total, and also go well beyond that.
If the Irish economy can grow at the rate at which we anticipated before the Covid crisis, we would be talking about spending some €2.5 billion a year on overseas development aid by 2030, which is a significant increase from where we are today. The seriousness of intent in regard to that target was evidenced two budgets ago when we increased the ODA spend by €114 million in one year. The reason we could not increase it by a similar amount last year was that we had a Brexit budget which was incredibly risk averse. The budget was planning for a no-deal Brexit and, therefore, it limited spending across all expenditure areas, including this one. Even in that environment, we still increased the ODA budget by more than €20 million. I believe we will do more if we can get back to some kind of normality. There is a commitment on the part of this new Government, as there was on the part of the last Government, to increase significantly, year on year, our expenditure on ODA. In my view, that expenditure is an investment in decency and morality and in our relationships with people in other parts of the word who desperately need our support and partnership, as opposed to our charity. That is what the new ODA strategy is all about.
We will work with parties in government and in opposition, perhaps though the committee process, to see how we can map out a realistic plan that will take us, over the next decade, from spending approximately €840 million to some €2.5 billion per year. We will work to see how we can move incrementally towards that ambitious target. We are committed to it and I look forward, over the next few years, to delivering on it.
I move the following Revised Estimates:
Vote 20 - An Garda Síochána (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €1,782,581,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Garda Síochána, including pensions, etc.; for the payment of certain witnesses' expenses, and for payment of certain grants.
Vote 21 - Prison Service (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €383,211,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Prison Service, and other expenses in connection with prisons, including places of detention, and for payment of certain grants.
Vote 22 - Courts Service (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €106,245,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for such of the salaries and expenses of the Courts Service and of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Special Criminal Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court and of certain other minor services as are not charged to the Central Fund.
Vote 24 - Justice and Equality (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €461,045,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Probation Service staff and of certain other services including payments under cashlimited schemes administered by that Office, and payment of certain grants.
Vote 25 - Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €6,733,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and for payment of certain grants.
Vote 41 - Policing Authority (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €3,366,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Policing Authority.
Vote 44 - Data Protection Commission (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €16,686,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Data Protection Commission.
I am seeking the House's approval of the Revised Estimates for the justice Vote group to provide for much-needed expenditure across the justice sector. Subject to a small technical adjustment of less than €1 million, the Estimates being discussed today are those that were published last December. Pending the Estimates being passed by this House, Departments may spend an amount not exceeding 80% of the amount included in the Appropriation Act for the previous year. A number of Votes within the justice group could reach this four-fifths limit over the period from July to September, hence the necessity to have the existing Estimates reviewed that this point. There will be a number of areas to review and revisit later in the year, including in regard to direct provision and the impact of the Covid pandemic on certain Votes. The transfer functions arising from the reconfiguration of Departments will impact the Department of Justice and Equality Vote in particular, but the Revised Estimates today reflect the existing Vote structure.
The justice Vote group is made up of seven different Votes, with a combined gross expenditure allocation of €2.99 billion in 2020. This allocation comprises €2.72 billion in current expenditure and €269 million in capital expenditure. The gross expenditure Estimate for Vote 20, An Garda Síochána, is €1.879 billion, which amounts to 63% of the funding for the entire group. Since the Estimates were published last December, An Garda Síochána has been confronted with the challenge of Covid-19 and has had to put in place a number of measures to maintain the front-line and visible nature of the actions it has taken to counteract the impact of the pandemic throughout the State.
These measures include a revised emergency roster arrangement to facilitate longer shifts for teams. This arrangement helps to avoid crossover of members as much as possible, thereby minimising the risk of infection to members while at the same time maintaining the front-line service for members of the public. The revised roster has led to additional costs for unsocial hours payments. In addition, 319 trainee gardaí were attested ahead of schedule in March to provide more front-line resources. This followed the attestation of 201 trainee gardaí in February who had completed the full training period in Templemore.
An Garda Síochána has had to purchase significant quantities of personal protective equipment and, in the expectation that this requirement will continue to year end, the estimated cost is in the region of €13 million. While €9 million is being made available in the Estimates to the Garda Commissioner to strengthen and expand the Garda fleet, further additional investment in the fleet, including fit-out, of approximately €3 million will be required in 2020. This is directly as a result of the Covid-19 response. An Garda Síochána was required to hire 210 additional vehicles for community policing, which are estimated to cost €1.5 million over a six-month period.
The 2020 Estimates provided for an information and communications technology, ICT, investment of almost €74 million. This will support existing Garda ICT systems, enable them to be developed further to meet the ongoing business requirements of the force and enable gardaí to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime. This includes the deployment of front-line mobility hand-held devices, which give gardaí unprecedented flexibility on patrol and at crime scenes to access Garda ICT systems in real time. The very significant level of investment has also facilitated remote working throughout the organisation during the Covid crisis.
In addition to these resourcing measures, An Garda Síochána was given specific additional powers by the Government under the Covid-19 regulations. The previous Minister requested the Policing Authority to conduct a regular and independent assessment of the force's exercise of the temporary powers in support of the pubic health guidelines.
In all, five reports have been completed to date. It was found that An Garda Síochána is continuing to police the health crisis in a sensitive and proportionate manner and to use the powers under the health regulation only sparingly and when necessary. Throughout this emergency period, Garda members in all communities, rural and urban, have been reaching out to those who are most vulnerable, alone or afraid. Gardaí continue to encourage anyone who needs help to telephone their local Garda station. I wholeheartedly commend the Garda on the role it has played in keeping us safe in these unusual times.
The Estimate provides for €32 million for the capital building and refurbishment programme, including the completion of Fitzgibbon Street redevelopment project and the project to relocate An Garda Síochána from Harcourt Street to Military Road. Similar to most building projects in the State, these projects were on hold during the emergency period but are now up and running again. The OPW, which manages the projects on behalf of An Garda Síochána, is working with the various contractors involved to ascertain the progress and expenditure levels for the remainder of the year. It is expected there will be some reprofiling of expenditure across subheads before the end of the year. For example, if, as expected, there is an underspend in building capital, this will be utilised to offset the additional fleet investment cost due to Covid, etc.
Although An Garda Síochána is looking at every possible means to offset other additional Covid costs, the options are limited. Approximately 84% of the Votes relate to pay and superannuation costs which are, in effect, mainly fixed costs. That limits the capacity to absorb additional costs. The position will become clearer across the Vote later in the financial year, but the Garda Commissioner has indicated that additional funding will be required due to the scale of response required in respect of the Covid pandemic and after taking into account certain offsetting measures within the Vote.
In all the circumstances outlined, I am pleased to present an Estimate of €1.875 billion for 2020. There are now 14,700 Garda members in the service and 3,020 civilian employees. To date in 2020, a further 49 members have been redeployed to front-line policing duties, which brings the total number of redeployments to 650.
A capital provision of €116.5 million is being provided, an increase of 40% on the final Estimate for 2019. Despite the Covid restrictions and the delays to certain projects, it is anticipated that the vast bulk of this funding will be spent at the year end, particularly in the context of ICT and the transport fleet.
A well resourced and funded Garda force is a top priority for the Government. These levels of investment are complemented by an extensive policing transformation programme which will ensure a modern and fit-for-purpose policing service for the many outstanding people who work in An Garda Síochána and the public that it serves.
Vote 24, Justice and Equality, has a gross estimate provision of almost €536 million. This is broken down into five separate programmes comprising almost 60 separate subheads. Substantial funding has been made available to agencies that play a pivotal role in the criminal justice area, such as Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, and the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB. A total budget of €57 million is being provided to FSI in 2020, of which €39.6 million is capital. Although a contract has been awarded and work has commenced on the construction of its new laboratory in Backweston, County Kildare, it appears likely that there will be a significant underspend in this budget in 2020 and it will need to be reprofiled for later this year. The OPW is currently working with the contractor to determine the impact of the restrictions on spend in the current year. Further additional funding of €2.1 million in current expenditure has been provided in response to the increased workload of FSI, as well as the complexity of cases.
Additional funding of €500,000 will bring the total allocation for the Criminal Assets Bureau to €9.1 million. CAB plays a crucial role in tackling money laundering and targeting the proceeds of crime. Across Ireland, CAB is working to ensure that criminals cannot enjoy the spoils of their illegal activities. The increased resources will support CAB in this vital work.
It has been possible to increase the resources available to several regulatory bodies, including the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, to which an additional €500,000 has been allocated, bringing the total allocation to €11.2 million. An additional €500,000 will bring the allocation for the Private Security Authority to €3.8 million in 2020. A significant increase of €700,000 brings resources for the Inspector of Prisons to €1.2 million. Funding of €1 million has been provided for the establishment of the Judicial Council, bringing the total allocation to €1.25 million. The Legal Aid Board has been allocated €42.2 million for 2020, which includes a further €1 million in addition to existing funding to continue the Abhaile scheme for mortgage arrears.
