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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Mar 1925

Vol. 10 No. 7


Question—"That Section 1 stand part of the Bill"—put and agreed to.
(1) There shall be constituted in manner provided by this section a visiting committee for every general prison, every convict prison, and every prison or part of a prison set apart for the confinement of persons undergoing preventive detention, and every such visiting committee shall consist of such number of responsible persons, not being more than twelve nor less than six, as the Minister shall think proper.
(2) The members of every such visiting committee as aforesaid shall be appointed by the Minister, and every member so appointed shall hold office as such member for such period not exceeding three years as the Minister shall think proper and shall specify when appointing him.

I beg to move the following amendment:—

To add at end of the section a new sub-section as follows:—

"The persons to be appointed as members of a visiting committee shall be persons who by reason of past or present membership of a local authority or of Dáil Eireann or Seanad Eireann, professional eminence or other qualification may be deemed to have the confidence of the community, and shall in no case include persons receiving remuneration, other than pension or superannuation allowance payable out of the Central Fund or out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas."

The amendment is in line with the criticism which I levelled at the Bill on Second Reading. I am not quite satisfied with its form, but I cannot think of any other method in the absence of what might be called a general system of local authorities. We are rather anticipating, as things are going, that local authorities are to be steadily, gradually, but certainly abolished; but for that the local authority would be reasonably considered to be the right authority to nominate this committee. I have suggested other possible qualifications. That is to say, persons who shall be appointed to the committee would be those who, by reason of past or present membership of a local authority, or of Dáil Eireann or Seanad Eireann, professional eminence, or other qualifications may be deemed to have the confidence of the community. That is the point: that the visiting committees shall be composed of persons who may be said to be persons representative directly of the public interests as distinct from the Ministerial interests, which, in the case of criticism, would be the body of persons to be criticised. It is not, I think, in accordance with usage that the person who may be brought under the lash or under the gentle tincture of criticism, should be the person appointing the critic. In this case the position of a visiting committee or visiting justice, as he used to be, is one rather of the protection of the public against possible abuse in the administration of the prison system. The prison system is of necessity apart from the public. It is not within the public eye. It cannot be watched over. There is nobody there to look after the interests of the public, or the interests of the prisoner, or to protect the prisoner, except the officers of the Minister. In any other public concern, except a lunatic asylum, and that has been the subject of a great deal of criticism, there is some possible light shed upon the administration, but in the case of the prison system it is of necessity almost impossible that any public criticism can be levelled at it because of the absence of knowledge. The object of a committee of this kind should be, at least, to help to illuminate dark places, if there are dark places, and the illuminant should not be held up by a person whose administration may be the subject of criticism. The main purpose of this new proposed sub-section is to ensure that persons who are officers of the Department, receiving pay, shall not be appointed for this purpose, to visit prisons and to act as visiting committees, but that they shall, so far as possible, be representative of the public in a sense different from that of the Minister responsible for the whole system.

There is some objection to the first portion of the amendment. The amendment states that members must possess some undefined qualifications by reason of which they may be deemed to have the confidence of the community. It would be difficult to determine who has, or who has not, the confidence of the community short of a system of popular election or something of that kind. The wording, at any rate, is rather too vague for insertion in an Act, and there would be the difficulty of framing any test which would determine whether particular individuals were covered by the section.

There is no objection to the substance of the second portion of the amendment, but I consider that the wording might be improved. "Pension or superannuation allowances" would not be covered by the term "remuneration," and, therefore, the words "other than pension or superannuation allowances" are not necessary. With your permission, Sir, and if Deputy Johnson will accept it in substitution, I would move an amendment to add at the end of the section a new sub-section as follows:—

"No person who is in receipt of salary paid out of the Central Fund, or of money provided by the Oireachtas, shall be eligible for appointment as a member of any such visiting committee as aforesaid."

I could move that on Report.

I am quite prepared to meet the Minister on that point. I can withdraw the amendment, or move what the Minister has suggested in substitution.

I undertake to move this on Report.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move:—

To add at end of the section a new sub-section as follows:—

"Every such visiting committee as aforesaid shall include at least one person who is a registered medical practitioner and in the case of any prison in which women or young persons are confined shall include at least two women."

