Other Questions.

Garda Investigations.

I remind Deputies that supplementary questions should last one minute and the Minister has one minute to respond.

Liz McManus

Question:

98 Deputy Liz McManus asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the progress made in the Garda investigation into recent allegations (details supplied); if the Garda investigation has been concluded; if a file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22492/07]

Níl an Teachta anseo, I will proceed nevertheless.

It does not matter.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the allegations referred to were the subject of a comprehensive investigation by An Garda Síochána. An investigation file in this matter has been submitted to the law officers and directions are awaited. As the file is under consideration by the law officers, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time.

While I do not want to probe the matter unduly either, these are very serious allegations. A mother stumbled across information which implied that her 14 year old was being used at the centre of a paedophile ring. This caused her to visit her local Garda station and hand over her young son's mobile telephone. As I understand it, the initial investigation led to the suspension of a serving member of the Garda and a civil servant. The Minister said the investigation has concluded and a file has been referred to the DPP. I do not know if he can say when and if charges are likely to be preferred.

As I understand the position, the investigation has not yet concluded and a file remains to be submitted to the law officers. That is the factual position. It is the responsibility of the Garda to investigate criminal complaints, to gather whatever evidence may be available and, where appropriate, to submit the file to the DPP, who then decides whether a person should be prosecuted on the basis of the quality of the evidence before him. I do not have a function in the circumstances of this case.

I misheard and I did not appreciate the Minister said the file remains to be submitted. I thought it had been and the investigation concluded. This is a serious matter——

On completion of the investigation, a file will be submitted to the law officers. As the Garda investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time.

The original reply stated a file is under consideration by the law officers.

That is what I heard.

I am sorry. I have inadvertently misled the House because I read the reply to a previous question. The Deputy is correct. The investigation file has been submitted to the law officers and we are at the stage where directions are required. I apologise to the Deputy.

Proposed Legislation.

Mary Upton

Question:

99 Deputy Mary Upton asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will introduce legislation to implement the recommendations of the report of the Law Reform Commission on spent convictions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22509/07]

It would be useful to clarify the terminology used in this area. Terms such as "spent conviction", "expunging of convictions" and "clean slate" are regularly used. A "clean slate" is considered to mean a wiping away of a criminal record. "Expunge" is similarly used to indicate the deletion of old convictions. "Spent conviction", however, indicates that the law allows people to decline to disclose their old convictions. This approach assumes that the conviction will remain on the record but it encourages the rehabilitation of ex-offenders by, for example, opening up certain employment opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them if the record had to be revealed. This is the approach advocated by the Law Reform Commission, LRC.

Currently, no general provision in Irish law allows for the deletion of criminal convictions from Garda records. However, with the introduction of the Children Act 2001, provision was made for a limited "wiping of the slate" in respect of most offences committed by persons under 18, once certain conditions have been met. The provision in the Children Act, which came into operation on 1 May 2002, limits, as far as possible, the effects of a judgment of guilt, where the relevant conditions have been met, by treating the person for all purposes in law as a person who has not committed, been charged with, prosecuted for, found guilty of or dealt with for an offence.

The second programme of the LRC for the period 2000 to 2007 proposes, as part of an examination of the law on privacy, to consider longevity of criminal records and expunging of convictions for certain offences from the records. The Law Reform Commission's 2004 Consultation Paper on the Court Poor Box conducted a preliminary examination of the issue of spent convictions. In July of this year, the commission published its report on spent convictions, which included a draft spent convictions Bill to implement its recommendations. The commission proposes the following in the report: the type of offences to be excluded completely from any proposed legislation on spent convictions include (i) any offence triable by the Central Criminal Court; (ii) any offence under the Sexual Offenders Act 2001; and (iii) any offence where a sentence of imprisonment of at least six months, including suspended sentences, has been imposed by a court.

In addition, it proposes that a person will qualify for "conviction free" status after seven years from the date of convictions where a custodial sentence of less than six months was imposed or after five years where a non-custodial sentence was imposed. The LRC's proposal is, therefore, aimed at relatively minor offences and at offenders who do not re-offend during the following seven years.

