Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Community Safety and Preventing Crime: Statements
I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement on community safety and preventing crime. I am also looking forward to hearing the contributions from Deputies and to working with them on this issue. Members of the House will be aware that the mission of An Garda Síochána is "Keeping People Safe". This is a simple, but clear, message. Community safety is a much broader concept than crime or fear of crime. It is about people being safe and feeling safe in their communities. It can include the responsiveness of emergency services, mental health issues, education, drug abuse prevention, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, youth crime, anti-social behaviour, hate crime and the built environment. This is reflected in the key principle in the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, to build stronger and safer communities. The well-being of communities is among our highest priorities and we want members of the public to feel confident and secure in going about their lives.
As the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recognised, community safety in this broad sense is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána. Responses must be community-specific and require a range of services, ranging from strengthening youth services to increasing street lighting. This requires a multisectoral approach, stronger interagency collaboration and community engagement, with a key role for health and social services as well as other sectors of society. A Policing Service for our Future, the Government’s implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, is strongly based on meeting the public’s needs in this way through increased visibility of gardaí on the street and increased engagement with all local communities to ensure their particular needs are being met.
Community engagement, of course, has been a defining feature of An Garda Síochána since its establishment 100 years ago. This perhaps has never been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, with local gardaí nationwide going above and beyond the call of duty to support vulnerable groups in their communities. These efforts on the part of individual gardaí include visiting elderly and vulnerable members of the community, dropping off food, medicine and other necessities, liaising with representatives of community groups and many other focused efforts to serve their communities. There are too many to list. I thank An Garda Síochána again for its extraordinary commitment to policing during this unprecedented year. As the Policing Authority has noted, the rich relationships built during this period should create a strong foundation for the future of policing in this country.
It is important that we now build the structures which can ensure community safety is embedded in the work of the State in all communities in the country. In line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, my Department has been developing a new national community safety policy which will feed into the development of a new policing and community safety Bill. The Bill, which will provide the backbone to policing reform, will redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána to include the prevention of harm to those who are vulnerable. However, the problems communities face are not just limited to policing issues. Bringing the right services together and working with each other to tackle the underlying issues which impact on a community and the sense of safety within the community are key. The legislation, therefore, will place an obligation on Departments, State agencies and local authorities to co-operate with An Garda Síochána on the broader issue of community safety and refine local structures to better support local accountability for policing.
As part of this work, last week I announced three new local community safety partnerships which will be established on a pilot basis in the Dublin north inner-city electoral area, Waterford and Longford.
The locations of the pilots, which will run for 24 months, were chosen based on a number of factors, including population density, crime rates and deprivation. The partnerships, which will be independently chaired, will replace the local joint policing committees, build on the existing structures and bring together residents, community representatives, including youth, new communities and the voluntary sector, business interests, councillors, local authorities and State services such as An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the HSE. The agenda and objectives of each partnership will be driven by the community itself, and each partnership will devise and implement a local community safety plan, reflecting community priorities and local safety issues. The model is built on the principle that every community needs to be central in identifying what it needs and helping to shape solutions, and State services will be held to account by each partnership.
The active engagement of community representatives and residents will be critical in ensuring the work is community driven. Training will be provided to support the capacity of each partnership to work together, with individual training for residents to develop their understanding of their role and confidence in representing their community. As the pilots progress, they will be carefully evaluated and any changes that are necessary will be made to ensure the partnerships work as effectively as possible for the communities concerned. The pilots will inform a national roll-out in all local authority areas.
The Commission on the Future of Policing recognises that while preventing and investigating crime is a top priority for An Garda Síochána, in practice the majority of police time in Ireland and elsewhere is spent on harm prevention. Often, particularly out of hours, it is members of An Garda Síochána who are at the front line when dealing with persons with mental health or addiction issues, homeless persons and others at risk. As well as taking a multi-agency approach to planning for and responding to day-to-day community safety, it is also necessary to ensure that a co-operative approach is taken to handling what can be an emergency situation involving an individual who, for instance, as a result of a mental health or addiction issue, may be at risk him or herself or pose a risk to others. This approach would see multi-agency crisis intervention teams put in place with round-the-clock-response capabilities and ultimately, where possible, these teams would be co-located. The teams would involve police working with health, including mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as social and youth workers with a capacity to respond to emergencies and to intervene with people at risk in their communities.
Local community safety partnerships could identify areas of need within the community that would benefit from the support of crisis intervention teams. They could also foster and develop relationships and communication between the services at local level. My Department will continue to explore how these teams can be established and supported, including through engagement with An Garda Síochána, other Departments and relevant service providers. I accept it is an extremely ambitious target but it is something that will be very useful and helpful if we can bring it together with all the agencies.
In hand with this work, crucial day-to-day policing has continued throughout the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on those vulnerable groups most at risk. While there has been a general and welcome decrease in many categories of crime during the Covid period, some categories have increased, unfortunately, such as domestic abuse, drugs offences and cybercrime. Sustained action by An Garda Síochána has continued unabated throughout the pandemic, bringing significant convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs, firearms and ammunition. An Garda Síochána remains 100% committed to tackling the supply of drugs by supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives and engagement with local and regional drug and alcohol task forces; the Garda youth diversion programme and projects; the Garda schools programme; and the existing joint policing committees and community policing forums. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, will speak further about the youth justice side of things.
Operation Faoiseamh has meanwhile provided enhanced, proactive support to victims of domestic abuse, including proactively reaching out and making contact with previous victims to provide reassurance and support, offer the assistance of local and specialised resources, as well as renewing the focus on the enforcement of court orders and the prosecution of offenders. I once again remind the public that travel restrictions do not apply in the case of domestic abuse or when escaping a risk of harm and I strongly encourage anyone who finds themselves or members of their family in this position to contact An Garda Síochána or visit the website stillhere.ie.
This work is being supported with unprecedented resources, which is necessary. An Garda Síochána has been allocated €1.952 billion in budget 2021. There are now some 14,600 gardaí nationwide, supported by more than 3,000 Garda staff. Furthermore, the roll-out of the new Garda operating model will support the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing throughout the country. There have also been provisions for additional members of An Garda Síochána, and by next year, taking into account Covid-19, that should bring the force to more than 15,000. A total of €15 million has been allocated this year for new vehicles, which is extremely important, in particular in rural areas. The sum of €9 million has already been allocated and an additional €6 million will be provided later in the year. A total of 524 new vehicles will be provided.
I would like to note the work of the former director of the Probation Service, Vivian Geiran, whom I have appointed to carry out a scoping exercise to assess the impact that criminal activity in Drogheda is having on the community and to make recommendations for action going forward. Mr. Geiran is expected to complete this work in the coming weeks. Likewise, the Dublin City Council north central area committee recently engaged with former Assistant Garda Commissioner Jack Nolan to develop a socioeconomic and community plan for the Darndale area. My Department will engage with the findings and recommendations arising from the report to ensure its implementation.
I acknowledge that our vision for community safety is ambitious. It will require sustained commitment and perseverance on the part of Departments, State agencies and community and voluntary organisations. However, I believe the realisation of this vision will provide a truly holistic support framework for all communities, recognising their unique strengths and responding to their greatest needs. As Minister, I am fully committed to the work of building stronger and safety communities and I look forward to working with all Deputies to progress this vital work.
I echo my ministerial colleague, Deputy McEntee, in thanking the House for the opportunity to discuss this important topic today. The Minister has spoken of her understanding of the full meaning of community safety. While we can all agree that crime prevention measures are critical to improving the quality of life for all communities, crime prevention is just one facet of community safety. Community safety in the most complete sense requires the proactive and ongoing input of a range of public and community services and cannot be met by any single State agency or voluntary organisation alone.
When we think about successful communities, meaning communities where people are content, supported and provided with opportunities to thrive, they have at their heart a committed team of community organisations, residents and the support of An Garda Síochána and other State bodies. A collaborative approach is the key to creating a community that people enjoy living in. That is why the Government is seeking to foster a multi-agency, cross-collaborative approach. By harnessing those community and State services that focus on mental health issues, educational work, drug prevention and other key issues to work together, we can make meaningful contributions to local communities throughout this country.
I accept that responses must be community-specific. For that reason, public engagement is also an integral part of making communities safer and more resilient. Deputies may be aware that a public consultation was launched by my Department earlier this year on the development of a new youth justice strategy. We intend to bring the final strategy, taking account of the input we received as part of this consultation process, to the Government before the end of this year. Issues such as the need for early intervention and family support, coupled with collaborative working by agencies and community partners, are central to the approach contained within the youth justice strategy. The importance of the strategy is endorsed by and prioritised in the programme for Government.
A key priority for the new strategy will be to strengthen and expand the role of the Garda youth diversion projects and other community-based initiatives, including those working with the Probation Service. Bringing the full range of relevant interventions together in a coherent and holistic response to youth crime will support the objective of diverting young people from crime and anti-social behaviour.
