Seanad debates

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Garda Síochána (Functions and Operational Areas) Bill 2021: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister for Justice to the House and she has ten minutes initially.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to bring the Garda Síochána (Functions and Operational Areas) Bill 2021 before the House. The Bill facilitates the introduction of a new Garda Síochána operating model and provides for drug-testing of Garda members, and civilian staff, working within An Garda Síochána. The main aim of the legislation is to make the technical changes needed to allow the operating model to be fully rolled out.

The new operating model will enhance the structure, processes and governance of An Garda Síochána, shifting a greater emphasis to local policing. The Bill amends references to Garda districts on the Statute Book to facilitate a divisional policing model. Most of the references to "Garda district" will be replaced with references to "Garda division". All services will be managed and co-ordinated at divisional level.

Divisions will be the primary operational and administrative units, acting as building blocks for the delivery of day-to-day policing. They will be more responsive to community needs and demands. The move from a district model to a divisional model has been recommended by the Garda Inspectorate on the basis that it would lead to greater consistency in the use of resources and would provide an opportunity to deploy members of the Garda with specific skills into certain areas such as the investigation of economic crime and cybercrime and, of relevance to our discussion later today, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Most importantly for the public, the new model will provide increased Garda visibility, more front-line gardaí and a wide range of specialised policing services in their local area.

At present, there are 28 divisions, each divided into districts. Under the new structure, there will be 19 larger divisions with autonomy to run local operations, while ensuring consistency and quality of service within the corporate framework. A division will have four functional areas covering: community engagement whichincludes roads, victim support, incident response and community policing; crime, which includes serious crime, security intelligence and immigration; performance assurance, which includes performance standards, internal discipline and engagement with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission; and, finally, business services, which includes finance and logistics, human resources and general administration.

The operating model is being implemented within the wider programme of policing reform under A Policing Service for the Future, which is the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. In September 2018, the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published.The report presents a very clear vision for the future of An Garda Síochána. The consultation by the commission led to the development of key principles for policing in Ireland with a comprehensive set of recommendations to meet current and future challenges. This Bill relates to a significant part of the plan, that is, the introduction of a new organisational operating model for An Garda Síochána.

The Garda Inspectorate's Changing Policing in Ireland report of 2015 also supports the organisational changes being made. It underlines the advantages of having a smaller number of divisions and regions proposed in the new structure.

The operating model is being introduced as part of the Commissioner’s role under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 for the general management and administration of the organisation, including the deployment of members of An Garda Síochána throughout the State. Work has been under way for some time in An Garda Síochána to prepare for and implement the new organisational structure. The model was announced by the Commissioner in August 2019.

The Bill will also amend the rank at which certain responsibilities are assigned to ensure that the output and delivery of relevant services are not affected by the changes being made. There are numerous responsibilities assigned, in statute, to Garda members at superintendent rank. Given that roles at superintendent level are to be allocated on a functional rather than geographical basis, some statutory functions assigned to superintendents under the current model would be concentrated with a single superintendent of a division under a new structure. As this concentration of workload would impact on the delivery of the relevant services, for this reason the Bill reassigns some of the functions of a superintendent to the rank of inspector.

Part 4 of the Bill concerns amendments to the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to provide for drug testing within An Garda Síochána. A recent report of the independent Garda Síochána Inspectorate, entitled Countering the Threat of Internal Corruption, found that An Garda Síochána should further develop substance abuse policies and procedures, and introduce testing mechanisms. The amendments in this Bill will address those recommendations and will contribute to preventing and reducing corruption.

The establishment of an anti-corruption unit by the Commissioner in November 2020 highlights that the organisation is developing a range of policies to combat corruption in all of its forms. The introduction of drug testing will contribute to upholding the reputation and the integrity of An Garda Síochána, and to maintaining public confidence in the quality of policing services that are being delivered. The Bill, while technical, is an important piece of the legislative framework enabling the progression of policing reform measures.

Turning now to the individual provisions of the Bill. Section 1 contains the standard Short Title and commencement provisions. Section 2 sets out definitions used in the Bill.

Section 3 revokes the , which set out that the Garda Síochána is to be divided into districts and divisions. Subsections (2), (3) and (4) of section 3 are transitional provisions concerning the revocation of Regulation 1, which relates to divisions.These transitional provisions are necessitated by the fact that the operating model is to be introduced on a division-by-division basis. The legal basis for the model will be the determination of the Commissioner under section 33 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. Subsection (5) provides definitions for terms used in that section.

