Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 November 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Policing Co-operation

1:00 pm

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I concur with the Cathaoirleach's comments and welcome the Minister for Justice. She is no stranger to this House. We value the fact that she is the front-line Minister and has ultimate responsibility for the administration of justice, policing and many other aspects of her Department's work.I thank her for being here. I appreciate her coming to House to deal with this important matter.

When we talk about policing, the key word is partnership. It is critical that we engage with our city and county councillors, the Garda Síochána, local authorities and the business community - all the stakeholders in our community. The Minister will be very familiar with the joint policing committees, JPCs, and the aim behind them, which is for greater consultation, co-operation, engagement and synergy in the administration of policing in our local areas. Traditionally, JPCs have been made up of the chairpersons of the local representatives, Garda officers nominated by the Garda Commissioner, local authority members and Members of the Oireachtas. That is really important because it is one of the few occasions when city and county councillors meet in a more formal structured way with Oireachtas Members to deal with policing. Partnership policing is about consultation, considers recommendations and supports the policing structures in place on the ground. With her vision for tackling crime and making our streets and our communities safer places, the Minister knows that we need to draw on the strength and expertise of all the stakeholders in this.

There has been some communication which is misleading to say the least. A number of councillors from all parties and none have contacted my office in the past week to ask what is going on. There seem to be misunderstandings. There has been some suggestion that there may be no city and county councillors on the committees. That is not my understanding, but it is important to have a look at the matter. Whatever way we call it, ultimately it is about co-operation and facilitating stakeholders to participate in a policing process. I ask the Minister to take the opportunity to set out her stall. She is driving the policy. It is her key competence and key area. It is important that we liaise with the structures on the ground. We need to have a role for An Garda Síochána and all the other stakeholders, but we also need to have a role for city and county councillors in the process. I hope the Minister can shed some light on the matter today and we can actually deal in facts rather than misunderstandings so that we can leave here today knowing her vision and plan for community policing and the role of all of the stakeholders as part of that process.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to correct some of the misinformation about this important legislation and to set out how I envisage the local community safety partnerships operating in the years ahead. The overall objective is to build stronger safer communities. As the Senator said, people must feel safe and be safe in their homes. To build stronger safer communities, the communities themselves, either directly or through their public representatives, need to have a real say in how to improve their local areas because nobody knows than the local community better than those working in it and part of it themselves. This approach goes far beyond the traditional policing response. It is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána alone although, of course, high-visibility policing is central to it. It requires all relevant State bodies, voluntary organisations, councillors, TDs, Senators and other elected representatives and local community and business groups working together in a joined-up way in partnership with the local community to prioritise and effectively address issues in their own areas. It is very specific to each area because we all have challenges in our own counties and specific townlands.

The local community safety partnerships are provided for in Part 3 of the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, which, of course, I hope comes before the House shortly for Committee Stage. It is worth noting that the proposals in the Bill have already been approved by Dáil Éireann and prior to that the proposals were included in the general scheme of the Bill. Of course, the Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny which took place over 2021 and 2022 and, of course, Members of this House were involved in that. These partnerships will operate at a local authority level and will replace the joint policing committees. I acknowledge the significant work that has been done by those on the joint policing committees. As somebody who goes to the local joint policing committees, I see the benefit of that engagement. What we are doing with the community safety partnerships is building on that fantastic work. The partnerships will serve as a forum for discussion and more importantly as a key driver of action in local communities to increase safety.It is also important to say funding will be available for these partnerships. Each pilot to date has benefited from the community safety innovation fund, which I established and for which budget 2024 provides even further investment. At the moment it is €3.75 million. I can see that increasing year on year.

The Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill will place a statutory obligation on Departments and other public service bodies to co-operate with each other to improve community safety. The partnerships will have a wider membership than the JPCs currently have. They will include residents, community representative organisations, including representatives of young people, older people, new and minority communities, and business and education representatives; as well as a range of public services, including HSE, Tusla, of course An Garda Síochána and the local authority. I stress that local councillors will remain a very important part of the make-up of these new fora.

