I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
May I share my time with Deputy Michael McDowell?
Vol. 474 No. 6
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
May I share my time with Deputy Michael McDowell?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This is an opportunity for this House to revisit and have a detailed debate on the crying need for reform of our prison service. Notable in the recent display of openness which the Department of Justice has adopted in relation to the prison service is a distinct absence anywhere in this process of the Minister for Justice. A headline in the Irish Independent of Tuesday, 4 February, read: “Prison Chiefs Admit the System is in Chaos”. These senior civil servants are being paraded out by the Government in a selfstyled glasnost orchestrated by the Minister. This is no more than a cynical exercise of a defeated Government. It is truly Government by spindoctoring. While the openness at long last is welcome, its motivation is suspect.
Glasnost is a credo which, if genuine, is undertaken and embraced by an incoming Government or Administration. I believe it is a cynical abuse of the term to cite glasnost as a description of a Government on its knees admitting to defeat as far as the management of prisons is concerned. For over two years this Government has used all the classic retentative methods of secret Government to conceal the truth of the chaos and difficulties in the prison service.
Let us look at the record of this Government on the issue of crime and lawlessness. There is evidence for all to see of a dereliction of duty to protect the citizen. One of the first acts of this Government was to cancel the prison building programme which had been set in train by the outgoing Administration in recognition of the crisis of accommodation in the prison service. The rainbow Government maintained this denial of the need for extra prison spaces. It was distracted and paralysed into inaction by a woolly-minded preoccupation that all criminals are ultimately victims until it was forced by the white heat of rage among citizens after the murder of Veronica Guerin and an escalation in organised crime to sign up to a range of measures, including extra prison spaces, which it had only a few weeks earlier voted down.
It has been a unique feature of this Government that any reforms which it has eventually embraced have only been brought about by its response to the latest calamity. It has been at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the prison service. Time after time the Minister has been unwilling to give figures in this House for the number of crimes committed while on temporary release, the average portions of sentences served, the number of prison spaces needed if the State abuse of temporary release was discontinued and even the cost per unit of the meagre number of spaces this Government can claim to have added to prison spaces.
The Minister has failed to account for the chronic inability to tackle overtime. Some £53 million has been spent on prison overtime in the past three years. The Minister was similarly unable to deal with the appalling breaches in work practices in Limerick Jail, the bungling in her private office and in the Department, which led to the Special Criminal Court being improperly constituted with disastrous consequences, and the number of escapes and continuing absconding from open jails.
Now that the prison chiefs, if not the Minister, have admitted that up to 50 persons are released each day to make space, do we need a Minister for Justice? It would appear by way of the new glasnost that this information is being given to the media by civil servants. The Minister has political and statutory responsibility and, under existing prisons legislation, she has a duty to provide prison spaces. She is not providing adequate prison spaces to meet the need of persons sentenced by our courts.
Time after time whenever there is a crisis in the prison service the Minister dives for cover. If there is an escape, the prison officer's union is sent out to bat. If there is a disaster, suicide or a story about the terrible addiction and chaos in relation to the treatment of drug addicts in Mountjoy Prison, the governor is sent out to bat. Every matter which required the Minister's attention since she came into office has been long fingered. Eight months after the commitment to deliver a new prison at Wheatfield, this grand plan is still at the ponderous planning stage in the Department of Justice.
During the Special Criminal Court fiasco and in the aftermath of the Cromien and Molloy report on the catalogue of disasters which caused the non-implementation of a Government decision to delist a judge, the Minister devised a new concept — a new definition of accountability. She said that accountability means a duty to furnish information, but there was not mention of responsibility. It is the duty to furnish an account, but no obligation to pay that account. The same formula is now being applied to prisons — account by glasnost but no political responsibility for the admitted chaos over which this Government has presided for over two years.
The purpose of our Bill is to ensure that over the next two weeks there will be a six hour debate on what needs to be done to put order back into the admitted chaos in the prison service. Our proposal is simple and is one which this Government voted down this time last year when we moved this measure in a Private Members' Bill, but yet again responding to calamity it was forced to sign up to it after the Special Criminal Court fiasco in November. It proposes that the Minister for Justice, in addition to her existing duty to provide prisons and control custodial accommodation, should have a duty to assess periodically the need for prisons and custodial accommodation and to provide adequate prison spaces to meet that need. This is not being done at present. The key proposals are that the management of prisons be transferred to the prison service's executive headed by a director of prisons appointed by the Government, the appointment of an inspector of prisons, a duty on the Minister to provide adequate prison spaces to meet the needs of prisoners sentenced by the courts and a register of temporary release. With these four key proposals, some element of accountability could be injected back into the prison system.
The statements and disclosures by the six civil servants who have been sent out to admit to the chaos are an abdication of political responsibility. I understand there is an acceptance among those who work in the prison service, including the governors, that they agree with measures in this Bill. In a submission made to the expert group looking at the practicalities of reform, they agree with our criticisms that there has been woeful waste and mismanagement of the huge resources spent on the prison service by the Department of Justice. That is reflected in the governors' submission to the expert group, contrary to the mistaken impression given on "Morning Ireland" today in a taped interview with Governor Lonergan.
The cost of running the prison service is a colossal £120 million per annum or £2 million per week. That is only the running cost and not capital projects. This represents an average cost of £45,000 per prisoner per year. Last year prison officers' overtime costs ran to £18 million, overshooting the budget as usual. Prison service costs overall have risen by 50 per cent in the past five years, yet only 8 per cent more prisoners are in custody. Our prison building costs are extremely high. The new 400 space remand centre at Wheatfield announced recently by the Minister is estimated to cost £40 million, which works out at £100,000 per unit. There is no evidence of any competitive tendering to reduce the building costs or any willingness to invite a more energetic involvement of the private sector who could design, finance and build prisons and lease them to the Government.
Temporary release is an ongoing problem. On 24 January last a total of 465 prisoners were on temporary release. More than 4,000 orders for full temporary release are made every year. This is a scandalous abuse of the system of temporary release as a way of creating space.
The notion of full temporary release is a complete misnomer, it is unconditional, permanent, unsupervised release. Escapes have continued unabated with more than a dozen persons escaping from closed institutions last year and 200 walking out of open institutions and not returning. The absconding of a 15-year old youth while on a mobility trip to the cinema, only days after conviction, was yet another manifestation of the incapability of our justice system and our so called education system in administering the justice handed down in public by the courts. For that, as in all the escapes nobody has been made responsible. Some 1,316 offenders were unlawfully at large on 25 July 1996. In July a convicted murderer escaped from Mountjoy while on his way to a workshop, 197 persons escaped from open prisons and 53 of them remained at large. Nobody seemed to be bothered about that. One quarter of the country's entire prisons population, 722, were transferred to open prisons last year. Open prisons cost the taxpayer £700 per week per prisoner.