Section 4 provides for the amendment of 32 Acts set out in Schedule 1 and seven statutory instruments set out in Schedule 2. References in that legislation to Garda "districts" will be replaced with references to "divisions" or other appropriate wording. It also amends references to "the superintendent" of a district. In most cases, this will be replaced with references to "a superintendent" in a division. This change is necessary, given that there will be multiple superintendents in each division. In some cases, this will be replaced with references to "an inspector".

The transfer of responsibilities is being made to ensure that the new structure does not have any impact on the delivery of the relevant services. The Bill makes this change in respect of gaming and lotteries in the context of the issue of fitness and probity certificates for the purposes of betting licences and for managers and beneficial owners of private members' gaming clubs. Where the function concerned is administrative in nature, for example, notice of a court application is to be given, the Bill assigns those functions to inspector level.

While not directly related to the introduction of the operating model, an issue was identified during the drafting process that a number of pieces of legislation refer to the "Dublin Metropolitan Area". This term is not used by An Garda Síochána, nor is it defined in legislation. The Bill makes amendments to clarify that references to the "Dublin Metropolitan Area" are to be read as references to the "Dublin Metropolitan Region", which is a region of An Garda Síochána.

Section 5 provides for the amendment of miscellaneous provisions listed in Schedules 3 and 4 to replace the phrase "district or place" with "area or place". There are several provisions across the Statute Book that use this phrase. They generally allow for a requirement to be imposed on a person that he or she reside in a particular district or place. This is the case when a person is released on bail, for example. As the word "district" could be understood to be a Garda district, it is being replaced with the word "area".

Section 6 provides for the amendment of the Firearms Act 1925 to provide a power for a superintendent to delegate specific functions. It inserts a new section 25CA into the Act. Under this section, a superintendent may appoint an inspector to perform certain licensing functions of the superintendent under the Act. These functions will remain at superintendent level. However, the proposed legislation facilitates the delegation by a superintendent of those functions, other than revocation functions, to an inspector. As the new Garda divisions will be larger in geographical size, it is envisaged that the delegation mechanism will be used to avoid the build-up of backlogs under the new model.

Section 7 amends section 10 of the , which requires persons to whom the legislation applies to make certain specific notifications at a district or divisional headquarters. References to district headquarters are to be removed, as they will no longer exist. Instead, the Commissioner will be able to designate stations other than district headquarters at which notifications can be made. The designation of Garda Síochána stations will be in writing and a list of the relevant stations must be published.

Section 8 is similar to section 7. It amends section 92 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which requires a person to whom the legislation applies to make certain specific notifications at a district or divisional headquarters. The reference to district headquarters is to be removed, as they will no longer exist. The Commissioner will be able to designate stations other than district headquarters at which notifications can be made. The designation of Garda Síochána stations will be made in writing and a list of the relevant stations must be published.

Section 9 provides a power for the Minister to amend specific references to a Garda district or Garda rank in statutory instruments and to make certain other amendments to give effect to a determination of the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána under of the which deals with the distribution of Garda members. The purpose of this section is to allow the Minister to make a statutory instrument to amend other statutory instruments that refer to the word "district". It is intended that any such amendment will be along the same lines as those being made in the Bill.

Section 10 is a general provision designed to capture any reference to Garda districts in the Statute Book that are not amended by the Bill. It clarifies that references to "district" on the Statute Book can be construed as references to the equivalent division. It also provides that references to superintendent in the context of a district are to be construed as references to a superintendent of the Garda Síochána in the equivalent division.

Section 11 provides that a reference in legislation to a Garda division will be read as a reference to a Garda Síochána division. This is to clarify the meaning of "Garda division", which is not generally defined in legislation at the moment.

Section 12 provides for the construction of references to Royal Irish Constabulary or Civic Guard districts as Garda Síochána divisions. There are several references to police districts in legislation dating from before the establishment of An Garda Síochána. This provision makes it clear that they are now to be understood as references to Garda divisions.

Sections 13 to 27, inclusive, are transitional provisions relating to the amendments being made by section 4. The transitional provisions address situations where, for example, court proceedings relating to an Act being amended are ongoing at the time the legislation comes into force. They will also address situations where an application has been submitted before the date of commencement but has not yet been determined. The purpose of the section is to ensure that court processes or applications will not in any way be adversely affected by the coming into force of the legislation.

Section 28 amends section 3(1) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. It adds the definitions of "controlled drug", "psychoactive substance" and "sample" to the 2005 Act.

Section 29 amends section 26 of the 2005 Act. It provides that the Garda Commissioner may perform the functions assigned to him or her by regulations that establish, maintain and operate the drug testing regime.

