Private Members' Business. - Prisons Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Last night, I concluded by stressing that the prison system is not an inconsequential, irrelevant, insignificant or immaterial arm of the State, as this Administration would have us believe. It is a crucial and fundamental need within the criminal justice system and is part of the infrastructure of that system.

In any society where the message went out to the criminal community that the penal system was not all it might be, crime increased. If a criminal justice system will not adequately punish offences, the system of law and order is undermined, society is undermined and a clear message goes out to criminals and potential criminals that their crimes will either go unpunished or will be half punished. We have witnessed that here in recent years.

It is of no use for the Minister for Justice to come into this House and wash her hands of this by saying she is not really the cause of it and that it was caused by previous Administrations. This Minister has been in charge of the Department for more than two years. She has presided over a legislative drought. Any solace people received relating to solving the crime problem came from the Opposition benches when the Minister either accepted or plagiarised legislation presented on this side of the House.

It gives me no great pleasure to say the Minister's contribution to the debate in this House last night was nothing short of a disgrace and amounted to little more than vulgar abuse. The Government should not be surprised by this. I was certainly not surprised because there is no reason anyone should think the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, is capable of opening a debate when she is not even able to open an envelope. Any Minister who has presided over as many fiascos as the Minister for Justice should not use the sort of language she used in this House last night unless addressing a mirror.

The Minister is clearly in a state of denial about Castlerea prison. The project was cancelled by the Cabinet in the absence of the Minister. It says a great deal about her standing with her colleagues when they cancelled this extremely important project in her absence. It also says a considerable amount about her commitment to her portfolio that she was absent when such an important decision was made. Unlike the situation relating to the delisting of Judge Dominic Lynch, it appears she was definitely notified on this occasion. We know this because she subsequently supported the decision taken by that new convert to the fight against crime in the Republic of Ireland, Deputy Quinn.

The Minister for Finance.

The Minister for Justice threatened to resign because the Minister for Finance cancelled the prison programme in her absence at a kitchen Cabinet meeting. This led me to remark at the time that, when the kitchen Cabinet meets, it appears the Minister, Deputy Owen, is sent out for the buns. Since the Minister threatened to resign, in hindsight the Taoiseach probably regrets that he did not accept the resignation.

We would have been expected to believe the Minister for Justice was not notified of the cancellation of the prison project at Castlerea were it not for these salient facts. We would have probably been told the message was lost in the post or that it fell out of the sky into the courts section in the Department of Justice and no one knew how it got there, no one ever saw it and no one ever handled it. One could be forgiven for making the argument that the public should not be surprised that a Minister who does not read her post would not read her Cabinet papers.

The Minister's most innovative contribution to the creation of additional prison places is that there will be vacant places on many occasions over the coming years when Owen's own 16 litigate the Minister's incompetence throughout Ireland and into Europe. The consequences of her incompetence will be debated long after she has left the Department of Justice. It begs the question as to whether the creation of additional judicial posts was part of a grand design by the Minister for Justice. In any event, I am glad to report that the additional judges are now fully occupied, not least because of the Minister's prowess in creating confusion where previously there was only calm. Monuments to the Minister's incompetence will turn up daily outside the Four Courts and other salubrious buildings around Europe in due course.

In hindsight, the country might be a far safer place today had the Minister done with the rest of her policies——

Did Fianna Fáil work?

——what the Minister for Finance and his colleagues did with the proposed prison at Castlerea.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Upton, Ring and Boylan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am not surprised but I am confused by the attitude of Deputy O'Donoghue to criminal justice matters. He is probably one of the most negative politicians in Leinster House yet he censured the Minister for Justice for engaging in vulgar abuse. He should examine his statements on legislative and justice matters. He has poured abuse on the Minister for Justice almost daily since she took office and has never acknowledged his party's responsibility for the gross negligence and lack of activity in the criminal justice area. Almost every time he speaks he calls on the Minister to resign. He has done so on 14 occasions——

——by my calculations and I am sure he will do so again. That is the typical manner in which Fianna Fáil addresses these matters. The party is not prepared to acknowledge the great work of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen. She has reformed a number of areas in the criminal justice sector which had been neglected for too long. Fianna Fáil was in Government, although Deputy O'Donoghue might not have realised it, from 1987 to 1994. To suggest that this Government must solve all the problems in two years indicates that the Deputy has little experience of what his party did in Government for seven years.

I welcome the opportunity presented by the introduction of this Bill to discuss prison reform which is an important issue in maintaining law and order. The Bill also gives me the opportunity to express my gratitude to the Minister for Justice for taking on the drug barons, an accomplishment for which she will always be remembered. For the first time, serious criminals are under pressure. Her task will be further helped when the bail legislation is brought before the Dáil following the recent successful referendum. All parties deserve credit for this important referendum, although the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke, turned down a request to hold such a referendum in 1988. However, Fianna Fáil, having believed a referendum unnecessary, discovered it was necessary in 1995 when Deputy O'Donoghue became its spokesman on justice. It is a measure of the credibility appertaining to that party that when in Opposition it appears to have a different policy from when in Government and in a position to implement its policies.