The strategy has been developed in light of the experience of State agencies and community partners who work with a comparatively small number of children and young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. This work is built on the 2008 youth justice strategy and the subsequent Youth Justice Action Plan 2014-2018. It tries to deal with many of the gaps that remain as well as new challenges which have emerged. The strategy will align with the new community safety policy as well as with successor frameworks to the current National Policy Framework for Children and Young Adults 2014-2020, which is overseen by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
In terms of supports and programmes currently available, there are some 105 Garda youth diversion projects across the State. The intention is to develop this service further so that it is available to every child in the State who could benefit from it through an ongoing expansion of existing services and, where necessary, the foundation of new projects. Further, the projects are being developed to provide family support to the parents of young people participating in the projects and who are undertaking early intervention and preventative work.
The role of the projects regarding harder to engage young people is being enhanced and extended as part of the evolving youth justice system.
My Department is supporting ongoing development of practice in Garda youth diversion programmes through the action research project led by the University of Limerick. The action research project works directly with front-line youth justice workers from local projects to develop interventions and best practice. Based on initial outcomes from the action research project and evaluations of a number of pilot projects, it is intended to develop proposals to expand existing services to ensure national coverage and a stronger focus on difficult issues such as the hard-to-reach cohort.
The programme for Government also contains a commitment to convene an expert forum on anti-social behaviour to consider the effectiveness of existing legislation and propose new ways forward, including new powers for An Garda Síochána and additional interventions to support parenting of offenders. As Minister of State, I convened an initial meeting of the new forum on anti-social behaviour on 27 October.
Turning to the critical role of An Garda Síochána in making our communities safer, the Government is prioritising the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland through the four-year implementation plan, A Policing Service for our Future. As the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has already noted, the policing and community safety Bill being drafted to give legislative effect to the recommendations of the commission's report is a key element of this implementation plan, redefining, as it will, policing to include prevention of harm to those who are vulnerable, and placing a statutory obligation on relevant State agencies to co-operate with An Garda Síochána on the broader issue of community safety.
The provision of record resources in budget 2021 will further support An Garda Síochána in carrying out its vital crime-prevention role in our local communities. We all acknowledge the extraordinary policing challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. I pay tribute to gardaí throughout the country for the exceptional contribution they have made to making our communities safer. In particular, I mention the critical importance of Operation Faoiseamh which continues to provide support and outreach to victims of domestic abuse as well as the crucial work of all gardaí working on Operation Fanacht and Operation Navigation to ensure public compliance with the public health guidelines through the four Es approach of engaging, educating, encouraging and, only as a last resort, enforcing.
The positive community-centred tone of this approach, in line with our tradition of policing by consent, has been recognised by the Policing Authority. I also thank the public at large for their individual and collective efforts in combating this virus. I recognise the hardship this has brought on many people and businesses throughout the country, especially in the service and retail sectors, at a time of great stress and worry. Without the buy-in from the public in general along with our own and our neighbours' determination to protect each other, our communities would be less safe today and into the future.
In tandem with this suite of Covid-19 Garda operations and other policing initiatives, An Garda Síochána is continuing to prioritise its annual crime-prevention operations. Operation Thor continues to focus on the anticipated increase in the number of burglaries and associated criminal activity that usually occur in the winter months by undertaking targeted enforcement and preventative activity. The uninterrupted policing of organised crime during the policing of the pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to recent successes in seizing controlled drugs and in the apprehension of those involved in the sale and supply of the substances involved. In the first six months of 2020, Garda operations to counter organised crime resulted in the seizure of €13.6 million in illicit drugs as well as 13 firearms and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. An Garda Síochána has also continued to raise public awareness of online fraud, recognising that this category of crime has, to an extent, benefited from Covid-19 public health restrictions by targeting vulnerable members of our communities. In a bid to tackle the constantly evolving avenues for cybercrime, €1.8 million has been allocated in budget 2021 for the expansion of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau.
My Department also continues to provide a number of financial supports to local communities to support community safety. Supports include administering a grant aid scheme supporting community groups wishing to establish community-based CCTV systems in their area. To date 29 applications have been approved under the scheme involving approved grants awarded totalling more than €752,000. Eligible groups, including community groups and local authorities nationwide, can apply for grant aid of up to 60% of the total capital cost of a proposed CCTV system up to a maximum of €40,000. Last year the grant aid scheme was extended beyond new CCTV systems to allow funding applications for an extension or upgrade of existing community CCTV systems which are incomplete or obsolete. Applicants can now also seek a once-off grant of up to €5,000 for minor maintenance costs. The significance of these schemes in helping to detect crime in local communities is well recognised and funding has been provided for the continuation of the scheme in budget 2021.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to continue to support and prioritise community crime prevention, including the Garda text alert scheme. I am grateful for the opportunity to outline the measures being taken to improve community safety and prevent crime nationwide. I assure the House that the Government will continue actively to support collaborative progress towards achieving a safer society for all.
I welcome the debate and in particular the emphasis on the centrality of community safety at the heart of a new community policing strategy. The Commission on the Future of Policing established that human rights are at the heart of what the Garda does. The right to feel safe in one's own community is a fundamental right that we need to promote. The sad reality is that this right is not equally distributed across our community.
The Minister, Deputy McEntee, rightly drew attention to the work done by Jack Nolan in the community of Darndale, Moatview and Belcamp, showing that this is a community where community safety is not the prevailing mood of what people experience on the ground. The reality is that there is too much impact of gangs. Their influence is too wide. The abuse of drugs is too widespread. Its impact in diverting young people away from other opportunities is clear. The intimidation and fear that is felt by families is a real problem undermining the attempts not to only police but to transform this community. We know that this is one of the communities with very low rates of education and progression to further education compared with the rest of the country and with neighbouring areas. We need to see a really strong response to this.
While I welcome the pilot partnerships the Minister has announced, I am disappointed that they do not include this community where such excellent work has been done. I also believe that the partnerships as they are now framed fall short of what we will need if we are to respond in communities like the one in Darndale, Moatview and Belcamp which has deeply embedded problems. The commitment and the range of engagement of outside agencies is too narrow. We need to seek genuine cross-Government commitment if this is to realise the sort of shift that is envisaged in Jack Nolan's work.
The history of community policing does not instil full confidence in communities that this will be followed through in the way in which the Commission on the Future of Policing envisaged. It pointed to the central role of the entire Garda district and not just some gardaí, described as community gardaí, in keeping communities safe and using the very best modern techniques to deliver that within that community. Our past experience is that when the pressure has come on, the needs of central units to respond to other needs had seen community policing put to one side. This must represent a very dramatic shift if we are to see a new approach genuinely becoming embedded in our future policing.
From my experience, delivering change on the scale that the Minister and the Commission on the Future of Policing envisage needs four things. We need a vision that is very ambitious. It needs to be spelt out. This can be seen in Jack Nolan's work in his community. It is about disrupting, dismantling and diverting people from what is now a very widespread impact of the drugs trade and a gang culture that is there. That will take resources and sustained effort. We need wrap-around youth services. We need bespoke education programmes. We need physical demonstration of a change in approach. That will not happen from the scale of the partnerships that are now envisaged.
We also need inspired leadership.
The very best of Garda resources need to be deployed in these partnership areas with the time, commitment and consistency of service to deliver a project on this scale in those areas. Gardaí should get recognition and be considered for promotion if they do complete that work. We do not want to see quality people promoted out to some other task that comes along. We need to see authority for such an initiative and by that I mean that we need to be able to change the conventional approach in other services in order to deliver the vision that has been spelled out.
Finally, a budget will be required. This means that we must commit additional resources and be creative in the use of those resources in areas where community safety is simply not being delivered. I am sure my colleague from Drogheda, Deputy O'Dowd, will have similar comments to make on some of the strains in his area. We need to respond to this in a different way. While I welcome the first step on the road that the Department of Justice is taking here, a higher level of commitment is required from within that Department and An Garda Síochána. There is also a need for a great deal more resources from other Departments and across Government.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the proposed local community safety partnership pilot project which the Minister for Justice announced last week and which will operate in Dublin's north inner city, Longford and my constituency of Waterford. The project represents the implementation of some of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and is a welcome signal of intent on the part of this Government. I refer specifically to recommendation No. 5 of the commission, which states that "policing partnerships should include the business community, voluntary organisations, faith-based groups, schools and others who can contribute to community safety", and recommendation No. 22, which states that the "building of genuine community partnerships should be a requirement for all Garda districts". These recommendations are important in that they acknowledge the deeply integrated role that gardaí play within local communities. Our policing model has long been based on consent and consensus and it is a matter of pride to me that in Ireland we have one of the very few unarmed police forces in the world. Cuts made to community policing in the past have at times threatened to sever that connection, particularly in disadvantaged communities and I hope this pilot represents a step change in how we do things, placing community safety at the core of our policing model.
