Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
An Garda Síochána
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue and the Minister for being here to discuss it with me. I want to say at the outset that I am 100% aware of her role in the allocation of resources. I know what she can and cannot do. What I am asking her this morning is to give consideration to the needs of the people I represent in Swords and the surrounding area, specifically in relation to Garda resources. While I understand the Minister does not get into the details of resourcing, there are a number of issues I want to bring to her attention that I hope she might be able to bring to the attention of senior management in An Garda Síochána.
I have been contacted by a large number of people, which is what prompted me to submit the matter for the Topical Issue debate. There was a spike in people contacting me about calls made to the Garda station where they were told a car or a garda was not available to come and attend. It is not the fault of the gardaí. I visited the station recently and I know that they are absolutely flat out. Swords is a town with a population of more than 40,000. The Garda resources that are deployed there do not match the population. I was prompted to submit the question after I was contacted by a parent who had a very disturbing incident where her child was accosted just outside of a school. Her mother happened to be just behind the child. She phoned the Garda but it did not have a car to send out. That is very worrying.
The resources are an issue, as are the personnel and the accommodation in Swords Garda station. Again, I am aware of the Minister's role in this but I want to bring it to her attention. The station is heaving. There are hoardings surrounding it that have been there for several years now. I do not know what is happening with it and I do not believe the gardaí stationed there know either. If the intention is to expand the station and not just rearrange the car park, which is in the works, that is very welcome. If the intention is to move it elsewhere, that is also very welcome if there is more space. We are approximately 40 gardaí short of what would be ideal. I understand the numbers are not ideal around the country, including other areas I represent. We are not aiming for ideal, necessarily, but we are around 40 gardaí short while there has been an increase in gang activity and drug dealing, which is deeply disturbing. I understand it is in keeping with what is happening throughout the State, but it is very stark given the population and the population growth recently. It has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions.
At the joint policing committee, JPC, before the previous one, I and Councillor Ann Graves sought a task force to be established. We know a task force approach has worked in other areas. It has done good work in Coolock and elsewhere. I would like the Minister to lend her support to that this morning if she could. We believe we need a task force that involves not just the Garda but also the community. We all want the same thing in the end. We want the streets to be safe, for the Garda to be resourced and for people to feel safe in their homes. That is not the case now. I was prompted by my constituents contacting me to express their concerns about escalating crime and the need for a more visible Garda presence. I believe the task force is the way to go forward. We have seen good examples in other areas where there is a specific focus and community buy-in. I would like the Minister to lend her support to that this morning, if she could, and to use her good offices to progress that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter today. As she stated at the outset, the management or administration of the An Garda Síochána and deployment of resources is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. These decisions are made in the continued context of crime trends in a certain area and policing priorities. When issues arise, as they do, the Commissioner and his team respond to them as quickly as possible. The Deputy will appreciate that where the specific resources go and their allocation is not something I can touch on.
What I can say is the Government and I, as Minister of Justice, are committed to ensuring there is strong, visible policing in local communities. Budget 2022 reflects this commitment very clearly. It has an unprecedented allocation of more than €2 billion in Garda funding for the coming year. This funding will include provision for the recruitment of up to 800 new Garda recruits and 400 Garda staff. I appreciate it will take time for the new recruits to go through Templemore but it is a commitment to additional resources on the ground and it is hoped it will bring us to a figure of about 15,000 next year. The more Garda staff we have, the more people who are now doing desk duties can get out and about on the ground.
This increase in the number of Garda members and staff will deliver significant growth in operational policing hours nationwide and improved services to the public generally. The programme for Government and Justice Plan 2021 contain a range of priority commitments and actions to support visible policing nationwide, chief of which is the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland through the Government' s implementation plan, A Policing Service for the Future.
The roll-out of the new Garda operating model under A Policing Service for the Future will deliver increased Garda visibility in communities by facilitating a wider range of locally delivered policing services, underpinned by the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing throughout the country. Visible policing means safer communities that feel supported in daily life and that the benefits of effective Garda resources at community level can be felt by each and every one of us.
