Tuesday, 17 May 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 22 to 29, inclusive, together.
The public service, justice and policing reform unit is part of the social policy and public service reform division of my Department. The work of the unit supports me, in my role as Taoiseach, on policing reform, criminal justice, public service reform, social affairs and other related matters. It incorporates the policing reform implementation programme office, which oversees the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The unit also supports the Civil Service management board, including the Civil Service renewal programme, and contributes to the oversight and governance of the new public services reform plan.
The unit also assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services. Policy areas covered include gender equality, which encompasses efforts to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, direct provision, the Irish language, and sport.
In addition, the section has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council. It participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups and provides me with briefing and speech material on criminal justice and policing matters, as well as social policy and public service reform issues.
I will refer to the policing reform division and its work. As the Taoiseach knows, the Labour Party has for many years been a strong proponent of policing reform and we successfully argued for the introduction of the Policing Authority. I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the general scheme of the policing security and community safety Bill, which I understand was published more than a year ago. I would like the Taoiseach to confirm that the Government intends to move back to a governance structure that would effectively replace the Policing Authority and reinstate what may amount to an old way of governance, namely, an internal, non-executive Garda board, to take responsibility for governance and to be reinvested with the power of appointments. Legitimate concerns about this model have been raised by experts such as Dr. Vicky Conway and Dr. Eddie Molloy. Indeed, questions have been raised by Ms Josephine Feehily and Mr. Conor Brady, a former member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, as to how this would work and whether it might dilute the main plank of the previous reforms introduced when the Commissioner was made accountable to the Policing Authority. Is the Government going to proceed with the changes proposed in the general scheme of the Bill or will it revisit those changes?
I will also focus on the justice and policing reform aspect of the question, and the continued use of the Garda crime statistics with the caveat "according to figures released under reservation by the CSO". The current Garda Commissioner was appointed five years ago and we appear to be no closer to having reliable crime data. Such data is critical for policing plans as there is no evidence that the census of population is used in policing plans. I have, over a couple of decades, looked at how resources are deployed. We are without reliable crime statistics. When are we likely to get to the point where we have reliable crime statistics without that caveat?
Policing reform is important. The pre-legislative scrutiny of the policing security and community safety Bill and the Garda Síochána (powers) Bill is taking place at the Joint Committee on Justice. This comes after a debate on both Bills. The power of the GSOC to look into historical cases is important, especially in the so-called Kerry babies case. There still has been no explanation as to how five or six members of the same family in different rooms in one Garda station all made statements that could not possibly have been true. It was a systematic failure. We cannot get to a place where the police service has been reformed without this being investigated and accounted for.
The Hayes family has received an apology but the apology was delivered because the standards of a proper Garda investigation were not met. That is not good enough. An explanation needs to be given as to how those family members came to make the same statement. Will the Taoiseach commit to this being a major plank of any policing reform? Will he endorse proper resources and legislation for GSOC so it can look into these historic cases?
I raise the matter of the death of Shane O'Farrell in a hit-and-run accident which stole a beautiful 23-year-old son from Lucia and Jim and took a deeply loved brother from his sisters in 2011.
The Taoiseach has met the O'Farrell family on a number of occasions and is acutely aware of how the criminal justice system failed Shane and continues to fail his grieving family. The man who perpetrated this awful crime was in breach of a bail bond for various courts. He had received a custodial sentence for four heroin offences which he never served. He had committed 37 offences while on bail before killing Shane O'Farrell and should have been in custody at the time of Shane's death.
I implore the Taoiseach to give the O'Farrell family the opportunity to know the truth about the circumstances of Shane's death and grant them the public inquiry for which both House of the Oireachtas voted. Justice delayed is justice denied and this family has suffered enough.
I want to raise an issue that I am surprised did not get more attention and about which more concern was not expressed, namely the recent departure of Ms Anne O'Connor, the chief operations officer from the HSE to take up a post with a private health insurance company, VHI. There has been a lot of talk about the need to have some sort of cooling off period between going from very senior positions in the public service to private companies when there is potentially a conflict of interest. VHI's job is to make money out of healthcare whereas this Government and the State is supposed to be committed to a single tier, public health service under Sláintecare and yet there is a revolving door through which the chief operations officer of the HSE goes straight into a private health insurance company. That is just not on. We need public sector reform so that there is a significant cooling off period for very senior staff, like the chief operations officer of the HSE, who have access to a lot information which could potentially be beneficial to a private company operating for profit in the healthcare sector.
Thousands of workers in our bars and restaurants are being told to leave the country by the end of the month as the Department of Justice is refusing to give a simple extension until September for those on stamp 2 visas. This means thousands of people will have to leave their accommodation and jobs for the summer. When they return next September they will have to try to find new apartments and new jobs when their new courses begin. It is a ludicrous situation. The English Language Students Union, ELSU, is calling for a three month extension to stamp 2 visas to tide people over until September. It is a very simple measure but I understand that so far the Department of Justice has absolutely refused to budge. Will the Taoiseach intervene this week to grant this extension before it is too late, to give workers peace of mind and before they have packed up and left?
I want to raise again the case of George Nkencho. It is my understanding that the inquest into the death of George Nkencho is due to reconvene in June. However, it is also my understanding that the inquest cannot properly reconvene until such time as the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, investigation into his death is complete. That investigation is not yet complete. The Nkencho family had been given to believe that it would be completed before the one-year anniversary of George's death, that is, by the end of December last year but several months on, that is still not the case. Now the delay in the investigation is threatening to delay the reconvening and conclusion of the inquest. This family have been through untold trauma which is being added to by these delays. I would like to hear the Taoiseach's comments on this matter.