The Department's mission is to make Ireland safer, fairer and more inclusive. I am pleased that a total allocation of more than €930,000 is being made available for equality and LGBTI+ initiatives. Funding for victims of crime has increased by €200,000, bringing the total allocation to €1.9 million.
It was acknowledged in budget 2020 that the funding requirements and policy responses in respect of accommodation for seekers of international protection will need to be kept under review on a whole-of-Government basis throughout the year. The budgetary provision in this regard in 2020 is €80.6 million. Expenditure in 2019 was €130 million and is almost €83 million to the end of June 2020. The Covid-19 restrictions have impacted on costs, including the need to secure additional hotel spaces in order to help reduce contacts within centres and to provide self-isolation facilities in a several locations in conjunction with the HSE. It has been necessary to purchase PPE, sanitiser and many other products in order to reduce the risk of an outbreak in centres. This area is giving rise to significant additional costs which, as I outlined, will need to be addressed in the autumn.
On a related matter, an expert advisory group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day which was announced in December 2019 is now expected to submit its final report in September 2020. The group, which is unconstrained by current or past policy, has been tasked to examine the provision of State supports, including accommodation, for those in the international protection asylum process. The programme for Government commits in the short term to acting on interim recommendations from the chairperson of the expert group to improve conditions for asylum seekers currently living in the system. In addition, the programme contains a commitment to replace the current accommodation model with a new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach. It is expected that the report of the expert group will contain recommendations on new models for accommodation and other supports for applicants for international protection which will inform future policy in this area.
The travel restrictions as a result of Covid will have a significant negative impact on registration and visa fee income in 2020 in particular. The precise impact depends on the length of time for which the restrictions are in place. A proportion of the registration fee income relates to renewal of registrations rather than new registrations. A clearer picture will emerge closer to the end of the financial year.
Turning to the Vote 21, Prisons, the gross Estimate in 2019 is €392.4 million. The additional current expenditure is almost €19 million compared with the corresponding budget in 2019, including €14 million in respect of additional payroll costs and €5 million across several areas to meet the demands arising from higher prisoner numbers and increased maintenance costs of the prisons estate. The capital budget for 2020 has increased significantly, from €32.3 million last year to €46.7 million. Most of this will be utilised for the redevelopment of Limerick Prison. The potential impact on the project in 2020 due to Covid is unclear. There is likely to be an underspend due to the site restrictions and the impact of social distancing and supply chain issues after the restriction period. A full financial analysis is currently being carried out with the contractor but, although progress will be made, there may be an underspend in capital by year end.
Additional Covid-related costs in the prisons are currently estimated to be in the region of €4 million to 5 million in total. These are preliminary costings and the final cost will depend on the length of the emergency and the impact on the prisons. The costs mainly relate to PPE, additional video link facilities for remote court attendance and additional payroll costs in respect of cover for officers in isolation. To date, no prisoner has been infected with Covid-19 and the Irish Prison Service, IPS, has been internationally recognised for its work in controlling the spread of the virus. It has now shared its experience with other countries through the submission of a paper to the World Health Organization on its approach to the outbreak. It represents a very strong collective effort that has been made during the Covid-19 pandemic by IPS staff, management and prisoners, as well as Red Cross volunteers . The new infection prevention and control teams that are in place in all prisons have made a significant contribution to the successful handling of the virus. This work is something with which we should be particularly pleased and should be commended. It is vitally important that these efforts continue in order to maintain this remarkable safety record.
A total gross Estimate of €156.4 million is being provided for the Courts Service under Vote 22. This encompasses an additional €1.5 million in day-to-day running costs, €10 million in capital expenditure and a further €4.5 million in gross expenditure on capital and current building works, which has been funded from the dormant courts fund.
However, since the Estimate was published, the Courts Service's income has been severely impacted by the Covid emergency. The full impact will not be known until later in the year but there could be a shortfall of €17 million, or 40%, in fee income, which would be unsustainable for the Courts Service's Vote. We will need to address this before the end of the year in conjunction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Approximately €9 million is accounted for in the fall-off in fee income from social exemption orders for the licensed trade and hospitality industry. The Courts Service projects that the equivalent of three months of civil business, from April, May and June, will be lost due to Covid-19, with a shortfall in income of approximately €8 million.
A gross Estimate of €16.9 million is being provided to the Data Protection Commission. This is Vote 44, which in 2020 is a separate Vote for the first time. This allocation includes an increase of €1.6 million or 11% compared with the previous year. The Data Protection Commission budget has increased significantly in recent years as the responsibilities and functions of the office have expanded.
A gross Estimate of €3.4 million has been provided for the Policing Authority Vote, which is Vote 41. The gross expenditure budget for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which is Vote 25, is €6.8 million, to enable it to continue its important work in promoting and protecting human rights and equality.
With the approval of this House, these Estimates will fund the seven Votes in the justice sector with the financial resources to continue to provide the necessary and varied range of functions and responsibilities across the justice sector. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Revised Estimate with colleagues in the House.
I congratulate the new Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on their appointments, and I look forward to working closely with them in the coming months and, hopefully, years as we move through this process, out of Covid and into a more normal arrangement. The Estimates this year are governed by what happened in previous months with regard to Covid and the crisis that we have come through. The Garda numbers are interesting. The Minister says there are 14,700, with just over 3,000 civilian personnel. I know there was a target of having 4,000 civilian personnel working in the Garda by 2021, and I hope we will see how many front-line gardaí are able to get back out on the beat as a consequence of having the additional civilian personnel taking on those roles, and how much more of that is envisaged.
The capital costs are always contentious. I know there have been restrictions this year with regard to getting a lot of work done because of Covid. I am disappointed to see that provision was made through a public private partnership for the provision of Garda stations in Sligo, Macroom and a number of areas, and the station in Sligo has now been removed. I appeal to the Minister to re-examine it because the Garda station in Sligo is unfit for purpose. It is higgledy-piggledy and all over the place, with several buildings joined together with corridors. It is overcrowded. It simply does not work. That is the case in many areas around the country. For instance, the Garda station in Tallaght is also overcrowded. There was political talk at different times but nothing was ever put on paper, nor was a firm commitment made to provide a new Garda station in west Tallaght. It is the same in many areas around the country where we have a real need to provide new services and facilities to make the gardaí more efficient and effective.
The forensic science laboratory was mentioned and I know that some work has been taking place on that. We see it continue every year. We need to know at what point that project will come to fruition or be finished.
A number of inquiries have to be set up. The previous Government give commitments to do so, particularly to set up an inquiry into the case of Shane O'Farrell. I appeal to the Minister again to make provision in the budget to put that inquiry in place and ensure it is a public and independent inquiry into what happened. I know family have been grieving as a result of what happened to their son and brother. The Stardust inquest is another that has been promised for a long time but has not as of yet come to fruition. These are vital steps which must be taken as quickly as possible.
The Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, was mentioned and the additional resources put in place for it. I congratulate CAB in the work it has done. In many cases, it is very effective at tackling the criminal drug gangs that blight so many communities. In the last few days, the Central Statistics Office published a crime victimisation survey. It found that half of respondents did not trust the justice system. That is particularly the case with older people and people in what would be considered more deprived communities, which are the communities in which these gangs operate. There needs to be a greater effort and emphasis on ensuring we deliver for people in those areas.
With regard to Covid-19, the Minister mentioned a figure of €13 million for PPE. Many people watching the television news every evening will have seen gardaí at checkpoints not wearing any PPE, whereas they saw police services across Europe and elsewhere using PPE. That annoyed many people. A constituent contacted my office just yesterday to complain about being stopped at a checkpoint where the gardaí were not wearing PPE. This issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.
The issue with drugs is the big concern. There was a report this week about the use of crack cocaine. Cocaine addiction in the community is something we need to tackle. I know it is not simply a justice issue and spans many areas, but justice should be a primary part of it. This is an industry driven by substantial profits for a small minority of people who terrorise communities in this city and in other urban areas around the country. It has stretched into every town across the length and breadth of the country. While from the point of view of finances for our security services and such there is never enough, every effort has to be made to ensure the Government demonstrates that it will keep people safe, deliver for communities and keep people first.
Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire nua, an Teachta McEntee, agus leis an Aire Stáit, an Teachta McConalogue. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil dúshláin agus deacrachtaí nua ag baint le Covid-19 do na Ranna go léir agus don Roinn Dlí agus Cirt. Chonaic mé an tuarascáil ón Irish Human Rights Commission agus tá béim ann ar chomhionannas, cothrom na Féinne agus ceartas sóisialta a choimeád sna polasaithe sa Roinn Dlí agus Cirt i rith an pandemic. There are a number of interesting things in the Estimates. I welcome the announcement of the increase in funding for community policing vehicles and community policing works. I note with interest that funding for the witness security programme is being increased from €120,000 to nearly €1.2 million, an 800% increase. I had a question regarding prisons, given that the number of bed nights was reduced between March and May by 11%, while the Estimate seems to have increased by 9%, but the Minister, in fairness to her, answered that when she said the figures may be revised later in the year.
