Adjournment Debate. - Transfer of Prisoners.

I welcome the opportunity to raise the need to expedite the transfer of sentenced persons under the legislation passed last year. It is almost six months since the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act, 1995, became operable but not a single transfer has been effected. There seems to be undue delay in the implementation of the legislation. Surely some prisoners should have been transferred by this time but none has been transferred to either jurisdiction.

I understand 89 prisoners, 20 of whom are republicans, have expressed interest in a transfer from Britain; that the Minister for Justice received 29 formal applications and consented to five. At what stage of the process are the other 24 applications? Has she agreed to them in principle, are they being processed or has she in fact refused some? Perhaps the Minister of State will respond to that in his reply.

A newspaper report last Sunday stated that one application had been agreed by all sides, that the Minister for Justice referred it to the Home Office which agreed to it. Will the Minister inform the House on this case? Is it with the office of the Chief State Solicitor or the Attorney General and will it go to the High Court shortly?

The Minister will be aware that the legislation was introduced on humanitarian grounds under the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons to facilitate families by having their relative serve the sentence in the jurisdiction of which they are a citizen. Obviously the legislation was introduced in the context of the peace process. The situation for republican prisoners in British prisons has deteriorated since the ceasefire began. The deterioration of conditions in British prisons would have been seen as another reason to speed up the transfer of prisoners but this does not seem to have happened.

Will the Minister comment on the precondition set by the Home Office that the Minister for Justice "respect the integrity of the sentence by our Government" and that any sentence would not be substantially reduced when a transfer arose. I consider that to be a red herring. The legislation outlines the conditions under which the transfer will take place and how it will operate in each jurisdiction. To put it mildly it is out of line that the constitutional powers of the Minister for Justice to commute the sentence or to allow somebody early release would be interfered with, especially when one considers our track record. In this country we have 25 per cent remission which is less than in Britain, which is a third, and of course which is only half the 50 per cent remission that exists in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Justice has been very careful in any instances where republican prisoners have been released from Portlaoise. They would have served much more of their sentence than they would have served in any other jurisdiction.

Mr. Patrick Kelly who is serving his sentence in Maghaberry prison has cancer and is seriously ill. He has applied for a transfer but, to date, has not been facilitated. His family are based in Portlaoise adjacent to the high security prison for republican prisoners. What is the reason for the delay in the transfer?

What is the situation in regard to transfers from prison in the jurisdiction to Britain? When does he expect a transfer?

I recognise the Deputy's longstanding interest in prisoner welfare issues in general and the particular concerns of Irish prisoners overseas and their families.

The Deputy is aware that under the terms of the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, the provisions of the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act, 1995, came into effect on 1 November 1995 between Ireland and the other contracting parties. Consequently, it only became possible to formally receive and process requests for transfers from that date. Some of the numerous requests had been "on hold" for several years waiting for such a legislative instrument.

The Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act, 1995, provides a mechanism where non-Irish nationals serving sentences in Ireland may apply to serve the remainder of their sentences in their own countries and similarly Irish prisoners overseas to apply to serve the remainder of their sentences in Ireland.

The purpose of the Act in facilitating the transfer of foreign prisoners to their home countries reflects international principles by penal policy to lay greater emphasis upon the social rehabilitation of offenders. It can be of paramount importance that the sanction imposed on the offender is enforced in his home country rather than in the state where the offence was committed and the judgement rendered. The policy is also rooted in humanitarian considerations, difficulties in communication by reason of language barriers and aberration from local culture and customs. The absence of contacts with relatives may also have detrimental effects on the foreign prisoner. By ratifying the convention this Government has facilitated a procedural framework for such transfers of prisoners to and from the State.

I should point out that the terms of the convention provide that for a transfer to take place a three way consent is required from the prisoner, the sentencing state and the state to which the transfer is requested. The Act sets out a mechanism for Ireland to honour its obligation under the convention to communicate such consent and effect transfers.

I confirm that the Department of Justice is actively processing all requests for transfers of sentenced persons into and out of the State. Approximately 100 Irish persons serving sentences abroad have expressed interest in transferring into this jurisdiction. The vast bulk of applications under the convention — 89 are from Irish prisoners serving sentences in England, followed by the United States — six — and Northern Ireland —four. Applications are also being processed from 26 foreign prisoners in Irish prisons who have expressed interest in a transfer to their country of origin. Most of these prisoners are from England — 16 — and Northern Ireland — 7. The Minister has no objections in principle to these prisoners being transferred but cannot obviously give her formal written consent until there has been an exchange of documentation with the relevant authorities and she is advised of the manner in which it is proposed to administer the offenders' sentences.

Under the terms of the Convention, the two states involved in processing a transfer request are required to exchange information relating to the prisoner. The information in question includes particulars of the offence, court warrants, sentence administration particulars, etc. Owing to the complexity of the documentation required the process of information exchange is not one which can be completed quickly.

However, one case has already been completed and the Irish person concerned was transferred to Ireland from the United States on 31 January 1996. One more person is also expected to be returned to Ireland shortly.

The Minister fully appreciates the need to expedite the transfer of Irish prisoners. She has asked me to assure the Deputy that all applications that have been formally transmitted are being actively processed in consultation with other offices, including the Chief State Solicitor's office, and that there will be no undue delay in deciding upon them. She has instructed her officials to ensure that priority is given to this most important work and that it is completed as a matter of urgency.

Continuing dialogue with the UK prison authorities is at the heart of the matter of the operation of the Convention at this time. The Deputy can be assured that there is continuous dialogue and communication between the relevant Department of Justice officials and their British equivalents in this matter. It would not be appropriate for me to elaborate on this dialogue at this delicate stage in the process.