It further proposes that all convictions, including spent convictions, will be disclosed at a sentencing hearing and in some non-criminal cases, for example, vetting procedures involving access to children; and that the system would be automatic rather than application-based. In other words, the person in question would benefit automatically once he or she met the conditions and in those cases the person would not be obliged to apply to avail of the right not to mention a previous conviction.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House.

The report also makes more detailed recommendations regarding the issue of vetting and disclosure of criminal history for certain purposes. The commission recommends that the current Garda vetting system be put on a statutory footing. The report also recommends that certain sensitive posts would require full disclosure of all convictions, including spent convictions. These would include any post involving care of children or vulnerable adults; any health care post; judges, barristers, solicitors, court clerks, court registrars and employees of the Courts Service; civil servants; members of the Defence Forces, prison officers, members of the probation service and of An Garda Síochána; accountants; and director, controller or manager of a financial institution or of any financial service provider which is regulated by the financial regulator.

The report, its recommendations and proposals for legislation are being examined closely in my Department with a view to determining whether legislative proposals should be prepared on this issue. My own initial view is that the report is seeking to find a fair balance in the approach to an issue that is taking on increasing importance. I am sure the House would also seek to ensure such a balance when it considers the long-term implications of having a criminal record, albeit for a minor offence. In considering this issue, we must be mindful not only of the need to provide the convicted person with an opportunity to make a fresh start, but also of the effects of crime, even relatively minor crime, on victims. However, I will await the outcome of the current examination before commenting further on the topic.

Does the Minister agree that a breach of the law in respect of a relatively minor matter ought not be a millstone around the neck of a person for the rest of his or her life, impacting on his or her employment and promotional possibilities? The Minister stated the LRC report includes a draft Bill. Is it his intention to bring it before the House at a reasonably early date? I reiterate that these cases typically involve a young person who in his or her relative immaturity may have breached the law in respect of a minor matter but over a subsequent period of good conduct ought to have that expunged. The Minister has adverted to the fact that quite clearly this does not apply in regard to more serious matters but, where it applies, can he indicate when he is likely to bring the legislation before the House?

I agree with the Deputy that the matter requires attention. In the case of young persons under the age of 18, the Oireachtas has provided a regime of protection but, in the case of adults, a system of protection requires to be put in place. It is of particular importance because the Garda PULSE system has been in operation for a number of years and it provides more accurate criminal records of individuals than were available before its installation. With the passage of time and the increasing number of names recorded on the system, it is important that this issue be addressed. It has been under examination in my Department and I am anxious to ensure legislation is introduced.

I take it from the Minister's comments that because of the operation of the PULSE system and the capacity of modern technology, it is all the more probable these days that a person would find himself or herself in a situation where, for example, an application for a job is the subject of an adverse report from his or her youth on a relatively minor matter. It is all the more imperative for that reason that we deal with this matter. Will the Minister indicate in the context of the legislative workload within the Department when the Bill might be introduced in the House, given the Law Reform Commission has attached a draft Bill to its report?

The Minister did not say his proposed legislation would mirror that of the LRC but I assume that may well be the case. There is an anomaly in the current system in so far that if a criminal conviction is struck out by the courts, the details remain on the Garda's records, with particular reference to data protection. I am not sure of the extent to which this has been covered by the LRC but I ask the Minister to address the issue of data collected and recorded by the Garda remaining on the record. When will that be addressed?

That issue can be examined. The LRC report is still under examination in my Department and no final decision has been taken on the detail of legislation. However, I acknowledge the problem in this area, which requires to be addressed.

Drugs in Prisons.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

100 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will proceed with the planned introduction of full drugs screening in jails; his further plans to reduce the flow of drugs into prisons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22504/07]

In May 2006, my predecessor launched the Irish Prison Service drugs policy and strategy, entitled Keeping Drugs out of Prison. The implementation of this policy and strategy has seen an intensification of efforts to eliminate the availability of illicit drugs within prisons. A key part of these efforts is the introduction of mandatory drug testing, which is provided for under the prison rules which became operational on 1 October 2007. Other elements include enhancement of CCTV, utilisation of video scope camera cell search systems, and enhanced security generally. In addition, new visiting arrangements are in place in almost all closed prisons whereby only persons who have been nominated by the prisoner and pre-approved by the governor are permitted to visit.