Senators will be aware we have had pilot partnerships. They are currently running in Longford, Waterford and Dublin's north inner city. They have all drafted community safety plans which show the real value of inputs from the wider stakeholders. For example, in Dublin the business group suggested the idea of community safety wardens. Dublin City Council committed to improving public lighting and the streetscape. The Longford County Council committed to installing additional CCTV cameras and that the partnerships would receive regular updates and give feedback on the roll-out of these cameras. In Waterford, the HSE committed to increasing harm reduction information in pubs, clubs and youth clubs. Many different actions are already taking place that everybody is feeding into. These are just a handful of those actions.

There are six to seven local councillors on each of the pilots to date. They are chosen from among the team of councillors. When establishing the pilots, we adopted the approach of the membership mirroring that of other local government committee structures, including the local community development committees, LCDCs, and the strategic policy committees. Not all councillors are on them, but they change and swap over. Councillors are on different committees at different stages and this is what we are trying to replicate here.

The Bill currently before the Seanad does not specify the composition of each partnership but provides that it will be a matter for the Minister to set up through secondary legislation. This provides for a more flexible approach, allowing for future changes if something is not working effectively. In the Garda Síochána Act of 2005, the membership or composition of JPCs was not specified; that was all done at a later date. We are trying here to provide that flexibility again.

I will come in on a few other matters, if that is okay, afterwards.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for a comprehensive six-page response to a three-line Commencement matter. She has clarified a lot of it for me. She has clearly said and reminded us – and it did not dawn on me until I was sitting here – that Dáil Éireann has passed this legislation, maybe subject to changes. I am anxious this legislation comes to the Seanad. The majority in the Seanad is replicated by the political affiliations in Dáil Éireann. I presume it follows that there will be support for it. More important are the Minister's words that “local councillors will remain a very important part of the make-up of these new fora”. I welcome that and I think councillors from all groups and none will welcome it. The Minister says the Bill before the Seanad does not specify the composition of the partnerships but that she will outline that in secondary legislation.

I thank the Minister for her detailed response and for reassuring me and city and county councillors around the country that there is a role and function for them in a policing partnership. That is important. The Minister has recognised that and they will value that very much. It would also be helpful to continue to have engagement with the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, and the AILG because the more people understand what the vision is and the plans are, the more supportive they will be of them.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I reassure the Senator of that continued engagement. Throughout the pilot process we have had consistent engagement with the LGMA and with the County and City Management Association, CCMA. Last December we held webinars and information seminars where the chair of the JPCs and the administrative officers were also invited. We will continue to engage.

It is important to note an independent evaluation is looking at the three pilots. The reason I do not have that finalised is the Dublin partnership only published its plan in September. We need to give it time to bed down. I will be taking on board how those have worked and any changes that need to be made. I accept some counties are bigger than others, some have larger populations than others and some have more than one JPC. When we are rolling out new community partnerships we have to be mindful of that and of the reputation that is there.

I am clear there needs to continue to be a way for all councillors, whether on the committee or not, to be fully briefed by the community safety partnerships and have continuous engagement locally with members of An Garda SíochánaUnder the pilot schemes, there are meetings where all of the communities and the general public can engage on the partnership. Regardless of whether that happens more than once, there are many opportunities where everybody can have a say and be connected with the partnership while, at the same time, making sure that the size does not become so big that it cannot actually focus on the plan at hand.

I am absolutely committed to making sure these work, that it has full, proper and equal representation across all of the areas I mentioned from a public and private side and, most importantly, that the objective is not lost. It is not just the Garda that has a role in safety; it is all communities. I want to see that can work properly.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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As the independent Chair but as a member of the joint policing committee in Cork, I endorse what Senator Boyhan and the Minister said about the importance of local government members and the importance of that dynamic continuing. I am delighted the Minister gave those comments. It is refreshing. The local councillor element at the joint policing committee, as we all know, is critical to success.