Section 30 amends section 122(1) of the 2005. It adds the establishment, maintenance and operation of a drug testing regime to the list of issues for which the Minister may, having consulted with the Garda Commissioner and with the approval of the Government, utilise a regulation-making power. Section 30(b) inserts a new subsection in the 2005 Act that sets out the individuals to whom drug testing will apply: applicants to the position of Garda member; Garda trainees; existing members; and civilian staff of An Garda Síochána.

Section 31 amends section 123(2) of the 2005 Act. This amendment expands upon the Minister's pre-existing regulation-making power with regard to discipline. It provides that any drug test failure or any failure to comply with the drug testing regulations made under section 30 will result in a disciplinary procedure.

Section 32 amends Schedule 5 to the 2005 Act, which deals with breaches of discipline. Section 32 reflects the fact that intoxication in the context of a breach of discipline includes "liquor, controlled drugs or psychoactive substances" as opposed to the Schedule previously referring to "liquor and drugs" only.

I thank Senators for their attention. This Bill is just one part of a wider programme of reform measures being undertaken by An Garda Síochána, a programme that includes several legislative measures. I look forward to debating each of them in the House with colleagues in the near future.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister. There was a lot to get through there.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus an mBille chomh maith. The Minister has gone through some of the extensive details. This is not a small Bill, although I recognise that it is largely technical. I congratulate the Minister on introducing it because she and all Members of this House want as effective a police force as we can manage. Where that requires legislative change, it is appropriate that we make those changes in a Bill such as this.

This is a technical Bill. Reading through it, I was astonished to learn how many times the term "Dublin Metropolitan Area" was used even though that structure does not actually exist. It is appropriate and welcome that this be corrected. There are references to much older legislation, for example, the Dublin Police Act, which shows how out of date some of our legislation is. It reminds me of the statute law revision project that is under way within the Office of the Attorney General. Given that offences are still being prosecuted in courts in Dublin under the Dublin Police Act, it is high time that we reformed the area and considered changing those offences or bringing them under the aegis of legislation such as this.

I have stated a number of times that, to the greatest extent possible, we should be moving towards amending older Acts and creating new ones rather than having a raft of legislation that refers to earlier parts, but the breadth of Acts referred to in this Bill is such that I understand why the Bill has been put together in this way.

The organisational structure is largely academic. Given that the report has recommended certain steps, I do not have a difficulty with them. I cannot say with any authority whether they will work, but I accept the Minister's assertion that this Bill is providing an assurance that there will be a continued effectiveness of the Garda at every level under those changes. Setting that aside, the part that jumps out most at me is the drug testing element.It is surprising that there has not been a facility to test gardaí and that should also extend to prison officers. These people, who are particularly vulnerable to manipulation if they are engaging in illegal activity relating to drugs, should be in a different category from ordinary citizens. There are obviously difficulties from the point of view of bodily integrity and constitutional rights with the population as a whole. However, if a member of An Garda Síochána who is there to enforce the law on drugs, is engaging in illegal activity, it creates a unique vulnerability for corruption and can create other difficulties for that member. I welcome the provisions in section 30 to provide for the power for drug testing of gardaí. It protects the gardaí, themselves, assuming that they are not engaging in such activity, which is true of the vast majority of gardaí because no aspersions can be cast on them for their behaviour in that regard. I also welcome that provision.

The anti-corruption thread in the Bill is very important. I welcome steps the Commissioner has taken to deal with corruption. Where there is corruption in a police force - we have seen that elsewhere on this island - it is pervasive in the damage it does to society. It erodes confidence in that force and erodes the ability of that force to do its work because if the people do not have confidence in the force and it does not enjoy their support, it cannot function. I welcome all attempts to ensure we have a force that is above reproach in that regard. I hope and think that is true of most members - obviously, it cannot be true of all of them, just as it is not true of every member of any category. I welcome what the Commissioner has done and what this Bill will do to ensure we have the greatest possible protections against corruption in legislation.

I wish to address some particular aspects of the Bill. I know the Minister is introducing this legislation to ensure we have as effective a police force as possible. Not being an expert on the subject, I cannot make a particular statement on the provisions relating to the reorganisation. However, there may be missed opportunities.

For example, section 7 amends section 10 of the Sex Offenders Act. We often speak about the sex offenders register that applies to people convicted of certain offences. There is a view at large that there is in Garda stations a big paper ledger that can be opened and one can go to page 52 and there is the guy who is a sex offender and it is possible to see that the person is on the register. Of course, that does not reflect the reality at all. The sex offenders register is not, in fact, a register in real terms, but a set of obligations placed on a person who is convicted of offences.