I welcome Waterford's inclusion in this pilot. In many ways, the Waterford constituency is the country in microcosm. Waterford is Ireland's oldest city, with many vibrant urban communities but it is also a rural constituency, from towns and villages to people living in very isolated settings. Waterford is also a Gaeltacht constituency and we know that there are specific challenges and deficiencies within our police force in terms of providing a service trí mheán na Gaeilge sna ceantair sin. As such, our community safety concerns span the full range from anti-social behaviour in disadvantaged communities to the issues of rural crime and the anxiety experienced by many living in isolated rural settings. This also presents a challenge and I worry slightly when I see references in the Department's briefing notes to a local community - singular - safety plan. I do not know how well the Minister knows Waterford but there is a world of difference between Ballybricken and Ballymacarbry or between Tramore and Tallow. We may be one county and one constituency, but we are many and diverse communities so I hope that any safety plan drawn up by the proposed new partnership will be flexible enough to reflect that. Also, we like our joint policing committees, JPCs. I was honoured to serve on the JPC in Waterford for the short time that I served as a councillor. It has its flaws as a system but we know it and trust it. I hope that this pilot model can be as inclusive as our JPCs and allow for a plurality of voices at the table.
This brings me to the composition of the local community safety partnerships. I welcome the fact that community representatives will have a working majority, as it were, and that this will include, among others, representatives of new and minority communities as well as youth voices. However, as I alluded to previously, there is a need to strike a balance between urban and rural concerns. In that context, I would welcome the opportunity to examine the exact mechanism by which we hope to ensure an appropriate mix. I am also concerned that there may be a diminution of the role of elected representatives in this reconfiguration. As I said, I served on my JPC in Waterford. I was one of 15 councillors to do so and the door was always open to Oireachtas Members to attend as well. If councillors are to be counted on the agency side of the equation in these proposed partnerships, that may well reduce the number participating to four or five. It would be a challenge in that context to ensure a broad base of representation in terms of geography and political outlook.
As with any such initiative, funding is crucial. This pilot has the potential to bring about positive changes in our communities but it will have to be adequately resourced in order to do so. These concerns notwithstanding, I welcome the pilot scheme, as do all of the officials and elected representatives in Waterford to whom I have spoken. As already stated, Waterford is the ideal testing ground because it has urban, suburban, rural and Gaeltacht contexts within the constituency. I look forward to working with the Minister, community representatives and elected representatives in Waterford to make a success of this project and to improve community safety outcomes across our county.
I am glad to speak on behalf of Sinn Féin on the issues of community safety and crime prevention. However, I will divert my attention for a moment to the issue of the week with which the Minister needs to deal. Members of the Dáil from almost all parties have asked the Minister to come into the Chamber to outline the process she used to make judicial appointments. Yesterday she clarified that she did consider the four names before her and then selected one candidate. Each time we ask about this the Minister, and indeed the Taoiseach, gives us a lecture on the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, process. We are all aware that the JAAB selects people who are eligible for consideration but what we need to know is the process the Minister used to make her selection. What process did she use? Which of her colleagues joined or assisted her in that process? We need to know that because without knowing it, the charge is that the Fine Gael credentials of the former Attorney General outweighed or scored higher than the clear judicial experience of the other candidates seeking the nomination. The Minister should come into the Chamber to deal with this matter. It is not enough to reply to me at the end of these statements. She should come to the Chamber at the earliest opportunity, hopefully next week, and deal with the matter. I will leave it at that.
I understand that and I am sorry. I will move on now to speak about the issues of community policing and community safety. I spoke to someone today who works with many of the community drugs initiatives in the city of Dublin who said that at the core of all of this is having a police service that is rooted in the community. In order for that to happen, we need to see a greater effort to ensure that community police are visible on the streets and that they build up a relationship with local communities. I acknowledge the work to which the Minster refers here and the local community safety partnerships are exactly the direction in which we need to go. There is much to be commended about this initiative but there is also so much to be done. We are coming from a place whereby so many communities are very far behind.
As others have said, there are clear and difficult issues in communities that do not trust the police force because they have not had good experience with policing. Communities which had community liaison officers in place and had work going on with community projects have seen those projects stripped of their funding. They have lost so much ground in recent years and that needs to be restored as quickly as possible. In many of these areas drug seizures are a feature. Indeed, there have been many very large seizures this year and that is to be welcomed. However, when seizures happen and arrests follow, we all consider that to be a great success but many of the communities involved see no change in the weeks that follow. They see no difference. Someone else comes in and just fills that void. This tells us that there is much work to be done in order to ensure that there is an holistic community response. That is why we need to get to the stage where it is not just about dealing with the issue of crime but all of the other problematic issues at play in communities that are under stress and pressure. In order to do that, we must work not just from a policing perspective but also from a societal perspective in terms of ensuring that there are adequate resources available in these communities. In so many of them, that is absent. They have faced huge problems in trying to run community services over the years with restricted budgets and are so far behind as a result.
The work the Minister is doing here and the suggestion she is making that the Garda co-operate and work with other agencies is exactly what needs to happen.
However, many of those agencies do not have the resources or capacity to ensure that they can deliver. One of the suggestions put to me today by the person I mentioned, who works at the coalface, was for the appointment of a type of liaison officer who is not a garda and who would work in the community and be trusted by it. He or she would be almost a type of social worker who would be able to gather information, understand what is happening and ascertain the pressures on people. The Minister acknowledged that, very often, the work gardaí do is not tackling crime as such, but is more about managing difficult situations and problems such as antisocial behaviour in a particular area. Much of that problem behaviour stems from addiction but also from poverty, mental health problems and other issues which arise out of the absence of resources in communities.
We must have a joined-up approach to tackling these issues. I absolutely appreciate that the Minister's proposals are going in that direction but there is much more to be done. Sometimes, there is an absence of understanding of just how far behind some communities are. Those communities, if they got a little bit of help and if some level of resources were put into them, would step up to the mark and really move forward. As I said, the proposals the Minister outlined are a step in the right direction but there is a huge distance to go. The sooner more resources can be put in place, the better. They must deliver for communities in a clear way that involves real change, not just a headline in the newspaper or on the news that something has happened and is a success, when, in their own lives, people see that nothing has changed and the same problems are still there. We need to be able to deliver for people in a real way.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus an Aire Stáit. I agree with the Minister 100% that the responsibility of An Garda Síochána is to keep people safe, eliminate crime and eliminate the fear of crime. It is a responsibility of everybody in this House not to exaggerate sometimes low crime figures in an effort to get headlines. In regard to eliminating the fear of crime, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, spoke about the Garda's text alert scheme. Councillor Tom Barry in Listowel has done amazing work in gathering information and seeking to extend to the town the See Something, Say Something text initiative that was piloted in Tralee. The gardaí in Kerry are very keen on the text system but there seems to be a reluctance in Garda headquarters to pay the small amount - I understand it is only €2,000 - needed to expand the scheme and make people feel safer.
The crime figures for the second quarter of the year that were released at the end of September included some very interesting statistics which, no doubt, reflect the overall reduction in the crime statistics as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions and the new policing environment. As with employment, business and economics, the pandemic may have had the effect of increasing the pace of some changes in the area of crime that were already happening and deepening some inequalities along the way. The first statistic I want to highlight relates to domestic violence. If we break the broader numbers down by gender, a trend can be seen in the 9% reduction in the number of crimes committed where women were the victim compared with the 26% reduction where the victim was a man. This suggests that there has been an increase in the incidence of domestic violence. The need for a separate family law court and trained family law judges has become more urgent than ever.
The second statistic I noted was that relating to online fraud. The take-up of online retail is increasing at the insistence and encouragement of the Government. This may make sense to an extent during the pandemic but it disadvantages traditional retailers and the customers who rely upon them. It also creates fertile ground for fraudsters, with older and less tech-savvy people being caught more easily by scams. The statistics for the second quarter bear this out, with fraud, up 7%, being one of very few categories across the board to show an increase. Assuming, as is reasonable, that real-world, in-person fraud has decreased, there is very likely a significant increase in online fraud. Online retail is not the easy solution the Government sometimes makes it out to be. Many elderly and vulnerable people are, rightly, more trusting of their local retailer, who cannot open at present.
The third issue I wish to highlight is that of the statistics relating to drugs and weapons offences. The seizure that took place yesterday in Mountjoy Prison is to be commended, as well as the restrictions which enabled that operation. An ever more restrictive policing environment is enabling increasing detection across the board but it is critical that we do not lose sight of the holistic functions of the criminal justice system. An increasing emphasis on security in our society will not lead to less addiction or poverty. If anything, it is likely to lead to the opposite. For the duration of the pandemic and beyond, we must look at ways of keeping people out of prison who do not need to be there. We should, for example, expand the categories of offences for which an adult caution is an adequate punishment, including for minor drugs offences. The Minister of State referred in his contribution to the juvenile diversion scheme. Given the massive disadvantages of having a conviction for a minor drugs offence, consideration might be given to allowing local superintendents to apply the adult caution scheme in such instances, as was previously allowed to be done, in order that people do not have to go to court. As everybody knows, if one is travelling to the US, the question asked is not whether one has a conviction for a minor drugs offence but whether one has ever been charged with such an offence. That has huge consequences for people down the line.