On the matter of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the Garda has reported a 25% rise in domestic calls since the restrictions began. Women's Aid has in turn said that the figures are probably much higher, given that many victims do not report incidents to the Garda. It is difficult to reconcile this reality with the Estimate. The Estimate envisages delivering the same numbers of domestic refuges and refuge spaces this year as were provided in 2019, with 22 refuges and 160 spaces. At the same time, funding under the financial human resource inputs heading for criminal justice, for prevention of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, has reduced by 16%. I am sure the Minister will agree that Operation Faoiseamh, which was set up by An Garda Síochána to target crimes of domestic abuse, will be fighting an uphill battle without supports for women to exit abusive relationships being in place and without prevention programmes being adequately supported.
I agree with what the Minister said about the not-for-profit approach being introduced to direct provision. That is a good idea but those direct provision centres which are not fit for purpose, such as the Cahirsiveen centre, should be closed now or as soon as possible. I was not sure why funding for the opinion poll from the public attitudes survey was included in the Estimates.
Despite the efforts of some people to heighten fear of crime, it is noteworthy that for 64% of respondents fear of crime has no impact on quality of life. For less than 20% fear of crime is a serious problem. That being said, how do these Estimates and the programme for Government they support measure up to these moral and political imperatives?
Access to justice is a key legal principle which has often been forgotten. The Courts Service has recently taken the view that the pandemic has created particular challenges concerning the swearing in of juries for trials in the Circuit Court, particularly due to social distancing requirements. For example, in the south western circuit which covers counties Clare, Limerick and Kerry, the Courts Service has decreed that jury trials will be restricted to one location, namely, Limerick city. As a result, members of An Garda Síochána will have to spend their time travelling up and down the road to Limerick from counties Kerry and Clare. That journey is a 200 km round trip from Tralee, for example. The same applies to legal teams, leading to increased inconvenience and distress for witnesses, victims and defendants who have the presumption of innocence.
I note that the programme for Government emphasises the need to prioritise town centres. The neglect of Tralee courthouse has one silver lining, namely, that the building is near the Main Street and the loss of business to the town centre will be particularly acute this year. There are plans which are 30 years old on the wall of the current courthouse. In those 30 years, the only refurbishment has been to the judge's chambers. Even the long-awaited wheelchair lift in the plans on the wall has never been fitted. Surely the imagination to refurbish this building in a manner which fits the needs of a modern court is out there somewhere. This courthouse, designed by a 17 year old apprentice architect and quarried from limestone in the town centre, has functioned in the present location since the days of Daniel O'Connell, through the War of Independence and on to the wrongful prosecution which led to the Kerry babies tribunal. There is an abundance of underutilised space within the existing structure to provide extra courtrooms, separate entrances for juries, prisoners and judges, and possibly some flexibility for Covid compliance.
Has the possibility of videoconferencing for jury selection in other venues, not only in Tralee but around the country, been explored or even considered? The will and the effort must be applied to ensure that Tralee town centre and indeed many towns in other circuits around the country are protected. Courts and Garda stations have been lost to towns and villages around the country, including seven courts in Kerry since the turn of the century. This has to be reversed. Justice has to be seen to be done and justice should be administered in local courts in local communities. There is a well-founded fear in legal, Garda and business circles that the current crisis will be used as an excuse by the Courts Service to further restrict services. This is not a request; it is a demand. Local court services must be maintained.
Our friends in west Cork fought a mighty battle to save the courthouse in Skibbereen. We should remember Skibbereen, as the song goes, and the battle waged to save that courthouse. Any Government with a serious commitment to town centres should aim to maintain services in provincial towns. Imagination and hard work are necessary, but it is possible if the greater good of the community is in mind.
The Estimates triple the capital expenditure amounts for courthouses. We need to spend the money allocated as soon as possible to inject jobs into the rural economy. We need to facilitate good local builders with experience to complete these projects and keep jobs local. If the current restrictions continue in some form, we should be imaginative about obtaining rooms to swear in juries rather than cancelling or restricting services. I urge the Minister to expedite these works.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, whom I always found to be extremely fair in her previous role. I wish her the best and look forward to working with her. I am delighted that we have a young woman as Minister for Justice and Equality. I also offer congratulations to the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue.
My contribution will focus on the human rights and equality aspects of this, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Despite our having passed this convention, we have not ratified the optional protocol which allows people with a disability to take a complaint to the UN about their rights. By not ratifying this optional protocol, we are failing people with a disability. Unfortunately, the previous Government and, it would seem already, the new Government are failing people with a disability.
In recent weeks, calls have been made to reopen adult day services, closed due to the Covid pandemic, yet we have no date for when that might happen. People who have a disability or family members or others who advocate on their behalf constantly describe it as a battle. They have to battle for a diagnosis, for the various therapies needed, for a school place, for transport to that school, for an adult day service and for transport for that service. For carers it is a constant battle for any sort of support, particularly relating to respite. In many areas respite is non-existent. My constituency is an example of that; with respite closed for five years. These are all extremely serious and important issues. I hope the new Government will do something about this, take it on board and not just pay lip service to it.
Do the Estimates include money to ensure the optional protocol will be ratified? Can we get a timeframe? Last year, we were told it would not be ratified in 2019 but would be ratified in 2020. Here we are in July with the year slipping by. People will talk about Covid, but it cannot be an excuse for everything. We need a timeframe for when this will be ratified. If the Government is serious about ensuring that people with disabilities, their families and their carers are respected and given the services they need, it would have no difficulty in ratifying this protocol because it empowers people. The Government should be trying to empower people by saying it has nothing to hide and that it wants people to have the right to take a case against it if they feel they have a need to do so. I share the fear of many people in the sector that this protocol has not been ratified to date because I imagine there would be an enormous number of cases taken given all the failings in the sector. Will the money be provided this year to ensure the optional protocol is ratified?
I am delighted to have an opportunity to congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on her appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality. Obviously, we worked in the last Dáil when she had responsibility in the area of European affairs with Brexit as the focus. I also wish the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, well.
In my judgment, the most important task the Minister will have in the coming years is completing the programme of Garda reform. We have talked about this for a decade. The single most important decision made in the justice area in recent decades was the establishment of an independent policing authority. I campaigned for that since the 2000s and I introduced legislation that was voted down by Governments in the early 2000s. I brought people to talk to politicians here. I remember meeting Denis Bradley, the vice chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board at the time. Nuala O'Loan, who was the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland at the time, also came down to address a meeting.
We need to follow through on these things and they cannot be unravelled. I have read very carefully the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing and also the minority report or the views of some who disagreed with some elements of what is, by and large, a very good report. I spoke to the chair of the commission, Kathleen O'Toole, on these matters. It is critical - I want to discuss this with the Minister over time - that the essence of having an independent oversight body is maintained. The Policing Authority has done that very well. I pay particular tribute to the first chairperson of the Policing Authority, Josephine Feehily, who was a very wise choice. She is a very strong woman and made an enormous contribution. I wish her successor, Bob Collins, every success.
There is a danger that we might get things wrong now and emasculate the successor body to the Policing Authority. I have no difficulty in amalgamating the authority with the Garda Inspectorate. The inspectorate was the initial response by a Government which did not want to establish a policing authority. I do not think there is a need for both. However, we need to ensure that the nexus of oversight and real authority is separate from the higher ranks of An Garda Síochána. It needs to be independent and strong, and needs to have powers. It needs to be the decision maker on top-level appointments.
The report's proposal for devolution to the 19 divisions needs to be implemented. We need to have the right people in the right jobs. The skill set for a modern policing system requires skills in human resources and financial investigation. These are not everyday commonplace skills and we need ensure we have them and have the right technology.
We will be looking carefully at the implementation of those things and I hope to have discussions with the Minister on them.
I will raise a couple of other points in the few minutes that I have left. I tried to talk to the Minister about an issue last week and I hope we can make direct contact with her more easily than has been the case to date. I am sure the difficulties in that regard have related to Covid-19. The operation of the International Protection Act 2015, legislation which I support, excludes direct representations being made by Members of this House. My experience of working in the Oireachtas for several decades tells me that institutions of the State that are not directly accountable through oversight by the Oireachtas suffer for its lack. I ask that the matter to which I refer be reviewed and I will give the details to the Minister. As things stand, any Member of the House who wants to put specific information about an asylum seeker before a decision-maker in the International Protection Office is precluded from doing so. I wrote to the Minister directly, asking for an oversight, and, perversely, received a reply from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, telling me what I already know. The reply quoted the 2015 Act. We must ensure that we have the capacity within the Oireachtas to hold every organisation to account in a modern democracy. I will discuss with the Minister the oversight of INIS that is required. I asked the Taoiseach earlier in the week why INIS did not transfer to the new Department for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration since the direct provision system will fall under the integration aspect of that new Department. He explained that the matter had been debated but not decided upon. That new Department might well still be the best location for it but that is a matter we can discuss at another time.