One of the gaps that was created in the Sex Offenders Act 2001 was the requirement for a sex offender to notify a Garda district headquarter. It did not have to be the one in which they were living or the one in which they were about to live, for example, if they were changing address. It meant that somebody living in Wexford could in theory notify Letterkenny Garda district headquarters. Maybe that has been fixed but I do not think it has. There might be an opportunity to amend this Bill to correct a small gap in the sex offenders legislation. I would obviously welcome corrections there.

I also welcome the change to section 3 of the Bail Act which makes absolute sense. It can sometimes be unnecessarily difficult if bail conditions specify the station or district within which things must be done.

Many Garda stations are not open 24 hours a day. The Minister will be aware that dealing with stations that are not open 24 hours a day creates a difficulty for people. Reorganising the administrative areas in that way would probably make it administratively simpler for people to do what courts require them to do. Has any consideration been given to Garda stations that are not open 24 hours a day? Has there been any examination of Garda stations that were closed? Stepaside Garda station is probably the most famous station that was reopened. I do not know if there has been any review of the effectiveness of that. In my area the Garda stations at Kill of the Grange and Dalkey were closed. Have we done any assessment of whether that has had an impact on the policing of the local area? Can we reassure people that it has not?

There is much in the Bill and I welcome it. I have not even gone through all the notes I had on it. It will bring about effective and positive change to policing in Ireland. I wish the Minister luck with it and I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister is very welcome back to the House this afternoon to address this issue. I commend her on outlining in detail the contents of the Bill, which, as she said, is mainly technical in nature. I note the Commissioner's comments on the Bill. He said:

These changes will see us deliver a more responsive, more efficient and better service to local communities.

It will mean increased numbers of gardaí working on the frontline, better investigations of crimes against the vulnerable such as sexual crime, and community policing teams dedicated to working with communities to identify and tackle problem crimes in their area.

How could anybody have a problem with any of that? If it delivers what he hopes, we will all be happy.

I take this opportunity to again pay tribute to the gardaí on the ground who do such great work on behalf of us all. They go to work in the morning with no guarantee that they will come back to their loved ones that evening. We should never lose sight of that. Unfortunately, there have been too many examples of gardaí who went to their work in the morning and never returned. I acknowledge the work they have done, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The experience of people I have spoken to throughout the country has been very positive. It may have been because garda shifts were extended to 12-hour shifts which resulted in more gardaí out on the streets. It allowed for more engagement with the general public, which is very positive, something that was perhaps lost in recent years. I was delighted to see that engagement being so positive. It is something we should reflect on. It shows the benefit of having gardaí on the streets during peak times when they are most needed.

My experience of the centralisation of services has not always been a positive. I am thinking of the centralisation of health services, in particular. I am concerned about how this will work out on the ground. In my neck of the woods, the headquarters of the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division is located in Monaghan town where I live and it caters for Cavan and Monaghan. Under this new proposal, we will lose that because that division will be amalgamated with the one in County Louth, with the headquarters located in Louth. I am concerned about that because Louth has towns like Dundalk and Drogheda which have problems requiring greater policing than a town like Monaghan or Cavan would have. That is not to say we do not have our own problems, but perhaps resources will be located in Louth as opposed to in Cavan or Monaghan. I cannot be certain that will be the outcome and I sincerely hope that will not be the case. Will there be a review mechanism to see how these things are working out in practice? Will there be an opportunity to have a look at this down the road to see how it is performing?

On that subject, the Garda district as it was will no longer exist. The system of Garda district meant there was focus on all activity within that district and it was very much localised. There is no more word of Garda districts with only talk of divisions and those divisions will be bigger. Some people are concerned about the effect that will have on policing at a local level where resources will naturally be targeted in areas where crime is at its highest, which is only right. I sincerely hope it will not be at the expense of places like counties Monaghan and Cavan.

By and large, I welcome the Bill. Every organisation needs to look at itself from time to time to see how it can improve and the Garda Síochána should be no different in that regard.There have been wide and extensive discussions about this between the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority and everybody seems to be happy to move forward with this model, albeit I have voiced my concerns about how that might work out on the ground. There are new anti-corruption methods and there is drug testing. That is welcome and should be taken as a given.

In this country, there has been a unique relationship between the people and the Garda. It is something very special. We talk about best international practice as the model on which we should try to model our system, but I believe we are unique. We have an unarmed police force. There always has been, is and hopefully always will be a unique close relationship between citizens and members of the Garda. It is unique to this country and it is something we should hold onto at all costs.