On the issues of public service, policing and justice, the Taoiseach's Department has for some time operated the north inner city intervention to support that community. The programme for Government makes it clear that we will roll out a similar type of intervention in similar communities around the country. The community of Ballymun has engaged with the Taoiseach and with his predecessor on the drafting of a report identifying clear requests. We wait patiently, not just for engagement to which the Taoiseach is committed, but to see the outcome of the work that his Department has done in terms of how we respond to the challenges facing these communities. The Ministers for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Social Protection, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Humphreys, and the Taoiseach have all been working on this and what we are impatiently waiting for is the outcome of that process, to have a similar intervention in our area and many other areas around the country. I know this is something to which the Taoiseach is personally committed. We want to see the output of all of the hard work.
I want to raise the scoping exercise established over three years ago into the death of Shane O'Farrell. That was expected to take weeks or possibly months but it was never expected to take years. It is clear that the only way forward remains the establishment of a public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell, as supported by the Taoiseach and his party. Will the Taoiseach progress such an inquiry before he leaves office on 15 December?
There is a range of issues to be covered. First, on the draft policing, security and community safety Bill which Deputy Bacik raised, in April of last year the general scheme was published. Among the objectives, clearly, is to provide a new, more coherent governance and oversight framework to strengthen both the external oversight of An Garda Síochána, as well as its internal governance. The approach was recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in its 2018 report. In preparing the scheme, the Department of Justice has had advice from the Attorney General. I take Deputy Bacik's point and I know that the Labour Party has a view on the policing board and the issue around governance.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice is currently conducting pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill and has already heard from a number of interested parties including the Garda Commissioner. I trust the Labour Party representative on that committee is pursuing the issues also and I look forward to reading the committee's report in due course. The Department of Justice will continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner and other stakeholders in progressing this important legislation. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, hopes to be in a position to seek the approval of the Cabinet before the summer. However, there are a number of dependencies that will impact the finalisation of the draft Bill. There is a commitment to consult with stakeholders on a draft of the Bill once it is sufficiently advanced. The receipt of the joint committee's report and consideration of its recommendations will have an impact on the timing of those consultations. In addition, in view of the size of the draft, it will also be necessary to allow a number of weeks for stakeholders to respond once they receive the draft. I understand that the pre-legislative scrutiny report is expected to be received by mid-May. Subject to the drafting of the Bill being sufficiently advanced, a draft of the Bill may be circulated to stakeholders in mid-June. Perhaps during the course of all of that work there can be further consideration of and reflection on the governance structures.
On crime statistics, I am not quite clear on Deputy Murphy's concerns.
I will revert back to the Deputy. I will engage with the Minister on that. We are all looking for a comprehensively sound database in respect of the crime statistics.
Deputy Daly raised the issue of GSOC and historic inquiries. The volume of cases currently being heard by GSOC is quite considerable. As I have said previously, there has to be some balance, unfortunately, in terms of the work of GSOC and what gets prioritised and dealt with. There are real issues there. There are up to 2,000 cases or complaints per year but we will engage with GSOC in relation to historic inquiries. Deputy Daly referenced the Kerry babies case in particular. Perhaps there are ways of learning lessons from those cases without full commissions of inquiry being necessitated.
Maybe I took Deputy Daly up wrong but I thought he was looking for an historic inquiry into the case but we will have to assess that in the context of the capacity of GSOC, to be frank. We will look at that.
On the death of Shane O'Farrell and the scoping exercise, I have met the O'Farrell family, most recently with Deputy Niamh Smyth, who raised Shane's death initially today.
It is a very harrowing case and a very sad situation. I hope that the scoping inquiry will be brought to completion very quickly because it has been ongoing for nearly three years at this stage. Covid and so forth has not helped but that said, the family have made detailed submissions. The family have presented to me on the many issues they are concerned about with regard to the scoping inquiry. Before any decision is taken, I believe the Government and everybody will need to see the scoping inquiry report published. That will not, in itself, prejudice the decision of the Government around the initiation of a public inquiry but it is important that we would bring that to a conclusion. A lot of pain and anguish has been felt by the O'Farrell family in respect of the tragic death of Shane. Once the Minister gets the report, the Attorney General will give advice and will publish the report and any other issues that arise from that advice. Hopefully, we can bring the scoping part of it to a conclusion very quickly. Deputy O'Rourke referred to that also.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of Anne O'Connor ending her career with HSE and moving on to a career with the VHI, the voluntary health insurance body. Again, there are provisions in terms of cooling-off systems and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is examining even further provisions in that respect. If I am not mistaken, he may have published legislation in that regard. We must be balanced about the issue of people moving careers. I believe it should apply to people in senior positions such as Secretaries General and to Ministers but there is a limit too. There is the balancing of rights in terms of individual rights as well. The voluntary health insurance sector has a remit and a role. There is an argument to be made there and issues to be teased out there. If we are saying that people at different levels in different organisations cannot move or cannot change careers, we must think about that and reflect upon that in the context of the rights of the individual.
Think it through in terms of the decisions. There is information and access but to what great degree? Policy has to dictate the public health system and the public health service.
There comes a time when we must have some balance also in what we are doing on overall policy and frameworks, to be fair all around.
I do not have the full details on Deputy Barry's question on the inquest. I will come back to the Deputy on the issue he has raised.
Deputy McAuliffe asked about policing. We are working on this committee. We did not get to deal with it yesterday but at the next committee meeting hopefully will we will bring that to a conclusion. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is proceeding with the allocation of €2 million to support community partnerships and groups on the ground in the various communities. We are looking at a more comprehensive approach also.
Deputy O'Rourke also raised the issue of the Shane O'Farrell scoping inquiry, which I addressed earlier.