This proposed new sub-section speaks for itself. I imagine that this amendment would be acceptable. The necessity for a doctor is, I think, clear, and the necessity for women visitors in the case of a prison where women are confined is quite clear also.

The proposal is that every visiting committee must include a registered medical practitioner. That proposal opens up a difficulty. The initial difficulty would probably be the difficulty of getting a doctor to act in that capacity. It would, of course, be an honourary capacity, and I doubt very much whether, on the question of professional etiquette a doctor would agree to act or interfere in any way in the matters coming within the scope of the medical officer of a prison. The proposal that at least two women should be included in the visiting committee for every prison in which women might be detained might be accepted. An alternative amendment framed by the draughtsman is as follows:—

"Every such visiting committee as aforesaid appointed for any prison in which women may be detained shall include amongst its members at least two women."

I would be prepared to move that on Report. As to the suggestion that that should be extended to prisons in which young persons are detained, that would have the effect of including all prisons, except convict prisons, and under the Children's Act, 1908, no person over 14 and under 16 can be sent to prison unless the court certifies that he is too unruly or depraved to be kept in a place of detention, a reformatory or some such place. As a matter of fact, very few youthful offenders go to jail at all. The great majority go to reformatories. This Bill does not extend to an institution like the Borstal Institute, but under another Act, the Act of 1908, the Minister for Justice has power to appoint visiting committees for the Institute. If the Deputy will agree to what I have suggested, I would move that on Report.

I have not consulted any medical practitioner. I do not know what the views of the medical men may be with regard to the first part, but it seems to me desirable that the committee should include one person who has knowledge of the health requirements of the institution. If there is any difficulty in the way which the Minister knows of, but which I do not, then I am prepared to accept his view, and perhaps the matter might be brought forward in some other form. In the case of the women, I am glad the Minister has met the point, and with permission I would withdraw the amendment in view of the promise to bring in the other amended form on the Report Stage.

Would it not be better to have a separate committee of women for women's prisons?

There are no separate prisons for women. There are separate wings of the same prison.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question—"That Section 2 stand part of the Bill"—put and agreed to.
(1) Every visiting committee appointed under this Act shall conform to and observe such of the rules made by the Minister under this Act as shall apply to them, and, subject to such rules, it shall be the duty of every such visiting committee
(a) from time to time and at frequent intervals to visit the prison in respect of which they are appointed and there to hear any complaints which may be made to them by any prisoner confined in such prison and, if so requested by the prisoner, to hear such complaint in private, and
(b) to report to the Minister any abuses observed or found by them in such prison, and
(c) to report to the Minister any repairs to such prison which may appear to them to be urgently needed, and
(d) to report to the Minister on any matter relating to such prison on which the committee shall think it expedient or shall have been requested by the Minister so to report.
(2) Every such visiting committee and every member thereof shall be entitled at all times to visit either collectively or individually the prison in respect of which they are appointed and shall at all times have free access either collectively or individually to every part of such prison.
(3) Every such visiting committee may, subject to and in accordance with rules made by the Minister under this Act, do all or any of the following things in relation to prisoners confined in the prison in respect of which they are appointed, that is to say:—
(a) grant special privileges to any prisoner as a reward for good conduct or on account of ill-health or for other sufficient cause;
(b) award special punishment to any prisoner guilty of a breach of prison discipline;
(c) hold inquiries on oath into charges against prisoners of breach of prison discipline.

I move:—

To add at end of the section a new sub-section as follows:—

"Every report made by a visiting committee to the Minister shall be open to inspection, without charge, at any reasonable time, by any person who makes application to the Minister for that purpose."

This section is to ensure that the report shall be in some way available to the public. I do not want to ask that it should be printed, for that may involve expense of an unnecessary kind, but I want to ensure that interested persons should have access to the reports of the committee in respect of prisons which are under their observation. The alternative might be that the report might be laid on the Table of the House. That might involve printing, and if the reports are of any length might involve an expense that is perhaps not quite necessary. If, on the other hand, we are able to have them open for inspection when required the expense would not be great, and the public requirements would be served.

I am in favour of accepting this amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Question: "That Section 3, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put and agreed to.
Sections 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 put and agreed to.
Schedule and Title put and agreed to.