I also raise the issue of domestic violence. I commend An Garda Síochána on the proactive way in which it has handled the issue during the pandemic. Operation Faoiseamh has been successful. An Garda has been clear in its public utterances that anybody who is experiencing domestic violence can reach out. That has been important and has saved a lot of suffering. I must be honest and say that the true scale of domestic violence during the pandemic is unknown to us. We might never know its scale because much of it is still oblique. Some people, and women in particular, were trapped in houses with abusers, unable to reach out and suffered terribly during the lockdown period. It is important that we ensure the necessary resources are available through the Garda National Protective Service Bureau. There are 245 officers and 16 divisional protective service units across the country but we need to have a debate about whether that is enough. Another Deputy already made the point that supportive step-down places, areas of protection, accommodation and shelters must be available to people in order that they can readily escape positions where they are under incredible pressure and suffering direct mental, physical and sometimes sexual abuse. These are shocking things that we must address through robust mechanisms. An Garda Síochána is well up for that challenge and wants the resources to do a good job.
My final point relates to judicial reform. I welcome the allocation of additional money for the Judicial Council. We have talked for years about establishing such a council in order to have some common policy and training in respect of sentencing across the Judiciary so that it is not a lottery and to ensure consistency and understanding through an update of judicial training.
I look forward to teasing out these and many other matters with the Minister in the course of the months and, I hope, years to come. A broad range of responsibilities now falls to the Minister and I wish her every success with all of that. I hope my points on the capital side were understood. We need to invest in our court and prison infrastructures and our Garda stations in order to make sure that we can effectively house the people who are delivering our justice systems.
I also congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on their appointments. I wish them well in the coming years. I am pleased that the Minister represents a constituency in the commuter belt, particularly as the lowest ratios of gardaí to population are in Meath and Kildare, respectively. I know it is down to the Garda Commissioner to deploy resources but I am sure that fact will not go unnoticed by the Minister. Those of us in the areas to which I refer noticed a high level of Garda visibility during the lockdown and that is not something we had seen previously. Some degree of equity of service needs to be pressed home.
We would not be considering these Revised Estimates if it was not for Covid-19. Money has obviously had to be spent because of the actions that had to be taken. An Garda was heavily involved in the first instance and, for example, some recruits from Templemore were attested early. The Minister might address how that will play out to ensure that we do not lose the momentum of recruitment because there will also be retirements. Will those recruits who were attested early still receive their full training?
There has been an overspend of nearly €8 million on the leasing of vehicles. We noticed that because it was done quickly. Sometimes when something is done quickly, there is not the capacity to get the kind of value for money that would have been achieved in a long process. Will those vehicles be retained in the fleet? Will the number of vehicles be compatible with the number of recruits? How will that play out in the next few months? Obviously, these may well be considerations for next year also.
There were some changes in rosters and other things that seem to have worked quite well. While such things might be more costly, having gardaí who are fresh is beneficial from the point of view of officers themselves. A total of 319 recruits came into front-line policing. That is the group about which I am talking. I am interested in what will happen to that group and what the role of Templemore will be. With social distancing requirements and all the rest of it, what will happen in Templemore? I think 124 gardaí who were attached to the Garda Training College were redeployed to front-line service.
Will there be funding available for the new divisional headquarters? I was disappointed that the divisional headquarters in the districts of Kildare and Laois-Offaly went to Portlaoise because the population of Kildare is considerably larger than that of the other two counties put together. It is important that we do not lose personnel when numbers are already low. The same thing happened in the Meath area when Mullingar was designated as the divisional headquarters.
What has happened with the passenger locator forms? That was obviously something that would not have happened without Covid and that work is still ongoing. The Department of Justice was temporarily tasked with the administration of the passenger locator forms at the ports and airports. Border management unit officials co-ordinated the regime from their Dublin Airport base. The Garda National Immigration Bureau managed the compliance at ports and sent forms to the border management unit at Dublin Airport. Can the Minister outline the administrative cost of taking this project on? How was the handover back to the Department of Health conducted? Where does that fall in terms of the Estimates, particularly as it occurred midway through the fiscal year? Has a security gap emerged now that the Garda and the border unit staff are no longer involved?
Will the cost now be borne by the HSE and at what stage did that happen?
I reiterate the point about domestic violence. It is not just a Department of Justice and Equality issue. We had a debate recently on that. The Department funded NGOs in this area to the tune of €200,000 and while that was welcome, the scale of what came up was such that it was a relatively small amount of money. This is not exclusively a criminal justice issue. There have to be routes through which people can leave that kind of environment. The punishment should not be on the people who have to leave because they are the ones who are subject to the violence.
I reiterate the point Deputy Funchion made about the operational protocol. This is a group of people who have been badly left behind in the roadmap in the context of adult day services. We really do need to move very quickly to a rights-based approach and we need to adopt that protocol. So many of our services to that cohort are provided by charities. In the absence of that rights-based approach, there is a serious problem in terms of a guarantee of services. I do not think I have ever met a parent of a child with a disability who does not end up with a big file because he or she has become a permanent lobbyist. That is why we have to guarantee services. I am not sure if this is the part of the work of the Department that will be moving elsewhere. I do not think we can say often enough that the optional protocol is critical in terms of guaranteeing a rights-based approach.
What has happened to the civilianisation of the force during the lockdown? Are we going to lose momentum on it this year? I would be concerned about that because it is going to provide us with the balance of resources we all have been hoping to get to. Reconnecting that process in such an uncertain time is going to be problematic.
I want to focus on one specific question to the new Minister. It is an issue that is of grave concern to me. It has to do with programme D - An Equal and Inclusive Society (Civil Justice and Equality Pillar). I want to ask the Minister's views on a committee on combating racism that was set up by her predecessor. This committee is to report within three months and to complete its work within a year. I am sure we all wish it all the best. Its composition includes many people whom I would strongly welcome in terms of diversity and coming from various sections of society, as well as those with a track record of fighting racism and discrimination. I am, however, stunned by the inclusion of one representative from a global multinational company. Whatever that person's own particular individual record or ability is, they are there as a representative of firm. I find it quite shocking that we would appoint a member of a company to an anti-racism body when that company, quite frankly, has a very disturbing history. It has been the subject of multiple human rights campaigns against abuses and the shocking treatment of migrant workers and minorities in the institutions it runs.
The company to which I refer is Sodexo. It is one of the largest outsourcing companies in the UK. It offers a range of services based on over 100 professions, including on-site services such as school kitchens, privatised prisons, hospitals, and benefits and rewards services like childcare vouchers. It faces copious allegations of racism throughout its employment hierarchy. In 2005, Sodexo was forced to pay $80 million in compensation to thousands of black employees who claimed that they were excluded from promotions and segregated in the company by fellow workers. To mention a couple of other cases that ring alarm bells, in April last year an inquest found serious failures at a Sodexo-run prison in Peterborough in Britain. The inquest found that the failures there had contributed to the death of Annabella Landsberg, a 45 year old prisoner who was restrained by four officers and left for 21 hours alone on a prison floor. One campaigner in this case noted that in other cases in the British prison system - I am not implying anything about the Irish prison system, it is about the company that runs those prisons - "black women consistently die in contentious circumstances where there are serious concerns about their dehumanising treatment."
Other cases in medical and prison facilities run by Sodexo show that it relies heavily on migrant labour and, disproportionately, on female labour. There are huge question marks over the treatment of these workers. One report noted that it is reliant almost entirely on migrant women from the Philippines, Lithuania, Portugal, Sierra Leone and Brazil. These workers were excluded from the NHS pension scheme, paid less than the in-house staff and forbidden from using NHS canteens and facilities. Those are more recent examples of the behaviour of this company. I ask the Minister to examine this matter and consider it not just as a historical case. Clearly, the company has attempted to rebrand itself with a face of inclusion and diversity. A company that with a history of racism and exploitation that relies on migrant workers may well rebrand itself but it follows a corporate model that takes over key public services and seeks to run them on a for-profit basis. This business model, beneath the veneer of corporate responsibility and progressive sound bites, still rests on precarious, low-paid, mostly migrant women workers. It is not an ally in the fight against racism but is the very bedrock on which racism stands and breathes.
I ask the Minister to reconsider the suitability of this representative for the committee. We were promised in the recent discussions about direct provision and in the outcome of the Government formation discussions that we would see a move away from the for-profit system of direct provision. Why are we including a representative of a profit-driven company on a committee which is carrying out extremely sensitive and necessary work? I find it bizarre and unsettling. Sodexo has no place on this important group.
