Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

5:00 am

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for taking this Adjournment matter which relates specifically to a well-manned Garda station. Obviously he has had to make decisions about Garda resources, the restriction in opening hours at Garda stations and the closure of other stations.

I ask specifically about Malahide Garda station which serves 25,000 in the Malahide-Kinsealy-Portmarnock area. The Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner's report have recommended that the hours be restricted. What was the rationale for that recommendation? I note the Minister's response to my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary who asked if the Minister would confirm that this is a Cabinet decision, as opposed to a Garda Commissioner's decision because it had to be ratified by the Government. This is an area in which I grew up, which has expanded greatly and the Garda provide an excellent service. Residents are extremely concerned at the restrictions in opening hours at Malahide and Howth Garda stations. It means that 50,000 people in the Howth-Malahide local electoral area are without a full-time Garda station. I seek clarification on how it is proposed to operate these stations after 10 p.m.

Our concern is that crime does not stop at 10 p.m. In the north Dublin area we have the closure of Rush Garda station which up to now was a part-time station. I am also concerned that placing a restriction on the opening hours of the station affects the status of the Garda Station, that effectively it is a second class station and that we would be on a slippery slope towards closure at some time in the future. Will the Minister confirm that will not be the case? How is it envisaged the station will operate? Will the station be manned? Will telephones be answered in the station post 10 p.m.? How will it operate at weekends and during the tourist season?

While the Minister resides in the southside and I am in the north county, I am sure it is an area that attracts many thousands of tourists each year. Everyone is genuinely concerned. I am not trying to over-politicise the point, I am concerned as a resident of the town. There are further restrictions at Howth Garda station with which other colleagues will deal.

In a growing area such as this where there are approximately 38 gardaí, if these changes occur Swords, which is nearest full-time station will have to deal with all incidents from Kinsealy, Portmarnock, Baskin, Malahide, and all the way to the peninsula in Howth, encompassing Sutton and Baldoyle. I hope this issue can be looked at again and the decision revised in order that 24 hour, seven day a week cover can be provided at the station. I am opposed to the decision. I do not think it will result in any savings. I would be interested to know if there are any financial savings accruing from this decision.

Given that part-time stations, such as Rush in north Dublin, are now closed, I cannot see how any financial savings can be made with the closure of that station and the restrictions at Malahide Garda station. As the Minister is aware, it is our duty as Oireachtas members to ensure our citizens are safe. I do not believe that restricting the opening hours and closing public access to a Garda station such as at Malahide, will do anything to improve people's safety, and I ask him to improve Garda presence.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I appreciate that as a public representative he is concerned about the matter. I sometimes wonder whether some of the Fianna Fáil Senators and Deputies are living in a parallel universe. The Senator will recall that the last Government entered the European Commission, ECB and IMF bailout agreement, having managed to totally destroy the economy and overspend to a degree that was extraordinary. As a consequence, the Government entered into an agreement which requires a reduction in Garda numbers and the reduction will be effected over the coming years and is part of the agreement to reduce the numbers in the public service. The steps taken must be seen in the context of the comprehensive review of expenditure, conducted not just by the Department of Justice and Equality but by the Garda Commissioner to ensure that resources are used efficiently and to the maximum benefit of the community.

As the Senator knows I recently laid before this House the policing plan for 2012. This plan, prepared by the Garda Commissioner under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, sets out the proposed arrangements for the policing of the State during the coming year. Under the plan, 31 Garda stations will be closed in 2012, and a further eight Garda stations, which are currently non-operational, will be formally closed. In addition, the public opening hours of ten Garda stations, including Malahide Garda station and two in my constituency, will be reduced. These stations, currently open to the public on a 24-hour basis, will in future be open to the public from 8 am until 10 p.m. each day. It is important to emphasise that we are talking about closing the access to these stations during the night, not closing the stations. The stations will still be used for the provision of general policing services for the locality.

The purpose of this change is not to directly save money, but to make better use of resources, a crucial objective not only for the Garda Síochána but for the entire public service. Instead of having gardaí behind the public counter in these stations during the night, when few people come into the station, those gardaí will be available for front-line operational duties, which will benefit the Senator's constituents. As I said, this is the implementation of a long-promised reform measure.

The reality is that the demand for the services available at the public counter in a Garda station during the night is very limited. People who contact the Garda Síochána during the night generally do so in circumstances of operational urgency, not for the more administrative-type services normally provided over the counter. These services, such as completing forms and authenticating documents, are extremely valuable, but do not need to be available round the clock in every Dublin station, especially considering the proximity of other Garda stations which will still be open to the public on a 24-hour basis. We currently have 703 Garda stations, 47 of which are located in Dublin. I am anxious to ensure that we use the force to the best possible effect to engage in front-line activity as opposed to late night administrative duties. By freeing-up gardaí from counter duty, this change will mean that more gardaí than would otherwise be the case can be deployed on operational duties. This will be a much better use of resources and mean a better policing service. This is the professional judgment of the Garda Commissioner.