We also need to look at a proper system of accountability within the prison system. As I said to the Minister at yesterday's meeting of the Select Committee on Justice, the remit of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is supposed to have been extended to include prisons but it has not happened yet. That should be examined together with a prisons inspectorate that is independent of the Minister. I also said at the meeting yesterday that there has been a 60% increase in the use of video links for court appearances. In the same way that the Garda fleet has been expanded, consideration should be given to an increase in the number of prison vehicles. Finally, the Minister mentioned the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. I ask that the implementation of its recommendations be expedited, if possible. Another issue to consider is the small number of paramilitary prisoners - I understand there are 28 - being detained in Portlaoise Prison at huge cost. Maybe talks could take place. Sometimes a couple of hundred prison officers in total have to guard those prisoners. Perhaps talks could take place with a view to reducing the cost to the State of having to guard them.
We all know that the role of community gardaí is central to effective policing in communities throughout the State. That has always been the case but the criminal drugs feud in Drogheda, which saw people in the town of Drogheda and surrounding areas terrorised by the thugs involved, really highlighted the importance of effective community policing. When the feud broke out, we were woefully under-resourced in terms of community gardaí, as had been the case for years, and residents in the area suffered badly as a result. When people were subjected to threats, attacks on their homes and assaults, the local gardaí could not cope. The town was given short-term allocations of additional gardaí but that was not sufficient to deal with this type of feud. We now have nine permanent community gardaí, which is very welcome and has proved to be invaluable during the Covid-19 restrictions. It is vital that these gardaí remain in their posts to ensure Drogheda is never again left in such dire straits as it was at the time the feud kicked off.
An issue that remains to be addressed is that there is only one superintendent for the entirety of County Louth. There is no superintendent for the town of Ardee and none for Dundalk. That is a huge omission and it must be rectified urgently, particularly given what the county has gone through in recent years.
I commend the work of the community gardaí in Louth, who do fantastic work locally. That work can often be a very hard slog and may seem thankless at times, but it is hugely important. During the first lockdown, community gardaí had a key role in performing safety checks on vulnerable people and the elderly. They even stepped in to provide a meals on wheels service when the usual drivers were not able to do so because they were cocooning.
The pandemic has changed how gardaí do their work. It has also changed the nature of criminality. While the drugs feud in Drogheda has somewhat quietened down for now, we are, unfortunately, seeing an increase in minor assaults.
Up to the beginning of November, there had been 167 minor assaults in the Drogheda district, which covers Drogheda, Clogherhead and Dunleer. This is a 56% increase on the same period last year. Half of these assaults took place in homes, which suggests that domestic violence and other violence in the home is on the increase. Community gardaí have a central role to play in tackling crime of this type and they do so every day. This shows the importance of a strong community Garda presence for vulnerable people, especially as many people are more isolated now than they have ever been.
One of the most serious issues in my area and elsewhere in Cavan is that of drug misuse and the crime associated with it. At one time, this would have been thought of as an urban issue but that is no longer the case. It is an issue in every town and village and every rural area. Young people are constantly being brought into this seedy world without realising the consequences. Some are attracted by the promise of easy money from doing drops or acting as a courier for drug dealers but more often than not, it is a matter of young people easily running up sizeable drug debts. They cannot then afford to pay such debts and end up dealing themselves to do so, which gets them more and more deeply involved. In other cases, they or their families are being threatened. I am frequently told of families hearing a knock at the door from people looking for hundreds of euro or even €1,000 by the weekend, because a son or daughter has run up a debt. These people are afraid to go to the Garda about it. I am also personally aware of young people who have taken their own lives because they could not see a way out of debt and were afraid to admit their problems to parents or loved ones.
Drugs have become normalised in society among our young people. They think nothing of taking a substance on a night out. They do not realise how much it can affect their mood or that the high is so quickly followed by the low and the paranoia. Investment in the national drugs strategy and in drug and alcohol task forces is needed immediately. We need a multi-agency approach, such as the Minister has referred to, to tackle this problem head on. The Departments of Health, Justice and Education in particular need to work together. The education aspect is very important because we need to get to young people early to teach them about the dangers of drugs. We also need more gardaí in the national drugs unit. Monitoring of the prisons is also required as drug gangs seem to recruit within them. They seem to have a lot of control in prisons as was evidenced yesterday by the seizure in Mountjoy Prison. I believe it was the largest seizure of contraband ever in an Irish prison and I say "well done" to all of those involved in detecting it.
On a very different issue, farm thefts continue to occur. These worsen at this time of year when the evenings are dark. Everything from fuel to tools, machinery and livestock are targeted. I have even read recently of rural crime gangs using drones and online mapping to case farms and to identify less protected access routes by which to gain entry. We need more gardaí. We need to see gardaí visibly patrolling in rural areas. Everybody should be confident that, if they need to call the Garda, they will get a speedy response. Many people have reported to me how comforting they found it to witness gardaí walking the beat or patrolling in their areas during the first lockdown. People need to see that on a full-time basis.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the community gardaí in north Kildare for their magnificent work during the Covid crisis. Together with volunteers and community groups, they got the shopping done, prescriptions and meals delivered, and cups of teas offered and drunk in the garden. It was top-class community policing and social action, just as was seen when the local community garda was so helpful to us when we were setting up the Maynooth community first responders.
In many ways, our community gardaí are the first responders in society. I saw that at first hand growing up because my dad was a member of An Garda Síochána, rooted in his community. My mam used to say he should have been a social worker. In practice, he was a community garda before their time. Today is his anniversary and it seems apt, on the anniversary of his death, to honour and to seek to improve the tradition of community policing among the men and women of An Garda Síochána. I urge the Government to invest strongly and strategically in the kind of community service he believed in and practised in the job he loved. We need more community policing and we need more diversity in An Garda Síochána to reflect our diverse society. We need more gardaí working socially with communities rather than judicially about them.
Whether we like it or not, our prisons are primarily for our poor and our failed. Our jails are heaving with people who have been failed in an unequal social structure. Half of the people in our prisons dropped out of school before their junior certificate and more than a quarter never went to secondary school despite attendance being compulsory up to age of 16. Our community gardaí can and do step in early to work with families and community leaders to keep fragile kids steady. Sometimes they are the first authority figure to show a bit of faith in those who have a reputation for causing trouble when they are in fact just troubled. As a politician, I want to see more and deeper community policing in the less leafy suburbs in order that young lives can be transformed and saved. I want to see the community garda having time to kick a ball or to sit on a wall chatting to kids in the community. I say that because, for me, An Garda Síochána must always be about peace of mind and peace in the heart.
I am pleased to be able to talk about community policing given that the safety of my constituents depends on it. I will begin by thanking all members of the Garda, including our community gardaí across Tipperary, for the incredible work they have done to bring our communities together and to alleviate some of the loneliness many have experienced during this pandemic. They have made a massive difference, especially by taking so many drugs out of our communities in Tipperary. They have played a key role in maintaining our sense of community during these difficult times.
There are, however, still shortfalls in the provision of community gardaí. For example, I have been informed that five community gardaí were promised for Thurles and that their appointment has been approved but I have also been told that the community is still waiting to see them put in place. The number of community gardaí is very low. This is in spite of an unprecedented level of funding being allocated in the budget for 2021.
I recently asked the Minister for Justice whether it was her intention to take on more community gardaí given the increased budget. She told me that she has no role in such matters and that it is the job of the divisional chief superintendent to determine the distribution of duties. I understand that but the Minister went on to say that the official categorisation of a community garda has, in the past, simply referred to those who are exclusively assigned to building relationships with local communities and civil society and that nowadays, all members of the Garda have a role to play in community policing when carrying out their duties. While I agree with everything she said, the Minister's reference to the past when speaking about the position of community gardaí concerned me, especially as she then spoke of the role to be played by members of the Garda in general when it comes to community policing. Will the Minister give her word that she will continue to support the appointment of specific community gardaí, rather than replacing their important role with a reference to community engagement, to which members of the force are committed anyway?
All gardaí play an exceptional role in our communities, but we still need members of the force whose primary role is that of a community garda and all that entails. Community gardaí play a role that prevents criminal activity before it begins. In my constituency, there was an incident in which the case of a public automated external defibrillator, AED, was vandalised. We are thankful that the unit itself was undamaged but if it had been damaged, it could have had serious consequences for anyone who may have needed it. The point I am making is that criminality can often begin with vandalism. In the case I have mentioned, vandalism could have had unintended consequences. Through focused engagement with the community, such as that undertaken by community gardaí, the gateway to criminality can be avoided.
During the pandemic, we have seen community policing units doing great work in our communities. I hope this will be retained as a permanent fixture. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this important matter and I again acknowledge the fine work carried out by all members of the Garda.
Like others, I welcome the opportunity to speak on matters of community safety and crime prevention. I must say, however, that I would prefer to be dealing with concrete proposals and legislation rather than making statements. We have spent six hours today speaking on general statements. This is a Legislature that is meant not only to identify problems but to put forward concrete solutions. One of Government's prime responsibilities is to ensure the safety of its citizens. People must not only be safe but they must feel safe and not threatened in their homes.
The security of everybody in their homes is so fundamental and it is so undermining to their well-being and mental health if they feel under threat. Crime has a devastating impact on victims. A crime such as burglary is a violation of the family home, which goes well beyond the mere loss of property. People often feel unsafe forever more after such a crime.
As a society, we provide protection through effective policing and we have had much debate in the last decade in this Chamber on effective policing and on how to go about it. We have tried different initiatives. I have argued for a long time for an independent policing authority, a Garda ombudsman and so on and eventually versions of that were put in place. More recently, a comprehensive Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was established and its recommendations are being put in place. I do not accept all of its recommendations. The Minister knows I have clearly voiced my great fear of bringing the appointment of senior police officers back into the hands of the Garda itself, for example. That was taken out to be an independent decision and it would be a big mistake to reverse that. Much more needs to be done to provide a 21st century model of policing. There is a blueprint out there for how to do that. One of the things we need to do is to have effective policing specialties across the State and to have adequate resourcing for them.
Like others, I want to deal with the menace of drugs, which is devastating communities. It is not only devastating urban communities but rural communities as well. There is not a community or a village in Ireland that is free from the negative impact of drugs. Our policies to date are not working. Many people, including the Minister, have talked about a multi-agency approach and that is required. I welcome the acknowledgement of that but that means the agencies on the ground that will be involved having the resources and the capacity required. That will often mean the agencies working with youth. The agencies involved in community building are the agencies that are deprived of the resources to do that. That would be a mistake. It involves looking at housing and planning and at how we plan our communities. These are critical aspects of proper policing and people being safe. Rat runs through housing estates and dark and unlit spaces where people congregate can often be scenes for drug trafficking.
Members, including the Minister, have talked about youth diversion. We need youth diversion schemes and properly resourced education schemes. If one looks at the overall map of where the drug problem is greatest - and it is bad everywhere - it is often in the areas of the greatest deprivation. Deprivation cannot be disassociated from the issue of drug problems as people in desperate straits often reach out to drugs as a solution. The Minister mentioned having social workers involved but what quite often happens is that young and enthusiastic social workers are working at the coalface in difficult areas but then they get burned out and leave. We need to incentivise social workers to stay in some of the most challenging environments. A premium should be paid to social workers to continue that so they can get on with the work.
I listened with care to the quite incisive comments of Deputy Bruton earlier and he speaks with some authority about his area. Many of the suggestions he has made are important ones that should be acted upon. The horror of the involvement of more children in the drugs industry is a scandal that we need to address. I suggest, as has been suggested on more than one occasion in the past, that we need a statutory offence of grooming young people into crime. As penalties for drug possession and trafficking have increased due to decisions of this House and the other House, the way that drug lords get around that is often to recruit very young children in the expectation that they will not face serious penalties. That awfulness in grooming young people in that way has to be tackled and the way to do that is to make a statutory offence of grooming young people and to have an exemplary sentence for that offence.
One of the most effective things we have done in recent decades on crime has been the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau. That was an initiative of former Deputy Ruairí Quinn when he was Minister for Finance in the aftermath of the awful murder of Veronica Guerin. It is the most effective tool we have used to date and quite often it is the only effective tool we have in dismantling criminal gangs. We need to have that bureau strengthened and localised to take away the assets and the ill-gotten gains of those who keep themselves at arm's length from the commission of crimes and are hard to get at. If they are deprived of the wherewithal to enjoy their ill-gotten gains, that can be effective in dismantling these criminal gangs.
Another issue that is important to look at in all of this is that of bail and of bail supervision. We have to have adequate resources to monitor and assist offenders who are granted bail by the courts. We must give them the wherewithal and support they need to avoid reoffending because too often it is a revolving door in that people commit crimes, come out on bail and commit more crimes when they are on bail. Without being too specific, in my constituency there is one individual who is a personal crime wave every time he is out of prison and that is shocking. We need to ensure we can deal with people and support them back into a more productive future for themselves because nobody wants criminality as a way of life. People want other options and as a society we need to provide those options.
I also want to cover domestic violence. It is often a hidden aspect of crime in our communities but its impact is devastating. Covid-19 has provided a blanket to hide the increased incidence of domestic violence. We saw the figures at the end of last month with the Garda reporting an 18% increase in calls for help relating to domestic violence. Thankfully, there has also been a significant increase of nearly 15% in the detection of offences, particularly of breaches of court orders under the Domestic Violence Acts. I welcome the roll-out of the particular supports across every Garda area and it is something we still have to see the full extent of. When, in the hopeful aftermath of this awful pandemic, we get back to some degree of normality, we will be shocked by the degree of domestic violence that will be uncovered so we have to act now. I welcome initiatives such as Operation Faoiseamh, which is being effective and I commend the proactive nature of Garda intervention that we have seen. I commend all the work of An Garda Síochána, which has been so supportive of communities in this extraordinarily difficult time.
This conversation dovetails nicely with the previous debate regarding community development. If we are looking at how we can support communities in which people feel under siege from crime and anti-social behaviour, we need community development and community policing. In my constituency of Dublin South Central, areas such as Inchicore, Kilmainham and Bluebell have experienced high levels of anti-social behaviour and violence along the canal, on the cycle paths and towpaths. People have come to me in fear of a small number of people on the streets who are engaged in widespread anti-social behaviour and aggression, and disrupting the community. The way to tackle that, in the first instance, is via better community policing which is visible in communities on the ground. There is a move in An Garda Síochána towards small area policing which will support such front-line enforcement, which is absolutely necessary and is to be welcomed.
We must also back up that approach with community development. In this case, that involves the Garda youth diversion projects. Many of these projects are still struggling because of cuts introduced during the recession. We must look at the funding of those projects to ensure they return to the strength at which they were before the recession and have the capacity to meet new demands. One such demand should be an expansion to include those aged 18 to 21 years. While Garda youth diversion projects will do a great deal of good centre-based work, there is also a need for outreach work. The outreach work is often intensive and undermines the ability to do centre-based work, so projects are having to make a choice between these two types of work. It should not be a choice. Given that they serve different functions, it should be possible to do both.
I am conscious I am sharing time with other Deputies. I commend the work being done to ensure that gardaí are freed up to be part of the communities they are policing. This ensures they are made more welcome by the community and can engage and support community safety better.
I welcome this debate and the Minister's commitment to the town of Drogheda, personally and politically, in the context of the crime wave which struck our town in the not too distant past and resulted in the appalling and barbaric murder of Keane Mulready-Woods and, unfortunately, some other appalling crimes. I welcome the appointment by the Minister of Mr. Vivian Geiran to carry out an important and in-depth analysis of what needs to change in Drogheda and many other communities which suffer greatly as a result of criminals who control the streets, in many cases, at night. The sense of fear and intimidation they create reaches deeply into the hearts and minds of communities that are most deprived of amenities and support from civil society.
The Garda is doing a fantastic job in Drogheda. The addition of 30 gardaí, which were deployed to the town last year as a result of this appalling crime wave and drug-heavy crime, is working extremely well. That does not mean, however, that the gardaí control the streets at night. People are ringing me at 10 p.m. to say that the house next door, where residents may have been absent for a week or so, has been broken into and the residents' belongings strewn on the streets. A piano, which was passed down from generation to generation in one family, was dragged on to the street and burned. That is a symbol of an appalling situation in some of our communities today.
How do we tackle this situation? We do so by empowering those communities, not just by having community gardaí, whom I support fully, but by having the people in those communities controlling their own destiny. Those who obey the law, conform to societal norms and live decent and civil lives must be charge of what happens in those communities. When darkness falls and evil comes out, it must be driven back by communities living in estates that are properly lit, have proper footpaths and amenities and receive the support of society that they do not currently have. That is why I hope the work of Vivian Geiran will lead to significant change and successes. That approach must apply across the country. We cannot allow these thugs to control our lives, particularly the lives of people who are less well-off than many of us. At 10 p.m. the other night, I received a call from a woman telling me the house next door was being broken into and the windows were being smashed. The poor unfortunate person inside that house was unable to deal with the situation and was being intimidated and driven to despair, as were his neighbours, by what was going on. I hate getting such calls.