Community safety is the cornerstone of the Garda transformation programme and, indeed, has always been the primary focus of An Garda Síochána. This has been especially evident throughout the Covid-19 period, where gardaí throughout the country have consolidated their connection with local communities. They have engaged with local authorities and local organisations and have done a fantastic job in supporting us through what is still a very difficult time.
The Deputy referred to Swords. It is important to outline some of the changes that have happened there and in surrounding areas in terms of overall Garda numbers. As of 31 October, the latest date for when figures are available, Swords Garda station had a station party of 83 members of all ranks assigned, an increase of over 15% since the end of 2016 when there were only 72 members assigned.
The Coolock district, which includes Swords, Coolock and Malahide Garda stations, currently has a strength of 234 members of all ranks. This is an increase of 12.5% since the end of 2016 when there were 208 members assigned to the district. Overall, the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, north has a strength of 781 members at the end of October, an increase of 15.5% since the end of 2016. I appreciate more are needed - that is the case across the country - but those numbers will continue to increase with the additional 800 members next year.
Three pilots are being rolled out following the very successful task force in Dublin's inner city.
I join the Minister in commending the work of An Garda Síochána throughout Covid, in Swords and across the State. She is bang on; its members did a fantastic job.
I want to return to the issue. There is a difference, and Minister and I both know this, between being safe and feeling safe. I do not want anyone to panic but people do not feel safe and that is a concern to me, because obviously I am sent in here to represent them. There are two cars.
It is not sufficient that an area the size of Swords, that has housing estates stretching for miles all the way out to Donabate and surrounding areas, would have only two Garda cars available. While 83 gardaí might sound like a big number, at any given time, gardaí will have to be in court, on community duties, on sick leave, on annual leave etc. There are, therefore, not enough gardaí to meet the population need.
I emphasise to the Minister that we need a task force approach for Swords and its surrounding area, particularly given the planned expansion of Donabate. That will place even more demands onto the already stretched gardaí. All we want is a collaborative approach between local representatives, the community, the residents associations, An Garda Síochána, and the local authority, with them all pulling in the one direction. We were promised this at the joint policing committees, JPC. For some reason it has been kicked to touch. I would like the Minister to investigate that and find out what is happening with it. The willingness is certainly there from the gardaí, the local representatives, the residents associations and the community. We all want the same thing. We want not just to feel safe but to be safe. Visible policing is essential in that regard.
As the Deputy has outlined, this is about people not just being safe but feeling safe. It is about visible policing. That means not just having gardaí in stations and in cars but having gardaí on foot and on bikes and making sure people can see that visible presence in their communities. Even seeing a uniform walking about the streets gives people a sense of feeling safe. However, it is not just about gardaí. It is about making sure everyone is pulling together in health, education, various local services and community groups.
Deputy O’Reilly mentioned a task force. Three pilot programmes are being developed. These are community safety partnerships in Longford, Waterford and Dublin's inner city. It is important those partnerships and pilots are allowed to develop and that we identify how they can work best and we ensure, as we roll them out across the country, which will include Coolock and the Deputy’s own area, we have the best model possible to bring together not just the Garda but all of the legs of society, so to speak, that need to work together to make sure people are safe within their community.
On the overall Garda numbers, the Deputy will appreciate we have had challenges in the past two years, with recruits going in and out of Templemore, and we have not been able, obviously, to have the full complement. I hope, however, coming into next year, that we will be able to see those 800 recruits bringing us up to a number of 15,000. Obviously, I would like to see that number continue to increase over time.
On the capital plan and the overall spend for the justice sector, we have just agreed a figure of €270 million every year for the justice sector right out to 2025 as part of the national development plan. That is for all of the justice sector. It will include investment in buildings and refurbishments, such as doing up old stations, but it will also include opening new stations. All of this needs to be kept under consideration. Of course, I will take on board all of the issues the Deputy raised specifically. However, I am aware the Garda Commissioner is also apprised of issues that are happening on the ground as they arise and is responding accordingly.