Over the years there were inadequate resources for the prisons service. All political parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, said something must be done about prison reform and prison building. However, not one prison place was provided by that party to deal with the problem. In contrast, the present Ministers for Justice and Finance were able to ensure that the necessary resources were and will be available in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 to provide up to 800 additional places. That will go a long way towards providing a solution to the problems of prisoners on remand and the revolving door syndrome. We are lucky, too, that the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Coveney, has personal experience of the building industry and has been able to apply his considerable expertise to ensure the building programme is carried out in a cost effective way.

The recent crime figures indicate that, for the first time since 1988, the level of crime is decreasing. We must congratulate the Garda Commissioner, Pat Byrne, and the Garda authorities for the manner in which they have fine tuned their policies to deal with serious criminals in urban and rural areas. The enthusiasm with which Commissioner Byrne has applied himself to the task since his appointment last July is refreshing. Not a day passes without the public seeing solid evidence of the effectiveness of the policies he put in place and the new laws introduced by the Government, particularly the Criminal Assets Bureau legislation, to deal with serious criminals and drug barons. The public will acknowledge the record of this Government, compared with that of other Governments, in dealing with law and order issues.

A £135 million prison building programme over three years has been put in place. However, building prisons alone is not a solution to the problem of crime. It is unacceptable that people convicted of petty crime, such as non-payment of fines or television licences, are jailed. We should examine other ways, such as the extension of community service orders, of dealing with such people. The education system has a vital role to play in educating people, particularly in primary and post-primary schools, about the drug problem. The Department of Health can also play a role by disseminating information through health centres and clinics. The wider community must take personal and parental responsibility for the activities of their families in the community in dealing with petty and serious crime. Crime is not just a legislative matter. Each citizen has a duty to help the fight against crime, if only to reduce the level of personal taxation which is how moneys to deal with the problem must be generated.

There were 490 drug seizures in 1996, a record and a clear indication that present policies are working. The Department of the Marine, the Department of Justice and the Revenue Commissioners have joined forces and have effectively, and not before time, co-ordinated their work to achieve high profile drug seizures. The drugs seized had the capacity to cause considerable damage to our citizens, particularly young people. Cannabis resin and other drugs have been a plague for too long.

I hope the Minister will continue her efforts to eliminate the great evil of ecstasy. It is still a major problem in urban communities and the Garda authorities must redouble their efforts to tackle the problem, particularly where it affects teenagers still at school. Individuals who have vital information should pass it to the Garda authorities to stamp out this menace once and for all. Parents also have a vital role in this regard.

I welcome the appointment of additional judges to deal with the backlog of court cases which had built up under Fianna Fáil led Governments. The High Court Judge in Cork has dealt expeditiously with an enormous number of cases. His success is acknowledged by solicitors and barristers in Cork as a major step forward. Deputy Quill will join them in acknowledging that success. A Corkman, Judge Seán O'Leary, has made a major contribution to the south-eastern circuit and ensured that the lists for Circuit Court cases is at an all-time low. The speed with which the new judicial appointments have tackled such matters deserves acknowledgment. I hope other circuits will take note of the progress that can be made if there is the will.

There is another Corkman in the west, Harvey Kenny.

The Minister for Justice knows talent when she sees it. Regardless of the experience the judges might have had with the Legislature in the past, they are doing an excellent job and long may they continue to do it.

I agree with Deputy Hogan's complimentary remarks about the Garda Commissioner, Pat Byrne. I also compliment the Assistant Commissioner in the Dublin area, Tom King, on the progress made through operation Dóchas. It has not solved all the problems but it marks a significant and welcome step forward. I look forward to the review of the operation and to further developments arising from its success.

One of the advantages of speaking on the second day of Private Members' debates is that it gives one an opportunity to examine the contributions of those who spoke earlier. Last night's effort, with the exception of Deputy Michael McDowell's contribution, was solely motivated by the dictates of political knock-about. Deputy O'Donoghue, whom we heard earlier this evening and who has remarkable capacity in that regard, gave another fine performance of political knock-about. In terms of substance, one is left wondering, in the words of another colleague, where is the beef.

It is difficult to disagree with the comments of the Minister for Justice on the unspecified nature of some of the Bill's provisions. The use of Bills to prolong Private Members' time on what some people consider to be politically juicy subjects has become a habit of the Opposition in the past two years. Deputy O'Donoghue spent most of the day today claiming credit for Bills he produced, and far be it for me to diminish in any way the contribution he made and the work he put into producing Bills, but the most important step taken in the recent past was the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau, which has a significant effect in curbing crime.