It is important to mention the important role of primary school teachers for young people growing up in society. National schools are aware of problems with children at the earliest possible stage. It is there that the significant interventions and support that such children need and want should be provided. I welcome all the work taking place in communities, for example, breakfast clubs, the deployment of community gardaí and Garda outreach. However, what we need now is a controlled and determined focus to win this battle. In whatever structures we have to ensure community safety and prevent crime, we do not want some sleepy chairperson or other. I am not referring to anyone in particular when I say that. We need dynamic control and absolute accountability from the local authority and support for it to do its business out of hours and at night. I could go on but a colleague is due to contribute shortly.
Drogheda needs a north inner city type task force. What Mr. Geiran is doing is a start but we must reach out to those who commit these crimes. When we identify them and the needs of their families when they are very young, we should ensure there is proper outreach to them. I welcome much of what the Labour Party spokesperson said in that regard. We must interact with these people to ensure that instead of intimidating their neighbours and burning pianos and whatever other cultural items they can find, we encourage them to participate in society. We should find a forum in which they can participate and encourage them to do so. We should appoint not just community gardaí and social workers to work in these communities but also youth workers who can work with them and reach out and support them.
In Drogheda, the people who deal with crime and the drug problem face major problems. We must reach out to organisations such as the Red Door Project to ensure they have the funding and outreach workers they need to work with those who are in despair and have been caught up in drugs and other problems. I welcome the Minister's commitment to publish the report before Christmas. I hope it will be the start of something and we will get action on it.
I thank my colleagues for sharing their time in this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak on community safety and preventing crime. In my contribution to the discussion on community and rural affairs, I made the point that 11 hours of statements are being taken in the Dáil this week. These are all on important issues but it is impossible to discuss any of them if we are not discussing Covid-19 and what we plan on doing after this current phase of level 5 lockdown ends. It is vital that we have an opportunity early next week to discuss this issue. A debate on the report of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response has been scheduled for late on Thursday. That is a separate issue as it is on work already done by that committee and its subsequent report. I am referring to the future and how we will manage this pandemic not only in December, although that will be important for many people, but into next year, as well as what we need to anticipate in that regard and the changes we need to make.
I hope we will try to see how, as a society, we adapt to this pandemic while we are waiting for the arrival of a vaccine next year without the need to go in and out of lockdowns. I believe we can do that. I was surprised to hear earlier in the week about Government plans to ban the sale of takeaway alcohol. I know that information did not come from the Minister but from elsewhere in the Government. If we want to keep people safe, we must keep them in structured environments and out of doors, if we can. We must question, therefore, any policy that would drive people out of structured social interactions, such as restaurants, pubs, shops or other such activities, and potentially drive them indoors. There is a risk of incoherency in any policy that could drive people to engage in less safe activities. We want to keep people in structured environments where we know they are safer. We also want to keep them outdoors if we can.
We must also avoid knee-jerk reactions. This has been a difficult year for many people. Covid caused great uncertainty when it first appeared in this country. We had to move quickly and we took certain steps. We have lived with the virus for longer now and we understand it better. There have been moments over the past year where we have let ourselves down in taking knee-jerk reactions to things we have seen. We must avoid that as best we can. We should not punish the many for the actions of the few.
We must be very careful that we do not let seep into Irish society the desire to catch people out, blame people and punish people, which we are at risk of doing. We should be wary of that seeping into society. In the first phase of the lockdowns we showed our better nature in how we responded to the crisis, faced down the challenges that were presented to us and came together strongly as a country. I believe we were all proud of that and when people looked to Ireland from abroad they were impressed by it. We want to keep that spirit as we face the future and not adopt anything that might be more negative and undermine our cohesion as a society.
I commend the Minister on the new approach to community policing, which is one of the better things I have seen in the past year. This involves the use of Garda vehicles that are not marked Garda cars. While the car is owned by An Garda Síochána, it is marked in a way that is not obvious. Gardaí can move about in the community and do the type of soft community policing they are great at doing. They can interact with vulnerable groups that may feel unsafe at particular times and keep an eye on younger groups that are trying to do their best in these difficult times and socialise in a safe way out of doors. The gardaí can let people know they are there and when there are not that many people on our streets every day, it is calming and a reassurance to see gardaí on bicycles, walking down the road or in these new Garda vehicles that are a more softer community response to policing. I hope that as she looks to the future in her own Department and considers the resources she gives to An Garda Síochána, the Minister will continue this highly effective type of policing. The community responds well to it as people like to see it. I hope it can continue and I will support the Minister in those types of initiatives she has brought forward this year.
Community gardaí could be the cornerstone of policing if given adequate resources. They are at the forefront when it comes to problem-solving and collaboration with the communities they protect. From first-hand experience of meeting community gardaí, residents and the local police forum in my area of Dublin Mid-West, I know how valuable community gardaí are to our community. Community gardaí are, however, often hamstrung by the policy decisions of their superiors and the Government.
Since 2010, community gardaí numbers have dropped dramatically, with a 45% decrease in Dublin alone. These cuts to the numbers of gardaí on the beat have exacerbated a growing crisis and left our communities very vulnerable. Sinn Féin in government would increase resources to the Garda, including the recruitment of a minimum of 800 new gardaí per year, with priority deployment within community safety.
The decision by the Garda Commissioner earlier this year not to allow community gardaí to work after 7 p.m. at night has left our areas abandoned, vulnerable and at the mercy of crime and anti-social behaviour. The No. 40 and No. 13 bus routes which serve my area have been forced to curtail their services because of anti-social behaviour. These routes account for 47% of all bus stoppages in Dublin this year. It is no surprise that the spike in these incidents coincided with the decision to stop community gardaí working after 7 p.m., adding further to the sense of lawlessness within our community.
My area of Dublin Mid-West is serviced by three full-time Garda stations in Clondalkin, Lucan and Ronanstown, with a part-time station in Rathcoole. There is no point in having Garda stations if they are not fully resourced. When speaking with gardaí in these areas they tell me that resources and Garda numbers hinder them from doing their job. We have a growing population across Dublin Mid-West, with Rathcoole and Newcastle among the fastest growing areas in the State. Garda resources need to improve immediately or we will see an increase in crime and anti-social behaviour. This is having a detrimental impact on people's lives.
The rhetoric we sometimes hear that we are all in this together does not wash any more with the public. When the public sees the Government voting against Sinn Féin motions on community safety, as happened last month and will no doubt happen again when we vote on the scrambler and quad bike issue the House debated last night, they can clearly see that this Government is more concerned about playing politics than actually improving people's lives.
Community safety and crime prevention are major issues in my constituency of Cork North-Central. There are some brilliant and very tight-knit communities in the constituency I represent but, unfortunately, some people no longer feel safe in their homes or walking the streets. This year, there have been horrific attacks and incidents. In January, a man had petrol poured over him and was set alight. Gangs are roaming the streets attacking people and organising fights through social media.
My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire,and I have published a document, A Safer Cork is Possible, and I ask the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to consider these proposals. She is aware that a visible community Garda presence on the ground acts as a deterrent to criminals and anti-social behaviour. There should be 20 community gardaí and one sergeant on the north side of Cork city and Cork North-Central, but there are only 13 community gardaí and one sergeant. This is a major shortage in my constituency. An announcement was made in April 2019 that Cork city was to receive 20 additional community gardaí. At that time, there were 32 and now we have 36. This is another broken promise by the Government. There have been savage cuts over the years.
I have listened to Government Deputies talk about what should happen. The reason we have crime, gangs and anti-social behaviour now is that for ten years, the Garda was underfunded and under-resourced, communities were underfunded and there were cuts to youth workers, youth community groups and drug task forces. That is the result of all these cuts by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Government Deputies then come in here and cry crocodile tears talking about their constituents when they could have and should have made a difference. They have let their communities down. Sinn Féin will stand up for people. We need to protect people and we need more gardaí on the ground.
I too commend the work of the Garda, especially during the first lockdown when we could see the involvement of the Garda, local authorities, sporting clubs and individuals. It really showed the best of us, as Deputy Eoghan Murphy said, and people's better nature. I share some of Deputy Murphy's concerns about making sure we appeal to our better nature. I believe that people are willing to listen with regard to how we should conduct ourselves during this pandemic. We could see this halfway through the current lockdown.
On the collection of statistics and the deployment of resources, it is disappointing that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, still publishes crime statistics with a disclaimer that the data should be viewed as statistics "under reservation”. While similar issues exist in other jurisdictions, we must try to find a consistent way to record information on the PULSE system. The CSO first suspended the publication of recorded crime statistics in 2014 following a Garda Inspectorate report identifying quality issues in relation to the recording of data on the PULSE system. The PULSE system is the only source of recorded crime data available to the CSO to produce these statistics. If we ask about crime statistics at a joint policing committee meeting, we will be referred to the CSO. It is important, therefore, that we can rely on this source of information. Although we are assured that the relationship between the CSO and the Garda is a good one, surely this issue should have been resolved long ago.