The most basic function of any prison system is to detain people. After all this money has been spent the State is not providing detention. Leaving aside any dreams of rehabilitating, curing or detoxifying the hopeless drug addicts, who form such a huge part of our prison population, we cannot even detain prisoners because of shortage of space.
The public is slowly awakening to the true horror of what has been going on in our prisons and that is good. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have studied the Irish prison system, read the successive Mountjoy visiting committee reports, visited the prison, put the questions to the Minister for Justice and extracted the statistical information which forms the basis of the knowledge which is now being given out by way of glasnost. Various visiting committee reports describe Mountjoy as a potential volcano and forecast a prison service spiralling to certain disaster. There have been cries of despair from the committee that all their reports seem to disappear unheeded into a vacuum. All of these provided adequate warning to the Minister and to those of us who have had access to these reports.
The recent hostage crises provided an opportunity for some level of debate about the management of Mountjoy and the need for better facilities for dangerous prisoners. Some efforts have been made on that score.
As Mountjoy is the major committal prison, people are sent there without any assessment of their psychological make-up or their psychiatric background and put into the general body of the prison population. That is a recipe for disaster. Prisoners should be accommodated in accordance with the results of assessments at point of entry. Decisions on lock-up requirements and privileges should be made on the basis of each assessment. Due to the chronic overcrowding and the turnover of prisoners, every time a judge sentences a prisoner another prisoner is freed from Mountjoy.
On a range of measures the Government has only reacted. Every reform has been in response to a calamity. At one point the Minister accused us of hyping up the crime problem, as if there was a need. At the beginning of this month a national opinion poll showed that the public had twice as much confidence in the Opposition parties' commitment to tackling crime as in the Government. This is no wonder because the Government has no overall strategy; it is not in control, it merely responds to disasters.
This indecisiveness and lack of direction in policy has its roots in the ideological differences between the parties of the left and Fine Gael. There are strong elements in the Coalition Government, particularly in the left, which place more importance on the rights of the criminal at the expense of the rights of law abiding citizens. The classic left approach to crime is to dismiss criminality and put it all down to social deprivation. The premise is that ultimately we are all responsible for the crimes of the disadvantaged. It is wrong reasoning, it blurs the difference between right and wrong and spreads blame on the victims of crime and on law abiding citizens.
The Government opposed a change in the bail laws, refused to provide extra prison spaces and amend the right to silence until it was forced, by public outrage at the murder of a journalist in broad daylight, to embrace measures which ten days earlier it had voted down. Not until people marched on the streets of Dublin about the drug activities in the communities and the rising vigilantism was Operation Dóchas initiated.
There is a need for an immediate 50 per cent increase in the number of prison places available to bring the total to 3,500. The threat of prison is no longer a disincentive to crime because convicts know they will serve only a fraction of their sentences. Recently a prosecution counsel in a case where a person convicted of a serious charge was given a three year sentence was horrified to see that person on the street a month later. That the number of people convicted of serious crimes has risen by 52 per cent in the past five years is evidence that the threat of crime has never been greater. How can citizens have confidence in the system if we do not have an adequate prison service? If the prison service is ineffective, inefficient and not providing even the minimum requirement of any prison service it sets at nought the work of the Garda, the work we do in legislating to protect our citizens, the work of judges and the whole administration of justice up to that point. If every time a judge sentences a person another person goes free not because he has served his sentence but because there is no space for him, that undermines everything we do in terms of criminal justice.
Suicides continue in Mountjoy. We have a very high rate of prison suicide, twice that of Britain. Statistics indicate it is more frequent in the absence of separate remand facilities and when drug addicts are put into the general body of the prison population and there is no segregation. It is important to stress that the Mountjoy Visiting Committee highlighted serious inadequacies in the provision of medical services to inmates in the prison. These problems have been ongoing since 1992. The matter was urgent in 1992 and 1993 and it remains urgent, yet the common contract with the IMO has not been thrashed out and concluded by the Department. The Minister and her Department have neglected to deal with the burning issue of the inadequate medical service in a prison where the majority of prisoners are drug addicts with hepatitis C and serious psychological and medical problems. The provision of a proper medical service in Mountjoy Prison has not been sorted out and all that is being provided for sick inmates is a sheep dip service. The report of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee stated that one prison doctor saw up to 60 inmates in one hour. This is a profanity given the massive amounts of taxpayers' money spent on the prison service.
The Bill provides for some degree of accountability for the invisible decision-making process which is the temporary release system. This system began as a method of integrating persons into society, but it is now over-used by the State in order to create space in prisons. It is an absolute scandal that, as we have been told by the prison chiefs under the new glasnost, 4,000 people a year or 50 people a day are released by the prison authorities just to make space in prisons. Three settlements amounting to £73,000 have been made in cases involving injury to people by those who should be in prison and for whom the State has responsibility. It is little wonder that no case has gone to court. There is no annual report or record of the number of temporary releases and we have only been able to ascertain the figures by way of parliamentary questions.
Temporary release, which is known as "shedding" in the prison service, is an unaccountable, invisible decision-making process undertaken by prison authorities. It is extraordinary that people who have been tried and convicted in public and sent to prison are secretly released back into society without any rehabilitation or supervision and are merely told "goodbye".
The Minister for Justice and other Government speakers will doubtless make two points: first, what we propose costs money and, second, the Minister for Justice has only been in office for two years and this problem was growing for a long time before that.
On the second point, it is 12 years since the report of the Whitaker committee of inquiry into the penal system was published. At that time Dr. Whitaker and the people on the committee looked to the future in ascertaining what would happen to the penal system. They examined the trends that were developing and what was happening on the ground. I do not agree with all their conclusions but an interesting one was that, in 1995, two years ago, there would be a need for 4,000 prison spaces. That was a very conservative estimate because, as we now know, a huge cohort of people — most crimes are committed by people between the ages of 15 and 25 — is in the age group where criminality and delinquency are at their maximum. We also know there has been a massive growth in organised crime and a massive recrudescence of the drug problem which was also at a height in 1985. As a result, the prison service is totally inadequate to deal with the crime problem. We were warned in 1985 that 4,000 prison places would be needed unless corrective action was taken.
The report deals with many other issues, including the manning and overstaffing problems in prisons referred to by Deputy O'Donnell. It is illuminating to read the figures given by the Whitaker committee in its report published 12 years ago. At paragraph 2.52 it states that the staff-prisoner ratio increased from 100:280 in 1987 to 100:160 in 1973 and increased further to 100:120 by May 1985. It also states that this growth is not justified by the exigencies of the prison service and sets out at considerable length in a later section of the report what should be done about industrial relations problems. The staff-prisoner ratio is now approximately 100:92 and there are significantly more prison officers in the prison system than there are prisoners.
This remarkable transformation during the 26 years between 1970 and 1996 must be explained by some process. Why could 100 prison officers look after 280 prisoners in 1970 but more than 100 prison officers are needed to look after 100 prisoners in 1996? The answer is gross mismanagement, dereliction of duty and capitulation by the Department of Justice in relation to its obligation to control the cost of the prison service. It is not a question of, and cannot be portrayed as such, the staff being pushed to the limit of endurance because in addition to the massive growth in the staff-prisoner ratio there has been an explosion in overtime, with some prison officers earning £900 a week in overtime and many officers earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year in overtime in addition to their basic salaries. This has come about as a result of a process of mismanagement, capitulation and abdication of the management of the prison service by the Department of Justice.
I accept that all this did not happen during the Minister's period in office. As the Whitaker report shows, this problem has been growing for the past 26 years. However, it is grotesque to think that it costs twice as much to accommodate a prisoner in an Irish cell, which sometimes holds four prisoners, as it does in an English cell and three times as much as it does in a New Zealand cell. Why is our system such bad value for money? Why has the cost of the prison service escalated by 50 per cent during the past five years? The answer is that there has been no proper or strategic management of the prison service.
Some people will ask where the Progressive Democrats Party proposes to get the money to build more prison space. The money is there already and if we applied British, New Zealand or other international standards to our prison service and demanded parity in terms of cost and staffing implications we would have plenty money to run a decent prison service. Instead we have an unholy shambles of a service. As a barrister I have had the opportunity to see the process from beginning to end. I have been in many of our prisons and have seen many people sentenced to them. I have been on both sides, prosecuting and defending, in the criminal process. I have seen judges imposing sentences. I have sat in this House on many occasions and heard people decrying the Judiciary for not taking crime seriously, but I know the facts and I will now outline them.
If one asks the Department of Justice, as I and many other Deputies have done, to give a rough figure of the percentage of prison sentences served by prisoners, it refuses to give it even though it could obtain that information if it wanted to. The Department says it does not keep records in a way which would yield that information without undue trouble and expense.
I will outline what is happening in Irish jails. On anecdotal information I am satisfied is correct, the average prisoner, excepting politically sensitive cases and sexual offenders, is serving approximately 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the jail term imposed by the Judiciary; one-fifth is a fair rule of thumb of the nominal sentence. The Department of Justice knows that is happening in our prison service.
Deputy O'Donnell referred to somebody sentenced for a serious crime who was released within days of starting a three year sentence. That was done by departmental officials or prison governors; there is a record somewhere of that decision. Those releases happen day in and day out. People are taken to the Governor's office and released to make space in the prison for somebody else. A decision is made that a judge's conviction and sentence can be cancelled by a secretive process in which justice is effectively set at zero. That is the penal system today.
An enormous moral dilemma is posed for society when one visits Mountjoy and sees the circumstances in which prisoners are currently being housed. During the early part of the Minister's period in office, Deputy O'Donnell and I participated in a debate on the Estimates in which the question of drugs in Mountjoy arose. I used the phrase that Mountjoy was "awash with drugs" and received a haughty response from the Minister that was exaggerated language which I should not use. I was amused when Deputy Eric Byrne, who had not heard the debate, came into the Chamber and used the same phrase, but there was no rebuke for him. To use the phrase that Mountjoy is "awash with drugs" and to suggest that the majority of its prisoners are abusing drugs is not something I said irresponsibly; Governor Lonergan has admitted it. We have found out from television reports that even when drug abuse occurs under the noses of prison officers, they feel helpless to intervene.
If a young man goes into Mountjoy Prison drug free, which is rare, how can he survive a situation where he is in a cell with three other young men who are shooting up drugs? Many prisoners in Mountjoy run up overdrafts to crime bosses of £5,000 and £7,000 and when they are released they must pay for the gear, as it is called, they consumed in prison. I asked the Minister about that and she expressed the somewhat flowery view that everybody was strip-searched and internally searched going into Mountjoy. In fairness to her she came back later that afternoon and said that was not correct information.
I put the proposition to the Minister that day that if she were serious about curtailing the drug problem she should have urine tests carried out on prisoners in Mountjoy to determine the percentage that are on drugs. Urine tests have been carried out on prisoners who have indicated they want to be drug free, but for the vast majority of prisoners the test is not carried out on a random basis because the Department of Justice does not want to know the figures. Like the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, which found out in a survey that bonemeal is still being used in cattle feed, it did not want to know. We had the grotesque announcement on radio by Governor Lonergan that prisoners in Mountjoy were so excited by participating in "West Side Story" rehearsals that some of them had gone off drugs for the duration of the rehearsals.
Our prisons are not prisons, they are internment camps where people are suffering in overcrowded cells awash with drugs. The Government is aware of that but has denied it. The Minister said the prison was not awash with drugs but we hear the truth from prison chiefs. The truth is terrible and it is a scandal, but not one which emerged during the Minister's two years in office. It is remarkable that for the first three-quarters of her period in office, she stonewalled on these matters. Now, with an election looming, the Minister throws open the prison gates and lets the cameras in so that public opinion can say she is wonderful.
Deputy O'Donnell used the term "glanost” in a charitable way. The last person who tried glasnost suffered the same fate the Minister is about to suffer — a left wing Administration proving inadequate to the purpose. Glasnost is about renewal and openness. It is not simply saying “there is nothing more I can do, in with the cameras and let the prison officers take the blame”.
I want to refer to the question of cost. We need more accommodation in the prison system. We need to lease prison accommodation from those who would build it for us on a turnkey project basis. We do not need to go through the debacle of Wheatfield where it took virtually a quarter of a century, from planning to completion, to build a single prison. We do not need a slow planning process for modest proposals to increase the size of the prison service.
We can have a modern prison system sufficient to accommodate prisoners sent to jail by the courts. Because of the demographic bulge I referred to earlier, which is now passing through the critical 15 to 25 year period, it will soon be possible to retire out of commission the Victorian hellholes we now call our prison service. If we take the right decisions and have prisons built by those who can do it at good value, and service them in an economical way, prisons like Mountjoy will no longer be the future of the prison service. That requires the establishment of an independent prisons services agency. It requires also a new commitment on the part of the public to ensuring that when judges send people to jail, they serve their allotted span. Irish people are willing to have that done. They are sick of the invisible tax of crime on their communities, the constant burglaries, muggings and beatings caused by a failed prisons system. Young men being sent to jail do not believe they are being punished. They have a spring in their step because they know the Minister, Deputy Owen, will release them when they have completed between 10 and 20 per cent of their prison sentences. God help the guards, the judges, the witnesses and the victims who see that spectacle. It is a grave scandal of which this society must take cognisance. That is why this Bill is so necessary.