I also want to repeat the question about a matter we campaigned for and voted on in the previous Dáil regarding justice for Shane O'Farrell, which was to see an independent inquiry into the circumstances and aftermath of his death. Lucia O'Farrell would have met practically everybody in the previous Dáil, including everybody who is sitting here today, and campaigned very strongly for justice for her son. We voted that there would be an independent public inquiry and I have yet to receive an answer from the Taoiseach or the former Minister for Justice and Equality. I hope the new Minister will give us a clear answer on that issue and take this family out of the agony and anguish it is daily facing.
I thank the Deputy for raising both of these issues. On the anti-racism committee, as the Deputy has rightly outlined, it was announced and formed in June by my predecessor, Deputy Flanagan. I thank him for his work in this role. Its terms of reference have a wide scope. It is there to review the current evidence on racial discrimination in Ireland, to examine international practice in combating racism, to hold stakeholder dialogues and to identify the views of wider civil society, members of the public, Members of the Oireachtas, the business sector, media and other relevant parties. It is to produce an interim report to Government not more than three months after its first meeting identifying priority issues and a programme of work for the committee. Obviously, a lot of things have been delayed because of Covid-19. The committee will broadly consult on developing new ideas for fighting racism and recommending an action plan for Government.
We expect that this work will probably take a year. I understand that the committee's first meeting took place via Zoom on Thursday, 18 June. It was addressed by the former Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton.
I will address the specific matter of the individual mentioned. In determining the membership of the anti-racism committee, my Department was very eager to gain a wide range of experience for the reasons outlined in the terms of reference. The individual to whom the Deputy referred has been appointed to the anti-racism committee in a personal capacity. It is because of her considerable expertise at a senior management level in promoting diversity and inclusion inside and outside the workplace. She has demonstrated a strong leadership role in championing diversity and inclusion in leadership roles within the corporate sector in Ireland and is very personally committed. For her work in the area, she was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite by the French ambassador to Ireland. As a member of the anti-racism committee, I do not believe that she as an individual represents the interest of any particular company.
Deputy Bríd Smith referred to a company, Sodexo. I think she referred to it in the context of the United Kingdom. However, Sodexo in Ireland was awarded the gold standard in excellence through people by the National Standards Authority of Ireland in 2018. It was also voted one of the best large work practices in Ireland in 2018 by the Great Places to Work Institute. This individual will bring something very significant to this role. That is what we have tried to achieve in the membership of the committee, and ensuring that it will fulfil the terms of reference and carry out the work we have asked it to do.
I wish the Minister the very best in her role. I commend the work which An Garda Síochána has done in west Cork, from the chief superintendent down to every individual garda, in putting people first. Community policing has been at its best, as it should be. I have argued that gardaí who are appointed to an area should reside in that area in order to build a relationship with the community. It is not always easy to make that happen but that should be the case. It is proven that local community gardaí are invaluable.
The Garda Síochána has been allowed to hire cars from rental companies because of the Covid crisis. There were 210 in total distributed throughout the country. In my travels, I now see only two of these vehicles in west Cork, the most spread-out constituency in Ireland. Why were the vehicles in question not allocated equally throughout the country?
I thank all members of An Garda Síochána in west Cork. To say that they were excellent during the crisis is an understatement. Last night I attended a conference call community alert meeting as secretary of Schull community alert. The call was organised by Sergeant James O'Donovan and Superintendent Declan O'Sullivan and it gave communities like Bantry, Gortnaclooney, Kealkill, Coomhola, Borlin, Glengarriffe, Adrigole, Castletownbere, Drimoleague, Durrus, Ballydehob and Schull a chance to liaise with officers in west Cork and explain how each community has worked with An Garda Síochána through the Covid-19 crisis. The gardaí in question, along with Diarmuid Cronin of Muintir na Tire gave some great advice on what they have done to date and what they need to do, with the assistance of the community, during this Covid crisis. The Garda budget needs to be increased and a larger force is necessary.
The Government can no longer ignore or sweep under the carpet the need for funding for new builds for those in direct provision. I am well aware of suitable, more humane accommodation being made available for people in direct provision and of the fact that every effort is being made to ensure that this accommodation will not be considered. I know of a case where a very suitable building outside my constituency was available. From March, Ministers, including the current Minister, were written to outlining how people could live in very humane conditions, unlike those in which they live today. Unfortunately, there was no response. Why is this happening? Why is the Government not looking for a solution to this crisis? It is engaging in box-ticking exercise for the eyes of the world. The Government takes these people in but will not explain the conditions in which they live. This cannot be allowed continue. I urge the Minister to look at centres and the new builds which are being offered to the State for direct provision in order to help the people who come to the country to be treated in a humane and fair way.
I begin by wishing the Minister and the Minister of State the best of luck. I look forward to engaging with the Minister constructively.
I will raise some points relating to Laois Offaly. Members of the public in the constituency complain that there is not enough Garda visibility. This is not the fault of gardaí, it is a matter of resources. The recruits are not to be seen on the ground. During the lockdown, my offices received reports of anti-social behaviour in many towns. The community policing model must be implemented. Gardaí need to be seen out and about and we must ensure that they act as roll models for young people, which is the basis of the community policing model. Older people also feel safer when they see gardaí. That was the old model which worked quite well. It would like to see it in operation.
I hope there will be increased funding allocated for domestic violence as it is a huge issue. During the pandemic, such violence escalated. The Leinster Express reported families sleeping in cars in County Laois. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that domestic violence support services in Laois-Offaly are funded and the issue dealt with in the strongest way. More must be done in the area which probably does not get the attention it deserves.
I thank the Deputy for raising two very important points. The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland underlines exactly what the Deputy spoke of regarding a human rights-based approach and also a community policing model whereby gardaí work on the ground and are visible and engaged with the community. Covid-19 gave a good glimpse of what that would look like, where gardaí engaged with the community to give support and protection and ensure that the health measures were implemented in full. Significant work is under way in implementing the commission's report. Considerable work has been done, some of which was delayed because of Covid-19, but the Commissioner assures me that work will continue, particularly in respect of Garda numbers and ensuring that there is a presence on the ground. The target is to have 15,000 gardaí in place by next year. We are still on target to reach that. Many Deputies mentioned civilian staff. That allows more front-line gardaí to be out engaging with people. It also brings a wealth of other experience and knowledge regarding ICT and other matters.
Many Deputies referred to domestic abuse. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in such abuse during the pandemic. Additional funding was provided to different services. I agree that it is probably not enough and that we must look at the matter further. I assure Deputies of my commitment to this. From any conversation I have had with the Commissioner, I know that it is a priority for him and his team in weeks, months and years ahead.
I echo the sentiments of others on domestic violence. It is very topical and was highlighted by the lockdown.
This issue to be looked at very seriously. There is also a need for increased expenditure to ensure there are more places for people and shelters for people who require them. I am thinking particularly of people in my own county of Donegal where the only shelter is in Letterkenny. For such a large county, this is a very restricted position. The focus needs to be on this issue as well. I know the Minister will do that as it has been mentioned by all Members here.
I welcome what the Minister said on the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland report and highlighted what is going to happen. If I understand correctly what the Minister said, we are going to see increased numbers of gardaí on the ground through the implementation of that report. That would be welcome as the lockdown procedure has shown that the gardaí have worked very well and have been very visible. They have been available and have been seen in public, which is very powerful. This was highlighted to me a couple of weeks ago during the lockdown. When I was on my way home, I stopped three times by local gardaí in County Donegal. That showed the work they were doing on the ground and that they were very visible, which was positive.
For that to continue into the future, there has to be a recognition that increased funding is required. While the civilianisation of the police service in terms of administration might free up some more people, there has to be a recognition that increased funding is necessary to ensure the service is there. This is particularly so when, in the normal run of things, in my own area of south-west Donegal, where it is probably 35 miles from Inver Bridge to Glencolumbcille, that two gardaí are on duty at the weekend, with only one squad car, if they are lucky. That is the reality of the situation on the ground and it does not make sense and is not workable. There are nightclubs in Killybegs and in Glenties and there are late night pubs in Ardara and two gardaí cannot police such an area. That is not to mention the other towns and villages throughout the area. The Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, would know the area well and would know it is not feasible to have two gardaí, who may not even have a car, policing it. This cannot be allowed to continue. If this Covid-19 period has shown anything, it has shown this has to change. I hope the Minister recognises this and that we will see this change through an increase in the budget and expenditure over the years ahead.
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. It might be good for me to outline some of the work that has been done, particularly in the implementation of the commission recommendations and in A Policing Service for the Future, which is a four year plan to implement the report. An increase in garda numbers and ensuring that continues as well as ensuring training continues are extremely important. It is not, however, just about the garda numbers but it is also about ensuring the recommendations and the reform structures are implemented.
I am pleased to inform Deputies that much has already been achieved under the plan. We have, for example, the roll-out of a new operational model for An Garda Síochána has commenced. This model is designed to streamline Garda administration and to promote more visible, responsive, and localised policing service to communities nationwide. We can very clearly see this on the ground.