To ensure effective community policing around the country, it is imperative that Garda resources are allocated objectively. We need to think logically about where we are spending funds and take a long-term view of supporting community policing. Predictive trends in population growth come as no surprise to any of us. The information is readily available but unfortunately rarely used.
Over the years, I have seen policing plans being copied and pasted and have been very critical of that. I have looked at them before and after a census of the population and they have rarely taken note of those changes. Too often, we seem to end up chasing population trends and struggling to provide communities with the various resources they need for growing populations, rather than anticipating the increases years in advance. That could be said of many different services. The same is true of the allocation of gardaí and Garda resources, which are ultimately a matter for the Garda Commissioner under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. When we fail to provide communities with adequate policing resources, we put the Garda under immense pressure and communities are underserved as a result. One ends up with reactive rather than proactive policing, one does not get the visibility needed and that stores problems up for the future.
A 2006 UN analysis reported that the ideal policing ratio was 1:333. Our national figures are very good, with a ratio of one garda per 264 people but that is only nationally. The current ratio of garda staffing resources to population in divisions around the country is greatly unbalanced from county to county. The deficit in service provision is particularly pronounced in certain divisions, primarily clustered in the greater Dublin commuter belt and south Leinster area. These areas have had consistently high population growth, not just in the last decade but over several decades and continuously from the 1970s onwards. However, there is no evidence that these long-standing population trends are taken into account when allocating Garda resources, including staffing and other resources. The top five most under-resourced Garda divisions are in the Minister's area of Meath, of which she will be aware, Kildare, Kilkenny-Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford. Meath, with a population of 195,000, had 336 gardaí in August 2020, which is one garda per 580 people. The recommended ratio from that 2006 UN report is 1:333. Meath has the highest ratio of population to gardaí, while Kildare has the second highest with a population of 222,000 and 418 gardaí, a ratio of 1:532.
Every time we do a census of the population, advertisements go out in advance to say we need people to fill in this form. I know the next census has been deferred for a year but I encourage people to fill in the form because we need to plan our services. The problem is that we do not plan our services in line with population growth. It is a postcode lottery in so many areas. I am sure the Minister recognises this. There has been little enough change over the last seven years. In some areas the top five or bottom five have shifted around a little bit but there is relatively little change.
We cannot provide community policing if we do not have the gardaí to do it. I have come across scenarios where there is a safety at work issue, where gardaí have gone out on a call on their own because there was no one there to support them. It is a dangerous thing for members of the Garda to have to do in some environments. I am surprised that that has not been raised by the Garda representative associations, particularly in areas where the ratios are very high. I have raised this consistently with successive Garda Commissioners. I was assured that they knew this was an issue and that the intake from Templemore would be disproportionately deployed to areas where there is such a deficiency. I am not saying that is the only metric that should be used because it most definitely is not. We also need to look at the crime statistics and those statistics have to be reliable. We need people to report crime. We also need to consider the population and look at the type of policing we can provide. The type of policing provided very much depends on the ratio of gardaí to population.
For years we were hearing about problems in Limerick. The whole city and county ended up getting a deplorable reputation because of a very small number of people who were holding the city hostage. The same happened in Drogheda in the past year and we saw what happened in Dublin central as well, although I accept that there is a difference in that regard. These are situations where a problem emerges and one has to react to that problem instead of catching it in a proactive way. The way we gather statistics, both on crime and on the deployment of gardaí in response to the likes of the census, is absolutely critical if we do not want to find ourselves being reactive to problems. We must be proactive on the basis of planning our services. I was told by an assistant Garda commissioner that any division will try to hold onto what it has and growing areas will always be at a huge disadvantage if that is the approach. There needs to be a fundamental change in how we collect statistics, how reliable they are and how we deploy members of the Garda and the resources that go along with them.
To pick up where Deputy Catherine Murphy just left off, I agree with much of what she and Deputy Gould said. We are given figures on how many gardaí are available but when one actually drills down, the number available for community policing tends to be a very different story. That is the cause of enormous frustration for communities that cannot access basic day-to-day service at Garda stations. There are many gardaí located in the station in Swinford, for example, but they are all allocated to the traffic corps. In other places they are allocated to the emergency response unit, ERU, which does not participate in community policing and so they are not available for community activities. It causes enormous frustration when a Garda station is not available for basic services, or when anti-social behaviour cannot be tackled in towns and villages because gardaí, who might even live in the town, are elsewhere. The first thing we need to do is resolve exactly how many gardaí are available for community policing on a regular basis.
I join with every speaker in thanking An Garda Síochána for its huge work every year, and this year in particular. In this month of remembrance, we remember all who have been lost on duty in An Garda Síochána but particularly Detective Colm Horkan, who died this year. We think of his family and colleagues this evening. There is no doubt that the Garda's visibility and presence, as well as its working with communities, were crucial to the success of the initial lockdown and we should acknowledge it for that.
There are a number of crucial issues related to community safety. The joint policing committees, JPCs, were excellent when they were previously organised by town as well as by county but since they moved to a county basis, in line with so-called reforms by local authorities, we have lost focus and lost the ability to involve communities directly in their activity. We should look at JPCs and try to realign them to municipal districts in order that we can have a greater focus, as well as a greater online presence.
Second, CCTV is crucial. Many communities which were previously reluctant to use it, now see the value of it. There continue to be difficulties, however, with the hosting of CCTV between local authorities, An Garda Síochána and local Garda stations. If the Minister and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, were to resolve that issue and give a signal to communities that their concerns about data protection and governance issues will be taken up by An Garda Síochána and local authorities, it could assist in rolling out community CCTV schemes to assist people.
Community gardaí are doing wonderful work and building up excellent relationships. They cannot do it on their own, however. They need the backup and support, as well as a community budget to work with local festivals and local organisations. It will mean that they are not just there in a policing capacity but in a community-building capacity.
We may need to go back to some basics with An Garda Síochána where gardaí actually live and raise their families in the community in which they serve. By doing so, they can build trust and relationships. We need to look at incentivising through the payroll, gardaí to live and share their families' time in the community. That will then build up trust. Trust is the absolute basis of any kind of community policing.
I welcome the ongoing civilianisation process because that means we get more gardaí into communities. While it is tempting for the Minister and Garda management to invest in the big flashy units and give them the big jeeps, big flashy uniforms and the big stations, the basis of any policing is knowledge, trust, information and relationships. All of those issues are formed and rooted at community level. Community policing is the foundation of An Garda Síochána. It deserves the investment, support and bodies that other sections in An Garda Síochána receive.
I join with others in paying absolute credit to the work of An Garda Síochána, not just in recent months but over a long time, across all our communities. It is the absolute backbone of our community. The work it does every day to keep us safe is what we rely on to keep our society going. The most important point to come out of this debate is the uniform opinion of the House on the important role of community policing.
Other Deputies spoke about geographic specific issues. I want to raise an issue, one which I have raised with the Minister several times and one which is increasingly of concern for all of us, particularly in the capital, that is, knife crime. As per figures from the Minister, knife seizures have increased by a third since 2017. Over 2,000 knives were seized by An Garda Síochána in 2019 with over 1,200 already seized this year alone. The sad thing is that it is not just seizures. Hospitalisations due to knife injuries, stabbings and slashings have gone up by 10%. Sadly, we are seeing an increasing number of deaths from knife crime, including in my own constituency with a very sad case in Dundrum not so long ago.
What can we do to really tackle this? Many measures have already been taken. I commend the good work launched by the Department, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on early intervention and education. We can do more, however. We can look to other jurisdictions and the success of countries like Scotland. What can we learn from Scotland? Glasgow was the murder capital of Europe in 2005. The introduction of the violence reduction unit in Glasgow and across Scotland has seen those crime figures, in particular knife crime figures, decline.
One action that proved to be so successful in Scotland - indeed we have done it here before - was a weapons amnesty. In 2006 the then justice Minister, now Senator Michael McDowell, brought in a two-month weapons amnesty which took over 300 guns, knives and much more off our streets. Will the Minister consider the reintroduction of a weapons amnesty to get those vicious weapons out of children's hands, as it is children largely being found with knives, and off our streets?
There is also a need for early intervention education programmes. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan has a worthy Bill on sentencing for knife crime. I appreciate many people will look to that approach. Before we even get to that stage, however, we need to look at stopping the causes of crime and stopping knives getting into young people's hands. That is why we should encourage those programmes to get members of An Garda Síochána into the schools to warn of the dangers of knife crime. We must make sure those who may have been caught up in these criminal activities have interventions through youth, work and education programmes.
