Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Community Safety and Investment: Motion [Private Members]


10:30 am

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

The motion gives me the opportunity to set out what the Government is doing to improve community safety through investment in An Garda Síochána to provide for additional recruitment, equipment and technology and the introduction of laws and changing structures. Most Senators referred to the riots before Christmas, but all of this investment and these changes are to benefit not only Dublin city centre but also towns, villages and cities across the country. As Senators will be aware, the Government has committed unprecedented resources to An Garda Síochána. This year, its budget is over €2.35 billion, an increase of 23% since 2020. This money means more gardaí being recruited and more Garda civilian staff, the presence of whom will free up more gardaí to carry out front-line policing duties.

We currently have approximately 14,000 members across the country, which represents an increase of 9% since 2015, when there were just over 12,800 Garda members. Despite reports this week, half of all gardaí are not eligible to retire by 2028. I think the figures were added in a cumulative way. The figure is nowhere near that and, on average, it is about 1,900, which is in line with previous years. To clarify, half of the members are not due to retire by 2028.

There has been a significant increase in Garda staff, which has enabled 900 gardaí to be freed up for front-line duties, including community policing. Just recently, we had a competition where just under 8,000 people applied to become Garda staff. Those positions are already being filled and we want to see them filled as quickly as possible.

My priority and that of the Government is to support An Garda Síochána to reach 15,000, and then to go beyond that number. We have taken a number of steps to support recruitment, including raising the age of entry from 35 to 50 and increasing the training allowance by 66%. Budget 2024 provided funding to recruit between 800 and 1,000 new Garda members. The reason I give that figure is that there will be four classes this year, not five. While the aim is to hit 225 per class, this provides some flexibility. I am sure all Senators will welcome the fact there has been strong interest in recent Garda competitions and the increased numbers that we have seen entering the college. Last year, we had 746, which was six times the number we had the previous year and the highest we have had since 2018.

I know it might not fit a narrative and that some people, although perhaps not necessarily in this House, want to blame me, Fine Gael or the Government, but we have to acknowledge the fact there are 1,000 fewer gardaí than there should be due to Covid-19. I think the right decision was taken at the time to close the college to new recruits and that those who were in the college were sent out to support front-line gardaí on the ground. However, this left us in a very difficult position where we had members retiring and leaving, as they always do, and we had no new members coming in. Nonetheless, the idea that no one wants to join is simply not borne out by the facts. Almost 6,400 people applied under the latest Garda recruitment campaign, and 5,000 applied last year. This ensures that we have a steady pipeline of recruits. The next round of graduations is on 22 March and just looking at the pipeline, there will be a very strong class entering in April. I hope to see those numbers continue throughout the year.

I was particularly glad to see that of the current applicants, 31.5% are women, which is a slight increase on the most recent recruitment campaign. In addition, 40% fall into the 35 to 49 age category, so while we had many jokes at the time, it has actually had a very positive response and those members will bring their own experience and qualities to An Garda Síochána.

While almost 8,000 people applied to become Garda staff, the reserve regulations were approved at Cabinet only in the last two weeks. There will be a new competition and they will then bolster and support the work of An Garda Síochána, and whether it is crowd management at festivals and events, supporting the tackling of antisocial behaviour or supporting road traffic police, there is a lot of work the reserve can do. We have set a target of 1,000 by the end of next year.

We have also prioritised the enactment of new laws to try to improve safety and tackle crime in our country. We have introduced legislation on body-worn cameras, and we will have pilots running in Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The first of these will start in Dublin before the summer. We have criminalised the distribution of intimate images without consent. We have doubled the maximum penalty for assault causing harm from five years to ten, increased the maximum sentence for conspiracy to murder to life in prison and introduced new stand-alone offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation. Legislation around the grooming of children, which many colleagues mentioned in the House, is due to be finalised in the coming months. This will allow gardaí to take action where they see gangs taking hold of younger people and, unfortunately, we are seeing that happen at much younger ages. We have also improved post-release supervision of sex offenders to provide for electronic tagging. Overall, many laws have been introduced which, overall, help to improve safety in our communities.

The investment being made by the Government in An Garda Síochána is having a positive impact. We have seen significant success in tackling gangland crime, noticeably the sharp decrease in gangland murders in recent years, a swathe of high-profile arrests and successful prosecutions. What we know is that when you take out the people at the top, it has a ripple effect throughout communities, in particular with regard to younger people. We have seen a significant reduction in residential burglary since Operation Thor was launched and over €345 million worth of drugs has been seized since 2015, which really has been one of the success stories. It is one of the biggest challenges in communities, particularly with younger people, so the more we can support gardaí and support their cross-collaboration with the PSNI and with international and European parties, the more work they can do.

On community policing, I agree with colleagues that community policing is at the heart of An Garda Síochána. All Garda members have a role in community policing as part of the new Garda operating model. This new operating model is being rolled out across An Garda Síochána and changes have been made in response to what gardaí on the ground have told us. One of the main benefits of the new operating model is the new community policing structures, which will mean community policing teams operating right across the country. As we increase recruitment next year and the operating model is rolled out across every Garda division, we will see the reforms to strengthen community policing really take effect. I appreciate that the model is being rolled out with 1,000 fewer gardaí than we would have anticipated having by this time, but this was a key and significant recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and it is important that this model is rolled out. I will continue to work with the Commissioner to ensure he has the resources to populate all of the teams.