In summary, I welcome this legislation. I have mentioned some of my concerns and perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to comment on them. We all embrace anything that delivers a better service to our communities. Any system that results in more gardaí on the beat, dealing and interacting with people, is something for which we all strive. I hope the Bill does what it says on the tin, if I can use that expression, and that the general public will be the beneficiary of it. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I am delighted to support it. I hope it results in an even better relationship between the Garda and the people it serves and protects daily.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. I fully support this legislation. The need for An Garda Síochána to modernise its structures is beyond contradiction. I recall that when I occupied the current Minister's office I introduced the Garda Síochána Act 2005 as part of the reorganisation of An Garda Síochána. However, we knew at that time it was very definitely only the first stage of a much more radical programme of reformation that was necessary. One of the things I remember being conscious of at the time was that the Garda districts and areas seemed to be based, in part, on old Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC, policing areas. Some of them were quite extraordinary. They crossed provincial boundaries and were about as logical as ancient Irish diocesan boundaries in some cases. Obviously, this cannot be the case. It is necessary to have groupings within An Garda Síochána where specialism can exist. With sexual offences and the like, it is necessary to have a cohort of gardaí available in any area of An Garda Síochána where there will be specialism and a teamwork approach, with opportunities for promotion within the specialisms of An Garda Síochána. Therefore, I fully support this legislation and I commend the Minister and the Garda Commissioner on proceeding with it.

I have no doubt that it will be unwelcome for some people because it will close off the number of chief superintendent posts and the like, which some people may think is a problem in terms of their career ladder or career ambitions, but this is a small State and we have to organise our resources properly. Even now when there is a record number of members of An Garda Síochána, it does not make sense to deploy them on the basis of a pattern of population distribution that is a century out of date at this stage.

There is a second point I wish to raise. I am apprehensive that creating bigger areas creates a particular issue that we must address, and I am not against doing so. The issue that has to be considered is the relationship between An Garda Síochána and local communities. I will give the Minister an example. I was speaking to a shopkeeper some years ago in Rooskey, County Roscommon - I have a personal connection with that area - and he told me that on one occasion a number of people came into his premises and were bent on plundering it. He sought Garda protection and asked for an intervention from the gardaí in Carrick-on-Shannon, which is 12 or 15 miles away. He was told that he should contact the gardaí in Boyle in County Roscommon, which is another 15, 20 or perhaps 30 minutes north of Roscommon if he wanted help. What I am saying about boundaries is that there has to be flexibility too. If something serious is going on in one district or if a person carrying on a business needs help urgently, these boundaries must be flexible. We cannot have a situation where somebody is told that he or she must contact somebody 30 or 40 miles away when the person is facing an emergency. The same would apply to domestic violence and many other things. We cannot have a situation where people are deprived of policing services by arbitrary lines drawn on maps. People are entitled to some flexibility in these matters.

The next thing I wish to raise is something on which I have to express a sense of disappointment. I touched on it this morning on the Order of Business in respect of the Defence Forces and voluntarism. An Garda Síochána is in danger of becoming isolated from local contact. If one is patrolling an area in rural Ireland or urban Ireland from a patrol car and if one is supposed to know who is who in the community and to have local intelligence, local contact and local support from the community, an ongoing permanent sense of relationship is required between those who police an area and those who are policed and protected by An Garda Síochána. It was with that in mind and with the very strong support of the Fine Gael Party at the time, and against some opposition it must be said, that the concept of a Garda Reserve was included in the Garda Síochána Act. I have to tell the Minister, and she probably hears this quietly because there is a sense of loyalty among those reservists who have been effectively discarded, demobilised and left unused, that the current regime relating to the Garda Reserve is very unsatisfactory. I had the view that we should have reservists from Tallaght just as much as reservists from Rooskey - people who are in the area, who identify with the Garda and who people in the area felt they knew and could talk to as members of An Garda Síochána even if they were not on active duty as reservists.