The Garda Síochána, like all public service agencies, will have reduced resources in the times ahead, and must introduce efficiencies to make the best use of those resources. This change, which is targeted for introduction in the first quarter of 2012, is just such an efficiency. I firmly believe that the Garda Commissioner should be supported in introducing such reforms. There is no reason of any nature for local concern nor for any Member of this House to foment such local concern. The Commissioner has reiterated the commitment of the Garda Síochána to provide a professional and effective policing service, and I have full confidence in the force's capacity to do this in Malahide and in every area across the country.

It is the Garda Commissioner who makes operational decisions of this nature and the policing report he furnished to me was brought to Government. Essentially, the Commissioner in consultation with the Minister for Justice and Equality makes the decisions in this area. The Commissioner makes the operational decisions and I do not wander around the country trying to identify which stations may close early or which stations should be closed. Let me reiterate that we are not on the slippery slope, as the Senator suggested. I cannot predict what future decisions may be made by the Garda Commissioner, but let me give some examples. As the Senator is aware, Rush Garda station opened for a limited number of hours and its closure will not result in fewer gardaí in the area because there is another Garda station in reasonable proximity and in the Commissioner's judgment, gardaí will be more readily available for front-line services.

The efficiencies sought to be effected by the decisions in respect of the closure of certain stations and the shorter opening hours of others will ensure a more efficient use of Garda resources in the interests of the taxpayers. This is the first stage of a study examining the numbers of people using individual stations, and operational and policing needs. I expect the Commissioner will further revisit the issue of Garda stations for 2013.

I give the Senator's constituents every assurance that this will not affect operational frontline services, rather it will ensure that members of the force will not be sitting behind a desk late at night but will be ready to engage in front-line policing activities. That is the view of the Commissioner and I fully support the action he has taken.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I hope his commitment this evening that there will be better policing in the Malahide area will bear fruit. His suggestion of Oireachtas Members fomenting local concerns is unfortunate. I was born and reared in Malahide and I have genuine concerns, which I am perfectly entitled to raise in this House. I do not live in a parallel universe, I live in Malahide and am entitled to raise the concerns expressed by friends, family and neighbours on the restricted opening hours of the Garda station. The over-politicisation of the Minister's response is another stark example——

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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There is another Garda station.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I asked a question, the Minister gave his answer, but we will see what will be borne out. We will see what the public think about these measures.

I thank the Minister for being in the House. I have not tried to over-politicise the issue.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister wish to respond?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The world did not start on 9 March 2011. Many of the difficult decisions being made with regard to effecting efficiencies and use of resources are being made not only in the interests of taxpayers but by the State under pressure because of the appalling financial legacy inherited by the current Government from the Senator and his colleagues during their time in Government.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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It is an attitude like that which ensured the Government lost the referendum about the powers of the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries into matters of general public importance.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Minister without interruption.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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In so far as there is an issue of a shortage of resources or reducing resources, I do not think there is anything wrong with pointing out the origin of the difficulty. I want to congratulate the gardaí in Malahide, Rush and across north County Dublin for the tremendous work they are doing both in policing the area and in preventing crime.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I agree.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Frequently the focus is on investigating crimes after they have occurred but there has been a substantial reduction in crimes committed across the broad range of areas in each of the last three quarters for which we have statistics. I want to congratulate the Garda Síochána on the work its members are doing and I wish the force across the country well as we are heading into Christmas. I wish the Senator and his constituents a peaceful and hopefully a crime free Christmas.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House. It is not too often that I have the opportunity to address him, but on this occasion I am asking him to explain the rationale for the proposed closure of Corrandulla Garda barracks in County Galway, and how the area will be serviced, should the closure go ahead.

The closure of 31 Garda stations was announced on 5 December 2011, and the Garda barracks in Corrandulla was included in that list. Corrandulla and Annaghdown is a rapidly expanding townland in County Galway with a population of about 3,858, and 1,300 homes. The population will continue to expand in the coming years, given the popularity of the area. It is located approximately 12 miles — an easy commuting distance — from Galway city and ten miles from Oranmore. It was previously served by Headford Garda station but owing to boundary changes is now classed as being in the Tuam area. This is significant because Tuam is quite a distance from Corrandulla. The nearest Garda stations are located in Galway and Oranmore. Not unsurprisingly, the residents are extremely upset and angry and have stated they do not feel safe, particularly in the absence of a high level of Garda monitoring. There used to be one sergeant and two gardaí in the town, but now there is only one garda who does not have fixed hours. The Garda presence in the area is, therefore, relatively minor.

I am seeking to discover the rationale behind this move and when the Minister plans to proceed with it. Why was Corrandulla barracks selected for closure? A statement has been made to the effect that it is planned to sell the barracks. Will the Minister indicate the position in this regard and state what will be done with the money which accrues from the sale? Will such money be ring-fenced and reinvested in Garda activities? How will the area to which I refer be served in the absence of a Garda station?