Already An Garda Síochána has established and strengthened the resourcing of a human rights unit and re-established the strategic human rights advisory committee. The National Security Analysis Centre has been established and the director was appointed in 2019. On garda recruits, approximately 600 new garda recruits were attested and were assigned to front-line policing duties. An Garda Síochána has also recruited approximately 750 staff, which has allowed approximately 600 gardaí to be reassigned from administrative front-line duties, as I mentioned earlier, to operational policing duties where their expertise can be used to best effect.
The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act has been enacted which also gives gardaí access to the Workplace Relations Commission for the first time and provides for a modern industrial relations framework within An Garda Síochána. Other areas are also being progressed, in particular in terms of legislation. Government has given approval for legislation to be drafted by my Department to underpin the use of recording devices, which includes the body-worn cameras, and for the codification of legislation defining police powers of arrest, search and detection. The development of a general scheme of the policing and community safety Bill is well advanced by the Department, which will provide a coherent framework for the governance and oversight of An Garda Síochána. These measures only represent some of the wide-ranging actions that have been progressed under the plan, A Policing Service for the Future. I can update Deputies with further information on this as things progress. Implementation of this plan is overseen by a dedicated policing reform implementation programme office, which is located in the Department of an Taoiseach.
The new Garda operational model is being rolled out at the moment. This is to meet commitments in the A Policing Service for Our Future report, the four-year implementation plan giving effect to the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. This is a model that has been long been recommended by independent policing specialists, including the Garda Síochána Inspectorate. While this is new to Ireland, it is standard in many other countries and is designed to provide a more responsive Garda Síochána, and to provide more localised policing services to communities and to streamline Garda administration and reorganise resources in order to do so. There is a great amount of work going on now, not just legislative and restructuring but also to ensure that we continue to allow recruits to be trained. A competition will be opened later this year to ensure that we reach the targets that we have set for the end of next year.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue and I thank An Garda Síochána who have done tremendous work in the last number of months both working with us and in protecting us throughout this Covid-19 crisis.
I thank the Acting Ceann Comhairle. I will be sharting my time with Deputies Browne and Devlin.
At the outset I want to sincerely congratulate the Minister, Deputy Entee, and the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on their promotion. It is good to see a young and capable team working together now in the Department of Justice and Equality and I wish them the very best of luck during their tenure.
There are a number of issues I will raise and in the first instance I will discuss the Garda contingency roster. This came into operation at the outset of the pandemic. Heretofore gardaí would have worked five days on, three days off, but now they are working on a four-day on, four-day off basis, and end up working a 12-hour shift. This is proving very popular with front-line gardaí. These are the men and women in blue,they are human beings who have families and the current roster allows them to work a more structured week. It is also having immense benefits on the ground, in that small rural stations are now seeing a nicer turnover of shifts and more coverage is given with more on-site and on the ground street policing. This roster is to run out in September and given how well it has gone and been received by the force and communities would the Minister consider extending it beyond the autumn and looking at having it as a more permanent arrangement.
The next matter I want to touch on is staffing levels. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 Templemore College had to close and the students were assigned back to their home counties. They now line out on duty with their Garda colleagues. In Clare there was a gain of 12 personnel and in the Limerick Garda division there was a gain of 25 personnel. I refer to the Limerick division because the Limerick Garda division overlaps into a considerable portion of Clare. That has been quite beneficial to both Garda divisions where we have seen more policing on the ground which has helped crime detection. Naturally, when Templemore reopens, there is an expectation that these young trainee gardaí will return to college and that those numbers will be lost. Insofar as is possible I hope over the next 12 months or so that we will try to get back to those figures because I can assure the Minister that they have been well appreciated in my constituency.
The next issue is the mooted Garda retirement age. It has long been talked about that this might increase from 60 to 62 years of age. Gardaí can retire after 30 years service, but many gardaí feel when they reach the age of 60 that they are fit, healthy and well enough, and they want to keep working in the force. That should be looked at.
A further issue is Ardnacrusha Garda station in my own locality. We have four gardaí there at present serving population of 10,553 people.
In ratio terms that is one garda to every 2,600 citizens, which fairs very poorly across county averages. Across Clare there is a county average of one garda to every 350 citizens and in the Limerick division there is one garda to every 332 citizens. I refer the Minister to the situation in Ardnacrusha in particular. The Government of the 1920s recognised the strategic importance of having a Garda station there given it is in the immediate proximity to the Ardnacrusha power station. It is in the footfall of the University of Limerick, and it is also in the shadow of Limerick city and the Knockalisheen direct provision centre is located there. There is also a very high population of young people in this area. It is much appreciated that we have a Garda presence there. It is a complex area to police and co-ordinate and there is need for higher staffing levels there.
I note there is no Sinn Féin Deputy here but I would like to speak to a particular issue nonetheless. I was appalled that Republican Sinn Féin wrote to a plethora of Deputies last week concerning Liam Campbell and his extradition to Lithuania. We all know Liam Campbell has been held civilly liable for the Omagh bombing. I was asked by Republican Sinn Féin to lobby the Taoiseach and the Government to oppose his extradition. As I said, there are no Sinn Féin Deputies here at the moment but I note that its MEP, Martina Anderson, has also written to the former Taoiseach to oppose that extradition. We need some clarity on that. I sincerely hope the Taoiseach and this Government would resist all efforts to stop that extradition. I do not think we should be meddling in such issues. People who keep such company would want to have a good look at themselves.
I hope the Minister will have an opportunity later to respond to some of the issues I have raised.
I congratulate Deputy McEntee on her appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality. I also congratulate Deputy Charlie McConalogue on his appointment as Minister of State at that Department. They are capable and able Ministers.
Each year, a significant amount of money is expended on the Department of Justice and Equality and consideration of that expenditure by Members of Dáil Éireann is a critical aspect to taking account of how our Government and Departments spend money. The Department of Justice and Equality encompasses the Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Prison Service and various other important agencies such as the Data Protection Commission, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Policing Authority, the Property Services Regulatory Authority and Insolvency Service Ireland.
I want to touch on a number of important and key issues relevant to the Department. Before doing so, I want to offer heartfelt thanks to An Garda Síochána in County Wexford and throughout the country and to those in our Prison Service as well, who continued to work throughout the Covid emergency. Gardaí within the communities did fantastic work in terms of reaching out to vulnerable people and helping those who, very often, were in serious and concerning situations.
The Garda Reserve is a feature of policing that could be utilised more in terms of aiding the word of the Garda and protecting the public. In May 2020, there were 436 members of the Garda Reserve. In 2014, there were 1,124 members in the Garda Reserve. According to the Department of Justice and Equality website, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended a pause in the recruitment of the Garda Reserve pending completion of a strategic review of the Reserve. That strategic review is one of the priority projects being progressed by An Garda Síochána in 2019. The review was due to be completed by the end of quarter 2 2019. Will the Minister clarify if that review has taken place and what measures are being taken?
On the Prison Service, and in particular the issue of mental health therein, I appreciate the Minister has bona fides in the area of mental health having previously been a Minister of State with responsibility for mental health. I know she has great interest in this area but nonetheless last October there were 614 prisoners awaiting psychological supports from within the prison system and delays in terms of access to the Central Mental Hospital, in some cases of up to almost two years. I am aware the new central mental hospital in Portrane is due to open soon but I do not think it will be sufficient to meet demand either. The Revised Estimate references that in 2018 the output target was 800, almost 1,200 were seen and yet we ended up with a significant delay. The output target in the current Revised Estimate is 850. Based on what we know in regard to the delays around mental health in the Prison Service I do not think that target is high enough to address the significant backlog within the mental health services. I ask that the Minister give that particular attention because it is a matter that has not received the attention it deserved in the last number of years.
On the Courts Service, there are no plaudits for putting money into a Courts Service or appointing new judges. An inefficient and ineffective courts system impacts on our society in a number of ways. Justice delayed is justice denied. I practised as a barrister for 14 years and I know that in the Criminal Court it would often take up to five years to get a case completed. Within that time witnesses' memories diminish or key witnesses die and families and victims of families end up suffering intolerable stress as a result of the delay in getting a case to completion. In terms of our Courts Service, the target is a maximum use of every judge being available every day and every court room being used to its maximum capacity and even with that, there are significant delays within our Courts Service. I accept the Courts Service is not an area to the fore of the public's mind but it has a very real impact on people. It also has a real impact on our economy. If we do not have an effective, a timely and an efficient commercial system, it impacts on how our economy functions. Without an effective social justice system, faith in our system is lost and this undermines social cohesion as well. Our Courts Service needs particular attention over the next couple of years.
I would like now to focus on the issue of domestic and gender based violence, which was touched on earlier by a number of colleagues. It is reported that there has been a significant increase in domestic violence in our communities since the onset of Covid. Much of this has been the uncovering of a significant under-reporting of domestic violence that has been going on in our society for some time. In April, UN Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, stated there was a horrifying global surge in domestic violence. The Garda deserves huge praise in respect of Operation Faoiseamh but we need to examine what additional supports are required for people who are subject to domestic violence, the vast majority of whom are women but men are subject to it as well and children suffer greatly as result of the outcomes of the domestic violence. We need to provide greater supports in this area such that when people need supports they can access them in a safe manner without alerting their abusers. We must ensure there are refuges available for people who need them.
The final issue I want to touch on is Traveller and Roma initiatives. The Revised Estimate provides a significant increase in funding for Traveller and Roma integration services. I accept this area may be moving from the Department of Justice and Equality to another Department. The programme for Government, under the heading of mental health, provides targets to deal with issues relating to the Roma and Traveller communities. I made sure this was specifically included in the programme. I would like to see greater integration between the Departments to address Roma and Traveller community issues and to give them the supports they need.
I will try to respond to a number of the questions. On the retirement age, as with many issues, this issue is highlighted in the commission's report. It provides that An Garda Síochána should reflect the diversity of Irish society and should, therefore, develop recruitment strategies to try to achieve a more diverse intake. These recommendations echo those of the Garda Inspectorate following its examination of entry routes into An Garda Síochána, part of which deals with a possible change in the retirement age from 50 to 62. This matter is being examined but the appropriate age for recruitment question will be considered as part of the wider review taking place in regard to entry into An Garda Síochána. Work is currently under way on drafting terms of reference around this specific issue.
On the roster system, this is essentially a matter for the Garda Commissioner. The roster reform and changes that have been put in place have been well received. I understand that a review is under way, with engagement between Garda management and the Garda associations on possible revised proposals but again this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner.
I understand, however, that it is being examined.
On overall Garda numbers and the placement of recruits who were put on the front line earlier than is the norm, many of those in the two classes will return to training in the coming weeks. In general, we need to focus on ensuring we continue to recruit and train members and that there is equality in the provision of service by An Garda Síochána in every county. As Minister working with An Garda Síochána, I will very much strive to achieve that.
On the issue of the courts and the importance of working with them, funding them and ensuring they work to the best of their ability, Covid has placed significant pressure on our courts system. The Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, the President of the High Court, the President of the Circuit Court and the President of the District Court have during this crisis established special measures for the conduct of business. As well as that, to support this the Courts Service has introduced a broad range of measures to scale back significantly the number of cases coming before the courts while also trying to preserve essential access to the administration of justice. To this end, my Department has established a cross-functional Covid-19 response team, comprising senior officials from within the Department and from the key agencies, including the Courts Service. A great deal of work is under way to try to ensure that the changes that have taken place, in particular the use of video conferencing, which we have all had to adapt our work practices to suit, can carry on and that we create efficiencies where we might previously have been slow to do so. Much work is being done to try to ensure we learn from the changes that have taken place so that we benefit from them.
On the question about the Garda Reserve, I am not sure of an exact timescale for the review that is taking place. The Garda authorities have informed me that, as the Deputy noted, the Commissioner commenced the review in 2019. I am also informed that the class commenced training in March 2019 but, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the completion of training, the certification and the attestation are taking longer than is usual. I understand that, unfortunately, the commencement of further recruitment to the Garda Reserve, which was closed in November 2019, will very much depend on factors such as the capacity to provide training. Many matters have been impacted by Covid but we hope they will be back up and running sooner rather than later because the Garda Reserve plays a vital role and provides a critical level of support for An Garda Síochána.
I am sharing time with Deputies Carroll MacNeill and O'Dowd.
I join others in congratulating the Minister on her very well-deserved appointment and promotion and the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on his appointment, as well as paying tribute to their predecessors, Deputies Flanagan and Stanton, respectively, for putting in a highly impressive period in their respective portfolios.
There is quite a bit in the Estimates we can discuss but I would like to address one specific area. I refer to Vote 20 and the €1.879 billion allocated to the funding of An Garda Síochána. Like everyone else, we welcome the resources provided, the additional Garda numbers, the €13 million of personal protective equipment that had to be purchased to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, the €9 million additional fleet capacity and the €32 million worth of capital projects. We have to ensure that when all this funding is granted, the best of equipment, of cars and of capital projects is supplied to ensure An Garda Síochána is able to face the many challenges it faces every day with the best equipment and the best training. That means there also has to be the best and most advanced use of ICT and of continuing professional development.
One area Deputy James Browne referred to in respect of the Prison Service was that of mental health. I am very interested in the Minister's thoughts, particularly as someone who has held the junior ministerial portfolio with responsibility for mental health and who has done so much good work in the area, on what is being budgeted for mental health provisions for members of An Garda Síochána. My concerns have arisen from numerous discussions with members of the organisation who are constituents of mine or with whom I have come in contact. The issue really became apparent when I was watching the documentary on Virgin Media One, "The Guards: Inside the K", when an officer was repeatedly abused by somebody being taken into custody who repeatedly said to the officer he would find the officer's children and rape and kill them. Irrespective of what we do in our life, such language and abuse takes its toll, especially when it is in a stressful professional environment where people put their lives on the line every day. They put their lives on the line to protect us.
We have to consider the recent report of the Garda Representative Association that stated one sixth of members of An Garda Síochána suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. A total of 27% are known as the walking wounded and, sadly, seven suicides have been committed by members of the organisation. We rely so much on An Garda Síochána and we have seen how brilliant it has been in the very tough recent months for our society. Its members protect us but are we doing enough to protect them? I would appreciate the Minister's thoughts on what in the Estimates could be put towards ensuring we meet our obligations to those men and women who sacrifice so much for us.
I too offer my congratulations to the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on their deserved promotions and wish them the very best in their offices. I also congratulate and thank the previous Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the previous Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who worked exceptionally hard in recent years.
I again highlight the issue of domestic violence, some of the practicalities around that at the moment and the question of how funding and policy are connected. Domestic violence and criminal law remain issues very much within the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality but so much of the funding and liaison are delivered through Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. We must always ask whether we are achieving, through those means, the correct gathering of information, the correct distribution of funding and the provision of essential supports for users of domestic violence services. We must gather information not just on people who contact the helpline or who come to refuges but also on people for whom those services provide outreach services in their homes. Deputy Catherine Murphy noted that it seems outrageous that somebody who has been the victim of domestic violence is the person who has to leave the family home. Given that it has been difficult in the courts system, and that it has been difficult to obtain a barring order as quickly as may be necessary for the urgent circumstances of domestic violence, we have to provide those additional services.
The problem of the disconnect I outlined arises again and again because there is another area where it is relevant. I raised this with the Minister yesterday and with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, today. I refer to section 47 assessment reports, which are produced under family law. Such assessments are carried out in difficult cases of parental separation, where the court tries to assess the best interests of the child, as well as his or her views in certain circumstances. They may occur in what we might call fairly regular divorce or separation proceedings, but where it has come from a background of domestic abuse or violence, it is even more important that we are fully aware of all the tools abusers may use to manipulate the process, either to try to achieve further and continuing control over the family or members thereof, or to have access to the children where, in some circumstances, access has to be questioned. I am aware of a number of cases in my constituency that cause me great concern every day where people whose partner has received criminal convictions, either for manipulation or in one case for multiple incidents of domestic abuse, are engaged in a section 47 process where the other partner has real concerns about the capacity of that partner to manipulate the section 47 assessor.
I ask the Minister, therefore, to please consider within the courts Vote allocating some money for the training of judges in respect of coercive control to ensure they are fully up to date on that in circumstances where they are involved in family law cases. It should be provided for that section 47 assessors are fully up to date on coercive control and manipulation and how that can follow a family through the family law process in a serious way.
I am aware that the Minister has already made a commitment on these issues. I am also aware how much is to be done and I really appreciate the Minister's thought and effort in this regard.
I congratulate the Irish Prison Service on its astonishing achievement in keeping the prison population safe from Covid-19. The Covid committee has examined congregated settings in a range of contexts. It has not examined the Irish Prison Service. It is essential that it be recognised in the work of the Covid committee. We have not yet put the Central Mental Hospital on record as having no patient case. I believe there was one staff case but no patient case. These are congregated settings that are run in their entirety by the State as opposed to some of the other congregated settings we have examined. I congratulate them in this regard.
It is very welcome to see additional funding provided for the Judicial Council. It is imperative that we protect and support the Judiciary and have a strong judicial institution. It is unfortunate that we have to remind ourselves continually about the importance of the separation of powers and that judges have no function in interfering in or advising on the development of legislation or our legislative decision-making in the Oireachtas. Similarly, Members of this House have no place commenting on or criticising the decisions of judges of our courts in this State.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on their appointments. I pay tribute to the former Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Stanton.