I brought the media over to Chester in Wales to see how the reserve constables operated in England and Wales. They were a little shocked when they met an intensive care unit, ICU, nurse, a wonderful woman, who in her spare time, as if she would have much spare time, was a reserve woman police constable. She believed in giving back even more to her community. I hope the current Garda Commissioner does not take this wrongly, but I think there is a slight danger that the idea of reserve policemen coming from north of the Border is slightly tainted in some people's minds as a problem rather than an opportunity. I implore the Minister to encourage the Garda Commissioner to complete his review and to reactivate the reservists. There are many men and women in Ireland who want to help, who want to be the local points of contact and who want to assist the Garda Síochána in their area, but they have been neglected and effectively made redundant. It is an insult to their patriotism that they are left in their current position.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I thank the Minister for outlining the comprehensive, important and far-reaching aspects of the Bill before us. As the Minister said, it is presented as a technical Bill to implement a new Garda operating model. As colleagues in the House have acknowledged, and I am sure others will, it makes sense that an organisation as large and of such importance as An Garda Síochána would take the opportunity through the Department and this legislation to re-evaluate how it is functioning and operating in a modern context. Set alongside the new model is the main aim, which is described as introducing structural changes to provide for more front-line gardaí, increase Garda visibility and ensure a wider range of policing services for local communities. The objectives of the Bill have been warmly welcomed in this Chamber and will be particularly welcome in communities across this State that are desperately in need of the support of An Garda Síochána to ward off violent criminals and prevent criminal acts.

The test that the Bill sets itself, and therefore the Garda, is a tall order in any set of circumstances. However, in circumstances of restructuring, there are serious concerns that the changes could lead to less Garda visibility and a loss of some resources in some rural areas that the force may have had. That was touched on by my colleague Senator Gallagher. It is the responsibility of the leadership team of An Garda Síochána to ensure the aim of front-line visibility is realised.

As colleagues have acknowledged, it is a good idea to introduce a drug-testing policy into the police service. It will bring An Garda Síochána into line with international best practice.

We are told the Bill must be passed without delay to meet the pilot scheme deadline. It might sound presumptuous but I would have expected its radical aims to be part of a considered, thoughtful and worked-out plan. As part of a worked-out plan, those officers in certain ranks facing a change in their status should be compensated appropriately and fairly. However, Sinn Féin supports this Bill on the grounds that the aims it is setting are worthy and beneficial to the people and the police service in the joint enterprise of making society safer for everyone except criminals.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. It is good to see her back.

Like other Members, including Senator Gallagher, it is important to express my gratitude, and that of the communities I represent, to An Garda Síochána. It is important to pay tribute to those who put on the uniform and go out to protect our communities. They do so in the knowledge that they may not return home. Unfortunately, this has happened in the State over many years. It is important when talking about individual gardaí and the Garda that we all acknowledge the wonderful service they give to this country. That is acknowledged every time we speak in this House and, indeed, as every other opportunity we get.

I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak on the legislation before the House. As the Minister stated, it is part of a comprehensive reform agenda. It is a technical measure, we were told, but it represents a quite substantial change in itself. The stated intention of the Garda Síochána (Functions and Operational Areas) Bill 2021 is to facilitate the implementation of the new operating model planned by the Garda. The Bill proposes certain amendments to legislation to facilitate the introduction of changes to the structures of the Garda. These amendments primarily relate to the abolition of Garda districts and the reassignment of some of the functions performed by members of the Garda Síochána in Garda districts to other members in Garda divisions.

As mentioned by colleagues, the Bill will see a number of new operating models in a structure around the Garda divisions. Under the divisional policing model being introduced, all services will be managed and co-ordinated at divisional level to allow greater specialisation and to release gardaí from back-office functions, which is what we all want to see. Garda districts will no longer form part of the organisational structure.

The new operating model, we are told, is currently operating on a pilot basis and is due to go live in September 2021. What we all want to see, which I am sure has been mentioned to me regularly and the Minister daily, is gardaí back on the streets. People want to see them back in their communities. I sincerely hope this Bill will result in more gardaí in communities.

Let me refer to the county in which I live, County Kildare. Under the new structures, the headquarters in the division where I live will be in Portlaoise, to cover the counties of Laois, Kildare and Offaly. While it may be asked why the headquarters are to be located in County Laois, which has a much smaller population than County Kildare, the bigger question for some time has concerned the number of gardaí per head of population in County Kildare. I, along with many other public representatives from Kildare, have raised this matter at every opportunity, most recently with Commissioner Harris at the annual joint policing committee meeting in County Kildare. According to the figures I have seen most recently, Kildare has the second lowest ratio of gardaí to members of the population, second only to the Minister's county, Meath. This is an historical issue, unfortunately. Simply put, it is not acceptable any more given the massive growth in the population in County Kildare and the Minister's county. We need more experienced gardaí to be transferred to, and based in, south Kildare, particularly in the stations of Athy and Newbridge. I believe that eight probationary gardaí have been deployed recently to Kildare. This is obviously very welcome but, given the growing issues in several towns in Kildare, we need experienced gardaí to work alongside them. We need to see gardaí back on the streets. That will deter those who want to engage in unlawful behaviour in our towns from doing so. It is what citizens are looking for. I hope that, in supporting this Bill, we are facilitating that. However, I need to call once more for the strengthening of the Garda force in south Kildare.

