Other Questions. - Prisons Report.

Michael Noonan

Question:

32 Mr. Noonan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the reason there has not been an annual prisons report since 1994; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24215/99]

The extreme shortage of staff in prison headquarters and pressure of other work in local prisons led to this situation. Since the publication of the annual report relating to the year 1994, published in February 1997, a shortage of staff in the prisons division of the Department has meant that all staff time was prioritised to deal with day to day operational work. An integral part of the annual report is the provision of statistics on the throughput of prisoners. At present, the compilation and analysis of these statistics must be done manually as there are no computerised systems in most prisons. This is an extremely time-consuming and staff-intensive process. It has not been possible to release staff to work on the statistical analysis and editing required for the publication of the outstanding reports.

The staffing situation is being addressed in the context of the establishment of the independent prison service. Under the proposed legislation to set up the service as a statutory authority, that body will take over the publication of the annual report. In the meantime, since the publication of the 1994 report, the annual reports of the visiting committees of each institution, which form part of the annual reports, have been published as they have been submitted to the Minister.

A new £6 million information technology programme for the prison service is well advanced. As part of the programme, a comprehensive prisoner records database will be deployed across the prison service next year. This programme will address the lack of accessible information about prisoners, provide management with necessary information and enable the automation of many existing functions. Information will be more easily accessible once this new system is in operation. As an interim step, the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr. Sean Aylward, has informed me that he has deputed a senior member of his transition team to draw together material for a composite report to cover the years 1995 to 1998, inclusive, for issue in the first half of the year 2000.

(Mayo): Does the Minister acknowledge it is an appalling admission from him that for the past five years, since 1994, we have had no report from the Prison Service? In those five years 50,000 people, 10,000 per annum, went through the prisons. We do not have a clue who they are, where they came from, what they were in for or whether they have been released. Does the Minister accept that to advance the argument now, or at any time in the past five or six years, that computerisation is not available is simply not an excuse? Computerisation should have been available. Does the Minister accept that, in view of prison being seen as a crucial instrument of our criminal justice and social poli cies, we need an annual report with detailed information on who constitutes the prison population so that we can plan, monitor and improve the situation?

I remind the Deputy that not only have thousands of prisoners passed through the Prison Service since 1994, but Deputy Owen passed through the Department of Justice also.

The Minister is there two and a half years now.

Having said that, I accept that it is completely unsatisfactory that we have not had a report on the Prison Service since 1994. However, the information sought has been published piece by piece and each prison visiting committee makes available its own report. Those are published by the Minister of the day and people can get information from them. I accept there is a need to use computerisation to a greater degree; there is no question about that. At present Mountjoy and St. Patrick's are the only committal prisons linked to a computerised prison records system. Due to the age and structure of that system, it cannot readily provide reports of the nature required, but the matter is being reviewed.

The Minister said that the information is available in other reports, but have all the visiting committee reports to date been published? Are they all up to date? The Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture submitted its report to the Minister last year and included a non-binding requirement that the report be published within six months. When will that report be available for scrutiny? Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient data on prison conditions in the public domain?

I am not satisfied that there are sufficient statistics available on the operation of our prisons and that is why the director of the Prison Service is moving to change the situation. There will be a modern system where data can be stored, analysed and publicised. Regarding the publication of reports, reports are published as they become available. I anticipate that the Council of Europe report, which has been brought before the Government, will be published shortly.

(Mayo): Does the Minister accept that it is impossible to get an overall criminological profile of our prisons and their inmates unless we get one overall report, rather than the disjointed pieces of information, like lego, we have now? Does he accept that something is fundamentally wrong with the management of his Department and the criminal justice system if we have one report from the courts—

The time is concluded.

(Mayo): Does he accept there is a need for co-ordination between court statistics, Garda statistics and prison statistics? After all, these three agencies deal with the same individual.

I will not allow the Minister to reply as we have gone over six minutes.

(Mayo): We have had most of our questions ruled out by a quirk in Standing Orders.

That may be but I am obliged to implement Standing Orders.

(Mayo): Does the Minister accept there is a need for cohesion, co-ordination and cross-referencing?

Obviously I reject Deputy Higgins's remarks about the management of the Department. There are defects in our criminal justice system which I have been trying to remedy for the past two and half years. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is making a substantial investment in information technology for the Prison Service and the cornerstone of the programme is a new, comprehensive prisoner record system. It is at an advanced stage of development and is expected to be in operation in all prisons by the middle of next year. It will provide, for the first time, ready access to data on our prison population. The first year in which full statistics will be available from computers will be the year 2000. Perhaps Deputy Higgins would like to acknowledge that.