I commend Deputy O'Donnell on the work she put into preparing this legislation. In the course of my contribution I will indicate what I believe is wrong with the Bill.
As Minister for Justice I have done everything possible to encourage an informed public debate on prison issues and this Bill will give us an opportunity to consider these matters. It was a forlorn hope that, in the course of this debate, Deputies opposite would adopt a constructive approach and abandon their usual Pavlovian posturing when crime is discussed in the House.
Were these words written before the debate began?
On the one hand, Deputy McDowell advocates that prisoners should remain in prison while, on the other hand, he claims they should be let out. I am confused about what he wants.
He did not say that.
He wants us to stack our prisons like firewood and keep prisoners in prison without recognising that at times it is correct to release prisoners early. Deputy O'Donoghue also laboriously weaved his tortured prose with a speech that was as full of colour as it was devoid of substance, peddling myths which he almost seems to believe about this Government's response to crime.
That is unfair.
The Minister should deal with the tragedy before us.
A debate is taking place about prisons because the Government, for the first time in many years, has been willing to realistically examine our prisons system. I abhor Deputy O'Donnell's efforts to take Governor Lonergan to task on radio this morning, claiming he is wrong.
The Minister should speak to the Governor, he agrees with me.
Deputies O'Donnell and McDowell had a good hearing. They should extend the same courtesy to the Minister.
They dealt with the facts.
Deputy Molloy must desist from interrupting.
If there are difficulties in the prisons service, it is facile and wrong for Members opposite to turn all their criticisms on the staff of the Department of Justice and the prisons. Our prisons are overcrowded and lack spaces because, for nine years, former Governments did nothing about providing additional places for prisoners. One cannot manage a system when there are not enough prison places.
What about Castlerea?
I read some of the Dáil debates from 1993 and 1994. Less than one year after Deputy McDowell's party went out of Government he castigated Fianna Fáil for the revolving door system and overcrowding. Deputy O'Donoghue should be cautious for fear there might be a possibility — I do not believe there is — of his party marrying the Progressive Democrats. If his party has an opportunity to go into Government with the Progressive Democrats in the next century it should be very careful because the Progressive Democrats will turn on Fianna Fáil, as Deputy McDowell did in the past.
Deputy McDowell stated that Dr. Whitaker's report lay on a shelf for 12 years. Fianna Fáil was in Government for nine of those years, the Deputy was in Government for three of them and Fine Gael and the Labour Party have been in Government for two years and for one year in 1986-7. The report was published at the end of 1985.
In July 1985.
We served for another year until early in 1987. The Deputy should not whinge about the report. We are doing something about it, his party and Fianna Fáil did nothing when in Government.
Who cancelled Castlerea?
The Minister is ignoring my question.
The Deputy does not have a right to put a question from a seated position.
May I put a question to the Minister?
Under the new procedure the Deputy may ask a question at a later stage of the Minister's speech.
Deputy Molloy is from the west and does not even know the first part of Castlerea is open and holding prisoners. While I cannot pay his expenses, I advise him to visit the prison.
I asked who cancelled the prison? We know what happened.
For the first time since 1989 — Members should note who was in Government since then — the figures for 1996 show that the crime graph is going down.
I accept that more needs to be done, but no matter how it upsets the Deputies opposite the legislative and other measures this Government has taken against crime are working. All the opportunism from the other side of the House will not change that fact. When we complete Committee Stage debates Deputy O'Donnell and others usually have the generosity to compliment the Government on the improvements it has made in the legislation, but when they come into these coloured debates they seem to forget that work is being done.
The terms of Deputy O'Donnell's Bill, particularly given the extravagant claims made publicly about it, are a major disappointment. Much of it is redundant in that it purports to confer powers on the Minister which already exist or which are not necessary to put on a statutory basis. In so far as the measures contained in the Bill might allow for a new management structure they are superficial virtually to the point of meaninglessness.
The Minister should tell that to the Ceann Comhairle's office.
For these and other reasons which I will outline, the Government has no choice but to oppose the Bill.
Does anyone believe the way to tackle accommodation problems in our prisons is to insert a provision in a Bill allowing the Minister for Justice "to erect, maintain and keep open such prisons as are reasonably necessary"? There is already a clear legislative basis to enable the provision of prisons and other custodial institutions. What is required is for the Government to devote the necessary resources to allow extra prison places to be provided and this is what the Government has done. By the time our prison programme is complete, we will have spent £73 million on the provision of additional prison places which successive Governments should have been doing to ensure the bill would not be so high or the gaps so obvious and dangerous.
Equally, does anyone believe the way to establish a new management structure for the prisons service is to declare that "there may be established as a separate executive office a body known as the prison service" without giving a definition of "executive office"? The establishment of an independent prisons board or agency to run the prisons service, to which the Government is fully committed, would give rise to complex issues which essentially this Bill ignores. Those are only two examples of the types of approach taken in the Bill and, consequently, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are dealing with a sterile exercise in propaganda rather than a genuine attempt at legislative reform. I regret having to say that because Deputy McDowell at least went to the trouble of examining Dr. Whitaker's report and made some substantive points.
I never sought to pretend that the prison service is without difficult problems. The record will show that I have been more open and frank about the problems in the prison service than any of my predecessors. It is fair to say that, more than any of them, I have adopted a policy of openness. For example, I authorised the unprecedented access of a television documentary team to film in Mountjoy last summer. The results of that can be seen in the well made series, "The Joy", which is running on RTE. We are also in the course of an exercise which will allow the media access to all custodial institutions under my control.
Let me explain why and when I decided to do that. I wrote to newspaper editors last summer saying that we were receiving so many requests from individual journalists to visit our prisons that it was causing difficulties for internal management and that I was putting together a mechanism whereby there could be open days in prisons. When did any other Minister open the doors of the prison——
The doors are perpetually open.
——and allow taxpayers to see precisely what is going on so that they will know where their money is going and where more is needed? There is no shame in that and I proudly say it was my initiative that set that policy in motion. I know I left myself open to these programmes showing the warts of our prison service. Is it not better that it be seen rather than hiding what is going on, like Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, Deputy Ray Burke, Deputy Collins and some of my other predecessors did, despite the exhortations of officials in the Department of Justice? It is those who were politically responsible for the previous nine years that I particularly criticise for not doing what is now being done by this Government. At the start of the exercise, I authorised senior officials of the prisons division to brief the media fully and frankly on prison issues. They were not sent out, as Deputy O'Donnell claimed on radio this morning, to say that the prison system is in chaos and they were not reported as having said that.
I would like Deputy O'Donnell to make up her mind. If I am seen photographed with the Garda or looking at drugs, which I did once, she criticises me. She should save her lecturing for her leader. Yesterday, her leader turned up unannounced at the door of Templemore with an entourage of cameras and media people——
Is the Minister jealous?
——so she could walk in without notice and disrupt classes.
The Minister is very jealous.
The Deputy should talk to her leader if she needs an example of someone seeking publicity. The Deputy should not be so virtuous about it. She should tell her leader, Deputy Harney, that she can visit Templemore any time she wants——
The Minister should stick to her script.
——but she is upset now because I would not allow in any of the media.
It does no service to anyone to exaggerate the real difficulties which the prison service faces. It would be a pity if we failed to recognise in the course of a debate such as this that, day in day out, the prisons hold about 2,300 prisoners, providing an essential service for the protection of the community. I am happy to pay tribute to the prison service management and staff. They carry out an extremely difficult job on behalf of the community and deserve our support and not the kind of criticism which I have heard tonight from Deputies. I want to mention the recent siege incident in Mountjoy and thank all those who helped bring it to a peaceful conclusion.
While I strongly believe that the public are entitled to know what goes on in our prisons, that policy of openness would amount to very little by itself. That is why I am pleased the record will show that I, together with my colleagues in Government, have taken a series of initiatives in relation to the prisons which will fundamentally and effectively address the difficulties which have been known for a number of years, something Deputy Michael McDowell was gracious enough to accept, but have been ignored by some previous Governments, including that in which Deputy O'Donnell's party participated.
There are four main prison issues which I have given priority to since coming into office: the revolving door syndrome,——
What has the Minister done about it?
——costs, management structures and the drug problem in prisons.
What has the Minister done about the revolving door syndrome?
The record of this Government will show that these matters are being tackled effectively and that the measures taken are already——
Since the Minister has said she has paid attention to the revolving door problem, could she indicate what she has done about it?
She has taken it off.
I am about to come to that. The Deputy should be patient. This will ultimately bring about a much improved prison system appropriate to the needs of our community. I invite any fair minded observer to contrast this record of substance with the type of "magic wand" approach evidenced in the Bill before this House.
Much, understandably, is made of the revolving door. Despite what Deputy O'Donnell might like to pretend, it is not a door of my making. It was a door which was increasingly well oiled when her party was in Government. When I became Minister for Justice, the lack of adequate prison accommodation was clearly the major problem facing the prison system, if not the criminal justice system as a whole.
The Minister cancelled the prison building programme.
The record of this Government will show that we have launched upon the greatest prison building programme since the foundation of the State involving the provision of around 800 extra places. The Bill before the House refers in section 6 to an assessment to be made of the likely need for prison and custodial accommodation for three year periods. However, when the Castlerea project was postponed, allowing for a thorough review of accommodation requirements——
It was cancelled.
It was not cancelled. The Deputy should stop making up fairy tales. He is an awful idiot. Every time I raise this issue in the Dáil, he says it was cancelled. He should look at the diggers on the site and visit the prisoners in the prison. If he cannot do that, he should be quiet. He is making me sick with his old nonsense. I was in Kerry last week and heard some of the airy-fairy stuff Deputy O'Donoghue has been saying to the people there. The first part of Castlerea prison is open and not one single prisoner would be there if I had continued with the Fianna Fáil proposal. The Deputy should find a new line.
When the Castlerea project was postponed allowing for a thorough review of how best to accommodate and provide accommodation, this was roundly condemned, yet Deputy O'Donnell said in her Bill that there must be three years to plan prison places, etc. She should make up her mind and be consistent in her projects.
Including a provision in this Bill allowing for the building of prisons, as section 5 purports to do, would not achieve one extra place. The thinking behind the Progressive Democrats approach to prisons seems to be that an improved prison system with additional prison accommodation can be achieved by some sort of legislative declaration without spending a single shilling. One just says one will do it and it happens. It is worth contrasting that empty legislative provision with what is being achieved in reality through the Government's accelerated programme for the provision of additional prison accommodation.
Thirty extra places were provided in St. Patrick's Institution in February 1996, 25 extra places have been provided in the special unit at Castlerea and 125 extra places will be provided by the end of this year. The D Wing at Limerick Prison will provide 55 extra places next October. The Curragh Prison is holding up to 68 prisoners and was brought into use at the end of last year. We are about to go to tender for the new women's prison with 60 places and the new remand centre for 400 at Wheatfield.
That paragraph could not have appeared in any speech by previous Ministers in the last nine years because no new prison places were provided since the last Fine Gael-Labour Government in 1986 built and planned Wheatfield Prison.
Deputy Collins made that decision.
Deputy Collins did not. The decision was taken in 1986 and all the work was ready when Deputy Collins came in and gathered the kudos. I congratulate all involved in this accelerated programme, especially the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Coveney. I am satisfied that as much progress is being made as is humanly possible and on the basis of professional advice available to me. I reject suggestions from Deputies opposite that there are cheaper or quicker ways of providing appropriate additional prison accommodation.
We are not building hotel bedrooms, we are building secure prison places for dangerous prisoners who will, at the drop of a hat, break out of a prison if it is not secure. Deputy O'Donnell is right to raise the issue of open prisons but she appears to suggest that we should cast aside our security advice and get somebody who is used to building hotels and so forth. The Wheatfield extension of 400 prison places is being built in the way Deputy O'Donnell previously suggested, although I did not need that suggestion. We have invited the country's most important building contractors to tender for the project and they have done the design work to accelerate the process. Providing these extra places has placed a heavy burden on the Exchequer but the Government believes it is right to give priority to the programme.
Costs in the Prisons Service are undoubtedly high and would be a cause of concern for any Minister for Justice. However, it is not good enough for Opposition Deputies to simply assert they will reduce those costs by a third, or whatever other figure they pluck out of the air, without being specific as to how this is to be done. I read the transcript of Deputy O'Donnell's interview on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme this morning. Every time Áine Lawlor tried to pin the Deputy down on where she would make the savings the Deputy went on to talk about something else, such as management, without offering concrete examples. Is she arguing that the levels of security, for example, are too high? If that is the case, it seems difficult to reconcile that with her tendency——
Is the Minister saying everything is fine at present?
——to issue immediate public statements complaining about inadequate security when prisoners have escaped from escorts. Does she propose to reduce expenditure by reducing staff levels through changes in regimes, changes which could result in a deterioration in conditions for prisoners, the conditions about which Deputy McDowell wept bitter tears today?