I want to raise the issue of joint policing committees with the Minister. As I understand it, the committees are to change owing to the restructuring. I have always found my joint policing committee to be an excellent forum. It gives an opportunity to discuss information and concerns with local gardaí. I have been contacted by a number of councillor colleagues who are questioning the changes. Perhaps in the Minister's response, she can give some further detail on what those changes will be and how they will affect us. The proposed reduction of the number of public representatives is a worry among many. I welcome the idea of having more community involvement. Our gardaí should be based in the community whenever possible. Local representatives are elected, however, and there is concern among them. The Minister, in her reply, might mention this matter.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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Before I call the next speaker, I must flag that we agreed during the Order of Business that we would adjourn this debate at 2 p.m. There are three more speakers and I am conscious of the need to let everyone contribute. I am sure the Minister would like to add a few words to wind up. I call Senator Martin but ask him to be conscious of time.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It is always great to see her here. I am conscious of time and do not wish to repeat points made, only to concur with what I perceive to be a warm reception for reform. The force of law and order, An Garda Síochána, should be conscious that reform is being sought with the very best intention.

Lest we forget, an opportunity should not be let go without mentioning the fallen — the members of An Garda Síochána who lost their lives to protect the people of Ireland. There are so many. Their losses have touched every parish in Ireland. Although my family has been happily ensconced in County Kildare for many years, I am a native of Carrickmacross. Garda recruit Gary Sheehan went out in Ballinamore in 1983 to deal with a kidnapping and never came home, as did Private Patrick Kelly, a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann who I understand bled to death. They were representing the people of Ireland. We cannot thank members of the Garda often enough. I know the Minister will agree with me. I am not digressing as it is a fundamental overriding point that the forces of law and order protect us and put themselves in harm's way to keep us safe.

Like the other speakers, I welcome the changes. The Bill would change the structure of An Garda Síochána, primarily by abolishing the Garda districts and reassigning some functions to other members in Garda divisions. The divisional policing model is intended to allow greater specialisation and to free up gardaí from administrative functions. That has to be welcomed. I feel at times that gardaí would love to see a greater presence on the streets because they act as a deterrent. I believe that if we could free them up even more from the administrative role — I am aware that this has started over many years — it would be welcomed.

Each division is to be headed by a superintendent with divisional responsibilities rather than local district responsibilities. In many respects, this is just bringing us up to speed in a more modernised way. In particular, I welcome the increased specialisation that will result from these changes. The Minister has indicated this will improve the investigation of sexual crimes, domestic violence, cybercrime and economic crime. That has to be something that we would all warmly welcome and embrace. We are moving in line with international best practices, with responsibilities based on policy areas rather than geography.In particular we need this specialisation to target the increase in domestic violence that has occurred over the course of the pandemic. The provisional figures for 2021 indicate that gardaí responded to more than 48,000 domestic abuse incidents which represents a 10% increase. Fortunately the number of charges brought has also increased. Will the Minister outline exactly how the divisional system would help us to prosecute more perpetrators of domestic violence?

Naas is losing its divisional headquarters. I understand it is geographically closer to Leinster House than Portlaoise, the new divisional headquarters. As Senator Wall said, there are citizens residing in the county of Kildare, which is two Dáil constituencies. I am not being parochial but the Minister is in the Chamber today. Will she reassure us that there will be no diminution? The representative bodies, the Garda Representative Association, GRA, and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, had some criticism of the proposed restructuring. I will be grateful if the Minister will assure us that the restructuring, especially where I live, will have no detrimental impact. As An Garda Síochána does such a good job with the resources available, will the Minister assure us that there will be no unintended consequence whereby it will be less resourced as a result? I hope the opposite will happen and that streamlining of the force will improve efficiencies. People in Kildare will have concerns and are entitled to those reassurances, as Senator Wall has also mentioned.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I welcome this as a technical Bill and a necessity. Listening to some of the commentary, I am chair of the drugs task force and gardaí always show off their fantastic resources. We reach out to them all the time in the community. Even when it is outside the community of our particular drugs task force and matters arise or in the wider area of my home constituency in Dublin South-Central, they are fantastic at intervening and responding. It is similar with the local policing forums. I commend them on that and take the opportunity to acknowledge that we have proceeds of crime and a flow back into the community that has been established as a desire and an outcome.