Many people will ask how we pay for this. It is quite simple. An Garda Síochána and its agencies have seized over €16 million worth of criminal funds this year. I put down parliamentary questions to the Minister and, more importantly, to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on this issue. Where does that money go? We see these goods auctioned with cash taken off criminals. It all goes back to the Exchequer. Does it go back into the black hole?
I speak every day with our party colleague, Councillor Kenneth Egan, who is working on the front line as an addiction counsellor, a youth intervention officer, a county councillor and, most importantly, a boxing coach with young people. Can we not say to those communities most devastated by crime, the illicit drugs trade, as well as knife and gun crime, that we are going to seize the proceeds of crime and plough it back into those very communities to ensure another generation of children are not deprived of their youth and no more mothers or fathers have to get that dreaded phone call that their child has lost his or her life to knife crime?
Community policing, the presence of community gardaí and drug divisional units are important. These are the people with their finger on the pulse of where communities are at and show how information can be got.
The divisional drug unit for Cavan-Monaghan is doing terrific work and is important for our community and society. Unfortunately, recreational drugs are more prevalent, more readily available and are becoming more socially acceptable. The drugs divisional unit in Cavan-Monaghan, unfortunately, needs more resources put into it. It is doing terrific work. Not that long ago, Bailieborough community alert held a public meeting about this very topic at which a number of people attended. Detective Sergeant Mick Kearney spoke that night and gave a very stark presentation about how freely and readily available drugs are in settings that we might normally not expect them to be, such as recreational and sporting settings. It came as a shock to some of the people who attended that meeting.
The drugs divisional unit in Cavan-Monaghan covers a large area comprising two counties. It is located in an old Garda station in Cootehill. For the past nine months, it has been working with drastically reduced staff numbers with one sergeant and three gardaí when it should have one sergeant and five gardaí. I accept this has been due to replacements, retirements, people moving on and transfers. For example, the traffic corps unit has three sergeants and 13 gardaí.
Drug-driving detection has significantly increased by 106%, particularly since lockdown. There are several reasons for that. Gardaí are more visible on the beat, giving them greater opportunity to do this type of detection. This makes drivers and users more aware. A 106% detection rate tells its own story.
Will the Minister give this unit the staff it needs? Drugs units should have two sergeants and ten gardaí. Cavan-Monaghan is currently working with one sergeant and three gardaí. Bigger inroads can be made in terms of the staff required and the expertise needed. The unit is working from the old Garda station in Cootehill. It could do with better facilities and better transport. The staff working there are doing terrific work.
My understanding is that both the detective sergeant and the gardaí are interviewed every two years. They only have a two-year contract. As a Government, we need to send a strong message that our divisional drugs units are there in force, they are fully staffed and resourced and their staff are there permanently. They should not be in place on a transient two-year basis. This unit does a very important and specific job and the resources it receives should reflect that.
Community policing should be at the heart of every town and village in Ireland, with gardaí walking the streets, talking to local people and aware of what is happening on the ground. As the Minister will know, our own county of Meath has the lowest number of gardaí per head of population in the country. As Deputy Catherine Murphy noted, there is one garda for every 580 people. That is a shocking figure and I hope that she will be able to address that.
If a crime takes place in Athboy or my own town of Oldcastle, it can take up to an hour for a Garda patrol car to arrive. Drug dealers are openly selling drugs on the streets, destroying young people's lives. These drug dealers and criminal gangs are relocating to rural areas. They see our towns and villages as safe havens where there is not much chance of getting caught. Johnstown in Navan has a population of between 10,000 and 12,000 people. It has no Garda station. This is another issue I hope the Minister can address. How can An Garda Síochána and community groups work together if there is no Garda station? Moreover, gardaí only man some Garda stations on a part-time basis.
The job of a community garda is to provide an accessible Garda service to the community; establish effective engagement to meet the needs of local communities; use problem-solving initiatives to tackle crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour; engage with young people to develop positive relationships and promote personal and community safety; be accountable to the community they serve; and work with other agencies. These are all great ideas, but without gardaí on the streets or working in Garda stations full-time, none of these initiatives will be successful. We also need more community facilities for young people. We must help them out in any way we can. We need more funding for drug addiction services, which do great work.
I wrote the Minister to ask for a meeting and she said that she would meet me. Some of the issues I wanted to raise are the low number of gardaí per head of population in County Meath, the need for a Garda substation for Johnstown in Navan and areas like Oldcastle and Athboy and the need for full-time deployment of gardaí.
I commend the members of An Garda Síochána on the work they have done in the trying circumstances caused by Covid-19. Unfortunately, they are being let down by underinvestment, neglect and a system that needs root-and-branch reform. The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was launched with great fanfare in September 2018. It was promptly left to gather dust on a shelf in the Department of Justice. The previous Government developed a habit of paying for reports on how to fix issues and then ignoring their recommendations. That includes the Duffy Cahill report, which was intended to prevent another Clerys-style closure. Unfortunately, because the Government failed to implement that report, the Debenhams workers have now been on the picket line for more than 220 days seeking a fair resolution to their dispute.
In a recent parliamentary question, I asked why no gardaí were rostered to be present in Monasterevin Garda station for two full consecutive days earlier this month. The question was disallowed by the Ceann Comhairle because the Minister has no responsibility for the matter and it was a question for the Garda Commissioner. People in local Garda management tell me they do not have enough gardaí. Surely this is a matter on which the Minister can comment. Monasterevin is not the only station in Kildare and Laois with low garda numbers. The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland heralded a new approach to policing and community safety, with the key aim of ensuring that police are more visible in communities. If the Government takes one thing from this report, it should be the issue of Garda visibility. It is a massive deterrent to all types of crime. I also appeal for an increase in resources for County Kildare. Kildare is a large county and is divided into two constituencies, Kildare North and Kildare South. The entire county has two Garda motorbikes and only one 4x4 vehicle. That is simply not good enough. I am asking for this complement to be increased. Surely that would help.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this matter. I welcome the earlier contributions of the two Ministers. All the right terminology was used, reflecting the requirement for a multi-agency response. They talked about the necessity for family supports. A synergy between all the stakeholders involved in community development and the justice system is needed. I welcome the discussion of an expansion of the youth justice system. That probably needs to be redesigned it. We need a system that is able to deal with the fact that kids are getting involved in crime at earlier ages. I refer both to serious anti-social behaviour and children being groomed by crime gangs to engage in drug dealing. We need a system that will deal with this. We must involve all the stakeholders.
The difficulty is that these services, whether provided by the State or by NGOs, are generally under severe pressure and in need of resourcing. Community policing must be at the very centre of this. I welcome some of what was said by my colleague, Deputy Imelda Munster. She referred to the brutal feuding in Drogheda prompting an increase in community policing numbers. We had one sergeant and nine gardaí. Meanwhile Dundalk, which has similar needs, has one sergeant and only five gardaí, or sometimes as few as three. We have witnessed the significant impact of the increase in numbers on the drugs squad, particularly locally. However, it is also necessary to build relationships with the community. The insufficient number of sergeants in the Dundalk area is a major difficulty, which must be resolved.
I welcome the scoping exercise led by Mr. Vivian Geiran and the communication I have had with the Minister. I welcome the fact that those directing the exercise have made themselves available for communication. I have spoken about the necessity of dealing with Dundalk as an aspect of the problems in Drogheda. Drugs are our greatest scourge. They are a pandemic that will be with us for a long time. We need to deal with it through a holistic multi-agency approach.
I understand that a pay freeze is currently in place for An Garda Síochána but reforms continue to be rolled out. Gardaí are the real knights in shining armour at the moment, policing our country during a time of crisis. Some feel that this is happening rather quickly and by stealth, without incremental pay changes. These reforms include the much-discussed Garda operating model and the roster and duty management system, RDMS. The four-day roster system has worked well during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has ensured better policing and allowed gardaí to have more quality time at home with their families. They are human after all. It has worked well for communities and for the service at large.
An Garda Síochána was supposed to introduce new uniforms for its members last year.
Is there any update on that? It seems to have drifted down the priority agenda in recent months.
Ardnacrusha in my community has a significant population on the doorstep of Limerick city. Although it is a Clare community, it falls under the remit of Limerick city Garda division, which is understaffed. A garda was based at Ardnacrusha station at the beginning of Covid but we have lost him to the city division. I know that the Minister cannot intervene in this area but I ask that the Garda Commissioner intervene to have that officer returned to Ardnacrusha Garda station. I have said many times in the Chamber that I believe An Garda Síochána need to have capacity to take on what has been dubbed in the media as "mini-CAB" duties. At local housing estate level, An Garda Síochána need to have the capacity to take on the small-time drug dealer, the guy who is living way beyond his means, has luxury cars and a lavish lifestyle and is living a life that most of us could only aspire to or dream of. An Garda Síochána at local level need to have the capacity to deal with that.
The Minister might respond in writing to some of the issues raised.