I wrote to the Minister about this matter on 12 December. I raise it this evening because a public meeting is due to be held imminently and I am interested in obtaining the facts from him. It is important that they be provided because Members need to be able to respond to those whom they represent. When a group of children visited Parliament today, I informed them that the Seanad was the people's House and that we were their representatives. While we might believe we are always jumping in order to give them what they want, at times that is exactly what we should do. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. She has stated she wrote to me on 12 December. I must inform her that at approximately 6.30 a.m on 13 December I flew to Brussels for a meeting of European Justice Ministers and only returned just before lunchtime today. I have not, therefore, had an opportunity to reply to her letter.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is fine.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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To put the matter in context, I recently laid before the House the policing plan for 2012. This plan, prepared by the Garda Commissioner under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, sets out the proposed arrangements for the policing of the State during the coming year. Under it, 31 Garda stations will be closed in 2012, while a further eight currently non-operational will be formally closed. The eight stations in question were all closed for refurbishment works on the watch of my predecessors. However, refurbishment works were never carried out. One of the stations has been non-operational but not officially closed since 1986. Corrandulla Garda station is one of the 31 stations due to be closed in 2012. As stated in reply to the previous matter, the public opening hours of ten Garda stations will be reduced. These stations are currently open to the public on a 24-hour basis, but in the future they will be open from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day.

In reaching a decision on the closure of each of the 31 Garda stations in question the Commissioner reviewed all aspects of the Garda Síochána's policing model, including the deployment of personnel, the utilisation of modern technologies and the operation of Garda stations, both in terms of opening hours and possible closures. In addition, all divisional officers were asked to assess the level of activity in each Garda station in their areas. Based on all the evidence, the Commissioner concluded that resources could be better deployed and more effectively used on the front line if these stations no longer had to be staffed and maintained. This is a crucial point. As with every other public sector organisation, the Garda Síochána will be obliged to manage with reduced resources. Unfortunately, that is the legacy we inherited from the previous Government. The House will be aware that, under plans agreed by the previous Government arising from commitments made in the EU-IMF agreement, Garda numbers are being reduced. It is vital, therefore, that the best use be made of the available resources and, in particular, that priority be given to front-line operational duties.

It must be noted that Corrandulla Garda station is located in the Galway district which is in the Galway division. There are 257 gardaí assigned to the Galway district and approximately 600 to the Galway division. These resources are augmented, when appropriate, by gardaí from national units such as the Garda national drugs unit and the National Bureau for Criminal Investigation. The Commissioner has reiterated the commitment of the Garda Síochána to providing a professional and effective service for the community in all areas, including Corrandulla. In the coming months local Garda management in places where stations are going to be closed will consult local communities in order to determine how best to continue to deliver a policing service in their area.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Garda Síochána. I have complete confidence in the capacity of the force to continue to provide an excellent policing service in Corrandulla and throughout the country. Furthermore, the Commissioner should have the support of the House as he introduces necessary reforms to ensure Garda resources will be used in the most effective way in order that the best possible policing service will be provided for the public. Instead of manning Corrandulla Garda station for brief periods during the day, the officer to whom the Senator refers will be more available to carry out front-line duties.

The Garda stations which are being closed are all owned by the Office of Public Works. The Government is considering different possibilities in respect of different stations. Some will be sold and the proceeds utilised for a variety of purposes. Discussions are ongoing as to whether these purposes will relate primarily to policing matters or whether the money will in the context of the limited funding available to the State be put to other uses. Where appropriate, some premises may be utilised by other State agencies. For example, where they are in good condition, they could be used to provide mental health services or for community purposes. However, this will only be in circumstances where the State no longer retains a liability for their maintenance and refurbishment. In the context of some of the stations being closed, a proportion of the financial savings made will derive from the State no longer being obliged to pay utility costs on an annualised basis. I accept that at some stations these costs are relatively small. It must not be the case that the State will remain liable for incurring substantial costs for the refurbishment, maintenance or, in some instances, part reconstruction of these premises in the coming years. In that context, we must ensure we use our resources more efficiently.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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There is a small degree of conflict between the information provided by the Minister and that available to me. I do not know whether the information provided by him is correct. People living in the area have informed me that Corrandulla is served by the Garda station in Tuam, but the Minister has indicated that it is located in the Galway district. It would certainly be more appropriate for it to be served by gardaí from that district. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position on that matter.

The Minister has indicated that a decision on how best to cater for Corrandulla's policing needs will be taken in the aftermath of a consultation process involving the Garda sergeant and local people. Will that process involve the holding of public meetings or will it proceed on an ad hoc basis? That is the substantive issue, on which I would be grateful if the Minister could provide some more information.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Operational matters are very much the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner and I have left it to him to decide how best to engage in whatever consultative process will be required. That process will not focus on whether stations should be closed or remain open. In the context of smaller stations, the consultative process will focus primarily on providing reassurances for local communities that they will continue to have access to the full assistance of the Garda Síochána. In so far as there may be special local issues about which communities are concerned, individuals will have the opportunity to communicate their concerns about such issues during the process in order to ensure they will be addressed. The Commissioner will be arranging for the consultative process to be engaged in by officers at local level. I expect it to get under way soon.

On the issue raised by the Senator in respect of Tuam, the information at my disposal is as contained in my initial reply. If, however, further clarification is required, I will communicate with the Senator in writing.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister.