I strongly support the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1995, known as the bail Bill, introduced by our spokesman on justice, Deputy O'Donoghue. I align myself with the comments of my colleague, Deputy Dan Wallace. Last week the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, made all sorts of excuses for doing nothing on the issue of bail. She used the recently published report of the Law Reform Commission as a smokescreen for her inaction. I found the Minister's response to the initiative of my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, most disappointing. The reality is that the report of the Law Reform Commission had been available to the Government since 17 August and the Minister cannot hide behind that report. Rather than put this burning issue on the long finger, the Minister should immediately honour the commitment she made publicly earlier this year and support our Bill to amend the Constitution in relation to the bail laws. The Minister would have our full support if she were to take that honourable course and ensure that the balance is tilted in favour of the victim as against the perpetrator of the crime. She would no doubt have widespread support from the public who demand that legislators tackle the issue of crime head on. As a Deputy representing a Dublin constituency, it would be unwise of any of us to ignore the demands being made by our constituents.
I am amazed that the Minister did not avail of the opportunity during this debate to reverse her disastrous decision in relation to the construction of Castlerea Prison.
The serious crisis in relation to prison space is central to this debate. My colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, and others have re-emphasised that point not just in this debate but in other debates over the past months. The Government must consider every possible means to proceed with the construction of Castlerea prison and any other prison required to accommodate the growing numbers of criminals in our midst.
I am conscious of the many demands on our public finances and support the Minister for Finance in his efforts to control public spending. Fianna Fáil has put on the record its views on public spending and what this Government should be doing in that regard. For that reason I ask the Government to examine new ways of getting private sector investment for the construction of prisons. I know the Government is aware of proposals presented by Mr. Liam Lenihan at the "Property 2001" conference last month on tax incentives for investment in public buildings, capital and infrastructural projects. The lesson to be learned from the urban renewal scheme is that substantial private sector funds are available for investment if attractive tax breaks are provided.
Designation, as every Deputy in this House is aware, has been a major driving force for urban renewal development. Private sector capital, with the incentive of a tax break, could be attracted to fund what would normally be public and centrally funded buildings such as prisons. Projects could be undertaken on a sale and lease back structure, for example. Investors would get tax breaks for 13 years and the Government would rent the accommodation at a low rate. The Government would retain control in having the option to purchase at the end of term.
Because this matter is so serious I ask the Minister immediately to rescind her decision in relation to Castlerea and examine as a matter of urgency the possibility of private sector involvement in prison building. We cannot afford to delay any longer on this issue. Six hundred prison spaces are required immediately. Prisons could be built under a tax incentive scheme and when, hopefully, the present crisis in prison space is behind us, the prisons could be converted into community, sports or leisure centres. Account should be taken of that at planning and construction stages to allow for modification when appropriate in the future. Innovative and radical thinking is required to deal with the prison crisis and I urge the Minister and the Government to consider the option of private sector involvement. I put this forward as a serious proposal and hope it is taken in that manner.
The Minister must also deal as a matter of urgency with the problem of the delay between the arrest and charging of a suspect and the subsequent trial. The shortage of judges is obviously a major problem and the Minister must address this matter. As my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, pointed out in his contribution to this debate, only three Circuit Court judges are permanently available in Dublin to deal with indictable crime. Fianna Fáil's Criminal Procedure Bill, 1995, published by Deputy O'Donoghue, will provide for a fast track approach to specific crimes and allow for a real reduction in the delay in cases coming for trial. It is totally unacceptable that in our capital city it takes an average of at least one year to process a case from arrest to trial. That is a central issue in this debate and it has been pointed out by my colleagues on this side of the House.
The serious drugs crisis has been referred to by almost everyone who has contributed to this debate. An all out assault must be made on those involved in the drugs industry. The drug barons, the pushers and those making a living from destroying our young people must be rooted out of society and every legal weapon used to do so. I encourage the Minister to explore every possible avenue in this area. She will have my full support.
The growth in the use of the ecstasy drug has been frightening. Last year 10,000 ecstasy tablets were confiscated by the gardaí. This year so far, that figure has risen to a staggering 180,000. Many awareness campaigns are under way to highlight the dangers of this drug. We must get the message across that ecstasy can kill. Unfortunately, many young people, through peer pressure, are not aware of the danger of taking even half a tablet. For that reason, I regret that the UCD students union has advised students in its awareness literature that if they are using ecstasy for the first time, they should take only half a tablet.
I have spoken to representatives of the students union and I am aware it has an excellent poster campaign highlighting the fact that ecstasy can kill. I would argue, however, that any representative group campaigning on the dangers of ecstasy should spell out unequivocally that this drug can kill. The tragic death of Stephen McMillan at the Point Depot rave event some months ago brought this harsh reality home to all of us. While the motivation and intent behind the students union campaign is genuine — and I encourage it to continue with its work — it should think again in relation to this aspect of it. Young people must be made aware of the dangers of this drug and the fact that it can kill them.
The central issue we are debating tonight is bail. The reality is that the law as it currently stands does not permit our courts to remand a person charged with a criminal offence in custody even if the court is satisfied that the accused person is likely to commit serious criminal offences if released. The Minister is on public record as saying she wants changes in our bail laws and we support her in that. She is also on public record as saying that she wants to have a referendum to amend the Constitution in this regard.
Fianna Fáil has been accused of being mischievous on this issue. That is not the case and the record speaks for itself. It is clear that when the Minister made her views known publicly, there were objections from Labour backbench TDs. What is the policy position of the Labour Party and Democratic Left on this crucial issue? As I understand it, clear divisions have arisen between the Minister for Justice and the Tánaiste in this regard and I would like to hear from our fellow parliamentarians in the Labour Party and Democratic Left about their policy position on this issue. They have managed to paper over many cracks but there is a fundamental principle involved here. We support the Minister for Justice in her endeavours. Those people who hold personal positions and whisper from the back benches but who go through the lobbies at the end of the day should get off the fence. They should make their positions known.
This debate provides an opportunity for the Minister for Justice to show her strength and leadership and to indicate that she wants to stand by her own public commitment. I suggest she should do that by supporting our Bill. It has been the practice in the past that if the Opposition puts forward a Bill worthy of support, the Government accepts it on the basis of some amendments being made. I hope that will be the case tomorrow. I ask the Minister for Justice to support the Bill put forward by my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue.