There has long been a need for comprehensive prisons legislation which would repeal antiquated legislation dating back to 1826. Unfortunately, this Private Members' Bill does not even come close to meeting that need. I appreciate the difficulties encountered by Opposition Deputies in drafting legislation, and that the expertise available to Government is not always available to Opposition Deputies. Nevertheless, if a Deputy presents a Bill in the Dáil it should stand up to scrutiny, and this Bill has so many holes in it that it amounts to little more than a legislative sticking plaster applied at random.
Recent polls show that crime is a major concern of the people, and that is due in part to the continual raising of the matter in forums such as this. However, populism is no substitute for a coherent prisons policy. Let me point to just a few of the more glaring anomalies in this draft legislation. Deputy O'Donnell, in common with other Members of this House, has consistently decried the absence of a separate remand facility. She is right to do so. I have often supported her in that. In holding remand prisoners together with convicted prisoners we are in breach of our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, but at no point is it specified in the Bill that remand prisoners will be held separately. It is simply left to the Minister to make regulations.
Deputy O'Donnell is also aware, as are other Members of this House, of the isolated but serious instances where prisoners have been abused. Those instances have been documented. Despite that, Deputy O'Donnell does not seek to incorporate the draft prison rules or the European Commission's Prison Regulations into her Bill. Having discussed those over a long time and on many occasions, I would have thought that they would have been at the top of any agenda for inclusion in a Bill of this nature.
The Deputy is aware of the serious overcrowding in many of our prisons, but at no point does her Bill lay down a minimum cubic footage per prisoner although, since it repeals all other prisons Acts, it should be the last word on prisons legislation. This must be included in comprehensive legislation dealing with our prisons into the future because we should not have to come back every year to patch up ineffective legislation or put new legislation in place. Legislation should be wide-ranging and comprehensive and should last for at least ten years with reviews during that time.
I welcome the section of the Bill that proposes the establishment of an independent prison service. This has been a long-standing demand of Democratic Left. In that regard, I am sure Deputy O'Donnell welcomes this Government's establishment of an expert group to advise the Government on the best way of establishing a new agency to run the prisons. The ad hoc and unplanned evolution of our prison system predates the foundation of this State. The crisis facing our prisons requires that very careful consideration be given to the composition of the new prisons agency, to its remit and its executive functions. There is also a need to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned from international experience, and to ensure that the administration of our prisons conforms with all the relevant European Union and the United Nations instruments. The establishment of an independent prisons board was first recommended by the Whitaker report over a decade ago. Until this Government assumed office, that report gathered dust on the shelves of various administrations, including the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Administration of 1989-90. Democratic Left has been consistent in its support for the Whitaker recommendations, but the worst possible response to the Whitaker report would be rushed and badly thought out legislation of the kind being debated tonight. Rather, we should await the conclusions under the chairmanship of Mr. Dan McAuley, and then proceed to establish a prisons agency which can form the basis of a progressive and responsive prison service of the kind envisaged in the Whitaker report.
Above all, we need to ensure that the prisons agency is truly independent and that it is not subject to ministerial shackles. However, in drafting this Bill, Deputy O'Donnell has proceeded to emasculate her proposed prison service. Section 12 of her Bill provides for the Minister to retain responsibility for the appointment of governors, deputy governors and prison officers as well as a myriad other issues concerned with the day-to-day running of our prisons. That could not be considered independent, so we are back to the status quo; the independent prison service will be no more than a dream. I refer Deputy O'Donnell to the excellent suggestions regarding the proposed independent prisons board made by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, which, I am sure, will be taken on board by Deputies on all sides of the House.
These are just a few of the omissions from the Bill. This Bill is a rehashing of old ideas many of which are, nevertheless, welcome. The debate is welcome because this is something that concerns people and should be debated. However, there is one new proposal for the establishment of a temporary release register open to inspection by the general public. There are certain crimes in respect of which people should be notified before prisoners are released back into the community. However, I have great difficulty with Deputy O'Donnell's proposal which would essentially mean that every self-appointed vigilante would be entitled to see who is out on temporary release and, presumably, where they are living.
Deputy O'Donnell is not simply suggesting that crime victims should have the right to know when their assailants are being released, nor is she suggesting that communities should be notified when, for example, sex offenders are released back among them. In section 15 of this Bill it is suggested that all members of the public should have the unhindered right to see the temporary release details of all prisoners, regardless of individual circumstances or of the possible danger to the individual concerned. That is very worrying.
Rather than legislating for vigilantism, Democratic Left has long advocated the establishment of an independent parole board which would ensure that early and temporary releases are fully monitored and that the conditions of release are tailored to the history and needs of individual prisoners. In particular, it is vital to ensure that prisoners are not simply dumped onto the streets when prison space is needed, in conditions which may positively encourage them to reoffend. In the run-up to an election, I have no doubt that the establishment of a temporary release register would, at first glance, prove extremely popular with voters. However, our job is to draft legislation which will stand the test of time.
I have had occasion before to reflect in this House on the possible outcome of the next election when we might see Deputy McDowell assuming the helm at the Department of Finance, with his counterpart, Deputy McCreevy, holding sway in the Department of Social Welfare. That spectre struck the public imagination recently, and I am sure it will again in the run-up to the election. Having seen this Bill, I would be very alarmed at the prospect of Deputy O'Donnell as Minister for Justice in an unholy alliance with Deputy O'Donoghue as Minister for Equality and Law Reform.
Anyone who brings a Bill before this House is to be congratulated. It must be a mammoth task, especially if one does not have the support and back-up which is available to Governments. However, if one is going to do it, it should be done properly. I look forward to a debate in the future on legislation which will fulfil all our needs.