I ask for two things in that regard. First, that it is in the context of supporting the local policing forums by having someone, even a shared person across a number of forums, a permanent administrator to liaise with that community, the local representatives and gardaí. In addition, that we would put money behind the community crime impact assessment model of supporting families where there are drug deaths, and coming in around that family in a very discreet way. It cannot be publicly talked about because it is so sensitive but much fantastic work is done on the ground. If we could direct the proceeds of crime moneys into communities for that purpose it would be fantastic.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for being in the House. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has expressed some concern about the move or the direction in which we are moving. We are clearly going to move inspectors from their supervisory role into a management role as we move into this. That is not their function. We need supervision on the ground using both our sergeants and inspectors. I ask the Minister to reconsider that particular part. I am under pressure for time and I also want to deal with Part 6 of the Bill which deals with GSOC. There is some concern that some part of Part 6 may be unconstitutional. The Commissioner has made a submission to the Minister. The representative associations, certainly the GRA, are very much behind that submission. From that point of view I ask the Minister to adopt the Commissioner's submission. In regard to stakeholders, there is no mention of the GRA in the Bill in regard to the function or the position of the representative associations.

We had a reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2012 and we are still living the horror of that. As we move through this Bill, amendments will be brought in on behalf of the representative associations who are the people on the ground expected to implement the wishes of the Government. From that perspective I ask that we do not dismiss them for the sake of dismissing them, but that we go through those amendments. If they are to be ruled out, or if the Minister decides she cannot bring them in, to provide a rationale and explain why she cannot accept amendments that are being brought in by the people who are on the ground. I will have plenty to say on Committee Stage.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Craughwell. As there are no further speakers indicating I call on the Minister. I know it is a tall order.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for their questions and also for their support for this Bill. As I said at the outset it is quite technical. At the same time it is an important Bill in making sure that the many changes that are taking place across An Garda Síochána and the restructuring, are rooted in the law, that gardaí are supported and enabled to do their work and that it is as effective as possible.

Many of the concerns that Senators raised around the restructuring are to ensure it does not impact on community and local work on the ground. Their headquarters is moving. That is happening in my own county of Meath. We will have the headquarters in County Westmeath. The clear intention of this restructuring is to meet a number of objectives. The local police on the ground will have more autonomy to make decisions where those decisions are specific to the area and localised. That is obviously what so many of us want, that it is more specialised. Already we have the divisional protective service units that have been rolled out in all of the divisions. That is clearly saying that we now have people who are trained and working solely on the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is important that we have it not just for that important issue but also in the areas of cybercrime and other areas that will probably move to more specialised units. It is also about getting people out from behind the desk and out on the ground. When we have so many districts we need a background team. To put it that way creates less work that needs to be done behind the scenes, freeing up more people to be out on the ground, which is obviously what we all want.

Many of the Senators touched on Garda numbers in general and the need to ensure that those numbers increase. Two weeks ago, 120 new gardaí came out of Templemore. With restrictions being lifted I am confident that the 800 that are resourced and committed to for this year will go through the process as well. I have spoken with the Garda Commissioner to make sure that we revitalise our Garda Reserve and increase those numbers as well. There are many things happening.

This is just one piece of legislation in a whole suite of measures. Senator Craughwell mentioned the Community Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, which is quite a large Bill and is a priority in my Department. We are working on it at the moment and hope to have it published in this session. That in itself will implement a number of other changes.

Senator Wall touched on community safety and the JPCs. A core element of the other Bill is around the development of community safety partnerships that would replace the JPCs. The intention is not to take anything away from local councillors or the excellent work that is being done on the ground. It will bring together the local council, councillors, An Garda Síochána and entities such as Tusla, education, community groups and anybody involved in the community, where they can then come together and devise their own community safety plan for that area.

To touch on the last point made by Senator Seery Kearney on the funding and access to funding, a new fund has been established which will enable all communities through the community safety partnerships to apply for money that will essentially go to projects that they deem suitable for helping their areas, to keep young people safe and devise new programmes or projects, whatever it is they want to do. It is about making sure this is about police on the ground working in communities, working locally. This model will help to achieve that.

Of course, on this last point, any piece of legislation has an actual built-in mechanism to be reviewed after 12 months. With the changes that are taking place we will all be working closely with the Garda Commissioner and where things are not working or where things need to change, that of course will be taken on board.

Question put and declared carried.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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Dé Máirt seo chugainn.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 1 February 2022.