Community policing areas will be created nationwide by An Garda Síochána, with a dedicated community garda given responsibility for each new community policing area to ensure we all have sight of who is our community policing member, we have a phone number and can pick up the phone and contact him or her. I agree that this is particularly to keep certain issues at bay. In order to be able to address issues before they escalate, community gardaí will play a significant role. Communities will be able to identify and contact local gardaí to address issues of local concern. They will have the responsibility to be highly visible, active and accessible in their allocated areas and to engage with local people, groups and businesses.

It is important to stress that all members of An Garda Síochána now have a duty to do that. I know people sometimes roll their eyes when we say that all gardaí are community gardaí, but they really are, irrespective of whether they are in uniform or not. I know that is something all members take extremely seriously.

With the new community partnerships, we are bringing together everyone interested in tackling community safety, not just gardaí and local councillors, but local business leaders, healthcare providers, social services and, above all, community members. Community policing and safety involve more than just policing.Community policing is about uniting and working together to address issues of criminality and antisocial behaviour and to address deep-rooted community issues by investing in communities in a co-ordinated way that perhaps has not happened before now.

Each of our partnerships, which will be rolled out nationwide this year, will develop and implement community safety plans that are tailored to the communities' needs. They will be dealt with in a co-ordinated way and addressed collectively by relevant service providers in partnership with the communities. An example is the need for additional resources. As we have seen already in Drogheda where we have a similar structure in place, the plan itself will identify the need for particular community spaces. The service providers have come together collectively and because of this they have been able to make positive applications. They are getting seed funding to get projects off the ground. This means they will be in a better position to apply for funding.

While I know that one fund for everything might seem the most appropriate way, if we have a Department that specialises in the development of amenity areas, in the development of health services or in young people it is important they are the Departments delivering but that everybody sees the benefit of them investing in particular services where they may not have previously. We can start to see this in the collaborative work happening in places such as Drogheda and the inner city where all of the agencies are starting to see the relevance of particular actions and how they can contribute not only to their priorities but to the community as a whole when it comes to safety. This is at the heart of community partnership. They will be funded in a separate way through the community safety and innovation fund. This is where innovative projects can really shine and be replicated throughout the country. While we are only coming into the third year of the partnerships we already saw projects that were awarded in the first year being replicated in other counties during the second term. I am sure we will see it again this year.

Of course we have responsibility to protect and support our youth. It is extremely unfortunate that sometimes young people need our help to avoid falling into criminality. They do of course and we are committed and determined to provide this support. Our youth justice strategy, under my colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Browne who is coming to the House after me, has been focused on this. The objective was that every area would have a youth diversion programme by the end of last year. This has happened. We have only been able to do this because we increased funding for the budget by 10%. It is now at €33 million. The objective now is to start doubling down on all of these projects and to start focusing more on where we have problem areas. In particular we are looking at early intervention for children aged between eight and 11 years, which is not covered in some of the programmes. There really needs to be a focus on younger children because we are seeing problems at a much younger age. We are working with harder-to-reach young people. As others are aware we have the green time project and other specific programmes targeting young people who are particularly vulnerable to crime. This is being led through the university in Limerick. It has only been extended in recent years because of the success of the work in An Garda Síochána. We are looking at providing family support, supporting schools to retain children with challenging behaviour and developing initiatives that are educational and preventative for young people at risk from drug use and misuse. With the additional funding provided for this year we will start to hone in on many of these areas.

Government investment in An Garda Síochána will also allow for strengthening of all Garda units including the Garda juvenile liaison officer network as necessary. I fully agree with colleagues that the more we have of these liaison officers, the better. They do fantastic work. For example, a particular programme developed by the juvenile liaison officers is the late night leagues. This is a diversionary programme with soccer leagues in various locations throughout Dublin with the juvenile liaison officers and young people. It takes people off the streets and away from other activities they might have been engaged in. It is getting them involved in sport. It is obviously getting them working with and supported by the liaison officers in developing and building relationships which, I suppose, goes back to our community policing and how key it is, particularly for young people.

Another good example of community safety work is the community safety innovation fund which I have already mentioned. It reinvests back into communities money seized as the proceeds of crime. The fund highlights the excellent work being carried out by An Garda Síochána and the Criminal Assets Bureau in identifying and seizing ill-gotten gains of criminals. We have had very positive projects over the years. We have had projects aimed at reducing antisocial behaviour, improving the feeling of safety in communities and supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence. When we speak about safety it is not only on our streets but in our homes. These projects have also promoted pro-social behaviour through education and sport and supported those experiencing drug-related intimidation. These are some of the specific programmes. The fund has increased further to €3.75 million and I will launch a call for applications later this year . I encourage communities and projects to apply.

Of course the efforts to build An Garda Síochána are fundamentally made with safety in mind. Ensuring greater safety for our communities, our neighbours, friends and families is at the heart of the Government. All of the initiatives I and my Government colleagues are laying out this evening reflect this commitment. Safety is not just the extra gardaí we are recruiting or the high-visibility policing we are supporting through our funding. Safety is every agency, every community and every committee member of the community working together. The challenges that face our communities and the most vulnerable community members go far beyond policing. I hope our new national structure and our local partnerships will help us move towards empowering communities to take ownership of their challenges and take the lead in finding solutions. They will also redefine community safety to be broader and much more inclusive of social services, local needs and co-operation beyond An Garda Síochána while keeping them at the heart of this always. Safety concerns us all. It requires a response from us all. I believe we are working together and the vast majority of us here have the same goals and objectives. I will not oppose the motion. We will work together to ensure we can continue to invest in gardaí and, above all, we can continue to invest in our communities.


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