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Home > Dail Eireann debate. Community safety and preventing crime: statements.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Community safety and preventing crime: statements. (18 Nov 2020)

URL: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...


Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement on community safety and preventing crime. I am also looking forward to hearing the contributions from Deputies and to working with them on this issue. Members of the House will be aware that the mission of An Garda Síochána is "Keeping People Safe". This is a simple, but clear, message. Community safety is a much broader concept than crime or fear of crime. It is about people being safe and feeling safe in their communities. It can include the responsiveness of emergency services, mental health issues, education, drug abuse prevention, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, youth crime, anti-social behaviour, hate crime and the built environment. This is reflected in the key principle in the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, to build stronger and safer communities. The well-being of communities is among our highest priorities and we want members of the public to feel confident and secure in going about their lives. 

As the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recognised, community safety in this broad sense is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána. Responses must be community-specific and require a range of services, ranging from strengthening youth services to increasing street lighting. This requires a multisectoral approach, stronger interagency collaboration and community engagement, with a key role for health and social services as well as other sectors of society. A Policing Service for our Future, the Government’s implementation plan for the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, is strongly based on meeting the public’s needs in this way through increased visibility of gardaí on the street and increased engagement with all local communities to ensure their particular needs are being met. 

Community engagement, of course, has been a defining feature of An Garda Síochána since its establishment 100 years ago. This perhaps has never been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, with local gardaí nationwide going above and beyond the call of duty to support vulnerable groups in their communities. These efforts on the part of individual gardaí include visiting elderly and vulnerable members of the community, dropping off food, medicine and other necessities, liaising with representatives of community groups and many other focused efforts to serve their communities. There are too many to list. I thank An Garda Síochána again for its extraordinary commitment to policing during this unprecedented year. As the Policing Authority has noted, the rich relationships built during this period should create a strong foundation for the future of policing in this country. 

It is important that we now build the structures which can ensure community safety is embedded in the work of the State in all communities in the country. In line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, my Department has been developing a new national community safety policy which will feed into the development of a new policing and community safety Bill. The Bill, which will provide the backbone to policing reform, will redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána to include the prevention of harm to those who are vulnerable. However, the problems communities face are not just limited to policing issues. Bringing the right services together and working with each other to tackle the underlying issues which impact on a community and the sense of safety within the community are key. The legislation, therefore, will place an obligation on Departments, State agencies and local authorities to co-operate with An Garda Síochána on the broader issue of community safety and refine local structures to better support local accountability for policing. 

As part of this work, last week I announced three new local community safety partnerships which will be established on a pilot basis in the Dublin north inner-city electoral area, Waterford and Longford. The locations of the pilots, which will run for 24 months, were chosen based on a number of factors, including population density, crime rates and deprivation. The partnerships, which will be independently chaired, will replace the local joint policing committees, build on the existing structures and bring together residents, community representatives, including youth, new communities and the voluntary sector, business interests, councillors, local authorities and State services such as An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the HSE. The agenda and objectives of each partnership will be driven by the community itself, and each partnership will devise and implement a local community safety plan, reflecting community priorities and local safety issues. The model is built on the principle that every community needs to be central in identifying what it needs and helping to shape solutions, and State services will be held to account by each partnership. 

The active engagement of community representatives and residents will be critical in ensuring the work is community driven. Training will be provided to support the capacity of each partnership to work together, with individual training for residents to develop their understanding of their role and confidence in representing their community. As the pilots progress, they will be carefully evaluated and any changes that are necessary will be made to ensure the partnerships work as effectively as possible for the communities concerned. The pilots will inform a national roll-out in all local authority areas. 

The Commission on the Future of Policing recognises that while preventing and investigating crime is a top priority for An Garda Síochána, in practice the majority of police time in Ireland and elsewhere is spent on harm prevention. Often, particularly out of hours, it is members of An Garda Síochána who are at the front line when dealing with persons with mental health or addiction issues, homeless persons and others at risk. As well as taking a multi-agency approach to planning for and responding to day-to-day community safety, it is also necessary to ensure that a co-operative approach is taken to handling what can be an emergency situation involving an individual who, for instance, as a result of a mental health or addiction issue, may be at risk him or herself or pose a risk to others. This approach would see multi-agency crisis intervention teams put in place with round-the-clock-response capabilities and ultimately, where possible, these teams would be co-located. The teams would involve police working with health, including mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as social and youth workers with a capacity to respond to emergencies and to intervene with people at risk in their communities. 

Local community safety partnerships could identify areas of need within the community that would benefit from the support of crisis intervention teams. They could also foster and develop relationships and communication between the services at local level. My Department will continue to explore how these teams can be established and supported, including through engagement with An Garda Síochána, other Departments and relevant service providers. I accept it is an extremely ambitious target but it is something that will be very useful and helpful if we can bring it together with all the agencies. 