I live in Drogheda town, which has suffered greatly as a result of a crime wave. The gardaí there are doing a fantastic job fighting it and are very tough on crime. In particular, Chief Superintendent Christy Mangan, Superintendent Andrew Waters, their fantastic gardaí and the community are fighting crime and the evil that has struck at the heart of our society, not just in Drogheda but also elsewhere. Local independent councillor Paddy McQuillan suggested very properly at our joint policing committee meeting this week that the Minister should visit us. It was also suggested that we should make sure the proceeds of crime, especially from drug seizures, are used to help support the communities that suffer most as a result of crime waves. Our chief superintendent said that more than €1 million in cash - the proceeds of drug sales - has been seized in County Louth recently. That is an enormous sum for the smallest county in Ireland. Based on this, there is a large amount of crime and a massive amount of money being made throughout the country. I ask the Minister to consider putting the proceeds of crime, particularly drug crime, into a special fund to fight the effects of crime in our communities.
We are tough on crime but we must be much tougher on its causes. The programme for Government mentions housing. The position on housing is very unacceptable, and there are young families with nowhere to go. Employment is being dealt with through the new stimulus package, but at the heart of crime is poverty and at the heart of poverty is a lack of choice for young people. I argue very strongly, therefore, that the money seized on our streets should be spent on our communities. We need the legislation to do this, however. I ask the Minister to consider that.
The Minister, being from the adjoining county of Meath, is well aware of the question of policing in Drogheda. Owing to the growth in the town, many citizens who avail of all of their services in Drogheda are served from Ashbourne Garda station instead of Drogheda Garda station. I am aware that the Garda is considering this actively. Whatever it does, it must make sure that there is an adequate and proper Garda station in east Meath, especially in the Laytown–Bettystown area. The existing station is too small for the number of gardaí based there and further availability is required at the public offices. That is not to say the gardaí are not always available - they certainly are - but people would like to see them in their offices more than at present.
I congratulate the Minister and look forward to her visit to my constituency, particularly to the town of Drogheda. She will be most welcome at a meeting of the joint policing committee.
I thank the three Deputies for raising these issues. First, let me touch on the issue raised by Deputy Richmond, namely, the support for An Garda Síochána. The Deputy is correct that gardaí are often placed in very difficult circumstances and asked to respond to very challenging situations. They put themselves at risk every day of the week. We have seen this most recently with the unfortunate death of Detective Garda Colm Horkan. We need to make sure that we protect our gardaí and that services are in place for them when they feel they need them. The overall review is under way as part of the plan A Policing Service for the Future. I refer to the implementation of the commission review. The Garda is carrying out a review of post-incident support and signposting policy. It is important that this be done. Moneys were provided last year by my Department for the transformation fund to support the development of a health and wellness strategy for the members. This strategy is being rolled out on an ongoing basis. I very much welcome the overall review, especially in respect of how we can support members of An Garda Síochána when they need support most, given that they support us when we need them most.
On Deputy Carroll MacNeill's question, I spoke to the Deputy yesterday, particularly about manipulation and how it can occur throughout the progress of a case through the system. I welcome the fact that the Deputy raised this. I will certainly speak to her about how we can try to address this matter.
Let me touch on domestic abuse a little more. While I said funding has been allocated, I believe more will probably be needed. What is important about what has happened in recent months is that we learn from it and ensure we continue to implement the existing measures but also implement new ones. My Department is leading efforts to identify the lessons we can learn from the inter-agency plan we have put in place to combat domestic abuse in the context of the Covid pandemic. This is a process that includes input from the community and, most important, the voluntary sector working in this area, and my Department. I envisage what is almost a second action plan. We are reviewing the adaptations made in the context of the pandemic that can be made more permanent in addition to other reforms that can be brought into play. There is considerable work being done in this area. It is extremely important.
On Deputy O'Dowd’s point, especially on the use of the proceeds of crime to combat the effects of crime and to support victims of crime, I am very interested in making progress. I am aware the Deputy raised policing in the Drogheda area with the Commissioner at the recent joint policing committee meeting in his own area. Obviously, this is under the review. The Commissioner is taking on board the points the Deputy made.
Like everyone else, I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on their recent appointments and wish them luck in the years ahead.
I will start by talking about the national protective services, the district protection units. These are really positive initiatives on the part of An Garda Síochána and they can help to address many of the issues Members have been talking about regarding domestic violence. One important resource that these units need is social workers from Tusla sitting around the same table and working together. There is a major need for co-operation and communication in cases dealt with by the services. While I appreciate that this is more an issue for the Minister responsible for children, Deputy O'Gorman, with whom I have raised it, I feel that instead of just waiting for Tusla to show up, it is sometimes important to invite people to the dance. As I did with the Minister's predecessor, I ask her to be proactive in linking with Deputy O'Gorman and Tusla to ensure social workers provide a joined-up service that will really benefit people.
This is linked to wider issues concerning how we deal with domestic violence, gender-based violence and child protection issues. It relates to the specialised family courts.
I ask the Minister to ensure, despite the challenges to the Courts Service, that the specialised family courts are prioritised and drive ahead. The specialised family courts are really important in improving service and reducing trauma to families who have to go through the family courts and they provide a vehicle for developing the expertise for delivering the training and ensuring judges are aware of all the important matters raised by Deputy Carroll MacNeill. This is to ensure the experience of those using family courts is positive rather than another trauma in a long history of such trauma.
I also mention the Prison Service. It is commendable that the service has achieved a position where there are no Covid-19 infections in the prison population. Like in the rest of society, there was a very quick and strong reaction to prevent infection and we saw a complete suspension of family visits. This was clearly a proportionate measure at the time of the pandemic, but it is positive to see that restrictions are being unwound and family visits will start to begin again. In some areas we have seen an acceleration of the easing of restrictions where public health allows, and I ask that the Minister ensures that if the opportunity exists to accelerate the easing of restrictions on family visits, it would be done.
In society during the Covid-19 pandemic, many things that were impossible suddenly became possible. With the Prison Service, one such action was the facilitating of video link visits for families. This was innovative and an excellent way of supporting prisoners to maintain the relationship with families, particularly young families where a parent is in prison. This is very important for many reasons, including ensuring a connection to family and community to help to prevent recidivism and improve mental health, as mental health problems are so prevalent in prisons now.
As we see an unwinding of restrictions and a return to family visits, it would be really positive if we could keep video visits as an option for visitors. This should not replace in-person visits by families but rather supplement what is there. This would have a very positive impact on the family and community life of prisoners when they leave prison as well as on their mental health while they are in prison. This is a major issue that must be addressed.
The budget for the Data Protection Commission has increased but it is only a third of what was requested by the Data Protection Commission to do the job it needs to do. Our Data Protection Commission is the single most important such commission in Europe. Most of the technological companies are based here and any matters arising from the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, will be dealt with by our Data Protection Commission. However, we have a very low number of specialised and technical staff there. Although budgets are increasing, they are still being outstripped by the increase in and complexity of complaints coming to them. The Data Protection Commission still does not have the resources it requires to administer the GDPR effectively, and without proper and effective administration and enforcement of the GDPR, there is a risk that this very important legislation will wither on the vine.
The importance of our Data Protection Commission and the impact of a lack of funding has been called out by privacy campaigners and even by other data protection commissions in Europe. They have identified the Irish Data Protection Commission as a bottleneck and a roadblock on Europe-wide investigations and enforcement. If GDPR is to be meaningful and to facilitate the reforms, controls and protection for European and Irish citizens that it is supposed to, we must ensure we can give proper funding to the Data Protection Commission.
The Deputy raised a number of matters. Whereas the separation of some elements of my Department is still under consideration, I absolutely assure the Deputy that I will work as closely as possible with the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, Deputy O'Gorman, on the range of matters where I feel the connection remains and where it is necessary.
There is much work under way on family courts and the overall system, not least the family courts Bill. A memorandum for the Government was approved by the former Minister on 30 December last year and it was circulated to Departments in January 2020. It was considered afterwards by the Government but it is something that will be a priority for me. Separate to that are a number of other comprehensive proposals for the modernisation and reform of the family courts system. These include a broad consideration of the best means of providing access to various family law mechanisms available to families in private family law cases, not least through the legal aid scheme. We will also look at the various recommendations from the joint committee report on reform of the family law system. I am 100% committed to establishing a more efficient and more family-friendly user system. It is something we need to do. Putting in place a new dedicated structure and family court within existing structures will be vital.
The Deputy is correct on the matters of visitation. To support our prisoners through their rehabilitation and in preparing them for getting home, it is extremely important that family visits continue. The arrangements mentioned were put in place with the support of prisoners, and that is why we saw such a successful outcome. Videoconferencing was allowed and a great success but I do not know exactly if they will be allowed to continued. I am absolutely certain there will be a review, as there is in many cases, to see how we can learn from what we have undertaken and the various changes that have come about because of Covid-19. Physical visits will begin again on 20 July and I do not anticipate that they will occur any sooner. That is Monday week, so it will be very soon.
There is much work being done on the Data Protection Commission. The fact that our budget has gone from €3.6 million to €16.9 million is an acknowledgement of the significance of the office. I acknowledge that there is work to be done in many areas.
I use this opportunity to congratulate my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, on his appointment and I very much look forward to working with him in the Department.