Deputy McDowell's speech of last night stood out in terms of its constructiveness. While I share reservations about the Progressive Democrats Bill, I understand Deputy McDowell's concern about the staff-prisoner ratio in the prison system. That should be examined. Deputy McDowell and his colleagues in the Progressive Democrats continually allude to parties of the left as being soft on crime, but neither I nor my party are soft on crime. I reject the accusation by Deputy O'Donnell last night that parties of the left are more concerned with the perpetrators than the victims of crime. That is bunkum. Most victims of crime live in areas where there is strong support for the Labour Party — many victims of crime are supporters of the Labour Party. Victims of crime and those who live in areas scourged with crime want to see criminals put out of business, as do I and my party. It is profoundly dishonest to suggest that because one believes there is a relationship between deprivation and crime one is soft on crime. That is nonsense. Being tough on crime means much more than posturing in this Chamber or outside it.

In a recent statement, the Leader of the Progressive Democrats compared her party to Tony Blair's Labour Party in Britain. For those of us who share Tony Blair's view of new social democracy, that is a distortion of logic. It is a ridiculous statement by Deputy Harney, who is normally a sensible woman. The new Labour Party in Britain believes in the primacy of the community over the individual. It believes that each individual has a responsibility and a duty to his fellow citizen and that criminals should take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences. I am a strong supporter of Mr. Blair's philosophy in that regard.

Deputy Harney, on the other hand, believes in liberty for the individual. She alluded to responsibilities and duties but was not specific in that regard. Contrary to the content of many of her press statements, she is the country's greatest advocate of untrammelled rights. She does not talk about the common good or the need for social cohesion as the basis for economic progress. She does not recognise that the huge growth rates of recent years have been achieved through social cohesion, by various elements in society working together towards shared objectives. Deputy Harney said that Gordon Browne's proposals on tax have a lot in common with those of her party, but the Progressive Democrats proposes to significantly reduce the top rate of tax, which would have the effect of putting more money in the pockets of the very well off.

The Progressive Democrats is using the current crime crisis as a vehicle to improve its support. It is attempting to tell middle class voters that it is acceptable to withdraw from society and leave others to deal with the problems. I reject that philosophy. It is not a communitarian approach to crime and it would not be advocated by Tony Blair.

Undoubtedly, more prison places are needed and progress is being made in that regard. Better management practices in prisons should be introduced and there is scope for progress in that area. The availability of drugs in prisons, particularly Mountjoy, is unacceptably high and the level of treatment for drug addicts leaves great scope for improvement. All these issues are being tackled and greater progress can be made.

A solution will not be found to the crime problem until the attitudes of society change. The concept of social obligation must be reintroduced as a matter of fundamental importance. Nobody should be allowed walk away from their responsibilities. Greater emphasis should be laid on the fact that everyone has a responsibility to others. We are preoccupied with rights and are very lax in terms of spelling out duties and obligations. Anybody who seeks to remove from criminals their responsibility is encouraging them to continue in their evil ways.

I wish to raise with the Minister the non-payment of large fines by people who are given the option of going to jail for a period of time. There is economic sense in convicted people opting for jail sentences instead of paying a fine of, say, £30,000, £40,000, £50,000 or £100,000. Will the Minister say whether that practice prevails? If so, it should be curbed. The courts should have power to take the money from the bank accounts of criminals.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Boylan.

That was agreed earlier.

I wish to speak in defence of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen who, as will be proven in future, is one of the best Ministers for Justice for many years. When this Government took office she had to face many problems. Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats policy at the time was to close down rural Garda stations and post offices. People in the west were afraid they would wake up in the morning with a gun to their heads. Those people are very grateful to the Minister who, as a result of meeting the Garda Commissioner, succeeded in curbing attacks on the elderly. Last Christmas was the first Christmas in many years that there was no attack on an old person in the west. The Minister did a good job in dealing with that serious problem.

When the Minister took office she faced many problems which were not of her making but were the fault of previous Governments. I listened to the Progressive Democrats last night talking about closing down Mountjoy, but where would we put the criminals? For too long no action was taken against criminals. I am talking about drug barons. When Deputy Owen was appointed Minister for Justice, the first problem she identified was that of people committing crimes while on bail. She did not get much support from the Opposition or this side of the House but she identified and resolved the problem. I am glad to say the referendum on bail was successful and I compliment the Minister on that.

The Minister was appointed when there were problems in the Garda Síochána. There was disarray in two Garda organisations which she resolved. She also identified the prison space problem. She did not get the support she needed from the Cabinet when Castlerea prison was built. On behalf of the people of the west of Ireland, I compliment her on getting her way. Castlerea prison is now set up and people are being detained there. That is testimony to the strength and power of this Minister. She is an excellent Minister of whom I am proud. I assure the people of the west that there will be no more closures of rural Garda stations, a policy started by Fianna Fáil in 1989 and continued in 1991. There have been no closures of Garda stations since this Government came into power and there will be no more closures under the present Minister.

Deputy Owen is a good Minister who understands the problems. She has tackled these problems just as she tackled the drug barons. She was criticised by both sides of the House when she brought in all the necessary legislation. She has proven she is a Minister of quality who is here for the long haul. She will go down as one of the best Ministers for Justice for many years to come. As a backbencher, she has my full support as well as that of the people.

It was heartening to hear the Dublin Chamber of Commerce a number of weeks ago complimenting the Minister on the action she had taken to resolve the crime problem in Dublin city. Like the people of the west, the people of Dublin have also suffered from crime. Now they know there is a Minister who cares, who is prepared to take on the drug barons and put those who commit serious crime behind bars.

The Minister has my support. I would like to speak for longer but I want to give my colleague, Deputy Boylan, an opportunity to speak. I ask the Minister to keep up the good work. I know no more rural Garda stations will close. I know she has her finger on the pulse and that the people have full confidence in her.

I compliment the Progressive Democrats on giving us the opportunity to reaffirm our support for the Minister for Justice. I cannot see any great proposals in the Bill. Nevertheless, it is important that we publicly support a Minister who, more than any other in recent times, has devoted much time and effort to tackling serious crime. She is making substantial progress, which is acknowledged by all fair thinking people nationwide.

There were sickening crimes when Deputy Owen was appointed to this important ministry. The attacks on the elderly had not been curtailed, despite attempts to do so. These were well-organised crimes. Old people were living in terror. We saw photographs and heard reports of the brutal attacks on helpless elderly people. As Deputy Ring correctly said, this winter and Christmas the elderly felt safe in their homes. Unfortunately, the padlocks have to remain and the windows have to be barred. I believe that in time they can be removed and we can go back to the great tradition of leaving our door on the latch. We can do that as long as we have a Minister of the calibre of Deputy Owen. She is getting support from the highest ranking garda to the lowest, in Garda stations or on the beat They have confidence in this Minister.

We also had the scurrilous carry-on of drug barons. I did not believe it was a serious problem. I read daily about the massive assets these people have built up. They did not do this overnight. Obviously they have been gathering money from the youth of our country on whom they inflicted the scourge of drugs. Millions of pounds has been collected by these people as a result of their evil ways. Nothing was done to curtail that activity. Over the past ten years, these people have been gathering money like wild bees at a honeypot. They have massive houses and farms. Where did this money come from? Where were previous Ministers for Justice that they did not recognise the evil these people inflicted? At last they are being hit hard and drugs are being taken off the streets. Young people can move around in freedom and those of us with young families do not have any fears that young people's discos will be infiltrated by ruthless people hoping to get them addicted to drugs and onto their payroll. Such addiction leads to other serious crime.

Many places in prison are taken up by people who committed minor crimes such as non-payment of road taxes, speeding offences and nonpayment of television licences. They could best pay their debt to society by doing community work. There is an attitude among a certain element, to which Deputy Upton referred. People who commit petty crimes or are fined large amounts for tax evasion and other illegal activities are fined £30,000 or £40,000 or given a month in jail. How can a district justice equate a month in jail with £30,000? The person gets out of jail after ten or 12 days for good behaviour. It does not make sense. Of course, people will ask to spend time in jail. Their spouse or family member will say they have gone to the Riviera on holiday or on business. They will have saved £30,000 by opting for jail.

Community service is the answer. There is so much work to be done for the public. They should wear an illuminated blazer just as community and road workers do when on various schemes. I do not want to make any comparison between people who are doing this and those who have to pay a penalty. They should be seen in public cutting hedges, cleaning drains and visiting the elderly. They should pay their debt to society rather than hide away in what is hotel accommodation in many of our prisons. A number of people have drawn this to my attention. Obviously, people are beginning to realise it is simpler to go to an open prison, take a little holiday, clear their debt and then go on their merry way. That is not acceptable and should be nipped in the bud before it becomes a policy among these people.

I compliment the Minister on opening prisons to journalists and featuring them on television programmes. I and many of the public who had no knowledge of what happens inside a prison have been educated. I could see the sadness of fine young boys and girls sitting in a cell reading a book or just lying there, although educational programmes are provided. I heard interviews with some of them and their lives have no meaning. They have no future. They had nowhere to go when they were released. They were involved in crime again and were sent back to prison. That problem must be seriously addressed. On their release from prison they should be able to avail of community employment or FÁS schemes to give their lives meaning. There are good people in the community who are prepared to offer them hostel accommodation as part of an organised programme. Some, through no fault of their own given that they come from broken homes and deprived areas, did not get the same start in life as the rest of us.

The Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, is doing an excellent job. She has my full support, long may she continue in office.

I wish to share my time with Deputy McDaid.

I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Law and order has been the subject of more debates in this House in recent years than in any previous period. This is a source of some satisfaction. It has suddenly dawned on the Legislature that the problems in towns throughout the country but particularly in Dublin are serious. Deputy Upton gave the impression that the situation in Dublin is much improved; it is not, it is as bad as ever, although I am aware the Garda Síochána is doing everything it can with limited resources to tackle the problem.

Operation Dochás will continue until such time as the Garda Commissioner and, in particular, Assistant Commissioner, Tom King, are satisfied it has achieved its purpose but there is a need for more personnel on the streets. That is the call made at every meeting that I, Deputy Upton, the Minister of State, Deputy Gay Mitchell, and Deputy Eric Byrne attend, particularly in the inner city of Dublin where crime is rampant and where we spend well in excess of 50 per cent of our time as public representatives, even though the return in terms of votes is small.

Whenever I speak about this topic I never make exceptions or claim that Fianna Fáil has done better than Fine Gael or the Labour Party; all parties are to blame. When Charles Haughey took over the leadership of the party in 1979 I indicated to him that the issue of law and order was more important than inflation, which was raging at 16 to 20 per cent, and unemployment and had to be tackled. However, it received little attention.

I agree with one comment made by Deputy Boylan in relation to who should be placed in prison. White collar criminals could be accommodated in open prisons, if necessary. However, those guilty of crimes against the person should be required to serve their full sentence. The Minister said that a new Bill is about to be published to deal more stringently with possession and use of syringes. As Members are aware, the number of crimes involving the use of a syringe has increased dramatically in Dublin. People would be ill-advised to walk the streets in certain areas of the city at any time of the day or night as they may be confronted by someone carrying a syringe.

Anyone found guilty of threatening another with a blood filled syringe found to be HIV positive should serve a minimum of five to ten years in prison for attempting to take the life of another. Even if the blood is not found to be HIV positive, this does not make the offence less serious as the person concerned has been terrified out of his or her wits, particularly if he or she has been stabbed.

I am delighted that the new remand centre at Wheatfield is to open. It will cater for 400 prisoners. Many people are disturbed about the practice of placing remand prisoners in a normal prison setting, particularly those who did not commit a crime previously. Spaces in prison should be saved for those with a long record of crime, the length of one's arm, as they deserve no quarter.

The recent hostage-taking horrified us all. I sometimes wonder with astonishment where "Morning Ireland" finds people to interview. In this instance, a woman who had been interviewed previously — I will be charitable by not using an adjective — was interviewed again. When she spoke about the moderate treatment of the hostages all one could do was wince. As we are all aware, the prison officers concerned were treated savagely. It will take many of them a long time to recover from what was a terrifying and traumatic experience.

We are dealing with people who deserve no quarter. I would throw the key away. Even if they have to serve 15 years, I would still be terrified at the prospect that they will be allowed out again. Those who take hostages are a danger to the public. It is imperative that they should serve their full sentence. Sometimes the victims are forgotten.

There are criminal families in my constituency and everybody is aware of them. One hears stories that certain members are out of prison and on the rampage again.

Car stealing, or joy riding as it is fondly described in the media, is on the increase. There has been a spate of car thefts in my constituency. Last night as I was driving along Sundrive Road I came across a Garda car which had smashed into a car which I presumed was being driven by a car thief. Incidents such as these are extremely dangerous, particularly on wet surfaces, as was the case last night.

We have an excellent Garda superintendent in Crumlin who is doing a wonderful job against all the odds. He served in the area as a garda initially and has made a huge impact for which he should be congratulated. I have been pleading for some time in this House — it will eventually happen — that cases should be processed through the courts by Garda inspectors; gardaí should not be required to attend court following each arrest. This practice is followed successfully in England.

There are 25 gardaí attached to one of the stations in my constituency which covers a huge area. This appears to be a marvellous figure but only seven gardaí are on duty on each shift. The people of the inner city of Dublin want to see more gardaí on the street. It is not fair, however, to expect an individual garda to patrol the streets alone, foot patrols should consist of at least two gardaí.

It has to be recognised that some young people choose to follow a life of crime. I do not know how many Members have seen tender documents for the supply, in the language of Dickens, of "vittles" to prisons. Those criminals do not suffer hardship. They are well fed, warm and eat meat twice a week while many others are lucky to eat meat once a week bearing in mind its price. Ice cream and Guinness are listed on the tender documents.

I did not see Guinness listed.

The Minister of State should get a copy of the tender documents. I would not mind eating as well as the prisoners. They are living off the fat of the land and do not suffer hardship in prison.

We need a secure unit for boys and girls under the age of 15 as Trinity House and the institution next to it are not working.

I thank Deputy Briscoe for sharing his time.

I was very disappointed with last night's contribution by the Minister for Justice, the tone and language she used in response to Deputy O'Donoghue and the manner in which she dismissed Deputy O'Donnell's efforts to bring this Bill before the House. The Minister accused my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, of being an idiot. She should be most careful indulging in such name calling. That appellation comes to mind when we recall the Minister's handling of the Judge Lynch affair. Her response to the current crisis in the prisons system is equally idiotic. She wants time to consider the needs of the prisons system for the past three years and to ignore the current crisis. While adopting that ostrich-like behaviour, she is engaging in name calling rather than addressing the real issues.

The Minister does not read her mail. It appears she does not read the press either. Because the prisons system is in such chaos there are practically daily reports on it in the media and the position is so bad that prison authorities publicly admit the system is in chaos and that they cannot cope. The Minister does not need reviews, three year plans or consultants' reports. All she needs to do is to read the newspapers and she will learn there is a crying need for additional places. Perhaps she is assisting in institutionalising the revolving door policy by her approach to the Judge Lynch affair — create vacancies by screwing up convictions and relieve the pressure. It may be less embarrassing than having prisoners sent home, often having been given lunch the day they were sent to prison by the courts.

I agree that planning for the future needs of the prisons service is not only laudable but necessary. However, we must address the immediate crisis before we can afford the luxury of planning for the future. The Minister is currently presiding over a scandal. The gardaí are overstretched fighting crime and bringing criminals before the courts, the courts are jammed trying and sentencing criminals and taking them off the streets but the prisons are refusing them entry and putting them back on the streets to reoffend.

Did all that start only two years ago?

I am referring to the manner in which the Minister is dealing with the present crisis rather than reviews.

That is because of the great backlog left by the Deputy's party when in Government.

Let us hear the Member in possession without interruption.

The gardaí are demoralised and the system of justice has been brought into disrepute. Criminals go free and the victims are left without justice. The Minister would do well to get organised and put her house in order rather than engage in name calling. If she is successful, she might eventually shed the appellation she is trying to hang on my colleague. The postponement ordered by the Minister, be it for a thorough review of the needs of the prisons service or otherwise, is the cause of the current crisis. The Minister must accept responsibility for that now. It is her responsibility to resolve the crisis urgently and to restore public confidence in the justice system and the morale of the gardaí and the prison authorities.

I am disappointed at the manner in which the Minister treated Deputy O'Donnell's efforts to bring this Bill before the House. We all know how difficult it is for a member of the Opposition to have a Bill drafted without the significant expert assistance available to the Government from the Civil Service. Normally such a Member in bringing a Bill before the House is complimented by the Minister concerned.

She did that.

She did not. She treated Deputy O'Donnell as a rather bad tempered school teacher would deal with a naughty child that came into the classroom with a blotted copy book.

The Deputy is talking about Deputy O'Rourke.

Deputy O'Donnell told the House that the Bill had been introduced in an effort to open a debate on this subject which deeply concerns the public. Deputy O'Donoghue was reminding the Minister that she cancelled the Castlerea Prison project at an early stage in the life of the Government.

She did not cancel it, she postponed it.

If the Minister took the trouble to watch Oireachtas Report last night, I hope that on reflection, having seen her performance, she will apologise to the two Deputies for her rather bad tempered and unparliamentary outburst. I expressed my disappointment because this is not the manner in which the Minister would want to behave. It may well be that the outburst occurred because Deputy O'Donoghue struck a sensitive nerve with the Minister. We all know the Minister was betrayed by her Cabinet colleagues on the Castlerea prison project when her back was turned. That is getting to be a habit in the Government.

That is nonsense.

I remind the Minister of State of the latest incident, a recent shafting of the Minister for Finance by his party leader on Partnership 2000. That can become a habit.

I congratulate Deputy O'Donnell on her Bill. It addresses many vital shortcomings which have accumulated in the prisons system. No one on this side of the House is suggesting the Minister is responsible for creating all these problems, but for the past few years she has been in charge of the Department that operates the system and it is perfectly legitimate to question her stewardship, as she will undoubtedly do when she takes her place on this side of the House in a few months' time.

It is as clear as daylight that the great majority of the problems in the prisons system are due to a lack of sufficient space. That has arisen for two reasons, a failure to provide the necessary funds to proceed with a major prison construction programme and, in the meantime, a failure to modify the sentencing system which tends to exacerbate the accommodation problem at present.

Mountjoy Prison suffers most because of its age and the fact that it draws most of its prisoners from the most underprivileged and drug infested areas of Dublin. Having watched the recent excellent television programmes on Mountjoy and discussed some of its problems with its governor last night, I can only marvel at what is clearly a heroic performance by the staff and support services operating there.

Mountjoy Prison has an annual turnover of more than 6,000 prisoners per annum. On any day there could be as many as 150 prisoners over and above the number that can be accommodated in even the least acceptable circumstances. That includes as many as 40 people sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Many of those people should not have been there in the first place, if certain changes had been made in the manner in which offenders are dealt with by the courts.

I recently read that a substantial farmer was convicted of using illegal and dangerous growth promoting drugs. He was fined a substantial amount of money, but with the alternative of a few weeks in prison. Naturally he accepted the prison sentence which is to be served in one of the most comfortable cells in Castlerea prison.

Is the Deputy criticising the judge for handing down that sentence?

I am talking about the courts system. By accepting a short spell in surroundings a great deal more comfortable than Mountjoy prison that man saved himself £20,000 or £30,000. Faced with the same choice I am sure most of us would adopt the same course. Many other prison spaces are probably taken up by similar cases, some of them in lieu of small fines. In the case I have just quoted, which involved a serious crime against the community, the fine should have been doubled without any option or alternative.

That is the judges' decision.

As far as what are described generally as petty crimes are concerned, it is high time the community service option was developed to a greater extent. I am aware of examples of this type of sentence being handed out in my county with significant success. It is especially to be recommended in dealing with young people who for various reasons embark on a bout of vandalism such as damaging private property or destroying young trees that have been planted at considerable expense by either the local authority or voluntary groups. The punishment is twofold. First, compensation is demanded and, second, the offender is made to publicly assist in repairing the damage. There are many other possible variations of this method. The most valuable outcome of this is that the young offender is not brought into the prison culture which so often involves the hard-boiled criminal getting satisfaction from introducing young people to the rather questionable delights of drug addiction or the equally questionable attractions of a life of crime. The other advantage is that there would be more space to accommodate real criminals.

In dealing with the prison problem we cannot get away from the question of drugs. I am told that up to 80 per cent of prisoners coming into Mountjoy have at some stage been involved in drug taking. Sixty five per cent are into heroin and 55 per cent into heroin injections. The treatment unit can only deal with about ten or 12 at a time. On any day there are 40 to 50 men and 20 to 25 women on the detoxification programme. This can last for no more than 14 days, although experts recommend at least 18 days. There are substantial problems with programmes providing heroin substitutes. Some produce their own addiction problems and there is a reluctance to continue with an indefinite maintenance programme, although I am convinced that inmates who have already been on such a programme before arriving in prison should be enabled to continue the treatment. A modern prison should be designed in such a way that from day one no drug free prisoner should be housed or in contact with drug addicts just as young first time offenders should not be in contact with habitual criminals.

The Bill includes setting up a prison service which would take over prison management from the Department of Justice and provides for an Inspector of Prisons who would be totally independent and have access to all prisons. One of the prime benefits would be a system of equal standards.

Mental instability is a condition which covers a wide field and no lay person, such as a prison officer or a member of the Garda Síochána, is in a position to recognise the variations of it. A man or woman could be found wandering through the streets causing a general nuisance and appear to be drunk. To get the culprit out of the way, a charge of vagrancy could find the person ensconced in Mountjoy, even for a very short time. That person could be a perfectly innocent victim of some kind of psychiatric disorder and the consequence of even one night in prison could be disastrous.

A recent report of an inquiry into the prison service in Britain included some dire warnings about the consequences of locking up or continuing the incarceration of inmates with psychiatric problems. The recommendations came from Sir Donald Acheson, former chief medical officer, who concentrated his efforts on special secure units at three different prisons. He noted the dangers from claustrophobia in these units where there was little meaningful work or incentive and an almost total lack of social contact. He stated clearly that a proportion of these men would develop significant adverse mental health effects over the course of sentences. Sir Donald has since said prisoners held in these units had the same rights with regard to health care as any other person. He said "It is not part of the punishment that they shall be treated in such a way that their health invariably suffers." I am quite sure very few of us, if any, disagree with those sentiments. The possible effect of any type of prison regime should be studied very carefully as part of the overall question of rehabilitation.

There are compensating factors in consigning certain people to prison. It has been frequently noted, for instance, that many drug addicts who arrive in Mountjoy undergo a significant improvement in their health and physical appearance after a relatively short time. This comes about because of a drastic change, albeit temporary, in their lifestyles. They are put on a healthy regime of good food, eight to ten hours sleep daily and, as far as possible, some worthwhile exercise. If we had a much more effective set of facilities for drug treatment instead of the present minimum procedure, many inmates would have a much better chance of withdrawing from the drug and crime culture when they are released. At that stage a proper monitoring system would be desirable to help them avoid being dragged back into their old habits.

A gigantic task faces all of us but the domino effect of one thing leading to another simply must be tackled and society must have the patience and determination to do it properly. This includes dealing with the many social problems endemic in such places as inner city Dublin. Drugs, alcoholism and mental instability are related and are responsible for a great majority of the prison population.