They do not do anything about the drugs; they say they do.
If that is the case, how would she reconcile that approach with the statements she makes about prison conditions when prisoners, regrettably, take their own lives?
I am not suggesting there could not be further efficiencies in the operation of our prisons, but sweeping, unsupported statements by the Deputy are no help to that cause. In this context, it is right to put on record that the comments the Deputy made about alleged mismanagement of the prisons by the Department of Justice are deeply unfair to the officials who have been involved for years in the administration of prisons.
Who is responsible then?
Will the Minister take the blame?
If the Deputy were to ask any of my predecessors, they would agree that the people involved have performed a difficult role with distinction and absolute commitment to the improvement of the Prisons Service. They are not blind to the difficulties either——
Nobody is responsible.
——but it is up to Government to give them the necessary resources. This Government is giving them the resources. In the next three years £135 million will be spent in our prisons on building and maintenance alone. That is the type of commitment that is necessary, not airy fairy, magic wand solutions.
Bland comparisons of staffing ratios between one jurisdiction and another, without having regard to matters such as the number and types of prisons involved and the nature of prison regimes, are clearly fraught with difficulty. Rather than taking the inadequate approach which the Deputy has to this issue, the question of achieving greater efficiencies in the Prisons Service must be approached in a strategic way which acknowledges the complex realities.
Last autumn, I established a prisons operating costs review group to review the operating costs of the Prisons Service in light of the following: the requirements of safe custody, requirements of the regimes in prisons, the variable and unpredictable nature of demands on the service, particularly court and hospital escorts, the need to optimise efficiency and professionalism of prison staff, the need for cost effectiveness, and to make recommendations. The group is chaired by Mr. Declan Brennan, a former Secretary of the Department of Education and an employers' representative in the Labour Court. In addition, there are varied and diverse experiences represented in the group. The wide cross section of experience should provide a unique opportunity for the formulation of a strategy to maximise the return which the taxpayer gets from the Prisons Service. I am particularly pleased that both staff and management from the Prisons Service are working with representatives from the wider public sector.
I hope to have an interim report from the group by the end of this month and I make no apologies for the fact that, unlike Deputy O'Donnell, I do not pretend to have instant solutions to the issues involved. It is appropriate to call on a wide range of expertise to assist me in this process, which will fundamentally shape the future of our prison system. I will probably be accused of saying I do not know enough about the prison system, although I probably know more than anybody else in this House apart from the staff and officials who accompany me. However, I am big enough to admit that I have not been working in the system for the same number of years as the staff, and I am willing to take advice from experts who know about the system. If the Opposition Deputies ever take office in Government I hope they will be man and woman enough also to take advice from experts.
The implementation as quickly as possible of the Government's commitment to the establishment of an independent prisons board or agency will also fundamentally shape the future of our prison system. The Bill's proposals in this regard are clearly inadequate. Section 10 does not even spell out how the separate executive office is to work. The approach taken by the Bill fails to address a series of questions. What will be the legal status of the proposed agency? Will it be able to sue or be sued? What will be the status of the staff of the Prisons Service? Will they remain civil servants? What role will the service have in decisions about temporary releases? It is just mentioned in the Bill but there is no provision for how it will work. What role will the service have in decisions on transfers of prisoners between institutions?
The Oireachtas is being asked to buy a pig in a poke as the legislation does not address these and other fundamental issues. It is useless to say some of these matters could be dealt with under section 16 which purports to repeal the legislation specified in the First Schedule, subject to the right of the Minister to set the date of the repeal taking place and to make regulations governing any matters contained in those Acts. The power to make regulations contained in section 16 is so wide ranging and unspecific that I doubt it would be permissible under the rules governing delegated legislation.
The Government is committed to a new management structure for the Prisons Service. That decision does no disservice to anybody who is involved in prisons management. It simply recognises, in the context of developments in thinking in relation to public service management, that new structures of management would be appropriate for the service. Obviously, complex issues arise and that is why the Government decided to establish an independent board and to set up an expert group composed of people from outside and inside the public service to work out the detailed aspects of the proposed new service. I met the distinguished chairman of the group, Mr. Dan McAuley, recently and he informed me that the group had made considerable progress on its work and it is hoped its report will be completed by the end of this month.
There will be no delay in the Government's consideration of the report and we will make any necessary arrangements regarding the establishment of a new prisons agency, including bringing forward the legislation as a matter of priority. Members will agree that this is a measured, sensible and effective approach in contrast with what is contained in the Bill before the House.
I will now discuss the drugs problem in prisons because it is a matter of grave concern. I took a number of steps, during my first year in office, to try to stamp out drugs in our prisons. Using measures with minimal cost effects, I have managed to reduce the problem and to turn some of our prisons into drug free zones. Everybody laughed at the net that was put over the prison yard in Cork. However, the prison governor now tells me that Cork prison is virtually drug free. Better cameras and search rooms have been installed in Mountjoy but a great deal more must be done. More can be done. I do not throw up my hands in despair and say we must abandon prisoners who are on drugs. If they are on drugs when they enter prison we must try to get them off drugs.
I welcome the fact that we have better relations with the health boards. There is no point in the Prisons Service trying to get young people off drugs when they are in prison through the training unit, which is a drug free unit, and the medical care unit, which is a detoxification unit, and the new methadone treatment service if they return to the same habits when they leave prison. I am determined to do more in this area. One of the most serious issues which I discussed with the prison officers recently is the problem of syringes. They are terrifying to people who must search for them. They fear they will be pricked by one of them. The new law on non-fatal offences against the person will tackle that issue both inside and outside prisons.
I ask the Minister to conclude as I am obliged to call another speaker.
Deputy McDowell took a minute of my time so I will finish what I wish to say. Section 6 of the Bill gives the Minister power to assess the needs of prisons.
Section 7 provides that no person under the age of 18 shall be detained. A number of the provisions in the Bill have not been refreshed or rendered more modern than the provisions of last year's Bill. If Deputy O'Donnell had done so, she would not have included this section. It is already included in section 133 of the Children Bill and a number of other issues are also covered in that Bill. Others are covered in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the Criminal Law Bill, both of which are before the Houses of the Oireachtas at present. There are proposals in the Bill which in some cases are redundant and in others ineffective. In outlining what the Government has delivered, I hope the Opposition will be a little more generous and recognise that the public do not want to see us arguing across the House about what they will do better than us and so on. They want us to come together and find realistic, effective solutions to the problems of crime, marginalisation and deprivation in society. I am sorry to tell Deputy O'Donnell that I do not commend the Bill to the House.