Facilities for screened visits have been installed in all closed prisons. In accordance with the Prison Service drugs policy and strategy, prisoners in respect of whom the governor is satisfied that there is no risk of contraband being passed may be facilitated with open visits. Prisoners who are caught receiving drugs or who test positive for drugs will be facilitated with screened visits only.

On enhanced security, I have recently announced a range of security measures aimed at keeping contraband out of prisons. These measures include the establishment of a drug detection dog service within the Prison Service; the establishment of an operational support group dedicated to, and developing expertise in, searching and gathering intelligence; and the introduction of enhanced security screening and searching of all persons — prisoners, visitors and staff — entering prisons.

The drug detection dog service will involve approximately 30 staff and an appropriate number of dogs. A pilot service has been in place since 23 May 2006 and is currently running in the midlands-Portlaoise area and also in Wheatfield and Cloverhill prisons, the Mountjoy complex and Cork and Limerick prisons.

The operational support group will be available in addition to the normal prison staff and can target specific problem areas. It will also gather and collate intelligence information in prisons, carry out high profile escorts and assist the chief officer in charge of security in the continuing assessment and improvement of security.

There are drug-free units in Wheatfield Prison, St. Patrick's Institution, Castlerea Prison and Mountjoy Prison.

They are only small.

There is also a detox programme in operation in Mountjoy. In addition, the training unit in Arbour Hill, Loughan House and Shelton Abbey are regarded as drug-free institutions.

I know the Minister is interested in history. I refer him back to the last programme for Government, for which I presume he also takes responsibility. It includes the statement:

By the end of 2002 we will publish a plan to completely end all heroin use in Irish persons. This will include the availability of treatment and rehabilitation for all who need them and the introduction of compulsory drug testing for prisoners where necessary.

This was in the zero tolerance era. The latest programme for Government promises to build on this and do it all over again.

My question was prompted by information prominently displayed in the public domain to the effect that the Government has "capitulated" in its commitment to introduce drugs screening in prisons and is not proceeding as set out in the programme for Government. The Minister has provided much useful information, but it is not pertinent to the question of whether it is true that the Government is no longer proceeding to maintain our prison institutions as drug free and taking the necessary steps to ensure this is the case. Does the professional advice available to the Minister indicate that it might be dangerous to proceed as the Government intended in making our prisons drug free?

The Deputy appears to be under a misapprehension. I have received no such professional advice. One of the first matters I brought to the Government as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was a comprehensive programme of measures to prevent the smuggling of drugs into prisons. Under the pilot drug detection dogs scheme, searching has been concentrated on visitors, but limited proactive searching of areas within prisons has also taken place. The evidence is that the teams have had a significant interception and deterrent effect, and the current contract has been extended to November of this year.

I am satisfied that the introduction of drug detection dogs has led to a significant reduction in the number of drugs being introduced into prisons. It is my intention to establish a permanent drug detection dog unit within the Prison Service. In addition, as previously stated, new prison visiting arrangements have been introduced and enhanced detection technology services are being applied.

I will allow a final supplementary question from Deputy Reilly.

I was going to congratulate the Minister on the new measures being put in place. However, Deputy Rabbitte has reminded us that all of this was promised before. This strikes a chord in terms of what is happening in the health service.

I and other GPs cannot understand why the opportunity is not taken while people are incarcerated to ensure they get and remain free of drugs. Everybody now acknowledges that a person who is sent to jail——

I ask the Deputy to put a question to the Minister.

I will do so presently.

The Deputy must do so immediately so that we can commence the next business.

Why is that the numbers emerging from prisoners as drug-users are greater than for those who enter prison abusing drugs? What proposals does the Minister have to address this availability? How will he provide resources within prisons to ensure prisoners can access detoxification programmes and subsequently stay off drugs? The sniffer dogs should be brought into pubs also.

Jack Russells, however, should be kept out of pubs.

As a respected general practitioner, I am sure Deputy Reilly is aware of the concept of a willing patient. We are investing substantial resources throughout the prison system in the types of services to which the Deputy referred. However, it requires a willing patient to avail of them.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.