There has been a tendency over the years for the establishment to listen politely to such groups as prison visiting committees and then forget what they have said. Without wishing to criticise civil servants who are such a vital part of democracy it is generally accepted that by their nature they are fairly conservative, especially where spending public money is concerned. It is, therefore, a welcome feature of the Bill that it proposes the setting up of a prison service divorced from the Department.

The Minister would do well to take Deputy O'Donnell's proposals on board. Deputy O'Donnell's Bill has created a debate. The Minister would do well to enter into the spirit of what motivated Deputy O'Donnell when she drafted this Bill. When the Government votes this measure down, it should come forward quickly with what it regards as a better Bill. Unfortunately, the Minister has little time to do that. She should accept this Bill now but it will probably be left to this side of the House to provide the necessary legislation shortly.

That will be in the next century. We cannot wait until then.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Connaughton and McGahon.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

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.

I do not doubt Deputy O'Donnell's sincerity in bringing forward this legislation. However, if she or the Progressive Democrats believe it will solve the problems in prisons, they do not have the type of experience they will need if given the reins of Government after the next general election.

For a long time I listened to people talk about the ills in the prison service. While I am not an expert in this regard, it is clear that over the years many changes should have been made. It is surprising that there is a concerted effort to try to put the spotlight in a negative way on the Minister for Justice, although I understand that is what politics is about. It appears Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats believe crime will be a huge issue at the next general election. It has always been an issue, as they well know. However, the record of all parties will be considered. We only have to look back three or four years. No remarkable changes were made by Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats when they had the opportunity to implement them. It is easy to talk on the Opposition benches but I have not seen any initiatives which would improve the prison system. I am the first to admit that things have to change. The Minister for Justice has done more in the past year or two than was done in the previous eight to ten years. Fundamental changes have taken place or are in the pipeline.

We have a prison population of about 2,300 and some 800 extra spaces will be created over the next 12 months. Places have been found at about five or six centres and the Castlerea complex is coming on stream, which is a welcome development. According to this Bill, we could put more people in jail at less cost and with fewer staff. That would be a fair economic trick. The Progressive Democrats would be doing something which no Minister for Justice or Government could do.

There are considerable inefficiencies in the system. An independent prison agency is a good idea, but it will take time to implement. We are living in an increasingly aggressive society. Nobody could say it is fun to look after some of those in our prisons. There are some vicious characters in our jails and while I would not deny these people their rights, some have shown scant regard for the rights of their victims. There is a tendency among those who have not been affected by these vicious people to have a do-gooder attitude. I believe rights must be balanced. We need professional prison staff. I find no fault with the staff as they do their job as best they can.

When there is even a small breach of security, the Opposition throw everything at the Government. When a prisoner escaped from Shelton Abbey to go for a pint, one would have thought there was a huge breach of security and Deputy O'Donnell tried to make a meal out of the escape. I do not know exactly what happened but in an open prison one must expect people to be given certain liberties. I hope the inmates placed in open prisons are suitable.

The kidnapper of Jennifer Guinness absconded.

This Bill does not go far enough, although it contains some good points on which I congratulate Deputy O'Donnell. More thought and action is needed. I fully support the Minister for Justice who has the right ideas and team in place to make the streets and our homes safer so that people can sleep in their beds at night.

Unfortunately, I only have time to wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle a happy Easter given the ridiculously small amount of time Deputies have to speak. However that is not his fault. For 15 years I have listened to opportunistic speeches from members of all political parties, my own included, on the question of law and order. I have no doubt that if I am here after the election the same will apply because political parties have the answer to every question confronting the nation when in Opposition and none more so than those on law and order. That is not a criticism of Deputy O'Donnell who has proved an outstanding debater and TD and I have no doubt she is destined for high places. I wish her the best of luck but I am not sure I would like to see her saddled with the unfortunate job of Minister for Justice.

I am not sure I want it.

I am sure the Deputy does not because as I told her recently——

She will have to wait her turn, perhaps until the next century.

——much of what she and her collaborators have said to the Minister for Justice, a capable lady, will be flung back in their faces.

That is true.

In 1993 Fine Gael produced a questionnaire for distribution in Dublin asking people to state their dissatisfaction with crime. That, like this Bill, was an opportunistic move. I am not blaming the Progressive Democrats unduly for the situation. As Deputy Connaughton said, the problem which most concerns people is law and order. The economy is at an all-time high — we have never had it so good. However, people's overriding concern is law and order — the right to sleep in their beds at night without fear of their lives being taken. Last year unfortunately 18 women were murdered here. Over the years I have been described here as a member of the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade. My views are hard-line and I make no apologies for them. I am closer to the people and to law and order than most Deputies here, many of whom I would describe as "bleeding hearts" and people who believe, more particularly, in civil rights.

Debate adjourned.