I express the fervent hope that my performance tonight will live up to the Minister's billing. When the epitaph of the rainbow coalition is written — the bewitching hour approaches —"By a Lonely Prison Wall" will go up in lights with "Ballad of Reading Gaol" and "The Auld Triangle". There was a tide in the affairs of the Government which, if taken at the flood, may have rescued it from annihilation. As it drifts towards its ineluctable fate with the electorate, the members of the rainbow coalition Government must rue the day they cancelled the outgoing Administration's prison building programme. Their fate was sealed on the day the Minister for Finance, Deputy Quinn, cancelled planned prisons at Castlerea and Mountjoy, which had been provided for by Fianna Fáil in its published Estimates prior to leaving office. The Minister for Justice was not present when that fateful decision was made, nonetheless she subsequently showed she was treated with the political contempt she deserved when she supported a decision about which she was not even informed. Having taken the sup she proceeded to scatter to the four winds Fine Gael's reputation as the party of law and order and embraced her leftist comrades in a political death dance which effectively sealed her own fate.
The backdrop was painted and the scene was set for 1995 to become the year of the criminal. Larcenies, robberies, burglaries and savage attacks on the elderly were reported ad nauseam in the print and electronic media. When Fianna Fáil said that things were going out of control, we were accused of scaremongering. When we pointed out that our criminal laws were inadequate to deal with a heightening crisis, we were dismissed with contempt by the rainbow coalition Government. When we said that insidious forces were at work in the undergrowth of Irish life, the Minister for Justice turned a blind eye.
There is a direct line between the rainbow coalition's regressive reasoning in 1995 and 1996 and the current crime and prisons crisis. There was a gradual erosion of the ideal of crime and punishment. The revolving prison door became an open prison door. The right of an individual to his or her safety and the safety of his or her property was no longer a fundamental or sacred right. The obligation of Government to protect people's lives and property was no longer a superior obligation. The message trickled quickly down the line to the criminal community that a serious offence would at best go unpunished and at worst half punished. Criminals became more daring and when we warned that contract killings were cogent evidence that those involved in organised crime considered themselves to be untouchable, we were scorned and laughed at. The Government which had flailed around in the wake of the Brinks-Allied raid was lost in the maze of its disparate philosophy.
We campaigned for a bail referendum throughout 1995. Fine Gael agreed with us but voted against us. The Tánaiste bowed deferentially to his so-called civil libertarian wing and said "no". The North Korean connection, as always in matters of this kind, saw no problem, but there was a problem; there was a crisis. Increasingly, women had become the subject of attacks, hardened criminals were escaping from custody, savage attacks on the elderly living in remote rural areas became the order of the day, drug related crime started to go through the roof, murders became an increasing feature of everyday life and prisoners were released on the sole criterion that there was no place to keep them. In one year, in excess of 1,300 prisoners had breached the conditions of their temporary release. Clearly they had got the message, the rainbow coalition did not want them, and they knew when they were not wanted.
Ultimately, members of an illegal organisation gunned down a member of the Garda Síochána in Adare, County Limerick. This was quickly followed by the murder of a young investigative journalist and mother in her car in the middle of the day. There is not a democracy on earth which would not be abhorred that this could happen within its jurisdiction. The people were rightly incredulous that it could happen in a relatively small community where everybody had felt reasonably safe up to a couple of years earlier. Even then the rainbow coalition was like a cork at sea. Bereft of philosophy, ideology or definite direction, the sages of the rainbow coalition ignored the wailing of the Minister for Justice and accepted Fianna Fáil's Proceeds of Crime Bill, 1996. It is a matter of public record that this legislation was the central plank of the Government's response to organised crime.
It was not.
Those cynical enough to remember the Tánaiste's visit to the hangar at Dublin Airport before the 1992 general election will not be rocked off their armchairs by the sight of the Minister for Finance recently seeking to claim this Fianna Fáil initiative as the crowning glory of the rainbow coalition's fight against crime.
It was believed by many, following its barren response to organised crime, that the Government had learnt a salutary lesson and that there would be no more legislative droughts or bungling in the Department of Justice, there would be no more lost extradition warrants and there would be a level of accountability at last. Unfortunately, the same lethargy and gross negligence which had been the hallmark of the Minister, Deputy Owen's reign was about to reach its apex. Few could credit that a Minister for Justice, having proposed that a judge of the Special Criminal Court be delisted on 1 August 1996, would have failed to enforce that decision until November 1996. Excuses were tossed around like snuff at a wake. Letters were not received, read, replied to, seen or heard of. Nobody knew anything. It was like the day the county council shovel was stolen — when nobody was unduly concerned the ganger said that what is everybody's business is nobody's business. It would have been a pantomime if it had not been such a tragedy.
Once again the Minister for Justice had pulled open the curtain and her latest drama was enthralling the lawyers of Ireland. The Taoiseach, deciding to get in on the act, came into the House and put his foot in his mouth. He said that Deputy Owen was the most successful Minister for Justice in the history of the State. The people gazed ruefully at their television sets, shook their heads and proclaimed aloud that they could not take much more of this kind of success. Meanwhile the Minister for Justice, under severe Opposition pressure, had decided to find company for the lonely prison wall at Castlerea. Too little too late, the soothsayers said, but the femme fatale of the rainbow coalition could be heard saying “800 more places and soon”. Old people used to say “live horse and you will get grass”, those who have been waiting for the Minister, Deputy Owen to deliver say “the cheque is in the post”.
Meanwhile, back on the streets, crime continued unabated. Hardened criminals were not frightened off by the bail referendum which was forced on the Government. There was no legislation to give effect to it and they knew that, even if it was belatedly held, they would not be adversely affected by it. They knew there was no prison place for them. When the Government announced it was taking half of the functions of the Department away from the Minister, Deputy Owen, by setting up an independent courts commission and an independent prisons board, everybody heaved a collective sigh of relief, even if they knew it was a face-saving exercise initiated by the Tánaiste.
When the siege occurred at Mountjoy we heard the familiar anthem from at least some Labour Deputies that the rights of convicted criminals should be on the same plateau as the rights of victims. Lately there have been leaks to the effect that things are not as bad as they really are and that crime figures are falling. Crime figures are possibly falling because the official record does not show the truth anymore. There are people in this country, and I have met many of them, who do not bother to report that items are stolen from their cars or, in some instances, that their cars are stolen. At a time when people are seeking an adequate response to a problem which is scourging Irish society, the harsh ironic reality is that the Rainbow Coalition Government is still looking for a motive for the Brinks Allied robbery.
The Government recently decided to open the prison system to public scrutiny. It revealed what we already knew that the system was in chaos. The Government appears to be of the opinion that opening the gates will gain them some sympathy from the public. However, the public know that the problem has been allowed to escalate out of control. They know who cancelled the prison building programme and why. There is no reason the public should sympathise with the Rainbow Coalition Government on its self-inflicted wounds.