In hand with this work, crucial day-to-day policing has continued throughout the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on those vulnerable groups most at risk. While there has been a general and welcome decrease in many categories of crime during the Covid period, some categories have increased, unfortunately, such as domestic abuse, drugs offences and cybercrime. Sustained action by An Garda Síochánahas continued unabated throughout the pandemic, bringing significant convictions and ongoing seizures of drugs, firearms and ammunition. An Garda Síochána remains 100% committed to tackling the supply of drugs by supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives and engagement with local and regional drug and alcohol task forces; the Garda youth diversion programme and projects; the Garda schools programme; and the existing joint policing committees and community policing forums. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, will speak further about the youth justice side of things. 

Operation Faoiseamh has meanwhile provided enhanced, proactive support to victims of domestic abuse, including proactively reaching out and making contact with previous victims to provide reassurance and support, offer the assistance of local and specialised resources, as well as renewing the focus on the enforcement of court orders and the prosecution of offenders. I once again remind the public that travel restrictions do not apply in the case of domestic abuse or when escaping a risk of harm and I strongly encourage anyone who finds themselves or members of their family in this position to contact An Garda Síochána or visit the website stillhere.ie. 

This work is being supported with unprecedented resources, which is necessary. An Garda Síochána has been allocated €1.952 billion in budget 2021. There are now some 14,600 gardaí nationwide, supported by more than 3,000 Garda staff. Furthermore, the roll-out of the new Garda operating model will support the redeployment of gardaí from non-core duties to front-line policing throughout the country. There have also been provisions for additional members of An Garda Síochána, and by next year, taking into account Covid-19, that should bring the force to more than 15,000. A total of €15 million has been allocated this year for new vehicles, which is extremely important, in particular in rural areas. The sum of €9 million has already been allocated and an additional €6 million will be provided later in the year. A total of 524 new vehicles will be provided. 

I would like to note the work of the former director of the Probation Service, Vivian Geiran, whom I have appointed to carry out a scoping exercise to assess the impact that criminal activity in Drogheda is having on the community and to make recommendations for action going forward. Mr. Geiran is expected to complete this work in the coming weeks. Likewise, the Dublin City Council north central area committee recently engaged with former Assistant Garda Commissioner Jack Nolan to develop a socioeconomic and community plan for the Darndale area. My Department will engage with the findings and recommendations arising from the report to ensure its implementation. 

I acknowledge that our vision for community safety is ambitious. It will require sustained commitment and perseverance on the part of Departments, State agencies and community and voluntary organisations. However, I believe the realisation of this vision will provide a truly holistic support framework for all communities, recognising their unique strengths and responding to their greatest needs. As Minister, I am fully committed to the work of building stronger and safety communities and I look forward to working with all Deputies to progress this vital work.  

…..Deputy Pauline Tully: One of the most serious issues in my area and elsewhere in Cavan is that of drug misuse and the crime associated with it. At one time, this would have been thought of as an urban issue but that is no longer the case. It is an issue in every town and village and every rural area. Young people are constantly being brought into this seedy world without realising the consequences. Some are attracted by the promise of easy money from doing drops or acting as a courier for drug dealers but more often than not, it is a matter of young people easily running up sizeable drug debts. They cannot then afford to pay such debts and end up dealing themselves to do so, which gets them more and more deeply involved. In other cases, they or their families are being threatened. I am frequently told of families hearing a knock at the door from people looking for hundreds of euro or even €1,000 by the weekend, because a son or daughter has run up a debt. These people are afraid to go to the Garda about it. I am also personally aware of young people who have taken their own lives because they could not see a way out of debt and were afraid to admit their problems to parents or loved ones. 

Drugs have become normalised in society among our young people. They think nothing of taking a substance on a night out. They do not realise how much it can affect their mood or that the high is so quickly followed by the low and the paranoia. Investment in the national drugs strategy and in drug and alcohol task forces is needed immediately. We need a multi-agency approach, such as the Minister has referred to, to tackle this problem head on. The Departments of Health, Justice and Education in particular need to work together. The education aspect is very important because we need to get to young people early to teach them about the dangers of drugs. We also need more gardaí in the national drugs unit. Monitoring of the prisons is also required as drug gangs seem to recruit within them. They seem to have a lot of control in prisons as was evidenced yesterday by the seizure in Mountjoy Prison. I believe it was the largest seizure of contraband ever in an Irish prison and I say "well done" to all of those involved in detecting it. 

On a very different issue, farm thefts continue to occur. These worsen at this time of year when the evenings are dark. Everything from fuel to tools, machinery and livestock are targeted. I have even read recently of rural crime gangs using drones and online mapping to case farms and to identify less protected access routes by which to gain entry. We need more gardaí. We need to see gardaí visibly patrolling in rural areas. Everybody should be confident that, if they need to call the Garda, they will get a speedy response. Many people have reported to me how comforting they found it to witness gardaí walking the beat or patrolling in their areas during the first lockdown. People need to see that on a full-time basis…..

 

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