There are complicated issues to be addressed in the context of the Progressive Democrats Bill and certain questions must be addressed in drawing up structures for prison administration. How will or can a new body improve the existing regime? What, if any, powers and means will a new prison body have at its disposal to eliminate overcrowding? What, if any, concrete ways will be open to a new body to enable it to improve the morale, working conditions and performance of prison staff?
The Deputy has the same problems with the Bill as I.
Will a new prison body be able to improve conditions in a cost effective way? What significant powers and responsibilities relating to prisons will be retained by the Minister for Justice and will the responsibility of the Minister legally be affected in any way by the proposed changes? These are fundamental questions about the efficacy and rationale of the new proposals but they strike at the heart of the relationship between the Department of Justice and the prison system. However, they are only a fraction of the wider issues raised by the current crisis in the Prisons Service.
One of the larger issues at play here is a complete restatement of the resolve and definition of the Rainbow Coalition in regard to its own identity in the cycle of justice administration. The message has filtered down through every possible medium to the criminal and the potential criminal — simply and starkly, this Government is soft on crime. It has no sense of individual or collective responsibility in regard to the current crisis. It seems to have no shame. It has attacked crime with the resolve of a retired J-cloth. They have lain in wait for serious crime by crouching behind pillars of candy floss clutching handfuls of cotton wool. The Rainbow Coalition cares more about protecting themselves and what is theirs than about protecting old people in rural areas from violent attack. They are a mismatched quilt of diametrically opposed ideologies held together by a common thread of lust for power at all costs.
It is working.
Self-righteous crusaders who felt too high and mighty to keep their promises to former partners in Government are now jostling each other in the queue for the Government jet. This Administration is so full of disloyalty and disunity that it makes the average criminal feud look like a steady relationship.
The Deputy is jealous that we are in Government.
There are a number of obvious steps which could be taken by the Government if it was interested, but it is more interested in laying poison, caring little as to who might or might not consume it irrespective of their guilt or innocence, once it is not one of them. That has been the way of all oligarchies but this oligarchy is soon to learn that it is subject to democracy. The head of this oligarchy, Deputy Bruton, will also learn that people expect him as Taoiseach to uphold the constitutional right to due process and the rule of law.
In any event, Fianna Fáil was the first to advocate a separate remand prison in recent times——
Why did it not do it when it was in Government if it was such a good idea?
——a remand centre which will be constructed as soon as Fianna Fail return to Government. While a remand prison remains a fundamental necessity, interim methods could be employed while one is being built. Of course, that would require a little innovation and imagination and would probably be too much to expect. The housing of even a small number of remand prisoners in a secure temporary prison facility on a priority basis, depending on the existence of previous convictions, would at least show some degree of attention to the very real problem posed by the lack of a remand prison.
The question of prison suicides is another area which must be addressed. Why do we have one of the highest statistical incidence of prison suicides? Why is it that the relationship between inmates and prison staff is not a priority for the current Administration? This relationship and its regulation are surely of fundamental importance.
The drug problem in Mountjoy Prison is out of control. The staple diet for 65 per cent of the male population there would appear to be drugs. How can a Government which is soft on hard drugs in the world outside prison be expected to recognise drugs as a problem within that system? Conversely, how can a Government which allows drugs to be rampant in a State institution be expected to tackle drugs on the streets? The failure of the Government to tackle the drugs problem in Mountjoy Prison has led to a situation where the lives of prison officers and prisoners are now at risk.
How can an unarmed prison officer be expected to tackle a prisoner who is wielding a syringe which may result in the infection of the prison officer with AIDS? The frightening statistic from the visiting committee for Mountjoy Prison is that up to 35 per cent of the inmates are intravenous drug users. Staff members have even commented that their opinion is that, if drugs were totally eradicated from the prison, the tension level would inevitably lead to the injury of prison officers. That does not mean we should accept the present situation. A responsible and co-ordinated plan to make prisons drug-free should be implemented. It will not be done by this Government. It will be done by Fianna Fáil in Government.
I welcome the proposed establishment of a prison service and the creation of a post of inspector of prisons under this legislation. It is a development which Fianna Fáil has put forward on numerous occasions. It is rightly important that an inspector would have the powers to, for example, interview prisoners, hear their grievances on appeal, examine prison conditions, hold inquiries, and recommend reforms. There is a strong likelihood that, had the present Administration established an effective inspector of prisons, the shocking recent siege at Mountjoy Prison could well have been prevented or, at the very least, diffused much earlier. That would have been too much to hope for.
One slight concern which I have about the two new positions of director of the prison services and inspector of prisons is that it is unclear from the Bill what relationship these posts are expected to have with each other. The creation of a single post of inspector of prisons would perhaps have avoided any possible conflict of overlap on the roles of both. It would also clarify the position publicly as to who was ultimately responsible for the prison system on a day to day basis.
The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace made a very worthwhile assessment of the proposal to establish a prisons body in their submission in January of this year. They rightly point out that this decision has been taken almost as a knee-jerk reaction in the aftermath of the Judge Dominic Lynch fiasco and the bail referendum. The need for consultation and the consideration of the wider issues is heightened by the very real implications of this Bill for other bodies. The Minister's Dáil reply on 21 November last included almost incidentally the information that the probation and welfare services would be brought under the new body. There must be an extremely strong argument for bringing this service under the new courts commission. It would certainly appear to be more appropriate. Also, in her reply of 21 November last, the Minister indicated that a group had been established by the Government to review and report on all aspects of the proposed prison's body. This review group was mandated to complete its task and submit its findings to the Government by the end of last month — January 1997.
Given the extremely tight deadline afforded to the review group, it is not surprising to report that there has been slippage with regard to the submission of a final report to the Government. Hopefully, this delay will turn out to be positive and will augur well for a considered and comprehensive report. At least the review group has not been poked and pressed into providing a kneejerk response to complement the never-ending knee-jerk reactions of the Rainbow Administration. On this side of the House, we await the publication of the group report with great interest.
The prison system is not, as much as this Administration would have us believe, some inconsequential, irrelevant, insignificant or immaterial arm of the State. The prison system is one of the rocks upon which the Irish criminal justice system rests. A shaky foundation in the prison system reverberates rapidly throughout the criminal justice system and seeps quickly and lethally into all sections of Irish society. A Government which does not ensure that the prison system is, in all its manifestations, adequate to serve the society in which it is established, is guilty of the most basic dereliction of duty. In this respect, the Rainbow Coalition has dismally failed the Irish people.